Friday, April 18, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

2014 Cruise to the Edge - Performers

Honesty first: This will be a brief overview that will eventually link to more in-depth posts about some of the bands that performed on the 2014 Cruise to the Edge. Just figured I'd get that out there first, okay?

If you look at this 'poster' for the event:



You might recognize one or two bands that performed. Recognize five or more, then hello there, fellow prog fan! Yeah, so this means that it was not going to be your ordinary cruise and it was not going to be populated with those who have a preferred station on the radio that plays all their favorites, all the time.

Nope, prog fans are used to not seeing their favorite bands play sellout crowds in arenas, or hell, even getting to see their favorite bands perform live. As a result, this cruise was like Mecca-the opportunity to have all prog, all the time. On the DEFCON scale, Ed would be one of those solid 5's-he is well versed, keeps up on the new releases, who is playing with what band nowadays. He even had given me the heads up that Dave Kerzner had left Sound of Contact about 2 months before we embarked, something the average person would say 'who?'. Me, I'm a solid 2.5: I know far more than the average person, love the genre as a whole, but I don't have the time to keep up with the ins and outs of who is in which band. That said, I really do love the genre.

Which is why as soon as Marillion was announced as the second bill act, I knew we had to go. Back in 2012, we had tickets to see them play in DC, but had to pass on going. If there was a 'do-over', this cruise was certainly going to fit the bill. Thankfully, my friend Allen offered to stay with boys and even was the one who said to 'go book that cruise already', and we're damn grateful for that insistence that we go.

Five days, 26 acts, Roger Dean, and host Jon Kirkman. I don't think there are enough hours in the day to see them all. We talked about two weeks before going and made a mental list of 'I'm not going to be upset if we miss...' and came up with a list of five that were definite passes. There just wasn't enough time. Another act got moved into the 'definitely skipping' after the act's manager bombarded a FB group for the cruise with 'you have to see this show!' multiple times a day, but the corker was 'this band doesn't bore you with 7/8 music'. Um, hello? We're all coming FOR the 7/8 music! We made a list of must see shows and kept that short.

The reality of our health issues is that if we push ourselves too much, it takes several days to get back to some semblance of normal. I brought the scooter in the hopes that it would keep pain and fatigue at bay. (It did a respectable job, but I'm still recovering). Still, my goal was to see about 15 of the acts, Ed's about 18. We both came close-I ended up with 11 acts (13 performances), Ed saw 13 acts (15 performances).

The ones I got to see:

Yes

Marillion (twice)

Steve Hackett (twice)

UK

Saga

Patrick Moraz

Renaissance

Lifesigns

Stickmen

Sound of Contact

Electric Asturias

If you do a breakdown by cost, I spent under $100 per show. When you live in central Florida, to see a show typically involves a drive to Tampa or Orlando-so there's $25 in gas. Add parking at a venue and a meal, and you're already close to $100 for one show, even if the tickets were free. That $86 per show also included our food-so I am comfortable with saying we shelled out $50 per show-and there was NOT ONE dud performance.

Over the next few days, I'll probably do reviews by day-and add pictures or videos as possible.

I think it's safe to call this experience, the Woodstock of prog, without the mud, and the crowds, and long lines for food and bathrooms...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cruising on the MSC Divina

I am no longer a 'cruise virgin', having just spent five days on the MSC Divina. From the comments I've seen on a few travel boards and from the returnees to the Cruise to the Edge charter, several were not impressed-while others had nothing but good things to say. This truly nets down to how people are on terra firma, in my opinion.

With that being said, what my experience was aboard the Divina will differ from others. Things that others didn't like, I may have enjoyed and vice versa. Also, there are things that those who travel in a wheelchair/scooter tend to encounter that others will not.


Arriving at the port, we pulled up to Terminal F, with the intent of dropping off all our bags (checked and unchecked), me, and my scooter. That did not happen, the porters told us we could only drop off the checked bags and had to go park. It was interesting schlepping from parking near Terminal G with our carry on items and pillows back to Terminal G.

