The Charm of Old San Juan

Last year we visited Old San Juan during a Caribbean cruise out of Miami. We fell in love. Colorful buildings, friendly people, easily walkable, good food, and great culture. What’s not to like?

In planning our annual winter escape for December 2018, we decided to do a cruise again. However, instead of leaving from the usual ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, we opted to leave from San Juan instead. This gave us a chance to explore Old San Juan some more instead of just a half-day port of call.

Up early, we flew out of our home airport of Milwaukee on Southwest Airlines, connected at Baltimore/Washington, and arrive at San Juan’s airport in the afternoon. After being whisked away by taxi we arrived at the Sheraton Old San Juan to check in. We like its central location. Everything in Old San Juan is no more than a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel.

When we had left Milwaukee in the morning, it was 22 Fahrenheit. Now it was 82! We put on some shorts and headed out on the streets of Old San Juan.


Old San Juan

I love the colors in Old San Juan. Everything is absolutely vibrant–a feast for the eyes! Speaking of feasting, we were hungry after a day of air travel. We wandered around and found ourselves in Plaza Colon. We found a restaurant – Cafe Berlin – and both of us had delicious plates of mofongo.

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Then we walked around after dusk enjoying Old San Juan all lit of for the holiday season.


Old San Juan

The following morning, we explored Old San Juan a bit more. Last year, we toured the El Morro fort. This time, it was off to its counterpart, Castillo San Cristobal. Finished in 1783, the expansive fort has good vistas of Old San Juan. Your ticket will also get you into the El Morro fort too. So if you have time, try to visit both.


Castillo San Cristobal


Castillo San Cristobal


Castillo San Cristobal


Castillo San Cristobal, looking towards La Perla and El Morro

After touring the fort, we meandered through the streets of Old San Juan taking in the sights.


Old San Juan


Cats of Old San Juan


Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista


Looking towards La Fortaleza

There was a colorful surprise on Calle Fortaleza leading to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the governor–umbrellas! This special art installation celebrates the people of Puerto Rico. It’s definitely worth a stop (while it’s there) for a great Instagram capture!

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Calle Fortaleza umbrellas

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Calle Fortaleza umbrellas

For a self-guided walking tour of Old San Juan, check out TripSaavy.

Here are some pics from Old San Juan. For more, check out my Flickr album.

Venice is, of course, a classic Italy “must do.” As it should be! However, if you have more time in the area, I recommend taking a tour of the nearby islands of Murano and Burano.

Murano is known for glass blowing and Burano for intricate lace. If you arrive to Venice via the Santa Lucia railway station, you can easily get boat transportation to both islands. Since we were with a group, we opted for guided transport between the islands.

The brightly colored houses of Burano were the highlight of the day…well worth the trip for me!

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Have some cash on hand so you can bring back an authentic glass souvenir or some lace. Venice, especially in the summer, can be quite crowded. Murano and Burano are well appreciated as “slower” places.

Below are some photo highlights of Murano and Burano. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Rome, the eternal city. Can it be done in a day? Of course you won’t be able to take a deep dive, but you can devote yourself to a couple major sites and do quick walk-bys through others.

Tip #1: Plan ahead! Map out your itinerary and get any tourist attraction tickets ahead of time. Even with that, unexpected things will happen. More on that in a bit.

During our Italy travels, we were based in Florence. So Rome was an easy daytrip. We booked the first fast train from Firenze S.M. Novella train station to Roma Termini train station.

Tip #2: If you’re coming into Rome from another Italian city by train, look at a map of Rome. For us, Roma Termini was more centrally located to what we wanted to see. Other trains will call at Roma Tiburtina, but that was farther out for us.

Tip 3: If traveling by train, make sure it’s one of the fast ones, like Trenitalia’s Frecce trains (arrow trains). You don’t want to waste time on a slow train.

We arrived at Roma Termini at 8:30am with our itinerary of two major sites: the Colosseum and the Vatican. I had been to Rome when I was in college and I always regretted not touring the Colosseum. So it was time to make that right! At 9:00am we would start a guided tour of the Colosseum. It was an easy 19 minute walk to the Colosseum. We met our tour guide outside the Colosseo metro stop. This tour, booked through Viator, included both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.



The guided tour was fantastic. It was much better than just walking around on our own…and we got to jump the line. The history and cultural tidbits were amazing. Our tour guide had a graduate degree in archaeology and was clearly passionate about the topic. Maybe a bit too passionate, because she kept us 30 minutes after our supposed ending time!


