Thursday, February 26, 2015

Delightful Havens Voyage on Azamara's Quest (22 Aug - 9 Sep 2015) - itinerary, excursions and other plans

This trip is going to set all sorts of new records.  It's going to be our longest, most expensive cruise we've ever taken and the excursions booked so far are no exception because we've learned over the last 6 years that private excursions beat a cruise line's excursions hands down.  What's most difficult about booking private excursions and making plans for a cruise like this is the exchange rate for different currencies and all the built in, unavoidable fees.

Saturday, 22 August 2015 - Wichita to Shannon, Ireland

0730 - 0926  United 5986 Wichita to Chicago (Economy Plus)
1020 - 1340  United 532 Chicago to Boston (Economy Plus)
1530 - 1845  Aer Lingus Lounge
1915 - 0615  Aer Lingus EI0134 Boston to Shannon, Ireland (Business Class, 6 hours)

Sunday, 23 August 2015 - Shannon, Ireland to London Heathrow
avg temp 59-73F    1 British Pound Sterling (BPS) = $1.54 USD

0615 - Arrive Shannon
0845 - 1015 - Aer Lingus EI0380 Shannon to London (economy class)

Airport taxi Heathrow to Sofitel London St James (6 Waterloo Place - 16.8 miles) By black cab, Sofitel London St James is approximately a 45-minute ride from Heathrow Airport (depending on traffic) and can cost upwards of £50.  Or, we can just use an Uber XL - with a fare estimate of £57 .  
 Wade has already contacted the hotel regarding early check in.
We booked a luxury room with king bed and complimentary wifi.  ($939 for 2 nights)

12:30 pm - Lunch - Sofitel London St James The Balcon - reservation made
The Balcon menu

Afternoon - free, spa?

1930 - Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park - it's about 1.5 miles from the hotel and offers a Chef's Table with tasting menu.  We have the Chef's Table booked.   £200.00 pp + by the glass wine pairing (£100 pp)

Monday, 24 August 2015 - London
Breakfast - at the hotel?

0930 - 1730 -  London Tours by Taxi with Adrian Rouse (tel 07958 212831.) 8 hour VIP tour.  He is highly recommended on tripadvisor.   £375.00  = $578 USD = $144.50 pp  ( £50 deposit paid = $76.92 USD)

Lunch to  be recommended by Adrian

1830 - Dinner at Hakkasan Mayfair - a Cantonese Michelin starred restaurant about 0.7 miles from the Sofitel (17 Bruton Street, London, W1J 6QB).  Their signature menu looks incredible.  We are booked.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015 - London to Southampton (80 miles) 

0800 - pick up by Adrian and transport to cruise terminal with stop at Stonehenge  £295.00 = $455 USD = $113.75 pp ( £50 deposit paid = $76.92 USD)
1000 - Stonehenge visit.  Tickets to Stonehenge (£14.90) must be purchased separately from the Stonehenge Official Website   £58.00 = $89 USD = $22.33 USD pp

1300 - Board the Azamara Quest - Club Ocean Suite #7004

Basic liquor is included in the fare but we did opt for the upgraded liquor package ("Ultimate" package).

Dinner? - Prime C or Aqualina
1900 - Azamara Quest departs Southampton

Wednesday, 26 August 2015 - St Peter Port, Channel Islands (0900-2000)
avg temp 66F

Seth's birthday - we're going to treat this as a "sea day"

Thursday, 27 August 2015 - At Sea

In theory, there should be a Chef's Table dinner available this evening.

