The following is my personal account of traveling solo with a 21-month old child on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, May 2012. The account is to help future travelers with children – solo or otherwise – that they too can have a pretty wonderful vacation if they take note of some of my learning’s from my recent experience. Would I do it again? – you be the judge!

OASIS Day 1 – Saturday

I am not going to sugar coat it – it is very difficult traveling solo with an almost 2 year old.

My husband, JB, was still sick with a bad sinus infection and cold as of 4:30 AM, day of departure, and hadn’t gotten any better. So after a lot of back-and-forth about going or staying and if the insurance money would come thru, in the end, JB stayed home and Anna, my 21 month daughter and I left at 5:30 in the morning and made the journey after all.

Anna is a good traveler (2 previous flight experiences), I am a pretty prepared mother, but when a child of her age has to operate in a confined space, well they just don’t like it one bit –– especially at her age.  The positive is that JB canceled so late that we didn’t have anyone next to us on the plane so I could give her a lot of room –– 3 seats for 2 of us. I got a few “she is such a well-behaved child” which I happily appreciated, but it took non-stop managing on my part to keep her even keel.

The mid-way part of the 3-hour flight was the worst when Anna realized that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and she had a pretty wet diaper from all the juice that had to be addressed. And then I had to contend with changing her diaper on the seat as I discovered that the plane didn’t have a changing station in any of the bathrooms. From reading the top 10 things that flight attendants hate passengers do, way up there is changing a diaper on a seat. I checked with them first and they knew that I didn’t have an alternative. I won’t fess up to what I did with the wet diaper.

So we arrived at Baggage Claim, got a porter quickly and got the bags. He was a nice guy and made sure when the shuttle came to take us to the ship that I would not be left to manage the baby in the stroller, the carry-on bag and 2 roller bags. To his word, when the shuttle arrived, he was there with the bags and followed me to the coach. I tipped him well and thanked him for his help. And we were off to the ship!

The embarkation process went pretty smoothly even though I had forgotten to print out the sea pass forms in advance.  The worst part for Anna was all the ups and downs in the stroller: on the bus, off the bus, in the stroller, out of the stroller for security, then photos, then on the ship and out of the stroller for a bathroom/diaper change, back into the stroller until we found a place to stop and rest and then finally out when we got to the Concierge Lounge.

Getting a Suite level cabin traveling solo with a 21-month old was the best decision I ever made when booking the cruise. Basically I got the Suite for the bathtub for the baby, but everything else that comes with the suite make it soooo worth the extra money –– especially when traveling solo with a child.

When we arrived on the ship I planned to go to the Park Cafe on Deck 8 for lunch. It was packed. Here I was with Anna in the stroller and the carry-on trying to weave my way thru the crowds and it was very busy. Fortunately Anna had had enough snacks enroute so she wasn’t starving, but I needed to sit down and the Concierge Lounge came immediately to mind.

The Lounge isn’t huge, but it wasn’t packed either. Fortunately we got a seat away from people and a server came to us immediately and told us about was available. I normally would not have gone in with Anna, but I was really happy to see another 2-year-old running around creating a bit of havoc, which made Anna look like an angel. An older gentleman struck up a conversation with me and we had a nice chat. Anna was quite good and very agreeable when lunch arrived.

The cabins were available after 1PM, so we made our way to the cabin on Deck 8 were immediately met by Edwin, our room steward. He was warm and friendly and has four children, so he was very helpful. He got Anna’s crib (pack-and-play) right away so I could try and put her down for a bit of a rest. At first she was a little difficult, but I managed to unpack while she slept for about an hour. Anna has always been a good sleeper and I know I am a lucky mom.

The Grand Suite, besides the awesome tub, had a heavy blackout curtain that allowed me to pull across the entire cabin, separating the sleeping area (I put the crib right next to the bed against the window) from the seating area in the cabin. It had a nice sofa with 2 chairs, TV and an entire closet-drawer-shelving system across from the bathroom. The balcony had a table and 2 chairs along with 2 very comfortable chaise lounges. The cabin and balcony in the suite are about 40 percent larger than a standard balcony cabin. It felt very luxurious and I was happy for the extra room – it was quite perfect.

The balcony came in handy the first night as after the Muster drill, Anna was (and I was as well) truly pooped out, so we came back and I ordered room service for dinner while Anna tore the cabin apart. She was pretty manic. Everything seemed to be at her height, so she was opening everything, going through a ton of tissues in the box, running a whole roll of toilet paper before I caught her… She was just into everything and ignoring me at every turn. The girl that always says, “don’t touch” to her nursery school mates, was into EVERYTHING!!!! Just when I had about lost it with her, dinner arrived. Mac and Cheese – Anna was thrilled. She settled down and I actually got to eat something. What was fun is that we got to sit outside on the balcony and have dinner as we sailed away from Ft. Lauderdale.  It was pretty cool.

By 7pm we were both exhausted and I spent the next 45 minutes getting her wrangled, cleaned up, wrangled again, in her PJs, teeth brushed and into bed. I brought her Violet musical toy and sound machine from home and tried to simulate the home experience as much as possible. She cried a bit, but then was okay and went to sleep. By 9:15 PM I was in bed.  I didn’t sleep all that well as I could hear her close to me waking up about 11:30 PM and the again until about 1AM when she fell asleep until she called out to me about 6:30AM. and then we were both up for good! Generally, not a bad first day and night considering all that Anna was going through for the first time.

OASIS Day 2 – Sunday

As I mentioned to close out the last post, Anna was up early about 6:15 AM. She lovingly called out “Mama” to me and it just made my heart melt. I can on imagine when she is a bit older calling out my name constantly in frustration, but this I did like!

The morning was rough, a continuation of Day 1… Anna was wonderful, fun and funny one moment and a terror the next. Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde in overdrive.

Anna doesn’t know what “vacation” is yet –– she just knows that her entire world is upside down and she is not happy with me. I about lost it when she took the ponytails out of her hair that first morning as she defiantly glared at me while doing so. Even at her age she knows how much I like her hair neat and tidy and she is not really a fan of having it done, and she retaliated deliberately pushing my buttons.  Anna was angry, tired and frustrated, and I caught myself… Counted to 10 and just moved on. I think that I surprised her when I just took the other one out, combed her hair and it was done.

After breakfast we headed to “Cruise School”. In the mornings, JB and I sing “School, school, school… Anna is going to school.” It’s our thing. So I just changed the words to Cruise School…mostly to maintain consistency and that she knows where she is going and that well be there later to pick her up.

We took the long way and stopped at various locations on the ship –– so massive and interesting at every turn that you can’t see everything in one trip. The girls in Royal Tots gave me a mobile phone that works on the ship so they can call me if there are any problems with Anna. She was a bit upset when I left, and then settled down. I peeked around the corner to see how she was and she was on the floor, settling in and checking out all of the new toys to play with. She seemed “ok”, but I was nervous about leaving her there.

For the next 3 hours I had the ringer up and an ear trained to the phone, but a call never came. In anticipation that I would get a call, I didn’t do much except get a bit more organized, establish a Wi-Fi account and get a coffee and then lunch and wander around the ship for the most part. In the end she was completely fine.

