Cruising in comfort

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This post is dedicated to Ryan – happy cruising!

In January, my sister Kat brought our family on our first-ever cruise as part of a writers’ conference where she was a member of the faculty. Only mom had been on a cruise before, back in the era of perms and festive centerpieces made of lard (yes, really). It was a new adventure for us all – I imagine that people who don’t fly often feel the same way about planes. The small tv and its limited channels! Small nut-free snacks! A teeny bathroom!

This trip – on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Sea – had similar exciting and uncharted territories, and we loved exploring them all. Here are some of the top things I learned along the way:

ONE: You can ask your steward and waiter for anything. When Kat and I arrived in our room, the beds were together as a queen. And while that seemed cozy, we knew it would not be fun for the long term. So we asked our steward, Nicholas, to separate them for us, which he did in a heartbeat, and they were perfect by turndown service. (Mark that as the #1 thing I wish I could take home from cruising – such a treat!)

TWO: Eat your dinner. And then some. Dinner is absolutely positively not to be missed. Bring some nice clothes to dress up and make an evening out of it (I recommend getting the early seating if possible so you can then scurry over to the evening entertainment). Our table consisted of my family, the tour hosts, a nice young couple, and a rotating cast of writers. The waitstaff was SO friendly and nice. Maybe a little TOO nice. When we couldn’t decide between options, our waitress encouraged us to try them both. It got to the point that by the end of the cruise, every person at the table was ordering an average of 5 items for a 3 course dinner. 3 desserts, 2 salads, steak and lobster… it was downright absurd. I think we all wanted to know if there was a limit, and the answer was a definitive NO. Whether or not you’re going to order the entire menu, feel free to ask a lot of questions – it’s especially useful to know which options are for one night only and which are going to be available tomorrow (you know, for everyone else who plans their food a week in advance).

THREE: Embrace your inner tourist. Cruising is basically summer camp. By the end of the week, you’ve seen the same people all over. You know who lost at Bingo and who can kill it at karaoke, and who was supposed to go snorkeling before it started raining. But to get there, you need to go to the ship events – especially in the beginning. Every trivia night, stage show, belly flop contest is part of building a cruise community of ship-bound weirdos. Our family won trivia and dad put up a good fight in a musical contest. We also learned choreographed dances, laughed our butts off at “game shows”, and went to an art auction- highly recommended, especially if you will never go in real life. Mark everything you’re interested in on the daily schedule and then check them all out – you might find something you seriously love!

Also: if you think the captain is taking pictures right now, don’t listen to the people who tell you it’s later. You WILL miss it and make your family basically stalk the captain so you can get a classic shot together.

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All dressed up for the formal dinner – with no captain in sight.

FOUR: Plan your excursions strategically. Better to book early and cancel (24+ hours before and you get a full refund for most) than to find out that the one you want is all full. And when you do book, go for excursions that start as soon as you get off the boat.

We tried both options (not intentionally): in Cozumel, we got off the boat, found our tour group, and spent the morning at ruins and getting an island tour before going off on our own for shopping downtown. In Grand Cayman, we ate and wandered first before going back for our snorkel adventure. Rushing to get back for the group outing was not fun – we lost a lot of time because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the next phase. We preferred having the afternoon free so we could manage our own return to the ship, instead. BUT! There is a plus side to doing the ship-led adventure last – on our trip, some people got extremely delayed when their snorkel boat was unable to dock in high winds. The only reason the ship waited for them (instead of making them fly to the next port!) was because they were on a ship-led trip and thus were guaranteed not to miss the departure. Definitely something to consider when planning your day out (and do go out – the ship will be there when you get back!).

