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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Road Trip (SC, GA, FL) to a Cruise! And why we choose to cruise!

Chef Dan and his Foodie Wife (me) have just returned from a wonderful, warming, 4 week vacation, 2 weeks of which were spent on the Celebrity Eclipse in the Caribbean, and the other 2 weeks on a road trip to and from Florida, and in the next several posts I will share links to the great adventures we had, including spear-fishing, snorkeling with turtles and manatees, tasting rums and learning to cook Antiguan food, and riding Trikes and ATVs, hopefully inspiring and encouraging you to check them out and put them on your YOLO List! One of the things I'm often asked is why we like to cruise, as a lot of people seem to think cruising is for "old" or "fuddy-duddy" people, and that we're not the "cruise type"! As this was our fourth (and so far best) cruise, I want to start this post with why we really love cruising. I booked our first cruise 4 years ago when we had a last-minute opportunity to get away in the middle of winter, and a cruise was the cheapest warm-weather holiday I could find with no notice! Forewarned by friends in the travel industry, we took a cheapie, discounted inside cabin and went off fully prepared to be disappointed... and were totally surprised to find that we loved it! We went ATVing in Cozumel, Mexico, learned to JetSki in Labadee, Haiti, rode horses in the ocean off Jamaica, played games in the ship's arcade, saw some great shows, indulged in the salon, spa, and Cigar Bar, found the food to be surprisingly excellent, enjoyed the towel animals(!), dressed in gowns and tuxes and reminded each other how good we could look, danced and romanced... and booked our next cruise almost immediately upon returning!
This is our second cruise with Celebrity and it was THE best! We enjoyed a 2-week cruise on the Eclipse, stopping at 8 southern Caribbean ports (St. Thomas, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, Aruba, and Curacao), with 5 (wonderful) relaxing days at sea to enjoy our balcony and many of the great things the ship had to offer, including breakfast on our stateroom's balcony each morning and wine at sunset, the truly excellent and inventive cuisine at Qsine, live jazz and wine on the lawn (yes, a lawn, with real grass!), the ice-covered Martini Bar and Molecular Bar, proffering a yummy assortment of inventive cocktails, the enomatic wine bar, where you can self-service taste dozens of wines from all over the world and enjoy wine and port tastings, whisky tastings in Michael's Pub with an excellent Irish bartender, absolutely Great spa treatments and acupuncture (which keeps hubs totally out of pain), and some great entertainment, including a terrific, talent-filled Le Cirque-style show with amazing Polish acrobats and dancers flying from the ceiling... and some fabulous towel animals, too! The service was great, and frankly, as all the ships are beautiful, service is what makes a cruise great! (RCCL's service, on the other hand, hit rock-bottom (racist, ugly, mean, dangerous) on our last cruise with them 2 years ago, and as a result we'll never Ever cruise with them again). Celebrity is owned by RCCL, but it is Light years ahead of what RCCL deteriorated into. I think that one of the reasons Celebrity's service is so great is that the vast majority of their cruisers Are older- and yes, some of them have walkers or canes or wheelchairs- and they need good service. We're Boomers: I'm 53 and Chef Dan is 66, and we're still "adrenaline junkies"  love "active" excursions like ATVing and spearfishing, but we Very much appreciate good service and enjoy things like whisky tastings, jazz on the lawn, fine cuisine, shows, spa treatments, and just chilling on our balcony naked with a good book and a glass of wine! :-) So our verdict is that cruising is a Great way for folks of all ages to have a fabulous holiday, and there are some GREAT deals out there! THE best deals I've been able to find anywhere (with great perks like on-board credits and pre-paid gratuities) are the "flash sales" from CruCon and I subscribe to them religiously! (Hint: book a "guaranteed balcony" for the best deal! You may get what they call a "partially obstructed view", which means the lifeboats are directly beneath your balcony, but it is FINE! And trust me: once you have a balcony you will NEVER book an inside cabin again- the balcony MAKES the cruise!) Once you've booked your cruise, a fun thing to do is sign up for the "Roll Call" board for your cruise on Cruise Critic and "meet" your fellow shipmates; you can exchange information and gather groups for excursions, plan meet-and-greet parties, read recent reviews of the ship you'll be sailing on, check out excursion ideas on the site's boards for your ports of call, and share the happy anticipation! (I think 1/4 of the fun of a trip is in the planning, and another 1/4 is in the blogging and looking at all the photos!) Thanks to the Cruise Critic Boards, "Googling", and Forums, I found unique excursions for each of our 8 ports. I booked all but one of our excursions independently of the cruise line, as in the past we were disappointed with many cruise line excursions, finding them way too crowded to be any fun. Many newbie cruisers are scared to book excursions independently for fear of being late and missing the boat, but if a company has 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic you can rest assured that they WILL see that you get back to the ship on time!

