New Year’s Day on AmaMagna

Everything had a bit of a delayed start on New Year’s Day, but I was up, as usual. I had my early breakfast, did a bit at the gym, walked around the ship, watched us go through a few locks, and had lunch. We arrived in Melk at around 2:00, where the big tour of the day was Melk Abbey. That involved a short bus ride up the hill to the Abbey, a tour of the Abbey, and a walk back down the hill and through the town, on our own. Here are some highlights of the day:

As a friendly reminder, I am a travel advisor/agent and can organize these same experiences for you!

Entering a lock on the Danube
Approaching the bridge. Will we make it??
Just made it under the bridge!
Panoramic view from Melk Abbey
Photos are not allowed in the Abbey 🤫
😍

AmaMagna Day 2: Vilshofen-Passau

As much as I hate to admit it, I left home feeling slightly under the weather. I was dealing with lots of congestion and a slight fever, so I decided I should go straight into town to the Apotheke and ask for something to help my symptoms. They were very helpful and gave me some medicine, along with some tea. I took three doses of the medicine, and although I think it made me drowsy, it really dried up the congestion!

We were to be back on board at 11:00 to leave for Passau, so after one last look at Vilshofen, I made my way back to the ship. I walked around the top deck a bit and watched the people untethering us from the dock. What was AMAzing is that this ship turned around right in the middle of the river.We just spun around and headed in the other direction!

Before lunch, there was a talk from Christian, the cruise manager, who told us about upcoming excursions. That went on until 12:30, when lunch was served. Lunch in the main dining room was a Bavarian lunch, and it really was a feast. There were many types of sausages, pork, salads, potato salad, cheese, desserts, etc! Everything really was excellent. After that feast, I had a bit of a nap to prepare for the Castle Hill Hike that I had signed up for.

The hike began at 3:00 and was a 3 mile walk all together. It was a pretty slow moving hike, which was fine except that I was freezing!! The hike was to a cathedral at the top of the mountain. It is a place that draws pilgrims who walk up a specific staircase (on their knees, I think??) to receive some sort of blessing. I need to check my facts! Here are some beautiful photos from the hike:

After the hike, I took some time to thaw, and then it was time fo “sip & sail” before dinner. I was signed up for dinner at The Chef’s Table, which I was excited about. I was seated at a big table full of fun people, who all work in travel. That worked out really well for a long dinner.

AmaMagna Day 1

As one would expect from a German train, it arrived right on time in Vilshoven—11:24 am. I walked through the lovely town down to the river and walked right on the ship after telling my name to the man at the door.

My first view of the ship!

I was escorted to the reception desk, which was friendly & efficient. They told me that my cabin was not ready, but if I went to the Lounge or Al Fresco Restaurant, they would find me when it was ready. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical that they would come find me any time soon.

I went up to Al Fresco and the lounge, and I had a bit light lunch. It was basically a vegetarian experience because the only meat available was on sandwiches. (With cucumbers). As soon as I was standing up from my table, s very kind gentleman approached me and told me that my room was ready. He took me there and showed me around to be sure I understood everything. He was there to answer any questions, and he gave me some advice about when and where to make dinner reservations.

My light lunch in Al Fresco

I enjoyed the room for a bit, then went to make my dinner reservations for The Chef’s Table, Al Fresco, and Jimmy’s Wine Bar. I explored the ship, which is absolutely beautiful, and I eventually went back out into town since I didn’t have any commitments until the welcome cocktail and safety briefing at 5:30.

Being Sunday, nearly everything was closed, except for a few restaurants. Vilshofen is a completely charming town, and it is fun to see the Christmas decorations still up since they will stay until Epiphany.

At some point, I took a much needed nap and attended the welcome and safety thing at 5:30. Everyone was greeted with a glass of sparkling wine and a toast with the captain and the hotel manager. then, there was a gathering in the lounge. While it was nice to be sailing with only 150 or so people, the major introvert in me mostly sat and observed the others, trying to figure out what my fellow passengers are like.

We had a bit of a chat from several important people, including the captain, cruise manager, and the hotel director. It was good and informative, but I felt that it went on a bit long! However, when it was over, it was time to go to the tent for the Vilshofen Oktoberfest, where they had local beer, pretzels, and music. I found a table with a couple who looked nice, and they were lovely, along with their other friends who joined a bit later. It was a really nice time with Bavarian music and dancing, and it seemed to loosen up the crowd a bit.

Hotel Manager speaking in the lounge

Dinner was to be served at 7:45, and I was going to the main restaurant. I sat at a large table with a couple who were just sitting down. It turns out they are also from the Atlanta area! Soon after, a couple from London joined us. It was a somewhat interesting dinner, but I’ll focus on the food and service. We had a very good server who seemed to be handling three tables. He told us that things might be a bit slow since it’s the first night. I didn’t quite understand that since it wasn’t the first night of sailing ever. It was fine, though. After we placed our orders, the courses flowed well, and the entree was the only thing that seemed delayed. This was a multi-course meal with soup, salad, sorbet, entree, and dessert. It was an excellent meal!

Sea Bass
Beautiful dessert (forgot what it was!)

After dinner, which means around 10pm, I went to the lounge to see what was happening. I had a cup of peppermint tea and relaxed there a bit. Then I went downstairs to see what was happening in Jimmy’s since there’s supposed to be something at 10pm. I saw one table of people but nothing really happening. It was time for bed anyway, so that is what I did!

AmaMagna Journey Days 1/2

After sleeping for almost 11 hours (unheard of), I woke up at almost 8am took a quick shower, quickly threw my things in my suitcase, and enjoyed the most beautiful breakfast in the Sofitel Munich Bayerpost. Now I am on the train and have time to write a bit about my journey here and my day in Munich!

Sunrise from Sofitel Munich Bayerpost

My direct flight from Atlanta to Munich was at around 6pm on December 27. For some reason, I got to the airport around 2:30. I usually enjoy hanging out in the airport lounge, but this was excessive. Oh well, I was through security in about 30 seconds and in the lounge a minute later! It was packed! I found the quietest spot I could find and just relaxed until about 5:00. I walked to my gate, and the flight boarded on time and left basically on time.

