Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Need Your Vote!

Anyone that knows me (or has seen photos of me from behind) understands that the LAST thing in the world I need are butt-enhancing underwear.
That's me on the left in the orange shirt NOT wearing anything to enhance my already well-endowed butt!
Unfortunately, that is exactly what I received at the Holloway family Christmas gift exchange in Bluffton, IN a few weeks ago.
Are you kidding me???
But luck was on my side, as I discovered the Wyndham Rewards My Horrible Holiday Gift contest shortly after I returned home. Thus it was a no-brainer to submit Greg's photo of me opening my lovely gift. Today, out of almost 1,000 entries, my photo/gift was picked by the judges as one of five finalists for the grand prize of 2,000,000 Wyndham Rewards Points!
The five finalists; mine is the 2nd photo from the right.
The catch is that the grand prize winner will be determined by who receives the most votes over the next week. You can vote once per day, for a total of seven votes. Those two million points are worth $10,000 so I REALLY need your help!
Please click on the link below to cast your vote. You do not have to provide any personal information or sign up for Wyndham emails.

Please remember to vote once per day through January 23rd (add a reminder to your calendar if necessary)! And please forward this to all of your family & friends so they can vote, too! Many thanks!!!

Monday, January 16, 2012

When Less Is More

A good rule of thumb to use when packing for a trip is to get out everything you need or want to take, then reduce by at least half. You should be able to carry your own luggage up & down stairs, or, at minimum, walk a quarter mile with it. The reality is that if you pack wisely, you really don't need that much stuff. I'm trying to apply the same principle to our move to Oregon and to life in general.

Despite my best efforts, I still have way more clothing & accessories and other stuff than I'll ever need. This is the result of a couple of things. Early in life I learned that if something was a bargain I should buy it, never mind if I actually needed it or not. Also, because I had dual residences in either California & New York, or New Hampshire & New York, for over seven years, I had two sets of everything. Not to mention that I changed jobs several times over the five years I most recently worked, which required additions to my existing wardrobe. Finally, in preparation for my extensive travels of late, I bought the most comfortable, durable, functional clothing & gear I could find.

All of this seems understandable. Clothing, however, is heavy and takes up a lot of space. And, of course, I have even more stuff to accent the clothes. Twenty watches, fifty pairs of earrings, a multitude of belts, hats, gloves and more. There's never just one of anything. Yes, it's nice to be able to wear a different outfit every day of the year and to never run out of options. But who really needs thirty pairs of shoes and a closet's worth of clothes for every season?! I strongly feel that this mentality, which can be applied not just to our wardrobes but to everything in our homes & lives, is a large part of what is wrong with our world today – excessive consumerism.

Why is it that it took me thirty-five years to get to this point? I say thirty-five (I am thirty-seven now) because I think the motivation to change hit me when I had to spend over $2,000 to move the remainder of my belongings from New York to Nashville in July, 2009. The cost basically equates to $1 per pound meaning I still had over 2,000 pounds of stuff! Considering I have no furniture or electronics, just clothes, toiletries, books, artwork, keepsakes and some kitchen items, this is ridiculous. And you have to keep in mind that I gave away a few carloads of stuff before I moved!

So what is the problem with having too much stuff besides the cost of buying it in the first place and then moving it around the country? As Annie Leonard so effectively describes in her Internet film The Story of Stuff and in her book of the same name, our consumption-driven economy is destroying our planet.

That is one of the reasons why I've been spending an average of four hours a day for the past two weeks inventorying everything I have left. I do not want to spend another $2,000 (or more) to move a bunch of stuff I don't really want or need to Oregon. And, the way I see it, I have a lot of things that other people need far more than I do. Yes, I'm trying to sell some of the more expensive items as I spent a lot of money to acquire them. But ultimately I am willing to give away over half of my current possessions.

One challenge I'm facing in the reduction process is that I don't know what kind of job I will get after we move to Portland. Thus I can't get rid of all of my formal business attire or all of my more casual clothes. And just because the first job I get may require one type of wardrobe, there are no guarantees that something wouldn't change so that I would need the other. I certainly don't want to over-reduce and then have to go out to buy more stuff! But I simply don't need the quantity of clothing (and other things) I currently have so it's time to purge.

This is all part of a much larger goal to live by the philosophy “less is more.” I don't like the idea that by buying all of that stuff over the years, I contributed to environmental damage, social injustice, health hazards and more. There are many ways, large and small, to change our lives in order to save the planet (see Appendix 2 of The Story of Stuff book for some tips). As Ms. Leonard states, “Each time we visibly choose quality of life over quantity of Stuff... we demonstrate the possibility of another way.”

