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0 Comments | Aug 13, 2015

But I’m not a cruise person…

Author’s Note: In May, I had the opportunity to go on one of our Taste of Life sailings.  I wrote the essay below 4 days after I returned.  It’s been so busy, I haven’t had the chance to post it, or even continue processing my experiences.  As a travel agent I often hear this phrase; “we aren’t really cruise people, I’ll get bored”.  I’m not really a cruise person either, heck my last vacation involved jumping off a 30′ cliff and rappelling down multiple waterfalls.  But I also enjoy cruising. As a traveler I like the ease, the reduction of research and planning, and the sense of having a home base.  I’ve noticed that 7 day cruises are very popular among the “I’m not a cruiser” group because they rarely include much time at sea, but they allow you to spend concentrated time in many places without wasting all your vacation time in airports, train stations and negotiating with taxi drivers while trying to find your hotel, but they can be exhausting none-the-less.  CL

Recently I went on our Taste of Life cruise led by David Fink of Fink Family Estate Vineyard and the Mirabel Group of hotels and restaurants. This seven day cruise began in the port city for Rome and ended in Barcelona. Packed into seven days was Portofino, two days in Livorno (Bolgheri wine region, Florence) and the islands of Sardinia, Menorca and Mallorca. I arrived one day early in Rome and I extended my time after the cruise in Barcelona for two nights.

Excluding the receptions and dinners on the ship, here’s what I accomplished in those 10-days:

    • After a delightful caffe freddo, we visited the Cripta Capuccini, walked to the Spanish Steps, had lunch with a former boxer turned restaurant owner, saw the “under restoration” Trevi Fountain (no coin tossing, please!), took in the Coliseum, got a blister walking up Palentine Hill to explore the ruins and for views of the Forum, revived with gelato (menthe cioccolato), walked to the Vatican and then back up Via Veneto to our hotel where the rooftop views were fantastic but the food was disappointing.
Please don't throw coins in the fountain

Please don’t throw coins in the fountain

    • On the way to Silver Spirit in Civitavecchia we stopped at the Etrusian Necropolis and museum, which was fascinating and beautiful. I’d scoffed at the idea of a 3-D presentation, but am totally willing to eat my words, it truly brought the space to life. Unfortunately, due to traffic, and a slightly confused driver, our time visiting with Michael Mastrocola’s Italian family was much too short, though it still included an over the top lunch (in Italy, it turns out you can have two courses of gnocchi as long as the sauces are different colors). The cooking class was inspiring (note to self: red potatoes are the right potatoes for gnocchi and mineral water is the right choice for a lighter breading).
sailing away

Getting back to Portofino was so much faster…

      • In Portofino, I took our more adventurous guests on a 4ish mile hike from Portofino to the Abbey at San Fruttuoso. The tiny San Fruttuoso can only be accessed by foot or by sea, and it is a sight to behold. This was certainly a memorable hike but I can’t say I led the group, as others set a very brisk pace up the hill, along the ridge and back down to sea level.   We hired a water taxi to return us to Portofino where many chose to dine on the waterfront (or return to the ship for a well deserved nap). Did you know in Portofino it is common practice to charge a table fee? If you sit down at a table on the waterfront, expect it on the bill.

Under the big tree where I daydreamed about a hammock.

    • Day 1 of Livorno: A scenic drive from Livorno to the Bolgheri wine region where we explored first the estate of Giado il Tasso, owned by Marchese Piero Antinori. We learnedabout how the soil variations within a single vineyard determined which grapes were planted where, visited the burned forest, and the porcine residents within (used to make their own prosciutto). We toured the cellars and were honored to be joined by the Marchese himself, and sat down to a delicious lunch prepared with seasonal ingredients from the estate (including venison harvested by one of his daughters). The importance of family and tradition is strong today. It is absolutely beautiful listening to Piero Antinori speak (and get choked up) while talking about his family. Drowsy and content, we continued on to Ornellaia, where we sat under a magnificent oak tree, surrounded by grape vines and brilliant red poppies in the warm sunshine with a gentle breeze and the quiet hum of bumblebees and tried to stay awake as we listened to a talk on the soil, the history and the passion that goes into the craft of Italian winemaking. We moved to a more educational venue, visiting the winery, cellar rooms and the Ornellaia tasting room before returning to Livorno and Silver Spirit, most of the guests sound asleep or singing along to the driver’s musical selection, the Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour”. Periodically throughout the day I reflected on the fact that I’m missing a family member’s memorial service. I visualize Uncle Bill as I always do, in a white woven hat and pink shirt and bring him with me. We’d had a conversation about this trip shortly before he passed away and I know he’d approve of my use of the day.
    • If you get lost while you wander, walk to the highest point so you can figure out where you want to be...

