Pisa

While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.

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Left a bit…now up a bit…

Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?

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The sun sets over the Baptistery

Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.

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One of Pisa’s many belltowers

But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).

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View from the roof terrace of the Hotel Duomo

With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.

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Miami Vice

We ended a recent epic East-coast jaunt in Miami, because why not? It was the beginning of December and the draw of somewhere with a temperature persistently over 25 degrees won over damp and chilly north London without there being much of a contest.

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Miami, like much of the US cities we’ve visited, is full of contrasts. Known for being an upmarket retirement hot spot populated by affluent Betty White lookalikes, it is also home to devastatingly beautiful, hip young things baring their tanned torsos as they effortlessly whack volleyballs at one another and rollerblade along the boardwalks. Very much a southern city, at least geographically (after all, it’s home to the most southern spot on mainland USA) it nonetheless lacks much of the conservative overtones of cities in neighbouring states. Famous for its thriving gay scene and awash with unabashed hedonism, “reactionary” isn’t a word you’d use about Miami.

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Some might argue otherwise, but Miami Beach is really the place to go, unless you have some sort of phobia of Art Deco architecture, in which case I’d recommend you try a different city altogether. The downtown part of the city is great – buzzing and impressive – but it’s sticky-hot and there arguably isn’t a lot to separate it from many other US cities. Miami Beach, on the other hand, feels like a film set: miles and miles of Art Deco brilliance, miles of fine, sandy beaches and a deluge of plush hotels and chic dining spots. I clogged up my phone memory in the first half hour there, my husband patiently suggesting to me that I might not want to take pictures of every building.

The drawback of all of this is that it comes at a price, and after a week ambling around the backwaters of Virginia this was a bit of a shock. We checked into a bland chain hotel conspicuous by its modern, faceless facade in a row of otherwise elegant perfection, and vowed to spend as little time there as possible. Instead we went to the nearby Fontainbleu for dinner – twice – and pretended we were actually staying there, and in the daytime sashayed along the boardwalk, taking in the elaborately-decorated beach huts and dazzling blue sea and luxuriating in the late Autumn heat.

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The bar at the Fontainbleu

Miami is friendly, too. Everyone we met had a certain southern easiness, a natural friendliness that made each encounter a snapshot of joy, and all without the underlying tensions of the other states that we’d visited, still very much, at this time, in the shadow of the Charlottesville protests and the dangerously simmering racism that had bubbled to the surface there. Florida, physically on a limb as well as, perhaps, metaphorically, was safely removed enough from all this, a microcosm of charm and comfort and self-assuredness. Yes, of course, there are pockets of the city that are unsafe; there are areas the hotel would earnestly warn you against visiting; there is petty crime, as there is in any other major city, both in the US and elsewhere. But there is Key West a short drive away; there are the Everglades in the other direction, with their airboat tours and guides delighting the thrill-seekers daily in their dalliances with the local reptilian inhabitants, rousing huge, prehistoric creatures from their natural, murky habitats for the purposes of a decent selfie to show the folks back home.

Then there is cutting-edge street art to go with street food of such quality that in London it would be sold for three times the price by a chap with a beard out of an old, brightly-painted shipping container in Shoreditch – Cuban food, Colombian food, prawns so implausibly big you fear they might be the result of some catastrophic scientific experiment. There are museums, galleries, walks and wildlife – Miami is the only place I’ve been where I have looked down to find an iguana more than a foot long walking alongside me, who, when I paused, paused too, and looked up at me as if to say, “yes? Can I help you?”

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My iguana – I called him Ian

I have been to a lot of places in the US, from the blizzard-swept north to the deep south, I’ve experienced the unforgiving buzz of New York, the intellectual babble of Boston and the lazy hum of Savannah. But the confident, chic, contradictory fizzle of Miami?

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Yes. It did it for me this time, and I’m certain it would do it for me again and again.

 

 

 

 

Pining for the Fjords

I didn’t go all the way to Bergen just so I could update my Facebook status to “pining for the fjords”. OK, a bit. I mean, it was an added bonus. But I’d also never been to Norway, despite its proximity, plus the flights were cheap. So I headed off for a weekend in Bergen.

