Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Country Cruising!

I got an email from a travel agency advertising a 5 day country music themed cruise at a great price.  I asked Tony about taking the cruise.  He's not a country music fan so he said he didn't want to go.  I really wanted to go but not alone so I put a plea out on facebook for a cruise companion.  My college buddy Beth volunteered!

I got really sick with a sinus infection a couple of weeks before the cruise and Beth was afraid I wouldn't be able to go, but I assured her that I WAS going, even if she had to wheel me onto the ship on a gurney!  A couple of days before we were to leave though, I finally gave in and went to the CVS Minute Clinic to get a prescription for an antibiotic and that knocked the infection right out!

Beth was game to try flying on a buddy pass so we decided to go down a couple of days before the cruise to give us plenty of time to drive to Tampa if we couldn't get on a flight.  We got really lucky and got seats on an early morning flight that had looked good before we got to the airport but ended up going out with only 1 empty seat.  I found out during the flight that Delta had dead-headed a stand-by crew to Tampa to fly Tampa to Detroit.  That explained where the extra seats went.

We picked up our rental car from Alamo and made our way to the Hampton Inn in Ybor City.  Thanks to my Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card I had accumulated enough points for a couple of free nights!

After settling in, we drove to St. Petersburg to see the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center.  Lunch was in order before seeing the exhibit so we consulted Yelp and decided on Engine No. 9.  We knew it was a good choice when we saw some EMTs at the next table.  Following lunch, we took a little walking tour of St. Petersburg.


A 2 hour parking limit sign caused us to hurry back and moved our car before going into the Chihuly exhibit.  Beth was less than impressed with the size of the collection since she had been to some larger ones.  This was my first exhibit so I didn't know what to expect.  There were some pretty neat looking pieces.

Our ticket included a glass blowing demonstration that was quite impressive.

After the glass blowing demonstration, we stopped by the car and decided not to move again since we planned to just do some window shopping before leaving town.  We didn't notice the chalk mark on the tire.

We stopped into several neat artsy-crafty stores and admired the tall horse sculpture in front of one of the stores.

 When we got back to the car, we noticed the "gift" from the city of St. Petersburg.

To add insult to injury, we got stuck in rush-hour traffic returning to Ybor City.  The Hampton welcomed us back with a warm chocolate chip cookie and that made us feel better.  After relaxing for a few minutes at the hotel, we checked Yelp for a dinner recommendation.  Since I was just getting over my sinus infection, I decided I wanted to try "Mama's Chicken Soup" at Stone Soup.  Their menu described the soup as "Penicillin that does not require a prescription."  Beth had the French Onion soup and we split an empanada.  The food was good and the atmosphere was fun and eclectic.

We walked around Ybor City and gawked at the nightlife.  There were bars, restaurants, theaters and a LOT of folks smoking cigars everywhere you looked!

We slept well and woke up in time for breakfast at the Hampton.  Our plan for the day involved walking to downtown Tampa to do some sightseeing.  First we strolled through a quiet Ybor City (well, quiet except for the crowing.)

We found a nice bike path to walk on that led us to the Tampa Riverwalk. We even encountered Miss Tampa giving an interview at the river!

We noticed some interesting architecture across the river and decided to check it out. 

It turned out to be the University of Tampa which had previously been the Tampa Bay Hotel. They were having freshman orientation so we reminisced about our college days and how it felt to be a freshman as we walked around the beautiful campus.

On the walk back, we noticed that the First Baptist Church also had an interesting dome.  

We started back for the hotel, but decided to stop for lunch.  I was looking on Yelp at a place called "Nature's Table" when a tour guide stopped to ask if she could help us find something.  We said we were looking for a good place for lunch and she recommended Nature's Table.  It was meant to be!  We each got salads and a free cookie (thanks Yelp app).

We walked back to the hotel past some more interesting Tampa sights.

For our afternoon entertainment, we went to the Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric.

