Thursday, November 6, 2008

Norwegian Gem Mediterranean Cruise in November: Opal Penthouse Suite (Room #11518) – Entry 4

No, we cannot afford a penthouse suite on a cruise ship, but we somehow ended up with one for this cruise. And, wow, let me tell you: It will be tough to give up the luxury.

The Norwegian Gem only has 10 penthouses on the ship (as well as a few additional penthouses that make up an even more exclusive “private courtyard” on the ship’s top deck). So, Linda and I are one of only 10 couples on the entire ship of 2300 people that are living this large. Now I know how John and Cindy McCain probably live. We have our own butler, which basically means I have someone to go get me cokes, we have our own doorbell (I know that means nothing to non-cruisers), and we even have a cordless phone that works anywhere on the ship. That way, if we need to contact our concierge immediately, we can do so.

Actually, we did try that one out. We were interested in knowing if we could see Mt. Edna volcano one evening, and so the concierge called the Bridge for us to find out visibility. She called us right back to apologize that visibility would be poor for the viewing. She apologized for the weather! Oh, what power to have both a concierge that will call the Bridge for you.

The room itself is ridiculously huge. When I booked the trip, we were going to have a standard balcony room, which is about 180 square feet. That’s a nice room for a cruise ship, but the penthouse is 3 times the size. It has 2 bathrooms, a full-size tub(!) with a picture window overlooking the ocean, a seperatre six-head shower (plus rain-head) that overlooks the ocean, a flat-screen tv (plus 3 other tv’s), a kid’s bedroom (that we’re just using as a walk-in closet for our luggage and dirty clothes), a living/dining room space as big as most balcony cabins, an up-scale coffee and cappuccino maker – and on and on and on.

Basically, the room is so nice that we toyed with the idea of staying in the room the entire vacation. Who cares about visiting Europe? This room is too good to leave, and with a butler bringing in meals, you’d never have to.

Why did we get the penthouse? These rooms generally run $2800-3500 (or higher) per person, but two days before sailing, I received a call from Norwegian, and they asked me if I wanted to upgrade for a very small fee. Apparently they called everyone with a balcony room, but I was the one to say “yes” first. Lucky us.

Besides the room itself, the upgrades – from towels to soaps to a real king-sized bed – are all first-rate. As I noted above, the only rooms more exclusive than ours are the Courtyard rooms, and we even have an invitation to attend a private courtyard party. So, we’ll get to visit and use a part of the ship that maybe only 30 people out of 2300 have any access to.

We’ve been on nine cruises; for our first six we had interior cabins. These were fine rooms, and our cruise experience was always pleasant. Interior cabins are certainly the most economical way to go, and for as little as cruises charge for interior cabins these days, you really do feel like you’re getting a steal. The down side to an interior cabin, of course, is that there’s basically a bed and that’s it. If you’re claustrophobic in any way, then that might not be the cabin for you, and it also can hurt a marriage to have a spouse under foot all the time. One possible plus, though, depending on how you look at it, is that having an interior cabin gets you out and about on the ship more. When you have a balcony of your own, that’s one less reason to leave the cabin. And then, when you find yourself with a penthouse balcony, the rest of the ship is more or less easy to ignore entirely.

Why is it so difficult to ever see a rich person? Because they live behind walls of luxury. Why would they ever want to leave?

Norwegian Gem Mediterranean Cruise in November: Malta (Escape to Mdina) – Entry 3

Tuesday -- Malta

“Get up extra early in the morning and watch the ship come into the harbor. It will change your life.”

Well, maybe we’re jaded, but it wasn’t a life changing experience. The approach to Valletta, Malta is pretty enough, but neither Linda nor I found it to be spectacular.

Valletta is a very “earthy” looking city, and if brown is your favorite color, then you’ll probably love it. It’s a walled-city, though, and that’s pretty cool. Neither of us has been to Israel, but Malta triggered that thought in our imagination. Is this what the Holy Land looks like?

