Jamie’s Celebrity Solstice Cruise

Day 2

Good Morning!  Last I left off, we were about to sail into San Juan, Puerto Rico.  This was the one port on our itinerary that I hadn’t been to before.  I had heard mixed reviews and wasn’t sure what to expect – I was pleasantly surprised!

We spent the first part of the day wandering through winding cobblestone streets, popping into quaint little shops and stopping for a mojito and a visit with some interesting people from Jamaica and Guadeloupe.  The buildings in Old San Juan are perfectly kept up and all painted vibrant colors.  It was a beautiful part of town.  We then toured through an old Fort called El Morro.  I will admit that Mark found this more interesting than I did; but it was a nice walk and some very pretty views from up there of all of Old Town and the Cruise ships in port.  We stopped for a drink at El Convente, an old convent that has been converted into a boutique hotel/restaurant/bar; it has a beautiful courtyard and a nice atmosphere.  After the drink we ended up enjoying it so much, we ordered a pizza and stayed for dinner.  Their home made beer and Pizza were delicious!

Yesterday was another exceptional day in St. Tomas.  We went snorkelling on the barefoot catamaran cruise the Castaway Girl.  It was fun, relaxed and the crew were very entertaining.  We saw lots of different kinds of fish and I can’t wait to tell Sydney I got to swim with “Nemo” there was also a ship wreck there and a Barracuda who was a little too close for comfort!  We finished up our day in St. Tomas with a bit of shopping at the port.

Last night we had the pleasure of trying “Murano”, one of the specialty restaurants on board. The cover charge is about $30 per person and well worth it.  The food was delicious and decadent and way too much, but we thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company.  Thanks Ed and Karen!

Today, we have just docked in St. Martin.  We are waiting for room service to bring us our breakfast then will head to the beach for a few hours, followed by a bit more shopping and we have booked into the spa for 6pm on one of their “Port Day Specials”.  A good day!

Stay tuned!

Day 1

“What could be better than sailing away from Fort Lauderdale, at sunset and knowing that you have 7 relaxing, fun-filled days coming up, including sailing to three incredible Caribbean Islands? Add in a bottle of champagne and a concierge balcony stateroom – it makes it pretty close to heaven!

We had no trouble boarding the ship, line-ups were minimal and we basically just walked right on and found some lunch. So far, the food has been fantastic, both in the buffet and main dining room. The buffet is set up as a bunch of “islands” instead of a long buffet line and it makes the traffic flow nicely and it never seems to get too backed up with people. The main dining room service and food has been excellent…who can complain about gourmet, 4 course dinners every night?

The balcony rooms are spacious and modern looking; with granite counter tops and flat screen TV’s as well as duvets on the bed. The shower has curved glass doors – such a nice change from other ships I’ve been on where they have the little curtains and the shower is so small that if you drop the soap, you have to get out of the shower to reach down and get it!

We dock in Puerto Rico in a few hours, then off to St. Thomas tomorrow and St.Maarten the day after that. We’ll keep you posted on our cruise adventure!”

Celebrity Solstice

Welcome to our journey on the Celebrity Solstice.  The cruise starts in Ft Lauderdale and visits the Islands of Puerto Rico, St Thomas and St Maarten.  Three great islands and 3 days at sea, which I personally think is a perfect combination.

Getting on the ship was one of the best check ins we’ve experienced…very quick and quite painless.  Having done the online check in prior to coming aboard has helped speed up the process for everyone.  The stateroom itself is a very spacious and thoughtfully designed maximizing the use of all the space.  We are thrilled to have a balcony stateroom as this not only extends the room functionality but provides both a quiet outdoor getaway and a place to have coffee (and breakfast if you like) in the comfort of your room.  It’s also a great place to type your Blog, which I am enjoying as I write this today.

Jamie’s cabin is right beside ours so we can chat and plan our days easily.  On the other side are the owners from the Vernon Uniglobe office so we are all in the same area.

The ship has all the expected amenities…lots of bars and lounges, a nice casino, several restaurants, a wine bar (one of my favourite spots), a library and a great gym.  On board already for 2 days and have managed to use the gym both times in an effort not to gain several pounds just before Christmas.

We’ve eaten in the main dining room two nights and have found the food is excellent, the wine list extensive with something in everyone’s budget and the waiters are very attentive.  It’s easy to dine for a couple of hours and then wander off to take in a show or hit the casino.

There are enough deck chairs, neat little hammocks and couches in the pool areas and there is a very nice spa pool that is very quiet if you want to get away from the noise and bustle of the main pool.  There are just so many places to visit and things to do that no one could possibly be bored.  As I like to say…Do it all or Nothing at all.  Cruising is just such a great way to travel.