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FIVE: Pack like you’re camping. Weird, I know. But I assumed that there would be at least some nice shampoo in the shower, and there was only an all-purpose soap. Similarly, I wished I had a small bag (really a clutch) for holding my keycard and camera as we ran around the ship in the evening. Specifically, make sure you bring:

  • Your own shampoo, soap, face wash (along with your sunscreen, pain meds, etc.)
  • Seabands (so cheap on Amazon, so expensive on the boat)
  • A lock for your backpack (this makes me feel much more secure when I travel anyway, especially since your cabin door will sometimes be open for cleaning)
  • Your own bottle of wine (check your ship for limits per cabin)
  • Earplugs
  • Sunglasses and hats (I bought a new hat on the ship to get into the vacation style)
  • A good book (their excuse for a library was weaker than I thought possible)
  • A to-go cup if you like to travel with your coffee. The ship mugs are TINY.
  • Your FitBit, to give you extra inspiration NOT to take the elevator (but… it’s right there!)
  • Cozy shawls and cardigans for the cold sea air at night. The constellations are great if you’re warm enough to stay out and look for them!
  • A small bag so you can tote around all of the above rather than having to bring your book back to your room before trivia, etc.

*****

Bottom line: our first cruise was a huge success. It also opened my eyes to how fun an all-inclusive really could be – all this plus NOT feeling like your stomach was in knots! But falling asleep on the ocean and waking up in a bustling tropical port is a delight, as is a week of limited (but lovely) choices and forced relaxation.

What do you wish YOU had known before your first cruise?

 

What did I miss?

Travel is great – seeing new places, reconnecting with old friends, having adventures. But part of the spark of travel, for me, is the joy of coming home and seeing my old space with fresh eyes.

When I’m on the road (or boat or plane or whatever), here’s what I typically miss:

  • My humidifier. So lame but so necessary for my allergy-ridden head, to the point where I actually bought a travel version this week and had it shipped to my sister’s office. But I’m glad to be back with my real one now.
  • My gym. Once again I carried a lot of exercise gear with me and never used it. Sure, tomorrow I’ll go for a pre-work run in solidarity with the marathoners, but there’s nothing like your home gym aka Tuesday Zumba classes.
  • Leftovers. I LOVE LEFTOVERS. It’s one of the saddest parts of travel when I can’t bring food home from a great dinner and know that it will be there for me later in the week. Already remedied this: tonight’s Indian dinner is tomorrow’s lunch.
  • My desk. Double monitors set to exactly the right height = work nirvana. Plus my awesome Boston officemates with whom I have a week worth of catching up to do. 
  • My daily talks with grandma. (Hi Booboo!) I have so many times in a typical week when I call my grandma en route to my next stop and we catch up about politics, Royal gossip, the drama at her retirement community, etc. When I travel, I usually fill that time either with other people or trying not to get lost, so it’s great to get home and talk more often.
  • My roommate and our sweet apartment. That’s the deal when you live with your best friend – you actually miss them and the cute life you’ve built together. Plus, it’s necessary to check in once in a while so that before your bag is even unzipped… never mind unpacked… you can start planning your next trip!

What do you miss the most when you leave home?

*bonus points if you get the title reference

So long, 2015!

You had your time. You saw me through some new adventures – hiking a 4000 footer, trekking through Hawaii, going backstage at a Broadway show, playing my guitar in public. You held with me through fun and hard days at work, the snowiest winter ever, and a return to my favorite summer camp. You were the end of my fearless 20s and the beginning of my confident 30s. You were there as I cried over political unrest and cheered for the better future I still believe is possible. 

  

It’s been real – and I’m thrilled to see what 2016 brings! Starting with a delicious dinner at a local restaurant with one of my favorite former Bostonians and her loved ones, and then the unknown adventure ahead. 

Happy New Year!

Kitchen Adventures: Easy Vegan Banana Muffins

In this VB6 phase, oatmeal will only take me so far. So I’m always on the lookout for other delicious vegan breakfast options to carry me through the week.

This weekend I dove into a new recipe: vegan banana muffins. And they were a HUGE success. I think they might be the best muffins I’ve ever made, vegan or otherwise!

