Friday, May 23, 2014

The KMart of Cruises

When Chris first asked if I wanted to go on this cruise I thought it would be a nice break after a long and hard semester and would be interesting to compare it to the high-end cruises I've done with my father.  While Carnival is called the "Walmart of Cruises," I think a better comparison would be to Kmart or Sears (when Sears was still popular).  It's less a luxury cruise and more what lower middle class and middle middle class people imagine luxury to be.

We booked an interior stateroom (there just wall behind the curtains), but it was pleasant.  I think it was a little smaller than the staterooms we had on either the AMALotus or Celebrity Xpedition and the amenities weren't as nice, but it was comfortable.

We had our safety briefing in the Dynasty Lounge, led by someone who appeared to be Vanilla Ice.

 Afterwards, we met a very nice couple on deck: Jane (from Lodi) and Eli (from Santa Cruz).  As it happened we all signed up for the late seating and they were seated at the table behind us.  Their table was very full and ours was empty, so we invited them to join us.

Every evening, our steward Rama (from Bali in Indonesia), put little towel animals on our beds.  The glasses, however, are mine.

Our first port of call was Avalon, in Catalina, which we reached by tender.

We spent an hour and a half on the island, mostly using the Wifi to check our email and facebook pages.

Avalon beach with our ship, the Carnival Imagination, in the far distance.

 The Lido deck was mostly small kids in the pool, with their parents or college students drinking in the bar (this is colloquially known as "the booze cruise").

When I saw the people lined up for open seating (it stretched around the atrium) I was particularly glad we signed up for a specified seating.

The second night's dinner was the "formal night."

The second port of call was Ensenada.  I took the two winery tour in Valle de Guadelupe, while Chris stayed on board and had a massage.

We drove 45 minutes out of  Ensenada to Valle de Guadalupe, which is the main wine-growing region in Mexico, stopping first at L.A. Cette wineries.

We visited the fermenting rooms, and then the aging rooms, which had a mix of French and American oak barrels.

Afterwards was the moment everyone had come for:  the tastings.  We tried about six wines - one sparkling, two whites and three reds.  Since no one had lunch, they had bread, cheese, olives and olive oil out for us.  I had a lot of bread and cheese so I didn't get too snookered by the wine (you will note the absence of anything resembling a spit bucket).  In the end, I did buy a bottle, but of the olive oil, not the wine.

Afterwards we went to a small, organic winery across the street, where we had tastes of four more bottles of wine, as well as some  local pizza.  After everyone was good and toasted we got back on the bus.

 In the late afternoon, we set sail, heading out to sea.

The last day was the sea day.  In the afternoon, they at "tea time" at 3 pm.  As you can see, people didn't really dress up for it.

They had what you would basically expect, but it was not nearly as nice as it looks.  The worst part was the tea. The water was luke warm and since they were reusing a thermos that previously had contained coffee, the water had a bitter, burnt coffee after taste.  The cucumber sandwiches were alright, but the macarons were overbaked.  Only the crumpet was good.

The last evening we took the "chef's table" event.  We had tried to sign up for it the first day, but were told that it was booked even before the cruise (which we had tried to do but were told that wasn't possible).  The maitre d' came over and after I recognized his name as Hungarian I did my best to charm him into getting us a table.  I used the few words of Hungarian I knew, talked about favorite spas and restaurants in Budapest.  For the next three nights there was no luck, but finally on the last day we got the call.

The tour begins in the galley and is led by the chef.

We try several appetizers and then we have a demonstration of how they make their most popular dessert: the Carnival melting chocolate cake.

Then they took us to the line where the hot and cold foods are prepared.  These re the cold shrimp salads ready to go out.

Finally, we went out to the ship's library, which had been transformed into our private dining room.  Here's our menu.

There was a large  party of six, including one girl who had only graduated from CSULB's business school the year before.

The dishes they served  us were the best we had on the ship.  Many showed the influence of molecular gastronomy.  For example, this brined cornish game hen was accompanied by balsamic vinegar "caviar" and parmesan "caviar," which involved dropping the liquids into another solution until the formed the small caviar-sized "pearls."

This was their version of "soup and salad," with various greens in a "warm apple and turnip soup."  Except the soup was more luke than warm.

This salmon was still pretty moist (unlike the overcook piece I had been served at lunch) but the carrots and beet strips standing upright brought to a vegetarian recipe for something called "the enchanted broccoli forest" from the old vegetarian cookbook of the same name.

By dessert I was ready to burst, but I did very much enjoy this dark chocolate, truffle cake.

 Thursday morning we awoke back in Long Beach.

They tied the ship to the dock around 7 am.

 After that it was just time to disembark and go home.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Last Dinner in Krakow

I decided not to go back to Szara Kazimierz for my last dinner in Krakow; I didn't want to take away from it being my farewell dinner with the students.  I wanted to have goose one last time before I left and when I passed by Kogel i Mogel and saw that they had been awarded a prize for their goose, I thought why not try here.

The inside of the restaurant was all set up for two different large groups, so I asked if they would take a party of one, and they said sure, as long as I was willing to sit in the garden patio.  I was fine with that.

