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6 Cruise Scams You Should Never Fall For

Those slick TV ads can make a cruise look like the “dream come true” experience of a lifetime. And a cruise can, in fact, be a wonderful experience. But sometimes that experience morphs from dream to disaster. A cruise is both a means of transportation and a destination resort with its own passport requirements. As a result, it can suffer some of the problems of both—especially if you fall victim to certain cruise scams.

The “Free Cruise” Scam

Cruise scam

[st_content_ad]This ploy has been around a long time, and it dominates the online reports of cruise scams. You get a letter saying you have “won” or “been selected for” a free Bahamas cruise (often from a company with “Caribbean” in its name despite the fact that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean).

What you actually get in this cruise scam is some combination of (1) “fees and taxes,” including those imposed by the cruise line in addition to government fees; (2) a requirement to sit through a high-pressure timeshare presentation that may go on for four or five hours; (3) a dingy cabin in an obsolete ship without air-conditioning; (4) land accommodations in a run-down resort; and (5) constant pressure to “upgrade” ship or land accommodations. The internet is full of stories from folks who took the bait of this cruise scam.

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Local Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

Among the most prevalent cruise scams are those involving locals at ports of call. Usually they involve a minor loss of time and money, but occasionally they can be worse. Typical scams include fake taxi drivers who call out “taxi,” grab your baggage, ask for a payment, then hand you over to a real taxi driver who ignores what you paid the tout and charges you the going rate. In other cases, drivers will take you 10 miles for a two-mile trip.

Of course, you can find (or be found by) pickpockets, exchange dealers who give you counterfeit currency, and merchants who cheat on your credit card bill. Be especially wary of a merchant who tries to bill your card in U.S. dollars—it sounds nice, but it puts you on the hook for an extra exchange scam. Vigilance and wariness can insulate you from most of these local cruise scams, but there’s always a chance you’ll still fall victim. And if you get caught, you have very little chance of any recovery.

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Bad Sightseeing Tours

Cruise scam

This one isn’t quite an outright cruise scam, but many port visitors are really annoyed by a sightseeing tour that spends an hour at a souvenir store chosen because of the quality of its kickbacks rather than of its merchandise. A related minor cruise scam is the artwork produced by local street “artists” who are really just coloring in between the faint lines of a pre-printed scene.

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Online Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

A potentially dangerous cruise scam can compromise your identity, files, or both: an email apparently sent by a cruise line or resort asking you to hit a link for more information on your upcoming cruise. These originate with someone who has hacked the cruise line’s or operator’s data to get the names of current and prospective customers. And, obviously, either the message itself or the link contains malware. This online cruise scam is like those fake emails from FedEx or UPS going around that ask you to verify something about an upcoming shipment.

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Fake List Prices

Cruise scam

If it’s “75 percent off,” it’s bound to be a good deal—right? Not necessarily. The base price from which that 75 percent is deducted is often complete fiction. Even “brochure price” means very little. So forget about big discounts from fake list prices. You can decide whether a deal is good by comparing its price with prices for comparable cruises and by checking impartial cruise review websites such as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.

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The Cruise Line Contract

Cruise scam

Although not a cruise scam in the classic sense, the worst problems you can face arise from the contract that you agree to when you buy a cruise. Those contracts are outrageously one-sided “contracts of adhesion” you would never sign if you had a chance to negotiate them yourself.

Although contracts differ a bit from company to company, almost all let the cruise line off the hook for a lot of problems and make you sign away what would normally be your rights as a consumer. Among them, the cruise line can:

  • Cancel your trip for any lawful reason without prior notice.
  • Disembark you or change your accommodations without liability for compensation or refund.
  • Require that you accept its refund fees without recourse.
  • Deviate from routes and schedules without prior notice.
  • Refuse any refund or damage claim resulting from a cancellation or change due to factors not within the cruise line’s exclusive control.
  • Make a proportionate refund if your cruise ends early or, at the cruise line’s option, give you only a future cruise credit.
  • Insulate itself from any liability for actions performed by any subcontractor, including the ship’s doctor and shore excursion operators.
  • Search your stateroom and belongings without prior notice.
  • Refuse liability for emotional distress or mental suffering under any circumstances other than those you can prove in court as resulting from personal injury or imminent risk of injury.
  • Limit your ability to litigate an issue to a single designated federal court or even a foreign country.
  • Prohibit you from entering a class-action lawsuit.
  • Value your personal property at no higher than $50 per traveler or $100 per stateroom unless you buy supplemental insurance.
  • Prevent you from drinking locally bought liquor while on board.
  • Require that disputes be resolved by compulsory arbitration.

The is just a partial list; be sure you’re aware of what you’re signing up for when you make that initial cruise purchase. Consider buying cruise insurance for a little extra protection in case things go wrong.

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Family Travel Packing

Cruising Alaska with Disney Cruise Line: A First-Timer’s Guide

If you’re like many travelers, you’ve long dreamed of taking a cruise to Alaska—and for good reason. An Alaskan ocean voyage provides an enviable almost-Arctic itinerary, opportunities for adventure at every port, and a constant supply of magnificently icy views, the likes of which probably won’t exist in 50, or even 20, years. You get all this via the comfort of an ocean liner that’s stocked with restaurants, theaters, hotel-like guest rooms, and much more.

I, too, had yearned to cruise to Alaska, so when the opportunity to hop aboard the Disney Wonder presented itself, I enlisted my husband and daughter as my travel mates. We flew to Vancouver to embark on a trip that would end up supplying us with exhilarating experiences, unforgettable nature encounters, heaping helpings of Disney fun, and, ultimately, lifetime memories.

If you’re not sure whether a Disney Alaska cruise is right for you, here’s a good idea of what you can expect based on my experiences and observations as a fellow first-timer.

Why Choose a Disney Cruise?

There are a few factors to keep in mind if Disney Cruise Line (DCL) is among the companies you’re considering for your journey to the Last Frontier.

[st_content_ad]Foremost among them: If any of the travelers in your group is a Disney fan, a Disney cruise will very much play into that enthusiasm. This may be too obvious to mention, but almost everything on a Disney cruise is Disney-themed, right down to the ketchup that’s squirted onto kids’ plates—in the shape of Mickey’s head. The characters and their stories pervade the ship, as well as some of the shore excursions.

The level of service, too, is thoroughly Disney. Everyone who works on the ship is there to make their guests’ experience magical, and it’s obvious that the hiring process is geared toward picking cheerful people who love to make other people—children, especially—happy.

“We have a fabulous, diverse team on board,” says Martin Kemp, Disney Wonder’s hotel director. “Basically, we get to go around the globe and hire the best talent out there. And when our team members first come onboard, we go through a very, very extensive training program to introduce them to our Disney brand, our culture, and our heritage.”

In addition to providing the exemplary hospitality that the company has become known for, other Disney-specific elements that you can expect during a Disney cruise to Alaska include exclusive shore excursions that are enhanced with Disney touches, like Goofy showing up at the lumberjack show in Ketchikan, or Donald Duck panning for gold alongside your kids in Skagway. Disney hand-picked the top Alaskan tour operators, then worked directly with them to create experiences that are reserved solely for Disney Cruise Line guests.

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Onboard, Disney characters wear Alaskan gear—resulting in photos that are Instagram gold—while naturalists lecture about glacier science, and nightly menus spotlight regional cuisine: buttered king crab legs one night, roasted salmon steak the next, alongside Alaska-inspired cocktails that carry the theme even further. Also exclusive to Disney’s Alaskan itineraries: a “Frozen” deck celebration featuring Anna and Elsa, plus a joyous Pixar party in the atrium.

“We truly do believe that Disney Cruise Line is a great way for families to see Alaska,” says Melanie Curtsinger, a company spokesperson. “From our themed dining spaces to the live entertainment, extensive children’s spaces, and exceptional detailed service, there truly is something for everyone in the family on these sailings.”

Disney Alaska Cruise Itinerary

Disney’s Alaska cruises depart from Vancouver for five-, seven- and nine-night summer cruises, with stops, depending on your specific itinerary, for Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka, Victoria, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, and Endicott Arm.

Mine was a seven-night cruise, and we spent a full pre-cruise day in Vancouver, where we rented bicycles from Club16 and took the spectacular waterfront ride around Stanley Park. (Other excellent in-Vancouver-for-the-day options include the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain.) We stayed overnight at the Fairmont Vancouver Waterfront Hotel, where Canadian hospitality is on full display, and where they personalize your shampoo bottles with your last name. The hotel is conveniently across the street from the Port of Vancouver, where we boarded the Disney Wonder. (Tip: Before boarding the ship in Vancouver, try an exotic flavor, like osmanthus flower, in a black cone at Bella Gelateria.)

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After a day at sea, our first port of call was Skagway, where we took a stunning helicopter ride to a glacier (more on that below), hiked to land’s end, explored the Western-style State Street full of shops and saloons, and watched the visitor center’s film about the short-lived and ill-fated Klondike gold rush.

Next up was Juneau for some satisfying whale watching and browsing the shopping strip. There’s also the Mount Roberts Tramway, an aerial gondola that transports visitors to the top of the 3,800-foot peak for a wide-spanning, eagle-studded view over Gastineau Channel. Everyone kept saying how lucky we were to be here during such gorgeous weather.

In Ketchikan, we took a morning trolley tour to see the town’s iconic totem poles at Saxman Village. The afternoon was reserved for the raucous Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (more on that below). In the early evening, as a light rain started to fall, we meandered the above-water walkways past Ketchikan’s former brothels—as colorful as the local characters—that now house curated art galleries, one-of-a-kind souvenir shops, and down-to-earth places to eat and drink.

At each port, there’s souvenir shop after souvenir shop, giving you no excuse to come home empty-handed. To save money, we returned to the Wonder for lunch, but there was plenty of opportunity to sample the local restaurants, many of which seem to be mom-and-pop outfits.

We also spent three full days at sea, including one in the Endicott Arm fjord during which the captain pulled the ship in as close as possible to see the 600-foot-tall Dawes Glacier, then did very slow 360-degree turns so that every passenger could take in its full splendor. Meanwhile, smaller icebergs floated past, crackling their presence. It was poignant to be in the presence of such threatened beauty—people all around us were telling their children to remember this scene, since they might not ever be able to see it look this way again. During the glacier viewing, Disney characters, donning galoshes and parkas, were on deck for hugs and photos.

After our last night onboard, we were shuttled back to Vancouver for an early-morning disembarkation. (Tip: Pack your bags the night before to have staffers lug them off the ship for you.) During our bus transfer back to the airport, Disney trivia played on the screens overhead, though our fellow passengers mostly slept through the ride, happily exhausted from such an activity-packed journey.

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The Shore Excursions

Called “Port Adventures” in DCL lingo, there’s a menu of more than 200 family-friendly things to do whenever the Wonder docks in Alaska. Make sure to reserve ahead of time for these memorable shore excursions—you can easily find independent vendors to haggle with once you’re at the destination, but you’re taking a chance with the quality of your experience. You’re much better off booking in advance through Disney, whose contracted operators are total pros.

Disney’s most popular shore excursions in Ketchikan include the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour (a Disney exclusive that gives an inside look at the life of Alaskan crab harvesters) and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a down-home demonstration of manly men showing off their impressive timber-sport skills, like chainsawing and log rolling. There’s plenty of enthusiastic audience participation, and Goofy makes an appearance. Wear red-and-black plaid if you’ve got it.

In Skagway, there’s the KlondikeGold Dredge and White Pass Railway excursion, during which you take a gorgeous train ride and pan for gold; and Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp, which includes a narrated motor coach tour of Skagway, panning for gold (you’ll find some, guaranteed), a scavenger hunt, a puppet show that’s both hilarious and educational, a Donald Duck cameo, and a salmon bake.

In Juneau, the Dog Sled Summer Camp lets you feel what it’s like to be pulled through the Alaskan wilderness at the speed of sprinting huskies, while the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest on Stephen’s Passage guarantees humpback and bald eagle sightings aboard a comfortable catamaran stocked with a full bar; an expert naturalist explains everything you see.

By far the most memorable event of our Disney Alaska cruise—and that’s saying a lot—was the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter excursion, operated by Temsco Helicopters in Skagway. After a quick safety briefing, we boarded an Airbus helicopter manned by a very capable and personable pilot who was also an expert at calming any nerves, mine included. We flew over crystal-blue lakes, above vast expanses of gleamingly white ice fields, and incredibly close to steep, lush mountainsides. When we landed, it was on the 650-foot-deep Meade Glacier, but it may as well have been another planet. Confident, reassuring guides were there to explain what we were seeing—and to stop us from walking into danger—as we took in the surreal scenery before flying back to the Disney Wonder. The word “awesome” is egregiously overused, but this was awesome.

If you’re worried that your children won’t be able to make it all the way through that excursion you’re eyeing, or you’d just prefer some grownup time ashore, don’t feel bad about dropping your little ones off at the ship’s kids’ spaces before you disembark for some adventure. Most youngsters are ecstatic to have more time in these colorful rooms, where the storytelling is epic, the games and crafts are age-appropriate, and the movies are all Disney. Attentive camp-counselor types from around the world do an excellent job of supervising. (Read on for more about the kids’ spaces.)

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Life Onboard Disney Wonder

The Disney vessel that shuttles passengers to and from Alaska is the impressive Wonder, which first set sail in 1999 and is one of DCL’s fleet of four (a fifth will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023). The 83,000-ton ship has 10 floors, 875 guest rooms, 950 employees, and room for up to 2,713 passengers, a third of which are typically children.

Every day, there’s a program so packed with entertaining activity options that it’s easy to fall prey to some initial FOMO, but once you get into the swing of life onboard a Disney cruise (which doesn’t take long), the fun really begins.

Putting together the ship’s complex entertainment and dining schedule, says Natalie Bailey, Disney Wonder’s cruise director, “is a Tetris puzzle, truly a group effort of everyone coming together to try to create variety for our guests throughout the day, and the entire cruise. Our biggest thing when it comes to planning is truly ensuring that we do have something for everyone.”

To that end, there are live shows, deck parties, character greetings, first-run movies in the theaters, trivia games, karaoke, crafts, bingo, chef demos, and plenty more. The handy Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which you should download before your trip, tells you what’s going on at any given time. In addition to providing the day’s full lineup, it lets you “heart” the activities you don’t want to miss, text your fellow travelers for free, book shore excursions, make spa and specialty dining reservations, link your reservation number, and check in online.

Disney is, first and foremost, an entertainment company, so yes, you will be thoroughly entertained the whole way to Alaska and back. Twice nightly in the extravagant 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, a cast of Broadway-caliber performers display their prodigious talents, with a new live production to enjoy each night, including the Alaska-appropriate “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular,” “Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic” (a production that helped launch Jennifer Hudson’s career), and the life-affirming “Golden Mickeys.” You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra to see these shows—just show up; seats are first come, first served. (Tip: Even if the theater appears packed when you enter from the back, there are often seats available way up front.)

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If you time your sailing to coincide with the release date of a new Disney movie, you’ll get to see it premiered onboard, to much fanfare—we were at sea the day Toy Story 4 came out and got to see it for free, with Green Army Men photo opps in front of the theater and a bag of popcorn as an in-room amenity.

As mentioned above, children have a whole realm of entertainment catered to them: the fifth-floor Oceaneer Youth Club. Whenever I came there to pick up my daughter, she asked to stay longer, a testament to the amount of fun she was having and the level of comfort she felt with the kind staffers.

These elaborate kids’ spaces were created to immerse youngsters in Disney stories—kids can hang out in the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s playroom from Toy Story, or the Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, where kids train alongside their favorite superheroes. There are many enriching activities for kids to choose from, like crafting, scavenger hunts, dance parties, performing in a talent show, story times, character greetings, and so on; you can use the Navigator app to find out what’s going on in the kids’ spaces. (Tip: Once you’ve made your cruise reservation, you can have a Disney character call your child to get them excited for the trip.)

As for the guest rooms, they’re comfortable and cleverly designed, with enough space for a full family to live, sleep, bathe, and store luggage in. While we dined, our room attendant transformed the couch into a kid’s bunk, adding a guard rail for safety. He also left memorable Disney amenities on our bed, along with Ghirardelli chocolates and towels folded into amusing figures.

The themed restaurants aboard the Wonder are extraordinarily thought-through and exist for much more than just feeding you. Take Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which the title character dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Yes, the menu at Tiana’s Place includes gumbo and beignets, but the stage also features a talented quartet jazzing up favorite Disney tunes, while Tiana herself visits each table to take photos with young fans; the grand finale is a joyful parade that stars all the servers.

Over at Animator’s Palate, a screen-enhanced shrine to Disney’s drawn history, your server instructs you to draw a character on your placemat. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a magical on-screen mashup. The food is good, too.

There’s also Triton’s, a traditional cruise restaurant, and Cabanas, a huge buffet on the ninth floor with great ocean views. Several walk-up-and-go snack counters hand out pizza, gyros, ice cream, and more. All food and beverage is included in the cost of your cruise (except alcohol; you can bring a small amount onboard), so you can order whatever you want without fretting about the tab.

The only restaurant with an upcharge is Palo, the adults-only Italian eatery atop the ship. The cuisine there is a step up, and the service is top-notch, too. If you’re interested in dining at Palo, make a reservation as far ahead of time as possible.

As you cycle through Tiana’s Place, Animator’s Palate, and Triton’s each night at your set dining time (5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., your choice), your dedicated team of servers follow you from restaurant to restaurant. They’re genuinely kind and accommodating, and clearly hired in part for their ability to make kids smile, laugh—and eat. They joke around, bring you whatever you want, do magic tricks and origami, and give generous hugs and high fives.

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If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included in the cost of your Disney Alaska cruise, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra.

Other features worth mentioning on the Wonder include the spacious spa and top-floor fitness center, where you can run on a treadmill while watching glaciers and icebergs glide by. No matter the weather, people are always using the swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, while Disney movies play on the huge outdoor screen above. And the “nightlife district” is a collection of three handsome bars, including a classic British pub.

Wi-Fi on the Wonder is prohibitively pricey ($89 gets you 1,000 megabytes), so it’s wise to use your cruise as an excuse to unplug from email and social media.

Whatever you’re planning to do onboard, book as much of it that’s bookable well in advance, before departing for your vacation, to make sure that you get the spots you want. This includes nursery times, spa appointments, character meet-and-greets, shore excursions, and specialty dining reservations. Then once you get onboard, you can simply relax and enjoy.

What to Pack for a Disney Alaska Cruise

Once you’re ready to get your stuff together for your Disney cruise to Alaska, check out DCL’s full list of what to pack—and what not to.

There are some pretty specific things that you’ll want to bring along for this type of cruise, including binoculars (which are available for purchase at the Port of Vancouver), rain gear, boots, layers, and waterproof jackets. Bring fancy attire for the ship’s formal and semi-formal nights, and if you plan to dine at Palo, keep in mind that the dress code there encourages dress pants or slacks and a collared shirt for men, and a dress, skirt, or pants and a blouse for women.

It’s fun to wear red-and-black plaid in Ketchikan, especially if you’re planning to see the lumberjack show there, and it’s also fun to bring Disney-themed door decorations—check Pinterest and Etsy for ideas. Don’t forget Disney autograph books for your little ones to get signed, princess dresses for the young princesses in your life, Disneybounding gear for you (if you’re into that), and at least two bathing suits so that you can wear the dry one while the wet one dries.

It’s also smart to fold an extra duffel bag into your suitcase—what with the merchandise available onboard and the many souvenir shops on shore, you’ll be coming home from Alaska with way more than you packed.

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Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors

Luck and Shipwrecks at the End of the World

Luck and shipwrecks at the end of world

On our first day in Antarctica, we rescued a shipwrecked yacht, and things only got more exciting from there.

The morning dawned bluebird bright and the scene looked orchestrated. Cue the penguins porpoising just below. Enter diving whales, stage right. Set it all against a backdrop of the most beautiful golden light you’ve ever seen. If it were a movie set, it would be too perfect, too over-the-top. But that’s Antarctica for you. The natural reality is better than anything humanity could design.

Antarctica makes you feel small, and humbled, and incredibly lucky to be here at all. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving, and heart-breakingly beautiful at the same time. The land and the ice in Antarctica have been here for millions of years before I was born, and will be here for millions more after I’m gone.

Our boat is old too, and has already lived many lives. Around since the 1980s, the Ocean Atlantic has been a Russian spy ship, car ferry, rumored private charter for Vladimir Putin, floating bordello, casino, and, most recently, our newly refurbished expedition ship chartered by Chimu Adventures for its 10 Day Discover Antarctica cruise. In an increasingly disposable modern world, the Ocean Atlantic keeps making itself useful.

Ocean atlantic ship

The thing about Antarctica is it makes you throw away your plans and gifts you with a better one. Not many Antarctica cruises pass by Melchior Island, but the Ocean Atlantic had stopped there for an excursion, where we discovered the stranded yacht, and added three more guests on to our cruise.

If we hadn’t stopped to help, we never would have shared a delicate, golden sunset with thousands of tiny penguins on Danco Island. If there had been enough snow to go snowshoeing as planned, I never would have gotten to kayak through Antarctic waters and witness a seal surprise itself as it rolled off an iceberg and belly-flopped into the ocean. If our Zodiac group hadn’t voted to speed around the entire Half Moon Island, we never would have had the chance to see a rare white fur seal play-fighting with ordinary gray ones.

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On the white continent, you’re at the mercy of the weather. The daily itinerary is announced in hopeful terms. “We plan to … ” “We hope to … ” Never “we will.” Before I left, that’s also how I talked about my Antarctica trip, as if speaking the words I’d dreamed of for so long: “I’m going to Antarctica” would somehow pop the magic bubble and something would jinx the trip, keeping it as just a wish.

I didn’t think anything could top our first day in Antarctica. Waking up to icebergs outside my porthole feeling incredibly alive as we raced around Melchior Island in Zodiacs, the crisp and pristine air nipping at my face as if to say: You’ve arrived. Feel it. Try to take it all in as the day rushes by all too quickly. Hold onto each rare moment tightly, knowing that you’ll never have this precious time again.

Sitting on the top deck, basking in the rare Antarctic sunshine and watching the cloudless sky slip by, I thought for sure the trip had peaked here.

Penguin

And then came the second day. I had barely woken up, and then I was at Port Lockroy, where curious penguins waddled over to nibble my ski pants to see if they were worth eating. Afraid to move or breathe and break the moment, I nearly cried with happiness over being near these adorable animals in their natural habitat.

Back on the boat, sailing through the Lemaire Channel. This narrow section of water is often too ice-choked for ships to traverse, but on this day, conditions were good and our captain was confident that we would be the second ship to make it through in the past few months.

The lemaire channel

Our vessel was the only man-made thing in sight. On the Lemaire Channel, 3,000-foot mountains tower on each side of the ship, looking close enough to touch. I had to crane my neck back to see the summits, jaggedly piercing the clear blue sky above. Pristine white snow spilled down the sides, collecting in icy-blue glaciers leading to the water.

Wandering albatrosses with their elegantly long wingspan swooped around our boat, and every so often, a minke whale would surface in the waters below, giving us just a glimpse of its tail or offering us a blow from its spout. Penguins swarmed in formation just off our bow, jumping in and out of the water in a graceful show diametrically opposed to their clumsily cute waddles on land.

Icebergs in antarctica

In the afternoon, we reached Pleneau Bay, the “iceberg graveyard” where all the glacial chunks collected, like a museum of expertly curated natural beauty. These glaciers had birthed massive icebergs, the site of which anywhere else in the world would be singularly awe-inspiring; but here, they were more common than the penguins. I discovered a new shade of blue every time a new one went by. How could today be anything but the best day of the trip?

And then came day three. A quick Zodiac ride from the Ocean Atlantic, swinging my legs over the big rubber sides, splashing through the water, climbing over the rocks, and I was finally setting foot on continental Antarctica. (Our earlier stops on the voyage had been Antarctic islands.) After dreaming of this for so long, I was flooded with joy to be standing here on this remote continent. Throaty cries of penguins trumpeted a congratulations and welcomed me on shore.

Antarctica continental landing

A short walk up a steep hill, and a staggeringly beautiful Antarctica scene spilled out before us. Starched-white, pillowy snow framed a bay of clear blue water studded with fluorescent blue icebergs. Mountains beyond the bay reached up to the cloudy sky, and both were infinitely reflected on the surface of the mirror-like water.

A slippery hike up a bigger, snowy hill gave us even better views. The penguins looked like tiny black dots and our boat looked like a toy off in the distance. I sat in the snow and took in all the elation and thankfulness of being here in this moment.

All too soon, it was time to head down. But I’d go the fun way. I got a running start and sledded down the bumpy track carved out by those who had slid before me. Crisp and clean Antarctic wind rushing past my face, the continent beneath me, until I landed laughing in a graceless heap at the bottom of the hill.

The water in Antarctica is incredibly pure and unspoiled. For the last week, we’d been surrounded by the inescapable ocean. You start to imagine jumping in, and today, we’d get the chance. The French call it “l’appel du vide” (“the call of the void”). That strange longing to throw yourself off a cruise ship into the waters below, even though you don’t want to die—you just want to feel what the fall would be like.

Antarctica polar plunge

The polar plunge was held just off the coast of the continent, in the calm waters of Neko Harbor. The waters may look bath-like, but the temperatures were not. Icebergs could be seen bobbing in the distance. An orca whale and a leopard seal had been spotted hanging around. The water temperature was 35 degrees, and the air temperature was 33.  Barefoot, bathrobe-clad guests lined up in the mudroom, where normally, we’re bundling up in as many layers as possible before putting on our jackets and boots and boarding the Zodiacs. Today, we’d be hurling ourselves off the gangway and into Southern Ocean.

Seventy brave cruisers were lined up, buzzing with nervous excitement. As I got closer to the watery exit, the cold air crept in, curling up around my feet and under my robe, making me reconsider my plans for a swim. The crew fastened a belt and rope around my waist, already wet and frigid from the plungers before me. At least if I literally froze upon entry, they’d be able to fish me out quickly. My body went into autopilot. The crew guided me to the gangway and told me to give a wave to the parka-wearing spectators on the top deck. There was nothing left to do but freeze on the landing in indecision or quickly fling myself off the ship. I plunged down into the depths of the clear blue water and surfaced, surprised that the shock of the water wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. Temporarily numbed, I managed to enjoy a moment or two of paddling in Antarctic waters before making a beeline for the ladder back to the warmth of the ship. The adrenaline kicked in and I was greeted with a towel, robe, and congratulations from the crew. Judging from the post-plunge photos of my star jump, it was probably for the best that I forgot to check my scores from the judges out on the Zodiac, who were raising paddles marked on a 1-10 scale.

The elation and excitement of the accomplishment overwhelmed any feelings of shivering cold. It was by far the best day of the trip … until tomorrow.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Chimu Adventures on their Discover Antarctica Cruise. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more photos from her trip.

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Experiential Travel

Cruise Expert Shares Her Favorite River Cruise Benefits

Sailing along the Mekong River, SmarterTravel’s Christine Sarkis took some time to sit down with Gina Kramer, an editor at our sister-site Cruise Critic to discuss the benefits of river cruises. Aboard the new Avalon Saigon, they talked about what it’s like travel through Vietnam and Cambodia by river cruise and outlined three notable benefits.

For more details about each reason, take a few minutes to watch the video. Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t think they enjoy would enjoy cruising, you just may come away with an urge to set sail.

River Cruise Benefits

River Cruise Ships Are Smaller Ships: Whereas ocean cruise vessels can house thousands, river cruise ships top out at hundreds—and are often significantly smaller. For instance, the Avalon Saigon has room for just 36 guests. A smaller ship means that passengers can explore smaller places where larger ships could never go. And that offers the chance to forge a deeper connections with locals.

There’s a Smaller, More Intimate Feel Onboard: The small-ship environment is ideal for people who want to enjoy a cruise but who are intimidated by larger ships or put off by crowds. This more intimate atmosphere feels relaxed, fosters friendships, and offers a great passenger-to-crew ratio.

River Cruises Tend to Be More Inclusive: Kramer notes that anyone who has gone on a mainstream ocean-going cruise line has likely felt at least a little nickel-and-dimed by the a la carte pricing model of shore excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi, and special meals. Onboard river cruises, in contrast, most of what you do—from shore excursions to most drinks—is included in the cruise fare.

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Christine Sarkis visited Vietnam and Cambodia as a guest of Avalon River Cruises. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Group Travel

Exploring Southeast Asia Off the Beaten Path on a River Cruise

In a small Cambodian village on the banks of the Mekong River, I walk a cobbled path that winds gently past houses on stilts and thickets of glossy-leaved trees. The small group I’m traveling with occasionally congregates to talk to locals through our guide, Virak, or our cruise director, Phiam. But mostly we just filter quietly one by one through this sleepy village in the afternoon heat, giving our best Cambodian hellos—“suasdey”— to the curious children and industrious grandmothers who are at home at this time of day. We walk by the shaded, open-air living spaces on the ground floors of their stilt houses, glancing for long enough to exchange hellos, but not so long as to stare. A few locals invite us in to their homes as we pass; I get a tour of a rural Cambodian kitchen and laugh with a child playing with a kitten.

There’s a zero percent chance I would have found this village on my own. It’s not in any guidebook, and it’s barely connected to the rest of the world by road. Even if I had somehow managed to find it independently, I would miss the richness of the experience for not being with Virak and Phiam. They’ve not only built relationships with this community, but also act as a language and cultural bridge that allow us to have actual conversations—complete with questions and joking banter—with the locals, whose lifestyle seems so different but whose warmth feels welcomingly familiar.

This is not what most people think about when they conjure up a mental image for the phrase “shore excursions.” There’s nary a bus sightseeing tour or a zip line in sight. And yet, it’s at the very heart of this Avalon Saigon sailing, which starts a few blocks from downtown Saigon and follows the Mekong River through Vietnam and into Cambodia before veering onto the Ton Le Sap River and into the Ton Le Sap lake to end its journey in Siem Reap, home to the bucket-list-darling Angkor Wat. The small ship—36 guests maximum in 18 staterooms—is the only cruise vessel to sail all the way between the two cities. Its modest proportions allow its passengers to explore these small villages in which there’s no port, just a sloping clay river bank.

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Redefining the ‘Shore Excursion’

“We’re always looking for the right balance of truly authentic experiences,” says Ryan Droegemueller, Manager of Product Creation at Avalon, whose job it is to always be on the lookout for new, unique experiences along the Mekong. His regular scouting missions rely on a combination of advance research, local connections, and getting out on the river to look for thriving communities, engaging craftspeople, and experiences that are unique to life on the Mekong.

“We’re lucky we sail significantly more of the Mekong, because it gives us many more options,” he notes. “We wouldn’t want the excursions to be all temples, so we work hard to find local industries—for instance people making traditional hats, scarves, silver, or candy—that we can share with guests.”

Rather than charging passengers per shore excursion, all passengers have access to the two planned excursions each day, with plenty of free exploration time in the mix in the larger cities.

Keeping Itineraries Fresh

The itinerary on the Avalon Saigon—and its sister ship the Avalon Siem Reap—shifts each year. Sometimes that’s because other cruise lines or visitors get hip to a previously off-the-beaten-path spot that Avalon visits. Rather than contribute to a tourism inundation that may well change the nature of the place, Avalon often makes the decision to find another point of interest. Droegemueller recalls just such a scenario: “We used to visit a weaving village in Cambodia, but a competitor started visiting and it became popular with tourists from Phnom Penh, so we found a beautiful, small weaving village in Vietnam to visit instead.” His constant quest for authenticity serves the passengers of this small ship well.

