Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sea Days aboard the Diamond Princess

So, I wrote this soon after the cruise, but did not post it.  I went back to look through it again today and make a few edits.  It seems like it ends abruptly.  Probably because I wasn't finished with the draft, but now I've forgotten what else I was going to say, so this is what you get.  WARNING:  It is long and without pictures.

Ours was quite a long cruise (14 days), and while many of the days were spent in Ports, we also had a number of days at sea.  This post is my general review of the Diamond Princess, primarily the food, activities, entertainment, and the staff.

First, of all of the cruise ships I have been on, this one has been my favorite.  On previous cruises I had been on, we ate all of our evening meals in the main dining rooms.  On this cruise, the buffet food was so good, that several of the nights we ate at the buffet instead of the dining room.  The positive sides of this are:
1.  You can eat at your own pace
2.  Variety - You can sample a number of different meats, vegetable dishes, fruits, salads, and desserts that all sound good.  (I took several small helpings of a number of different foods)
3.  You can make your green salads the way you like them
4.  You don't have to get dressed up

That being said, the Dining Room experience is nice as well and should not be missed.  This is the first time I have tried the anytime dining, and I quite liked it.  The pros of anytime dining are:
1. You can build your meal around your schedule, rather than building your schedule around your meal.
2.  You don't feel as bad if you do choose to eat at the buffet,
3.  You do have the opportunity to eat with a variety of different people (if you choose, most nights we were at a two-person table) rather than having to eat with the same people every night.
4.  If you don't like your waiter, you can try a different waiter.

The cons are:
1.  You don't necessarily get to eat with the same people every night (as you can see, this is a pro and con); and,
2.  You don't necessarily build as strong of a rapport with your waiter, as you may not have the same waiter every evening (however you can make reservations so you do have the same waiter every night, or you can request a specific waiter when you get to the dining room if (s)he is available).
3.  You might have to wait for a table (once again, you can make reservations, though)

In terms of eating in the dining room, we preferred the ambiance of the Santa Fe dining room.  We did try out the Pacific Moon dining room one night due to the wait at the Santa Fe, but returned to the Santa Fe the next time we ate in the dining room.  The night we were at the Pacific moon, we ate with 4 couples, and it was nice and interesting conversation (3 of the couples were from Australia), but I'm glad we didn't do that every night.  I didn't like our first waiter at the Santa Fe dining room, but we were given a different table the second night we were there, and I felt like our waiter was excellent.  He was friendly and he didn't drag the meal out.  As a bonus, our table offered a free massage.  After the first night at that table, we did request it the other times we ate in the dining room.  One night the couple in front of us said they would eat anywhere, but would not mind eating at our table.  The hostess knew we liked that table, so she told them she had another table for them.

My dad had a chocolate ice cream cone almost every day.  I tried the ice cream a few times.  I liked it.  Since it came from a machine, I was expecting typical soft-serve ice-cream.  Instead it was more of a Wendy's frosty type consistency and taste (which was a positive for me, as I am not a huge fan of soft-serve ice cream).  So I would give the ice cream good ratings.  I was not a huge fan of the pizza on board.  The grill, was okay.  I got the fries a couple of times, and one hamburger.  The hamburger was good (Definitely better than a McDonald's hamburger in my opinion.  Then again, I've never really been a fan of McDonald's hamburgers).

Now, on to the activities.

The first and second days we were on the ship, they were holding a treasure hunt.  The task was to get stamps from various locations throughout the ship (the casino, a boutique, the internet cafe, the spa...)  I think the goal of this was to orient passengers to the ship and all of the services it had to offer (many of these services make money for the ship, so...).  Once you have a stamp from each of the locations, you drop your paper into the box, and you are entered into the drawing for a number of different prizes.  My dad won one of the prices ($25 towards photos).  I thought it was a fun activity.

One of my favorite cruise ship activities was similar.  It was a scavenger hunt held on sea days for the duration of the cruise.  I missed the first day of the scavenger hunt, but they allowed people that missed that day to join in, because you had until the last scavenger hunt day to turn in the paper from the first day.  This paper asked several questions about the ship and the activities and the staff.  Some examples include "How many bars are on the ship?  How many passenger pools are on the ship?  Where is the pool table located?  How many lifeboats does the ship have?..."  The second page required participants to get signatures of several of the staff on board such as a line dance instructor, a ballroom dance instructor, an Explorer's Lounge band member, the Employee of the month, a married couple that works on the ship...It was fun to go around the ship asking for signatures, but at the same time, I felt like a nuisance.  The staff were all very helpful in helping me obtain the signatures.  It was especially hard for me to get the Employee of the Month's signature, and a few different staff members helped me to locate him and get his signature, and when I asked questions of the staff, they were all very willing to help me find the answers.  They often also gave me extra, interesting tidbits of information.

