Sunday, May 31, 2015

Chosen to Join and Share Istria!

It was 2006 and I was ready to take my first trip to Europe by myself. I had only been once before at that point and, as a single mom, I hadn't thought about going back.

Just as my daughter was about to turn 21, the opportunity presented itself to cover a tennis tournament . I also had enough miles for a first class ticket to Europe. It didn't take me long to make the decision.

The tournament was a special one. It was the Smirkva Bowl, a competition in Pula, Croatia, for 10 and under kids. They had teamed up with "Little Mo," a similar organization in the United States founded by the family of Grand Slam champion Maureen Connolly Brinker, to bring four players from the U.S. to Croatia for an exhibition event.

I planned to spend time in Paris and Rome too, but it was Croatia that would take most of my time and attention.

Three weeks before the trip, I developed shingles. If you've seen the television commercials for the shingles vaccine and wonderfed if they were exagerating about the seriousness of it, I can tell you they are not.

The pain was bad, but I was determined to go on this trip. I loaded up with steroids, antiviral, and pain medicine and basically slept for three weeks.

I made it to Rome and then to Trieste, Itay. I was picked up and driven through Slovenia and into Croatia. Tournament Director Miodrag Bozovic not only welcomed me into the event, but he and his family welcomed me into their home.

During my week in Croatia, I not only covered this special tournament and got to see some of Pula, but I made relationships that have remained through the years.

Among the players that attended, I have continued to stay in touch with Christina Makarova. I watched her go from a little girl sharing Nutella with me at the dining room table in Pula, to seeing her play as a top junior player at Wimbledon and discussing with her where she wanted to go to college (she's now playing at Duke University).

Miodrag Bozovic and I have also kept in touch, though I never did return to Pula and have since focused more on travel writing than tennis.

Earlier this year, Miodrag told me about a contest for writers to come to Istria. Share Istria was about finding the socially connected travel writers to bring in for a trip to visit the Croatia region. I immediately entered.

It's been a busy few months with my daughter's wedding and I had forgotten about the contest until I received a notice that I had won! I was chosen as one of three U.S. journalists (six other countries were being represented).

Soon after I was told about the details, I realized there was a lot more to it. I could bring a friend along AND I would be competing with the 17 other journalists for a grand prize of 10,000 Euros. That would also be based on stories, shares, likes, retweets, favorites, etc.

The fun begins on June 12, 2016. Follow along with @SpiritsTraveler. My tag for all posts is #ShareIstriaUSA1.
Or, google and share #ShareIstriaUSA1

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Taste of Bali on the MSC Divina

You know you had a great time when you can’t believe a week has gone by. That’s how Mom and I felt on our last full day on MSC Divina.

It was another day at sea, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The ship was to go to Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, where I was going to finally try windsurfing. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating. It was too windy for the tender to go out.

As excited as I was about spending the day in the Bahamas, I was fine with also staying aboard. MSC Cruises always makes sure there’s plenty to do on their ships and I would actually have a chance to finish a book!

I had gotten up and ready for the beach and instead headed to the Top Sail Lounge in the Yacht Club section of the Divina for breakfast.

Top Sail had my favorite breakfast because there was always a huge selection of fresh fruit. I took a bowlful, along with some yogurt and a freshly baked blueberry muffin. I also enjoyed a cappuccino, another complimentary perk to having our room within the Yacht Club.

I brought Mom some breakfast. She decided to stay in the room for a while and I agreed to meet her before our spa appointments. She had enjoyed her massage so much the other day that she had booked another.

I had decided to give the Himalayan Dream a try, but first I went up to the One Pool just above our suite. I tried to finally finished Fifty Shades Darker as I sipped a Bellini, but it was soon time for the spa.

Mom and I went our separate ways at the spa as I headed to the Himalayan Dream room with my therapists.

All of the workers at the Aurea Spa on the MSC Divina had trained in Bali. This particular treatment had been discovered and perfected there, to only be used by MSC Cruises.

It began with me laying down on a bed filled with heated Himalayan salt. It felt a little rough at first, but as soon as she started scrubbing salt on me I quickly relaxed.

