Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Morroco, Portugal, The Canaries and Spain

One thing us Corry's have a hard time with every year since we've lived in Germany is the weather.  It's nasty.  As I write this, my family in California is going through a cold snap.  Colder than it is here right now, in fact.  It's not necessarily the cold that I have a hard time with, but the lack of sunlight.  This area of Germany is the darkest part of the country.  Last winter was our darkest in a long time.  I added up the total hours of actual sunlight last winter and it totaled 8 days of sunlight over the entire season combined.  That usually means that the sun was able to peek out just a few minutes, or an hour or two if we were lucky, a few times a week if that.  During this time, we are just not at our emotional best.  Most people in this area will admit that January and February time is "hibernation" time.  Many of us stay inside and when folks interact with each other, we are all just a little grumpier.  I remember when we first arrived here in Germany.  It was November and we were riding the shuttle from our plane to baggage claim at the Frankfurt airport.  A German man commented, "It's really a shame that you arrived this time of year".  Little did we know how right he was!

Besides all of the precautions one needs to take to avoid weather depression, this year we decided to do something a little more about it. We took advantage of a deal that Norwegian Cruise Line had put together.  For the fall season, kids sailed free.  Many cruise lines have these deals going on.  I believe (the infamous) Costa Cruise Line is a company that has great deals.  So, this Thanksgiving (and Hanukkah) we extended the sunshine a bit and cruised down south where the weather is still a little warmer.  It was a 9 day cruise that departed from Barcelona and had port visits in Morocco, the Canary Islands, a Portuguese Island, and Malaga, Spain. 

It makes "cents" to shop around and do a little homework.  We spent 1 day in Barcelona before departing.  Most folks would assume that we took a Ryanair flight but it turns out that most of the time, the Ryanair flight schedules tend to be out of sync with our cruise schedule in Spain.  So, instead we took another discount flight (Iberia). This flight had more generous rules when it came to baggage weights and sizes.  Also, we were leaving from Frankfurt International to Barcelona International.  The drive up to Frankfurt sucked because of traffic but because it was the International airport, there were tons of discount parking areas for us to use.  We used Tourcare.  We were very happy with this company.  For 56 Euro, they provided shuttle service to the airport and for almost 2 weeks of covered parking, this was MUCH cheaper than paying the airport rate.  

Like our Summer Mediterranean cruise, the ship departed from Barcelona, Spain.  I really, really love Barcelona.  It reminds us so much of our adopted hometown of San Diego.  I will do a shameless plug right now and beg the Navy to offer my husband a job in Spain! We went with another family on this cruise.  The mother (my good friend) knows Spanish well.  All of us know Spanish well enough to read most menu items, order, and find out how much things cost. It felt really good to know the language. A small tip to getting around with a family.  If taking public transportation, check with the metro or train information area (AKA an actual person), or check online before visiting the city to see if there is a family ticket or something more economical to purchase.  For the Barcelona metro, we purchased a T-10 ticket for each member of our family. This covered 10 round trips.  This was much cheaper than buying a new ticket for each destination. We were even able to use this same ticket when we returned from our cruise and needed to get to our return flight. We had seen most of the popular places in Barcelona already but something new we were able to enjoy was the Boqueria Market.  If one would like to experience the sites smells and tastes of Northern Africa and Europe blended together, this is it!  For a foodie like myself, this was truly a treat to see. Go there for breakfast they have a fabulous variety of fresh fruit juices and smoothies.
Boqueria Market, Barcelona

Our first stop was Morocco.  I have to say ultimately, I was not impressed with this destination. We thought we had read up and done our homework but it was still not that fantastic.  I'd like to think I'm a pretty positive person.  This was probably the worst city I've visited while living in Europe.  It's really, really cool to say that we've been to Africa.  That's about it. I have nothing really to recommend here.  If we did it over again, we would have probably skipped a tour of any kind and just walked to one of the local nearby markets for an hour or so. 

Following Morocco was a day at Sea and then Funchal, Portugal on Madeira.  We love Portugal. Portugal is completely laid back. The Portuguese are completely welcoming and warm.  My favorite is the pottery and linens.  The absolute most fantastic thing about cruising with a family is being able to utilize the ship's Kids Club.  This means mom and dad get to go to port while the kids enjoy the ship--they really would rather be on the ship! The kids club is really a ton of fun.  They meet all kinds of other kids and sometimes create great friendships.  One major bummer was that NCL only offered care for children two years and older.  So our friends didn't have care for their just-under 2 year old.  We love their toddler; but just wish there was a babysitter or some kind of option for them to get some grown up time together.

Then it was on to Arrecife....uh oh!  Rough day at sea threw a wrench in our plans and we ended up going to Santa Cruz.  This was a much larger and busier island than Madeira.  Great part about the Canaries, just about everyone speaks Spanish here!  We only had several hours to spend here so unfortunately we could really only enjoy the shopping area and a light snack. If we had more time, we might have taken the children to see Loro Park.  Of course recently... we just watched Blackfish.  If we had seen this movie before going on our cruise we might not have gone to see the Orcas.

After another day at sea, we were back to mainland Europe.  Our final and my favorite stop was Malaga, Spain.  Malaga is simply a beautiful city.  The home of Pablo Picasso and many other famous artists, this clean and elegant city was a joy to visit. So much of the city still has it's Moorish influence.  The streets and shops were extremely clean.  Well worth the visit and if Mike and I could, we'd go back to spend more time there. There was a fantastic juice, smoothie and coffee bar we stopped at on our stroll through the main strip.  El Ultimo Mono Juice & Coffee.  For anyone out there looking to get a little travel detox healthiness in you, this was the place.  Fantastic blends of fruits and greens YUM! Mike was also the awesome husband that he is and purchased some beautiful earrings for me at Pebbles & Chance.  Click on their name for a link to their Etsy page.  These are completely unique and handmade.  Camilla & Abi Cherry are sisters that make the items.  As one of the sisters told Mike, "We are very busy"  I don't doubt it!

Overall, this was a great cruise.  I can't ever say that I've had a horrible cruise.  Although there are naysayers out there who may comment things like, 'On a cruise you just can't get the real authentic feel of a place' or, 'your just a tourist'  this is true to some extent.  But honestly with young children and traveling, spending time in destinations and experience everywhere "like a local" is just hard to accomplish as a young family.  Not impossible but difficult. We are on a limited budget and have limited time.  For us, going on cruises is an economical and timely way of getting a taste of everything on our bucket list while we are here in Europe.  It gives our children a chance to enjoy the traveling and hopefully have fond stress free memories of our destinations as well.  Children are children they like their creature comforts.  Have a semi regular place to lay their heads in the evening and knowing that they can enjoy some familiar foods is nice and creates less stress on everyone. 

A couple little complaints for NCL.  We would have really appreciated getting some basic information on our destination days.  A small leaflet included a map and a few restaurant and shopping recommendations slipped into our Daily Freestyle newsletter would have been extremely helpful.  Also, available babysitting for children under the age of 2 would have been fantastic!  The small lectures on the destinations was not very helpful either.  Although, I appreciated a brief history of the location we were going to, information on transportation, tipping, where to shop, where to eat and general navigation of a port should be the priority of these talks.  The food on the Norwegian Spirit was not the best.  We were previously on the Norwegian Epic and experienced a much better dining experience.  That being said the staff was excellent as always and everything was clean and well maintained.  The Kids Club was so much fun for our boys and they loved being able to perform in the circus for their parents and cruise patrons.  Stay tuned for pictures! If our readers are in the market for a good cruise, Norwegian really should be at the top of the list.

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