Itinerary vs. Reality

Exceptional experiences can’t always be distilled into a quick description, though, and itineraries have a nearly impossible job: to convey these special experiences in just a few easily skimmed words. To bridge the divide between what the itinerary hints at and the nature of the actual experience, here are three dips into the great well of the carefully selected shore excursions offered on Avalon Mekong sailings.

Shore Excursion: The Sampan Maker

Sampan maker heats wood over a fire in vietnam

Itinerary Quote: “Stop at a local home, where a skilled family works together to hand-craft sampans for a living.” 

The Experience: From the ship, we step across onto a smaller boat that ferries us across the wide Mekong into a peaceful backwater framed by trio of rickety wooden pedestrian bridges connecting the two sides of a tiny village. We stroll along a narrow dirt road, past a makeshift café with a few low plastic chairs occupied by a group of men clustered around steaming cups. Next door, three kids play in their doorway. I pause to peek into a shop selling vegetables, sweets, and gasoline; and move to the side of the road to allow a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rush hour of three scooters heading down to the ferry that shuttles people, goods, and scooters to the Mekong’s far bank.

We arrive at the sampan maker’s workshop, a long, open-sided roofed house that hangs over the bank of the backwater. A half-finished boat is surrounded by wood scraps and curled shavings. In one corner, the sampan maker stands over an open flame, resting a long piece of wood over the fire, coaxing the board millimeter by millimeter into the curving shape of a hull. The air smells like rain, wood, and fire. The boat maker smiles as he talks to us but never stops working, keeping the wood over the flame as he listens to and answers questions from our Vietnamese guide and translator Nam.

Long after we leave, I continue to revisit this brief stop in my mind; after spending our first few days in the intense jumble of Ho Chi Minh City, this tranquil introduction to Vietnamese village life feels like a quiet revelation. It sets the tone for our further explorations into rural Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Shore Excursion: The Wet Market 

view of the local market in chau doc, vietnam

Itinerary Quote: “Walk through the local market and absorb the atmosphere as locals are busy buying and selling fish, meat, and produce.”

The Experience: As we enter the market full of narrow lanes shared by pedestrians and scooters, our group of about 20 people disperses, connected by our earpieces to the explanations and instructions of Nam, our guide through Vietnam, but each able to move at our own pace. It’s morning and breakfast is still in full swing at the pho stands flanking the market’s dense interior—shoppers vie for a spot at the counter as they slurp soup side by side. The uneven paved ground is wet from a recent rain and I dodge puddles and duck under the colorful tarps draped haphazardly across the market’s center aisle.

The flower sellers woo with intricate blooms and towering piles of brightly colored ripe fruit tempt passersby. As enticing as the rest of it is, the crowds of locals make it clear that the real reason people visit this market daily is the fresh river fish—catfish, minute carp, eel, and dozens of other species. Many of the fish are sold live—they swim and flop around in shallow metal trays bubbling with a constant stream of water. This isn’t a tourist market; we’re the only Westerners here and the locals are too busy socializing and shopping to pay us much mind. I walk slowly, grateful for the chance to linger and observe before plunging back out into the heat of the day.

Shore Excursion: The Bucket-List Ruins

trees grow out of the temples at ta prohm, cambodia

Itinerary Quote: “Arrive in Siem Reap and start your sightseeing of the Temples of Angkor, considered by many to be the most spectacular architectural ruins on earth.”

The Experience: Though many of the excursions are to rural locales, this Mekong sailing is anchored by stops in three larger destinations: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. This last (or for people boarding the southbound route, first) stop takes guests off the ship and into a hotel for a multi-night stay that allows time to explore not just Angkor Wat—the most famous of the massive, famous temple complex—but other notable temples as well. Off-the-beaten-path Banteay Srei temple is smaller than Angkor Wat and famous for its intricately carved red sandstone structures; Ta Prohm is a fairytale mix of jungle and ruins; and Bayon Temple features 200 carved Buddha faces crowning 54 towers.

To visit the Temples of Angkor with a knowledgeable guide is to bring these spectacular ruins to life. There’s little signage at the temples, and while a guidebook offers context, a certified guide (guides must be certified specifically for Angkor to leads groups) can tell you the story around every corner and marry the ancient and recent histories for a more complete picture of this beautiful, complicated place.

And that, perhaps, is the key—these shore excursions embrace both the beauty and the complicated nature of Vietnam and Cambodia, not shortchanging either reality in a quest to tell an easy story of life along the Mekong.

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More from SmarterTravel:

Christine Sarkis visited Vietnam and Cambodia as a guest of Avalon River Cruises. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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Beach Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways

5 Reasons to Visit the Jersey Shore in the Off Season

The Jersey Shore is synonymous with summer—think ice cream, amusement parks, and long, sunny days on the sand. But while most visitors flock to New Jersey beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the quieter months of the year have their own pleasures. Below are a few reasons why you should visit the Jersey Shore in the off season.

Cheaper Rates

[st_content_ad]In August, I found a rate of $334 per night at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City on a weekend, but they’re just $243 per night over a weekend in October. Off-season prices drop even further at the nearby Golden Nugget, which costs $514 a night in August but just $289 a night in October.

Vacation rentals offer similarly dramatic discounts for stays outside the summer months, and many B&Bs are also affordable, especially on off-season weeknights. If your dates are flexible, planning your trip during the off season could be the single best way to save money on a Jersey Shore vacation.

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No Crowds

Especially on summer holiday weekends such as Labor Day or the Fourth of July, visitors often find themselves sitting in long lines of traffic en route to New Jersey’s barrier islands or swimming shoulder to shoulder beside dozens of others in the ocean. But come late September or early May, you’ll find that the crowds have melted away. This is the time of year when beaches are blissfully uncrowded, and it’s easy to find your own oceanfront stretch of sand.

In particular there are few families at the Jersey Shore in the off season, which makes this a good time of year for seniors or couples looking for a quieter romantic getaway.

Pleasant Weather

Not a fan of the summer heat? While the ocean temperatures may not be ideal for swimming much past mid-September, Jersey Shore air temperatures are typically mild enough in April, May, September, and October to enjoy biking, strolling the boardwalk, or relaxing on the beach with a good book—though you might need to bring a sweatshirt or light jacket.

Biking at the Jersey Shore in spring and fall is especially nice, not just because of the pleasant temperatures but also because of the lack of traffic. With fewer people in town, it’s easier and safer to ride along the streets and boardwalks.

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Festivals and Special Events

The summer months boast a series of baby parades, fireworks, and concerts on the beach, but there’s still plenty of action up and down the Jersey Shore in the off season. This includes music festivals like the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, held in November, and the Fabulous 50s and Beyond weekend in Wildwood every October. Foodies shouldn’t miss Belmar’s New Jersey Seafood Festival in May or the Que by the Sea BBQ Festival in Seaside Heights, held each September.

To find more events, check out VisitNJ.org or ShoreVacations.com.

Holiday Celebrations

Winter is by far the quietest season at the Jersey Shore, but things liven up around the holidays. The historic town of Cape May is a particularly festive spot to visit during Christmastime, when its Victorian homes are decorated with twinkling lights and traditional greenery. Consider a Christmas Candlelight Tour or Holiday Lights Trolley Ride to get in the spirit.

On New Year’s Eve, events include family-friendly First Night festivities in Seaside Heights and Ocean City, complete with fireworks. Other fireworks displays are held in Atlantic City and Sea Isle City. Many people even start the New Year with a polar plunge into the ocean in communities such as Asbury Park, Ocean City, and Brigantine.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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Holiday Travel

How I Spent Thanksgiving Week on NCL’s Jewel

Author: Louise Strong
Date of Trip: November 2006
PROLOGUE:

NCL treated me like a goddess and a family member all throughout the week on the Norwegian Jewel. They must have known I needed some R and R, some TLC, excellent dining, great activities, good dance music, fabulous ports-of-call, the opportunity to make new friends, and most of all, to laugh. This cruise will go down in the books as the best yet.

GETTING TO THE NORWEGIAN JEWEL:

I originally booked the lowest level category balcony and was upgraded to the highest level balcony for the same price. About one month prior to 11/19/06 I received the phone call for an upsell to a penthouse suite. Once I saw the suite was in front of the ship I immediately said yes. I flew into FLL on 11/18/06 and knew the week was going to be great when my luggage was the third and fourth suitcases to come through the belt! For 18 dollars I shared a van with seven others going to various places. One lady was my superhero. She goes on cruises for free while giving lectures on board all cruise lines. I want to be just like her some day.

My travelmate, The NewYorker, is a friend who I met on the NCL Sun two years ago Thanksgiving week. We called this our anniversary cruise. My hubby did not mind that I was leaving because he knew if I stayed home, then my large family was probably coming over for the holiday!

We enjoyed the Beacon Hotel in South Beach, Miami for our precruise stay. We walked to Lincoln Mall for dinner and shopped our way back to the Beacon. We bought expensive dresses for formal night that we did not really need for freestyle cruising. You can wear whatever you want on NCL freestyle cruises. We decided to dress every night of the cruise and most of my outfits had a black and white theme. I found a great black and white BCBG dress. We finished the evening drinking and dancing at the Clevelander Bar. The next morning we walked South Beach, dipped our pedicured toes in the ocean and chatted it up a bit with the homeless men who spent the night on the shoreline.

The cab ride from South Beach to the ship was about 20 dollars. I had so many thoughts and questions going through my head as we approached the Jewel. First, I liked her hull artwork. I wondered if there would be a tango-guy to teach me to ballroom dance. Would I never leave my penthouse? Can the bridge officers see down onto my forward balcony? What ports are we going to again and when? Who will show up to our planned Cruise Critic (a website for cruisers) party? Will I finally win the bottle of champagne at the latitudes repeat passenger party? Lastly, since I left my big family behind, would there be a family to take me under their wings during this holiday week…A family to adopt us?

Embarkation was a breeze and once on board we went to the buffet lunch. A lot of yummy food was present! Stations were set up all over with different categories of food. For example, there was a pasta station, a soup station, a sandwich station, a hot selection station, a meat carving station, a dessert station and so on! For breakfast and dinner, the buffet area was also filled with great selections. This ship also had dining rooms and specialty restaurants for extra extra fine dining.

The NYer suggested we check out our suite #10000 and see if our luggage arrived. We loved the couch and chairs, the huge closet with doors on both sides (one from the entry hallway, the other from the vanity hallway), the huge bathroom, the fabulous balcony, the living area, the dining area and the bedding. We concluded if we were thieves, we would have stolen the linens, the duvet, the pillows, and the bathrobes.

Our steward stopped in to say hello and he asked us to close our curtains at night. He said closing them would avoid glare on the bridge directly above us. Once he left we exclaimed, “Yeah, right! If we were young and beautiful, maybe the request from the bridge would be to keep the curtains OPEN at night!”

The craziness began after we noticed fresh flowers on the table, a bottle of champagne in a bucket and fresh fruit in a basket. A note attached said it was compliments of NCL. The doorbell rang and in comes another bottle of champagne with a note attached, “hope you have a wonderful cruise” from Colin Veitch, the President of NCL. Papers started arriving too with special things written on it. Our repeat passenger benefits included 20 dollars off body and facial treatment, 30 free minutes in the internet cafe, a party invitation and a free meal in a specialty restaurant. There was also a 75 dollar credit on our account (37.50 each) which probably had to do with our booking.

The doorbell rang again and in comes someone else delivering a basket of fruit and a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon…the little note attached is from NCL again. I wrote to NCL regarding their new commercials and the message thanked me for my suggestions. Their new campaign is about being able to eat WHENEVER you want and to wear WHATEVER you want.

Our phone rang next. Our Concierge called to tell us he had already scheduled a free meal (another one) in a specialty restaurant for us. He asked if the date and time were okay. I reminded him we were on vacation and we could eat at WHATEVER time and where ever place!

The doorbell rang again and we thought it was our luggage arriving. We open the door and in comes another delivery…a bottle of wine and fruit basket! No note was attached and we did not press the issue in case it was a mistake delivery. We were darned happy as we re-organized the fruit, champagne bottles and wine bottles. We were going to crack open a bottle but had to go to the muster drill, a required and necessary safety drill before the ship’s sailing.

After the safety drill we returned our life vests to our suite. We decided to check out the sailaway party as the ship starting moving. Always remember to close the balcony door before you open your stateroom door…if not, then papers fly all over the place. But that can be a good thing too. I looked at what I picked off the floor and I found a letter from the Jewel’s Hotel Director stating we had a free meal in any alternative restaurant!

As we left for our Thanksgiving Week Sailaway we concluded it was more like Christmas week!

THE CRUISE BEGINS:

Everyone seemed to be at the pool deck for the sailaway party. This was a great opportunity to see the overall mood of the passengers and of the cruise staff who entertain all week long. Overall, it was going to be a fun and happy week. We returned to our suite and found our luggage was arriving. We scored a dinner reservation for Teppanyaki, a specialty restaurant.

Teppanyaki is “a style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food.” The chef cooks in front of you while “displaying slicing/dicing/juggling” techniques. Their tools make a beat as they perform. Our chef was a lot of fun! We laughed, we cheered, we hollered “yeah” when he caught pieces of food in his hat and we hollered “ohhhhh” when he did not. An anniversary cake was brought out in the end and we all sang happy anniversary to a couple celebrating their 45th.

One of the anniversary couple’s daughters was one of the very first winners of the happy birthday NCL free cruise on the new Norwegian Pearl. I thought this could be the family I was looking for because we shared our parts of our meals with each other. Most of us selected the Land and Sea and a few selected the Seafood Diablo. I had the Land and Sea and it was absolutely fantastic! The family later invited us to sit with them that evening at the 70’s dance party.

The other table had a well dressed family and I could not help but watch the two children stare up in awe at their chef. The kids were so cute. The son had his chopsticks tied together by the waitress in a particular manner so he could eat his food easier. I wanted mine tied the same way but they brought me a fork instead. Something new I noticed was that a black napkin was brought out for me but everyone else got a white one. I asked why and they responded so the white napkin would not leave stuff on my black satin pants or black satin shirt. I responded “oh” and thought to myself that I really should go out to eat more…!

During dinner we missed over 40 singles mingle (for the New Yorker), the ballroom dancing and the family karaoke. The Jewel also had a traveling alone social and dinner where one could meet other solo travelers and go to dinner with them. We thought how nice! Two years ago the NYer and I had to find each other on our own…now NCL helps set up solo travelers. Smart move.

After dinner we went down one deck to check out three bars with unique themes and designs as advertised on NCL. Since I was wearing black, I looked great in all three color schemes. I ordered a cosmopolitan at Magnum’s martini and champagne bar and then we headed up to the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13 forward for the 70’s Night dancing. The place was mobbed and they did their signature John Travolta/Gloria Gaynor/YMCA contest. The Cruise Director did a great job with this.

At the end of the night we talked about what we liked so far about the ship. Our suite and balcony was a given. We also loved the open railings with horizontal rungs all over the ship. They were great for viewing through our balcony, the decks, and the pool area. Some ships have that awful Plexiglass that gets fogged up from sea salt. The Jewel is wonderful for viewing the ocean. The furnishings in the lounges were also plush. Our feet even sunk into the ship’s carpets.

MONDAY…A PERFECT RAINY DAY AT SEA:

I got up at 6:30am and headed up to the buffet breakfast in my high-water black yoga pants, white flip-flops, an old skanky white t-shirt and black head-band. I made sure to put some mascara to not scare anyone in case others were awake at that time. It was cloudy and I noticed some of the pool chairs already claimed. Tempted to throw the towels/books/single shoes into one of the four hot-tubs I just chuckled knowing my option was the awesome forward balcony attached to my suite if the weather got nicer. Besides, I had A Cruise Critic party planned at 11am and a latitudes repeat customer party at 1pm.

At the Garden Cafe I had a beautiful selection of freshly prepared food. How wonderful to be an early bird. I asked an older gentleman (the only other passenger up at that time too) at the table nearby what his tag was for around his neck. He replied that over 300 Norwegian dancers were on board. A large group from Norway booked the cruise and they were all learning to dance. He invited me to watch as they were going to practice in Spinnaker’s Lounge at 8am and on the basketball court at 10am. So this is what goes on early morning! Who knew?

After breakfast I could have gone to early morning exercises, the casino, trivia, handwriting analysis seminar, golf seminar or arts and crafts all before 11am if I wanted to. I opted to head back to bed and watch the waves break the bow of ship. As I exited the cafe, I turned a corner and ran into five guys in white. Startled, I bid them all a good morning. I was asked what I was doing up so early on vacation. I replied I wanted to be the first in line for the omelette man and the first in line for the waffle man. I was next asked if I was enjoying the cruise so far. “Yes, it is great” I answered. I then added, “Who are you?”

The rest of the conversation was a blur. Not only were these guys in white, but they were the guys in white with stripes. I remember hearing Something-Director, Something-Director, Head-So-and-So, Big-Wig from Miami office and Assistant to the Something-Director. I could have run away. Here I was in my skanky clothes that I slept in with no make-up on. I thanked God to myself that I had put a bra on and applied mascara prior to leaving the suite. I held my ground and commented on NCL’s new menus. I thanked one of the Directors for dinner the prior evening. I then had to explain what I meant by that and they laughed. I then told them I had to go do a Norwegian dance group. When they laughed I realized I had to explain what I meant by that too. I ended their entertainment by wishing them a good day. I did not need my cabin key to get into the suite. I just crawled under the door…

I later checked out the Jewel’s spa. I began first with with the free area that women can use. You can use a hot-tub, a steam room, a sauna room, or sit on a few chairs overlooking the bow of ship. The spa is directly above the bridge and it has a fabulous view. I assume the guys on the other side had the same thing. They had regular bathrooms and regular showers along with two special showers that give an ice blast (which you are supposed to cold rinse after getting out of hottub or sauna/steam room to close your pores). I ventured down a hallway past the acupuncture room, the teeth whitening room, the massage rooms and the body tanning room into the therapy room which was unisex.

A juice/coffee/tea bar/water was set up as mellow music played lightly in the background. If I had my bathing suit on I would have checked out the therapy pool that seemed built for two with little rollers that one floats on. Instead, I sat on one of ten stone beds ergonomically designed for the body. The stones were heated. I sat there alone for about 20 minutes and de-stressed from my guy-in-white rendezvous. I almost fell back to sleep while looking out at the vast ocean ahead. I concluded that had I not had a penthouse suite to relax in, or if I was traveling with family members and wanted to get away, then this room is definitely where I would hang out!

I was so relaxed after my therapy room experience I returned to cabin to wake up the NYer and get ready for parties. I donned a black skirt, black sketcher sandals and a black/white/pink dress tank top (resort casual?) outfit. I was not sure of the decor in the Star Bar and I did not want to clash.

I brought our champagne to the Cruise Critic party and NCL set up glasses and orange juice to mix mimosas for those Cruise Critics in attendance. I also brought maple sugar treats from my home state of Vermont. NCL provided coffee and cookie treats. The best treat of all was getting to meet the Captain, the Food and Beverage Director, the Hotel Director, the Cruise Director and the group services coordinator. When some introduced themselves to me I reminded them I met him earlier that morning! I then shared the wonders of make-up.

Altogether, the officers were very nice and very personable. I noticed they took time with each of the Cruise Critics in a casual atmosphere. Their conversations were not boring and they were not stuffy at all. As a matter of fact, I began to think they were real people just like us! Overall, this was a great opportunity to ask questions of them if you wanted to. Lastly, it was great to put faces to people I communicated with online. After the gathering ended, we finished off the remaining mimosas.

Our next party was the repeat customer latitudes party at one o’clock. It was fun to go through the entry line and to not be afraid to talk to the guys in white with stripes. NCL served free champagne, wine, mimosas, rum drinks along with nice hors d’oeuvres. We stayed with mimosas. I dislike champagne but I had a nice mimosa buzz and my ultimate goal is to win the champagne bottle in the raffle. The party was well attended…it filled up the Spinnaker’s Lounge and the Captain talked to everyone and introduced the officers.

Prizes drawn included items from the gift shop, a pedicure and facial from the sap, NCL t-shirts and NCL hats. Prizes vary on each ship depending on who sets up the party. Once again, I did not win the bottle of champagne. I know if I ever win I am going to pull a Price Is Right move and run down and make a fool of myself. After all my suite treats, I was not too disappointed…

After the latitudes we were more buzzed and decided we better eat because more champagne was coming at the VIP party early evening. We selected the Blue Lagoon that serves chicken wings, potato skins, hamburgers, hotdogs, noodle soup, shepard’s pie, and some other stuff. This is one of the restaurants open all the time.

Afterwards, The NYer went up to the pool deck and it was time for my nap and solitude on the suite balcony. Upon my arrival, another surprise bottle was in the cabin and I have no idea where it came from. As my head hit the pillow on the lounger in bewilderment, I thought ‘Whatever!’ As I slept, I had no idea what the evening would bring…VIP party, another alternative restaurant, a dress malfunction, suite treats, and New Years Eve Bash…

During my nap I missed the afternoon activities that included champagne art auction, sexy legs competition by the pool, casino blackjack tournament, mega jackpot bingo, Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, spinning, martini clinic and margarita clinic. I wished I stayed up for the beauty seminars because I really could have used the seminar titled “Drop a Dress Size” or the one titled “Fab Abs” with the fitness instructors.

Monday evening and the V.I.P. party was billed optional formal night and we opted to dress up. While in South Beach I purchased a great strapless silk (ish) black and white cocktail dress. Each vertical black stripe and each vertical white stripe overlapped the other from top to bottom. I decided the dress was more important than going on shore excursions and getting my hair cut in the ship’s salon. Since black and white was my fashion theme for the week and it fit perfectly, I bought it.

When the time came to put the dress on, I wondered what happened. How could the dress have shrunk? How come I could not zip up the back? I forgot Caribbean humidity makes me swell. I forgot champagne makes me bloat. I forgot something else that I should have remembered. Since trying on the dress originally, I think I was ten pounds heavier. How was I going to chow down on lobster in a few hours?

We were almost late for the VIP party as the NYer (who is the size of a peanut soaking wet), had to help shove me into the dress. We laughed and laughed at the little flaps flipping up in certain spots whenever I walked or stood up after sitting down. Strange how it did not do that when I was dancing in the South Beach dressing room! I told the NYer I was going to wear the dress and just not move all night long. We could walk slowly; she would let me know if anything was showing, she could sit at the bar and I could stand up against it. When I had to sit down, I would remove my black sheer shawl (a burka head covering from Saudi Arabia I use as a shawl) and wrap it around my waist in a giant bow. Perfect. We were ready to go.

Before leaving, our suite treats arrived. We had treats arrive every night. This night had TWO platters of chocolate covered strawberries. We stuck them in the refrigerator in order to save room in our bellies for lobster. Lobster was being served in every restaurant that evening. We headed off very carefully to the Fyzz Lounge…

The Captain’s VIP party was very well attended. The Fyzz Lounge was very colorful and I did not clash with it in my dress. The Fyzz Lounge is used for karaoke and for other venues such as country line dance lessons. At the party, I did not move from the bar. We met a very nice woman who offered to show us her Garden Villa, an amazing 5500 square foot cabin with private courtyard. One of the officers introduced himself and I had to remind him I met twice already that very same day. This time I got to laugh and what him squirm. I explained to him the wonders of hairstyling and a little extra eye shadow. I thought to myself he probably did not recognize me because I gained weight since I saw him last.

Another officer asked which dining room we were eating in that evening and we had not really thought about it. He picked up his phone and made a reservation in a specialty restaurant. I wondered if we would ever see the freestyle dining rooms, the dining rooms that you go into anytime from 5pm-10pm.

Lastly, I noticed all the officers made sure they spoke to everyone who attended. I concluded this was a great group of officers. I secretly hoped they had fun at these events because they have to do it every week. The best part was that they were all very personable, cordial and funny.

During our fabulous lobster dinner in Mama’s Italian Restaurant, another bottle of wine was sent to our table. The lobster and wine helped stretch my dress appropriately. We had missed the opening main event show by Jean Ann Ryan Company which other people reported as being fabulous. So after dinner, we checked out the ship store instead of arriving late to it. I found the store pleasant. Cigarettes and liquor were definitely a bargain compared to where I come from. You could buy a carton of cigs for 23 dollars or 2 cartons for 40 dollars. If you purchase liquor from the store, you pick it up the night before the cruise ends. Just remind yourself you can not “carry on” the plane. You will have to pack it in your luggage. The regulations might change by the time you cruise, but keep this in mind.

We returned to our suite and found towel animals and chocolate on our pillows. I had been awake a long time and NCL contributed to an appropriate “good feeling.” I do not think I had a bar bill yet but was feeling great. We next headed up to the New Year’s Eve bash in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We arrived to a packed house and everyone was having a good time! The crowd ranged from 18 to 80 years old. I immediately got my glow sticks, my streamers and began to work out on the dance floor. I noticed the older Norwegian dancer from early morning standing by himself. I grabbed him and took him out on the floor. This guy could boogie! I found out later that he was in the same profession as me.

This was the only night I kept track of how long I stayed out at night. The NYer and I returned to suite at 3:30am. I had been awake partying for almost 24 hours. It was a perfect rainy day at sea.

TUESDAY…SAN JUAN:

I awoke early and headed up to the breakfast buffet instead of one of two main dining rooms. It was a new experience for me to see just who was out and about early morning! I sat with a lovely Hawaiian couple from San Francisco. Their plan for the day was to find a long lost friend from year’s ago. I told them I would say a prayer to St. Anthony that they would find her. I never saw them again that week but I hope they made someone’s day!

We did not arrive in San Juan until noon so I caught some early morning sun on the penthouse balcony. The ship was moving slowly and I think I had the best view…even better than the Garden Villa passengers. We had special early debarkation tickets but we were not in any hurry to go anywhere. We were on vacation. We had no plans. We let everyone else get off the ship first. We walked around town and bought souvenirs. I concluded that you must wear comfy shoes in Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets. We walked along the pier boardwalk and throughout the streets. I was so tired that I asked in one store if I would get back American dollars. The shopkeeper announced that I was in the United States and I would get back American dollars because that is all he had. I replied that a certain percentage of Puerto Ricans did not want to belong to the United States…he happily responded, “What do I care? I am Mexican!” We ended our shopping day drinking giant margaritas in a Senor Frogs bar.

My general rule is to be back on ship at least one hour before the recommended time. If you do not go with a ship tour, then there are no guarantees on the ship waiting if a traffic accident ties up the main road back, or if a privately scheduled tour is running late. On the ship I ate yummy pizza, chicken, pork ribs and potato salad. The NYer and I returned to our suite for a nap but it was interrupted by a suite shrimp platter delivery. We concluded no sleeping today and that we must begin to crack open all the wine we had sitting on our counter-top.

We sat out on our balcony eating shrimp and drinking Colin’s Cabernet Sauvignon while watching everyone return to ship. We watched the sun set. We opened the second bottle of Cabernet and heard a report from our suite neighbors out on their balcony about the San Juan tour. We finally met the honeymooning couple out on the balcony of the Diamond Suite (saw their suite at debarkation and it was beautiful…great decor…will book that one next time) and they were having a great cruise. Good thing because I would have felt bad if they were not having any fun!

As darkness fell and the ship started sailing we realized that we had not had dinner since nobody told us where we were going to eat that evening! Would we ever make it to the regular restaurants? The Nyer then remembered the double platters of chocolate-covered strawberries in our refrigerator and brought them out on balcony. We commented on the fabulous lights of El Morro shining in front of us and how great a tour that was the last time in San Juan, we laughed also at the shiny lights of the brand new parking garage directly below it.

As we left port, the gentle wind and night-lights were mesmerizing. I was bundled up in an extra blanket and the NYer could not believe that I was chilly. I said I was just comfortable. She pointed out the constellations as she had once lived on a sailboat traveling the Caribbean for two years.

Once we were full speed ahead towards Antigua, we went back inside and got ready for ’80’s night in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We missed dinner, the main show the Action Comedy Showtime Edge, the Big Band Tribute to Glen Miller, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Audience Participation gathering and the adult karaoke. Even so, I would not have traded the NYer, the wine, the shrimp, the chocolate covered strawberries, the balcony view leaving San Juan at night for a million dollars…

WEDNESDAY…HOW I FOUND JESUS IN ANTIGUA:

The NYer and I awoke to the ship docked in Antigua. We found the room service request sheets in the cabin booklet’s back pocket the night before. Our butler was on time and he set a beautiful table setting on the balcony. While dining, we basked in the glorious sunshine and wondered whether or not we would ever make it to one of the big shows offered almost each night. We missed the comedy show but had asked a family the night before if it was funny. A middle-aged dad with his family said it was a riot and that we missed a good performance. The NYer and I concluded that it possibly could not have been funnier than the two of us hanging out together all week.

The NYer left after breakfast to get a salon appointment and I continued to work on my tan and to catch up on sleep on the balcony. The Antigua welcome band down below played. As I tried to rest, my eyes kept opening to view this awesome cathedral in hills of downtown St. John. I wondered how far a walk it was…I rested…I opened my eyes again and was drawn to the immaculate structure. It stood out among all the other buildings…I rested again…opened my eyes and felt the beckoning…”Louise…Louise…Come To Me…!”

I asked the NYer if she wanted to walk up and check out the Cathedral. She replied not only no, but “heck no!” I finally fell asleep but awoke once again. “Louise my child, you must come to me!” the church bellowed once again. We had talked about hitting the beaches in Antigua but we were content with just doing our own thing…a perfect agreement when cruising with friends or family. Falling asleep again, I was jolted with a bolt…”Louise you better get up here right now and pay homage!” I got dressed and told the NYer I was going for a walk to the church. She decided to join me.

Before heading out we checked the ship’s magazine, The Freestyle Daily, to make sure of the required return time. We noticed on each port-of-call the advisory notice: “While ashore drink only bottled water, be cautious while dining in port, wash your hands often, and discourage hand shaking.” This is one of the great things about NCL…the multitude stations of hand sanitizers everywhere you go throughout their ships. I truly believe this is the reason one hardly hears about norovirus on NCL ships.

St. John’s Cathedral was not as far a walk as I thought. Closer than it appeared from the suite, I was glad I had comfy shoes on as the sidewalks were in need of repair. The view was beautiful from the outside. The cemetery around the church was interesting. The structure inside was extremely interesting. We read through the brochure that noted the history, the organ, the wood, the stained glass, and the altar. Suddenly a local hands us a bible and a hymn book. Mass began.

We went to leave and turned around. The church was semi-filled with locals. The NYer said, “Let’s GO!” I replied, “NO!, think of the grace we can get by staying!…I will meet you back at the ship if you want!” She stayed as we moved to the back. The mass was very interesting. I remembered the words to most of the responses but followed a local when it came time to stand and to sit and stand again. I even sang…and I never sing! This was great, I thought! I could have been at the beach, on a tour, drinking at the bars while on vacation, but here I was praying in St. John’s Cathedral.

I prayed for my family, for my community, for my friends, for my colleagues, for NCL and for the locals. I thanked God, Jesus and Mary for having the life that I have. The priest’s main message was no matter how great you are (a great teacher, a great doctor, a great lawyer), what truly matters is how GOOD you are at the end of the day. Knowledge is wonderful, but how you use it to help others is what counts.