The flight was so pleasant that there’s not really much to talk about it, except for Delta’s new “elevated” main cabin service on international flights. Things were a bit delayed because the air was a bit bumpy as we started, but once they started serving us, it was lovely. It began with a hot towel and a menu. The menu had choices for appetizer and entree. The appetizers were caprese salad or a salad with shrimp, and entrees were chicken Marsala, grilled chicken salad, or ravioli. Before they came through with food, they gave everyone a bellini (peach purée with champagne)! It wasn’t the most amazing drink, but it makes you feel a bit like they care, rather than treating you like cattle (although cattle should be treated well too)!

Dinner was pretty tasty! Dessert was Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream, and you can’t go wrong there! I watched a bit of the movie “Coco” before going to sleep, and after sleeping pretty well, thanks to my new “turtl,” I finished the move just in time to land. Once we landed, we were taken by bus to the terminal and immigration. That was all very easy, and I got on the Lufthansa Express Bus, which was a 45 min ride directly from the airport to the Munich Hauptbanhof for 11 Euros. The best deal!

The Sofitel Munich Bayerpost is right next to the train station, so although it was 10am, I went to see if I could check in. I couldn’t, but I was allowed to check my bags and use the spa for the sauna, steam room, pool, and showers. This was the best thing possible! I stayed there until almost noon, and then I walked to a classic Bavarian beer hall that I had heard Rick Steve’s mention. As I approached, there was a group of men outside smoking and wearing Lederhosen. I was afraid they might be a group of silly Americans, but since I sat near them, I saw that they were just a bunch of German guys hanging out. I should have taken a picture of the menu, but I had some sort of boiled beef with mixed vegetables. I thought the menu said sauerkraut, but it turned out to be freshly grated horseradish! It was all just what I wanted, except that I actually wanted sauerkraut.

I walked back to the hotel and found that my room was still not ready, so I decided to keep walking (to stay awake) and went to Old Town. Ah, this was what I wanted to see, because the hotel & train station area was more grungy & modern. I would compare this to the area around Penn Station vs Greenwich Village. There was a small Christmas market still going. I tried getting a Glühwein, but they only took cash. (Side note: I couldn’t find my debit card, and I still don’t know where it is. Therefore, I don’t have access to an ATM!)

I continued walking, just seeing what I could see, and I ended up at the Viktualenmarkt, which was wonderful. While it’s always there, I felt like I was getting some of the feel of a big Christmas Market. I wanted to get back to the hotel to check in at 3, so I figured out the public transportation and took the subway to the Hauptbanhof. My room was ready!

I got to the room, which was great. It was on the 7th floor (out of 8), which meant it was above part of the building and allowed for a great view. I was waiting for my bags since they insisted on delivering them to my room. After a while, there was a knock on the door, and it was not my bags, Instead, it was 2 people delivering champagne, a fruit bowl, and a bar of chocolate. How nice!

Finally, my bags came, so I was able to charge my phone and put on clean clothes before going out to find dinner. I walked back to the OLD TOWN to see what I had missed, such as the opera house, Hofbrauhaus, and to experience the Viktualenmarkt with some money. I saw a soup place there, and that was exactly what I wanted for dinner—Goulasch! It was delicious and really helped to warm me. I walked around a bit more and finally. Had my gluhwein, which was delicious. It’s basically just mulled wine.

Glühwein
Munich Opera House

I went inside one big hotel because I saw a rooftop bar from outside. Once I got in, I decided I didn’t want to go, although I’m sure the view would have been great. As I left, though, I noticed a shrine to Michael Jackson. WHY?? I started walking in the direction of my hotel and took the train back to the station since it was cold, and I was tired!

MJ Shrine

I went to bed just before 10pm, and just as I had turned off the light, there was a knock on the door that said it was housekeeping. They must offer a turndown service? 10pm seemed late for that, though! I “yelled” at them from bed and told them that I was in bed. I slept well until about midnight, and after reading for a bit, I slept until 8am! I suppose I needed it!

Cruise vs All-Inclusive: The Pilkington Perspective

 

This post is inspired by my recent visit to El Dorado Royale in Cancun, Mexico. It was my first visit to an all-inclusive resort. I discuss check-in, the property, entertainment, meal times and food, as well as entertainment and activities. Hopefully this helps, and feel free to reach out if I can help you decide what is best for you!

It is no secret, I love going on cruises, whether is a 3-day cruise or a 15-day cruise. I first started going on cruises when, as a single college professor, I was looking for somewhere to travel solo during spring break. I was able to afford a decent trip, but all of the “deals” I found required a single supplement (the fine print would say something like “$250 supplement for solo travelers”), or I would have to pay double. With a lot of internet research, I found out about Norwegian Cruise Line’s studio cabins, which are specifically for the solo cabins. I decided on the NCL Epic, which was one of the first ships to offer the studios. They also have the “Studio Lounge,” which hosts a daily solo meet-up. This is not a match making thing. It is simply to encourage people to mingle, make friends, and go to dinner and events together.

I had no idea whether or not I would love or hate the cruise, whether I would be bored, whether I would make friends, or what would happen. On the first night, I went to the solo gathering and ended up having dinner with three people who became my friends for the rest of the cruise. We had a fantastic time. There is a general understanding among solo travelers that there is no pressure to hang out. Solo time is respected, but if you want to interact, there is a place for you. At the end of the 7-day cruise, I didn’t want to leave. It was the most fun, relaxing vacation I had ever had. That was in 2015, and I have been on eight other NCL cruises since then, as well as one on Holland America and another with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Even my worst cruise wasn’t bad, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

Now that I am a travel advisor, I feel a bit of a need to experience different locations and ways of traveling. As I travel, I try to see the big picture, but I also see myself as an advocate for the solo traveler. In the past year, I was unusually aware of several friends going on vacation in Cancun, so when I found myself with a few free days at the end of the summer, I decided on a quick visit to El Dorado Royale. Since they offered a rate for one person, that seemed like a good sign.