This purging of my closets and my grandmother's garage is just the beginning. As I have mentioned before, one of the many reasons Greg & I are moving to Portland is because it is one of the most environmentally friendly places to live in the U.S. I'm confident that by choosing a city that embraces the “green” lifestyle, it will be that much easier to minimize my overall ecological footprint. I hope everyone reading this will consider taking their own steps toward more conscious consumption “that can improve humanity's well-being and the state of the planet.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Roulette Whisperer

Tunica, Mississippi was never at the top of my “must see” list. But when I placed fourth in The Tennessean vacation photo contest last year, and won a trip to the third-largest gaming region in the United States, I suddenly had an excuse to check it out.
my winning photo from the Vatican Museum in Rome, Italy
Originally I thought I would go with my husband, Greg, who is not a frequent gambler but enjoys playing Blackjack if given the right opportunity. I prefer Texas Hold'em when it comes to card games. But since my best friend, Amy, and I were planning a short girls-only getaway before I move to Portland, OR, we decided to take advantage of this almost-free trip for our little “escape from reality” the week before Christmas.
Amy enjoys a Coalminer's Stout at Blackhorse Brewery in Clarksville, TN
It's about 243 miles from Clarksville to Tunica and a pretty easy drive on I-40W. However there's not much to see along the way, so we spent the four and a half hours in Amy's minivan catching up on the past few months of our lives. I have written about my friendship and adventures with Amy before, so I will not rehash our life story here. Suffice it to say that I have known Amy since we were four years old and she knows me better than anyone on Earth!

My photo contest winnings included a two-night stay at Sam's Town Hotel and Casino, two vouchers for any meal at the Great Buffet, and a $200 voucher for dinner at Twain's Steakhouse. After we checked into our large double room, we set off to explore the property. One of the first things we did was sign up for Boyd Gaming's loyalty program, called B Connected. In return we each received $5 credit towards slot machine play. Since we had some time to kill before dinner, we decided to try our luck at the penny slots. This turned out to be a comical endeavor as it has been years since I've spent any time in a casino (with the exception of a brief visit to Sky City in Auckland, New Zealand in 2010) and Amy had only been to a casino once about 14 years ago!
entrance to Sam's Town
I chose a machine I liked based on such important criteria as appeal of graphics, option to gamble as low as one cent per game and the distance from the nearest smoker (most casinos allow smoking throughout the premises). I decided to try one spin and then planned to move on to the next machine. But we quickly discovered that you can't cash out promo points so I was stuck with playing the full $5 credit on that machine. It also took us forever to figure out how you win. There were no clear instructions on the machine so we thought three of a kind on the same line (my machine had five symbols per line) in any order should result in a credit, but it is actually the first three symbols that count!

Stuck with Lion Dance (my machine) and Stinkin' Rich (Amy's machine), we settled in for the long haul. A waitress brought us free drinks (gin & tonic for me; Jack & Coke for Amy) and we took our time getting familiar with our machines and all the options for betting on multiple lines and for placing larger bets. It took us about an hour to gamble our $5 credits and I ultimately cashed out with $2.57 winnings and Amy won $1.88.
my penny slot winnings
Since we would have plenty of opportunities to gamble over the next 24+ hours, I wanted to brush up on my table game skills. As it was still fairly early and not too busy, we were able to stand & observe the play at the roulette table. The dealers & players were very friendly and didn't hesitate to offer instruction on how to play. With the help of the free brochures I picked up near the casino entrance, I soon understood how to place a bet and to calculate what the payout should be on a winning bet.
Sam's Town cheat sheets
Soon enough it was time for dinner. We went to Twain's Steakhouse and asked the manager if we could split the $200 voucher over two meals as it was originally written to only be valid towards one meal and any unused amount would be forfeited. With much persistence, she finally got someone to agree to split it into two $100 vouchers so we could eat dinner there both nights.

The regular menu at Twain's is quite pricey, with the average appetizer costing $15 and the average entree $40. But they have a great early (5-7pm) or late (9-10pm) dining special which includes your choice of a soup or salad, one of six entrees and one of three desserts for only $25. The restaurant was pretty empty at 6:30, so Amy & I chatted with our server, letting her know we were not in a hurry and would like to enjoy a leisurely dinner.

