Salzburg, Munich, Baden-Baden, Frankfurt (and a touch of Cincinnati)

Here’s a recap of my trip thus far.

The Cincinnati Nativity Reunion was “B” good. Very good turnout …around 44 people, the majority of whom looked great, including the classmates I know best, including Dave Bohmer and Con Sullivan. It was held at classmate John Joseph’s 30-acre farm in Clermont County, about 20 miles outside the city, where he has built an elaborate new home to go along with two barns and a rather nice pavilion which accommodates a party of fifty. It all began with a misstep in which all of the invitees were told to bring appetizers, which resulted in a mound of food that was only picked at…except for Bobbie Bohmer’s White Castle “quarters” which disappeared fast. All was good except the timing. The problem was compounded because the organizers screwed up the scheduling, first of all telling everyone to come at 3:00 (one guy showed up at noon), then bringing out the “catered dinner” at 4:30 or so, when no one was hungry, leaving a mountain of untouched food. And we’re talking about top quality food; after all, we were charged $16.00 apiece for this “catered” banquet consisting of okay barbeque, okay fried chicken and faux Cincinnati chili (the caterers used regular chili instead of the Cincy variety and the hot dogs were a sickly gray). Weather was on and off, with a huge downpour which doused most of the picture-taking. Despite the rain, John ignited a monstrous bonfire which was a bit frightening in its intensity. The group generally mixed well and repeated the same tales we told each other at the last reunion six years ago, only to hear the organizers exclaim that this was going so well that we should do this again NEXT YEAR!, EVERY YEAR!  Everyone tired pretty quickly, so the planned hayride was called off and we all sort of drifted away.  Con, who was rooming with me that night, and I ended up back at our Blue Ash hotel around 8:45, so we headed off to the Gaslight in Pleasant Ridge for a couple of beers (saw Julie, who was celebrating her 51st? birthday).

P.S. Earlier in the day I spent an hour and a half with Patty, who is doing well, all things considered. We had a very nice visit.

Sunday I was off to New York, where I had hoped to see a play, or at least a movie, but those plans were dashed by a 2-hour flight delay and horrible rainstorm in Manhattan, so I ended up settling for a great steak dinner at The Palm.

On to Europe.

On my flight into Stuttgart, I had the rare experience of sleeping through the entire trip, waking up just before landing. After landing, I took the local subway to the railway station and jumped on the train to Salzburg (4 hours through nice country, especially the Austria part when the mountains came into view).

In Salzburg, I checked into…

The Hotel Sacher.

Not all five-star hotels deserve that rating, but this one did. I had booked a superior double for Tuesday, May 21 and had been put on the waitlist for the next night (badgering them every few days about my desire to remain on the waitlist), but they gave me the good news when I walked in that I’d be staying two nights. Grateful, I did the remarkable: accepted the first room I was given. Not that it was a sacrifice, because this

was a gorgeous, spacious room. Beautiful quality furnishings, a pretty rose+blue color scheme, a small balcony with a dead-on view of the river (the Salzach, so called because Salzburg was a prestigious middle ages trading city owing to its proximity to the local salt mines—salt being as valuable as gold at one point because of its use as a food preservative). A scene so good I actually took pictures. The hotel features fantastic public rooms—great bar, nice sitting room, a main wood-panelled restaurant that was as inviting as any I’ve ever seen in Europe, plus the legendary Sacher Café for those who are into coffee, afternoon tea and Sacher tortes (as a Leading Hotels Access member, I had a complimentary one awaiting me in my room).

Proceeded to do my usual casing of the City, this time on foot, where I must have logged five or six K’s. Nice city, but a little too “dolled up” these days, sort of a European Carmel, all immaculate and stylish and full of precious cafes and konditeris and wine bars, with nary a bratwurst mit brochin stand or gasthaus to be found. Back at the hotel, I finally got one of the bellmen to steer me to a gasthaus for dinner where I had goulashsuppe in honor of AW and an apricot desert in honor of my dad.

When I got home from dinner, I was greeted by the reason there had been a waitlist—namely about a 200+ entourage arriving for the big meeting of the International Association of Matrimonial Attorneys…imagine, a hotel full of divorce lawyers, a mostly seedy looking group replete with the representative number of pony tails, beards and second wives. Oh well, at least they livened up the sitting room and bar.

Up bright and early on Wednesday to go on my Sound of Music tour with Bob’s Tours, recommended by my close friend Rick Steves. Just three of us on board Bob’s minibus, all three of us named Joe, the other two partners from Long Island, being shown the highlights of Salzburg and all the “S-of-M” filming locations by Jonathan, a molecular biologist with time on his hands. The most impressive thing about the tour was learning about all the fake things in the movie—Baron Von Trapp’s regal villa? The real one was five k’s down the road and plain as vanilla…the place where Julie dances in the meadow?—not in Austria, that was on the Fox backlot in L.A., etc., etc.

The tour also included a long (250 kilometers!) drive through the country out to Austria’s Lake Country– really, really beautiful– as well as a down-the mountain toboggan ride that scared me half to death (Jonathan had made it sound so tame). We went to several towns and lakes, with the mountains framing the scene and surreal green meadows climbing the hillsides.  Bottom line: Austria needs a new P.R. firm. When people talk about the most gorgeous places on earth, this country should always be part of the conversation. I want to come back. Soon.

Dinner at another gasthaus called the Crazy Monkee, where I had the best meal anywhere so far.

Thursday…off to Munich.

Day 3 in Europe, Thursday, May 23.

The train ride from Salzburg to Munich was onboard one of Germany’s OBB Railjets, a medium high-speed train which features immaculate new cars with huge panoramic windows and all the electronics, e.g., a TV monitor which maps your journey, tells you how fast you are traveling (often around 150 k/h), provides general information as to stops (none on this trip) and throws in a few ads.  I have a 1st Class German Rail Pass that, once validated, allows me to travel any four days in a month and to hop on any trains I want without seat reservations.  The scenery in this part of the world just doesn’t quit, and I’m constantly looking out my single-seat window and marveling at how perfect the landscape is. Italy and France get all the attention and tourism. This is prettier.

My hotel in Munich…

The Hotel Charles.  A Rocco Forte property.

Rocco Forte, who normally takes historic buildings in major European cities and turns them into super luxe masterpieces, here has gone the contemporary route and created a modern beauty.  Almost invariably, the Rocco Forte in a city is the best place in town, and The Charles is no exception. During the day I trammed past all of its key competitors and there was no contest. If you’re coming to Munich, this is the place to stay (all the better Russians do!).  My really nice room, done in stylish tans and beiges, overlooked a botanical garden park and the rooftops of some of Munich’s historic “monument” buildings, and the staff was very friendly and gracious in a very non-phony way. I’ve stayed at about ten of the Rocco Fortes, and this one ranks near the top.

It has been nearly five decades since I was last in Munich—a stop on our going-home trip after my semester in Rome in 1964. That time we were in a hurry to get home, so we probably only gave it and all of our departure cities cursory glances, having traveled to so many during our stay that year. So this was a fresh look. I spent the day doing the usual touristy things, going around to the various platzes, having lunch at an outdoor beer garden (grilled bratwurst on a semel roll slathered with good mustard), then taking self-directed tram tours of different parts of the city. I had dinner at the botanical garden park’s Park Café, which is outfitted like a modern gasthaus (wooden benches, deer heads on wall, etc.), but, to my surprise, quickly morphed into a gathering place for the 20s-30s crowd in Munich, all the primped girls sipping mojitos and white wine, the guys slugging down steins of beer, with two disc jockeys ramping up the music. Good place where I was a bit out of place.