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Check out the recipe at AllRecipes – my version was modified slightly:

  • I replaced the cup of canola with 1/2 cup olive oil (because I didn’t have canola) and it gave them a great depth of flavor
  • I filled in with the other half cup of oil by just adding more coconut milk
  • I only used lite coconut milk – it’s fatty enough anyway!
  • I used 2.5 bananas (having eaten half on the way home from the gym…) – I don’t think you can have too much banana in a banana muffin!

For next time, I’m going to try to cut down on sugar, which this recipe has a lot of. Overall, this made 24 medium-to-small muffins, which is how I like them – you could easily make one dozen plus a loaf of bread if you wanted.

What’s your go-to breakfast option? Bonus points if it’s vegan and thus can make my mornings brighter!

Vegan-ish

I love food. Baking. Cooking. Eating. Seeking out the best doughnut and the tastiest quiche.

But starting in November, I’ve been trying something new in my approach to food. After years of dabbling in Weight Watchers or trying just to limit sugar / eat more veggies / cut back on cheese, I’m taking a new perspective and trying Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 (aka VB6) diet / lifestyle.

My coworker Theresa turned me onto the idea, and now my mom and aunt and I have all adopted different versions of it. The basic idea is just as it sounds – eat vegan until dinner each night, and avoid processed food and white sugars / carbs when possible. Eat whatever you want for dinner (which doesn’t mean eating until you’re sick, but it does mean you can have steak and fries if that’s what’s calling your name). The basis is that vegan food is better for lots of bodies and also better for our environment, but eating is also a highly social experience and any lifestyle that doesn’t recognize that and give you soon room to adapt to it is ultimately doomed to fail.

Unlike going totally vegan, this means that you can still just as easily digest milk and meat and whatnot when you do want them – that part of cutting something out of my diet never appealed to me (if I want ice cream, I don’t want it to come with an immediate stomachache). But it also means that for 3/4 of the day, you’re eating vegetables and grains and other whole foods.

The best part: it’s super easy to stick to. Yes, it means more oatmeal. But it also means that if I really love eggs (which I DO), I just eat them for breakfast and look forward to them starring in that meal. Dinner is just as easy – you can make a delicious meal with a side of meat / cheese and then just eat it without that piece for lunch the next day (like James’s delicious black bean soup mom and I made over Thanksgiving!). And because it’s flexible by its very nature and meant to be a sustainable lifestyle rather than a plan, if you decide that brunch is your non-vegan meal of the day or find that you need to make some swaps based on business travel restrictions (see last post), you don’t have to feel guilty, as some other tracking programs would have you do.

Mark Bittman said that when he moved to this model, it changed his perspective on life – he stopped just writing recipes and started writing more about food policy and production. And I can see it. By changing how I look at cooking and eating and dining out, it makes me want to focus on other, more interesting parts of my life – my guitar! Exploring new neighborhoods! Calling my friends who don’t live in Boston when I would otherwise be slaving over the stove!

It’s also opened my eyes up to how hard true vegans and vegetarians have it in mainstream food options. I was at the airport, looking for a healthy snack to take on the plane, and my only options were nuts or bananas. Not even an apple to be seen, or anything that wasn’t yogurt-based or a baked pastry. Or the time that we ordered pho and all the broth was chicken-based, or when wanting no egg in my pad thai meant that I couldn’t have any of the dozen lunch specials. It makes me want to cheer on people who serve almond milk along with the soy, or who offer tofu scrambles as an alternative to other breakfast items.

After doing this for a month, I feel better, lighter, and more free when it comes to what I eat, despite this new restriction. It makes me think – what do I really WANT now? That’s led to me leaving Bloody Marys sitting on the bar when it wasn’t the right thing for me, or spending more money to get two small vegetarian sides as a meal because nothing else was clicking.