Ed Buchholz

Team Cava – Final Report for France

Our program for the Laurus wine class indicates a full plate of activities, both in touring and education about the Laurus production in the Cotes du Rhone appellations.  With an early morning start, we boarded a bus from Avignon to Gigondas, to the main winery for Laurus wines, the Domaine de Longue Toque winery and the Gabriel Meffre offices.  We were gathered in a beautiful presentation room with large French doors that open on to a Mediterranean tile patio.  For the first part of our visit, we became familiar with the company history in a presentation, and then introduced ourselves to our classmates.  I was pleasantly surprised at the array of attendees! They included two agency representatives from Finland, two from Estonia, two from Russia, a French store operator now living in the Philippines, a French sommelier, and an Englishman importing for the Wine Society of India.  Far flung guests for the Laurus course!  

From the presentation we learned Laurus wines are the upper end of production from the Gabriel Meffre company, a long-standing name in the region since 1936. The company’s ownership has varied from family owned to corporate, and back to family and employee ownership, with the latest organisation holding the reins since 1994. One of the largest producers in the area, Gabriel Meffre has five main wine houses at various tiers:  Chateau Grand Escalion, Domaine Bois Des Dames, Domaine Jullian, Domaine de Longue Toque, and Laurus.    They also produce La Chasse, Wild Pig and Fat Bastard, which may be recognisable to the Canadian market, as a lower tier product.  We paid good attention in the class, because there were to be quizzes later!

We then toured the Longue Toque winery, and were able to taste some very fresh samples coming from the harvest.  Being further south in France, the harvest was already well underway with the warmer weather.  We met our Canadian sales rep, Jacky Cole, and her husband Guillaume, who happens to be the winemaker for Longue Toque!  The vines of the Gigondas property grow right up to the winery itself, with several varietal sample vines growing right outside the door.  Guillaume took care to show us each plant and how to differentiate between them from the various leaf shapes and grape sizes.  Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Carignan for the reds, and Marsanne and Roussane for the whites. And little white snails populate the vineyard, keeping the mini-ecosystem in check.

A tour of the winery follows the path of the grapes, where they are brought to a sorting table, destemmer and then pressed, then into the fermentation tanks.  We were able to witness, because of the time of year, very fresh juice undergoing the “Pumping over” process.  As the grape skins are in with the juice, they float to the top of the tank, so the juice is pumped from the bottom of the tank over the top to give the wine as much colour and flavour extraction as possible.  A precarious job, the winery workers always need to be aware of the CO2 levels escaping from the fermentation tanks~ accidents have happened of people passing out and falling into the tanks!

Outside in the fresh air, we were able to sample the partially fermented product, unfiltered but thick and fruity!  Apparently it is rough on the stomach, so we had only small sips before we were divided into groups and loaded into 4×4 jeeps to visit the “Dentelles of Montmirail”. This landmark hilltop rock formation divides Gigondas from the Baumes de Venise AOC, where the Longue Toque vineyards rise and grow up at 470m above sea level.  On very narrow winding bumpy paths up to the whiterock vineyards, we toured the mountainside to gain sweeping views of the plains below.  From afar we saw the Plan de Dieu, the “Plains of God” which is the hottest open stretch of land in the valley between the L’Aygues and L’Ouveze Rivers . Up by the Dentelles grow primarily the old vines grenache and the syrah. 

Next we were brought back to the Laurus winery, a huge state of the art facility down the street from the Longue Toque winery.  We were given little white sanitary hats to wear though the tour, and saw more tanks, barrels, their testing lab, bottling and storage facilities.  This was by far the largest production site we have yet visited.

We then set up for a 2 hour lunch on the beautiful patio – it was 30 degrees outside!  I got a little bit sunburnt over our meal, but it was nice to be in the sunshine like this mid-fall.  We enjoyed some lovely crisp dry rosé and the Laurus Cotes du Rhone white wine with our meal, a lovely introduction to the product of the area.

After lunch we prepared to test our knowledge of wine by partaking in a blending contest!  We were divided into our 4 teams again, and were given a list of 8 different single and blended wines in bottles.  The vintage and oaking levels, as well as soil sources the wines came from were provided, and each team was tasked with coming up with the perfect Gigondas wine for all to try! With our beakers and chemistry minds ready, we sampled the 8 bottles, and made our notes.  The ultimate blend of fruity freshness and serious aging potential that the region’s wine can provide is a great challenge! We were helped by Veronique, another Laurus winemaker, and were given few clues except the opinions of those on our team.  Figuring our percentages of each blend, we submitted our samples to the judges.  This was a very memorable exercise ~ being able to grasp in some small way how the winemaker builds a wine in their head over the growing season from knowing the vineyards so well was a bit of an awakening for me.  Each grape type and soil type contribute to the wines’ final expression, but the blending is an art I’m sure takes many vintages to begin to do well, and so from this little activity I gained even more respect for winemakers.  Our green team didn’t win, but we did make a pretty good wine, and had fun trying!

After the blending game it was back to Avignon for supper with our group.  It had been a lovely day, and we starting to get to know one another and the Laurus team.

