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Reflections on the Trip

June 07, 2015 07:18

I have already somewhat explained my impressions of flying First Class. This was mostly in contrast to the last time I flew economy. I always flew economy, but the last flight experience was sufficiently uncomfortable to make me consider cross-country driving as an acceptable alternative from that point on. It wasn't just the several hour wait in a hot and extremely crowded airport. It wasn't the seats that were an inch and a half narrower than the ones from the previous flights on that trip. Not the fact that we were assigned the last row on a 737, with an underseat storage area that was smaller than advertised and therefore wouldn't properly fit my briefcase. It wasn't the baby across the aisle that DID NOT STOP WAILING for the entire 2 hours of the flight. It wasn't really even the fact that I realized that from the time we left the hotel to the time I drove into my driveway, we could have driven the whole way faster than flying ultimately took, and even with gas prices as high as they were, and as much of a gas guzzler my truck was, and despite the Q coded class pricing of our three tickets, it would have still come out a couple hundred dollars cheaper.

What ultimately unnerved me is realizing that the experience was ultimately what I always had to look forward to. More importantly, in leading up to this long trip, I was not looking at 2 two hour flights with annoying layovers, but 3 five hour flights with either very long or very short layovers, and absolutely no reasonable options to sleep during that time (although I probably could have managed it anyway... maybe). No matter what, I wasn't looking forward to it, and it was certain to make me moody as a storm cloud for a significant part of our trip, and we would almost certainly waste at least the first day trying to catch up on rest. Oh, I wasn't looking forward to that AT ALL.

The First Class experience changed all of that. It took every aspect of air travel that was barely tolerable and changed them into experiences that were as positive and memorable as all the rest of our trip was. I still wouldn't pay full price for it... probably, but I can certainly see myself preferring to do anything it takes to earn the necessary miles to book premium cabin seats to avoid ever touching economy again.

It took us very little time to adapt to this higher class of living. We found ourselves comparing the quality of the product on the two different American Jets we flew on this trip (MD80 vs 737). Seats were more comfortable but narrower on the MD80. The crew on the first flight was somewhat less stuffy than the last one. We were one of the last people on the first flight, but I was the first one on the last one. Also, I had intentionally booked the return flight expecting IFE systems in each seat instead of only a few mounted on the ceiling to be shared. I had no such expectations on the first flight, but I didn't have the options either.

Feet on the ground in Paris, and one of the first things I noticed is that there are security forces EVERYWHERE, starting with the group of them that yelled at me for having the nerve to take a picture of the plane I just walked off of. Soldiers were patrolling everywhere and maybe it's a city thing or a population density thing, but I was always hearing and seeing police vehicles running full code. And they do NOT want their pictures taken.

Paris (London too) is very cramped. Personal space is just not a thing, it seems. Getting on and off the Metro and busses is chatoic and seems to have no real organization whatsoever. I didn't have too much trouble, as huge as I am. The Red Sea WILL part for me if I want it to badly enough, but there's no doubt that a certain aggressive attitude is required to successfully navigate the crowds.

And don't get me started on the traffic. Lanes, signals, signs, and sidewalks appear to be little more than suggestions. Compound that with the fact that there are a lot more motorcycles, bicycles, and busses than typical on American streets, and nobody seems to watch where they're going and will change lanes without signaling or even looking. Offensive driving is clearly the norm. Parking also seems to be an issue. Smart cars and other small battery operated vehicles are commonplace there, and it's a good thing, because nothing larger will fit in the parking spaces. And once each side of the road is completely filled with cars, they start parking on the sidewalks. I GUESS this is allowed and/or tolerated, although it seems somewhat rediculous, but I guess there's really no other options. There don't seem to be any parking garages around. There is no way I would ever try driving there.

