Alaska Cruise Review: Whales, Glaciers & Sled Dogs, Oh My!

Pre-Cruise Hotel: After an uneventful flight from Providence, we were met by “Already There Towncar” and driven to the Hampton Inn & Suites, in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, arriving around 7:00 pm. The lobby was modern and welcoming. Our 2-room suite was roomy and clean, but from the looks of the tired decor, the place could use a face lift, particularly the bathroom with its worn linoleum and dingy paint color. It looks like some remodeling is going on in that area of the property, so maybe they hadn’t gotten to this room yet. On a positive note, the beds were comfortable, breakfast was sufficient, and the easy access to the Space Needle and monorail was convenient. After settling in, we grabbed a couple of delicious pies at the NY style pizza place around the corner.

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Seattle – what a beautiful city! We only had a day, so we scratched a few of the must-sees off the list. We began with the Space Needle, arriving as the doors opened. There was no wait, and we went right up the elevator to the top, before the crowds. Next was the fun little ride on the monorail to Westlake, and from there the walk down the steep hill to Pike Place Market – not an easy undertaking if you have weak knees. I don’t especially enjoy shopping in crowded places, but my husband had only one goal in mind – to see the guys throw the fish. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea, because the place was mobbed with everyone eager for a view. Basically, this popular event consists of 2 guys in a fish market tossing a large, dead fish back and forth. I’m not sure what the fuss was all about, but it was over quick and we went to find a seat and plan our next move – the famous Seattle Wheel – and took a spin around a few times. Because my body clock had not caught up yet, we caught an Uber ride back to the hotel to rest while the girls went to the Aquarium. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes for a catnap, and slept a full four hours. Speaking of Uber, this was our first ride, and the whole experience was far more pleasant than a taxi.

I couldn’t leave Seattle without experiencing the best view in the city, from Kerry Park, and since the rest of the family was tired and I was newly invigorated, I took another Uber ride up to the viewing point. There it was – the iconic view you see in all the Seattle brochures. I watched Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle basking in the setting sun, and the Wheel light up as nighttime set upon it. Because the weather was perfect for walking, I slowly made my way back down some very steep roads in this pleasant neighborhood back to the hotel.

Norwegian Pearl.

IMG_7846Embarkation: This was our first time cruising from Seattle. We arrived at 11:00 am, peak boarding time it appears, and despite some confusion as to where to go for luggage check, security and registration turned out to be an easy, speedy process. Boarding began at noon in an orderly assigned-number process, and we were on board by 12:30.

Stateroom: We had two balcony cabins on Deck 10 with with a connecting door for the daughters. We had a similar cabin on the Gem last summer, and I liked the addition of a small coffee maker, narrow hidden shelves below the TV and USB ports beneath the lamps by the bed. However, I missed the small table near the sofa which was good for holding snacks, drinks and accumulating stuff. Instead, we made use of the very small footrest, which doubled as a table when flipping the top over. Bathroom was exactly as that on the Gem and Dawn, with decent sized shower, tiny toilet stall space and adequate sink and storage area, all divided in three sections. Our stateroom attendant did a good job keeping the room neat and tidy, though I think we only saw her twice throughout the week.

Dining: The buffet had the usual fare, ranging from good to just ok. As is the case with most cafeteria-line style buffets, it was pandemonium at times, playing dodge-em with other plate holders, crashers, shufflers and minglers. Getting a cup of coffee was sometimes a challenge. O’Sheehan’s pub had tasty shepherds pie and fish & chips, but the BBQ wings were overdone, the spinach artichoke dip was watery and the Irish stew looked anything but, resembling cabbage soup. The nachos were a nice snack but light on cheese, and they were without the beans, salsa and guacamole I’m used to. The main dining rooms were good, with the exception of anything involving beef, with my prime rib and steak dianne overdone in both instances. One annoying thing about dining on NCL – especially noticeable in the dining rooms – is the practice of servers neglecting to take a beverage order before dinner. On 5 out of 7 nights, the waiter came around immediately after we were seated and launched right into the dinner order without asking if we wanted anything from the bar. It made us wonder if this was NCL’s way of rushing guests in and out. The only other dining experience we had was the complimentary Asian restaurant, which we thoroughly enjoyed, though the waitress seemed to have a hard time grasping the concept of ordering multiple dishes for everyone to share, which is our ordinary custom in Asian dining back home. Otherwise, the food was great.

Entertainment: Some time has passed and I can’t remember the performers’ names, but the show band rocked, the string trio entertained with both classics and movie music (think “Lord of the Rings” ), and the comedy guy on the first night (and a few other occasions) grabbed helpless victims from the audience and had us in stitches. The magician-comic at first made us yawn, but he came through at the end with a hilarious shoestring trick. I’ve lately been impressed with Norwegian’s big production shows, and two of those I saw were no exception – the nail-biting aerial act and Legends in Concert. A quality sound system, lighting, attractive sets, and talented singers and dancers, delivered it all together in a highly entertaining package.

Ports

IMG_7835Juneau: We booked an independent whale watching trip with Juneau Tours. We were promptly met at the ship’s dock and driven to the boat, a 2-level vessel that carries about 45 people. For the fast ride to and from the whale sightings, everyone was seated in the enclosed cabin, which was cramped and tight, especially for anyone of size. Otherwise, when the boat wasn’t speeding along, we were free to move to the outside decks, which was ideal for spotting the whales. We chose a good day, because we lucked out with a rare sighting of orca, a breaching humpback and bubble net feeding – all on the same trip. Our guides were informative and enthusiastic, which made for an enjoyable trip.

IMG_7877Skagway: The ship was docked at the pier closest to town, but there was a convenient shuttle for $2 one way or $5 all day. We spent a couple of hours in the morning shopping, and then did an afternoon Sled Dog Training and Musher Camp tour with Alaska Excursions. This was a fun way to learn about the famous Iditarod dog racing and meet the dogs and hold the puppies. Our guide was great, had a fabulous sense of humor and kept us all engaged with his knowledge of Alaska, Skagways gold rush days, the dog racing and the area in general. The dog sled ride (actually on wheels) through the wooded trail was a blast, but half the fun in getting to the camp was the ride through the steep hills and the twists and turns. As a bonus, we were given multiple stops along the way for some incredible views.