We were told there had been manatees earlier in the day, but we didn't get to see any.  They had a tank with 2 different kinds of rays that you could pet.

We got to see my "Florida Daughter" and her family and had a nice dinner with them at Circle's Waterfront Restaurant.

We drove our rental car back to the Tampa airport and took Uber back to our hotel in Ybor City.  It was my first time to try Uber and I am a big fan!  Our driver wasn't very friendly, but the price was certainly right!

Saturday we woke up excited because it was Cruise Day!  We got up early and had breakfast.  I walked down to the 7-11 to pick up a couple of bottles of wine.  They actually had a few pretty decent wines at the 7-11.  You are allowed 2 bottles of wine per cabin on board Royal Caribbean.  We caught the hotel shuttle to the dock.  We got there around 10AM and stood in line until they opened the doors shortly after 11.  

Once we got on the boat, lunch was in the Windjammer Cafe and then it was off to our cabin around 1PM.  

We had a nice outside cabin that we pretended was a balcony cabin!  We sat on our "balcony" which was really just a porthole with a ledge. It was a pretty amusing photo session as I clambered over the bed to get situated in the window before the 10 second timer on the camera snapped the picture!

We got unpacked and went exploring.  The solarium was so pretty!

We found most of the other cruisers out on the Pool Deck for the Sail Away Party.

The performers at the party were Clare Bowen and Charles Esten, two of the stars from the show Nashville. Not only are they good actors but they are excellent musicians!

Other musicians were wandering around at the party making friends.  We met Olivia Lane, a young energetic new artist who was handing out coozies and signing autographs.

After the Sail-Away party, we opted for dinner in the Minstrel Dining room.  They seated us at a table for 2 but we wanted to visit with fellow country music fans so we asked to be moved to a larger table.  After dinner, it was back up to the pool deck to hear Clark Hill.  Beth and I had not heard of Clark Hill before, but we are fans now!

Another singer, Lucas Hoge, previously unknown to us, was playing in the Centrum Venue so we stopped by to have a listen.  

The big name concert for the night was Phil Vassar.  Neither of us were very familiar with Phil Vassar but after watching his concert, we were instantly won over.  What an amazingly talented musician and entertainer!  He stood up and danced while playing the piano, singing and dancing around the stage.  He is a bundle of energy! He performed for an hour and a half without a break!

We got to bed just after mid-night.  While we were waiting to dock in Key West, we went to the Spa Open house and learned about all of the massage specials.  We got our footprint analysis done too!

In Key West, we walked around the dock area for a few minutes taking pictures of some of the fun statues.

We made our way back to the dock and rented some bicycles to tour the island. Our first stop on the bikes was at the southern most point in the continental United States. We had to wait in line to get our picture taken with the monument.

Our next stop was at the West Martello Tower which is now a beautiful garden spot maintained by the Key West Garden club. The West Martello Tower was constructed after the beginning of the civil war. We were interested to learn that even though Florida was a Confederate state, the Union troops controlled Key West.


We followed the bike path beside the coast until the end of the beaches.

Then we turned back toward the dock. We passed St. Mary's Church and the Lighthouse on the way back.

We made it back to the dock and turned in our bicycles.

Halfway to Hazard was playing at the Sail-Away Party, another great musical group that we had never heard of.  They were great!

After dinner, we caught Tate Stevens in the Colony Club.  We decided that the Colony Club had the best acoustics.  Tate Stevens was a very good musician!

Up on the pool deck, The Cains, an adorable sibling group were performing.

Bianca Moon was singing in the Centrum Bar.  Bianca's bio was so impressive, we just HAD to give her a listen.  She was born with a craniofacial disfigurement so severe that she had to have seven surgeries including an eye transplant to correct her blindness.  She has overcome so much - it is amazing to see what a self confident entertainer she is!

