Alaska or Aloha Bound? Part 2 – Getting There

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The first thing to think about when trying to decide whether we are going to plan our vacation next summer to Alaska or Hawaii is how we are going to get there.  When you consider that we have to transport five people, just getting to our destination could be a big chunk of the travel budget.

Aloha plane

Hawaii is pretty much a no brainer.  Flying is really the only option, and currently, airfare from Philadelphia to Hawaii (with a stop in Phoenix) is $480.  For five people, even for someone who cried at the mere thought of math class, it looks like close to $2500.

Now Alaska.  My husband is a huge fan of the road trip.  We could fly out to Vancouver for about the same price that it would take to fly to Hawaii, but Jim wants to make it “fun” by packing the car with a gaggle of children, their bickering, fidgeting, and body odoring.

Alaska Road trip

A tentative road trip schedule would look something like this:

Day 1 – Bellmawr to Chicago – 12 hours; one night at the Springhill Suites in Rosemont for $100/night (military discount available) with breakfast included

Day 2 – Museum of Science and Industry; Navy Pier; Garrett Popcorn; drive to Milwaukee – 2 hours; one night at the Fairfield Inn, Downtown Milwaukee for $104/night (military discount available) with breakfast included

Day 3 – Morning miniature golf.  Drive to Fargo, ND – 9 hours; one night at the Courtyard in Moorehead, ND for $83/night (military discount available) with no breakfast in the morning

Day 4 – Drive to Glacier National Park – 14 hours; one night at Glacier Park Lodge for $202 (no military discount) with no breakfast

Day 5 – Early morning visit to Glacier National Park, then a drive to Vancouver – 11 hours; one night at Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle for $200/night plus $30 parking fee (no military discount available) with no breakfast

Day 6 – Arrive at the port to depart for the cruise

Fuel cost for the trip (one way) as estimated by AAA – $650 http://fuelgaugereport.aaa.com/fuelcostcalculator/

Total before attraction fees:  $1339

Now, assuming approximately the same costs going back the other way, this makes the road trip a little more expensive than the airfare to Hawaii, but there are two ways to look at this option.  It is 48 hours in the car together.  That’s a lot of time.  But we’ve always seen some of the best parts of this country during road trips.  We’ve done the big things, like Mt. Rushmore and the Grand Canyon; and we’ve done the little things like the Corn Museum in South Dakota and the world’s tallest Jolly Green Giant.  It’s always fun, it’s always different, and it reminds me that one of the big reasons I married the man that I did was because we could do a nearly 50 hour car trip and not run out of things to talk about.

For some, there would be no question but to fly to Hawaii.  For others, the adventure of the road is really appealing.

Which team are you on?

 

 

So What CAN’T You Do on a Cruise?

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Cruising is my favorite kind of vacation.  You can enjoy the four corners of the world in small, bite sized chunks.  I push cruising to anyone who asks (and even people who don’t), and I am always touting the best things about cruising. So here’s the question most people always ask back – What can’t you do?

I had to think about this.  You really can do a ton of stuff, but there are some things you might want to be aware of if you’re embarking on your first cruise.  So here’s my list of things you CAN’T do on a cruise:

EXTEND YOUR PORT STAY

I assumed most people would know that when the ship sails, you’d better be on it, but honestly, this is a great question.  If your activities cause you to miss your set sail time, you’ll be on your own to get yourself to the next port of call.  The cruise line may be able to help arrange transportation, but you will have to pay the all expenses.

GO ON A PICNIC IN PORT WITH FREE SHIP FOOD

Some veteran cruisers will tell you that you can order a room service sandwich to take with you on excursions so you don’t have to pay for a meal. Or head to the buffet and grab a few extra pieces of fruit to take to the beach with you. That may end up being the most expensive free picnic you’ll ever enjoy.  Fines can soar upwards of $5,000 for taking food off of the ship, introducing produce or meats and cheeses to foreign soil.  Don’t risk it.  Enjoy the local cuisine, or head back to the ship when you feel the hungry coming on.

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GO HUNGRY

I’ve had conversations with people who have said they don’t want to cruise because they don’t do a midnight buffet on cruises anymore.  While it’s true that most cruise lines have done away with the nightly midnight food fest, you can get food on a cruise ship around the clock. Room service is always available, and there are lounges with snacks, deck parties late into the evening, and even late night pizza or burgers.  If you go hungry while on a cruise, you are wandering around with your eyes closed.