Roman Forum

Tip 4: If you get behind schedule, consider taking the Metro if it’s convenient. We quickly got on the subway from the Colosseo metro stop and took it over to the Vatican, the next item on our list.

We exited out of the Ottaviano metro stop and even with Google Maps, started to get a bit turned around. So here’s the next tip.

Tip 5: Be wary of people with “Tourist Staff” badges. They may work for companies that are trying to upsell you on Vatican Museum tickets. All we wanted were directions to the Vatican Museums, but they were intent on leading us to their offices!

We finally found the entrance to Vatican Museums and walked right in with our timed tickets. The museums are sumptuous, with decadent works of art. The highlight of course is the Sistine Chapel. Beware though, no photography allowed in the chapel.

Now this is where things start to go awry. We were massively behind schedule after art-gawking in the Vatican Museums. At the height of summer tourist season, our next stop: Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica had a line that went on…and on…and on.

So we made the decision to skip. We had been there before. If I was a first-time visitor, I would probably pick touring the basilica and the its dome over the Vatican Museums, but that matches my interests…so your mileage may vary. We did however, stop in St. Peter’s Square for photos.


Vatican: St. Peter’s Basilica

Tip 6: Have a Plan B. So we had seen two major important sites – the Colosseum and the Vatican – but now it was time to see Rome on foot.

From St. Peter’s we walked down Via della Conciliazione towards Castel Sant’Angelo. There we crossed over the Tiber River on the pedestrian bridge – Ponte Sant’Angelo.


Castel Sant’Angelo

Then we walked around the historic center, making our way over to the lovely Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch and some gelato.


Piazza Navona

Satiated, we then walked to the magnificent Pantheon, built around the year 100! It’s free to enter.



From the Pantheon, our next call was to the touristy Trevi Fountain. Be prepared for the hoards here, but muscle your way in and get the pic of you throwing a coin in the fountain. According to Wikipedia, around 3,000 euros a day are thrown into the fountain!


Rome: Trevi Fountain

Our final stop was the famous Spanish Steps. The steps were designed by an Italian, but financed by the French, and built to commemorate peace between France and Spain. It’s primo people watching! We had a long sit and soaked up the evening June sun.


Spanish Steps

Tip 7: Keep track of your time! Looking at our watches it was time to start walking back, grab a bite to eat, and head towards the train station for our 8:30pm train.

So was this an ideal day? It was jam-packed, that’s for sure. Of course, Rome deserves more than a day. But for what we did, I that it was definitely worth it!

Below are some photo highlights of our Rome daytrip. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

For those picture perfect postcard views of Florence, you need to go up! There are two vistas and two (wait, make that three!) towers/domes you will want to climb. So put on your sneakers and do some calf exercises, because you are about to feel the burn!

1. Piazzale Michelangelo
Those famous shots of Florence, with the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio? Those are usually taken from Piazzale Michelangelo. What is a piazzale? It’s like a piazza (a square) but with one side open.

Be forewarned: You won’t be the only one here. Particularly as sunset approaches, people camp out on the steps, having a glass of wine, some pizza, and possibly a snog. Sunset is absolutely golden. You will need to arrive around two hours prior for a primo viewing spot. The steps are good for relaxing, but my preferred spot is standing at the corner where the two sides of balcony meet. It has some absolutely fantastic views of the Duomo, the Arno River, and the Ponte Vecchio.

If crowds aren’t your thing, then aim for before 10am–that’s before most of the cruise ship daytrippers and tour groups descend upon the city. Once on a Sunday morning, I felt like I had the piazzale to myself. From the Ponte Vecchio in central Florence, it’s about a 20 minute walk. Make your way up the scenic steps of the Scalea del Monte alle Croci to get to the piazzale


2. San Miniato al Monte
Speaking of crowds, to avoid them altogether, all you need to do is go up a little bit higher. Near Piazzale Michelangelo is San Miniato al Monte, a historic one thousand year old church.

Here you have good views of the Duomo and main sykline, but less views of the Arno. It’s peaceful and relaxing. Give yourself time to tour the historic church and cemetery.


3. and 4. Duomo and the Campanile 
I hope you’re not scared of heights, but no visit to Florence is complete with a Duomo tour. People are often surprised: The facade of the Duomo is so ornate, but the interior – minus the dome – is rather plain. The real star however is the 463 step climb to the top of the cupola. You have to hoof it all the way; there is no elevator. Warning: If you’re claustrophobic and scared of heights, this probably isn’t for you. However, you’ll be treated to outstanding views of the terra-cotta roofs of Florence and the surrounding countryside.


