“The Ultimate Barbecue and Dance Party”

I’ve been to some nice backyard barbecues but I think I can now safely say that I attended “The Ultimate Barbecue and Dance Party”, while on a cruise no less. The  party was held on the beautiful pool deck of the Seven Seas Explorer while on a 12 night cruise along the coast of France, Portugal and Spain. We had been onboard for 6 days and knew the ship offered wonderful menus in all of its restaurants and thought that a barbecue on the pool deck would be nice but we were not expecting to be amazed.

Setting Up For The Grand Deck BBQ And Dance Party

My husband and I arrived a little early to have a cocktail at the pool bar, just as the finishing touches were being put into place. Colorful flags stretched above the deck, white table linens covered tables surrounding the pool and were laid with polished crystal and silver. Musicians were setting up their instruments and within hours after serving lunch, the crew had transformed the pool deck into a gorgeous outdoor restaurant.  As people slowly gathered to find a table, Champagne, wine and cocktails were being offered. This was the scene for a very nice barbecue, very nice indeed.

Click on any photo in the article to enlarge and see a slide show.

I decided to stroll over to the Pool Grill and see what was going to be offered. On one side there was a fresh seafood buffet with chilled Alaskan King Crab legs, shrimp and mussels piled high on ice. A chef was grilling lobster tails and shrimp kebabs. This alone let me know that it was going to be a special party, actually very special.

About this time my husband commented, “well if it was a really good barbecue, there would be a whole roasted pig”. Guess what, he was right. Just one thing though, there was not one but two whole roasted pigs just waiting to be pulled apart. Pulled pork, now we are talking about a real barbecue as far as this Texas girl is concerned.

Whole Roasted Pig At The BBQ

Of course that wasn’t all, there was more, much more. On the other side of the Pool Grill, cooked to order pasta and risotto was being prepared along with sautéed Mediterranean vegetables. In another area, there were sliced cured meats and over a dozen different, perfectly ripe, European cheeses, a large assortment of salads as well as fresh baked breads, cakes and pastries. Last but not least, there was an ice cream sundae bar with sauces and sprinkles.

I have to take my foodie hat off to Senior Executive Chef Sean Emsile and his entire galley team for pulling off “the ultimate barbecue”. The highly skilled and imaginative chefs not only prepared the freshest of ingredients, they were prepared to perfection and beautifully presented.

But wait, I did mention a dance party didn’t I. Yes, there was an orchestra and the ship’s production cast of singers and dancers, everything necessary to “Rock the Boat” as the dance party was being called.  As the sun went down, the outdoor lights came on, the music went from mellow to hot and it was time to party.

Rock The Boat Dance Party

While I never felt the Explorer rocking that night, I can guarantee you that there was a lot of swinging and rocking happening on the pool deck. A cool breeze and a starry  night sky was the “icing on the cake” so to speak.

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If  you are ever invited to a party on the pool deck of the Seven Seas Explorer, make sure you go. If it is anything like the one we experienced, I know you will have a great time and you will be saying the same thing. It was the “ultimate barbecue and dance party” that you ever had the pleasure to attend.

I thought that an evening barbecue outside on the pool deck would be nice event but was not expecting to be amazed with how nice it was. Have you ever gone to a barbecue and dance party that was memorable like this one? I’d love to hear about it.

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Spanish Basque Country

The Spanish Basque Country will delight any visitor. It is famous for its colorful fishing villages, sandy beaches and dramatic scenery along its coast as well as for cities such as Bilbao, with Frank Gehry’s striking architectural landmark, the Guggenheim Modern Art Museum. With its own flag, language and culture, the Basque Country has a different feel than the rest of Spain and should be put on your “must see” travel list.

The Colorful Fishing Village Of Bermeo

The rugged Basque coastline on the Bay of Biscay in Northeast Spain, with cliffs that plunge into the pounding surf, is dotted with traditional small villages as well as resort towns known for their spectacular beaches and some of the best surfing in Europe. During our cruise aboard the Seven Seas Explorer, we had an over night stay in the port city of Getxo, a lovely seaside town about 15 minutes from Bilbao, Spain. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited Bilbao and several other nearby towns in the Spanish Basque Country.

Click on any photo in the article to enlarge and see a slide show. 

Riding along the coast, our first stop was to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a small chapel perched on top of a tiny island. For the physically fit, you can reach the chapel by crossing a long stone footbridge and then climbing a couple hundred steep steps up the rocky island. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize it as “Dragonstone”.

Bermeo is one of the Basque Country’s most important fishing ports. The picturesque  old port has colorful narrow houses that overlook the boats in the harbor. Many are now bars where the locals stop for a drink and a pintxo (similar to tapas). In the main square, there is a pretty gazebo, the town hall and the Santa Maria Church. At the top of town, you find the Ercilla Tower which is now the Fisherman’s Museum.

The former capital of ancient Vizcaya, Gernika/Guernica was our next stop. Unfortunately it is best known for a tragic bombing event that destroyed a large portion of the town during the Spanish Civil War. Casa de Juntas, its assembly house, and an oak tree survived the bombing and are now symbols of Basque’s political history. The bombing was later immortalized by Pablo Picasso in one of his most famous paintings, the huge black and white mural called “Guernica”.  

