Monday, May 26, 2008

Watching the Clothes Go 'Round

Ahhh, lazy Sunday...I took a 'day off' from watching the competitive dancing. See, if I watch too many consecutive hours of ballroom dance (or anything, for that matter) I get grumpy and feel like my head is going to explode. Or maybe my eyeballs, after looking at some of the dresses (scroll down) this week. Very stiff frilly frou-frou ruffles and garish combinations of neon colors seem to be in fashion this year.

So today I went ice skating with Ava & Turtle. There's a rink down at the Pleasure Beach amusement park (Europe's Largest!? Who knew?!), where they do an ice dancing show called "Hot Ice." I've never seen the show, but it seems to involve ice, and hotness. The ice is a small rink with a stage at one end, and there is ice on the stage too which was kind of nifty. The hotness part seems to be a combination of very skimpy costumes (with female upper body parts revealed, or maybe that's just for the evening show) and lots of rhinestones. I bet there's some fake tanner involved too.

I love to shop, so shop I did. I started by wending my way around the vendor area at the Winter Gardens, but since I have a personal moratorium on purchasing more fabric I ended up buying some lace at Chrisanne that goes with the tulle I bought at the UK Open last January and the net and chiffon I bought at Blackpool last year. Who knows, maybe some year I'll even actually make the dress that all this fabric is for!

My favorite women's clothing store in the UK is Monsoon, and since their web site won't ship to the US I visit a branch every chance I get. The one in Blackpool is right near the Winter Gardens, and I got a lovely silvery gray and black silk dress. Of course, I needed shoes to go with it, so I popped round the corner (look, British idiom...I'm picking it up fast) to Marks & Spencer and found a nice pair of slingbacks. They are black and gray patent leather, the black starts at the toes and shades back to gray. And, since it is M&S, the price was good even if I translated it into dollars

Now I'm back at my flat cooking dinner and doing laundry. I love to cook and am having a little dinner party for Ava & Turtle. The laundry machine here is quite interesting, it's an integrated unit that washes and then dries all at once. It sounds like a fantastic idea, but the first load I did didn't really get all the way dry. This could just be a learning curve thing, as I don't think I set the dryer on a long enough cycle.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the Road Again

May is a busy month for me. I am in the scintillating (ummm) metropolis of Blackpool, England, which has been referred to as "an armpit" and "as bad as Atlantic City." Why have I come to a kind of worn-down tacky cold and damp seaside town in Lancashire? Because the world's biggest and most prestigious and truly scintillating (not sarcastic this time) dance competition is held here, the British Open Championships, known to all in the dancesport world as "Blackpool".

I'm staying in a really lovely flat, complete with clothes washer and wireless internet. Except for the cats being eight time zones away, it's a lot like being at home.

I'm here to watch seven days and nights of incredible competition, everyone who is anyone in competitive ballroom dancing -- and a lot of people who just want to be in the mix -- are here. In tennis, there is Wimbledon. In horse racing, there is the Kentucky Derby. And in ballroom, it's Blackpool.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Victory in Victoria (5/15/08)

The captain had said that we'd start seeing nice scenery around 6am, so we ordered breakfast to be delivered at 7:30 so we'd wake up. The morning, once again, was foggy, but as we headed south the clouds lifted and we found ourselves sailing between beautiful islands with high snow-capped mountains off in the distance.

We arrived in Victoria in the early evening, and it was warm and golden and beautiful -- a real treat after the mists and fogs of the past few days. Just after docking we saw our first marine mammal up close: a very sweet-looking harbor seal swam right up to the side of the boat near our balcony. The only other wildlife of note that we've seen on this trip were a small pod of porpoises earlier in the day, some huge ravens in Ketchikan, and bald eagles in Ketchikan and Juneau.

We took a taxi to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The museum is partly housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion, which has a lovely little rock and fern garden outside. After that we headed to the Inner Harbor and walked around a bit; it seemed that all of Victoria was out enjoying the beautiful weather. After a drink in the Empress Hotel's Bengal Lounge, we would up our lovely day and reboarded the ship for dinner.

It was a shame this gorgeous weather only came on our last day of the trip, but at least we can say our cruise ended on a high note. Tomorrow we arrive back in Seattle, and Mom will fly back to New Hampshire and I to San Francisco. Our trip was lovely and we had a lot of fun, and plan to cruise again together next year in the Caribbean.

"Inside Passage" (5/14/08)

Little did we know. During the night we caught up with yet another storm, and from midnight on are bobbing and rolling. We awake to the same morass of fog and waves that we've become familiar with. The captain makes an announcement that the winds are blowing at 50-55 knots with gusts to 60-65. This is a direct headwind, which has slowed our cruising speed from 22 knots to 17 knots. Aside from making this day completely dreary, it will delay tomorrow's arrival in Victoria until early evening.

Our "Inside Passage" experience consists of staying inside and reading and napping all day.

