Thursday, September 28, 2017

Alaska: The Cruise Experience

Alaska Post List

As we mentioned in our Seward post, we were not looking forward to a week on a cruise ship. We have never cruised, but had impressions of what a cruise could be like from experiences during our land-based vacations. To us, a cruise represented a lot of process: Leave the ship at this time, get back by this time, stand in line for security, eat dinner with strangers..... Not relaxing to us. Additionally, we felt that we would just be in a floating hotel - no real grounds to walk around. Having our first two days at sea were terrifying.

We boarded the Star Princess in Whittier, AK - a town created to service the cruise industry. Our bus pulled up to the big airplane hanger for us to start our check-in process. Luckily we arrived at a quiet time and the line was relatively short. We later discovered the train with 1100 passengers was arriving later in the day. Imagine being the last person in that line. Fortunately for the cruise line (because again we hate process) our check-in was about 10 minutes. We crossed the gangplank and entered the belly of the beast!

Our ship in the center. Amazing how these things drop 6,000 people into small towns like Ketchikan.

Onboard a crew member checked our tickets, directed us to a photographer for a welcome aboard picture (we just blew passed him), and were shown to the elevators in order to reach our cabin. Our steward (housekeeping on a ship) met us right away and showed us our room. Within a few minutes he brought us champagne and our luggage arrived within a few hours or so of being onboard.

We had a mini-suite cabin that included a small private bath, queen bed, separate couch area, and 2 tvs. On the balcony we had a table, two chairs, and two foot-rests. Our travel companions flanked us on both sides. The furniture in our cabin was rundown. Our couch had some big stains and the carpet was peeling up in places. On the plus side, there was ample storage for our clothes and suitcases when not in use. We did not take very many pictures inside the ship. To get a feel for the room check this Cruise Critic link.

Pam and Stan enjoying the balcony

We booked the cruise under the Sip and Sail promotion which gave us free beer, wine, liquor, and premium coffees with included tips. This made things a little more relaxed for us. We were happy to find many bars and lounges onboard and found service to be very quick. We were surprised that the actual prices for drinks was lower than anticipated - beers were around $5-$6, liquor drinks $8ish, wine $9ish. New Castle was on tap - which was good for us. Unfortunately they ran out half-way through the trip. Our ship did a round-trip starting in Vancouver - Anchorage for the first 7 days, then the reverse with a new set of passengers. We guessed they were not resupplied in Anchorage.

On Day 1 there was time for an activity before muster drill (like a fire drill but way longer) so our group played Disney Trivia in the lounge. We won and received a bottle of champagne. The other folks really did not have a chance.

The muster drill ran long so we rushed back to the room and panicked about missing dinner. We wanted a sit down dinner and not the buffet or a burger. Luckily we had another 1/2 hour before the dining room closed.

The food in the sit down restaurants ranged from "I can eat this" to awful. All the food was bland and cuts of meat were not the best. We only ate the buffet for breakfast and the first day for lunch and stuck with basic items. The pizza counter was great the first day, but was never the same quality the remainder of the trip.
We did enjoy two good meals at Crown Grill, the additional cost restaurant. For $29 each we were able to have a high quality multi-course dinner. The filet mignon cuts were excellent and the desserts were creative.

The ship did have a lot of bars and lounges where you could often find some great entertainment. We enjoyed listening to the guitarist and the jazz band. Service in the lounges usually excellent and the wait staff tended to remember our preferences. The dance club, perched off the stern of the ship, provided great views of the Alaskan mountains during midnight sunsets and was one of our favorite spots.

Princess did a good job of keeping guests informed about their trip. The TV aired a daily talk show with the entertainment crew to go over the day's events. The shopping guide (an actual person) also had daily shows covering the specialties in the port, and where to meet him for fantastic bargains (this aspect of cruising was lost on us as we are not shoppers). Also on TV was the Alaska Channel with short documentary style programs. Everyday we received a copy of the Princess Patter, a newsletter detailing all dining and activities.

The line waiting for a photo opp of fake-filling the champagne waterfall. Really?
We went to the British Invasion show in the main theater one night. About 12-15 performers put on a 45 minute show focusing on British Rock. They were talented and it was an entertaining show.  Another night we watched the Pub Show in the Explorer's Lounge which was a fun sing-a-long show that was actually meant to be cheesy and it was pretty funny. As part of the Alaskan focus there were several talks and demonstrations throughout the week on nature, wildlife, lifestyle, etc. we were bummed that they brought the sled dog puppies onboard during prime excursion time.

Another positive: we booked our shore excursions directly through Princess. The prices seemed fair and we knew that we were guaranteed to get back to the ship on time. The three companies we traveled with were top-notch and we enjoyed our experiences. The ones we picked were all small groups so that helped.  We'll cover those events with our posts for each port along with the day at-sea in Glacier Bay National Park.