The second day of the scavenger hunt (the first day I attended), I went alone.  I didn't have a team, however my dad did say he would be willing to help, so I did include him in the team because I was going to need some help.  After they gave us the task, I went back to our cabin to retrieve a number of items, including him.  The task on the second day, was to bring back items starting with each letter of the alphabet, and if you brought something with double of that letter (a princess patter, for example) you received two points for that letter (like in scattergories).  We had about 25 minutes to do this.  We didn't do the greatest, but we were able to bring back something for every letter but two (y and ?).  I also receive double points for a couple of them (I think 3) so we should have received about 27 points in the end.  One team had 33 or so points.

The third day of the scavenger hunt required us to bring our cameras.  Our task was to get names and signatures of staff from as many different countries as we could.  We also had to take a picture of their badge (which listed their country on it) to prove they were from the country in question.  The time limit was somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes (I don't remember exactly).  We retrieved signatures from the floor we were on (the 7th floor) around the atrium area, and also a few signatures from the 6th and maybe the 5th floors.  We then headed up to the lido deck (where the pools and food is) because we thought we would be able to get a number of new countries there.  In the end, we felt our time would have been better spent trying to obtain more signatures from the 5th, 6th, and 7th floors.  One thing that slowed us down a bit, was that I forgot to get my pen back from one of the staff, and they walked off with us, so for the future staff, they had to scramble a bit to find their own pens.  That staff member that had my pen actually tracked me down and returned it to me - incredible!  I don't remember how many staff member countries we collected in the end, but it was kind of fun.  Even after the scavenger hunt was over, we found ourselves looking at the badges of the other staff members to see if they were from a country we hadn't obtained on the hunt.  We had a chance to talk with one of the staff members at the buffet, and he told us how many staff were on board and how many different coutries they represented.  I want to say that there were 1040 staff members from 40 different countries, but I don't think I'm remembering that right.  I did notice (even previous to the scavenger hunt) that their was a more diverse group of staff than other cruise ships I have been on.  Those cruise ship staff consisted primarily of Filipino and/or Indonesian staff members.  While this cruise ship still had a large concentration of filipino staff, it wasn't nearly as large of a percentage as the other ships.

The 4th day of the scavenger hunt also required a camera.  We had to take pictures of ourselves participating in various activities.  This day we gained a new member, as he was on a team by himself, and he would have had to ask other passengers to take his picture doing the activities.  Honestly, though, I think we slowed him down. Once again the time limit was somewhere before 20-30 minutes.  Some of the activities we needed to take pictures of us doing included:  doing laundry, eating pizza, playing ping pong, riding the exercise bike, dancing in the night club, playing ping pong, laying on the floor in the middle of the atrium...We completed all of the tasks except for one, and we received the highest score for that round.  Our team member (from the UK) was going to join us for the final round (and the first round paperwork)  Unfortunately, he didn't show up to the fifth round.

The fifth and final round required us to hand in our papers from the first round and then we were given a paper of random items to collect around the trip.  For this round, my dad and I split up.  We first looked through the list of items and ascertained that a number of them could be obtained from the cabin.  My dad went to the cabin to get those items, and then I set out to collect a number of the other items.  Some of the items included:  something tart, a coffee card, a heart-shaped chocolate, casino chips, etc.  We were told that we did not have to spend money to obtain the items (although we could if we wanted to) and that we should try to be creative.  For a few of the items, we could obtain bonus points.  I think we were able to return all but two items (the princess patter from the day of embarkation - it had been in our stateroom for the entire trip, but unfortunately our room steward chose that day to throw most of our previous princess patters away).  The second item we didn't have was a funny picture of a particular cruise director staff member.

All-in-all, I had a lot of fun with this.  Our team didn't do that great, but in the end we came in third for a couple of different reasons.  a) there weren't many teams to begin with; b)only three full teams showed up for the final round.  I can't remember for sure what our prizes were - maybe princess pens?