Snow in Juneau (5/13/08)

Once again, the weather was wet and rainy, and we wondered if our helicopter ride and dog sledding trip would happen or not. To kill time while we wait for the weather check, we take the Mt. Roberts tram nearly 2000 feet up to the visitor's center up there. The ascent is spectacular, and it is snowing at the summit. We take some pictures and head back to the base, and learn that our helicopter tour is canceled. Carolina from Celebrity suggests we take the floatplane ride out to the Taku Glacier Lodge. We've never ridden in a floatplane before, and so agree to the change.

The floatplane is a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter, and soon enough we are on our way flying between steep mountain ridges along Gastineau Channel. We make a sharp turn and head up over an edge of the Juneau Ice Field from which Juneau's many glaciers descend. The ice is rough, crumbled, pocked and caravassed. There are spectacular ponds of Windex-blue water, and deep fissures and cracks.

We fly over several glaciers and descend about 35 miles from Juneau into a wide part of the Taku River, across from the Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. The plane lands smoothly and we taxi to the dock, were we see a very cute wilderness camp with an incredible large stone barbeque off to one side. A man is barbequing salmon steaks, basting them with a combination of brown sugar and white wine. Signs warn us to not feed or otherwise associate with the bears, who apparently are attracted by the scent of roasting salmon. The salmon also attracts the lodge dogs, who tussle over scraps of charred skin scraped off the grill.

Lunch is finally served inside the 1930's lodge, cheerily warmed by a fire in a large stone hearth. There are great baked beans, cole slaw, herbed biscuits, and of course the salmon. Everything is incredibly delicious. If I were a bear I'd come running whenever I smelled the barbeque too.

We take a short walk to a pretty waterfall, accompanied by the dogs who will jump into the water to retrieve tennis balls. There are mosquitos the size of dandelion puffs buzzing around. I'm glad I'm bundled up so I don't get bitten by one of these vampires.

All too soon our pleasant afternoon in the wilderness is over, and we board the floatplane to head back to Juneau. I luck out and get to sit in the front seat next to the pilot, and am treated to an even more incredible view of the mountains and glaciers than I had on the way out.

Back in Juneau we go head up the Mt. Roberts Tram again, and see a short film about the history of the local people the Tlingglit, and then make our way back to the ship. The weather has lightened up and our trip out of town is pretty, passing between high snowy peaks. Everyone talks about what a great day they had in Juneau, and about how tomorrow should be so lovely since we'll be back in the Inside Passage cruising some of the most beautiful scenery in North America.

Sick of the Sea (5/12/08)

The weather has been rather dreary for three days now. Today the seas were rough, and there was a lot of rain and fog. Infinity made her way to the Hubbard Glacier. Ice and wind conditions were favorable in Disenchantment Bay, so we were able to get very close to the Turner and Hubbard glaciers. We even saw several ice avalanches off the face of the Hubbard glacier. It was spectacularly wet, and quite cold. There was ice floating everywhere in the water and when Infinity manouevered she pushed ice around with her hull.

We aren't sea sick, but we are tired of the cold and the damp and the rough seas and the fog. It has kind of put a damper on the whole boat, to tell the truth. People aren't as talky or friendly as they usually are on cruises, and everything just seems so dreary.

Tomorrow we'll be back in the Inside Passage, in Juneau, and even if it is another grey day at least the seas won't be rolling as much.

Ketch as Ketch-i-kan (5/11/08)

The morning mists brought us to Ketchikan, a timber and salmon fishing haven turned into Alaska tourist central. We walked the streets past jewelry and totchke shops, and found a cute store that sold Russian carvings of Father Frost. Then, fueled with nice hot lattes, we took a bus tour of the town that ended up at a park full of totem poles. Rod, our guide, has lived in Alaska all his life, and gave us a great local-eye tour of his hometown. We really enjoyed ourselves, learning about the different things people in Ketchikan do for a living, about how the kids fly Alaska Airlines to their high school sporting events in different parts of Southeastern Alaska, and driving past fish ladders and swimming holes.

It was Mother's Day, so we returned to the ship for dinner in the S.S. United States specialty restaurant. This lovely art-deco dining room is decorated with original etched/carved glass panels from the ballroom on the S.S. United States. We floated past steep snowy islands in the sub-arctic twilight, and the fog turned a silvery purpleish-blue.

To Infinity and Beyond! (5/10/08)

We woke up this morning and started to unpack. I've never brought so much stuff on a cruise before, but then we had to dress for cold weather, for formal nights, and for active pursuits like dog sledding. The lifeboat drill was at 10:30am, and we bundled up in slickers and wooly hats only to find that they weren't going to actually make us go stand out on deck.

Tonight is formal night. I love getting dressed up for dinner, it's a great excuse to wear clothes that I don't usually get to wear at home. I got a great hair cut in the onboard Salon this afternoon to prepare. It's become a ritual of mine to have my hair cut, and often colored, on board. I've always gotten a very good hair cut, and in fact haven't had my hair cut on dry land in the United States in many many years.

The seas off the west coast of Vancouver Island were rough today, with 10 foot swells that had small white mist "breaks" on the tops. Not quite white caps, but more than just gentle swells. The boat rocked back and forth a lot and made many people seasick. It was also quite cool. The high was supposed to be 55 degrees but I doubt it got up that far. Like many people on board, we spent most of the day lounging around and napping.

