Birthday in Las Vegas

Las Vegas. A name that instantly evokes so many images for all of us. I hesitate to write this, wondering if it would be possible to add any new thoughts to the history of writing about this storied destination. It’s not as if we had any experiences different from the legions of visitors before (and after) us. In the end, I just wanted to make a record of a wonderful vacation together. The trip was Tony’s fiftieth birthday present to me. It was to have been a surprise, but my nosiness and impatience forced his hand, revealing the details many months ahead of time. He has the patience of a saint and I continue to hope that some of that will rub off on me.

He booked a three night air and hotel package that included non-stop flights (yay!), a luxury room at Paris (double yay!) and a 24 hour buffet pass (triple yay!). My annual fee for my airline credit card has as one of its benefits a pair of passes to its corporate/first class lounge. We snacked on bagels and coffee, took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and relaxed in leather armchairs before boarding our plane. After a painless flight, we landed on that Tuesday morning with only a couple of small carry-on bags and headed for the taxi line. Our first stroke of luck came when we were directed to the cab stand slot numbered ONE. This must portend something good, I thought. We were met at the hotel with only a short line at the front desk and given immediate access to our rooms, despite being there 4 hours ahead of the regular check-in time. We dropped our bags and headed out into the heat of the morning.

Our first stop was the Buffet at Bellagio. We arrived to find a line that was moving at a positively glacial pace. We figured out later that it was the transition time from breakfast to lunch, with thrifty guests taking advantage of the opportunity to pay for the earlier, cheaper meal and still eat a full savory menu. The array of choices was quite astonishing. There were several different green salads; a variety of cold vegetable and pasta salads; sliced prosciutto, salame, ham and cheeses; platters of fresh fruit; hand rolled sushi and sashimi; smoked salmon and whitefish; steamed, peeled shrimp; roast turkey, chicken, lamb and pork, along with two kinds of steak; a multitude of grilled and sauteed vegetables; a build your own pasta bar, alongside four kinds of stuffed pastas in sauce; a stirfry station, alongside a selection of prepared Asian dishes; and finally, a large display of breads. Then there were the desserts! There were at least a dozen different plated options, as well as an assortment of cookies, sorbets and ice creams and a chocolate fountain.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food here. Everything we ate was fresh and beautiful. The only issue we had was the service. It took far too long to get our server to take our drink orders, in my opinion. By the time I came back with my desserts, there were four plates waiting to be removed from our table. In fact, some tables near us were never cleared of dirty dishes and glassware for the entire hour that we sat there. The staff seemed unhappy and spent long stretches talking with one another, rather than doing their jobs. As someone who has worked in restaurants and is acutely aware of the staff around me, this made the whole experience less than ideal.

The balance of the afternoon was spent walking the south end of the Strip. Our first stop, the Bellagio, was still a premier property even after all these years. The generous use of marble, the colorful awnings on the casino floor, the Chihuly installation in the lobby and the 27 foot high chocolate waterfall at Jean-Philippe Patisserie make for a magical setting.

Moving south, we next stopped at Monte Carlo. The theme here is the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast, the main theme of said principality being its casinos. One door south is New York, New York. This interior was one our least favorites, mostly because of its New Yorkiness. Dark, crowded, dirty, noisy and expensive, it was all the things we hate about the city. The exterior architecture is quite a sight, but it’s marred by a rollercoaster running through it. I suppose for some this must be fun, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Beyond that sat Excalibur, a sort of pathetic visit to Merry Olde England. Next up was Luxor, it’s main property shaped as a giant pyramid with a gazillion-watt beam of light shooting straight into space from its apex. The interior attempts at Phoenician decor were somewhat less than successful. The final property at the south end of the Strip is the luxurious Mandalay Bay, which we did not visit.

Our entertainment for the evening was the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. This is the third official Cirque production I have seen. We have also seen four or five “pretend” Cirque shows on our cruises, featuring many of the same styles of acts. We decided that we have seen enough of these! Once you put together a string of performers from jugglers to trapezists to gymnasts to someone spinning from their neck, the only thing you can do to make it seem new is put them in different costumes and give them a different theme. We have seen them dressed up as Peter Pan, a Chinese Opera, a Bollywood movie and, in Vegas, as a sex show. The feats are truly impressive, don’t get me wrong. I think I have just become jaded.