Then came the sign of peace. Back home we just say peace be with you to whoever you are standing next to. In Antigua, the ENTIRE group leave the pews, walks around and SHAKES HANDS with everyone! The NYer is freaking out and I am whispering, “Just don’t put your hands to your mouth after!” We shook hands with all the catholic Antiguans including the priest who also walked around. There were five other cruisers and we just nervously shook each others hands and gave each other a look of “Oh Jesus!”…

Thirty minutes and four songs later I forgot about the hand-shaking. It was time for the body of Christ. I wanted to go up to the altar and kneel just like I did as a little kid when the catholic masses were done in Latin. The locals were also up at the altar on the left and I was the first cruiser on the right of them. Back home, the body of Christ is now given out in your hand for sanitary reasons. In Antigua, the priest delivers the host directly to your mouth. “Oh Jesus,” I thought…”Please do not let the priest’s finger touch my tongue! Oh Jesus, please forgive me for thinking this!”

I watched as the body of Christ came my way. My turn arrives. I stiffen, shut my eyes and stick out my tongue as far as possible. Then it was over. “Thank you Jesus…no wet finger!” Of course the priest was probably thinking, “Oh Jesus, please do not let my finger touch this heathen cruiser’s tongue!” as he delivered the wafer to me. I watched in glee and in anticipation to see if his finger touched the other cruiser’s tongues. I then bowed my head and thanked God.

Nobody left the altar. I prayed some more yet wondered why we were all still kneeling up there. The priest shuffles, says some prayer and starts going down the line AGAIN. Another host? A blessing on the forehead? What was going on? I strain to see down the row and I spot the holy grail…the chalice of Christ’s blood…placed on the lips of each local in the same spot as they sipped.

“OH JESUS!” I prayed. “Oh Jesus, can’t that priest wipe off the chalice using a little more force with that napkin?” The priest was getting closer. I strained some more to see and thought, “Oh Jesus, how come he is not turning that freaking cup?!” The priest was now ten locals away from me. “Oh Jesus, will I offend these people if I get up and leave?” The priest was five locals away. I turn to the right and look at at the other tourists. They looked as if the devil himself was on his way to steal their souls.

I wish I had a camera to capture one tourist’s look at me. It was sheer horror. I returned the look, shook my head no to her, bowed my head and prayed, “Father, forgive me!” as I stood and left just as the priest arrived. I returned to my pew and prayed more for forgiveness if I offended anyone in Antigua. The NYer wanted to ask me what the heck happened…because all she saw was me get up and then five others disappear in a NY second…but I was too busy praying.

Church closed with everybody leaving the pews once again and standing in a circle holding hands singing a hymn. I think I prayed to Jesus more times in 75 minutes than I did my entire life. I felt like a good person upon leaving. I left a hefty donation to help preserve St. John’s Cathedral. Jesus is going to be with me for a solid two years after that “tour!”

After church, the NYer needed a drink. She informed me that she was not Catholic. Who knew? I then spotted a school across the street and she then had to endure my conversations with the students, the teachers and the security guards. Amazing how things are different yet still the same throughout the world.

We ended up at the “BeeHive” a bar near the ship which serves local beer for 2 dollars a pop. Good thing I was buying. We were so full of Jesus that we found something good during every beer we drank. The beer was good…The tourists were good…The rain shower felt good…The ancient Antiguan street dancer who balanced a pineapple on his head was good…Life was good!

I was so full of Jesus, goodness and Antiguan beer that I decided to buy presents for all the people who had to support my job while I was away. One stop at “Lipstick” perfume factory and I had all my thank you presents. The only perfume shop “packed” with customers, I assumed the deals were good. One Obsession, Dolce and Gabbana, Red Door, Pure White Rain, Wish, Angel, J-LO Glow, and Versace-something later, I was done. I told the lady at check-out that it took 8 people to do my job while away. The male customer behind me replied, “What are you? A Housewife?”

Stumbling back onto the ship, the security guard just did not understand why after I placed each hand under the sanitizer that I also wanted to try to drink out of it. We returned to our suite and realized we do not have a cabin in the back of ship. Always remember on the Jewel that the carpet fish swim towards the bow. I somehow managed to lose my key along the way. I think I sanitized my purse and my key under the machine and it somehow slipped out. The information desk people were very kind in replacing one. If you lose your key, go there immediately and they will void out the lost one and give you a new one. Others in the cabin will also have to have their key replaced too. So do not go to church, get drunk after, carry around 350 dollars worth of perfume, take a sanitizer shower and expect to have everything you started with.

The NYer headed off to her hot stone massage which she loved and highly recommended. I headed off to sleep in my suite lounger on the balcony. Jesus was happy with me and he finally let me get some good shut-eye since boarding on 11/19.

For dinner that evening, we ate at NCL signature French restaurant, Le Bistro. I donned a black halter top and white sailor pants. The NYer was late meeting me there. As I waited at the entrance a couple came up to me and stated their reservation. I told them they would have to wait 45 minutes to be seated but if they slipped me a 20, then I would get them in sooner. They looked at me as if I had three heads until I informed that I was a passenger and not an NCL employee. Immediately afterwards, the Maitre D arrived and seated them.

I loved my array of lobster/scallop appetizer, escargot, and seafood. The NYer loved her warm goat cheese tart, the salmon and the creme brulee. We both enjoyed the complimentary bottle of wine that came with our meal since I am a platinum member with NCL. I chuckled at how I was turning into a wino. I also concluded by the end of the meal that platinum is now my new favorite precious metal.

Unable to finish the wine at dinner, we brought it to the Fyzz Lounge to see what “Edge Unplugged” was all about. Families were enjoying themselves and a crowd of young and old were learning to juggle on the dancefloor. We met a lovely group from England and we laughed a lot with them. Could this be my cruise family? They were fun and we shared jokes. I gave them my best British, Irish and Scottish ones. Afterwards, we went searching for our photos taken by the ship’s staff. We had fun looking for and finding them but we never purchased any. For some reason we looked old in all of them.

The International Crew Show won over our interest in nightly venues. Instead of karaoke or the Latin Fiesta Dance Party, I knew the crew show would be more entertaining. It is a treat to see your servers, your stewards, your cooks sing, dance and entertain. I believe shows like this add to morale and the passengers appreciate them. The Cruise Director and his staff did a funny finale. We finished the evening dancing in the Spinnaker’s Lounge.

THURSDAY…ST. THOMAS:

I awoke early to the immigration call. Any ship that stops in St. Thomas must go through immigration because of re-entry to the United States. All passengers must show their passports or photo identification to the immigration officials who come on board. I left my cabin at 8pm and was back by 8:04pm. St. Thomas had enough officials show up and the entire process was painless.

The foreigners had to go to Spinnakers Lounge and the Americans had to go through Azura restaurant. I realized later that NCL organized approximate times for passengers depending on various things: 7:45 was for citizens booked on shore excursions, and the remaining 15 minute intervals were for citizens on deck 11 and 14, then deck 10, and downward. I was still asleep while going through the Azura main dining room and noticed it seemed a favorable place to eat.

While eating breakfast on our suite we discussed St. Thomas. Wasn’t he the one who doubted Jesus? Or, was St. Thomas named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher/theologian/teacher/traveler? We never reached an answer but agreed we had seen and done just about everything on the island in the past. This included Coki Beach, Megan’s Bay, jewelry/watch/linen shopping, island tours and turtle cove. Other possible shore excursions we discussed included snorkel tours, scuba tours, parasailing, St. John beach escape, Kon Tiki Party Raft, coral world and champagne catamaran sail/snorkel.

I have almost everything on previous cruises and by this Thursday morning, I was not interested, especially since I bought that darned dress! The only thing both of us had never done was the screamin eagle jet boat or the skyline ride directly off the ship. Somewhat disappointed in ourselves that we were having to think about making a decision, the crew drill offered some relief.

I commend NCL for their passenger safety. I already mentioned hand sanitizers but need to mention cameras all over the ship. A newer ship, I felt safe and secure knowing they were everywhere. Should a crime occur on board, I am sure that at least one if not four would show one spot. If you are bored on board…try to find the cameras…they are hidden everywhere. Phones are also all over the ship. Portable phones in each stateroom can be used to stay in contact with family members while on board.

In addition to the life-raft crew drill, the crew onboard this week had to participate in missing children simulations. The first simulation was Jill. The announcer described her and the crew had to find her. She was found within two minutes (the crew really has to search until found). The NYer said that was an easy one…she was probably in Jack’s cabin! The second simulation was missing Willey. The NYer had a field day with that one and I laughed for over an hour.

Laying in the sun on the balcony won us over until the shade arrived and we sunbathed at the pool for the very first time. We were soooooo relaxed. While many passengers were on St. Thomas, some of us had the pool to ourselves. Two Sapphire pools are located on deck 12. One for kids with a giant water slide, the other for adults with a waterfall. Swimming under the waterfall gives a wonderful back massage. Be sure to stay under the water unless you want a head pounding. The kids waterslide was uneventful for me. I had a hard time sliding down it. Maybe because it was for kids? The peanut NYer had no problem but I was slighted by getting stuck on the slide. No fast downhill motion-plunge-at-the end for this heavyweight!

I probably ticked off the little kids waiting their turn behind me, assuming their complaints to peers how the big adults were not staying in their own pool. Even so, I took my time as I gently had to push my tush one arm movement at a time all the way down. A little guy at the bottom said I was supposed to lay down to go faster. I said to him “Ohhhh!” while wanting to say “Whatever!”

We had great bar service all day and the pina coladas were great. We knew already to order them in a regular glass so we did not pay the extra cost of the fancy-smancy glasses. The pool band was very good as they played easy-listening music. Showers are located nearby the pool but we found a large shower area on deck 13. It had gigantic fake shower handles with a large overhanging shower head. You press a button and the water flows to cool you off. Do not worry if the water keeps going and going…it shuts off automatically. I am sure if the camera guys were watching, they got a good laugh at the look of panic on my face when the water would not stop for me.

The pool areas on deck 12 and deck 13 began to fill up as passengers returned from the island. I watched one use their cell phone and I remembered The Family! Oh my gosh, it is Thanksgiving! Here I was on the beautiful Norwegian Jewel, it was 3pm in gorgeous St. Thomas, and I was enjoying the warm sun combined with a cool pina colada while they were all eating warm turkey in the cold green mountains. I missed them. I called them (My verizon cell phone worked in San Juan and in St. Thomas). My immediate family is so large that I had to call five houses to wish them all a happy turkey day. My family is so large that some were surprised when told why I could not come over for pumpkin pie that afternoon…I discussed the toss-up over who spoiled me more…my older brothers and sisters or NCL! I told them NCL won out this week!

We left the pool area by sailaway time and decided to work off the pina coladas. The Fitness Center on deck 12 was large and many cardiovascular machines faced an ocean view. The NYer pointed out the corner water fountain with a very long spout. She whispered in my ear. No more Evian purchases the rest of the week. We finished the workout powerwalking the promenade deck as St. Thomas’ view drifted further away. I think 2.3 times around the promenade is one mile. A jogging track is on the upper deck but it is too short for me and it is in full sun which I do not like. You can not run on the promenade as some passengers go out there for relaxation, for shuffleboard, to watch the sunset, to read quietly, to kiss their lover, to think alone, to gather thoughts, to Whatever. Promenade decks are the best-kept secrets of any cruise ship.

I worked up a hefty appetite. An invitation to dine with officers was extended at the V.I.P. party earlier that week. We were suggested to pick a day and time. I responded that they were the ones who had the busy schedules and I thanked them. I commented to let us know what was convenient for them. After 27 cruises, 17 with NCL, I had Red Buttons fever (the comedian on the old Dean Martin roasts who never got a dinner) and always wondered how passengers get the invite. Figuring the invitation was just a nice gesture I assumed it would be forgotten. Besides, think of the stress of it all.

We were told on Le Bistro night to meet in Star Bar Thursday at 8pm with dinner at Cagney’s to follow. Oh My Gosh. How do you decline that? I still wonder as of this writing how we got the invite. I am guessing the following: 1. They know I am a Cruise Critic?, 2. I am an NCL platinum member?, 3. They liked my commercial?, 4. I was in a penthouse suite?, 5. My SouthBeach formal dress flipping up?, 6. Jesus was with me?

Thursday was Caribbean night at sea. While getting ready the NYer and I discussed what we were supposed to wear. Was it formal? Was it resort casual? Was it Caribbean? Should I wear my black and white polka-dot dress? No, Caribbean night is usually the night the passengers and officers/staff/crew wear those horrible looking multi-colored caribbean shirts and goofy pants. We concluded the Star Bar and Cagney’s Steakhouse had the least amount of color of all lounges on the ship so we would wear our brightest outfits too.

I called for help anyways to make sure. The response was this was freestyle cruising and that we could wear “whatever.” At that moment I felt like making a bed-sheet toga to show just what I thought about “whatever!” None the smarter, the NYer ended up in a casual caribbean dress and I ended up in a multi-colored floral halter top with white capris. We concluded they were definitely our worst outfits the entire week. At the very least, we would match the officer/staff/crew’s worst outfits of the week too.

The Concierge, a.k.a our limousine driver, escorted us to the Star Bar and waited with us while the others showed up. We were all going to dine in Cagney’s Steakhouse. I just about died when the officers entered. Seems NCL took my previous advice and got rid of their goofy caribbean outfits. These guys showed up in black dress pants, black dress shoes and Gorgeous silkish solid color Cuban-style shirts. Here we were in our stupid outfits and there they were looking like they just returned from a Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine shoot. Oh my god, this was going to be the longest dinner of my life, perhaps my last supper. I immediately ordered a mount gay rum and tonic with lime.

After nervous introductions once again of everyone, we were asked how our day was. The NYer responded in an exasperated voice, “I am EXHAUSTED!…I have been looking for Willey ALL day!…Have you guys found him yet?!” Mount gay rum and tonic actually came out of my nose. I almost fell out of my chair laughing as did everyone else. The rest of the meal was fabulous. The only way to describe the dining experience was that I was dining at home with my family, especially my brothers and sisters. How surprised was I? We laughed, we told stories, we laughed, we ate a lot, we laughed more, we talked a lot and laughed some more. The NYer pointed out the ones (including me) from big families talked the most. She described it perfectly how we all grew up…we had to compete for the attention!

Overall, what a special treat for me to have been missing my family earlier that day and to have NCL find a way for me to feel right at home. My perception of officer stuffiness has changed as I realize they are people just like you and me. I come from a family of officers and I should have known better all along. Even so, I thank NCL for one of the best Thanksgiving dinners to remember.

If anything, I hope that they in return enjoyed themselves. Since this is done on a weekly basis, I somehow wonder how they view the dinners. There were a few times they almost had water coming out their noses, so I suspect it was something different for them too!

While dining, I did not have a problem missing The Second City comedy improv earlier that evening. There was enough laughter and joy at our table. After thanking the Jewel officers for Thanksgiving dinner and wishing them and NCL a happy birthday, the NYer and I went to the Caribbean deck party. After the Caribbean deck party, I went to the Spinnaker’s Lounge to dance off my jumbo shrimp, prime rib dinner with au jus and horseradish, Idaho baked potato and steamed asparagus. Since the next day was at sea, the disco is usually crowded because nobody has to get up early. Like having to get up early makes a difference to my late night dancing!

FRIDAY…DAY AT SEA:

Friday morning arrived and it was a full day at sea. All the documents and information for debarkation were delivered the night before. I suggest reading through them all to avoid confusion on debarkation day. On NCL, one debarks the ship in a variety of ways: Express walk-off (you get off first)…you must carry off all your own luggage, then passengers with flights to MIA or FLL before 3pm, then guests with shore excursions (you meet in a separate area), then guests with independent travel arrangement (arranged by deck locations), following with guests who have FLL or MIA transfers with flights after 3pm. If you do not want to read through the directions, just watch it on your stateroom television.

I suggest you fill out your customs cards, comment cards, luggage tags and check your onboard account within the last two days of cruise. This avoids the potential long line at the purser’s/information desk debarkation morning. Who wants to end their holiday stressed out?

I wrote out my thank-you letters for the Thanksgiving dinner invite and then packed a bit while watching “Pirates of the Caribbean (part 2)” on the movie channel. Oh my gosh, who knew of the selection of free movies along with the selection of other dvd games available? I never get the chance to go to the movies at home so it was a treat to see this one for free.

I decided to spend the day at sea checking out all other area’s of the ship. After the breakfast buffet I went up to sports deck and to the sun deck. A full size basketball court (also used for tennis and volleyball) with stadium seating was impressive. I found a golf swing area, a giant size chess board game, more shuffleboards, and the private area to garden villas. The sun deck was forward and I concluded this was a nice private area away from the pool. A few passengers were vegging out on the loungers and I did not want to disturb them. The ship’s chapel was small and not very decorative.

My attention was captured in the card/lifestyles room and in the library. The card/lifestyle room had a view of the ocean. Tables were set up where one could play games (bridge/cards/checkers/chess). I looked in all the cabinets and found plenty of board games including monopoly, rummikub, cribbage, sorry, just to name a few. I even found decks of cards!

The library room was the best library at sea I ever noted. A view of the ocean, comfy cubby chairs, and tables by the windows, the book selection was fantastic. I noted fiction, non-fiction, best-sellers, children’s, health, travel and other subjects. Passengers have the opportunity to check out books throughout the cruise and to return them by week’s end. I found three great travel books on Paris and spent the next two hours perusing them. My first visit to Paris was soon thereafter this cruise and I learned a lot. I guess while on the streets in Paris I am not supposed to look French men in the eyes nor respond to their greetings…unless I want to get picked up. I also learned how say, “Bonjour Monsieur! Je suis bien! Et tu?”

The Jewel Club Casino is a brightly decorated one with plenty of slots, tables and tournaments. I bought the perfume in Antigua with my gambling money so I never made a donation. I spoke with a nineteen-year old who had beginner’s luck at the crap’s table and according to him, he spoke to people who had won big at various times. I asked him on the last night if he was in the black or in the red. He had broke even yet commented he enjoyed every minute of it. At least he learned the correct way to gamble.

The internet cafe, located on deck 7 had about six computers. A staff member is nearby to assist passengers. An art gallery was nearby and art auctions took place all week. There were some pieces I liked. The Galleria shop staff was excellent in all areas. The employees were cordial and helpful. I bought t-shirts for hubby, boxes of caribbean rum balls and a great carry-on duffle-bag for 26 dollars. I could not bring the perfume liquids on the plane ride home so I had to re-arrange my packing. The store also had perfume, jewelry, gift ornaments, clothing, and toiletries. So, if you ever forget something, the Galleria store will probably have it.

I finished my self-guided tour with a buffet lunch of cold soup, pork ribs and iced tea. Yummy. Back at the cabin I told the NYer I was going to finish packing so I did not have to rush that night. She politely informed me that we still had another port of call the next day (Great Stirrup Cay) and what the heck was I thinking? Having no concept of time or date all week, I thought we were debarking the following morning. Could this cruise get any better?

I still packed a little bit and The NYer attended a towel making demonstration. Once I was done, I attended the ice cream machines. My first dessert of the week, I found two stations at both ends of the Garden Cafe. You can get chocolate, vanilla or mixed. They have sauces and sprinkles available. Cones (the good kind) are present but I don’t eat them. Instead, I gave the ice cream server my best smile when I handed him my giant soup bowl. He grinned as I whispered, “whatever, right?”

I thought of my father, now deceased, as I sat by myself amongst the crowded Sapphire pool area. Having a family of 13, our special treat was taking us for rides in the car and going to the Dairy Queen. If it was just him and I, he would always get me the super-giant size creemee as long as I could eat it all before I got home so my mother and siblings would not find out. I could never do it and he always helped me out as we pulled into the driveway. I remembered toward the end of his life taking him for rides and for creemees. He still finished what I could not. As 1/2 the ship’s passengers gathered at the Sapphire pool area, it only felt like it was just him and me as I ate the entire serving of icecream. I even licked the bowl.

Feeling like a little kid again, I watched a great show at the pool. A grand illusionist performed an underwater escape challenge. In true Houdini fashion, he had the entire crowd in awe. Passengers chained him up and threw him in the water. Amazing how long this guy could hold his breath. The real little kids were jumping and pointing in anticipation as the minutes passed. I found myself jumping and pointing and holding on to stranger’s arms as I watched. This was a great addition to NCL’s program. Totally cool.

I discovered the NYer at the Sky High Bar and we decided to pass on the bingo, casino tournaments, name that tune, exercise classes, seminars at sea, and singles socials all taking place on this sea day. Instead, we perched ourselves on the bar stools overlooking the pool below and met a lot passengers…some new and some familiar. We began with mojitos which were full of mint and yummy. I can only drink one of those though. We continued with her double-scotch and me double-mount gay cocktails. Much to our surprise, the activities came to us.

We took part in a Kid-Bingo-Coverall taking place by the pool. The prize was 400 dollars and it was one game only. NCL set it up in the cutest way. Each little kid received a beach ball. At the top of the slide, the staff had the machine balls and wrote out the number on each beach ball. The little kids slid down with their beach ball bingo number and held it up for the cruise director to announce. It was coverall and some of the little tykes were pooped towards the end. Some dropped out. I admire the ones who endured the entire game. If you want to make sure your child goes to bed early, then have them participate! They got to keep the balls too!

The sun was setting and the NYer and I were still perched at the SkyHigh bar and we met two wonderful gals having just a great time as we were. The four of us laughed a lot and we wished we met earlier in the week. Come to find out, one gal was from Cruise Critic. She did not make it to our gathering earlier that week so I told her what she missed. The four of us remained there until they had 20 minutes to get to dinner and left. The NYer and I met more passengers along their way. Who says you can’t meet interesting people at a bar? It had been dark for a while and it was getting foggy out. We noticed everyone dressed up while we were still in our shorts and bathing suits. After sitting and drinking all sea day long, we left the Sky High Bar with a Sky High bill. Returning to cabin, we realized we were indeed Sky High.

We went to dinner in Tango’s restaurant with a Tex-Mex flair. We had fun practicing on the Tango carpet during the day. The carpet has foot pictures and directions on how to do the tango. Who knew my tango guy would be a rug? We loved the ambiance of Tango’s at night with the lights dim and hearing the live music playing one deck below. Our waiter was excellent. I had the chicken soup and fajitas…the NYer had the spring rolls and quesadillas. Tex-Mex Burger: beef, shredded chipotle, avocado, Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, spicy fries

After Tangos we went to the Fyzz Lounge and watched the cruise staff teach line dancing. A few started out and others joined as they realized just how fun it is! The cruise staffmember was excellent and a very good teacher. I remember she taught me a few moves on the Norwegian Sun a few years ago.

The big main event show that evening was Cirque De Bijou. Held in the beautiful Stardust Theater forward, every seat was a great seat. There is nothing to block a view in this theater. The design was very well thought out. With exception to the peacock curtain, the colors and decor worked well.

The show was fabulous. I sat in the very back at the top and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Billed as “an artistic and awe inspiring aerial ballet featuring world recognized aerialists, rhythmic gymnasts, acrobats and bungee jumpers hurling from 40 feet in the air…” I totally agree this is a show NOT to miss and that it is definitely the “the best show on the seven seas.” If you sit in the first 8 rows, you have to stay the entire performance due to safety reasons. You have performers flying about above you coming within feet of your head!

Also not to miss is the after-show farewell by officers/staff/crew. NCL does the best send-off compared to my Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. As the farewell progressed, I realized the answer to my question all week long. As I heard the words sung “This is your home…away from home…you are part of our family…” and saw everyone up there, I reviewed the week in my head. How true those words were for me on this cruise. I opened this review with stating that NCL treated me like a goddess and like a family member at the same time. These are the words I use when anyone at home or work ask how my vacation was.

After the show we had good intentions of attending the well announced chocoholic buffet set up in the Garden Cafe and the Late Night Comedy Liars Club. Instead, The NYer went to sleep. I watched The Da Vinci Code, another movie I was pleased to see for free. I found myself having a hard time following along even though I read book two years ago. I did enjoy seeing the sites of Paris knowing I would see it for real very soon.

Not wanting to think too much about the Holy Grail once again, I ventured up to the Spinnaker’s Lounge and danced with myself. I had a good time with me! I found out that my favorite music is played late late late night. Not hearing it on other nights (although I still liked the DJ’s selections and I was only out late late the other nights), I was very pleased. My favorite music is trance/techno/club music and had I known, I would have taken longer naps during the day in order to stay up later. Even so, I am very proud of myself that I never once on this trip closed down the disco. I think I am growing up!

SATURDAY…GREAT STIRRUP CAY:

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day off Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island in the Bahamas. The wind and the waves moved the stationary ship. I was thankful we could tender to shore because sometimes the island is missed due to weather/strong winds. The NYer was going to stay on board and I was going on island to seek out the lighthouse and secret beaches.

The Nyer ended up coming ashore and we left the ship at about 12:30pm. Most of the passengers were already on island. We took our time getting off although we could have have used our priority tender tickets to leave earlier. Upon arrival, I saw many people sunbathing and not too many in the water. On less windy days, the beautiful calm waters beckon swimmers, snorkelers, and water loungers. We saw the quieter beach to the right but it was closed off probably due to safety reasons. We watched the Caribbean band play as passengers danced. Many of them were the diehards in Spinnaker’s late nights. Passengers rested in hammocks, played volleyball or ping-pong located near the very clean bathrooms. Kids built sand sculptures while others buried each other.

We did not eat the buffet lunch provided on the island by the ships crew, but saw many eating at the picnic tables set up. We did not go to the straw market because I already bought my straw hat there when I was on my April 2006 NCL Spirit cruise.

We did find the lighthouse marked two miles away from the main area. Along the way we found a private rock beach (no sand…just rocks) and had a great laugh at the Great Stirrup Cay Airport. The NYer should have a wonderful photo of her there at the entrance. Where I live back home, we can go into our lighthouses. Since this lighthouse was a working one, it was closed up. I found out later from some that there is another private beach in front of lighthouse. We kept walking past the lighthouse and found a private area with beautiful calm waters. We sat in the sun on a rickety old dock and watched a few crew members and a few passengers enjoy the peaceful water. Some snorkelers arrived from around the bend and reported they saw pretty fish, lobster, a stingray, a shark and starfish. We stayed there for a few hours and ended up watching a couple of passengers catch fish. This getaway was ideal and I shall not forget the serenity I felt upon leaving.

Before boarding the last tender back to ship, we watched the operation of breaking down the island. The crew certainly works hard to bring everything ashore and then to bring it all back to ship again. All the umbrellas and loungers are stored on the island while all the food, drink, and passenger trash returns to the ship on a separate tender. Fortunately for the crew, the red-shirt bar staff versus the blue-shirt kitchen staff could play some volleyball prior to boarding the ship.

Categories
Miscellany

By Land & Sea – San Francisco – Dawn Princess

Author: donnaw
Date of Trip: May 2006

What do you do when you are down to the last of your vacation days, spent or committed the vacation budget and need to get away?

A Little Background
Almost mid 50’s couple (I have been told that the almost is quite important) who have spent a good deal of the last five years vacations on cruises. April comes along and we realize that we need a break. Personnel changes at work have increased the number of hours that I am working each week and I am burning out rapidly. Next scheduled cruise is March of 2007, and we are looking at one in May of 2007 so realize that whatever we do cannot wipe out the budget moving forward. Last cruise was in January and DH loudly announced that he really needed a land vacation yet again! This has been the refrain after the last couple of cruises, so I am beginning to think that he really is serious!

Sitting at my desk one evening in April and taking a break from the work I brought home, I started looking to see if there were any cruise deals out there. No matter his insistence on a land vacation, I know that if I find a good enough deal, he will buy off on it. As I wander through the Internet travel sites, Dawn Princess jumps out at me. We have been on this ship several times and it is DH is all time favorite. She is moving from the Mexican Riviera in May to Alaska and has a three-day repositioning from San Francisco to Vancouver then a one-day to Seattle where she will start the Alaska season. Now bells really start ringing! The only time we have been in San Francisco was a layover to Hawaii and we never made it out of the airport due to a late arriving flight. We have always meant to go back but have never found the time. Add that we have always wanted to go to Seattle and there is a potential vacation plan here. This can work so time to hand it over to DH and see what he can do with it. I have planned the last six vacations so it had already been determined that it is his turn to plan.

Let’s Get the Snags Out of the Way
First snag that we hit was the fact that the Jones Act/PSA would not allow us to take the three-day cruise followed by the one-day cruise even if we disembarked and then re-embarked to a different cabin. We thought that it only affected us as U.S. citizens but later found that the Princess computer would not allow the Canadians to do it either. We had already spent four days in Vancouver after an Alaskan cruise on Dawn so we were really committed to spending time in Seattle this time so decided on taking a shuttle from the port to SEATAC on disembarkation.

Air
The proverbial second snag was the airlines yet again. Hundreds of thousands of Frequent Flyer miles on multiple airlines did no good for the dates that we were looking for. Hours of playing with itineraries failed to make it look any better. The cruise was in the middle of the whole trip so any moves in the start, end date affected how long we spent in either of our destinations, and we were unwilling to give up time in either San Francisco to Seattle. We live mid-way between O’Hare and Milwaukee airports but could not find a reasonable direct flight out of either. It was time to pull out our Southwest reward ticket. Midway (Southwest territory) is 80 miles each way and is definitely our third choice but it was worth a try. We hit paydirt. Southwest had great times for direct flights to OAK and from SEA at $99 each way. If flying out of MKE, we stay at a park and fly hotel the night before, if flying out of ORD, we do an inexpensive one-way car rental each way, if flying out of MDW, we need a new game plan. When we fly MDW in the winter, it is limo all the way. However, that is a very expensive option and not necessary on a Saturday afternoon in the summer. Internet research came up with the solution. We booked Midway “Park, Ride, Fly” for $8.50 a day online and took our older and more gas efficient vehicle. This company has concessions at many airports throughout the country. Parking is in a fenced lot, and shuttle to the airport is included in the cost. They pick you up at your car (in their lot) and drop you off right behind your car. The service was fantastic with the shuttle bus being there before we were ready for them both times.

Southwest Airlines

This is the “budget” airline. As times have changed with the “premium” lines, we find that Southwest is actually a little better than most of our “premium” flights of late. Trick: Southwest is open seating using A – B – C codes for who gets to board first. The first 45 who check in are “A.” We checked in online the night before each flight and were “A” on both flights. This open seating arrangement does mean that passengers line up early to board the plane to get the best seats. We were at the back of the A line on both flights and still got great seats and managed to get a row of three for the two of us on both flights. With the extra legroom on Southwest planes and the quite comfortable leather seats, we were quite happy with our choice. The snack provided was a cute little box with a pack of Ritz cheese and crackers, a pack of Oreo 100’s, a pack of dried fruit and a pack of peanuts. Definitely not premium but better than what we received on our last three flights on other airlines. Eat first if you are going on a long flight or bring food onboard with you!

SAN FRANCISCO

To San Francisco
There are many transportation choices from either SFO or OAK to the San Francisco downtown area. We arranged a town car pick up prior to leaving and were quite happy with the results. Our driver, John, was at the airport waiting for us and was full of helpful information even though part of the conversation was sidetracked to Boston (his original hometown). He was even nice enough to drop DH off at Powell and Market to pick up our three-day transportation pass and circle to pick him before dropping us at our hotel.