Another of my favorite activities were the trivia activities.  I would say this was one of the most popular activites on the boat.  The average age of the passengers on the boat was 63 (the karaoke and princess pop-star was not as well received by this crowd).  I tried to attend as many of these as I could.  Early on I met a couple of cousins (Pat from Connecticut and Lynn from New Jersey) and I paired up with them and others on many of the trivia games.  Sometimes they already had a number of members on their team, so my dad and I either formed our own team, or else we joined other individuals.  Our success at trivia was hit and miss.  Pat and/or Lynn (sometimes they were on different teams) won a few trivia games each, but usually when I wasn't on the team with them.  I did win one trivia game when I was on a team with Lynn.  Overall, we were usually in the middle of the pack or close to the top score.  I think our worst performance came towards the end of the cruise, where we were shown a movie poster, and had to name the movie it was from.  My dad and I were on our own team, and neither of us are great at that sort of thing.  We tried to add humor to a few of our responses, but I don't think the cruise staff were catching on to that fact.  Actually, I was a bit embarrassed during this game as well.  Instead of writing all of our answers down, and then having our answers scored, after each poster we had to walk our answers up to the stage, and the cruise staff member scored them on the spot.  At the beginning of the game, our team was given a number that we were to put at the top of each paper we turned in. Usually, I would put our team number on all of the pages that we had.  This time, for some reason I didn't, so I didn't realize when I turned one of my guesses in that our team number wasn't on the page.  At the end of the round, the emcee pointed to our team and asked "Which number?"  or maybe just "number?"  Since the movie was Legally Blonde and there were at least two legally blonde movies, I thought he was asking which number of movie, I said, "I don't know, I guess the original one"  and he said, "It's been so long since you got one right that you don't remember what your team number is?"  While the first part of the statement was probably true, I felt stupid for not realizing he was asking for our team number, but I do feel the question was vague.

I think my favorite trivia set-up was one in which we were given 3 different clues.  If we put down the right answer after the first clue, we were awarded 30 points; a correct answer after the second question awarded us 20 points, and we earned 10 points if we turned in the correct answer after 3 clues.  This was set-up like the movie poster trivia in that we took our answers to the front once we had completed them.  One caveat to the game, though, was that you only received one guess.  So, if you guessed on the 30 point question and were wrong, you didn't receive any points.  There was a flaw or two in the actual quiz, though.  For example, while New York State has a famous canal (The Erie canal), New York City does not, so the first clue on this trivia question was incorrect.

The battle of the sexes was another one of my favorite trivias. This was also a cruise long competition, with different formats each time.  The men pulled ahead in the first round or two, but when we hit the Millionaire round, the women built up a pretty good lead over the men.  Unfortunately, we lost a bit of the lead the next round, and we almost lost the whole game, but we pulled out a save in the end.  Unfortunately, the final prize was champagne, and since the men lost, they were supposed to pour it for the women.  Since I don't drink, I wasn't too thrilled about the prize.  Speaking of which, in general I was not impressed that champagne was a prize of so many of the games.  My other negative about the trivia is that I felt too many of the trivia activities were focused around entertainment (movies and/or music).  I would have liked to see a bit more variety both in the prizes and in the trivia content.

Another activity I attended a couple of times was pictionary.  It was pretty poorly attended both times, but we did barely recruit enough people to be able to play.  I am definitely a better guesser than a drawer.  On a few things, people were amazed I could guess what I did from the picture that was drawn.  One of the times they were giving out prizes to the winner of the game, and my team won, so I received a princess cruises lanyard.  The cruise ship also had some games and puzzles in the library that passengers could check out, and next to the library they had a couple of puzzles set up on puzzle mats on tables.  I did work on one of the puzzles a couple of different times.  Actually, I think I was the first person to start a puzzle, and after that others came along and started the other puzzle.  When we were working on it, this other passenger on the ship came along and said she loved puzzles and then was looking over our shoulder giving us advice.  It was annoying yet sometimes helpful at the same time.  The library also had books available to check-out, travel reference books, a different soduku puzzle each day, and then one other paper activity each day.  There was also a daily question on the Wake Show that could be turned in at the library.

Another activity available on the ship was "Movies under the stars"  There was a movie screen on the Lido Deck and lounge chairs were set up around the pool facing the movie screen.  Each day they had a couple of different movies they would play, usually one in the afternoon, and one a couple of different times at night.  The ship also had a small putting course (which was also very difficult to find), and a fitness center with trainers, bikes, weights, etc.).

While I didn't attend any port lectures in person, they were rebroadcast on one of the television stations.  On past cruises, I have attended port lectures, and much of the focus was on shopping, shopping, shopping and they didn't even touch on anything related to the shore excursions.  Maybe part of this relates to the locations of the cruises - who knows.  The port lectures on these cruises contained some very practical information.  They also discussed not only the shore excursions offered by the ship, but also how to get around, and things to do if you are not signed up for one of the shore excursions, and sometimes even the best order to do them and an estimate of the amount of time each activity would take if you just rush through it, or if you spend a bit of time.  Overall, I was very impressed.