But you work here is isn’t done yet! I also recommend climbing the Duomo’s campanile, or bell tower. This one is 414 steps. Again, no elevator. Yes, your calves might be killing you, but the reason to climb the campanile is because you can get some outstanding pictures of the Duomo.


5. Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio, literally “old palace,” is the seat of Florence’s government and was, at one time, home to the Medici family. It’s sumptuous and ornate and worth your time. Make sure you get a ticket that includes admission to the tower. At the top, you have a perfect vista of the Duomo.


If you’re a photography lover, I recommend all five. If you’re in a rush, definitely do Piazzale Michelangelo and the classic climb to the Duomo cupola.

Below are pics from the vantage points described above. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.


Check out this article by Canadian Affair about Alaskan cruises:

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the article. The Alaskan cruise I took was my first cruise ship experience and I loved it! Here’s a little bit about what I had to say:

“When I think of Alaska, the word ‘adventure’ is what pops into my mind. It really still has that sense of the ‘last frontier.’ It’s a combination of all the natural beauty – the mountains, ocean, glaciers, forests, lakes, and wildlife – that make it a travel destination bucket list. On an Alaskan cruise, you get to experience the untamed wilderness, whether it’s watching a glacier calve or seeing grizzlies up close. For me, that’s not an experience I can get back home and that’s what makes an Alaskan cruise so inviting. It’s all about experiences! Taking a cruise was the best option to cover Alaska and see places like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway that are not accessible by automobile.”

This was hands-down one of my favorite travel experiences. I will go back!

No, I’m not saying that Florence is in a intermediate state. This past June, Limbo was the area where we resided–Piazza del Limbo to be more specific.

What I love about Florence is the history. And yes, there is a story about limbo. The piazza is built over an old cemetery where Florence’s unbaptized babies were buried during medieval times – hence, Piazza del Limbo. The square also features one of Florence’s oldest churches – Santi Apostoli.

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Piazza del Limbo

We stayed directly across from the square in an apartment building titled Bagni Nelle Antiche Terme, or Baths of the Ancient Spa. The area had been home to the city’s baths. The Florentine has a great overview of the neighborhood and its history.


Bagni Nelle Antiche Terme

Along the street, Borgo Santissimi Apostoli, there are a couple of good restaurants. I recommend Le Antiche Carrozze – great for an aperitivo or pizza. Nearby there is also a nice hotel, Hotel Berchielli.

Not too far away was my “favorite” intersection: Puragtory and Limbo – you could be there for eternity, haha! It also features one of Clet’s work of street art.

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The corner of purgatory & limbo

But the must do is a stop-in at the teeny tiny bottega and gift shop – La Bottega del Chianti. Only about four people at a time can squeeze into the shop! If you can’t find something there that you like, then it doesn’t exist. Half their inventory is painstakingly placed on the outside wall every morning! Lots of wine, oil, cheese, and more. Check out the Tripadvisor posting.

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La Bottega Del Chianti

Our apartment had no a/c in June, so open windows it was! You could hear the clippity-clop of the horse-drawn carriages going down the street. Every afternoon I was treated to the sounds of an opera singer practicing her music. At night, we would walk down to watch the street performers at Piazza di Santa Trinita. Centrally located, our apartment was a quick three minute walk to the Ponte Vecchio. Location was A+.

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.


Whether you’re visiting Florence in the heat of summer or the coolness of winter, a daily break (or two or three!) for gelato is a must do. But don’t just head to the nearest gelato place. Last year, I gave some advice on the topic:

Gelato: Avoid places where you can see the gelato from the store front window. Especially if the gelato is molded into a mountain-like form. Although eye-appealing, it’s usually old. Go to a place where you have to step inside to see the gelato. My favorite flavor? I love frutti di bosco (literally “fruit of the forest”)—it’s mixed berry.

Speaking of flavors: Yes, frutti di bosco (mixed berry) is my favorite, but I also like to mix and match the following:

  • cioccolato fondentedark chocolate
  • bacio = chocolate hazelnut
  • amarena = black cherry
  • pistacchio = pistachio
  • limone = lemon
  • fragola = strawberry
  • ricotta e pera = ricotta cheese & pear

Depending on the size of the cone or cup, you can usually pick 2-3 flavors.

So where should you go? Hands-down my favorite place for gelato in Florence is La Carraia. There are two locations: one in Oltrarno on the Arno (Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25/r) and one near Santa Croce (Via de’ Benci, 24/r). There’s often a line–even at 10pm–but it moves fast.

