Tulip Time in Michigan

For the first time in our 23 years of marriage, Hubby and I took a day trip — just the two of us! Yep, beieve it or not, we actually left the kids home — on purpose.  They wanted to come, but we didn’t want them to.  We finally decided it was time to cut the apron strings/purse strings and spread our wings to once again enjoy a little time alone as a couple.

Honestly the thought of spending an entire day alone with Hubby seemed a bit scary. Sure we have spent more time together in the past two months since his “retirement” than we have probably spent together in all the years we’ve known each other, but a day trip without the kids, without interruption, without any distractions…this was something totally new to us both since before we had kids.

We had talked about taking an actual vacation, but every time we do, we include the kids. We are not at a point yet where we feel comfortable leaving them home. Comfortable is probably the wrong word here because we really like vacationing with Zeb. Grace on the other hand is a whole nother matter. She doesn’t want to vacation with us anymore. Being nearly 20, she thinks she has out-grown us. It will take her some time, but a few years down the road I’m sure she’ll see the error of her ways, but for now, she has made it clear she is not interested in traveling with “the parents.”

I’m not that disappointed in the fact Grace doesn’t want to vacation with us, but Hubby and I are not comfortable with leaving her home alone. Yes!!!! We are THOSE parents! Those over-protective, double standard, backward, living-in-the-past, over-bearing parents that don’t believe in leaving a 19/20-year-old girl home alone. (Nevermind the fact that I moved out on my own at 18 –this is MY daughter we’re talking about, not my mother’s daughter!)

Anyways, Hubby and I have therefore decided that we are going to enjoy some alone time by taking things a day at a time, rather than weeks. And to begin this transition into being “a couple” rather than “a family” we chose to begin our adventures with a day trip to Holland, Michigan for the 2016 Annual Tulip Time Festival.

DSCF4196

Holland, Michigan is only a three-hour drive (not to be confused with a three-hour tour as Gilligan experienced) from our home.  I have lived here in Michigan all my life and believe it or not, I have never ventured more than an hour or two from home in our beautiful state. Hubby and I are going to work on remedying this.

DSCF4097 (2)

The Holland Tulip Time Festival is always at the beginning of May and runs for an entire week. This year they are celebrating their 87th year of offering fabulous entertainment, events celebrating their Dutch heritage, and hundreds of thousands of — yes, you guessed it — Tulips! Actually they boast to have over 5 million tulips planted throughout the 7-mile radius of town and after visiting just a few of the attractions, I’d have to say it must be closer to 6 million!

DSCF4114

Hubby and I didn’t want to begin our trip tired or stressed, so we opted to leave at 7 a.m. with an ETA of 10 a.m. Even with us hitting some morning rush-hour traffic, we managed to arrive in Holland a few minutes after 10 and headed right to one of the hubs of excitement, the Trolley Tour Booth. This hour-long tour was supposed to be one of the highlights of the festival. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the ticket booth we were told that the tickets were already sold out for the day. Apparently they sell out nearly as soon as the booth opens at 8:30 a.m. and there are no pre-ticket sales on the internet or anywhere else for that matter.

Although disappointed, a friendly woman dressed in Dutch clothing quickly presented me with a Tulip Time brochure which highlighted all the days events and she suggested that we visit Windmill Island as an alternative. She assured me we would not be disappointed. Grateful for the brochure and advise, Hubby and I drove the 5-minutes to Windmill Island and parked our car.

DSCF4098a (2)

Windmill Island Gardens was everything we hoped for and more. It was truly an authentic Dutch experience complete with windmill tour, hand-painted carousel, Amsterdam street organ, tons and tons of beautiful tulip gardens, a tropical conservatory, Dutch shops, and of course food. It was $9 per person to enter the grounds and then we were able to wander around all the attractions for free. Food and souvenirs were extra, but otherwise it was a better deal in my opinion than the trolley ride we were not able to take. The trolley was $20 per person and only an hour-long. We spent two and a half hours at the gardens and enjoyed every minute.

DSCF4107 (2) DSCF4100 (2) DSCF4104 (2)

Before leaving the gardens we stopped by the food tent to see what “authentic Dutch” food was. I was disappointed to find that basically the main food seemed to be Pigs in a Blanket. This was not something we’d driven 188 miles to eat. Instead we opted to eat at a local restaurant. By that time we were so hungry we were not in the mood to search for other options of authentic Dutch food. Perhaps next year.

After lunch we headed to 8th Street which seemed to be the “Main Street” of the Tulip Festival. There we watched hundreds of children and adults in Dutch clothing perform the Street Scrubbing and then the Crown Motors Volksparade which featured every local schools marching band in the area as well as tons of floats.