All in all, a nice visit. It would be hard to do more in one day than I did in Munich.

Day 4, Friday, May 24

Today I took the ICE (high-speed, few stops) train from Munich to Baden-Baden. This one was not as fancy as yesterday’s Railjet, but was a really nice train nonetheless. I absolutely love this hopping from place to place. Each morning I’ve had the thrill of anticipation of heading to the station for a new train and a new destination. The concept of seeing “what’s around the next corner” has always fascinated me—as many of you know from efforts to locate restaurants in various places. Thus far I’ve been very fortunate in terms of hopscotching around any really bad weather. I’ve had sun in each place for a decent portion of the day, with only occasional sprinkles. Temperature, however, is a different matter. Here I am in the last week of May and it’s ridiculously cool everywhere, as in about 41-48 Fahrenheit. Lucky for me, I brought a bunch of long sleeve shirts, a sweater and a jacket. I’ve needed them a lot of the time. Better than hot and humid, I suppose.

My hotel in Baden-Baden…

Brenners Park.

This is one of the most longstanding members of Leading Hotels of the World and a decades-long favorite of travelers to Europe. Baden-Baden is one of the world’s most favorite spas, but its significance to me is that it is host to two racing festivals each year.  No racing this week (I missed it by a couple of weeks, and none again until late August), but I wanted to see if I wanted to come back sometime for a couple of days.

Brenner’s Park will be my big splurge this trip. When I originally tried to make a reservation through Leading Hotels, I was advised that the hotel (a) was sold out, and (b) had a three-night minimum. So I wrote them and asked them to put me on a waitlist and, more important, to waive the three-night minimum. They quickly responded, offering to waive the minimum, but also offering a superior room for 590 Euros (about $750?!–breakfast NOT included).  What could I do? I took it.

Well, at least they sort of gave me my money’s worth, upgrading me to a Deluxe Room—big and spacious, with beautiful woodwork and moulding, an enormous bathroom, a 20’ wide balcony and a view of the hotel’s gardens with a big, wide stream gurgling through the property and the adjoining city park.  This is a big, old, classic resort hotel which has been extremely well maintained and updated, describable in one word: Wow. This is the kind of place that the really rich have been coming to since the late 19th Century. It’s the kind of place my parents would never even been able to imagine. One can imagine how terrific it would be to stay here during the May or August racing festival. (One can imagine how great it would be to have breakfast.)

The town of Baden-Baden is a super-affluent place stocked with mansions (summer homes, I suspect) and street after street of fashionable shops. Its singular calling card, besides its spas and hotels, is something called Lichtentaler Allee, a two-mile path that meanders along the aforementioned stream through the park and offers a commune-with-nature experience. B-B has both a lavish Casino and an opulent Opera House, neither of which I will see because they both require jackets and ties. Maybe Vegas should give that a try. The hotel offered to lend me a jacket (said I’d have the buy a tie at Reception), but they were also trying to hammerlock me into dining at the Michelin 1-Star downstairs as part of the package. I’m going into town instead, probably to have asparagus something, since all of German is consumed by asparagus fever, it being a local specialty this time of year and featured on virtually every special-of-the-day menu you see.

Speaking of food, I’ve been concentrating on German cuisine at everyday gasthouses (combination beerhall/restaurants where the locals congregate) instead of fancy restaurants, although I have to say that the restaurants at my hotels have been truly special looking. Gasthauses are not always easy to find, as Italian restaurants and pizzerias outnumber their German counterparts by about five to one (say what you will about those Italians, but the world loves their food). Their food is typical German…lots of pork, dumplings, gravy, terrific soups, fabulous bread and rolls…all delicious, although incredibly salty and calorie-laden. Although a surprisingly high number of people drink wine, especially young women, I tried a glass and thought it was horrible, so have stuck to beer; I’ve been ordering whatever is local, and it’s always good. I find that a half-liter gets me through an entire dinner (made a mistake one place and ordered a liter…33 ounces!…that took me about an hour to finish).

This is going to be my last missive.  Tomorrow it’s off to Frankfurt and a stay at the…

Villa Kennedy.

This is a Leading Hotels member where I’ve stayed before, garnering it one of my Top 10 Europe ratings years ago. Situated in its own little “park”, it’s an ultra-modern hotel in an old building, a go-to hotel frequented by European beautiful people and sports celebrities (the last time I stayed here, Bayern Munich was in the house).

My trip has been highlighted by truly spectacular hotels, each of which I have loved. Pricey little numbers, yes, but perfect “homes” in each city, ones that I will always remember and will recommend enthusiastically. What a way to travel.

I’m flying back Sunday and returning directly to L.A. I had scheduled two days in New York, but revised the itinerary because I miss Alison Winter too much.

POSTSCRIPT:

Day 5 in Europe, May 25.

On my last night in Frankfurt, I asked the Concierge at Villa Kennedy if anything was going on in town that night. Well, there’s the Skyscraper Fest, he said. Apparently all of the tallest buildings in Frankfurt were having “roof parties” that were very festive. Didn’t sound like my kind of thing. Anything else? Well, there is “the game,” of course.

The game?

He was referring to the Champions League championship game was being held at Wembley Stadium in London. For the uninitiated: The Champions League is the pinnacle of European Soccer. Hundreds of teams from all the countries of Europe struggle to achieve the level of success that qualifies them for Champions League status. The New York Yankees and Miami Heat and Green Bay Packers of soccer are teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Chelsea and the like. Well, this night, for the first time in league history, two German teams—Dortmund and Bayern Munich—were vying for the title…a title equivalent to our Super Bowl..

Well, what about The Game? He said we at the hotel are having a big bash in the bar later that night (game didn’t start until 9:45), but that if I wanted to get the real feel of the game, I should go over to his neighborhood, BergerStrasse, and I’d see what it was all about. So I took the #12 tram over to that neighborhood—a two-kilometer stretch of shops and restaurants and bars—to take in the scene. The first place I sat down was a clone of a U.S. sports bar, with framed pictures and posters and memorabilia of American sports stars for all the major sports from the 50s to the present… when I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer, the bartender rushed over: ”All seats reserved!”, then relented and said I could keep the seat until Der Grosse Buildup began at 8:00, Der Grosse Buildup being their version of whatever…Super Bowl Preview, Game Day, etc….in which sports announcers and old timers and their Ditkas talk about the upcoming game and hype it up.

All up and down the stretch of BergerStrasse, proprietors of bar and restaurants have placed picnic tables outside their establishments, then taken large-screen TVs and plunked them outside the fronts of the establishments, as thousands of fans begin to gather for the game. I actually found a seat at a bar in one of the places where I could see—not the game, because the game was still an hour away, but all the interviews and craziness that preceded the games. What were these rituals? Oh, each team sent out a representative in armor and dueled at midfield (mid-“pitch”), each team then sponsored a battalion of maybe 500 citizen soldiers each, in phalanxes, to rush toward one another and class in faux battle, each team has their “ultras” (insane fans in teams colors and décor, viz. Raider Nation) perform their chants and song. Then their version of the coin flip (for what? Side of field? Not clear), the national anthem (only one this year, since both teams were German).  Game begins. Needless to say, half the crowd in each venue I’m in is half-Dortmund and half-Munich, so I tell ‘em all I’m an L.A. Galaxy fan and they leave me alone. Eventually I moved onto a restaurant for dinner where I could see one of the many TVs, watched and ate dinner during the first half, then ran to my tram to get back to the hotel for the second half.