I flew direct from Atlanta to Cancun and then took the shuttle (paid for with my reservation) from Cancun airport to the resort. From the start, everyone was very friendly. However, check-in was annoying and lengthy. All I cared about was lunch since it was 2:00 EST and I hadn’t eaten. I was told that my room was not ready, but I was able to enjoy the property, eat lunch, etc, and return at 3:00 CST for my room. I had learned from cruises to pack my swimsuit in my backpack so that when my suitcase is taken, I can change. I did not realize that the same would apply here, so I was stuck in the clothes that I had flown in.

I was directed to a restaurant overlooking the ocean and had a nice, light lunch. I then checked out some of the property before going back to the lobby to see if my room was ready. It wasn’t, so I walked around some more and returned at 3:00. It still wan’t ready, and I showed obvious disappointment. About 30 seconds later, a bellman came and told me that we were going to go to my room, and hopefully it would be ready when we arrived. As we arrived, they were putting the finishing touches on the room, so that was fine! For comparison, a cruise is similar in this way. An announcement is made giving an estimate of when cabins will be ready, and then a final announcement is made when they are ready.  I appreciate that on a cruise, there is no need to keep checking, unless you choose to do that. Next time at a resort, I will be prepared with a change of clothes!

IMG_1911

The property was beautiful and well maintained. The pools were plentiful, with bars and restaurants scattered about conveniently. Of course, this was a beachfront property, but I didn’t see a lot of people in the ocean or on the beach. Also, my room, which was described as a “beachfront suite,” was not really beachfront. I had a view of palm trees and had to duck and squint through the branches to see the beach or the ocean. That was a bit of a disappointment.

Resort Beachfront palm trees
View from my room

At mealtimes on an NCL cruise, you arrive at the restaurant and are asked for your keycard, and they will ask how many. If you are dining alone, there is no issue made of it. I should mention that sometimes you will be asked if you would like to be seated with other people, and on certain days, that could be nice. At El Dorado Royale, when I showed up at a restaurant alone, I was usually asked if I would like a table for two. I would look around awkwardly at the otherwise empty lobby and say, “No. I am only one person.” This was so annoying to me, and when I provided feedback about it, their response was that since it is adults only, they are trained to assume that people are in couples. Ugh, that is an old-fashioned, unhelpful response! While I don’t mind dining alone anywhere, it is best if dining alone is treated as a non-issue, as it is on cruises.

Speaking of mealtime, I should discuss food. I chose El Dorado Royale because they advertise their “Gourmet Inclusive Experience.” Based on reviews I read, my expectations were cautiously optimistic, and I was pleasantly surprised. On my first night, I went to the Fuentes Culinary Theatre, which is basically a cooking show. It was fun, and the food was interesting and delicious. Also, after googling the wines offered in the wine pairings, I decided to pay for the pairings. While I didn’t necessarily feel that the wines were perfect pairings for the courses, I enjoyed all of the wines offered. Another outstanding meal was a lunch at the Asian restaurant, Kampai. The Korean beef was delicious. Also, the steak dinner I had at Santa Fe was delicious! Although it can vary in quality, I always enjoy most of my cruise food as well, so in the food category, cruise vs resort are quite even.

 

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At the resort, there would be a few entertainment options each evening. There was a guitarist who sang some songs by one of the bars/restaurants, and there were different shows each night. I would say that the entertainment was good enough. On a cruise, the same is true. The shows are on a grander scale, though. On a cruise, though, you will find musical acts throughout the ship at any time during the day. At the pool, music will vary throughout the day from a DJ to different live bands, and inside the ship, there will be different small acts scattered about at different times. At the resort, you would only find recorded music at the pools during the day. I found that different pools had different music, though, and I liked the chill “house” music that was played at the pool by the Health Bar that served smoothies, salads, etc.

Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado
Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado

On a cruise, you can walk for miles going from one thing to another. If you have trouble walking, you either walk less, or you take a motorized scooter with you. You also have the option of stairs or elevator to go up or down. At a resort, the property is very spread out, and you can also do a ton of walking. However, at this resort, there were golf carts everywhere ready to shuttle people about. It is just like taking a taxi, and you tell them where you want to go. To get to some restaurants would be a 20 minute walk, or a quick ride on a golf cart. I generally prefer walking, but at the same time, when you choose to walk at the resort, you arrive sweaty. There is no escaping the heat! On a cruise, when you walk, you can escape the heat by going inside.

Golf Cart ride at all inclusive resort
Golf Cart Ride

I suppose some people like a change of scenery, and some people like to be at the same place for a while. If you are at a resort, you are just at the resort, unless you pay a lot of money to leave the resort. You have to arrange for a taxi and go through security as you come and go, and the taxis are not cheap. I visited a different resort that I chose because it was nearby, and the taxi was $20 each way! There were a lot of British people at this resort, and some told me that they were there for two weeks. If that’s what they like, that’s fine, but I was ready for something different after 3 days. Of course, on a cruise, you either have a sea day or a port day. Sea days are fun for enjoying the ship, but after one or two, you are ready for a port day, and then you end up on a different island, usually in a different country. That is fun and fascinating to me! I have heard of people who fear feeling stir-crazy or claustrophobic on a ship, but I actually felt more that way at a resort.

Finally, as far as activities, there were some good ones offered at the resort throughout the day. I did the 8am yoga class each day, and they were fantastic. Other things, such as cooking classes, water polo, bike ride, and rifle shooting were all available and free of charge. There was a weekly schedule posted, and it appeared that the schedule would remain the same for the season. On a cruise, there are also many different activities on board, such as language classes, fitness classes, dancing classes, and game shows. Most are free, but some have an extra charge. I feel like there is typically a greater variety of activities on a cruise, but I was pleasantly surprised by the variety offered at the resort.

