What Your Friends At Sea Are Doing Today On Their Cruise

friends at seaIf your friends at sea have been on their ship for a few days, the holiday decorations have probably blended in with their surroundings. They are no longer amazed at them. Still, there are plenty of other things for your friends at sea to do, or they could choose to do nothing at all – the other option after “you name it.”

Doing nothing is easy anywhere. At sea, crew members make an art out of enabling travelers to do nothing whatsoever. Ships equipped with enough spa treatments, pampering opportunities and free room service to make Cleopatra comfy, ply the waters of the world.

On the flip side, adventure travelers will find some unique opportunities for kayaking, trekking, hiking, climbing, cycling, horseback riding and more with updated off-ship shore explorations that are far from a ride around town in a tour bus.

Today, on Christmas Day, families around the world will get together to exchange gifts and have the biggest family dinner of the year. Friends and family may come from far away places to visit in an annual trek set for holiday merriment.

Today, on the high seas, cruise lines will have a special (perhaps keepsake) holiday menu, carolers will sing their traditional songs, inviting others to join in and children will delight in seeing Santa Claus. Holiday decorations were installed just before Thanksgiving and will run through the first of the year.

Many of those on board make sailing the way they do Christmas. We sailed for many years with our two daughters, often seeing other travelers we had sailed with over past holidays. On some sailings they would bring along a friend, others not.

All agreed after our first sailing that it “was the best vacation ever.” That’s something decision makers have to pay attention to when compared with other holiday options. Spending time with relatives that might not be as amiable as the total stranger just met on a cruise ship speaks volumes.
Parents like the idea because “we’re going on a cruise!” satisfies pretty much all the gift requests. In our family, the “family cruise” counted for birthday, anniversary and other special occasion gifts, making the premium price charged for a holiday sailing much more palatable.

Announced early, festive holiday cruise fans already know others before arriving on the ship via social media venues. After the sailing, those same venues will be used to keep in touch with friends they made on board for decades into the future.

I have often said in the past that if I could sail just one time of the year, over the December holidays would be that time.

No cooking.
No cleaning.
Some planning, but not much.
Fabulous destinations around the world visited via your cruise ship.

If there is such a thing as a holiday bargain, a cruise vacation for 2013 might be just what the family ordered. See how it goes today, then think about it.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user |vvaldzen|]

Track Santa’s Progress As He Makes His Rounds Tonight

Track Santa with NORAD tonightChristmas Eve is one of those special days that you look forward to all year long. Visiting friends and family, rushing to get those last minute Christmas gifts and putting the final touches on plans for Christmas Day will keep us busy all day. With all of that hustle and bustle, it is easy to lose track of time but this is a night that you definitely want to be home and fit snugly in your bed on schedule. After all, you wouldn’t want to do anything that would cause Santa to not complete his appointed rounds, right? Fortunately, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, otherwise known as NORAD, is once again tracking jolly old Saint Nick this year, keeping us well informed of his location and progress all day long.

NORAD’s Santa Tracker is in its 57th year of operation and thanks to some nice technological advances, it is now easier than ever to follow his magical sled and eight tiny reindeer. In addition to the web version of the tracker, which is perfect for when you’re near a computer, there are once again apps for the more popular smartphones. You’ll find a version for the iPhone of course, as well as Android devices, and this year, there is even a version for Windows phones. That means no matter what flavor of mobile operating system you use, you’ll be able to track Santa as he draws ever nearer your home.

And for those who need just a little extra help, or have questions they’d like to ask, live operators will be standing by at 1-877-HI-NORAD. These volunteers take calls all day long, letting us know where Santa is at any given time and passing along updates on his progress to the children who are waiting breathlessly for his arrival.

Merry Christmas everyone!

[Photo Credit: NORAD]


A Visit To Macy’s Santaland

Macy's SantalandThis week, in between a visit to the Brazilian consulate to apply for tourism visas, and working on the Gadling family travel gift guide, I decided to make a trip to the North Pole. Or rather, the one on 34th Street, where the most famous department store Santa resides at Macy‘s Santaland. Visions of David Sedaris dancing in my head, I decided if we were going to do this, I might as well do it right. As I walked in the front door of the store (bustling even on a midweek afternoon), I wondered what sort of masochistic experience I was about to put myself through, especially with a person who won’t even remember it. At 17 months of age, my baby Vera is having her first American Christmas, as we spent her first holidays in Istanbul. Now as we are thinking of leaving New York again, I figured she might want to see a little of the magical holiday city that millions of children want to visit every year while it’s still just a subway ride away.

Last year, I took Vera to her first Santa at the annual International Women’s League Holiday Bazaar, held at the once-glamorous Istanbul Hilton. The annual fair is a scrum of expat families bumping elbows for overpriced but hard-to-find in a Muslim country items like Christmas crafts and Italian sausage, but if you are foreign and living in Turkey, you are pretty much obliged to go (I recommend getting some black beans from the Brazilian table, a few bottles of French wine, and hightailing it home). At five months old, she took meeting a strange bearded man like a champ, though it was before the dreaded separation anxiety kicked in, back when I could still use the bathroom by myself. The Noel Baba, aka Santa, she met at the holiday bazaar wasn’t the most authentic, but he beat the skinny Santa we saw in our neighborhood selling Lotto tickets, in a shiny suit and smoking a cigarette. In Turkey (ironically where St. Nicholas comes from), Santa is associated with New Year’s Eve and is almost as ubiquitous as in America during December, but the concept of visiting the man and asking for presents is still thought of as a bit odd.

%Gallery-173473%Fast forward to 2012, when it took me just a few days to get sick of holiday music again, the baby showed only sporadic interest in the seasonal decor rather than childish glee, and we were right in the midst of American materialism in all its festive splendor. After an intense elevator experience involving multiple store employees with walkie talkies, coordinating stroller-only and no stroller cars like parade marshals, we arrived on the eighth floor, official headquarters of Kris Kringle (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least, who knows where he sleeps). Joining the line, one elf informed us, “Only about a half hour!” and judging from the relieved reactions of other parents, I assumed this to be quite short.

This time estimate was about accurate, looking at the time stamp on my photos, but included the diversionary time inside “Santa Land” before we actually saw the big man himself. I discovered this is not just a line to see a man in a red suit, it is an experience. Standing in line was like an anthropological study of Christmas: there was the gaggle of female relatives in town for shopping and holiday sightseeing, the pair of twin baby girls dressed up and looking much more relaxed than their parents about this event, and even a dour-looking couple of German adults behind me with no children. There were local families (playing hooky from school, perhaps) who come every year, bewildered-looking foreign tourists, kids out of their mind with excitement, and babies who just drooled and snoozed. A few minutes after getting in the outer line, we “boarded” the Santaland Express, a sort of life-sized train with a big bell on front, which each child seemed delighted to ring loudly, making me wonder how often the outer line elves got headaches.

Then we were inside Santaland itself, a wonderland of lights and animatronics, which was alternating thrilling and terrifying to small children. I won’t spoil it all – it really is an experience one should do once, especially with children – but the highlights for me were a huge Christmas tree with model trains circling and a large map of Santa’s route (I like tracking him online on the NORAD website). My baby loved the dancing bears and skiing penguins, but a sense of foreboding grew over us as we inched closer to the main event. Various elves tried to prep us for seeing Santa, even shooting some practice shots along the Santaland landscape. Spoiler alert: I think there might be more than one Santa, though the process of being ushered into Santa’s lodge is well-choreographed enough so you can ignore all the identical lodges and sounds of photos being snapped. We watched a family in front of us with an 8-month-old baby – still happy to play along with his parents’ excitement to take pictures of him with a stranger – and I made a note to drag my husband along next time to help wrangle and document the process. Vera began reacting like a cartoon dog going to the vet, whimpering and pawing at me, desperate to not be put on the lap of this man. Despite the best efforts of the high-quality Santa and elf photographer, we couldn’t get a happy shot.

A few minutes and $20 later, we had our official 2012 Santaland portrait (I opted for no photo mugs this year). “Don’t you like any of them?” a concerned elf asked as I slowly looked through the contact sheet. “Oh no, they are awesome! Every child needs their first crying-with-Santa photo!” I replied. I was proud that Vera had now entered the pantheon of scared of Santa photos, a proud tradition all over the world for many generations. I’m not sure I’ll return in Christmases future if I don’t live in NYC, but I’ll proudly wear my “Santaland 2012″ pin, at least until December 24.

Macy’s Santaland Herald Square is open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Christmas Eve, December 24. Download the Macy’s app to book an “express” visit to Santa.

[Photo credits: Meg Nesterov]

Antarctica’s Tallest Peak Captured, North Pole Not So Much

Antarctica

Antarctica is our planet’s southernmost continent and home to the South Pole, permanent manned research stations, penguins and an occasional adventure cruise ship expedition. This time of year, a lot of attention traditionally goes to Earth’s North Pole, home of Santa and the gang. But NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory recently passed over Antarctica’s tallest peak, Mount Vinson, as we see in this photo.

On October 22, 2012, during a flight over the continent to measure changes in the massive ice sheet and sea ice, NASA captured this image as part of its ongoing program.NASA’s Airborne Science Program at the University of North Dakota manages operations of NASA’s DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory aircraft, which collects data for the world’s scientific community. The DC-8 flies three primary missions: sensor development, satellite sensor verification and basic research studies of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

Operation IceBridge is a multi-year airborne campaign to watch changes in the Earth’s polar ice caps in both the Antarctic and Arctic. Mount Vinson is located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica.

The North and South poles are the two points where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects with its surface. While the South pole actually exists in a physical place on Antarctica, the North Pole is really in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in waters covered with sea ice almost year-round … except for around Christmas time when Santa, Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and elves are busy with the holidays.

NASA has tried repeatedly to photograph Santa’s home but cannot come up with more than an image of ice and snow.

“NASA’s Terra satellite was able to piece together a number of images it took to give us a complete look at the North Pole, which is usually very difficult to see by satellites, so Santa can keep his exact location secret,” says NASA captioning this Flickr photo.

[Photo Credit: NASA]

See Santa Differently With Fun Alternative Events

see santa

A trip to see Santa is part of the holidays for many families with children. Mixed in with shopping at a local mall or a special trip just to visit with Santa and his elves, reindeer or even Mrs. Claus, it’s a required part of holiday tradition. But if standing in a long line has lost a bit of its luster, some alternative events might be worth the trip for a Santa experience like no other.

Santa In The Park- Minnesota
In Minnesota, they know all about cold, snowy holiday weather. On December 8, the Carver County Parks and Carver County Historical Society have a great alternative for standing in line for an hour for three minutes with Santa at the mall. Featuring free snowshoe trails (conditions permitting), holiday trivia games, holiday treat decorating, holiday face painting and more, a variety of family focused holiday activities are available on Saturday, Dec. 8 between 3-5 p.m. Lake Minnewashta Regional Park

Heights And Lights- Connecticut
Here comes Santa Claus, Here comes Santa Claus, rappelling from 22 stories high above Stamford Downtown. Watch and cheer for Santa Claus as he makes his daredevil descent, twisting and flying from the top of one of Stamford’s tallest buildings, Landmark Square, at Heights and Lights. Next, follow Santa up Bedford Street to Latham Park for an evening of holiday fun with live music, and join in the countdown of the annual lighting of Stamford’s Holiday Tree. Sunday, December 2, 2012, 5 p.m.High-Speed Santa– Connecticut
Board the locomotive-powered sleigh of the Essex Steam Train for a one-of-a-kind holiday experience aboard festive railway cars adorned with vintage decorations, as Santa and Mrs. Claus visit each child. Rudolph and Pablo the Penguin will be on board to spread holiday cheer. Plus, each child will receive a small holiday gift from Santa’s Elves. Happening now through December 23, tickets start at $20 per person for the one-hour ride with departures at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and 11:30 a.m. on select operating days.

Skydiving Santa Arrives- Texas
Galveston’s Moody Gardens has a Festival of Lights that has become a Texas holiday tradition. Visitors enjoy more than 1 million lights within 100 sound-enhanced animated light displays and nightly live entertainment. Hosting the area’s only outdoor ice-skating rink and a new ice slide, Santa is on hand too, arriving via parachute as we see in this video:



[Photo Credit- Flickr user Bart Fields]