Friday, 28 August 2015 - Bordeaux, France (arr 0715)
avg temp 59-79F     1 Euro = $1.12 USD

0930 - Pick up from cruise terminal for full day tour with Elodie Jouannel (tel +33 658 462 303- Bordeaux/Pessac-Leognan/Sauternes/Bordeaux (65 miles)
1100 - Visit a winery in Pessac-Leognan appellation (oldest wine making region of Bordeaux)
1230 - Lunch at a local restaurant
1530 - Visit a winery in the Sauternes appellation
1630 - Ride across the "Route du Sauternes" and see many chateaux
1830 - Arrive back at cruise terminal

430 EUR ($487 USD = $120 pp)

Dinner on board the Quest

Saturday, 29 August 2015 - Bordeaux, France (depart 2000)

0930 - pick up from cruise terminal for full day tour with Elodie - Bordeaux/Saint Emilion/Bordeaux (50 miles)
1100 - Visit a family owned winery in Saint Emilion
1230 - Lunch in Saint Emilion
1500 - Visit winery in Pomerol
1700 - Complimentary wine tasting in a local wine store in Saint Emilion
1745 - Depart from Saint Emilion
1830 - Arrive at cruise terminal

430 EUR ($487 USD = $120 pp)
$279 EUR deposit with balance of 602 EUR upon arrival ($320.62 USD)

Dinner on board the Quest

Sunday, 30 August 2015 - St Jean de Luz, France (arr 1200)
avg temp 63-75F

1630 - pick up from cruise terminal by Jon Galdos (tel ++34 652 730 475) of Basque Tours (recommended on tripadvisor) for San Sebastian tour 
1930 -  PINTXO TASTING TOUR - A special selection of 5 pintxos (Basque tapas) paired with 5 Spanish wines(or water or softdrinks) in up to 5 bars.
2230 - return to cruise terminal

Monday, 31 August 2015 - St Jean de Luz, France (depart 2200) - Eve's birthday

0930 - pick up from cruise terminal by Jon Galdos of Basque Tours (recommended on tripadvisor for the Flavours of the Basque Countryside Tour  (8 hours)

Learn how the region's famous cider is made, in a up close and personal visit in a traditional cider house, including a tasting.
Later on, we will drive you inland, through green rolling hills to a farmhouse, where the endangered indigenous Basque Pig is reared in the traditional way, out in the woods!. You could imagine how the artisan Ham coming from them is...yummy!! We will have a full lunch in this private farmhouse based only in home products.

We will approach you to world of "Sagardoa", the Basque Cider.While on this tour you will enjoy a walk around the apple orchards and you will learn about polination, fermentation process , presses, etc. by watching an audiovisual documentary which illustrates how natural Petritegi cider has evolved from 18 century to the present day.

After the short tour, you will taste the cider with some chorizo!
Visit a Basque farmhouse run by the same family since the 16th Century. By the hand of a member of the family,devoted to recovering the indigenous Basque pig, you will learn how those pigs are reared and understand the traditional role of these self-sufficient traditional Basque farms.
These happy pigs are feed in green raigrass pasture, full of white and purple clover, hay and mountain herbs, nettle and Rumex roots and the fruits of our centuries-old native hardwoods
Then enjoy a very special home-made meal at the family’s dining room. The meal is prepared using only home made products including their ham and charcuterie, beef meat, wild mushroom etc. accompanied with plenty of Rioja wines or Cider
1730 - return to cruise terminal

TOTAL PRICE:  1680 EUROS = $1883 USD = $470 pp ($235 per person/per day)
(city tour 220 euros + pintxo tasting 380 euros + transportation 160 euros = 760 euros
countryside tour 760 euros + transportation 160 euros = 920 euros
760 + 920 euros = total of 1680 euros)
DEPOSIT PAID BY CREDIT CARD:  420 euros ($494.27 USD)
BALANCE DUE: To be paid in cash or Visa or Mastercard to the Driver/Guide at the end of the tour. 1260 euros = $1410 USD = $352 USD pp for both days

Dinner on board the Quest

Tuesday - 1 Sep 2015 - Bilbao, Spain (0800-2200) - Wade's Birthday
avg temp 55-77F

Guggenheim museum - they're open from 1000 - 2000.  We are booked for 10 am.
30 Euros per couple

1315 - Azurmendi (Corredor del txorierri salida nº 25, Larrabetzu ( Lezama ) Bizkaia)
- according to this review there are tasting menus available:
There's the Erroak Menu (10+ courses + appetizers for €135) and there's the Adarrak Menu (13+ courses + appetizers for €160 = $180 USD pp).   We are booked.
The website lists:  