Yoga class at El Dorado Royale
Yoga class at El Dorado Royale

To sum it all up, each type of vacation has its own set of pros and cons. For me the cruise wins, especially Norwegian Cruise Line, because of how solo travelers are treated. Maybe other resorts are geared toward the solo traveler (I need to find them), but it seems that couples are generally happier at a resort. I enjoy seeing a new place each day but having the comfort of my cruise cabin; however, I understand that some people like to stay put and do nothing but drink cocktails by the pool all day. Another important thing is that I love on a cruise is getting up to see the sunrise and then seeing it set in the evening. At this particular resort, I found that near impossible. Maybe I could have seen the sunrise on the beach, but the sunset was behind the trees. I will try other resorts in the future, but the cruise has my heart for the overall experience!

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Blue Hill at Stone Barns!

Sometimes an experience is so monumental that a picture being worth a thousand words is still inadequate. An attempt to capture the experience of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in words and pictures is truly futile, but it will help me to remember the experience and share it with those who might be interested.

Our dinner reservation was for 8:30 pm, and they suggested arriving around 30 minutes early to walk the grounds and possibly have a drink before being seated. We arrived a bit after 7:00, because we didn’t want to feel rushed. Stone Barns was the Rockefeller’s dairy farm at one point, and I believe I remember correctly that it was donated to Blue Hill for the restaurant. Further research might be needed.

Once we parked, we weren’t quite sure where to go, so we wandered around the gorgeous grounds a bit until we ran into a very helpful young man. He was so perfectly pleasant that he was almost Stepford-esque. Unfortunately, we didn’t get his name. I’ll call him Nigel. He suggested that we look at the vegetable gardens, the walk around to see the greenhouses, where we might see some sheep and chickens. Finally we should wrap back around an make our way inside to the bar. Nigel said he would meet us there.

We weren’t exactly dressed for walking around a garden, or really for walking anywhere. Bree was wearing heels, and I was wearing new shoes that were starting to give me a blister on one foot. We suffered, though, and made it look good.

There were some young tomato plants and some peas growing. I’m sure there was plenty other produce growing, but that is as far as we ventured into the vegetable garden. On our walk over to the greenhouses, we took a few photos, and we also saw the chickens. As we approached a door, which we hoped led to the right place, someone (not Nigel) offered to take a picture of us. As we entered, we were greeted by Nigel, who instructed us to make ourselves comfortable, and someone else found out our names so they knew we had arrived for our reservation.

Nigel brought us a turmeric spritzer, along with a towel for our hands. We looked at the drink menu and felt it was necessary to order one of the creative cocktails. Mine was called “Rhubarb Reviver,” and Bree’s was “Bad Reputation.” I wish I had taken a picture of the cocktail menu! We requested to go outside, and Nigel escorted us out there. That is the last we saw of him, unfortunately.

The sun was setting as we sat on the patio overlooking the farm. Over to our right, someone was grilling things. We had not yet had a bite to eat, but everything was so perfect.

Right at 8:30, someone found us and took us to our table. The dining room was beautiful. The lighting was perfect, and a long table with an amazing floral spread was in the center of the dining room. I would estimate that 50 people were there. On our table was a booklet, a napkin, a flower arrangement, and a birthday greeting for Bree. It was explained that they would start bringing us food soon and that there was no silverware on the table. Silverware would be provided when they thought we needed it.

I tried taking notes about the courses as they were brought to us, but I missed some of the details. The first course was baby vegetables. They were lightly dressed/seasoned with something, and they were delicious. We experienced the true flavor of each vegetable.

Next, a server came by with a vase holding fennel fronds and said “a flower delivery.” We each took a frond and ate it. The stalk part tasted like fennel, as one would expect, but the frond part was quite sweet.

Next, we were presented with turnips with peach something (a description I missed). The person who brought it dusted the plate with poppy seeds as if he were sprinkling glitter.

Around the same time was a plate of pickled stuff (also missed the description). By this time, I think we were beginning to be simultaneously overwhelmed, amused, comfortable, and having a great time. Each “course” was presented by a different person, who placed it in front of us, pleasantly recited the description, and walked away. It was never a stuffy or pretentious experience, and everyone was so kind and charming. If we had a question, they were happy to answer.

I almost forgot the wine. Instead of the doing the “Unconventional Pairings,” we asked if they could give us two glasses each throughout the evening that would work well with the food we would be served. We first had white and later red. For each glass, we were given a taste of two different wines to see which we prefer, then a glass was poured. I could have done that all night long, and next time I might like to have the experience of the unconventional pairings.

Moving on with dinner, we were served kohlrabi (another missed description). Around about the same time, we each got a small cone of beef tendon popcorn (kind of like pork rinds).

We were also served weeds (on the arched structure), which came with a dressing for dipping. As the weeds were presented, it was explained that many weeds that grow are actually quite tasty.

Along with the weeds, we were served duck feet. Duck feet! The closest thing I could compare them to is crispy chicken skin. We also got some grilled fava beans.

We’ve now come to a highlight of the whole meal, which was pork liver with chocolate. Although I’m pretty adventurous, liver always scares me a bit. This was heavenly!

Finally, we were given silverware, which was wrapped in a satchel. Amazing.

All evening we had observed someone walking around the dining room with what appeared to be a branch from a tree. He finally visited our table and explained that what he was carrying was knotweed, which is apparently related to rhubarb. What arrived next was a knotweed spritzer. Perhaps this was a palate cleanser, because it seemed to be a turning point in the meal.

What came next was bones, asparagus, and cheese. The asparagus was what they called asparagus tartare with strawberry compote. What made this particularly interesting is that the server showed us three different egg yolks on a tray. One was from the typical egg that is raised on the farm, the other was from chickens that had been fed red peppers (the yolks were red). I actually can’t remember what the other variety of yolks was. We were to choose a yolk, and the server would grate a bit of it on top of the asparagus dish. This is one of my few minor complaints about the whole dinner. It would have been better if we could have tasted each yolk to decide which we wanted. There wasn’t really enough grated on the dish to taste it, so the idea was really interesting but I feel that the experience could have been more fulfilling.

