Day 147: Three Reasons Why the Viking Way Works For Me

For the past few days I’ve been reviewing my previous voyages with Viking River Cruises. Today, on day 147 of the Nowhere To Be Project, I thought I’d explain why I’ve taken four river cruises with Viking in the past few years and why I am gearing up to hop on board the Viking Sky for my first ocean cruise with them this Saturday. There are three very simple reasons why the Viking way works for me:

1. VALUE: Many people assume that Viking, an upscale cruise line, is out of their price range. I am here to tell you that cruising with Viking, a line that is consistently voted a favorite by cruisers from all walks of life, is a value. First of all, the price you pay includes pretty much everything (food, wine and beer with meals, excursions, and lodging). Sometimes airfare is included as well. I occasionally purchase optional excursions, but only if there is something special that I’d like to see or do. The only expense I’ve found necessary aside from the cruise fare is the onboard tipping of staff (well deserved). For example, I paid around $5000 for my family of four to cruise the Danube at Christmastime. We flew from the U.S. to Europe, were picked up at the airport, had two cabins, went on eight excursions (one for each day of the voyage), ate and drank to our heart’s delight, and were positively pampered for eight days by Viking staff who then transferred us back to the airport for our return flight to the U.S. Simple math tells me that this peak season vacation cost $156.25 per person per day. To me, that is an incredible value!

2. REFINEMENT: When my kids were young we took a lot of ocean cruises. Living in Florida, we found it so easy to hop on a megaship for a few days of fun. We have cruised on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival and Disney cruise lines. Over time we tired of what I call the “drunk culture” where all activities seem to revolve around getting wasted by the pool or on the beach. Not to say that we didn’t enjoy these trips, but they got old after awhile and we were seeking something more. Viking ended up being a great alternative for us because it provides a nice balance of relaxation, fun and culture. The ships are elegant yet simple. The service is attentive yet nonintrusive. More simply stated, we’ve found it to be a more refined approach to cruising.

3. CULTURAL IMMERSION: I’ve always believed that travel is the highest form of education. Walking in the steps of historical figures, touching stones that were laid centuries ago and gazing upon storied lands are the staples of Viking voyages. Each itinerary is respectfully built around the region in which it occurs in regard to food, language, excursions, music and even cultural norms. I’ve learned amazing things about languages, history, art, politics, food, culture, religion, and people in the 39 days I’ve spent as a Viking guest. As a former educator, I know that this level of comprehension cannot be taught. Rather, it must be experienced! There is just no replacement for cultural immersion and that is something that Viking excels at.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments. As always, these are my opinions and I am never compensated in any way for my travel reviews.

Day 144: Touring Paris & the Heart of Normandy with Viking River Cruises

Day 144 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent recalling my Seine River voyage with Viking. My son, who is a huge WWII buff, chose the trip (his high school graduation gift) as a way to pay his respects to those who died for his freedom on Omaha Beach. This trip took place from May 29 through June 5, 2015.

This trip was for my son!

We flew from Orlando to London for a few days in advance of our voyage, so did not use Viking air or transfer services this time. We hopped on the Eurostar high speed train to travel from London to Paris on the morning of embarkation. We were then able to take the Metro to a stop close to Quai de Grenelle where our ship, the Viking Spirit, was docked. This location is not necessarily in the heart of Paris, but is convenient to the Metro and we had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the sun deck. We arrived in the early evening after I spent some time sharing my adoration of Paris with my son and chuckled when the staff expressed that they had been worried about us. They genuinely meant it and that is a testament to the attentive nature of service on a Viking ship. We were escorted to our staterooms which were across the hall from one another (my son requested his own room this time, haha). We were unaware until boarding that this would be the Spirit’s final voyage for Viking. While the ship was not as modern and impressive as the longship we had sailed on previously (Viking Lif), it was comfortable and clean. We were quickly whisked to a welcome briefing followed by dinner (very French forward) in the restaurant. The night closed out with some pleasant live music in the lounge and eventually a movie in our stateroom. The ship offered a rotating loop of French-themed films like Moulin Rouge and Midnight in Paris during our time on board.