IMG_7949Glacier Bay: We woke up to a layer of fog, and despite being overcast with low-laying clouds shrouding the tops of the glaciers and mountains in mist, the scene was still magnificent. Deck 12-Aft outside was a popular place to be where we could relax in comfort at chairs and tables. I’m glad we got out there early, because a lot of people had the same idea. From there, a quick run up the stairs to decks 13 and 14 offered fantastic views, both forward and aft. Having done this before, we dressed in appropriate warm layers – plus hat, scarf and gloves – it’s that cold in the glaciers. Balcony cabins, of course, allow for comfortable one-sided viewing, and the ship does do a slow 360 so you can eventually see in both directions. However, I still prefer to be up on deck, where I can easily access both sides so I don’t miss any wildlife or glacier calving.

Ketchikan: We were only in port from 6:00 am to 1:00 pm, too brief to enjoy both an excursion and a stroll around this delightful town, but we managed it. The highlight of the day was an early morning, 2-hour independent flight-seeing Misty Fjord tour with Island Wings, and I can’t say enough good things about this company. Owner and pilot, Michelle, gave us the ride of a lifetime, pointing out the beautiful scenery and relating some local history along the way. We followed up with a little shopping and a walk over to picturesque Creek Street before heading back to the ship. If time had allowed, I would have liked to check out some of the totems scattered around town, as well.

IMG_8168Victoria: Our last stop was a short time in Canada from 6:00 pm to 11:30 pm. We had nothing planned here, so we took a relaxing walk along the harbor as the sun began to set, and stopped for an ice cream at the floating docks. The ship is in walking distance of downtown if time allows and if you’re up to it, or a shuttle is available for a fee. Our walk took us about half way, which was fine.

Disembarkation: We had a 9:15 disembarkation time, but they were ahead of schedule. The whole process was very well organized and went very smoothly. We remained in our cabin until our tags were called and were off the ship, queued up, and through customs fairly easily. We opted for the ship’s airport transfer this time around. The ride went smoothly, but next time, I’ll get a car. The bus let us off in the garage area, and it was a long hike to the terminal. It didn’t help that no one told us where to go or gave us guidance of any kind.

This was our fourth Norwegian cruise, and though they were never a first choice, the cruise line is growing on us. We like the relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere, and there was enough on board to keep us busy. The Pearl is beautiful, tastefully decorated, and well laid out. Alaska, for our second visit, was beautiful despite the rain showers and lack of sun, and I still have a ton of photos to upload. Although there is plenty of nature and wildlife to view on an inside passage SE Alaska itinerary, I think my next visit will be a land-tour.

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Holland America’s Koningsdam: Cruising the Norway Fjords

IMG_5162This long-awaited cruise was for a small group of loyal “CruiseCrazies.com” members who had been chatting for years and eager to meet and cruise together in person. It was also a retirement/40th anniversary cruise for my husband and I. David and I began our vacation with four fabulous days in London, followed by a 2-night pre-cruise stay in Amsterdam. Since this is primarily a cruise review, I’ll review London later.

Amsterdam and Doubletree Central Station: Pre-Cruise

IMG_8521Our group was booked at Doubletree Hilton Centraal Station pre-cruise. Being close to Centraal Station, the city trams, and the Port of Amsterdam, this hotel is popular with river and ocean cruisers. It’s clean, modern and situated on a canal, the perfect place to people watch. David and I arrived early afternoon, well before check-in time, greeted by friendly folks at the reception desk, and promptly given a room overlooking river boats and the Celebrity Solstice docked nearby. Rooms were average size, but nicely designed with a large window for lots of natural light. A tasty breakfast buffet was included with our stay, as well as free WIFI. The only downside we experienced was dinner in the evening. It was raining and we were tired from the day’s sightseeing, so chose to dine at the hotel restaurant. Service took a long time, and when the steak and burgers finally arrived, they were cold and undercooked. And it wasn’t cheap.

fullsizeoutput_13beAmsterdam: This is a city of bicycles and scooters, and either one would be a great way to get around. In fact, we had never seen so many 2-wheelers parked in one place before, particularly in the vicinity of Centraal Station, and we discovered that pedestrians need to remember to look both ways, more for cyclists than cars. Otherwise, I highly recommend a day pass for public transit – or multi-day pass if staying longer. We bought the 24-hour pass and used it on trams to get around the city, plus it’s also good on city busses and canal ferries. There is so much to do in Amsterdam, and since we didn’t have much time, we focused on a just a few attractions.

IMG_8568Anne Frank Haus. Words can’t convey the emotion we felt on this tour. I was nervous about the steep and narrow stairs necessary to reach the hidden annex, but that was all but forgotten once we were inside, reflecting on what Anne and her family lived through during those years. All visitors are given an audio headset to hear stories and quotes from Anne Frank’s diary and for guidance through the many photos to the actual diary itself. It’s a heartbreaking look at this period of history, the 8 people who hid in the annex and those that helped them. I can’t stress enough the importance of securing tickets on line well in advance – as soon as they become available – to avoid the long afternoon queues.

Van Gogh Museum: Tickets are available on line in advance to avoid the long queues. We didn’t plan ahead, but arrived late morning to a very quick moving line, about 15 minutes. Once inside, the museum is well laid out and easy to navigate. Backpacks are not allowed inside, so either leave it behind or be prepared to spend some time in line checking it in or out at the desk.

IMG_8651Canal Cruise. One of the best ways to see Amsterdam is from its system of connecting waterways. There are many boats of various sizes cruising the canals, but we pre-arranged our own smaller vessel through a great company called “KINBoat” in order to give our group a 2-hour private canal tour of Amsterdam, complete with open bar and appetizers. Our skipper, Bob, expertly guided our 12-person boat through the various city neighborhoods, explaining the scenery along the way, and a great time was had by all!

MS Koningsdam.

