Monthly Archives: July 2017

How My Dream Trip Became a Nightmare

I first saw the itinerary for this cruise online while I was in Mexico in January 2016. It was everything I ever dreamed of in a trip to Australia and New Zealand including 5 ports all along the eastern and northern coast of Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. That alone would have sold me but in addition, this itinerary included Bali and Komodo Island in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Singapore, places that hadn’t been on my list previously but immediately attracted me.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 6.29.37 AM 2Scheduled to set sail from Auckland, New Zealand the following year on February 18, 2017, it looked like the perfect winter getaway from Iowa and the website showed the starting price for the 19-day cruise was only $2009 per person. I was so excited I called Norwegian Cruise Line right then to book it. This was my dream trip.

The price for the two of us including taxes and fees for an ocean-view cabin was just under $5000 which I thought was a bargain. When you book a cruise over a year in advance on NCL, you pay a deposit and pay the balance three months before the sail date. Until you pay the full cost, you can cancel the trip with no penalty. Our final payment was due in mid-November of 2016.

Normally, when I book a trip I’m so excited I start planning immediately but this time, it seemed like events conspired to keep me from doing much advance planning. I booked in January 2016 and had other trips already scheduled for March, April, May, August, and October. I thought I’d do more research following those trips but then in September, I spotted an affordable Viking River Cruise for the end of October which distracted me again.

I did call the cruise line in September just to confirm my price and found an even better deal which saved me a couple hundred dollars and included pre-paid gratuities, a substantial savings of $12.50 per person per day.

Anyway, when I called in mid-November to make my final payment, I had only done a little advance planning so I got busy and booked our flights to Auckland and back from Singapore for $1755 each. We would depart from Minneapolis on February 13 and arrive on February 15 allowing us 3 days to see Auckland and environs before our cruise departure. Our return flight on March 11 allowed an extra day to tour Singapore. I also reserved pre and post-trip hotels in Auckland and Singapore. And most importantly, I reserved the excursion to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.

Over the following 4-6 weeks, I researched our ports in earnest to determine which excursions we should book and which we could do better on our own, starting with Auckland, New Zealand. In January, I ran across an article on the internet about the mechanical problems experienced by our ship, the Norwegian Star, in December while cruising an itinerary in Asia. The problems resulted in an altered itinerary and angry passengers who gathered in the atrium to protest the captain’s refusal to meet with them. I called NCL, not because I thought they could tell me anything, but more to register my concern. They assured me the ship was fixed and our cruise would not be affected. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.

Meanwhile, we spent two weeks in Mexico in January and returned to learn my mother had been ill with the flu while we were gone. When I talked to her, she warned me not to come over to avoid getting sick before our next trip. I continued to check in with her and she didn’t seem to be improving but I knew her husband was taking good care of her. Finally, after a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. I went over to see her and was deeply concerned by how ill she was. She assured me the antibiotics would put her on the road to recovery soon.

During this time, we received a revised itinerary from the cruise line because the ship continued to have problems. I was disappointed to learn the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia; and Bali were canceled but fortunately, Arlie, Australia, the port for the Great Barrier Reef was still included.

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The day before our scheduled departure we went to Des Moines to visit our two sons and daughter-in-law and returned that night to learn my mother was in the hospital. The following morning, I raced to the hospital to see her. She was sitting up in the chair and looked much better but she was still wracked with coughing spells during our visit. We left for the airport, however, feeling comforted she was in the hospital where she would receive good care. My brother, Paul, promised to check on her daily by phone and keep me informed by email.

I called my mother from our first stop at LAX before our 2-day flight to Auckland. She told me they had withdrawn fluid from her lungs, she felt 100% better, and she expected to go home the next day. I was enormously relieved.

Our flight was uneventful. We departed from Minneapolis on February 13 with stops in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia and arrived in Aukland, New Zealand on February 15. We crossed the international date line losing an entire day which happened to be Valentine’s Day. (How memorable is that?)

The morning of February 16 (the 15th at home), I woke up to an email from my son, Brian, telling me to Face Time my brother. Paul told me the fluid from my mother’s lungs had been tested and indicated stage 4 lung cancer. They assured us, however, she had about 6-9 months and they would devise a treatment plan. Meanwhile, we would Face Time with my mother every day while we were gone. With this bad news on my mind constantly, we continued with our plans to see New Zealand before our cruise. (More on what we saw in future posts.)

We arrived at the cruise port to board the ship on February 18 (17th at home) where we experienced near disaster. When we finally reached the front of the line to check in, we were asked for our visas for Australia. VISAS???? We didn’t know we needed a visa to get into Australia! We had just stopped in Sydney on our way to New Zealand and didn’t need a visa. How had I missed this requirement? The cruise line accepted no responsibility to inform passengers in advance and I had missed it. Well, we moved to another line with several hundred new friends to apply online for an Australian visa. We were toward the front of the line but it wasn’t moving at all due to a variety of factors including but not limited to a slow internet connection, too few computers, and operator inexperience (aka elderly cruisers with few computer skills). At one point, two new friends, Michelle and Debbie, and I left the cruise terminal in search of internet access, found it, but still couldn’t get the program to work and approve our visas. So back to the line we went where we stood in line for hours. We finally did get the requisite visa and checked in.