The bones were very interesting. A white bone and a black bone were placed on our table to explain how bones are recycled. The server explained that the black bone had been carbonated in their carbonizer. These bones are used as charcoal for the grill. They are also used in aging the cheese that we were served. They called it bone char cheese, and it was so lovely with the oat bread. It looks like brie, and that is how it tasted, except a bit better.

The other very interesting thing about the bones is that a scientist from Philadelphia is studying the difference between bones from animals raised on their farm versus bones from animals raised in less ideal conditions. He makes bone china from the bones and has found that it is significantly stronger. The cheese and bread were served on this china, and I believe other courses were as well.

Next up were two courses that really made me laugh. The first was described as “joy choy with last year’s sardines.” Joy choy is related to bok choy, and it was not explained why last year’s sardines were used instead of this year’s sardines!

Bathroom break:

Following the joy choy and old sardines was “duck from recent slaughter.” It was served on top of some stones and was absolutely divine! This was served with a bit of asparagus stew. At this point we had also moved on to our red wine selection. I wish I had made notes on the wine, but there’s only so much I can do!

The lady who seemed to be our main server appeared and instructed us to gather our silverware satchel so that we could go on a little journey with her. She put our wine glasses on a small tray and escorted us out to the dreamy “shed” we had seen earlier in the evening. On the way there, she asked where we were from. She was interested to know that I am from Atlanta and mentioned that one of the other servers is from Atlanta and talks about going to Staplehouse, where I recently had an amazing dining experience.

Back to the shed! She told us that we would be served a course there, so she left us alone for a while. Then, a few minutes later, someone else brought us “the first of the peas with pullet egg.” It was delicious, and this part of the evening was especially magical. It’s hard to imagine how they coordinate the timing of everything so that everyone gets a turn in the shed. After we finished there, she took us on a short walk to show us some things, such as the herb garden. She explained that they were waiting for the chamomile to be ready so that all of their teas could come from the garden.

Soon after we returned, someone came by and took our “flower” arrangement and replaced it with orchids because they were going to cook the other one for us. It was an arrangement of “Christmas tree” (spruce or fir?) and asparagus. They also changed our candle. Also, the person from Atlanta ca,e by for a nice little chat.

What came next was most interesting. Simply put, we were served tacos that we had to assemble; however none of the ingredients were “normal.” First of all, the meat was a fish head. Then we had a lazy Susan with pea guacamole, bacon salsa, cream, greens, and a seasoned salt. The tortilla shells were made from something interesting too, but I have forgotten. This was all explained very quickly. However, despite the weirdness and lack of instruction, it was delicious and fun. There was a surprising amount of edible flesh available on the fish head. I truly wonder who got to eat the rest of the fish, though!

Following the fish head tacos was a plate of pork. It wasn’t really explained at all, but we definitely had pork belly and tenderloin. Also, our asparagus was served on top of the Christmas tree sprigs! They had grilled it for us.

Following that was a salad of experimental greens. I believe there was also duck involved in the salad. What made this particularly interesting was the dressing. The server arrived with a small copper pot. She explained what was in it, such as balsamic vinegar, etc. She took our candle and poured the melted stuff into the pot and said, “Don’t worry. It’s not wax. It’s beef tallow.” Melted beef fat was the fat portion of the salad dressing! She then poured the dressing onto our salads. Fascinating and delicious!

Along with the salad was served bone marrow. I find bone marrow to be delectable and disturbing at the same time.

Finally, around midnight, it was time for dessert. They brought out a tiny birthday cake for Bree. I believe it was a cheesecake.

Following that was the real dessert, which was a dollop of ice cream (scooped at the table) on top of slivers of rhubarb. They also poured a small amount of a chocolate sauce on the side of the ice cream. It is barely visible. This dessert was very nice and not very sweet. The rhubarb was tangy, the ice cream was creamy and not sweet, and the chocolate provided the most sweetness.

Alongside the ice cream was a small soufflé in a glass cup. It was amazingly delicious. The soufflé and the ice cream were both made from the same cream, which I believe they described as reduced milk, or something along those lines.

Just when we thought we were finished, we were served one more course. There was honeycomb, strawberries, cherries, and rhubarb needles in a haystack. Two of the strawberries were pickled and were quite tasty. The rhubarb needles were fun, but I did not find them particularly good to eat. Along with dessert, we also ordered a green tea and a latte.

This is why I couldn’t just post photos of the meal. I think they needed explanation. Believe me, it was not the quantity of the food that made the meal amazing. It was the creativity, inventiveness, and the overall experience, along with the flavor of the food that made the meal mind-blowing. As we left the building around 1:00 am, we were encouraged to return during another season. There are so many other restaurants in the world to explore, but I truly do hope that I will dine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns again, especially since I learned just before writing this that it has been named the #12 restaurant in the world. Congratulations to Chef Dan Barber on winning Chef’s Choice Award, which was awarded by his peers.

What a night. What a place. What a meal. I’ll never forget it!

Day 10: I chose chocolate over Brahms

This will be one of my less exciting days, in case you were thinking I needed a break! I woke up way too early, with the sun, and I took my time in the morning writing the previous day’s blog and getting ready for my last day in Hamburg. When I walked out of the apartment, I thought I was going to walk in the direction of the Johannes Brahms Museum. I had learned from teaching music appreciation that he grew up in Hamburg, he was not rich, he practiced piano in piano stores, and he made money at night playing in “stimulation bars,” as the textbook put it. However, there doesn’t seem to be any big celebration of Brahms in Hamburg like you see Mozart and Haydn in Vienna, for example. I am not denying the genius of Brahms, and I love his Requiem, but he is not among the composers I absolutely love. All of that is to say that as I started walking, I didn’t feel like walking the 1.5 miles to the museum. I had looked up public transportation, and there wasn’t an easy route, so what I decided to do instead was check out the Miniatur Wunderland, which seemed to be hugely promoted, and my Airbnb host also recommended it. I saw some of it on a Rick Steves show, and it looked pretty fun–like a huge model train exhibit. 
When I arrived, I was told that there was a 90 minute wait and that I could buy a ticket for later in the day if I didn’t want to wait 90 minutes. I decided that a 3:00 ticket would be good. That would at least give me time for lunch and a nap before doing it! 