Embarkation: I booked a mini-bus for our group ride from the hotel to the cruise port, which turned out to be a good thing, given the distance to the Waterlands industrial terminal, where we were to board Koningsdam, instead of the nearby Port of Amsterdam passenger terminal. Upon arrival, our luggage was whisked away, and we were directed to a quick moving queue and given the customary health form to complete. There was some confusion about when and where to present our passports, but once through registration, boarding was easy. Interestingly, we never had to show our pre-printed boarding passes.

IMG_8690First Impressions: Koningsdam is beautiful, inside and out. She appears modern, yet retains a classic appearance including a true promenade deck (though much of the view from the promenade was hindered by lifeboats). We were welcomed by many cheerful crew members, and by the time we boarded around 12:30 pm, our rooms were ready and waiting. The layout of the ship was a little confusing to this directionally-challenged writer (How I missed the fore & aft-swimming carpet fish from NCL!). Happily, there was a helpful crew member at every turn to direct us to our stateroom. The ship’s multi-level atrium is attractive but surprisingly small.

Stateroom: My husband and I had a balcony cabin on Mozart Deck (deck 6) toward the aft elevators. The bath is a good size and bright with a roomy shower, and more importantly, a raised bar to rest a foot upon when shaving legs (a much-appreciated convenience, as any lady will attest to). The cabin is well designed with plenty of closet and drawer space. There is a handy rack for flyers, newsletters, magazines and other papers that accumulate during a week’s cruise. The TV monitor is big and affixed to the wall directly opposite the bed. Our steward kept our room clean and tidy all week, leaving us with plenty of ice, chocolates by the pillow, and even the occasional towel animal. Download the HAL smartphone app once on board for daily events, WIFI and account access, as well as each day’s dining menus. The standard balcony was a good size and held a small table and 2 chairs. Interestingly, we stepped onto the balcony on arrival and discovered about 15 empty bottles of booze in the corner. We joked that the previous occupants must have wanted to catch up on their beverage package before their cruise was over! In any event, the steward (who was clearly embarrassed) promptly removed all the bottles and apologized profusely.

DINING:

Main Dining Room: We chose late (8:15 pm) fixed dining in the main dining room. Waitstaff were friendly, helpful and eager to please. Service was on par each night, and we never felt rushed. The food was delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed the company of our four other pre-arranged table companions.

Specialty Dining: Our group pre-booked a table at the Pinnacle Grill for the final evening of our cruise. Although the waitstaff seemed eager to serve, the food took a long time to come, particularly the dessert course, with over 2 hours to complete the meal. The meal was delicious, though I didn’t expect my sirloin to contain as much fatty gristle as it did. As a special after-dinner treat, my husband and I were presented with a small but delicious chocolate mousse cake for our 40th anniversary, thankfully without bad singing waiters. Just a cake with sincere words of wishes from the staff. In the end, the dinner proved to be a fitting and enjoyable way to bid farewell to our newfound friends! Note: None of the wine-by-the-glass offerings on the Pinnacle menu are within the price range of HAL’s beverage package. If you have the drink package, be sure to ask for a wine included with the drink package. Otherwise, you’ll pay full price for whatever they bring you.

Lido Market: This is the buffet located on Lido Deck. Unlike other cruise lines, it’s not a serve-yourself set up – the food is served by the dining crew, presumably HAL’s way of preventing norovirus. Having just come off a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise the week before, we did notice the absence of “washy-washy” crew at the door – no annoying spray bottles – just hand sanitizer stations throughout the public venues, trusting that guests will remember to use them. As far as food quality and variety in Lido Market, we were impressed with the flavor and choices, both breakfast and lunch (probably dinner, too, though we didn’t try their dinner menu), and HAL gets our vote for best buffet at sea. However, finding a table was sometimes difficult at peak breakfast and lunch times.

New York Pizza and Deli: Besides being the ONLY place open for a late night snack, this place served up some of the best sandwiches and pizza on the high seas. The pizza was particularly delicious and rivals our other favorite pizza found on the Princess ships. The deli sandwiches were delicious and equal to those you’d find anywhere in Manhattan.

Grand Dutch Cafe: This is a small, pleasant eatery featuring a limited selection of pastries, salad and quiche, as well as a variety of coffees. It’s a nice concept – a place to pick up a quick bite – but it doesn’t compare to the much larger International Cafe found on Princess ships.

Room Service: We ordered breakfast a few times throughout the cruise, and the food arrived on schedule and still warm. Pastries, coffee, juice, cereals, eggs, bacon and sausage are free. Omelets and such are an extra charge.

ENTERTAINMENT:

Music: This is where Holland America rises above all the rest. With B.B. King’s Blues Club and Lincoln Center Stage, they have a great thing going, and I hope they continue to add it to every ship in the line. B.B. King’s phenomenal All Stars band made the Club THE place to be in the evening, dancing and grooving to jazz, oldies, funk and Top 40. The young, talented performers that made up the piano quintet at Lincoln Center Stage were superb, playing a different program each day, including Schubert, Brahms, American and French composers, and even Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in for fun. Billboard Onboard completes the trio of venues that make up “Music Walk”, as well as the Queen’s Lounge and Ocean Bar with lighter fare – Beatles tunes, pop, and so on. We had several classically-trained musicians (affectionately called “music snobs’) in our group, and all seemed impressed with the quality of music offerings on board.

A Special Surprise!

fullsizeoutput_142eSpeaking of beautiful music, I had pre-arranged a special surprise on board, which took place in the Ocean Bar on our first day at sea. We were blessed with a young couple in our group – phenomenal classical pianists – who performed superb piano duets for us, as a surprise and special tribute to their parents. This proved to be a highlight of our week aboard Koningsdam. Thank you, Kevin and Grace, for the beautiful music!

World Stage Productions: The World Stage is Koningsdam’s big-show theatre. It’s an attractive space, and the seats are wider than normal, with more leg room than is customary, making it a comfortable and enjoyable night for a show or one of the feature films they show throughout the cruise. We didn’t catch all the shows, but here is what we did see:

“One World”: This was a solid, energetic production with talented singers and dancers. We loved the beautiful panoramic screen backdrop to the music and vocals.