Back at Villa Kennedy, one seat left at the bar, next to a Hollywood producer type who was paying no attention to the game, but attempting to impress the stranger (young girl) next to him with his insider status in the industry.  One minute to go in the game…score tied 1-1, when a Bayern Munich player get a lucky break, has a couple of people fall down in front of him, and sort of dribbles the ball through the confusion into the net for the winning goal. Bedlam from the Munich supporters, breathless despair from the Dortmunders. No celebrating for me, because I have a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call to et to the airport for my flight home.

The end of a great trip.

Juilleret’s

Ran into a guy at the “Quiet Pool” wearing a Harbor Springs T-shirt.

“Harbor Springs, Michigan?
 
“Yes.”
 
“Are you a regular at Juilleret’s?”
 
“I love Juilleret’s, but it’s only open three days a week nowadays.”
 
Hey, we’d better get back up there pretty fast!

France & Germany

Last day in France. Weather has been very nice, mid-70s most of the time with only a few drops of rain. Bought a 3-day all-everything pass when I got here, so I’ve been buzzing around town by Metro, bus and RER (train).  It’s May, so the crowds are here in force.  I’ve been staying at a hotel– the Renaissance Vendome, a Marriott property where I have received royal treatment due to my Platinum status– near the Louvre, but more importantly near the Rue de Rivoli/Rue St. Honore area, a Right Bank locale chock full of fancy shops and stylish cafes and restaurants that I’ve had fun exploring. Being most impressed with my Platinum status, Front Desk Clerk Pauline insisted after my first day that I move to a more special room on the 5th floor, a corner junior suite with views of the Paris rooftops, and Concierge Marie Caroline greeted me each evening with a map with a little yellow post-it pointing out the name and street address of my restaurant reservation, the nearest Metro stop and a ZOOM picture of the restaurant’s neighborhood for my ease in navigating. Where possible, she also supplied me with a copy of the restaurant’s website menu.
 
Had a free day on Thursday, so devoted the day to an outing to Versailles (included on my all-day pass) where I had never been in all my trips here.  It was as impressive as advertised, although when you’ve seen the palaces in Vienna and St.Petersburg and the Vatican et al, you get a little jaded, so there’s a tendency not to be overwhelmed. HUGE crowds took little away from the spectacle. On Friday I went up to Chantilly for the races. 
 
Chantilly is 35 miles and 300 years away from Paris.  After arriving on the train, I followed the local tracksters (obvious from the Paris Turf racing forms under their arms) for the mile-and-a-half walk out of the village and through a local forest to the racetrack. The Hippodrome de Chantilly is a sparkling new facility of glass and sandstone set among acres of green grass that resembles a carpet, the grounds surrounded by impressive chateaux and period buildings. Shockingly, it is tiny…capacity maybe 2000, with an estimated 400-500 there on the day I was there, and 500 of those were little school kids on a Friday outing (didn’t have outings to River Downs when I was a kid). It was like being at a private party. Won a few races so kept my head above water.  It might have been a quaint setting, but the crowd there, as everywhere, was essentially composed of “trackees,” the slightly disreputable-looking crowd former Chicago Tribune racing columnist Dave Feldman used to call Beaten Down Horseplayers. Looked like transplants from Santa Anita to me. All in all, a very fun outing.
 
Have been dining at various of the restaurants on my Warner Henry list (his list of great “local” restaurants which most resemble Pie ‘n Burger– no Michelin stars allowed).  The best by far is the newest one on his hit list– Frenchie, a tiny 16-table bistro run by an English guy and his American girlfriend. According the my concierge, the hardest reservation in town; mine was made over a month prior. Set menu with two choices of starter, main course and dessert, and every bite delicious.  By 7:15 the place was entirely full, with another 30 or so people waiting across the alley in the Frenchie wine bar for openings. Other dinners were at Le Troquet and Balzar, standbys from the old Warner list where Mom and I have eaten before.Oh, by the way, the newest culinary rage in Paris? The Cheeseburger! It’s on the menu of every restaurant and brasserie in town.  Every window you peek through reveals diners champing down on big, messy, gooey cheeseburgers.
 
Today/tonight is a travel day. Heading to Cologne, where tomorrow I’ll be at the races there. Staying two nights there, then going to Frankfurt for a final day and night before flying home on Tuesday.
A great day at the races on Sunday, a sunny but cool day. Weidenpesch, the racetrack in Cologne, sits mid-city, about a 10 minute tram ride out from the center. Because of its location in a residential area, it’s slightly reminiscent of Belmont, i.e., a leafy oasis set among blue collar apartments and homes– that is, except in size. Compared to Belmont’s 75,000 capacity, Weidenpesch’s facility holds 10,000 tops– about 4,000 of them in three little pavilions that from the race track, the rest standees on the wide and deep lawn that fronts the track. Pretty much a full crowd were on hand on Sunday,very much a family crowd, young and old, with little or no sign of the usual dissolute characters who routinely inhabit racetracks. Reminiscent of Saratoga with its festive atmosphere, the “front” yard of the track featured a wide array of stands offering an awesome variety of eats– brats, waffles, potato pancakes, currywurst (a German favorite, consisting of slices of wurst covered with a souce of some sort and sprinkled with curry powder…definitely the crowd favorite), hand-carved ham and pork, and my favorite, a delectable item called frikadeller mit broochen (sp?), sort of like a spicy meatloaf on a roll. Mmmm…mmmm. Note that at Weidenpesch, we’re dealing with third-tier racing, nothing like Chantilly with world-famous jockeys and trainers dealing with quality horses; these were all no-names (except for one, a jockey named A. Starke who has ridden in several Breeders Cup races) riding rather mediocre horses in 5000 Euro races, but nevertheless the races were for the most part hotly contested and featured nose-to=nose stretch drives. Won a couple (mostly betting on Starke horses), lost a couple.The whole experience was uplifting, being around smiling people for whom a day at the races was a time to have fun and eat a lot and enjoy the day.
 
Today, Monday, I took the train down to Frankfurt in the morning, then spent the day exploring the town. Highlights: (a) Occupy Frankfurt, which has taken over a large city park with hundreds of teepees and tents and characters straight out of the Haight-Ashbury, and (b) the May Wine Festival in a part of town called Romertown. I’m going back to Romertown as soon as I finish this email to try some of the local specialties at the various booths in the square. To take continuing advantage of my Marriott Platinum status and access to their Executive Lounges, last night I stayed at the Marriott Cologne and tonight I’m at the Marriott Frankfurt– both big box hotels filled with businessmen and their iPhones and computers, both rather deadly.
Time to head down to Romertown.