On the return, however, we had a porter wheel all our larger items from baggage claim to the lower level of the parking garage-something MSC states they provide at embarkation, too. Perhaps there was a language barrier in play, but I'd suggest to anyone in a similar situation to be polite but firm that you will be getting out with your wheelchair or scooter when you drop things off.

The guy on the return trip who insisted he was taking our bags to the garage for us? He got $10 bucks, because they only earn a tipped wage in Florida ($4.91, compared to the $7.93 any other worker earns). It really is just a little thing, but the down side is that we skipped bringing a case of water that would have helped both of us avoid the desalinated water on the ship.

In the terminal, there is a special assistance check in area beyond the general check in. We didn't see the sign at first. The general line overflowed, so it was about 5 minutes before we got to a point where we found it. Special assistance funnels you to the last two terminal agents, so there is a bit of a wait, but I'd wait longer if needed-navigating that queue area with a scooter is not ideal.

While waiting, one of the concierge staff suggested we head back to the elevator near the security screening area, as that ramp is easier to navigate onto the ship. We were glad for that information-it funnels you onto the ship at the atrium. It tends to be a bit crowded, and was for us-photographers set up to the left (we passed). We boarded shortly before 2pm and were able to go immediately to our stateroom.

For many others, this means stairs or elevators. For us, it meant only the elevators. In general, they are plentiful and have short waits. However, it needs to be noted that not all elevators go to all floors. The ones I found most notable-there are only two banks that go to the 4th floor for departing the ship at the ports of call (far forward and two of the four elevators nearest the atrium).

One one occasion, we arrived at La Villa Rosa for dinner and it was not serving that night-there is no way to get anywhere else on deck 6 from there. Up in the elevator to deck 7 and the Black Crab that night. In total, I think there were a half dozen 'you can't get there from here' situations. If I weren't so busy with other things, I probably would have mapped out each elevator bank to save myself from such arrival problems happening.

The Atrium elevator bank can get crowded, but just aft of it, on either side-there are single elevators. We were able to use the port side one consistently for the first 3.5 days without others realizing it was there! If there wasn't a show in the Pantheon theatre, the elevator banks just outside it were also a safe bet.

Our stateroom was larger than expected with an accessible shower. I'd seen pictures of the bathrooms in standard staterooms, and loved that we didn't have to deal with the shower stall eating up most of it. We had a king bed and a 3'X 12' bump up in size from others in our category, which meant we could keep the scooter in the room and actually move around.


Prior to the cruise, I joined Cruise Critic and read up considerably on the MSC boards. Suggestions from there were to bring tape and a power strip, among other things. There are two 110 and 220v outlets in each stateroom, and one each in the bathroom. Definitely not enough, especially if you're charging cameras, phones, or scooters. At the end of each day, I was charging three video cameras and my phone, so it was definitely needed.

After dropping off pillows and carry on bags, we opted to get some food and headed for deck 14 and the Calument/Manitou buffet. The buffet is large, running down the back half of the ship. At peak times, the same items are available on both sides, slower periods only one side is open. We found out one night that after 7:30 or so, there is maybe 1/4 of the offerings to be had-and the only meat was the leftover pork tenderloins I'd had at lunch, but in a gravy. Slim pickings.

If you're a vegetarian, there were plenty of options. I had meals that were predominantly the vegetarian fare. Those who want some variety, go to the rear of the buffet for the Mediterranean section-there was plenty of variety. I sampled some Greek (okay, seasonings were dumbed down), Samoan, Japanese, Moroccan, and other foods from far away and other than the souvlaki seeming really bland, it was usually flavorful. Pastas were consistently good, as well.

The staff in the buffet were helpful, a couple of times taking my plate for me, so I could navigate without holding it. This was appreciated, as was the fact that they were there if you needed, but left you to yourselves if you preferred. Some have told me they don't like this type of service, but we loved it. A few staffers were rather talkative at some meals, and we also enjoyed getting to know a little about them.