San Francisco Hotel
As stated in the beginning, this was a budget trip. We have had good luck using Priceline in the past and decided to use it for both hotels on this trip. An important part of using Priceline is doing your research and knowing what you are bidding for. We used both biddingfortravel.com and betterbidding.com to determine what zone we would bid and what price. We decided to bid the three-star in the financial district of SFO since we felt the three-star in Union Square had a property that we would not like. We got the Courtyard by Marriott in the Financial District and were more than happy with the results (more later).

Before we got to San Francisco, we both had concerns that this property might be too far out of the mainstream. Those concerns were put to rest as soon as we got there. A short three-block walk put us on Market and in the mainstream. The #15 bus brought us back to the hotel and stopped at the opposite corner on Folsom and 2nd Street. To take the #15 down to the pier area was a one block walk to Folsom and 3rd Street. A Starbucks with limited hours was located in the lobby and the rooms were very nice with the most comfortable (pillow top) bed to date. The only negatives were the lack of a room safe (we took our documentation down to the desk and used a safety deposit box there. Note: there is a $250 charge if the box key is lost.) and the limited Starbuck’s hours but they appeared to be every other block so easily made up for.

Seeing San Francisco
One of the first things we realized was that the core of this city is much tighter than it appears on maps. This is a walking/public transportation city. It would totally be a walking city except for the hills (think mountains at times). Our three-day passport ($18) gave us access to unlimited use of above ground transportation for the time we were there. For us this meant numerous trips on cable cars (main station at Powell and Market), trolleys and buses. A one-way trip on the cable car is $5; a one-day pass for the cable cars is $10. The three-day pass quickly becomes a deal since we traveled extensively around the city.

Weather

Overall, beautiful! The rainy season appears to have ended before we arrived. First night found us having dinner at Pier 39. We had made advance reservations at Swiss Louis, where we had an excellent dinner and wonderful views. Recommended by friends, this was our splurge dinner in SFO and it lived up to expectations. However, now for the weather part, I was wearing a light jacket and DH was in a long sleeve shirt. We walked out of the restaurant just as it was getting dark and it was cold. We walked into a shop a couple of doors down and bought SFO jackets for less than $20 each. This was the best deal of the trip. They are reversible with one side furry and the other waterproof. They also got a lot of use until we reached Seattle. Someone said that SFO has six microclimates and I have to believe them. Depending on where we were, we want from hot to cold in a matter of seconds. During our stay, we went back to the hotel so I could change jackets several times.

Must Do’s

Cable Car Museum — We took the Powell/Hyde line up Nob Hill then walked down to the Ferry Building at the port. First stop on our walk was the Cable Car Museum. Yes, this is a museum with a lot of the history of the cable cars in San Francisco posted in very nice displays; however, this is also the heart of the current cable car system with full view of the working system that provides power and keeps the cars moving. This is free and fascinating even for those of us who are not mechanically inclined. Also has a nice little gift shop with very helpful employees.

Chinatown — Continuing our wandering down to port and we were in Chinatown. This is a working Chinatown. Yes, there are many tourist shops but there are also markets and stores that support the local Chinese population and they are there en-mass. This is the second largest Chinatown outside of Asia and is a definite must see.

Fisherman’s Wharf — we somehow managed to wind up at this definitely touristy location at least once a day. This is not a surprise since we both love being on or near the water and automatically gravitate towards it. The wharf area is filled with restaurants, shops and small stands selling food including whole Dungeness crabs cooked when you order it. Must see at this location is Boudin’s Bakery and Café (reputed by a good friend to have the best clam chowder in SFO but take the bowl with the roll on the side since you get more soup). We went in after stopping at Ghirardelli’s for chocolate sundaes and just the smell made us hungry again.

Pier 39 is a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. Stop and see the sea lions who have taken over a good portion of the boat docking area. They put on a show continuously. San Francisco was not too happy when they decided to make the slippage their home, but have resigned themselves to live with it and have posted the history of this group and pertinent information about them. Live entertainment, restaurants, shops and bars are the order of the day here. Great spot for people watch with lots of locals enjoying the sights along with the tourists on weekends.

Alcatraz
— “The Rock” is in view of the port area but deserves a trip. Blue and Gold holds the concession to the prison tours until the end of May, 2006 so by the time this is read; it may be handled by another vendor. We ordered our tickets for the Sunday evening tour prior to our trip and went to one of the computer stations at their dock to print our tickets early on the day of the tour. All that the computer needed was the charge card that we used to place the order and it printed the tickets without having to wait in any lines. The ferry ride over is rather chilly so dress accordingly. The climb up to Alcatraz once on the island is somewhat steep but it appears that they do have transportation for handicapped. An audio presentation allows you to take the tour inside Alcatraz at your own pace. The only disappointment was that we hoped to return as the lights of the city were going on for some great pictures but it was still too light out for that to work.

Golden Gate — This is an absolute must though we did bypass the land portion since we would be sailing under it. It has been reported by a reliable source, that the best hot chocolate in San Francisco can be found at a little stand at the entrance to the bridge.

Cable Car
— All routes but especially from the port area to Powell and Market. We took it in this direction on the last evening and got a whole new perspective of the HILLS of San Francisco as we looked down at the city center (think almost straight down). The view equaled any roller coaster ride.

Only One Day in Port
For those who have only one day, this is a tough city to see but a lot can be done by taking the one day transportation pass which can be purchased online before you go or at specific locations when you arrive. Additional info and choices for transportation can be found at sfmuni.com If you have not done it before, the cable cars are an absolute must and utilizing them will allow you to see more of San Francisco. Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are a natural with several small gourmet groceries for anything that you might want to pick up before returning to the ship. Food

San Francisco is a city and has city restaurant prices so budget accordingly. We did not find any $3.99 Grand Slam breakfast deals! Food costs were in line with what we pay in the Chicago Metro area and many of the choices were the same. We did, find coupons on the internet that we used at several locations including Lori’s diner. Local specialties that are must try are crab and sourdough breads.

Budget tricks:

Coupons from the internet and on the local tourist maps were a fun way to save a bit.

Walgreens (found all over the city) saved a considerable amount on water and other quick snack items).

Municipal passports kept transportation costs down.

Summary
Three days was not enough to see San Francisco and we will have to go back for more. It was a fun filled hectic three days and we were a bit disappointed when it was time to pack up for the cab ride to pier 27 but it was time.

San Francisco Cruise Ship Facilities
Pier 35 is the primary cruise ship facility in San Francisco. It would be natural to assume that since we were boarding a cruise ship, we would be going to Pier 35. I am a member of several cruise line forums and was alerted the day before we left that Dawn Princess would be at Pier 27 (which is an overflow pier) and would start at 1 p.m. This was actually closer to our hotel and lowered the cost of the cab ride considerably since most of the cab cost in this area is due to congestion and the slow movement of traffic. We exited the cab in front of the terminal with a bill of $8 plus tip at 12:20. What we did not realize was that the cab could have pulled right into the dock area about a half block down and dropped us off. However, that half block was very slow moving so we did save a couple of dollars and had a short walk. We handed over our checked bags to dock personnel and entered the terminal where we needed to show ID and our cruise tickets. We had filled out immigration on-line so only needed to fill out a statement that said that we were not sick (caused by the re-occurring incidences of Noro viruses on cruise ships). We then proceeded to the registration area to be faced be huge lines winding through the queue.

However, we are Platinum on Princess so we continued to walk and bypass the queue to the Platinum and Elite registration queue and no line. We stood for 30 seconds before we proceeded up to register and were onboard in less than 10 minutes. The entire process from cab drop off to walking on the ship took less than 25 minutes and we were dropping our carry on luggage in our cabin at 12:45. When we booked, the only thing available was a category j inside cabin and we were assigned cabin D735, an aft inside cabin directly down the hall from the casino and La Scala (the Italian Restaurant). I have a standing request on the Princess website for the beds put together and robes in the cabin. Other than those requests not being met, the cabin was in perfect shape including the requested fruit on the desk. A quick call to our cabin steward (Maria) identified that the laundry was in process and she would fix the bed and provide robes as soon as she received them. The only other cabin issue was a trick remote. It was universal and Maria needed to fix it for us twice when DH managed to un-program it.

THE CRUISE

Dawn Princess
Built — 1997 Class — Sun Class Gross Tonnage — 77,441 Tonnes Passenger Capacity — 2,050 Crew — 870

It had been three and a half years since we had been on Dawn Princess. I was amazed at what wonderful condition she is in. Our normal first stop when boarding Dawn is La Scala but it was closed during this boarding so we headed up to Horizon Court (buffet) for lunch. Hand sanitizers were very evident as well as crew politely requesting that they be used if someone attempted to walk past. Food is still self-service which some of the other lines have taken away. There are no trays but the oblong plates are large and rather easy to fit a beverage on to keep things under control. Food was excellent as usual and seating was plentiful. We had beautiful weather and while a bit cool it was still beautiful when we boarded so the next order of business was wandering the outside decks then finding a place to sit in the sun until muster. We returned to our cabin shortly before muster was scheduled and had enough time to unpack our luggage before the drill, which was quick and painless. We returned the life jackets to the cabin and then headed up for sail away and our trip under the Golden Gate Bridge. I grabbed my San Francisco jacket but DH decided his golf shirt was just fine. We headed up to the front of the ship above Horizon Court and DH along with many others froze as we sailed under the bridge. Most toughed it out for the photo opportunity and an experience that is unforgettable. More wandering then pc dining and a show completed our first day on board. We found out at dinner that the cruise was offered up as a special deal to airline personnel and there were many onboard who had taken it. These short repositioning cruises can be somewhat difficult to sell because it is not cost effective to travel to the port of embarkation and back from the port of disembarkation for such a short vacation. Many of the Canadians on the prior Mexican Riviera cruise stayed on and quite a few passengers that only needed one-way air were on board. This still left a rather large ship to fill and it appears that airline personnel filled quite a bit of it. We met UPS, Southwest, Delta and Skyway personnel who said they had met others from virtually every airline.

The seas
I had been warned that, (by many before) what we were embarking on was generally one of the roughest stretches of water to sail. The Pacific between San Francisco and Seattle is notorious for providing a wild ride and it did not fail this time. Dh believes the wilder the better and I rarely get seasick but I have been known to so came prepared. I put the patch on prior to sail away and am very grateful that I did. Wednesday was a sea day and we were in rough seas with gale force winds. Temperature made it all the way up to 52 with an overcast sky.

Wednesday — Sea Day
For us, this was laundry day then finding a protected spot on Riviera deck to listen to the band and watch the sea go by. Laundry rooms are located on each deck. The last time we were on Dawn, the machines were free but you paid for soap and fabric softener. Those machines have been changed and it is now $.75 ea to wash and dry. Met and talked to others who were doing laundry and using the iron and ironing board provided in the laundry room. All were having a great time! Finished the laundry and made it out to deck. A few diehards were dancing to the band while wrapped in red/black wool blankets provided by Princess in place of pool towels. The afternoon Bingo game was fun even though we lost. While wandering, we checked the dinner menu for the dining room and decided that we would go to La Scala for dinner since nothing held great appeal to us that evening. This was also formal night and we were going to be dressed semi-formal at best since we did not feel dragging formalwear with on this trip was worth it. La Scala proved to be an excellent choice and our waiter was so good that we gave him a cash tip. I had thought that Sterling Steakhouse (additional charge on Princess ships) had the best Caesar salad only to be proved wrong by the one in La Scala. Entrees were excellent and the Tiramisu for dessert could compete with the best of them. Some casino time and then wandering the different entertainment venues followed.

Thursday — Victoria
The rough seas and head wind that we had been fighting since we left San Francisco changed our 8 am docking to 10:30 in Victoria. We have been to Victoria before and done Bouchard Gardens and the whale watching tour so we were looking forward to a leisurely tour of the inner harbor area. Since we were walking to town, this schedule change had no impact on us but it did mess up timing for some who had scheduled local tours. We had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room while we watched the docking and I had the special of the day, which turned out to be excellent Egg’s Benedict. We finished before disembarkation so went up to Horizon Court to enjoy the coffee at leisure and wait for the disembarkation rush to end. Overcast and cool when we left the ship, we followed the map provided by the ship and the signs to downtown Victoria. This was about a half hour leisurely walk from the ship with lots of stops to snap pictures. It did start to rain about half way through but stopped by the time we made our first stop (Starbucks) on Government Street. We leisurely wandered through shops then stopped at an Irish Pub for a taste of the local beer. A little souvenir shopping and we headed back to the ship reversing our prior route and stopped at a local coffee shop along the harbor for a specialty coffee. Due to our late arrival, sail away was moved an hour to 6:00 PM so we had a leisurely lunch including an excellent burger from the pool grill and watched as others returned.

This was packing night so we headed back to the cabin after sail away and packed the bags that we were putting out in the hall. The first two bags were tagged and placed out for pick up prior to going to the dining room. The last bag was put out shortly after another excellent dinner. We changed shoes and jackets to what we would be wearing for disembarkation and headed out to wander and enjoy the entertainment throughout the ship along with a little leisurely shopping.

Duty Free Shopping note: You can shop for duty free cigarettes and alcohol at any point during the cruise but both will be held and delivered to your cabin on the last night. Princess does offer a limited list of alcohols and mixers for cabin consumption along with beer and wine packages through room service. Cigarettes can be purchased at any bar on the ship throughout the cruise for around $3.50/pack.

Casino note: We received notification in the Wednesday Patter that the casino would not be open on Thursday night after leaving Victoria. Many missed this and were disappointed after waiting for it to open.

General notes:

The art auction is alive and well.
The spa services were really being pushed.

Coke card for fountain soda was available for $13.63. This entitled the purchaser to unlimited fountain soda for the entire cruise.

The Hagen Daz concession was open for limited hours and was surprisingly popular with it as cold as it was.

Fresh Brewed coffee and specialties coffees were available through bar service.

There was a drink of the day selection each day along with a martini of the day in Crooner’s Club.

Disembarkation
We had scheduled Quick Shuttle for our transfer to SEA where we would pick up our rental car for our stay in Seattle. The time choice for pick up at Canada Place was 9:15 (express service) and 10:50. We decided on the 10:50 (even though it made multiple stops) since we did not want to be rushed to disembark. We stalled after breakfast and finally headed down to disembark at 9:30 with the thought that they probably added something to do in Canada Place since the last time we were there and that we would have to kill an hour before we boarded the shuttle. All was quiet when we left Dawn and then we turned a corner into total mayhem at customs. It took over half an hour to get through and out of customs, which cut our time pre-boarding the shuttle down and then took another 10 minutes to find our scattered luggage and 10 minutes to find the shuttle and sign in. This shuttle was crowded when we left Canada Place and was packed by the time we left downtown Vancouver. We had thought that the shuttle would take less time with the border crossing but found that was not the case. All passengers were required to bring all their belongings with them when they went through. Those passengers that did not disembark from Dawn were also required to collect their luggage and bring that through too. We decided that we would definitely reconsider this option if we were to do this again even though a one-way rental car is rather expensive.

SEATTLE

Rental Car Pickup
We did get to SEA at 3:30 and did the paperwork for our Thrifty rental car then hopped on their shuttle to pick up it up. The shuttle to the Thrifty rental car took 5 minutes and we were within site of our hotel.

Seattle Hotel
Another five minutes and we were checking in to the Doubletree SEATAC. This property has had mixed reviews over time but we got it for an excellent bid, It has been going through renovations for a rather long period of time and those renovations are still being done. Desk personnel gave us the directions to our room which was in building four that would involve winding through a lot of buildings and a rather long walk with luggage so we opted to drive over to building 4 and had no problem finding a parking space. This property consists of a tower and a number of low-rise out buildings. Our room (4112) was a short walk from the secure entryway and was our next surprise. We did not notice as we exited the car that this particular building was different but the difference was apparent as soon as we walked out on the small concrete balcony (all rooms have them including tower room. The outbuildings balconies did not have furniture but not sure about the tower rooms). Our building was built on stilts over a large pond. Spectacular view with the Marriott Airport in the distance. This was more like being at a resort than at an airport hotel. Please note that the odd number rooms, while having identical balconies, had a view of the parking lot. Buildings 4, 5 and 6 have this water view though some of the lower rooms are obstructed with greenery. I was on the balcony and turned around when I heard “Wow!”. We had another pillow top mattress that was unbelievably comfortable. The overall room was one that had gone through renovations and was very attractive. The only detraction that we could find was the lack of a safe but that was not a major issue to us. I cannot say enough good things about the staff at this property. They went out of their way to make us happy! The final and probably best example: We returned to the hotel late on Sunday evening and realized that we had completely forgotten about doing online check in with Southwest. DH grabbed the paperwork and headed down to the lobby. The computer center was closed but one of the desk staff (actually, one of the employees that was helping the desk staff as they were overrun by check ins) did the check in for us and gave him five chocolate chip cookies to take back to the room when she was done.

General Notes:

This became a non-smoking property upon renovation with a small smoking area set up outside of the main lobby and smoking allowed on balconies. This is probably not a problem in good weather but potential issue if the weather is bad.

We unpacked and then wandered around in the general direction of the lobby with our final stop at the Concierge Desk.

Cruise Passenger Note: Princess is using this property as one of their hotels and has a desk on site.

Friday evening in Seattle
It was 5:30 at this point and we decided that it was too late to head into downtown Seattle, so we asked about a local casino. It appears that there are two types, so we opted for information on the full casino. We were given directions to Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, which was about a 25-minute drive. We have generally found (in our travels) that large casinos have excellent buffets, and this is where we were heading with a little side trip to a grocery store for a bottle of wine and a quick stop to check out a mall (ATM). Since it was Friday night, the casino was quite lively. We wandered about for a bit losing $20 in the nickel slots (also had penny’s along with a full range of slots and a full complement of table games) then wandered into the line for the Pisces Seafood Buffet which was priced at $19.50 a person (more details can be found at Muckleshootcasino.com). This buffet was well worth the money, and I hit gold with Dungeness crab and huge cocktail shrimp. DH also felt he got is money’s worth even though he does not eat seafood and went back twice for the prime rib. This is not an extremely elaborate buffet or a fancy dining room but everything we tried was excellent. We headed back to the hotel after dinner so we could get plenty of rest in preparation for a busy Saturday in Seattle.

Saturday in Seattle
Another sunny day in Seattle and a relatively late start. We drove into Seattle Downtown proper. We started off looking for Pikes Market but managed to miss it so decided to take our planned tour first. We were very fortunate to find a parking lot with a weekend special rate of $3.50/day about a half block from our ultimate destination of the start of the Underground Tour located at First and Yesler Way. We did not realize quite how lucky until we looked around at rates at other lots. Tours are $11/person and run every hour (more information at undergroundtour.com). With tickets in hand, we headed across the street for our first Starbucks in Seattle. The reviews of this tour were great and it lived up to expectations. As the tour completed, we found out that we could get on a free bus on the corner and take it to Pike’s Market. Several stops down and we were now at the entrance to the market. Blocks long, catering to tourists and locals alike, the sights and sounds were fascinating. Wine shops next to fish mongers putting on a show of throwing whole fish back and forth. Full shops and small booths intermixed. This is not a place that you run through under normal circumstances and the Saturday crowds means a very leisurely stroll. We wandered to the end and back. Made it past the donut vendor on the way in but could not manage to pass it up on the way back out. It suddenly dawned on us that we had somehow managed to skip breakfast and it was well past lunchtime so a little snack was well deserved. We shared a dozen hot mini donuts and it was the perfect snack.

Decision time and what to do next. We had gone past the Space Needle four times already but weren’t sure whether we really wanted to do that (I fully admit that I hate heights and spent the entire time at the top of Sears Tower in Chicago in the gift shop). As we are wandering about, conversations just seem to crop up with other wanderers and locals and someone has mentioned the Ferries that run to the islands in Puget Sound. This sounds like a much better option for us but we are not sure where to catch it. We do know the general direction so back on the bus and strike up a conversation with a local who is heading home from work on the Ferry so just follow him off. The person who suggested the Ferry originally mentioned that Bainbridge was a rather quaint island and a short tip along with being inexpensive, $6.50 per person roundtrip, so off we went. Added bonus on the trip over was the chance to watch Dawn Princess and a HAL ship pull out of port and an NCL ship pull in. Short ride later and we were on Bainbridge for a leisurely walk in the area around the Ferry Pier. We were late enough that shops were starting to close but wandered through the grocer (lots of gourmet foods) and the drugstore before returning to the dock to cross back to Seattle on the 6:30 ferry. A short walk to the car and off to our next destination. We talked to one of the security guards at Muckleshoot the night before and he mentioned that the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma was as nice as or nicer than Muckleshoot so that was our goal for dinner. It did not take long to get there but parking was a nightmare and we finally gave up and took valet parking since the place was absolutely packed. The line for the buffet was longer than the one the night before with lots of locals waiting. Nicer dining room and we hit the surf and turf buffet, which added a lot more items than the night before including King Crab Legs, which were by far the most popular item and were continually replenished. Price was just slightly higher than the Friday night buffet and well worth the difference. A bit of wandering and it was time to head back to the hotel.

Sunday in Seattle
The sun shines brightly yet again! We called prior to the trip and made reservations for the Spirit of Washington dinner train out of Renton so we will stick to the suburbs this day. We finally decide on the Museum of Flight thinking that we will be able to kill an hour or two. Bad move! We could have easily spent and entire day and were both disappointed when it was time to go back and change for dinner. A note on directions, when getting off I5 and going to this museum, it is one road past Airport Way (The airport access road). The museum is actually in three parts with one part an easy walk across the street to walk through a Concord and a retired Air Force 1. This is definitely another winning activity and if you have the least interest in planes and air travel then plan on a whole day.

Back to the hotel early to change, and we head out for the train. This was the most expensive activity on this part of the trip, and we were really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, we brought the map with that had us going for the train from Seattle so managed to get turned around and barely made it though they said they would hold it for us (make sure you bring the phone number). We boarded and it quickly decided that the sport coat was overkill. The company suggestion was to dress as if you were going out to a nice restaurant. Most of the passengers were dress quite casually. Dinner entrée was pre-ordered when making the train reservation. We paid the extra per person and opted for the super dome car (City of Renton originally built in 1952 for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. This also meant that we would be sharing a table for four since tables for two always book very early. Our tablemates were a nicer older couple who had moved from California to Washington a few years ago and were on their first train ride. Introductions completed and drinks ordered (my sour apple martini was quite tasty even served in a water glass), dinner was started shortly after we pulled out of the Renton station. Both the Prime Rib and the Chicken entrée were excellent. The train travels up to Woodinville along the shores of Lake Washington and over historic Wilburton Trestle (102 feet high and 975 feet long) before moving onto a spur to the Columbia Winery. This was a 45-minute stop with the choice of wine tasting, shopping or just wandering the beautiful grounds. Many shopped while we wandered and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Back on the train and back to Woodinville to return to the spur back to Renton with dessert served as we watched the scenery go by. The chocolate cake was excellent and reports were that the Apple dessert was also. We reached Renton just as it started to get dark and returned to our hotel tired but feeling like we had an excellent day.

One day in port
For those who have a limited amount of time as a port stop, Pikes Market (along with the original Starbucks) and the Underground Tour are both an easy distance from the ship and are probably good options. The Space Needle is a bit further but is on many “to do” lists. With additional time, the Museum of Flight is necessary see.

Monday — Start in Washington, End in Wisconsin
Our flight scheduled for 3:30 timed the rental car return and shuttle to the airport at about 1:30-2. We decided to head to Pikes Market since we wanted to actually go in the first Starbucks but finally gave up when we couldn’t find any reasonably close or reasonably priced parking for a brief (two hour) foray into the market. We packed and checked out before we left for downtown Seattle so we headed to Westfield Mall for lunch and a little wandering before we turned the car in and headed to the airport. This is a very nice very standard mall and impossible to tell where you are once you pull in the parking lot. Food court was large with many of the standard mall vendors found all over the country. It provided a nice lunch and a bit of a break then off to return the car and the five-minute ride to the airport. SeaTac is a very easy airport to get around with the normal assortment of shops and food offerings. We again made it to the back of the A line for the flight but again managed the coveted three seats for the two of us and enjoyed an uneventful flight back to Midway airport. The parking lot shuttle was sitting and waiting as we walked out with our luggage and took us directly to our car. The trip home was fast since we were well after rush hour and the following morning was back to work.

Summary
Did we get to do it all? Not a chance! Would we go back to do more? Definitely! With limited time in both cities, we purposely missed many things that we wanted to see and do in favors of others that we considered priorities for us. Would we do this type of trip again? Another definitely! The land portions were a tremendous amount of running to get to do as many things as we could possibly squeeze in so the cruise portion provided a relaxing break and gave us time to recharge.

Final suggestions
Do your research and plan what you would like to do in these cities but leave some time to just go off in a different direction and enjoy. Schedules are for real life and work but should be only advisory on vacation. If you have any questions, email me at donnaw7471@yahoo.com and I will attempt to help when I can.

Categories
Arts & Culture

Med/Greek Isles Cruise – Carnival Freedom

Author: Carmen C.
Email: timecop5@excite.com
Date of Trip: June 2008

On 6/14/08, our SIL took us to BWI for our 2:30pm flight on Air Canada to Toronto where we had a 4 hour layover before heading to Rome. We saw our DD, who is a Behavior Detection Officer with TSA, at the airport, and she stayed and chatted with us until our flight left. We were 1/2 hour late leaving Toronto, arriving in Rome at 11:33am on 6/15/08. What has not happened in decades of travelling happened on 6/15/08. Air Canada lost one of my “essential” pieces of luggage.

After being sent to three different counters at the airport, we finally found the right one and filed a report. We headed to the Carnival bus and about 11/2 hours later we arrived at the ship.

Embarking was pretty efficient, it took about 1/2 hour to be processed through the lines and get onto the ship. There was water and different types of cake in the waiting area to help tide people over while they waited. They took all of our passports which came as a surprise as they usually just take mine because I am an EU Citizen. It was later explained that you need a visa in Turkey and since Carnival pays for this and from their experience last year, where everyone (2,974 passengers) had to stand in line to get their passports stamped, which took hours, Carnival decided to take everyone passports beforehand, have them stamped and return them to us in Katakolon, I, however, did not see a Turkish stamp in any of our passports.

We had a Cat 11 suite which was very spacious, with lots of storage space, which was great since it was 3 of us. We had the mandatory fire drill at around 7:45 pm, headed to the Lido Deck for dinner, unpacked and then headed to bed.

Regarding the interior decoration style of the ship, I wasn’t sure what was going on with the color scheme, it certainly was a hodgepodge of designs. There was a blue full size Statue of Liberty in the Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck and the lighting sconces were fashioned from the heads of the Statue of Liberty, and all over the ship were banks of pulsating lights that constantly change color. The ceilings and walls in both main restaurants are done in a black and deep red metallic snakeskin pattern. However this is a Carnival ship, you don’t expect subdued tones and boring decor. After 12 days on board, you never pay attention to it anymore. The Seaside Theatre had an impressive 12-foot-high by 22-foot-wide LED screen and there was always a lot of people bundled under their blankets at night watching the Gladiator, Placido Domingo, Barry Manilow, The Bees Gees, India Arie, Casino Royale, Under The Tuscan Sun and a lot of other films and concerts. The public areas were always very clean, there was always someone cleaning something. I didn’t see trash or empty containers lying around, and with over 2,974 passengers that was quite a feat.

The buffet food was excellent. Everything we tried was great – the salads, fruits and bread were fresh. They have at the beginning of each food line, a dispenser with hand sanitizer which is an excellent idea. They have a Mongolian corner which had a great variety of items to choose from. You add your meats, spices, rice, etc. and they will cook it for you, the lines there were usually very long. There was also a Meiji Sushi Bar, which we didn’t try. The Deli had great sandwiches and we ate there twice. One day at sea, they had a “Chocolate Extravaganza” buffet. A very grand display, but my sugar levels went up just looking at all that chocolate. We ate in the dining room once and were not impressed. As some of you know, we rarely eat in the dining room, but I wanted to get some formal pictures, so we got all dressed and headed that way. My DD and I had the steak, horrible, we wanted our steaks well done, and it arrived in about 3 minutes, what is wrong with that picture. We had steaks on the Lido Deck which were outstanding. My DH had the salmon and he was pleased with it.

We also ate at the Sun King restaurant for $30.00pp. The service there was amazing. Your server knew what you wanted before you knew it lol. The food was terrific and there was live music with Dana and Tony.

We went to some of the shows. Andy Leach from Britain was very funny and even had some pretty good magic tricks. The Jump, Jive & Wail show was tolerable, also the Guests Talent Show was mostly good, with a powerful rendering of “New York, New York” by one of the passengers, and she received a standing ovation. The Cruise Director, Todd Wittmer even took part, and he was not bad at all. I enjoyed Todd; he was funny and informative and really wanted everyone to have a great time. My favorite show was a “Ticket to Ride” featuring all Beatles songs, which had everyone on their feet singing and dancing. They even give us those colorful thingamajigs to wave around. It was a lot of fun.

The ship’s Internet was ridiculously slow and cost $55.00 for the first 100 minutes ($0.55 per minute), an activation fee of $3.95, $0.50 to print a page, and once your plan had expired it was $0.75 per minute.

Our Cabin Steward, Neganin, was first-rate and his tip reflected our satisfaction with him.

Ana at the information was also very helpful. When we first arrived and filed a report about our missing luggage, she was very sympathetic and gave us Carnival T-shirts and Carnival leather bags full of toiletries. She also called us every day regarding the status of our luggage, which we received a week later in Athens.

Naples – We were tired and since we visited this port 2 years ago, we just did some shopping downtown for items that were in our lost luggage.

Day at Sea – Slept in late, did nothing but relax.

Marmaris – There were only 3 excursions offered at this port. I didn’t see anything interesting, so we took a taxi to the City Center for 10 Euros. There were hundreds of shops, some on the beach, most under covered awnings, selling everything you can think of. We walked around the town a bit and opted to walk back along the marina to the ship which took about 40 minutes.

Izmir – Booked an excursion to the Archaeological Museum and Ancient Ephesus. We were supposed to leave at 9:45am, but didn’t leave until 10:15am. We go back late due to the bus getting a busted air suspension hose and we had to wait to get on another bus. It was hot, but they gave us cool bottles of water. That of course delayed the ship which was supposed to leave at 4:30pm but didn’t leave until 5:15pm. We however, had an absolutely wonderful time at Ancient Ephesus. The Hadrian Temple was impressive and is the first structure to be made totally of marble. We saw the Greek goddess Nike statue, who represents athletic strength and victory, and which the well-known shoe and sports equipment company is named after. When you see my pictures, you will see how they came up with the Swoosh logo. You have to make sure you get a landing pass before you leave the ship in lieu of a visa, if not you will have to pay 35 Euros for a visa before you are allowed back on the ship.

Istanbul – We took the Palace of the Sultans tour which took us to the Blue Mosque, the Topaki Palace and the Grand Bazaar. I expected to see more of the Blue Mosque, we just saw one big room, although the decorative walls, ceiling and windows were quite striking. Half of the room was cordoned off for prayers. In fact, it was being vacuumed in preparation for prayers while we were there. You have to take off your shoes before you enter (Carnival gave us bags to put our shoes in) and your knees and shoulders had to be covered. There was someone at the door to give you a scarf if you did not meet this criterion.

I used the restroom outside the Mosque, what an experience that was. I was charged .50 Euros to use what was basically a hole in the ground, with a tap and a bucket to flush.