We remained in Paris for the second day of our voyage and joined an included half day tour of the city with our fellow guests. The tour provided a nice historical background of the city along with key facts about the city’s design and architecture. Afterwards, we wandered off on our own so that I could share some more of my favorite Parisian spots with my family. We made it back on board in time for the sail away toast and a French language lesson in the lounge followed by apéritifs for all.

We awoke in Vernon on Sunday, May 31, 2015 and enjoyed a full breakfast in the restaurant where my son and husband swore by the French toast. We explored the quaint town of Vernon for a couple hours before joining the Viking tour to Giverny and Claude Monet’s home and stunning garden. We paid our respects to the great artist at his tomb (located at a cemetery just blocks from his home) before heading back to the ship for an optional Impressionistic painting class. The class was quite a treat, but our skills were lacking and the strict French painting instructor was not at all shy about letting us know it, lol. The restaurant’s dinner focused on specialties from the Normandy region and included a lovely local wine selection.

Day four of the voyage was structured a bit differently in that we sailed from Vernon at 6:30am, headed for Rouen. This made the morning a bit more relaxed, allowing for a leisurely breakfast (more French toast) before an informative onboard lecture about Joan of Arc. We arrived in Rouen after lunch (a buffet) and joined the included walking tour. Rouen was probably my favorite stop on this cruise simply because of the Medieval architecture and the profound history of the place. The food was very delicious as well (a favorite of Julia Child) and the village offered a host of opportunities for shopping and nightlife.

On the fifth morning of our voyage we boarded a bus headed for the beaches of Normandy (included full day tour). The drive through the countryside was lengthy, but very beautiful. The experience of Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum, the memorial and cemetery was nothing less than overwhelming. Unfortunately, our time there was very, very limited. We finished the day onboard with a toast to the fallen heroes.

We departed Rouen on the morning of sixth day of the cruise, making our way to Les Andelys. The highlight of our time there was a guided hike to Château Gaillard, the failed fortress of my 19th Great Uncle, King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart). The farewell dinner on board was served as we sailed for Conflans (we arrived at 11:15pm and docked here overnight).

The morning of the seventh day onboard the Viking Spirit was spent roaming the charming French town of Conflans where I found a lovely seamstress shop stocked with unique designs made from vintage French fabrics. Sadly, the wanderlust in Conflans was cut a bit short by the ship’s 1pm departure to Paris. As we sailed back to our point of origin, a cooking demonstration by the chef (tarte au citron) and farewell cocktail party filled my time while my family enjoyed the optional oyster tasting with the head chef in the dining room.

We awoke early on the final morning as the ship’s concierge had been most helpful in procuring a taxi for us (we did not purchase Viking transfers on this trip). As always, it was sad to leave the beauty of Paris and the luxury of the Viking experience. The service, food, wine and tours on this journey were outstanding. As I mentioned earlier, the ship was a bit tired though and we had been disappointed by our very limited time in Normandy. Aside from those things, our second Viking River voyage was outstanding and we would have happily repeated the cruise if given the chance!

Day 143: Viking’s Version of the Danube Waltz

As promised, day 143 of the Nowhere To Be Project is focused on revisiting my Danube Waltz journey with Viking River Cruises. As I explained yesterday, I will spend the next four days reviewing my previous Viking River Cruises in anticipation of my first Viking Ocean Cruise next week. For the first review, we’ll travel back to 2014. To begin with, the cruise almost didn’t happen as our initial booking was canceled by Viking. I received an email explaining that the voyage was canceled and that all monies would be refunded. We were really bummed to hear this as it was to be our first river cruise and one where our grown children would be joining us. I called Viking to find out what was happening and they offered to put us on another ship around the same dates. Initially, we had reserved two standard cabins (category F). These were no longer available on the replacement ship, but Viking agreed to upgrade us to french balcony rooms at no charge. These rooms are a bit smaller than the standard cabins, but have sliding glass doors to allow for fresh air and a larger viewing area. We were pleased with this change and the way the mishap was handled.