Typical Basque Pintxos

After our tour, we visited 1000 Kolorau, a restaurant that specializes in fresh fish. We sat outside on the shaded terrace and enjoyed glasses of Txakoli de Vizcaya, the most popular white wine in the Basque region along with pintxos of grilled octopus, bread topped with potatoes, bacalao and jamón and delicious olive rolls stuffed with jamón. While tapas are common in other parts of Spain, pintxos, which are generally smaller, are traditional snacks in the Spanish Basque Country.

The following day we toured Bilbao. Our first stop was the Great Biscay Transporter Bridge built in 1893 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, the construction of which my husband found to be very interesting. It was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War but was rebuilt. It  carries people and cars, across the river in an open gondola that hangs  suspended from the bridge.

From there we drove up to Mount Artxanda, one of the two mountains within the city limits, that offers wonderful views of Bilbao from its park. There is a huge fingerprint sculpture called “Huella Dactilar” which honors the many victims that were killed during the Spanish Civil War.

Then it was on to the celebrated Guggenheim Modern Art Museum which is constructed of shimmering titanium, stone and glass. The museum is the most photographed structure in Bilbao. Outside the museum, the other popular spots for a photo is the enormous sculpture of “Puppy” which is covered in living flowers and  the giant spider “Maman”.

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Although the Spanish Basque Country is not visited as much as other regions of Spain, it should be. With spectacular scenery of lush green mountains, rolling countryside and pristine beaches, good wine and delicious food found at both small pintxos bars and world famous Michelin starred restaurants, there is something for everyone. We loved the Basque Country and would love to return for a longer visit. The resort town of San Sebastian is at the top of our list as we missed it on this trip to Spain due to a last minute port change and it is a favorite of visitors to this region.

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Simple French Dinner Party Cooking Class

You can’t keep a foodie out of the kitchen, even while on a cruise along the coast of France, Spain and Portugal. Who could resist participating in a cooking class, creating five classic French recipes that can be served at a simple French dinner party in your own home.

Simple French Dinner Party

After sailing out of the port of Bordeaux, France, my husband and I joined 16 other participants in the Culinary Arts Kitchen on the Seven Seas Explorer for a fun afternoon of cooking. We were greeted by Chef Kathryn Kelly and Chef Instructor Kellie and told to head to a cooking station and put on our aprons. Glasses of wine were poured and the fun began.

The ship’s state of the art kitchen is impressive with floor to ceiling windows looking out to the ocean, quartz countertops, and lots of stainless steel. The room has eighteen individual cooking stations built in three long curved rows. Each station has an induction cooktop, stainless steel sink, wooden knife block and pullout drawer full of necessary utensils. I’ve attended many cooking classes over the years, even given by Michelin starred chefs from France, and this wonderful kitchen is a real dream. Cutting boards and knifes were carefully laid out along with prepped ingredients just waiting for us to start cooking.

Before we started each course, we all gathered around Chef Kelly and her instructor to listen and watch how each dish should be prepared before we headed back to our own stations to cook the dish ourselves. As we were cooking, both chefs circulated among us, giving advice and making sure that we were doing everything properly. Their assistants made sure empty bowls were quickly carried away and our assembled dishes were taken to the ovens to bake. Wine glasses were refilled as we plated and then tasted our finished dishes before we started the next course.

Executive Chef Kathryn Kelly, Myself And Chef Instructor Kelli

The culinary classes are an hour and a half to two hours long and the time flew by. It was great fun, we learned some new cooking tips and were given the recipes so that we could prepare this simple French dinner in our own home for friends. I thought you might enjoy having one of Chef Kelly’s recipes…it is her Chicken Fines Herbes.

Fines herbes, an equal mixture of tarragon, chervil, parsley and chives, is a classic combination used in French cooking to enhance chicken, fish, veal, salads and egg dishes. Because they lose their flavor rather quickly, they should be added to a recipe like this at the last minute or used as a garnish for sauces, soups, sautés and seafood dishes.

Chicken Breast With Fines Herbes Sauce

Chicken Fines Herbes

Serves 6, adjust the recipe accordingly.

Preheat the over to 450 degrees.

  • 6 boneless chicken breast, skin on, room temperature
  • 6 Tbsp. clarified butter*
  • 1/4 c. minced shallots
  • 1/4 c. dry white wine
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 1/2 c. veal demi-glace
  • 1/4 c. minced fines herbes (tarragon, chervil, parsley and chives)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pat the chicken dry with paper towel. In a large sauté pan over high heat, warm 4 Tbsp. of the butter until searing hot. Add the chicken and sear, turning once, until both sides are golden brown. Transfer to the oven and cook to an internal temperature of 162 degrees. Remove from the oven and reserve warm.

In the same sauté pan over medium heat, melt the remaining 2 Tbsp. of butter and sweat the shallots until soft, about 3 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high, add the wine and stir to deglaze the pan, allowing the alcohol to evaporate and the sauce to reduce to a syrupy consistency.