As for the entertainment on the boat, I would say this was the most variable.  I enjoyed listening to retrospect in the wheelhouse lounge.  I felt like the orchestra was pretty good.  I wasn't a huge fan of the type of music C & C Duo offered and the band in the explorer's lounge wasn't my favorite.  That being said, different people have different music tastes. So, what I didn't like, I think others might enjoy.  That being said, I wasn't overly impressed by the production show singers and dancers, even though I did like the style of some of their music.  I just didn't think their voices/dancing were that wonderful.  Sorry.  Some of the other shows I did enjoy were the illusionist and the violinist, and the performance by Jamie Clarke, one of the cruise director's staff.  He has a great voice, and his impressions are pretty spot-on.  His songs were those covered by singers including Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and Michael Buble.  It doesn't hurt that he has a bit of a snarky sense of humor.  I also enjoyed the talent show on the last night, that allowed staff to see the talent that staff members other than the regular entertainers and cruise directors staff show off some of their talents (bar tenders, room stewards, etc.).  Hopefully more staff will have the courage to participate in this talent show in the future, as there were a lot of fillers by cruise director's staff.  Oh, and I very much enjoyed the magic class taught by the deputy cruise director, Dan.

A couple of the negatives from this particular cruise ship experience.  1)  The buffet beverage service was hit and miss.  Sometimes we would complete our whole meal before we were asked if we would like a beverage.  Now, on other cruise ships, the beverages were easily obtainable by passengers themselves, and I didn't mind getting my own beverage.  On this ship, that wasn't so much the case.
2) Not really a negative, but only an okay compared to my previous cruises - the room steward(ess?) I will have to say that she was new to the job, and she really wasn't bad, it just wasn't like the experience I had with other room stewards.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

It's Celebrity Apprentice's turn this week.

Yes, I still love the show.  Yes, with all of the political hulabaloo and weather disasters going on I am choosing to speak about this instead.  Instead of just speaking about the final outcome, I would like to talk about the season in general.  In Apprentice fashion, I will state the pros and cons.  I will start with the cons, because in my mind, there were so few of them.

CONS:
1.  Omarosa - I don't need the drama.  The show is good enough without it.
2.  Stephen Baldwin - see above
3.  I really wasn't a fan of Trace's attitude during the beginning task.  I felt like maybe he'd been too influenced by his loss to Piers Morgan
4.  Certain players were afraid to bring Omarosa to the boardroom.
5.  The dresses that many of the women wore in the finale.  Please forgive me Trumps if the dresses were from any of your lines, but seriously I was questioning if we were back in the '80s.
6.  The fact that Trump brought back Piers Morgan to be a celebrity judge.  I think my feelings about Piers echo those of Trace on the finale (although I must say, I was glad to see Piers' charity get the money it did from him winning.  It was a very worthy charity).
7.  Dennis Rodman's look on the finale - sorry, Dennis.

PROS:
1.  The integrity of a majority of the players.
2.  The general civility on the show (minus the two characters mentioned in the "CONS" section).  Give me civility any day of the week.  I think this season showed that you don't need all of the drama to make a good reality show.  If you have the right talent of the players and the right tasks, the show should be able to stand on it's own.  Drama is only needed if the competition isn't good enough.
3.  Penn's creativity
4.  The true reason I felt Trace should win the show - He knew how to not only handle Gary Busey, but how to use his talent's to the teams advantage.  I especially loved the first episode when he used Gary to distract Piers.  Also, he did choose a darn good team - that shows that he knows what he's doing.
5.  The talent on the show.  I seriously thought many players were good enough to win
6.  The cleaned up Dennis - he was a completely different person this season.
7.  The fact that Marilu Henner and Lisa Rinna were not nearly as annoying!
8.  That the true Trace eventually came back
9.  The money given to the charities of those who didn't win tasks.
10.  The 100k given to Lil John's charity on the last episode - love that guy!
11. Penn's charity Opportunity Village.  Not only the charity itself, but the fact that it was a local charity.  While I love Trace, and I feel the American Red Cross does wonderful things, I still liked Penn's charity better.
12.  That players were able to illustrate that a leader does not need to be high energy and a stress case to accomplish something
13.  The wonderful directing job of little John on several of the videos.
14.  That the two final contestants were both worthy of the win.  They both played with honor, they did not tear each other down, and they both showed respect for each other throughout the entire show and on the final episode.
15.  Trace's nod to God
16.  Trace's video in the final task - loved Gary's dance.
17.  Learned more about teller.
18.  This one I'm torn about, but I think I appreciated that in the final task Trace used his team without bringing in outside performers.  Now, he did bring in outside performers to donate at the event, but he didn't make a big show of them as Penn did.  That being said, It was very smart of Penn to use the blue man group, the dancers, teller, etc. to pass out ice cream and just entertain in general.  That is why I am torn, but I think I like the more purist route of Trace.  I think.
19.  I'm sure there are actually so many more that I am not remembering right now...please post any comments on your pros and cons (and by that, I'm basically only expecting comments from E.G.B. but if others post, wonderful!)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