The Topkapi Palace, wow, it was a walled city back in the day, housing over 4,000 people, and is a complex made up of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. The palace contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, and armor. The treasury section has breathtaking collections, including the 7th largest diamond in the world. No pictures were allowed, but outside the palace, vendors were selling postcards with the very items that we were not allowed to photograph. I wonder how the vendors got their pictures. The description of the excursion said that there would be a short stop for a carpet weaving demonstration, but it was really a carpet selling pitch. The host was very cordial and not pushy at all. He gave us hot apple cider and a cookie while he showed us his carpets. They were beautiful, but I can’t see myself buying a carpet for $30,000.00. Do you know how many cruises I can go on for that kind of money? lol.

We left there and walked up the street to the Grand Bazaar. What can I say about the Grand Bazaar – overwhelming is one word. With 4,000 shops you can just imagine that you can find anything in here. The vendors are aggressive and will follow you trying to sell you their goods if you show the slightest interest. Of course, you have to haggle, they expect that, my DH is good at that, so I just selected what I wanted and let him do the rest. We bought a lot of souvenirs here and of course the famous Turkish Delight. The vendors will take any kind of currency.

Day at Sea – After 3 ports in row, we were all ready for this day at sea.

Athens – We took the Acropolis and Plaka tour. The Acropolis, the Parthenon, Temple of Athena, The Erechtheum, Odeon of Herodes Atticus (where Yanni held his “Live at the Acropolis” concert in 1993), you can just feel the glory that was ancient Greece, these are historical sites that you should not miss. We had a very knowledgeable guide and she explained everything in detail. Totally breathtaking and we got some great pictures.

It was crowded and very, very windy, after all it is one of the highest points in Athens. You felt like you have just been exfoliated when you got back down to street level. There is a lot of uphill walking on rough and sometimes smooth and slippery terrain. Two people fell, and one lady ended up with bloody knees. Plaka is a picturesque old historical neighborhood of Athens, just under the Acropolis. We did some shopping here and had some very tasty ice cream.

Katakolon – We took the Museum and Ancient Olympia excursion. The excavation of the Temple of Hera, the Hill of Kronos and the Temple of Zeus was astounding and it covered quite a big area. This was also the site of the ancient Olympic Games. The museum, which had a wonderful shaded garden, had marble statues of Zeus and a collection of ancient pieces of amour and bronze figures. We saw where they had the terrible fires last year, it was sad to see all those burnt areas. We had left Athens on the 22nd and on the 25th there was a large forest fire on the outskirts of Athens and arson is suspected.

Day at Sea – The Captain took us pass the Island of Stromboli. As we moved in further we could see the main village of about 500 people of the island sitting at the foot of the volcano. On closer examination, however, it was clear to see that the paths of lava were on the opposite side, thus the village was safe from any potential lava flow.

Florence – We were also here 2 years ago, but DD wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa so we took an excursion there. The Leaning Tower was as imposing 2 years ago as it is today, as was the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Monumental Cemetery.

Rome – We did on our own. We took the free shuttle from the ship to downtown (about 10 minutes), walked for about 15 minutes to the train station. The tickets were 9 Euros each round trip from Civitavecchia to the end of the line, the Roma Termini. You have to remember before you board to get your tickets stamped at one of the machines along the train station and the same thing when you are coming back.

We bought tickets for the Hop on, Hop off bus for 16 Euros per person which will allowed us to ride on the Yellow or Red Roma Christina Tour Bus. Our train tickets were also good for riding the Metro Bus A or B. We saw most of the major sights – The Roman Forum, The Pantheon, The Spanish Steps, which was packed with tourists, The Trevi Fountain, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was a huge and magnificent building. Across the street was a shady park with benches, when we stopped for a while to get our breath back. What can I say about the Coliseum, words can’t describe it. I can see why it is considered an architectural and engineering wonder. It was truly a jaw dropping sight. We left about 9 hours later and caught the train back to the bus which took about 1 hour, back to the ship to finish packing (we had started the day before).

Debarkation was easy. We got up around 5:45am, had breakfast, they called our number at 6:40am, got our luggage and were on board the bus at 7:15am. We arrived at the airport at 8:15am and spent 11/2 hours in line before we were checked in.

We have a superb time and I was happy to be able to share this experience with my DD as this was her first visit to Europe.

Categories
Beach

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas is the best!!!

Author: marlene litwin
Date of Trip: April 2008

Hi there!

To: tripreports@independenttraveler.com Subject: navigator of the seas

hello all found this cruise online then booked it with a local agency. it was my first time cruising so I hope I do not bore you with some details

I went on line and did the internet registration it was simple and fast got my sea pass and printed out all documents that I would need for this trip. Our destination was Cozumel Mexico only one.

Day of departure went smooth from Montreal Canada we took Air Transat to Fort Lauderdale same day departure next time I will book a hotel and leave a day before because we had to leave at 2:30am in the morning in order to make the 6 am flight it was a long day….it was me and my 16 year old son going. Once we landed in Fort Lauderdale I looked for the Royal Caribbean representative I was not able to guarantee transfers because I booked it only 2 weeks in advance so we spoke to this gentleman and he instructed us to wait till 11am than take a taxi to the pier and than we could board than. So we waited for around an hour, we had our suitcases changed into light clothing and we were ready to swim in case our bags were delayed till we got them at our cabin. Once we got to the pier it was very exciting, tons of people coming from all over, we left our bags with the porters than proceeded to the gates and customs and registration it seems complicated but it is very well organized.

Once we got on the ship your photo is taken and than you are herded into an area which is huge where you wait till lunch is ready there are various lines for kids programs etc A message kept on replaying over and over with an apology about the cabins not being ready till 1pm it was ok we headed to the Windjammer cafe which is a very large buffet restaurant and sat down to eat it had many foods to choose from. All dining rooms have FREE ice tea, fruit juice apple juice and lemonade breakfast is orange or apple with free coffee or tea water on tap is ok to drink bring a water bottle if you choose so you do not have to pay $4 for a bottle of water each time. The only drinks you will pay for unless you get the drink card are the following, all soft drinks with gas like coke up etc wine beer fancy drinks fancy coffees Ben an Jerry’s ice cream ..so here are my tips buy the drink card, and if you want to save at dinner time buy a bottle of wine they have many to choose from and it is worth it it goes from 22-up to 100’s the soft drink card for kids is 20, adults is 40 so be warned.

Once we ate we were allowed to check out our rooms we had a balcony room on the sixth deck it was beautiful and very clean our cabin steward Dean was amazing and very helpful. His towel sculptures were fun.

My son joined the teen program I never saw for the 4 days it was tons of fun for him he had a great time!!!

Now to explore this giant vessel is something it is 14 floors and it is ginormous. Just to walk it is something I swear I must of walked miles. WOMEN be aware, to put something on the soles of your high heels it is slippery on all decks inside and outside there is some carpet but the marble floors are treacherous I slipped many times and I witnessed some women falling on their high heels, rubber soles are the best ones for this trip go to your shoe repair man and ask him to put something on your soles to allow you to walk without falling! There is so much to explore on this ship it is exhausting there are many pools most of the activities are on the upper decks like 11 an 12 shows are on the lower floors with the ice rink it is very well placed but it takes time to find, tons of stairs, and it will take a day to remember where everything is. Of course you can wait for an elevator it takes time. There are legends on each floor with everything mapped out.

Dinner in the dining room was where we went all times, you can wear smart casual there was only one formal night so that was a relief otherwise the food is amazing and the service was wonderful it has a Titanic staircase leading you into the lower floors our head waiters and main maître Dee were wonderful they made me feel like a princess. Each night they put away my left over bottle of wine till the next day.

All entertainment was wonderful as the game show The Quest hilarious you are going fall down laughing great time there. Ice show with the Olympic skater was great, the Broadway shows were fun as well Casino dripping with cigarette smoke and lounge lizards waiting for their win, that in itself is amusing to watch unless you have the bucks to play the slots or the big games. yes occasionally people win. Disco younger people getting drunk and dancing So each night I would go to the show and than seek out any other entertainment on board or go to the casino, it was fun and entertaining

Shopping is better on board than at duty free unless you are buying silver or something that they do not have on board it is cheaper to buy on the ship trust me. Jewelry shopping is amazing on board and the girl to go to would Dana Or Kerry they are very knowledgeable and helpful in making decisions very good prices I did well So for the most part the cruise was fantastic the ship is beautiful and team that work on it are great and very helpful. I give the ship 5 stars for their efforts at making everyone feel good.

We arrive in Cozumel Mexico I have pre arranged a tour on ship for the Atlantis submarine. We only have one land day the rest are at sea,we get off early because of this tour we are told we must be on dock for no later than 8:15am…famous last words the tour guide is late to be exact he finally shows up at 9:30am the only trip left is some snorkel trip which we cannot do due to health reasons. We are waiting and waiting finally the tour director says if you do not want to wait any longer we will refund your money. We decide to wait, finally someone comes to collect us and we are again waiting for everyone to go the bathroom another 20 minutes..remember we only have a few hours left we have to go by ship time not Mexican time. So we all have to now walk down the street to this office where they say ok we will pay for your taxis to the shopping area it is only $6. to go there. as a gift for being late. We are than boarded on a ferry to get to the submarine, this trip is supposed to be 2 hours in total. It takes over 20 minutes to get to the submarine, we are boarded in it and do a very small tour for less than 20 minutes underwater, we are looking at dilapidated coral reefs that are severely damaged from the last hurricane 2 years ago.We see some fish a lobster one manta ray that is all it is a very poor tour that we paid $100. each and it was late an the tour guide is not understandable at all it is a waste of my time an dollars. People were upset and we did not feel we got the value for the money on this one. So do not book this tour it is called Atlantis Submarine tour it is a waste of money and time.

We did some shopping with the discount book we bought on the ship, great deals it was fun than we went to a beach called Mr. Sanchez. This beach is very rough with a strong undertow and very murky waters the sand is that sinking sand very hard and coarse brown ugly sand. However the chairs and umbrellas are free there is a bar and kitchen it is worn out from the last hurricane. Be forewarned to pay for a taxi $15 us dollars each way from the port. I was not impressed with the beach at all, the drinks were good though. There are some small stores to buy some silver trinkets etc there. We leave Cozumel an to let you know I have been all over Mexico my favorite places to date are Ixtapa, and Cancun this Cozumel needs an extreme makeover fast.

Another day at sea till we get back in port than I book yet another tour to the Everglades it is amazing with a fantastic tour guide called Robert we get a boat ride right through them, see some gators, and other small animals the tour is fantastic! It is about 4 hours worth every single penny I paid for it and the information is great.

All in all I would go back in a New York Minute, I loved the ship the cruise the people and food. I will say get out there and just do it because when you do you will be glad you did. The best thing about this particular ship is the teamwork an that is what makes any cruise fantastic! I just submitted this on cruise critic Marlenegoesbyebye canada thanks a bunch

Categories
Adventure Travel

Iceland & Greenland Adventures

Author: Linda V.
Date of Trip: July 2005

June 29, 2005 Wednesday; 11:55 p.m. Icelandair Flight Vacation – Day 1

Oh my gosh!! I’m sitting in business class, and I have my own row! Woo hoo!! What a treat. I’m just so excited!

Darlene and I got to the airport at 9:30PM and found the Icelandair counter. No passengers in line – yeah! The ticket agent for business class called us over, and I said, “Oh cool! You’re gonna upgrade us!” He laughed implying, “in your dreams.” We joked around with him, and he got ready to hand us our boarding passes. My friend, Renee, is traveling from Columbus, Ohio to meet us in Iceland and her flight was cancelled due to weather. She’ll try to leave tomorrow. The agent printed our boarding passes and gave us the good news, “For your friend’s troubles…you’ve been upgraded!” We thanked him repeatedly and chatted a bit more.

Off we headed to Gate 12A and waited about an hour or so to board. Naturally I kept gushing about being in business class – seat 4A. When we got on the plane we discovered that there is no first class – we’re in the best seats of the house. Yippety do dah. I’ve got 3 pillows (one from home), 2 blankets, 2 travel gift packs. I’m really living. They gave us a choice of juice, wine or water, when we boarded the plane. Then they came around with the digeplayer. I can watch 8 movies, a bunch of TV shows, and music videos. I just don’t know what to watch first! I also have my iPod Shuffle – loaded up with 200+ songs, so I am set.

Let me go into details about the trip. Nina (my roommate from Antarctica), Renee (also from my Antarctica trip) and I all booked this trip in October. Darlene decided to join us and booked the trip 2 months ago. GAP Adventures is our tour company. They led my trip to Antarctica last year. Since then they have purchased the Little Red Boat (the Explorer) and do all kinds of adventure cruises. This will be their inaugural trip to Iceland and Greenland. We received a 15% discount from the regular rate of $2795 (still expensive). The price has since gone up to $3075. This trip is called the Fjords & Viking Odyssey. We’re on the boat for 12 days traveling from Iceland to Greenland, doing zodiac cruises and hopefully seeing lots of wildlife (polar bears, walruses, whales and puffins). This will be great. We have a chance to go on a ton of zodiac cruises. In Antarctica, we were only able to do these 2½ days out of 11. After the cruise we’ll spend five days in Reykjavik. I’ve rented a car for us, and we’re staying at Room With A View – apartments right in the downtown. They came highly recommended on various message boards. Originally my reservation was for Room 602 at $159 per night. With Darlene joining us, the room was too small, so I had to go with Room 510 at $280 per night. Ouch! At least we’re splitting it 4 ways.

Renee was originally going with her boyfriend, but they split up. She lost his $500 deposit and switched to our room. Darlene will be with 2 strangers. This should be a fabulous trip. Friday morning we’re all supposed to go horseback riding on the Icelandic ponies. The weather forecast is rain and wind…hmm…we’ll just make the best of it. We are hoping to go dog sledding at the end of our trip. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. The 10-day forecast shows temperatures of 55 for a high and 40’s for a low with rain every day. Sunrise is at 3 AM and sunset at midnight. That’ll give us plenty of time to play.

Well I better drink my split of champagne and check out my digeplayer…I’ve ordered the tandoori chicken salad for dinner along with chocolate cake. I had to pass on the foie gras, prosciutto-wrapped cod, and goat cheese stuffed Portobello mushroom. Ahh…

June 30, 2005 Thursday; 10:10 p.m. Reykjavik, Iceland Vacation – Day 2

We arrived after the fabulous business class flight – it took less than 8 hours. Unfortunately wasn’t able to finish watching “The Wedding Date.” The movie had about 10 minutes to go when the flight attendant took my digeplayer away. Bummer! Too bad the flight wasn’t a bit longer.

We went through immigration very quickly. This is the first time I remember not filling out a customs form. We had to wait quite awhile for our luggage at the carousel. We didn’t find an ATM so we headed outside to the FlyBus. They accept credit cards (as do most places in Iceland). We boarded and headed from Keflavik to Reykjavik. The drive was nice – so far Iceland appears to be lots of volcanic rock. It’s pretty with all the moss growing around it. The day was gray and wet. We had to transfer to a mini bus at the bus station and continued on to Room With a View.

Room With a View is an apartment building above a bookstore right in the center of town. We arrived at 4:30 p.m. and took the tiny elevator to the 4th floor reception and met the owner, Arni. He was very helpful. He brought us over to Room 512 with a small balcony and view over part of the city. The leather couch is very comfortable. The bathroom is pretty small. We have a kitchen behind folding doors and a small dining table. There is a double bed in the bedroom. The floors are all hardwood – overall fairly nice.

Arni gave us pointers on where to eat and walk. After changing, we headed out for several hours of walking. The town is really cute. Our hotel is on a great street – Laugavegur – plenty of shopping and restaurants. We found the 10/11 store. The Bonus Supermarket was already closed. Many stores close at 6:00 p.m. Restaurants and bars are open much later. We checked out the Icelandic Wool sweater place – ouch – mucho expensive! There is a cute one with the Icelandic ponies on it. I also found those “Thor” type hats with Viking horns. Nina and I may need to get some (and braid our hair).

We made our way to the harbor and found our boat, the Explorer, and tried to get aboard. Ernie from GAP came out and talked to us. He was on my Antarctica trip. We aren’t allowed on the boat until 4PM tomorrow, but we can drop our luggage off earlier. The guard in the shack let us look at the manifest. It’s not final, but it looks like those of us in triples got converted to doubles. Yeah! Now Renee will be in a room with a stranger from Canada, but at least it won’t be real crowded. I suggested that they upgrade us to the Captain’s Suite. Hey never hurts to ask! Ernie says the boat is not full – 80 passengers instead of the 110 or 120 it can fit.

We visited the tourist information center and collected some brochures. We continued walking and checking out menus and bakeries. We ended up at the fish ‘n chips place. I settled for just chips — frozen French fries, but they went down okay. One of the restaurants had a yummy looking chocolate cake – kind of a Death by Chocolate number. I’ll have to go back for it tomorrow.

It’s still pretty bright outside – I won’t be able to stay up much longer. Viking horses in the morning! (Arni told us we can just leave our luggage in the room. He’ll bring Renee and Nina up tomorrow morning.)

July 1, 2005 Friday; 11:58 p.m. The Explorer – Day 1; Vacation – Day 3 Icelandic Horses & Leaving Reykjavik, Iceland

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.” — John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

We are safely on the ship and heading north along the coast of Iceland. We’ll then cut across toward Scoresby Sound in Greenland.

Darlene and I both woke up at 1AM. I was convinced it was at least 5AM. Two hours of sleep and I was ready to go. The revelers were down on the street partying and making noise. We had to close the rest of our windows. I was in the bedroom part of our apartment, and it wasn’t too light/bright. I turned over and slept until 7AM.

Took my shower. Hmm…the water gives off a faint sulphury smell. Yumm! We went out to try to find breakfast. The bagel shop wasn’t open at 8AM (or even at 10:00 when I checked back). Darlene grabbed a ham and cheese croissant and coffee (for over $10). I got a chocolate croissant for 160 ISK ($2.75).

We waited for Nina and Renee to arrive. We expected them between 8 and 8:30. Hmmm…at 9:00 we went downstairs looking for Nina and our tour company, Ishestar, for our horseback riding excursion. At 9:20 we went into a local tour office and cancelled the excursion. I know Nina really wanted to do it. We asked for other suggestions at the tour office, but we were limited on time since we must get on the boat at 4:00. We considered a puffin island trip, but we’ll be on a boat the next 12 days. What to do, what to do…

Nina and Renee arrived at 10:30. Their flight was delayed, and they missed the first FlyBus. They had to wait another hour for the 2nd bus which was also waiting for passengers on other delayed flights. Arni called and told me, “Your friends are downstairs.” Oh my gosh! Renee had 2 full-size suitcases, a rolling backpack, and a large camera bag around her waist. Amazing she could drag all that stuff with her.

We visited and then decided we should check out of the hotel and take our luggage to the ship. When I asked Arni if he had any tour suggestions since we missed our horseback riding trip, he immediately made a phone call for us. We were on a trip to a small farm – Laxnes – for riding. They would pick us up at Room With a View at 1:00 and take our luggage with us AND drop us at 4:00 at the ship. Woo hoo! It’s about a 10 block walk pulling luggage over uneven pavement. Thanks Arni!

We had an hour, so we grabbed lunch at Taco Mama. I enjoyed 2 crispy beef tacos, fries and a diet coke for 695 ISK (around $11). We ran into Steve from our Antarctica trip. He was here on his own for our cruise. Dashed into the 10/11 for diet coke and headed back to Arni’s. We retrieved our massive amount of luggage and waited to be picked up. The guy came around 1:05, and we picked up 3 other passengers. Laxnes was located about 15 minutes from Reykjavik. What a beautiful setting. There were yellow, purple, and white wildflowers in the lava fields and mountains in the distance.

We got situated with our riding helmets and were assigned horses. The guide asked if I wanted one with spirit. I said no, but got one with spirit anyway. The horses are so cute. They are smaller than those I’ve been on before and have beautiful long manes. They are great tempered and love to be near each other. My horse had a thing about being in the lead. If another horse attempted to pass him, he’d speed it up. The guide told me a number of times to “pull back.” We crossed through meadows, fields, and streams. There was even a 9-hole golf course adjacent to us. My horse liked to trot, so I bounced around a lot. The saddles were English saddles rather than western, and I didn’t have a horn thing to hold onto. I had to tuck one hand under the front of the saddle and hold the reins with my other hand so I would feel stable. What a nice trip. My legs are sore!

We got to our ship only 15 minutes late. Perfect. Once we boarded, we discovered that we were waiting for other passengers and didn’t have to be back on the ship until 6:15. Nina and I are in cabin 312. Darlene is next door with Mary Jane (MJ) from Canada. Renee is across the hall with her roommate, Angelika, also from Canada. I recognized Angelika from our Antarctica trip. This cabin is so much smaller than the Orlova. Thank goodness Renee got another room. With all our suitcases, it would have been crazy! We are using the top bunk to store more of our stuff. There are only about 80 passengers on the ship (including expedition staff) — 11 Americans, 11 Canadians, 40+ British, a few from South Africa, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Denmark. The British folks booked the trip from Noble Caledonia in England. Most of them are senior citizens. It brings the average age on the ship to 55. Several of the expedition staff brought their children with them on this trip. We’ve got quite the variety.

We had a briefing at 6:15PM where we were introduced to the expedition staff and GAP personnel. The expedition leader seems really nice. Not stern like Susan from the Orlova. We had to do our little safety drill and put on our beautiful orange life jackets and go to our muster station. Fun stuff. As we headed off for dinner we heard there were puffins on the starboard side. It took awhile, but we saw them… from a distance. They fly so goofy. They were compared to bumble bees. The have a kind of awkward fluttering of their wings. About a week before our trip, I received an e-mail from GAP telling us that the ice is heavier than it has been in the past 25 years and that we may not be able to get to Scoresby Sound. We’ll wait and see.

Dinner was good – a salad, tomato soup, steak, taters, carrots & peas, and ice cream with whipped cream and fresh fruit. We sat with the family from Wisconsin and closed down the dining room. This trip is a high school graduation gift to their son, Paul. How nice!

Visited with Darlene and Angelika till almost midnight. I went out to try and get a sunset shot, but no. They sky was still pretty bright, and the clouds and fog were obscuring the horizon. Bummer!

I expected to see more passengers on the ship from our Antarctica cruise. Besides Nina, Renee and me, there are Angelika, Steve, Brad and Margaret from Canada, Ernst from Switzerland, and Ernie with GAP.

The expedition staff includes:

Kim Crosbie, Expedition Leader – Scotland

Morten Jorgenson, naturalist – Denmark

Roger Lovegrove and wife, ornithologist – England

Sabeana and her son, GAP – Canada

Jacky Booth and 12 year old daughter Clea, oceanography lecturer – Salt Spring Island, British Columbia

Ernie, GAP

Scobey, zodiac driver – Tasmania

Steve and Heidi

Saturday; July 2, 2005 The Explorer – Day 2; Vacation – Day 4 Denmark Strait – towards Greenland

“The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.” — Ernest Hemmingway

Nina and I woke up at 7AM and went back to sleep until 8:30 until the “bing bong” intercom greeting woke us up, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen.” I jumped into the shower but couldn’t figure out how to make the water warm (instead of scalding hot). Ouch. Breakfast was served until 9:30, so I dashed down and grabbed a bite and brought some breakfast back to Nina in the room. They announced that there would be a celebration as we crossed the Arctic Circle and to get out on deck immediately. I made it there as they counted down, “10, 9, 8…” and sipped some really gross strong booze – Aquavit. Nice toast!

At 10AM, Roger gave a lecture, “Introduction to the Arctic”. He shared some nice photos. The next lecture was, “Introduction to Cetaceans” with Morten. This also included some great photos of the various marine mammals that can be seen in the Arctic. Hopefully we’ll see that elusive polar bear!

We ate lunch with a nice older couple from England – Jane and Michael. He seemed like such a proper English gentleman. He kept making jokes about being old – he must have been in his mid 80’s. It’s great that he’s out here seeing the Arctic. After lunch, I took a quick nap and then went to Frank’s lecture on “Tips for Trip Photography.” Frank is a professional photographer hired by GAP for this trip to take photos for their Arctic brochure. He presented many photos with tips for capturing your subjects. He suggests in illustrating your travels – use photos of people with the object of interest in the background. This highlights what you saw on vacation. He suggests not framing your subject in the center of a photo – to push it off to the side. Also landscapes/horizons should not be in the center – either have more sky or water to make them more interesting. The boat offers the use of a Fuji digital camera while on bard at no cost (well…except that $200 deposit.)

I hung out on the deck outside and watched the birds fly behind us and dive back and forth across the sky. It was a beautiful blue day. Grabbed a couple of cookies at tea time and hung out more. I’m being brave and not taking any seasickness medication. Hopefully it’s a smart move…

At 5PM another lecture took place – Jacky’s “Introduction to Oceanography”. She went into detail about our oceans and the earth. Unfortunately, I snoozed for much of it. Kim Crosbie, our expedition leader, calls the lecture hall “the womb.” Everybody gets nice and warm and comfortable. The lights are low, and it’s easy to drift off.

Darlene and I hung out on the back deck enjoying the day. One of the expedition people rushed to tell us to go up by the bridge to see the fog bow. It’s like a rainbow but consists of fog. It was a cool sight. An arch of fog reflected back into the ocean with lots more fog surrounding us.

Went to the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party and had a mimosa and a kir royale and chowed on pretzels. The captain, Paul Heslop, was British and a funny guy. He introduced some other crew members and ship staff. He kind of reminds me of the actor, Alan Cumming.

At dinner we sat way in the back and were joined by Kim, the expedition leader. She’s from Scotland. This is supposed to be the fancy Captain’s Welcome dinner. Unfortunately, the entrée choice was salmon or eggplant stuffed with feta. It was a nice dinner though. Kim was great. It doesn’t sound like we will actually see much wildlife on our trip – she slipped by saying we’d head over to the Iceland coast at the end of our trip to make up for the wildlife. Scoresby Sound (they refer to it as Scoresbysund) is supposed to be amazing. She says we’ve got a great captain and excellent ship so we should be able to penetrate it and see amazing cliffs and stuff. The boat used to be chartered by Abercrombie & Fitch (the really expensive company). They switched to a fancier boat. She is writing a book on South Georgia Island and tourism. This will be used by cruisers to that island. She says it’s a great place.

Nina and I hung out the rest of the evening in the lecture hall and found Darlene in the lounge at around midnight. I wanted to get my sunset photo, but the fog had obscured it. Bummer. I can’t believe it’s so bright outside! It seems like the middle of the day.

July 3, 2005 Sunday; 9:45 p.m. The Explorer – Day 3; Vacation – Day 5 Approaching Scoresbysund, Greenland

“The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around: It creaked and growled, and roared and howled, like noises in a swound!” — Coleridge, Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

We’re relaxing in the lounge after a full day of cruising. We pushed our way to Scoresbysund – smacking into icebergs and breaking them apart. It was neat to lean over the deck and watch as the ship broke through. Sometimes we had to back up and find a new path. The day was mostly foggy with sun peaking out once in awhile. We didn’t have fog in Antarctica – I guess because the air temperature is much cooler down there. The warmer Arctic air meets the ice and creates fog. Our port holes have been closed, now it’s like a cave in our room so it’ll be very easy to sleep.

Oh yeah – yippee – our shower was fixed, and I was able to take a nice warm shower and wash my hair. Nina and I made it to breakfast around 9AM.
We listened to a lecture in the morning by Morten, “North Atlantic Pinnepeds.” The Arctic doesn’t have fur seals or sea lions – these are the seals with ears. Instead, the Arctic has harp seals, bearded seals, ringed seals, and a bunch of others with holes for ears. Walruses also live here. Morten isn’t very encouraging about the possibility of seeing walruses. The seals are a favorite food of polar bears and Inuits.

We ate and ate and ate all day long, hanging out in the lounge and running out to the bow to crunch through the ice, look at seals and birds. We saw quite a few little auks also known as dovekies. These are tiny birds and very common this time of year.

At 3PM we went to a short video documentary on Scoresbysund and the Ittoqqortoormiit village (pronounced ee-ta-kor-two-me). This means “those who live in big houses”. There is a population of 500 (with 180 children). They live in cute colorful houses, but it looks like a rough life. These are Inuit people, and the area is rich with polar bears, muskoxen and seals. Helena Dejak (owner of Nonni Travel in Iceland) presented the video. She helped produce it in 1995 to help the villagers market tourism to their area. She made a comment that they were so lucky that the white people came there to help them. (She didn’t mean this in an insulting manner.) We got to watch a dog sledding trip on the video – too cool!

We enjoyed yummy warm peanut butter cookies at tea time. Great stuff. We visited with Margaret from Toronto. She had trouble getting to Iceland – stuck in the Boston airport overnight. I had to complain that our flight got in early AND we got upgraded. She and her husband, Brad, were also on our Antarctica trip.

Suddenly around 5PM, Kim announced that there was a polar bear swimming on the port side of the ship. We all ran outside – even left my coat and gloves behind. He was a little far away, but I had my binoculars and was able to see him pedaling through the water. Kim said he was distressed, so we would not follow him. He would climb out onto an ice flow and then slip back in the water. He was very large. From way far away you could see him lumber across the ice. Yeah! We saw one.

We had a briefing at 7PM and heard from Kim and the naturalists. We are being very flexible with our schedule. Our captain is continuing to push through the ice and hopefully we’ll be able to zodiac around tomorrow. It will be neat to visit Ittoqqortoormiit. Now I’m just hanging in the lounge, reading, writing, and looking at photos as Renee downloads them…

July 4, 2005 Monday; 2:55 p.m. The Explorer – Day 4; Vacation – Day 6 Entering Scoresbysund, Greenland

“Give me dogs, give me winter and you can keep the rest.” — Knud Rassmussen, the famous half Greenlandic half Danish explorer

We’ve had quite an interesting day. I went to bed around 1:15AM. At 3:45AM, Kim came over the intercom announcing that there were 3 polar bears on an ice floe with a kill. You didn’t have to tell me twice! Nina and I hopped into shoes and jackets and stumbled up on deck. Oooh – it was c-c-cold. I had on my flowered pajama bottoms with a fleece, jacket, and my Russian hat. Unfortunately, I only brought my glove liners, so my hands got cold. I was the only goober wearing flowered jammies also! I was afraid to miss the bears and didn’t want to change into real pants.

When we first arrived on deck the bears were pretty far away, but you could see their heads once in awhile popping up (as I looked through the binoculars). The boat was making her way through sheets of ice, just pushing forward.

Nina and I dashed up to the top of the boat for better views. Eventually the bears moved into clear view, and the boat got pretty close. Sometimes, the bears would pause and look at the ship and stand up. They dragged their kill around. This was a mama polar bear with a boy and girl cub – around 2½ years old. She ushered the bears off to the right and they began walking on the ice floes, their reflections in the water below. It was incredible. I only wish my digital camera had a better zoom. My binoculars certainly came in handy. I could see their black tongues as they ate scraps of the kill. There were two bloody kill sites. Poor little seal. Not much left of him – just a flipper and some insides. The cubs went back to the kill and started flinging it around in their mouths – back and forth across the ice. After about an hour, they started retreating, so Nina and I headed back to the room to continue sleeping. It took me the longest time to warm up enough to fall asleep. Before I knew it, an announcement came over the intercom saying it was 9AM and breakfast would be served till 9:30. Well I certainly couldn’t miss a meal, so we got up there in time to grab a plate.