Decrease the heat to medium-low. Add the cream and warm through. Then add the demi-glace and warm through, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent simmering. Stir in half of the fines herbes. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed.

Slice each chicken breast on the diagonal into 3 pieces and layer, shingle style, on a serving plate. Pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with the remaining fines herbes.

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My tips for preparing this recipe:

  • Flatten the breast on the boned side, if necessary, so that it is an even thickness.
  • Thoroughly dry the room temperature chicken breasts on both sides with paper towels then season with the salt and pepper.
  • The recipe calls for clarified butter*. You can buy clarified butter or ghee in some markets, if not, you can make it yourself. It is the same as making drawn butter. Place a stick of butter in microwaveable dish and cover with plastic wrap. Cook until the butter melts and the white milk solids rise to the top and are present at the bottom, about 1 minute. Skim off the milk solids with a spoon and carefully pour the clarified liquid into a measuring cup or bowl, being careful not to mix the bottom milky solids into the clarified butter.
  • Once the chicken is in the pan, don’t try to turn the chicken for a full four or five minutes so that the skin gets golden brown.
  • Before putting the chicken in the oven to finish cooking, check with a meat  thermometer. Depending on the thickness of the breasts, the chicken may not need any addition time to cook, mine reached the proper temperature just from sautéing.

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I hope you will enjoy the Chicken Fines Herbes recipe as much as our class did. We enjoyed the dish so much that we have prepared the chicken and herb sauce at home. I agree with Chef Kelly when she wrote “When I think of elegant, I think of French…however, when I think of simple, I usually do NOT think of French.” With this recipe, she managed to do both, creating a simple dish that will impress your guests. Thank you, Chef!

 

 

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Bordeaux And Saint-Emilion, French Wine Country

If you are a wine lover, you can’t say “Bordeaux” and not think about some of the world’s finest wines like Margaux, Médoc, Pauillac, Sauternes and Saint-Emilion. The huge wine region has 62 different appellations and more than 7300 châteaux on both banks of the Garonne River in southwest France.

For now though, I’m not referring to the great wine or the largest wine region in France but to its capital, the City of Bordeaux, a UNESCO World Heritage City. With broad boulevards, beautiful 18th century  architecture and delightful squares lined with cafés and bars, the city will remind you of Paris but on a much smaller scale.

The City Of Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne river and was a two day port of call during a  cruise aboard the Seven Seas Explorer. The ship, which only carries 750 passengers, was small enough to dock right at the quayside in the city center. With its historic buildings and gardens, it is probably one of the most beautiful waterfronts I’ve seen. All my husband and I had to do was step off the gangway and much of the city was within easy walking distance. Instead of browsing this vibrant and charming city on our own, we decided to take a guided tour of Bordeaux on one day and nearby Saint-Emilion and the surrounding wine country on the other day.

Bordeaux is a compact and very walkable city. Take a leisurely stroll along the riverfront quay where the wine trade started, through narrow streets and beautiful squares of historic Bordeaux and you will pass remnants of the old city such the Grosse Cloche or the Big Bell of Bordeaux. It used to be the gateway into the medieval city, an area now full of boutiques and cafés. In stark contrast to the old gate, the ultra modern Bordeaux law courts are a striking and unusual complex.

Click on any photo to enlarge and see a slide show.

Nearby on the main square of Pey Berland is the Cathedral of Saint André. In the 15th century a separate bell tower was built next to the cathedral. You can climb to the top of the bell tower for a wonderful view of the city.

Opposite the cathedral is the Palais Rohan which was originally built for the bishop of Bordeaux, now it is the city hall.  Nearby is the Museum of Beaux Arts, one of the largest fine art galleries in France outside Paris.

Porte Dijeaux is a decorative gate into the heart of the old city that was built in 1748 on the spot where one of the Roman gates once stood. Not far away is the Place de la Comédie with the Grand Theater and the Grand Hotel. The theater, built in 1780, it is one of the older opera houses in Europe. The square itself is where the main streets of Bordeaux converge, including the busy shopping street Rue Sainte Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in France.

La Place du Parlement, ringed with pretty buildings, cafés and a central fountain was once the seat of Bordeaux’s medieval government. The beautiful square was turned into an elegant market square in 1754 and today it is a lively place in the heart of the city with charming streets leading off in all directions.

The showcase of Bordeaux is Place de la Bourse. In front of it is the Miroir d’Eau, the Water Mirror, which is the world’s largest reflecting pool. Large slabs of blue granite are covered in water and reflect the 18th century Place de la Bourse. The shallow water is timed to slowly empty then becomes a fog before the reflection pool fills again. The Bourse and its reflection pool has now become the new symbol of this elegant city.

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Saint-Emilion

Only 30 minutes from the center of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion is a charming medieval village located in the heart of the famous Bordeaux wine region. The hilltop village is surrounded  by vineyards growing right up to its village walls.

