Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Jungle Fever: Our Tropical Destinations Rated


Over the past few years, we've been focusing on tropical destinations in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and more.  For now, we're turning the chapter on that particular kind of trip but have come to some conclusions as to our favorites among the destinations we experienced.

Here is our list of tropical beach destinations, from our least favorite to the best.



NASSAU, BAHAMAS - Run down, very little wheelchair accessibility, about the only thing we could do is visit the bars. As the late, great Merle Haggard said, "I think I'll just sit here and drink.


JAMAICA - Yes, it's beautiful and has some amazing beaches.  The nightlife is wonderful as can be the food.  Wheelchair access at the hotel was extensive but away from it, hardly existed.

Over a quarter century ago, my wife and I went and had a grand time but that was also before we became so wheelchair aware.  This time, it stood out in relief as we went to attractions that promised to be accessible but were not when we arrived.

Add to this the incredible knot of trying to navigate immigration and customs upon arrival and the hotel not giving us near what we paid for of what was promised turns us off of the Island of Irie.

Twice was nice but a third time is not in the cards for us.


MAUI - On the other hand, I am willing to go to Hawaii again it's just not high on our list right now. Since it's in the U.S., access is good (not great). Scenery is wonderful as are the many beaches.

What keeps it placing higher is the exreme high prices you have to pay for basics when you get there and a 'barely tolerated' attitude towards visitors when you're there.  It's a beautiful place but I can't really call it too friendly.  Several trips have re-inforced that feeling though there are a few friendly faces here and there, enough to make me not strike it off the revisit list completely.


COSTA RICA - I want to like this verdant Central American destination better but something's just keeping it from rating higher. 

It has wonderful access (better that Hawaii in some cases), enough that wheelchair users can actually take part in some of the eco adventures like zip lining and canopy tours.  Public buses and many taxis are also wheelchair friendly and accessible rooms are not hard to find.

On the down side, the beaches on the Pacific side are not at all what you'd expect from a tropical beach paradise...the water's muddy and the sand more like wet dirt. While the vast majority of the people are friendly, helpful, and honest, there's a pretty big slice of people who live to rip you off from car rental counters, zoos, and dishonest tour operators.

The buyer really has to be aware in Costa Rica. 

Would I go back? I wouldn't rule it out but instead of a beach vacation, I'd rather go there for the volcanoes and rain forest experiences.


PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO - Ah, Puerto Vallarta! Lovely city, great beaches, miles of jungle, wonderful food, a great variety of nightlife, incredible hotels...what's not to like?

Nothing, actually. It's a perfect destination...if you can walk.  If you're in a wheelchair, obstacles abound.

We came here almost every year when Tim was young and it was not as big a deal to lift him over the obstacles but he's grown bigger and heavier, and I'm older and more decrepit.  It's just not possible anymore.

I hear PV is getting more accessible but from what I can see, it's just not quite where it needs to be to get us to come back, yet.  I would really love to go back.  It is almost perfect, otherwise.


PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - This one could be technically a tie between the next entry. Wonderful place, extremely friendly people, gorgeous beaches, excellent service, great food, drink, and nightlife. Accessible where it needs to be.

The only downside is that Punta Cana is rather far from any other parts of the Dominican. Would love to be able to visit the historic sites and go to a few baseball games without having to spend hundreds on a taxi to get there.


ST. CROIX, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS - My personal favorite on this list. What's not to like? Friendly people, outstanding accomodations (especially the Buccaneer Hotel), good (but not great) access...it is part of the USA, after all, and the ADA applies...great food and drink, spectacular beaches, and fun, accessible attractions.

While access could be a bit better...we could not find a boat that could accomodate us no matter how much we and the concierge tried and the old Cruzan distillery couldn't be done in a wheelchair...we did find more than at other destinations as far as attractions go.  Cruzan couldn't be done but Captain Morgan allowed full access at their facility. The waterfront in Christiansted...the main town...is fully accessible and even the jungle bar with the beer-drinking pigs had an access ramp.  The accessible room at the Buccaneer was nothing short of fabulous.

There's still a way to go, transit is very spotty and there are very few accessible taxis, but from the incredibly warm people, outstanding service and stunning beauty make this a great destination.

And with that, we close out our latest tropical chapter here at The World on Wheels.  We're going to point our spotlight at other destinations for awhile but I'm sure we'll be back to a couple of spots on this list at least.