At 10AM, we had a lecture from Morten on polar bears. They are also known as ice bears, white bears, and Nannuq. It was interesting. The babies are tiny, tiny when they are born in December or January. Mama keeps them in the den until spring time nursing them. Depending on which part of the world the bears live in, the mama will care for the bears until they are 2 to 4 years old. Here in East Greenland, she’ll kick them out at about 2½. The bears we saw this morning will get the boot pretty soon.

Went out on deck to see the ice. The captain has tried numerous routes trying to get us to Scoresbysund. We spent hours plowing through so much ice. Darlene and I were outside the bridge laughing and talking and observing our progress when the mean captain pulled the door closed. Oops. I went to the other outdoor area near the bridge. There were about 4 of us out there. As we got to a nice open area of the sea, I commented to Roger (the ornithologist), “Full steam ahead!” Then the nice captain, Paul, closed the other door to the bridge with a glare. Oops again. Guess I should take a hint and stay away from the bridge. Went back inside where it was nice and toasty.

Before we knew it, it was time to eat again. Our captain had to turn the boat around and try a new entrance to the Sound. Fortunately, after another hour or two we made it to Scoresbysund. Spent more time at the bow of the boat admiring the icebergs and stuff. It was cool to lean way over the side of the ship as we slammed into pieces of ice. Sometimes they would push out of the way; other times they would split apart and move out of our way.

As we moved through the sound you can see large-ish mountains covered in snow. We passed Ittoqqoortoomit. I was hoping to see those colorful houses, but we were kind of far away, and all I could see were a few brown looking houses on grey snow. Bummer! We will be stopping to pick up a few Inuit people to join us for a few days. That should be interesting. Uh oh…I’m getting tired. We will be doing a landing soon. It will be great to get out and walk ON Greenland.

— later — 11:45 p.m.

I haven’t missed teatime yet – 4PM everyday – with yummy warm cookies. I’m partial to the peanut butter and the shortcake cookies. Do you think 3 cookies adds a lot of calories? Oh well…

At 4:45PM we were ready for our first zodiac adventure. Nina, Darlene, Mary Jane and I hopped into the first zodiac with Morten as our driver. The water was like glass – so smooth. The mountains, icebergs and ice floes all reflected into the water – it was so beautiful. I think 4 zodiacs went out with passengers. We cruised between the ice and found two little awks and trailed them. I took a ton of pictures of everything – hopefully some will be great. You could see where the red paint had rubbed off the bottom of the ship. Slamming into all of those ice floes tends to help you lose a lot of paint. Frank, the photographer, was in our zodiac and took a ton of photos for GAP. He’s supposed to create the GAP Arctic brochure.

We returned to the ship at 6PM and three Inuit villagers were onboard. We weren’t able to get to Ittoqqortoormiit to pick them up, so they came to us. They will travel with us through the sound for the next three days. Their names are Scoresby, Emil, and Enu. Enu is only about 13 years old. They brought two Greenlandic dogs on board as well. They were cute, but extremely shy. We found them all up on the pool deck. Some crew members built a wooden structure to house the dogs. Scoresby dragged them (literally) one by one into the makeshift shelter. Hopefully they’ll get comfortable in a few days.

We visited in the lounge, and I got to see a few of Frank’s polar bear pictures. Oh my gosh – they were great. In one – the bear was holding the remains of the seal carcass in its mouth and you could see the flipper. Incredible. In another, one polar bear was leaping from one ice flow to another with its sibling in front. They were all amazing. I asked Frank if we were going to be able to buy prints from GAP of his photos. He said he wanted to give them to us, but has to get GAP approval first. An e-mail was sent to headquarters for permission. Let’s hope so.

We enjoyed cocktail hour after the zodiac cruise. Nina, Renee and I polished off a bottle of wine, and Darlene and MJ worked on the Bacardi. We had our recap and briefing at 7:00 with Kim and company. She described and illustrated the path our ship had taken so far trying to get into Scoresbysund. We all gave the captain a big round of applause. Tomorrow we get up earlier – 7:00 – with breakfast complete by 8:30. Then it’s time for the short, medium, and long walks on shore. We may see wildflowers or muskox. It all depends on whether we make it through the Sound. Later we’ll visit bear island and lastly, the boat will try to go through a narrow fjord.

At dinner, Nina and I sat with the couple from Iceland – Biergen and Gundor. He is the “Iceman” and is helping the captain plan and plot our way through the ice. They were such a nice couple. He gave us pointers on what to see in Iceland and how to pronounce things properly. They are friends of Helena, the owner of Nonni Travel, and were invited on this journey.

Relaxed in the lounge after dinner…watching Frank’s progress on the slideshow. Very cool stuff. We went in and out on the bow of the ship to capture more photos. The water was pretty still, and there were beautiful reflections. We even got a hint of blue sky as the sun was disappearing behind the mountain. It’ll pop back up shortly. Guess I’ll grab some much needed shut eye!

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 The Explorer – Day 5; Vacation – Day 7 Exploring Scoresbysund and Viking Bukta, Greenland

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature and its beauty.” — Albert Einstein

We had another great day in the arctic. Nothing that was originally planned happened as scheduled. Hey – you gotta be flexible in the Arctic!

We had a wake up greeting at 8:00 instead of 7:00. Due to heavy ice, we did not make as much progress through the sound. So we just hung out, went out to the bow and stuff enjoying the scenery – all the beautiful and colorful icebergs and mountains. We started out with lots of fog, but eventually got a beautiful sunny day. We went to a lecture from Jacky on ice. It was a bit of a snooze session. The afternoon ice was amazing. We just pushed and pushed through tons of it scraping and breaking it all up.

Nina gave me an acupuncture session when it started sprinkling outside. She had me stick out my tongue first (I guess to see if I’m healthy). She put in about 10 needles to see if it would help my shoulder problem. She put them in my arm, leg, shoulder, and neck. It didn’t even hurt. Now my shoulder feels a bit better, and I have some more flexibility, but no where near normal. Maybe repeated sessions would help. That was so nice of Nina to do that for me. She has a successful practice in Malden, Massachusetts. She got her Bachelor’s degree at USC and then had 4 more years of school for Acupuncture.

At 4:30 the group did a shorts and t-shirts photo session. I squeezed into a pair of Nina’s shorts and wore my lovely Russian hat. It was fun. The pictures will be funny. Afterwards, Nina, Renee and I did our Charlie’s Angels routine as Darlene took the photo.

Yeah! We got to do our first landing! Three different walks are offered – long, medium and short. All the walks give participants the opportunity to see and experience similar things but cater to different fitness/energy levels. We chose the long walk and were in the first group to leave the ship. There were probably about 25 people with Morten and Heidi. Morten was carrying a rifle in case we ran into a mean polar bear. This site is known as Viking Bukta. We had huge rocky mountains around us as well as a glacier. We trudged through the boggy muck and scrambled across rocks up the mountain to a little glacier lake. We all put on some insect repellent before disembarking. Greenland is known for its mosquitoes, and they were there to greet us. There was a large colony of Arctic terns on a small island nearby. The mosquitoes kept them very happy.

The walk was nice – very scenic. The shore was dominated by spongy polar vegetation. It was difficult hopping across boulders to make progress. We saw mosses and tiny wildflowers. There were also areas with tons of smaller rocks. It was a great spot. Plus we made it to Greenland! We trudged back to catch our zodiac to the ship. It was already after 8:00, but still perfectly bright outside.

Had another great dinner and rushed out to see the evening sky several times. The sky was clear again and the colors reflecting were amazing. We enjoyed a hazelnut soufflé for dessert and then retired to the lounge. Pretty soon we were all outside enjoying the evening sunset. Wow! The sun dipped down behind the mountain around 12:15AM or so. I managed to take around 25 sunset photos including one of our feet. Nina was wearing flip flops and my feet are attired in my attractive sheepskin slippers with the sun behind them.

We began heading down Fønfjord, but I gave up staying outside (I only had on my slippers and gloves – no coat). I toughed it out for 2 hours. Tomorrow we’ll do some zodiac cruising and another walk. We may even see some more wildlife. We’ll see! The expedition staff doesn’t want to put it on the schedule – since it can change so quickly.

July 6, 2005 Wednesday; 3:10 p.m. The Explorer – Day 6; Vacation – Day 8 Fønfjord, Greenland

“To dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes feasts of meat and wine ridiculous. The glacier eats hills and drinks sunbeams.” — John Muir

What a beautiful day we’ve had so far. The sky is blue; we’re surrounded by snow peaked mountains; and lots of icebergs are floating nearby.

At 6AM, Kim woke us up with an announcement of a zodiac cruise before breakfast. We had 45 minutes to get prepared. We were in a protected area called Rødeø, and there were huge icebergs everywhere. Nina and I were both tired – up till 2:00 – back up at 6:00 – but what the heck. Can’t miss a viewing opportunity. I didn’t wear my protective rain pants – hey it’s sunny out, but had on my coat and a turtleneck. We hopped in the zodiac with Morten as our driver along with Ernst, Frank and the Icelandic couple.

The icebergs were enormous and many were so blue. The shapes were varied and spectacular. We saw an iceberg arch and wanted to cruise through it. Now we know – very bad idea. We were heading toward one large iceberg, and all of a sudden the backside calved into the water. Bummer! I wished we were on the other side to capture photos. Uh oh! Now the part we were facing calved into the water. How amazing! I tried to get photos, but my camera doesn’t click fast enough. All of a sudden a tsunami-like wave started rolling toward us bringing the debris from the calving. Cool! I tried snapping more photos. Suddenly the tsunami wave caused yet another iceberg to calve and sent a flying piece of ice at our boat along with water. Unfortunately it smacked right into my back and knocked me across the zodiac. Ouch! It was rather painful and was a fairly large chunk of ice – at least 2 feet in length. Nina tossed the ice back into the sea. I asked, “Did anyone get a picture?” No. Bummer. They were all worried about me. Lucky it hit me in the back instead of the head. I might have been seriously injured. How many people can say they were attacked by an iceberg? My back is still sore – probably just a bruise.

We continued cruising, but now we were all apprehensive when we heard the rumbling sound of a calving. We all know how sudden and dangerous they are. We saw a blue iceberg with a little waterfall and many more interesting shapes. Up on the mountain, the Iceman saw muskoxen. We all whipped out the binoculars to take a look. Okay – I saw two or three brownish specks moving along.

Got back to the Explorer around 8:30 or so – just in time for breakfast. Then we had an hour and a half to rest before we made a landing at Angervik. After resting we headed out for the long hike – about 2½ hours. The terrain here was spectacular. It was so warm outside, we were all removing layers. There were tons of different wildflowers growing. It was so beautiful. Little creeks flowed down the mountain, and there were green mosses. Just lovely. I wore my hiking boots instead of my wellies this time. We had a fantastic hike – with Morten and his rifle in front and Heidi bringing up the rear (accompanied by me quite often). We had to keep stopping to take wildflower photos. The flowers are only there for a short time – from June to mid-July or so. This was great and colorful stuff. We walked to a little cliff-like drop with the glacial creek racing to the ocean down below. The mountains were majestic. It’s all I could do to stop myself from bursting into song, “The hills are alive…with the sound of music…”

We got back to the ship around 1:15 – just in time for lunch. This time we earned it. Scooby and Kim sat with us, and we had enjoyable conversations. Our boat, the Explorer, will take on a group of 70+ teenagers at the end of July for a 14-day cruise – Kids at Sea. These are primarily 14-18 year olds from the U.S. and Canada. What a great opportunity for them. Lucky they have generous parents! Scooby looks a bit like Popeye the sailor, and was quite interesting. He’s originally from Manchester, England, but has lived in Tasmania since 1980. He worked for the Australian Arctic Survey group. Scooby hopes to buy 2½ acres on the east coast area and build a whale museum in a warehouse-like building. Sounds like a great plan. We asked him about travel tips in Tasmania. It sounds like a fabulous country. I must visit. 40% of the area is set aside as national park land. They’ve got wallabies, kangaroos and other unusual animals. He said that nearly 90% of the west’s Tasmanian devil population has died from some disease. Hopefully they’ll figure out what it is and stop it from attacking those on the east side.

Now we have a few hours before we land at Hekla Havn on Denmark Island for another hike. This will be our 5th outing already. In Antarctica, we were only able to do 5 outings (zodiac cruises and landings) the whole time we were there. We’ve still got nearly a week, so we’ll be doing lots more (hopefully).

Better rest before those warm cookies are served at teatime. Today (at Nina’s request) the chef is making chocolate chip – yum!

— later —

Yeah! We made our last landing of the day at 8:45PM. We visited Hekla Havn. They had hoped we could do it earlier in the day, but the ice dictates what and when you do things.

I made it to the lounge in time for the chocolate chip cookies. Great stuff. We hung out for awhile and learned we’d be doing the landing later, so I grabbed a nap. I was awakened by Kim’s announcement that the recap and briefing would take place at 6:30. There Morten talked about the muskox (since we saw them way far away). Kim told us that our plans for the cruise have been changed. We won’t have time to make it all the way to Amassalik. There is a 40 mile ice pack we’d have to work our way through. Instead we’ll stay further north and eventually make our way to some uninhabited areas of Iceland on the way back (assuming we have time to do so). If we have problems getting through the ice, then we won’t. Tomorrow Helena, Scoresby, Emil and Enu will give a little talk on the history of the area and in particular Ittoqqortoormiit (pronounced eat-o-kor-two-me). Depending on the ice conditions, we will arrive some time tomorrow at their settlement. They have a post office and other small businesses. Should be cool. Tonight we were also told we could swim in the Arctic if desired. No way baby! Nina plans to do it. Then we were off to dinner for yet another great meal. Clea (Jacky’s daughter) and the proper English couple – Michael and Jane – also joined us. The English couple is such a kick and very nice. Michael is about 85 and has some difficulty walking, but they are also bow people and are always out there with us admiring the view.

Right after dinner, we had to change into our landing clothes and get off the ship. Nina and I were late and had to catch up to the long walkers. We asked Sabeana if that meant Nina could still go swimming, and she assured us it was okay. Roger was leading the group with Jacky bringing up the rear. The site was beautiful and full of rock mountains/hills. It was a LOT of work climbing up those dang hills. The rocks were large, so it wasn’t like yesterday where we scrambled over little boulders. The elevation gain just seemed to continue and continue. Huff, puff. Nina and Jacky were kind enough to offer a helping hand so I wouldn’t slip. We were heading up yet another rock mountain, and almost at the top when I began hyperventilating and couldn’t catch my breath. I tried breathing through my gloves, but was wheezing away. Nina made me sit down and got me to breathe in my nose and out of my mouth until I got it under control. How embarrassing. This happened to me one other time in Machu Picchu. I guess I was trying to keep up with the group and didn’t rest enough to catch my breath (plus I wasn’t carrying any water).

Jacky came down to us and kicked us off to the medium walk group who were down below us. We actually should have been with them in the first place because these were the swimmers. Nina planned to swim, and I had to get photos. We caught up with the mediums and made our way down the mountain. There was a huge amount of mosquitoes swarming each of us during the entire hike. I had to keep swatting them away and try to breathe with my teeth clenched so I didn’t inhale a bunch of snacks.

Yeah we made it to the shore. The swimmers all took their clothes off (except bathing suits of course). The skeeters were enjoying all that exposed flesh. About a dozen people jumped into the Arctic including Nina and Clea (the only girls) and the chef, doctor, Brad, Frank, Patrick, Steve, Ernst and more. Yeow – that looked too cold to me! I got lots of photos, but I was not tempted to get in.

Got back to the ship around 11:00 and then hung out in the lounge till 1:20. Frank was working away at his photos and slideshow. He said that GAP is going to offer a CD of the slideshow and selected photos for a small donation – maybe $20. Yeah! I hope well be able to get it before we get off the ship.

Now it’s bed time. Hopefully I can sleep late-ish & maybe 7:30 or 8:00?

July 7, 2005 Thursday ; 5:30 p.m. The Explorer – Day 7; Vacation – Day 9 Attempt at Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland

“When I stand up and look out over the valley I can feel the tremendous depth of time: myself at this 100 year old campsite, before a valley scoured by glacial ice and which the modern Eskimo say is and has been a sacred precinct. The muskoxen graze out there as if I was of no more importance than a stone. The skulls of their ancestors lie in the sun at my feet and cool winds come down the slope and ride up over my bare hand.” — Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

It has been rainy all day, and we’ve gotten stuck in lots of ice. We had hoped to get to Ittoqqortoormiit late morning, but luck wasn’t with us today.

Spent most of the day eating, being a lounge lizard and going out to see the ice. It was amazing. The boat was completely surrounded as far as the eye could see. How the heck will we ever get out of this mess? The captain forced the boat to simply push these large ice floes out of the way to try and gain a path through it.

Frank went out in the zodiac earlier today to get some photos (at the captain’s request) of us pushing through ice. They were mostly just posed pictures – we didn’t actually slam through it. Nina and I were out on the bow so we could be in the pictures. We stuck out feet through the hole in the ship so we can tell it’s us.

I caught a lecture by Helena with a slideshow of Ittoqqortoormiit and the surrounding area. These were taken at various times of the year. Looks great. There are a few buildings – a gift shop/travel office, and a post office. At this point I hope we’ll still be able to get ashore – we’ll see. One of the slides looked like congealed grossness. Helena warned us not to step in this stuff while walking around. It’s seal blubber and will stick to your shoes like gum. Yuck! Enu got up and tried to teach us how to pronounce Inuit words and phrases. The only ones we were good at were – hello – which is “hello” in Inuit and goodbye – which is “bye” in Inuit.

In the afternoon, Roger gave a talk and shared slides of Arctic wildflowers. We saw many of them yesterday. The pictures were great, but put me in a dark room, and I’m snoozing!

While Darlene and I were up on the bridge area at 5PM, the captain made an announcement informing everyone that there were a series of explosions on the Underground and a bus in London. We’re not sure how many were killed. Reports vary saying 2-50 were killed with 150 seriously injured. The transportation system in London is crippled right now. This was an Al Qaeda terrorist attack – stupid idiots. We’re staying tuned as more news develops. About 2/3 of the passengers on the ship are British, so this is very worrisome for them. Many have friends and family in London.

Guess I’ll go hang out in the lounge some more . . .

— later —

Well bummer. The ice did not cooperate. We tried 3 or 4 different routes to try to get to the village. No luck. The ice pack was just too thick. Our captain sure gave it his best shot. Now our hostages (I mean guests) have to stay on board. Helena had hoped to go to her Greenland home. Scorseby, Emil, Enu and the dogs will have to come back with the ship next week when the next cruise sails. What a drag for them. It was a wait and see game all day.

We had a briefing at 7PM and found that we’ve given up on Greenland and will have no more chances for landings there. I really wanted to go to the town and buy souvenirs and stuff. Just like Antarctica…we never made it to Port Lockroy so we were never able to buy anything there either. The villagers really could have used our tourist dollars. Morten shared a story about his first cruise to East Greenland. He went in late August, and they were never able to even get into the Sound or land on Greenland. At least we’ve had 5 outings so far. The plan is to try to get out of this ice and hopefully make it to Iceland for visits to deserted areas. Maybe we’ll get a close look at puffins and other wildlife. What can you do? We’ll be at sea for probably the next two days. We have 4 full days left of our trip. We might only get to sit around, look at ice, and eat the rest of the time (whine, whine).

They certainly do feed us well. The chef – Ranier – is great. We’ve spent a lot of time talking with him. He’s from Denmark and is so nice and has a great sense of humor. His wife and kids live in Portugal and he’ll be on the ship till the end of the month. He kind of does “substitute” chefing on various ships. The waiters are all Filipino and are so friendly. We asked if they ever get a chance to go ashore. No, they pretty much have to work all the time. When they do have spare time, they usually try to sleep. When they’re not serving us, they have to vacuum and do other chores around the boat.

This evening they showed “Whale Rider” in the lecture hall. The DVD machine kept getting stuck and going to the blue screen of death. We could hear the poor Greenlandic sled dogs outside crying. Poor things. They love when we come out and pet them. Oh well…time to call it a night.

July 8, 2005 Friday; 10:22 p.m. The Explorer – Day 8; Vacation – Day 10 North Atlantic Ocean, Denmark Strait

“Big floes have little floes all around them, and all the little diatoms couldn’t do without them, forty million shimplets feed upon the latter, and they make the dovekies, and the whales and seals much fatter.” — Apsley Cherry Gerrard (abridged)

I’m sitting in the lounge riding the waves. The sea has gotten pretty rough (or else I was used to the peacefulness of the Sound and crawling through the ice). I had to put on ½ a scopolamine patch and am carrying a barf bag with me just in case. I’ve also been dashing outside to the 4th floor periodically to get fresh air and watch the horizon. It’s sunny and beautiful right now. We should have a fabulous sunset if the sun actually dips below the horizon.

Anyway…woke up to rainy skies. We had only traveled 12 nautical miles in the past 12 hours or so and had quite a way to go to get out of the pack ice. After breakfast we went to Morten’s lecture, “Polar Bears – Part Deux.” Something about going into “the womb” causes me to nod off. Between naps we learned about threats to polar bears – like indigenous hunting, pollutants, loss of ice, etc. Some countries (I think it’s Canada…) allow the indigenous people to sell off the right to kill a polar bear to big game hunters. That makes me mad. During the lecture we could hear the dogs crying. Their “home” is on top of the pool right outside the lecture room. Poor things — they get lonely and want to be pet. After the lecture, we went out there and gave the dogs some attention.

I sent an e-mail to Elaine from the ship for her birthday. While I was composing it at the computer, Roger began another lecture on Arctic birds, “The Miracle of Migration.” He shared the story of the incredible feats completed by birds during their bi-annual migration. I managed to stay awake for that one.

We ate all day long. Unbelievable. I was going to nap but never got around to it. A National Geographic documentary, “Arctic Kingdoms” was shown at 3PM. What an excellent program on wildlife in the high Arctic. They captured all sorts of animals on film including polar bears and narwhals, beluga whales, and sea birds. It was so interesting. After most of the passengers left the room, the “making of” portion of the DVD began. That was also excellent. The film makers had to spend two summers on the ice capturing all these amazing moments with the animals. They had to endure some harsh conditions and were unable to shower. They lived on an ice shelf. At one point, the ice shelf began to separate and float out to sea, and they only had a few minutes to tear down camp. They had to pack their things on snowmobiles and use floating ice to get themselves to a new ice shelf attached to the land.

Nina, Darlene and I hung out in the lounge. Heck – it was cookie time. I showed them a few of my photos in the camera. Clea showed me how to use the digital zoom, so I doomed into a photo of the ship doctor during his Arctic swim. Nice torso! We cracked up and couldn’t stop laughing. Some old biddies exclaimed, “We’ve had just about enough already. Just shut it up.” I guess they don’t appreciate us having a good time. Go to your cabins!

At 5PM we caught Jacky’s session on the history of oceanography. The room was pretty empty – lots of seasick passengers. I nodded in and out, but she shared a timeline on oceanography going back to BC. At 7PM we had a gumshoe dance demo where Jacky, Heidi and Steven demonstrated three different dances as they jumped around slapping their wellies (rubber boots). Too funny.

Spent time getting fresh air, and so far so good. Dinner was also pretty empty. John Jessie from Florida sat with us (Nina went to bed to avoid getting sick). He commented that Nina sure seems to have a great time all the time. She also gets those around her to have a good time. What a nice compliment, and so true. Jacky ate with us also; Clea tried but had to go to bed to deal with her seasickness. At 9:00, Scooby shared some stories of his time in the British Antarctic Survey.

Now that I’m in the lounge, there are only 4 passengers in here and a couple crew/GAP members. What a difference from last night – the room was packed and full of energy. I’m going to attempt to stay up and see if the sky turns into a beautiful sunset and read my book.

We spoke with the chef at lunch today and convinced him to give us a tour of the kitchen this evening. Maybe we’ll postpone till tomorrow.

Kim announced that we’ve made incredible progress. We’ll be on the coast of Iceland tomorrow morning. We hope to do a cruise or hike. In the afternoon we’ll land at an island called Vigur where there are puffin and an eider farm. Yeah! It’ll be great that we are able to get off the ship again after all.

July 9, 2005 Saturday; Midnight-ish The Explorer – Day 9; Vacation – Day 11 Westfjords, Iceland

“The Westfjords Peninsula and the far Northwest of the Country looks like a giant amoeba that is struggling to break off from the rest of Iceland and escape into the North Atlantic.” — Paul Harding and Joe Bindloss

We made it through the rough seas today all the way to Iceland. We didn’t get there as early as expected, but what the heck.

After breakfast, I caught Roger’s lecture, “Seabirds of the North Atlantic.” I managed to stay awake through most of it. Nina skipped dinner last night and breakfast and lunch today. She’s been sleeping – hoping to avoid seasickness.

Renee and I were visiting with the dogs that now have this net thing over their pen and the whole pool area. They got so excited when I came to visit, the girl dog stuck her head out of the net so I could pet her, and her head got stuck. Uh oh! I ran downstairs and grabbed Kim. Expedition Leaders can fix anything. She freed the dog and then climbed under the net to get them fresh water. Naturally I got a picture of Kim under the net, extending her “paws.”

I skipped the lecture at 11:00 on Whaling – part 1. It felt good to nap. I thought about skipping lunch, but me…miss a meal? Never!

At around 2PM we made it to Isafjordur, the largest settlement in West Fjords. We had to pick up an officer to check our passports and stuff and admit us back to Iceland. We saw tons of seabirds today. They love following the boat. The day was cloudy, but Roger promised it would clear up in time for our landing at Vigur, a small, small island with an eider duck farm and a great place to see puffins, guillemot, and Arctic terns.

Roger was correct! We had success – some blue sky and a wonderful little hike. A family owns the island, and they gave us permission to land and join them for tea. The owners took us in groups around the 1-mile island. The only windmill in Iceland is here. Our guide demonstrated the use of a puffin catching net. Looks mean. The island was so green and beautiful and had some neat rock formations. We saw lots of nesting sites. The puffins are just so darn cute! The Arctic terns were plentiful. We even had to carry sticks to protect ourselves from the terns. They try dive bombing your head if you get too close to their nests. Nina protected me by waving her stick. The puffins look so funny when they fly. Their wings just beat away – looking a bit awkward. One of the guides on the boat compared them to bumble bees. Often they eat too much and have a difficult time getting off the water. Very comical.

At the end of the little walk we came back to the farm house area. There we saw two lambs, an eider duck strolling, children playing in the yard, and a black guillemot. The guillemot was perched in a little grassy area on a building structure waiting for his mama to return with food. The birds would fly by really low with a fish hanging out of their mouths.

Went into the gift shop/post office and learned how they collect and clean eider down. Very interesting. One kilo (2.2 lbs.) of eider down sells for 100,000 ISK (or about $1,400) They collect 60 kilos per year on the island. The stuff is really, really soft but we are not allowed to bring it back to the U.S. – marine mammal parts aren’t permitted.

Visited the little café and had some cake and juice. It was tasty. What a great little place. We did a ½ hour zodiac cruise with Scooby and traveled around the island. It’s so cool to watch those darn puffins! The water was a bit rough and splashy, but it was great.

After returning to the ship, we had a briefing at 7:00 p.m. on what to expect tomorrow as well as a recap of what we saw today. Tomorrow we visit a waterfall in the morning and do another hike in the afternoon. Should be another fabulous day.

Had dinner with Jane and Michael (our favorite English couple) and Sarah from New Zealand. Renee made me take pictures of our appetizer – sliced mozzarella and tomato and the dessert – cream puffs shaped like swans with Chantilly cream and whipped cream. Great stuff!

Hung out in the lounge, and the chef found us at 10:45 for our kitchen tour. We had to sneak out just as Captain Paul began playing some really nice music on the piano. He’s Mr. Multi-talented. Ranier took us into all parts of the kitchen and showed where the food was prepared, how they thaw the fish, showed us the pantry, the refrigerator, freezers, etc. It was so interesting, and they still have a ton of food! They get much of it from Germany. (Food in Iceland would be soooo expensive!) We climbed into the bowels of the ship to get down to the pantry. He warned us that the ship is very old, so the kitchen is not dirty – just worn. Tomorrow night they do a deep cleaning. We chatted with the chef for a very long time. He told us it is so difficult to get a good paying job as a chef in Portugal. That’s why he’d been doing the ship thing. His next gig is a few months cruising the rivers of Europe. (He likes the Arctic better.) He’s a lot of fun.

The sunset didn’t quite happen tonight. The sky was blue in parts, but the sun went into a big cloud bed. The mountains of the fjord were amazing with color throughout. Just gorgeous. Now it’s beddy bye…

July 10, 2005 Sunday; 5:10 p.m. The Explorer – Day 10; Vacation – Day 12 Westfjords, Iceland

“It looks like the world turns inside out, like a part of the surface of the moon transplanted onto the surface of the sea. So it is perhaps not surprising that only a quarter of a million people live here, on the Rorschach blot-shaped pile of black and still warm volcanic rock that has been known over the centuries as Thule, Snowland, Butterland, but which is now officially called by its Norse name, Iceland.” — Simon Winchester

We’re relaxing in the lounge enjoying tea (or in my case diet coke). They ran out of cookies before I got here – bummer! I had to settle for cake.

Today was another great day. It rained all day long, but that didn’t stop us! After breakfast we did our first landing in Dynjandavogur Fjord. It was such a beautiful place. There was a wonderful waterfall cascading down the mountain in multiple tiers. There were lovely rock formations and a multitude of wild flowers including a few purple orchids. We made it all the way to the base of the highest cascade. The spray flew through the air swirling all around us. I was surprised to find that the wall of rock was actually orange in color. Amazing.

I was so surprised when we first landed at the waterfall site. A bus pulled up as we were getting off the zodiacs. The road is narrow and unpaved – we didn’t expect to see anyone this far out. As we were leaving, 4 or 5 cars had parked at the trail head. Quite the popular spot!

We were soaked and hung our things up to dry. I managed to stay pretty dry under my rain pants and rain jacket. Lunch was good – I especially enjoyed the Hungarian Goulash. The ship moved on down the fjords, and our next stop was Sudurfirdir Fjord. We did the landing at about 2:30. I felt bad for Michael (the 85-year old English gentleman). He really wanted to do the landings today, but the terrain was too uneven, and we don’t want him to fall and break a hip or something.

Nina and I opted for the longer hike. This area was completely deserted. However, there were a few uninhabited log cabins and an old house in the area. The beach was covered with yellow and orange kelp – gave it kind of an autumn feel. There was a forest of spruce trees growing as well as other bushes and tons of wildflowers. We waded across the river and hiked up the hill to a beautiful overlook. (I huffed and puffed and had to watch my footing.) There were a number of uneven rocks and mud to contend with. At the top were petroglyphs – not ancient – they were from 1930. Nina found two abandoned bird eggs. The area had a ton of pesky mosquitoes. I had to keep smacking them out of the way and breathe carefully and blow out my mouth. All in all a great little hike.

Now we’re heading on down the coast. Not sure what’s in store for us next.

— later — 11:10 p.m.

Had our briefing at 7PM. Looks like we’ll get one more landing before we return to Reykjavik. Yeah! We’re stopping tomorrow morning at Flatey. It’s supposed to be a good place for seabirds and a cute little island. Sabeana kind of put Helena and the Inuit guys on the spot. She asked them to explain why it’s good for them to hunt whales. Then she and Jacky disagreed with Helena’s response and were citing studies, etc. We found the whole thing a bit inappropriate. It was unfair to have environmentalists ganging up on them for their traditional ways (even though we don’t agree with those ways). They are our hostages…I mean guests on the ship, and we should be more sensitive.

