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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Going on a Cruise: Part II Those Pesky Questions

Off the coast of Iceland

How do you pick a cruise?  Ok, let’s break it down, excluding those faithful readers with their own ocean going yachts.

The BIG one:  Where do you want to go?

Small ship or big ship?

What was the payout on your lottery ticket?

Do you plan to travel with fearsome urchins?

Do you think a crowd with an average age of seventy is too damn young, by cracky?

Like heavy metal, accompanied by smashing guitars, or amiable and subdued adult conversation over drinks?

Big fan of floorshows?

Need a lot of activities?

Like to have all expenses included?


The BIG one was easy.  But, if you don’t know where you want to go, just throw a dart at the cruise board and don’t forget to buy me a ticket.  I haven’t been on a bad cruise.  I haven’t even been on a so-so cruise.  Everywhere I go, I see things I haven’t seen, meet exciting people, drink exciting booze…ex-citing cetera.

The rest of the questions you can answer yourself.  But, thoughtful devil that I am, I do have a few comments to open your feverish mind to possibilities and pitfalls.

As for the size of the ship, my first inclination pointed me toward a small ship.  When you talk in terms of a cruise ship, small means about 600 passengers, give or take.  Large ships go to six or seven times that.  The large ships I’ve been on run in the 3500 passenger class.  Bottom line:  Both categories have their strengths, but overall, I like to go bigger.  More activities, from bingo to ukulele lessons, salsa lessons, photography lessons, cooking lessons, and so forth.  I end up promising my exhausted self, “You don’t have to do everything!”  If you don’t watch it, activities will begin to interfere with drinking and flirting time!  Also, on large ships, there are more choices about where to eat and drink, and a greater variety of music while you sip a cocktail.  Plus, I like a balcony and more room choices are available on larger ships.

“But,” you say, “A big ship is bound to be more crowded.”  Not so.  In fact, in my experience, just the opposite.  For some reason, I always seem to be elbow to elbow on a smaller vessel.

How about cabin choices?  My preference is always for a balcony, or barring that an unobstructed ocean view.  Inside births are cheaper, but I don’t like to feel boxed in.

How can an ocean view be obstructed?  Lifeboats or other ship’s structures and paraphernalia.  As for the best area, I prefer mid-ship, but it’s not a strong preference.  Modern ships have additions to the hull that smooth out all but the very roughest seas.

If you plan to travel with children (you poor unfortunates), you need to look at the individual cruise lines.  Some offer morning to evening entertainment designed around little whiners who don’t want to be on a cruise.  But, if you’re averse to hearing screams down the passageways, and swimming pools swarming with obnoxious splashers, do your research.  There are several ways to tip yourself off:  Less expensive cruises will have more kids.  If school is out they will be teeming.  I pay a little more for more serenity.

Cruise companies know their customers and cater accordingly.  Cruise lines (with the exception of those my wife will not permit me to go on) will not turn you away if you have kids.  The opposite is also true. My last sailing could have been called “The Geriatrics’ Revenge Cruise.” Many passengers tipped precariously near the brink of mortality.  But, they were pleasant and each time we met, it was a new experience for them.  Children?  Only pesky stowaways begging for crusts of brioche.

Cost:  Don’t go by the ticket price alone.  Ask what’s included.  Some tickets also include airfare.  On some lines, everything is included.  Drinks.  Excursions.  Airfare.  Everything.  Also, you can bargain.  Much to my chagrin, I found myself paying for drinks, when the person on the barstool beside me had his included.  There are all sorts of discounts available, and onboard credits.  Military. Seniors. Teachers.  Illegals (California cruises only).

On my last cruise, we paid about $4200 per person.  However, when we included drinks, excursions, and trips to the salon, our additional tab came to another, cardiac arresting $2500.  I love Princess Cruise Line, but they nickel and dime you until you just want the financial pain to end.  Want that bottle of water that’s in your cabin?  Costs you $1.50.  Cocktails are $8.95.  Use of the Internet is $.79 per minute, but with sign on and sign off, it’s closer to $5 to do a lightening fast check of your email and not answering anything unless your voice carries.  If you want a cappuccino or espresso, get your wallet ready.  There are ‘drink packages’ available, which I computed to save you only a bit of money if you have six cocktails a day, everyday, per person.

