About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Opportunities Unbound


Whenever we travel we usually encounter the unpredictable events and occasions that make the process of picking up and going elsewhere -- aka travel -- fun and, well ... unpredictable.

Some can be fairly moderate things, like the quality of a hotel or the timing of something. Sometimes it's more severe such as health. And many's the time when something just isn't going the way you wanted ti to go...and these are the times to cut bait and move on.

The Casino at Monaco
As I have been posting for the last few weeks, my wife and I took a long overdue voyage to Italy, which ended up with side trips -- entirely planned -- to France and Croatia.

I've documented elsewhere the mishaps which occurred, of which there were, thankfully, very few. As I sit here writing, occasionally looking out the window at the France countryside from the top level seats in a TGV train, I can't help but think back to the last couple of days and how they reflect the need, even with the most careful planning, to be flexible in order to make the maximum out of the experience.
Crowds in the Cafe de Paris

I am probably going to incur the wrath of jetsetting international socialites and the ultra wealthy, but one such change we made was because we found, *gasp*, ourselves bored by Monte Carlo. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things we would have liked to explore and enjoy, but having gotten ourselves to the spectacular seaside enclave of Monaco, we made our way to the Place de Casino, walked around for a while being frustrated by the mass of tourists -- dumped by a massive Carnival Cruise ship docked...wedged...into the harbor -- who were milling mindlessly about and around the square, before we were able to enter into the Casino itself (a visit I'd imagined for much of my life). 
The Cruise Crew

Inside the famous Casino de Monte Carlo, which is quite beautiful, we discovered the main room of the casino )we do not gamble nearly enough to merit an invite to the inner sanctum) was underwhelming. Perhaps it is a response to being intimately familiar with the excess of Las Vegas, but the Casino was distinctly subdued. No massive football-sized game room, the largest room in the building held only a handful of subdued roulette and card tables, which, in my opinion, were not nearly energetic enough to be considered "fun". The slot machines, contained in another room to the rear of this one were themselves subdued, giving the entire affair a tired, almost bored atmosphere. The dealers and croupiers themselves looked bored or self-absorbed, often engaging in conversation with each other rather than entertaining the paying guests. Perhaps it is different at night when the wealthy come out to play.

A street in Old Nice
Which would YOU prefer?
I sat in a for a few rounds of roulette, using monies won from the slot machines, essentially making my entire play on the house. (Pun intended.) A half hour later, and casino's money being successfully retrieved by the roulette wheel, we decided enough was enough and once again braved the square along with hundreds if not thousands of Carnival Magic cruise-ship passengers. 

(Yes, I get the irony. I have taken a number of cruises in my time, including this trip. There is something to be said for such a vacation. But if a shipload of passengers from a Carnival Cruise ship invaded the shining streets of Beverly Hills there would be Hell to pay, I'm sure.) (My point, and I do have one, is that the visitors should be sized to the port. The presence of a massive cruise liner in Monte Carlo did genuinely impact the resort's atmosphere. That a ship of its size blocked some of the spectacular view, no question. The Magic not only dominated the harbor, it overwhelmed it. Then, the presence of such a large number of casually dressed passengers also created a cheapening effect on the town square. I am not being a snob, since I could never afford the luxuries of the city for myself, but did have my own long-held James Bondian image of Monaco negatively effected by the throngs -- there is a huge gap between the expectation of a luxurious and somewhat decadent town square...and a tourist trap with money as its primary attraction.) 

A Square in Vieux Nice
Street in the Old Town
So, after a half hour of being ignored by the waiter in the sidewalk bar, and changing our dinner reservations at the Cafe de Paris from 8 pm to 7, then realizing even at that early hour we'd still have to kill more than an hour, we alerted them that we wished to cancel dinner altogether, and headed back to Nice.