Thursday dawned sunny and we began our action-packed day. First stop was a stroll through the heart of Avignon ~ and in behind the Palais des Papes to a hotel named La Mirande.  Built on ancient Roman foundations, this building was once the residence for the cardinals and dates from 1309.  Now turned hotel, we lounged in the tea room bright with sky lights, awaiting our hosts for our very own French cooking class!  Several of the salons on the ground floor are restored to period decor of the 18th century, including the library with carved, painted-wood ceilings, period wallpaper, chandeliers and plush furniture.

We were brought deep down into the old cellars by a narrow winding spiral staircase, into a beautiful tasting room and kitchen.  La Mirande teaching chefs were led by John Chiri, originally from the USA and having been in France for about 10 years.  Sitting around a very large wooden table, we each had our workstation laid out and were put to task after donning our Laurus aprons. With a wood fired oven from the 19th century, we started preparing our meal!  I took some serious notes, so hopefully if I can find the ingredients here, I can replicate this food for my family.

Our multi-course meal included:

~Fresh figs in red wine sauce beside seared Foie Gras on toasted Brioche
~Herb crusted whole chicken with French carrots, Farci Gratin Cabbage rolls, and wild mushrooms
~And for dessert ~Goat Cheese & Vanilla Panna Cotta with slivered almonds and fresh strawberries in a balsamic reduction , yum!

Needless to say it was a delicious meal, which we enjoyed over several Laurus wines and a splurge 1997 Chateauneuf du Pape from the hotel cellars.  I found this genuine cooking class one of the highlights of the trip!

 Well fed, we came back out into the daylight for the afternoon adventure.  “Outdoor activities” on the program became a three-part outdoor challenge, including riding quad ATVs around the vineyards in obstacle courses and a map-course challenge!  What fun!  The first challenge was riding the quad about a small course while holding a wine bottle on a tray – tricky!  The second challenge was riding the quad blindfolded, as our teammates guided us with their voices and cheers, and then a tour around the vineyards with a map as a guide to be quizzed at check-points on Gabriel Meffre trivia.  We also did a “Le Nez du Vin” contest, where we were given vials of wine aromas to smell and guess at what they aromas were. Tougher than you think!  All this took place at the Grand Escalion winery, also part of the Gabriel Meffre group.  It was a fun bonding afternoon with the teams, and the Laurus group is really vibrant and fun to get to know. 

 With our outdoor challenge behind us, we cleaned up for a casual supper at a neat little restaurant called L’Offset, originally an offset printing house in the 1900s on the Rue des Teintures.  Once the street was known for its busy manufacturing industry for dying textiles, and used the street-side canal directing the Sorgue river through the city for water. Now it is lined with funky little bars and cafes in the cobblestone streets.  After supper we were guided through the area to a little named Chez Ripert. Part of a co-sponsoring of the event for Gabrielle Meffre, little did we know we would be joining an artistic bistro crowd in the middle of a French poetry reading about romanticising Absinthe! Two crazy characters acted out the poems from the mid 1800s including Beaudelaire, Rimabaud and who knows who else.  For a slice of time I thought I was inside the movie Le Moulin Rouge and the Bohemian Rhapsody all at the same time.  Serious flashbacks from my early French literature classes were dizzying me as these two were chided and cheered by the small dedicated crowd.  And after the poetry and a full examination of the Absinthe fountain flowing freely in the back bar, we spilled on to the patio and enjoyed an evening that Sandra and I won’t forget for a long time. Cheers to Laurus

Up and at ‘er early Friday morning, we were off to visit a few more wineries that are a part of the Gabriel Meffre holdings.  The grandson of Gabriel Meffre is the last link in the family, running the Domaine Bois des Dames winery in the Plan du Dieu vineyards. A tour and taste from this area was followed by a rooftop view of the entire surrounding valley, what a beautiful panorama! But only briefly were we there, to hop back onto the bus for a longer ride south to the Chateauneuf du Pape region.  Known for its robust, flavourful red blend wines, we toured a few stops including a patio lunch at Domaine Jullian.  Winemaker Veronique gave us some barrel samples from the recent vintages (delicious of course!).  Unique to Chateauneuf du Pape region is the extreme rocky soils, which my photo shows smooth round stones.  The old vines Grenache grow more gnarly and thick in the roots as they age, producing less fruit but concentrated rich flavours. The heat of the region dictates the pruning method of the vines, keeping in a low-to-the ground goblet style, collecting the heat radiating of the “gallettes” the stones natural to the vineyards.   The Chateauneuf du Pape Chateau that sits atop the hill in the town is now only a symbolic shell of a castle, bombed out in the second world war. Two sides of the main tower remain, but it is scenic nonetheless.

Our final soiree with the Laurus team was back at the main winery, amid the many full wine barrels for a lovely supper. We got our course certificates, and Anthony opened a 6 litre bottle of Gigondas for us all to share!  I have to extend many thanks to the entire Laurus team that made us feel so very welcome, and guided us so expertly through the Cotes du Rhone region.

 And with that, the Cava Wine Team concluded the French tour!  Hopefully we will get a chance to go back sooner than later. A la prochaine mes amis!