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We stood out in Bergen. Unlike much of Eastern Europe, where their impression of the Typical Brit probably comes from the stag weekender, stumbling around the main square at 2am in a “Ladz On Tour” t-shirt with “Mental Dave” on the back, bursting into random snippets of 80s disco classics at an impressive volume while simultaneously wondering where his trousers have got to, the average Bergen resident probably thinks all Brits are over 65, shop in John Lewis and have a penchant for waterways. Every British couple (and they were all couples) were well into retirement and had either just returned from a cruise or were about to go on one, and looked at us with a mixture of pity and confusion when we said we were just there for a weekend jaunt.

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Pining for the fjords?

Yet Bergen is worth a weekend jaunt. In fact, you wouldn’t want to stay very much longer, unless your premium bonds had just come up trumps for you or you were willing to remortgage your house. A “quick drink” before dinner came to £10 each for just less than a pint (though admittedly a nice pint), and a bottle of wine in a restaurant was considered at the lower end of the expenditure scale at a mere £59. Our livers had an even more successful holiday than we did.

You can still do the fjords on a day or half day cruise, with the originally-named Fjord Cruises nipping you up and down on a catamaran and back in time for lovely £14 gin and tonic. And the fjords are glorious – majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring and all those other words you’d choose to describe a snow-capped, green natural phenomenon. Oh, and bloody cold in March – take a coat. The weather was stunning when we were there, pootling from Bergen to Mostraumen and back in glorious sunshine.

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A lot of the Fjorders probably miss Bergen itself, viewing it purely as a drop-off point, but this is a mistake. There are loads of things to do, from the Hanseatic Wharf (a world heritage site) to the funicular up to the top of the city’s very own mountain, with its stunning views and snowy walks and general loveliness, alongside the usual art galleries (amongst other things the pieces of Munch they presumably didn’t want in Oslo) and museums.

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The port, photographed from Mount Floyen

Less than two hours away by the predictably efficient Norwegian Air, this was a wonderful break. And if you’re still not convinced, well, in what other country could you buy a chocolate bar called Plopp?

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Delve into the District

I have developed a bit of an obsession with Washington, D.C. OK, actually that’s not quite true. What I actually have is a HUGE obsession with the award-winning and utterly fabulous TV show The West Wing, and consequently when I’m in D.C. I live in secret hope that I’m going to bump into Bradley Whitford jogging along the Potomac. But, aside from this, D.C. is a great city to visit, and I could go back again and again and still not grow tired of it. Having been once on business and once on pleasure it’s now very near the top of my list, and has the rare distinction of being a city in which both my husband and I enjoyed staying.

I like D.C. for many of the same reasons I like Canberra. It’s not, comparatively, a huge city (i.e. it’s not New York.) There is an element to which it’s a planned city rather than one that’s grown organically, and as a result you have wide streets and plenty of green. As the national capital it has, like Canberra, the national museums and monuments, and as the home of the political elite it’s over-provided with excellent restaurants and drinking spots.

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Unlike other major American cities such as New York it’s also remarkably friendly. New York, for me, ranks alongside London and Hong Kong (you might disagree) where the locals are always in a hurry and are somewhat resentful of any idiot in their city that doesn’t know where they’re going and has the audacity to slow down or come to a halt to look at a map or show any sort of weakness at all – I consider myself a very friendly person, yet I have heard myself tut loudly behind the person on the London tube who waits until they are standing by the exit gates to then dig around and find their Oyster card. D.C. lies on the cusp between the north and the south. It incorporates southern friendliness with east coast confidence and sophistication. By the time we got off the metro on the day we arrived in the city we had been adopted by not one but two solicitous locals keen to ensure we made it safely to our destination, while telling us everything about themselves (the one who had adopted me was from St Louis and had visited London ten years ago for a period of study abroad, the one who had adopted my classically British, reserved husband probably had a less interactive experience and so sadly I know nothing about him). While they argued with one another about which crossing we should use we skulked off with Googlemaps and found our own way.