A word about excursions.  If you like a smaller group, say 10-15 people, you’ll have to get private excursions.  Often they are reasonably priced, sometimes less financially painful than those the cruise line offers.  But, the best of the private excursions fill up fast, so don’t dally. Personally, I’m a fan of the smaller style.  On our Baltic cruise, we had private excursions and they were excellent. 

Excursions offered by the cruise lines are not bad, but you have to contend with sardine style buses, accompanied by one guide mumbling on a crackly mike.

Excursions run the gamut time-wise, from all day to only a couple of hours.  You see more with the longer tours, but you’ll also be on a bus for up to a couple of hours each way. Often wheelchair occupants are barred.

Entertainment has been wonderful on every cruise I have been on. Every cruise line will thrill and delight with Las Vegas style floorshows, comedians, magicians and bands.

I have been talking strictly ocean cruises.  There are also river cruises galore, of which I have not yet had the privilege, but I’ve heard good things. Then there are overland and ocean cruise combinations.

The secret to good cruising is study and preparation.  In summary: 

1. Pick the right cruise line and style for where you want to go. 
2. Bargain over what’s included.
3. Develop your own excursion package (with the cruise line or privately)
4.  You’re going to have a fab cruise!

All the possibilities are there!  Here are a couple of web sites to help you along:

Feel free to put additional questions in the comment section and give you my best answer.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Going on a Cruise: Part I

People often ask me, what is cruising like. Well, that depends.  If you just want to get away from telemarketers, save some money and take the phone off the hook.  No need for a cruise.  But, when the heart of the adventurer pounds in your chest, in time to the thump of distant drums, it’s time to get out of the house, out of your daily world of worry, and speed away to distant lands.

What?  You’ve got questions?  I already know the first one.  Why the hell should you listen to me?  An attitude my wife often shares.  Here’s my curriculum vitae:  Cruises to the eastern and western Mediterranean, the Baltic, Iceland and Norway, and around the British Isles (and Ireland).  Some were large ships (over 3500 passengers) and others were small (around 650 passengers).

For those who are thinking about a cruise, but haven’t yet been, I need to thrill you with a sense of what life aboard a cruise ship  is like.

We just got back from a two-week jaunt that began and ended in the port of Dover, England, with stops in the Shetland Islands (Scotland), Iceland, and Norway.  One of the big reasons I enjoy cruising is that it gets me away from the daily dailies, washing, ironing, pointless internet.  We were on the Princess Cruise line and a minute of onboard internet is pretty much what you would pay for a complete transmission overhaul.  Ok, I exaggerate.  Slightly.  My point is, on a cruise you can be disconnected from the extraneous and reconnected to NOW.

Sure, you can disconnect at home, very easily, if you can ignore the dirty laundry, the dirty dishes, the lawn and garden, and your encyclopedic list of errands.  Go ahead, give it a try.  No luck?  Try cruising.

Exchange your normal duties for a life of leisure.  Allow me to elaborate. 

Ok, you just had a day at sea, then disembarked for your first excursion to ancient castles, towering waterfalls, a tour of an historic city, in short, a traveler’s buffet of excitement.  Tastes, scrambling tones of other languages, magnificent views, and all the things you’ve heard about and read about.  It may have been a full day, or only a few hours.  But, it whetted your imagination and restored your yen for the exuberance of travel like flipping through an issue of National Geographic never could.

