Treasures of the Med: Rome

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Eye on the Tiber

Well this got off to a bad start. I had blisters on my feet from where I’d been dancing in the wrong shoes last night. Also a badly bruised knee from when I’d fallen over dancing in the wrong shoes. And a massive hangover, having drunk enough to decide that dancing in those shoes was a good idea in the first place!

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Palais de Justice

But we were booked onto the Rome on Your Own trip, plus had tickets booked in advance for a guided tour of the Vatican museums, which included the Sistine Chapel.

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barriers

The journey takes about an hour and a half, but is very traffic dependent – Rome’s congestion is pretty bad. It’s a breathtakingly stunning city, but the Tiber is a bit smelly. The bus dropped us at the Palais de Justice, and we set off to wander during the morning. Found a little cafe which did shakkerata coffee – 2 for €5. We had strolled through a beautiful open Plazzo, including a cooling off step inside St Agnes church. There seem to be a lot of beggars around, sadly I had no coins to give the chap sitting on the church steps.

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Crowded square

We weren’t aiming to get to the Coliseum, and the Trevi Fountain was closed for repairs, so we just ambled. Through an open air market, full of lovely fresh veg, including courgettes with their flowers attached. We checked a few menus of places for lunch, and eventually settled on a pizza place which was doing pizzas with the courgette flowers I’d admired earlier. We grabbed a taxi to the Vatican, agreeing a price of €8 in advance.

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Rome with a view


Sadly, we should have said “Vatican Museum”, as the entrance to it is waaaaaay round the corner, and it was a hot day for walking. No matter, our magic ticket bypassed all the massive queues, and we were soon admiring the gift shop offerings while waiting for our tour to commence at 2.

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surveying the square

The tour itself was interesting, but at 2 hours long, we were getting a bit anxious about catching the bus back. So we passed up on the opportunity to see inside St Peters Baslica. If you wanted to really save time, you could book the guided tour (€16 each), but then either slip away from the tour guide, or just make your own way into the museum.

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facing St Peters


I was maybe not as overwhelmed as I expected to be by the Sistine ceiling. It’s an odd place – still a holy place so everyone is warned to have shoulders covered, no hats, no photos and no talking. And despite all this, there are many people breaking these rules. But by that point I think I was suffering form Vatican fatigue, having seen many beautiful statues, pictures, tapestries, sculptures, engravings, tromp l’oieul ceilings, Raphael murals…..

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Rafael in the corner

There were plenty of taxis in the square outside, but at first they wanted to charge €20 to go back to the bus stop. We negotiated them down to 10. Had time for an ice cream before getting on the bus – amarena flavour, €5 for 2. The journey home was long, and the bus was having gear issues – at one point I thought we’d have to get out an push!

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Courtyard

The Dream was sailing at 7 pm this evening, and the view was straight out of teh brochure – heading off into the sunset, G&T in hand. However, this meant we were later for dinner, so we didn’t get our usual table. The staff looked after us well, though.

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armless statue

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Painted ceiling

Michael Jackson tribute show in the evening – very moving beginning with a song called “Gone too soon”. My favourite seat at the end of an aisle up on deck 9 allowed me to nip out in between numbers to admire the sun sinking into the sea. Later, I admired the big golden moon, and the milky pathway it made on the water’s surface.

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curved walkway

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Pine cone

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faces

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colourful ceiling

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Big bowl

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Domed ceiling

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Trompe l’oeuil ceiling

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Corridor of maps

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Mural

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Real life inside the Vatican

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Terrific tiles

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Stairway

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Swiss guard

Treasures of the Med: Sorrento

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Sorrento.

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Bay of Naples in the morning sun


This was the only port of call where we’d have to use a tender to get ashore, so the advice was to avoid peak times between 8.30 and 9.30, to allow those going on excursions to get away. I’d planned to go to an abs class in the gym at 9, but R was bouncing with excitement at the sight of the place.