Hong Kong

Day 1

Arrived around dinnertime on Thursday after a 14:05 hour flight– even with flatbeds, a gruelling trip. Stayed this night at the Langham Place Hotel, which is a towering skyscraper connected to a massive new shopping mall, both of which stand out like elephants in the midst of the Mongkok neighborhood of shops and markets. Mongkok is an area of Kowloon (mainland, as opposed to the island of Hong Kong) a few miles away from the main tourist areaof Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s literally a beehive of activity with fruit and vegetable stands and butcher stands and cheap clothing ships three deep on each side of the narrow streets– one in the brick and mortar structure, one on the sidewalk and one at the curb– and the constant noise of trucks and people and Chinese chatter. Sort of a classic Third World scene. Had dinner at one of the shopping mall food court restaurants, very stylish and trendy places totally unlike the malls we’re used to. My room at the Langham Place was on the 40th floor, affording a dramatic view of the lights on nightime HK. A nice place. Got a deal on this one from Jetsetter. In bed early in the battle to defeat jet-lag.

Day 2

After a morning wandering around the sights and sounds of Mongkok, on Friday morning it was off to Tsim Sha Tsui and The Peninsula, also in Kowloon, which is the more “happening” part of this monster of a metropolis. They were nice enough to let me into my room at 12:15. and WOW!, what an experience…a big, bright, spacious, beautifully furnished and decorated room on the 25th floor of the Peninsula Tower that was, in a word, breathtaking. Gorgeous furniture, terrific artwork on the walls, all kinds of deluxe pushbutton features (curtains, lights, temp, TV, music, etc.) and wonderful touches (e.g. not one, but two phones in the bathroom. I loved it. My Amex reservation includied extra goodies such a afternoon tea, breakfast, early check-in and late checkout and I took advantage of all of it. After getting settled, I initiated my customeary case-the-neighborhood activities, an over to the nearby Star Ferry terminal and took the ride over to Hong Kong island. IN HK you use something called the Octopus card, which is a prepaid credit card good on all forms of ransportation and ever smalled restaurants and shops like7 Eleven and the like. Needless to say, I was determined to wear mine out, so I proceeded to grab every available ferry, bus and subway I could find. Returned to The Pen for the afternoon tea. As a “resident” I was entitled to go to the head of the line of perhaps 80 people waiting for tables and the opportunity to spend $50 or $60 per person in the jam-packed lobby lounge. It may have been my first afternoon tea, and it may be my last. I don’t understand the concept of eating in the lte afternoon and spoiling your appetite for dinner. Oh well. Then it was nap time, followed by drinks in an area known as Knutford Terrace, a gallery of bars and restaurants in a slightly obscure location, followed by dinner at Dave-recommended Tutto Bene, really good. Thoroughout this trip jet-lag has been killing me, so I’ve consistentlly dragged myself back home around 10:00 each night. And so it was that night.

Day 3

Dave had insisted that I have breakfast on the Peninsula Verandah. Sorry to say, Dave, that they’ve built a couple of museums that almost totally block the Veranda’s view of the harbor. And besides, my Amex free breakfast deal was only for the lobby lounge, so that’s where I ended up. Breakfast: disappointingly average, specially for a breakfast whose menu price was around $50. It was a perfectly beautiful blue-sky, moderate-temperature Saturday in HK, and I wasn’t going to be required to check out until 4:00, so I pulled out my trust Octopus card and hopped on the Star Freey one again, saled across the harbor and jumped in the #6 bus to Stanley, a suburban town/village on the far tip of HK island and a settlement famous for its flea-type market. The ride to Stanley takes one through the “suburbs” and lush lightly populated areas of Hong Kong island. included the picture perfect Hong Kong Country Club, Bellview and Repulse Bay. A wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. Returned to the Peninsula for an hour or so poolside, then the clock struck midnight (actually 4:00) and it was time to move on. Hiked a couple of blocks over to Dave’s regular habitat, the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, whose lobby has the bustle of a train station. But no waiting in line for me, because Dave had aanged for me to stay on the club floor, where I was whisked and checked in on the 17th Floor and assigned a room on the 18th. Went to the elevator…no 18th floor. Asked the Club attendant: how to I get to my room? “Up the stairs, sir” (Never would have happened at the Peninsula, but hey, I’m saving a ton of money with this hotel, and The Continental Club comes with a line-up of extras the Peninsula would have charged about $300 for– snacks, hors d’oeuvres, drinks, internet, pant-pressing, breatfast, etc. My room, albeit a bit smaller than the Pen (i.e., about half the size, not, I imagined, like the super-sized upgrade Mr. Bohmer probably gets), I would describe as efficient and comfortable. Anyway, it was cocktails in the club lounge, then out to dinner at another Dave suggestion, the Swiss Chalet, where I introduced myself to owner Max, who instead of giving me a table, plunked me at the bar so I could have dinner with his best buddy and fellow Swiss Leo. It became clear that Dave was a super regular, because when I asked Max for a suggestion as to ewhat to have, he re[plied that Dave Bohmer always orders the special broiled cheese appetizer and the Dover Sole. Leo, on the other hand, thought I should try the veal with mushrooms, since that was what he was having. I went along with Leo’s suggestion and was rewarded with a delicious dinner and half of Leo’s bottle of Swiss merlot. The thiree of us and Max’s bartender wife had a terrific tiem. Great tip, Dave. I’m going back again next Tuesday. As usual, back to the hotel and in bed again by 10:00. I can’t believe it’s me doing this.

Day 4

Today (Sunday) I’m heading out to Sha Tin for the races. Am equipped with the official program and The Racing Post and my Octopus card and am ready to go. More later..

Stockholm

Hey, Gary, why the heck aren’t you over here? The reason I had an impossibly difficult time getting a hotel room in Stockholm (thanks to Andrew Harper I got one at the priciest place in town) was because there are SIXTEEN THOUSAND doctors in town for some convention. I know, because I rode with a boatload of them this morning on my Stockholm Under the Bridges tour– the guide asked the crowd how many of you are doctors and all hands went up except mine, and when he noticed my hand wasn’t raised he asked me what I did, and when I said lawyer the entire boat booed me.

This city’s a beauty, wrecked only by the fact that EVERYTHING is so ridiculously expensive– e.g., glass of white wine 25 bucks, beer at the cheapest place I could find 9 bucks, 3-day bus pass 40 dollars, etc. My hotel is the Lydmar, definitely the hippest place in the city– standing room only at the bar and restaurant last night a 11:00 p.m.– a beautiful but ultra-minimalist inn with no sign on the front and a primo location (AW, you wouldn’t love it at all, but it’s growing on me). Yesterday ran all over town with my bus pass, hit their Old Town for dinner, then did the boat tour and some museums today. Going for a symphony concert tonight. Then it’s off to Copenhagen tomorrow.

That’s the Spirit! Day 9

Back to the Start: That’s the Spirit! Day 1

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 9: Sunday, November 21

Sorry to say it, folks, but I’m out of gas.

I’m tired of these people, and I’m tired of these same old bars and restaurants, and I’m tired of the routine. So as far as the daily report is concerned, I’m taking the day off.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer some concluding comments on the entire Silversea experience. The Spirit is one fine and handsome ship, even if the décor seems slightly dull and uninspired to me. The room and bath amenities are quite good, and the butlers and room attendants do a fine job. My fellow passengers onboard are as nice as you’ll find anywhere in a gathering of strangers. The management staff knock themselves out for you. The food offerings and food quality have been way above average. The entertainment has been fine. The free drinks, free wine, tips-included features are fantastic. Negatives? The physical fitness facility and spa are fairly weak– not a big deal to me, but it could be to others. The bars’ and restaurants’ ambiance are just okay. As you have no doubt detected from various tirades, I think the food and beverage service staff is mainly comprised of robots of below-average mentality, and they are the slowest human beings afoot on the planet. And there is a legitimate question, raised by some I have met, as to whether Silversea is worth the very serious premium prices it charges compared to cruise lines one notch down.