Dinner was another great affair. Afterwards, we passed by the cliffs of Latrabjarg. Roger says this is the best place to view seabirds. We saw guillemots, razor bills, puffins and more. The sky was just full of the birds. They would dart by in large flocks, pairs or just on their own. Quite a sight.

I used the ship’s MAC computer to copy my photos onto CD. It’s a great service – we copy them ourselves and pay $1 for the CD. Hopefully they’ll be viewable on my PC.

Monday; July 11, 2005 The Explorer – Day 11; Vacation – Day 13 Flatey Island, Breidafjordur and Snaefells Peninsula

“A bird of comic solemnity, the Atlantic Puffin’s cuteness belies a resilience demanded by its unforgiving territory.” — Kenneth Taylor

Today is our last full day on the boat. Boo hoo! The day remained gray and rainy. But, as always, that did not stop us! After breakfast, we visited the island of Flatey – a very small, flat island with just a few houses, a coffee shop, and a church. It is known for the highest concentration of snipe in Western Europe (and I thought snipes didn’t exist & snipe hunting anyone?). Flatey supposedly was a major cultural center between the 12th and 18th centuries. The island seemed to belong to the birds, and we were just visitors. We went into the little church. The walls inside were painted in interesting scenes. Jesus was at the altar wearing an Icelandic wool sweater. Someone else was using the puffin catching net. The cemetery outside was also small and dated back to the 1800’s.

We walked through town, admiring the cute houses, and headed to the cliffs to see birds nesting below. It was a great little island. Nina and I bought Scooby a cup of coffee at the little café. We headed back on the zodiac with Morten for a quick cruise around the nearby rock islands. We got to see puffins, shags and kittiwakes up pretty close.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch and set sail for Reykjavik. Spent the day relaxing. The ship has a nice book containing drawings and poems created by passengers and expedition staff. We have a few really good artists on the boat. A few days ago, Nina and I sketched little re-enactment drawings of the whole iceberg-hitting-me-in-the back episode. Nina’s version shows me lying on the bottom of the boat, with a big “BAM” sign, and I’m surrounded by smiling faces. Mine has tackily drawn cartoon characters riding in the boat with the iceberg sailing toward my back. We giggled and taped them into the book accompanied by all the fine art work. Today we found a pack of colored pencils and had to give the drawings some final touches (with help from Clea).

Caught Morten’s talk on “Whales – part deux”. Unfortunately I nodded off through most of it. I think, basically, his presentation was against the taking of whales.

We all got to enjoy Frank’s slideshow at 5:45 p.m. He did a fantastic job capturing the whole trip – it took about 45 minutes for the whole thing to play. We were also given the opportunity to purchase a CD containing the slideshow and the individual photos for $35. This money will go to charity – to Planterra’s Scoresbysund project.

The expedition staff offered to order us a taxi tomorrow since the ship won’t be docking in the downtown area – we’ll be way across town. I let Kim know that we had reserved a rental car with Avis. Kim had Helena contact Avis, and they will bring our car to us tomorrow at 8:30. Getting the rental car means we can skip the $30 cab fare. It’s so sad we have to leave.

Dinner was quite an affair. We girls were invited to join Rolf, the Chief Engineer, for a special farewell dinner. The poor guy didn’t know what hit him! We ate, talked and drank the evening away and enjoyed Chateaubriand. Rolf hightailed it out of there the moment we saw land. Kim, the expedition leader, put us at his table so that we could draw him out (he’s shy).

Darlene ended up drinking way too much wine and had to be escorted down the stairs by Nina and Clea and put to bed. We went into our cabin and heard a big thud. Darlene had fallen out of bed and they tried helping her back to bed (twice). Poor Darlene. Lucky I was there to capture it all with my camera! (Just kidding!)

At 12:30 a.m. or so, Nina and I tried packing all of our junk together and put our large suitcases in the hall. We have a 7:00 a.m. wakeup call tomorrow.

One of our waiters – Jovan – nicknamed us the “spice girls”. Early on he asked Nina and I at breakfast – where are the other spice girls? We told Darlene and Renee about our nicknames and just laughed and laughed. We started picking our spice girl names. Renee is Ginger Spice; Nina is Tabasco Spice; Darlene is Cinnamon Spice; and Renee named me Old Spice. Hey! Jovan came back a few days later and told me I’m Paprika Spice – much better.

July 12, 2005 Tuesday; 11:55 p.m. The Explorer – Day 12; Vacation – Day 14
Disembarking, Reykjavik & Golden Circle

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” –Lao Tsu

We are now in our beautiful, large, one room apartment at Room With a View.

We were awakened for the last time by Kim with the bing bong announcement at 7:00. We showered, packed up our remaining things and grabbed breakfast. I noticed that Darlene’s suitcase was not in the hall and knocked on her door. No answer. I went in and shook her awake and told her she needed to get packed because we had to leave the ship. Talk about a hangover. Poor Darlene. Will she ever learn? Her roommate, MJ, ended up sleeping on the couch in the lounge because Darlene was making loud noises.

We said our goodbyes to everyone again. Avis was supposed to pick us up at 8:30, but didn’t show up until 9:30. Helena was on the phone making sure they got us. (I think the staff just wanted to finally get rid of us.) Helena advised us never to use Avis again! We walked down the gangplank and waited & and waited. Kim invited us to come back in to stay warm. On this cruise, our group was the loudest, most fun and obnoxious bunch on the ship. I’m surprised she allowed us back on the boat!

The Avis guy showed up with a tiny blue Volkswagon Polo. We were unable to fit all of our luggage and passengers in the car, so Renee and I went with most of the luggage and the Avis representative to their office. We signed some paperwork and took off in the car in search of Room With A View to drop off our bags. It took us awhile, but we finally did it. Found a parking spot right in front of the building and took our suitcases upstairs. We called Arni, and he met us there. He asked how many of us there would be in the room. When I told him 4, he kind of freaked out. Oh – that apartment is much too small for 4 adults. (We had exchanged several e-mails, and he said we could add a cot.) He was going to go back and check his e-mails. He thought we should be in the 2 bedroom apartment – but it’s $395 per night – very steep.

Anyway…Renee and I hit the road. We found our way back to the pier pretty easily. Picked up Nina and Darlene at 11:00 and told them we couldn’t get into our apartment so we would go ahead and begin our Golden Circle tour. Arni had given us some directions and suggestions on our itinerary, and we headed off in search of Highway 36. Darlene was extremely disappointed she couldn’t sleep at the room all day. She looked like she would barf at any time.

It took us awhile to get out of town, but we found a local mall and stopped to go potty. What the heck, they’ve got a food court. So we stayed and had lunch. I had a 749 ISK Big Mac value meal ($12). It hit the spot. We took our food to the crepe restaurant to eat with Nina, but the cigarette smoke was horrible and I had to leave.

After much searching, we were finally on the road to Pingvellir. We passed the Laxnes horse farm on the way. The drive was beautiful. Iceland is a breathtaking country. We traveled over lava formation areas covered in moss and fields full of horses. Pingvellir was great. This is the site that the Icelanders chose for their parliament in 930 AD. It is kind of a natural amphitheater made of lava rock. There was a lovely waterfall tucked in one area. We hiked to it and along the river. We walked around the whole area and even visited the little church. I got up on the pulpit and began preaching, “and lo, the angel of the lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid…” Darlene stayed in the car.

We hit the road and drove to Geyser. As we were crossing the street, we ran into Sandy and John from Edmonton. They were on a bus tour. This area was steamy. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as Rotorua in New Zealand and wasn’t as active. We watched Strokkur (“the churn”) do its thing and spit the water up about 60 feet every 5 minutes.

Onward to Gulfoss (“golden falls”). It was really cold, but we hiked to 2 of the view areas. What a fabulous and powerful waterfall. If it had been hot out, I might have been tempted to hike all the way to the drop of the falls. A few people did, and they were quite wet. We could see the Langjökull glacier off in the mountains from the parking lot. That’s where we are supposed to go dog sledding.

We continued driving in search of Kerid, the collapsed crater, recommended by Arni. After back tracking, we found it. This was a beautiful blue water-filled crater with lots of vegetation growing inside.

We pushed our way on back to Reykjavik and the Perlan restaurant. Darlene and I ate in the café. Nina and Renee ate in the nice restaurant. I had my yummy vanilla ice cream cone and a ham & cheese sandwich (460 ISK). Nina had whale carpaccio, some sort of fish, and our friend, the guillemot for dinner (5900 ISK). She thoroughly enjoyed hers. The Perlan is set up on a hill and has an observation platform with great views. If only the sky were blue instead of gray! At least Nina finally got to sample some local cuisine. She has been hoping for putrid shark, puffin, whale, and ram’s testicles. She likes to experience the true local scene. I much prefer to find the best French fries and chocolate cake in whatever country I visit.

We made it back to Room with a View at 11:30 p.m. without too much trouble. I found a parking spot 1½ blocks away. We just have to remember to feed the meter if we’re there between 10:00 a.m. and 6 p.m. Arni gave us the keys. What a great apartment. We have a large living room with a comfortable leather couch and chair along with a huge wall of windows. The bedroom has 2 twin beds. In addition, we have a thin mattress to put on the leather couch and a folding cot. We have a dining room and kitchen with all that we need. Very cool. We’ve even got a huge balcony with a great view of the harbor. I’m not sure why Arni thought the room would be too small for us. It’s palatial compared to the ship! Tomorrow it’s off to Vik.

Wednesday; July 13, 2005 Vacation – Day 15 Reykjavik to Vik

“It is what it is.” — Alix MacGregor

Today was a big driving and waterfall day. We intended to be on the road at 9:30, but it was more like 11:15. Oh well…we’re on vacation! Had breakfast at the bagel shop and stopped at Sandholt bakery, where Nina and Darlene got coffee and pastries.

We had to feed the meter beginning at 10:00 (parking is metered from 10 – 6:00). The day was gray again. We all packed a bag with our wellies and bathing suits (just in case). We found our way to Highway 1 – the Ring Road – and headed toward Vik (pronounced veek), which was nearly 190 km away. The drive was fun. We made so many stops along the way. I really love the area that’s sprinkled with lava rocks. They are covered with moss and there are large mountains in the distance.

Our first stop was Seljalandfoss, the waterfall that you can walk behind. It was so beautiful. Being smart girls, we put on our wellies. The waterfall had a lot of spray, so the area was muddy. I managed to drop my camera twice in the mud. Bummer! We scrambled over the rocks and made our way behind the waterfall. It was so cool to be able to look out from there. We kept seeing tour buses pull in. They only stayed a short time for quick photo ops. I’m so glad we have our own car. It’s so great to be able to set our own schedule and spend as much time as we want to each stop.

We wandered down the path where there were two more smaller waterfalls. All pretty. Nina and I climbed across the stream and then hiked up to a little cave. This was an opening in the mountain’s rock wall, just above the stream. It was overgrown with plants and wildflowers and was gorgeous. There was a little turf house down below. We then climbed up to the waterfall adjacent to the cave. I managed to get all muddy from this area and had to crab crawl down the hill on my butt.

We traveled another ½ mile down the road and stopped to check out another waterfall. Nina read in the guidebook that there was a hidden waterfall. This was located near Hamragarder farm which has an area for camping. Nina and I had our wellies on and headed across the meadow toward the mountain where we could see a waterfall above the rocks. Oh my gosh! We climbed into the stream and what incredible views we had. You could see the waterfall between the rocks. We continued wading through the water and came to this circular opening with the waterfall pouring down from above. What a sight! You would never know how beautiful it is unless you went all the way back through that canyon. Wow.

Nina and I gave our wellies to Darlene and Renee and insisted they go see the waterfall, too. They loved it. Unfortunately Renee fell and got my boots wet inside. Poor thing.

We drove a little further up the road and saw a sign that seemed like it was marking a good place to visit. Big mistake. We headed up the hills on a dirt/rock path that was rutted. Yikes! Get me out of here. I was afraid I’d scrape the muffler and gas tank off the bottom of the car. I was finally able to turn around after doing a 12-point turn (on a cliff).

Moved on down the road and saw lots more waterfalls but didn’t stop at all of them. We came to Skogarfoss. What a great place that was also. It’s kind of a wider waterfall that emptied down the mountain (and managed to spray us pretty good). Fools that we are, we climbed the stairs to the top of the falls for a different view. I’m out of shape. Huffed and puffed but finally made it. We could see the river flowing along the ridge and emptying down the mountain.

Continued on and then stopped at Dyrhólaey. We had great views of the bird life on cliffs that overlooked the black sand beach. A few tour buses stopped there for maybe 2 minutes. We were there nearly an hour. You could see the peaks of Reynisdrangar (the troll rocks) off in the distance. I sat on the cliffs watching the kittiwakes and puffins flying back to their nests and feeding in the ocean. I tried getting close to a puffin nest, but they burrow into the mountain and were hidden from my watchful eyes as I snaked my way along the edge of the cliff. I had to be careful not to trip, because there were huge holes in the ground covered by grass. We drove up the nearby hill to the lighthouse and saw the big arch and some more stunning views of the mountains.

Onward to Vik. We filled up with gas (3900 ISK or $50+). We had dinner at a cute little restaurant in town called Halldórskaffi. We almost made the mistake of eating at the Esso cafeteria. Thank goodness we consulted our Lonely Planet guidebook for recommendations first. I had a marguerita pizza and a diet coke (1020 ISK). The pizza was great. Nina was very excited – she got to have puffin. She said it tasted like a cross between tuna and smoked turkey. Poor little puffin! There was a group of around 20 people at the restaurant that began singing loudly – must have been Icelandic tunes. They all had the music sheets to follow along. We clapped, but after 2nd song we wanted to change the station. They were having fun. Perhaps they were part of a choir or something.

We drove down to the beach area and spent time walking along the black sand, admiring the sea birds and enjoying the area. We had great views of Reynisdrangar. Nina scaled some cliffs and waded into the ocean. I kept my parka on. As we started to drive away, Nina noticed her wedding ring was missing. She had it in the bathroom at the restaurant and thought she may have lost it at the beach. She searched her clothes, purse, car, and parking lot. We retraced our steps along the beach for about an hour, but no luck. She was so depressed and we felt terrible for her. Nina is a newlywed and had designed the ring and was crushed. She checked back at the restaurant, but still no luck. We were a quiet group as we headed back to Reykjavik at 10:15. About an hour later, Nina exclaimed, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” She found her ring. It somehow got stuck in her pants legs (she was wearing polar fleece leggings). We all cheered. The mood in the car lifted, and we made it back to the hotel at 12:45.

We ran into Arni as we were entering the hotel and chatted with him a bit. He gave us some advice for tomorrow’s adventures. Stay tuned…

Thursday; July 14, 2005 Vacation – Day 16 Reykjavik & the Reykjanes Peninsula

I woke up with the sun beating through the curtains. This was our first day of blue skies in Iceland, and it was so beautiful. It was warm! Took photos from our balcony and didn’t have to rush anywhere for a change.

We went to a little café for breakfast that had teapots everywhere. I had a chocolate chocolate chip muffin. We walked around a bit and asked at the tourist office about the location of the Phallicological Museum. Bummer! It moved to Akureyi. Everyone was too embarrassed to ask. So I went up there and said, “My friends want to know…”

I called Dennis at the dog sledding place to make reservations for tomorrow. They were booked, but told me to call back in 5 minutes. He was going to check for cancellations. Yeah! He was able to get us in for the noon ride tomorrow. Hope we’ll be able to find our way there! We made periodic stops at the car all morning long to continually feed the meter. We could have parked a couple more blocks away in the residential area and not worry about meters. Next time…

We headed to the church – Hallgrimskirkja. It’s best seen on a blue sky day. We took the elevator to the top for great views of the city. Checked out the inside of the church and ran into Angelika (Renee’s roomie on the boat). She was getting ready to fly home. I stopped at the cheapie store and bought two Viking hats for me and Nina (400 ISK each). We are so cool! Then we ate yet again at 1:30 at the bakery. Ham & cheese for me.

It was finally time to hit the road for our drive around the Reykjanes Peninsula area and to the Blue Lagoon. Renee did the driving. We took Arni’s advice and drove to the Krisavik region and Lake Kleifarvatn. The area was so cool. It was full of huge volcanic mountains with the blue lake and dark sand beach down below. We walked down to the water and took some goofy pictures with our cool Viking hats. We stopped at a beautiful pasture with a bunch of cute horses grazing. The Icelandic horses are adorable. Next stop was the stinky sulfur area, Selún Hot Springs, full of boiling mud pots and steam vents. The earth just seems so alive here. We hiked around for awhile. We then continued on toward Grindavik. Unfortunately the road wasn’t paved. The landscape consisted of lava rocks everywhere – kinda like we were on the moon. It’s so amazing – nothing but lava rocks as far as the eye can see. Our vehicle started acting up – the light came on for “check exhaust”. The book said to take it in for service asap. We were very worried but drove on to the Blue Lagoon. (Heck we were in the middle of nowhere.) I called Avis, and the representative told me to check the oil and water. If they are fine, then it is probably just the light malfunctioning. That didn’t give us much comfort. Yes, the oil and water were fine.

We did our thing at the Blue Lagoon. What a great place. The water was an unusual powdery blue color with steam rising off it. It was set in black lava rock and wasn’t too crowded. We paid our entrance fee (1400 + 300 ISK for a towel). We got our locker keys and went to the changing room. You have to shower before going in. We Americans are all shy and shower with our bathing suits on. The other women parade around naked. I was expecting the Blue Lagoon to smell sulfury, but it didn’t – thank goodness. The water was a really comfortable temperature, so we all hopped in. I had read there was a gross sludge in the bottom of the pool, but it was nice. On the far side, we found some gross sludgy stuff. When you scooped it up, it had hair and stuff in it – ewwwwh! We didn’t stay in that area long. Darlene got a massage. They actually give it to you in the water. Afterwards, Darlene said it wasn’t much of a massage – they just rubbed the silica mud on her. We all gave ourselves silica masks. It made your skin feel really soft. We stayed at the Blue Lagoon for nearly 2½ hours. Great place. I got out and tried to wash the crap out of my hair. Gross – it still feels disgusting. I tried not to get my hair wet, but there was a cool waterfall I had to go under. All that silica gets stuck in your hair. I dumped tons of conditioner on my hair and tried to get a comb through.

We had planned to go to Grindavik for dinner, but it was already 9:00, so we came back to Reykjavik. I drove, and the car seemed to do okay, but the idiot light is still on. We ate at Pasta Basta, and I had a meaty spaghetti Bolognese.

Nina, Renee and I dashed down to the waterfront because the sky was an incredible pink color. We had to take an evening picture of the sculpture in the harbor. Gorgeous. Stopped at the 11/11 store and picked up breakfast goodies. We’re out the door at 8:00 tomorrow!

Friday; July 15, 2005 Vacation – Day 17 Reykjavik – Dog Sledding Day

We got up early as planned and tried to get on the road at 8:00, but it was more like 8:30. Hey, better than usual. We ran into Arni on our way out, and I confirmed the route we were planning to take to Jaki. He agreed we should take the ring road and go through the tunnel, travel to Borganes and then head to Husafell. He was very concerned since we still don’t have a very good map. (Okay, it’s a piece of crap.) Arni is great – at least someone will notice if we go missing! On the way out of town we stopped at a gas station, but they were out of maps. Bummer! We braved our way sans decent map. Yippee! The “check exhaust” light is gone.

It was a pretty drive. Unfortunately it was gray and rainy out. Can’t be perfect every day…

The tunnel was really cool. It shaved an hour off our drive and cost 1,000 ISK each way. The tunnel went through the mountain and maybe even under the ocean? It went deep down and was long.

We got to the Borganes area and headed to Husafell. Darn! We got stuck on a bunch of gravel roads. One section was under construction with the trucks shifting rocks around. I was cussing up a storm – it was scary to drive on. I thought we might scrape the gas tank and muffler off as we bottomed out going through it. Yeah – the gravel roads got less bumpy, and we could see the glacier off in the distance.

We turned off on 550 in search of Jaki, but we never even saw a sign for the town. We continued on and finally saw a sign for dog sledding. Yippee! We made it to the Langjökull glacier – the 2nd largest ice cap in Iceland. We turned off and found the meeting site – a couple of old buildings. It was 11:00 a.m., and we were an hour early. Cool. It was rainy and very windy up here on the glacier. We went inside the building to get warm and stay dry. James from England greeted us, and we sat around snacking and chatting. He is supposed to work here until September. They may have to shut down in August if the glacier continues melting too fast. He gets 3 days off every two weeks and has to hitchhike to and from Reykjavik to enjoy it. He hasn’t been working here very long. The dogs respond to commands in Danish, so James has to fake like he’s speaking Danish to them. Funny.

We paid our entrance fee (7200 ISK or $111). We waited for other sledders to arrive. They have 3 sledges and 29 dogs. There are 9 dogs per sledge (and two in training). We got suited up in giant snowsuits that zip over your clothing. We looked like giant puffy Pillsbury Dough boys. They also provided boots that go over your own shoes as well as gloves. (That way your own gloves won’t smell like dog.)

Yeah! Blue sky started peaking out, and the rain stopped. What a difference an hour can make! The other sledders arrived around 12:30, and we got loaded into a giant truck. It was open aired and had benches on the back. We cruised to the top of the glacier. They have had to move the dog sledding site several times as the glacier melts.

We got off the truck and were directed to our sledge and met our guide, Christian from Denmark. He was great and really informative. The dogs were so big and muscular. Their faces had kind of squinty eyes and were very friendly. Most of the dogs were blonde colored.

The sledge holds four people, so Nina and Renee got on and got situated. I plopped down on the sledge between Renee’s legs, and the dogs started to take off. Oops! Christian yelled at them and got them to stop. Darlene got on gently and Christian put on his skiis. Then we took off. Slowly at first. He held onto a rope attached to the sledge and would call out commands in Danish to the dogs. Christian tossed another rope under the front of the sledge to act as a break when we were going too fast. Rasta was the lead dog and would glance back for reassurance from Christian to make sure he was doing okay. One of his ears was scarred – probably from a little altercation with his buddies.

It was fun riding. I held onto Nina’s boot to stay on and tried to take action photos. Fabulous! After 25 minutes we stopped at the turnaround point and got off and spent 15 minutes taking photos and petting the dogs. They just love attention. They would roll over and want you to scratch and try to give you kisses. So sweet. We had one girl dog (Franka) in our group, and the rest are males. This keeps the boys in line – all are trying to impress her. The dogs kind of talk to each other as they are running – nip and bark to make each other run properly. Christian shared all sorts of info on the dogs and their personalities.

On the way back Christian took an action photo of us – riding on the sledge. One of the dogs was named Rudolph. He had a reddish nose and was cross-eyed, but so cute. The really dark Greenlandic dog looked kind of scary, but he was a sweetie. Simpson ran next to Franka and was very protective. Christian said the dogs crave being pet; he can’t pet them too much or they won’t respect him. When the dogs get too old to run, they sometimes are used for breeding. Otherwise they have to get put down, because they don’t adjust well as house pets. They work best at -20oC. The hot weather isn’t good for them – they get too tired. Poor babies. We finished up our ride and came back on the big red truck – with great views of the glacier and the valley.

We changed out of our gear and got back on the road. We headed back the way we came. We stopped at a view spot where we had seen a bus on the way in (about 6 km past Husafell). I’m so glad we did! Here were two amazing waterfalls – Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Hraunfossar were kind of gentle cascades that flow through a long lava rock ledge and empty into the river. It was so picturesque, and the water a great blue-ish color. We were surrounded by massive lave fields. Barnafoss were a little further upstream and also gorgeous. We walked around the area and went over the footbridge. Great!

We continued on the journey at 5:30 p.m. Hey, we haven’t had lunch yet! We hogged down some snacks and made our way to Borgarnes to have dinner. We went to the Filipino restaurant – Matstofan – and enjoyed hearty portions. I had a fried rice dish that was pretty good. We made it back to Reykjavik at 9:00, and there were a ton of young people (18-20 years old) camped out on our sidewalk. It turns out that the Harry Potter book goes on sale tonight at midnight, and they all can’t wait to get their copy. Many of them are dressed rather odd. Guess they are getting in the spirit of Harry Potter.

We had a message from Steve Leong from our cruise checking if we wanted to go out for drinks tonight. We walked down to his B&B, the Ugly Duckling, and left a note for him in the bar to meet us. We’re hoping to go to the ice bar. That’ll be fun.

— later —

Steve called us and came to our place at 11:20 p.m. We all sat around and talked until 1:00 a.m. He is a wealth of knowledge on all things GAP. He got pretty friendly with Bruce Poontip (the owner) on our Antarctica trip and was pumping the rest of the employees for info. Our expedition leader, Kim, had made three previous attempts to get into Scoresbysund with no luck. Yeah we made it! I hope they were able to get there with the next cruise so the dogs could go home to Ittoqqortoormiit. Steve says it looks like GAP may be buying another expedition ship to do voyages in the Pacific. That’ll be interesting to see what progresses. Brad (of Brad and Margaret) did a renovation on GAP’s offices in Toronto. They’ve already outgrown the space in just one year. Good for them.

We headed off for the Ice Bar at 1:00 a.m. The streets were alive with people everywhere – going to the bars and partying on the streets. Lots of glass was broken on our street. The Ice Bar is in a neat yellow building. Unfortunately, it was closed, and we couldn’t see what the hours are. Oh well…I had planned to bail on the group and go back to our apartment after our Ice Bar expedition, but now we had to find a new bar. Steve had a list of possibilities. I tried to get out of going by saying it was too smoky, but they decided to go to the Sircus bar with an outdoor patio. We waited and waited on line and it was sprinkling outside. The bar was really rock-n-roll noisy with 20-somethings trying to get in and lots of smoke. I made my excuses and left them on their own. I’m a party pooper. Got to bed at 2:00 a.m.

Saturday; July 16, 2005 Vacation – Day 18 On the runway – Reykjavik

It’s over. We’re getting ready to fly home. Darlene and I didn’t manage to get an upgrade this time, but I’m in a pretty good row with plenty of leg room.

The girls got back from bar hopping around 4:30 a.m. I didn’t hear a thing. They had some tales of weird music being played and everyone “gettin’ down” to Dolly Parton in “9 to 5”. They had a good time.

We got our things packed up and cleaned up the apartment. We had a ton of garbage to dispose of. The day was the greyest and rainiest so far. Had my toast for breakfast and tried some skyr. Three bites – didn’t do it for me. It kind of left a chalky after taste. Of course I don’t eat yogurt, so that may be the problem.

We can’t fit all of us and our luggage in the rental car, so Renee called to get a reservation on the FlyBus to the airport. They told her she should have had our hotel fax a reservation last night. She pleaded, and they complied saying they would pick her up at Room With a View at 12:30. Cool. I can’t believe how much luggage she brought – two large rolling duffels, a large rolling backpack with another backpack inside, and a waist camera bag.

We went and settled our bill with Arni. Ouch. My share was $378 for the 5 nights. This was such a great place to stay. I loved our apartment. The balcony was fabulous, especially on those few sunny mornings and evening sunsets. The windows are thick and block out all that annoying noise from the street. The living room was large with a very comfortable leather couch and chair and dining room area. The furniture looks like it came from Scandinavian Designs or Ikea. Renee called the kitchen home and used the counter as her “nightstand”. Arni didn’t think the apartment was big enough for us, but it felt palatial after our small cabins on the Explorer.

Arni said we could leave the luggage in the room until noon, but we decided to put it all in the car so we wouldn’t have to rush back. The luggage all fit great, but there wasn’t any room for a driver or passengers.

We headed back to the Ice Bar. It has to be open for lunch. Nope. They now have a sign outside that says they are open for a fish buffet at 6:00 p.m. What a waste of a great place to try out. They supposedly have a bar consisting of ice. You drink out of ice glasses and they provide parkas for the deep freeze. It would have been cool. Oh well…next time.

We waited with Renee for the FlyBus. They never showed up. Nina went upstairs and asked Arni to call them. They lost the reservation. Boneheads. Arni offered to take Renee in his car to the bus station. What a great guy! Thank goodness for Arni.

Steve came walking up the street, so we all went for lunch at Sandholt (our favorite bakery). I had a ham and cheese croissant, chocolate cake, and coke light. (I ordered a diet coke. They said they didn’t have diet coke, but had coke light.) Steve told us that GAP partners with the TV show Survivor. We were supposed to have some “Survivors” on our Antarctica trip, but it was at the same time as the “All Stars” edition of the show so they couldn’t go. There also were supposed to be some members on this trip. Bummer – that would have been cool!

We had to feed the meter again all morning and got out of there around 1:45 p.m. We stopped and filled up at the gas station and made it to the airport in Keflavik to drop off the rental car. We had to drag our suitcases through the parking lot to the terminal – not too far – through the rain. I sent Nina and Darlene on line for check-in while I turned in the keys at the Avis counter. I asked for a receipt and discovered they overcharged me 8441 ISK for an extra day. I protested saying the rental was prepaid for 5 days. He disagreed, but called down to the Reykjavik office and then apologized for the mistake. He isn’t able to credit my account today, but their accounting department will take care of it. (I got his name and number just in case.)

Got checked in and didn’t get an upgrade this time. Bummer. The Digeplayer has the same 8 movies, so I’ll save myself $15. I have gassed up my iPod, so I’m all set.

All in all the trip was fantastic. Our time in Iceland was great. There is so much natural beauty, and much of it is so unusual. I’d love to come back again (when the dollar is strong – ha ha). The waterfalls, lava fields, mountains, fjords, horses, geysers – all incredible. Dog sledding was such a treat. We saved $600 by driving ourselves there. A rental car is the way to go when visiting Iceland. I would hate to be at the mercy of a bus schedule/tour group. When you see something interesting – you stop – and stay as long as you want.

It was so weird having light basically 24 hours a day. It got a bit darker in Iceland than it did on the ship. Fortunately on the ship our porthole was closed 9 of the 11 nights so sleeping was not a problem.

Our Arctic cruise was wonderful. I would recommend it to all. We didn’t see the wildlife like we did in Antarctica (and according to Steve’s GAP friends, we only saw about 15% of the penguins we would have seen if we traveled in February instead of March). Greenland was great. It was so nice to be able to walk on it, view the wildflowers and the amazing surroundings. Being trapped in sea ice was an experience. We wondered if we’d EVER make it out of there. How amazing to look off in the distance and see nothing but ice EVERYWHERE. How the heck will we get out of here?!

The expedition staff made the trip. The waiters and other staff on the ship were so helpful. The Explorer was a great ship – better than the Orlova in most ways. The lounge, lecture hall and dining area were better. However, our triple room was much smaller (but yeah – only two of us in it). The Orlova had a nice large back deck that was perfect for a bbq. We couldn’t have done that on the Explorer. Having Frank (from The Time Photography) on the ship was a big plus. Having a professional photographer capture your vacation is the way to go. I’m not sure that anyone at home would be willing to sit through our 45 minute slideshow, but we all loved it.