When I picked her up she saw me immediately and came running… And with a happy scream… Just like nursery school at home. She really hadn’t eaten much lunch, so knowing what a zoo the buffet is, we headed to the Concierge Lounge. On the way, there was a street parade on Deck 5 and we had a great time watching it from one of the upper balconies. Anna was getting used to being on the ship and I could see that she was starting to have fun and relax. She smiled and laughed and she was in a much better mood.  Maybe she was the one who needed a break from me that morning!

OASIS Day 3 – Monday

Anna was getting used to being on the ship and in the new environment and Day 3 was an improvement from Sunday. She slept pretty well and I had to wake her up at 7:30 as she was still sacked out. We need to get back to a normal food routine as traveling solo with a child who now has severe diaper rash is no fun for her or for me. I’ve never seen it so bad. She developed the issue immediately when we left and the traveling has made it really tough to clear up when you don’t have your normal resources around you.

And then there is the issue of diapers and baby wipes. Very quickly I realized that with all of the diaper changes that were not expected, I was in trouble of running out of both.  OMG this is truly a parents worst nightmare. I had planned for the usual plus 20 percent, but Anna on Day 3 is running double the norm for diapers and triple on the wipes.

Again, Edwin, our cabin steward to the rescue. He came up with her size in diapers as well as a container of wipes that were placed on the bed in the cleaned room when I returned that morning. The relief on my face was evident, I tracked him down and I gave him a huge hug. My advice to all parents with non-potty trained toddlers, double up on everything for the trip (diapers, wipes, cream, etc.) to be safe. If I didn’t have a cabin steward like Edwin, I would be doing it the old fashioned way and no one wants to go there! I will say that I heard that on RCI, you can pre-order diapers, wipes and baby food. I believe that there is a charge for it, but it is a great service to have so you don’t have to bring everything with you if you.

Anna had a good couple of hours at the Royal Tots program and I had enjoyed 20 minutes wandering the Labadee port and then hanging in the shade by the pool. It felt like the first day where I had had some time to relax instead of keeping tabs on how Anna was doing and checking on work email regularly.

For dinner we went up to the Windjammer Marketplace cafe. I had to get out of the cabin for dinner and I figured that this would be the best solution. Traveling solo with an almost 2 year old is a juggling act and you will only survive if you ask for help. I don’t normally and manage just fine, but trying to navigate a busy food court with a stroller and tray on your own is impossible.

One of the attendants helped us find a table, got a high chair and stayed with her while I got her some food.  Anna happily ate the chicken breast and yogurt and veggies and again in 20 minutes we were done and on our way out. I barely ate anything. What I’ve learned is that she is super antsy on this trip due to all of the stimulation surrounding her — and consequently that means that in order to maintain some sense of control and peace, I forgo my meal or slam it down as I keep one eye and hand on her. I realized that on my own very quickly, Windjammer Marketplace isn’t a solution that is viable for me on this trip. A quieter environment for a meal, like the cabin, is likely the most suitable solution for most meals.

Earlier that day I took her to Frozen In Time, the ice show in Studio B… A really well done ice skating production… Anna was memorized. She clapped, smiled and was giddy. She was so focused on it and I managed to get us seats by the railing adjacent to the ice so we were right next to the action. She had a great time for about 30 minutes and then mid-show said “all done” and she was ready to move on. Thinking ahead, I sat by the aisle in case this would happen and I was able to mostly slip out and not be too disruptive.

Later after dinner we attempted to see Oasis of Dreams, the water/diving show, but Anna had had too much stimulation from earlier, was tired from the day and lasted 15 minutes. I was really looking forward to the performance, but lesson learned — book only one activity per day at this age to avoid over-stimulation.  As a note, I had booked Frozen in Time for another day, but the cruise line rescheduled the show and they were unfortunately on either side of dinner. This was unavoidable, unfortunately.

OASIS Day 4 – Tuesday

I ventured off the ship for 20 minutes. The port was Labadee and mostly had a beach and that was it. Edwin encouraged me to get off the ship and just stretch my legs –– and I am glad that I did. The ship phone that I got from Royal Tots doesn’t extend past the ship, so I was a bit uncomfortable about leaving the ship at all.

Even though there wasn’t much to see or do besides have a look at the beach, the zip line running down the beach (which was pretty cool to see everyone flying down from the opposite end) and a few vendors, it did get me off.  I remember from my last cruise that after 5 days on board without going off, that I was a bit stir crazy. So I walked around and then got back on pretty quickly. No phone calls from Royal Tots and all was well.

I changed and then went up to the pool deck for the rest of the morning. I had planned to pick up Anna at 1:30, but when I called at 1PM to check on her, she had just fallen asleep. So for the next hour and a half I kept calling back, but she was still asleep.  I was feeling really guilty about having her in the program for so long during the day, but JB reminded me later that if she wasn’t okay, she would not be sleeping or eating so well there.

So I just hung out in a bit of baby limbo waiting for Anna to wake up. By 3:30PM she was up and as per her routine at home, came running happily when she saw me. She was doing well and having fun, so I guess that I shouldn’t worry about not being with her constantly. Actually, when we are together we seem to have a better time, she isn’t bored with me and I can honestly say I do have a much more enjoyable time with her.

On the way back I saw a family that had a harness on their little boy that was approximately the same age as Anna. I am not sure how I feel about the harness, but as I have personally experienced, having an almost 2 year old can be difficult to wrangle and the ship is by no means baby-proofed. There are so many steps without gates that come out of nowhere and if you aren’t paying constant attention to your child when they are out of the stroller, you are definitely asking for trouble.

If I haven’t stressed it enough here, bring a lightweight travel stroller with you. The ship is waaaay too big to either carry or walk with your little one wherever you need to go. Also, it will get you to your destination much faster and your little one will be much more comfortable.

Throwing caution to the wind we went to the Opus Dining Room for dinner. We had a great table in the corner, but I got the distinct impression that the wait staff wasn’t happy that we hadn’t been turning up. And there was a reason…. Hurricane Anna. The table was beautifully set with china, silverware, linens, etc. it was overwhelming for her and for me not having JB there to help wrangle… Add to it that it was very difficult to clear 75 percent of the table immediately so Anna couldn’t get her hands on anything dangerous.

I should have brought the iPad so keep her occupied, but no matter how much the wait staff tried to help, we were done and in and out in 20 minutes. What a waste. The fish and the lasagna were wonderful, but yet again, I had to slam down whatever I could eat and go because Anna has the attention span of a nat, I mean, 21 month old. So much for that. Lesson learned – don’t forget to bring books/iPad/coloring book and crayons to entertain the child at the dinner table if you plan to sit for more than 20 minutes. I wouldn’t do this at home, but in this case, it makes sense here so you can perhaps try and have a decent meal.

OASIS Day 5 – Wednesday

Falmouth, Jamaica – a new port for OASIS and by far the nicest of the three stops. I got some very nice local artisan deals… A dress for Anna and a woven 60s Florida-esque woven purse for myself.

