MSC Seaside Day One: Third Time’s a Charm — Pre-cruise experience and embarkation

This is the first installment of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow review of our September 14-21, 2019 cruise on the MSC Seaside. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the “long form,” there is an intro/overview that hits the highlights HERE.

WARNING: As those who read my previous reviews know, this is going to be long. For some, it will be TL;DR, and that’s okay. If you don’t have the patience to wade through the whole thing or don’t really want all the gory details, I did a summary/overview of the cruise by topic (butler service, lounge, restaurant, parties, shows, etc.). To read that first, or instead, click HERE

After two previous cruises on this ship, embarkation day felt less like an adventure than like a homecoming – but that made it no less exciting. On September 14th, my husband (Tom) and I boarded Seaside for my third time and his second, hoping for an experienced that matched that of a year ago. It (mostly) exceeded our expectations.

We spent the week before the cruise anxiously tracking the weather and Hurricane Humberto in the Atlantic, but he ended up cooperating and bypassing both Miami and the ports of call scheduled for our cruise, although the northern Bahamas weren’t so lucky.

MOON OVER MIAMI: THE PRE-CRUISE EXPERIENCE

Thursday, September 12th

We flew to Miami a couple of days early this time, to enjoy the lovely Doubletree by Hilton Grand Hotel at Biscayne Bay. We spent the night before the cruise there the previous September and loved the room and the view. This time, we got an even better suite with the same amazing view of the Bay.

As before, the hotel staff members were friendly and accommodating. We highly recommend this hotel to anyone looking for a nice upscale-but-not-crazy-expensive place to stay before a cruise.

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We had a corner suite with a nice, spacious living room, separate bedroom, marble bathroom and a balcony overlooking the Bay, from which  you can see the cruise terminals and ships across the bridge when they’re in port.

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We got into town late afternoon on Thursday before the cruise on Saturday. That first day we enjoyed a nice walk around the dog park down by the waterfront, and racked up plenty of steps on our smart watch fitness apps.

then went to dinner at Casablanca, the seafood restaurant that’s in the same building as the hotel. Just like last year, the food was excellent, and so was the atmosphere. At 6:00 pm on a Thursday, we were almost the only customers.

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Friday, September 13th

Yes, it was Friday the 13th. What better day to go test your luck betting on the ponies? We spent most of Friday at Gulfstream Park racetrack. Tom is a major horse racing fan, we’re Texas thoroughbred owners, and seeing them run at Gulfstream has been on his bucket list for a long time.

The weather was great, the facilities there are very nice, and we had a nice, relaxed lunch in Ten Palms restaurant that overlooks the track and even won a little money on a couple of long shots.

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IMG_20190913_192735.jpgThat night, back at the hotel, we weren’t especially hungry (having had the huge and delicious dinner the night before and a hearty lunch (lobster roll for me and a big burger for him) at the track, so we just grabbed some takeout from the deli downstairs and ate in our room. I had chicken curry and creamed spinach, both of which were surprisingly good and cost about 1/3 of the price of my meal the night before.

We’d had a great time in Miami, but that was only the appetizer and both of us were looking forward to the main course: seven days in the Seaside Yacht Club.

Saturday, September 14th

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Saturday dawned overcast and cloudy, with intermittent rain predicted throughout the day. We checked out of the hotel around 10:30 to make it to the port around the time boarding usually starts at 11:00. Of course it was raining when we arrived, but our Uber driver dropped us off right at the Yacht Club tent out by the curb, so we only got a little wet.

The check-in process was quick and easy, as is the norm with YC (and indeed, according to what I’ve heard, with MSC in general – recent post-transatlantic sailing on Meraviglia being a notable exception). Our bags were tagged and whisked away, and a butler escorted us through security, up the escalator, and across to the YC embarkation lounge, where we were greeted with champagne and pastries to enjoy during our short wait. There we found with some folks I’d met through our sail date specific Facebook group (who, coincidentally enough, are also from the DFW area), and they were kind enough to take a photo of us together under the Yacht Club sign.
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It wasn’t long before we were called to the desk to complete check-in (passport check, quick photo snap, and we got our key cards and wristbands. It was good to have that “magic wristband” that opens all the special doors back on my arm again.