Looking Over The Rooftops Of Saint-Emilion

Since the 9th century, blocks of local stone were excavated for buildings in the village as well as for châteaux in the area and buildings in the surrounding region. The quarrying created underground humid, dark caves that were the perfect environment for wine storage. The village as well as the vineyards of Saint-Emilion are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With its 12th century ramparts, a maze of steep winding alleyways, charming storefronts, a 14th century cloister and views over terra cotta rooftops, this tiny village is so picturesque that it reminds you of an illustration from a child’s storybook. Wander through the streets and squares of the village and you will soon discover the Eglise Monolithe, the largest underground church in Europe which was carved out of solid limestone rock in the 11th century. Its separate bell tower rises high above everything else in the village.

There are four narrow and very steep cobblestone streets known as tertres  that connect the upper and lower parts of the village. While the tertres can be daunting, they are the way to get to many of the cafés, wine bars and other attractions in the village.

There are a number of shops in both the lower and upper part of the village that sell macaroons, a specialty from a 1600’s recipe from the nuns of the Les Ursulines order.

We had walked down one of the tertres earlier on our visit to see the underground church and ventured up an even steeper one while exploring. I can tell you that two of the tertres were enough for us. Even though there is an iron handrail down the middle of the cobblestone street for pedestrians to hold on to, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to walk up or down one of them on a rainy day. What we learned while walking the steep streets of Saint-Emilion is an appreciation of the life of local villagers. While it may be a harder life than many of us are used to, they are rewarded with many sweet pleasures.

Pretty Saint-Emilion

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Our visit to Bordeaux quickly came to an end and it was time to continue on our cruise. The ship had to leave at a specific time when the water level was low enough for the Explorer to pass under the Pont Chaban Delmas bridge, the largest lift bridge built in Europe. The 384 foot middle section is raised whenever tall ships need to pass safely underneath.

This southwestern region of France has lots to keep a visitor happy and Bordeaux is a city that I would definitely return to for a longer stay. I would use it as a base and venture out into the wine region on day trips. Historical towns, châteaux and wine tastings, yes that sounds like a lovely holiday.

 

 

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Dinan, A Delightful Medieval Town In Brittany

The quaint little town of Dinan is one of the best preserved medieval villages in Brittany, France and has a completely different atmosphere from other small towns in the area. It was the first town that my husband and I visited during our recent cruise along the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal and what a delightful treat is was.

Dinan, One Of The Prettiest Towns In Brittany

Our first port of call was in Saint-Malo, France and most of the people on the Seven Seas Explorer were going to visit Mont Saint-Michel. While Mont Saint-Michel is “a must see” if you are in the area, we had already visited on several of our previous trips to France. Instead, we decided to visit the historic hilltop town of Dinan, about 15 miles south of Saint-Malo. Dinan has been called one of the “prettiest towns in Brittany” so we couldn’t pass up a chance to visit it.

View Of Dinan’s Old River Port From The Ramparts

Dinan escaped bombing in WWII and is wonderfully preserved. It has a picture postcard old town that is still surrounded by most of its thick ramparts and has almost all of its defensive towers still standing.

The walled old town is a maze of very narrow, steep cobblestone streets lined with arcaded ancient stone and overhanging half-timbered buildings.

Half-Timbered Buildings In Dinan

Place des Merciers is where you can find some of the prettiest buildings. Many of them date back to the 15th century and have been wonderfully restored although some have such a lean to them that you wonder how they don’t topple over. Lots of the old structures are now boutiques, galleries, crêperies and restaurants…the town just oozes with charm.

Click on any photo in the article to enlarge and see a slide show.

The Tour de l’Horloge, an impressive 15th century clock tower, can be seen from many parts of the old town and offers wonderful views if you climb to the top.

Nearby the Maison de la Harpe, a 16th century half-timbered house, is now the headquarters of International Celtic Harp Committee.

Behind the St. Sauveur Basilica, which is in the center of town, there is a small English garden and nearby you will find St. Catherine’s Tower. You can get a wonderful view down to the River Rance and what used to be the old port from the tower and ramparts here.

View Of The Rance River With Old Stone Houses

The Rue du Jerzual is a steep, picturesque street that leads down the hill to the river and the little port. At the bottom, there is a 15th century stone bridge that crosses the water to the other side. The river front and the streets behind are lined with pretty stone houses, many of them waterside restaurants and it is also where you can find boats that offer cruises along the river.

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It had been many years since my husband and I had been in this area of France. Somehow during our travels to Brittany and Normandy, we never visited Dinan. I have a feeling it was because we couldn’t find parking nearby for the historic walled old town. I’m so happy that we got a chance to visit on this trip.

Brittany, with its own language, Celtic traditions, music and traditional foods, almost feels like visiting some other country instead of being in the most westerly region of France. If you get the opportunity to visit Brittany, I would encourage you to visit the medieval village of Dinan. Once a mighty walled citadel, now the charming town really is one of the prettiest in Brittany. Hopefully you will be lucky enough to visit on a sunny, warm day when there is one of the numerous traditional festivals being held. While there, take time to sample a few of their crêpes, both savory and sweet, along with  a glass of cider.

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Welcome Aboard The Seven Seas Explorer

Let me welcome you aboard the Seven Seas Explorer, our home away from home for a 12 night cruise from Southampton, England to Barcelona, Spain. It was our very first cruise ever and my husband and I were both apprehensive before boarding the Explorer.

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As we crossed the gangway, we were greeted with a glass of Champagne and our worries started to evaporate. How could we have had concerns when we would be cruising on what is called “the most luxurious cruise ship ever built”. The beautifully designed atrium is stunning with its curved grand staircase and towering chandelier.

We were told that all the 375 suites were ready and our luggage would be outside our door within a few minutes.  Pointed in the right direction, champagne glass in hand, we were off to see our quarters for the next 12 days.

We were more than pleased with our stylishly decorated Superior Suite with a king size bed. It was midship on deck 8 with 332 sq. ft. and an additional 132 sq. ft. balcony, wonderfully large. It is only one category up from the Veranda Suites which are the smallest on board at 307 sq. ft with a 88 sq. ft. balcony. I checked out the walk in closet as well as the bathroom. Lots of room in both, we were really liking the Explorer.

If by chance you need more room, there is always the Regent Suite at 4,443 sq. ft. with 2 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, 3 walk in closets, a private spa and if you play the piano, you will love the spacious living room with a custom Steinway.

After our welcoming reception and getting settled in our room, we were off to check out the rest of the ship. We soon found out that every moment you are on board the Explorer, there is something to keep you entertained.

The Library is a great place to visit. You can grab a book to take back to your room, check something on the computer about your next port of call or simply read a newspaper. For something a little more social, there is the Card Room where you can meet up with other guests for a bridge game. Speaking of cards, you might want to try to see if Lady Lucky is with you in the Casino.

The Observation Lounge is forward on the ship and has floor to ceiling windows to enjoy the wonderful views as you sail out of port each afternoon. It is where we went to unwind after a long day of touring. Tea time is here with rolling carts filled with scones and sandwiches being offered and there is a large table loaded with different pastries and sweets every day. We played Trivia each day during tea time, had before dinner cocktails as we listened to musicians and sometimes went back later for an after dinner drink.

This was not the only lounge, there are several others including the Explorer Lounge and the Meridian Lounge. The three specialty restaurants have lounge areas as well where you could enjoy a pre dinner cocktail, a glass of Champagne or wine.

The lounges have intimate areas for music and dancing but the Constellation Theater is where the main shows are held. The large room seats more than 600 at comfortable cabaret style seats. Little tables with small glass lamps are perfect for holding your after dinner cocktail while watching a performance. The shows feature a very talented group of singers and dancers who we got to know over the course of our cruise. They performed to packed audiences and we thought each show was terrific.

If all the walking you do on your tours isn’t enough, there is a jogging track, tennis, pickle ball and bocce courts, shuffleboard, golf cages and putting greens. Whew, I’m tired just thinking about all you can do.

For something less strenuous, there are two boutiques for recreational shopping. As you enter, you will be offered a glass of Champagne to sip while you see what goodies you might not be able to live without. Perhaps spend some of your cruise credits that might have been given to you by your travel agent when you booked your trip. Another place to spend those credits is at the Canyon Ranch Spa Club where you can indulge in a wonderful calming treatment.

Cruises are known for their food and what we liked about the Explorer was that you can dine whenever, wherever and with whomever you choose at any of the restaurants and with eight restaurants, you have plenty of choices. There are three specialty restaurants, Chartreuse, Pacific Rim, and Prime 7 as well as Compass Rose, La Veranda, Sette Mari, The Pool Grill and The Cafe. For our evening meals, we had reservations for a night in each of the specialty restaurants and on the other nights we ate at either Sette Mari or the Compass Rose, which is the main dining room. Needless to say, we had a lot of delicious food. More about the food in a future article.

If you know me, you know that I spend months planning our trips to Europe. Planning this cruise was just the same, I checked out numerous cruise lines before choosing Regent. My husband basically agreed to go on this trip to please me, telling his friends “this will be our first and last cruise“. After 12 days on the Explorer, we all knew that would never happen. It is not surprising that before we got off the ship, we gave a deposit for another cruise sometime in the next two years. Perhaps one day, I’ll meet one of you on a cruise.

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Since I’ve never been on another cruise, I can’t say whether the Explorer is “the most luxurious cruise ship ever built“. What I can say positively is that it was far above anything we could have imagined. The ship was absolutely beautiful and the service was impeccable. Every member of the crew simply couldn’t do enough for you…all done with a big smile. This was an all-inclusive cruise, the only things that were extra were anything you bought in the boutiques, services at the Canyon Ranch Spa Club or what you wagered in the casino. Business class airfare, all the great wine and premium  cocktails, incredible food at the specialty restaurants and our tours were all included.

What the Explorer didn’t have were any long lines anywhere, mediocre food, tiny cabins or an indifferent crew that I read about when researching other cruise lines. While tiring (which was my fault for booking a walking tour in every single port of call), my husband and I loved the Explorer and are looking forward to our next cruise on one of Regent’s cruise ships, the Explorer being on the top of the list.

 

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Whirlwind Tour Of London And The Cotswolds

Before starting a cruise out of Southampton, England, my husband and I took a Whirlwind Tour Of London And The Cotswolds. The 3 night “Legendary London” tour was a pre cruise land package that we purchased before we started our “Glamorous Europe” cruise aboard the Regent Seven Seas Explorer.

Tower Bridge, London

We flew direct from Orlando, Florida to London’s Gatwick Airport where we were met and transferred by private car to the May Fair Hotel in London. After a light lunch in the hotel’s bar, we were given a room, unpacked and rested a bit before an early dinner.

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We spent the evening with friends who are originally from England and happened to be in London for a wedding. We were their guests for dinner at the Ivy Cafe, Marylebone, one of their favorite restaurants in London. The brasserie is quite charming with blue walls lined with antique prints, leather banquettes, marble tile floors and interesting globe lights. Before our friends arrived, we had cocktails and nibbles at the bar which has a wonderful antique pewter top.

I ordered a delicious halibut special and my husband had their classic shepherd’s pie, which he said was great. It was a wonderful introduction to London’s popular dining scene.

The next morning after breakfast, a motor coach and guide met us along with 20 other guests for a full day of sightseeing. We drove along the Thames River, over the Westminster Bridge with a view of the London Eye and passed by Parliament and Big Ben. Big Ben, one of London’s most famous landmarks, is almost unrecognizable as it is covered with scaffolding with the exception of its face. We were told it will be that way at least until 2021.

We then drove down Whitehall past Horse Guard Arch, the main entrance to St. Jame’s Palace and Buckingham Palace. We left the coach and walked through Admiralty Arch to watch the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guard Parade. This is also where the Trooping the Color takes place to commemorate the Queen’s Birthday.

What a sight it is to see the Queen’s Household Cavalry lined up in their uniforms with their breastplates shining in the sun. The Life Guards wear red tunics and light plumes on their helmets and the Blues and Royals wear blue tunics and red plumes.

We continued on to Trafalgar Square with Nelson’s Column at the center. Around the square is The National Gallery  and St Martin in the Fields Church.

Afterwards, we walked along The Mall with St. James’ Park and 10 Downing Street on one side and Green Park and Piccadilly on the other. We continued past Clarence House to Buckingham Palace. The Queen wasn’t in residence, instead she was spending time at Windsor Palace.

Lunch was at the Audley Pub, a three story traditional Victorian pub in the heart of Mayfair. Slightly outside of the tourist area, it attracts locals and celebrities such as Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Michelle Obama and Prince Charles. The inside has a feel of a gentlemen’s club  with original chandeliers, dark wood paneling and a black and white tiled floor. What did we eat… hand battered fried cod, chips and mushy peas along with a pint, but of course.

After lunch, it was back on the bus for more sightseeing. We crossed the famous Tower Bridge for our last visit of the day, the Tower of London. Passing through the huge stone walls is like stepping back in time. Inside, rows of brick and Tudor houses line the old walls on what’s called Mint Street making you realize that the Tower is really a small village, not just one structure but a complex of buildings started during the time of William the Conqueror.

It was late afternoon so we decided to go see the Crown Jewels first. The collection is breathtakingly beautiful. As we come out, we happened upon one of the pampered ravens. There is legend that should the ravens leave the Tower, both it and the kingdom will fall so you can be sure that the seven ravens kept there are well taken care of.

After a full day of touring, it was back to our hotel. Still feeling jet lagged, we decided to eat at our hotel’s May Fair Kitchen and that was a very good decision. The restaurant specializes in small plates of Spanish,Italian,Peruvian and Mexican dishes.

On our third day, the coach picked us up at 8:00 A.M. as we were heading to the Cotswolds. We drove about an hour and a half through gentle rolling countryside dotted with picturesque villages and small towns with charming buildings of honey colored stone. The Cotswolds also has its share of stately homes and our first stop was Blenheim Palace near Oxford.

It is the home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. An interesting note…it’s the only non royal house in England to hold the title palace. We toured the grounds then visited the staterooms filled with treasures collected over three hundred years. There was an  exhibition at the time of our visit by French avant-garde artist Yves Klein . His electric blue artwork was placed among the baroque interior…I felt a strange combination.

Afterwards, we drove to the small village of Burford for lunch at the Lamb Inn which was on Sheep Street. The pretty village is known as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds”. Later we visited Bourton on the Water, another picture perfect little village, before heading back to London.

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What I found most interesting about this tour was how the historic past and the contemporary present day are mixed together throughout London and the countryside.

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This was the first time that my husband and I have joined a tour group and it has its pros and cons. As to the positives, from the moment we were met at the airport, we didn’t have to worry about handling our luggage and that is a big plus. It was a fast paced three days, exhausting at times but we certainly saw and learned a lot. We had two fantastic and knowledgeable guides during our tours (one guide is a professional actress as well and she brought history to life in the most interesting way).

Most everyone I asked, including myself, thought our five star hotel was impersonal and probably wouldn’t stay there again if we returned to London on our own. We would have enjoyed having choices for our included meals but we understood that can be difficult on a tour with time restraints. Since we were always on the move, either in the bus or walking, it was difficult taking good photos. Most of all, the majority of us would have enjoyed a little more free time at our stops.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to what was a wonderful three week tour of Europe. While longer than most of my writings, I wanted you to have an idea of what a tour of London and the Cotswolds is like if you want to partake in a tour yourself.