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View from the deck

It is a stunning aspect – little coloured buildings perched atop a steep cliff, in the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius watching serenely above. So I did my own little abs workout at 8.30, and we were ready to depart just after 9. There was no big queue to board the tender, but there was a bit of a wait then until it was full. There was quite a noticeable swell on the sea, and I was glad I had some ginger sucky sweets with me.

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Sorrento perched on a cliff

It was a bit choppy, and getting in and out of the boat was a nerve-wracking experience. We’d agreed that we would take the lift up to the top level rather than climbing all those stairs. But the harbour was very busy, a Capri car-ferry just unloading, and in the confusion I didn’t see any signs for the lift, and so we ended up climbing. It’s not THAT far, but it is steep, and not recommended for anyone unfit.

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hairpin bends

It was an aimless wandering morning – we had a look at the Byzantine style cathedral, and had shakkerata and mini canola cakes in a lovely pastry shop.

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street cafe


Sorrento is big into lemons – lemon soaps, lemon flavoured cakes, limoncello, we were even presented with a bag with a lemon in it as we got off the boat.
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Sorrento harbour

The mini-train was fully booked, so we reserved a place for 1 o’clock and found a spot with free wifi for lunch. I had noodles with prawn and courgettes, and we enjoyed an ice cream later on in the afternoon.

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mad traffic


We ambled through the little back streets, barely wide enough to let 2 people walk abreast, until we found, after a bit of map-consulting, the way to the lift. €1 one way. The walk along the shore back to the boat was a little disappointing, I expected a nicer beach. But it IS volcanic, so black and rocky goes with the territory.
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viewpoint

We stopped for refreshments at a cafe right on the harbour, where I felt duty bound to try a limoncello.

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tiny backstreets


The show that night was extracts from Cats, Miss Saigon, Hairspray and Lion King, and was well done. I HAD been intending to get an early night, but got carried away by the live music on the deck….

Treasures of the Mediterranean: First stop Sardinia

This is our 3rd cruise, all with Thomson.

Leaving early in the morning is a headache. A 5 am flight means being at the airport at 3 am, and a taxi at 2 am, prompting the consideration whether it’s worth while going to bed at all! For me, even an hour’s sleep is worth taking, so I’d had an early 9 pm bed time, and was feeling reasonably human at that hour of the day.

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Luggage checked in, with kgs to spare, we easily made it airside, where R hovered around the Burger King waiting for it to open. The flight was on time, there was no issue with getting to seats, though we were seated right at the back of the plane, and so had to put our hand luggage a few rows forward. Plus side, we were first to leave the plane when we landed in sunny Palma.

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Ah, Palma! I do love it, but so do many other travellers, and the airport is consequently rather large and not entirely user friendly. The sign board said our luggage was at track 19, and we could only see tracks 1-6. A bit of persuasion and reminding that we were ON HOLIDAY, and we did in time locate the luggage track, and our bags.

Helpful Thomson rep sent us to the coach, which took us to the boat. Boarding was very smooth, a welcome soft drink and some accompanying music helped to create the right mood.

We’d arrived each in need of an essential item – I wanted wedge sandals, and R had come without sunglasses. I remembered that the port at Palma had a shopping centre pretty close by, and checked my directions with Anna on reception, who was very helpful (and wanted to see any shoes I found!)

We dandered over to the shopping mall – the weather was HOT and I actually enjoyed being inside the air conditioned mall. Shoes were to be had a-plenty, and I had to restrict myself to just the one pair. Sunglasses were a bit more elusive, but we did eventually find a suitable emporium to satisfy his requirements.
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Back on board, took one of the “get to know the ship” tours, which I have to say wasn’t THAT informative – I specifically asked about getting into the Broadway Theatre from deck 9, and was given TOTALLY the wrong info. But no matter, I was starting to get my bearings.
Sailaway was at 11 pm – a late sailing, off into the night leaving the necklace of city lights fading into the distance.
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Sunday was our only full day at sea. This means a Fight for the Sunbeds, but I was up at 8 am to claim 2 beds near the deck pool and jacuzzi. I happily put the day in between dance classes, jigsawing in the oasis of calm inside Browsers corner, and working out how to get to the gym. Dinner was the only formal night of the cruise, where you could have your photo taken with the Captain. R wasn’t keen – we went for our usual table with Jesus and Ulysses in the Orion restaurant at 6 pm, and after that I went solo to do the schmoozing with the Captain bit. I have to say it was interesting being introduced to all the people who make the ship work – engineers housekeeping, restaurant and bar, shopping, shore trips…