Soon we were on our way upstairs, a small group of us following behind the butler as he led us past all the lines and onto the ship and into the priority elevator.  As usual, we got our share of dirty looks from the non-YC folks as the butler cleared the way for us to whisk past their lines and swiped his card to call the priority elevator service. It’s one of the very few down sides of being in the Yacht Club (and a very minor one).

seaside atrium (18)There was no time for us to stop and stare when we entered the atrium, but even though I’d seen it before, I wanted to. That multi-deck multi-screen array above the stage always makes an awesome impression.

But there would be plenty of time to gawk at the ever-changing displays over the course of the next week. As beautiful as the ship’s public areas are, the real thrill upon boarding is getting up to the top and front of the ship, to the very special little enclave reserved for Yacht Club guests that makes the “ship within a ship” experience so worth the extra cost.

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Off the elevator on deck 16, through the access-controlled doors, a brief stop at the concierge desk for quick introductions, and then a walk down the starboard side corridor to the Top Sail lounge – and it felt like coming home. Not only because the place itself is so familiar to me now, but because of the staff/crew members who rushed to greet us as if we were long-lost relatives back home for the reunion.  The amazing thing about MSC, to me, is that they made me feel that way even on my very first time to cruise on the line, and it has only gotten better each time.  The blog post I wrote in March 2018, La mia famiglia: my new MSC family, now feels more real and accurate than ever.

Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire.

No matter where you go or where you turn, you will always end up at home.

(Italian proverb)

When we got to the lounge, we found that someone else had already beat us to “my” corner, deep in the back of the port side of the lounge – but no worries, I would reclaim it soon enough and spend many wonderful hours there in the coming days. We met our butler, Primas, along with Ysabella, who would quickly become our favorite server in the Top Sail lounge. We met the maitre d’, Ercan and I put in my request for Christian Garcia as our waiter, since I had heard from several of those on recent sailings that he was one of the best (and they were proven correct).

20190914_120445We settled into another small group of chairs – in the shaded part of the lounge – and ordered our first drinks of the day. For me, that meant a Bailey’s Banana Colada (BBC), and it was delicious. There is something about that first drink on the ship that makes it all real: yes, you are finally here and the fun is just beginning.  And of course, in the Yacht Club where those drinks are “free” (well, okay – included in the cruise fare), the symbolic value of that initial sip is even  higher. Pampered but not pretentious. That’s how I sum up the Yacht Club experience (see, I can actually be succinct when I want to).

I left my drink and carry-on with Tom and went to the concierge desk to make a change to our specialty restaurant reservations. I had pre-booked the Discover Roy’s dining trio online, but the confirmation email showed different dates than the ones I had requested (much as I love MSC, I have to admit that their web site leaves something to be desired).

Miguel at the concierge desk quickly and efficiently made those changes, and by the time I got back to the lounge, Primas was there to tell us that our suite was ready, and to escort us to it.

Location, Location, Location

We were in cabin #16006 this time. It’s identical in layout, decor, and furnishing to the other two YC1 (Yacht Club deluxe suites) I’ve stayed in: 16003 and 16022. Unlike in 022 last September, the sofa wasn’t “broken” (that one had a cushion that would not stay in place and I kept sliding off of it).

 

 

I have to say I liked the location of this stateroom most of the three, although I had been uncertain about that before boarding. It’s true that booking a deluxe suite next door to one of the Royal Suites (which 16022 was) increases the likelihood of getting one of the best butlers, since they seem to be assigned to the Royals and those cabins surrounding them. However, all three of the butlers I’ve had were good, and what I loved about 006 is its easy access to the lounge.