While all this went on, my stress level increased due to a text from Brian.

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While I was worried, I wasn’t totally panicked… yet. When we finally boarded the ship we went straightaway to the internet people on board to get my account set up. (I had 250 minutes to use during the cruise to check in by Face Time with my mother.) As we set sail, Brian told us that my mother’s cancer was even worse than initially thought.

The next morning we arrived in Bay of Islands (which had been restored to our cruise itinerary) and had an email telling us they were discontinuing all treatment and my mother had just 7-10 days to live. I was in total shock. By happenstance, we arrived at a historic church just as the service was beginning. After crying copiously throughout the service, I knew I needed to talk to my mother and find out her wishes. If she wanted me to come home, that’s what we would do. When I talked to her, she said, “Come home.”

That was easier said than done when you’re on a ship on the Tasman Sea three days from port. I checked flights from Sydney to Minneapolis and found they would cost around $1200 each. We went to customer-service on the ship, explained our situation, and told them we would disembark in Sydney. I asked about calling Delta Airlines and, as they put the call through, I told Jim I forgot my credit card in our cabin. As he ran to get the card, I explained my situation to Rakennya with Delta in Atlanta. She was able to credit our flight from Singapore and book a flight from Sydney for an additional $224 each. Jim returned to the service desk to tell us the key card wouldn’t work in our cabin door. They rekeyed it and off he went again down one floor and about a block down the hall. I tearfully explained the problem to Rakennya and she soothed me by saying, “It’s ok, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. I’m not hanging up.” Jim came back again, still not able to open the door. This time they told him housekeeping would meet him there. When housekeeping finally arrived and couldn’t get in either, they had to call security. The problem turned out to be a dead battery in the door. (Who knew they had batteries?) When Jim finally returned with the credit card, I’d been on the phone with Rakennya for over 45 minutes. That woman was a saint.

We had three nights on board before we would reach Sydney and get our flight home. We Face Timed with my mother when we got up each morning which was noon of the previous day at home. All my family was with her, both her children and grandchildren, none of whom live in the same town but they all managed to get there in time to say their goodbyes. We talked to them, too, and they would ask, “How’s the trip?” and we would respond everything was beautiful but we just wanted to get home. During that time we also met several people on the ship who were lovely and understanding. I was, frankly, a mess and my dream trip had become a nightmare.

We thought we still had plenty of time to get home and say our goodbyes in person until an email from our son, Michael, told us on February 21 (the 20th at home) she was comfortable but no longer awake. When we called, he told us it was time to let her go. She died at home later that day, surrounded by her loving family. It was just one week after we left home and two days before we returned.

Today, over five months later, I can still hardly believe it. I often think, “Oh, I need to call my mother about…” Then I realize she’s gone. I miss hearing her soft southern drawl and the way she said my name. I even miss how she would say the most outrageous things and then look at my husband and say, “Isn’t that right, Jim?” I miss her every single day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Family, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Hasta la Vista PA

Before I move on to our ill-fated trip down under, I have a few more memories to share from January 2017 in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico.

Food is an important component of any trip. Since this was our third stay in Puerto Aventuras, we have several favorite restaurants but Cafe Olé tops the list. (It’s also the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor.) Jim loves the all-you-can-eat fall-off-the-bone ribs with potato salad, coleslaw, and beans offered on Sundays and Tuesdays and I can always find fresh local fish.

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Ribs with potato salad, coleslaw, and beans at Cafe Olé

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Fish (which I started eating then remembered to photograph) with grapefruit, rice, and fresh veggies at Cafe Olé

The number 1 dessert place is Jessie Gelato where Jim and Gail can be found every evening getting their home-made gelato fix. They didn’t have to twist Chuck’s arm either.

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Jim, Chuck, and Gail at Jessie Gelato

Every year we walk across the highway to the local village to find authentic Mexican food but each time we retreat fearing Montezuma’s revenge from the local water. This time we finally stood our ground and ate at A Tu Parador which means “at your roadside inn.” That makes sense since this place is just next to the highway.

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Jim, Chuck, Gail, and me

The various condiments for the tortilla chips were tasty with some heat and the beers on tap were big and cheap.

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Condiments for chips

I ordered a fish taco and while it was a no frills, basic taco, it hit the spot. This was probably the least expensive meal we had the entire two weeks and we didn’t get sick either. I’m sure we’ll be back.

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Fish taco

One advantage of staying in the condo at Chac Hal Al is the ability to cook some of our own meals. The walk to the large super market, Chedraui, is 2.9 km (1.8 mi) each way but twice a week we can buy fresh produce at the farmer’s market just a couple of blocks from our condo.

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Farmer’s Market in Puerto Aventuras

Each day we checked at the marina for fresh fish that charter boats sometimes sell if the customer doesn’t want it. Chuck got lucky one day and bought some yellow fin tuna that is usually eaten raw after marinating but we grilled it to perfection with a little olive oil and onion.

