Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cruisin' Our Way Into 2016.

Just like with camping, cruising is an activity that everyone we know has done at least once. So when a friend of ours planned for a group family cruise trip, it was the chance to check another item off our bucket-list. Having company is great on cruises and there were three of us families who went along. We did the trip last December and I had the post in the drafts for a while. Posting this now before it gets more than a year old.

The lack of a friend for our 15 year old put a slight damper on the planning but once on the ship, he managed with on-board movies and on-shore activities. Good food everyday cannot really tie anyone down for long. We went on the Disney cruise line and of course no one can beat the Disney way of doing things! It was a four night trip with two days on port at Key West and Castaway Cay and one day at sea. The efficiency with which Disney runs the operation in all its aspects without losing any of the friendliness is just unbelievable. Every single employee was courteous, friendly and a pleasure to deal with. Kids or not, Disney is the way to cruise. Our departure was from Port of Miami, so we flew to Miami from San Francisco a day earlier. Stayed at a hotel room with a panoramic view of the Biscayne Bay. There were scattered showers on arrival and so we room serviced dinner and breakfast and thus had a good segue into our cruising days.

Biscayne Bay with its busy causeways and the port in the distance with anchored cruise ships offered a dynamic view at all times. This and the room-service made up for our not being able to visit the bustling Miami downtown that day. Who is going to fly to Miami from Cali again just to visit the downtown? Exactly! Our friends being more adventurous, braved the damp weather and were rewarded with the colorful night lights of South Beach.On D-Day we reached the port at our assigned check-in time and were ushered in by a friendly porter who took care of all our luggage. Our ship was the aptly named Disney Magic which can carry about 2700 guests and about a 1000 employees. A ratio of 3:1 is a sign of good things. Ate the buffet lunch that was waiting for us at the Cabanas and found our room which had a porthole to see outside.

With two bunk beds for kids and ample space for luggage, the room was almost as big as the hotel room we had stayed in. Molu went off with friends to explore the ship while we stayed in the room to rest (Dad), watch TV(son) and unpack our stuff (me) once the luggages were delivered. There was a mandatory evacuation drill after which we were free to relax as we please. The free Disney Navigator app was useful from day 1 and helped to chat/text with all the people in our group and to plan activities for each day including the dinner menu! After a very energetic deck party to celebrate leaving port at 5PM, we set out to watch Michael Barron's magic show. It was geared towards kids and they enjoyed it. The Walt Disney Theatre is as big as a real theatre with comfortable seating. Then we all changed for dinner  which had a pirate theme. Every evening there was a towel animal and chocolates waiting for us on the bed when we got back from the evening shows.

First night's dinner was at Animator's Palate and the the beginning of the 4-5 course dinners we enjoyed during the cruise. I had smoked salmon tarter for appetizer, butternut squash soup and lemon-thyme chicken for main course.  The chicken was perfectly herbed and moist and tender. Mango mousse for dessert was not too shabby either. Afterwards H and I went to checkout the pirate party and fireworks on deck. Our daughter was mostly with her two other friends doing their own things. The three of us went and watched newly released Disney's blockbuster Star-Wars - The Force Awakens. My son had watched it 2 days before at a friend's birthday party but that was no deterrent. I couldn't help squealing with delight when Han Solo and R2-D2 made their appearance. Little BB-8 is a cute addition.

Plonked down to a blissful sleep after the movie. Woke up a little late for the port adventures day at Key West. The boat had anchored at port by 8AM. The best part always was to wake the kids up and asking them to go get breakfast from one of the many places offering good food. There was always food being served from 11AM so there was no missing food in case one missed the regular serving hours. This was a popular feature with the moms since we didn't have to worry about what to prepare or where to go when the next eating time rolled around.
Once out of the ship, we were all taken in a trolley to Mallory Square in downtown. From there we took a trolley tour of Key West. Then came the unexpected surprise and my personal highlight of the cruise. It turns out Key West was also home to none other than Ernest Hemingway, America's cherished writer. I had read 'Hemingway's Boat' few years back and the memory was still fresh. Key West is a small island off of Florida coast and the ambience is not that different from the port town of our own Kochi. Yes, even down to the hot and humid climate, banana plants, and coconut trees galore. The three of us got off at the 5th stop next to the writer's house while molu opted to stay with the rest of our group and continue with the tour.