Monday – at last we sighted land, in Sardinia. As the ship approached I was in awe of the misty green hillsides, and a real sense of somewhere new…
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Linda’s rule of cruises is to look out for the phrase “gateway to….” which translates as “this is a big industrial port, and you should Get Away form here as soon as you can”. With that in mind, we’d booked a shore excursion along the Costa Smeralda.
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Sardinia is remarkably quiet. At this time of year, the roads weren’t too bad, though apparently in July in August it is hot and crowded with Romans trying to escape the heat and crowds of Rome.
The tour took us to a little town beloved by the beautiful people, full of designer shops and tiny streets. We discovered the joy that is “cafe shakkerata” – an espresso blended with crushed ice until creamy, served in a martini glass.

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We also had an ice cream and admired the crystal blue waters, the fancy boats, and designer shops.
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This was a very short stop – we were back on the boat for 2. I’d booked a wine tasting experience with Ferdie, the head wine waiter, an animated and knowledgeable Chinese chap who claims Jilly Goolden was his mentor and sponsor. The most important part of the lesson was to look for the punt – the indentation underneath the bottle.

I also had a fun learning casino session for £5, which reminded me how much I enjoy blackjack.

Nest stop: Sorento.

Canaries Cruise 8: Tenerife

Why do the English pronounce Lanzarote with the final “e”, but not Tenerife? Who knows. But I suspect any attempt I make to pronounce it correctly will come across as pretentious, and have little effect on changing the status quo.

Chatting to some fellow Derry passengers earlier in the week who’d been here before, they described it as being like Buncrana – a rather tacky and seedy seaside resort in Donegal, full of cheap souvenir and Tshirt shops. They weren’t far wrong.

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I’d read that it was good for electronics and silverware, and wanted to buy my son a pair of cuff-links for his graduation. So it seemed like a good place to do Rog’s favourite pastime of “aimless wandering”. I was heading roughly for the modernistic auditorium, but happy to take my time getting there. The first obstacle we encountered was that there are major roadworks taking place on the promenade immediately outside the port – while there were a few signs once you got ashore, there was nothing in the Cruise News that had warned us of this.

We had a couple of espressos, and then started meandering among the jewellery shops looking for “gemellos”. We were a little bit stuck between really cheap and poor quality shops, and then high end jewellers selling them at £300, a bit out of my budget! Eventually found a really lovely wee shop with a helpful assistant – chose a pair shaped like buttons for 12 euro, and also chose a pair of stud earrings with the olivina green stone typical of the Canaries. For me, not my son.

Our aimless wandering continued – a few too many grafittied back streets for my liking, and Rog’s feet were starting to ache. So we agreed to split up – I’d press on to the auditorium, and he’d go back to the boat. The auditorium was an absolutely stunning building, full of graceful curves and arches. And as I walked around the back there was some of the oddest graffiti I’ve ever seen, where the rocks were illustrated with portraits of musicians past and present, from Michael Jackson to Amy Winehouse, Beethoven to Bob Geldof…

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I wandered back into town, went round the market of Africa, though many of the stalls were closing for siesta, and had a sangria and some Canaries cheese in the Apollo just beside the Plaza de Espana, with its huge cross monument.