NOT VACATION YOUR WAY

Some people want to find a chair by the pool on Saturday and stay put until they have to go home the following Saturday. And some people don’t know you can do that on a cruise. You can board your ship, find your deck chair, and still have your cheeks in the seat when they kick you off a week later.  You do not have to leave when the ship is in port, you don’t have to go to any of the shows, you don’t have to dress up and go to dinner.  This is your vacation – have it your way.  Cruising gives you that flexibility!

Ready to book your cruise? Just remember to take me with you!

 

 

North to Alaska – and Whatever Else We Can See In Between!

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I always have these grand intentions of building fabulous trip reports, and every time we take an awesome vacation, I go into it saying “I think I can; I think I can; I think I can” – and then I don’t.

Let’s approach this from a different angle – let’s start talking about it now, and maybe by June, when I actually take the trip, I’ll be more motivated to finish the conversation!  So let’s get started – come plan this trip with me!

Here are the basics:

We have to be onboard the Disney Wonder on June 25, 2012 – that’s only 252 days away!  Thank God we’re going to Alaska – I’ll never get into a bikini by then!!  We board in Seattle, WA.

We’ve chosen second seating because it gives us time to eat breakfast, second breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, second lunch, afternoon tea, and an evening snack before dinner.  We’d miss at least the evening snack if we did main seating dining!  Actually, we prefer second seating for a number of reasons.  We never feel we have to rush to get ready after a day of excursions, and if a kid comes back needing a nap, there’s time before dinner to do that.  We’re also more inclined to get to the shows if we go to them before dinner, as after dinner, you are so full and tired from a big day of adventure, you might decide just to turn in.  I also like that on some of our Disney cruises, the kids will get picked up by the kids’ club staff at second seating, and they will be escorted to their club for evening activities.  This gives Mom and Dad a chance to eat dinner with the kids, but also have some time to themselves to linger over a cup of tea and dessert.

Our itinerary:

Day One: Seattle, Washington

Day Two: At Sea

Day Three: Tracy Arm, Alaska

Day Four: Skagway, Alaska

Day Five: Juneau, Alaska

Day Six: Ketchikan, Alaska

Day Seven: Victoria, British Columbia

Day Eight: Seattle, Washington

Now to get there.  The plan at the moment is to drive.  From Jersey.  With three kids.  In one car.  Oh, and did I mention that at least one kid is in school until June 20th?  Unless we get no snow days, and then she might be done a couple of days sooner.  Should I start taking Valium NOW?

If Google Maps is accurate, we eliminate all pee breaks, we don’t eat anything not already in the car (I’m thinking by hour four, Granuaile is gonna look mighty tasty with some honey mustard), we don’t stop for gas, and we skip any side trips to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the World’s Biggest Rocking Chair, we can be there in just under two days (1 day, 22 hours).  My fear is, just adding in pee breaks is going to cause us to miss the boat.  Somehow, I have to balance potty stops, eating, and a tiny bit of sightseeing with getting there in four days – which puts us at a Seattle hotel the day before the cruise.  Oh, and did I mention that I wish to arrive somewhat sane?

And we’re off, faithful readers!  Watch over the next few posts how I try to lay out the trip TO Seattle.  Then we’ll talk shore excursion possibilities.  And finally, we’ll talk about how we get back in time to make my sister’s wedding on July 21st.  Dressed.  In North Carolina.

Oh – and who wants to watch my dogs for three weeks?  They’re great fun to have around!

 

Summer What?

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I laugh in the face of you summer vacationing people.  HaHa!  While you are lounging comfortably on your beaches, basking in the mountain sunshine, cruising the seven seas, and trekking across Europe, I am learning the ins and outs (although mostly ins) of the human body.  Ha….ha?

 

I have virtually vanished from the blogosphere as I crack down on the whole process of reading, writing, and wracking my brain to try and make sure that when I actually DO become a nurse, I don’t kill anyone.  Needlessly.  And damn, it’s tough!