Darryl
Copyright 2016 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved



Monday, July 16, 2018

Back on Dry Land in Miami, Florida


We're back from our less than stellar Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas. Now, it's on to the longest segment of this trip, five nights in Miami before returning home. If you've been following along, you might remember way back at the beginning that we're paying for this trip mostly with points and rewards accumulated over the last few years. Hilton Hhonors members can get an extra free night if they cash in four nights so that's what we've done...cashed in four nights so we can stay five nights here at the Homewood Suites in the Brickell neighborhood of downtown Miami.

It seems like so long ago that we were landing in Atlanta to start this grand tour...either tied for the longest trip we've ever taken (according to Letty) or the second longest trip at one day shorter (according to me)...so five nights in one location seems like a luxury at this point.

So it's been four nights in Atlanta, four in St. Petersburg, three nights cruising in the Bahamas, and now five here in Miami for a total of 16. I think we we did 17 on our East Coast Adventure a few years ago but my wife thinks I'm off by a day. Either way, it's a long time...especially if you dealing with caring for someone in a wheelchair.

At the port, we've packed up. Actually, we packed last night because we had to have our luggage ready for the porter by 11pm. We're told to vacate our room by 8:30 and also pick up our duty free purchases (I'd purchased two bottles of rum) by the same time. 



We wait in a cocktail lounge at the front of the ship with my duty free box and carry on luggage until we're called to leave the ship. After processing through customs and immigration, we collect our bags at the carousel...actually just a big storeroom...and then we're outside.

Officially done with Royal Caribbean, as they are with us, a porter helps us with our luggage and let's the taxi stand manager know we need a wheelchair accessible vehicle. She's in a mood for some reason and takes it out on our poor porter but she does call an accessible cab and then promptly leaves as her replacement comes on duty.

A few minutes later, the ramped taxi van pulls up...and another group of passengers promptly cuts in front of us trying to steal it.  A few tense words and they back off. We're in and on our way...thankfully we didn't have to pay for that weekend or I would have been sorely disappointed. As it was, it was OK but not great in the way cruises used to be.



Our driver pulls into our hotel a few minutes later. The staff at Homewood Suites is very welcoming and our room is excellent.

Ah...let's just let the stress of the day melt away for awhile before we go out and try to find something to eat. 



We do find a very good pizza place, Mister 01 Pizza, where we have this star-shaped pizza while the rains poured outside. 



As we finish, the weather clears and we have a hot and humid walk back to the hotel where we will rest and recover from the weekend.  

It's time for Miami! Stay tuned for that, it'll be a blast.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: A Bahamian Pub Crawl in Nassau


Well, we landed in Nassau with little to do and really nothing planned. The one, good wheelchair accessible shore excursion...a glass bottom boat tour...was cancelled due to lack of interest. We were offered a tour of Atlantis, the giant resort and waterpark nearby, but that would have cost us almost $500.

But, when the world gives us lemons, we make lemonade. Nassau is a wonderful place for a pub crawl.


Watch the Video!


Our first stop was a hot, uphill hike to John Watling's Rum Distillery.



This old plantation sits on parklike grounds up above the town. A great house commands the land, with the distillery in a barn out back.

We take a little self-guided tour before going into the bar to sip the very tasty and expensive rums.


The rum is good and gives us the inspiration to hike back down the hill to the water where we find the Bamboo Beach Bar and Tiki Bikini Hut.

We're hot and hungry from the long walk so we split an order of fries. Tim has a lemonade, a local Kalik Radler beer for Letty, and a Kalik Gold for me. I'm not one for the super sweet tasting radlers (like a lemon shandy in the States) but the cold Gold really hit the spot on that cold day.

Next, we walked down to a better part of the beach and had delicious Bahama mamas at Gloria's on the Beach, a little bar shack on the sand that had a wooden deck I could get Tim's chair on.



They also had a drink called the bitch slap, which was advertised as the "strongest drink on the beach." Letty strongly suggested I should skip that one.

Our last stop was the Pirate Republic Brewery and pub back by the cruise ship dock. Here, we had a very good mug of cold kolsch beer, brewed on premises.

The server, seeing that my wife wasn't really having a great day, treated us to several shots of John Watling's rum on the house.

Nicely liquored up from our day in Nassau, we wobbled back on the ship to rest off the buzz before our nighttime activities.