We ordered some drinks to start and were given a complimentary amuse bouche (a crab concoction served on a spoon) and a nice basket of bread to dip in olive oil & balsamic vinegar. Our first course was a generous Caesar salad, which was followed by a 6 oz tenderloin served with a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and snow peas. I always order my steak rare but Amy ordered her steak (in honor of her husband, Eric) medium rare to medium. However both of our steaks came out very rare and, Eric would be happy to note, Amy still ate hers that way. We were already stuffed but could not pass up the dessert course, for which we both chose the chocolate pecan pie. Then, at the end of the meal, we were served two chocolate-covered strawberries! It was 9:30 by the time we left the restaurant with a total bill of $102 (so all we owed was $2 plus the tip). So, if the food only cost $50, how did we spend the rest of the money??? Over the course of the meal I drank two Gray Goose vodka martinis (straight up with olives) while Amy had one mixed drink and a Baileys with coffee; then we ordered two Sprite/vodka/cranberry juice cocktails to go!

There was no way we could go straight to bed after eating all that food so we returned to the casino. Amazingly, the same people from before were STILL playing roulette so we observed for another 30 minutes then I finally got up the nerve to play. I exchanged $5 cash for 50-cent chips and proceed to play for over two hours without losing. I typically bet only the $2 minimum per game but did well enough that one of the dealers started calling me the “Roulette Whisperer!” It was after 1am when I finally gambled my last chips.

We slept in the next day then ate an early lunch in the Great Buffet. We opted not to use our vouchers as the buffet was half price ($4.94 per person) with the Thursday B Connected Gal Pals promo. I spent some time checking email while Amy skyped with Eric. Not wanting to spend the entire day in the casino, we decided to drive into downtown Tunica.
Mississippi farmland
Of course, if you have ever been to Tunica then you know that there is absolutely nothing to do there besides gamble! Surrounded by miles and miles of farmland (primarily soy beans & cotton), downtown Tunica consists of a small square and a few businesses. It didn't take us long to survey the area so we also drove to the TunicaRiverpark where you can visit the Mississippi River Museum, ride the Tunica Queen riverboat, or walk along the EcoTrail. But since it was the off-season everything was closed and it was too cold to be outside for very long.
an explanatory sign at Tunica Riverpark
We were back at the casino by 2:30pm so we decided to use our new $5 credit (from another B Connected promo) to play the penny slots again. After about an hour I cashed out with $2.57 (an intentional effort to match my winnings from yesterday) while Amy won $5.50. Wanting to relax and enjoy some quiet time, Amy returned to our room to read while I sat in on the $10 hands-on Blackjack table (which turned out to be very intimidating), then moved on to the $5 table, which was much more enjoyable. Note that I was not playing, only observing, so I could decide if I would be comfortable playing later on. I certainly did not expect a friendly couple at the $5 table to give me $10 of their chips so I could play with them! I managed to hold my own for about 30 minutes before I lost the money but did hit Blackjack once so I walked away with a 50-cent piece (I won 1.5 times the amount of my bet or $12.50, but tipped the odd $2 to the dealer).

I returned to the room around 5:30 to meet Amy for dinner. We looked forward to eating at Twain's again and essentially did a replay of the previous night. We started with another (different) crab amuse bouche, followed by chef salads. I ordered the pork chop which was served with mashed sweet potatoes and more snow peas, while Amy had the steak & shrimp skewers which were served on a huge plate of rice. This time we didn't manage to eat all of our entrees, but we still ordered dessert (bread pudding). In another homage to her husband, Amy had two Gray Goose martinis (dirty, with olives) while I drank mine straight up. Then we each ordered a Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan beer to go and once again, our bill totaled right at $100.

We returned to the casino where Amy decided she would try her hand at roulette. Initially I watched, then when I was sure she was enjoying herself, bought in as well. Amy started by using $6 of her total slot machine winnings while I gambled $25 (including my $5 total slot winnings). Eventually Amy lost all of the first $6 and bought another $5 in chips. We managed to play for a couple of hours, with Amy eventually cashing out with $15 and me with $45. Not bad for two novice gamblers!

After a good night's sleep we used our remaining vouchers to eat breakfast in the Great Buffet and then hit the road towards home. We did make one special stop in downtown Memphis so I could buy some famous Rendezvous barbecue as a Christmas gift for Greg.
serving up charcoal ribs at Rendvezvous in Memphis, TN
While Amy & I enjoyed our girlfriend getaway, mainly because it provided the opportunity for us to relax and catch up, I cannot particularly recommend Tunica as a vacation destination. Yes, if you live in the Southeast and like to gamble then it is a much more affordable option than Atlantic City or Las Vegas. But with few other activities on offer, most people would quickly get bored. I was just happy that the overall cost of the trip was minimal because of my prize package, not to mention that Amy & I both walked away from the casino with more money than we started with!

