Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Summer Vacation: 1 -- Cruising

My wife, Tammy, and I just spent the last couple months planning the trip of a lifetime. The first part is my idea of a vacation--sit in one spot listening to the iPod and watching the kids splash, with an ice cream machine on one side and free pizza on the other. Step one is a fourteen-day Disney trans-Atlantic cruise from Galveston to Barcelona, Spain. It costs the same as a 6 day cruise, but before retirement, I could never take off this much time. As long as we're in the neighborhood, we should see as much as possible before paying the hefty return ticket. The second half is her favorite--zipping around strange countryside, visiting as many attractions as possible. I've decided to write about the adventure by city/country and include photos: Madiera, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Lourdes, Pisa, Rome, Venice, Bavaria, the Rhine Valley, the Loire Valley chateaus, Versailles, Paris, London, and Ireland. 35 days, 6250 kilometers of driving, and about 2100 photos.

The kids left school 9 days early, and they had to do all the homework in advance. Planning was critical. I mapped out each day to the hour and pre-programmed a GPS with our whole itinerary. I also pre-paid every hotel and major attraction. The plastic, accordion folder with all that inside never left my side or the hotel safe. Galveston doesn't have an airport, so we had to take the hour long Disney bus to the docks from Houston airport. Had our good neighbor Sandy ride with us to the airport at 5:30 am so she could drive our SUV home. Tammy did a tremendous job packing and we got everything in 6 very tightly stuffed bags. The one with all books nearly threw out my back, but we ran to the flight with everyone heaving almost their own weight in luggage.

After all that effort, God had his first laugh. A simple thunderstorm grounded our plane for an extra hour at MSP airport. We were able to phone our travel agent, Angela, from the plane, and she had them hold the Disney last bus for us.

Here's a sample of our matching shirts. Tammy had (or made) matching shirts for everyone for each day but formal night and meeting the pope. On board, we quickly forgot the day of the week. Days revolved around the fantastic dining. We'd get up for breakfast. Twice we slept in because of timezone shifts (seven of them) and had to go to brunch. Emily made friends at the swimming pool, and Pierce found boys to play video games with. I edited a story, and Tammy cut out/ironed a quilt. For rainy days, they had TV, but the movies only changed once a week. Emily watched Breaking Dawn 6 times.

 After lunch they had family crafts and movies, usually in 3D. Near ports, they had lectures on the places we were visiting. My favorite craft was when each family made a boat from things we found on board (Gatorade bottles, Popsicle sticks, and cereal bowls). The boat had to hold a full pop can. Over 120 teams signed up. Ours was minimalist, but floated happily along. Some people had done the cruise before and brought their own supplies--no fair! The photo shows how narrow the cabin is. We tried not to spend too much time here except the day the seas were super rough. Reading in huge, padded deck 3 portals was more fun than our room.

On port days, we'd pack the new blue backpack they gave us with bottled water, snacks, sunscreen, and iPods. When we got back just before dinner, we'd collapse in exhaustion. I confess that I went through keyboard withdrawal. Because they lumped ages 3-10 into one pool now, Emily refused to go to kids club. Pierce went to the Pre-teen club, which made her so jealous. So Tammy or I had to be with her at all times. Did I mention she watched Breaking Dawn 6 times?

At dinner, we were treated like royalty, extra cherries in our drinks, extra creme brulee, etc. Here is a photo of Emily with a birthday dessert when she's already eaten her first two. Our table mates, from Oklahoma, were a lot of fun. My favorite quote of the cruise was "Do you ever get halfway through a commercial break and forget what you were watching." I used that a lot. We'd be driving through an absurdly long tunnel in Italy, I'd say to Tammy, "Do you ever get halfway through a tunnel and forget where you're going?"

After dinner each night, they'd have a new family show. Once they even had fireworks and a dessert buffet. After the kids were in bed, they had adult entertainment (PG-13): comedy, magic, Iron Man 3. I learned from John Charles that at the three minute mark on Hey Jude, Paul makes a mistake and swears a blue streak. (I listened to it moments afterward.) Often, Tammy and I would listen to a book on the iPod while doing some quiet activity. Once I went to the hot tub and got to chat with adults. I learned that severe trauma patients with someone waiting for them recover much better than those who don't. I record trivia like this for use in my stories. However, after the insane amount of chlorine in the family hot tub, my khaki swim trunks were bleached to skin tone. Even 10 year-olds asked me if I had a suit on. When I went to the adult bar for a hot chocolate, my towel slipped, and the female bartender actually shrieked. No more swimming or bars after that.

After two weeks of this routine, kicking us off the ship by 9am on the last day felt rude. Even hotels give you till 11. Your bags had to be in the hall by 10 the night before. We pushed the deadline by half an hour because we had half-dry laundry to put away, goodbyes to say, and an extra bag--the backpack.

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