From the previous nights experience at dinner, we ordered room service again and avoided the dining room. This time I asked them to split the order and bring Anna’s right away, and deliver mine at 8PM. She would be asleep and I asked them to be sure to not ring the bell and knock quietly. It worked like a charm and Room Service did just as I had asked thankfully. I actually got to eat my first dinner of the trip in relative peace and quiet… And watched a movie to boot! So, calling in both dinners together, but having yours delivered after the baby goes to bed worked best.

Just as a note, I had booked dinner reservations for JB and I at Chops Grille the following evening prior to the cruise, but canceled the babysitting service as well as the dinner reservation… I saw no point in going and spending all that money to eat dinner at a table by myself. My new dining plan worked out well, and within the suites, gave me a rotating menu every night so I was never ordering from the same menu. Again, another reason the suite has worked out so well being a solo traveling parent with a 21 month old!

OASIS Day 6 – Thursday

More of the same… I can’t complain for sure. Having the Royal Tots program has allowed me to have a vacation. We start every morning with Skyping with JB before “Cruise School.” Anna knows after the call that she is getting in the stroller to go and she is giddy with excitement. It’s a quick hello to Daddy and then it is “go, go, go”!

I have said this before, but the Royal Tots program is truly one of the reasons that we picked Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. I did my research on CruiseCritic.com and independently verified from several sources about the quality of the program and the staff.

My understanding is that the Royal Tots team all have a background in early childhood development, so these are not kids watching kids… They are all professionals (I heard that RCI recruits them from Canada) and they take their job seriously. At the end of each session with Anna, they have a written report on how and what she ate, how she went to the bathroom (kind and time) as well as how long she napped.  They genuinely care about the children and it shows. I was there picking her up and they were doing a shift change –– they were discussing what needed to be done, status on other things, etc..

Also every small child has a sticker put on their back every day –– something that they are not aware of. It has their name, cabin number, phone number for the parent (the ship phone we are all given) along with the evacuation location code that we all learned of during the Muster Drill. In case of evacuation, they would bring Anna directly to me there.

I do need to let those that read this post know that the service is an additional charge of $8 per hour. It adds up, but is comparable to what I pay at her nursery school at home. When I have been in dropping off or picking up Anna on the cruise, I’ve heard people on the phone being turned away as the program was full for the day. The space isn’t huge and so they limit the children count to 8 at one time. I had heard it was popular, so once I knew it worked for Anna, I booked the remainder of the cruise right away.

I can’t speak highly enough of the Royal Tots program. Period.

OASIS Day 7 – Friday

More of the same… again… this cruise traveling solo with a 21 month old, although not ideal without my husband, as worked out. It wasn’t what we had planned, but I found myself enjoying a few hours during the day on my own. Things that would have driven me mad if we had been with each other 24-hours/day, didn’t bother me in the least and I took it in stride. On my last day on the ship I enjoyed the late morning on Deck 17 in the outdoor private area for suite holders. There is a bar up there and although I didn’t spend much time at the bar with all of the cigar smokers, I did hang around the corner in the sun and part shade enjoying my last day at sea.

When I picked Anna up from the Royal Tots program I knew it would be her last time with the staff and they were genuinely sad to see her go. I heard that she was a model child and overall did really, really well all week. She watched movies, played with the other kids, took good naps, ate well, went on walks around the ship, etc. I know that she is just coming into her own, but with a regular nursery schools schedule at home, she didn’t seem to exhibit a lot of separation anxiety as she knew that I would come back to get her. Actually, it’s enjoyable as she screams with glee when she sees me at pick-up. It makes my day!

During the final day with Anna in Royal Tots I packed our bags, so I had little to do in the evening. The challenge was putting everything we needed in our one carry-on bag that we had from that evening through the trip home. It was jammed to the gills, but I made it work, barely. That evening, I ordered our dinner’s as usual, and I spent the evening watching TV, put our large suitcases outside the door with our valet tags and Delta luggage tags (ship to home Baggage Claim select service) and then crawled into bed early as I knew that it would be a very, very long day Saturday.

OASIS – DAY 8 – DISEMBARKATION AND TRIP HOME

I was up early… couldn’t sleep. The day would be very long, but I just couldn’t rest. I got myself ready and then got Anna up earlier than usual. I got her dressed and as Room Service was discontinued on this day, we made our way to the Concierge Lounge to wait out the last call from the ship. Due to flight scheduling, we couldn’t take the 11:15AM flight to Detroit as we missed the cut-off by 15 minutes to book that flight. The cruise line wouldn’t guarantee our bags would make our flight nor would they guarantee we would get the airport shuttle to the airport in time. Our only solution was to take the 4PM flight. We had to wait it out 5 hours at the airport.

As I said, we went to the Concierge Lounge and got whatever continental breakfast was available – not much. I had extra food from Room Service (pastries, yogurt, fruit) that I had ordered the day before and held it in the refrigerator in our cabin. I am glad I did this and will remember to do it again. I stretched out the Concierge Lounge visit to the bitter end when they called us off the ship at 9:30AM. We went down to Deck 5 and it was a mob scene. There is no way Anna could have made it without a major meltdown, so I jumped the line and started just walking around Deck 5 with her in the stroller. I remembered that there was a family lounge/waiting area in one of the bars on Deck 5, so we headed there and there was one family still waiting. I let Anna out of her stroller and she ran around. She is a bit of a “runner”, so I have to constantly keep my eye on her as there are no doors, it seems, on a ship (except to your cabin and restrooms)! It can be very stressful.

Fortunately, the family waiting area had crayons and blank coloring pages of Shrek characters, so I kept Anna occupied for about 30 minutes. Thinking ahead for the flight home, I grabbed some clean pages, a few crayons and two empty balloons for the trip home.

In the end, I think that we were the absolutely last ones off the ship. We still had to wait to disembark the ship and go through Customs, but the line had gone down so much so that the wait was only about 15 minutes as we made our way off the ship and into the Immigration area. We easily went thru Customs and then headed outside to the coach for the trip to the airport.

Anna was antsy already by this point, but once we got going on the shuttle to the airport (about a 15 minute ride), she was okay – she actually had fun sitting in the front seat on the coach and looking out the window. Once we got to Ft. Lauderdale airport, the absolute worst part was waiting and then getting through Security. Shoes off, stroller thru the scanner, iPad out of the bag, Anna getting super antsy the entire time (I am being kind here)… and the Security people not being helpful, just telling me to move her out of the way, etc. and not being considerate one bit.

But once we got thru Security we were okay. Fortunately being Diamond Medallion on Delta, I have access to the Sky Lounge. Considering the size of the terminal, the lounge is really large. I found a quiet place and we had some of the snacks in the lounge as I wasn’t ready to tackle the food court with her yet. It was only about 11:30 by now and we had to wait until 3:30 PM to board the flight. 4 hours lay ahead.

There was a “Quiet Room”, but I couldn’t get Anna to lay down. She was pretty manic and wanted to just walk/run around the entire time. I wanted to close the door of the Quiet Room, but the attendants wouldn’t let me… I was not happy as I needed to find a way to contain Anna. There were few people in the lounge on a weekend day and I kept the door open, but managed to put a chair on an angle to stop Anna from leaving the room (a few glares from the staff, but no one told me I had to move it). She wasn’t happy, but it kept her in there so I could actually sit down and try and get her to relax. I had also remembered to bring a balloon in my pocket from the family waiting area on the ship, so I pulled that out and blew it up as something to play with.