The entertainment in the theater was LOCASH!  We had heard one or two of their songs but had never seen them perform.  Their concert was over the top!!!  We just couldn't get over how they were able to dance, sign autographs and pose for pictures without missing a note!  The most fun part of the concert was when Preston climbed across the seats to jokingly berate a guy for not singing along.  He stood on the seat right next to me!

They seem to be genuinely nice guys too.  They brought a little blind girl on the stage with them and let her sing.  She had an amazing voice.

Preston also introduced his high school music teacher who had surprised him on the cruise.  He said that she caught him skipping school and made him join the chorus.  I don't know if that was true, but it was a good story!

We wanted to stay up for the Diamond Rio concert at midnight so we went back up to the pool deck.  I joined in with a really nice line dancing club from Nebraska.  They've been dancing together for a number of years and have some pretty complex routines but they were kind enough to show me some of the steps.

Diamond Rio came on stage at midnight and put on a good show.  We were a little disappointed that they didn't do more of their oldies.

On our way back to our room at almost 2AM, we found LOCASH was still at the Centrum Bar doing Karaoke!

Monday, we started the day with line dance lessons on the pool deck.  We had a great instructor from Gilley's. She had a lot of patience and went through the steps until everyone got it!

After line dancing, we went back to our cabin and crawled into bed and slept until 2PM!  I guess the late night concerts had taken their toll on us. We even missed lunch!!!

It was an At-Sea day so there were concerts all afternoon at the pool.  Olivia Lane performed first.  Such a cute girl!  I put on my swimsuit and joined the other folks in the pool to listen to the concert. We batted a beach ball around while we listened to the music.

The next concert was Viper Creek.  The pool was a great place to chill while listening to the music.

I tried a little more line dancing with the Country Kickers from Minnesota while Viper Creek was playing.  Such patient people, trying to help me learn!

We got cleaned up and went to dinner.  We met several nice folks at the meals.  One poor lady had gout and had not left her cabin except for meals.  She missed so many great concerts!

After dinner, we went back up to the pool deck to hear Lucy Angel, a mom and 2 daughters.  It was hard to tell which one was the mom!

Montgomery Gentry was playing in the theater.  We got great seats in the theater each night.  We were right behind the VIP section.

We got to bed early (just after midnight) since we would be docking in Cozumel at 8:30AM the following morning.

Tuesday, we got off of the ship early so we could explore Cozumel before it got too hot!

I'm not usually much of a shopper, but I did buy a few trinkets and baubles.  It was fun haggling with the shopkeepers.  As we were walking back to the ship, a lady offering massages stopped us.  We were hot and tired and a massage sounded good.  We let her give us a demonstration.

She said we could have a 1 hour massage for $35 each.  That sounded so good, we immediately agreed.  Then she led us through the shop and up a set of steps in the back alley.  We were both looking at each other wide-eyed, wondering if we had made a mistake.  When we got to the top of the steps we were greeted by Antonio who assured us that we could take off our clothes because he was blind.  Beth got her massage from the lady and I got Antonio.  They put us in the same room and I laughingly thought, "We're having a Mexican Couples Massage".  Beth questioned the cleanliness of the sheets and later joked that I am such a princess that I have to wear flip-flops in the shower but I laid on these dirty sheets.

Despite the environment, the massage felt amazing.  When it was over, we were told to pay cash downstairs but we could give a tip to the masseuses.  We counted out our money and it turned out that we had exactly $70 with nothing left for a tip.  We wanted to leave a tip so they showed us where the ATM machine was.   When I put my card in, the machine advised that there was a $6.95 fee.  I didn't want to pay it, but figured that was my punishment for not bringing enough cash on the trip, so I hit continue.  The next warning from the machine was that there would be an exchange fee of 8.95%.  I wasn't willing to pay that so I ejected my card.  We told the masseuse that the machine wouldn't take our card but we had cash on the ship so we'd come back.  We could tell she didn't believe us, but she smiled anyway.