The next morning we boarded a bus for Hoover Dam. Our driver gave us lots of info on Las Vegas on our ride out and added a stop at the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign for a photo opportunity. Once we arrived at the dam site, we took an escorted tour that included the Turbine Room. The sheer size of this entire operation was amazing. Lots of superlatives can be used to describe it, but you really need to see it to understand the scope of it. It brought to mind our feelings about the Panama Canal. It is just incredible to think that mankind had the hubris to even attempt such massive projects. If you are in Las Vegas for more than a day, I would definitely recommend a tour out that way.

That afternoon, we returned to our hotel and activated our “Buffet of Buffets” wristband. This pass, included in our hotel package, offered twenty-four hours of continuous access to seven of the Strip’s buffets. By starting it in the middle of dinner service, we were able to squeeze four meals out of it (dinner, breakfast, lunch and another dinner). We started with dinner at the Flamingo, in the shadow of a twenty story high photo mural of Donny and Marie. The food was alright, but not the best we had. What was amazing was the view from our table. We overlooked the hotel’s Wildlife Habitat and had views of black swans, penguins and, of course, flamingos. It was quite a sight!

After another short night’s sleep, we headed for the breakfast buffet at Planet Hollywood. This was an amazing setup! They had just about anything you can imagine for the day’s first meal. The food was fresh, hot and well-seasoned. The service was really great, too. Actually, almost everyone we encountered in Las Vegas was just wonderful. Folks seemed truly happy to be helping you wherever we went. Bus drivers, cabbies, hotel desk clerk, cocktail waitresses, buffet servers, and even hotel maids were gracious and friendly. I talked to a couple of them about this fact and they responded, “We want you to come back!” Why can’t people everywhere reach this same conclusion?

We spent the rest of the morning visiting other properties. My personal favorite was Aria and the shopping center connected to it, Crystals. These properties are part of the brand new City Center, a cluster of hotels, casinos and shopping between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Aria’s casino floor was elegant and refined, a welcome change of pace from what we had been seeing. Crystals is a soaring, light-filled space, the center of which is dominated by a restaurant suspended in midair, encased in a wooden “tree.” We also stopped in at Caesar’s Palace, which is the polar opposite of all that restraint. The decor here was completely over the top. If you can imagine a gaudy Roman enclave, you can imagine Caesar’s. We paid our respects across the street at the Venetian, too. Here, the streets (and even a canal) of Venice are lovingly recreated, right up to endless frescoed ceiling reminiscent of Michelangelo. Never have so many angelic cherubs gazed down upon so much depraved excess.

There were brief interludes at the Wynn (gorgeous, still shiny-new), Treasure Island (campy, smelling faintly of coconut and jasmine?), the Mirage (slick, smooth beauty), the Flamingo (seriously old school, despite attempts at modernization), Harrah’s (the Carnival theme is worn thin), Bally’s (what theme?) and finally, back home to Paris. We loved this property, and not just for the half-size Eiffel Tower  and Arc de Triomphe out front. The casino floor is dressed like a Parisian street, with faux gaslights and a blue and white-clouded sky. Cobblestones underfoot and diminutive streetscapes complete the effect. Even the reception area gets into the act with its Versailles-esque pastiche of mirrors, chandeliers and gilt.

The last evening of our visit we took the bus up to Fremont Street to see what had become of the Las Vegas of the past. Millions of dollars have been poured into these early casinos, restoring them to their original glory. Classics such as the 4 Queens, Binion’s and the Golden Nugget continue to be crowded even today. The addition of the Fremont Street Experience is a big draw, too, offering a light show on an arched roof above the street. If you are going to Vegas, you should definitely check that out.

We ate some wonderful things during our stay. I enjoyed a different French pastry every day (in celebration of my birthday), including a pot of luxurious chocolate mousse; a delicate raspberry and almond tart; and finally a madeleine, a financier and a tiny chocolate cake. We ate a light supper one evening on the edge of the terrace at Paris, in the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. We started with a classic salad of frisee, lardons and a poached egg, followed by scallops baked under a blanket of bechamel and cheese. At other stops along the way there were crepes filled with Nutella; more shrimp and crab legs than I have had in ages; an excellent cheese danish; and lots and lots of coffee.