Our trolley driver had told us that Key West is the only stretch of land in the US where coconut trees can grow with the very tropical climate. When we found a street vendor selling coconut water, we couldn't resist getting us some of it, the same as if we were in Kochi. Hemingway's house is meticulously maintained and is a pleasure to walk through with his pictures, books and movie banners for his books adorning the walls left and right.

The green green tropical garden only helped to remind more of green and tropical Kerala. One thing I had not known was that the Hemingways had cats who still live in the property. They were not neutered ad there are now about 54 cats longing and playing around the house and the grounds! In fact they are the real owners and have unrestricted access everywhere including the cash register counter. This gave us some solace from the missing of our own Zeus whom we had left at home.

Molu missed meeting the cats but once we all got together there was not enough time to go back there again. She was happy to see all the pictures we took of the felines. After the writer's house we got on another trolley to complete the tour and found the southern most point of US soil from which Cuba is only 90 miles away. This explains the heavy presence of cubans on this island and Miami. Molu and company made a real stop there and took some good pictures. We all walked around Mallory Square for a short time and then got on the trolley back to the ship to catch some late lunch. Rested a while in the room and watched the evening Disney musical 'Twice Charmed' which has a twist on the familiar Cinderella story. Dinner this day was at Carioca's  with a latin american themed fair. Enjoyed my sea bass along with a delicious cuban salad and the rest of it. And to end it all, a coconut tres leches cake, yum! Since the next day was at sea with no port activities to get up for, we walked around a bit. It was also Christmas Eve. Attending the quick and energetic salsa dance class was fun with an unexpected visit from the Donald to mix things up. We always stopped at the Promenade where a lovely couple played music all evening. Molu and friends spent quite a lot of time there both singing and listening. The couple were engaged and their love for each other made it all the more sweet to listen and watch. The girl was from Columbia and the guy was from Wales and here they were, engaged to be married and singing in a ship full of people from everywhere! Although tired, the four of us picked ourselves up and went for the midnight mass offered at Walt Disney Theater. It was a great to attend the mass on a gently rolling ship with people from all over the world including employees praying together . This mass made us happy and peaceful.

We all enjoyed the christmas celebrations and character meet ups and the extra cheer on-board on Christmas day which was spent at sea on the ship. While enjoying breakfast, lunch and other snacks with kids swimming away in the pools, the adults all got to watch 'The Bridge Of Spies'. Tom Hanks is not a favorite actor but the guy somehow lands in awesome movies. I knew without doubt this was the work of a master artist just few minutes into the movie and when the credits rolled at the end showing Spielberg as the director, it made perfect sense. Do watch it. Disney presented the 'Tangled' that day which was spectacular. The actress who played Rapunzel was so bubbly and energetic that one couldn't help but fall in love with her. Cocky Flynn Ryder was not far behind either. After the show we did some minor shopping on the on-board shops.

Dinner on Christmas day was again at Carioca's with classic Christmas dishes. Have I told you how awesome are the desserts already? It was the dress-up dinner night and we were all dressed up even though it was optional. Took photographs both single and together with our group of friends. The beautifully decorated atrium of the ship provided the perfect setup with a huge christmas tree, a ginger bread house and a winding garlanded staircase. With our stomachs full and hearts filled with music from the Promenade, we called it a night.

The next day we got ready, had breakfast and was on-shore by 9-10AM. This was Castaway Cay, pronounced Castaway Key. It is an island that Disney has leased from the Bahamas for 99 years. So officially we landed in foreign territory that day. It was a day of fun and frolic on the Caribbean sea. Kids and dads went snorkeling while the moms got tubes to float in the calm and luxurious blue lagoon. I don't know how to swim although both kids can and H can manage. There was a line touching the water that separated the snorkeling area from tubing. I caught on to that line and pretty much had a good time floating alongside. Molu climbed on board for a short time while Kannan opted for the shore. The BBQ lunch with fresh mangoes to accompany was the best lunch of the trip. Banana ice cream in cones were had by yours truly a little too may times.

