Pre-Cruise: Our Night in San Diego
We drove the same old 15 from Las Vegas almost all the way down to San Diego, waving at the beloved 91 "Beach Cities" exit as we passed. As sick as I am of 15, it was all new to us after this point, and the mountains then the median oleanders were lovely to see.

A little nervous of hitting too many new (and thus slightly intimidating) freeways too close to rush hour, I cut across 56 to Highway 5, so we could at least come into town by Shelter Island, where we had a room at the Kona Kai Resort for the night before the cruise.

Because I'm uncouth and willing to discusses prices, we paid $89 for a regular King plus free parking, a steal with the AAA discount. (Even the hotel clerk gasped a little and asked how we got that rate before noticing the AAA designation.) I did a spreadsheet (of course) when I was researching hotels, starting with looking at the ones that do "snooze and cruise deals." (This is where you can park your car at the hotel for a reduced price while on your cruise.) Even with paying for parking elsewhere, the Kona Kai seemed like the best deal. I loved the idea of being little secluded at the end of this small yet easily accessible island, with a marina on one side and a small park then the ocean on another. (Part of the planning process included driving the streets in Google Earth.) It looked like it would be quaint yet classy. ("You stay classy, San Diego!")

The Kona Kai Resort did not disappoint. From the moment we circled the fountain in the parking lot, I knew I better put a bra on before heading into the lobby. (That's my new thing: no more staying in the harness on long road trips.)

They gave us a lovely end room on the top floor, overlooking the ocean. When I think about it, though, it's hard to imagine a bad view in the hotel. Every room faces the marina or the ocean, although some lower floor rooms have more immediate views of the courtyard (also nice) or the parking lot (which at least is small and boasts the sea in the near background).

Kona Kai - Balcony

Kona Kai - View

The room itself was clean and comfortable, with a light island theme. (Pineapple-studded headboard and breezy decor.) Sometimes I think we travel just for the king beds.

Kona Kai - Bed

With our couple of stops (traditional petch-up in Victorville, Mike's unexpected and warily granted foray into the Jack in the Box at Baker), and the near-still traffic of the last fifteen miles on I-5 then CA-209, the journey took about six hours from top to toe. I swore we'd be eating in the hotel restaurant that night.

But, within the hour I was strangely rarin' again. I fired up the Kindle to read over the directions to a recommended Indian joint downtown. (Along with directions to every other contigency - the 15 cents to email that Word doc to the Kindle was a dime and a nickel well spent.) Uh huh. Uh huh. Got it.

We were headed to the Gaslamp Quarter via Harbor Road. Or Harbor Boulevard. Or Harbor Street. Maybe even Harbor Avenue. I'm not going to look it up. Mike finds this odd, and he claims that, in Australia, you'll never get people dropping off the street-type the way we do here. I can't imagine. Heck, a person's lucky if I even say the whole name of the street. ("Trop runs parallel to Dee Eye," reformatted for Australians, would be "Tropicana Avenue runs parallel to Desert Inn Road." And I thought they were a laid-back people?)

Traveling along Harbor Drive (Ooo - the one I didn't guess!) was pleasant and restful. Oh, the sea. One glimpse and I wonder how I can stand living in the desert. I wonder what other feelings my brain is hiding from me.

This was also an opportunity to see where the cruise terminal was and where we'd be parking tomorrow. Five minutes away and easy-peasy: hooray.

The Gaslamp was just moments beyond, our destination being just outside Horton Plaza. But after several minutes of circling the one-way streets, we realized our destination was Horton Plaza. Specifically, its big and busy parking garage. Street parking, even on a Wednesday night, was practically a contact sport.

In our bay on the "chili" level (it's a veggie-themed garage that doesn't quite mesh with all the Cinnabon and Macy's energy inside), we ventured back down, just outside to F and 4th.

The Star of India Indian Restaurant was almost right upon us.

Star of India - Exterior

As were at least two other Indian places, with more on the streets beyond, but we'd made up our minds. Still, a few head-swivels around the Gaslamp and a move to San Diego seems like a reasonable item for discussion.

A couple dined outside, but - being fans of air conditioning (it even says so on Facebook) - we went inside. The seats were plush, and even when other diners arrived and were seated next to us, we didn't feel crowded. It is a small place, though - small but cute - and I do wonder where they manage to set up the daily lunch buffet.

Star of India - Mike

Their website did not make false promises. The food was sumptuous. We began with vegetable samosas.

Star of India - Vegetable Samosas

I gauge samosas first on whether they emit a heavenly fragrance. These passed both the nose and the mouth tests.

The only bad thing about eating a regular dinner at an Indian restaurant is that you can't get a little of this, a little of that, like you can with lunch buffet. It's not the unlimited food I crave - the portions at dinner are fine - but the variety. However, at $12-16 per dish, Mike couldn't justify getting chicken and paneer. (Plus we had no place for the leftovers.) So, we got a second appetizer ("We're on vacation!") in the form of paneer pakora:

Star of India - Paneer Pakora

I've long been a fan of other pakora, especially cauliflower pakora. I'd never had cheese-based pakora before. Would it just taste like mozz sticks from Sonic?

Not at all. As you can see, the bites were small and the batter was smooth. They were accompanied by two chutneys: mint and tamarind. Both were tasty and only more hastily facilitated the rapid slide of defenseless pakora into my gob, although at some point I did recall that I'm The Girl with the Now-and-Again Gallbladder Attacks, and I pushed the nubs toward Mike with Herculean woe.

I somehow forgot to take a photo of Mike's dish, the butter chicken, and apparently The Best Butter Chicken Mike Has Had Since Coming to the States. It was even served with a dollop of butter on top - nice.

I had the mattar paneer, spelled many different ways, but always equaling peas-n-cheese in gravy.

Star of India - Mattar Paneer

I thought it was terrific. Lightly fragrant and rich, and plenty of it.

The only problem was that my meds were making me queasy. At first I thought it was the pyridine. Then I thought it was the ciprofloxacin. Then, through the timeless practice of empirical research, I realized it was both. Great. Was it too soon to start taking Dramamine?

The waves came and went, but overall the food helped. One dish that suffered the perils of Rx, though, was the garlic naan.

Star of India - Garlic Naan

Mike loved it, and I loved the look of it, but it came to the table on the crest of my own urghlemrgle war, and I could never get into it after that. I think I wanted the reassuring comfort of more pillowy naan, and this was putting more woozy smells and stimulus in my face. In other words, I wasn't keen on the naan, finding it more of an aggressive dish of its own than a complement, but I think that's totally my fault and that normally I would've really enjoyed it. (It is one of their house specialities.)

Reluctantly we left, quite full but still oddly energized (and me feeling much better), and we successfuly navigated the strident hard-sell of a young miss on the corner, fundraising (as she eventually revealed) from I had a rant here about her tactics and how she quite successfully turned me from a jolly potential donor to someone who remembers why those passionate about good things in this world sometimes make you just want to curl up in a selfish ball and roll away, but said rant was - predictably - as long as the rest of the review and, for once, I'm just dropping it. Other than to say, EQCA and/or its designated representatives suck,.

We ducked into Horton Plaza proper, set on making a purchase so we could get the parking validated. (Otherwise, it's $2 every fifteen minutes.) Online reviews express much vitriol towards this garage, but - having been a meter-victim in other cities - I thought it worked well. Especially since, as it turns out, you don't even have to make a purchase to get the parking validated. You just plug your ticket into the machine just past the elevators.

Horton Plaza - Parking Validation

There you go. Three hours of free parking, no purchase, and you don't even have to wander into the actual shopping area. Then, when you leave, they have automated express lanes as well as booths. I'm a fan.

However, we did end up buying something - Kookaburra red licorice and Swedish fish for Mike. (So, it was extra amusing when we got on the ship the next day and found that they sell bulk candy as well, although their licorice was black. Bleh. Can't abide black licorice.)

We took the scenic route back to the room, enjoying the posh lobby and the open courtyard. And in the swimming pool? Duckies!

Kona Kai Resort - Mike by Hot Tub and Pool

The hot tub was large and inviting, but it was time to wind down. We flopped back in the room and indulged in a little pay-per-view: Confessions of a Shopaholic. Watchable and harmless, but so unlike the books that I may as well have been watching an entirely new story. Why, especially with the success of Bridget Jones' Diary, they felt the need to Americanize it is confusing. Why they made any of the big changes is confusing - Luke Brandon as her boss (it's been done), Evil Alicia as a mere glamour girl (goodbye subplot!), a fashion magazine as her dream job (too facile), a childhood with penny-pinching parents (so long, subtlety), and turning Derek Smeathe into a Mean Ole Debt Collector that Becky "shows up" in the end, instead of a rightfully frustrated bank manager who turns into a surprising ally once the debt is paid? That was a bit unforgiveable.

We slept well.

I woke up a bit early the next morning, partly out of rest, partly out of excitement, and partly hoping I could see the Elation come in to port. I tried asking ChaCha what time that might happen, and the runaround was so bad that I ended up sending them a nastygram, telling them they bloody well COULD answer my question, as I'd even given them the webcam link to check and see for me if the Elation was in port yet, and charging me for "additional responses" when they were asking questions about info already provided (when, where, ship's name) then saying there was no way to tell if a ship was in port (again, I - having undergone ChaCha training myself - gave them the link!) was just Bad Form.

(A couple of hours later I got a response from ChaCha, telling me the Elation was in port. Well, duh. People suck. Meanwhile, I've decided to stop italicizing Elation, because it will subtract years from my fingers before this trip report is done.)


Mike slept on, while I sat on the balcony and played with the long lens, greeted by more duckies:

Kona Kai Resort - Duckies

And sweet little birds:

Kona Kai Resort - Sweet Bird

And a number of watercraft sailing just across the lawn, but here's where the photos end. I'd planned to take proper photos of the pretty marina and flowers around the hotel, but I was distracted by the yippity-yee-haw-ness of the cruise. That happened throughout the entire trip, in fact. Can you believe I only shot 3 gigs of photos overall?!

Checking out of the Kona Kai Resort was easy, and I already regretted that we spent so little time on Shelter Island. It's such a great location if you're going to cruise or fly - close to everything, yet tucked away. (The hotel does a shuttle for both.) We didn't get to walk the beach or get a close view of the friendship bell, but just the peaceful location and view alone was worth it.

As I checked out, the clerk - Trudi - asked, with more sincerity in her voice than one usually hears, if we had a good stay. Then she asked if I ever wrote online reviews. "Oh yes," I replied. "And... I'm a blogger."

Her whole face lit up. It seems the Kona Kai has received a few bad reviews, and they were hoping that satisfied guests might offset that with some positive comments. She even handed me a little card from the hotel with several popular sites listed on it, as well as the hotel's thanks for sharing our good experiences.

I had, of course, read the reviews before booking the room, and hadn't thought they were bad - maybe because the negative ones seemed to focus on unreasonable expectations (people, check a map before you choose a hotel) or one-off situations that could happen anywhere. I had the option of other good AAA rates on Shelter Island, so I didn't pick Kona Kai without considering the reviews. However, after staying at the resort, I can see why they'd be troubled by any less-than-stellar reviews, especially when there aren't that many resorts for the property out there.

In short, I'd say that the Kona Kai is almost like a large boutique hotel, not as slick and boxy as its neighbours (and I really have nothing against slick and boxy), but with a intimate, pretty, yet professional appearance. All of the amenities (restaurant, room service, pool, meeting areas, balconies) and then some are present, clean, and in inviting condition. The guests seemed to be mostly older, looking retired and relaxed, although there were also some families and young couples around. No one was noisy, or if they were, we didn't hear it. There's even a small beach before the marina, with several picnic tables. Our experience, however limited, was quite delightful. I'd easily stay there again.

Kona Kai didn't offer me anything in exchange for those nice words. No future discount on a stay, no winking deletion of the PPV charges. It's no more than what I would have said anyway (although I am throwing in the resort by name a few more times than usual, just to keep this page's head above the Google waters). Perhaps at some less lazy date I'll do a better writeup on one of those travel sites, as the hotel does deserve a little better buzz, and I'm really pleased with them for being so pro-active in quietly encouraging the happy wheels to give off a few squeaks.

And so, we headed for the Cruise Ship Terminal.

Cruise Ship Terminal - Port of San Diego

We had decided in advance to park in the lot right across from the ship. Yes, it's $15 day, as opposed to ~$10/day-with-coupon and a shuttle ride from somewhere yonder, but it's right there. I was going to book a spot in advance, as you do with the cheaper places, but an email from the company assured me that the lot never fills up. Still, it was pretty full, and you can see plenty of people leaving the Elation to return to their cars:

Departing Cruisers

Me, I also liked the idea of walking right off the ship and to our car when the cruise was done. (And yes, by the time we disembarked a few days later, it certainly felt worth the extra $5 day. Mind you, we might have felt differently on a longer cruise.)

I Can See Our Car from Here

View from the ship. We're in the third row, centerish, the blue hatchback with the sunbeam marking it.

Ah, the elation of the Elation!

Or, if you hate video, enjoy the still:

Mike in front of Carnival Elation

That Aussie voice you hear just at the end of the video was Stuart Dunn, our Cruise Director, telling those last people still on board that it was, alas, time for them to leave. We never actually met Stu during our cruise, but we really didn't meet anybody, which is an upcoming story.

And those grey skies are called "June Gloom," a phenomenon that the sunshine-slaves hate but, of course, we thought was flippin' fantastic.

We were still an hour, hour-and-a-half, away from that time when "those in the know" try to check in early. So, why not walk over to the USS Midway, maybe take a tour?

Mike and the Midway

The back end is undergoing some refurbishment.

The amble was pleasant, the ship interesting, but we quickly decided against the tour. We were too excited about the cruise, and it would be a disservice to rush our way through the Midway. Instead, we sat on stumps at the end of its pier and looked at both it and the USS Nimitz across the way. And at the Elation. Look at those Verandah rooms! Those would be our rooms! (Albeit on the other side of the ship.) Was it time yet? Was it time?

Oh, what the heck - it's time!

20 June 2009 |