One of the most unique aspects of Holland would have to be the wooden shoes that so many of the people wear. I asked one of the locals if these were worn any other time other than during the festival and he told me that I’d be surprised how many times throughout the year they are worn because of all the activities that center around their Dutch heritage. One of the marching bands even wore them throughout the parade. In talking with one of the City Councilmen, he confessed that the shoes are not comfortable in the least.  In fact, he had on four pair of socks and his feet still hurt. Such dedication! And they aren’t cheap either. For a pair in one of the gift shops it was $60. I guess if you take into consideration that they would probably last a VERY long time, that’s not too bad, but I think I’ll stick with my Sketchers.

DSCF4283 DSCF4282

It was a fun-filled hour of music, conversing with the locals, and enjoying a perfect afternoon.  By 3 p.m. however Hubby and I were ready to head home. With a three-hour drive ahead of us and having spent several hours walking around in the hot afternoon sun, we were looking forward to getting home and taking a nap.

It would be entirely possible to make a weekend or more of this festival, as we did not see all the attractions that were around or see much of the city itself, but for us, escaping for a few hours from the demands of home was enough. We arrived home by 6 p.m., took a nap, and then headed to the gym to unwind a bit. The gym was Hubby’s idea, definitely not my first choice, but it was still just the two of us, so a nice ending to our first day trip and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

Advertisements

Cruising to Halifax, Nova Scotia

The first port we arrived at on our recent Norwegian Cruise to Canada/New England was Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. Arriving in Canada we didn’t really think the atmosphere would be much different from here in the States, as we live a stones throw away from Windsor, Ontario. Actually though the greeting we received was somewhat surprising.

DSCF8893

The terminal where we were docked was set up like a mini-mall. Up and down the terminal building outlining either side there were booths full of hand-crafted as well as standard souvenir items. At first I thought we might be bombarded with the hard-sell of desperate sales people, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone greeted us like we were old friends, not worrying about selling us anything, but definitely concerned that we knew what there was to do while we were in Halifax.

We walked through the terminal chatting with vendors and making our way to one side. When we got to the end we stopped at a booth where a man was selling coffee and home-baked goods. We asked him what there was to do while we were in Halifax, as we hadn’t booked any tours. Without missing a beat, he left his coffee pot, picked up a map and huddled over a table with Hubby, pointing out all the sights that were within walking distance, which was pretty much everything.

As he talked, the one site he highly recommended was the Halifax Citadel, a British fort built in 1869. He warned us that it was a bit of a walk and pretty much all uphill, but well worth the effort. He told us if we got there by noon we’d get to see the canon being shot. After thanking our “tour guide” by buying some coffee and cookies, we began our long walk to the Citadel.

Leaving the terminal we were surprised at how quaint the city was. It was a wonderful place to just mozie about. There were cafe’s, parks, and tiny restaurants on the boardwalk along the shoreline for what seemed like miles.

DSCF8920 DSCF8924 DSCF8927DSCF9043

Once we left the boardwalk we found ourselves surrounded by local art painted on many of the buildings along with monuments and statues.

DSCF8928 DSCF8897

DSCF9037

It was a hard trek uphill to the Citadel, but when we finally got to the top of the hill, it was well worth the walk.

DSCF9035

Clock Tower

DSCF8937 DSCF8952 DSCF8954

DSCF9006

Sentry Change

DSCF8991

Preparing to fire the canon.

DSCF9028

Leader of the band.

DSCF9033

Pipe Performer

DSCF8967

While we were at the Citadel we saw the sentry change, the firing of the noon gun, performances of the pipes and drums in the parade square, and of course visited the barracks and troops.

DSCF9051

I have to say the walk back to the ship was much easier than the walk there, but the day was perfect. Halifax is a place that we would like to visit again and spend some serious time exploring more of the boardwalk and surrounding city. Grace told me that she would love to just vacation in Halifax for a week because it was so welcoming with a small town feel, without being a small town.

Halifax was the perfect way to kickoff our port experiences on our cruise and definitely worth the trip. If you get the chance to ever go there, I highly recommend it. Warm, friendly, quaint, and lovely, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

Cruising Essentials – Days At Sea

Having been on four previous cruises, I have learned a thing or two about what things from home can make your cruising experience even better than just the amenities on the ship.  This cruise I was sure to pack a few things I knew would make this cruise even nicer for the entire family. Most of these are personal preference, but the first one I’m going to list is for me an absolute essential.  Without it, I couldn’t cruise.

DSCF9550

Sea Bands and Bonine!