It was only about 6:15 pm, so there weren't many other diners out yet, but it did fill up.

In looking over their menu outside, I thought about getting the mushroom soup, but their seasonal menu and cream of white asparagus so I ordered that instead.

It was only OK, though.  More of a pale imitation (cough, cough) of the Spargelsuppe I had in Berlin.  Not bad, but the German versions were much better.

Thankfully the main course of goose leg confit with roasted plums and red cabbage was fantastic; the best goose I've had on this trip.  Delicious.  I ate all of it.

The waitress encouraged me to order a side, so I agreed to try the Polish noodles.  They turned out to be very much like potato gnocchi, but with a lot of fresh dill on top.  Poles really love dill as a flavoring herb. The noodles were just OK; I don't think I'd order them again.  The goose was definitely enough.

Since it was my last meal, I wasn't going to pass up dessert.  I ended up getting the hot apple tart and a hot chocolate with whipped cream.

This turned out to be quite different than I expected.  Instead of the regular Polish szarlotka, with its shortbread base and top and lots of sliced apples in between, this was much more French.  The base was a puff pastry dough with apple sections placed on top.  It was good, but I think I like the szarlotka better.  The hot chocolate was excellent.

After that I headed back to the hostel to start packing up.  After getting nearly 8 hours of sleep last night, I'm up this morning about to have breakfast.  I don't really need to leave for the airport until about 10 am, but I'll probably leave 9 or 9:30 just to be on the safe side.  I'm checking in my suitcase for the return flight.  I have an hour and a half layover in Munich followed by a direct flight to Los Angeles.  I should be home late tonight.

Last Full Day in Krakow

I'm starting to feel a little sad that this long set of trips (really three different ones) is finally coming to an end.  Today was about settling up odds and ends and getting ready to leave tomorrow.  It started at the post office where I picked up bubble wrap (almost enough to cover everything; I forgot about one small thing until it was too late).

After that I headed out to the National Museum.  This is really a collection of four distinct and different exhibitions.  I began with the temporary exhibition, a retrospective on the work of Chilean artist Roberto Matta, who trained with surrealists in Paris and came to the U.S. in 1939.  All the work on display here is post-war and they did something very odd with the displays:  some works remained in constant light, while the lights on others went on and off.

Overall, I'd describe his style as "surrealist expressionism."

After that I went to the military wing, which was kind of boring, unless you really like seeing display case after display case of premodern weaponry and uniforms.  These are the "winged horsemen" or "hussars."  The feathers would make noise when the cavalry went into combat and it would psyche out the enemy.

Next was the full floor of twentieth-century Polish art.  Lots of guards watching out for photographers, but I snapped a few quick shots of interesting pieces, like this one called "Demon."

I was also fascinated by this piece by Janasz Stern from 1971 that appears to be a Holocaust-related theme.  Called "Red Tablet," in fact, it's a tombstone with the words spelled out in bones.  At the top, in Hebrew, is the acronym for "here is buried."  The last name is written "Shtern," presumably the Yiddish pronunciation of the artist's last name.

Finally, there was a small temporary exhibition of fashion photography from Poland and around the world.

I headed back to the old city and went to Chimera for lunch.  I'd wanted to try there for a while, but the dinner prices were a little too expensive for me.  I noticed they had a lunch menu, so I gave that a try.    First off was a delicious vegetable soup with rice and dill.

This was followed by a nice plate of pierogi

And finally, I finished with a fruit salad and cafe latte (that milk foam on top of the coffee, not whipped cream).

My next destination was the Museum of Pharmacy, part of the Jagellonian University.  Part of what makes this such a nice exhibit is that it includes not only lots of apothecary type displays

but also 18th and 19th century period furnishings.  Like this display of the study of Ignacy Lukasiewicz, the Polish pharmacist who invented the kerosene lamp

Or this beautiful 18th century ceiling

Of course there are lots of bottles and containers on display

But also rooms of drying herbs

Not all of which are legal in the U.S.

My final stop on my tour of local museums was the Museum of 19th Century art on the upper floor of the Sukiennice, the cloth hall that sits in the center of the Rynek.  The art on display includes examples of Polish romanticism

realism (this is Maurycy Gottlieb's "Ahasverus"):

And this rather dramatic piece that runs nearly from one wall to the other.

Afterwards, I went out to the cafe on the patio overlooking the Rynek, the largest public square in Europe.  On the hour, the local fire brigade blows a bugle from the tower of St. Mary's Basilica.  The legend is that a watchman, noticing a sneak attack by Tatars, blew this warning call.  One of the Tatars shot him in the throat with an arrow, which is why the song ends abruptly mid-note.  Here's a panorama of the square (though remember, you're only seeing half of it).  You'll have to listen carefully to hear the bugle playing in the background.


After enjoying my coffee and the view, I returned to the hostel to wrap up all my glass items to pack them away.  Now, I'm going to head back to the Rynek for a final dinner and then home to bed.  Luckily, my flight doesn't leave Krakow until 1pm tomorrow, so I'll be able to sleep in. I don't need to leave for the airport until 10 am.