I then roamed around a bit and went in a church that I had been seeing but had not gone inside. The steeple was unusual, and the exterior looked very old; however, inside was very modern. I found out that St. Katherine’s church was built in the 14th & 15th centuries and that it had severe bomb damage in 1943-44. That explained the contrast in styles.


I then decided to walk to the Chilehaus, which is a building that I kept hearing about as somewhere that I needed to go. Apparently it is a huge landmark in Hamburg and is a great example of 1920s Brick Expressionism. I didn’t know that was a thing, and if I just looked at the building, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. If you know that it is known as something special, then you look at it differently and try to appreciate it, so if you look closely, you can see that the brick work really is unusual and beautiful.


Chilehaus is just an office building with a few shops and restaurants in the bottom. What also drew me to the Chilehaus was its proximity to the Chocoversum. This is basically a chocolate museum. I had previously looked online and knew that there was an English language tour at 1:45, so since I was there, I decided to inquire. It seemed clear that you had to take a tour (90 minutes!), so I bought a ticket for that as well!

Although I really hadn’t done much, it was about time for lunch. I wanted something inexpensive and healthy. I had seen people setting up some food trucks/booths at a plaza near the apartment, so I thought I would check that out. There was a produce stand, a place with vegeterian wraps, a place with fish sandwiches, and a few others. I decided that I didn’t want any of them. I had also noticed an Asian place with a lunch special for around 9 Euros. That seemed interesting, so that’s where I went. It was actually a buffet, but the food was delicious, particularly the Tom Kha Gai. I ate a little bit too much, but at least it was mostly vegetables.


After lunch, I had an amazing 15 minute nap and awoke feeling ready to make it to my afternoon appointments. First stop was the Chocoversum. There was a group of about 20 people there, and the rush to the start of the tour felt like entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. After scanning our ticket and going through the turnstile, we were given a small waffle. This was a small, crispy waffle–sort of like a large communion wafer. The guide told us that we would use it in the next room, and when we entered the next room, we encountered a chocolate fountain that would dispense warm milk chocolate onto our waffle. It was quite delicious and a fun way to start the tour.


We then were sent into the next room, where we were told all about harvesting cocoa beans. The guide had a real cocoa bean that was split open, and she gave a spoonful of the pulp and a seed for 3 people to taste. They said that it tasted ok but nothing like chocolate. She then explained that the pulp and seeds are then fermented for a period of time and then dried. The dried beans are then roasted. The roasted beans are cracked open, and the cacao nibs are separated from the shell. We each got a roasted bean to open up and eat the nibs. I have eaten cacao nibs before, but these were much more delicious. Maybe it’s because they were freshly roasted or because it is better quality.

We then learned the different ratios of cacao to sugar and dried milk for making dark chocolate and milk chocolate. White chocolate was also mentioned, and only cocoa butter is used in white chocolate–no cacao. 


She then showed us the three different machines that are used in making chocolate. We got to taste it at every stage, which was interesting and always tasted great.


Somewhere along the way, we went in a room and created our own chocolate bar. We chose either dark or milk chocolate, and we were given a mold filled with melted chocolate. Then we were supposed to take a small paper cup (like the ketchup cups as Wendy’s) and fill it with three different ingredients. The ingredients ranged from raisins to sprinkles–about 16 different things to choose from. I chose dark chocolate with coffee beans, hazelnut brittle, and cacao nibs, with a few sprinkles. I also sprinkled a bit of cinnamon and chili powder on top.


After we finished the entire tour, we were given our bars that had been sitting the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. We had to unmold our chocolate and put it in a cellophane bag, and then we were released. The whole thing was very informative but not exactly fun, outside of learning about and tasting chocolate. The pace was a bit slow. This isn’t necessarily a complaint–more of an observation. I think we all enjoyed the tour, and I felt like I should have a diploma or certificate of completion after it!


After Chocoversum, I walked back to the Miniatur Wunderland. With my ticket, I was able to walk right in. It was very crowded, and I made my way through as quickly as possible. It was pretty fun but not my thing, and I left after about 30 minutes, when I felt that I had seen everything. Here are a few pictures:


I wanted to go back to the Elbphilharmonie to spend a bit more time on the plaza, so I walked over there, which was not a very long walk. I found the ticket machine for getting free tickets onto the plaza, and then I made my way up the escalator. This time, without the huge crowds, I was able to see the curve in the escalator. I also read that it is the world’s first curved escalator, and the entire trip takes about 2.5 minutes. I took a few pictures and walked to some places that I hadn’t seen the previous night. I also walked into the Westin Hotel lobby, which is also part of the Elbphilharmonie. On top of the concert hall is where the hotel rooms are, so the view from them must be amazing. From what I found before my trip, the cheapest rooms are about $400/night. All I could see was the lobby, and I wasn’t able to go to the top floor without having a room key. I did find the elevator down, though, and that took me to the very bottom to the exit. 


I walked over to the grocery store near the apartment, where I bought a water, a yogurt for the morning, and a small plate from the salad bar. That was my dinner since I thought I would just relax in the apartment before going to the opera.