I also noticed that there is a lot going on under the streets. I wasn't exactly looking to fill up my camera with pictures of the ground, so I don't think I have any pictures, but I recall everywhere we walked, the sidewalks were covered with numerous manhole and other utility access ports for at least telecommunications, and likely a lot of other things. I suppose all the electrical lines and such were underground as I don't recall much in the way of overhead wiring. Of course, there are several layers of city under the city when you consider the metro and the catacombs and who knows what else is down there.

Hotel security was more pronounced. In the United States, frequently the outer doors will be locked after a cerain hour (accessible only to those with a room card, otherwise requiring paging an employee at the desk to unlock the door). But although I'm not certain about the main door being secured as such, the elevator was. We had to insert our card to select our floor, and then we were ONLY allowed to select our floor (or the lobby). I didn't check the stairwells to see if we could access other floors that way, but I'm guessing not.

Pickpocketing was a constant concern. We weren't a victim of it, but there was one close call. We both noticed the guy going after Gertie's purse and turned to face him head on (while she turned her purse away from him so it wasn't in reach. It seemed at that moment he noticed that we were not only together but that I was about 3x his size, and he turned on a dime and walked off without bothering us. There were several other individuals I spotted targeting us, and all of them took off after I made eye contact with them. I was worried about pickpocketing before going there. After the fact, I am far less worried about it, but constant vigilance is NECESSARY to prevent it, and while I was successful in that regard, it's exhausting to constantly be looking around instead of enjoying the experience. Still, no regrets. :)

Paris has an odor in the air. An atmosphere if you will. I can't really describe what it was exactly, something like a combination of bread and smog. It wasn't really unpleasant, but definitely noticable.

Everybody was dressed as if we were in the middle of an arctic storm. I dressed accordingly the first couple of days before I realized that they were bundled up for winter in weather that I would have to seriously consider wearing shorts in. I was definitely sweating to death while in the metro and buildings and found myself carrying my coat around more often than I was wearing it. Sweating as much as I was also caused issues to my camera as it seemed to get some moisture in it and the quality of the pictures degraded slightly as a result throughout the trip. Not a huge deal, but still annoying.


New York City and Going Home

May 29, 2015 23:59

The last day of the vacation has arrived. We awaken about 5am, shower, get dressed, and finish up the packing. Looking out the window, we can see lights as we approach land. We work our way up to the top deck and pretty much the entire population of the ship is up there to witness the arrival. We pass under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge with about 11 ft to spare (by design) and take a slow jaunt around the bay, escorted by numerous news helicopters, fire barges, and other smaller boats. We do a full turn around so both sides of the ship are able to view the Statue of Liberty, and then slowly make our way toward the Cape Liberty Cruise port in New Jersey. After taking a sufficient quantity of pictures, we head inside to hit the Windjammer for breakfast before it gets too crowded, as we need to be ready to depart by 7:30am.

Once we're done eating, we head back to our room, gather up our luggage, make one final check of the room to be sure we got everything, and then make our way up to deck 5 and get in the longest, nastiest, line that ever existed while we attempt to find the proper place to gather for our shore excursion (Manhattan Highlights). There are multiple busses for all of us, and we're separated into two groups: Those of us with flights leaving from Newark airport, and the rest of us who have flights out of either LGA or JFK airports. We were in the latter group. We're given nametags to idenfity which group we belong in so we can once again gather after getting through immigration.

When they finally open the doors, the whole crowd just sorta moves toward it and we make our way off the ship, down an enclosed ramp, and into a very large cruise terminal, dragging our luggage with us. The line is very long but at least it's moving, and we wind our way past a football stadium sized staging area where everyone's luggage is being gathered (for those who are leaving the ship in groups later). Eventually we reach a point where the line is split between US citizens and everyone else. Things progress pretty quickly after this and we walk at a normal pace until we're once again in a small line waiting to get throgh customs, but there's only 4 or 5 people in front of us at this point, and within a couple minutes, we're chatting with the immigration officer who doesn't seem too concerned about us and after checking our passports for a few seconds each, gives us our stamps and hands them back and welcomes us home.