True to our word, we went back to the ship and got some more cash (thankfully Beth had brought plenty).  We hurried back and gave our tips.  Antonio was so surprised and pleased that we came back that he wanted hugs and kisses from us and wanted to have his picture taken with us.  (Hmmm...  Was he really blind?)

We spent the afternoon relaxing on the ship.  Diamond Rio played the Sail-Away Party.

After dinner, we caught a few minutes of James Wesley in the Colony Club.

Maggie Baugh was playing in the Centrum bar.  Her guitarist had beautiful long hair. I was convinced it was a girl but Beth said it was a boy.  Beth was right.

Kelsea Ballerini performed in the theater. She is a great musician and her performance was very professional. We really enjoyed her concert!

At the beginning of her show, she brought out a young girl and had the audience sing happy birthday to her. When we finished singing, the girl's boyfriend came out and proposed. I was so "in the moment' that I didn't get a picture of him on bended knee.  Of course, she said "yes"!

After Kelsea's show, we went back to the Colony Club to hear Ray Scott.

We went back up to the pool deck and caught a few minutes of Wesley Spangler just as he was finishing up.  We got great seats on the edge of the pool for the LOCASH midnight party!  It was SO much fun!  We looked over and the lead singer for Diamond Rio was standing right next to us! LOCASH invited him up to the stage to sing with them!

Preston from LOCASH came out into the audience again. I was trying to get my camera out of my bag when he tapped me on the shoulder!  I guess I wasn't paying enough attention!

Several other singers joined the LOCASH party. Some came out into the audience too.  Clark Hill even hugged Beth as he made his rounds through the crowd!

There was a man in the hot tub wearing a Ship's Captain hat that he had purchased from the gift shop. Chris and Preston kept calling him Skipper and made him come up onstage to dance. After he danced, he jumped in the pool!

Beth thought one of the guitarists looked like her cousin so we got a picture with him.

For the finale for the Midnight Party, LOCASH invited all of the musicians onstage!

It was after 2:30AM when the concert ended but we were too keyed up to go to sleep!  We slept until after 9AM. I went upstairs to get coffee and found line dance lessons going on, so I postponed my coffee and joined in. Beth was kind enough to snag me some bacon before they closed the breakfast buffet!

We had lunch in the formal dining room for the first time. We sat with a fun couple of girls who work for Disney.  After lunch, we went back to the pool deck to hear Ray Scott. 

We wanted to hear Dallas Smith but just as he started to play, it started to rain and they had to cover up all of the equipment.

Beth went to shower for dinner and I went to check out the evening's dinner menu. On my way to the dining room, I passed the Centrum Bar and found a pick-up concert had started! The guitarist from LOCASH was playing with another singer and they were joined by Maggie Baugh on the fiddle!

After dinner, Olivia Lane was playing in the Colony Club again.

After her show, it was back to the Centrum for some line dancing to Maggie Baugh's music.

The final theater performance was Chris Young. I almost missed it because I got overheated from line dancing in my cowboy garb!  I had to go back to our cabin to cool off before the show.

Chris Young put on a great concert!

We caught a few minutes of James Wesley in the Colony club before heading off to bed.  James Wesley was handing out free t-shirts, coozies and baseball caps!

We packed our bags before going to bed so we'd be ready to disembark the next morning.

We were in the first group to disembark at 7:30AM.  We made it through customs and out to the sidewalk before 8.  We ordered an UBER to take us to the airport and got back to TPA in plenty of time to take the 9:45AM flight back to ATL. I wanted to get to Jacksonville where Tony and our pets were.  We had driven Beth's car to the airport and I had parked it in the Delta Parking lot so I had to go and get it, drop it off for Beth and then get back through security to get on the JAX flight.

Lucy and Lola were so happy to see me, especially since I had brought them a souvenir from Mexico!


It was a great trip and a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with an old friend!  We've decided that when the time comes we want to be in the same Assisted Living.  It'll be like being back in the dorm at North Georgia College!

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