Cheers!

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mayday! Stuck on a Bahamian Island: Nassau


Last night, Tim and I went to the excursion counter on board Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas to see if we could find a wheelchair excursion for today's port visit in Nassau. We were waiting to talk to our new friend from Chile but he was stuck trying to explain to a woman why her 16 and 14 year old kids could not be turned loose on an excursion in a foreign country without an adult chaperone.

She was having none of it and the conversation was growing more heated...on her end...by the minute. Another crew member came out to help us.

Watch the Video!

Four Days of Cruise in Ten Minutes

As we'd suspected, out of the dozens of excursions available, none were wheelchair accessible. Except...! Yes, a tour of Atlantis and it's waterpark could be arranged at $45 per person. We were about to go ahead and sign on the dotted line when he added "we just have to arrange for a wheelchair accessible van. That will be an extra $199."


We'll just have to see what kind of trouble we can get to by ourselves.

After yesterday's pandemonium at the breakfast buffet, we decide to take our morning meal in the main dining room. There's also a buffet here, a much quieter one, plus you can order from the menu.


It's good, not outstanding, but will get us a good start to the day...whatever shape that will take. We don't know, yet, what we'll be doing in the Bahamian capital of Nassau.


Nassau is a docking port so the tender issue is not an issue here. We roll off the boat and are soon walking out of the terminal into the heart of Nassau. There's a park nearby, across from the legislature building, where we find a shady bench to check out our map of the are.


There are a lot of shops, restaurants, and bars here. I see an ad for an historic rum distillery so we strike out in that direction, which at least gives us a destination to reach, while seeing what lies along the way. The answer to that question is not much. We do browse a couple of shops but quickly lose interest in that.

It's Sunday morning May 13th, though, and the distillery is about a half mile away, up a hill. The Bahamians are a friendly bunch, I'll give 'em that...many cars would go by, see us walking up the hill, and yell out a hearty "Happy Mother's Day" to my wife.

The first time, she didn't understand what was being said through the thick Bahamian accent and you could see the look on her face that she was about to take offense. I explained to her what the gentleman said and she quickly corrected to give him a sincere thanks.

As we walk up the hill, a couple of churches have just finished their Sunday services and the parishioners are heading down the hill. Choruses of "Happy Mother's Day" are showered on my wife as they walk by.

The streets are narrowing, the heat oppressing, the hill steepening, and...just when my family is thinking I've completely lost my mind...the sign to the John Watling Rum Distillery.


We walk into this old plantation with it's great house fronting the distillery barn. There's a 75 foot deep well, dug by slaves hundreds of years ago, that provided the company with fresh water.

A staff member comes out and gives us a little shot of frozen pina colada which really helps to cool us down. We head into the bar to do some tasting but the rum itself is way too expensive to take home.  You can read and watch all that in our Nassau Pub Crawl post and video.

One of the staffers told us of a quieter street to go down since the one coming up was getting pretty busy. We file out of the distillery just in time...four large tour buses are now disgorging their passengers as we leave.


As we head back downhill towards the water, we come across an old cemetery.


We wander around, it's seen better days, and take in some of the tombstones while a lone gardener takes on the unruly vegetation with a weed whacker.

Some potholes, a few stray dogs, and some piles of rubbish later, my wife is getting that look on her face, "this place is not what I expected." True. Central Nassau has a pretty run down quality about it like some of the border towns in Baja.

We have a light lunch on the beach and I'm hoping our little pub crawl will brighten her spirits. She soldiers on but is not really enjoying this port of call.


Later, back on the ship, she dives into packing the bags to get off this boat..we've taken to jokingly calling it the 'rust bucket' because of maintenance issues this ship does have...and won't consider the evening's entertainment.

Tim and I let her be and we head to the ship's atrium where, on this final night of the cruise, the crew has a parade of flags honoring the many, many countries the staff here hail from.


It's quite a sight and you can tell the crew really puts their heart into it and are proud of their homelands. A real celebration of the human diversity that we all share.

It was a wonderful way to end what would really end up being a fairly mediocre cruise.