16003, which I stayed in on my first Seaside cruise in February 2018, is on the port side of the ship. The good thing about that is that it feels a tad more private. But that’s because there is no access to the lounge in that hallway (or at least there wasn’t on that sailing; I’ve heard some people talk about using the crew/fire door recently).

Both 022 and 006 are on the starboard side, where there is a “double hallway” – the more open public one that leads to the lounge (if you go forward) and the concierge desk and YC area exit (if you go toward the aft) and an inner hallway that opens on the staterooms. Another plus about the starboard side is that there are no rooms across the hall from you as there are in part of the port side (those on the opposite side of the hall are the YINs – Yacht Club interiors). image

There is a door right across from our cabin’s, though. It has a small sign at the top that says “crew usage” or something to that effect, but we soon learned that nobody minded if we used it to get out into the outer hallway instead of walking all the way down to the “official” glass doors and then back in the other direction. In fact, our butlers held that door for us whenever they saw us leaving or coming back. This made it super quick and easy to get to the lounge so we really appreciated that convenience, especially on a couple of evenings when we’d had a generous allocation of the “free” spirits.

In the deck plan on the left, the green line represents the glass door that is the obvious ingress/egress for guests whose cabins are in that starboard side section. The purple lines represent the “secret” crew doors that make it much more convenient to get to the Top Sail without having to backtrack.  There is another guest door across from the small left turn in the hallway across from the Royal Suite, which I didn’t mark on the diagram.

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You can also see the YC interiors on the deck plan; these are the gray colored cabins, whose doors open directly across from deluxe suites 16021, 027, 029 and 041. In most cases, this won’t be a problem, but it does introduce an additional possibility of a noisy neighbor that you don’t have when your room is on the starboard side.

My next booked cruise on Seaside is in suite 16009, which is back on the port side. I’m solo on that one, and I don’t really mind the walk (more steps for my fitness app on my smart watch to record), but any time I book a deluxe suite on Seaside with my husband in the future, I plan to get one of those starboard side cabins close to the front on deck 16 if I can. As they’re always saying in the real estate business, it’s all about “location, location, location.”

A (state)room with a view

The YC1 cabins on Seaside are nice, and have some features that you don’t get on some of the other ships. The balcony is deeper than standard, and none of the Yacht Club cabins have the metal balustrades that partially obstruct the view on some of the balconies near the front of the ship on Seaside’s lower decks. With the curtain drawn back, you have a beautiful view of the sea and sky from inside the room.

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PRO TIP: You can identify the partially obstructed balconies on the deck plan on MSC’s web site by color coding. If the balcony is white, as all are in the diagram of deck 16 cabins above, the balustrade is glass so you can see through it. If it’s gray, it has the metal balustrade that blocks the view up to about four feet, and if it’s blue, the balustrade is half metal and half glass.

All Yacht Club cabins on Seaside are transparent all the way down. The only “obstructions” are the bridge wings that stick out to the side (and the wings of the Top Sail above them), that slightly obstructs the view looking forward, and the mid-ship section that slightly obstructs the view looking aft if you’re in the front section. In that section, you’ll also be able to see into the hot tubs on the balconies of the YC Royal Suite and the Aurea whirlpool suites beneath them going down that mid-ship section. Not a problem for me, but some might prefer a balcony in that mid-ship section where you’ll have more of a view of only the sea. 

We don’t use the balcony much, although I do enjoy standing out there and watching as the ship leaves ports. But we rarely just sit out there when at sea, mostly because of the sun. Nonetheless, we have almost always booked cabins with balconies so we would have that full length view.

For next year, we’re booked in an executive/family suite on Divina that has a large sealed picture window instead of a balcony. The tradeoff is that it’s at the very front of the ship and gives you a view straight ahead that’s similar to the captain’s view from the bridge (on a smaller scale, of course). We’ve had such cabins before on Carnival and loved them, and this one will be better since it is a genuine suite, with separate living room and bedroom.