We flew from Orlando to Munich on Lufthansa airlines (booked through Viking’s choice air program to ensure that we were all placed together). We were greeted at the airport by Viking staff and were transported to Passau on a comfortable tour bus. We were greeted with champagne immediately upon boarding the Viking Lif on the afternoon of Saturday, December 20 and that was the kick off of what was to be an amazing holiday.

After a nice dinner in the main restaurant on board, we wandered through the lovely town. With this being our first river cruise, we marveled at how simple it was to walk on and off the ship in a centrally located area of town. On that first night were exhausted, so we just sipped gluhwein and enjoyed the simple beauty of Passau.

Day two of the cruise was also spent in Passau. We joined the included walking tour which focused on history and architecture. The tour concluded with an outstanding organ concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Once again, we enjoyed dinner consisting of regional foods in the restaurant as a family (table for four). After dinner cocktails were a pleasure in the lounge with the addition of live music.

We awoke in Linz, Austria and enjoyed a buffet breakfast before departing on a full day tour to Salzburg. The countryside was lovely and put everyone in the Christmas mood. Of course, there was a lot of focus on the von Trapp family and the film, The Sound of Music. Dinner was no exception and was followed up by live music in the lounge with a von Trapp flair. We were also able to spend a very short time before dinner exploring the quaint town of Linz.

On day four of the Danube Waltz voyage, we reached Melk, Austria where we toured the beautiful Melk Abbey, a 900 year old monastery. The serenity of the abbey was topped only by the sheer loveliness of it. There wasn’t much to explore in and around the ship after our tour, but we did sail in the afternoon to a pleasant little Austrian town called Dürnstein. We liked the area so much that we decided to skip dinner on board the Lif to enjoy a small, but picturesque Christmas market and more gluhwein.

Day five of our cruise marked Christmas Eve and everyone on the ship, passengers and staff, were abuzz with the festivities and decor as we awoke in Vienna. We joined the city tour of Vienna where all of the key spots in town were highlighted. The kids were getting sick of the slow pace of the tours at this point though so we ventured off on our own for lunch at Aida Cafe Vienna tea room in the heart of the city. From there, we made made our way to the office of Dr. Sigmund Freud (had to be done as professor of psychology:-) and then on to one of the largest of the Christmas Markets in the region for some shopping, and you guessed it, more gluhwein! We made it back to the ship with a few minutes to spare before our 1:30AM sailaway.

Christmas Day brought the Viking Lif to Bratislava, Slovakia. The kids slept in while we embarked on a guided walking tour of the surrounding town. While the tour did a great job of explaining the fascinating history and architecture, the entire city was closed for business in celebration of the Christmas holiday. We joined the kids for a special Christmas tea on board where the pastry chef taught passengers how to make the regional favorite, kiffles cookies. Christmas dinner on board was a wonderful celebration, but again focused mostly on regional foods rather than traditional favorites. In the late evening, everyone on board made their way to the sun deck for our arrival in Budapest where the cruise director highlighted key facts about the landscape as we sailed. Entering the vibrantly illuminated city at night was breathtaking. By the time we docked (about 10pm) we were ready to explore Budapest and did so into the wee hours.

Our final day was spent on an included walking tour of Budapest where we visited the National Opera House and Matthias Church. We made some time for shopping and dining in town before boarding the Lif for the final time. Our transport to the airport left the ship the next morning at 4:30am and seamlessly delivered us to the airport for our flight home.

Our overall experience on Viking’s Danube Waltz was outstanding. This part of the world is simply magical at this time of year and it offered so many wonderful opportunities for celebration. The staff on board the Lif was exceptional in all regards and we felt totally pampered throughout the voyage. The ship was comfortable, sleek and modern, and never felt crowded. Our fellow passengers, while much older than us, were mostly pleasant and very well-traveled. The food was good and the included regional wines were even better. The excursions were as to be expected, but the tour guides were exceptional. This journey sparked our love affair with Viking and river cruising so much so that we purchased vouchers for another voyage while on board.