WARNING - Amazing Race Spoiler Alert

So, I know you were all amazed that I made it through the complete Amazing Race season without even a post.  Now that the season is technically over in my time zone, I'm commenting.  Hooray to the Hockey Players!  You did a wonderful job Bates and Anthony.  I was routing for you, although there were quite a few teams that I wouldn't have minded winning.  This season there was a pretty good group of teams in my opinion.  (The fact that Bates and Anthony were two single men may have had a little to do with why I was routing for them.  Also the fact that they weren't airheaded.  They had pretty good heads on those hockey bodies).  I also enjoyed that the season finale was in Washington, D.C., where I used to work and near where I used to live.  Btw, for those of you who don't know, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. is the Old Post Office Pavilion.  I recognized it, I did not Google it, so if I am wrong...feel free to tell me.  I was also surprised at the lack of non-"spies" at the tidal basin

In other news - Last night I went to IHOP and had some incredible peaches and cream brioche french toast.  There were so many other good looking foods on the menu as well.  I was thinking that I may have to visit there a few more times on my 2 weeks away from home.  I went on a Sunday afternoon drive today.  It was a beautiful drive.  The western part of the state is definitely more beautiful than the eastern part, in my opinion.

In terms of the Kentucky Derby, I missed it.  There was a Montana owned horse in the race this year, though.  It didn't do too well.  We'll have to see if we have a triple crown winner this year.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Auckland - The beginning of the end

Well, to be honest, I didn't really plan for the last destination of our trip - Auckland.  I guess I figured we would have plenty of time on the vacation to do that.  I was wrong, but I did have an enjoyable time in Auckland.

We originally received our disembarking time, and as I am not really a morning person, it was way too early in my opinion (just after 7 a.m.).  I was able to change this to the latest disembarkation time available for people with independent transfers.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize that we had to be out of our staterooms at 8 a.m. regardless of our disembarkation time.  If I would have realized this, I would have probably tried to get a time soon after 8 rather than 9:40!  It wasn't too bad waiting, though, as I had a book I was reading on the kindle.
Goodbye, Diamond Princess.  I will miss you.
Once we did finally disembark the ship, our first task was to figure out what to do with our luggage.  We ran into a nice man who gave us some information, and we headed to the local iSite which does store a limited amount of luggage in their back room.  We arrived there just in time, as there was just enough room for our bags.  I believe he also said that luggage could be stored at the Auckland subway.  We stored three large bags, and were allowed to place personal items/smaller bags on top of the large bags and still only count them as one bag.  The charge was $10/bag.  The caveat was that the isite closed at 5 p.m. so we had to pick our bags up by then.

Airport transfer tip:  The cruise ship offered an airport transfer of $40/person.  We were able to arrange for an airport transfer that was less than half that price ($16 nz/person?) and that shuttle ran every 15 minutes from the harbour.  It was probably also cheaper than a taxi, as the airport is quite a ways from the Harbor/Downtown Auckland.

After storing our bags, we wandered around searching for a McDonalds or some other location that offered wifi access.  We ran across a mall that had a McDonalds, unfortuately it did not have wifi access, but another restaurant in the food court had wifi access and we were able to use it (after a small purchase).  We had also picked up some brochures of things to do around Auckland and perused them.  At this point is was probably approaching 11 a.m. and I really wasn't feeling like a field trip out of town (especially since we had to pick up our bags by 5), and not much in town was striking my fancy.  Eventually, we decided on the Auckland Museum (even though earlier I said I was kind of sick of museums in general - not from this vacation but just from life in general).  After seeing the museum, I was glad I changed my mind.  As a side note, I recognized several cruise ship staff at the Mall's food court.
The streets of Auckland
To get to our destination, we decided to utilize the public bus system.  This worked out pretty well, as we looked up which buses went to the museum online.  Finding where to catch the bus was a different matter, but we ran into the man who had helped us earlier, and he helped us again.  We found the bus station, asked the bus driver to tell us when we were at our stop, since the stop was not right at the museum and required a bit of walking.  It turns out this was unnecessary, as they do announce the stop as the Auckland museum.  After disembarking from the bus, we took a short hike (maps do not show hills) to the museum.  We secured tickets to the Maori cultural performance, and looked around a bit until the cultural performance was to begin.
A map from the bus stop to the museum (if we would have taken this bus - we took the INN instead, which had a different bus stop, but this illustrates how helpful the Auckland transport website is.