DSCF9553

I am not one of the lucky ones that does not get sea sick.  The first two cruises Hubby and I went on some 20 years ago I bought Dramamine before getting on the ship not knowing how I would feel when the boat started moving. The moment the boat began to move though, I found out that Dramamine alone for me was not going to cut it. First off the Dramamine made me drowsy. This isn’t good when you are trying to enjoy all that the cruise ship has to offer. Further, once that boat starts moving, the Dramamine had little effect.  Apparently the patch and sea-sick pills need to numb your inner ear prior to getting sick.  Not having done this before getting on the ship, the first two days on my cruises were pretty miserable.

Before our third cruise, I did a ton of research to find out what my options were. The one I found that turned out to be a life saver was something called Sea Bands.  These little wrist bands can be put on at any time during your cruise and work almost instantaneously. There is a tiny little bead on the underside of the band that presses against the veins in your wrist and immediately takes the sick feeling away.

DSCF9564

I put the bands on before getting on the ship, just because I actually can feel the ship moving when it is docked. Perhaps this is all in my head, but my brain tells me there is motion, so I start feeling queasy.  I know that they work at any point though because one night I decided that I didn’t want to wear them in the shower so they wouldn’t get wet. As soon as they were removed, the sea sickness was almost too much to bear.  I finished my shower and immediately put the bands back on. Within seconds I felt relief.

In addition to the Sea Bands I also pack Bonine.  This pill is my backup. Although most of the time the Sea Bands are enough to keep the sea sickness at bay, when we cruised to the Bahama’s a few years ago we had one evening when we went through a storm.  The winds got up to over 70 miles per hour and the ship was literally rocking so hard that you could not walk down the corridors without staggering from side to side.  All shows and entertainment were cancelled for the night, the upper decks were locked down so no one could go out on deck, and everyone, and I do mean everyone including the staff and well seasoned cruisers, were sick.  People were sitting in the hallways with buckets and even Hubby who prides himself on having the greatest sea-legs, was curled up in bed, feeling awful.  I handed out Bonine to Hubby and the kids and took some myself and although the rocking of the ship psychologically could not be turned off, we all felt at least well enough to not need a bucket.

I’ll take the Bonine if the ship hits some rockier waters, just as a precaution.  Being sea sick is the worst possible thing when you are on a cruise.  There is nowhere to go to stop it until you hit port and then when you do, the motion sickness doesn’t just go away.  It takes time for your body to adjust to being back on land which can then ruin any sightseeing you might have planned.

For the small investment of about $8.00 for the Sea Bands, which come in a light blue or black, I would suggest everyone pack a pair of these regardless if you think you’ll get sea-sick or not.  Plus, for about $6 more, a package of Bonine can’t hurt.

Water Bottle & Insulated Mug

DSCF9558

Although there are areas on the ship where you can pretty much always find free beverages (coffee, tea, iced tea, lemonade, water, and a few other flavored Kool-Aide type drinks) having to continually get up and refresh your drinks might not be all that convenient.  Taking along a water bottle to store extra thirst quenching beverages and an insulated mug so you can drink hot coffee or tea after leaving the buffet area makes sense.

These two personal amenities are also quite helpful when heading off the ship for shore excursions.  Some of the places cruise ships visit are not sanitary enough to feel comfortable buying anything to drink and others are extremely expensive. Having the option to carry a bottle of something to drink that you know will not get you sick or cost you next months rent/mortgage payment, is definitely the way to go.

Deck Slippers

DSCF9555

Now this is definitely something that I thoroughly enjoy having while on board. Most of your time while on the ship will probably be spent outside your cabin. Unless you are heading for the pool or hot tub, this would mean throwing on your shoes and spending the day walking around in those. Comfort to me is not having to wear shoes at all, but the next best thing is to have slippers on.  Not wanting to drag along my fuzzy bedroom slippers and endure the curious stares of my fellow cruisers, I opt for a comfortable pair of slip-on, hard plastic bottom, plushly lined slippers.

I found mine at JC Penney, made by Dearform. These puppies were $24 but they were on sale and I had a coupon, so I paid a mere $0.26 for them.  Yep, that’s twenty-six cents.  The woman at the register couldn’t believe it, but that’s what my total ended up being.

These slippers were super comfortable, didn’t look like the typical bedroom slipper, and with the hard bottom I could walk around the pool and not worry about water soaking through to my feet.  Had I not found these I would have brought a regular pair of hard bottom slippers to wear during the days, but these worked out nicely.

Lap Blanket

DSCF9556

Regardless of where you cruise, sitting out on deck can be quite chilly.  First the ship is moving and it’s windy. Even traveling South towards the Bahama’s, Mexico, or the Caribbean, sitting around the pool or outside areas can get cold. Second, you are up a lot higher than street level.  This adds to the wind factor and pretty much ensures that there will constantly be some sort of breeze to contend with.