We had a wonderful time, although we agreed on the third morning, as we packed for the trip home, that seventy-two hours was just enough time to spend there. We saw the sights. We ate the buffets. We paid the “Casino Tax” everywhere we went…meaning I gambled and lost in every hotel. We enjoyed the complimentary cocktails on the casino floor, even while playing penny slots. It was a relaxing time together, with not a care in the world.

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My Addiction: The Truth Revealed

My name is Jason and I am addicted….to COFFEE.

I have been drinking coffee since I was 16 years old.  (What does that make it now…10 years?  15?  HA!)  In the beginning, I mimicked the way my parents drank it, which was straight up black.  Over the years, I have added more and more cream to it, but never any sugar.  The only time I’ll take it plain is when the only creamer available is powdered.  This abominable concoction is sweet (probably to cover up the chemical taste) and just ruins the coffee for me.

So of course I am writing this with a cup by my side (latte with and extra shot).  This is my second cup of the day.  The first gets administered immediately when I roll out of bed.  The speed at which this coffee is prepared is of the utmost importance.  For more than a decade, I actually heated my milk and water in the microwave and drank instant.  That way I was drinking coffee 90 seconds after getting up.  My coffeemaker right now is a Keurig single-cup brewing system, which requires a seemingly interminable THREE MINUTES to brew a cup.  It does make a remarkably good cup-o-joe, so I put up with the delay.

I have used a wide variety of coffeemakers over the years.  I started with a stovetop percolator in my first apartment which made terrible coffee.  Luckily I was working the breakfast shift in a kitchen so I could have it at work.  I have used a couple of different Melitta drip cone models, but they take too long for me at that hour.  I had an electric espresso machine at one point that made excellent coffee, but it was far too complicated for me before I have had caffeine.  I used a Moka Pot for awhile, the flaw with that one being that I had to operate the stove; open flames that early are problematic.  (Nothing is more brutal than setting off your smoke alarm before your first cup!)  I bought a Neapolitan Pot once and used that briefly, too.  Although not technically complicated, it did involve turning on the stove (see above) and then, unbelievably, grasping the whole, scalding hot contraption from atop the flame and TURNING IT UPSIDE DOWN.  Okay, so that one lasted about a week.  I even own a French Press Pot, but I rarely use it.  It is, though, my favorite way to order coffee when having breakfast at Muse.

There is a major flaw with nearly all of these brewing systems.  You must, annoyingly, clean them before you can use them again.  In the many years that I worked early shifts (i.e. 4:00 am), there was no stopping to clean a coffee pot before I went out the door.  Facing a dirty coffeepot upon awakening is NOT a good way to start the day, let me tell you.  This is what led me to Nescafe Instant.  There was never a dirty pot to clean and I could alter the strength to suit my taste.  I want to make clear that I was not drinking just any instant coffee.  It had to be Nescafe and it had to be from a particular country of origin.  Nestle makes different coffees for different markets.  I learned that the ones manufactured for the U.S. and Canada were not strong enough for me.  In my neighborhood market in Chicago, I was able to buy the Mexican version.  I have also enjoyed jars of this product from Greece, Ivory Coast, Spain and several other locations.

When we travel, one of the most important activities on our first day anywhere is figuring when and where we can get coffee the following morning.  When we are on a cruise, it’s usually easy.  Normally the buffet is open 24 hours.  If not, there is always coffee available somewhere on the ship.  On our summer driving vacations, it can be a bit more complicated.  Sometimes, we have our own coffeemaker in the room.  Sometimes, we have to get up and go out for coffee before the bed-n-breakfast has it ready.  Once, early on in our relationship, we ran into a real coffee snafu.  We checked into a bed-n-breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.  It was a beautiful room in a lovely, charming inn.  We were informed, upon check-in, that coffee would be available at 8:00 am sharp.  The tone of this declaration clearly left no room for discussion.  8:00, take it or leave it.  We are always awake hours before this, so we set out after dinner to figure out where we could get an early cup.  This charming town has strict zoning laws, so there was no Starbucks.  There was no fast food of any kind…not even an early-opening McDonald’s.  The one coffee shop on the Main Street opened at 10:00 am.  WHAT???  There was a diner in town, but they were closed for the evening and had no sign posted with their hours.  Our AAA guidebook told us they opened at 8:00, but still…so late?  Our conclusion:  There is no coffee available to the public in Niagara-on-the-Lake before EIGHT O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  We first found this criminal, then entirely laughable.  It’s an adorable little town, but not really set up for guests like us.