So, in toto, what is the verdict? Would I do it again (preferably with AW, even more preferably with AW and friends or family)? If you’d asked me on the first or second day, I probably would have said no way. But the overall quality of this operation grows on you. Over time you see how much effort and planning goes into the daily operation of this ship, and you hear from your fellow passengers that this doesn’t always happen on other cruise lines. So, I guess I will answer that key question with a definite maybe. They had a tough and cynical critic aboard this voyage, and by gosh they may have actually begun to win him over.

Tomorrow, Ft. Lauderdale, then onward to L.A. and Pasadena. Thanks for listening. Over and out.

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Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 9: Appendix to Report for Sunday, November 21 (and Monday, November 22)

Even though I previously declared my intent to forego a report for the last day(s), I decided to include a few musings about the final events.

Sorry to say that the final day (Sunday) was, in fact, pretty uneventful. Slept in for the first time on the trip, hit the pool, went to a special cocktail party for all the Team Trivia participants, then we had our final Team Trivia event (came in third again…I tell ya, these other guys are tough). Why they put the cocktails before the contest is beyond me, as one of our best players, Liz—she may be a social barbarian, but she’s an ace trivia contestant—was half loaded and rather ineffective. The question that broke our back was: What 80’s band’s name was inspired by the movie Barbarella? We guessed Sex Pistols, which was wrong. Correct answer below. See what I mean? All week we dealt with some impossibly tough questions.

Wound up at dinner with Tom and Joan from Chicago and Lake Forest, IL (for the uninitiated, considered by many to be the very top suburb in Chicagoland). Met Tom when he was a fellow grinder on the regatta, then later one night on my lone Casino visit. A mid-40’s guy with a cherubic countenance, he previously s served as General Counsel for pharmaceutical giant Shering-Plough (sp?) (lost that job when they merged with Merck). He presently has the very super-duper job of General Counsel of United Airlines, although his job is ending at the close of 2010 due to the United/Continental merger in which the Continental G.C. got the nod for the position with the combined entity. Don’t feel sorry for him. Like my old roomie Terry Martin, he departs all these primo jobs with golden parachutes and other goodies. For example, one of his severance benefits from United will be a lifetime pass on the airline….oooooh, how I would give anything for that. Originally from Connecticut (went to Wesleyan, same as Bonnie Harrison), he and Joan (no kids) have lived in New Jersey, California and Illinois (the latter four times).

Earlier in the week Tom and Joan, very proper country club types, had had a well-noticed brouhaha poolside with a bald New Yorker that Joan has dubbed “The Plaintiff’s Lawyer.” The PL is part of a NY foursome who yell across the pool and generally are loud and gaudy and inconsiderate and obnoxious. Joan bristles at their showiness (e.g., their wives bringing $15,000 purses to the pool). At any rate, the tiff resulted from fact that, on the first Sea Day– when the pool area was the most crowded and chairs were at a premium– the PL and his gang commandeered four chairs on BOTH sides of the pool so that they could change locations as the sun moved across the sky. Tom objected to this maneuver, and the two of them proceeded to have a little trans-pool discussion, which had to be settled (in Tom and Joan’s favor) by the ship’s Pool Manager, a stout gal who wears a white outfit that looks like a nurse’s uniform. Believe me, all heads poolside popped up from their reclining positions to witness the dust-up, the most excitement we had all week.

Monday morning was disembarkation day in Fort Lauderdale, which ended up costing Silversea some future business, I’m sure. A whole lot of us had signed up to disembark at 8:30 a.m., plenty of time for me to get my rental car at Fort Lauderdale airport and drive to Miami airport to catch my 11:51 flight to Chicago. Because they are going to be on my same flight, Tom and Joan are going with me (I’m trying to be as nice as I can to this guy in the hope that he’ll get me one of those lifetime passes). Well, somebody at Silversea was asleep at the switch. Since this is the first time the Silver Spirit has ever visited a U.S. port (up to this time it had been sailing in Europe and across the Atlantic), it’s necessary for the U.S. Coast Guard to board the ship and give it a complete inspection. Coast Guard uniforms are scurrying all over the ship and 8:30 comes and goes, and people are beginning to get worried. 9:30, and they still aren’t done with the inspection. All around, people are moaning about certain missed flights and a completely messed-up day. Finally, at 9:50, we’re told we can disembark…IN THE ORDER OF THE COLOR OF YOUR LUGGAGE TAG. The first color called: Red. Who are among the few with the red tags? The Plaintiff’s Lawyer and his entourage, which of course completely infuriates Joan. Anyway, our color was next, and we ran off the ship at 10:00, then had to go through Immigration and Customs, where there was one—count him: ONE) U.S. Customs guy on duty for the crowd of 480. The Silversea elite are mad as hornets, laying it on the Silversea port attendants who had nothing to do with the problem and were trying to soothe frayed nerves and tempers. Luckily the three of us were among the early ones off the Spirit, but we still didn’t exit the terminal until 10:15…for a 11:51 flight out of Miami! Long story short, we grabbed a taxi to Hertz at the airport, grabbed our car, drove wildly to Miami and get there with 15-20 minutes to spare. I kept saying to Tom: “Maybe you ought to give someone a call.” He’d just shake his head and give me a look that said that’s not how it works, my friend. Made the flight. And all was well that ended well.

As this is being composed, I sit on United 123 on my way to LAX.

Thus endeth the Saga of the Spirit.

 

(Answer to trivia question: Duran Duran. I have no idea whatsoever what the connection is with Barbarella.)

That’s the Spirit! Day 8

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 8: Saturday, November 20

We’re “At Sea” for the next two days, which everyone agrees will be a welcome respite from the daily go-onshore rat race, although the veterans tell me that pool chairs will hereafter be at a premium. This morning we are being given a chance to view some of the large suites on the ship and invariably receive a sales pitch about signing up for future cruises (as a Venetian Club member, I’m entitled to a 5% discount). Then I’m going up and fight for one of those pool chairs.

Of course, now that we’re all packed together they’ve upped the onboard offerings so that there’s something you can attend literally every half-hour if you want to. E.g., ballroom dancing (no), wine tasting (no), Introduction to Botox (?), arts & crafts (no), water volleyball (maybe), ab class (don’t need it), shuffleboard (no), Bingo (no…been a disappointment), Team Trivia (definitely), dozens of others, and my absolute favorite: Blackjack Tournament, which according to our activities sheet urges one to, and I quote, “put your skills at stake against other BJ aficionados.,” the morning line favorites being the gay guys on board.

Speaking of which, I should mention another daily activity listed in the newsletter each day: “5:00 – Friends of Bill meet.” All, or at least most, the Americans know what this is, but the Europeans have no idea. Yesterday afternoon at the Pool deck bar one of the English gay guys (a bunch of very nice guys, by the way, a lot of them flight attendants with British Airways) came up to me, drink in hand, and clearly supposing this meeting was designed for him and his buddies, mentioned that he was thinking of giving the FOB meeting a try. When I explained that old Bill was the founder of AA and that walking in there with a cocktail might not be the most PC thing, he almost dropped his drink.