As we wait the next morning with our duty free rum box (an order the duty free store screwed up, causing me to work to get a refund with the line when I got home) in the forward lounge for our call to disembark, Tim is eager to exit his first and probably last cruise.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Been There, Done That, Bought the T-Shirt: Tim's Souvenir Wardrobe


As we spread our tentacles into the world, we document our travels with these posts, pictures, and video. Tim, on the other hand, likes to have something solid to bring back with him  We've talked about his collection of iconic structure reproductions but he's also into the wearable memories.

Tim likes to buy and wear t-shirts from the destinations he's visited.

We've put together a video showing a small selection of his collection, which you can watch below.


Watch The Video!




He's collected shirts  from destinations such as Prague and Mexico. Memphis and Costa Rica. Miami and The Bahamas. Shirts from baseball stadiums across the country as well as a few other sports.



It sometimes presents a logistical problem as we try to figure out where we'll put them all...luckily, the eventually wear out and we use those for rags...but Tim loves them and wears them just about every day.

Check out the video and see what we mean.

Darryl and Tim

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Castaways of Coco Cay - A Private Island Day in the Bahamas


Thankfully, after the hassles and fiascoes of the first day of this trip, we got a good night's sleep. Morning found us still at sea. Soon, an island came into view along our side of the ship. This must be Coco Cay, one of the Bahamas' Berry Islands, Royal Caribbean's private island. We are to spend the day here.

First, we must eat breakfast and the buffet is at the bow of the ship. We're eating there because the dress code is more relaxed. Tim and I are dressed in swim trunks (I want to change his clothes as few times as possible) so we're skipping the main dining room for today and hitting the buffet instead.

The buffet is a zoo, with everybody cutting in line, butting their way in to grab some bacon, being wide to scoop up some scrambled eggs. There's no rhyme or reason to how people should line up or what direction to go in.

I finally grab some food for Tim and I...Letty's on her own for this one.

The announcement comes over the PA that the boats to the island are now in operation and to make our way down to the bottom deck to go to the island.

This is the great unknown for us. Coco Cay is a tender port, meaning that there is no pier for the ship to dock at. Smaller boats...tenders...shuttle passengers back and forth to shore all day long.  Tenders mean that there is no guarantee that wheelchairs will be able to disembark, it's strictly at the crew's discretion.

I had tried to ascertain with Royal Caribbean before we left on if a wheelchair would be able to go on the tender. All I could get was "we can't guarantee it," but browsing through people's reviews and trip reports online before we left suggested that it could be done so this will be a gamble for us.

(NOTE: Royal Caribbean is in the middle of a massive construction project on the island. In 2019, a pier will be opened for the ships to dock at, making the tender transfer obsolete)



No need to worry, though, there's a ramp to the tender (after going through security to get off the boat) and a flat area up front where wheelchairs are allowed to sit during the short journey. The crew graciously lets me stand there with Tim, although Letty is told she must sit in the seats inside with the rest of the passengers.



A shore excursion specialist is standing next to me for the trip. He tells me he's from Chile and we talk about all the things to see and do there, also telling me what destinations I should see, where to fly to, and more. A font of information for a future trip...I'm putting his suggestions into the memory bank for that distant vacation.

We talk about shore excursions and I tell him that in Nassau, we plan to take the glass bottom boat because that's the only one that was listed as accessible.

"Oh, that excursion's been cancelled to to lack of bookings," he tells me, "but we have one on the island today."

Once on the island, I follow him to the excursion office to sign us up, "be back here at 1:15 this afternoon."

I should also mention that when we left the tender, Tim's power wheelchair was traded for a beach wheelchair with fat tires for the sand. We'll exchange them back when we leave (NOTE: although special needs passengers are advised to get on the island early because beach wheelchairs are first-come, first-served, we noticed that there were a lot of beach wheelchairs, much more than the demand for them).

With that taken care of, the three of us head to the sand where we have an easy time finding some lounge chairs to relax on.

The Bahamas, while usually uttered with the word "Caribbean," are not part of that tropical sea. Rather, it lies just outside of the warm Caribbean east of Florida. This is readily apparent when I go for a swim and there is a definite chill in the water.



It's clear. I can see the coral, some fish swimming around, and not a trace of cloudiness. It's just not warm. I do my best to get used to it but a half hour in that chilly ocean water is really all I need. It actually feels warmer when I get out and back into the air.



I go to get some snacks. I went healthy for Tim and I, mostly because the more 'junk' food stands at the Island buffet were overrun just like the breakfast buffet. The salad and cold cut bars were mostly untouched.