Chef Dan and I started our vacation with a 4-night "foodie road trip" from Landgraff, WV to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I broke the trip into 4-5 hour driving segments, knowing that we like to stop along the way to see and do things, and that for us it's Never the 4 or 5 hours says it is, but we Still didn't have enough time to stop and see all the things we wanted to along the way! Our first stop was Spartanburg, SC where stayed at the lovely The Inn on Main in a beautiful room with a soaking tub for two :-) The charming, helpful Inn-Keepers, Susan and Wayne, have truly created a beautiful place, and this is definitely "the" place to stay in Spartanburg! We were recommended to the inn by Elkhorn Inn guests who've become good friends, and who were the reason we decided to stop in Spartanburg! 

We had a wonderful evening of wine at the Carriage House Wine Bar , followed by a delicious dinner, with our Spartanburg friends!

Our next stop was Savannah, GAwhere we stayed at the historic Marshall House (which has a great wine and cheese evening for guests!), and had a wonderful dinner at The Olde Pink House so Chef Dan could "deconstruct" (figure out how to make) their fab "Southern Sushi" that we'd had on a previous stay in Savannah! We'd heard the Marshall House was haunted, and specifically requested a room where we might experience something, but no luck! ;-)

We got to do a little target practice...

I must say that I found the AR-15 to be feather-light and really easy to control, and I liked it a lot. I have to pat myself on the back for being able to to site and compensate properly in short order after all these years! Girly-girl can still make a "nice grouping"! :-)

We had a yummy lunch of fried oysters at one of our fave places: Skipper's Fish Camp on the water in Darien, GA! We couldn't believe we actually found it again! They have a lovely deck with a great view, a turtle pond, and charming service, and we always look forward to stopping there. We got to spend a bit of time at Fort King George Museum, too; Darien is definitely a place we want to come back to and spend a couple of days! There's a hotel next to the restaurant right on the water, there's a wine dinner cruise, and Ft. King George- so much to fun to be had!

We spent the night in St. Augustine, FL, one of our favorite places, staying again at the Bayfront Marin House so we could enjoy a lovely room with a soaking tub and breakfast on the veranda overlooking the water!

We had a truly delish Spanish tapas and wine dinner at our favorite St. Augustine restaurant The Tasting Room...

and anotherfun evening of live music and drinks at Tradewinds, our totally fave, happily smokey dive bar!

In the morning, before getting on the road, we stocked up on the tropical fruit wines we love (Grapefruit, Banana, Key Lime, Mango, Orange/Chocolate, etc...) at Vino Del Grotto Winery, doing a morning wine tasting to get our daily requirement of fruits and veggies! :-) We truly look forward to this all winter long!

We again spent our pre-cruise night at the Hilton Ft. Lauderdale Marina (on our Hilton Honors Points! We are loyal for a reason!), which we ESPECIALLY love for their smoking rooms with balconies overlooking the intercoastal waterway, really nice service, and the ability to park our car there for the duration of our cruise for only $10/night!
We treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner of venison and other delectables at the "farm-to-table" gourmet restaurant Market 17 across the street. We found it last year, and spent all year hoping to return!

And then, (after I had packed on 20 pounds in 4 days...) we were off on our cruise!

Next post: Cruising the Southern Caribbean!