Back on board for 4 pm, in time for Sammi’s afternoon trivia quiz, which we won! Had a final dip in the pool, posed for a photo in the jacuzzi with a colourful cocktail, and got chatting to some fellow Norn Irn travellers at the bar, who knew a mutual friend. Packed (bags have to be outside the door by 1 am), changed for dinner where we treated ourselves in le Bistro. I had escargots, mushroom soup served in a bread bowl, salad caprese, lobster thermidor, and cherries jubilee  Gave tips to our regular waiters back in the 7 Seas, watched the 10.30 show of Here Come the Girls, and enjoyed a bit of the deck party until we sailed at midnight.

Set my alarm for the morning, and got ready for the last night on board.

Cruise tip of the day: Packing your bag to leave it outside after midnight is tricky! Work back from the outfit you’ll be wearing for the journey home, what you want to wear on the last evening, and remember that all your liquids will have to go in the check-in luggage. Though you will see it again before it goes on the plane, so you have a chance to add in or take out anything that’s in the wrong place.

Canaries Cruise 7: Lanzarote

This was the prime candidate for the day we opted for a shore excursion offered by the ship, rather than just do our own thing. There were several reasons for this – we were only docked for a short time (11 am till 4 pm), it was a shuttle bus trip into town at a cost of a fiver, and anyway it was Spain’s national day so most shops would be closed (even if it wasn’t siesta time). So we plumped for the Fire Mountain tour.

I wore my cotton trousers. coral and grey broad striped T-shirt, orange Landsend jersey unstructured jacket, grey scarf, Timberland leather thongs.

On board the coach, we got our first view of this strange volcanic island, whipped by strong winds, where little grows, and the crops have to be protected by low walls. Our firt stop was the camel ride. We’d ridden camels before when climbing Mount Sinai, but these were slightly different, and the beautiful beasts wore special carrying saddles that carried 2 people, one on each side. I can’t begin to calculate the average weight these beasts of burden were being obliged to carry! I only hope they were indeed being well treated, and only worked for a few hours each day.

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They really are astounding animals – enviable long eyelashes, dinner-plate sized feet, and extendible necks. And apparently they get sexually aroused by wet weather! Arrecife was till recovering from a bad storm 2 weeks ago, though I think it was the rain rather than the camels that did the damage.

Our next stop was Timanfaya National Park, for some astounding demonstrations of just how hot the volcano beneath our feet is – some dry straw thrown into a hole in the ground catches fire in a matter of seconds, while a bucket of water poured into a hole explodes back as a geyser. The symbol of Lanzarote is the devil, so I bought a little devil pin for my son, at 2 euro. The the bus took us on a tour round some of the weird lunar landscape and spooky Mordor-esque bleak rocks. Rog didn’t enjoy some of the terrifying cliffs that we were driving perilously close to, but it was certainly an unforgettable experience. Could have done without the atmospheric background music, though.

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Then to a wine growers. Wine? Really? On this blasted and barren inhospitable lump of hot rock? Apparently the layer of volcanic ash acts as a nutrient filled sponge, and vines planted in a little hollow, and protected by the customary wall, produce a grape that makes a superbly classy dry wine. The bottles for sale were handily already wrapped in bubble-wrap, ready to transport home. At 8 euros, I was only sorry that I had to restrict myself to just the one bottle. There was a superb tourist shop as well, where I picked up some cigars to give to my son at his impending graduation.

Back on the boat, we had our last dinner in the 7 seas, watched the Cool Britannia show, with an amazing succession of costume changes, and caught a bit of a duo called Word Gets Out, who I have to say were one of the worst acts I’ve ever seen.

Cruise tip of the day: Make sure you leave room in your luggage to bring home the delicious and unusual wines that you discover!

Canaries Cruise 6: Agadir

I’d been really looking forward to visiting Morocco. Rog had been through it on a motorbike a few years ago, raising funds for the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust and their Calum’s Road project. So I’d enjoyed vicariously their exploits in Rabat trying to get visas, Marrakech where they felt it was spoilt by being overly touristy, and the stunning scenery passing the Atlas mountains.

