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Panama Birthday SpecialAuthor: nadge
Date of Trip: January 2008
Cruise 8203 Crystal Symphony, "Golden Passage", Caldera - Miami, 31/1/08 - 11/2/08. (First ever cruise.)
Nearly 2 years ago at a family wedding in Israel my Mum suddenly said that she'd been thinking of a way to celebrate her 75th birthday which would be coming up soonish, and what did we think about it, "we" being myself and my two sisters and our respective spouses. Well, we obviously said "yeh, great, wow, brilliant" etc etc, and then my Mum said what did we think of New York? (She'd been on the QE2 a number of times with my late father and had very fond memories of transatlantics.) Well, we obviously said "yeh, great, wow, brilliant" etc etc.
That was the easy bit, agreeing to go!! As all you experienced cruisers well know, deciding exactly how, where, when, how much, where from, what size, which line, which ship, traditional, casual, formal, anytime dining, rock climbing wall, 15 alternative restaurants etc etc is the hardest part - especially with a group of 7.
My Mum decided she'd always wanted to traverse the Panama Canal, so itinerary was settled upon, which "only" left the rest of the questions outlined above. Now, as I and Mrs nadge only eat kosher food I started to look into cruise lines that could provide this. Nearly all lines can provide airline-type sealed kosher meals which can be reheated, but who wants to eat airline meals on a cruise?? I came across an article about Crystal's kosher-style dining, and it took off from there. I made some enquiries with the On-board Guest Services at Crystal, and that was that!
(I'll touch on the food later on, but I won't go into huge detail about what is and isn't kosher. For those wishing to know more about kosher food, and exactly what Crystal can do, I'd be only too happy to either open another thread, or e-mail. Just ask.)
Travel to New York
Since New York was on the wish list from the start, and it's sort of "on the way" to Costa Rica from Israel, we decided to take advantage of the fact by doing a 3 night pre pre-cruise in Manhattan. Now, so that Mum wouldn't have to travel all the way to NY by herself (she lives in Manchester, England whilst the 6 of us live in Israel) we decided that we'd fly to NY via London, and pick her up in Heathrow in the departure lounge. So, after a very pleasant 5 hour flight on BA to London we have to transfer to the next flight. In Heathrow this entails a further (rather pointless) security check - x-ray all hand luggage, and coats, and shoes, and belts, and phones, and wallets, then through the metal detector. Bear in mind that we have walked straight off a plane, our checked in luggage will only be collected in NY if we're lucky enough to win the BA lottery and not have to report missing bags, and gone nowhere other than walk straight to the security point. Anyway, then the fun starts.
After passing our bags and belongings through the x-ray machine we were delayed in walking through the metal detector whilst the female security officer searched/checked an old lady's wheelchair which had set off an alarm when she went through in front of us. So what, I hear you ask. Well, in the absence of another female security officer we all had to wait. Eventually, we went through ourselves and collected our belongings. Well, I did, but Mrs nadge's small black leather handbag with ALL of her travel documents in it (passport, tickets etc) and money and cards, had gone. In its place was a similar bag, but not hers. We hoped that someone had made a genuine mistake. Considering the severity of the situation with our next flight due to take off in a couple of hours I was surprised at how calm Mrs nadge was. With a fair bit of persuasion we finally managed to convince the security people to look in the other black bag for some information as to its owner, and although there were no official documents in it there were some prescription tablets in a box with a lady's name on written in Hebrew! Someone had obviously just come off the same plane as us. Luckily, we can read Hebrew. The name was fed in to the system by the friendly BA staff and it turned out to be that very same lady in the wheelchair. What had obviously happened was that the attendant had been told to take a black leather bag, which he/she did, but didn't ask the lady if it was actually hers.
This wheelchair lady was nowhere to be seen and an APB was put out for her. After receiving conflicting information that her connecting flight didn't leave for another 4 hours, correct info was passed on that not only was she scheduled for a plane in the next hour she was already on it. Mrs nadge started to get a tad worried. By this time the police had appeared, very interested in the possible theft of a British passport, not to mention that there was an Israeli passport as well. The police literally ran off to the other plane, boarded the aircraft and retrieved the bag which had already been put in the overhead locker and when the old lady saw it she said "but that's not my bag".