The main thing to do in Valletta is to walk up the main pedestrian street and visit St. Johns Co-Cathedral, and like any good tourists, we did that. St. Johns is certainly worth a visit, but no matter how lovely a Cathedral is, there’s only so much time you want to spend there. So, we looked around for a few minutes and left. Shopping isn’t my thing, either, so wading through the mass of people on the main street wasn’t my idea of fun.

What we continue to notice, however, is how much smaller the typical Mediterranean person is. I found myself easily looking over the crowd, as though I were a giant among men (which I am, of course, but usually not so literally).

Earlier in the morning, we took the public bus over to Mdina. That was the best part of the day, and had we known it, we would have stayed in Mdina longer and skipped Valletta all-together. Interestingly, all buses on Malta start at the Fountain outside of Valletta’s city gate. So for 3 Euros (about $4), we traveled from the ship to the Fountain to Mdina, roundtrip. By way of comparison, the comparable cruise-sponsored excursion to Mdina cost $95 per person. So, you do the math. Yes, the cruise excursion let you taste wine, but that’s a lot of wine to make up the difference in cost.

Mdina, someone said in a cruise review, is a good place to kill 75 minutes. Wrong. This is a place worth visiting for as much time as you have on your cruise stop. And unlike Valletta, Mdina is relatively empty of tourists. Only a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta, this is a very quiet place, and if you want to see a church, they have one there, too: St. Pauls.

Norwegian Gem Mediterranean Cruise in November: Naples (the City of Dog Shit) – Entry 2

Wednesday -- Pompeii (Naples)

All the information I read before the trip stated that Naples would be a gritty, trashy-looking place. And that was spot on. Naples looked very ghetto in a lot of ways. All of the apartment building were run-down and old, and the trash was everywhere. This is also a city where people apparently love their dogs, but have no concept of picking up their shit. It was all over the sidewalks. All over the place.

We seemed to be two of the only people from the ship that decided to walk from the port to the train station, and thank God for cruiser Tom Ogg. It was only because of his step-by-step directions (with pictures) that we were able to easily find the place. (Tom Ogg has posted a plethora of information to the Internet – just google his name and your cruise port destination, and you’ll probably find something very useful).

On the way to the train station, the sidewalk stopped. Actually, it was closed for construction, and this forced us to walk right out on the main highway. Luckily, the traffic was so bad that we were walking faster than the cars, but then the cars would speed passed us from time-to-time, and we had no shoulder to walk on. Instead, we were pushed up against a fence, simply hoping that no cars would edge over too close in our direction. And then of course there were all the mopeds and motorcycles that cut in and out of traffic. We finally managed to cross the street and find an open sidewalk, but it was a bit hairy for a while.

Looking down the side streets was like looking into an Italian labyrinth. We felt pretty safe sticking to the main artery, all things considered, but just going off a block or two in any direction might be enough for us to be forever lost. Sometimes someone would stick their head out of an alley door and just stare. It made you wonder what was on their mind.

The train station reminded me a little bit of the Chicago’s, but maybe that’s because I don’t use public transportation that often…

Our mission today was to go to Pompeii. The cruise-sponsored tour would have cost us $95 per person, but train tickets were only 9 Euros round trip for both of us, and the entry fee was 11 Euros per person. In other words, we saved about $150 doing it on our own. The train ride itself only took 30 minutes, and the station was literally right outside the main gate to Pompeii.

If you’ve never been to Pompeii, you’ll have a difficult time imagining just how big it really is. We had thought about visiting Capri in the morning and Pompeii in the afternoon, but in the end, we stuck to just tackling Pompeii, and that was a very smart decision. All told, we ended up staying there 5 or 6 hours, and we didn’t even see probably 1/5 of it. We caught the major highlights, though, and we saw much more than our fellow cruisers that used the cruise-sponsored trip. The main coliseum in Pompeii, for example, is in the far back corner of the property, and I’m sure no group tours went all the way back to see it. Pity, too, because it was amazing.

I generally hate doing the same things that all the tourists do, but I went in to this cruise knowing that we’d be doing touristy things. So far, though, it hasn’t been a bad thing. Pompeii is a must-see. Just give yourself plenty of time, bring plenty of water, and don’t forget to use the bathroom before you enter!