Shetland Ponies

The Castle Mey

The White Cliffs of Dover

Cruising through a Norwegian Fiord

The stark beauty of Iceland

At the end of your day on shore, you re-board your ship, puffing your chest out like a world traveler,  and knowing you’re leaving so much behind. You promise yourself you’ll return.  You look at your watch.  My god, lunch was an excellent slosh of wine and a bite of local cheese and bread, or maybe coffee and pastries of the land, and that was hours ago.  But, your hunger churns deeper than that.  You want to share your experiences.  The rainbow over the waterfall, the cobblestone streets, the woman in the coffee shop who told you in stunted English about her brother in Chicago.  But, who to share these daily jewels with?  Fellow travelers, of course.  Remember that couple from Australia you met in the bar last night?  The Japanese couple who shared your dinner table?

Be patient as you settle into your elegant dinner chair and your waiter kindly opens your starched white napkin and lays it gently in your lap.  Meanwhile, the bar steward arrives with a perfectly chilled cocktail and delivers it with a smile.  Next comes the menu of this evening’s selections. While you ponder those, the maître d’ elaborates on tonight’s specialties and offer wine suggestions.

“No sir,” he informs you, “We do not stock Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, but I would be more than happy to doff my shoes, stomp Chilean grapes in my sock feet, and add them to your glass of water.”

“Really,” you reply, “You are too too kind, but one of your rare vintages captures my attention.  I believe I’ll have a bottle of the extravagant vin pour le polissage des chaussures * whose name must be spoken through your nose while gargling a swallow of your jus de bourbon.”

“Very good , sir.”

Chatter erupts from your dinner companions.  Only strangers a day ago, now their excitement spills out before you.  You have shared experiences.  New friends in an instant.

The wine arrives and is de-corked with aplomb.  You play the part, with swishes, a tiny swallow and a knowing nod.  The multiple courses arrive.  You are thrilled.  Your dinner companions admire not only the multitudinous platters of delectables, but the gentle way you carnivorously devour more than a starving lion could on the Serengeti.  All without a word of disparagement from your wife who is busily engaged with nods and clever conversation with the other wives, as well as a dish of lighter than air cheese soufflé.

After dinner, there are more drinks in the plush Club Bar, along with scintillating multi-lingual conversations from a goodly representation of fellow swillers.

You must not linger too long, or you’ll miss the floorshow in the cavernous lounge that rivals Las Vegas auditoriums, both in seating and talent.

After the singing, magic, and comedy, you’ll surely not want to miss dancing in the forward lounge, to live music, encompassing everything from jazz to rock and roll and country.  Ah, the subdued lighting and the girl of your dreams once again in your arms.

You arrive back at your stateroom and notice the place is spotless, with the white sheets turned back and evening chocolates placed delicately on your pillow, along with a four page, full color brochure of all that’s available tomorrow, both excursions and activities.

Just in case you missed the live review of wonders that await at your next docking, you switch on your TV and catch a rebroadcast.

Tell me you get all that at home?  Or in a hotel?  Or anywhere else you go can name?

This is the cruising life, the life of a prince, or princess, the life you always dreamed would
one day be yours.

It’s time to turn out the light.  Tomorrow brings another excursion, photo lessons from the ship’s photographers, line dancing, bingo, a full body massage.  How the hell are you going to get to sleep?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Taqueria del Sol – Mexico in Atlanta? No, BETTER!

Long time no blog.  Been traveling.  Beaches, sunshine, fried shrimp, plump oysters on the half shell.

But (yawn), you don’t want to hear about my vacation.  You’ve already browsed stacks of Facebook photos.  Same silly, squinty grins. Same wind blown hair and and salty tans.

Let’s move past grinning on the beach and get to very serious Mexican style food.   So, you noticed the sly injection of ‘style’ in the last sentence?  No mystery.  Succulent dishes at the Taqueria del Sol in Atlanta, Georgia go far beyond the expected.  Just in the mood for a quick Mexicanish snack?  Fine, go through the drive through at Ring-a-ding Bell.  But, if you’re serious about the unexpectedly wonderful cuisine that exploits the grand horizons of South-of-the-Border kitchens, head to Taqueria del Sol, or ANY restaurant where Eddie Hernandez dons his apron and lights the fires.  No need to wear a suit, or take out a loan.  This stupendous food is very affordable and the service is casual.