BBC “Frozen Planet” Live: A beautiful nature film backed by live music provided by the aforementioned piano quintet. This was absolutely gorgeous and my favorite show of the week.

“Musicology”: This was very interesting and beautiful to watch, with dancers interpreting the pre-recorded melodies of various musical instruments.

Magician/Comedian: He was the weakest of the entertainers on board. His magic wasn’t particularly entertaining, he wasn’t very funny, and even the guy he pulled up on stage looked bored. I couldn’t stop yawning.

Pool (mid-ship): The pool area and surrounding deck space is surprisingly small on a ship of this size. I can imagine that if the ship were in the Caribbean or some other warm destination, it would be a problem for many sunbathers scrambling for lounge chairs. Still, with a retractable roof, the lido deck was a popular place to be, even on this cooler-climate cruise. Early birds may be lucky enough to score a lounger or one of the comfy small sofas and loungers situated in alcoves around the perimeter, making for a great place to relax.

Pool (aft): We didn’t really spend any time here, except at sailaway or as a vantage point to view the fjords.

Kids on Board

There were fewer kids on this cruise than you’d find on the other mainstream lines, but judging by the action at the pools, you wouldn’t know it. HAL needs to do a much better job of monitoring kids on Lido deck. Being my first time on a HAL ship, I’m not sure if it’s just Koningsdam or if it’s the whole line, but on several occasions throughout the cruise, both the main and aft pools and hot tubs were overrun with kids running, pushing, jumping, and dangerously diving into a 4-foot deep pool. No one supervised that I could tell – neither parents nor crew. I seriously hope HAL improves upon this in the future before someone gets hurt. Even better, let’s make the Aft pool and hot tubs available to adults only.

Excursions:

Eidfjord: Waterfalls & Waffle. We loved this excursion. The scenery was spectacular, the waffle delicious, and the guide informative. We did wish more time was spent at Voringfossen Waterfall because that was definitely the highlight of the tour, and the walk to the viewing area took some time.

Alesund: We didn’t book a tour and instead bought a ticket to the hop on-hop off bus, which we used to get us to the scenic overlook. Note: To avoid a massive line for the ho-ho, either get off the ship early or wait and buy tickets after lunch when the rush is over. The ho-ho has a number of stops around town, but we took it half way, getting off at the art and culture center and then walking back to the ship.

Geiranger: We chose HAL’s Mt. Dalsnibba and the Eagle Road excursion. After a needlessly complicated route from the meeting point in the show lounge to the tender boats, the tour went very smoothly, and we loved it. The scenery just got better with each viewpoint, and the icing on the cake awaited us at the very top of Mt. Dalsnibba. Locals say it rains a lot in Norway, but we lucked out with fabulous weather and, therefore, an exceptionally good view of the incredible landscape. Note: Book the first tour in advance, because the long and winding road up the mountain gets busier as the day gets older. It was amazing to see how the big busses negotiate those turns. Our guide was informative, we learned a lot about the fjord and Norway, and thanks to our driver’s expert skills, we made it up and back safely.

Bergen: We were conveniently docked at the main port close to town, so I got off the ship in the morning to explore the area on foot, including the waterfront, the fish market, and the famous Bryggen houses. If shopping is on your itinerary, save it for Bergen, where the shops are plentiful. After lunch, we did the ship’s tour of composer Edvard Grieg’s home and Museum, followed by a concert of his works. Our first stop was the stave church, which was an exact replica of those built by the vikings. Next, was the ride to Grieg’s house, which sits on a gorgeously landscaped piece of property overlooking the fjord. The concert hall is beautiful, and the stage with it’s beautiful grand piano features a large window with a view of the fjord. We enjoyed the concert, and the hall was not crowded as the guests on our bus were the only ones in attendance. However, the museum is rather small, as are the rooms on display inside the house, and are a challenge to enjoy when visiting with a bus load of people touring at the same time. There are two downhill paths to both his gravesite and the composer hut, which I didn’t do, as I chose to sit on a bench, rest my sore knees, and admire the scenery. Note: The walk from the bus to Grieg’s house is fairly easy on a level paved road. However, the gravel wooded, hilly path to the stave church was a challenge to a few folks on the tour.

In summary, Koningsdam is a beautiful, elegant and classy ship, and we would love to sail her again. The destination, though, was the highlight. As much as we love Alaska, Norway exceeds with its scenic villages, winding mountain roads, dramatic waterfalls, and majestic fjords! Thanks to all our Crazies who participated – Sunluva7, RayColey, AndiD, Miranda, and all our friends and family who joined us. It was great to meet you all, and I look forward to cruising together in the future – and bringing even more Crazies on board!

Photos to come!!!

 

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Review: Providence’s Renaissance Hotel – from Decayed Ruins to Classic Luxury

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Renaissance Hotel, Providence, RI (Photo: J. Neves)

Having lived in Rhode Island my whole life, and no more than an hour from any particular landmark in the state, I have passed by many hotels and B&Bs without giving them much thought. However, since its opening in 2007, I have always been curious about the Renaissance Hotel, a Marriott property, which rose from the ruins of a monumental, Greek-revival structure known as the Masonic Temple. Building of the Temple began in 1927, as a meeting hall for the Freemasons, but was abandoned when the economy took a nosedive with the Great Depression. By that time, all that stood was the building’s shell, and any hope of completion ended when World War II entered the picture. Meanwhile, the building started to crumble over the years and became an ugly eyesore on the Providence landscape, when, in 2004, at a time when Providence was undergoing its own renaissance, the building was purchased, renovated and became the luxury boutique Renaissance Hotel.

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Renaissance Hotel and Veterans Memorial Auditorium (Photo: J. Neves)

My husband and I happened to have tickets to a performance by the RI Philharmonic Orchestra taking place in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium next door, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to check out the hotel for ourselves. Therefore, we decided to be like tourists and book a romantic night out of music followed by an overnight at the Renaissance.