The Himalayan Salt was on my skin from toes to neck when I went into the shower and washed it off. Next, a mask was put on my body and I was wrapped in plastic.

While the mask was working its magic, the therapist massaged my head and scalp. She then used warm towels to take the mask off.

The treatment ended with an oil massage. I felt rested, relaxed, and soft all over by the time I walked out of there. I decided to keep that mood going and went back to the pool to finish my book.

Before long it was time to return to the suite to shower and pMSC Divina.
ack. Then we dressed for our final dinner in Le Muse aboard the

The service and food was as wonderful the last night as it was the first.

Mom had salmon rolls filled with chive goat cheese and she loved them. I was equally happy with my cream of cauliflower soup, which was topped with toasted pistachios .

For the main course we both had the rack of lamb, which was in a pistachio crust and served with a cherry sauce. Yes, it tasted as amazing as it was.

Dessert was a decadently delicious chocolate chip cheesecake with chocolate sauce for me and Tiramisu for Mom.

After dinner, we went to play Bingo. We didn’t win the $1800 first prize, but we did stay for the Opera show before heading back to our Penthouse Suite in the Yacht Club of the MSC Divina for the last time.

It was an amazing voyage and I’d be happy to return to this taste of Italy on the water with MSC in the future.

Also read about my adventures on:

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Exploring MSC Divina on a Thanksgiving Sea Day

My immediate family is small and spread out throughout the country. The Thanksgiving holiday has become less about big family dinners and more about getting together with whomever we can.

In 2013, Mom and I went on a Seabourn cruise Thanksgiving week. For 2014, we decided to repeat the idea and head on the MSC Divina. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

After a couple of days of ports, it was nice to have a sea day. We had hit our first rough patch of sea the previous night and sleeping in was just what I needed.

I went to the Top Sail Lounge, which is only available to those staying in the Yacht Club section on MSC Cruises, for breakfast. They had a great selection and I enjoyed a full plate of berries, Greek yogurt, cheese, and an apricot tart.

I sat back with a cappuccino and enjoyed the view while I caught up on social media and email. Mom had slept even later than me and was relaxing in the cabin, but I had a galley tour to do with the Executive Chef.

Chef Attila had only been on the MSC Divina for three weeks, though he certainly wasn’t new to running a kitchen and had been on this ship when it first sailed. 

He had also spent years in European restaurants after hotel school in Naples and before joining the cruise industry.

I had taken galley tours on ships before, but this was by far the largest I had seen. The kitchen spanned two floors and runs 24 hours a day to take care of 3,795 passengers and 1,294 crew.

He manages to oversee it all since it’s one of the most automated galleys in the world, with a computer program generated on TV screens.

MSC Cruises is very careful about keeping everything separate to avoid any type of contamination, whether for allergies, gluten, or bacteria. He proudly told me that they’ve never had a breakout of food borne illness on a MSC ship.

I watched the pastry chef prepare the pumpkin cheesecake for dinner before saying goodbye to Chef Attila and heading out to explore.

It was a very windy day and I didn’t think there would be much pool time. I first went to check out the kids club.

MSC Cruises has quite an impressive area for kids and teens. The camp runs an array of activities day and night that satisfy all ages. There is a Lego room for younger passengers and Graffiti’s Disco for those a bit older.

Although it is an extra charge, kids – and their parents – seemed to be enjoying the Race Car Formula 1 Simulator and 4D Si-Fi Cinema. A game room was also fully stocked with video games.

I picked Mom up at our suite and we went to lunch at Le Muse, another private dining area for Yacht Club guests.

I had the cold carrot soup, followed by the Cuban sandwich. Both were excellent. Mom enjoyed a Cobb salad.

The waiter heard us talking about heading to the buffet for ice cream and he came back with an ice cream sundae for us, complete with fudge sauce and homemade whip cream!

After we left the restaurant, we went shopping down at the piazza. Mom got some gifts and bought herself a pair of earrings. She also bought me a bag I liked as my early holiday gift.

We took advantage of the lazy, rainy day to take naps before we dressed for dinner back at Le Muse.