But I digress. Back to the Seaside and cabin 16006. On that first day, Primas escorted us to the cabin and pointed out relevant features (which we were already familiar with, having stayed in a Seaside YC1 before).  Tom asked him to keep the mini fridge stocked with vodka and the ice bucket full. The usual bottle of sparkling wine and bowl of fruit were there to greet us, along with invitations to the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle and the Captain’s Welcome Party for YC, both the next day.

 

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The time and place of the M&M has varied on my three Seaside cruises. On the first one, it was at 5:00 pm in the Haven lounge, with live music, cake, drinks, snacks, and the captain and other officers and CDs present. I was impressed, having attended CC M&Ms on Carnival ships where all the cruise line does is provide a room for you to gather in and neither officers nor CD usually attends. This time, like the second time, the party was in the Seaview lounge in the morning (10:00 a.m.), and the YC party was immediately following in the Top Sail lounge (11:00 a.m.).

I thought that first party was slightly more festive and party-like and I prefer the Haven lounge venue. However, I understand the reasoning behind the change: having it in the morning probably cuts down on the number of free drinks consumed (not an issue for YC and those with drinks packages, but a main motivator to attend for those paying for their drinks individually).

The Seaview lounge is more private and easier to control attendance and limit it to those with invitations, since the Haven is a thoroughfare between two ends of the ship. It’s also probably more convenient for the officers to block out the time for both parties in a row instead of doing one (YC Welcome) in the morning and one in the evening. And finally, people with early dining weren’t able to attend the 5:00 p.m. party unless they wanted to miss dinner seating.  On the other hand, it was nice that people were dressed up for the evening party; in the morning we were all in shorts and tee shirts so the group photo is a lot more casual. Smile

More on the parties later, and in the Day 2 installment, I’ll give a thorough description of the one on this sailing. 

Our Nespresso machine and both still (for me) and sparkling (for Tom) water were there and accounted for. I was happy to see that there was a plethora of clothes hangers in the closet, probably left from the previous occupants who sent out their laundry.

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You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too many clothes hangers.

The fact that we rarely use the balcony was one of the reasons we decided to cancel the Royal Suite with its huge balcony with hot tub, which we had originally booked for this sailing. However, I do like that the YC1 balcony on Seaside is spacious and deeper than the average balcony, and of course I love having the full-length view from inside the room.

Another thing that I love about YC1 staterooms is the bathroom – and in fact that is my biggest obstacle to doing a YIN (Yacht Club interior).  I don’t really think the smaller space or the lack of balcony/window would bother me a lot, but I will surely miss the big bathroom and generously sized shower with its bench. On the other hand, I’d choose a YIN over the biggest suite on the ship outside of the Yacht Club.

Another aside: I’m now booked in a YIN (Yacht Club interior) on the Meraviglia at the end of November, so it will be interesting to see how I feel about the smaller space, lack of a window, and the smaller and less luxurious bathroom and shower (Tune back in for that review sometime in December.

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Out and about the ship

After checking out the cabin and unpacking our carry-ons, we were ready to get out and re-explore the ship. After all, it had been a whole year since we were here last, even though it didn’t seem nearly that long (it definitely did seem that long while I was waiting for this day to arrive, though).

We hadn’t had any breakfast that morning (other than coffee at the hotel and some small pastries in the YC embarkation lounge), and we were both hungry, but not really in the mood for the restaurant, so we headed upstairs to the YC pool deck grill on deck 19 for lunch.  It was my go-to place for the noon-time meal on my first Seaside cruise, but last year when Tom was with me, he always wanted to go to the buffet so we never made it to the grill. I had made a point to tell him how great the grill was prior to this one, so he was eager to check it out.

As usual, the Yacht Club staff did not disappoint. Not only did they have the usual assortment of salads, breads, meats, veggies, fruits, and desserts, but they were also cooking freshly cooked pasta and made-to-order hamburgers. Tom apparently approved.

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In fact, Tom approved so much that we ended up eating lunch at the grill almost every day this time around – which was just fine with me. Who needs the big buffet when you have all this to choose from?