I am also very happy to report that as I write this, Amy's husband, Eric, is on his way home from his one-year deployment in Afghanistan. I know Amy & the girls are thrilled to welcome him home! Before the end of this year they will be moving to Germany where Eric will serve his remaining time before retirement. Greg & I are planning to visit them in Clarksville before we move to Portland and hopefully we'll get to see them one more time before they leave for Germany in the fall. Of course, knowing our inclination to travel, we'll also visit them in there!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Norwegian Experience - Part III (Summary Review)

This is my final post about our week-long Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Pearl. It's time to summarize my overall impressions of the ship, itinerary, and Norwegian Cruise Line as a whole.

Food & Beverage
From Day 1, I found the food in all of the no-fee restaurants (Summer Palace, Indigo, Garden Cafe, Blue Lagoon) to be overly salty, sometimes to the point of being inedible. It didn't matter what type or style of food I tried, even the steaks were salty! I was disappointed that virtually no green vegetables were served with the Summer Palace entrees and thus I generally preferred to eat at the buffet where there were more healthy options. However the buffet food was not always very hot so then I worried about safety! I did enjoy the daily regional specialties offered in the main restaurant like gumbo and Jamaican jerk pork chops, and the buffet featured plenty of international dishes (Indian, Chinese, Italian, etc.) as well. The 24-hour Blue Lagoon cafe had a fun (and tasty) menu featuring bar food like hot wings, hamburgers & hot dogs, sandwiches, chips with artichoke dip and more. However, in comparison to the 5-star quality of food on our recent Holland America cruise (which included lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, foie gras, osso buco, gourmet cheeses, and so much more), the food on this ship was 3-star at best.
two thumbs up for hot wings in the Blue Lagoon
The overall dining experience was hit or miss. I like the concept of anytime dining but we learned that if we didn't want to wait for a table for two, we had to be seated before 6pm (you can only make reservations for the specialty restaurants). Some servers were very good – attentive, friendly and professional. Others seemed to be less experienced or enthusiastic about their job. One particular complaint I have is that, in the Summer Palace, cleared food & dirty dishes were left out (in full view of diners) on trays near the waiter stations. On one occasion I felt like I was eating next to a trash bin! Also, when dining at the buffet restaurants, we would put our cloth napkins on our seats when we went to get more food or drink but often the table would be completely cleared when we came back, so we learned that only one of us should go and the other should stay at the table.
Blue Lagoon menu
The specialty restaurants cost $10-25 per person. When you're already paying at least $80 per person per day to be on the ship, it's hard to justify that extra expense. You also have to pay for espresso, cappuccino and other coffee drinks, even in the main dining room (these are included with dinner on HAL). Alcohol prices were reasonable but still more than we wanted to pay. Only prices for wines were listed so you have to ask how much for anything else. There was a margarita special ($4.95) every day from 5-9pm but it was only offered in one bar. The drink of the day, available in all bars, was priced from $7.95 and up. Draft beers cost $5+ or you could get a bucket of six bottles for $25. There is a $15 corkage fee if you bring your own wine onboard (anything else will be confiscated until the end of the cruise).
a quiet afternoon at the Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar
The Pearl offered many options for entertainment in multiple venues throughout the day (movies, live music, etc.). Show times in the Stardust Theater were typically at 7:30 & 9:30pm. I appreciated the diversity of talented entertainment – on our cruise the guest performers included a comedian (Sam Fedele), a Frank Valli & the Four Seasons tribute group (Oh What A Night), Second City improv, and a circus-style act (Sharkbait). In addition, the ship's staff performers did two shows, one of which was a fun Broadway revue.
photography wasn't allowed for the main theater performances, except for the crew talent show
On Board Activities
It was hard to run out of things to do on such a large ship! For sports fans, there were NFL & college football games available on the in-room TV's and on the giant screen in the atrium, where you could also play Wii games at designated times. If you wanted to work up a sweat, the gym had all the basic equipment or you could sign up for yoga, spinning and more (usually for an extra charge). There were also daily sports competitions on the outdoor sports court or you could bowl a few frames (for a fee). For a more relaxing experience, the spa offered the usual fee-based services or you could swim or hang out in one of the hot tubs. If you wanted to have fun without sweating, you could attend the towel animal or napkin folding classes, learn how to juggle, do arts & crafts projects, and more.
napkin folding class in the atrium
There were also lots of gaming options for those interested in trying their luck in one way or another. The casino offered all the usual table games and plenty of slot machines as well as poker and other tournaments. There were daily Bingo games in the Spinnaker Lounge. And, for the more socially-inclined, there were couples game shows, karaoke competitions, and more.
bowling, anyone?