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The Lincoln Memorial

There is of course a plethora of hotels ranging from the positively primitive to the gloriously opulent. We chose the Watergate Hotel, wonderful for Georgetown and convenient for all the major sites, which are walkable if you’re keen. It overlooks the Potomac, with Arlington Cemetery on the opposite side, and, of course, you have the added joy of being able to tell your friends you stayed at the Watergate. It remains one of the smartest and friendliest hotels I’ve stayed at, with a huge pool and fitness centre, rooftop bar and fabulous rooms, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Sunset from our room in the Watergate Hotel

There is more to do in D.C. than one can write in a blog post. In two trips we have done just a fraction, and I am planning a third trip as soon as I can cobble the money together. I’m yet to visit Newseum or the Library of Congress, which both appear in many “top 10s” of the city. I would however recommend the following:

The National Museum of American History

This is the museum that tells you how the Second World War was a war between the US and Evil that the US ultimately won. There was so little mention of the UK that it caused me to raise my eyebrows. However, it’s an excellent introduction into US history from the country that unashamedly considers itself to be the best in the world.

 

The National Mall

Photo opportunities abound, but you have to admit that the Americans are very good at monuments. Be warned – it’s a far longer walk than it looks on the map. However it’s really worth it for those sites you’ve seen so often on TV.

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National Zoo

Having been to New York and found all the museums there eye-wateringly expensive it seemed bizarre yet delightful that everything in Washington, the zoo included, seemed to be free. You can see pandas here. Go on, go and see the pandas.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Washington is a city of memorials and it’s impossible to pick the best one. However, I think if I had to then it would be this one. The controversy of the Vietnam War still hasn’t faded all these years later, and many soldiers who came back found themselves the target of abuse and even hatred. The memorial, winner of a national competition that was opposed by many at the time for what was considered its brutal lack of ornamentation, brings home with its painful simplicity the sheer scale of the toll on American lives – more than 58,000 young Americans lost to a war that many now agree was at best futile, and at worst a national shame.

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The scale of war in the simplest of formats

Arlington National Cemetery

Technically in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac, this continues to remind us just how well the US does memorials. I’ve blogged about this in another post, but want to stress again how glad I was to have visited.

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The permanently-guarded tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The National Cathedral

Again, any West Wing fan will tell you, whether you care to listen or not, of the importance of this building in that show, and the episode Two Cathedrals rightly won multiple awards. But it’s also a stunning building, and one that many tourists don’t visit on account of its being slightly outside the city centre. We were lucky enough to go there after hours with friends who were bell-ringers there and watched the sun setting from its bell tower. I’d highly recommend a visit – it’s grand, elegant and everything a great cathedral should be, separation of church and state aside!

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The National Cathedral at night, flanked by cherry blossom

So, if you’re looking for a long weekend somewhere, or a week somewhere, I cannot recommend D.C. enough.

And if you’re looking to get into West Wing, it’s better late than never! Hey, why not combine the two? My recommendation for some great images of Washington, and possibly the finest episode they ever made (it rightly won several awards) see In Excelsis Deo.

Everyone Has The Right To Idle

Of all the things we saw in Vilnius – the remaining Baltic capital that was still on my list – this stood out the most. In the midst of yet another beautiful city with a tumultuous, often somber history stands the self-proclaimed Republic of Uzupis, on the banks of the river Vilnia River. It’s a community of artists and Bohemians – the type who in Britain would by now have opened their own backyard gin distillery and would be stroking their goatee beards and soaking their cashew nuts ready for the next vegan Macaroni “cheese” whilst simultaneously trying to save the whales – and they have transformed what used to be a run-down, no-go area into a little corner of quirky solace from an increasingly unstable and negative world. Their constitution – translated into over 20 languages on a series of mirrors along it’s outer wall, is one of the most joyous, uplifting things I have ever read.

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Everyone should have the right, as they would say, to read this every day, and realise, maybe, that life has the potential to be bright after all, if only we choose to make that happen.