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Chuck also got a lesson on harvesting and opening coconuts from Miguel, one of the grounds keepers at Chac Hal Al.

Chuck engaging the grounds keepers

Miguel picking a coconut

Opening the coconut

Jim tasting coconut milk

Coconut meat

This year we enjoyed a special treat when the Green Bay Packers played in the NFC Championship. One of the restaurants, Palapas, offered a package for an all-you-can-eat buffet including margaritas, piña coladas, rum punch, and beer during the game for just $12. Although the game was a blowout and the Packers played like high schoolers, the food was good, we had live music before the game, and we drowned our sorrows in margaritas.

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Palapas

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Breakfast at Palapas

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Live music at Palapas

A few more random memories:

Gail and I especially enjoy a drink at the bar at the Omni Hotel next door where we can sit in the jetted pool with a view of the water. We dragged the guys along for the fun. Gail was wearing an itty bitty bikini and I didn’t think she’d appreciate me posting that photo so I’ll leave it to your imagination.

One night while sitting at a restaurant on the marina, we saw fireworks over the water to the south of PA, probably at Barceló Resort. Sometimes if the wind is right, we can even hear music from major artists like Luke Bryan playing at Barceló.

One morning I planned to hike out to the lighthouse but the terrain was so challenging I made it just part way and took photos instead.

The grounds at Chac Hal Al are always well-maintained and I never tire of the beautiful views.

The little pool at Chac Hal Al

Iguana and Jim sunning themselves

Panorama view of our view from our balcony

Gail and me after a swim

We’ve already booked our two-week stay at Chac Hal Al in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico for next January. Until then, hasta la vista.

Riviera Maya from the air

 

Based on events from January 2017.

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Categories: Food, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Puerto Aventuras 2017 Continued

Each year we look for new things to do while we’re in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico. This year we found the Original Snorkeling Adventure to Puerto Morelos Reef National Park. The national park is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef which is the largest coral reef in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is larger.

We booked this tour at one of the local tour agencies in Puerto Aventuras. For $89 per person, they picked us up in Puerto Aventuras, transported us 34 miles (55 km) to the park by mini bus, took us out in small groups to snorkel at three different locations, fed us a buffet lunch with an open bar, and returned us to PA after a seven hour day. It was loads of fun at a reasonable price.

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The grounds at the Original Snorkeling Adventure

 

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When we arrived at the park, we learned we had to pay an additional park entrance fee of $4, cash only. We’d brought very little cash with us but managed to scrape together the fee for the four of us. Some people didn’t have any cash with them and I don’t know what they did. We were also informed that only biodegradable sunscreen was allowed but fortunately I brought a credit card and could pay the $15 for it. We were directed to use the lockers available free of charge for valuables and used the bathrooms before boarding the boat.

I was surprised when I saw how small the boats were. It made sense, however, after the short ride to the reef. The reef is protected and snorkelers must be accompanied by a certified guide. Snorkelers are required to wear a life vest and are prohibited from standing on the coral. More than 14 snorkelers would be difficult for the guides to manage and keep watch over.

 

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One of the boats headed to the coral reef

 

 

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Chuck applying biodegradable sunscreen, Gail, and Jim on the boat

I’m not a strong snorkeler and in spite of the life vest, I floated low in the water which made me nervous. One of the guides gave me the life preserver ring which I laid on top of with my face in the water and I finally relaxed enough to enjoy the experience. In spite of my unorthodox approach, I managed to see the coral and lots of colorful fish but I was unable to take underwater photos with the camera attached to my wrist. I’m sure I was an odd sight and I wish I had a photo to share. After the first stop, I happily stayed on the boat taking photos and video of the others. Jim, Gail, and Chuck offered rave reviews of the second stop as well as their entire experience.

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Jim snorkeling

I took a short video of Jim snorkeling which you can see below.

 

After the first two snorkel sites, we had a break onshore before the final site. Gail, Chuck, and I decided to forgo the third site and elected to have a margarita instead. Jim forged on without us and ended up with blisters and raw toes where the flippers rubbed the skin off. Next time he’ll bring socks to wear under the flippers.

 

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Chuck, Jim, and Gail at lunch

 

The buffet lunch was tasty including salad, rice, beans, shredded pork, chicken, tortillas, and the open bar with beer and margaritas. They probably served soda, too, but I don’t remember since I didn’t consume any.

 

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My lunch

Bellies full, we adjourned to the beach to relax and soak up a little sun.

 

 

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Gail and me

 

I also checked out the hammocks which are perfect for a siesta.

 

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This is the life

 

 

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Goodbye to the Original Snorkeling Adventure

 

I’ve seen some negative reviews online of the Original Snorkeling Adventure but I respectfully disagree. Some of the complaints address the length of time it takes to pick up people from resorts all over the Riviera Maya. If you don’t have the time to spend doing that, you’ll want to pay the price for a private tour. We were on Mexican time and enjoyed the price, the experience, and the open bar.

 

Based on events in January 2017.

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