On our last full day at sea (we really hate these days) we participated in an add-on event: Silverado Wine Blending. The event cost around $35 including tip and provided us with a high-end cheese plate and a class on wine blending. We tasted 4 Silverado wines (a premium brand owned by Walt Disney's daughter) individually and learned about blending wines vs. drinking wines. Using a beaker we would concoct our own mixtures. Overall a fun activity.

The process to get on/off the ship took all of our patience, which is what we expected. On port days they'd have the exit area setup with a character (people in costumes) photo opportunity. An eagle one day, a moose another, or a lumberjack. This slowed down the process unnecessarily. As we passed by quickly politely saying "no thank you" we were given stink-eyes by the crew. One morning Dave tried to leave the ship with a brewed (black) coffee. Not allowed due to customs. Since we were getting on a bus for our excursion this left Dave under-caffinated and cranky. Getting back on the ship was like going through TSA. We had a long line to get back onto the ship in Juneau and by the time we reached the gate Dave's patience wore out. After putting everything into the metal detector bin the staff pointed accusingly at his jacket pocket "What's in there?" He could not even spit it out, "They're mittens!" We understand the need for security and we know it's necessary, but you don't have to deal with this at a hotel which is why we were always opposed to cruising.

Disembarkment in Vancouver was a mess. We had to have our room vacated and luggage outside the door by a 8am. We arrived in port late which delayed our departure from the ship. It was so hard for us to stare at land just feet away out the window and not to be allowed to go near it. We were divided into groups with set disembarkment times and designated seating areas. Our code (White 2) matched our luggage tags. We were finally allowed to leave 40 minutes later than anticipated. Once off we had an easy time getting through Canadian passport control, but had a hard time finding our luggage. They did not group all the white 2's together so we were on a scavenger hunt. The port was nuts with people since several cruise ships were dumping off passengers like us and picking up new ones. Add to that the 150th anniversary of Canada and you have too many people in the same place. We were so happy to leave the area for the sanctuary of the Hampton Inn.

After all that negativity we are still glad we took the cruise for the sites we were able to see.  There really is no way to see some of the wonderful sights we saw without taking a cruise.   As anticipated, the big ship cruise experience is not a vacation option we enjoyed. Too much process and following a rigid schedule and too many people all wanting to be in the same place at the same time. Plus, you are no local restaurants for dinner (we did take advantage of lunch time away from the ship). We didn't even get into the nonsense of formal night - two times in one week!!!

The setup for our two days at sea

Alaska Post List

Friday, September 8, 2017

2017 Epcot Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World

It's not often that we end up at Epcot's Food & Wine festival early in the event's fall run. Disney decided to start the event a few weeks early this year which coincided with our Labor Day Weekend trip.

This is a quick rundown of what we tried along with pictures when we remembered to take them. For prices and better info than we will give you about the festival visit

We used the event's Passport to list the items we tried. Green checks are good, red x's were bad, and mehs were just ok or only one of us liked them. The order of listings is based on the Passport order, not the order we sampled them. We included all the pages, even from booths we did not visit, to give you the full rundown.

You can click on the photos to make them bigger.

40 booths offered festival items this year. Some item were also available at the Festival Center in Future World. We enjoyed third-row seats or better for two sets of The Hooters and one set of The Baha Men. Great performances by both groups. These headline acts are included with Epcot admission.

The Odyssey, that building by the Mexico Pavilion, is home to the Craft Beer booth and this year featured a salute to Epcot's 35th anniversary. Things were not running well on our visit here. Holly got the Handwich served right away and went to find a table. Scotch eggs were not ready yet. Dave finally got them ten minutes later and they were not worth the wait. As for the Handwich - think kicked-up Hamburger Helper in a bread cone. Both beers were great and Passport 35 became our favorite this year (also available in Festival Center).

The Piggy Wings were good, but not outstanding. The sweet pancake was AWESOME! The porter was good, but not a standout - low on the smoky flavor profile.

The Light Lab was inside a Communicore Building (the one near The Land). Inside the room had some black lights, neons, and glow signs to help give an aura of some cool stuff going on. It was actually pretty lame and the process took forever to assemble the drinks. The featured beers were only available at the bar outside. The T-C2 was nothing but sugar water. The Bleu Spectrum was champagne with the little boba balls. They did not skimp on the balls. Radiant Flux beer wasn't that great. We enjoyed our Gogi wine sample but we were surprised it was chilled.

The loaded mac is getting a lot of buzz but we just found it to be ok. Nothing great. We enjoyed the crab cake (without the cream) because it was mostly meat vs. breading. The scampi did was tasty, but the bread wasn't enough for the amount of dip (a theme of this festival).

The liquid nitro desert was good, but very rich. Would have been great with coffee except for the fact it was 100 degrees outside. The Beef Stroganoff was perfect! The tiny egg noodle base really added nice texture. The tart was kind of dry, but it was one of the larger food items offered.

Another dish that won us over was the seared scallops at the Wine and Dine Studio. The scallops were cooked perfectly and the truffle purée went well with the meat and mushrooms.

It's warm cheese and guava in a pastry!