Norwegain Gem Mediterranean Cruise in November: Rome or Vatican City? -- Entry 1

(I thought I'd blog daily, but I was having too much fun. I'll start catching up entries now, but I won't add any pictures until after we get home... The cruise ship Internet service is pretty good, but it's still 40 cents a minute.)

Thursday -- Vatican City

This is our ninth cruise (and our third with Norwegian), and I have to admit that I had some concerns about cruising the Mediterranean in November. After all, November is the “off-season,” and we assumed it would be rainy and cold. Actually, however, the temperatures have been in the 70s, and it’s been so warm and humid that I now couldn’t imagine cruising the Mediterranean in the summer. The off-season has the additional advantage of not being nearly so crowded. Trust me on this: if you come in November, you’ll still be sharing the experience with a lot of tourists everywhere you go – so just imagine how many thousands more would be in your way at “peak times.”

Ports are about choices. There’s always too much to do, and never enough time to even scratch the surface of seeing it all. Today, for example, we planned to take the train into Rome and spend 4 hours running around the major sights. At breakfast, though, we realized that it might be easier to go to Vatican City and get more accomplished. The major “sights” of the Vatican are closer together after all… Of course what we failed to realize is how big the Vatican museum really is. It’s so huge that if you looked at every item it contains for just ten seconds each, it would take something like 12 years to see everything.

Please, if you ever go on the Mediterranean cruise, avoid the ship-sponsored cruise excursions. Here’s why. The port city is an hour away from Rome by train and cost just 9 euros per person round trip. The walk to the train station is only 4 blocks from the port, and then when you get to the St. Peter’s station, it’s maybe just another 4 blocks to St. Peter’s Square. So, you can get there for 18 euros ($27). The cruise ship will take you to Rome via bus for a minimum of $119 per person, and that’s just to drop you off. If you want to do anything more on your excursion, prices go up to over $400 per person. If that’s not bad enough, it takes longer to get to Rome via bus than by train.

The train ride itself is an interesting experience. The seats are built for people under 5’ 8”, and every seat is full. The ride there smelled like sitting in a kitty litter box for an hour, but hey, it’s cheap. Everyone in Italy apparently knows just enough English, too, to communicate with Americans. Some of the signs around the country are written in English as well, so finding your way around is pretty straight-forward.

Lines at St. Peter’s Square are LONG. On a typical day 60,000 people may be visiting the Square and Sistine Chapel and the Church. The day we were there was pretty light – maybe just 40,000 people. To avoid the lines, we did something we don’t normally do – we joined a group tour. That turned out to be a really good decision in this case, though. It cost us 40 euros per person, but our tour started and 11 and when straight through to 3:30. Jim, our tour guide from Michigan, conveyed information for 4 ½ straight hours. He only took a 15 minute break when we visited the Sistine Chapel – and that’s because people are supposed to be completely silent when visiting there.

Amusingly, it’s not completely silent in the Sistine Chapel. Employees walk around yelling “Silence!” and they do their best to stop people from talking, and taking pictures. Both are losing battles. Apparently people aren’t allowed to take pictures in the Chapel because the Japanese company that paid $180 million for the restoration owns the copyright. So it becomes a game. People try to see how much they can get away with, and stern-looking Italians try to stop them.

All told, we spend almost 6 hours at Vatican City, and it was an incredible experience. Some people attempt to visit both Rome and Vatican City in a single day. How they do that, I don’t know. If you try to see it all, you’ll end up seeing nothing. And like I noted above, even 6 hours in Vatican City isn’t nearly enough time. It’s a place that deserves weeks, if not months.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day 2008

As a reminder:

Voter turnout is expected to heavy across the nation. Therefore, election officials have decided to extend voting through tomorrow.

Democrats are asked to vote today, and Republicans are requested to vote tomorrow.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Head Over Heels -- Literal Lyrics Version

Don't you just hate music videos that have nothing in common with the song lyrics?

Me, too. Thankfully, Ted Turner has developed new technology to match the lyrics to the video. Check it out.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Math Humor

Have you ever noticed how funny math people are?

Someone: pick me up off the floor!