Stay tuned for more vegan recipes ahead and other culinary adventures. If you have any awesome suggestions for vegan meals, please send them my way! And if you thought you could never be vegan, just wait until you hear about the muffins I made yesterday!

Trying on another life for a night

That’s my philosophy about Halloween. It’s a time where everyone can be whoever they want – whether you’re a bus driver by day and black swan by night, or the total reverse. It’s also a chance to get crazy creative – and if you’re not ready to put your name on your creation, you can just add a mask and remain anonymous. 

Last year, I spent Halloween minimally dressed up with friends in Barcelona, where we drank in underground bars and resisted invitations to parties on the beach that started at 3 am. 

This year, the celebration started with an office costume contest in which we were all declared the nerdiest winners of the land. 

  
In addition to the inside jokes (dads@ and the hilarious hot dog, we also had a pivot table (Joey turned from side to side), #slack, and Internet explorer (me!), and a spam trap. And a pirate pulled from our costume bucket. Surely every office has one of those, right? Halloween nerdiness reached its pinnacle when we made a graph outlining each person’s vote for best candy. Reese’s forever!

Then, for a major throwback, I celebrated on the day-of with high school friends in Manchester, near where we grew up. This was my most exciting costume (favorite in years) as snapped by my dad, which made me feel like I was 10 and about to go trick-or-treating.

  
I’m Katniss from “The Hunger Games”, sporting my first ever side braid and my beloved mockingjay pin. And yoga pants. I decided that every costume I ever wear from now on has to include yoga pants because I was SO comfortable. 

This continues my trend of dressing as awesome heroines – from Nancy Drew to Cleopatra to Julia Child. Who will be next??

We celebrated Halloween and Rachael’s upcoming 30th at Strangr Brew, which was nothing short of magical. I love how Halloween tears down walls and makes it possible for me to go talk to the trio dressed as the Sanderson sisters, or to ask Rob Stark where he got that amazing cape (he made it!). Where I can do the wobble with a basic b*tch and laugh at black swan prancing around wearing Big Bird’s head. I had a crowing contest with Rufio, we shared our loaf of French bread with a very convincing joker, and a good time was had by all. 

I wish there were more days where we could express ourselves without worrying what other people think – and speak freely to strangers without bring creepy. Until there is, I’ll just start plotting my next costume… 

What’s your favorite costume you wore or saw this year?

**Also – shout out to my grandma for her chef costume and for winning the retirement community’s costume contest YET AGAIN!!**

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

It’s finally here. The moment we have been waiting for these almost-30 years (of you know, the fifteen since I first saw the movie) – WE ARE LIVING IN THE FUTURE!

 
Back to the Future II is one of my favorite movies (just ask anyone who has seen my OKCupid profile!). I love the campiness, the simplicity of its time-travel logic, and the specificity of what the future will hold. Doors that open based on your fingerprint! Holographic movies! Lots of frozen “food”! Video calls instead of just talking with our voices!

And of course, hover boards and self-tying shoes. 

We’re still working on those final two – but some of those other cinematic predictions really have come to pass. Drones are used in reporting. Our phones unlock through fingerprint scans. And the Cubs are still (temporarily?) in the running for World Series champs. 

Part of what I love about these movies – once I get past my crush on Michael J Fox – is that in this vision of the future, the world isn’t perfect but hope also isn’t totally lost. I feel like the narrative I’ve seen in movies lately is a bit more helpless – either because the world is wasted by overpopulation or climate change or that ever-possible asteroid. While our leaders debate whether or not God has endorsed them as a candidate and what server one should use for work emails, our films show the real issues that line our fears of the future – and the threats that go far beyond the danger of a simple sports almanac. I prefer the BTTF version, where any challenge can still be overcome, to the modern idea that the future is set… and looking pretty gray.

Raise a glass of Pepsi Perfect to the film that somewhat accurately showed us what this day could hold – and reminded us that even in 2015, our densities… I mean, destinies… can still change.