If you like to shop there were also plenty of choices. From clothing to souvenirs and jewelry to fine art, you could spend hours browsing the selection in the onboard shops & galleries. My biggest complaint in the activity category (which I also mentioned in yesterday's post) is that if you did NOT want to do anything other than read & relax, there were virtually no quiet spaces other than your stateroom. And since when do cruise lines charge a fee ($55 per person) for a ship tour?!?!
Q&A with ship's officers in Spinnaker Lounge
Ports of Call
Although I covered our port activities in detail in yesterday's post, I did want to mention that I thought this was a well-balanced itinerary for a Caribbean cruise. There were not too many days at sea (only two out of seven) and we visited a nice variety of destinations which offered diverse shore excursions and other activities. The port calls were long enough (average eight hours) to have time to get off the ship and explore, and we docked at piers which offered easy access to the key sights either on foot or via public transportation (which is nice for independent travelers or for those on a tight budget).
walking from the International Pier to downtown San Miguel, Cozumel
Dress Code
One of the perks of cruising with Norwegian is that there are no formal nights so you can wear whatever you want 99% of the time. For those people that do enjoy dressing up, you are always welcome to do so and there were one or two designated nights for portraits and other formal activities. Even in the Summer Palace, which has a posted dress code of smart casual attire (collared shirts, long pants and closed-toe shoes for men), the hostess always said Greg was fine in a t-shirt, convertible travel pants & Tevas.
a photo of a professional photo of us taken in the Summer Palace restaurant
While the dining staff in the more casual restaurants typically personified “happy, happy, washy, washy” (referring to them spraying our hands with sanitizer before we could enter the restaurant), we did not always encounter cheerful, smiling crew members. Initially our cabin attendant did not greet us and he never introduced himself by name; as the week passed he was more likely to smile & say hi. There were some minor oversights in our stateroom – we had to ask for the shower gel dispenser to be refilled and our towels were changed even if we left them hanging (a placard in the bathroom says to conserve water and to put towels on the floor if you want them changed). In other areas of the ship, the crew were generally friendly and helpful but no one ever went out of their way to make sure we were having a great experience.
crew farewell on Day 7
The Norwegian Experience Overall
In conclusion, there are a few reasons I didn't LOVE this cruise. First, my standards have been set pretty high by both Celebrity (Alaska – August, 2008) and Holland America (Transatlantic – November, 2011). In addition, I have cruised on smaller luxury ships like Windstar's Wind Spirit (Mediterranean – September, 2002) and Uniworld's River Duchess (Danube – December, 2003) which offer a much more intimate experience. I actually don't mind the bigger ships and appreciate the diversity of activities, food and more. But I have been spoiled by the 5-star amenities & experiences on my previous cruises and Norwegian is closer to a 3.5 to 4-star line.
this gives you an idea of some of the activities & entertainment offered during our cruise
This cruise had the most diverse guests of any I've been on so far. Many nationalities were represented although the large majority of passengers were American or Canadian. There were infants to seniors but I would guess the average age was about 40. As a result, there was much more of a party atmosphere and most people seemed to be drinking all day long. Of course, the crew encouraged this, with lots of dance music blasting throughout the ship and late night bar specials & parties starting at 10:30pm or later.
guests of all varieties by the Tahitian Pool
If I evaluate this cruise purely from the perspective of someone going on a week-long vacation, I'm sure I would have had a different experience. As it was, Greg & I were both tired from three months of traveling and neither of us were 100% healthy due to a stomach virus. While we were willing to spend the money for the cruise itself, we did not want to pay a premium for alcohol, specialty restaurants and extra-charge activities or shore excursions since we had already spent thousands of dollars on the first part of our honeymoon. Plus we weren't in the mood to stay up late to dance & party with everyone else. All of these things are a key part of the Caribbean cruise experience for most people and since we did not participate it is probably not fair to judge Norwegian in that respect.
they're teasing us!
As a whole I did enjoy the cruise but in the future I will probably book one of the top-rated lines even though they do cost a little more. I still want to try Royal Caribbean and Princess for the sake of comparison as they are generally rated higher than Norwegian and are considered comparable to Celebrity and Holland America. The luxury lines, like Crystal, Seabourn and Silverseas, are mostly out of my price range plus I'm worried that the affluence of the other guests might be a bit intimidating. But I would love to try one of them if I ever have the opportunity!
the Norwegian Pearl (right) docked next to a Royal Caribbean ship in Cozumel
For anyone that is thinking about cruising for the first time, I recommend that you do some research on Cruise Critic, TripAdvisor and TravelTruth. And don't hesitate to contact your favorite travel agent, particularly one that specializes in cruises. Happy Sailing from someone who was born during the week that the #1 Billboard song was Rock the Boat by Hues Corporation!