Letty went to get a bucket 'o pina colada from one of the bars. I had a beer and filled up two of our soda glasses. Then is was time to go on our glass bottom boat ride.

Arriving at the counter, we're given the bad news...the weather's not good enough to go out so it's been cancelled.  We've pretty much done all we wanted to do so we trade back for our power chair, go through security, and get back on the tender to the ship.

About halfway back, cool drops of rain fall on Tim and I...exposed on the bow of the tender...while we wait to get back on the ship.

Since Tim won't go in the ocean, I take him up to the pool deck. There are a couple of lifts for handicapped people. He usually floats around in an inner tube we bring along, The ship also has a variety of swim vests, intended for children but some of the larger sizes looked like they'd fit. We ask the lifeguard...who's Russian...what we should do for Tim.  He says to go with our inner tube.



After we get it inflated, the lifeguard along with a pool attendant comes over to operate the lift. We get Tim in the chair and I jump in to get him out and ease him into the inner tube. That's when I found out that the ship's pool is not heated.

Tim is eased down and is also a bit shocked at how cold the water is but he's still game and in he goes.  I figure we'll get used to it...which we do for the most part...and float around for an hour before moving on to something else.



About 20 minutes later, the lifeguard comes back up..."you done with swim?"

"Well, no, I figured we'd stay in for awhile longer to make it worthwhile," I tell him.

"That okay but you know rain coming. Lightning."

"Oh, I understand, let's get out then."

We get out, drops start falling so we move under shelter near the side of the ship. Then, a deluge hits. Lightning, thunder, and buckets of water. We're fine under the roof but many out in the pool and lounge chairs are caught out. I also think of the hundreds of passengers that are still on the island and have to make their way back.

I see that we're next to the Windjammer buffet's side door, which I can get to without getting too wet so I go in to grab some hot dogs, fries, and fruit for Tim and I.  I also take our soda cups to their machines...which are out of everything except Diet Fanta.

That's when I find the only other soda machine onboard is in the middle atrium, on the 6th deck. So, get cups good for unlimited soda on the ship. There are only three machines...two in the buffet and one in the center...for 2,400 passengers.  You can see where the math gets dicey. You can also get soda from the bars and main dining room, but the cups are specifically for the three machines on board. To fill 'at your leisure.'

Well, the food's still good so we relax here until the storm passes then we go to our cabin until dinnertime.



Dinnertime comes and, true to their word, we have a more accessible and appropriately-sized table assigned.  The food is good, the waiter is very good if a bit on the talkative side, and it all goes off without a hitch.

We do a little shopping in the duty-free mall onboard but Letty and Tim aren't onboard on with seeing any of the ship's entertainment that night.

All in all, this was a much better day than the first day. Still a few issues here and there but even Tim said he had fun today. After a couple of cocktails in the quiet mid-ship bar, we call it a night and head back to our cabin to relax until bedtime.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 8, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Bahama Mama


This is a drink screaming for a little paper umbrella in it.  Not for us today however.  It's the tail end of a heat wave with temps of over 100 degrees.  A couple of days ago, we hit a blistering 110 degrees on our Cocktail Hour patio...in the shade!  So, what to do on a hot day like this?  

A cool cocktail, of course!


Watch the Video!

And here it is, keeping with our new theme of low calorie, full flavored and full strength drinks, we present this amazing 130 calorie Bahama Mama.  Believe me, this will hit the spot when the thermometer rises.

Here's the recipe:
INGREDIENTS (two drinks):
3 oz. coconut flavored rum (Malibu or similar)
2 oz. cranberry cocktail
2 oz. diet orange soda
1 1/4 oz. pineapple juice
juice of 2 limes, fresh squeezed is best (not lemons)
splash of grenadine

Take all ingredients except for orange soda and grenadine and shake over ice in a cocktail shaker.  Pour 1 oz of orange soda into two highball glasses filled with ice.  Pour contents of cocktail shaker over that.  Splash the top of each drink with grenadine.  Let it settle without stirring.

Cheers!

-Darryl

Friday, July 6, 2018

Shipping Out To The Bahamas From Miami


It's been a frustrating day getting into Miami, returning the rental car, and getting on board our ship. Now, two out of three checked bags have arrived in our state room. I also notice that we have been given two soda cups...