I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in an Italian restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, but they managed to do it well, while still leaving options open for the many Europeans aboard who weren’t celebrating the holiday.

My traditional meal was walnut bread, mushrooms in puff pastry, butternut squash soup, turkey, cranberry sauce, yams, Brussel sprouts, and the pumpkin cheesecake. It was all amazing.

Mom opted to mix the traditional with her favorites, enjoying the bread, a jumbo shrimp cocktail, lobster tail, the Thanksgiving yams and vegetables, and apple pie.

After dinner we went to the Captain’s Cocktail Party in the Black & White Lounge and had some champagne.

I had missed a lot of the shows because I was so tired after long days on shore, but I’m glad I made it to the Michael Jackson show. It was just incredible, rivaling anything I’ve ever seen on Broadway. The audience was standing and cheering by the end, when the whole cast sang “We are the World.”

It didn’t take long to fall asleep as I wished I had more than one more day at sea on the MSC Divina.

Ready for a Thanksgiving cruise on MSC? Book yours now. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Discover Costa Maya with the MSC Divina

The port of Costa Maya, Mexico, had been damaged heavily during Hurricane Dean in 2007. It had since been rebuilt to include everything you could want in a cruise port stop – shopping, beaches, restaurants, bars, and even a little history. I had never been to Costa Maya so I wasn’t sure what to expect before I got there on my MSC Cruise.

Mom decided to stay in for the morning while I explored Costa Maya, but we had breakfast together in Le Muse, the restaurant exclusive to Yacht Club members on the MSC Divina.

We had a selection of Danish, croissants, scrambled eggs, and waffles with fruit. It was just the meal I needed to get me ready for the long day of walking ahead.

The pier was filled with shops and restaurants, and even a Senor Frogs with a swim-up pool. There was also a museum that I didn’t get a chance to go to, Museo Maya. The three cruises had really filled up the area.
There were two other ships in the terminal, one from Royal Caribbean and one from Princess. It was a bit of a walk to the port and Costa Maya provided a complimentary tram to take people back and forth.

I decided I wanted to explore the beach areas. I was told the walk was about a mile and a half and figured it was easily doable. As I started the walk, one of the first things I ran into was a pyramid. 

I probably should have stopped to explore it further, but I was determined to make this walk, which went on a lot longer than I thought – through puddles and rocks – and turned out to be double the original estimate in length.

Once I got down to the Costa Maya beach, I saw well built up area with a boardwalk, lots of restaurants, watersports, and beach massages.

I realized that most of the people from the pier had rented jeeps or golf carts to get down here and I would have had a lot more time if I had done that, but I still enjoyed the walk along the aqua sea waters.

I was starving after the long walk and headed back to the MSC Divina for lunch with Mom.

We headed to the buffet for some of the incredible pizza that rivaled any in New York – or Naples. 

Then we both headed to the pier for a little bit of shopping for souvenirs.  

We were cutting it a little tight to get back on the ship before sailing, but we made it.

I took full advantage of the down time to relax at the One Pool (another private area for Yacht Club guests on MSC Cruise). I read for a while and enjoyed a mojito and a short nap before showering and dressing for dinner.

It turned out to be our best dinner thus far on the MSC Divina.

I don’t get to eat Asian food often in less I make it myself. The preparation often includes fish sauces and seafood and non-seafood intermingle more than in most cuisines. When the waiter told me they could do the Dim Sum vegetarian, I was excited.

The dumplings and egg roll turned out incredible and I relished the treat. 

Although Mom didn’t love the pea soup, she had no complaints about the rest of the meal.

For an entrée, I had the perfectly prepared pappardelle with mushrooms and Mom thoroughly enjoyed the duck breast.

Dessert was one of my favorites Crème Brule. This version also had berries in it and it was delicious.

Mom had the baked apple with ice cream. It was served with the apple sliced so it presented beautifully, and tasted just as good as it looked.

It was yet another amazing, but exhausting day on the MSC Caribbean Cruise. Mom and I went to play bingo with the intention of staying for the show, but a good night’s sleep in my cabin sounded like a much better idea.