Here are just a few memorable moments of the vacation:

Making it to Scoresbysund and sharing the trip with 3 Inuits and their 2 Greenlandic dogs

Amazing sunset in Greenland

Polar bear swimming

3 polar bears on the ice – eating their kill

Being assaulted by an iceberg

Unbelievable miniscule wildflowers on Greenland and the thick cushy carpet of undergrowth/mosses as you walked

Being trapped in sea ice

The “hidden” waterfall near Seljalandfoss

Dog sledding on Langjökull

Other worldly lava landscape

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

Categories
Solo Travel

Sailing to Hawaii

Author: travelmel
Date of Trip: October 2006

It didn’t really hit me that I was going to Hawaii until my second flight of the day — after the haul from Newark to Salt Lake City and boarding my even longer connection to Honolulu. On this leg, flight attendants wore aprons in bright floral patterns, and all announcements began with “aloha.” The scenery probably improved, too, but seeing as I was smack in the center of the plane in the very last row with no window, we could have been over Germany and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I was here to spend a few days on Oahu and then a week cruising the other islands on NCL’s Pride of Hawaii. I planned to get a rental car for my two days on Oahu from Hertz’ new “Fun Collection,” because when else would I drive a convertible sports car? I also set out looking for adventure, including my very first surfing lesson (because, hey, when in Hawaii…).

Driving in Paradise

Hawaii is a dream to explore via rental car. The islands are beautiful and easy to navigate, and since you are in the U.S., there’s no need to worry about quickly memorizing new traffic laws or driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

I reserved a car from Hertz’ new Fun Collection ahead of time via their Web site, and after picking up my baggage at the carousel, a shuttle van took me right to the check-in counter, where I was given the keys to a white Mazda Miata.

Tip: Unless you are traveling alone with one small bag, do yourself a favor and ask for something with more trunk space (like the Ford Mustang or Toyota Solara), or arrange to pick up your speedy, sexy car after dropping your stuff off at your hotel. Try as I might I could not fit my standard rolling suitcase in the anorexic backend of the Miata, so it sat shotgun (wearing a seatbelt, of course)!

Top down and radio tuned to a station playing Hawaiian melodies, my boxy traveling companion and I set off from Honolulu toward the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. Instead of taking the freeway through the center of the island, as the GPS on my cell phone suggested, I consulted the map I’d grabbed at the Hertz counter to find a more scenic route from the Waikiki Beach area to the North Shore.

All along this route are scenic lookouts and beaches where you simply pull over, park your vehicle next to other rented Jeeps and sports cars, and take pictures or simply sit and enjoy the scenery. The most memorable part of the drive, which took me several hours, was stopping just before sunset at a quiet, deserted stretch of beach. As the sun dipped behind the palm trees and below the water, the entire sky turned pink and then purple — as if just for me. Snapshots didn’t do it justice, and I wish I’d viewed my first Hawaiian sunset through my own eyes, and not a viewfinder.

The Turtle Bay Resort is one of very few places to stay outside of Waikiki Beach, and is a full-service resort featuring pools, golfing and water sports. It was an easy choice; though hotels are notoriously pricey in Hawaii, Turtle Bay was running a special rate of $199 throughout the month of October. That rate and a surprise upgrade got me a comfortable room with a balcony. Cool tidbit: The property is designed in such a way that every single room has an ocean view.

After my long journey and road trip, I was interested in simply getting settled in and then heading downstairs to 21 Degrees North, a contemporary restaurant with Hawaiian fare fused with international flavors, for a relaxing dinner. I asked to be seated outside on a patio lit with tiki torches and washed with island breeze. I started my meal with a salad of local organic greens with pineapple balsamic dressing, Maui onions, Hawaii-grown tomatoes and goat cheese crusted with macadamia nuts. Dinner was a delicious Moi filet — a meaty fish that is native to Hawaii, resembling salmon in texture but a white fish in taste — wrapped in nori, served with jasmine rice, bok choy and a yellow coconut curry cream.

I passed on dessert, unusual for me, but my waiter made sure to slip me some chocolate truffles with my bill to take back to my room as a nightcap….

A View to Die for (Almost Literally)

After checking out of Turtle Bay in the morning, I drove back to Waikiki where I’d be spending my last night before boarding Pride of Hawaii — this time via the freeway, past the Dole pineapple plantation (which I regret not stopping at). I dropped off my bag at the Marriott and set out for the day’s adventure — climbing Diamond Head.

The mountainous Diamond Head crater, flanking Oahu’s southeast coast, is one of the island most famous landmarks, the byproduct of a volcanic explosion that occurred some 500,000 years ago. Ancient Hawaiians called it Laeahi, which translates to “brow of the tuna”; early British sailors mistook the glistening calcite crystals embedded in the lava rock for diamonds, and gave Diamond Head its incorrect name in the 1800’s.

The cost to park and climb the 540 ft. is $5, and after locking up the Miata I set off toward the initial trail. The Diamond Head State Monument opens at 6 a.m., and that’s a cooler, less crowded time to climb. When I arrived at 10 a.m., the sun was not exactly blazing — but it was the start of a hot day and I could already feel beads of sweat moistening my forehead. The .7-mile hike begins with a paved trail that leads to a series of relatively steep and often uneven and rocky switchbacks (there are railings to hold on to) up the side of the mountain. Though there are a few lookout/rest points, there’s not much to the trail itself.

Two steep staircases are about two-thirds of the way to the top — and this is about where I thought I was going to die or at least get violently ill. It wasn’t a fear of heights or even sensitivity to the heat, but sheer exhaustion. Okay, so maybe it was the heat, too. After the second, narrow flight there’s a small dimly lit tunnel (a former World War II bunker) in which I literally sat on the ground panting. I knew I was close to the top, because people that passed my makeshift seat shortly came back in the other direction, sweating bullets, all promising the same thing: “It’s worth it!”

Eventually I made it to the top (a few staircases later) and it was worth it — only four or so people can be on the actual summit at a time, and there is absolutely nothing blocking your panoramic view of the vast blue Pacific Ocean, glittering Honolulu skyline and sandy shores of Waikiki Beach. It almost felt unrealistic, as if I had stepped into an aerial view postcard or 360-degree video clip taken by helicopter. (That might have been the heat getting to me.)

Travelers of all ages and ranges of physical fitness can and do make the climb — young and old, scrawny and plump. The key is being able to pace yourself. Avoid the mid-day period when temperatures, and crowds, soar. There’s little shade, so wear a hat and sunscreen, and take a bottle of water (mine was warm as soup by the time I made it to the top, but I was still grateful to have it).

What goes up must come down, and that trip was easier, naturally (about 20 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half). Halfway down I spotted the Miata in the parking lot, which looked like a one of those miniature toy cars, and I felt really proud for having tackled this tourist favorite. And really thankful for the air conditioning I was about to crank up.

Lunch that day was well earned. I had spied a handful of packed shrimp stands the day before on my drive along the coast, and long lines are always good signs in my book — so I set out in the same direction for roadside eats. The bright red shack at Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp, Inc. caught my eye. The menu is simple: Each platter comes with rice and your choice of prawns or shrimp — all caught fresh daily, right on site — cooked in your choice of a variety of sauces like garlic and sweet and spicy. I brought my buttery garlic shrimp over to one of the picnic benches and dug in; it isn’t a very neat meal (the saucy shrimp are cooked shell-on), but delicious, and an outdoor sink with soap is set up for washing your hands afterward.

After a final zip south along the coast with the Hawaiian breeze whipping through my hair, and a spin through the palm-tree-lined streets of Waikiki, it was time to say aloha to the Miata. Then I boarded Pride of Hawaii to start the cruise portion of my trip.

Hot Times in Hilo

When faced with a volcano, the instinctual response should be “run for your life,” right? Well, not on this trip….

Kilauea, on the “windward” or eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island, has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983. (Science aside, many Hawaiians believe Kilauea to be home to Pele, the violently tempered goddess of fire.) In 1990, from April through December, lava from Kilauea — in Hawaiian, “spewing” or “much spreading” — buried the town of Kalapana, a former fishing village; the red-hot lava cooled into black rock, which marks what’s now mostly a ghost town.

From Pride of Hawaii’s shore excursions roster for Hilo, the first port of my cruise, I chose Kilauea Two Ways: a visit to Kalapana followed by exploration of the Kazumura Cave system — the longest cave in the world — underneath the volcano.

My tour group of 10 was driven by van to Kalapana, a subdivision with no water or power. The town’s name has even been removed from road signs. The few remaining families that had beachfront homes now have lava-front homes — but they are lucky to have homes at all. This lava is interesting business; in this town that was all but destroyed, there are a handful of buildings that were spared when the lava flow diverted or split in such a way that they did not catch fire. According to Tammy, our guide, diehard residents still live in these houses (one is even a bed and breakfast), even though they are surrounded by desolate, blackened ground, and drive all-terrain vehicles over the lava rock to get to and from the market, etc.

We walked over the lava rock to the edge of the water, a trek that took about 15 minutes. The beach that exists now is made up entirely of black sand, formed by ash. Tammy told us that an elderly woman (who’s since passed on) would walk over the lava rock toward the beach every day and plant coconut trees in the ashy black sand in an effort to add color to the area. She wanted to see her town move on — and now there is much life sprouting above the destruction, which I found both eerie and comforting.

For the second part of the excursion, we drove to another area of the island where Phil, a bearded eco-guide who looked more like a rock star than a spelunker, took us down into a damp, dark cave system that is actually a series of lava tubes inside Kilauea. Yes, we were in a cave beneath one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, equipped only with hardhats and flashlights. “If it starts getting warm in here,” he joked, “just let me know!”

Luckily, the chill lingered. We wore gloves and were not allowed to touch but could view the different stalactites and stalagmites formed by old lava flow, as well as swirling whirlpools frozen in time — once lava cools it stops in its tracks so that you actually see ripples and, in some places, the path it was taking before it hardened. Up on land, in fact, there are spots in the lava rock where pineapples had gotten stuck as the flow went from scorching to solid, leaving permanent indentations.

My day of volcanic activity, so to speak, was capped off back onboard Pride of Hawaii with the evening sail by Kilauea, a staple of Hawaiian cruise itineraries — akin to glacier viewing on Alaskan or South American voyages. At approximately 9:45 p.m., we approached the volcano on the starboard side. In the pitch black of night, you could see the glowing lava exploding as it hit the ocean, and off to the right of the cone, what I thought were houses lit up in the hillside were actually pockets of lava peeking through crevices in the gigantic mass of rock that makes up the volcano. The ship then spun around for portside viewing.

The Big Island, already the largest Hawaiian island (twice the combined size of the others in the chain), is still growing because of the lava that continues to pour out of Kilauea. In fact, over the last decade Kilauea has formed over 500 new acres. It is one of the few places on earth where landmass is being created — and I got to watch it happen with my own eyes.

According to volcanologists, Kilauea’s flow currently shows no signs of stopping.

Snorkeling on Maui

For our stop in Maui, I booked NCL’s Molokini Crater Snorkel excursion, which is a marine preserve and one of the top dive and snorkel sites in the world — Molokini is actually an extinct volcano. Its crescent shape provides protection from waves and powerful currents, and the back wall drops up to 300 ft., offering clear, spectacular views.

I have to say, though, that even though the famed Molokini Crater is the most popular snorkel spot on Maui, I had a better run at Turtle Arches, the second snorkeling stop on my excursion. I spotted two huge Hawaiian green sea turtles, and went on an informal “tour” with one of our boat guides who was happy to point out species of fish indigenous to Hawaii — including ones that change sex, ones that change color and an obsessive compulsive cleaner that acts as a “car wash” to other fish who literally line up to have slime sucked off their bodies.

Caffeinated on Kona

When we docked in Kona, I was struck immediately by how different it was from Hilo — even though it is on the very same island. Hilo felt industrial at the pier, and arid and almost desert-like outside the city; Kona on the other hand is lush, damp and green (and one of the few ports we pulled into where there wasn’t a Wal-Mart sign gleaming on the horizon). The rainforest environment, in fact, supports the region’s booming coffee business.

Finding a good cup of coffee was my business for the day. Kona coffee is one of the best known varietals of coffee in the world, and is hitting the mainstream market as a major trend with convenience stores like Wawa, Quick Chek and 7-Eleven offering 100 percent Kona java or at least blends (though those generally contain only 10 percent Kona coffee). Hawaii is the only U.S. state growing coffee, and the plant isn’t native but was brought there from Brazilian cuttings in the 19th century by an American missionary.

Kona Coffee Then & Now is a standard bus tour, and the shore excursions desk actually called to make sure that I really did intend to book that particular one; it did, I must admit, stick out like a sore thumb amid the hiking, surfing and other assorted adventures I’d booked. But a day of good old fashioned sightseeing was in order — and I was eager to learn more about one of my favorite beverages.

The “then” portion of the excursion found us at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. The seven-acre working coffee farm still operates as it did in the early 1900’s by first generation Japanese immigrants; artifacts on the property ranged from a traditional Japanese bathhouse to the dinged tin cans children wore around their necks as they set about harvesting coffee beans. I know I learned something new: Coffee beans are grown inside of a small red fruit that’s called a cherry; we were encouraged to pick cherries up off the ground or off trees, and squeeze the white beans out of the sticky pulp (the beans do not turn the signature coffee brown color until they are roasted).

The “now” was a visit to the Bay View Farm, which uses a modern mill to sort its beans and produce its coffee. Our driver recommended we wait until this last stop to by coffee to take home, and I was grateful to him for the tip. There were several varieties and flavors to taste and purchase, and the shopkeepers were happy to grind beans for you on the spot. I fell in love with dark chocolate covered peaberries, rare whole beans that are less bitter than the standard split seed from coffee cherries. Since I’ve been home, I’ve already ordered two more bags of chocolatey peaberries via their Web site!

Unlike many of the other ports on this itinerary, which are simply starting points for adventures further inland or along the coast, Kona boasts a very walkable pier-side village with stores and restaurants for those of us who like to shop and eat in town. Even though it had started raining, I spent the window between the end of my excursion and “all aboard” exploring. If I had more time, I would have toured the nearby Kona Brewing Company — but instead settled for a bottle of their crisp Fire Rock Pale Ale and a burger at Lulu’s, an eclectic second-floor open-air eatery facing the beach.

Mud Madness

The Mudbug & Waterfall Safari wasn’t my first choice for day one in Kauai. In fact, I’d booked a beginner’s scuba lesson … but it was canceled due to lack of participation (i.e. I was the only person who’d signed up). The whole point of the Mudbugs, which was the must-do recommendation I got when I polled the shore excursions staff, is to drive an all-terrain vehicle through puddles of muck and get really filthy. I wasn’t digging it. Plus, the tour has to be booked by two passengers — one driver, one passenger.

Well, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got teamed up with — get this — the shore excursions manager. Apparently, he’d never done Mudbugs, but all of his (mostly male) colleagues thought driving an ATV to get doused from head to toe in mud was a barrel of fun, and here was a passenger traveling alone who needed a Mudbug buddy. “You have to do it!” they peer-pressured me. The clincher? “You’d pay just as much to get covered with mud at the spa.” I couldn’t argue with that logic.

So there I was in my newly purchased Crocs water shoes, an oversized T-shirt and camouflage pants supplied by the tour operator, goggles, and a helmet — harnessed into a completely open ATV with the shore excursions manager at the wheel. He gave me a wicked grin. “This is going to be fun!”

Well guess what? It was fun! A caravan of 10 Mudbugs set off for the 11-mile ride through thick vegetation (this part of Kauai was the backdrop for parts of the original “Jurassic Park”) toward a Maui waterfall. I saw the first mud puddle up ahead and as we sped toward it I forget I had goggles on and instinctively closed my eyes … but not my mouth. So not only did I not see anything but I also ate dirt. Ugh.

For the next, much larger puddle, I remembered to hold my lips together and my eyelids open with imaginary Krazy Glue. The mud literally enrobed the vehicle in a big brown shockwave and suddenly I was completely drenched — hair, skin and my very fashionable ensemble. I was warned that would be the case, but I didn’t expect to be laughing and whooping it up. Once I was dirty, it didn’t matter how big the puddles were or how fast we hit them; in fact, the bigger and the faster, the better! At the waterfall, we were able to rinse off in a beautiful but cold pool … and then drove back the same we came, getting gross once again (the driving downpour that had begun made even bigger, muddier puddles).

Even though we rinsed off in our bathing suits under outdoor shower heads, I had to wash my bathing suit and my hair three times back onboard before the water stopped running a dingy rust color.

Guess playing in the dirt is not just for kids anymore.

Surf’s Up

Surfing was hard. Really, really, really hard. I wasn’t very good at it, and throughout the day I kept saying to myself, self, what were you thinking?

The excursion, Poipu Beach Surfing Lesson, was the last of my trip. An instructor from the Aloha Surf Shop met me and three shipmates as we exited our tour van, and led us to a spot on the beach where boards were set up for the on-land part of the lesson. He assured us that even at the furthest point we’d be going that day, we could stand up and our heads would be above water. The first step would be to lie flat on our stomachs on our boards and paddle out. Once we got to where he wanted us to be, he would physically turn our boards around for us, lead us into a good wave and yell “stand up!” when it was time to, well, stand up. At that point, in two swift motions (any more, and you’ll surely lose balance), you were to push yourself up on your hands and feet as if doing a push-up — and then hop up, arms stretched out, in the center of the board. The secret to stability, we find out, is keeping your gaze on a fixed point on the beach. We practiced a couple of dozen times in the sand, which seemed easy enough, and then carried our boards down to the beach for the real deal.

I have to admit I was not having any fun in the beginning. Even though I grew up in New Jersey and spent summers at the beach with my parents, I’m not an ocean lover. I’m a city slicker. But I gathered up all my courage, and my board, and went racing into the icy cold Pacific Ocean like some deranged Gidget wannabe … and got knocked over by the first big wave, swallowed what seemed like a gallon of salt water, and felt miserable. I couldn’t heave my ample bottom up onto the board to paddle out, and felt miserable. I drifted down toward the nearby Marriott by the current, and felt miserable. How was I ever going to get to the “two swift motions” if I couldn’t even paddle out toward the instructor? I retreated to the beach in shame.

The instructor would not let me sit it out (and boy, did I try). He walked out of the water and literally pulled me up off my duff. Now that I am dry and safe, I am grateful to him for pushing me to get back out there, even though I wanted to die of embarrassment at the time. He was incredibly patient with me and promised (or at least convinced) me that it was hard even for buff him to swim out that day because the current was unusually strong. He grabbed hold of my board, swam me out and got me positioned in such a way that I actually did get picked up by the oncoming waves — and was suddenly zipping along at breakneck speed! With the roar of the waves I could barely hear him screaming “stand up!” behind me, and when I tried I of course plunged directly into the water. Proceeded with a second assisted swim-out. Teetered off again.

I wiped out again and again, but each time it was less frightening — I actually started to laugh and hurry back out rather than gasp and recoil in terror. Just before it was almost time to call it a day, I finally rode a wave to the beach on my knees. I knew if I tried to get up on my feet again I’d wipe out, so I didn’t — I so badly wanted to experience the rush of making it all the way back to the beach (and it was awesome!). Before you can really grasp the fact that you’re actually “surfing,” it’s over. It’s really hard to put it into words. All I can remember thinking as I literally flew toward the shoreline was “all that is between me and billions of gallons of rushing water is a long skinny piece of foam.” Crazy.

How did my shipmates do? We all enjoyed our fair share of wipeouts, but it must be said they did a much better job than I with what should have been basic — paddling against the current for example. They also were able to stand on their boards, and make it back to the beach upright! I probably won’t go surfing again unless I lose a few pounds (my upper body ached for two days from paddling and carrying the board down to the shoreline) … but I think everyone who can swim and is relatively physically fit has to give it a go. Oh, and bring $10 for the photo — even if you look ridiculous (as I did) you’ll want to buy it.

Note: Only four people signed up for this tour on my sailing, and because the current was so strong, that worked out to our favor — the instructor was able to give each of us (especially me) personalized attention. The maximum amount of people taken for each session is 12, and he admitted that with the unusual water conditions, that might have been too many. Participants must be at least 8 years old and able to swim.

Going Home

After spending my last day in Honolulu paying my respects at Pearl Harbor, I boarded my flight home with a big box of pineapples and a camera bag full of high-resolution memories. I would sail this ship and trip again in a heartbeat. I just wish the flight wasn’t so long….

Categories
Group Travel

Cruising? Shore excursions or do it yourself

Author: Barry S
Date of Trip: June 2009

It amazes me how people love to experience different cultures yet herd together when they arrive in another country.

There are advantages in travelling in a group and having an expert guide escort you through churches, ruins, and other places of interest.

Yet surely you can do this on your own with someone who knows the area you are visiting?

What beats me are the numbers of people who take the organized shore excursions on European cruises. I can appreciate that you would want to be escorted in your own language in a totally strange environment, but to do so in a civilized country where people speak English has always baffled me.

Recently we took a Holland America cruise on board the Oosterdam which included a number of Greek ports.

We docked in Piraeus which is simply the gateway to Athens. The ship’s itinerary boasted ‘Transfer to Athens. From the ship to the Plaka for six and a half hours of free time on your own’. They were charging $79 per person for this Athens shuttle.

We walked from the port to the Piraeus train station with a few other passengers and took the excellent local train into the heart of Athens. We alighted at the station by the Parliament building. From there we walked to see the Changing of the Guard at the Presidents Palace. This is only three hundred meters from the 1896 Olympic Stadium.

I had already visited Athens and the Acropolis so we took a cab to the Temple of Zeus and, from there, to the Plaka where I humored my wife with a couple of hours of shopping before catching the train back to the ship. Our return train journey cost us both 20 Euros.

If it wasn’t for ancient Olympia nobody would get off the boat to visit Katakolon. It’s a small, one street, hick town that fails to cater to cruise passengers’ needs, except for a couple of car hire firms.

The advertised shore excursion on Oosterdam for Olympia was $68 per person. We hired a car with another couple for 40 Euro which equates to $56. That worked out $14 each as opposed to $68. We saw everything there was to see at Olympia and strolled through the local town. To be fair, I should add the 8 Euro for gas. Still a huge saving than taking the organized bus.

Finally for this cruise was the shore excursion that lots of people took from SANTORINI to OIA. I don’t know if you have been there. It is really beautiful and is a must to visit. The cruise line bused passengers between these two small towns at a cost of $74 a person.

We walked to the local bus station. The return bus ride was five Euro a person. That’s $7 against $74!

The ride is a pleasant twenty minutes but the cruise price was a rip off.

It amazes me that so many intelligent people seem unable to use initiative when travelling abroad. I don’t know if it is a sense of insecurity, or if they leave their brain at home.

It is possible to get off cruise ships, as we have done in Naples, Lisbon, the Caribbean, and other destinations, find a local English speaking cab driver, tested him on his local knowledge, negotiated his time, and had wonderful experiences.

It’s not that I save money on these cruise vacations. My wife gets it in the end and blows it away in the stores and shops…

Categories
Group Travel

NCL Jewel – Cruising the Mediterranean

Author: M.Cruiser
Date of Trip: August 2005

We were lucky enough to be on the 13 night inaugural voyage of the Norwegian Jewel around the Mediterranean. An easy, swift and orderly embarkation procedure at Dover was soon to be followed by the materialisation of the colourful ribbons and jewels that adorned the Norwegian Jewel herself.

On first inspections we were amazed by the vivid and modern interior throughout the ship that was highlighted with contemporary armchairs in many of the bars and restaurants. On closer scrutiny we started to notice however subtle accents of 50’s and 60’s in some of the furniture choices in the bars. Outside there was an energetic feel around the pool area incorporating the theme of the circus that appealed to the child within. There were also many large colourful palm trees that bejewelled the jewel at night.

The interior theme throughout the stateroom decks incorporated mahogany wood and turquoise that flowed effortlessly into the staterooms. We resided in a category JJ inside stateroom which was designed with storage as top priority. There were seven ample storage shelves, and a roomy wardrobe. Of course other features were a separate dressing table with hairdryer, safe, fridge, a well laid out bathroom and TV (although not flat screen as in the more superior staterooms).

All over the ship there were many strategically placed flat screens displaying information about all of the ten restaurants and their occupancy – rating from busy to full. This proved vital in avoiding the rush at the Garden café (buffet style restaurant) and to generally gauge busy eating times.

As Norwegian Cruise Line prize themselves on their freestyle cruising we attempted to sample some of the ten restaurants – ranging from Cagneys steak house, Mama’s Italian kitchen, Le Bistro French restaurant and the Chin Chin Asian restaurant (including a sushi bar!). The booking of the desired restaurants proved easy at first using the reservation desk at reception, however as word got out amongst fellow guest there were many queues and block booking of meal times over the two weeks. Another point to make here is that many of these speciality restaurants had a cover charge ranging from $10-$15 which would have to be considered with large groups. These cover charges had been reduced by $5 per person from the original printed prices on the menus.

Overall the specialty restaurants provided excellent service, using more experienced and efficient staff. Only on one occasion the booked dining time of 8.00pm was made later due to large numbers and hence we were offered a complimentary bottle of wine which pleased us. The main dining restaurants differed in design from being modern as in the Azura restaurant and grand as in Tsar’s palace. Both were equal in terms of broad taste/themed menus and good service. The chocolate buffet was the best that we have ever experienced on a cruise and we were stunned by the artistry shown in the chocolate “Big Ben clock” and ice sculptures.

The bars and lounges were regularly called upon throughout the two weeks and we were most impressed with the efficient and friendly service throughout. Most drinks were reasonably priced however some of the specialty cocktails and alcoholic smoothies were over $9. “Bar city” on deck 7 compromised of many of the Jewels unique bars – Malting’s beer and whisky bar, Shakers Martini cocktail bar and our favourite -Magnum’s Champagne bar which offered a deluxe range of champagnes to be indulged on formal nights. However the night always ended in the Spinnaker Lounge on deck 13 which had live music and then a DJ.

Overall the entertainment from many of the performers around the bars and lounges was excellent and could not be faulted. The dance company produced two impressive shows with acrobatic expertise. There was a hugely talented comedian on board and some great lectures provided during the day. There were a good range of activities provided during the day and many art auctions to tempt you to part with cash. The assistant cruise director had a jovial personality and created many quiz nights (jeopardy, Mr & Mrs, The weakest link etc.) for guest participation – which were hilarious.

There are very few if any negatives that we can find with the Norwegian Jewel. Given the fact that this was the inaugural voyage and lots of mistakes could happen we and NCL we fortunate. It was clear that there was good management and swift action throughout to prevent any guests from having a good holiday. We would wholeheartedly recommend the Jewel to fellow cruisers and hope you have an enjoyable time as much as we did.

Private shore excursions:

1) Port of Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples

Romeinlimo was terrific! Duman, Carlo and Rino were knowledgeable, courteous and punctual. The fact they also had a great sense of humor made the trip, especially the three stops where we used them, that much more enjoyable and memorable.

2) Monaco, Monte Carlo & Eze

Revelation tours — Highly recommended.

Categories
Island

Great way to sample Hawaii

Author: Tina Brennan
Date of Trip: June 2008

Took my first trip to HAWAII this month and truly saw paradise! Being raised on Miami Beach, I have traveled world-wide, seen many beautiful places- but seeing HAWAII is at the top of my list and worth every penny spent to do so!

I feel I have some great money-saving tips on how to do this economically. I spent 15 days in Hawaii total. We arrived in Honolulu 3 days prior to a cruise we were taking on NCL’s Pride of America and got a great deal on our room at the Ohana East by bidding on a ebay deal. (Approx. $79 total for 5 days and 4 nights) the deal runs through a calif. charity (sideliner’s club) and is completely legit. Corporations donate rooms to be auctioned off for their charity and if you get a good bid- as I did- you can save alot of money.

Honolulu has the most efficient public transportation system I have ever seen and it is punctual. We did get free trolly rides while staying at the Ohana along with some really nice deals with coupons they provided. But for $2 you can ride the bus over the whole island of Oahu and get a transfer back included- if you disembark. I dealt primary with Roberts Hawaii for all tours on all islands, they are much cheaper than booking tours through the ship and the same tour.

I did alot of research prior to the trip and it paid off. My # 1 choice in unusual and fun things to do in Honolulu is the Hawaii Food Tours “Hole in the wall” tour. For less than $100, you will be provided personal door to door transportation and two culinary experts to show you places and foods you could never find on your own- and you get recipes for many of the foods you try! Matthew and Kiera will share their vast knowledge of the island, it’s customs and even give you their home phone number if you need something later… truly treat you like “Ohana”. I found the culture of Hawaii to be warm and friendly. People are truly appreciative of your visit- “aloha spirit” abounds. Another must-see is Pearl Harbor and the Circle Island tour- I booked this through VIP along with airport to hotel and back and hotel to pier transports. VIP is professional and knowledgeable and will be waiting with a sign bearing your name in baggage claim when you arrive. No hunting for the spot after a 16 hour flight to get your ride to a hotel!

Upon returning to Honolulu after our 7 day cruise on the “Pride of America”, we snorkeled a Hanauma Bay and visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. The Luau- although alcohol-free was one of the best I attended. The only draw-back is NO CREDIT or ATM cards are accepted there. I would have spent alot more, if this wasn’t the case. But the day long trip (we had transportation through them to and from ) was well worth a long day. The night show after the luau is one of the best I have ever seen. Honolulu has alot of great free things to do – like movies on the beach, hula demos etc if you check the local activities.But go to the Polynesian Cultural Center for a full overview of the islands and Polynesian culture!

The NCL “Pride of America” cruise was wonderful. I am a culinary teacher and was impressed with the attention to food safety and cleaning. The variety of food was good and I feel well-thought out. I did go to some of the specialty restaurants (cover charges up to $20 PP) but used a buy one/get one coupon which made it $10 each and we had everything from Oysters Rockefeller to Creme Brule at the “Lazy J”.

I booked shore excursions with Roberts of Hawaii for 1/2 the cost of NCL’s tours and was very pleased. We did take a rental car in HILO and the Luau on Kauai through NCL and it was without problems.

Embarking and disembarking was a breeze and I like the “Freestyle” dining with no real requirements except to eat when you like. The ship was clean and our stateroom had plenty of storage and the balcony made it great for watching the NAPALI COAST on kauai. Get a portside room! Breakfast on the aft (back) of the ship every morning was wonderful. Go into the Aloha cafe buffet and simply take your food out & get refills, if needed on the aft.

To get an overview of all the islands, the cruise can’t be beat… we saw it all. I biked down Haleakala on Maui and it was wonderful to watch the sun rise within the clouds-(I used Maui Downhill for biking) we traveled the “Road to HANA”, VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK(AND THE SHIP GIVES YOU THE NIGHT TIME LAVA FLOW INTO THE OCEAN ADVANTAGE by cruising past the flow with the lights out- breath taking! Along with all the other major sites on every island.

On the ship, the entertainment was top-knotch. I especially enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Allen as Elton John and enjoyed his talents in “Pinks champagne Bar” almost every night. Another NOT TO BE MISSED thing to do! The ship’s activities(when I was not touring), were great. Something for everyone, from Hula lessons to lei making. I would have enjoyed some quick cooking lessons and more island decor on the ship- but overall, it was a excellent value and a great time.

The crew were all willing to do whatever it took to make guest happy. While this ship does not have the culinary artistry of many with ice sculptures and the like… it is a great value and very nice! People need to have realistic expectations. You don’t expect prices or quality of Saks while shopping at Walmart and NCL’s market isn’t that of Crystal or other pricer cruiselines.

Where else can you unpack once, have your food, transportation and entertainment for less than $170 per day in Hawaii?

I could do this trip “over and over again” and still be happy in doing so! With the dollar being down, now is the time to visit our state of Hawaii and it’s lovely people and experience true “Aloha Spirit”.

PS: Don’t forget to toss your final lei into the water and make a wish to return! I sure did and I hope it works!