The berth in Agadir is in a large industrial port. The information on Cruise News advised passengers to get a taxi into town, as it is a 40 minute walk through not terribly savoury surroundings. Despite this, we passed several couples obviously trying to do just that – as our taxi cost 6 euros it seemed very miserly to adopt such an approach. Maybe people don’t actually read the information readily available to them. I (unsurprisingly) had done my research, and having agreed that getting the wee tourist train around town to get our bearings would be a good first move, asked the taxi driver to take us to “le petit train”. He duly obliged, and we then spent 20 minutes wandering along the very beautiful wide paved promenade by the stunning miles-long beach, before indulging in a little of Rog’s favourite activity of “aimless wandering”. Don’t get me wrong, “aimless wandering” is all very well in the right time and place, but
1. We were in a town unfamiliar to either of us….
2. in Morocco, where we had been warned about being on our guard…
3. in the heat…
4. and since we’d been congratulating each other on reading the info and following the guidance, and pointing and laughing at others who were doing their own thing, I was more than a little aggrieved to have my plans deviated from in this fashion. Harumph.

This was not helped by the badly laid out map provided by the boat, so we did a bit of forward and backing (fending off hashish sellers) until we got back to the Petit Train stop. Two tickets cost the princely sum of 4 euros, which was just as well, as the route it took wasn’t very exciting, covering many of the same picturesque car parks and roundabouts we’d passed on the earlier “aimless wandering”.

We lunched at the little cafe right by the train stop. I was keen to try a chicken tagine (the restaurateur pointed out the menu du jour, 3 courses including a tagine main course option for 6 euro). It was fabulous. The owner tried to take a photo of us together, but couldn’t manage to work my iphone. Rog had a tomato an mozzarella salad. Add in 2 vodkas, half a bottle of wine, and 20 euros included a very generous tip.

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I had gone for my seasoned traveller look: cotton trousers, rolled up to mid calf, cream Tshirt with beaded neck, and cream long sleeved craghoppers shirt, block strip scarf, hat, and crocs.  And cheap sunglasses!.  I was also prepared for any eventuality, with loo roll, hand sanitiser, and a bottle of water in my handbag.

We asked one of the little red taxis to take us to the souk. He was imprecise about price, saying simply “comme tu veux!”. I suggested 5 euro, and that didn’t seem to displease him.
On the way, I was enjoying conversing in French, but perhaps made the mistake of revealing that I was looking for saffron and argan oil, as the taxi driver offered to take us first to somewhere to compare the prices. Rog, who doesn’t speak French, was a little concerned when we arrived at this argan oil shop, and I was unsure as to whether I ought to buy some here, or wait for the souk. Anyway, I bought a small bottle of the cosmetic oil, and I did learn quite a lot about how it is made, and the various uses in both culinary and bodycare.

At the souk, there was a debate with the taxi driver, who said he’d wait for us. We said we didn’t know how long we’d be, and I gave him 10 euro in the hope that would dissuade him, but as we started to explore the souk, it was clear he was following us round, and also tipping the stall holders off with what I was after.

The souk was incredible, I loved seeing the variety of goods for sale, from live turtles, to every kinds of spice and tea, and each stall holder was keen to show you what each thing did, how argan oil feels on your skin, how this plant can be used as a toothpick, how these seeds could be inhaled to relieve a cold….and please come and have some tea.  I was eventually enticed into the store of Jamal, who was eager to show me his guest book, where many satisfied customers had paid testimony to his good value spices and no, he wasn’t going to rip you off.  I bought some powdered saffron for cooking, some mixed tagine spice, some star anise, and he threw in as a souvenir for Monsieur a rock that would stop bleeding, and some of those toothpick plants.

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Now, I know my role as a rich Western tourist.  I know I’m going to be paying way over the odds for items.  Some people get very irate about this, I’m more philosophic.  I have  a good idea what I’m prepared to pay for something – easier in euro than it is in Moroccan dirham or Chinese yuan, granted.  But £5-10 for a Tshirt, say, or the 7 euro that I paid for a pair of leather mocassins in this souk.  I still think I was pretty overcharged for the saffron, but it’ll last me a long time, and I’ll always be able to think back to where I bought it when I use it.