Report on the Silver Suite and Owner’s Suite: both a lot larger than I had anticipated, with lots of unnecessary sinks and closets and doors, but not much of an improvement décor-wise. I had expected really nice colors and fabrics Nope. Same old drab monochromatic stuff that’s in all of the rooms. Worth it? Here with a family, maybe. Here as a solo or couple, nah.

Chose as my activities this afternoon (a) to be a spectator at the blackjack tournament, which produced a turnout of about 14 hard-nosed players who weren’t fooling around; you pay only $20 to play, they give you $300 worth of “tournament” ships and play off against six other competitors per table for seven hands of blackjack, until they get to the final seven, who then play off until there is a winner; was great to watch and I’m signing on tomorrow now that I’ve had a chance to observe the winning strategies; (b) Team Trivia where the Soloists came in second against seven other teams, all of which are comprised of very, VERY tough trivia players; and (c) galley tour with the ship’s executive chef, who took us through the kitchens, dishwashing areas, etc.– pretty impressive.

.                       .                       .

Whoa!!! What’s going on here? All of a sudden our sunny, balmy day and calm seas have been replaced in short order by a dome of clouds and very rough waters. In the fore and aft parts of the ship, it’s pitching and rolling so hard that it’s actually difficult to stand. The talk everywhere is about queasy stomachs and the availability of Dramamine (which I have, but haven’t taken because while I feel a little disoriented, I don’t feel ill. Matter of fact, I’m ready for a drink pretty soon.) People are walking down the halls, swaying and stumbling like drunken sailors. It’s not raining and according to the Captain, it’s not threatening to do so, but our dinner tonight is a barbeque on the Pool Deck and sweaters are advised.

.                       .                       .

Because of the weather, which isn’t conducive to late night bar time, I’m back early from the night’s activities, so I’ve decided to go ahead and compose my report now (please excuse misspellings, grammatical and syntax errors).

The Soloists group reunion dinner was held this evening at the deck barbeque. Except for a Team Trivia or two, we hadn’t gotten together since Day 2. Dinner was windy and cool and rocky, but fun and interesting. Wildwoman Liz was much subdued (and slightly under the weather because of the rough seas), but her sidekick, Karen, whose boisterous, window-cracking cackle has become a topic of conversation around the ship and among the staff (during cocktails one night, hostess Isabelita actually came over with a microphone and asked Karen to give the room a sample; Karen looked like she wanted to kill her), was her old self. English gal Rachel said we hadn’t seen much of her because she’s been suffering all week from a sunburned back incurred while snorkeling the second day. Blabbermouth centenarian Mary was at it again, having decided that the topics of the evening would be (a) the history of English royalty, about which she is an expert, having attended Oxford on a scholarship, and (b) her late husband Basil, whom I suspect willed himself to death so he wouldn’t have to listen to her any longer. Quiet Wendy was the same. And we were joined at the table by shopping huckster Philip and personable Cruise Director Mike, who unfailingly remembers the name of everyone on the ship, here on Silversea following a several-year stint as “CD” aboard a Disney ship (can you imagine that job?).

Tonight was also karaoke night, which ended up being completely dominated by the Soloists (excluding me…please!), as former professional singer Karen led off with a remarkably fine version of “Over The Rainbow” and Liz did “Hotel California” and Rachel did a couple of great numbers (forget the titles) and one of Rachel’s buddies from England sang “Sweet Caroline.” The only person not intimidated by this lineup of ringers was a Mexican doctor who ran up and butchered a song, leaving the audience embarrassed and causing the pool of potential performers to dry up, forcing our Ship D.J. David to come up and do an Elvis number and CD Mike to do a Billy Joel song he claimed he had never done before, but which had been clearly rehearsed (e.g., during the song’s Interlude, he had a fancy little dance number all ready to go).

Good night.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 9

That’s the Spirit! Day 7

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 7: Friday, November 19

I never did quite figure out why the staff invited me for dinner last night (Thursday). They didn’t probe my views on the cruise, so I concluded they merely took pity on me since I’m the only male solo traveler (other than Scottie, who has a visual impairment and dines in his cabin). Since they weren’t doing any probing, I did, trying to get them to tell juicy war stories about the cruise world. This didn’t work out so well, as C.D. Mike responded with a lengthy discussion of how the cruise line he was with at the time handled the 9/11 emergency and losses suffered by passengers and crew, etc., which set a maudlin tone and put a bit of a damper on the evening. It was nice of them to ask me, but I would have been better off dining with passengers.

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Today (Friday) we are docked in Road Town, Tortola , British Virgin Islands, afloat next to a huge German liner, the Aria Luna (as I learned last night, in Cruise-ese the correct expression is “We’re in with the Luna”), an ugly ship with a blue and yellow color scheme and a huge pair of smiling lips painted on its bow.

Tortola is the most populated of the BVIs, and Road Town has to be its most prosperous town. The hillsides above the town are filled with large, pretty homes, and the commercial district is lined with bank after bank after bank, along with handsome colonial buildings sporting names such as “BCQX International” and “ATC Trustees (B.V.I.) Ltd.”. For the life of me, can’t figure out what business they’re in.

Walked off the ship to do my day’s exploring when I realized: you idiot, you’re on the wrong island! The places you want to see aren’t on Tortola; they’re on Virgin Gorda. Hopped over to the ferry terminal for the 40-minute ride to V.G., entertained on the way by a Nicholas Cage movie about an MIT professor with knowledge of impending disasters before they occur. Just when it was getting interesting, we arrive. (Never did get the title, but I was really getting into it.)

I hired a taxi driver to take me around the island, first to the famous Little Dix Bay resort, then to the island’s No. 1 attraction, The Baths, then give me a quick drive around Spanishtown, the island’s nerve center (kidding).

Little Dix, now owned and operated by Rosewood Hotels (owners of such prestige properties as the Bel-Air in L.A., the Carlyle in NY, the Lanesborough in London), was one of the original Rockresorts along with Mauna Kea and Kapalua Bay in Hawaii and Caneel Bay in the Caribbean. At one time…especially back in the 70s…it was a go-to destination for the rich and famous. Not anymore. Like its former sisters, it is graced with a huge, gorgeous half-moon beach and lovely grounds. But the hotel’s physical assets are a mess. Rooms are old and cheap-looking. The spa and physical fitness and sports facilities are second-rate. The restaurants are uninspired (and empty). In short, the place is worn out.

On to The Baths. The Baths, you ask? I’d never heard of them either, but there were 200 people (including 40 Spiriteers) in line to see the place when I arrived. The Baths are a collection of, I’m guessing, about 100 enormous boulders that have been eaten away by wind and water and now sit as hulking pitted sentries a few feet offshore. They supposedly trap water in some unique way and then allow it to pour over the heads of the people underneath. It requires a walk of 500 or so steps down a steep hill to get there, where you see something that’s okay at best. At the bottom you are also given the option of going through a rock tunnel—crawling at times—and walking through treehouses to see beautiful Devil’s Bay. That one will have to exist as beautiful in my imagination. All in all, a waste of time.

My driver, Ivan, was eager to show me his native island, and since I had 45 minutes until the ferry back, I consented, riding with a forced smile as he drove me around a woeful town and a generally scraggly island. It was so sad I tipped him an extra $10.

On the Joe ratings, Virgin Gorda gets a lowly X. Rating withheld for Tortola since I never gave it a fair viewing. (As far as I know, they don’t have any luxury resorts here, so the issue might be moot.)