Essentially every 15-20 minutes or so, I had to come up with a new activity, balloons-drawing-eating-changing diaper-iPad-singing, etc. just to keep Anna occupied until we got on the plane. It was very much a moment, by moment, experience. Having the crayons, paper, balloons and everything else to keep her occupied was necessary to survive the day. Take advantage of whatever you can around you and be as prepared with activities that are small and travel well.

About an hour before we boarded the flight we went and had some chicken fingers in the food court. Afterwards Anna crashed at the worst time… 5 minutes before the flight she fell asleep in her stroller! I was racing through my head trying to figure out logistically what to do. Fortunately there was a young guy behind me boarding the plane, I asked him really nicely to help me, and he was great. I told him how to fold the stroller and he did that, and put it at the end of the gangway for gate check right as we got on the plane.

Anna immediately woke up, clearly emotionally and physically exhausted, and I tried to get her to go back to sleep but she wouldn’t do it. I tried and tried to get her to rest before take off and then into the flight, but then just gave up as it wasn’t happening.

I spent the next 2-1/2 hours trying to keep her happy, occupied and not bothering the other passengers. This plane also didn’t have a changing table in the bathroom, so I was stuck again… I hate to say it, but I had to change her diaper on the toilet seat (lid down of course) and make it work. She was scared and upset, but I had no choice as I couldn’t do it on the seat – just not enough room. In the end it was okay. She cheered up after she got a clean diaper and the people in front of us and behind us were actually really understanding – the guy behind her smiled and played a bit of hide-and-seek over the seat with her. I kept her as quiet as possible, but again, a challenge with a 21-month old for sure.

Once we landed I was frankly, overjoyed. My legs were so sore from Anna standing on them on the plane and I ended up with some bad bruising on my thighs. I got her back in the stroller and I was so happy to head down to Baggage Claim to meet JB.

In retrospect, even with all of the gear, I wish I had taken her car seat. Traveling on the plane down to Florida and home would have been much easier and she would have been more comfortable. She didn’t sleep on the way down or the way home. If you can manage it, rental car or not, bring a car seat for your child’s plane seat. They will feel secure – secure enough to sleep, they’ll be contained, and you’ll get a bit of rest on the flight as well.

This was not my first trip with Anna – and the previous journey was much longer. But the difference was by far traveling solo with a 21-month old. As organized a person as I am, I learned some key lessons that I have shared here with you all. But the biggest advice that I can give you if you have to take this on is – don’t be afraid to ask for help…. Help loading, unloading, short cuts wherever possible, help from a security officer at an airport, from another passenger, etc. The worst they can say is “no”, but everyone said “yes” and were very helpful, smiled and were kind. I normally don’t ask for help – I’m very much determined to do it on my own, but in this case, I was humbled. It was a life experience that I will always remember and look back fondly on – really. It wasn’t ideal for sure, but after 8 days on my own with my 21 month old, I think I can pretty much tackle anything now.

And in Baggage Claim one of those truly memorable life moments was as Anna went running to JB screaming “Dada, dada”… and running so fast that she fell over in front of him. He scooped her up, gave her a big kiss on the cheek, she turned and was grinning from ear-to-ear… and I was overjoyed that I was home and solo no more.

JBom (my DH) and I are recently back from our Celebrity Century cruise to the Caribbean… 5 days in the sun with a little fun! Ports of call included Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Georgetown, Grand Cayman.

This was our first Celebrity cruise and after being on Oceania in ’08 to the Med, which I’ve previously written about here on this blog, we found that we were comparing every Celebrity experience to that of Oceania. Admittedly, the two cannot be compared. Oceania is considered to be in the mid-luxury group of ships, while Celebrity sails in the market one step below. I would say that we would have gone on an Oceania cruise in the Caribbean to escape the Michigan winter, but we chose Celebrity based on the recommendation of our outstanding TA, Esther, as well as the fact that Celebrity offers 5-day cruises and the shortest Oceania offers is 10 days. And well, in looking for a quick mini-break, we decided to give Celebrity a shot…. and we are glad that we did!

The trip down from DTW was uneventful and we arrived earlier than expected. Fortunately, no weather delays on either end, so that was a good way to start out the trip. We planned to take a taxi right to the Port of Miami to meet the ship, but ended up signing up for the Celebrity coach transfer. The price was about $18pp, so the price was reasonable and the benefit was that our luggage would be dropped off in front of our cabin and we didn’t need to worry about it. We decided to sign up for the transfer and the agent said that the coach would arrive in 5-10 minutes and was “on its way”. With nowhere to go, we sat and waited… almost 50 minutes before the coach showed up. Obviously we should have questioned “5-10 minutes”, but the agent’s job is to fill the busses and once we had signed up, we just had to wait it out. JBom and I were not happy about this delay, but we took it in stride and chatted with the rest of the guests that were waiting with us.

I wanted to be sure to note that although it was convenient to take the coach provided by Celebrity, we didn’t choose to use the coach when we disembarked the ship at the end of the cruise. We took a taxi to the airport which was $24… a flat fee that is charged the same to everyone. This includes a $2 port charge that you pay when you leave the Port of Miami. Consequently with tip, the total cost is about $28, saving you about $10 or more depending on how much you choose to tip the taxi driver. Next time, we will definitely take the taxi round trip.

The coach arrived, we boarded, and as we were the last terminal at MIA, the coach continued directly to the Port of Miami, about a 15 minute ride… pretty quick.

Once we arrived, the embarkation process was smooth, including filling out a health form about our current status. The Celebrity Mercury ship had recently experience Noro virus (a continuous issue for this ship), and I was glad to see that they were checking the general health of passengers prior to embarkation.

Celebrity provides an opportunity to do online “check-in”, providing your passport information as well as your credit card info for onboard charges in advance. I provided this information in advance and it seemed to move the process along more quickly. We received our Sea Pass (room key and charge card) for the cruise, and we were on our way! The rest of the process was smooth, quick and efficient and there were no delays whatsoever in boarding the ship.

Off the gangway and onto the ship, we were met by a staff person that required that we sanitized our hands (ie. Purell). This was mandatory and was a little awkward with everything in our hands, but we made it work. It was about 12:30pm by now and as our cabins were not ready, we were directed to the pool deck (deck 11) for lunch and to hang out until the announcement was made. We had cocktails and hamburgers… and we found that the hamburgers from the poolside grill were really consistently good throughout the cruise.

Once the announcement was made, we proceeded down to our cabin on Deck 9. We were in the Concierge Class (CC) mid-ship. First impressions of the ship and our cabin, was that they were very, very clean. The entire ship had had a major ($50 million) makeover (not sure how recently), but even though this was an older ship, it was very well maintained and people were always cleaning.

Our stateroom was clean and tidy, but I was surprised that with the recent makeover, that the linens and duvet were a bit shabby looking as compared with what was shown on the Celebrity website. The balcony had a table and chairs and we enjoyed hanging out there throughout the cruise.