The first exhibit we visited was something like "wearable art" or something like that.  It included clothes, mostly dresses made from a number of different materials.  The clothes had an artistic component to them, thus the title of the exhibit.  Below are a few examples:
This is made from the metal of some sort of car part (was it a carburetor?)
This dress was made from wood

The "armor" was made from suitcase leather

After that exhibit, we went to an exhibit on childhood.  It included items that showed what childhood was like through different decades.  It also included a full-sized elephant that had been preserved by a taxidermist, and a tree house.  It was getting close to time for the performance, so we returned to the meeting place.  After a couple of minutes waiting, I decided to ask the information desk if we were in the right place.  They said that they had already been out to pick up those with tickets to the exhibit, and were very helpful in getting us into the performance before it began.
The elephant in the museum
I actually quite enjoyed the performance.  I've actually never been to any other cultural performances to compare it to.  I have seen the haka, and I was glad that the performance was more than just dances and songs, there were live narratives, and it included information about different instruments and recreation activities performed by the Maori culture.  The performance was only 20-30 minutes total, but I found it very informative and fun to watch.
The only real negative I found with the performance was that it took place inside a museum building
After that, we made it through the rest of the exhibits on the floor (including some on the Maori culture) and on the next floor of the museum.  Due to worries about time, however, we didn't make it to the top floor of the museum which primarily dealt with war-related exhibits.  It would have been nice to make it to those exhibits, but we also wanted our luggage back.

We began our trek back to the bus stop, where we met other Princess cruise ship passengers.  These passengers were on the either the Dawn Princess or the Sun Princess, (whichever one was also in port).  They had just started their cruise a couple of days earlier in Brisbane.  We had a nice little chat with them as we waited for the bus to arrive.  On our bus trip back to the Port, we were able to observe an interesting verbal exchange between the bus driver and another bus passenger regarding the timeliness of buses.  Poor bus driver.  We departed the bus a few stops early (my fault) but we were still in the same general vicinity we wanted to be in.

These are the roots from a couple of trees we passed on our walk to and from the Auckland Museum

We then found our way back to the iSite to pick up our baggage and get tickets for the airport shuttle.  We then visited a subway restaurant for nourishment (and to spend the rest of our New Zealand money).  It was located inside a store that had a breathalyzer machine, so of course we took a picture.  We found the airport shuttle, and I was glad we had chosen to take it, instead of a regular public bus (if that was even a possibility) to the airport, especially during rush-hour.

Now, our flight was not that night, but the next morning, but our hotel was near the airport.  So, we took the shuttle to the airport, and then took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the hotel.  It did take us a bit of time in the airport, and a visit to the airport iSite, to learn that the hotel had a contract with the Park 'n Ride shuttle.  We were able to find where the shuttle picked people up, and we made it to our hotel.

The long trip home (sorry, no pictures).

We arrive at our hotel near the airport the night of February 22nd.  We had booked a family room, but the hotel was originally going to give us a room with one double bed.  Then they asked if we had wanted one double or two singles.  Not knowing we had booked a family room, I said two singles and my dad told them about having booked the family room.  They switched which room we were in, and it had...two singles.  Also, the hotel did offer internet access in rooms, but not FREE internet access in rooms (although the kiosk downstairs may have offered free internet).

The hotel was near a grocery store, so we decided to go and pick up a few snacks to eat for dinner/breakfast/plane ride.  At the store, the cashier was asking us if grocery stores in the United States were similar.  I told her they were.   The big difference is that I think, in general, our stores are bigger, and also our food is cheaper (I didn't tell her that).  When we returned to our room, I showered while I had the chance (since I was going to be on such a long plane trip home).  One redeeming factor about the hotel was that the shower did have nice water pressure.  The rooms themselves were tiny.  Two single beds (one against the wall) with about 6 inches between them, and probably 12" to the side of the other bed.  But, when you just need to sleep, it works.

We awoke early the next morning for our 6 or 6:30 a.m. flight (after only a few hours of sleep), to start our extended February 23rd.  In the end, we awoke/left too early, as the check-in desk was not yet open.  Then, after checking in, the customs/security portion of the airport was not yet open, so we had to sit and wait even longer for it to open.  So, that whole show up to the airport at least 2 hours early...well, if you are flying out of the Auckland airport at 6 a.m., you are going to be doing a lot of sitting around and waiting if you show up that early.

We made it to the Sydney airport, and guess what? we had to wait in line again. Of all of the stupid things, if you are just transferring flights in Sydney, you have to go through another security screening.  I guess they don't trust other airports in something. We passed the second security check (although some other passengers had items taken away (and I think they were less than 3 oz, so I'm not sure what that was all about).  They were not happy about it.  We did have quite a long layover in Sydney, so it's not like the security screening wait made us worry about catching our next flight...it was just annoying.

We learned that our flight back to LA was full, meaning that there would be someone sitting between us on the flight.  Luckily, the man sitting between us was the last person on the plane, so we did have a bit of room during the boarding process.  Actually, the full flight wasn't too bad either, although I did notice that the bathrooms were occupied a lot more of the time.  A part of this was also probably due to the fasten seatbelts sign being on for a larger portion of the flight due to turbulence.