Remember the song “The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone” – you know it, we all sang it as children.  Yeah, well, don’t try to sing it in an effort to pass the bone practical in Anatomy and Physiology I – your instructor will not be amused.  And you Disney peeps – heading in humming the Hannah Montana bone song won’t get you very far either 🙁

So, the only basking I’m doing so far this summer is in the glory of the A on my transcript from A&P I.  And I’m hoping A&P II goes equally as well.

No go, you, get back to your summer, ummm, yeah, what’s that thing called again?  Oh yeah – VACATION!  You have to have fun for the both of us!

Anna’s Tips for Cruising 4 – Excursions

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To Go or Not To Go, that is the question – Excursions.  Your cruise line will give you a bunch of options with regard to the excursions they offer, and I will tell you that I go back and forth on the excursion bandwagon.  Your mileage may vary when it comes to the value of an excursion for you and your family, but here is my best advice.

If you just want to hit the beach, hit some shops, or do a quick tour of the port, you are probably better off on your own.  There are usually reliable cab services and other drivers waiting to take you to your destination – and some spots are within walking distance of your ship.  Other locations have shuttle services run by the city, town, island, or port, and it’s usually reasonably priced to hop on the shuttle to head out to see some sights (some shuttles – like in Belfast, Northern Ireland – are free to go from the ship into the city and back).

On the other hand, if you are hoping to see some of the famous sites in the areas where you are traveling, you should consider two options – a cruise line organized excursion, or finding a private tour company.

If you are going to be visiting Rome, for example, you are likely to find on your own that lines for anything you truly want to see are long.  Many group tours bought their tickets in advance, and they will just send someone to pick them up to take the group inside.  You may find that you can only access certain things during specific times of the day, and on your own, you might not know what those times are unless you’ve thoroughly researched in advance.

This was our tour guide in Rome, where we did a privately arranged tour.  Our guide was AWESOME, fabulous with the kids, and I can’t recommend him highly enough.  His name is Manilo Tranquili, and you can find him at

http://www.limousineserviceinrome.com/

It can be tricky to find a tour guide on your own that will be reliable.  it can absolutely be done (and I did it myself on our second third trip to Rome), but you have to be willing to put in the time and effort to make sure the company you are dealing with is reputable and can take you where you want to go to see the things you want to see.

I often tell people, if it’s your first time, opt for a professional (get your mind out of the gutter, people).  Book an excursion in advance with your cruise line, and be assured that you are most likely going with people who have done this before, are well organized, and if nothing else, will get you back to the ship on time!

Anna’s Tips for Cruising 3 – Free Babysitting

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Free Babysitting!! This is your vacation, too, Mom and Dad, and while I know for me the temptation has always been great to want to spend the whole time with my kids, my kids are finding it much more appealing to spend time without me, despite my reminding them of the hard pregnancies and difficult deliveries I had with each of them.  If your children are over the age of 3 and potty trained (check your cruise line to confirm that the age is correct on your voyage), they are eligible to participate in the kids’ club activities aboard your ship.

Now, kids’ club activities vary not only from cruise line to cruise line, but may also vary from ship to ship and destination to destination.  If a ship anticipates very few children onboard, they tend to limit the number of hours and the activities for children.  We have never been on a ship with NO children’s activities, but I have heard that there are sailings where the number of children passengers is so low, there are no planned activities for children.

However, hands down, the best cruise line for children’s activities is the Disney Cruise Line.  This has absolutely nothing to do with my love of all things Mickey Mouse, but is rooted in pure fact.  Kids Club activities onboard the Disney ships begin early in the morning (by 8 AM usually) and last well into the night – going as late as 1 AM in many cases.  The activities include arts and crafts, character interaction, and lots of physical activity to keep the kids moving, dancing, and grooving.  My kids would check in at the earliest possible opportunity and not check out until it was time to disembark if it was up to them.  While they have enjoyed activities on other ships, the children’s activities alone almost justify the price of a Disney Cruise.  Phenomenal is the best way to describe the kids’ clubs with Disney.

Next port o’call – cruise excursion tips

Anna’s Tips for Cruising 2 – How low should you go

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Another consideration when booking a cruise is what deck on the ship you’d like to be on.  As someone who comes from poor Irish stock, I have to tell you, the lower decks on a cruise ship always scared me. Visions of My People on the Titanic, stuck in steerage, unable to get to the life boats – not a good picture in my head when I’m booking a cruise.  I felt it was much better to be closer to the top of the ship, nearer the lifeboats, so that if there was an emergency, I could get there before the ship went down.  I know – not the happiest way to book a cruise.