I like to pack a few small blankets to take on deck with us when we sit outside.  Actually though, with how low most of the cruise ships that we’ve been on keep their air conditioning, having a blanket for my lap when sitting inside can sometimes be nice too.

This past cruise to Canada/New England warranted having a blanket for sure.  Sitting on deck was cold. Being that we went north rather than south, most days the temperatures while at sea hovered around 60 degrees.  This didn’t stop people from enjoying the hot tubs or taking a dip in the pool, but once out of the water, it was down right cold. Factor in the wind, and we’re talking Goosebump City.

A lap blanket doesn’t take up much space in the suitcase and can really help make sitting around on deck more pleasurable. Plus, the beds in our staterooms had only a blanket on them. Having the extra blanket at night was a nice touch from home too.

Beach Towels

DSCF9557

This is truly just my personal preference because expecting my kids to take responsibility for anything can be risky. Every cruise that we have been on provide towels for use by the pool. The catch here is that you are responsible for those towels and have to be sure that when you leave the ship, your stateroom still has the exact number of pool towels your room was stocked with prior to you getting there.  Every pool towel looks identical.  This can cause a problem when throwing your towel down on a lounge chair while you head over to soak in the pool. Many a time I could hear people complaining that their towels had been taken mistakenly while they were away. Of course with kids, them forgetting them after they’ve dried off can be a problem too.

To avoid any issues with lost towels or having to argue about paying for a towel that became misplaced, I always pack a couple beach towels when cruising.  When we head to the pool, our towels are distinctive and no one can claim that they mistook our towels for theirs. Also, these towels are nice to use as a lap blanket should you opt not to bring one along or say you forget it along with the handful of other things that every cruiser is bound to forget.

Pool Side/Day Time Entertainment

DSCF9559

Although Hubby and I are content sitting around most of the day people watching and chatting with our fellow cruisers during the days at sea, it is always nice to have the option of having something else to do. A deck of cards, UNO, Scrabble, Dominos, or any other game that travels nicely and can be packed easily into your suitcase is nice to have. This past trip I packed UNO and Scrabble.  We played them only once, but it was nice to know they were there to pull out if we wanted.

So there you have it.  These are a few of the things I have found to be Cruising Essentials when we head out on a cruise. Planning ahead can truly make all the difference in the world between getting by and thoroughly enjoying the days you are at sea. Actually though, even when you are in port you are probably not going to be off the ship the entire time, so these little amenities can come in handy your entire cruise.

I am not a big vacationer. I am a true homebody. So for me, having a few little touches from home that can add to the vacation experience and make it more comfortable and enjoyable is essential. Planning ahead is key, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

Cruisin’ On The Norwegian Gem

DSCF8761 DSCF8763

Last week, June 7 – 13, we were on vacation!  It is the first vacation we have had in three years and it happened to be to one of the places on my bucket list — Maine.

This was the fifth cruise for Hubby and I and the third with the kids.  Unlike our other cruises, there were two main differences:  One, we cruised north rather than south; and two, we cruised on Norwegian cruise lines unlike our previous four cruises which were on Carnival.

For those of you that have never cruised, it is important to know that there is a huge difference between cruise lines. Each cater to a specific age group and depending on what you are looking for, not all cruise lines are created equal.

I hope to make a post about each port we were in, but before that, I thought I would list some interesting facts, observations, and differences we noted while cruising. Now I cannot speak for any cruise lines other than Norwegian or Carnival, so how Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, or any other cruise lines rate in the areas I am going to mention I would definitely do some research before choosing which one to travel on.

Although there were quite a few differences between Norwegian and Carnival, the four main ones would be in the categories of food, entertainment, staff relations, and age of the cruisers.

FOOD

For Hubby, what he liked about Norwegian was that the food was considerably better than Carnival.  Although the food on Carnival was good, much of it seemed to be processed and the quality was not as high as that on Norwegian. What we did not like however was that of the ten restaurants on the ship, six of them were “Specialty Dining” and had a cover charge of between $15 and $35 per person per night plus an 18% gratuity.  Of the remaining four, two had identical menus every night with the only difference being which dining room you chose to eat in.  The other two were the buffet and an Asian restaurant.  The area for the complimentary buffet was about half that of the one on Carnival, we think because so much of the ship was consumed by the specialty restaurants. The Asian restaurant had very limited space for guests which meant at least a 30 minute wait for seating every night.  Granted it has been three years since we were on Carnival, but when we were there, there were only three restaurants that you had to make reservations for and pay an additional fee to eat in and all other dining was complimentary.