Our pet taxi driver was waiting for us, and I offered him 10 euro to take us back to the boat, but via the old Kasbah, as it reportedly had lovely views.  There were quite  few street traders about in the car park, but at least with our taxi driver acting as minder, we weren’t too badly harried.

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Back on the boat, many passengers hadn’t even got off.  Those who had, complained about the dirt, the hassling by the street vendors, the predatory taxi drivers.  We were in time to catch the ice carving demonstration, and the cocktail making masterclass.

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For the evening, I changed into black sleeveless dress with black open weave/ sparkling stone jumper, black tux and black evening sandals.  We dined in the 7 seas – I had avocado and seafood timbale, asparagus soup, osso buco, and it was baked Alaska night, so all the kitchen staff enjoyed the applause as they paraded around the dining room bearing flaming desserts.  I watched the Moulin Rouge show in the jubilee, which had fabulous costumes, a bit of karaoke in the Fireworks, and managed not to join in, and a nightcap Manhattan in the Royal Observatory before hitting the sack.  Oh, and there was a chocolate fountain going at various points around the ship this evening, which was a decadent treat!

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Cruise tip of the day: Read the information on the ports -perhaps the cruise company ought to provide shuttle buses when the ship is a not very salubrious 40 minute walk away from town, but if they don’t it’ll be worth the taxi fare.

Canaries Cruise 5: Day at sea

I was a bit worried about this day at sea, as we’d experienced some rough seas so far, but it wasn’t too bad. I’d got up in time for the yoga class at 8 am, only the instructor didn’t appear! Another participant arrived, we waited for 10 minutes, I went to reception to see if they knew anything. Eventually she arrived, half an hour late, and so too late to start the class as she was supposed to have a pilates class in 10 minutes (though really, I don’t think there was anybody showing up for that one). We agreed to have the class instead at 5.30 this afternoon. Hmmmmm.

I had booked a spa taster session at 10 am – I do wonder how qualified the spa staff really are, it wasn’t the best reflexology session I’ve had, and at the end the therapist just seemed keen to sell me some products. Cha cha class at 12 – this was good fun with the on-board professionals, who ran a good spirited lesson. I volunteered to be a man when we paired up, and ended up with a really nice Scottish lass who had great rhythm. I told her that – in the spirit of the song “I danced with a man, who’d’ danced with a gal, who’d danced with the Prince of Wales” – she’d just danced with a gal who’d danced with Strictly winner Chris Hollins. Of my many claims to fame, that’s the one that always gets the best reaction!

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1 oclock – line dancing class – great fun, even though I detest the Electric Slide, with it’s ghastly 18 bar structure. Theatre comedy drama at 1.30 (twas OK, very old fashioned farce) and grabbed a bit of lunch before the quiz at 2, and the fashion show with afternoon tea at 3. I later heard someone complain that sea days are so boring!

Was chased by my yoga teacher to make the class at 5.30, though I was a little uncomfortable about doing my downward facing dogs in front of what was now an audience in the lounge the class was in.

Booked a tour for our Lanzarote day on Thursday (it’s a shuttle bus to town location, a public holiday in Spain, and we’re only there 4 hours, so this maximises the available time.)

Cocktail of the day was a Cosmopolitan. I changed into my green tunic with mesh shoulders over black crops, green shrug, and we went back to the 4 seasons where the staff greeted us like long lost friends! Called into the Abba show in the theatre – impressive costume changes from the talented performers! Wiped away a tear when they played Supertrooper – this song always reminds me of much missed friend Gert – tomorrow is Morocco, and the last time Rog was here, Gert was by his side on a motorbike.

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Cruise tip of the day: wear nice undies if you’re going for a spa treatment, you never know how much of you they’re going to reveal!