WHAT HAPPENED TO NOVEMBER??
The Roamers Roam–a Lot!
I had the best of intentions. Truly. “I’ll do a blog post from the ship,” I told Phil. Of course, I also told my French teacher that I would practice every day while we were gone. But despite good intentions, it’s now the end of November, and I have way too much to catch up on.
On 2 November we set out on our “big trip” of the year. We took the train to Barcelona, boarded a ship, enjoyed a two-week transatlantic cruise, flew to Austin, spent a week with our family, flew back to Barcelona, and finally came home. Here are the details.
En route to Barcelona
We arrived in Barcelona and taxied to the Renaissance Hotel near the Gothic District. We were upgraded (with points) to a junior suite on the top floow, where the view was astonishing.
View from our hotel room
The first order of business, of course, was to sample a craft cocktail before dinner. We did venture out, but the Paseo de Gracia crowds were daunting, almost shoulder to shoulder. So we decided to have our cocktail and dinner in the hotel.
One of those cocktails was mine!
The next morning our friend Freda, who was getting off the ship we were about to board, came to the hotel with a friend to spend a couple of hours with us. Freda was supposed to visit us in Montpellier the past two years, but our schedules conflicted (due to my faulty memory!), so we were thrilled to have this opportunity to catch up. She had been on the first part of our ship’s journey so was able to give us tips on how best to enjoy the cruise (onion rings by the pool!). After a fond farewell, we headed to the ship, the Viking Sea. With just over 700 passengers, this cruise would be quite different from the 2500-passenger Princess transatlantic cruise we took last year.
The first stop was planned for Valencia, but unfortunately high winds caused the port to close. Phil and I have traveled enough to learn to go with the flow, so we were happy to just stay on the ship–especially when we could visit the Explorers’ Lounge each evening for sunset cocktails!
Sunset + cocktails = no regrets
Before we knew it, we were sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar and getting a splendid view of the famous Rock!
Rock of Gibraltar
Our first stop then was Cadiz in the Andalucia region, where we toured the Bodega Tio Pepe, a gorgeous sherry producing facility that was really more like a village with sherry. Complete with a lovely hotel (where we got chased off the grounds) and the ubiquitous gift shop, where we may or may not have bought a lot of sherry for our kids, it was a fascinating tour.
Tio Pepe barrels
This bodega boasted barrels that had been signed by a broad spectrum of illuminaries, some of whom added sketches to their signatures.
Barrels signed by Winston Churchill (on his 80th birthday), Jean Cocteau, and Steven Spielberg
After the tour we were rewarded with a tasting. The others at our table didn’t enjoy the sherry, but we restrained ourselves from drinking theirs. After the tasting we strolled the grounds, visited the gift shop, and enjoyed the perfect weather.
Beautiful cobblestoned path framed by grapevines
Next up was an amazing, almost never-ending lunch: When we arrived, the tables were set with charcuterie, rolls, wine, and beer. We thought that was it, but next up was a tempura-like potato pancake. Lovely lunch, we thought! But then they brought out roasted meat, potato salad, and other sides. And THEN came dessert, which I’ve forgotten. After this amazing meal we were treated to flamenco dancing. What an experience!
One of the reasons we overspent on this trip (did I mention that?) was the cooking classes on the ship. On selected sea days twelve lucky passengers were treated to a hands-on cooking lesson with the delightful Chef de Cuisine. I was impressed with the camaraderie that was evident when he introduced each chef and cook, and even more impressed with the dishes we made.
A beautiful fish main course from our lesson
We were served Aperol spritzes while we cooked, with wine to go with the lunch we prepared–a first course, main, and dessert each time. I signed up for all three cooking classes and enjoyed them thoroughly. The first class featured paella, the second was French, and the third was California cuisine. When we visited our kids in Texas, my son Grayson and I, who love cooking together, made the French main course: a beef filet mignon atop leek fondue, surrounded by a chorizo salsa. Maybe not authentically French, but delicious!