(Here is where I need to take a little side trip to explain that on Royal Caribbean, if you want more than juice, generic coffee, tea, or tap water, you have to pay for it. Now, the thing is to buy drink packages...all inclusive bar tab is $55 per day, per passenger. I don't see the three of us racking up $165 in drinks, especially since the first and last days are very short. We choose the all you can drink soda package where the ship gives you special souvenir glasses that work in the soda machines at a more reasonable $8.50 per day. If we want a cocktail, we'll just purchase them one at a time.

Now, back to your story...)



...where there are three of us that should have them. I tell the room steward, he says it's not his responsibility, we have to go to guest services but he'll try to remember to tell someone.

Next, Letty has changed her mind and wants to stay connected while we're on the ship this weekend...so does Tim...so I buy a package so the three of us can connect our devices but only one will connect at a time.

It's almost time for our dinner seating so we first head over to guest services where there is a long line of people waiting to complain. It seems that most of them are here to try to wrangle an upgraded cabin.

Finally, one of the staff works the line to see if there are easier problems to solve to get people through faster.  When he gets to me, I tell them about our missing soda glass, suitcase, and our internet problem. He says we must wait until 8pm to see if the bag arrives before we complain about that. He'll check into the glass. We must go up to the deck above to see the IT guy but hurry, he's only there for another hour (for a total of two hours a day of IT help).

We stand in line upstairs with our devices, finally get to the front, and the IT guy changes our account so that all are able to connect now.

We get to the dining room, a waiter has us follow him in. He takes us to the center of the room, and says to follow him...our table is right over here.  "Here" is a table where we'd have to navigate a path of about twenty inches wide, and that's with no people sitting at the tables between us and the one assigned to us.

Tim's wheelchair is a bit wider than twenty inches. We bring this to his attention that we can't fit.

"No worries, we'll move stuff around to get you in."

"What about when we're done and people are sitting in these other seats? There will be even less room," my wife tells him.

"You don't want to sit here?" he asks.

"It's not accessible," I tell him. "We need to sit somewhere else."

"OK, come with me and we'll take to the head waiter."

I follow him to the podium. There is a man in a tuxedo there and a line of about 40 people waiting to talk to him.

"Just stand in that line and he'll take care of it."

Just to recap...Letty and Tim had to stand in the sun for almost two hours before they let us go into preboarding security. We had to navigate a crowded line to find someone to tell us where our cabin was. We had to wait in an even longer line to get an elevator to our room and, a little later, again to go up to the deck for lifeboat drills. We just had to wait in another line to complain about our missing luggage and soda glass then another to get our devices connected right. Now...when we're assigned an inaccessible table (when we were explicit during the whole booking and checkin process that we have a wheelchair)...I'm told I have to wait in yet another long line.

That, my friends, is where my rope ended.

"I've been standing in lines all damn day ever since I boarded this damn ship. I will not stand in another line, either get us a decent table or I'm leaving!" I exclaimed, a bit more forcefully than reading these words suggest.

"Please, it's ok...we'll work something else out," the waiter said.

He went off to get someone. In a little while, another man in a tuxedo showed up and took us to a table that would hold a dozen people and said to sit here and tomorrow there will be a better table that we'd be assigned to for the rest of the cruise.

Seated, our order was taken. A minute later, a family of about twelve showed up.  Guess what? This was THEIR assigned table. Of course, they complained and we were moved yet again to a four seat table across the aisle. Why not this table in the first place? Ah...you're thinking too logical, at least more logical than the dining crew of the Endeavor of the Seas.



Finally, fed.  We leave after dinner, have a couple of cocktails in the uppermost bar before calling it a night where Letty and Tim snoozed in their comfy beds and me on my little bunk at the ceiling where it seemed like I was a larger than life elf on a shelf.



Tim said one thing before turning in..."If I could, I'd get off right now. I never want to go on a cruise again."

I really could think of no argument against that after this long day so I just said goodnight and went to sleep. Here's hoping tomorrow will go a bit better.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

PENNSYVANIA - Part 1

Penn Station, in New York, is appropriately named. We’re leaving here for Pennsylvania today. The station itself is a rabbit warren of a maze, especially if you’re in a wheelchair looking for that elusive ramp or lift to the next level. While Grand Central Station is massive, with soaring ceilings, stone walls, and magnificent artwork, Penn Station is cramped with low ceilings, dry wall, and has all the charm of the post office.