      If you get lost while you wander, walk to the highest point so you can figure out where you want to be…

    • Day 2 of Livorno: Florence. The pressure is on as we are only here from 10am until 4pm, and missing the return bus would be a Very Bad Thing. It would be difficult to completely retrace my steps or estimate the sheer quantity of walking I did. I can tell you that for the last two hours I fanaticized about a foot bath. I shall always remember this as the morning I jogged through Florence, as my companion walks even faster than I do. We head from San Croce to Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, passing a military parade, the Mercato Nuovo, and countless charming squares before we reach our destination, the oldest pharmacy in Florence (also a museum, tea room and all-round amazing place worth far more than the 10 minutes of attention I gave it). Purchases in hand and pressed for time, we then headed to the Academia Gallery, where my companion and I parted ways, she into the gallery and me to explore on my own. The nearby Doumo was easy to spot and I wandered almost aimlessly until I crossed the Arno following music in the air and wandering down streets that became alleys until I somehow arrived at Palazzo Pitti, home of the Boboli Gardens. Aiming for the highest point in the landscape, I happened upon Fort Belvedere, and its sweeping views and sculptures of pixilated and legoed human forms. Here the staff wear shirts that simply say HUMAN. It’s a great place for un caffe, but if you take the wrong staircase you end up suddenly having exited the fortress and winding down a cobbled street to the Bardini Gardens, with it’s Wisteria tunnel, weathered sculptures, Baroque staircase and additional views. Here the timer I set for myself to begin winding my way back to Piazzo St. Croce goes off and I return via Ponte Vecchio (I have no idea what the appeal of this bridge is, unless it’s the delight of being able to overspend in the middle of a river, it’s a bizarre version of Haight-Ashbury. I wander past the Uffizi Gallery, countless street vendors, and arrive at the Piazzo with plenty of time to explore the Museum of Saint Croce. Our guide had indicated that it had nice artwork. Ah, subtly. Yes, the artwork was quite nice, being by Donatello, Gaddi and Rossellino among others. As you wander the hall without a guidebook, you see names; familiar names like Dante and Michelangelo; on the walls and circle around moon faced realizing that you are surrounded by buried greatness. The walls are lined with funerary monuments to ordinary people like Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. The statue of Ugo Foscolo is more handsome than his paintings. A monument to Florence Nightengale stands in the cloister. I must dryly call it nice, but it’s f-ing amazing.
    • sardinia

      So many charming alleys to explore

    • Let’s transition quite suddenly from art and culture to the natural world. Today I go diving with my new friend Marcos, who has beautiful eyes. It appears there is no escape from7mm wetsuits and boots for me, but we don’t have to wear gloves. We take a small boat out around the cove to a spot across from a rock formation known as the Sleeping Giant. Sardinia diving is known for it’s caves and tunnels, neither of which I am qualified to explore.   The water is much warmer than I’m used to in Monterey Bay, I find myself tugging at my hood trying to cool off while Marcos, being from Florida, is cold. The spot we are diving at is a rock garden, strewn with boulders and odd shaped rocks, many of which remind me of fuzzy donuts. There are small fish and vast amounts of red, purple and green algae and short, squat coral. We are swimming along a wall when out of my peripheral vision I see an opaque black cloud creeping towards me, it’s hard to interpret at first, it doesn’t look like fish eggs, the texture is wrong. As my eyes continue to focus I realize there is a good sized octopus hiding on the wall, and I’ve inadvertently been inked, which is awesome. Seriously. We see one other octopus and head into the mouth of a cave where we discover via flashlight that the algae and coral glow, and I wonder if night diving may actually be a worthy experience. After 46 minutes we head back to the surface, and the picturesque resort where we began. Upon return to the old city we wander through the alleyways, scuba hair and all. It’s quite hot today, and I wish I was still in the water.
    • Kayaking with the Silver Spirit Acupuncturist

    • Kayak shops look the same across the globe. They smell the same too. We partner up in tandem sit-on-top kayaks. They are more maneuverable than some, and quite difficult to capsize. When you realize how clear and blue the water is, you understand why this is actually disappointing. I’m partnered with our Silversea Excursion Staff, in this case, it’s the Acupuncturist. The Acupuncturist and I have  some things in common. As we paddle through little caves and ocean-hewn rock pillars we discover that we both have a love of climbing, though he stopped climbing when he decided to pursue acupuncture (climbing calluses and sensitivity are polar opposites). But if you’ve ever loved climbing, you understand the tingle that settles not in your fingertips, but surprisingly your palms. It’s a desire to hold and touch and feel connected to the ancient world.   We paddle through caves, and see more of the algae I explored so closely yesterday. In a rock pillar we find the fossilized remains of a small goat-like creature that inhabited the islands until 40,000 years ago. We stop at beaches rocky and sandy, water seaweedy and clear, and it is altogether beautiful.   Upon our return to the ship I set out to explore the fairly vertical town of Mahon (Mao in Spanish) during siesta. I’m again with my speed walking companion, though even her pace has slowed in light of the heat. Under the direct sun, the draw towards the shade and cool hidden corners, the interior is strong. The concept of Siesta has never seems so necessary. Appealing, desirable and luxurious certainly, but a want, not a need. Today it is a need, like water or air. Still we walk. The edge of town is dotted with tattoo parlors and we find a cannabis shop, no surprise that siesta is honored by this shopkeep. We find a square with an underground supermarcato. We spend the bulk of an hour exploring the goods. Canned fish and octopus is very popular as are frozen seafood. A huge lobster sits frozen staring sightless at masses of squid and shrimp. Nothing is bagged, it’s all interconnected and basically irresistible.
    • After a short tour and time for shopping in Palma we head toward Son Brull, a Relais & Chateaux estate that was once a monastery, for a huge lunch with local wines. On the way we stop in Port Pollenca, a charming seaside town. We have a few minutes to explore the yacht harbor and the beach. Everyone agrees that they’d like to return and rent a vacation home along the water front. It’s a popular thing to do. The water is warmer here, and very refreshing. Son Brull is a short drive from Port Pollenca, and the gold hills, vineyards and olive trees make me a wee bit homesick for Carmel Valley, CA.  The menu is beautiful and local and foreign and pushes ideas of home out of my head. It is a standout among a week of memorable meals.  We are graced by the presence of the owner and her father, who was inspired by the run down monastery to create a place of elegance, warmth and rich in sense of place and time.