One of the desserts we made, a mandarin orange mousse
A surprise bonus of the cooking classes was a tour of the ship’s galley. There should be a fancier word for this kitchen, or series of kitchens! Our chef instructor introduced us to each worker by name, and the kitchen was amazing. Impeccably clean and organized, it was so impressive I could have spent all day there!
This immersion blender was bigger than the cook!
Built on volcanic rock, Madeira has an interesting agrarian approach: because it’s vertical, all the crops (especially grapes) are grown on terraces, and these terraces are served by small irrigation canals called levadas. In the afternoon, we took a bus tour that took us to a high point where we could stand on a transparant platform over the sea. We didn’t have time for a Madeira tasting, but we bought tiny bottles to share with our Texas kids.
Breathtaking view from the top
The day passed quickly, and we returned to the ship just in time to bid farewell to land for the next six days at sea. Because there was so much to do–cooking classes, wine tastings, working out (only twice, I’ll admit) in the well-equipped gym, enjoying the spa, where I tried out the dry-sauna-followed-by-cold-plunge cure, making delightful friends, and of course eating and drinking–we actually looked forward to these days.
Farewell to Funchal
One of the highlights of the cruise was the Chef’s Table restaurant. It required reservations but had no additional charge, so I jumped on the chance to reserve a table for each of the five menus (the menu changed every three days). A five-course tasting menu with wine pairings (we had the Silver Spirits package, so we enjoyed upgraded wine pairings), each dinner was memorable and delicious. The dinners varied–Chinese, Asian, Californian, British, and spice-focused cuisines.
Chef’s Table menus
We developed a loose routine on the sea days: breakfast together, working out/walking/napping, lunch, afternoon lectures or movies (I especially enjoyed the lectures by Jane Robinson, an erudite and delightful historian who specializes in social history through women’s eyes). Then, each afternoon we watched the sun set from the Explorers’ Lounge, a beautiful glassed-in bar at the front of the ship. After dinner there were shows that we could attend in person or watch on tv in our stateroom. It was a relaxing, pampered time that passed too quickly.
Sunset at sea
Our last stop was the island of St. Martin in the Carribbean. Half Dutch, half French, this island was fascinating–and on the French side I got to speak a little toddler-level French with the market vendors! The next day we landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we proceeded to the airport (a six-hour wait!) for our flights to Austin, where we enjoyed special time with our son, daughter-in-law, and wonderful two-year-old granddaughter.
We also got special time with friends! Besties Joni (from Dallas) and Patricia (from Houston) drove to see us, and Wild Woman Anabel (along with Patricia, part of my high school friends’ group) joined ua for a girls-only dinner. TexMex, of course! And one day we drove to Wimberley, where we lived before Roaming, to enjoy lunch with dear friends Lynn, Danny, Barb, and Chip.
Delightful Wimberley friends
And then, before we knew it, it was time to leave. We had an early Thanksgiving dinner with our kids, featuring the most delicious smoked turkey we’d ever tasted, courtesy of our son Grayson, the champion meat smoker, before heading on Thanksgiving Day to the airport. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the Sky Club was serving Thanksgiving dinner!
Our second Thanksgiving dinner!
The flights to Barcelona were quiet comfortable, despite a 4 1/2 hour layover in Amsterdam. We arrived in time to check into our hotel and take a walk around the Barcelona Sants neighborhood, which was ready for Christmas!
Christmas in Barcelona
We enjoyed a tapas dinner featuring the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted at a tiny restaurant called Lutes–delicious dinner for two, with dessert and a bottle of wine, for less than $60–before strolling back to the hotel. The next morning we had time for another stroll, with stops for coffee and a picnic for the train.
For our train picnic we returned to a bakery we’d noticed the evening before, that featured empanadas. If we’d had room in our luggage, I would have bought bread to bring home to France, everything looked so good!
And then, finally, we were home. Traveling is exciting, edifying, and fun, but coming home–especially coming home to Montpellier–is wonderful. We are so grateful for the ability and means to travel, for our delightful friends and family, and especially for our home in France.
Happy, grateful Roamers