Dinner was nice, I had some French onion soup and filet mignon. As is our usual luck on Celebrity, we had interesting table mates which made dinner fun.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways (5/9/08)

Oh Nordstrom Salon Shoes. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee as a pair of camel-colored 2 1/2" Jimmy Choo pumps cut fetchingly around the vamp to the point of almost having a d'Orsay profile. I love thee as a pair of black patent leather Manolo Blahnik 70mm d'Orsay pumps. I love thee as a pair of black lambskin patent leather Prada flats with rubber driving soles and a fetching buckle on the toes.

After an afternoon of shopping for shoes, mom and I dropped off our bags at the pier and took a bus tour of the city. We finished up at Pike Place Market, where we bought some wine and stopped at the original Starbucks for a latte. From there we headed to the ship and boarded around 9pm.

I'd read comments on Cruise Critic about how Infinity was getting worn down and was looking kind of tatty, but I didn't see it. Infinity is lovely, modern with a hint of reference to Art Deco, and in very good condition. We stopped by the S.S. United States specialty restaurant to book for dinner, and were wowed by the carved glass panels of jelly fish and other sea creatures, and loved the Art Deco touches including red leather upholstered seating. We're looking forward to eating there on Mother's Day. We wound up the day in the Martini Bar, listening to a very nice piano-saxophone combo.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Seattle at Last

We flew up to Seattle this afternoon, arriving without stress or incident. It is possible that the train actually went all the way through last night, but I never did get a straight answer out of Amtrak and just didn't want to deal with the chaos and uncertainty. As it was, we arrived in Seattle about five hours before the train, and that was after sleeping in my own bed the night before.

Our first stop in Seattle was the Space Needle. I've been wanting to go to the top of it since I was a kid and someone in my small hometown showed slides from a cross-country trip that, as far as I remember, went all the way to Seattle. We took the elevator to the top, and I was suddenly hit with vertigo. I usually don't have any issues with heights, but it seemed to me like everything was slanting away from me and it kind of weirded me out. The view was great, we could see as far as the Cascades but the big mountains, especially Mt. Ranier and Mt. Saint Helens, were shrouded in clouds.

After that we headed to Elliot's Oyster House for dinner. Mom picked this place after reading about it in A Geography of Oysters. Elliot's is serious about their oysters, and the menu has well over two-dozen types available on any given day.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Trainus Interruptus

So Mom & I got on the Amtrak Thruway bus bound for Emeryville so we could catch the Coast Starlight to Seattle. The driver was chatty, and asked us how far we're going. "Seattle" I say brightly. I was very excited.

"You know you have to take the train to the bus and then get back on the train again?"

No. I did not know. Amtrak did not see fit to tell me this on their web site when I checked my train's status, or anywhere else that I happened to be poking around. It seems that back in March part of the tracks in Oregon washed out because of erosion in the mountains. It is now early May and they haven't been able to fix them due to the weather or whatever.

At this point we were sitting on the bus going around to the different stops in San Francisco to pick up passengers. I called Amtrak reservations and found out that we could be on the bus for 4 to 6 hours to get around the slide. I am not amused. I did not shell out for sleeping compartment accommodations to sit on a bus. My mom has arthritis in her knees and simply cannot sit that long. Flying 5+ hours transcon is about all she can take, and she just did that yesterday.

I make a quick executive decision, called United, and got us plane tickets for tomorrow in the early afternoon. Fortunately they were less expensive than I thought they would be. We had the bus driver leave us at his last San Francisco stop, the Ferry Building, and got Susie to drive us back home.

I'm very disappointed because we had been planning this trip on the Coast Starlight since February. I'm unhappy that Amtrak never bothered to inform at least their premium passengers that there was a rather long bus transfer involved. I'm going to try to get our money back but I'm doubtful it will work out -- we tried to call customer service but they were closed, so at this point we are considered a "no show" for the trip and the accommodations.

On the other hand, I'm kind of pleased with my quick thinking and the extensive library of phone numbers in my cell phone that enabled me to set this all up so quickly. We're all set for another bon voyage tomorrow!

Take Off to the Great White North

Mom & I are leaving for Alaska today! This is so exciting. We're taking the Coast Starlight train to Seattle, spending the night there, and then getting on the Infinity for a week-long cruise.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Emerald Ball

Just got back from Los Angeles where I competed in the Emerald Ball. Emerald Ball is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ballroom dancing competitions on the West Coast. It's also one of the biggest in the country. My personal goal was to make a cut. Any cut. And I did! We made the final of the Viennese Waltz in my division. We ended up 6th out of 9 couples, but hey...I made the cut :) As a friend said "now you're running with the big girls." Uh uh :) We also danced the Scholarship event for my division, and came in 13th, which means we were "next" into the semi-final. It wasn't close, though, so it's not like I almost made another cut. Next year....

Here's some video. It doesn't look so great, the best way to view it is to go directly to You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSfnmZeXHpY. Once there, click the link that says "watch in high quality" underneath the video.