It’s hard to navigate our way through. Penn Station has notoriously bad signage, and it takes us a couple of laps to figure out where we’re going. We finally find the Amtrak ticket counter and lounge and also receive the bad news that there will be no checked baggage on this train. Our big suitcase (we all share one big suitcase along with each of our small carryons…you just can’t avoid checked baggage with a wheelchair) will have to ride with us.


Once the hectic pace is done and we board our train, with the help of Amtrak’s staff and a wheelchair lift, it’s a quick, 75 minute ride through the “scenic” wonders of New Jersey to the station in Philadelphia.

We pick up our rental car, a Suzuki Grand Vitara…which my wife keeps calling the Grand Viagra. It’s doable with a manual chair and is not too hard to transfer Tim into the front passenger seat. It is pretty stained due to sitting under a wet, rusty roof in the parking lot. As long as it runs well, which it does.

We head west out of Philly to our destination of West Chester. Our intention is to stay in this quieter suburb and take the train into Philadelphia for sightseeing and activities. Arriving at the West Chester Microtel, we notice a lot of construction going on. We booked Microtel because you can guarantee a roll-in shower on their web site. I had called the week before to confirm that. However…

We are told that the lady staying in the room we had booked does not want to leave and that there is nothing the hotel can do. Funny, because I remember being told “no” in no uncertain terms once when I wanted to extend my stay because someone else had booked that particular room.

What to do now...I was offered another room at the hotel but there was no other accessible room that we could use. I was adamant that it had to be accessible, Tim needed somewhere to bathe. The manager offered to put us up at another nearby hotel. I agreed as long as it was an accessible room.

The “best he could do” was the Microtel at the Philadelphia airport. I told him that I specifically avoided that location because I did not want to be near the airport…which was also not close to where we were. I was told it’s only a 30 minute drive and basically “take it or leave it.”

A 2-hour drive later puts us as the Microtel, Philadelphia airport. Indeed, it was an accessible room with roll-in shower and a good staff. The whole experience, especially when I complained to the corporate office and the manager of the West Chester location e-mailed me back, angry that I had complained when they had “done so much” to accommodate us, put me off of the Microtel brand…which usually comes highly recommended by travelers with special needs.

Bad hotel experience behind us, we decide to enjoy what we can. It’s a Thursday morning, so we decide to take a drive around the city to see what we can find before we go to our ball game.
We’re driving around, just south of downtown, when we make a random turn and find blocks full of old looking stalls looking like something from Little Italy around the turn of the 20th century. It’s looks very interesting, so we park and start walking around. It turns out that we stumbled onto the Italian Market (forgive me, but I’d never heard of it before), a marvelous place with many old-time grocers, meat markets, cheese shops, fish mongers, bookstores, and restaurants spilling out into their stalls in the street. We find a place that sells pizza for breakfast (!), have a couple of slices along with donuts and coffee.
It’s a lot of fun just exploring. We go into a nearby butcher shop, D’ Angelo Brothers, and get some dried meat for later. I ask the lady working behind the counter what the deal is with this neighborhood and she explains to me that it has changed relatively little over the last 100 years or so. Families still run their businesses, as theirs does, being passed down through the generations. She shows me a butcher block, worn down into curves, that has been in continuous use for over a century.

What a fascinating place. We continue on looking in all the shops.
Come game time, we head even farther south to Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies. It’s a day game versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. Being an Angel fan, Tim despises the Dodgers so he finds it easy to root for the home team. I’m pretty much indifferent about L.A.’s team. I liked them when they were owned by the O’ Malleys; lost some enthusiasm when Fox ran the team; and can’t stand the ownership team of the McCourts so I heartily cheered the Phillies on too.  Our seats were in the second deck, in right field, on a straight line with second and third base.
Being at the top row of that level, we were shaded on what turned out to be a hot and humid day. Surrounded by 5 food stands, a souvenir shop, and nearby restrooms, we were set.

We had a great view and hung out with some great Philly fans that were gracious and friendly with the out-of-towners. The staff was friendly too. We had some great ushers who kept our area clear and told us where the best food in the stadium was.
The "Pool Suite" at Citizen's Bank Park
Unfortunately, our cheering didn’t work because the Phillies went down to the Dodgers that day but they’d rebound to make the playoffs and then take the World Series the next season.