 

 

 

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Travel Trivia Answers

Playing Trivia is very popular these days. Travel Trivia is especially fun since so many people travel both near and far each year. I would like to thank those who participated in my Travel Trivia Challenge. Here are the answers, see how well you did with the clues that were given. I do hope you let me know if you enjoyed playing along.

The Regent Seven Seas Explorer, Our Home Away From Home For 12 Days  Photo: Courtesy RSSC

One if by land, two if by sea, (this clue could provide more than one answer). Indeed this famous phrase by poet Henry Longfellow, contained two clues. Longfellow was referring to the British and our trip starts in England. After four days of touring London and the Cotswolds, we will start a sea cruise. We will therefore be traveling by both land and sea.

We fly from Orlando and return to Miami, a passport will be necessary. We are taking a private car from our home in Vero Beach to Orlando for a British Airways direct flight to Gatwick and fly American Airlines from Barcelona, Spain direct to Miami where a private car will drive us home to Vero Beach, Florida. We will definitely need a passport for our travels in Europe.

We will be speaking English, other languages would be helpful. Knowing the language of the countries we visit is always helpful but not really necessary as we will usually be with English speaking tour guides.

Four countries but no maps necessary…is that possible? We will be sailing from ports in four countries, England, France, Portugal and Spain but our captain will know the way. The first time I’ve not needed maps for our European travels.

A well known “explorer” may be the biggest clue of all. We are sailing on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer. The ship is well known as it has been called the “Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built.”

While not a specific place , the people there are from 49 different countries. The cruise ship has an onboard international crew from 49 different countries.

Our shortest trip in years and yet one of the busiest. Last year our European trip was five weeks, visiting three countries. This year’s trip is 20 days visiting London and the Cotswolds in England as well as nine ports of call in three other countries.

While some might think of this journey as being relaxing it will be far from it. Many think of cruising as stress free because you don’t have to make your own travel plans, hotel and transportation reservations. You travel to multiple destinations but don’t have the hassle of having to pack and unpack every few days. On the other hand, we signed up for tours at every single port we visit. This will include several hours of walking, often on cobbled and hilly streets, which we are not accustomed to since living in Florida. Relaxing, maybe not.

Elegant yet casual, my kind of traveling. The Explorer is a beautiful luxury ship and the atmosphere is elegant and refined. While you might think of a cruise ship in this category as being formal and stuffy, it definitely is not. During the day, shorts, jeans and sneakers can be seen in all public areas. At night, dress is elegant casual, meaning what you would wear to a nice restaurant. Ladies wear dresses or slacks and a pretty top and men wear slacks (no jeans) and collared shirts. Sport jackets are optional at dinner and there are no formal nights on our 12 night cruise.

At the end of our journey, a lot of small plates will have been consumed. Tapas, often called small plates, are very popular in Spain and we have several ports of call there. We have planned our own stay in Barcelona, our last port of call, for 3 nights and a lot of small plates will have been consumed before we fly back to Florida.

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I hope you had fun trying to figure out where our next adventure was taking us. I know I certainly enjoyed reading your guesses. I want to thank Kay at Gourmet Travel and Mad Dog at Mad Dog TV Dinners for keeping their secret. They were the only two people who had a clue about what we were doing. A few thought we would on a river cruise…close, perhaps in the future. Many of you guessed a cruise but didn’t know where…good try.

John of Kitchen Riffs said “I’m terrible at trivia, and even though you’ve provided excellent clues, I’m clueless. I’m with the cruise votes. Four countries? Maybe from Southampton to Barcelona, with stops in France and Portugal? A trip of about two weeks? But really, I have no idea.” Terrific! You got where we would be sailing from and where we would disembark. Terrible at trivia…I don’t think so. If I had asked you to be even more specific, I believe you would have gotten the name of the ship.

Eha came back three times, refining her answer. You were definitely on the right track, you just had us sailing in a different direction and on a different ship but very good guesses.

To all the rest of you that left a comment, I do appreciate your very kind words. I always say that I have the most thoughtful and loyal readers and I thank you for that. It makes me happy to know that you enjoy following along on my husband’s and my travels.

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Whenever I travel, I usually write and post my articles before I get home but this year proved difficult. This is one of the few trips in my life where I was setting the alarm for 6:30 A.M and not getting to bed until late at night which left no time for writing. The Explorer had free wifi but it was very slow even when sending an iPhone photo to someone else on board the ship. The first chance I got to post was in Barcelona right before we were flying back to Florida. We’ve now arrived home, jet lagged, tired and I’ve not yet unzipped our suitcases so I’ll be sharing our wonderful trip with all of you over the coming weeks. I hope you will enjoy seeing both the Explorer and all the new and wonderful places we visited in England, France, Portugal and Spain.