Well, we took a recent seven day cruise, and our trip was free.  Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, so while I was pretty upset that were were on Deck 2, there was very little I could do to complain about the location.  We joked about being lower than most of the crew members on the ship, and we were just down the hallway from the shipboard hospital, so I figured we’d be exposed on a daily basis to people walking by with typhoid fever.  But now that we’ve sailed, I have to say, it was one of the best locations we’ve ever had!  We boarded the ship, went to lunch, and were able to go to our cabins at 1:30.  By 2 o’clock, all of our luggage had arrived, and we were able to start unpacking.  This NEVER happens for us!  Usually, we are lucky to get all of our luggage in time to change for dinner.  We experienced very little rocking, despite having some moderately high seas on a couple of the days of our trip.  The rest was peaceful, and except for the occasional squeaking sounds, it was really a great cabin.

We were only a floor below most of the dining rooms, convenient to the elevators to get where we needed to go higher on the ship, and on our last night, our luggage was picked up almost as soon as we put it outside the door.  Awesome location.  So if it means saving a few dollars, making the trip more affordable, don’t hesitate to choose a lower deck – or better yet, just ask for an outside guarantee.  This guarantees you an outside cabin, but they will fill you in where they have available room.  You may get a lower deck, but you might also find yourself upgraded to a verandah cabin!

Next stop on our cruise tips – Free babysitting – !!

Anna’s Tips for Cruising Part 1

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“Aruba, Jamaica, ooohh I wanna take ya; Bermuda, Bahamas, come on Pretty Mama…”

Yeah, so I don’t have the best singing voice, get over it.  And the song, well, you won’t find it on too many top 10 lists.  Sue me.

Back in the day – and that day meaning before I had a houseful of kids – I owned a travel agency specializing in cruise travel.  It was called the Cocomo Cruise Company (I loved that song), and while I didn’t have a chance to run the agency very long before we were leaving South Florida for New Jersey – and taking a new baby with us – it did help me to find a love of cruising – a love that began to flourish thanks to my in-laws.

My mother and father-in-law are frequent cruisers, and my father-in-law was a Walt Disney World cast member when the Disney Magic was built.  A lottery was held to determine who the passengers would be on the Maiden Voyage of the Magic, and my father-in-law was lucky enough to be chosen!  There were five of us boarding the vessel, and I thought I had never seen anything so elegant and wonderful in my life.  At least as beautiful as the nicest hotels, the ship held Magic and Wonder at every turn, from the amazing restaurants to the incredible shows.  While the trip was not without it’s mishaps (it was, after all, Disney’s first foray into the cruise business), it was wonderful, memorable, and something I knew I wanted to do again.

Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about cruising – like what’s important, what’s worth paying extra for, and even some stuff about tipping – the good, the bad, and the so ugly, we shouldn’t mention it.  But we will.  Because we’re like that.  So here are some of my best cruising tips.

1 – Inside? Outside? Verandah? Oh My! – When you hear the call of the deep blue sea, and that call leads to a call to your travel agent (and I know two phenomenal ones, so if you need numbers, let me know!), one of the first things they are going to ask is whether you want an inside cabin, an outside cabin, or a cabin with a verandah.  Now, I have to tell you, I have been on many cruise ships, and on at least a few of them, I’ve been with sick children – or I’ve been sick myself.  While this is something you certainly can’t plan for, it might be something to consider.

If you are looking at a standard sized cabin – as opposed to some sort of suite – it won’t matter in terms of size or storage if you book an inside or an outside cabin.  For some people, there is a concern that they will feel claustrophobic if they don’t have a window, so if you don’t think you can make it through the length of your cruise without a window in your room, don’t book an inside cabin.  If it doesn’t matter one way or another, consider the amount of time you will actually spend in your stateroom.  If you plan to spend your cruise lounging around the cabin, ordering room service, and watching television, you might want to spring for an outside cabin so you can at least periodically allow yourself to see the sun.  If you are booking excursions, plan to be up and out each day doing things in the ports or on the ship, it probably doesn’t matter.