Lists of Food(s)

Lists of food(s) have been an ongoing part of my life.  First entering my consciousness as menus in restaurants, they have taken on myriad other forms.  Grocery lists; kitchen prep lists; freezer inventories; backstock pull lists; holiday baking lists; catering menus.  Some represent a form from which to make choices; on some, every item will require my attention.  Some are exciting and inspire anticipation;  others instill a sense of dread.  Food is so often a subject in my life that I find there is no escaping lists of food(s).

When presented with a menu in a restaurant, there are dozens of things to consider besides the obvious question of “What am I in the mood for?”  What are the specialties of the restaurant?  What might be in season?  What might be a good or a bad choice today?  What are my companions ordering?  What have I eaten in the past day or two, and what do I plan on eating later?  My favorite type of menu is no menu…when I am simply given a menu as a guide to what the chef has prepared that day.  Some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying are set up in this way.  Chez Panisse in Berkeley offers one menu each evening…take it or leave it.  Accommodations can be made for allergies or extreme dislikes, but you are pretty much putting yourself in the hands of the chef.  Thomas Keller’s per se in New York offers just two alternatives each night:  A Tasting of Vegetables and a Chef’s Tasting Menu.  (Charlie Trotter in Chicago offers this same, simplified choice.)  Usually one must make only a couple of decisions from these long lists.  When I am ensconced in a restaurant of this caliber, I like to believe that no one knows better what the best thing for me to eat that day would be than the chef .

Several summers ago, I had travelled to New York for the weekend to eat.  We had Sunday dinner at Blue Hill and had an awesome example of eating off menu.  Our reservation was later in the evening and when we were seated, we had already decided that we would do the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had seen posted.  Once our cocktail orders were taken, we were informed that the Tasting Menu was sold out for the night and we would need to order from the standard, a la carte listings.  Our disappointment was quite evident.  The waiter returned a few moments later to say that he had relayed our sadness to  the kitchen and if we were willing, the chef would just cook for us without a written menu.  We instantly agreed!  There were some daring dishes and many variations on seasonal themes, but overall the effect was outstanding.

Another menu that I rely on quite heavily is the one on the side of my freezer.  Decidedly less haute than the ones above, it is nonetheless appealing.  Each week, I cook some things to eat during the week and freeze them in individual portions.  I began this practice when I was working long hours in kitchens, with no desire to cook at the end of a grueling day.  Batches of chili, marinara sauce, macaroni & cheese and the like provided quick, comforting suppers when paired with a fresh salad.  Keeping track of the dozens of frozen blocks of food necessitated the creation of a freezer inventory.  This became my nightly “menu.”

There have been lists of Christmas cookies;  one massive list of everything we ate on a ten day cruise;  other lists of what we ate on vacations or at various buffets; even a list of all my holiday baking ingredients that I keep on the chalkboard in our kitchen at home.  These lists fill me with a sense of order and organization.  At times, they end up feeling like some sort of wretched excess, leaving me wishing I had never compiled them in the first place.  Ultimately, though, the Virgo in me craves the construction of these archives.  They are a record of my knowledge that I can refer back to when thinking about what to cook or bake or eat or order in the future.

At Sea

The next two days at sea are dominated by the dramatic slowing of the pace of living.  I am shifting down, learning to relax.  We had spent the week before our departure racing around, tending to a hundred details, preparing for a two-week absence.  Now that we have safely landed on the ship, there are so few things that we MUST do.  Really, the only requirements are meals.  Leaving out the idea of Room Service (which we never took advantage of anyway), there are meals of various styles being offered from 5.30 am until 11.00 pm;  thus, the concept of a “required” meal becomes rather hazy.  There are myriad other activities in which we could choose to participate.  Each evening we receive a copy of the “Freestyle Daily,” the cruiseline’s four page listing of the next day’s services, classes, games, meetings, lectures, shows, auctions, sales, dances, music, parties, tours, raffles, gatherings, and gambling.  These opportunities take place all around the ship, in 13 restaurants, 12 bars and lounges, the spa, the fitness center, the pool, the theatre, the gameroom, the kids’ club, the shops, the rock climbing wall, the bowling alley and the casino.  Rather than feeling the need to partake in a long list of things, I mostly find that I want to just chill.  Eat, read, write and maybe see a show.  I am here to relax and unwind.  There is a long list of things I DO NOT have to do today:  grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, errands, driving, working, being stressed out.  WHEW!