New Zealand's mussels were pretty plain. The order held three breaded mussels and were not very flavorful. Australia's shrimp were very good. Our order contained five shrimp. The sauce was on the sweet side.

Almond Orchard's risotto was very good. Surprising it was made with cauliflower. The sundae would have been better if the berries were fresh dry berries and not some kind of syrupy goop. Patagonia's empanadas was very tasty, but the beef skewer was not so good due to the oil content of the chimichurri sauce.

We had champagne a few time from Almond's because we purchased the Passport Sampler. For $65 you received 8 coupons for items (about $8.60 per item). We used them on items over $10. The champagnes here (other than Dom - not eligible) were $13-$16. Our Gogi sample was $15.

Spam hash from Hawaii was a big winner for us. We got it without the mayo which may have brought out a bit more sweetness than intended (Dave hates mayo). The Bikini Blonde beer was very tasty - had a citrus flavor. Farm Fresh's chicken was good, just a little salty. The cornbread that came with it was a great accompaniment.

Not much more to say here. It was good, but small for an over $6 item.

Avoid this one. Shrimp/scallop cake was mushy and the noodles were cold and had a strange spice. Green onions was the most used garnish at the booths this year.

Dave liked this one, Holly did not. Yes it's just naan bread but the dipping sauces were not her favorite.

The beef in Africa has transformed from its original debut. It's more of a stew now vs. a whole filet medalion... still tasty.

The beers at Brewer's Collection were limited this year with only three offerings. We were excited to try the pomegranate hefe. Unfortunately it tasted like a mix of wine cooler and cough syrup.

A favorite each year. It was particularly tasty this year. Ours was hot and everything melted together perfectly.

Spain's winner for us was the olive oil cake. We had a nice big slice of moist golden cake. The paella was nothing special.

We didn't take pictures of the beer since we all know what beer looks like. We had JDub's Porter last year at the Food and Wine Classic and loved it. We may have bought a few of these (full 12oz size) during the fest.

A note on beer. It seems during the fest beer sizes at typical beer stops get downsized to 12oz (with price decrease). No large beers from China counter service, Outpost, or Germany. Japan Frozen Kirin and beers from Rose and Crown in England were still their usual sizes.

The lobster roll was back this year without all the mayo. Holly enjoyed it, but she did not like the brisket. Dave on the other hand liked the brisket but wasn't a fan of the way the lobster looked. The Cold Brew Coffee Porter was good, but when having it alongside a JDub's it was quickly forgotten.

Both of these Japan items were winners. The dumplings had a lot of flavor with a small kick of wasabi. The pork was tender and well-flavored by the sauce.

The Little Hidden One was a lot lacking in flavor. It was like having a TV dinner lasagna. The M.I.A. Barbossa Black was low on flavor and texture.

The escargot is an every year favorite of ours. This year the little slugs were inside buttery pastry. As for the drinks, how can you go wrong with slushies and bubbles?

The cheese and stout dip from Ireland was right up our alley. The beer helped mellow out the sharpness of the cheddar. The two slices of bread were not enough to soak up all the dip. The filet from Canada is usually hit-or-miss for us (sometimes we get bad or overcooked cuts). This year it was perfect! Moosehead's Radler was a refreshing offering.

On the right is our tasting sampler coupon set.

In other Food & Wine news: They forgot to (or decided not to) decorate the little train village for the festival. Every year there are little banners around town and food booths. This year: nothing...


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Charity of the Month: Red Cross Hurricane Harvey Aid

Charity of the Month is a way Team Tizzel is helping to support some very worthy organizations. As part of this program, we will dedicate a post to a charity that we will sponsor through the month by donating Holly's training run money.

In August we supported ALS Association's Central Florida Chapter with a $125 donation to help with research efforts to end the disease.

September's Charity

American Red Cross - Hurricane Harvey Relief

We could not believe the level of flooding Hurricane Harvey caused in the south.   In July, our town (Fox Lake, IL) was on the national news for our flood levels after receiving 7 inches of rain one night.  A lot of northeastern Illinois was impacted as levels in lakes and rivers rose to record levels (Fox Lake rose 3.5 feet above average).  Many homes were filled with water and/or sewer backup. Businesses were shut down for weeks.  Dave volunteered one afternoon to hand out Red Cross cleanup kits and heard some sad stories from several residents.  Ariel photos from our area are available in this Flickr album.

Fox Lake had 7 inches of rain, not 50+ inches.  Friends of ours living in impacted areas were posting incredible photos on Facebook.  The media has shown us images of destruction and amazing rescues.   It will take a long time for things to get to normal (if it can) for many people in Texas. 

Today (September 6th) we've been watching Hurricane Irma hover over one of our favorite vacation spots - The British Virgin Islands.  The storm is over Anegada right now.  We read that 1/2 of the island's 200 inhabitants evacuated.  We're wondering which of our friends are still there riding it out, or who went to "safer" ground in Tortola.  We are sure relief efforts for Irma will be next month's charity.

Please consider giving to the American Red Cross to provide people the help they need.