On the ferry ride back, the Nick Cage movie had re-reeled and I got to watch the next 45 minutes, but we landed with the good part still ahead. Back on Tortola I walked through Road Town meandering through a outdoor Caribbean barbecue and craft show in a public park, realizing as I strolled back to the Spirit that this would be the last time I would touch foreign soil on this trip. Next stop Ft. Lauderdale.

Returned to the ship for lunch at the Pool Grill, my favorite haunt these days. Limited menu of good burgers and delicious grilled dogs, plus pizza and salads and things they call “Tongue Twisters”. Among the latter is the Guacamole Tumbler, a martini glass filled with shredded lettuce, guacamole and crabmeat with lime mayo…mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. Today, being in an all-crab mood, I’m having the GT along with a Thai Crab Burger with Asian slaw and spicy dip.

They have another great restaurant-concept here called Hot Rocks, where you cook your own entrée (steak, veal chops, fish) on these hot rocks they provide at your outdoor table on a deck above the Pool Grill. Supposed to be fun, but (a) it’s not something that would be fun to do alone and (b) it’s booked for the entire cruise except the next tuxedo night, so I’ve been hoping to glom on with some other people who have reservations and who have an empty chair. No luck so far. When, as frequently happens, I subtly or not so subtly join people at their tables at cocktail hour, one of the first questions I ask is: been to Hot Rocks?, and the answer I inevitably get is, Yeah, we were there last night. Oh well, I’ll live. (Anyway, I’ve looked at the “raw materials” they provide and the N.Y. steaks are 100% marble-less, so maybe I’m not missing anything of note.)

Formal night, and I sit with John and Sandy from Linton in the north of England. John’s in the furniture business, which must be doing okay since I noticed that one of Sandy’s fingers is graced by a brand new Crown of Light diamond ring. (I know it’s not the 3.01 stone because I bought that one for Lynn, but this one’s right up there in the same league.) After dinner, he and I head off to the Casino. Amazing. Seven nights here and this is the first time I’ve placed a wager in the Casino. Passed by it once or twice, but never bothered to go in. About thirty slots, all or most of which sit unused. No craps table. Three blackjack tables, one roulette, and—saving grace—a Three Card Poker table. Which, of course, becomes my game of choice under the circumstances. My dealer, Olga, has a cold Russian demeanor, a look that as much as says she just as soon slit your throat as deal another hand of this stupid game. But deal she does. My luck ebbs back and forth, up and down, and I end up $60 in the red. I still have $140 of my $200 stake. They’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to get that.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 8

That’s the Spirit! Day 6

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 6: Thursday, November 18

Last night’s (Wednesday’s) dinner was “California Night” with Jim and wife Barbara from La Mirada, sister Barbara from San Diego, and “Mother” from Montecito. Last names unknown (around here nobody has last names). We start off with the usual chit-chat…is this your first time on Silversea? Are you a regular cruiser? What other cruise lines have you been on? To be honest, this meal ends up being a pretty boring situation, with the conversation ranging from spa hours to Euro/Dollar exchange rates to the weather, although I probably shouldn’t blame them since it’s hard to find new things to talk about after six days. Every five minutes Mother tells me I have to try Crystal. Yes, I’d like to. They have cruises out of Los Angeles. (She’s one of those old-line 3rd– or 4th generation Angelinos who, like former Mayor Sam Yorty, prefers the Anglicization of the city’s name and call it “Los Angle-ess”.) Yes, I think I knew that. You really should go. Yes, I hope I get the chance one day. They have cruises out of Los Angle-ess. Yes, Mother. I begin to wonder: is she an undercover gnat the front desk has sent to drive me crazy…payback for my complaining about the noise from the next-door veranda? Tough night. Nothing much going on so I go to the nightclub and listen to the blues/jazz singer for a half-hour, then tuck in early.

Today, Thursday, we’re in St. Maarten, and this is the day for the America’s Cup Regatta. (I checked the activities desk and it’s actually going to happen!) As noted in yesterday’s report, the monstrous Celebrity Solstice sits outside my veranda, from which I watch an anthill of Solstice’s 2,850 passengers file down their gangplank onto the pier. Looks like it might be a crowded day here in Philipsburg. Next to the Solstice sits the giant MSC Poesia, and word has it we may soon be joined by Royal Caribbean’s colossal Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship carrying FIVE THOUSAND passengers.

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Wow is all I can say. Just got back from a most thrilling experience: the activity billed as the America’s Cup Regatta. Here’s what they do. 28 passengers are divided into two groups and assigned to one of two boats, each of which competed in past America’s Cup races—the Stars & Stripes (which won it a few years back) and the Canada II (my boat)—to engage in a five-mile race. Among each boat’s crew were three professional sailors, several very experienced competition sailors in our company and some neophytes like me. All the elements were there for a terrific competition: a nice windy day, two sleek boats and two crack crews. I volunteered for an “active” crew role and served as one of the four Primary Grinders, whose job it was crank this apparatus that helps with the turns (I think). I mean, most of us have been out in sailboats, but I at least hadn’t ever seen anything like these boats—a pair of speed merchants with no frills and no fat designed to literally fly through the water.

At the risk of boring you with the details of the regatta (it’s sort of like recounting a golf game stroke by stroke, but I’m going to do it anyway), here’s how it went. A little warm-up and we were off to a running start, side by side with the Stars & Stripes. We’d be flying along a straightaway when the time would come to tack around a red flag, which was when the real work and the racing strategy really began. My fellow grinders and I—Main and Primary— and the team of mainsail trimmers would spring into action as the Canada II surged into a turn, the wind blasting us in the face, the keel leaning half-way over, the Skipper calling out “Rail in the water!”, which essentially means that you’re going really, really fast. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it—thirteen “teammates” and I pulling together in a frenetic effort in pursuit of the Stars & Stripes, which had jumped out to an early lead and held it doggedly for four miles. Finally, as we were preparing to tack around our final flag, the Skipper makes the decision to tack to starboard instead of port—an all or nothing gamble which meant were going to swing wide right and hope to catch a miraculous blast of wind. Precisely what happened. As the crews on both boats hurled catcalls at one another, the two crafts spun around the flag in opposite directions and flew toward the finish in a V formation, the S&S far to the left and C2 far to the right. Our Skipper surveyed the churning waters and smiled: “Better wind for us than for them!” The came a mile of tense racing, like two champion racehorses barreling head-to-head down the stretch, as the Canada II inched closer and closer, then even, then ahead, and crossed the finish, winning by maybe 30-50 meters. We all looked at one another. We just beat the America’s Cup winner! Morgan congratulated us heartily and told us it was traditional to gloat over a victory like this, also reminding us it was customary to tip the pros on board, returning us to reality.

So, there it was—an experience that in and of itself has gone a long way toward making this whole cruise memorable and worthwhile. Things like that always make me wonder why I didn’t try them earlier in life, when I could have allowed the thrill to grow into a passion. Oh well, I guess I’ll just take it as it comes.

Tonight (Thursday) I’m the guest of International hostesses Isabelita and Carla and Cruise Director Mike (one of my mates on the Canada II today) at dinner. Just the four of us. When I came back from breakfast this morning, out of the blue appeared a written invitation on the ship’s stationery. Not really sure why me (maybe they’re pumping me for my impressions of the Spirit), but I think it will be fun.

.                       .                       .

