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Archive for January, 2012

This is what January was like around The Havens.   There was a bonfire, Mallory helped undecorate for Christmas, my crystals showed off, and the snowdrops bloomed.

A great sunset for the beginning of the year.

The Fire Dragon made an appearance.

Cold winter nights make for shared space.

I swear this crystal has a twinkle in its eye.

Another windowsill occupant.

Snowdrops blooming on January 20.

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Cruising Seabourn style

I’m going to tell you straight out that this post may seem like some purely shameless touting for the Seabourn line.   Maybe so, but I’m not getting a darned thing out of it except the pleasure of telling you all “how it is” in our particular experience, not to mention the joy of reliving the fun we had.   And they deserve the good press.

We are not really experienced cruisers, not compared to some of the people we have met on our various cruises.   We’ve been on four so far, on three different cruise lines.   Some of the folks we met on this cruise had been on so many cruises they really couldn’t remember how many, nor could they list the different lines they had experienced.   But, for the most part, to a person they said that Seabourn was the best, and that once they had cruised on this line they really weren’t that interested in moving to another one.   That pretty much sums up Jim’s and my attitude.

So, what makes this “high end” line the best?    It certainly isn’t the size of the ships, which in the cruise industry rank as almost minute.   I have posted a similar shot previously, but this indicates the relative size of the Seabourn “Spirit” to the other cruise liners.   In the following picture, taken at the harbor in Fuchal, Madeira, we are sandwiched between the Thomson “Dream” and the Aida “Sol”.

If you recall the shot at the end of my previous post, when you are walking up to the Spirit, she doesn’t look all that small.   But when you compare her to the giant “super liners” that a lot of the cruise lines are putting on the water, she looks rather unimpressive.  On the other hand, her small size makes it possible for her to go into ports that the superships can’t even get close to.  So you get to go off the beaten path a little ways, and you are getting to experience ports in a more leisurely manner, rather than the more normal frantic and crowded port experience.  Trust me, if you’ve ever gotten off a cruise ship in the Bahamas when there are seven other giant floating hotels in port, you will know what I mean by frantic and crowded.

So, on a ship that small, you can imagine that there are a lot of things that are missing.   For example, there is no roller skating rink, no ice skating, no climbing wall.   There are also no announcements on the PA system every ten minutes exhorting you to take part in the latest contest, bingo, dance competition, casino come on, blah blah blah.   The only time you hear the PA on the Seabourn ship is when the captain makes his noon announcement of position.   (Well, you hear it when the ship’s company is conducting training drills too.  I can live with that, literally.)  There are no long strings of shops flacking overpriced souvenirs and cruise clothing, only one tiny boutique.

There are no inside cabins.   When they say “all suite”, they mean it.   Our cabin was on the lowest deck that carried passengers, the cheapest accommodations available.  This is our cabin and bathroom.

The table in front of the couch very cleverly raises up to become a dining table if you decide to dine in your cabin.  That bowl of fresh fruit you see peeking out on the right stayed stocked all through the cruise.   The refrigerator below it remained stocked with beer, wine and the Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda (no longer available in North America) Jim requested the cruise line acquire from Europe for his enjoyment.   Those bathroom surfaces you see that look like marble?   Marble.   The bathtub was a REAL bathtub in which you could have a delicious soak in water clear up to your neck.

In addition to the amenities I mention above, every night there were chocolates on the bed along with the next days activity schedule and menu.   Frequently you would find a towel creature too.   At various times we found a floppy eared dog, a hanging chimpanzee and a butterfly.   There were little duckies once too, but I didn’t get their portrait.

There are also no hordes of screaming children, and almost no obnoxious drunken gaggles of loudmouths staggering around.   There simply aren’t enough people aboard to form mobs, hordes or gaggles.

The Seabourn Spirit is designed to carry around 200 passengers in extreme comfort.   Those passengers are served by a crew of about 200.   Granted, a lot of them are behind the scenes making the sumptuous meals, running the laundry, and keeping the engines operating, as well as navigating and running the hotel.   But still, you never had to hunt around for a waiter if you wanted a glass of champagne (or water).