The link to my Norwegian Pearl cruise photos is embedded in this post's title.
Windstar's 148-passenger Wind Spirit as seen from Bodrum, Turkey

Uniworld's 134-passenger River Duchess docked in Durnstein, Austria

Celebrity's 1,950-passenger Millenium anchored in Icy Strait Point, Alaska
Holland America Line's 1,404-passenger ms Rotterdam docked in Tangier, Morocco
Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,394-passenger Norwegian Pearl docked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Norwegian Experience - Part II (Ports of Call)

Our seven-night cruise on the Norwegian Pearl departed from the Port of Miami on Sunday, November 27th. We had two complete days at sea and visited a total of four ports of call, which I will describe here. I have already detailed what we did on Day 1 in my last post, published yesterday.
the Norwegian Pearl anchored off Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
Day 2: Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
According to my research, Norwegian was the first cruise line to establish a private island as a port of call for their ships. They purchased Great Stirrup Cay in 1977 and have been developing the island as a cruise destination for the past 30 years. I have been to The Bahamas before (Nassau & Andros Island in December, 2007), so for this cruise I didn't mind that we were missing out on the true Bahamian experience.
ready for a bike/kayak adventure with new friends at Small Hope Bay, Andros Island, Bahamas - December, 2007
Greg was still suffering from a stomach virus so he stayed in bed all day. I took a tender ashore around 11am, happy to feel well enough to enjoy the beautiful weather. The sea was a bit choppy which made for an interesting 15-minute ride to shore. I walked from the main developed area with its shopping huts, inflatable water slide, food pavilion and bars to the far end of the island and back. The sand seemed very clean and not too hot so I walked barefoot, except on the rocky sections. I didn't feel like swimming so after thoroughly exploring I eventually found a lounge chair away from all the action and relaxed for about an hour before returning to the ship.
the beach at Great Stirrup Cay
Norwegian is spending millions of dollars to make even more improvements to the private island experience. One section of the island was filled with construction equipment, although it was hard to discern exactly what they were building. While I was generally impressed with the current offerings – free lounge chairs by the beach, barbecue lunch with plenty of seating at the dining pavilion, live music, and toilets at both ends of the main beach area; I was disappointed that everything else cost extra: floats, snorkel gear, beach umbrellas, etc. You even have to bring your own towel from the ship!
directional signs at Great Stirrup Cay
Day 3: At Sea
Since Greg & I were still recovering from the stomach virus, we were happy to have a day at sea to rest. After breakfast we attended the Cruise Critics Meet & Greet with the ship's management team and enjoyed chatting with our fellow cruisers. Later, just for entertainment value, I went to the hour-long "shopping show" at sea, which made me painfully aware of what is wrong with the world today (greed, emphasis on material things, etc.)!
at the Cruise Critics Meet & Greet
I wanted to spend the afternoon reading but one of the problems I discovered with the Pearl is there are no quiet and comfortable areas to sit. Good candidates, like the Spinnaker Lounge which has beds(!) and lots of plush chairs, often has activities scheduled so there is usually loud music and/or ambient noise from bingo games, etc. The two designated quiet areas are both outside and exposed to the sun & wind so are not good options. The library is generally quiet but very small and has only a few seating options plus there is a TV so it's not exactly a peaceful environment. The Bliss Lounge has lots of cozy seating but is dark and also has gaming machines and a bowling alley so it can be pretty noisy.
Greg pretending to sleep in the Spinnaker Lounge
Since we both chose to skip lunch, we ate an early dinner in the Summer Palace, then went to the 7:30pm theater performance of "Oh What A Night" (a Four Seasons tribute which I thought was excellent). Afterward we were entertained by comedian Sam Fedele in the Spinnaker Lounge before we turned in for the night.