Our bathroom was a good size (good shower, too!) and clean, clean, clean. You could smell the disinfectant. Perhaps this was because of the Celebrity Mercury having Noro virus recently, but they maintained a very high cleanliness standard throughout our stay and had sanitizers throughout the ship, especially at the entrances to the dining areas.

Speaking of dining, I would say that our experience was very mixed. This is probably consistent with most cruisers as you can’t hit it out of the ballpark every day. Admittedly, JBom and I are pretty big “foodies” and we enjoy cooking and watching the Food Network. We also host parties and I worked as a pasty chef years ago. So you could say that we are experienced diners and we know a good experience from a bad one. So as far as our experience with food (one of the top areas of interest on a ship), it would be probably best for me to break it down by location:

POOLSIDE GRILL — This was probably one of our favorite places to eat. Just because we are foodies, doesn’t mean that we need to eat gourmet all the time. The Grill was great, and had really top notch hamburgers and hotdogs. They also had great chicken wings (either mild or hot) and their salads (pasta and potato), were really well made. Considering that they were outside poolside, they did all the right things and kept the hot food hot and the cold food cold.

MAIN DINING ROOM — SELECT DINING: We booked Select Dining which allowed us the flexibility to reserve a dinner time for each night and select the time according to our schedule. This is a new option on Celebrity and one of the main reasons we selected this cruise as we preferred to sit by ourselves and not be required to eat either at one seating or another. So online before the cruise I went and booked a reservation for each and every night that we planned to eat in the MDR. The experience of this alternate dining worked well for us as we preferred to sit at a table for 2 and in the two occasions that we ate in the MDR, we were able to get seated on time at a table for 2.

What didn’t work well for Select Dining for us was that during the meal we felt incredibly rushed throughout the process. When you have assigned dining… ie the Early Dining time (6pm) or the Late Dining time (8pm), you know that you have a good 1-1/2 hours to enjoy your meal. Celebrity has only allocated 1/4 of the dining room (or a bit less, I believe) to Select Dining, so the experience is thoroughly rushed and their goal is turnover, turnover, turnover.

The Select Dining area is also on the upper level of the MDR and the area (a two-story dining room with views off the back of the ship) is incredibly loud when full of guests. You have to speak up in order to have a conversation with your tablemate. On the first evening we were placed at a table in-between two bus stations and the fourth night of the cruise, we were next to the main aisle. The hostess did give us the option on the fourth night to wait a few minutes for another table, but we were okay with where she sat us.

MAIN DINING ROOM — FOOD EXPERIENCE: The first night of the cruise we had a wonderful meal. JBom had Coq au Vin and I had a lamb shank. Both were of a very high standard and we were very pleasantly surprised. We did our best not to deliberately over eat on the this cruise, so the server was surprised when we only had one app and the entrée and skipped dessert 😉

The second night was formal night and we had planned to skip that meal altogether and ended up eating in the Island Cafe (buffet). The third night we were at Murano, the specialty restaurant and so our last experience in the MDR was on the fourth evening of the cruise.

The fourth evening was unfortunately a disappointment. JBom had Ossobucco and I had salmon. Both were lackluster. i will say that the Onion Soup was good as well as the escargot… so after a great first meal in the MDR, the fourth evening was anything but. We decided right then and there that our last evening would be in Island Café.

ISLAND CAFÉ: The traditional buffet on a cruise ship, I would call this anything but. Yes, this is a buffet, but the quality of the food is very, very good. In learning from the executive chef on the ship, Island Café has their own kitchen where everything is prepped for the three meals that it serves. As on the rest of the ship, they make all the bread and rolls from scratch each day as well as all of the pastry and desserts. The cheese board was a personal favorite with the wide selection to choose from.

In the morning they made omelets to order, at lunch there was a carving station and in the evening, they had a pasta station as well as a stir fry station… which were very popular. A number of items in the evening were similar to what they were serving in the MDR.

SUSHI CAFÉ: In the evening, the back of Island’s Café is turned into a sushi bar – a place that I visited on more than a few occasions. The sushi is fresh and they did a great job of changing up the selections each night. They also made sure to provide the standard fare that everyone likes: spicy tuna, California roll, etc. The tuna is of a very high quality and I enjoyed it very much.

COVA CAFÉ: A great little café with cappuccino or mochas ($4 surcharge), pastries in the afternoon and tappas in the evening. We enjoyed the coffee very much and dropped by frequently in the afternoon to get our caffeine hit to keep us going through the evening! Barbara from Hungary was one of the crew members that worked this area and we enjoyed speaking with her very much, was very friendly and always took good care of us!

MURANO (SPECIALITY RESTAURANT): On our third evening, we ate in Murano, which is the only specialty restaurant on the ship. I made a reservation 6 weeks before we cruised, and the best time I could get was 6pm (which worked out well as we had a time change during the cruise which made it feel like it was 7pm). The surcharge was $35pp which was paid when I booked it online.

The restaurant was beautiful and….quiet…..compared to the MDR. Our table was right next to the window, so we had a lovely sunset view throughout our meal.

As for the meal itself, admittedly we took advantage of every course. We were totally “puffed out” (as my mother says) when we left, but it was a wonderful meal. Our entrees were excellent and I had Dover Sole, while JBom had Chateau Briand. We had the fabulous cheese course and ended with chocolate soufflé and Crème Brule. We had a great bottle of Shiraz from Australia and noted that the price of the wine was reasonable and not too “jacked up” in price as they could have easily done that.

THE MARTINI BAR: A very cool place with a cool vibe. When we were there, we saw the captain enjoying a visit with a fellow officer and a guest. The martini’s are really (really) good… especially the Chocotini (sp?). They are all $10 each and have several to choose from. This was a fun place to cap off the evening.

So enough about food!

As for the ports of call, we didn’t get off the ship! 😉 We found that all of the guests that got off of the ship allowed us to actually sit by the pool, read a book…and just relax. This is a cruise that has all sort of guests… spring breakers (but not a ton), families with a few small children but mostly teenagers, singles and couples in the their 30s and 40s, families (as in a reunion) and seniors as couples or in a group.

But when they returned in the late afternoon, our peace and tranquility vanished and the techno music returned. We found that as a married couple in our 40s we found our refuge at the rear of the ship in the SUNSET LOUNGE where we could have a cocktail (the margarita’s are fabulous… especially the mango), sit at a covered table and watch the wake off of the back of the ship and enjoy the end of the day before dinner. It was a lovely place that we could escape to that not a lot of people ventured to.

As for the ports of call Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Georgetown, Grand Cayman, we planned to skip Ocho Rios, but planned to visit Georgetown. We’ve been on several excursions in the past, but this trip was very much about relaxing for us and just enjoying the time together. We ended up skipping Georgetown as due to weather conditions, the captain made the decision to anchor on the opposite side of the island. The Carnival and Norwegian cruise ships joined us on the other side of the island and we heard that the other ships that stayed on the Georgetown side couldn’t tender guests to the shore as it was too rough to do so. Without excursions planned and a 15-minute taxi ride into town, we decided to skip it and just stay put. And we had just a great day.

So that was pretty much the cruise for us.

A couple of things not to leave out…

THE CASINO – We won $35 dollars… we are not big gamblers (well, we don’t gamble really) and we had a good hour+ of fun!