Day 134: Have Dog, Must Travel

I was feeling bad for my pooch today, day 134 of the Nowhere To Be Project. We rescued him nine years ago after he was found (as a puppy) wandering the streets of Orlando. He had been abandoned by his mother and was malnourished. I think that this is when his wanderlust began because since then he has visited 41 states and one foreign country. The only time he does not accompany us on our travels is when we fly. At 90 pounds, he’s just too big to bring on board and I refuse to cage him in cargo. That will change should I ever win the lottery…I’ll buy a private jet so he can see the world!

Just a few states left!

I was feeling sorry for him today because he loves travel as much as we do and has been home bound for the past several weeks. While he loves the long hikes and brief car rides we squeeze in each day, he just doesn’t get the same thrill as that of life on the road. He especially loves staying at Kimpton hotels (he’s been to more than three-quarters of their U.S. locations) because they out and out pamper their four-legged guests. His bunk on our R.V. runs a close second likely because it has a panoramic window to the world (see photo above).

Getting comfy at a Kimpton!

The good news is that he’ll be knocking off the remainder of the continental United States by early March of 2019. Not bad for a pup that was days away from being euthanized, huh? Adopt don’t shop! You never know, you might just find your next travel partner.

Day 133: How To Stop Robbing Yourself of the Travel You Deserve

As a constant traveler, I understand the assumptions and misconceptions that people have about the jet-set lifestyle. This flawed thinking literally robs people of travel…”I can’t afford it”, “I’m too busy” and so on. Therefore, the focus of day 133 of the Nowhere To Be Project is the notion that travel is accessible to everyone, all the time.

Open the door to travel!

People assume that travel is only for the wealthy. This couldn’t be further from the truth because travel comes in all shapes, sizes and price points. It is what you make it. I’ve splurged a few times on what might be considered luxury trips. More frequently though, I’ve camped for free with just a book and a backpack full of homemade treats. I’ve also hopped on last minute cruises where one all-inclusive week at sea can cost much less than one on land. Low cost travel is a real possibility for the diligent and prepared. For some things it pays to plan well in advance, while others require the ability to get up and go on a moment’s notice.
Some think that frequent travel is limited to the very young and very old. TRAVEL IS NOT JUST FOR COLLEGE KIDS AND OLD CRONIES!!! While constant travel has become easier since my retirement, I never let life get in the way of my wanderlust. For example, my kids are very well-traveled because I never saw them as a barrier to travel. Some people think that it is too much of a pain to pack up the kids (and the diaper bag, playpen, toys, etc.), but I always viewed their presence as a bonus. I strived to use travel as a learning tool because I believe that it teaches us much more than any textbook ever could. The time crunch of working full time and accommodating busy schedules can certainly make long trips more fleeting, but day or weekend getaways are always a possibility. It could be as simple as a Saturday visit to a state park in an adjacent county, or a house swap weekend with a family in a bordering state.
There are those who think that travel is self-indulgent and that any extra money should be squirreled away for a rainy day. I am all about living beneath my means. What I mean by this is that the spending choices we make each day can profoundly impact our financial bottom line. Over time, a frugal approach really adds up and opens the door to travel. For instance, I’d rather make my own coffee each morning (whether at home or on the road) and take trips. I refuse to spend $10 a day at Starbucks not only because I like my coffee better, but because over time it would rob me of travel opportunities. Case in point, I flew to Paris round trip last year for $300. I just can’t imagine who’d choose thirty days of prepared coffee over Paris!

What excuses do you use to rob yourself of travel?

Day 111: When Pigs Fly Mac ‘N’ Cheese, aka the creamiest 10 minute vegan mac ‘n’ cheese ever

On Day 111 of the Nowhere To Be Project I had mad cravings for macaroni and cheese. It is, after all, one of life’s simplest pleasures, isn’t it? The problem is that most vegan versions I’ve tried aren’t great. I’ve tried time and time again to recreate the dairy laden home-style version my kids beg me for using plant-based ingredients, but have never really been successful. They usually ended up with a Play-Doh taste and texture and no one wants that.