That game ended this trip’s baseball stadium quest with three more stadiums added to the list; Yankee, Shea, and now Citizens Bank Park.
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Bobak Ha'Eri under CC-BY-SA license

After the game, we had a choice to make...Pat’s or Geno’s. We make our way north a ways to find the center of the cheese steak universe on the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue. The two Philly Cheese steak legends duke it across the street from each other…Pat’s a kind of plain-Jane looking stand while Geno’s is a garish neon outpost that I don’t doubt can be seen from space.
Pat's and Geno's
Which one to choose? They both have their fans and detractors and both seem to be good so it came down to which one has the shortest line. At this time, that would be Geno’s so off we went.

Ordering at either of these places can be intimidating. Signs are posted on how exactly to order. Kind of in a Soup Nazi way, you make your way to the first window where you order your sandwich and you must be ready. Know what you want…steak sandwich; cheese type (provolone, wiz…cheese wiz, or American); wid (with onions) or widout. People who are indecisive are sent to the back of the line to start over. After the sandwich window you go to an adjacent window to get your drinks and fries.

At Geno’s, you are also faced with signs that proclaim that this is America, when ordering “speak English,” which has caused no shortage of controversy (and free publicity) in this town. Owner Joe Vento says his family had to learn the language when they came to America and encourages others to do the same. Despite the sign, he says he’s never refused anybody service due to their language but says that he can’t guarantee their order will be right if they don’t.

Once past the intimidating gauntlet of procuring your food, you take it to one of the outdoor tables and dig in. It is a delicious, juicy, cheesy, greasy pile of sliced rib eye on a bun. I have no dog in this fight, so if you are put off by Geno’s English bias, try Pat’s across the street where you just have to run the same drill in ordering. It’s a Philly thing and despite the intimidation factor, the people there are nice. Go for the unique experience and the delicious sandwich.
Across the street from our hotel is a station for the SEPTA commuter train. The next morning we leave the car behind and take the train into the city. At the Reading Station, we get breakfast at the adjacent Reading Market which is an expansive indoor market with produce sellers, butchers, meats, and more…kind of like an updated Italian Market. They have an Amish themed “Pennsylvania Dutch” section where we have some unbelievably good soft pretzels.

One more stop on the line puts us at Independence National Historical Park. Here is where you go to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

At the visitor’s center, we pick up our free tickets for a tour of Independence Hall. We have about an hour to wait (each ticket is good for a specific time), so we head across the street to Christ Church Burial Ground to find the grave of Benjamin Franklin. There are also four other signers of the Declaration of Independence buried here. We pay the $5 admission to get in, only to find that Franklin’s grave is right next to the fence…we didn’t need to go in to see it. It is covered with pennies from people who toss them on as a tribute to him…a penny saved is a penny earned.
Franklin's Grave
Wandering through the cemetery, I notice a fresh grave. I ask the caretaker if they still bury people here. Yes they do, although it is just for people who have already bought plots. They are selling no more but he said they’d make an exception if someone notable like a U.S. president wanted to be buried here.
It’s time, so we head over to Independence Hall for our tour. There is a security point manned by some very nice and patient people who go through every nook and cranny of your bags before passing you through the metal detector.
This is Where It Happened
Inside, we are lead by a ranger on a tour of the old courtroom which is across the hall from the meeting room where the Continental Congress met, drafted, and signed the Declaration of Independence. Of course, you can just feel the history oozing throughout even though most of the room is recreated. George Washington’s Sun chair at the top of the podium is the real deal though.

The tour continues upstairs and Letty goes on up while Tim and I wait below due to the inaccessibility. We are shown a photo album of what is upstairs while a ranger explains it to us.

When the tour is over, we wander around the shady grounds for a bit and explore the surrounding historic neighborhood. It is still hot and humid and I can imagine how our founding fathers must have felt without air conditioning in the beginning of summer.
Across the street, we go and see the Liberty Bell, which is in its own display building. Another security point must be negotiated before you see this but it requires no tickets or advance notice to see.

Our afternoon of history over, we wander over to the Delaware River, separating us from New Jersey, and find a Belgian pub with some great, refreshing brews to help cool us off before going back to our hotel.

And with that, we’re done with Philadelphia. Part 2 follows below and we travel to the land time forgot, Lancaster and Amish country.

-Darryl
Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick