My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

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Freedom in the Med…Back in Barcelona

So after that AMAZING Chef’s Table dinner, it was time to leave the Freedom and begin our trip home.  The trick here is to get your bags packed and out in the hall while remembering not to pack whatever clothes you want to wear the next morning.  I will tell you this doesn’t always happen and if you see random children at the airport in their pajamas, they are probably mine.

But, we did our best, packed up, cleaned up, distributed additional tips to our favorite crew members, said teary goodbyes, blew our last dollars in the casino and headed to bed.  We decided to stay one extra night in Barcelona instead of rushing to the airport immediately off the ship…this turned out to be one of my better decisions!

Since we were in no rush, we headed up to the Windjammer for some much needed coffee (me) and breakfast (everyone else).  Eventually we headed down towards the gangway, presented our cards to be scanned and heard the last mournful bong as we were checked off the ship.  In the terminal, we located our bags and headed out the door to hail an XL taxi to take us to the hotel.  This is where that “no rush” thing proved genius…the line for taxi’s, of any size, was several hundred people long.

There were people standing everywhere directing traffic…both human and vehicular so it was very easy to figure out where we needed to be, behind ALL those people in line!  The line moved fairly quickly, but it was still probably an hour or so from the time we got in line to the time we got a taxi.  There were quite a few people that did not expect or plan for this and they were frantic trying to explain that they needed to cut to the front of the line.  The Port Authority employees that were handling the line were having none of that, and would promptly pull any line jumpers out and send them to the back.

We eventually made our way to the front and were sorted into the line waiting for larger cabs.  As you might expect this took a bit longer, but soon enough we were on our way to the Hilton Barcelona.  Much like last years trip, I was able to get one night on points and since we stay at AirBNB’s on the front end of the trip, one free night after the cruise is a great way to not have to rush to the airport.

The Hilton Barcelona is a beautiful hotel in the more business-y district in Barcelona which was fine for the one night we needed it.  Plus it was close to one very important tourist attraction, one we could not miss…Camp Nou!

The Hilton has a beautiful lobby and bar area

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The rooms are comfortable enough, typical European (read small) with the amenities one would expect for a Hilton.  We checked in, then headed to the Metro to find some lunch…standing in line is hard work!

Now, you know how much we love food, and we all really prefer to eat local whenever possible.  But this was the last day of an eleven day trip.  What I wanted was a beer and a burger.  What we found was Hard Rock Barcelona.

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We walked up to the hostess stand and were told that the wait would be about two hours!!!!  Clearly that was not going to happen, but as I was standing there trying not to cry, another waitress mentioned that if we were willing to sit on the patio there was no wait…Um, okay.

So we sat on the patio along Plaça Catalunya and ate hamburgers and drank beer.  We were typical Americans again…although I still drank the local beer! It was exactly what I needed after an amazing week of touring and eating our way through Spain, France and Italy.  Our server was amazing and the lunch, while typical Hard Rock and kind of touristy, still solidly good burgers.

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, then some of us headed to the last destination on our list…a visit to Camp Nou…can’t call myself a Soccer Mom and not go see this monument of soccer!

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We were relying on my directions…which was my first mistake!  I was trying to use Google Maps, works great if you are online, not so much in airplane mode.  We did eventually find it. I had pre-purchased tickets because I had read about long lines and wait times, this was not the case for us.  Even if we had had to purchase tickets, there were only about 5 people there waiting.  We wandered around in the museum

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and the visitors locker rooms

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and slowly made our way out to the field

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It is amazing to stand here, so close to the pitch and think of all of the great soccer that has happened here.

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This is from the upper level seats…and let me tell you, stairmaster’s got nothing on this stadium!  It felt like we were climbing forever and I totally understand why they have a snack bar open at the top, even on non game days!  I would have paid $20 for a bottle of water after that!  But it was worth it just to be there and now there is one more stadium crossed off my list, only a billion more to go!

We had dinner that night at a tapas place right out the front door of our hotel, Piscolabis.  It was fantastic.  We each ordered a few different tapas and all of them were very good to great!  The price was very reasonable and the wine was excellent.

The next morning, we asked the front desk to call us an XL cab to take us to the airport.  Our time in Europe was over.  It was amazing and there are several places that I would love to come and visit for longer: Barcelona, Nice, Positano & Sorrento.  But first there are a million places I want to see for the first time!  Until next time!  Adéu…

 

 

 

 

Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!

 

Conquest in the Caribbean…4

Ah, Sea Days.  For some people, it is the best part of the cruise; some people would be happy to have none.  I like them just fine.  Sailing along in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but relax, have some cocktails, soak up the sun.  If you love them or if you don’t, it still beats a day at work!

First up, Sea Day Brunch.  Among Carnival regulars, there are some pretty famous staples on this menu: the Funnest French Toast for one, and of course the Bloody Mary Bar!  However, I chose the Steak & Eggs…I mean, Bearnaise!  My general rule is if something comes with Bearnaise, I order it.  This rule has never let me down, and it didn’t today either!  The filet was perfectly cooked, the eggs were okay and the Bearnaise was awesome!!!  I really don’t even remember what everyone else had, mine was that good.  Thusly fortified, we were ready to begin the serious business of relaxing.

Even though it was January, we were in the Caribbean so the sun seekers were out in full force.  Chairs around the pool were at a premium…BUT!! Chairs around the bar were plentiful and it was nice and quiet in the adults only aft pool.  Extra bonus: my bartender from the Steakhouse last night works days at the aft pool bar…Yay! Javorka!!

Mom eventually found me although she popped in and out in between trivia, but for the bulk of the day, I sat and read my Kindle and really just relaxed.  As a single mom, that doesn’t happen often!

Eventually, I headed back to my cabin to get ready for dinner.  I had a very important mission this evening…discover the Alchemy Bar.

The Alchemy Bar is a specialized bar on some Carnival ships.  No beer, no wine, no frozen drinks.  But the bartenders are the best in the business and their specialty is matching a cocktail to your taste.  They are VERY good at their jobs!  It was here I met my other favorite bartender (its not weird that my favorite people are all bartenders, is it?).  Kat from Belarus.

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She won my heart when she made me this amazing Espresso Martini.  Yep, those are chocolate covered espresso beans on top!! It was love at first sip!  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time here and in fact took the mixologist class which I will talk about later because tonight is CHEF’S TABLE!

I have loved Chef’s Table on every other ship that I’ve tried it on , so I was really excited to try it on the Conquest!  First up was a kitchen tour.  Since this a working kitchen during dinner service, the tour was quite interesting…and busy!  We finished by having champagne and small bites before making our way to the private dining room set up for us.

Once we got to our table, everyone had an assigned seat with a personalized menu.

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See those bread things at the top?  Those are blue cheese popovers…Those are amazing and if you ever get to a Carnival Chef’s Table, you should immediately sneeze on them or something so you get the whole tray!

We then worked our way down the menu.  At each course, the Chef would talk a bit about what we were eating.  The servers kept the wine glasses full, although there were only two choices, a white or a red.  On previous cruises, the Chef’s Table is also a wine tasting so there is a different wine with each course, but not on Carnival.  That’s okay, the food was pretty darn interesting on its own.

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Crab Stack
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Duck Textures
Crazy molecular gastronomy going on here!
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First time trying sweetbreads.
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As if there’s room for dessert!!

Needless to say, we barely rolled back to our cabin.  Overall, while I would have liked to have a wine pairing with each course, the food was amazing and I will certainly be doing the Chef’s Table dinner on Carnival again!

So next…I promise we did go places…really cool places I’d never been before!  I’ll tell you about them next!

 

Conquest in the Caribbean…3

The first night of the cruise we had made reservations at the Steakhouse restaurant, the Point.  We have had varying degrees of success with the same style restaurant at Royal Caribbean’s Chops steakhouse so I was interested to see how this compared.  Of course, Carnival sweetens the deal by offering a free bottle of wine if you book the first night…I know what you’re thinking: I have the drink package, I  don’t need a free bottle of wine.  Well you would be wrong.  Totally wrong!  That is, until I saw what wine they were offering as the free bottle…blech!  The other option Carnival offers is that you can purchase any bottle of wine on their list at 50% off…see!!  I still get my bottle of wine!!

The Point Steakhouse on the Conquest is on Deck 10.  I was there a bit earlier than our reservation or our dining companions so I sat down at the bar to wait.  This turned out to be a GREAT idea as this was where I met one of my favorite bartenders, Javorka (it only took me until day 3 to get her name right…sorry!!) from Serbia.  Javorka worked at the Steakhouse in the evening, but at the Serenity Pool Bar during the day so naturally I spent most of my days with her!!   But back to the Point…hehehe I mean the steakhouse.

We were seated promptly at a table by the window, since it was January, it was already dark outside by 7pm, but I am sure that the view would be spectacular at other times of the year.  My first thought after sitting down was…”Look at these plates!!!!”  I mean really…Look at them:

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They’re spectacular!  And everyone’s was different.  All of them pretty, but mine was the best!  For real, if I could have fit it in my purse, I would be eating dinner off this plate every night!

But now lets talk about what goes on the plate.  As an appetizer I chose the Escargots.  I love snails and cruise ships are the only place I know I can get them prepared well, and not crazy expensive!

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Escargot Two Ways

Moving on to the entrees, two of us had the Filet, one had lamb and one had the Tomahawk Ribeye.  All of the dishes were cooked perfectly, and served with three sauces for the table: Peppercorn, Wild Mushroom, and Bearnaise.   We also had an assortment of side dishes, served family style for all of us to share.

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9oz Filet Mignon
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Grilled Double Cut Lamb Chops
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18oz Rib Chop

If that didn’t fill you up, we still have dessert!!!  There is always room for dessert!!  I know one of us had the fresh fruit plate (well, its actually served in a martini glass but you get the idea), one of us had the cheesecake and I had the Chocolate Sampler.  I am not really a dessert person so I usually get samplers.

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Fresh Fruit Martini
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The Famous Cheesecake
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Chocolate Sampler

In addition, you can see my espresso and Frangelico in the background…I may not be a big dessert fan, but coffee and cordials are my jam!

Needless to say, after a meal like this, the best plan of action is to very carefully roll yourself into bed.  BUT!  See that little cup of caffeine?  Yep, I’m headed to the Casino!!!

Mom headed to bed like a normal human, but down to the casino I went where I managed to close the place down, then stumble back to my cabin and fall into my bed (sorry mom!).

Next, we were headed to Nassau.  I didn’t even get off the ship and spent most of the day chatting with Javorka at the Serenity Bar.  Pretty sure I was hoping some of that “Serenity” would seep into me after the night before!

Our next day was a sea day, so really more Serenity, but in my next post I will introduce you to my other favorite bartender and tell you all about the Chef’s Table experience.  Then, eventually, we do get to some ports!