THE SHOWS – Were pretty good… and well done for a cruise ship, for sure. The juggler and the comedian were both fantastic and were well attended.

THE CULTURE SERIES – I only attended one event where the head chef’s from Murano and the MDR cook head-to-head a la Iron Chef. It was entertaining, especially with the inclusion of two selected guests as their sous chefs. They pretty much do it on the fly and have 15-minutes to turn out 3 courses. It was pretty entertaining.

At the beginning of this entry I said that JBom and I compared everything to our latest experience on Oceania. I will honestly tell you that we had a lovely time and it was a very good value for the money with all that we experienced on the ship.

Sure, the ambiance on Oceania is definitely different, as we found that the Celebrity cruise was much more of a party atmosphere – mostly around the pool area – but you could escape to quieter spots if you wanted to seek them out.

All in all… well done Celebrity… the experience was very enjoyable and you may see us in the future… JBom is already talking about another one at the end of the year!

You know that a vacation has been memorable when you realize that time has flown by like a jet and you are dreading packing up all the bits and pieces in preparation to head back home to reality.

This has been very much that kind of vacation for me – even without John I am afraid to admit. I’ve spoken with him once or twice each day, but I have hated going into too much detail or talking at length about my experiences as I feel like it would put a little salt on the wound. But it has been wonderful and I hope that my blog has reflected a true love of Australia and a desire to see oh so much more of it in the near future.

On our last day we spent it at the famous Bondi Beach and also at Centennial Park. Traveling around Sydney can be a little crazy, and Jenny has relied on “Giselle” (her TomTom device) to get us around the city and points beyond. It has helped us out in more than one occasion or we would still be driving around Sydney!

So Bondi Beach first – known the world over, it is a hotspot for the beautiful people, surfers and surfer wannabe’s. The day was the best yet and we ventured out in short sleeve shirts – a first for Mum and I! The sun shone all day long so it was fitting that it be our last! Bondi Beach is very much a typical beach, but as with Mollymook, the sand is fantastic, clean and fine underfoot. The area is also like a big rounded basin but the waves crash in and provide excellent surfing (for the surfers out there)! The water is crystal clear and you can see the shelf drop from bright teal/blue water as in the Caribbean to the dark blue where the sharks lurk in the depths beyond the nets put in place to protect those in the water. Still, never going out there…no way! 😉

And just our luck there is a RSL club there right at “Iceberg’s”. Iceberg’s is a famous restaurant/club /swimming club. The name comes from the swimming club that requires that in order to be eligible to join, you need to swim every Sunday for 2 years to qualify – no matter what the weather…icebergs and all. The swim team is also very competitive during the lifesaving competition that they have every year and plaques, medals and trophies are all around. Also, the pool is famous as it is filled by the seawater that is adjacent and crashes up against the side of the pool when hi-tide is in. We were there in the middle of the day, so no crashing about, but the concept is very cool. All the swimmers wear wetsuits to swim in as the water is the temperature of well, the ocean. [pictures to come – and I got some great ones!]

So after our visit to Iceberg’s RSL, we jumped back in the car and headed over to Centennial Park for a walk around until we met up with Ian for dinner. Centennial Park reminds me of Central Park with a lot less people and less skyscrapers surrounding it. But there are walkers, runners, horseback riders and many playing in the fields. The day continued to be beautiful and we had a good walk around looking at all of the plant life that only grows down here and seeing the larges cockatoos that I’ve every seen (except in a cage or zoo) flying around all above us. There were black swans in The Swan Pond and tropical birds and plant life all around. Interestingly there were no squirrels or chipmunks, or any types of birds that we have at home. I don’t think that small animals like the squirrel or chipmunk would survive here… too many larger predators about.

To cap off the evening… and the trip as a whole… we were back at The Lord Dudley for our last dinner where our adventure began two weeks ago. The Lord Dudley in Woollahra is the English pub that served the Beef and Guinness Pie that Mum has talked about the ENTIRE trip. So it was only fitting that we go back there for our last meal and see if it was just as good as the first one. It was.

I attest to the fact that they’ve had the best meat pies that I’ve ever had. Mum is determined to go home and try and duplicate the recipe. Good luck to her – they wouldn’t give her any hints, only that it had red wine and the waitress felt like she had told us too much by that point. Pies are taken very seriously here and if they enter these in competition, I am sure that they win regularly.

So back to the house in Mosman to pack.

It was a lovely, lovely cap to the holiday and I dreaded leaving for the airport this morning. I was trying to figure out if/how I could call in sick for a week without anyone really noticing… well that would never happen!

Sydney, Mollymook and The Blue Mountains were the three places that we visited on our journey to Australia. We’ve only scratched the surface and I hope to come back soon and perhaps visit Queensland… another jewel of Australia.  With no idea what to expect on this journey, the trip far exceed my expectations.

New South Wales is incredibly beautiful and scenic and it is the very best of what we travel distances to visit in the Northern Hemisphere. Think Laguna Beach/Southern California, Vancouver, Seattle and England all rolled into one… without the crowds, easy and favorable currency and friendly, friendly people. AWESOME!!!!! And I’d say that it remains this way simply because of its remoteness to the rest of the world. This country has the best of it all and remains unspoiled because of the cost, desire or the distance to travel that keeps so many away.

Australia is a hidden jewel right there in front of you… this trip will remain with me for many years to come…

One thing I’ve come to learn about traveling is that it is worth the extra money if you can take a tour with a local guide. We did this in Sorrento last summer and had an amazing time, and when booking the trip to the Blue Mountains, I imagined that it would be a perfect compliment to the trip instead of just seeing the typical tourist points of interest.

Through Lilianfels I hired the Tread Lightly Eco Tour group for the Rocks to Rain Forest Four Wheel Drive Eco Tour. Adam was our guide and picked us up at 9am. He is a really friendly guy, and yes, a guide needs to be friendly, but like all people that you are getting to know pretty quickly, you just kind of dive in and pretend that you’ve been friends a long time… that way you get the most out of the guide and you get a great and thorough experience as he feeds off of your questions and fills in the gaps.

One request for Adam is that we wanted to see the elusive kangaroo if at all possible. Adam scratched his head and thought about it for a bit. The kangaroo live in the valleys of protected areas and away from main roads, so seeing them is a bit of skill and luck. Adam couldn’t make any promises, but he said that he would take us to the Megalong Valley where they sometimes hang out. Kangaroos generally are more visible in the early morning when they come out for breakfast. During the hot days (not when we were here, of course), they escape to the bush and stay cool. Regardless, we were hopeful that we would see some.

And then we were off. We drove around the rim of the Blue Mountains and Adam stopped at a really picturesque look out point. No railings or guard rails, Adam stood right on the edge and even though experienced, I thought he was crazy. I was a few steps back from there (okay, maybe a few more). The wind was howling, so it was at times hard to keep your balance. We managed okay and got a tremendous view of one of the valleys and you could see some amazing rock formations in the distance. Back in the vehicle and we were off again.