Wednesday - 2 Sep 2015 - At Sea

There should be another Chef's Table dinner on this day

Thursday - 3 Sep 2015 - Porto, Portugal (0730-1800)
avg temp 57-75F

1030 - 1400 - Downtown Porto Food Tour - morning tour with Andre (tel +351967258750)
Taste Porto Food Tours are 3.5 hour guided walking food tours of historic downtown Porto. Guided by a Porto native, you will be led through city's history, architecture, and culture while tasting sweet and savory foods and wines.
  • Duration: 210 Minutes (approx.)    €59.00
    Fully paid via Paypal :
  • You just made a payment of          €236.00 EUR= $275.26 USD pp = $69 USD pp

  • - We will be waiting for you on the northwest corner of Rua da Firmeza and Rua Santa Catarina in downtown Porto (see map below), in front of 551 Rua Santa Catarina
    - The closest metro stop is Bolhão market
    Taxi or the metro are two viable ways to get to our meeting location. 

    Using the metro you would walk to the Mercado station from the cruise terminal (1.5 km) and take the metro there to Bolhao station which is about 500mt from our start. The metro itself usually takes 30 minutes and it's frequency is every 10 minutes.

    Using the taxi (which should be just outside of the cruise terminal) should take 15 minutes (12km).

  • PM - find out from tour guide his recommendations for port tasting and purchasing.
Friday, 4 Sep 2015 - Lisbon, Portugal (0900-1700)
avg temp 64-80F

1100 - Eat Portugal Food Tours with Celia (tel  +351 963472188) - also recommended on tripadvisor - offers several food tours approximately 4 hours in duration for €85 per person ($95 USD pp)The meeting point will be in the market, Mercado da Ribeira, will send you details nearer the date

Saturday, 5 Sep 2015 - Gibraltar, UK (1500-2200)
avg temp 68-81F

We don't have a lot of time in Gibraltar so a short tour sounds about right.
Gibraltar Rock Tours by John Lopez (Tel: 00350 57597000, recommended on tripadvisor - private standard tour A
Duration: 1.5 HRS
  • Pillars of Hercules
  • St.Michael’s Cave
  • Barbary Apes
  • Great Siege Tunnel
Azamara Quest - Sept 5th - 3:00 pm - Group 4 pax - Private Tour A - $300.00 USD = $75 USD pp.
All you have to do is show that's all, we will be there to meet you unless you instruct us otherwise. Lookout for a sign reading your name.
You pay cash at the end of the tour, no deposit required.

Royal Gibraltar Regiment Band - 7 pm

Journey into a timeless cavern to hear the Royal Gibraltar Regiment Band play in a fantastic natural setting with incredible acoustics. (I believe this is in St Michael's Cave, a venue in the center of the Rock which has been adapted for concerts through the laying of raised seating and staging)
  • Duration: 3 Hours

Sunday, 6 Sep 2015 - At Sea

The last chef's table dinner should be this evening

Monday, 7 Sep 2015 - Barcelona, Spain (arr 0900)

Barcelona Segway Glides - recommended on tripadvisor with Edgar Torras (tel +34 678 777 371)
3 hours Segway Tour Barcelona
65€ Segway Tour Barcelona
2 tours daily Segway Tour Barcelona

· Gothic Quarter
· Roman Barcelona
· Port Vell
· Columbus Statue & Ramblas
· Port Olimpic & Beaches
· Parc de la Ciutadella

AM tour starts at 10:30. 65 Euros pp cash at end of tour = $72 USD pp

Meeting point is Sant Jaume Square, the city hall square, right in the middle of the gothic quarter.
"I will be waiting for you with a segway, at the corner with Ciutat Street, next to the tourist information point, the yellow letterbox, and underneath the statue of a man on a horse (its on the corner of a builing on the first floor). "
Wade suggested the hop on/hop off bus and Park Guell.  We need to bring our vouchers.
Booking Reference Number ISA295274
$109 USD = $27 USD pp

1930 - 2230 Gourmet Food Lovers Tour  (not booked yet)
220€/pax 4h00h ($246 USD pp), private gourmet tour all included, A star attraction for foodies.
A unique, intimate and memorable private gourmet tour that provides an unforgettable journey into the very heart of cooking. We will open the doors of some of the most exclusive restaurants in Barcelona for you. This is a fantastic and exclusive fine dining experience for food lovers seeking the essence of Barcelona’s best culinary attractions.