We then venture out of the terminal and up to an area we were told to wait to board the busses. We manage to get there fairly early, but we now have to wait about 30-40 minutes for everyone else to make it out. Finally we're assigned a bus number and we get the larger bags loaded underneath and carry our smaller ones onboard with us. Finally we're seated and ready to go.

We spend the next several hours on a bus tour of Manhattan and the surrounding neighborhoods. We stop twice. Once for a bathroom break, and once to go see the WTC memorial. After several hours of driving around, we get dropped off at the airport. We have a pretty late flight, since we didn't know how much time we would need during the day at the time we booked it, so we don't get in a huge hurry at this point. We just check our luggage, get through security, and get something to eat for lunch.

We didn't have lounge access for this leg of our trip, so we had to sit at the gate, but it wasn't a big deal and cleared out shortly after we arrived. However, at this point, I started really getting sick. I popped several advil and felt better for the time being, but it was probably a good thing we were getting on home.

As with all of our flights on this adventure, the final flight home was also First class, and for the first time in my life, I was the first passenger to board the plane. At least I found it exciting anyway. :)

The First Class cabin filled up first, nothing shocking there. However, the seat across the aisle from me was missing its cushion. We heard the gate attendants muttering about it earlier before we boarded, and were concerned at first that there was something wrong with our seats, but after hearing it was on the other side of the aircraft, I lost interest. Now I saw what the problem was, and turns out someone had spilled something on the seat on the earlier flight, and they were working on replacing the seat cushion. No big deal, but that passenger wasn't able to board until after they got it fixed, and as all of the economy passengers boarded, I was cracking jokes to them about that seat being the "discount first class seat." I was amused anyway.

The flight took off on time. It was announced that the movie playing for us was Guardians of the Galaxy. I was hopeful when I booked the flight and picked this specific aircraft that each seat would have its own IFE system instead of having a shared screen for every 2 rows. The screen was a bit far away and difficult to make out, so not really the experience I was hoping for. Dinner, however, was really good, and for dessert we were offered tiramisu, which is about the last thing I was expecting, but was absolutely awesome. Definitely the best $5 I ever spent. :)

When we begin to descend, however, my sickness started to annoy me again. The change of air pressure caused my ears to hurt, but due to the congestion, I wasn't able to pop them, so I spent the whole landing procedure in quite a bit of pain, and mostly deaf. I was pretty glad to get off the plane once it landed.

Finally home in DFW, we waited for our bags to show up. Well, two of them showed up immediately, but the third was missing. After waiting until all the checked baggage had arrived and the belt had shut down, we started pestering the attendant. After a couple rounds she made some calls and tracked the bag to another gate at the same airport. Turns out, one of our bags caught an earlier flight, so I had to run down about 10 gates to another claim area to find it. Our car was waiting for us when we got out and our driver took us back to my mom's house, where we reunited with my mom and the cats, and after chatting for a bit, decided we were really ready to get home, so we gathered up the cats, loaded all the luggage into our car, and drove home.


Day 8 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 01:51

Not a whole lot happened this day either. We did some more crafts and saw the last variety show that night. We spent a couple hours that evening getting all packed up since we had to get up really early the next day to witness our arrival in NYC.


Day 7 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 01:45

We wandered the ship some more, and then it was Gertie's opportunity to surf on the flowrider. To occupy ourselves that afternoon we participated in some crafts, then later that night saw another variety show that featured a juggling performance.


Day 6 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 01:42

Today was the day for Gertie to ride the ripcord, which involved her waiting for an hour and a half, and I got some more pictures of the boat and ocean while I waited to film the event. After that was done we snuck into one of the unoccupied elite areas and crawled into one of the lounge ... teardrops? to rest for a bit.