From the roof of La Padrera we received our first view of Sagrada Familia

  • Oh how I love Barcelona. After dropping our bags at our hotel we head to La Padrera, just up the street. Entrance fees are steep, but worth it. The line for the elevator isn’t worth the wait, so we take the stairs up to the attic, and I remember how I hate humidity. The rooftop is impressive, but the attic, is the true stand-out featuring models of many of Gaudi’s works and timelines of when they were created, providing a background knowledge that is helpful for the next few days. We spend hours here and end with cappuccino. We are no longer in Italy so we can’t be harshly judged for our late morning foible. We return to the hotel to discover two things, one very good and one very bad. We have a balcony with a killer view of Passeig de Garcia and La Padrera and due to a security breach my debit card is no longer working and I’ve given all but 10 euros of my money to the cab driver. It should be noted that banks in Spain close for the day at 2:30pm. So if you don’t have the pin for your credit card, you are poor until the banks reopen at 8:30 the following day. The following few hours are a misery of arguing with my bank. The day picks up though…this evening we are scheduled for a traveling tapas tour via motorcycle and sidecar with BrightSide and our guide Joao. It’s perfect, a combination sightseeing and dining extravaganza, I’m not certain I’ll ever be hungry again. We stop at 3 places for food and drinks and a cava toast on Montjuic. Everywhere we go we receive looks.  Not the oh…tourists look, the I’m so jealous look. We cruise along different sections of the city meeting up with other likeminded travelers, and discover that Germans really do get more friendly (and funnier) as they drink. Our night concludes after midnight with a walk back to the hotel. Around us, the city is alive, the cafes open and lively, but we are tired.
  • barcelona view

    The hotel needs some work but the view was perfect!

  • Day 2: Barcelona, we begin with another sidecar tour, this one around the city. First stop is Sagrada Familia. I don’t hate it exactly. It’s just tooeverything.  I find it impossible to take it all in and instead must pick out details to focus on, which may have been Gaudi’s point. God and religion are pretty much too everything, yes? But overall, I’m not sad when we leave. We head to Park Guell which reminds me of the reuse art found at the Albany Bulb near Berkeley, CA. Piotr, our guide recommends we read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell if we really want to understand the times around the Spanish Civil War, which still hangs like a shroud over the city. It would be easy to miss I suppose, but it is there all the same. The way people dance on the streets when Madrid loses a football match to ANY team, the Catalonian flags, tattered and hanging from handrails, the sense of lively defiance. It’s all there beneath the charm of the Gaudi houses and the smoky sidewalk cafes. Piotr recommends a restaurant called Bar Bas for lunch, which has excellent housemade vermouth and the food is heavy in a way that demands we take a siesta. We follow our rest by visiting Casa Batlló, where I could spend hours, touching the wood, the walls, the stained glass. I confess that my first night back in California I dreamt I was in this house, wandering through it, running my hands along the contours and feeling overwhelmingly in harmony with my surroundings. I woke up, still in the dream, realizing I was stroking my husband’s arm and shoulder.

Four days later I haven’t had the time to really process any of my experiences and how they will change me as a person. Certainly I can give better recommendations on things to do in all the cities I visited, but that’s not really the point. Travel opens us to the possibilities of the world. It brings us a full range of emotions and understanding and opportunities for personal growth. But with a trip so many concentrated experiences, the time to process and ponder and grow is limited. A sea day or two to just sleep in and process and maybe enjoy a Kimlet (basil gimlet with a splash of champagne!) by the pool would have been perfect. So to those of you who are not cruisers, just remember, we all need time to process our lives and grow and learn, and that should be an important part of any vacation, especially for those of us who work long hours daily and find our lives filled with the processes of living, caring for families, homes, pets and careers.  And as a “I’m not really a cruise person” person, I can tell you it’s okay to have a couple days at sea.  Down time is all to overlooked in today’s hyperactive world where we need to plan our time to relax. It’s okay to not be a cruise person, really it is, I won’t tell anyone you enjoy a nice easy cruise vacation….promise.

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