We learned a tremendous amount about the eco system in the area including all of the beautiful flowering plants that are at their peak for spring time in the area. Also at full peak were massive and I mean massive Rhododendron plants – well really trees. Obviously these were not native to the area, but gorgeous nonetheless. In Michigan where we have all four seasons, I guess that we take the sudden burst of Spring color for granted as in NSW, you have to really look for the flowers as they only show themselves in small clumps here and there. For Adam it seems to be a major event if he comes across a botanical popping their head out after their version of Winter. Most impressive was the Waratah, the state flower of NSW… it is a crimson red dahlia-like flower that blooms this time of year. They are grown hydroponically and sold in florists, but if you pick one in the wild it is a $8K fine. They take their plants seriously here, indeed.

So on and on we went traveling all around parts of the Blue Mountains. There is a very small area of rain forest and the canopy is so dense that it goes from being light to dark very quickly. And then suddenly we were in the Megalong Valley with farms in the distance surrounded by the mountain range. And there, and admittedly very much in the distance, were a group of kangaroo sunning themselves in a farmer’s field. Adam had binoculars and we were able to see them quite well, but my little instamatic camera just captured little gray mounds and you can sort of make them out. Regardless, we finally had our kangaroo sighting! Check one more off the list!

So back to the hotel we made our way, but en route we stopped in a small town and Adam grabbed a couple of sandwiches to go. From there, we took a back trail that came to a head overlooking the valley below (which one, I have no idea), but the view was incredibly picturesque. Adam got a bit too close to the edge for my liking, so he back up, jumped out and proceeded to make a cup of tea for Mum and I. We’re not sure how he really did it, but with the cold it sure felt and tasted great. So we had our sandwich and tea by the edge of the cliff and watched as the hail and then the rain came straight towards us. The 4×4 was moving back and forth and I was a bit nervous as we were so close to the edge. Fortunately, it was a quick storm, but I was happy to be back on the road heading towards Lilianfels to warm up in front of a fire before our next outing.

Later in the afternoon we went back to Leura and had a mooch around the town. We were there only about an hour as the town is not that big, but has lots of lovely shops, cafes and other stores to mooch around in. I picked up a couple of cards and a few gifts and then we headed back for the evening.

In the end the highlight, of course, was the tour. We learned so much about the area – never possible to this extent without a tour. The area is just so incredibly beautiful and I can see why so many visit each and every year.

We woke up on Tuesday back in Sydney with the sun shining brightly and the temperature so much warmer that we contemplated not moving an inch. I had booked the Blue Mountains trip at the get-go so John and I could have a few days away together, just the two of us. When the whole thing happened with his back I considered canceling the trip to the Blue Mountains. But, you never know when we’ll get back here, so I kept the reservation and Mum and I were off late morning to the train station.

I know that I’ve said that the Australian’s are friendly people, well they really are. I hadn’t planned on taking the 10:10am train to Katoomba, but it happened that we managed to get to the Central Train Station just in time to make the earlier train. An elderly train station master (and I mean a man in his 80s), used his master key for us so we could get to the platform just in time for the train to depart. And once on the train, a lady showed me how to flip the seat back over so Mum and I could sit together and not be bothered by the older man sleeping behind us. So that was a good start! Such friendly people here!

After two pretty comfortable hours on the train we landed in Katoomba, the largest town in the Blue Mountains. Once a coal mining area, it has been dominated by resorts and inns that dot the landscape all around the Blue Mountains and welcome the overnight guests as well as the day-trippers from Sydney.

The only way that I can describe the area is to think of the Blue Mountains as the Grand Canyon with trees. Lots and lots of eucalyptus trees dotting the landscape in a dense canopy.

We arrived via taxi at Lilianfels, a really old resort right near Echo Point – the main lookout for the Blue Mountains and the Three Sisters. Lilianfels is a lovely English-style hotel with all the amenities of home. The grounds are lush and with Spring springing here, the flowers are in bloom all over the property. The rooms are draped in toile – so not John’s favorite and a-okay with Mum, but very appropriate for the setting. Our room wasn’t ready on arrival, so we had a bit of lunch in the Lounge before taking a walk around the grounds and down to Echo Point which was a 5 minute walk from the hotel.

What can I say about Echo Point except it is totally amazing scenery. For once we got lucky with the weather and it was as clear as can be. The view is reminiscent of the view from the railing of Niagara Falls… the view goes on and on… just utterly spectacular [many pictures to come, I promise!]  We took a few snaps, but the wind really kicked up and we headed to the Visitor Information Center, which turned out to be the usual gift shop with info before heading back via another gift shop to the hotel. I know that everyone hates the typical gift shop variety no matter where you are visiting as much as I, but sometimes they have their purpose – I scored some of the best postcards of the region that I’ve seen… so it was worth the drop in.

Our room was ready when we returned and it is truly lovely with traditional furnishings and incredibly comfortable “Manchester” 😉 The Lilianfels staff is really lovely and they really take their job seriously. You know when you are not just in any hotel anywhere in the world – the staff is attentive and very friendly without being too much and obviously fake. By the evening, Patrick, the Concierge, knew me by name as we discussed dinner reservations in Leura.

So… dinner in Leura was very, very good…. So much better than Rick Stein’s I have to say – and at a much more reasonable price. We ate at Silk’s, which Patrick recommended. The restaurant was a small, French-style restaurant with about 20 tables, no more. For a Tuesday evening, it was well occupied. Mum had the red snapper and I tried my luck at the filet. Both were excellent and we enjoyed a great cup of coffee – I would say #2 on the ranking list of coffee so far….such, such good coffee and I can’t get enough!!!!

There is a whole jargon to the coffee here – and it is nothing like home. I can as most everyone, can walk into Starbuck’s and order anything with ease. In Australia, there is an entirely different protocol. Here’s how I’ve figured it out…

Flat White is an espresso coffee with steamed milk, but no foam. It is “flat” as the steamed milk goes right to the top of the rim of the cup.

Flat White Non-Fat is an espresso coffee with steamed non-fat milk, but no foam.

Flat White mug is the same as above, but a double / sometimes with a splash of cocoa on top.

Cappuccino is just like we have at home.

Mocha is just like we have at home / either a mug or as a single (in a cup).

Black coffee is a normal cup of coffee that you would have at home (this has taken me 10 days to figure out how to order, seriously as some coffee places don’t offer it and it isn’t an option — really). One day Mum confidently asked for a “regular cup of coffee” and incredulously the server just looked at her with a blank stare. Ian realized that they didn’t sell regular coffee and helped her by ending up with a Flat White.

Okay… so you may think that that isn’t that hard to figure out… well guess again. Some coffee shops vary the ordering process themselves as chains are non-existent here and every coffee shop has their own lingo that you have to sort out. Sydneysiders LOVE their coffee and take it incredibly seriously as I’ve said. They’ve pushed Starbucks pretty much out of here and that is a mean feat indeed!

A note on weather: Los Angeles and the general west coast of the USA is overcast with mist/fog in the AM and then it generally burns off in the late morning and you end up having a lovely day. Maybe it is because of the Southern Hemisphere, or what I don’t know, but what I find particularly interesting (and disturbing) about this part of the world is how unpredictable the weather can be.