We ate at the very rear of the buffet, looking out the large glass windows at the rear of the ship. This area is much quieter than much of the buffet and was our preferred location throughout the cruise. When we were nearly done, the cruise director made an announcement that the muster drill would begin in 15 minutes. More like 8 minutes, so we scrambled to the elevator, went down to our stateroom, then to our location on deck 7. As the corridors were very crowded, I opted to use the promenade to get to our location.

Muster drill was loud, but fairly quick. Once finished, Ed took the life vests back to the room and I went up to the pool stage on deck 14. Yes, they drained the pool so that we could have multiple locations to enjoy music. I packed a swimsuit, but never used it (a fact my body is not happy with, to be honest.) That level is gorgeous, glassed in so that you can enjoy the scenery going by while taking a dip.

When there were performances, the sun's location had Ed choosing the smoking side to watch. As an asthmatic, that could have presented a problem, but the constant breeze made it comfortable. I share this information if others don't want to be on that side of the pool because of the smell, that it really isn't bad. The sail away act, Saga, blew us away with their energy and how good they sounded. I remember listening to their Worlds Apart album in high school-this show sounded like I'd been transported back to 1983. (Music reviews will be coming, I promise.)

The Pantheon Theatre is gorgeous. Due to the scooter use, we were placed in the last row of the theatre for every performance. This location was perfect for us, and had great sight lines. Based on that, and where the supports were for the balcony, no one should have a bad view in the place. It is designed with acoustics in mind, the sound was fantastic. For a charter of 3,000 guests, with a theatre that seats 1700, the system was based on pink or blue lanyards. Those were issued, based on our selection of early or late dining.

After the first show, we went to go off for one of my duties, video taping the After Hours Electric Prog Jam. Unfortunately, there was such a huge crowd that it would have been impossible for me to get the scooter and gear through the crowds. As a result, we went up to the room, dropped off the cameras, then went and hung out in one of the lounges.

The Divina has many of them, and over the course of five days and many performances, we saw most of them. On our at sea day in foul weather, we were in the Galaxy bar while it was closed-it is a bar/restaurant/disco on Deck 16 that overlooks the pool. We ended up sitting in there with our drinks from elsewhere, chatting with an old friend that I hadn't seen in 30 years. It has cozy booths in the restaurant, while the disco side has pairs of chairs and cafe tables along the windows overlooking the pool and starboard side of the ship. (Behind the restaurant is a video arcade.

At the rear of the ship, deck 7, is the Black and White Lounge, the most expansive of the ship's offerings. If you're using all the seating up, it probably holds about 400, with a large dance floor between several comfortable settees. We were here for two performances and one Q&A and really liked how open and bright it was, even on the day that it had been raining quite heavily during the Patrick Moraz performance.

Elsewhere on deck 7, there is the Golden Lounge, which normally has dueling pianos, but for us, was the locale for quite a few Q&A sessions. It also ended up being Ed's favorite place to see the artists. That first night, we were in there for no more than five minutes, and he watched Eddie Jobson introduce Gary Green to Patrick Moraz. Basically, three of the genre's heavy hitters meeting right in front of us. The decor was yellows, oranges and greens, and the couches most comfy for curling up and relaxing while listening to music.

I spent the most time in La Luna lounge, which is also where they have a martini service cart making rounds. While the Prog Jam was in session, that cart couldn't really move through the crowds. This place was where we followed the rule of making friends with your servers. We were tipping with every round, everywhere-but this bartender served us in a quieter location earlier on our third day and remembered that we were happy at seeing Southern Comfort behind his bar. For the rest of our time there, he and the servers told us to call out 'Hey mon!' and hold up one or two fingers-and we would promptly have our comfort and ginger ales!

As for the difficulty the first two days, it really is minor. Some of the ship's staff do not speak much English (it's an Italian ship that truly has a global employee complement), so we accepted the 'we don't have that'. For those who are pickier, my advice? Take a picture of your favorite alcohol bottle with your phone-the picture will come in handy!