The level of service provided is extremely high.   And you feel like you are a real person to the people waiting on you.   When you come aboard, the first thing they do is photograph you for your Cruise ID card, which is what you use to get on and off the ship when in port.   Those photographs are reproduced and hung down in the crew space, where the staff studies your face and name.   24 hours after the ship gets underway, the crew is tested, and whoever gets the most names correct gets some sort of reward, I think extra time off in the next port or some such thing.

What this means is, when you walk about the ship you are greeted by name.  The bar staff learns who you are and not only do they associate your name with your face, they start to know what drinks you like to order and how you like them made.   The wait staff learn quickly who wants ice water, who wants sparkling water, who is going to drink lots of wine, who wants pepper on their salad, etc. etc.

So, here’s a picture of our particularly favorite bar aboard, the Sky Bar.   I am having a French 75 coctail.  The gentleman behind the bar is Roberto, a truly excellent bar tender.

This is an open air bar, so this is where we went when we wished to smoke cigars.   There was quite a congenial group of cigar smokers aboard, and the Cuban cigars offered were quite tasty.

I made him get his own cigar that night.  Usually I just took a few puffs of the one he was smoking.

Here is a view of the area around the Sky Bar taken from the bar itself.

They were setting up for the Barbecue Under the Stars dinner festival that evening.

As you can clearly see, there was no waiting for service, not really.   And the lineup of salads was spectacular.

After dinner was over, there was no waiting for the dancing to start either.   They cleared that whole set-up (leaving the dessert table, of course) away in less than 30 seconds.   I was trying to take pictures of the process, and it happened so fast that my camera could not re-warm the flash in time to get more than a couple of shots of the impressive operation. Seriously.

And the dancing began immediately.

There was a Galley Raid buffet luncheon one day.   This allows the guests to see where all their food comes from, and provides the restaurant crew an opportunity to shine.

This is a picture of the eggs benedict one morning.   I had already eaten half my portion before I thought to get a shot of those eggs.   I have not done anything to the color of this, they really were that color.  Very tasty too.   Oh yes, the english muffins were made fresh daily aboard ship.

The food was always presented beautifully.   I rarely had my camera with me at meals, but one time the mango coulis was so beautiful I ran up to our cabin to get it.  I’d already taken a bite…

If you need to be entertained all the time, Seabourn is not for you.   They do offer a daily “enrichment lecture,” presented by an interesting expert.   Their experts range from retired ambassadors and authors to experts in marine salvage.   There are fun games.   Every day there is team trivia in the Observation Lounge.   The winners get fabulous leather bookmarks…   A competition (for bragging rights only) is held during the cruise to build a boat out of materials you can find on board.   The one that floats in the pool longest is the winner.

There is a wonderful library aboard, furnished with hundreds of rather grand books as well as hundreds of DVDs. Oh, did I mention everyone had a DVD player and HDTV in their suite?   If you wanted to hole up and watch movies, you could call room service for fresh popcorn and it would be there in minutes.

The boutique held a fashion show where cruisers were invited to participate and model jewelry that was available for sale aboard ship.   I volunteered, and got to model the $24,000 pearls…

That was a lot of fun, and I got a new hair-do for free out of the deal.

Here we are all gussied up for one of the formal nights.

You didn’t have to have a tuxedo to go to dinner.   But he looks so good in it!

The sea provides its own ongoing entertainment.   There were passing container ships, a huge school of porpoises passed us one day,  the occasional whale sighting.   And of course, sunsets.  (I”m sure there were sunrises too, but we were rarely awake for them, since we usually danced until about 1 a.m.)

Yes, it is high end.   Yes the tickets are more expensive than Carnival.  But they are all-inclusive tickets.   That means all your beverages, including very nice wines at dinner and all the good liquor you care to consume.  It also means all the tips.   This policy makes it so that all passengers are equally important to the servers, no one can throw around $50 bills and get better service.