Another notable difference between Norwegian and Carnival was the only 24-hour dining option on Norwegian was at a very small restaurant with a limited menu.  Carnival had midnight buffets, late night buffets, and food pretty much whenever you wanted.  Norwegian offered free 24-hour room service, but unlike Carnival where this was actually free, Norwegian charged a $7.95 room service charge.  How is it free if you have to pay $7.95?

Overall, the quality of the food was better on the Norwegian line, it’s just a shame there weren’t more options and opportunities.

ENTERTAINMENT

The entertainment offered on the Norwegian Gem was very good.  Each night there was a show to go to as well as several other music listening options.  Based on the age of the average cruiser on our ship, this was probably more than enough.  For us however, with two cruisers between the ages of 19 and 22, there was little in the way of entertainment.  There were two parties that Zeb and Grace could attend safely, while the bar that opened every night at 11 o’clock for dancing for 18 and over guests was absolutely not appropriate for them.  Heck, I don’t think it was appropriate for me.  There were actual beds set up throughout the bar for lounging on or as Grace kindly informed me — “make-out encounters.” I don’t consider myself a prude, but what message does that type of decor send to its patrons?  Needless to say, after five minutes in that bar, we all went to bed, but not before Grace took a shower.  She told me she felt dirty after just standing there and witnessing what was going on.  One note here:  The crowd that did fill this bar after 11 o’clock was an average of 35 years old.  I think Grace would have been eaten alive had we left her there.

When we cruised with Carnival, there were pool and deck parties nearly every night.  Granted these cruises did travel south where it was warmer and the weather was more conducive to an outdoor party, but there were areas on the Norwegian where more “family” appropriate parties could have been held, but they were not.  Again, this could be because of the average age of the guests.

In our opinion, the entertainment was better with more options on Carnival than that of Norwegian.

STAFF RELATIONS

One of the most notable differences that we noticed between Norwegian and Carnival was that Norwegian offered something called “Freestyle Cruising.”  This gave cruisers the option to eat when they wanted with no set dinner hour. Although this is nice when you are out on a shore excursion and don’t want to feel rushed to get back to your room, dress for dinner, and rush to your assigned table, it left something to be desired as far as establishing any sort of relationship with waiters or servers.  Every night you were seated some place different and given a different server.

When we were on Carnival, we had a choice of early or late seating or Freestyle.  We had always selected the late seating for dinner, were seated in the same spot, with the same wait staff, and because of the set dinner hours, the wait staff were able to entertain the guests with a song or dance nearly every night.  Being that the staff on Norwegian were serving dinner to some guests, appetizers to some, and dessert to still others, they had little time to converse let alone sing or dance.  This was definitely something we missed.  Some of the best memories we have from our previous cruises were while in the dining room with our nightly wait staff.  We formed friendships with them and looked forward to seeing them each evening.

I’m sure that many people enjoy the freedom that the Freestyle Cruising offers, but we prefer a bit more structure and consistency.  It has, however, been three years since we were on Carnival, so I am not sure whether they still offer early or late dinner options.  It is definitely going to be something I research though before we ever cruise again.

CRUISER DEMOGRAPHICS

Although it might not matter to most, there was a huge difference in the age of most of the cruisers on the Norwegian ship compared to the Carnival cruises we’ve been on.  Here is the breakdown:

Norwegian:  75% Over the age of 55; 10% Between age 1 and 30; 15% Between age 31 and 54 – Mostly retirees, large family groups (parents with children and grandparents), and international travelers

Carnival:  80% Between 21 and 55; 5% Over 55; 15% Under 21 – Mostly families, singles, and younger people

For us, although Hubby and I might be content with the older crowd, as we are getting closer and closer to the majority age on the Norwegian line, Zeb would probably enjoy cruising on Carnival with the younger crowd and more entertainment options.

We don’t regret our choice to cruise on Norwegian.  It was a wonderful trip and something that we will remember forever.  In the future though I am going to be a bit more diligent in choosing which cruise line best fits the needs of our family at that time.

The Norwegian Gem was beautiful, clean, with an exceptional staff, superb food, excellent shows, tremendous musicians (especially Leo the guitarist we listened to every night), with unbelievably easy boarding and disembarking in every port. If you are looking for a relaxed, easy-going cruise line where the average age is over 50, this is definitely the cruise line for you.

We enjoyed six days cruising from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia to Saint John, New Brunswick to Portland, Maine and then back to New York.  We got there and back safely and have great memories of perhaps our last family vacation with all four of us together, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.