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

Call your girlfriends

I’m back in DC, making even more of my visit this time by coming a few days before my meeting so I can hang out with some Mount Holyoke girlfriends and see the city a bit amid work. 

  
It all started in Alexandria, where former crewton Abby and I went to lunch. Buckwheat crepes + feminist dating updates = best Saturday. Then onward to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where we saw an awesome exhibit about women in the Arabic world – “She who tells a story”. Highly recommend if you’re in the area – it’s $10 but they let us in free because they were setting up for a wedding and had to let in all the staff anyway!

Then Becca, my crew big sister, and I met up for the first time in five years at Rice for Thai food. So perfect! …Except somehow in the last 24 hours leading up to this moment, I completely lost my voice. Our reunion dinner together basically consisted of charades from my side of the table and laughter from hers. That’s how you know who your true friends are – they’re willing to talk even if you can only answer yes / no questions. 

  
Today, ’08 politico Mica and I went to the National Portrait Gallery, where we saw cool exhibits about celebrities and this gem from a future I don’t want to live in.

  
(Yes, that’s Frank Underwood from House of Cards.)

Then we had delicious Mexican brunch at Mission surrounded by people who had been drinking bottomless mimosas and margaritas for 2+ hours already. Oof! Having almost no voice has made me hyper aware of how incredibly loud some restaurants are. I never noticed how bad it was before!

And then, the girl-power jewel on the cake*, heading out to Sixth and I with Meg to see a live taping of Call your girlfriend – “a podcast for long distance besties” hosted by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow and produced by Gina Delvac. Meg got us tickets weeks ago and I’ve been listening to it ever since – highly recommend. Start with the one where Huma talks all about how awesome her boss aka Hillary Clinton is! The live version was even better. Democratic Rep Donna Edwards, a brief slide show of besties in history, and lots of thoughtful discussion on gender, politics, money, and more. Plus, wine in sippy cups.

 

Still ahead: a long presentation through which I hope my voice survives, a Nats game (first ever professional baseball game outside of Fenway!), and then five days with my sis and other buds in NYC. Stay tuned as the adventure continues!

*Yes, I briefly considered changing that to frosting or crown but I think the original has more spirit.

And the best pitcher is…

Our annual Oscar party was this weekend, and we pulled out all the shots… I mean, stops!

Champagne, chocolate, a mega-ballot on the wall, and fifteen friends from all parts of our lives made the evening a huge success that even Leo can look at with good memories.

And this year, we took the best picture puns to the next level, constructing our presentations out of cardboard and glue guns and so much nerdiness. We even predicted the shocking best picture!

   
    
    
    
 
What was your favorite part of the show (or the menu)?

Ready to go(tv)!

All eyes are on the small slice of the world that I call my home state. The New Hampshire primary is in four days, and after close races in Iowa – on both sides – things have reached a fever pitch here.

Of course, I’m home to get in on the fun. On Wednesday, dad and I trekked out to a local middle school to see not just Hillary, but Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly by her side. 

  
If Gabby hadn’t been shot in that parking lot in Arizona, we could have been talking about when she was going to run for President. Instead, five years later, she’s still in rehab and stumping for the candidate she thinks will beat prevent future tragedies. Her new line: “Speaking is difficult, but in January, I want to say these two words: MADAME PRESIDENT.”

I agree, Gabby, I agree!

  
So this weekend, I’ll be out, walking through the freshly-fallen snow to knock as many doors as possible and convince as many Hillary people as I can to show their support on Tuesday (no matter how cold it may be!). I believe that she will win – and I’m going to put all my energy into making that a reality!
 
Hope to see you on the campaign trail! 

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!