Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year (Year of the Horse) from icy Chattanooga!

Friday, Jan 31 is the first day of Chinese New Year, the Year of the Horse. According to the Chinese New Year lesson in, a website for ESL teachers, "people born in the year of the horse are active, energetic, and like to roam."

My husband and I were not born in the year of the horse. But we like to roam and explore. Frequently we ventured into uncharted territories. You may have read those stories in this blog. One such adventure was in Beaufort (pronounced Bow-fert), N. Carolina. It was 2004, the year we cruised from Jacksonville, Florida to Baltimore, Maryland, and we had gotten to Beaufort in late May. There's a protected anchorage overlooking Cape Lookout, where the iconic lighthouse with the diamond-shape design stands. Raves about Cape Lookout from magazines and cruising friends had piqued our interest, so out the Beaufort Inlet we went, arriving at our anchorage just in time for the sunset. Alas, the weather failed to cooperate. The seas got rough, rocking and rolling Mai Thai through the night. Weather forecast of 20 knot winds and waves of 5-6 feet had us running back to the mainland early the next morning.

The seas were much more manageable after we entered the Beaufort Inlet. To the right was Shackleford Banks, apparently a local hangout. Many boats were plying in and out of there this Saturday. We decided to join in the fun. We sounded our way cautiously around the shoals (lots of them here!) to find a good spot to drop the anchor. The next several days found us admiring gorgeous sunsets, watching wild horses roam the dunes and beaches. We dinghied around and found some beautiful conch shells. What a wonderful gift to commemorate our anniversary! Sometimes, the best plan is having no plans.
Mai Thai (far left) anchored at Shackleford Banks, a local hangout
Horses roaming Shackleford Banks, N. Carolina one early morning
Shoals and sunrise at Shackleford Banks
Fast forward to 2014. I've been teaching ESOL (English for Students of Other Languages) to adults at the Chattanooga State Community College for the last three years. I always do a lesson on Chinese traditions and culture around Chinese New Year. I also like to do a reading on a famous Asian American. As serendipity would have it, I chose Yo-Yo Ma (馬友友), not knowing his last name Ma is the Chinese character for horse. The Chinese character for Yo is friend. Anyway, I've heard of the name, but knew little about the famed cellist. Until now.

I love the piece of music (by Dvorak) that Yo-Yo Ma and Itzak Perlman were playing.

So yesterday, while my class was enjoying the video, a colleague came in and reported that the college will be closing at noon due to the snowstorm. Many businesses were also closing around this time. Traffic was horrible, taking some people two hours or more to get to their destinations when it normally only takes them half an hour. I don't know how long it took me 'cos I stopped at a few places. I got off I-24 at Lookout Mountain and took local 41, which winds around the mountain. A Porsche 911 that was behind me took the turn to Ruby Falls up on Lookout Mountain. I couldn't help wondering how that drive was... I will never forget the time I skidded and slid uncontrollably down a tiny hill in my Mercedes 190 in Boston one snowy day.

This morning, we awoke to temperatures in the teens (or lower?) with ice on the river.
Scenery outside the boat - ice on the river
Thank you Canada for blasting us with more artic air!
If you have to be out, please drive safely. Stay warm, and have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Panama Canal Cruise on the Norwegian Star, a review

We recently completed a cruise from Miami, Florida to Los Angeles, California via the Panama Canal on the Norwegian Star. This was our fifth cruise, but the first on the Norwegian Cruise Line. The Norwegian Cruise Line specializes in freestyle cruising, giving guests the freedom to choose when and where to dine. The dress code is entirely up to you, so if you don't feel like dressing up for a formal  night, it is perfectly all right not to. You may have to share a table, which is not so bad as that's your chance to meet some interesting fellow guests. Of the dozen ships in the Norwegian fleet, only 2 carry over 4,000 guests (Breakaway and Epic). Most are half the size with around 2,000 guests. The Norwegian Star, built in 2001 and refurbished in 2010, carries 2,346 guests with a crew of 1,060. It has 17 dining options, 10 bars and lounges, 2 swimming pools, kid's pool, 6 hot tubs, spa and salon and a fitness center.