Free night - we decided not to book the Gourmet Food Lovers Tour.  We'll probably just have dinner on the ship and pack our stuff up.  :-(

Tuesday, 8 Sep 2015 - Barcelona, Spain to Boston
avg temp 65-79F

1050 - 1230 - Aer Lingus EI0563 Barcelona to Dublin (business class)
1615 - 1810 - Aer Lingus EI0139 Dublin to Boston (business class)

We are booked at the Hampton Inn Logan Airport for $255.  We also have a dinner reservation at L'Espalier at 7:30 pm for their Chef Table.  The Chef's Tasting Journey is $250 pp with $138 pp for the wine pairing.  We made a $200 deposit.

From the L'Espalier website:

 Chef's Tasting Journey
A unique menu inspired by the seasons of New England crafted for your table, Chef McClelland orchestrates an adventurous symphony of food traveling through multiple courses. Chef McClelland's Tasting Journey brings you an exploration of his specialties with a lavish menu including caviar and truffles, the makings for a memorable evening.» Chef's Table
Dine in the heart of the L'Espalier kitchen and enjoy the spectacular Chef's Tasting Journey at our exclusive chef's table. Book your party of one to four and experience our most exciting and elaborate dinner on any night of the week. One reservation per night accepted. 

Wednesday, 9 Sep 2015 - Boston to Wichita

1035 - 1224 - United 5204 Boston to Chicago (Economy Plus)
1530 - 1728 - United 6114 Chicago to Wichita (Economy Plus)

So here's the total damage from just the private tours we have booked:

London Tours by Taxi                  $144.50 pp
Southampton Transport/tour    $113.75 pp
Stonehenge                                   $22.33 pp
Elodie/Bordeaux  (2 days)           $240 pp
St Jean De Luz       (2 days)           $352 pp
Porto Food tour                            $69 pp
Eat Portugal tour/Lisbon             $95 pp
Gibraltar tour                                $75 pp
Barcelona Segway                        $72 pp
Hop on/hop off bus Barcelona  $27 pp

Total          $1210.58 pp = $2421.16 per couple

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Delightful Havens Voyage on Azamara's Quest, (22 aug - 9 sep, 2015)

I thought the epitome of our cruising lives would be the penthouse suite on Celebrity's Summit back in 2013 but following our Bermuda cruise last year with Wade and Charlie, I'm afraid we've escalated even further by booking a cruise this summer on the Azamara Quest.  We booked a 14-night Delightful Havens Voyage in a Club Ocean Suite (to the tune of about $25,000).  From the Azamara site:


Raise a toast to world-class wines and gorgeous landscapes in France, Spain and Portugal when the vineyards are heavy with fruit. Sail the Gironde Estuary—off-limits to big ships—to the heart of Bordeaux, one of the most exquisite of French cities. Walk to town for dinner, then join Land Discoveries® to world-famous St. Émilion the next day. An overnight stay in Saint-Jean-de-Luz gives you a taste of French Basque country, the upscale resort of Biarritz, and delectable chocolates and hams of Bayonne. Don’t miss a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao where you can also savor regional Rioja wines and tapas. Sip exquisite ports in Porto, and take a trip to the scenic Duoro River Valley wine country. You’ll also enjoy a day in Lisbon’s historic old quarters, cafés and shops, with another well-placed sea day before an overnight in Barcelona. Don’t miss a flamenco show and the fantastic nightlife on Las Ramblas.

This is going to be the longest (and most expensive so far) cruise that we've ever taken.  I've only just started the planning for this trip and have an awful lot of reading to do but the ports on this trip are all new to us and promise to be an incredible experience for us enophiles.  