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Where To Next, Travel Trivia

Where to next” is a question that I’ve been asked over and over lately. My friends who enjoy reading my blog know that my husband and I usually travel to Europe in the fall. This year is no different yet we have planned something new. I thought it might be fun for everyone who likes following along on our adventures to give a guess as to what we are doing for this year’s trip.

I have decided to share some clues with you and see if you can figure out what our travel adventures will be. Only a very few of you have any idea of what our plans are and if you happen to be one of them, I ask you to not give the answer away until I start writing about our travels…thank you.

Clues, see if you can guess?

  1. One if by land, two if by sea, (this clue could provide more than one answer).
  2. We fly from Orlando and return to Miami, a passport will be necessary.
  3. We will be speaking English, other languages would be helpful.
  4. Four countries but no maps necessary…is that possible?
  5. A well known “explorer” may be the biggest clue of all.
  6.  While not a specific place , the people there are from 49 different countries.
  7. Our shortest trip in years and yet one of the busiest.
  8. While some might think of this journey as being relaxing it will be far from it.
  9. Elegant yet casual, my kind of traveling.
  10. At the end of our journey, a lot of small plates will have been consumed.

I’d love to hear from you as to what you think we are doing this year. I’ll be giving you the answer in a few short days as to this year’s European adventure.

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The Pillars Hotel – Fort Lauderdale

The Pillars Hotel, a boutique hotel on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is an oasis of tranquility. The hotel is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and has received many awards over the years for its excellent service. My husband and I feel that the Pillars is probably the finest small hotel in South Florida. When we want to relax and forget about the pressures of everyday life, a few days stay at the Pillars is a real treat.

The Pillars Hotel, An Oasis Of Tranquility

The area of Fort Lauderdale Beach where The Pillars Hotel is located seems to be the “hot and trendy” spot where everyone wants to be. It is called the “Venice of America” because of all the canals lined with multimillion dollar homes, mega yachts, and outdoor cafes and waterfront restaurants. There are many towering oceanfront hotels in the area where we could stay but my husband and I prefer this charming two story, eighteen room boutique hotel which is known for its gracious and personalized service.

“Venice Of America”  Where Canals Are Lined With Million Dollar Homes And Mega Yachts

We think the hotel is in the prefect location…an easy five minute walk to the famous white sand beach, restaurants and all the popular tourist spots. What also makes it so appealing is that it is just far enough removed from the traffic and crowds to be able to peacefully relax by the pool enjoying the shade of the palm trees, the tropical breezes and a cooling beverage.

Click on any photo to enlarge and see a slide show.

The Pillars Hotel was originally created from a two story home built in the 1930’s and a small motel. When driving by, you might not guess that the yellow building with tall white columns surrounded by lush tropical foliage is a hotel.

After parking on the circular drive, you enter through the tall front door into the casually elegant lounge area.

With comfy sofas on either side of the fireplace, a harp and a chess table nearby, you have the feeling you are visiting someone’s lovely beach home. The decor is a mix of classic British Colonial and modern Art Deco with dark woods and pale walls hung with original artwork.

Enjoy A Welcome Cocktail At The Pillars Hotel Bar

After registering, head to the bar or the sophisticated yet comfortable lounge area to enjoy your welcoming glass of prosecco or wine before heading to your room to unpack.

We usually stay in the Intracoastal Suite, a large corner room with a nice sitting area on the ground floor.  Three walls of white plantation shutters offer privacy when needed yet let in lots of natural light during the day with views out to the Intracoastal, the pool and the tropical gardens. We have also stayed in the hotel’s King Deluxe Poolside room,  smaller than the suite but also very nice.

All of the hotel rooms face towards the pool and garden courtyard. Outside each room, there is a small table with two chairs. It is a nice place to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning in your bathrobe or bathing suit while reading the newspaper that is brought to your door each morning. In nice weather, you can also have breakfast on the dock.

During our stay, we try to have a couple of dinners at the hotel’s restaurant, The Secret Garden. It  is only available to the guests of the hotel and members of the hotel’s Secret Dining Club. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the hotel’s intimate dining room with views out to the pool courtyard, tropical garden and the Intracoastal waterway.

In nice weather you can also eat poolside or at one of the white linen covered, candlelit tables along the dock. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as a romantic dinner at sunset while listening to soft music and watching large yachts cruise by on the Intracoastal.

The Pillar’s Beautiful Yacht Available For Charter

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My husband and I first started coming to The Pillars when we lived in New England. We would fly south to celebrate our anniversary and at the same time take a much needed break from the cold and snow. We now live in a small yet charming beach town on the east coast of Florida where cold and snow aren’t part of our lives. When we now drive  two hours south to the cosmopolitan city of Fort Lauderdale, we go for great shopping, wonderful restaurants and to visit family and friends in the area. We try to make the most of the “big city life” but we also enjoy the tranquility that we find at The Pillars.

The hotel is a hidden gem among all the towering ocean front hotels with names you will instantly recognize. While some of those famous chain hotels are starting to show their age, each time we visit The Pillars Hotel it always looks fresh. The bedding has been updated as well as some of the furniture but one thing that never changes is the warm welcome and genuine hospitality that is shown to us during each of our stays.

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