The sports bar normally would be the last place to find us. However, on day three, we went in and had a drink because it was nearly empty and close to where we needed to be in about an hour. The bartender was a young man from Jamaica (hence the 'Hey mon!' suggestion later). He mixed up a pair of beautiful purple rain cocktails for us, and we chatted for a while. The rest of the time, we found him later at night at the La Luna. When we get back to the MSC-we will look for him right away, as well as those servers.

On the pool deck, there are two bars, the one on the smoking side was open 24 hours, the other side operated for less time and had fresh made gelato.

The Sports bar offers bar snacks that aren't included in your fare. However, with the way we were experiencing shows and the After Hours jam, we'd wrap up the day after the buffet closed and I would be HUNGRY. The Pringles from the mini bar would not suffice, so one of the nights, I ordered a sampler platter to bring into La Luna. It was severely frowned upon, but I did get it-and the snacks were perfect! (You can't spend that much time in bars and not have *some* bar food) Well worth the $12 bucks, just a little more than I would have paid back on land.

Which brings me to the food options. Included in your fare is all dining at the Black Crab and Villa Rosa restaurants and the buffets. There is also a pizza oven on deck 7 that we never had-but others raved about.

Black Crab dinner

Villa Rosa lunch

On the Divina, there is also Eataly Steakhouse, the Eataly Dining Experience, the Sports Bar and the Galaxy Restaurant, which I believe all have an additional fee attached to them. On deck 6, there are several coffee bars and a patisserie/gelateria. Next to the pool is the gelateria from which we got some as breakfast one morning and a snack another time. It is an extra fee but it is absolutely worth it!

My sit down dining experiences were all solid, with one slightly underwhelming, but most being very good. I think that anytime dining is harder on the servers, but the kitchen handled it well. The best part for me was that I would be presented with the menu and choose two, maybe three courses, while Ed would go with three or four.

We tended to be at a meal for an hour to an hour and a half in the main dining rooms, but I'd read of seatings that would leave folks scrambling to get to their shows during the assigned times. Maybe MSC will assess the 'anytime dining' concept, because this cruise showed us that it is a better fit for us.

As soon as we booked, we saw that Eataly was an option. We opted to enjoy a meal there on our last night. I was a little worried, as I don't eat a lot of fish (more like some sushi, some shellfish), but the experience and the food were better than we'd built it up in our heads. I was raised on white tablecloth dining for special occasions and treks into Manhattan for Broadway shows, but it is a rare treat nowadays. The servers and maitre d' made this a memorable experience, one which I think we will book on every future cruise.

Eataly dinner

Yes, future cruises. For a first experience, we were very pleased with MSC's service. We had minor issues throughout the cruise, but some were on the part of Cruise to the Edge, more were on the part of inconsiderate fellow passengers (rudeness is sadly universal), and just a few were with MSC itself. The stateroom hallways are narrow, but every time I seemed to come through when housekeeping was working, they didn't use the bumpout portions to store their carts or vacuums. Ed had to move stuff out of my way.

The elevators should be marked with where they go. Each elevator bank had a map of the decks, but not all elevators went to those floors! It makes it tricky for those of us who couldn't just go over to the stairs.

For the night owls on charters, a continental breakfast spread at the front of the buffet would really be a good option!

See, I really mean it when I say we had minor quibbles.

At the very least, we'll be heading back on CTTE next year. I would love for the same lineup to be on board, but it isn't possible. Still, the experience is such that there are many other bands could come on board to replace those with conflicts and it still would be quite enjoyable.

Yesterday, a friend whose husband works for a cruise line messaged me. They are slated for an employee rate stateroom and can book a second-and she would love us to join them for their next cruise. Chef loves the idea of getting to go, I like the idea of a cruise to relax before another one with non-stop activity. The rates are such that we are going for it.

I now understand why people rave about cruising and take many over and over, often to the same ports of call. It is quite possible that we'll join their ranks. While MSC has the Divina in Miami, those rates look so good that I just might give into temptation before too long.

And that's not even going into all the other things that happened on this cruise...