In effect, we found the real Monte Carlo to be boring, and decided the best course of action for ourselves would be to cut bait and make up plans for the rest of the evening as we went along, and by being flexible we kept ourselves open to the options. In this case, we wandered from the door of our hotel into the Vieux Nice area until we found a little cafe run by a husband and wife, serving delicious food and affording a true sense of life on the French Riviera. It was significantly cheaper, certainly more atmospheric, and I would venture to say much tastier than what could have been a frustrating and annoying thing to do simply because it should be done. I have little use for being seen simply because there's a place to be seen.

It's that point of flexibility -- and knowing what you want out of life -- which is essential to making any trip a worthwhile one. Even if most if your plans proceed flawlessly, there's a risk to keeping a schedule with such ironclad efficiency that you miss the other opportunities which may avail themselves-- and that would be a shame indeed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Beautiful Cruise, Beautiful Ship

This is the second of two postings regarding the Wind Surf, upon which we sailed around the Italian boot just a few weeks ago. In future columns I will detail some of the ports of call and other destinations from that trip.

MSY Wind Surf

It's another quiet morning aboard the Wind Surf. The sun is just rising, illuminating the shoreline of the Italian peninsula off to our starboard side. Time for a few more thoughts regarding the ship. We're having a wonderful time sailing down the Adriatic sea, and at this point have spent time in the ports of Venice, Rovinj, Korcula and Dubrovnik.

There are a surprising number of vessels in the area, indicating the heavy traffic through this section of the Mediterranean. The Wind Surf is coasting slowly, almost lazily along as the few passengers wont to get up at this early hour congregate in the Compass Rose deck to drink our coffee and perhaps have a bite of fruit or two. We're each respectful of the morning's silence and speak in low tones when we speak at all. 

Yesterday we left the last of the Croatian ports, Dubrovnik, on our journey around the Italian Boot. Today is the sole wholly sea day of this particular itinerary. Despite the relatively small size of the Surf the ride has been amazingly smooth and comfortable. One of the other passengers is telling a staff member he's been sleeping like a baby. 

The Lounge
As I've noted previously, the staff aboard a Windstar vessel is excellent. Learning passenger names so that a feeling of informal friendliness is just one of many traits I've noticed. They feel free to joke around and share stories with passengers who are open to it, but maintain a sense of respectful diffidence towards those who are more reserved. There is a feeling one gets from the crew that they all genuinely are happy to be here and are willing to help no matter what the request. This is the signature advantage of a smaller cruising vessel. ( I still cannot bring myself to call the Surf a yacht...perhaps it fits with her much smaller sister ships, the Wind Star and the Wind Spirit, but the Surf is too large to comfortably wear the moniker. As I noted in a previous column, mine is the minority opinion.)

The Sandwich and Snack shop
The other restaurants onboard all feature excellent cuisine and flavorful food. I found that my favorite was unquestionably Candles. Kind of a makeshift setup -- during the day the deck is a general seating area, converting into the quite romantic Candles just before nightfall. Our table was to the ship's starboard side, so that we were able to watch the sun go down while silhouetted against the Surf's nighttime running lights. In our case, the hazy Adriatic nightfall made for a truly memorable dinner. The food, wine selection, service and environment were certifiably first class, worthy of a Michelin star were we land bound.

The ship itself is open and airy. At no time did we feel crowded, even at the customarily chaotic muster. On larger ships this exercise can be downright oppressive, while on the Surf it's more a cause for community as the ship's crew runs through the rules and regulations. During the rest of the voyage you could freely walk through entire sections of the ship encountering a few other passengers, but spending virtually no time wading through crowds as

 you went from one chaotic deck to another as you might do on a Carnival, Holland America or MSC vessel. A cause for the cruise line's concern would have to be the casino which, despite the presence of a number of game tables, was virtually empty the entire trip.