First and foremost, we insist on flying business class overseas.  I found some very reasonable fares online after booking our cruise and, in retrospect, should have booked the flights right away but, instead, I waited about a month and when I looked again, the prices had gone up.  After doing a mind-boggling number of searches, the most helpful site was tripadvisor where I found a business class flight on an airline that I've never heard of which will actually take us through Ireland.

Aer Lingus is advertising their "new business class" which looks really nice featuring lie flat seating and complimentary wi-fi during the flight.  I did have to book us separately from Wichita to Boston (via Chicago) on United ($634) and then from Boston to London (via Shannon, Ireland) on Aer Lingus ($4574).  It's going to be a really long day of flying. On our return, we go through Dublin, Ireland, and we'll need to spend a night in Boston before taking a flight the next morning back home.

We have a 6-hour layover in Boston so we will take advantage of the Aer Lingus lounge at Boston Logan Airport.

Next up, planning excursions....

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caribbean Running Cruise - a scam?

It's been a while since I last added to my blog.  This one will be a rant but it needs to be put out there, imo.

It started back at the beginning of the month when I was tagged in a post on Facebook by a fellow Enid Running Club member asking about this fun-looking cruise in 2016 with Caribbean Running Cruise (CRC):

How fun, indeed!  At the time, I knew I wouldn't be able to go because that's the time of year we normally take a weekend vacation with some friends of ours.  As it turns out, we're looking at a different vacation in April of 2016 so I went back to the Facebook post and took a closer look at it.  So many people had responded to that post expressing an interest in going (there were nearly a dozen) that I knew if we all went, it would be an absolute blast.  

OK, so I'm admittedly a cruise snob - I've been on a lot of cruises mostly on Celebrity.  I completely bypassed the cabins and went straight to the suite that was being offered - the junior suite.  I was stunned by the price for a "junior" suite, so I went and looked it up on the Royal Caribbean website.  

This running cruise is a 7 day Western Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas leaving from Tampa and visiting Key West, Belize City, Costa Maya, and Cozumel from January 30th - February 6th, 2016 and must be booked through CRC's agent:  "The Cruise & Vacation Authority".  The CRC participation fee is $295 per person - I thought that was reasonable.  Here's what I didn't think was reasonable....a comparison of CRC's cabin offerings and what Royal Caribbean actually charges.

 Royal Caribbean prices as of 15 February 2015:

So here's how it breaks down:

                      CRC                                     RC                         Difference

inside            $743 pp                                $574 pp                     $169
outside          $1117 pp                              $640 pp                     $477
balcony         $1651 pp                              $1121 pp                   $530
jr suite           $2453 pp                              $1530 pp                   $923

Here's my reply back to my ERC friends on Facebook:

Looks like my plans at the end of January may be changing so I went back and looked into this a bit more because it sounds like SO much fun....but.... I'm disappointed to see that you have to book only through their specified agency AND pay a race participation fee of $295 per person. I don't have a problem with the participation fee, but if you were to book the same cabins directly through Royal Caribbean (rather than their booking agency), the junior suite would be almost $1000 less per person and even the deluxe inside cabin would be $200 less per person. For what they're charging for the junior suite - you can get into a grand suite (and still save about $500 per person) and get all the suite benefits too. There are no suite benefits for a junior suite. Boy, I think that might be a deal breaker for me knowing how much extra they're charging that goes to the agency....bummer.
7 hrs · Like · 1

I took it a step further and went also to CRC's Facebook page which mentioned a "discount" for groups.  Here's what I commented:

I also received an inbox message on Facebook from someone named Jenny Hadfield from CRC:

So there were a few other comments on their Facebook page (someone named John Bingham commented and I replied to him)  but those have been deleted as well and I have been banned from their page (can no longer comment or reply).  Ms Hadfield has also blocked me on Facebook.

Interesting, huh?  All for pointing out a little discrepancy in their cabin pricing.  Their excuse was pretty lame:  "added value" and that I had found Royal Caribbean's "sale" prices (even though it doesn't say that anywhere on RC's website).  I really do wish that this cruise was legit - it would have really been a fun thing for our running club to do.