To the Republic of Uzupis: I hope you last forever.

All 28

It occurred to me the other day, while plotting a holiday in Croatia, that I have travelled, over the years, to almost every EU country. And then this became a challenge: could I to all of them before we leave?

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Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon

I make no secret of the fact that I am very sad that we are leaving the EU. I am sad not because of the economic or geopolitical arguments (though those I have heard only serve to strengthen my resolve on my position) but simply because I don’t understand, in an age where the word is becoming smaller and more accessible, a country would choose to cast itself adrift from its neighbours. It isn’t that I don’t recognise that we can now “make our own laws” or “take back control” (whatever that means), it’s that I don’t see why we would want to. Many of the aims of an organisation such as the EU – for all its flaws (and of course there are many) – are positive ones: unity, solidarity, and ensuring that the turmoil of the 20th century is never repeated. What the UK is saying is “we can do better.” But what is “better”? And what a shame, if it turns out to be true, that we care only for ourselves and not for those around us.

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Duomo, Milan

I have always felt far more at home in much of Europe than I have in the USA, a country that we would most likely seek to emulate in the future. Though we do not share a common language with the rest of Europe, our histories are so intertwined – the good and the bad; our interests and cultures similar. And while I realise that it’s likely we will be able to travel there after much as before (with those blue passports we are so proud of – you know, the ones imposed upon us by the League of Nations in the 20s and that the EU never actually “forced” us to give up) somehow it just isn’t quite the same.

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Coastal path, Brittany

Anyway, I have so far travelled to Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden…and I live, increasingly reluctantly, in the UK.

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Grand Place, Brussels

Cruising Into Middle Age

I’d never been on a cruise before. Having browsed quite a few online I never seemed to fit the demographic. They seemed to all be geared towards either wealthy retirees, bright young things that wanted to drink themselves into oblivion against a Mama Mia backdrop while looking beautiful, and families with young children (the very idea of a Disney cruise is the stuff of nightmares – adrift with huge, lumbering, fully-dressed rodents from whom you cannot escape.) Then we were over in the US so thought we could tag a short cruise onto the end of our trip, just to see if we liked it. And we did.

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The pool deck

Cruises are a contradiction, managing to be simultaneously tacky and classy while seamlessly linking the two. We’d booked a 4-day cruise to the Bahamas that included food and drink, and when we arrived we momentarily thought this was a mistake. We went straight up to the pool deck, mainly because the idea of a swimming pool on a boat was a source of great excitement to me, only to find this was also the location of the 24-hour buffet. It was packed with hoards of stampeding, salivating, sweating passengers trying to get their money’s worth, falling over each other for just one more chicken leg or one more bread roll. We saw one guy come out with three desserts on a plate and an ice cream cone in his hand, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t with anyone. Then, after a shaky start and a wander up and down nine decks, we found our spiritual home in the Captain Cook, or what my husband accurately referred to as “the old men’s bar”. The CC was the home of Barry the Piano Man and a thrice-daily bar trivia. Suddenly, cruising was for me after all.

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We find our spiritual home: a deserted library

So what are the up and down sides of cruising? The up sides are being able to see several places in a very short time without having to plan your own travel between them. Island hopping, or, on longer cruises, country hopping, can be a little complicated if you have to negotiate airports, and even train travel, at which we are adept, requires forward planning. Travelling between islands at night simply required being on board at the specified time, then watching the shore drift gradually further away before saying, “oh look, it’s time for Tunes with Barry in the Captain Cook”. The food was another upside – this boat had SIX restaurants, some free and others that involved paying a supplement, and absolutely everything we ate was amazing (though we studiously avoided the aforementioned buffet.) The other upside, or downside, depending on how you look at it, are the passengers. We encountered several types of passenger on the cruise.