Needless to say, it was still a long flight, and I didn't sleep too much, but I was able to sleep for longer than I did on the flight to Australia.  I also talked for a couple of hours to the man sitting between us.  He was from Australia, and was going to some sort of conference on water pumps, or something similar.  It made time pass more quickly.  We flew Delta Airlines, and the flight was better than expected (based on previous Delta overseas flights).  No, they don't offer eye masks or earplugs like some other airlines, but they had quite an extensive FREE entertainment selection. There food was not as good as the food on my other flight, however.

We arrived in LA, quickly made it through customs,  and because we were not on a connecting flight, we reclaimed our bags.  I went to check my large bag in right away, so I wouldn't have to lug it around.  Then we found a place to sit, and I had some time to transfer pictures from my dad's iPad and camera to my computer.  Then, my dad watched my bags while I (kinda) slept on a row of seats with no armrests for a bit.  We then parted ways, and I headed towards my terminal to catch my flight.  I really don't remember much about the next two flights.  I do remember my meal at the Denver airport.  It was a burrito, from Que Bueno.  It does not even hold a candle to Chipotle or Cafe Rio.  If I remember this, I don't think I'll ever eat there again.  I also remember that I was having a very difficult time staying awake in Denver for about an hour before the flight.

When I arrived in Billings, I called the hotel where my car was at to get the shuttle back.  On the ride I asked the driver about the weather and how it was supposed to be, and he encouraged me to drive home that night, instead of waiting.  I wasn't sure if I would be able to stay awake for the drive, but I made it home safely, stopping a few times along the way to check in with family.  I was so exhausted the next day, however, that I only made it through sacrament meeting at church.  Then, I went home and slept for a good 6-8 hours more.  I did feel refreshed after that.  And then, it was back to work :(.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Vacation 2013 - Tauranga/Rotorua - and a visit to Hobbiton

After 3 Port Days (Dunedin, Akaroa, Picton, and Wellington) we had a day at sea to recover.  Our next Port after that was Tauranga.  Our boat actually docked in Mt. Maunganui.  On this shore day, we decided to head out on our own again in a rental car.  I was more used to being a passenger in a car driving on the wrong side of the road at this point.  It also helped that there weren't a lot of mountainous, curvy roads.

Our first task was actually to pick-up our rental car.  On our way to find get a taxi, we also found some information about public buses that ran to and from Tauranga, which were cheaper than the offered shuttle.  Granted, buses don't necessarily run on schedule, and they do require local currency, which we hadn't really obtained at this point.  Since we were going to the airport to pick-up the car, though, and didn't know of any buses that headed there, we obtained a taxi to get to our destination.

When we reached the airport and picked up the phone for the rental agency, they said they had sent us an e-mail asking if we could pick the car up in Tauranga itself.  This would have actually been much more convenient for us, but we hadn't received the e-mail.  It didn't matter, though.  They said they were going to be at the airport in about 1/2 an hour, so we waited there.  Everything went great with renting the car, and the agent was very helpful giving us maps and advice on which roads to take.  I navigated as my dad drove.
One of the many John Deere Dealerships in New Zealand


We wanted to see the geothermal areas with geysers and mudpots and also some Maori cultural sites/performances, so I chose Te Puia, home of the Pohutu Geyser.  It also has several mudpots, a Maori Carving School, a Maori Weaving School, and some replicas of a Maori village.  We did not watch the cultural performance at the village, as the performance during the time we were planning on being there was sold out.
A mud pot at Te Puia

Carving School
Weaving School
Some Maori Craftsmanship
The Pohutu Geyser usually erupts 1-2 times per hour.  I think while we were there waiting for it to erupt was probably the only time it took more than an hour to erupt.  Our patience did pay off and were were able to see it erupt.  The time aspect really makes you appreciate Old Faithful.  About 20 minutes later I looked towards where the geyser was at, and it was erupting again.
Pohutu Geyser


After Pohutu, we considered a couple of options.  One option was heading over to Hamilton, where the temple is located.  As we calculated the amount of time it would take, we felt like it might not give us enough time to get back to the ship in time.  So we decided to head towards Hobbiton movie site.  This is one movie site that did not have to be deconstructed after shooting was finished.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the isite in Matamata, they informed us that the next tour left at 2:45 and the tour took 3 hours.  We were due back at the ship at 5:30.  The math just didn't add up.  I did enquire about whether there were any other tour options or whether we could go to the site on our own without taking a tour.  Unfortunately, these were not options.  So, we walked around town a bit, stopped off at a grocery store for hydration, and then headed back towards Tauranga. 
Hobbiton - AKA Matamata - New Zealand

The Matamata isite
 We took a small detour to Mclaren Falls on our way back.
Mclaren Falls through the car window - can you see them?  Many of the rivers we saw in New Zealand were primarily expansive beds of rock with a stream or two of water running through them.  I think there rainfall this year was lower than normal.