Our stateroom, which to our surprise was upgraded by our friends prior to departure, is comparatively huge by shipboard standards. Two bathrooms, each of them larger than you would find on the larger ships, as well as ample room to move around and enjoy the cabin. At one point we peaked in on the standard cabins and found that they, too are large and comfortable with a nice nautical theme to them. As I noted in a previous column, too many ships are trying to resemble Vegas casinos rather than the sailing vessels which are their true heritage. Thankfully Windstar gets that fact and -- hopefully -- doesn't lose sight of this as they take each of their vessels in for a reported refit over the next year.

One of our big concerns before boarding was the quality of entertainment we would find. The size of the ship, and the limited number of passengers, had us wondering if there would be a compromise when it came to the talent. I should note that I am not necessarily a fan of the large, Vegas-style production shows which have overrun most cruise ships. If I want a Vegas vacation, I go to Vegas. I understand this is a minority opinion, but in the spirit of fair comment it's something you must consider when reading my review of this cruise. The Wind Surf does not feature any such shows. Instead we have two groups, one a full band which plays jazz, pop and some softer rock style music, and a duo who play a less energetic and yet still entertaining set -- designed more for dinner hour than for cocktails.

RAIN, the duo, are quite talented, and from what I have seen have accumulated quite a reputation and following among the Surf's return passengers. Unfortunately we never got enough time just to sit and listen to them, but I've noted that Rain gets applause from a number of cruise sites and board postings, so I'm going to give them a nod of approval and move along to the slightly less noted but certainly noteworthy other group, TOP SOCIETY, who are --in my opinion -- certifiably excellent. The vocals and playing are terrific, and they have quite a solid range of material, ensuring that everyone in the audience will hear something they like. Top marks for Top Society.

I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by the ship, her crew, and the overall experience of sailing on a Windstar vessel. Without trying to be an advertisement for them -- and being one nonetheless -- I will state categorically that it is money well spent. Fascinating itinerary -- at least so far -- great people, food and overall experience. Gotta admit it's been a pleasure getting to know them. Halfway through the journey and already I'm regretting the day we disembark.

Maybe a pirate-like mutiny is in order? I may talk to the other passengers and see if there's much support...I'm sure the crew would go along.

Meanwhile, today promises to be a quiet and lazy one. And I can't see a better place to do it than right here on the afterdeck of the Surf. Tomorrow we're in Sicily, but for now I'm going to sit back and admire the view. And save the mutiny for another day. It's just too much work.
Always good advice

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Discovering Windstar

As of this posting, I have just returned from an extended and extensive vacation in Europe. During that voyage -- three weeks, four countries and some 14 destinations -- I had the chance to observe quite a range of travel-related activities and performances of both specific companies, as well as less-defined groups such as cities and towns, and even individuals. This is the first of several columns  reviewing what I found.

A few columns ago I discussed my position that in the word of hospitality and travel services, it's the small things, the seemingly insignificant things, which can make the greatest difference in the experience of a guest. When one discovers a company or service which echoes that idea, I feel it's essential to pass the information along.

The MSY Wind Surf anchored off Rovinj, Croatia
Until now, my wife and I could be described, at best, as "casual" cruisers. Three previous experiences…two aboard Carnival ships, and a single Royal Caribbean...had left us with happy but unenthusiastic reviews. We had a good time, but figured if we wanted a big hotel with shows and a casino we could find better examples in Las Vegas. Windstar has, frankly, utterly changed our minds.

In fact, Windstar has completely changed my assessment of cruising as a whole, and converted me to their way of thinking. Cruising done right, or as the company's advertising line points out, they are "180 Degrees from Ordinary".

The ship's lounge area

As I write this piece, it's sunrise in the Adriatic Sea, a portion of the Mediterranean which divides the eastern coast of the Italian Peninsula and the west coast of Croatia. Just after sunrise.

I'm aboard the MSY Wind Surf, the flagship of the small Windstar fleet of sailing ships which cruise exotic ports throughout the world. Today we're slowly making our way down the Dalmatian Coast, headed for the island and town of Korcula. No one seems to know, precisely, how it is pronounced...core-chew'-la, or kor'-coo-la, or, well, you get the picture...but it promises to be a hot, humid and utterly beautiful day.