  1. The retirees (see paragraph 1). We quickly made friends with a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, who turned out to be from Northern Ireland. We met when they came second in the bar trivia, and we won, leading to a conversation of mutual amazement at the lack of knowledge displayed by some of…
  2. …The Americans. As the ship left from Miami it was largely populated with Americans, a significant proportion of whom looked and sounded like the Golden Girls. There was a table of them next to us at the bar trivia, a group who looked as though they had just stepped off a 1980s golf course, who nursed pretty cocktails with little paper umbrellas and squabbled over the quiz questions. “What is the capital of Canada?” came the question. “No, no, it’s NOT Toronto,” the one I’m going to call Betty White hissed urgently “it’s somewhere you really wouldn’t expect.” They ended up putting Detroit, which, to be fair, is one of the last places you’d expect, on account of being in Michigan.
  3. The Hardworking Professional Men: this group, also Americans, seem to have mistaken a cruise ship for a conference suite in a Sheraton outside Dallas, or a pale imitation of the weekend trip they all intended to have in Deliverance. Gloriously unfettered by womenfolk, they hire out bars on the evening for private functions whose content will remain forever secret, engage in a lot of back-slapping and general camaraderie, and drink a lot. They can often be found in the gym (weights area) or on the running deck, at least just for long enough to make sure they’re seen there.
  4. The seasoned cruiser. We came across a few people for whom this was a familiar experience, so the point that they seemed so bored you wondered why they didn’t just take up something new, like bungee jumping. One such couple sat at the table next to us at dinner and invited themselves into the conversation of a neighbouring honeymoon couple with that ominous phrase “I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t help overhearing…” He proceeded to educate the couple as to how to make the most of a cruise. “I NEVER go on organised trips,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, as though rebuking the trips in person. “No, no, no. You don’t see anything that way. Goodness, no. What I do is I just go to the shore and I go up to a local and I say “Take me you where YOU go at the weekend.”” He is of course assuming that everyone else around the world spends their free time doing exciting, exotic things, whereas in reality I wonder how many cruises he’s spent in IKEA, or putting up shelves?
  5. The Once In A Lifetimers: we met a few of these, including the honeymoon and anniversary couples. These are generally well-rounded people, as baffled by the frenzy in the buffet and as unimpressed by the increasingly-reddening sunseekers who remained stretched out on the pool deck even when there was a new island to explore as we were. Like us, these were often “give it a go” cruisers, who leapt at every tour and tried to attend every on-board event, except the towel folding. (Yes. Towel folding. Twice a day. Every day.) The Once In A Lifetimers seemed a little more worldly than some of the other groups, and looked as disbelieving as us when, at the trivia, on being told Hercule Poirot was Belgian, one of the older Americans shook her head incredulously and uttered, “Well I ain’t never heard of that.”
  6. The Singleton: It beats me why you would come on a cruise to meet the love of your life, but people must do, as there were several events each day for “single cruisers” that were apparently well-attended, including a bridge night and a karaoke night, suggesting an optimistically broad target audience. No further comment can be made, on account of our not being single and therefore not attending.
  7. The Get-Your-Money’s-Worth – see earlier paragraphs.
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Nassau

Another benefit is the excursions, or rather the fact you can choose to go on them if you want, or ignore them if you don’t. Reluctant to put ourselves in the hands of some unfortunate local who was hoping to use his Saturday getting his dry cleaning done before being foiled by some idiot wanting to know what he did at the weekend, we joined one in Nassau, which was probably the best way to see as much as possible in a small space of term – conversely the down side of a cruise is that, just when you’re starting to like a place, it’s time to move on.

 

 

One of my concerns about cruising was that it did seem awfully expensive, but on reflection this wasn’t the case. We had a double room with a window, access to a pool, gym, multiple bars and restaurants and all the food and drink we could consume, plus all our travel from Miami to three different islands and back was included, and we didn’t have to pay extortionate sums for a night in a Bahamas resort hotel that could just as easily have been in Dubai anyway. We also saw a couple of surprisingly good shows, at no extra cost. And when you think of it like that, it’s really not too bad.

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Towel folding. And I know. Those eyes terrify me too.

So, yes, we’d definitely do it again, for longer, if we have time. But still not a Disney cruise. Floating in the middle of the ocean with a six foot duck in questionable clothing is still a step too far for me.