Sunday morning Ian woke up early and went out for a long walk. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. When he returned about 8:30 am, it was starting to get overcast – and by early afternoon it was raining again. And it rained for the rest of the day. Geez…we ended up making our own fun by being relegated to playing Domino’s for a while and Jenny turned out to be the champion to Ian’s dismay.

Without much to do for the afternoon we decided to take a run over to the RSL – or the Returned & Services League. The RSL’s are also commonly known as Ex-Servo’s Club — are found all over the country. As the name implies, these are clubs specific for returning service members to come and have a place to meet, have a meal and relax. One could say they could be tied to the rotary clubs in the USA, but they are nothing like them whatsoever.

The RSL’s are pretty much the equivalent to the Mollymook Golf Club that I described in my first Mollymook post. And, quite strangely, you don’t need to be a member, retired or otherwise, of the armed forces to come in. They welcome “visitors” that live more than 5K away, or you can join at your local RSL as Ian and Jenny have done so by paying $5/year membership!

And they are beautiful. One requirement to operate is that they cannot make a profit, so the food and drink is very reasonable and they take all of the profits and pour them back into the facility. Some RSL’s are pretty boring, standard buildings from the outside, but inside they are palaces (so Ian and Jen have told me). We had a late lunch/early dinner in the RSL in Abudulla and not only was the building modern and clean, the food was very good. I had a pork roast dinner, Mum and Ian had another pie – this one steak and kidney, and Jenny had Beef Stroganoff which was also very good. They have raffles for cars (yes, brand new cars in the lobby) and slot machines to pass the time away – this is where they really make their money. For fun, Jenny bought raffle tickets for one a while ago and she won a meat box – literally all types of raw meat presented in a box that would be worth more than $50 for a $1 ticket.

So if you ever find yourself in Australia, be sure to visit a RSL!

And speaking of money, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the currency that they use in Australia. it is a combination of US dollars and British Pounds by it’s look. The money is all brightly colored – think Monopoly money – but you cannot get a $1 note, they only come in $1 and $2 gold coins. The smaller gold coin is $2 and the larger is $1. Mum, being very familiar with the British Pound, kept calling the coins “pounds” although they were dollars. And at a $1.15 USD exchange to the $1.00 AUS dollar, the currency is very favorable compared with most of the rest of the world!

Another reason to come back soon!

Saturday found us on the beach in the morning… what a fantastic beach! The weather was clear and the wind was much calmer than on Friday. Mum and I headed down to the beach and walked all along the inlet to the beachside town. It took us a good 45 minutes for the walk, but we stopped occasionally to take in the view of the waves crashing against the shore while dodging the jellyfish that they call “bottlenecks” here.  Squeak, squeak, squeak we made our way along as the wind blew in our face all the way. It was a good, good walk and we both needed the exercise after sitting in the car for most of Friday.

We made our way to the break wall and had a sit on the bench while watching the kids surfing in the water. Everyone surfs here… either standing up or on a boogey board… with all of the known sharks in the area, it is the last thing I would do. The locals, well they just take it in stride and go with the flow. Their favorite saying here is “fare dinkum” – which means “that’s fair”… or something like that…. Which also goes to their general thoughts on “that’s life”, “that’s how it goes”, “c’est la vie”… as the shark comes and takes a limb. Seriously….this will also be evident when we visit Pebbley Beach in the afternoon.

Ian and Jenny met up with us and we had a coffee at the local café before heading back to the house. From there we piled in and took a quick trip over to Bateman’s Bay for lunch. It was a quick trip compared to the drive down from Sydney, the weather was pretty decent (still a bit chilly) and we had lunch at a local café. Lunch was good… Mum and I split a quiche and each had pumpkin soup. I enjoyed another good cup of coffee (ranking #3 on my list of coffee so far) and just hung out and chatted.

Afterwards we had a mooch for all of 5 minutes (yes, the fishing town is that small) before piling back into the CX7 and headed to Pebbley Beach. Before we left Sydney, Ian read my guide book on Australia and came across Pebbley Beach which is supposed to have a “large community of kangaroos” that you can practically go up to and touch (although not advisable). So we were game… we would have our sighting!

We took a very back woods kind of drive to get to the beach and passed the largest termite mounds I’ve ever seen… okay, well, I’ve never seen a termite mound before. We stopped after seeing several by the roadside and Jenny got OUT OF THE CAR and walked RIGHT OVER TO ONE and kicked it!!!!! Crazy girl….but I got her picture! And then Ian prodded me out and I carefully walked over to it… oh geez… just take the picture so I can run and get back in the car! Classic vacation fodder for the rest of the holiday let me tell you.

So finally down at Kangaroo Beach and guess what…not a kangaroo in site..just lots of kangaroo poop. Another visitor told us that someone had drowned earlier in the day and the rescue/recover teams were in the water and above in the helicopter searching for the body. Consequently the kangaroos had left the area and were in the hills as they were scared away by the helicopter. Oh well… there goes my kangaroo sighting… but the whole thing came quickly into perspective for the drowning victim (of course).

Back in the car and back to Mollymook for the rest of the afternoon. We had dinner reservations at Rick Stein’s new restaurant at Bannister’s that Jenny had booked ages ago, so we wanted to get back and have a break before dinner. Rick Stein for all of those not in the know (and before this trip I also was one who didn’t have a clue) is a “celebrity chef” in the world of celebrity chefs in England and Australia (mostly from his BBC cooking show). He is not known in the USA as we all know the market is pretty well crowded with our own battalion of local celebrity chefs cooking in every major city.

Bannister’s is a seaside motel in Mollymook that underwent massive renovation a couple of years ago and it is considered the place to go if you are in from Sydney or points in and beyond. The rooms are very modern and the hotel is pretty cool – think 1950s/early 60s modern – something out of the movie Ocean’s Twelve that Brad Pitt’s character owns and is badly mismanaging. Well, this is lovely and modern with an infinity pool that overlooks the ocean crashing up on the shore. It is also incredibly expensive and we realized after our mooch around Bannister’s that we had made a very good choice on our alternate accommodation in the end – mostly value for price or even price, price, price. Bannister’s suffers from being the pretty girl at the party… after you talk with her after a few minutes, you realize that she is all flash and very little substance.  That also holds true to the hotel and the restaurant, I am afraid.

Don’t get me wrong, Rick Stein’s restaurant is very good – especially if you are a fish person. I am a fish person, and had a very good mussels appetizer which I will long remember, but the “sirloin” as they call it here was well, a disaster to be honest. I know that everyone comes for the fish and seafood, but there will be an odd person besides myself that may be interested in an alternative. And with all the pomp and circumstance that the restaurant has enjoyed with their grand opening in recent weeks (Costal Living magazine was on the premises shooting editorial pictures for the soon to be published article and yours truly is probably in one), the result was less than stellar.

I won’t go into too many details as I’ve been long-winded enough on this subject, but as much as the manager tried to make it right, it only made it worse. To his credit, he didn’t charge me for the entrée and also gave me a lovely cheese plate complimentary. And I don’t think that I was being a “difficult American”, just someone who is a big foodie, as many other patrons will be here, and they really need to get it right. Or consequently, the restaurant may become a big disappointment for some or many that may relegate Rick Stein at Bannister’s to an overpriced, so-so, holiday mini-break.