My favorite from the grill was the pesto pasta dish, which – with a nice glass of Moscato — made the perfect lunch for me. 20190914_141043.jpg

Party time

By the we finished lunch and walked around the ship a bit to rack up some steps on our fitness watches and get rid of a few of the calories, it was 3:00 p.m. and time for the first of many parties we’d go to during this sailing. This was an informal little get-together that we planned as part of our sailing-specific Facebook group, which had grown to over 125 members. Some of us had become fast (virtual) friends and I was really looking forward to meeting them in person.

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Although I didn’t ask MSC to do anything special for us, intending to just meet up in one of the public areas very informally to say hello on the first day, it turned out they put up a “private event” sign at the door of the Seaview lounge and we had it all to ourselves, which was nice.

Although there were a few who didn’t find us, or flew in late, or just plain forgot about the party in the excitement of boarding the ship, we had a pretty good turnout of our core group, and we enjoyed this first in-person meetup. Even Tom – who isn’t much of a party person – came with me and seemed to enjoy meeting the group.  And I had an excuse to wear my Kentucky Derby hat (so there would be no mistaking who I was – not that there was much chance of that, anyway).

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Drilling down

As the party came to an end, muster drill was about to begin. We were assigned to station C this time, much to my delight. That meant we mustered in the theater, and that meant we could sit comfortably while listening to the presentation on how to put on your life jacket, which – as I have come to expect from MSC – was very short and sweet despite being repeated in seven languages. Within fifteen minutes or so, we were out of there, and headed back up to our room to get ready for dinner. And that was when the first (and really the only) little glitch in our perfect cruise occurred.

Dressing down (not)

Ah, the dining room dress code. Subject of much controversy on every cruise forum. I spent years listening to the arguments in all the Carnival groups. “If you don’t want to dress up, go to the buffet.”  “I paid for my vacation so I should be able to wear whatever I want.”   “It ruins the ambiance.”  “Even five star land restaurants don’t have dress codes anymore.” “Rules are rules.” Image result for rules are rules

Honestly, I can see both sides. Personally, I love getting all spiffed up every night and I love seeing other people dressed to the nines. It does make for a different atmosphere. On the other hand, I don’t care that much what other people do. I’m certainly not going to let someone else’s clothes destroy my good time. And to me, there is a big difference between casual and elegant nights.

As is often the case in any marriage, my husband’s and my opinions on dressing for dinner aren’t always in perfect alignment.

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Traditionally, the first and last nights of a cruise are more casual than the rest. There’s a good reason for that. On the first night, people might not have gotten their checked bags delivered yet, or might not have had time to unpack them before dinner. On the last night, many people pack before dinner and the nice clothes are already put away. So it’s not unusual to see people coming to dinner on those two nights wearing clothes that, the rest of the week, would be reserved for lunch: shorts, jeans, tee shirts, etc.

Last year in the Yacht Club, the dress on casual nights during the week was what I think of as “country club.”  Where I come from (perhaps because where I come from has very hot summers), the country club casual look includes dressy shorts for men (same cut and material as dress trousers but to the knee or a little below), worn with a nice button down shirt or even a polo. Tom loved that look and comfort, and wore it to dinner on casual nights in 2018 with no problems. He bought several new pairs of dress shorts for this cruise.  And on embarkation day, he got dressed in that same outfit.country club casual

Unlike last year, the butlers are now being very proactive about escorting YC guests everywhere. Primas had asked us what time we were going to dinner, and he showed up at our door promptly on time to take us to the dining room. And that’s when things (temporarily) went south. We were halfway out the door when he said, “Oh, I’m sorry but no shorts allowed in the dining room.”

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Those who know my husband well can probably figure out how that went over. Of course, to the butler he said, “Oh, okay, sure,” and we went back inside so he could change. Where he ranted (not at me, but to me) for half an hour. I thought it was overreactive but I also understood his feelings. This had been perfectly acceptable the previous year, and this was embarkation day when casual dress is normally common. He got over it, and we eventually made it to the dining room, but it definitely did put a damper on dinner that night – especially as we watched other people come in to the dining room dressed in ratty, faded blue jeans and tee shirts that looked far, far less “refined” than his dressy shorts and dress shirt.