My days are a collection of everso relaxing moments.  Following breakfast in the buffet, there is a Stress Reduction and Relaxation Workshop at 10.00 am.  At 1.00 pm, after a delicious lunch with a view over the wake of the ship, I repair to the South Pacific Spa for some time in the steam room, dry sauna and whirlpool;  after which i arrange myself on one of the heated tile loungers and gaze out at the blue, blue Caribbean.  This is followed by a nap in our stateroom.  We have dinner in the main dining room and then head up to one of the poolside bars for our Friends Of Dorothy (FOD) meeting.  This is NCL’s way of inviting gay and lesbian guests to meet up and get to know one another.  On this sailing, not only do we have these events almost every evening, but they are  actually hosted by a member of the Cruise Director’s staff!   This is a nice touch, with the added benefit of being treated to the occasional bottle of champagne.  We meet some really sweet guys that we will continue to get to know in the next couple of weeks, as well as our ongoing host, Erwin.

Our other big appointment on this first day is with our buddies from Cruise Critic.  Cruise Critic is an online forum for all things related to cruising…reviews, pictures, video and a large section devoted to forums for exchanging information.  We have “met” forty-plus folks on the forum for our individual sailing.  Now we get a chance to see them in person.  NCL has set aside one of the restaurants for our Meet-n-Greet, stocking it with coffee, tea, juice and pastry.  They have even sent some of the ship’s officers, including the Hotel Director, the Food and Beverage Director and the Head Chef.  We sit down to get to know one another, exchanging bits of information on where we are from, etc.  It is a great opportunity to get acquainted with some new friends.  We will see these people throughout the ship in the next fourteen days, exchanging greetings and sharing stories.

Aside from these meetups and my spa time, the majority of what we otherwise do involves eating.  The one area of the buffet not yet covered is breakfast.  This offers no less of a bounty than the options later in the day.  Here goes…

  • a dozen varieties of cold cereal with whole or skim milk
  • three types of hot cereal with raisins, brown sugar and hot milk
  • plain yogurt, granola and muesli, accompanied by assorted dried fruits, nuts, berries, grapes and honey
  • assorted fruit flavored yogurt
  • breads and danishes, including baguettes, brioche, croissants, pain au chocolat, cinnamon rolls, fruit danish, nut danish, wholegrain bread, fruit and nut bread, white, seeded and wholewheat rolls, fruit muffins and bran muffins, as well as toasted bagels, sliced bread and english muffins, served with butter and jams
  • sliced cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon and pineapple;  grapefruit and orange sections; whole bananas, apples and pears; stewed prunes, figs, apricots and pears;  fruit salad
  • eggs and omelets cooked to order, filled with your choice of cheese, ham, spinach, mushrooms, onions, salsa or peppers
  • hash browns, roesti potatoes and country potatoes
  • grilled ham slices, bacon, pork sausage, turkey sausage, corned beef hash
  • traditional eggs benedict along with another, rotating type, such as salmon or spinach benedict
  • scrambled eggs
  • biscuits and sausage gravy
  • grilled tomatoes and baked beans
  • raisin french toast. pancakes and waffles, served with warm maple syrup, banana compote and whipped cream
  • caramel pecan rolls and cream cheese frosted cinnamon rolls, kept warm at the carving station
  • smoked salmon and creamed herring, served with cream cheese, lemon, tomato, onion and capers
  • assorted sliced cold meat and cheese
  • a juicing station with oranges, carrots, celery and the like
  • coffee, tea, milk; orange or apple juice

It doesn’t seem like I could have forgotten anything, but I’m sure I have.  It was truly an embarrassment of riches.

Bon Voyage

Days of preparation and anticipation led to a night of minimal sleep.  We awoke way too early and the morning still felt frenzied.  We were out the door while it was still dark, arriving at the airport the required hours and hours ahead of the actual flight time.  We sailed through check-in and security and finally settled into our seats on the plane on time, only to wait for the required paperwork before pulling back from the gate.  Once we landed in Ft. Lauderdale, we waited seemingly endlessly for our bags.  The buzzer would sound, the lights would flash and the belt would begin its laborious churning, only to present two or three new suitcases.  Then it would all shut down.  Moments later, the process would repeat, producing a few more precious bags.  This went on for twenty minutes before our belongings actually started appearing in a realistic timeframe.  More delays on the bus to the pier;  more delays at the pier;  finally arriving on the deck of the ship.  By this time our rooms were ready and we dropped our bags before heading to the holy grail:  the Garden Cafe buffet!  We would spend many hours here in the next fourteen days, learning how to navigate our way here even when stumbling out of bed at dawn’s crack.