It's early, and the vast majority of passengers are still sleeping ir just now rising to start assembling their day. Ahead of the rush, the ship's staff are putting cups and plate on the breakfast tables, assembling and arranging silverware, and generally making things hospitable for the 250 or so passengers who will come seeking their breakfast in about an hour. But at the moment it's just me, the crew, and one or two other passengers who have arisen early to sit in the dawn light to enjoy the view.

Wind Surf off Italy
It's our second morning aboard the Surf, and already the ship and her staff have endeared themselves to us in a way no other cruise ship has been able. The crew are not only friendly, but genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. A smile, a laugh, a friendly good morning delivered without being intrusive. 

The Concierge Desk

There is a personal touch here that is lacking on the larger ships  -- no disrespect to the crews of the vast Holland America, Cunard or Royal Caribbean vessels which plow these same seas (though usually visitng only the larger ports). You cannot get to know 2500 passengers in a week, the passenger count on the smallest of those leviathans of the sea, while it's a manageable feat if your guest count is 250. The Wind Surf accommodates a little over 300 guests by comparison with the giants, while her smaller sisters -- the Wind Star and the Wind Spirit -- are just over half that. Some people prefer the anonymity and grandeur of the bigger ships, but we quickly discovered that it adds so much more to the sense of relaxation to look up at a voice and see that it's Steven or Adam or Riz or One asking the question, and they, in turn, know your name.

In the morning as she prepares for her day

An example of this attentiveness occurred yesterday morning, while the ship was just rising from its sleep. I was on the Star Deck, the uppermost of the ship's six passenger levels. The Veranda, the ship's general seating semi-buffet restaurant, officially opens for service at 8am -- or roughly an hour from the time I woke, showered and went to the upper decks in search of a quiet moment away from our cabin so as not to disturb my wife's sleep. As expected, I found only a couple of other passengers watching the sunrise while the early-morning crew set about their tasks of readying the ship for the day. Despite the early hour, and despite the various tasks of preparing for the meal, Kada, a thin, slightly shy gentleman with a broad smile, took the time to come out to the deck to ask the three interloping guests (including myself) if we would like a cup of coffee, bringing it quickly and cheerily wishing us a good morning. I cannot imagine this would happen on a ship the size of the Voyager of the Seas.

Then there's the overall expansiveness of the ship. A regular objection of traveling on the smaller cruise ships -- smaller being relative given the Surf's 600+ feet -- is the fear that you will feel cramped and put-out. Even though we were perhaps 20% below the full load of the Wind Surf - she can handle 320 passengers - my sense is that the common spaces of the ship would still feel open and airy if she were at capacity. It's possible to walk through some of the larger rooms in the ship encountering only a few people. Crowds do not exist on board the Wind Surf. We may gather together for a show or presentation, but at no time is there a feeling of herding, a sensation you can sometimes get in the formalized mealtimes of the larger vessels. We ate when we wanted, in the restaurants we preferred (two require reservations, but this was easily accomplished). And at no time was the wait more than a minute or two for a seat. I find the insistence upon calling the Wind Surf a "yacht" to be more marketing than reality, but there's no question the guests are treated as individuals and such accommodation certainly warrants a degree of conceit.

The Wind Surf with Mount Vesuvio on the background

I will write more thoughts on the Surf in a later column, but for now I'll leave off with a note I wrote yesterday (Note: two weeks ago as of the actual posting date) as I sat sipping at the cup of coffee Kada had so thoughtfully brought to my little table:

"The Dalmatian Coast continues to drift by in the distance. The sun is just a little bit higher than it was when I started. A cool breeze blows back from the bow of the Wind Surf a a cup of coffee beckons my attention. I'll detail more about the creature comforts of this beautiful ship, but for now it's time for me to enjoy them."