Well, today the seas parted and pigs flew because I finally did it. I created an amazing vegan version of my old friend, mac ‘n’ cheese. It is very quick and simple to make. I hope you’ll like it as much as we do!

Here’s what you’ll need:

8 ounces dried macaroni

1/4 cup plant-based butter

2 cups plant-based half & half

2 Tbsp flour

4-6 slices Chao original flavor cheese, torn into thin strips

Salt to taste

Freshly ground Herbes de Provence to taste (optional)

Preparation:

+Begin by salting and boiling water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the package instructions (usually about 8-10 minutes).

+While the macaroni is cooking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan in low heat.

+Add the half & half to the melted butter and whisk until blended.

+Whisk the flour into the butter-cream mixture one tablespoon at a time until smooth and lump-free.

+Slowly add the cheese, continuing to whisk the mixture until smooth and creamy.

+Stir in salt to taste. Add the ground Herbes de Provence at this time as well, stirring just until mixed.

+Remove the cheese sauce from the heat and drain your pasta, leaving it slightly wet.

+Return the cooked pasta to the pot and pour the cheese sauce over the pasta, stirring gently until all noodles are coated.

+Serve immediately.

+Enjoy!

Day 102: Another Day, Another Burger…without the Funky Bunch

Several days ago I blogged about Burgerfi’s version of the vegan Beyond Burger. After that post, someone enlightened me about what he described as “the absolute best vegan burger out there”, aptly named the Impossible Burger. That conversation led me to hightail it to Wahlburgers in Orlando, Florida on Day 102 of the Nowhere To Be Project (Waterford Lakes location). This was my first visit to a Wahlburgers and I’ve never seen the show, so wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Unfortunately, neither Marky Mark nor the Funky Bunch was present (yes, I’m that age and I did have the infamous Calvin Klein poster on my wall as a teen) but a very chipper server was. I looked the menu over top to bottom and did not see anything about the Impossible Burger. I finally spotted it when I turned to grab a napkin from the dispenser on the table. It was featured there in full color on an insert. Wahlburgers version includes several non-vegan additions (bun, smoked cheddar, Wahl sauce) though so after a brief consultation on food preparation and ingredients with the server I created the “Nowhere To Be Burger”. This vegan masterpiece took the Impossible Burger to a truly plant-based pinnacle with toasted sourdough (no butter), avocado spread, sautéed mushrooms, chili spiced tomatoes, caramelized onions, pickle, mustard and catsup. With my additions, the price of my burger totaled $14.95, which is a bit high when compared to my son’s regular beef Double Decker which was just $8.95! I threw caution to the wind and went with a side of the sweet potato tots as an accompaniment. My son, a Mac ‘n Cheese aficionado, chose Wahlburgers’ Smoked Bacon version as a side.

After about fifteen minutes of marveling at the sheer number of Wahlberg-centric movie titles plastered throughout the industrial-vibed restaurant, our food arrived hot and fragrant. It was at first bite that my love affair with the Impossible Burger began. It looks, smells and tastes like a traditional beef burger. The mouth feel is absolutely identical. The flavor reminded me of a White Castle burger, delightfully greasy, oniony and mustardy all at once! I am a huge fan of Beyond Burgers, but the burger I ate today is now the king of my plant-based burger-loving heart. It was so authentic that I asked my son if they could have made a mistake and given me a regular beef patty. He assured me that they did not and I greedily gobbled up the remainder of the doppelgänger. The tots were really tasty too with a crisp, very slightly sweet and savory flavor. My son described his burger as “very good” and the mac ‘n cheese as “alright”.

After a quick Google, I learned that the Impossible Burger is not a Wahlburgers creation, but the brainchild of a company created by scientists called Impossible Meats. They are available at select restaurant locations only with no retail options for do-it-yourself patties. There is some laboratory engineering involved in the creation of these vegan marvels, so if you’re sensitive to that you’ll want to check it out fully before indulging. Thankfully, their website indicates that they are working to make them more widely available. Music to my ears!

*As always, I have no affiliation with any of the products or locations I write about and am not compensated in any way.

