Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Day 19: It’s a wrap!


Sorry about the delay: We’ve spent so much time actually DOING stuff over the last five days I haven’t had time to transcribe.

The cruise ended … finally. 12 days may be a mite too long at sea for me.

A cruise is like a restaurant sampler – you get to taste a lot but not really dive in anywhere. You’ve gotta return for a full meal. So here are The Trip Lists (always thinking graphics, y’know), and the odds of return visits:

FIVE BUMMERS

5) Lining up in Passport Control at London’s Stansted Airport
: Apparently, a flight from Pakistan had arrived just before ours, and the Brits are big into racial profiling these days. A line of 100 or so took an hour and a half to move through five agents. Interminable. Almost made us miss our three-hour bus ride to London’s Gatwick airport. (Yesterday’s travel time: 10 hours in all – and we haven’t taken off for the States yet!) But Stansted’s the only way to fly cheapo Ryanair from Venice to London. Odds of a return visit: 1,000-1

4) Surviving Ryanair: You get what you pay for with the airline that makes Southwest look like the Ritz Carlton. We flew London to Dublin, Dublin to Rome and Venice to London for a total of $375 combined. But oh, we paid – with bus and taxi rides to obscure exurban airports badly served by rail, hours standing on queue, snarling gate agents. Odds of a return visit: 35-1

3) Squeezing into Hotel Campiello, Venice: Great location two blocks from St. Mark’s Square, and a decent 150-Euro-a-night price. But the room was smaller than our ship’s cabin – we couldn’t even scooch past each other unless one or the other stepped into the WC. And the hotel staff was kind but not very helpful. Again, you get what you pay for. Odds of a return visit: 2,000-1

2) Dreaming of Florence: The trip’s big disappointment was a shipboard mechanical snafu that delayed our arrival in Livorno and canceled our much-hashed-over plans for a jaunt through Tuscany up to Florence for some serious museum-hopping. The Better Half’s proposed solution: A week or so in a Tuscan villa at some future date. Who’s up for joining us? Odds of a visit: 3-5

1) Living medium-large on The Golden Princess: Great itinerary, good service, surprisingly OK (if bland) food options. Getting the bigger handicapped room was an unexpected boon (tho the cabin was a bit beaten up, presumably by previous wheelchair drivers). But the much-ballyhooed wireless Internet service was spotty, pricey and slooooow. The food got old, the entertainment was crass, the TV stunk, the “add-ons” (drinks, up-charges for two fancier restaurants) added up, and the lack of newspapers at ports was an abomination (and a weird endorsement of our getting out of the paper biz). Ultimately, felt like we paid Bellagio prices to stay at Treasure Island. Odds of a return visit: 20-1

FIVE STUNNERS:

5) Rug haggling in Kusadasi, Turkey
: The carpet didn’t fly, but the offers did. Got to go into what The Better Half calls “used-car-salesman mode” with an incredibly gracious but resolute sales dude named Esat in an ancient, fortress-like “caravanserie.” (Back in the day, when caravans came to town, the camels crashed downstairs and the people up.) Ultimately knocked 30 percent off his opening bid for a 3x5 rug that the kitties will be clawing in just a few days. Ebay, schmee-bay – this was the real deal. Odds of a return visit: 100-1.

4) Pizza hunting in Naples: Our vacas usually revolve around food, which made this one an anomaly: Standard-issue breakfasts and dinners on the boat, with only lunches in our exotic ports. Had low expectations for Naples, but the crosstown perambulations proved deliciously worthwhile. We landed in a second-floor pizzeria where no one spoke English, the help crowded onto the tiny balcony to puff away (bitter about the town’s new anti-smoking ordinances) and the proscuitto, mozzarella e funghi pie was a heavenly mess. Odds of a return visit: 25-1

3) Character collecting at the Golden Princess craps table: There’s no better place to make new acquaintances, especially if the bones are rolling right. (Sorry to have missed the “How to Fold Napkins” workshop. I’m sure that was a social whirl, too. And no, I’m not making that up.) Met cheery New Jersey newlyweds Mike and Nancy there – spent several pleasant dinners and a coupla days in Athens and Venice with them. Also spent some quality felt time with Al, the Doge of Dice. Told me he started playing craps in the streets of the Bronx at age 12 or 13, but didn’t really “develop an appreciation of the game” until a decade or so ago – in his 70s. My kinda octagenarian. Thanks to a killer final-night roll by the Doge, The Better Half actually ended the cruise with a positive casino balance sheet. (Yours truly did not. Leave it at that.) Add in her sterling performance at the Casino de Monte Carlo, and I won’t be living this down for years. Odds of a return visit to a craps table? That’s a dead-bolt lock.

2) Gondola cruising in Venice: Forget the puffed-up cruise-ship captains. The folks that REALLY earn their epaulets are the guys who pilot these babies under wee bridges and through the Grand Canal alike with just a long pole. Our cap’n, Antonio, wasn’t a chatterer, but that was just right for our dusky ride through the silent streams. In this town, it’s pretty much impossible to take a bad photo – and almost as tough to avoid gawky clichés in trying to describe its wonder. Vegas may have the Venetian, but it’ll never match this. Odds of a return visit: 7-1.

1) Donkey dodging in Santorini: Touted as the “greatest place in the world” by a pal back in Dallas, this Greek isle lived up to the billing. Whitewashed stone dwellings perch atop the rocky cliffs like glaciers in the Alps, interrupted only by church domes painted sky blue and the piles left by donkeys that tote tourists up the rocks. Had our best meal of the trip with our neighbor pals Dave & B. This is the kinda place you could turn the brain off and settle down for a week or two. Which we’ll do next time. Odds of a return visit: 2-1

Oh, and there’s this: Spent most of the trip going back and forth looong distance with National Public Radio, where I start work on Nov. 13. I’ll be “supervising senior editor” (essentially managing editor) of NPR’s national news magazine Day to Day, which airs from noon to 1 p.m. in most of the country, but not Dallas. (Feel free to contact KERA and urge ‘em to pick it up!)

So sometime in the next coupla months, we’ll be moving to Los Angeles, where The Better Half aims to write that novel we all have in us.

Guess I buried the lede.

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