Now for the verandah.  A couple of cruises ago, we spent a week on a ship, sailing to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Key West.  During the trip, my middle daughter got sick.  Then my youngest daughter got sick.  Then my husband got sick.  I spent quite a lot of time in the cabin, and with the two sick children, I spent a lot of time trying to be quiet so they could sleep.  Having a verandah on that cruise probably saved my sanity.  I didn’t get to go off the ship in Grand Cayman, so the closest I came was to take pictures from my balcony on the ship.  Having the verandah allowed me to go sit outside, enjoy some of the sun, and not disturb the girls sleeping inside.  It gave me a place to go to feel like I was “out” of my stateroom, and I have to say, even in the evening, while the rest of the family was at dinner, and I was sitting with a sick kid, it was nice to be able to step outside for just a few minutes and enjoy an ocean breeze.  It also allowed the sick children, who did not get to enjoy the kids’ activities, a bit of a breath of fresh air and sunshine.  I would say that having a verandah on that cruise was well worth the extra money spent to have one.  Again, getting sick is not something you can anticipate, but if you do plan to spend time relaxing in your cabin, consider a balcony.  Also, if you plan on going somewhere where the scenery would be amazing, you might want to budget for a balcony.  I haven’t been to Alaska yet, but I don’t plan on cruising there unless I have a balcony cabin.

Next tip – How low should you go?

The one and only REAL reason we go on Cruises

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People go on cruises so they can have luxurious accommodations, travel to exotic locations, enjoy endless pampering, experience non-stop entertainment and activities, and eat decadent and delicious meals 24 hours a day.

Not so the Skamarakas family.  The one and only reason we ever go on a cruise?  It is pictured above.  What the hell, you say?  You go on cruises to eat oatmeal with fruit in it?  This, my fellow Americans, is not oatmeal with fruit in it.  It is COLD oatmeal with fruit in it.

Yes, the one and only REAL reason we ever go on a cruise is so that my husband can eat Bircher’s Muesli.  It’s an item not found on the local diner menu, because honestly, they probably, like me, never heard of it.  Until we went on a cruise.

And they have it on nearly every cruise on which we’ve ever gone.  Jim loads up a big bowl of it every morning, and quite frankly, the ship could pull a Titanic on him, hit an iceberg, and sink to the bottom of the ocean.  As long as he has a tummy full of Bircher’s Muesli, my husband is going down a happy man.

So, on Monday, it will be the 14th anniversary of my husband’s 29th birthday.  I’d love to make him some Bircher’s Muesli for breakfast on Monday morning, but the recipes for this dish are so varied!

If anyone has braved making this dish, I’d love to know your tried and true recipe.  I’d hate to have to book another cruise to help celebrate Jim’s birthday with his favorite meal.

Hey, wait a minute….

A Wonder – Ful Weekend with Disney Cruise Line

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 So the family is embarking on a fall getaway on the Disney Wonder!  This trip will be Jim and I; all three girls; my stepmom Ann; and two nephews, Danny and Christian.  We have gone back and forth on how to make this trip possible, and decided a weekend where the kids would miss the least amount of school worked just perfectly.  My girls have Thursday off, the nephews have Monday off, so the most school anyone is missing is two days.  Jim is flying down to Orlando on Wednesday night, and he and Brighid are meeting the rest of us at the airport on Thursday morning, where we will caravan in a rental car and Brighid’s car with a mountain of luggage to Port Canaveral. 

To start the trip off properly, Jim and Brighid meet us inside MCO.  How cute are they, with their homemade limo service signs?

Let’s first meet Brighid’s car.  Cute.  Downright adorable.  Lovely little cream colored creature known as a Mini Cooper. 

Adorable, right?  But we are a party of eight.  With loads of luggage.  Jim rented a comfortable car, and fortunately, we are able to fit nearly all of the larger bags in the trunk of his car, but the back of Brighid’s car is jam packed with overnight bags we don’t necessarily need on the cruise.  We hope.  I am praying all the way to the port that no one has packed life sustaining medication into a bag that looked like a bag they didn’t need on the trip.