The Cruise and Ports-of-call
Except for two days of rough seas - in the Caribbean Sea past Cuba, and in the Pacific Ocean en route from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to Los Angeles, we had twelve days of calm seas and blissfully warm weather. The Norwegian Star called on six ports: Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; and four cities in Mexico - Puerto Chiapas, Hualtuco, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas. Panama looked like a nice modern city from the distance, and we wished the Norwegian Star had stopped there.
Inside the Walled city of Cartagena, Colombia
View of Cartagena, Colombia
Norwegian Star docked at Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Norwegian Star at Puerto Chiapas, Mexico
Norwegian Star at Hualtuco, Mexico
the view from the cruise terminal at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
tender to port at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Compared to other ships, the Norwegian Star is smaller; that might explain why there weren't as many activities offered. Often times, the events were packed. We were surprised to find a less crowded gym and hot tub/pool (on the Carnival Glory, no matter what time we showed up, these 2 areas were always super busy). Cabins on the Norwegian Star are bigger and nicer than those on the Carnival Glory. We absolutely love the compact yet efficient bathroom. We found some of the crew's English to be rather rudimentary, but otherwise, the crew and service were fine. One evening, we returned to our stateroom to find the toilet not flushing, and the problem was ship wide. Thankfully, they fixed it several hours later.

If there was one thing we remember about our previous cruises, it was the outstanding food. Sadly, the food on the Norwegian Star was a disappointment. Our first dinner experience was an overmarinated steak that was so soft it was mushy. We tried it again the next evening, and this time the steak was so tough you could barely cut it with a knife. We didn't dare to order steak again. Until the last two evenings of the cruise when the restaurants (Versailles and Aqua were complimentary, others had a fee attached) were serving surf and turf. Only then did we get a piece of meat with texture that tasted like the real thing (perhaps the guests' comments helped?) and both steak and lobster were delicious, much to our surprise and delight. During this time, the galley had run out of lettuce, and they improvised with a special seafood salad, and it too was very good. Had the galley done this at the beginning of the cruise, we'd have a fonder memory of the Norwegian Star.
Seafood salad
Surf and Turf
We were even more dissatisfied with the Market Cafe (the buffet area). Everyday, we saw the same fruits - pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon, with a rotation of apples, bananas, pears, and oranges. Strawberries? Blueberries? Kiwi? Forget about it. There was not a tropical fruit in sight. Come to think of it, we never saw an avocado either. Here we were in Central America where papayas, mangoes, coconuts, guavas abound. We got our doses of these fruits while out on port excusions, and they were so inexpensive! So, not only it was boring to have the same fruits for 14 days, it was also shocking to see green bananas (with not even a yellowish tint, I swear) in the fruit section. Did they not know how to ripen the bananas?
fruit vendor in Cartagena
Did I mention the lunch menu at the restaurants was the same everyday? After trying different items on the menu, we found a couple of things we like, and ordered them every time we ate there: Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches and panna cotta. At the Market Cafe, there's a section dedicated to Asian and Indian food and again, this was a staple on the buffet everyday. The executive chef is Indian and almost half the crew is from Asia; might that be the reason? We thought the chef was pretty daring, serving Chinese food with spices like fermented black bean sauce, something we don't even serve to our American  friends (except to a few adventurous souls). We liked the Asian food, but found the dishes rather greasy and overly saucy.
our favorite dessert - panna Cotta
What the Norwegian Star lacked in the food department, she made up for it in the entertainment department. Every evening, the Stardust Theater was packed solid. If you were so much as a minute late, you had a difficult time finding a seat. The in-house singers and dancers were ok, but performances by Broadway singer Jeri Sager, magician Sander and Alison, aerial acrobatic duos Maria and Dmitry mesmerized and captivated the audience, bringing down the house. Other exciting shows include a ventriloquist, a hynoptist, a classical and jazz musician, The Jersey Boys, and Second City, an improv type show. The comedians were hilarious and family friendly.

Panama Canal Transit
The highlight of the cruise is of course the Panama Canal, which we crossed on Dec 12. We lucked out on the weather - a gorgeous sunny day. We got up bright and early (around 6 am) and eased our way into a spot on the bow of the ship to watch ships navigate their way into the lock chambers. Transiting the "48-mile triumph of man's ingenuity" was an all day affair. Throughout the day, an "esteemed member of the Panama Canal authority" narrated the history, construction and the workings of the canal over the PA system. No matter where we were on the ship, we could listen to the latest update of the crossing. The Norwegian Star cleared the last lock around 4 pm and reached Balboa on the Pacific Ocean side an hour later. That evening, a certificate for the crossing of the Panama Canal awaited us in our stateroom. It was a nice touch.

Two weeks on a cruise was a tad much even for seasoned boaters like us. Seven days is probably the  right dose for getting away from it all and doing absolutely nothing. All in all, we had a wonderful cruise spending quality time with loved ones, meeting interesting people and visiting new ports.

What's your favorite cruise line and ports-of-call?

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