The lobby, upon entering, reveals an understated elegance, with modern and attractive furnishings and contemporary art. Our room was located on the 9th floor (the top floor) with an incredible view of the RI State House. If you’re visiting our great little state for the first time, you’ll soon discover we have one of the finest state capitol buildings in the country, featuring the 3rd largest unsupported dome in the world (after St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome, and the Capitol in D.C.).  I’ve long admired our state house, but had never seen it from this impressive angle in all its glory.

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Providence State House (Photo: J. Neves)

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King Room (Photo: J. Neves)

The accommodations – a standard king room – were spacious, modern, clean and attractively decorated in muted, inviting colors. The linens were luxurious, and the bed and pillows super comfy. There was extra seating in the form of a chaise lounge, comfortable enough to sleep on if one wanted. The bath, entered through double doors, was large and featured an inviting luxurious black plush-lined robe on a hanger, not your usual white terry variety.

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Restaurant Window Booth (Photo: J. Neves)

The one downside is parking – there isn’t any, not the free kind, anyway. Unless you come in by train (the Amtrak station is very close to the hotel, by the way) or by taxi, you’ll be hit with a $28 per night valet parking fee, which is actually standard for most cities. We purchased the B&B/champagne package and found the bottle of bubbly to be very good. The restaurant area is located a floor below the lobby, “Temple” level, in a nice-looking space, also featuring bar and lounge area. Breakfast choices include menu items or a hot/cold buffet. Like parking, pricing is a bit on the high side, but pretty much in line with any other major 4 or 5-star hotel in any city.

Providence is a compact, walkable city. In addition to being perfectly located adjacent to Vets Auditorium and government offices, the hotel is in walking distance to shopping (Providence Place Mall is just down the road), Brown University, Johnson & Wales University, Providence Performance Art Center, Trinity Theatre, and “downcity”, the financial district. Federal hill, containing the best restaurants anywhere, is just a short ride away.

We enjoyed our brief stay at the Renaissance. It’s a lovely hotel, and the service we encountered from everyone was great. Even more, we love the fact that a grand, old, derelict space – long on the endangered building list – was saved, added to the National Register of Historic Places (as the Mason Building in 1993), and turned into something beautiful and useful.

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Abandoned Masonic Temple (Photo: “Art in Ruins”)

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Now the Renaissance Hotel (photo: J. Neves)

For more history on the Masonic Temple and its transformation to the Renaissance Hotel, visit: Art in Ruins

About Me:  Jan Neves is a Rhode Island cruise & travel planner for Seven Sea Journeys, an affiliate agency of Cruises & Tours Unlimited.

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A Pre-Cruise Roman Holiday

The Mediterranean Journey Begins ~ in Rome.

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It was nearly the end of July and the first of August and time to embark on another annual summer vacation. As cruising has become our getaway of choice, we chose an 11-night cruise to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, where we would spend time on shore immersing ourselves in ancient history, architectural ruins and gelato! Our cruise would begin in Rome, so it only made sense to spend a few days prior in this magnificent city.

The Royal Treatment.

A few months prior, I had booked our flights on Aer Lingus, with a ridiculously long layover in Dover because it was the cheapest flight available. Just days prior, in a moment of insanity, I went on line at Aer Lingus and upgraded our seats on the transatlantic portion of the flight to business class.  We felt like we had died and gone to airline heaven when greeted on board with a glass of wine and way more leg room than we needed – can you imagine?  And check out the table linens in the pic!  But the leg room is needed – to make room for those incredible seats that recline in a number of positions including lying all the way flat for sleeping.  Aer Lingus also has a bidding system for business class seats, and as such, I placed a bid for business class on our return trip.  I received an email several days before our flight home and learned we were upgraded to Business Class for the ride home.  On one hand, I was thrilled.  On the other, I was thinking where would I find a second job to pay for this indulgence.

Not wanting to bother with exiting and re-entering the airport terminal in Dublin, we wondered what the heck we would do for the long 7 hours between flights. Fortunately, my clever husband found some chairs and footrests in an out-of-the way spot in a terminal cafe, where we were able to catnap in comfort, thereby avoiding some bad jet lag. The plane was packed on the flight into Rome from Dublin, as well as noisy, thanks to a large group of rambunctious teens onboard. Happily, we landed safely and smoothly – and only a few minutes late. Our pre-reserved driver, Massimo, from a great, well-respected company called RomeCabs was waiting for us, as anticipated, at the meet-up point, and we were immediately whisked off in comfort to our hotel, the Albergo del Senato.

IMG_3094Hotel Albergo Del Senato is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the Pantheon. The location was ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed was very comfortable.  

But the real beauty was what awaited our eyes outside the window. The windows opened in and the shutters slid out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the piazza below. IMG_2570A light sleeper like me had no need to worry about noise from the plaza below, either, because the windows were fairly soundproof, and I slept like a baby. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn’t have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome.  Oh, and did I mention the rooftop terrace?  It was a stairway to heaven!

IMG_2575 Our first meal in Rome was right outside the door of our hotel in a sidewalk cafe directly on the Piazza Della Rotonda within sight of the Pantheon.  As all the guidebooks warned, we paid more for the privilege for dining directly on the piazza, but it was worth it just for the experience of taking in all the Roman sights and sounds all around us.

IMG_2580We followed up dinner with a walk around the corner for a cup of Italy’s famous gelato. Gelaterias in Rome are like Dunkin Donuts in the states – there’s one on every block. Delicious and so convenient!

Here are a few photos of the Albergo Del Senato – beautiful inside and out.  A little pricey, but worth every euro!

Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica: The Tour.

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The next morning, we rose before the sun and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Vatican with Through Eternity Tours, including the famous Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica. I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour.  By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceiling, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did.