Otherwise, I also like La Strega Nocciola, Perche No?, and Gelateria dei Neri.

Check out the pic below…now THIS is a perfect Florence evening. Happy eating!

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La Carraia gelato, Florence

The weather in Wisconsin took a sudden turn this past week. It is definitely fall now! This morning, I woke up to 33F. Although everything has taken an autumnal look and feel, I’m thinking back to this summer.

June was a highlight. I spent 23 days in Italy chaperoning for a college class where I work. I did the same thing last year. The itinerary was much the same, but there were new things for us to see and do. And who in their right mind would complain about going to Italy two years in a row? It was la bella vita!

Here was our itinerary:

I’ll blog a little bit over the next few days about some of the experiences.

Below are a few preview pics. For more, check out my Flickr album.

All good things must come to end, and so it goes with this cruise. But…long story, short: It was great!

I posted this review to CruiseCritic to thank members for the information I gleaned from the site. This was our first cruise on Celebrity and first cruise to the Caribbean. Now with two cruises under our belt, we have a better sense of what we prefer going forward.

Arrived just before 11am in pouring down rain. I’m not sure we will ever beat the 11 minutes from curbside to ship. We simply got lucky.

Inside cabin, deck 7, room 7304. We felt it spacious for an inside cabin, with lots of lighting. Bed was comfortable. Room featured two soft chairs and a desk chair. No couch. Plenty of storage space. Shower worked well. Room was next to a crew stairwell but we never heard any noise. It was quiet. Easy access to elevators and stairs. We spend most of our time outside the cabin, so inside for us is not a big deal.

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Inside cabin, Celebrity Equinox

This is where we thought Celebrity excelled. It was top-notch. From waitstaff to the steward to the cleaners, everyone was so friendly and welcoming. Even though we were mere “plebs” in an inside cabin, staff made everyone feel special.

Average to excellent. I know food is subjective. We had four nights in the specialty restaurants and that spoiled us! Murano was absolutely wonderful. That rack of lamb is to die for! Tuscan Grille: I thought I might have to loosen my belt, hah!

We ate in the Main Dining Room for two nights and it’s pretty much what I expect from banquet-style food. That’s not a complaint; just a fact of institutionally serving such a large quantity of food. We liked Oceanview Cafe (the buffet) for breakfast and lunch and we were impressed by the various options and spaciousness of the set-up. Lunch on Friday was particularly nice, with large carved turkeys, peel and eat shrimp, and a chocolate fountain. OVC didn’t feel like a struggle to find a spot to eat. Also, one of us has a gluten allergy and we appreciated the alterations that could be made in the specialty restaurants and MDR. We were also impressed with the options in the OVC, including have more than a couple gluten-free desserts to always choose from!

We loved all the different spaces on the ship and felt it easy to navigate. It’s classy and elegant. The word “refined” comes to mind. It has a touch of sparkle, but it is in no way garish. Also, it’s clean…like sparkling clean. Housekeepers were always polishing, painters were always painting. We did notice large air dryers set up on the carpet all week down the hall from us, pointed at a couple balcony cabin entrances. I wondered if there was a leak of some kind?

Favorite places to lounge outside: besides the usual pool area, we appreciated the solarium on the first day (weather was a tad cooler and drizzly), the chairs up on the Lawn Club, the chairs on the Deck 5 promenade. Inside: for quiet, we liked the Library (duh!) and the seating area by the elevators on Deck 7. We’re not big drinkers, but we liked the Martini Bar for inside and Sunset Bar for outside.

Negatives: I thought there was an overabundance of smoking spaces–one side of the Deck 5 promenade, one side of the pool bar, one side near the Mast Grill by the jogging track, one side of the Sunset Bar/Lawn Club. We would see open seats in those areas, go to sit down, and then realize…”oh, it’s a smoking area…that’s why no one is here.” I also missed self-service laundry facilities. Heck, we never even got a “stuff the bag” offer either. I also wished the deck 5 promenade was entirely accessible around the whole of the ship–I minor quibble, I know.

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On board Celebrity Equinox

Onboard Activities
The shows were good, but we went in knowing the musical-type shows here generally don’t have a plot. Mostly singing and dancing. There were two particularly good female leads. We loved the acrobats! The comedians weren’t our style, but others were laughing heartily. The hot glass show was fun to watch.

We found daytime activities to be lacking…or at least very little that caught our eye. It’s not that we got bored, but we would look the “Celebrity Today” daily newsletter and just go “meh.” There seemed to be an overabundance of “medical” type seminars (botox, dental implants, joint pain). Went on the galley tour but really missed a cooking demo like we had on our Alaskan cruise on Princess. The library was well stocked and I read a couple books during some “down” time.

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Equinox Theater

Almost as easy as embarking. From ship to our shuttle, it was about 15 minutes to get our luggage and proceed through Immigration. Super simple!


San Juan
Old San Juan looked better than I expected despite all the news we had seen about the hurricane damage. Vibrant buildings, friendly people. We walked on our own from the pier to El Morro and explored the fort. Enjoyed a self-guided walking tour. Wish we would have had more daylight hours at this port.

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Sailing into Old San Juan

Saint Thomas
Ship docked at Crown Bay, not Havensight. We took the $4pp shared open-air taxi into Charlotte Amalie. Still a lot of hurricane damage in town and many shops closed. Some that were open, had lost power on our day there. Made the mistake of not booking an excursion (either through Celebrity or independently). We just walked around Charlotte Amalie. We’re not into jewelry, so this port didn’t have a lot to interest us.

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Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI

Saint Kitts
Saint Kitts was our favorite port for relaxing. Booked a “beach break” through Celebrity to Cockleshell beach. PERFECT!

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Cockleshell Beach, Saint Kitts

Booked an Everglades eco-tour and FLL airport drop-off through Celebrity. Enjoyed the airboat ride and appreciated not have to worry about luggage/arranging travel to the airport.

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Gator Park, Everglades

So what did we learn?
The biggest thing: We realized we prefer port-intensive cruises, so this one probably wasn’t the best match for us. Don’t get me wrong; it was still a ***GREAT*** vacation! This was only our second cruise, so we’re still testing the waters. But the three sea days was one too many for us. However, that’s what I like about cruising: There are so many options/itineraries to pick from! You probably won’t ever see me on transatlantic or Hawaiian…but ***now*** we know what we prefer.

The Celebrity experience provided excellent service in classy surroundings. We would definitely consider sailing Celebrity again, but we also tend to not be loyalists; preferring to shop around instead. We liked Princess on our Alaskan cruise and would consider them again too.

And escaping a week’s worth of winter in Wisconsin (like the alliteration?), we now think a December or January cruise could become habit forming! However, the are other times of year and areas would we would consider exploring: Mexico, west coast, Alaska (again), Mediterranean, New England/Canada.

Bottom line: What we like about cruising is that it’s pretty hassle-free: Once on board you have your hotel, your dining, and transportation to exciting ports of call. For us, that makes for a relaxing and valuable experience!

Here are some pics from the cruise:

For more photos, check out my Flickr album.

I’ll blog more about the cruise itself in my next post. After Saint Kitts, it was two sea days before arriving back into Miami.

Our flight was out of Fort Lauderdale, but wasn’t until 5:15pm, so we booked an Everglades excursion and airport drop off through Celebrity Cruises. It was $79 per person (at time of writing). Neither of us had been to the Everglades before, so we thought “why not?”

After collecting our luggage, it was a short walk out to the shuttle bus. The bus would store our luggage while we got to enjoy the Everglades. The ride from Port Miami out to Gator Park took around 35 minutes. Traffic was not particularly heavy. We appreciated the narration by the tour guide, particularly with the environmental concerns/development associated with the Everglades.

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Gator Park, Everglades

At Gator Park, we were promptly given our tickets for an airboat ride. Who doesn’t like a fast ride through alligator and snake infested waters? Just kidding…it was fun! The airboat operator shared trivia about the flora and fauna. The water levels were high due to the hurricane. The area of the Everglades we were in is actually considered a slow moving river. We spotted three alligators. The airboat tour didn’t last as long or go as far as I thought it would…but it did the job.

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After the airboat tour, there was an animal show. We learned about the differences between the American Alligator and the American Crocodile and the threat of invasive species in the Everglades like pythons (which people have released as unwanted “pets”) and now even anacondas.

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Gator Park, Everglades

Following the animal show, we had a bit of time to walk around the park and buy some food and souvenirs. Alligator tastes like salty chicken, by the way.

The ride back to Fort Lauderdale airport was uneventful. We checked in and waited for our flight and got back to Wisconsin around 9pm. I’m still gathering thoughts on the whole cruise experience. I’ll be sure to post some concluding thoughts here.

Here are some pics from our Everglades ecotour:

For more photos, check out my Flickr album.