So, in my normally disorganized state, I did not put our Disney Cruise Line tags on the suitcases I packed.  Ann, who is way more organized than I am, did put her tags on.  We took a bit longer than we should have getting to baggage claim, by the time everyone went to the bathroom, and when we got down there, my suitcases are the only ones still on the belt, moving around.  Ann’s suitcases are no where to be found.  I head over to the “Where the Hell is My Luggage” office for US Airways to find out Where The Hell Our Luggage is.  It turns out, the Mouse is SO efficient, his team even picks up bags they aren’t supposed to pick up just because it has a tag on it that says it is a cruise line piece of luggage!  With some faith, trust, and pixie dust, we leave the baggage claim (or un-claim as the case may be) area and hope the rest of the luggage arrives at the Port.

Brighid has Ann and a couple of kids with her, and Jim and I take two more kids with us, and relying on her GPS, Brighid heads off to find the ship.  Jim and I detour into a Starbucks, because the Philly airport doesn’t have one on the side I leave from, and we barely had time this morning to make our flight.  We literally arrived at the gate in time to get in line to board the plane. 

Our detour means we beat Brighid to the port by only a few minutes, instead of the length of time that Jim anticipated.  There is construction at the port, and I’m not sure where Ann and Brighid and their two kids are, but Jim drops off me, my two kids, and a mountain of luggage off at the curb in the passenger drop off zone, and he heads of to return the rented vehicle.  Brighid has dropped Ann off somewhere – where I’m not sure – and she has headed off to park her car.

As I am standing there with my mountain of luggage and two kids, a porter gathers a group of us overburdened looking souls together.  He promises salvation by way of taking our luggage from us and insuring it’s arrival onto the proper ship before said ship leaves the port.  In exchange, he requests that we look into the depths of our souls and the kindness of our hearts.  He explains that they are poorly compensated and over worked, and they suffer chronic back pain because tourists like us pack 482 pounds of luggage to bring on a trip where we will spend 3 days sitting on a beach or poolside in a bathing suit.  He tells us that while he himself is an overweight white guy, many of the employees are underfed foreigners with incredibly large families back in their native countries, all of whom need to be supported.  He begs, no, pleads with us to empty our wallets and tip generously for the effort they will put forth on our behalf.  I, of course, overtip. 

I finally get Brighid on the phone, and she tells me Ann is somewhere.  She doesn’t know where.  I call Ann, and she tells me she is already inside the terminal, relaxing peacefully with whatever children she is in charge of.  I figure I might as well go in with the children I have, and I phone Jim to tell him to meet me inside.  As always, he either does not have his phone on or readily available.  I hope he finds us.

We breeze through security, and we meet Ann upstairs.  After a few minutes, Brighid joins us.  Still no sign of Jim, but they are boarding people on the ship.  Ann suggests we try to go check in, and I don’t know if they’ll let me do that without Jim in tow.  I check with information, and they advise me that as long as he has his passport and stuff with him, all he has to do is check himself in, and get his photo taken, and he can join us. 

We head over to get into line, and the wonderful Cast Member there directing us to the proper line has something very special in common with one of the members of our sailing party!!  That member of our crew was so excited, she made this poor unsuspecting cast member pose for a photo.

Our Brighid met this Brighid.  Yep, both Brighid, both spelled Brighid.  The Disney Brighid said in all of her years (and yeah, I know she barely looks out of college herself), she has only ever met one B-R-I-G-H-I-D and it was a woman from Ireland, who pronounced the name correctly – which is BREED.  Our Brighid was so thrilled to meet in person someone with the same exact name, she could have left the port right then and considered the vacation a success.

By the time we were just about to wrap up our check in, Jim came over, checked in with us, and we were ready to go.  We went over and the kids got wristbanded for the kids’ club, and we picked up our piece of “Come Get Your Crabby Kid” beeping technology, and we were on board this beautiful ship in no time flat. 

I love the part where you walk onboard, and they call out your name and welcome the Skamarakas Family onboard, with crew members waving Mickey hands at you as you walk on.  Very cool.

I glance up at what is one of my favorite parts of the ship – the chandelier – and we head to a lovely lunch at Parrot Cay.  The table behind is us is filled with heavily armed military looking people.  I think they are the kids’ club counselors.  God bless them and the terrific job they do, no matter what kind of ammuntion it takes.

 (this is the chandelier up close)