I walked over to the opera, which is about a 20 minute walk and is just past the busy shopping part of town. The opera house is a large, impressive, but I didn’t think it was particularly beautiful inside or out. Actually, I found what I thought was my seat, until a lady came and informed me that it was my seat. I showed her my ticket, and she pointed to where I should be. It was nearby but not quite as good of a seat since the view was slightly obstructed. When I found my seat, the hall was mostly empty. The Germans were all out at the various bars/cafes in the lobby eating and drinking, etc. They all sort of came in suddenly, just before the opera was to begin. I mainly bought this ticket because I wanted to see an opera in Germany, but also the opera was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Benjamin Britten. It is one of my favorite operas. Now, I knew that I was going to be seeing it in Germany, but I didn’t know whether the singers would be native English speakers or Germans. Also, Germans I know are generally very concerned with language and speak English as well as any American. The opera begins with a children’s chorus, and I couldn’t understand a single word. This concerned me a bit, but I thought that maybe the children were local and had not been coached in English diction. Then Puck came out, and I could understand his English a bit better, but not every word. When some of the singers sang, I truly could not tell what language they were singing. This made the opera very boring and frustrating, and with the typically European lack of ventilation (warm & stuffy), I had a very difficult time staying awake. Sometime during the second scene or second act (not sure which), I woke up a bit, but I was still bored. Although the finale is my favorite part of the whole opera, I left at intermission. I could not imagine sitting through another hour being frustrated that they didn’t take greater care at singing well in English. I don’t think I’m wrong about this, but I think Americans (and other English speakers) go to great lengths to sound as native as possible when singing in other languages. I’m not sure what happened here, but they definitely needed more work on their English.


I strolled through town. It was about 10:00, so the sun was nearly set. Most businesses were closed, other than restaurants, and the buildings were becoming illuminated for the night. It was lovely. What I really wanted was a scoop of ice cream, though. I actually could not find an ice cream stand open anywhere between the opera house and the apartment. I even stopped in front of the Apple Store for wifi and googled ice cream, and I found that all of the shops were closing at 10. I made my way back to the area near the apartment, where everything was also closed, and I decided to call it a night. I had a few pieces of chocolate to satiate my slight hunger and somewhat satisfy my cravings. I did some research for Amsterdam before going to sleep, including looking at the menu for the restaurant where I have a reservation for Saturday night. It is a Michelin rated restaurant where everything is €15 or less, so before I left home, I decided that I needed to try it. We’ll see what tomorrow holds…..

Day 9: Hamburg & Elbphilharmonie Ticket!

The view directly off my balcony.

When the sun rises around 5 am, it’s hard for me to sleep much longer. When it sets around 10 pm, it’s hard to go to bed around that time. I guess if I lived here, I would have really good blackout curtains! I went up to the buffet to get some of the muesli and fruit for breakfast again and took it to my room to eat leisurely and enjoy the room as long as possible. I did a short run on the treadmill  in the gym also, and got myself ready to meet Otto on deck 7 for priority disembarkation. When I was there around 9:15, he was there directing a small group of people to the exit. The priority part of this was the fact that we had a shorter distance to walk, and he shook our hands as he said goodbye to us. It was a nice touch, and it might be hard to go back to being a normal second class citizen on my next cruise!

There was a very short line for stamping passports, and then I was in Hamburg! Our port was by a fish market, which also had a number of shops and restaurants. Fortunately, although nothing was open, I was able to go in the market area and get some wifi to update my map and get directions to my Airbnb. It was about 2.5 mi away, and I had 2 hours to kill until I could get into the apartment where I was staying in the Hafen-City part of town. This walk basically took me from one end of town to the other, along the Elb River. Here are a few of the sights along the way:

My first view of the Elbphilharmonie
Alexa, play that song with the words “boy come back soon”
Fancy hotel up on a hill
The Finnish Church
The Norwegian Church, next door to the Finnish one…

HafenCity, where I was staying is sort of the place to be right now. I’d say it’s like living along the Beltline in Atlanta. It is a redevelopment of an old industrial part of town. http://www.hafencity.com/en/overview/the-hafencity-project.html

As I approached HafenCity, it looked like I expected. Since it is a revitalization of old warehouses on the water, it’s kind of like a newer version of Venice. The buildings are right on the water and connected by a bunch of bridges. When I got very close to the Airbnb, I still had about 30 minutes to kill, so I wandered into a grocery store. I always love a grocery store in another country! I just needed a liter of water, but here are some other fun things I saw:

I just translated this, and “Katzenzungen” means cat tongues?!?!

Yvi, my Airbnb host, left very detailed instructions for how to let the key to her apartment. She left a lockbox on her Volkswagen, which was parked right outside her building. I got it very easily and made my way inside, and I believe I passed the previous guests as they were exiting the building. Perfect timing! As I rested a bit and posted one of my blog posts, it got very dark outside and began to pour. Fortunately, I noticed that Yvi had left an umbrella with a note saying that you’re welcome to use it, and if you want to keep it, you can leave 10 Euros. The rain seemed to be a passing thunderstorm, so I took the umbrella and went out for lunch. When in Deutschland, you go to a Biergarten, right? There was one nearby with good ratings, so I walked in that direction.

Walking with the umbrella
 

When I arrived at around 12:15, I was the only person in there, but a very nice lady helped me it out. It was good that I was the first customer, because what to do was a bit confusing. First, she offered me either kleines oder grosses bierchen, and I chose kleines (small). I then looked at the menu, and she explained that I needed to go to the counter with her to choose what I wanted. Certain items would be weighed (meat), and others were served by the serving size (vegetables). I was really trying to have a light lunch, and I think I did the best I could in this location. The things I didn’t have include, meatloaf, pork belly, and roast pork. 

This really is small…probably about 6 oz
Sausage with curry sauce
Sauerkraut, which had to be ordered from the kitchen. It’s warm

By the time I left, quite a few more people were there, and the poor server was the only person working. She was pretty stressed trying to fill orders and take care of new people who were coming in. To add to the stress, they didn’t accept credit cards under a certain amount, and my lunch was way under that amount (around 9 Euros). Since I didn’t have any cash yet, she took my card.

I then decided to venture into the historic part of town and possibly do a walk that was suggested by the Google Trips app. Like TripAdvisor, you can download the information for a city ahead of time and then use it without internet connection.The walk suggested starting at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (art museum), so I walked through town to get there. Along the way, I stopped in a church and at the Rathaus (city hall, I think), which is a beautiful building and sort of sits on the main town square.