More than likely, Eddie doesn’t remember my various trips to his Azteca Grill in Jonesboro (no longer his), but I remember him and I take pains to follow wherever his culinary travels take him.  Can’t get to one of the two Taquerias in Atlanta?  Try the one in Athens or Decatur Georgia, or Nashville Tennessee.

A tiny vignette concerning Eddie and what makes him special.  I have a couple of friends, actually a married couple, who’ve been Eddie Hernandez groupies for years. One night at the Azteca Grill, Eddie dropped by their table, as he often did, and recommended the turnip greens.  Really?  Turnip greens?  Yep.

How did that happen? They asked.  “A friend brought me a bunch of turnip greens.  I didn’t know much about these greens, but the friend brought me a lot of them, so I figured I’d better learn.”  Learn he did.  They’re still hauntingly delicious and on the menu at Taqueria del Sol.

Eddie has the kind of magical mind that turns a common southern staple into something so fragrant and flavorful you find yourself dreaming about it and waking up in the middle of the night.  What did he do that was so different?  Turnip greens need to have the fool cooked out of them.  Eddie did that, and my guess is, he added chicken broth, onion, garlic, cilantro, and enough jalpeños to tease, without startling.  But, even with those ingredients, make no mistake, the star of the show is still the bowl full of  luscious turnip greens.  Even if you try making them at home, they’re not going to taste the same because, as I said, Eddie has magic.

Enchiladas swimming in the best enchilada sauce I've ever tasted

Soft taco featuring smoked pork.

Three salsas for chips and food!

Eddie’s magic transforms everything.  My go-to tests for Mexican food are enchiladas and chili relleños.  Why?  Because you can tell with one taste if this restaurant is worth the money.  Is the enchilada sauce homemade?  Does cheese flow out of the chilis, and have they been dipped in a light enough batter to make them crispy on the edges, without a heavy flavor of cooking oil?

At the Taqueria del Sol, the enchilada red sauce is far and away the most delicious I have ever tasted. Made and flavored right in Eddie’s kitchen.  No shortcuts and every forkful a delight. And, yes, I have been to Mexico City, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California.  The relleños?  The green chili flavor pops through the mild cheese and lightly fried batter.  You have no idea how many times I’ve been disappointed at pseudo-Mexican joints, but like your first girlfriend’s kiss, Taqueria del Sol’s are relleños that make you salivate, then lock away in your box of culinary memories.

The restaurant's fabulous crab cake sandwich.
But, standard fare is not the half of what this restaurant’s out-of-the-box approach offers.  The day we visited, the specials included a crab cake sandwich, a chicken fried steak with roasted jalapeño gravy, and a taco with Latino marinated pork and Chino kimchee!

Even the folks in Maryland would marvel at the crab cake sandwich. 

Everything on the menu is fine and richly flavored cuisine at bargain prices.  Just to give you a hint, the crab cake sandwich was $9.99 and the previously mentioned turnip greens are $2.49.

Margaritas as they should be: Tequila, lime, and only a hint of sugar.

How about drinks?  Margaritas as they should be mixed!  No syrupy goop.  You wanted to sparkle brightly at the first taste of tequila, right? You like the bite of lemons and limes.

But, maybe a Margarita (Daisy in English) is not on your mind.  Maybe you need a shot or two to lighten your burdens and sooth your savage soul.  At Taqueria del Sol, more than fifty tequilas and mezcals stand at attention, waiting to follow your orders.  Need a chilled brew?  Oh, yeah, all your Mexican brewed favorites, plus many more native species and even more bottles from around the globe.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Anything else?  Of course.  Don’t you dare leave without at least a cup of the Shrimp Corn Chowder and a dish of the Jalapeño Cole Slaw.

Think this restaurant is a secret?  Here’s a hint.  People are lined up for a city block when it opens for dinner, and even with the restaurant bulging to capacity, there’s still a line.  Taqueria del Sol is THAT kind of special and Eddie is THAT kind of chef.

Read more about Taqueria del Sol here:  menu, hours, locations: