Palo Aboard the Disney Magic

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

No cruise aboard the Disney Magic would be complete without a visit to Palo, the specialty restaurant that wraps majestically around the ship’s stern on Deck Ten. Here is a chance to escape (if that is the right word) from the laughing children and the happy (if mute) costumed Disney characters — a chance to dress up and enjoy being a sophisticated adult.

Colorful masks are part of the decor at Palo. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

The word “palo” means “pole” Italian and the restaurant takes its culinary theme from Venice. The reception area is lined with the fanciful masks worn during the Carnivale de Venezia, although the Italian theme fades away once you are led to your seat by one of the wait staff, which hails from all corners of the globe, primarily Europe.

There is a $20 per person supplementary charge for dining at Palo, but the quality of the food, the view (for those with a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows) and the personalized service more than justify the expense. There is more good news on the expense front — the wine list and the prices are pretty much those you’ll find in the main dining rooms.

We found the food to be quite good. A tasty risotto, buttery osso buco, and perfectly done fish were fitting preludes to sinfully rich desserts.

Dining at Palo.

After dinner, we were glad we had thought to book a brunch at Palo later in the voyage. This is a brunch buffet to put all other shipboard buffets to shame. Yes, there are the usual calorie-laden pastries, but those who choose to eat more sensibly won’t be disappointed. I especially enjoyed the grilled and marinated vegetables of all descriptions.

In addition to the buffet offerings, Palo’s brunch offers a number of prepared-to-order hot dishes. You can choose a breakfast omelet or lean to the lunch side of the concept with a nicely rendered veal saltimbocca.

And of course, there are desserts, all in sensibly sized portions that encourage you to sample two. Or three. Or four.

Palo bookings should be made the instant you firm up your sailing. We had the luxury of a 15-night transatlantic crossing and, perhaps because of that, neither of our meals were sold out, so we got a window table both times. I was told that on other nights, the restaurant was quite full. Of course, on shorter three- and four-day sailings, space is probably at a premium. So it’s a good idea to choose an early seating. Dinner hours are from 6 to 9 p.m. Brunch (only on cruises of four nights or longer) is from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Palo is not without its minor problems. We found the service could be a bit smothering, but that may simply have been because when we dined the restaurant was far from full. Tablemates from our regular dining rotation reported being offended by guests arriving in shorts and flip-flops, while a woman at the next table carried on a loud, 10-minute cell phone conversation — on speakerphone, no less. Apparently, the staff is powerless to enforce the stated dress code or normal restaurant decorum.

Still, the odds against your encountering problems like this are slim and shouldn’t dissuade you from making your booking as early as possible. Palo will very likely be one of the non-child-related highlights of your Disney Magic voyage.

Disney Magic Sails To Dry Dock

Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

After 15 years at sea, millions of martinis and untold vats of vino and barrels of beer — not to mention the intense partying of a whole menagerie of costumed characters — the Disney Magic is going into rehab. Make that refurbishment.

The Magic has been prettied up before, the last time just five years ago during a two-week or so dusting and cleaning. But this time the overhaul will be much more extensive, lasting more than a month.

Word is the “new” Magic will be much different. The stylish and sedate décor that harkened back to an earlier era will give way to a more modern, colorful, contemporary look. Parrot Cay, which one cast member told me was rated the least favorite restaurant by passengers, will be replaced with a Brazilian-style churrascaria. Animators Palate will be redone to take advantage of the latest technology, so the transformation that has wowed so many passengers in the past should be even more amazing. And the Topsider casual dining venue will be completely overhauled and extended out over the stern of the ship.

I was fortunate enough to join the Magic for its last transatlantic crossing prior to entering dry dock in Cadiz, Spain. From June to September, the ship will ply the western Mediterranean out of Barcelona. So if you want to see the Magic as she used to be, this is your last chance.

Truth to tell, the Magic can use a little TLC, even short of a major revamping. Carpets have faded, paint has chipped, and rust pops up here and there. What hasn’t suffered the ravages of time is the incredible Disney service, which has made the line so successful in an era where gigantism and overkill seem to be the watchword for cruise ships.

A transatlantic sailing offers many contrasts to the shorter 3-, 4-, and 7-day itineraries most guests are used to. For a start, the large number of sea days (10 on our crossing from Galveston to Barcelona) offers a chance to get to know the ship intimately. It’s also possible to enjoy the luxury of dining at Palo two or more times!

Another noticeable difference was the relative absence of children. There were 400 on our voyage, as opposed to the 2,000 that throng the shorter Caribbean itineraries. Of course, the Disney characters were still kept busy, since it seemed every adult on board wanted their picture taken with the whole lot of them. I couldn’t help thinking that the profits from

Docking at Castaway Cay (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

photos alone make these sailings a sure-fire money mill.

As you might suspect, Disney doesn’t stint on the entertainment. Rather than recycling the same performers and shows, the Magic flew in a dazzling variety of specialty acts to keep things fresh during the long stretch from Castaway Cay to Madeira. All this in addition to the Broadway-style spectacles put on by the ship’s core company.

Speaking of Castaway Cay, during the stop there, the Dream dropped by to salute the Magic on its voyage to dry dock. It offered guests the rare chance to see two Disney ships at Castaway Cay at the same time.

Of course, a long open-ocean voyage can have its drawbacks. Rough seas have been a problem on some trips, but ours was smooth as glass. The only choppy patch, interestingly enough, was between Madeira and Gibraltar.

It was hard to leave the ship after 14 days, but we made new friends whom we will surely see again. Indeed, this is one of the nicest souvenirs any Disney cruise has to offer.

Santorini: A Sliver of Its Former Self

Houses in Fira and other Santorini towns are like frosting atop the crater wall that frames the island’s ancient volcanic caldera. The switchback road that takes visitors from water level to Fira is visible at right.

FIRA, Greece — Only 3,000 people live in Fira, the capital of the Greek island of Santorini. For that matter, the population of the entire island is only 15,000.

Santorini is a small place, but its 29 square miles are a fraction of what the island was, say, 4,000 years ago.

Estimated dates vary, but sometime around 1620 B.C., the Santorini volcano blew off its top big time, wiping out the greater part of a larger roughly circular island, creating the crescent-shaped island we see today with near-vertical walls that encircle part of the world’s largest water-filled caldera.

The volcano remains active and, since the big blowup, has produced a few small new islands that dot the caldera.

This spring, I traveled with a small press group aboard Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal. To visit Santorini, we sailed right into the caldera, where the ship remained at anchor during our few hours ashore. Our tour guide assured us the volcano is not expected to stage another big one anytime soon.

The approach itself was impressive, to put it mildly. The island’s communities of mostly white houses look like

Tourists sailing into Santorini’s volcanic crater can easily see the switchback road (at left) that takes them from water level to Fira, the island’s capital, well above the sea. A pleasure boat idles in the foreground.

frosting on top of the striated rocks that remained standing after the historic eruption so many centuries ago. This cliff rises 700 to as much as 1,000 feet straight out of the water.

Once our ship dropped anchor, passengers traveled to and from a Santorini dock on tenders, meaning enclosed motorized boats that held dozens of passengers each.

There are three ways to travel up the caldera wall to the towns that sit at the island’s highest points. We rode buses up the side of that wall, on switchback roads, a route one would not want to study too closely.

Another option is a cable car, which we enjoyed for its expediency when returning to the ship. Donkeys are the third option, but they never would have been my choice!

A city view that makes clear where Fira, Santorini’s capital, is situated — at the top of a steep bluff overlooking the water-filled caldera left by a colossal volcanic eruption more than 3,600 years ago.

Once on top of Santorini, our small group headed immediately out of Fira, north and then west, to Oia, the village at the farthest tip of the island. We drove fairly close to the inside of the curve of the crescent-shaped island, and hence the highest part.

At its narrowest, the island is only one mile across. On one side, we could see agricultural activity. There is no such activity down the sheer cliff that faces the ancient volcanic caldera. Both Fira and Oia overlook that precipice.

Our guide described how a building is typically built here to deal with Mother Nature’s foibles. Vaulted roofs are meant to provide some resilience in the event of quakes in this quake-prone area. And, due to a

shortage of fresh water, other roofs are flat, to collect water that drains into cisterns.

Almost all houses have been white since the late 1930s, when locals were instructed to disinfect houses with whitewash. People now use real paint, and, conveniently, the white makes for cooler houses, as well.

Before the 1930s, buildings were the color of the rocks (dark, volcanic) to be less visible to approaching pirates. In fact, some homes were, and are, in caves, which would be cool and

certainly less visible to any pirates.

One of the more than 400 churches on the island of Santorini, this one in the town of Oia.

There are more than 400 churches on the island, but many are quite small.

It is very windy on Santorini, too. Hence, we saw a smattering of windmills, of the type

Two windmills amid houses, churches and shops on the side of the hill at Oia, at the tip of the crescent-shaped Santorini.

we had seen previously on other Greek islands. Also, because of the wind, at least some winegrowers have coaxed their vines to grow in circles close to the ground, thus producing a kind of basket to protect the grapes.

You can’t make this up. We saw such grapevine baskets.

It would seem Mother Nature is always going to extremes here. In 1956, a mighty earthquake wiped out the majority of buildings so the towns have been basically rebuilt in the last 50 years or so.

Once in Oia, we were turned loose to walk up and down the narrow lanes that passed for streets, to photograph the white houses (and residents’ backyards) that stream down the side of the Santorini cliff.

From a ruined Venetian fort on a spit of land, I got my best photos of a stunning collection of houses, restaurants, churches and windmills. It was a photographer’s paradise, and I felt I was shooting photos for tourist posters.

One of the businesses, often shops or galleries, seen during a stroll through Fira, Santorini’s capital.

There was not a lot of time for any of this — we were off the ship less than four hours — so we soon returned to Fira for a very short walk along what were, again, narrow pedestrian streets and onto restaurant terraces with sometimes startling views down into the caldera.

It was windy in Fira, and as the sun was setting, it became chilly, too. I guess that was our clue that it was time to leave.

There is always something to come back for in places like this. In Santorini’s case, that would be the ruins of a Minoan city called Akrotiri, described by boosters as “beating anything on Crete.” I don’t know if Akrotiri beats the Knossos Palace and would like to find out some day.

But I was interested to learn that when archaeologists excavated this city, which predated the volcanic eruption of more than 3,600 years ago, they found no bodies. Apparently, before the Santorini volcano did its worst, it had given enough warning that Akrotiri residents realized they should seek refuge elsewhere.

A souvenir shop located near the cable car in Fira, Santorini’s capital.

Other ports of call included Istanbul, Izmir and Kusadasi for Ephesus in Turkey and Mykonos, Patmos, Rhodes, Athens, and Crete, in Greece.

The article and photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.