And at the end of the cruise, there is no huge bar bill and tip charge to pay.

We’ll be back, and we can hardly wait.  Seabourn is the best in our book.

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As we walked home along the esplanade following our wonderful meal at Restaurante Mar de Pedregalejo, we enjoyed the moonlit evening, listened to the small waves lapping at the rocks of the breakwater.   Suddenly, Jim stopped, and said “Look at all those cats.”

Indeed, there seemed to be a whole colony of cats gathered amongst the rocks, cats of all sizes, colors and ages.   There were several young ones in the pride, looking to me to be about three months old.   The adult cats were wary, but not so feral that they were running and hiding.   They sat away from the wall we were standing by, each perched elegantly on a convenient rock, regarding us with grave suspicion as to our motives for staring at them.   One of the kittens, a rather fuzzy orange one, was very busy chowing down on something, studiously ignoring our very existence.

“Ha,”  he seemed to be saying.   “You have driven away all those greedy adult cats and I am going to take advantage of their absence and eat as much of this wonderful stuff that is piled here as I can.”   I picked him up easily, he did not act frightened or struggle, but submitted to my stranger’s caress grudgingly, his attention riveted on the pile of small bait fish that he had been gobbling with such avidity.   The other cats watched disdainfully, and finally I put the little guy back down, whereupon he immediately addressed himself to eating fish again.

The cats were sleek and fat in a way most feral cats are not.   I think the largesse of leftover bait fish is given to them at that site on a regular basis.  At any rate, they seemed to be making a fine living amongst the rocks of the breakwater, and so we proceeded along our way back to our hotel.

The next day we decided to visit El Corte Inglés in downtown Málaga.   Jim was thinking of buying some good shoes and had been seduced by their website before we ever left home.  Of course, we walked, it only being a little more than a mile over there.   My oh my, you can spend lots and lots of money at that place.   We didn’t.   When faced with the literally hundreds of choices of shoes, none of which seemed to be priced at under 200 euros, we decided that the need for shoes wasn’t all that pressing.   Besides, I’ve never been that enamored of designer togs, and the place fairly reeked of designer thsi, that and the other.   We left the premises, happy to have visited, just as happy to have not enriched the coffers of the chain.

But we were beguiled extremely on our way home.   We caught the public parks department installing a very beautiful nativity scene in one of the main traffic circles.   The first thing that caught my eye was the angel and its wings made of pampas grass.

How novel, I thought.   Botanical dressings for the figures.   I could see the pampas grass, I could see that some stuff was leaves.  From across the street, I photographed.

You can see a couple of gardeners kneeling there by the impatiens.  I was very intrigued.   From where I was standing I could not see what the capes were made of.   So we crossed the street, and looked back at the installation.

From closer up, I realized that the capes and dresses were bougainvillea blossoms.   The Magi’s camels were made of palm bark, the saddles are depicted by palm fruit.  The women’s hair is strands of pepper.   I’m not sure who this woman is, perhaps she is the midwife or someone.   After all, I believe it is traditional to have lots of water at a birth.

The gardeners were not only installing the figures, they were planting literally hundreds of impatiens plants to dress up the scene.  They really did not seem to mind us tourists photographing us at their work.  Very quickly, they finished up the job, cleared all the empty pots, ladders, and other miscellanea up and departed the scene, leaving the figures for us to admire.

Having more or less exhausted the photographic possibilities of the more-than-life-sized Nativity scene, we returned to the main sidewalk and headed down into the pedestrian zone where shops, restaurants and tapas bars abound.

These gentlemen were in attendance, in honor of a demonstration that was being held.

This is the crowd of demonstrators, not just the lunch time crowd.

We stopped and listened to the very earnest speech that was being given, looked at the placards.   Apparently what was being demonstrated against was violence against women, both domestic and also the institutionalized violence of some of our international neighbors.  A worthy cause, indeed.