Our home for two full weeks!

The buffet presented a wonderland of culinary options.  At lunch and dinner, the bounty was similar in scope:

  • two hot soups, one cold soup, with crackers
  • build-your-own caesar salad
  • four types of pizza
  • made to order pasta bar, with three sauces and a raft of add-ins
  • a variety of vegetables, steamed or sauced; mashed potatoes and several types of rice
  • a different fish preparation every day
  • several hot entrees, always different each day
  • a selection of Indian food, including meat curries, a vegetarian selection, basmati rice, dal, raita, naan or roti, chutney and pappadums
  • rotisserie chicken
  • a carving station,with a rotating selection:  steamship round of beef;  leg of lamb; veal stuffed with spinach and gorgonzola; pork loin;  roast turkey;  roast suckling pig;  baked salmon;  spare ribs;  rack of lamb;  cornish hens;  barbecue beef brisket;  baked ham;  each served with accompanying sauces
  • freshly made sushi with wasabi and pickled ginger
  • a couple of asian stir-fries, with rice
  • a station with cold sliced roast beef, steamed asparagus and chilled, poached mussels
  • a build-your-own chicken soup bar, with noodles and fresh vegetable garnishes
  • two kinds of quesadillas; one with meat, one without
  • beef burgers; turkey burgers; grilled chicken breasts; three types of sausages; bacon, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms;  sliced cheeses
  • french fries
  • a salad bar with three kinds of lettuce and twenty plus toppings and dressings
  • a couple of different vegetable salads
  • potato salad; coleslaw; bean salad
  • hummus and pita
  • shrimp cocktail
  • a bread bar with pretzel rolls, seeded rolls, wholegrain rolls, baguettes and lavash
  • a cheese board with at least six types of cheeses, crackers and a variety of dried fruits and nuts
  • mini sandwiches:  tuna on a croissant;  bresaola on a pretzel roll;  turkey on a baguette
  • a station with chicken caesar wraps

Simultaneously, there were two other buffets presenting a smaller array of options;  one by the pool and one outside at the back of the deck, with outdoor seating under a vast white tent.  This last area also provided a sandwich bar with sliced meats and cheeses; tuna and chicken salad;  condiments;  sliced breads and rolls.

And then there were the desserts.  By God, it wouldn’t be a cruise without dessert:

  • three traditional plated desserts, such as cakes, pies, mousses or bavarians, each with a sauce
  • two such options in a sugar-free version
  • three kinds of cookies
  • frosted walnut brownies
  • poundcake; banana bread; carrot cake
  • jell-o
  • a warm fruit cobbler or bread pudding
  • sliced fresh melon and pineapple
  • an ice cream bar with eight flavors, plus sauces and toppings
  • two flavors of soft-serve ice cream
  • a chocolate fountain with fruit and cake for dipping
  • a made-to-order crepe station with a variety of fillings and toppings

This is not to say that all these things were offered on this first day.  I can say that each line above was represented each and every day, though.  There were some repeating items, but never enough that we felt bored with the choices.  If we did, we could simply choose one of the nine other restaurants on board or call for Room Service.

I’ll come back to the food; it was one of the major themes of our sailing.  For now, let’s return to that first afternoon. We presented ourselves for the muster drill.  We were delighted to find our muster station in one of the bars of the ship, rather than on deck.  I  imagined slipping bottles of vodka underneath my life jacket as the ship went down.  I supposed there were worse ways to go.  Especially given the survey of our fellow passengers this stop allowed.  They appeared to be a dour group, deadly serious in their intent to sail through the Panama Canal before they left this earth. Many, many, many senior citizens with little or no apparent zest for life.   There was also a large contingent of Germans aboard and we know how much little fun they can be. (Spoken from the perspective of a German.)  After dinner and the opening night show, we crawled into bed under a veil of complete exhaustion.