Day 100: Ghostbusting with Ice Cream and Lip Gloss

On Day 100 of the Nowhere To Be Project I found myself on the verge of an emotional meltdown. I’ve been in my hometown for the past couple days to deal with some family stuff. I’m not one of those people who longs for the familiar comfort of their hometown. Quite the contrary actually. For me, my hometown is more comparable to a haunted graveyard than a welcoming respite. As a result, I came here very, very reluctantly after receiving some news that left me feeling compelled to leave my husband and dog midway through a RV road trip. In short, a sense of obligation led me back here again. Truth be told, I usually avoid being here at all costs because the ghosts of my dysfunctional childhood seem to lurk around every corner, both literally and figuratively. Every street holds a memory. The faces seem to stare with a sad and familiar knowing. This place nearly stole my spirit and that is why I left. I knew that happy people existed and I eventually found them. I also found my own happiness along the way and I protect it fiercely.

Many say that running away is never the answer. As a retired mental health professional, I can tell you that sometimes running is an effective survival mechanism. This is especially true if what you’re running from is incapable of change. Flight can provide sweet relief when you’ve exhausted every ounce of fight within you. My personal beasts only show their fangs in Central Florida so I generally stay away.

The good news about today is that I self-medicated with a joyful lunch with my happy, healthy, fang-free adult son. I followed this up with a trip to the mall (another perfectly acceptable coping mechanism, within reason of course:-). First, I devoured a scoop of Häagen Dazs dairy-free chocolate salted fudge truffle ice cream, each lick bringing a bit of calm and composure. Then I bought a luscious cruelty-free tarte lip gloss at Sephora in the cheeriest color I could find. Surely it will help me shine my way through the rest of my time here. Self-care comes in so many forms, doesn’t it? Maybe, just maybe, these small indulgences will keep the ghosts at bay until my impending escape.

Day 85: A Vacation From the Vacation

On Day 85 of the Nowhere To Be Project we started the day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. After such a nice time last night and this morning, we decided that we needed a vacation from our vacation. We’ve been moving from place to place each day, packing it all up each morning and unfurling it later each night. For those who’ve never RVed, the lifestyle requires a surprising amount of work and physical labor. As a result, we’ve been feeling a bit worn out and decided that we needed to find a spot to park and pamper ourselves for a few days. We lucked into a place with a RV Park called Turning Stone Resort and Casino. It is located in Verona, a beautiful area of New York with rolling hills and wide stretches of nature. The park itself is about a mile from the main resort and casino, but a free on-call shuttle service makes that a nonissue. Our goals for this get-away from life on the road are to relax at the spa and pool, and to live it up at the casino, restaurants and night clubs that are on-site. We’d also like to take showers that are longer than 30 seconds for a few days, haha.

We had an RV when our kids were small and always felt so exhausted after those trips. Back then, we were working around the kids’ busy school and activities schedules as well as our crazy work hours. These limitations made us feel like we had to cram everything the kids were interested in seeing into one trip. Now, we have nothing but time, yet we still find ourselves spinning like crazed tops. The bottom line is that we literally have Nowhere To Be (hence “the Project”) and it is about time we start enjoying it! I think a massage will be a good place to start tomorrow, don’t you?

Day 80: From Dump Stations to a Galaxy Far Far Away

Day 80 marked our third day here in New York City. We’ve been parked at Liberty Harbor RV Park since Thursday. This park does not have sewer hookups, so surprises can happen if you’re having too much fun to think about your tanks. For instance, my son informed us that the gray water tank was full as he was standing in water in the shower. It sure is a pain to pack everything up for a short trip to the dump station, but that’s how our morning began. The good news is that we followed it up with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History which made today a huge win! I highly recommend visiting museums with smart people. I did this today with my son and his college friend who lives in the city. What a pleasure it is to be around two twenty-somethings who still get such a kick out of science, space, human evolution and especially DINOSAURS! They even caught an error in the exhibit about the Big Bang Theory which made me chuckle.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of griping about “the young people of today”. Some say they’re unfocused and entitled. Others say they’re self-indulgent and spoiled. If my experience today is any indication, our future is in very capable hands.