We proceeded down the mall, looking around at the different shops, enjoying the novelty of a whole section of city where there is no vehicle traffic.  A marvelous idea I think more American cities should emulate.

We really weren’t that interested in eating in any of these establishments.   They seemed to have quite dear prices, and also seemed to be aimed at all the tourists that were visiting the Picasso museums, the cathedral, and staying in the fancy hotels downtown.   So we walked back towards our hotel through the city park that just is outside the port.

Lots of beautiful bronze fountains in the park, as well as WiFi.

We descended to the beach and picked up some shells and rocks to bring home to my shell collection.   (Speaking of my shell collection, I REALLY need to dust it rather than poke about on the computer writing blogs…)

All along the beach were little cafes, built right on the sand.   Each one had a nice group of tables surrounding the building where the kitchen and bar was.   We sat down to have  a snack, and not being really sure what to order, decided that some fire roasted sardines were in order.   While we waited for them to cook, we had a beer (or two — who was counting??)

Those are our sardines cooking, by the way.   We felt that the whole fish seemed a trifle expensive, and we weren’t really sure about ordering that for lunch.  Notice the sea bass that is cooking by our sardines.   The gentleman at the table next to us was the diner who had ordered it, and when we saw how it arrived and how good it looked while he was consuming it, we immediately vowed that we were going to return and experience the full fish deal.

We decided that that would be a good way to wrap up our Málaga experience.   Accordingly, on the day we were to embark on the Seabourn Spirit, we checked out of our hotel and left our bags behind the desk.  Then we walked down the beach towards the port.   What we were trying to ascertain was whether one could walk out to the ship, or whether one had to take a taxi to the cruise terminal.   Our exploration showed us clearly that walking was certainly an option, and so we returned along the beach.

When we arrived at the little cafe, it was open for lunch and so we sat down and ordered our fish.

A strolling guitar player showed up and gave us a few songs while we drank some beer and waited for the fish to cook.

Those are our fish cooking.   I ordered a dorado, Jim had a sea bass.    And this is how they were presented to us when they were finally done.   It took a good half hour for those fish to roast, but I can tell you it was WELL worth the wait.

Replete, we returned to the hotel and picked up our carry on bags, which we had converted into their back pack format.   We shouldered our bags and retraced our path down the beach, past the port and to the cruise terminal.

I’m not absolutely positive, but from the looks we got from the baggage handlers, they don’t have a lot of people arrive for their embarkation on foot.  However, once we presented our cruise documents, our passports were stamped and we walked around the corner of the terminal and saw our lovely vessel waiting for us.

The Seabourn Spirit, our home for the next two glorious, relaxing, luxurious weeks.

(By the way, I cannot recommend this cruise line highly enough.   They REALLY know how to do it, as you will see in the next couple of posts.)

Life is good.

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The day after we did our Stairmaster workout visited the Castillo Gibralfaro and the Alcazaba  we decided that perhaps our quadriceps could use a break, so we stayed on the level ground of Málaga and wandered over to the Picasso Museum/Gallery.  In addition to their Picasso collection, in their special event gallery they were featuring the art of Alberto Giacometti.

In addition to many of his bronzes, they also had one of his sketchbooks and quite a lot of his drawings.   One of the more interesting parts of the exhibit was right at the entry, where there were several paintings of Giacometti, some were self portraits but one was painted by his father, who apparently was a well known artist in his own right.   A very intense young man stares out of these images.

Frankly, I enjoyed the Giacometti works more than Picasso.   Too bad we weren’t allowed to take any photographs.  I really loved the groups of figures Giacometti produced.   Many of the small figures changed radically as you walked around them.  From one direction they appeared to be trees, from another they were clearly people.   Very rough and elemental.    His drawings were amazing;  many lines connect all the aspects of the scenes he was depicting in a way that made me think that he could almost see the gravitational attraction between them and was trying to show it.