Crisis over, we managed to fit in 20 minutes of retail therapy before our next flight. Joking apart, if you ever have a wheelchair or know someone who does, ALWAYS check that the bags the attendant retrieves for you are really yours.
We arrived in JFK on time, all our bags had amazingly arrived as well and in one piece, and immigration couldn't have been easier. I had been a bit concerned about this because I've heard many stories about extremely unfriendly (even antagonistic) US immigration officials. I'd arranged for my Mum to have a wheelchair to save her all the walking and hand-luggage schlepping, so we all just trooped behind her straight to the front of the immigration queue. Once through we went to a desk in the arrivals hall where the assistant phoned through to Supershuttle for us through whom I'd booked transfers.
Thanks again to those who answered my thread about transfer advice in New York. As there were 7 of us with tons of luggage (14 very large bags, 7 large hand-luggage wheelie thingies and another 7 small bags) normal taxis would have been very expensive, and Supershuttle was recommended. It cost $133 including the tip. The woman at the desk said that the van would arrive in 20 mins. A minute and a half later as we were settling down to wait a guy came in and called our name to say our van was here. Excellent service. He loaded everything in to the van with no fuss, and was very courteous.
New York Hotel
We were finally off to Manhattan. Neither I nor Mrs nadge had been to America before so we were very excited about the whole thing. There wasn't very much traffic so it only took about 25 mins to get to our hotel, Radio City Apartments on W 42nd St. I'd done quite a bit of research on Tripadvisor about NY hotels and I'd been very surprised at the price of a room. I mean, I know NY is expensive, but so is London, but I never realized how expensive hotels are in NY. Anyway this hotel is in a great location a block and a half from Times Square, right next to the theatre district. I'd booked well in advance and got a very good rate for one 1 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, and a sitting room with sofa bed, plus kitchenette with stove, fridge microwave - all spotless) and one 2 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, 1 bedroom with twin beds, and a larger sitting room with sofa bed, plus larger kitchenette.) As before, if anyone wants any more information then please ask.
New York was definitely an experience. Up till then my New York had been the movies plus anything else I might have heard. There is definitely a hustle and bustle about the city; everyone seems to be walking around with great purpose. The buildings are really really tall, and the taxis really are yellow. I also saw a real life yellow old-fashioned looking school bus, just like in the movies. We only had two full days and my Mum can't walk either fast or far, but we managed a number of really touristy things. We went on a hop-on hop-off guided tour bus and we visited Ground Zero.
We caught the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but unfortunately it was quite late so we had to choose only one island to get off at. We chose Ellis Island but because of the late hour didn't really spend enough time there. We'd definitely go again. We walked around Times Square and 5th Avenue, and wandered around Macy's. Due to lack of time we had to pick between the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock. The Rock won and we weren't disappointed. The whole Rockefeller Centre is amazing, and the Rock exhibition is very good. The views from the top go without saying although it was a bit misty. We saw the famous skating rink that's always used as the closing scene in the movies. The Empire State will have to wait till next time. We discovered a breakfast place where the locals go, in the back of this jewelry shop in the diamond district. We also found time for a bit of shopping - my new camera came in very useful on the cruise. Oh yes, we managed to figure out the subway system and what a metrocard is, and apart from traffic police directing the traffic at an intersection I don't think I saw a single cop anywhere.
Overall, it was quite strange being on a mini holiday in the middle of a big holiday. I'd love to go again. Contrary to popular belief, everyone we spoke to was really friendly and made our stay very pleasant. My main impression of New York is standing in the street wondering whether there are more tall buildings in Manhattan or more Starbucks. I mean, about every 100 yards there's a Starbucks. What is it with Americans and coffee? Can't anyone go for more than 2 minutes without access to a cup of coffee?
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