The next day, I made an appointment to talk to the YC director, Mandy, about it. Surely there was some mistake here. Surely the length of the pants wasn’t the only defining criteria. Surely common sense would prevail. What about Scots, some of whom like to wear their kilts to dinner?  Or is that acceptable even though it shows a man’s bare legs, because it’s more a skirt than shorts?  Could women wear skorts (what we oldies called culottes back in the day)?  They aren’t exactly shorts but as the name implies, they sort of are.Related image

All these questions are interesting but of only academic interest. My main concern was my husband’s comfort, as he is hot-natured and being able to wear short pants that keep his legs cooler really helps. I went into the meeting ready to plead my case and optimistic that the butler had been wrong, at least about embarkation day.

Alas, it didn’t matter. The Yacht Club has adopted (at least for the time being – we all know MSC policy changes often and unexpectedly) a zero-tolerance enforcement policy toward short pants. They are, at dinner time in the YC dining room, strictly forbidden. Verboten. Taboo. Banned. Proscribed. Off limits. Persona non grata. A big no-no.

Don’t get me wrong. She was nice about it. Very dispassionate, very professional. She even offered to have our dinner served from the restaurant menu in our cabin or up on the pool deck. I appreciated that gesture and told her so. In the end, we ate in the dining room on elegant nights (for which Tom had brought long pants) and in the specialty restaurants (which were wonderful – I’ll get to that later) on most of the other nights.

Mandy did also offer that the rules could be relaxed on the final night, so he did get to wear his dress shorts to the restaurant that one time.  Those worn-out jeans and tee shirt still grate on me a little, though.  My personal issue isn’t with the dress code itself, but with the lack of consistency in enforcement and communication. It needs to be the same from ship to ship and from sailing to sailing so people know what to expect and what to pack.  Had we known ahead of time that the enforcement policy had changed, Tom could have been prepared for it instead of being taken by surprise.

I made the mistake of posting about this little incident in one of the Yacht Club groups. I specified that I was doing so not to start an argument about the merits of the dress code, but simply to let others who would be sailing soon know that this had changed since last September.

Of course, the post did start an argument about the dress code (which was inevitable) and also illicited from a few people some snarky criticisms directed at my husband for not being “adult” enough to want to “dress appropriately” and a lecture repeating over and over that “this has always been the rule” (to which I repeated over and over that this rule that existed since the beginning of time had, however, not always been observed in practice). Such is the nature of social media.

Oh, well. As Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln …

I’ll be honest: our enjoyment of dinner in the Yacht Club that first night was affected somewhat by the dress code fiasco. However, we put it aside and focused on the food. It was fine, but not up to the same standard we would see on the rest of the cruise. Maybe this was due to the usual first-day chaos, or maybe it was more our perception because of the aforementioned issues. Still, Christian and Reynaldo did their best to make us happy and we certainly didn’t go away hungry.

 

 

After dinner, we headed downstairs to drown our troubles – minor as they were in the overall scheme of things – in chocolate.

They say music soothes the soul,
but I’ve found that chocolate usually works faster. 

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It wouldn’t be the last time that week that we would make our way to Venchi after dinner, but subsequent nights would be in a more celebratory mood. We were both tired after a long day with little sleep the night before, so we retired to the cabin early. It would be the only night we’d done that.

Day one: summing it up

Although the dress code inconsistency made the evening a little less festive than I would have liked, overall it was still a great day. Embarkation was smooth, the cabin was great, the food was good, the service was excellent. If the cruise hadn’t gotten any better than that, it would still have been well worth the time, money and effort. Oh, but it did. And kept on getting better every day.

Stay tuned for all the juicy details about our first day at sea.

~~~

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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