The following two photos give an idea of the difference a few hours can make:

Early Tour ~ No Crowds

Early Tour ~ No Crowds

Later Tour ~ The Vatican "Shuffle"

Later Tour ~ The Vatican “Shuffle”

Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the exhibits, though at a somewhat faster pace than we would have liked. The frescos, tapestries and mosaics, for instance, were stunning, and I would have liked to spend a bit more time viewing them. Still, the museums are so large and the collections so vast that you would need days or weeks to see everything. With that said, he did a good job of giving us an overview and showing us a wide selection of important works in the amount of time we had.  Here is just a small sample of what we experienced:

The tour ended at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was incredibly beautiful, with it’s stunning soaring dome, statues and artwork of Bernini, the Holy Door with its ornate carved panels, and, perhaps most moving – the Pieta, Michelansgelo’s famous statue of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ after the crucifixion.

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We exited the Basilica into St. Peter’s Square, where the Roman sun, heat and humidity hit us like a wall.  We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place.  We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles.  We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.

A Dining Disappointment

After our much-needed catnap, we walked around the corner to De Fortunato Al Pantheon for our pre-reserved dinner reservation. Honestly, after reading some recent not-so-great TripAdvisor reviews of this restaurant, I wanted to choose another.  My husband, however, had his heart set on this dining establishment, highly recommended by travel guru, Rick Steves. My instincts turned out to be right. Although the meal was fine, the service was far from it. I fully understand the American and Italian differences in wait service, i.e. American waiters are friendly and talkative, while Italian waiters are simply there to serve and won’t interrupt you unless you request something. Fine – I get that. However, our waiter – an older, surly sort, was downright rude. He was all set to take our order, when an elderly gentleman, who was obviously a favorite regular customer, was seated directly to the small table to our left, about 6 inches away. The waiter immediately became animated, turned away to greet the guy like an old friend, and momentarily forgot we were even there. He only returned when my husband slapped his menu closed to get the waiter’s attention, who offered nothing in the way of an apology.

Sorry, Rick Steves, but you got this one all wrong. For a Saturday night, the place had plenty of empty tables, even when we left at 10:30 – very surprising, given the fact that it’s supposed to be a favorite old classic.  We didn’t really get that authentic Italian feeling described in the Rick Steves’ Rome video. To be fair, I am partly to blame for the negative experience. I chose a table in the rear, thinking it would be a nice quiet place for the hubby and I to enjoy a nice romantic dinner, when the front room, street side, would have been livelier. Unfortunately, this restaurant was a real disappointment. While I didn’t expect the “Rick Steves” VIP treatment, a friendly server would have been welcome and would have made all the difference.

IMG_3020On a positive note, the food was very good and well presented, though overpriced as compared to other eating establishments in the same area of town.  In fact, we were so underwhelmed that this was the only photo I have from the restaurant.

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We left the restaurant, feeling pretty unsatisfied, and grabbed a table at another outside cafe back on the piazza, where we enjoyed both drinks and some people watching before picking up some delicious gelato and calling it a day.

 

The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and The “Caesar Shuffle” (or more commonly known as the Roman Forum)

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On our second morning in Rome, we awoke refreshed and took a taxi to the Colosseum for our 8:30 am pre-reserved small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  We had specific directions to the tour meeting point, but we had a little trouble communicating this to the non-English speaking cabbie.  I showed him the map, and everything was cool, except that he dropped us at the upper level entrance to the Colosseum rather than the lower level, as the instructions specifically indicated.  While my husband wandered away to shoot some photos, I found another tour company who pointed me in the right direction.  My husband seemed in no particular hurry, but not wanting to keep our guide waiting, I dragged him away from his photo op, and we walked a short way through the subway station to get to the bottom level.  Pretty easy, fortunately.

Just as with the Vatican the previous day, this tour was a small group of 6 and gave us early entrance to the Colosseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later.  Tickets were reserved in advance by the tour company, and there was no need for waiting in line.

IMG_2808Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw.  The day was cloudy and overcast, with periods of rain, but it was actually a blessing, as we didn’t need to endure the heat and sun which we had anticipated.  Still, it was a lot of walking, and Rosa was kind enough to point out an elevator which we could take to the upper level, as my knee arthritis had flared up recently, preventing me from much climbing.  Yes, it seems odd – an elevator in the Colosseum, doesn’t it.  How did disabled Romans climb, any way?

IMG_2826Here was the Colosseum.  It’s what I picture when I think of Rome:  Gladiators, man-eating lions and, of course … Russell Crowe!  Just imagine the labor that went into building such a place in A.D. 80. There used to be a wooden floor (located where that white platform in the picture is) where the games were held.  Beneath it is the “backstage area” where both gladiator and animal prepared for whatever fate awaited them above.

IMG_2835From the top level of the Colosseum, there is a great view of the Arch of Constantine.  The Arch marks the point in history when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year A.D. 312.

 

 

A few more photos:

Next, it was on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.  

Honestly, I don’t remember much about the history we were given for Palatine Hill.  I do remember climbing a bunch of stairs, once we left the Colosseum, it was raining on and off, and I was focused on keeping my camera dry.  In any event, here are a few photos I shot along the way.

The Roman Forum I do remember much better, and I see why it’s affectionaly known as the “Caesar Shuffle” (according to the Rick Steves guide, anyway).  Walking through the ancient stone road of the Forum was like a step back in ancient times when this place was the political, religious and commercial enter of Rome.  I can imagine emperors in chariots and processions of high-ranking officials making their way from one end to the other.  IMG_2877

We began our own Caesar’s shuffle at the Arch of Titus, which marks Rome’s victory over Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  The inside of the Arch is decorated in scenes depicting the defeat over Israel (or Judaea, at the time) and other ornate carvings.

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IMG_2897Also of note along the old road was the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in honor of the emperor of the same name and his wife.  It must have been mighty grand in its day.  See the green door?  That was originally at ground level in Caesar’s day.

 

 

Here’s a little of what we saw after the tour on our walk back to the hotel.  Since it was Sunday, the main road to the Colosseum was closed off to motor vehicles, making for a pleasant and safe stroll.