That evening was Gertie's second group activity that she was sponsoring, bumper cars. However, I was feeling a bit green, so I just went to bed early and slept until the next morning. I wasn't seasick, but I had some type of infection that got progressively worse over the next several days. Thankfully, it didn't get really bad until after we were back home, but I was clearly coming down with something at this point.


Day 5 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 01:36

The next morning we at breakfast at Silk as they were doing a Dreamworks Character Breakfast. Basically the same meals they always served but with a glorifed menu and characters in costume. Strangely more adults here than children, but there weren't that many kids on the ship to begin with.

After the breakfast, we went to the Seaplex where Gertie tried her hand at some acrobatics. There was a short line and since I was standing around waiting anyway, I got volunteered to take pictures for a few other people as well. We wandered the ship a bit and took more pictures. Then it was time for the pub lunch.

We chose one of the many bars on the ship and had lunch there, as the name suggests. It was one of the group activities that Gertie was responsible for organizing. Sat around and talked, ate bar food and drank some drinks that the bartenders didn't seem capable of figuring out how to charge us for, so at least mine were free.

After that, we attended a hypontist show. Then it was time to get ready for our formal dinner at The Grande, which not only involved getting dressed up but also going in masquerade. We (well, Gertie), had a momentary panic attack when we couldn't find my dress pants. Turned out they had simply slid off the hanger and fell into the bottom of one of the closets, and I rediscovered them by digging a bit, but things got really tense for a while there. Crisis averted!

We then went to our meal and met up with a number of others from our group. I then got served the smallest lobster in history. I could have ordered seconds or something else along with it, I suppose, but I didn't worry about it too much. I wasn't terribly comfortable as it was and didn't feel like overindulging on food at that particular moment.

We had some interesting conversations with the group we were seated with. Afterwards we retired to the room.


Day 4 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 01:22

A couple of days prior to this point, one of the passengers developed a serious heart condition. The ship has a medical center on board, basically the equivalent of an Urgent Care, so they can handle minor medical issues, but more serious things require offboarding the patient to a land based hospital. Not a huge problem... except we're in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As it turns out, the most accessible option to get the patient to a hospital was to stop by the Azores. So dawn on the 4th day had us approching Ponta Delgada. We didn't dock at the island but stopped about a mile offshore and a smaller boat docked with us and ferried the patient to shore. The whole process took a few hours.

A plus side of being stationary for that long is this was the first opporunity for them to open the North Star, and since nobody on board had yet had the opportunity to ride it, there was a rather long line waiting for it. At least we had some nice scenery while we waited. After a couple hours our turn came up and we boarded the ride, and it lifted us about 300ft above the top of the ship and we got a nice view of the ship and surrounding area. By this time we were leaving the area.

After getting off the North Star, it was time for the flash mob marriage proposal. Keep in mind this was rather well organized as flash mobs go. The only person who wasn't fully aware of what was going on was the girl getting proposed to. I volunteered my laptop to play a background video and in the process got talked into being DJ for the event. Lots of fun.

That evening we ate dinner at Chic, then watched the musical Momma Mia. We hit the dance hall again for a while, and then headed back to the room to sleep.


Day 3 of Cruising

May 27, 2015 00:52

The weather was still pretty rough this day, so most of the activities weren't available. Gertie had an appointment to get her nails done, so I took the opportunity to wander the ship a bit. Later she had a rehersal for the flash mob but the rocking made that difficult as well. We ended up just lounging around for the day. Later that night we ate dinner at Chops Grill, met the captian there, and after that went to our first show to watch Earl Turner. We visited the dance hall for a bit after that, and then returned to our room to sleep.


Day 2 of Cruising

April 28, 2015 10:03

We woke up the next morning and the bed was moving back and forth. Well, actually the floor, room and entire ship was rocking back and forth as well. Once we hit the open seas, it got pretty rough. We were on deck 3 and the waves were high enough that they occasionally submerged our window. It wasn't too bad down on deck 3 where our room was, but up on deck 14 where we went to eat breakfast at the Windjammer, we were pretty much walking on walls. First one wall, then a few seconds later, the other. After eating breakfast, we continued exploring the ship a bit. All of the pools were closed, as were most of the other activities. They also canceled all of the shows as the rocking of the ship made performing them unsafe.