That night we dined at Los Delfines (The Dolphins), a very nice seafood restaurant where we thoroughly enjoyed Ensaladilla pipirrana, a salad that was a cross between ceviche and pico de gallo.  For the record, it was the first time Jim ever ate a mussel, and it was wonderful.  Then he had grilled fish and I had grilled prawns.   Fantastic.   We were fascinated by the fact that all through the evening, waiters were dashing in from the restaurants in the area and buying the fresh fish Los Delfines had displayed in the display case by the bar and taking it back to cook on their own grills.

The next day, our legs were recovered enough that we hiked about halfway up the hill to Castillo Gibralfaro to investigate a path we had noticed on our first climb that winds off across the face of the mountain below the castle.   It appeared to be an ancient fire road, with extensive rock terracing keeping it from erosion.  It is still in use today apparently, as evidenced by the existence of modern fire hydrants along it.

It was a nice walk above the city, with a grand view down onto the streets.   This is one of the main traffic circles near the port.   All that red is hundreds and hundreds of poinsettia  plants we saw being transplanted the day before.

There was also a splendid view down onto the roofs and the extensive roof top gardens that exist all over Málaga.  Unless you happen to be wandering around on old fire roads, you are completely unaware of the life going on beyond the balustrades of all those buildings that are looming over you.

No room to park on the street?   Just build your place with a ramp to the roof.

Great view of the port too.

There was a bit of fun along with these views, fun that I didn’t get any pictures of, I’m afraid.

The path we were walking on forked, and we thought since it appeared to be well traveled that probably it descended and met up with one of the side streets.   We could see that if that was the case, we would eventually come out fairly near our hotel and have a little adventure too.

So, we took the lower fork and proceeded down the mountain, admiring the agaves and prickly pear cacti as well as the flowers and pines.   Eventually, we came out above the back yards of some of the houses built up the side of the mountain.   All these yards were well fenced with cyclone fencing topped with unfriendly concertina wire.   We walked along, enjoying the view down into backyards.

Eventually, we did come to a spot where the path “met” the street with about a 15 foot drop down a crumbly shale slope that the local cat leapt gracefully down.   She sat at the bottom and looked up at us as if to say “What the heck are you doing here?   I was hunting, you know.”   We looked at the dropp and opined that a ten year old boy would have no qualms about scrambling down to the street level, but my 58 year old feet could only imagine slipping and tumbling along past the street, down another 25 feet into the patch of very spiky agaves that were waiting below.

Discretion over-ruled our inner children.  We climbed back up to a spot where the path had split a second time, and followed that path to a spot where you could actually believe there was access to the street.   There was a path — past a shed — through a lovely garden.   Unfortunately, we could imagine that where we would end up was at someone’s back door rather than a street and trying to explain in our fractured Spanish that we were merely lost tourists and not housebreakers.

So, we climbed back up the way we came, walked back down past the Gibralfaro and Alcazaba, and found a nice bar with some tapas to refresh ourselves before we returned to our hotel.

This is the Hotel Los Naranjos, where we stayed.   Our balcony is all the way at the top on the left, farthest back from the street.

From that balcony, we had a beautiful view of someone’s garage.

The view up the mountain behind the hotel.   Probably we were walking behind the uppermost building looking into its back yard.

The roof right below our balcony fascinated me.   I loved the tiles.

That night we walked a couple of kilometers down the esplanade to the northern section of Málaga and enjoyed paella for two at Restaurante Mar de Pedregalejo.  If you click on that link, imagine us sitting outside right under that palm tree enjoying a balmy moonlit evening, nice wine, paella, cheesecake and brandy afterwards.

It was splendid, and then we walked back home along the coast.

***More tomorrow****

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I feel the need to apologize to my readers.   I realize that I have been less than regular in my postings of late.   I guess going on a long vacation and then trying to get back into the swing of work and housekeeping has somewhat distracted me from my blog.   We here at The Havens also suffered from protracted colds and sinus infections, which made us somewhat lackluster in our desires to do anything that resembles intellectual activity.