During the remaining time over our two days in Rome, we also wandered a bit around the Pantheon neighborhood, stopping for pizza, dinner at an outdoor cafe on Piazza Navona, and dropped by a couple of nearby churches.  Churches in Rome are like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I am not talking about the grandest of the buildings of worship such as St. Peter’s Basilica.  I mean regular neighborhood churches.  For instance, we happened upon the Church of St. Ignazio di Loyola, located in the Piazza of the same name, and our jaws dropped.  The church with its beautiful dome, artwork, sculptures and architecture is absolutely stunning and rivals anything you’ll see at St. Peter’s Basilica.  If you don’t get to see the Sistine Chapel, or if the crowds at the Vatican scare you away, stop by this gorgeous church.  It wasn’t very crowded, and we spent quite a bit of time going through this huge, magnificent place.

Another church we saw was The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, dropping in on our way to Piazza Navona.  I wish I had read about this church before going because come to find out, it is famous for the painting done by artist Caravaggio.  Not as ornate or adorned as the Church of St. Ignazio, it was still beautiful to see.

A few more shots of a pizza stop and the famous Piazza Navona.

Final Stop ~ The Pantheon.

With our hotel being a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside.  Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 a.m. pickup on our final morning for the ride to Civitavecchia to meet the ship, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient masterpiece.  After admiring the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, we entered this magnificent structure and were instantly mesmerized by Roman-style rotunda, the gorgeous dome and tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome’s first two kings.  This was a very special place, and one which I am glad to have admired for so long from a hotel window.

Our time in Rome was very brief, and there was so much we did not see including The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (which I reminded my husband about 100 times that it is under renovation).  It is our hope to one day return to this amazing city.

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Review: 11-Night Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Aboard Celebrity Reflection – 8.4.14

This was my 10th cruise and my husband’s 7th, but our first on Celebrity as well as our first Mediterranean sailing.  Though we sometimes travel with family during our annual August vacation, this time it was just the two of us.  As we do with every vacation in August, we were celebrating our anniversary (37th) and my husband’s birthday.

IMG_3094PRE-CRUISE:  We flew to Rome three days in advance from Boston to Rome on Aer Lingus, staying at Hotel Albergo Del Senato.  The hotel is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the magnificent Pantheon. The location is ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and the piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed very comfortable.  But the real beauty is what awaits the eyes outside the window. The windows open in and the shutters slide out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the piazza below. No need to worry about noise, either, because the windows are fairly soundproof and block out any noise below. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn’t have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome!

EMBARKATION:  

ShipWe booked all our transfers with RomeCabs.  Our driver from the hotel to the cruise port in Civitavecchia was Monica, who arrived 15 minutes early to assure a timely departure. She was a friendly people person with a great sense of humor, and got us to the port safely and quickly. We arrived at the cruise port at about 11:00 am and were driven directly to the ship.  Because we booked Aqua Class, we had priority embarkation and were through registration and onboard in no time at all.

IMG_3139STATEROOM:  Just before final payment, we took advantage of a great deal and upgraded ourselves to Aqua Class and chose one of those raved-about balconies on the slant of the bump-out section – #2150, deck 12, starboard side, facing forward.  The balcony was huge, although the railing was showing some wear right down to bare wood and was in need of serious refinishing.  Still, this was by far the nicest cabin we’ve ever had.  The room was decorated in warm tones with a sofa positioned next to the balcony door.  The most pleasant surprise was the cabin bathroom.  It was very large for a standard cabin bath, with modern fixtures and lots of storage space.  No knees up against the sink while you’re sitting on the john and plenty of room to move around.  The shower was a roomy half-moon shape with sliding glass doors – no clingy shower curtain, and a heavenly showerhead that sprayed the water perfectly.  As a perk of Aqua Class, our cabin steward did a wonderful job of keeping us supplied with fresh fruit, late afternoon appetizers, tea, ice and all the complimentary bottled water we could use for the entire cruise.

IMG_3164 DINING:  We were assigned to the Aqua Class dining room, Blu, and it wasn’t love at first sight for us.  On our initial visit, we were seated in the middle of a row of three tables for two, situated close together, and just like my aversion to the middle seat on a jet, it was awkward and uncomfortable, robbing me of my much valued personal space. However, with each meal, the concept grew on us, and we realized that all it takes is a simple hello to your fellow tablemates to figure out whether to strike up a conversation or leave them to their dinner.  Breakfast on the first morning, for instance, was a better experience, as we were seated at a table by the window.  With my husband’s obvious disappointment at not getting a window seat that first night, he became well acquainted with the wait-staff as the guy who “likes light”. Obviously, it wasn’t always possible to have a seat by a window, but it didn’t hurt to ask, and one evening we were given a pager to wait.  Service was good, the staff was attentive, and we found the food to be excellent for the most part.  While French Onion Soup was not on the Blu menu, our waiter was happy to bring my husband a bowl of his favorite whenever requested, and he loved it. As much as we enjoyed Blu, however, we wouldn’t book Aqua Class just to dine in Blu.  We would still have been perfectly happy without the added perks, and the main dining room (Opus) would have suited us just fine.

Here are comments on the other dining venues we tried:

Tuscan Grille:  This was the only specialty restaurant we chose for this cruise, as we found that Blu provided us all the wonderful food we could want. Since it was my husband’s birthday, we decided to splurge.  The decor is very nice, and the food was great!  For all the folks who have been warned about the ribeye steak in Tuscan, the cut my husband had was fine and cooked to his liking.  I had the shrimp & scallops dish, which was delicious.  The Tuscan onion soup was superb, too.

Oceanview Cafe:  In general, breakfast and lunch were good, with many stations and lots of choices, and we never had a problem finding a seat.  The desserts, pizza, pasta and ice cream stations were great, too.  We chose to forego formal nights this time around, preferring to grab a plate here on the first of two formal nights, while we awaited the setting of the Mediterranean sun.  The sunset was lovely, but the dinner buffet here wasn’t anything special.  Neither the food nor the ghost town atmosphere did a thing for us, and we decided that would be our one and only night in the buffet.

Mast Grill:  Great burgers and hot dogs … but where the heck was the relish???

Aqua Spa Cafe:  It didn’t do much for my meat and potatoes husband, but for me it was a great place to grab a light, healthy lunch and was very convenient to the Solarium pool, our favorite hangout.