Still, there were other things to do. The Cruise Critic meeting in the Music Hall still went on as planned and after getting some swag, we went on the cabin crawl to view the various cabins on the ship.

At some point, we returned to our stateroom. Viewing the current weather conditions, we discovered that the ship was being subjected to 60+ mph winds, with gusts over 80mph. Well... at least that explains the rocking. We also got a letter from the cruise director which apoligized for the unsatisfactory boarding process the day before. Worked well for us personally, but for others it took many hours to get boarded. As a result, they were giving us a $300 onboard credit plus vouchers worth 25% of the current cruise toward another cruise that we booked within the next year. So other than the rough seas, we're doing pretty well this trip.

That night, we eat at Silk and since all of the shows we were scheduled for had been canceled, we returned to our stateroom and found a towel critter waiting for us on the bed.


Day 1 Cruising Continued

April 26, 2015 08:02

The stateroom wasn't exactly roomy, but was certainly large enough to move around without having to climb over each other. It included a king sized bed, a sofa, a desk, a bathroom with shower, and lots of closet and dresser space. The suitcases fit nicely under the bed, so once everything was put away, we had a nice little home away from home away from land. Getting ahead of ourselves a bit though, since our luggage hadn't arrived yet (other than what we carried on with us). There were a few minor issues, namely our safe didn't work and the AC either didn't work or wouldn't let us set it (can't remmeber now). We were also having issues with scheduling and despite having made reservations for dinner and the shows each night months in advance, we had to reschedule much of it.

Our window was a square porthole that didn't open (no balcony on this room), with curtains. There was also a nice sized TV set embedded in the wall which we could watch various programs/movies on, as well as interact with our onboard account. We didn't watch much TV on the trip. No time.

We stashed the stuff we had with us and free of encumberances, went about exploring the ship. First we checked out all of the restaurants and took pictures of most of them. Eventually we found our way to Club 270 which was just past the deli we ate at earlier. There we chatted for a while with a few people that we'd met. We took this opportunity to order our drinks packages and get the sticker for our cards to show we had it.

Wandering back in the other direction as it was getting close to time for muster call, we passed one of the bars and met up with some other people we had met the day before. They informed us, much to everyone's delight, that the self-serve beverage dispensers in that particular bar were dispensing free wine. Our new friends had discovered this while exploring the ship themselves and for some reason hadn't continued with their exploration after that and instead decided to taste test all of the available wines. Gertie decided it would be a good idea to help out.

It was finally time to go to muster call and our new companions were disappointed that they were only allowed to bring ONE glass of wine each with them to muster call. We found our muster station without incident and waited around until that gathering activity was concluded, before continuing on with our exploration.

Once we had that taken care of, we continued exploring and found the theater at the other end of the ship. There were numerous shops we passed along the way, but most of them weren't open at this time. We then took the elevator up to the deck levels and explored the solarium, pools, and finally decided to claim a couple of lounge chairs and watch as the ship left port.

After we were on our way, it was time to watch our first live show, named Starwater. It was a live dance rendition set mostly to clips from Vogue and Starfall's theme, combined with acrobatics, and a room and screens that had 6 degrees of movement. It was certainly an interesting display of the capabilities of the technology built into that venue.

After the show, we had dinner reservations at the American Icon Grill. The food wasn't bad, but the service wasn't so hot. We were frequently forgotten about, I never got any refills on my drink, and after dessert we eventually just left because we couldn't see any point in sticking around any longer. Oh well, they still have a few kinks to work out I guess.

We finally headed back to our room where the remainder of our luggage awaited us, so we hauled it all in and unpacked. Once we were finished with that, we were exhausted and went to bed.