Day 4: Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Ocho Rios was another destination I had visited before, on a day trip during a vacation at Couples Sans Souci in December, 2006. Thus I had already climbed Dunn's River Falls, which is one of the most popular shore excursions in Jamaica. Greg was okay with just walking around town, so we got off the ship just before noon and made our way to the main street.
climbing Dunn's River Falls - December, 2006
One of the unfortunate aspects of port calls is having to deal with the unlicensed tour operators and salespeople that bombard you when you get off the ship. This was especially the case in Ocho Rios where we were approached by "taxi/tour" offers every step for over 30 minutes until we had walked far enough down the main drag away from all the other tourists. Of course then we didn't feel quite as safe and there was nothing to see anyway, so we made our way back to the tourist zone.
Greg near the entrance to Turtle River Park
We discovered a small public park (Turtle River) that was free to enter so we strolled around the quiet walkways for awhile and found some shade to escape the intense sun & heat. The area near the port is filled with shops and bars so, with nothing else to do, we decided to check out a couple of the “malls” and people-watch. And, on a tip from the shopping seminar I attended yesterday, we picked up free bamboo necklaces from Cariloha (a shop specializing in bamboo clothing & accessories).
Greg enjoys a free cup of Blue Mountain coffee while wearing his new Cariloha bamboo necklace
Exhausted from walking in the heat, we eventually made our way to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville where we shared a pitcher of Red Stripe for $20 (including tax & tip) while watching shell necklace & hair braiding vendors ply the beach. Then, as we were walking back to the ship, we spotted a bar offering $2 bottles of Red Stripe so we couldn't resist stopping one more time since our goal was to NOT consume any alcohol on board due to the fairly high cost of drinks (average $5 per beer, $8+ for mixed drinks, $30 per bottle of wine plus 15% service fee automatically added to the bill).
get your shells here!
Day 5: George Town, Grand Cayman
We were very lucky to make our Grand Cayman port call. Their weather had been bad for the past three days and, due to rough seas, no ships had been able to dock. Even on the day we were there all other ships had canceled. And, due to the still unfavorable conditions, we had to "park" on the south side of island and tender in, then transfer to town.
tenders ferry passengers to & from the Norwegian Pearl on the south side of Grand Cayman island
Greg & I had no specific plans but were interested in snorkeling if we could find something for a reasonable price. After tendering in, we talked to a local lady at the information booth and she advised us to book with Captain Marvin's. We had to wait almost an hour for the next scheduled tour, but it was worth it because we paid only $35 per person for the 2.5 hour Stingrays & Reef Snorkel which cost $70 per person if we had booked it as a shore excursion on the ship.
trying to figure out where exactly we are on a Grand Cayman map
After transferring in a mini-bus to the Captain Marvin's booking office near downtown, we rode another few minutes to the dock and boarded our boat, Miss Anna. It was nicely equipped with a toilet & changing area and the snorkel gear, optional life vests and nonalcoholic drinks were included in the cost of the tour. It took about 30 minutes to reach our first stop, the Stingray City Sandbar.
Yay! We're going snorkeling!
Because of the absence of the other cruise ships, there were only a few boats at the sandbar and thus not very many people in the water. Our boat had only 12 other guests along with two “guides” and one photographer. This excursion appealed to me because the stingrays are not captive (they swim freely in the wild) but are guaranteed to show up at the sandbar for some treats. While it was quite intimidating to be standing in the 3-5 foot deep water with these massive creatures (5 foot wingspan!), they are pretty docile and seem to enjoy interacting with humans.
Greg gets a stingray massage
Greg was feeling more adventurous than I so he spent some 1:1 time with one of the female stingrays. First he held her in his arms, then he kissed her on the mouth, then he got a back massage. WOW! All I could handle was some light petting and a quick kiss. :)
this is about as close as I wanted to get
After spending about 30 minutes with the stingrays we got back on the boat and motored about five minutes away to the Coral Gardens snorkeling site. The water was a bit choppy but clear and we could see plenty of fish. If you have snorkeled before, this particular site is not that colorful and just has the typical variety of fish, but it was enjoyable enough for about 30 minutes.
That was the end of our tour so we returned to the dock and boarded another mini-bus for the ride back to the ship. We had already arranged to be dropped off at the Cayman Islands Brewery, which was located about one mile from where our ship was docked. We browsed the small gift shop, chatted with some of the workers and drank FREE 7oz samples of their beers (Caybrew, CayLight, Ironshore Bock, White Tip Lager). By chance the British Governor of the Cayman Islands, Duncan Taylor, was getting a private tour of the brewery at the same time we were there, so we got to meet him, briefly, and took the opportunity for a unique photo.
Greg & Duncan Taylor at Cayman Islands Brewery
Greg was worried that we would be late getting back to the ship if we walked, so we hailed the Cayman Islands version of public transportation – a shared minivan – and paid $2.50 each to cover the short distance to the tendering location. Thus we made it back in plenty of time to catch the last tender and soon the ship was under way for our next destination.