Inside the Rathaus.

I eventually made it to the Kunsthalle, which was an enormous building, but I forgot to take a picture of it. I did take a picture of some beautiful roses growing on it, though. I also took a picture of the main train station (Hauptbanhof). 

Here are a few things inside the museum:

The pipe is attached to a gutter, so rain water slowly drips to form a stalagmite. They plan to have this installation for exactly 500 years–from 1996-2496!

It was about 4:00, and I wanted to go back to the apartment since it was now my actual check-in time. I walked back by that church and took a picture of the door, a model of the church, and a painting that I loved in an art gallery:

I took a quick nap and did some research on what to do for dinner. I seriously wanted a light dinner and didn’t want to spend much. money. I had noticed a placed called Dean & David Fresh To Eat, so that is where I decided to go. It’s a place that I assume is a chain but serves salads, soups, sandwiches, etc. I ordered a shrimp & mango salad and sat in the window to eat it. As I was sitting there, it began to pour again. Fortunately, I found some wifi, and I. looked up what concerts were happening at the Elbphilharmonie. I noticed that they were doing something called “Konzerte für Hamburg” at 7:30 and 8:30. I decided that I would try and get a ticket for the second concert. The rain stopped, and I figured ou that I could get to the hall in about 18 minutes by public transportation. I had to figure out a new system, in another language, quickly, but I did it. First, I went to the wrong platform and missed one train, but I corrected that easily and got on the right train. It was very clean, and the ride was very smooth. As we approached the hall, I could tell that other people on the train were also going there. There was a steady stream of people coming from the hall, so I made my way upstream to the hall. I found the box office and saw a short line. Although no one was speaking English, I figured out that it was a line for people hoping to get tickets for (all concerts are sold out for a long time). We were told that we had to wait about 20 minutes, and right at 8:00 the agent started selling tickets to lucky customers. When she sold a ticket to the person just before me, she said “es tut mir leid…” meaning that she was sorry but that was the last ticket. At that exact moment, a young guy in a suit showed up with a ticket in his hand and said that he was giving away a ticket. This had happened once before, and I missed that opportunity since I didn’t immediately understand the German. This time, I didn’t waste any time, and I took it!! I couldn’t believe it! He gave me the ticket for free. These concerts were not very expensive to begin with, as the highest price was 18 Euros, but it was still like being given the golden ticket!

Everyone scans their tickets to go through a turnstile and access the escalator. The escalator itself was an experience. Not only was it beautiful, but it was a very long ride, and it didn’t go straight up. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was a curve in it, as if it was going over a hill. This might be the best selfie/photobomb ever:

Once at the top, you had to show your ticket again and were directed to the correct entrance. I was asked whether I wanted to take stairs or elevator, and I said I would take the stairs. There were about a million of them, which I didn’t realize. Oh well, I needed to walk off those potatoes! I finally got to my seat, which was the most comfortable concert seat I had ever sat in, by the way. The hall is so large but so intimate. I felt like I had the best seat in the house, and I could really feel that the architecture had a very comforting affect. Although I had been a bit stressed about getting a ticket, then excited about getting one, then rushed up a million stairs to my seat, I was quickly relaxed. 


The orchestra came out, tuned, and the concert began. The first piece was a trumpet concerto by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (new to me). The title was “Nobody knows de trouble I see..” I must admit that I am rarely excited about orchestral music, but this piece was amazing. It engaged me from the beginning. It had elements of jazz and had moments that were very dissonant and disjunct. The soloist was fantastic too. The piece was about 15 minutes long, then the conductor came back out and made a brief explanation of “PIctures at an Exhibition,” which was the other piece to be played. Again, wasn’t too excited about hearing it. I’ve heard it before. I like the music but never found it to be all that satisfying. Well….in this hall, with this orchestra, conductor, and audience, it was a different experience. Other than the fact that every orchestra member was clearly engaged fully, and the conductor was conducting beautifully, giving and taking control (never too showy), one thing that really stood out to me was the dynamics. The soft moments were so soft and beautiful, and the loud moments were very rich and full but never overpowering. The end of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the final movement, was so powerful. It gave me big chills, which rarely happens anymore. I was not alone. The entire audience loved it. There was not a cheap standing ovation like we see at home, but there was very enthusiastic applause for a long time, and it kept going until it was clear that there would be an encore. I think the conductor said that it had to be short so that we could get out of the hall, but they were going to play something from “Lohengrin.” It was also fantastic, and then it was over. To make it even better, this programming was fantastic. There was a familiar crowd-pleaser with “Pictures at an Exhibition” and something unfamiliar and a bit more challenging with the trumpet concerto. Also it was only an hour long, which is my type of concert. Leave the people wanting more–not wishing it would end!

There were many people taking photos and even discreetly taking video, so I made a short video of the end of “Great Gate of Kiev.”​

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​Here are a few more photos as I was leaving. The sunset was AMAZING!!


My plan was to find an ice cream and call it a night. However, there was a restaurant and brewery in the hall. I decided to look in, and I noticed that people were having flights of beer, so I thought I would try one. The server was pretty slow coming, so I asked the people next to me (communal table) how it worked. They then helped get the attention of the server, and I ordered my tasting. Every one was really quite nice. I also had a very nice conversation with the man next to me as well as his daughter’s boyfriend, who was visiting from Munich. A nice lady also sat next to me, along with her husband and another friend. We also had a nice conversation, but they left pretty soon. After we had all paid, the guys next to me asked if I’d like to walk around the building again. Mark, the older man, gave me his card and said that I should get in touch so that the next time in German we can meet again. My impression is that Germans are very friendly but keep their distance, so I feel that it is an honor to have made friends with these people. My apartment was a pretty short walk from where we parted ways, and when I got home, I had a nice conversation with Yvi, who I learned had just done a big road trip from Washington, DC to Miami, including Savannah & Charleston. She said that her favorite place was Siesta Key in Florida, which I have never heard of. Another place to add to the the list! I finally went to bed at around 12:30!