It’s just after sunset and our neighbor, the Solstice, is blowing its air horns in preparation for its departure from St. Maarten. Camera flashes popping, passengers along the decks and verandas of both vessels are lined up to watch the spectacle of this massive creature being untied at the dock and then pushing off unassisted into the harbor and out to sea. You stare and wonder how it’s even possible to budge such a beast, how incredible the task was to build such a thing. Above the growl of its engines can be heard the shouts of crewmen going through their checklists. The lights from the Captain’s bridge on the 13th deck flash red and blue, giving it the appearance of a nightclub. A line of spotlights illuminates the waters, giving them a teal hue. The Solstice rumbles and pushes off sideways from shore, pauses, then begins its forward thrust. Quite a sight.

Now it’s the Spirit’s turn to rumble as she prepares to depart for Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 7

That’s the Spirit! Day 5

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 5: Wednesday, November 17

Kenneth and the Australians sounds like a 60’s pop band that would have opened for Herman and the Hermits, but it’s actually the people I had dinner with Tuesday night. I happened to meet the eponymous Kenneth the first hour I was aboard ship last Saturday when we were both looking for an afternoon snack and arrived at the Pool Grill at the same time. Kenneth is probably mid-40’s, a nice looking guy with a haircut that slightly resembles a porcupine’s, and he’s got the engaging upbeat quality that makes Australians so engaging. He and his entourage– frequent Silversea’ers all– are coming off a trip to Cuba where they attended an international ballet festival. Last night he was kind enough to take mercy on me as I was sitting alone in the Observation Lounge and invited me to join them. I guess I may not have noticed in the past, but Australian accents become harder to understand the more you (or they) drink, so a good portion of the time I felt as though I were listening to Russians. Anyway, they were a nice group of charming people and we passed the evening pleasantly.

In a recent email, Alison comments that my missives don’t say a whole lot about activities. That’s because the Events people have cancelled my first two planned activities—Whale Watching on Day 2 and a “Fun ‘n Fast Boat” to circumnavigate the island on Day 4— not informing me of the cancellations until the morning of the planned event, and then the activities that still had room didn’t appeal. (I’ve got one to go, a sailing outing on the America’s Cup boat Regatta in St. Maarten.) So, I’ve had to improvise with self-designed tours of the destinations, mixed in with a nice amount of reading and a little pool time. All in all, not necessarily “active” enough for the peripatetic me, but okay.

Not that it’s all fun and games. I have rather grueling a Italian lesson each day from 4:00 to 4:30 with Professora Carla, a stickler on correct Italian pronunciation despite the fact that she’s Brazilian. Lesson One dealt with pronunciation (Roll those R’s! Let’s all pretend we’re sitting on our Harley Davidsons. Rrrrrrrmmm, rrrrrmmm, rrrrmmm!) and all the “must know” words and phrases (Hello.. goodbye…etc.), Lesson Two with concepts like big/small, open/closed, et al.. (I cut Lesson Three, but she gives us make-up lessons if we want.) Happy to report that, according to Carla, whom I saw at Bingo, in comparison to my lackluster classmates I’m nearly fluent.

And Alison asks if I’m having fun. Well, yeah, I am. Not raucous, side-splitting fun, because the people on the Spirit are a more homogenous group of well-heeled country club types whose lives don’t seem to be as full of the idiosyncracies and jaw-dropping quirks as the Solstice crowd. It’s a tamer, saner group. So, as noted above, this is a “pleasant” fun. My favorite time of day is morning as we coast into a new port, where the pleasure is the anticipation of a new place to explore and a new serving of corned beef hash (one of the best dishes on the ship) for breakfast. The experience has been very enjoyable, albeit maybe a tad lengthy. I don’t know if I’m cut out for anything longer than a seven-day cruise, as the repetitiveness and the sameness of the venues begins to get to me. But I’m doing fine.

.                       .                       .

And then (today, Wednesday) came St, Bart’s, which ended up being one of my best days ever. Anytime. Anywhere.

For years and years and years I’ve heard about St. Bart’s. I’d heard about it from an old bon vivant college friend named Tim Bouscaren (a faux Frenchman who used to claim that his family spoke French around the house), who came here every year. And from our Sharon, CT pals Graham Klemm and Matt Lynn, who jetset the world and make it an annual stop. I must not have been paying close enough attention, because this place was never on my radar as a “must”. Big mistake.

This is a stunning place, a gorgeous place, a spectacular place…the prettiest island I’ve ever been to. Devoid of the junky shacks and tenements that scar so many Caribbean islands, it’s an almost Disneyesque version of what the perfect place should look like, sort of a Caribbean version of Maui, La Jolla, Cap Ferrat. Hundreds and hundreds of beautiful villas dot the tall hillsides that trundle down to a ring of perfect beaches.

People who know me make fun of my use of superlatives, especially in connection with recent discoveries, but I state here and now that St. Bart’s has to be ranked among the top five places in the world.

At this island we are required to anchor off shore—a real benefit since the distance “frames” the island– and use tenders to the mainland. Today I rented a car from Cool Auto Rental (they pick you up at a currency exchange in town and drive you to the parking lot of a KFC to pick up your car), which provided me with a tiny little Kia Picanto (French for “little hottie”?) with a Toro lawnmower engine, which I used to tour the island extensively and visit some of St. Bart’s renowned 5-star resorts, among them Guanahani, Le Toiny, Eden Roc, and the newest and my personal recommendation, the most spectacular hotel here—the Il de France. This is a gorgeous property set smack dab on a private beach and featuring fresh, bright and airy rooms and an overall ultra-luxury atmosphere. I also had time during my grand tour to make stops at two of the beautiful public beaches on the island; not usually a “beach guy,” I really enjoyed them. Adding to the adventure was the presence of hundreds of crazy French drivers racing along the rough, narrow roads at breakneck speeds, driving on sidewalks (saw it twice), and tailgaiting so brutally I had to pull over about two dozen times.

THE place to eat in St. Bart’s is Maya’s, famous for its creative seafood dishes (to put this into perspective, it happens to be P Diddy’s favorite restaurant in the Caribbean). Although Maya only works her magic at night., she does, however, operate an informal little picnicky roadside café called Maya’s To Go, misnamed because practically everyone eats right on the tables and wooden benches outside, where I had a delicious lunch consisting of lime-marinate shrimp skewer and a cold cucumber-with-pepper-with-octopus salad.. Perhaps more important, St. Bart’s is the exclusive home to the one-and-only JoJo Burger, where a cheeseburger comparable to a Wendy’s is priced at 12 Euros (about $15…ouch!)

A triple check mark for St. Bart’s, which will definitely become a return destination.

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SPECIAL POSTSCRIPT

As you may have discerned, I write these entries late afternoon at poolside, recapitulating the events of the night before and then continuing on with that day’s activities (in the interest of coherence, I don’t write anything after cocktail hour), then send it out to you the next morning. Editing, but not adding to the report.

But today (Day 6 now) merits a special early morning exception. I awoke early to watch us sail into port in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, only to look out my veranda door and discover that we are docked next to…you won’t believe this…THE SOLSTICE!!! I walk out onto the veranda and look over at my old friend, a veritable leviathan parked next to our relatively shark-size Spirit. Mirabile dictu, up on the top deck of the Solstice, I spot the Captain and crew waving at me and yelling, “Come back, Joe! We miss you!” I can only smile and call back to them: “Sorry, fellas, next time!”

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 6