Later while the girls went off water sliding, the three of us went biking. Bikes were easy and the roads were made for biking. Had a really good time doing a few rounds. Molu and friends had their hair braided and they all looked as pretty as mermaids. Few more stops for last-minute pictures and we went aboard one last time. Freshened up in time to catch the last Disney musical.  It was called 'Disney Dreams'. Many loved this last musical that brought out every single Disney character - at least all the famous ones - and enacted worthy bits from Ariel, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and the Lion King. Dinner was at Lumier's. I have fallen more in love with French food. Gaston's escargots gratines  - snails and cheese  - were sensational. The delicious soup got me ready for my main course of roasted duck breast on potato puree and ended with the grand mariner's souffle. Our table hostess surprised us with naan, rice and butter chicken which some of us enjoyed.  Then it was time for goodbyes on the ship.

Once the ship docked back at Miami and was cleared for disembarkation, things went smoothly with all of us getting out and picking up our luggage by 10AM. Packed luggages were taken out the night before. Then it was on a taxi to the airport. Kids played cards there because we had a few hours to wait. Flights were almost on time despite the snow blizzard at the stopover at Chicago that cancelled many other flights. Picked up our car from the parking garage and got home to Zeus by 2AM. While it was sad to end the vacation, it was great to be back home and be with Zeus. Four days was the perfect duration for a trip like this and having friends to share it made for a very enjoyable trip.

We actually might do this again...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Instant Ice Cream!

Almost instant that is. Can't get that greedy. It does take some time you know. And all because of spicyana. Just couldn’t resist the temptation to try out this easiest of ice cream recipe  that she had posted. The picture there can tell a thousand stories while mine is er.. it just will have to do:-)

Timing is a key factor here.  I had discovered some over ripened bananas in the fruit basket and was debating whether to toss them into H’s compost bin or try to make some banana nut bread. Then I forgot all about it in true me fashion. That is, until I chanced upon the delicious picture at spicyana’s.

Promptly cut two of the bananas and kept in the freezer for over 3 hours as I was busy with the usual household weekend stuff that needs to happen before Mondays hit. Molu is a dessert enthusiast (candy lover for the lay people) and joined forces as soon as she heard about it. Our blender is not the best so she and I had to add 2-3 tbsp of water and a tbsp. of honey to keep things moving. Ladled into a plastic bowl and kept covered in the freezer. Enjoyed delicious ice cream after just 2 hours without having to churn anything! Sprinkled some coconut flakes purely for effect if you were wondering about that white stuff.

You will need:
           2 ripe bananas cut into one inch pieces - freeze for an hour or so
           1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
           1/4 tsp instant coffee
           2-3 tbsp of water or honey for consistancy and sweetness
           almond/coconut flakes to sprinkle

Mix all together except the flakes in a blender to get the consistency of soft serve and freeze for an hour or so to set. That's it. All the remains is the eating of it!
I liked the ease of it so much that the remaining 2 bananas were also cut up and frozen to be used on a rainy day. You know it is not for when it rains (then I’d like hot tea and vada please) but for a hot day when no one wants to venture outside to buy ice cream.

On other news, every spring at least one bird family sets up home in our humble premises and this year was no exception. This nest had 5 eggs but I only see three of these guys there. Hope the roaming neighborhood cats will not get them when they are so helpless. Our own Zeus Lawrence knows he cannot get to them from behind the windows no matter how much he inspects.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Planting Trees

The plural 'trees' was purely for effect. There is only one tree. But what a tree it is! "It" is a 2 year old dwarf lime tree that I have planted with lots of hope and dreams. Of course with some soil and fertilizers too. H found someone who sold half wine barrel containers locally and I found the dwarf version also online. So this is our web tree. It looks good now and let us hope it will continue to be so and bear fruits to fulfill all our 'sour' needs:-)

Just so the lime tree isn't the only newbie this year, I have added a healthy curry-leaf plant that was on sale at the Indian store.

At least I know we will have grapes again this year.

Onions too!

Flowers bring up the rear but they rule!!!