I just can’t post un-edited photos either.   I feel that cropping and minor adjustments to light levels make them more enjoyable for people, and so I have been neglecting that little job too.

At any rate, I am back from taking Ruby on a 5 mile hike through the paths and dry stream-beds of Bennett Spring park.   Behind me the sounds of the football game emanate from the tv as Jim enjoys a nice Sunday afternoon of game-watching.   It is MUCH more pleasurable since the 49ers won their game yesterday afternoon.   And so, in memory and fantasy, I return to Malaga in November.

I left you last at Castillo de Gibralfaro.  After exploring that complex and enjoying a glass of rioja at the little cafe, we descended the coastal hill and spent a short while admiring the ruins of a Roman ampitheatre which is situated below the castle walls.

We could have spent a few Euros and walked around the ruins, but instead we turned to the right and entered the Alcazaba.   The massive main doors were impressive, a solid wood core armored with metal bands.

Jim was quite taken with the  marble “door stop” that was set into the threshold of the gate.   You can see how the gates closing against it over the centuries wore it down.

Immediately after you enter the walls, you find that the builders of this fortress availed themselves of the materials scattered about the Roman ruins and incorporated them into the structure.

The outer walls protect a walkway the winds around the inner walls.  Occasionally, there are watchtowers on the outer walls, accessed by steep stairways.

Whenever I look at things like this, I imagine people armed with crossbows, swords, and wearing heavy armor running up there to defend the castle.

The literature we read up at the Castillo informed us that there was a lot of stuff grown within the walls of these complexes, and sure enough, there were vegetables growing along the walkway up to the second level gate.   This is a row of chard, with an unhappy squash vine draping over the wall next to it.

Above this little garden, the walls of the Alcazaba loomed impressively.

After wending our way upwards, we finally found ourselves at the gate through the inner walls.   Turning back after walking through it, we got a nice view of a modern building next door, and you can see a few more of the Roman columns that were incorporated into the “new” building.

Once again, you ascend between walls.  As we were making this trek, Jim commented that this reminded him a lot of the description of the fortified city Gondor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”   Here, the walks were lined with orange trees.

You can see the next gate at the top of this brick walkway.   When you walk through it, you find yourself in a very wonderful garden courtyard.

Evidently there are rooms and quarters worked into the walls, and they shelter some beautiful shady corners.

Above the courtyard is a terrace that has a wonderful view of the port and city.

You can see the little gutter that runs along the brick.   It has water flowing in it.  These little waterways flow everywhere in the castle, providing humidity and acting like air conditioners in the summer time.   Here you can see the piping that allows the water to fall to the lower level.

The water was even running down through the gate structure.

Around the corner and up the hill, we discovered the “source” for the water.   This marble “bathtub” cries out to be relocated to my garden…

Above the gardens and gates stand the royal household quarters.

Inside the royal quarters has been made into a museum.   Apparently Málaga was famous for its kilns and potteries, which probably accounts for all the brick and tile in these structures.    Anyway, there were lots of exhibits of pottery, and a quite wonderful reconstruction of an ancient kiln that was too dark to get a decent picture of.   But I did manage to capture an exhibit that featured some of the porcelain as well as the triangular “feet” that were used to separate greenware in the kiln so it could be stacked during the firing process.

There were doorways furnished with keyhole arches all over the place.  Not one of them was decorated the same way.

Another little patio near the royal quarters.

There was a grand view from the gardens below the royal quarters.   Here you can see the walkway leading up the hill to the Castillo.   Off to the right is a series of terraces that keep the mountain from falling on to Málaga.   To the left you can see the Coracha and its walls.

Fatigued by all the climbing and walking, we descended back to the gateway, and wended our way into historic downtown Málaga past Picasso’s birthplace and found a nice spot for some afternoon refreshment.   Then we returned to our hotel and rested in preparation for a dining adventure later that evening.

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