We returned our car, and then I checked out some places for a necklace my cousin, Bee, had asked me to obtain for her.  I did not know which necklace to choose, but I burned maybe a bit too much time in the store (Don't worry Bee - I have your necklace.  I picked it up somewhere else).  We headed to the isite so we could learn where to pick up the bus.  Many of the past isites we had been to had offered money changing services, so I thought this one would as well.  It turns out they didn't.  There was a bank across the street, however, so we just went there to change our money, and went back to the bus stop location they had pointed out to us (We had been told we wanted the #1 or #2 bus that morning).

As I was looking at the time schedule, something didn't seem right.  It didn't look as if either of the buses was going to Mt. Maunganui.  I went to talk to the isite people again and maybe be more specific about the direction we wanted to go on the bus.  As I was waiting in line, my dad rushed over and told me the bus was there.  I said I didn't think it was the right bus, and he told me to just ask the bus driver.  I asked the bus driver that apparently just got off his shift, and he told me that the bus we wanted was on the other side of the street.  By this time, we were stressing a bit about time.

We didn't know how long it would take the bus to get to the bus stop we needed to get off at.  According to the schedule, the #2 bus would be the next bus coming, but about a minute later the #1 bus showed up.  It was late, luckily!  We hopped on the bus, asked a few questions, and hoped we would get back to the ship on time.  As we arrived near the port entrance, I saw a long line of people.  I thought they were all waiting to get passed the security to get on the dock.  It turns out many of them were there to see the Queen Elizabeth ship which was also in day.

That reminds me of a funny story from that morning.  The cruise ship photographers from the Queen Elizabeth had thought we were from their boat and they tried to stop us for a picture.  I don't really like getting those pictures taken, but I was tempted to say yes only because I wasn't a passenger on their boat.

Oh, we did make it back to the ship on time - we had about 4 minutes to spare (they probably didn't really stop allowing people on at 5:30, so we probably would have been okay otherwise, but you never do know).

I will post about Auckland, Sea Days/the Cruise ship experience, and possibly other general trip comments in the next few days.  I'm all blogged out for now.

Vacation 2013 - Wellington, New Zealand - more LOTR sites: not quite the same without the movie sets

This is a day where we learned a lot about the deceptiveness of movies.  We learned that many movie scenes were actually a combination of CGI, filming in the studio, on-site sets on the North Island, and backgrounds of the scenes from the South Island, usually somewhere near Queenstown.  Some of the filming of scenes themselves were also completed in Queenstown.  Other examples are where a person may have been filmed in a river in one place, but where they were filmed "washed ashore" was the bank of a completely different river.

Our day started at the Port in Wellington.  One could choose about a 30 minute walk to get downtown, or one had the option of taking a round trip shuttle ticket for $15.  Of course, if you booked a shore excursion from the boat, the transportation left directly from the dock.  We booked an independent tour this time as it was much cheaper, and the hours still worked with the cruise ship's itinerary.  By this day we were awfully exhausted of all the tours, so we chose a half day tour and decided not to stay in New Zealand for more sight seeing after the tour.  As we had booked a tour, we did not have to take a shuttle, but we did have to take a "security transport" vehicle off the dock area, where we waited for our tour bus to arrive.

The tour was pretty good (minus the fact that the movie sets weren't still there - we knew that in advance).  What I liked most is that they showed clips from the movies of the places that we were going to, and also clips from the extras on the DVDs.  Sometimes it was difficult to imagine the scenes had taken place at those places, but they did also bring some still pictures to help us out.  They even brought props so tour members could pose if they chose to.  I also learned a lot of interesting information about Viggo Mortensen.  It sounds like he is a very admirable individual.

Instead of explaining where each of the pictures are taken, we'll play a guessing game. Guess which LOTR movie site or sequence was filmed at each location

1.  A Quarry outside of Wellington. Which 2 Lord of the Rings locations were filmed at this Quarry

2.  A city park in Wellington - several movie scenes were filmed at this park, including the scenes of the Orcs pulling down the trees.  Which scene was filmed in this portion of the park.  Hint:  one of the trees in the scene is no longer there as it did not survive a storm there from a few years ago.  Also, a portion of the section of the park has been planted with a different variety of grass.

3.  At the same city park as the picture above - What scene of the movie was filmed in this part of the park.  HINT:  notice the two individuals in the picture.  They are re-enacting the scene.  Look closely at their props.

4.  The individual in the picture is posing to give you a clue.  Also, there is a hint in the text of the blog post.

5.  This is not an actual scene from the movie, but it is a scene related to the movie.  The girl in the picture is playing the role of Legolas.
6.  I'm giving you a big hint by telling you that this picture was taken at Kaitoke Regional Park in New Zealand.  Which city from Lord of the Rings was recreated here?
Please answer by e-mailing me, or adding a comment with your answers.  Earl, I expect you to get 100% on this quiz.