Day 6: Cozumel, Mexico
In stark contrast to the utter lack of tourists on Grand Cayman, when we reached Cozumel the next day we were one of six cruise ships in port! We docked at the International Pier, which is about 1.5 miles from downtown San Miguel. As the weather was nice and not too hot, we decided to walk into town, which at a leisurely pace took over an hour. It was still enjoyable as there is a sidewalk which parallels the waterfront. Plus we were never harassed by taxi or tour operators!
Welcome all cruise ships! ( two other Norwegian ships docked in Cozumel - neither is the Pearl)
Upon reaching downtown we were ready for an adult beverage and I had previously researched where to get the best margaritas. Pancho'sBackyard is at the far end of town but it was worth the extra few blocks walk for the strong, refreshing house margarita. While not exactly cheap, they were totally worth their $5.50 each price tag.
Greg enjoys a fantastic margarita at Pancho's Backyard
As we started to make our way back towards the ship we decided that we would initiate a beer/margarita crawl. We just had to decide where we would stop next! Wanting to avoid the most touristy places (like Margaritaville or Senor Frogs), we wound up at Jeanie's, where a bucket of five beers plus free nachos was only $12.
ready for beer & nachos at Jeanie's
After we left Jeanie's, we stopped at a convenience store where Greg bought a beer “to go” and proceeded to drink it, undisguised, as we walked back along the waterfront. Our final stop was for another round of margaritas at an open air bar/restaurant called Ernesto's. There was a noticeable difference in the lesser quality of these drinks versus the ones at Pancho's and they still cost $6 each although the glasses were larger.
lifting my jumbo margarita at Ernesto's
I had been eying these great “masks” sold by the street vendors all day long. I wasn't really sure what they were for, but I loved the bold colors & designs. When we reached the cluster of shops at the pier, I had to have a closer look. I convinced Greg to get one, too, but unfortunately the one he wanted (Spiderman) was too small. As it was the end of the day, I negotiated with the shop manager and got the mask I wanted for $10 and proceeded to wear it all the way back to the ship (although they did ask me to take it off at the security checkpoint)!
wearing my new mask at the International Pier (our ship is on the right)
Day 7: At Sea
The final day of our cruise was spent at sea, covering the distance back to Miami from Mexico. It was cloudy and very windy which deterred my best efforts to stay outside. There were lots of activities on offer, some free some not. I went to the officer Q&A featuring the ship's captain, chief engineer and hotel manager (interesting); watched the food & beverage demonstration by the pool (pretty lame); watched the International Crew Talent Show (not bad, but had minimal participation from the crew); attended the juggling class offered by Sharkbait (fun); and looked at all of our cruise photos taken by the onboard photographers (but they were $12.95 for each 5x7 so we didn't buy any).
crew performance "Fountains"
We had asked at reception if they would refund our $15 corkage fee (x2) since we had not opened either of the bottles we brought onboard on Day 1. Because it was last day of the cruise, they agreed to remove the corkage fees from our bill AND told us it was okay to drink the wine if we wanted to. So, of course, we opened our bottle of Corsican white wine and enjoyed it for the rest of the evening! The other bottle, a Madeira from the Portuguese island, was brought all the way back to Tennessee where it was consumed by Greg & his parents before Christmas.
I snapped this photo of one of the ship's photographer's shots of us at dinner
We capped off the evening by watching the theater performance “Broadway Showtime: Encore!” and ate a late dinner at the Garden Cafe buffet. I had decided I preferred the buffet over the Summer Palace restaurant because of the wider variety of food on offer and the option to get small portions of different items, including more vegetables, so I could try to find something that wasn't too salty.

That's it for the ports of call. My next post will summarize our overall Norwegian cruise experience.
The link to all of my cruise photos is embedded in this post's title.