Bars/Clubs:  The only bar or lounge we spent any significant time at was the Sunset Bar, which was a great place to enjoy a cool beverage while watching sail-away in all the ports.

Special Occasions:  Celebrity remains low key when it comes to special occasion celebrations.  No balloons on the door or singing waiters.  In fact, while we were celebrating our anniversary while dining in Blu one evening, I was just remarking to my husband how senseless it is to note a special occasion in the Cruise Planner when Celebrity doesn’t acknowledge the special day, when, lo and behold, here comes our waiter with a little chocolate anniversary cake with a candle. He lit the candle, sliced up the tiny culinary delight for us, and graciously wished us a happy anniversary.  Nothing corny or crass – just class and style!  However, it must be hit or miss with the cakes, because on the following night in The Tuscan Grille, there was no mention of happy birthday or a cake to be seen.

Café al Bacio:  Good coffes, but I wish Celebrity had a coffee card – one price for 10 – or something similar, as Princess does.  I got by with the mediocre regular coffee in the morning, but I like to treat myself to a specialty coffee in the afternoon, and Café al Bacio was the place to find it.  A coffee card would have made it more economical without having to buy a beverage package.

DRESS CODE:  We didn’t participate in formal night this time around and left our dress-up clothing at home.  We dined in Blu on the second formal night, and despite being a business casual option on formal night, I have to say that 90% of the guests were in formalwear.  We also found that people were more apt to dress it up a bit every night on this cruise – more than any other cruise or itinerary I’ve sailed.

ShowENTERTAINMENT

We found the entertainment severely lacking compared to other cruise lines, and due to the port-intensive itinerary, I found myself napping a lot or spending time on the balcony, thus missing most of the acts, but here is a small recap of what we saw and heard:

Reflection (song and dance production show):  Talented singers and dancers – delightfully entertaining.

Walker Black Duo:  Guitar & Vocal.  A little too mellow for my husband’s tastes, but I enjoyed this coffee-house style duo.

Daniel (Guitar and vocal):  Excellent guitarist and vocalist, and we both enjoyed him. Unfortunately, we only caught one performance at the Sunset Bar during our sail-away from Athens.

Soulful Electronica:  We caught snippets of this high-energy dance band often while passing through the atrium, and what we heard was very good.  Actually, since the sounds from the atrium soar up the full vertical length of the atrium, we often heard them from all over the ship.

Casino:  I won about 80 bucks on the first sea day, and did even better on a subsequent night.  From then on, the machines ate all my winnings, and then some. My husband had no luck either.

Art History 101.  We enjoyed one of these brief 30-minute seminars presented by the art auction people.   We found it informative and entertaining, and it didn’t take a huge chunk out of the day like an auction, yet still allowed ample time to down a couple of glasses of free champagne.

Art auction.  Despite our vow not to purchase any more cruise art, I saw two matching relatively inexpensive pieces by Charles Lee I just had to have.  I didn’t need much convincing, either, after a rum-heavy concoction just prior.

Solarium pool:  Our favorite place on the ship.  We loved this relaxing retreat!  Quiet, pretty, uncrowded (with the exception of sea days when an unoccupied chair was difficult to find), enclosed and protected from the hot sun, it was our favorite adults-only spot to relax.  The pool was large enough for laps, and the water was a comfortable temperature and re-energizing.  I extend my compliments to the crew for swiftly re-directing any wandering little kids under the age of 16 to the main pools.

MEDICAL CENTER:  My husband developed a bad ear infection half way through the cruise, probably from all that swimming in the pool.  Out of 10 cruises, this was the first visit ever to “sick bay” aboard any ship, and my husband reports that the doctor was very kind, gave him antibiotics and eardrops, and sent him on his way.  The ear pain and blockage did dampen his spirits a bit for the rest of the cruise, and the medical bill of $280 we received on the last day of the cruise didn’t help, either.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?  The following comments are by no means a criticism, but just a few things about the ship that didn’t make much sense to us:

Noisy atrium:  Loud blaring music, activity and noise in the grand atrium, mid-ship … not all the time, but enough to wonder why Celebrity designed it this way.  Woe to the folks who thought they would find peace and tranquility in the Library, Hideaway Lounge, or Game Room, all of which happen to rest on the edge of the atrium’s upper open decks above, who must have been scratching their heads in confusion while inserting their earplugs.

Conflicting ship decor:  While most areas of the ship were elegant and classy, we found others to be – well, a little strange. The psychedelic cosmic flower garden motif leading to the specialty restaurants on deck 5 – or what my husband fondly called the “drug room” – was odd and out of place.  The much talked about upside down silver-toned tree thingy in the center atrium – which we figured out was actually the “roots” extending from the green tree above it – was just plain ugly to me.  The martini bar, all in monotone gray, could really use some color.  Putting it simply, it seems that Celebrity couldn’t decide which paint brush to use when designing Reflection.

The “fake” promenade deck.  The lack of a real promenade deck was the biggest design flaw in the Solstice class ships, if you ask me.  Sure, you can stroll a distance from about the front elevators to the rear ones on either side, but except for a few feet on either end, most of your view will be blocked by the ship tenders.  I like to begin every day on board with a few leisurely laps around the promenade deck, and I sure missed one here.

Speaking of laps – the jogging track is sorely misplaced.  Just try jogging or even speed walking in the middle of the day around the main pools and see where it gets you – especially on a sea day.  You’ll be competing with deck loungers, meanderers and groups of swimsuit clad folks just chilling in the middle of the track.  If there can’t be a dedicated jogging track, then don’t have one at all.

The Lawn:  The jury is still out on this one.  Perhaps a better use of this space might be to expand the Sunset Bar, which is a perfect gathering spot with incredible views – especially during sailaway.  The bar and surrounding area could use a bit more seating for a ship this size.

The language of the sign at the Solarium Pool indicating “Solarium Adults Only 16 Years and Above.”  I’ve always thought of adults as being 21 or maybe 18 and older.  Hmmm….

PORTS:  Every port was an adventure and we saw so many incredible things.  Here’s a recap:

ROME:  

IMG_2790Vatican Tour:  The first morning, we woke early and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica with Through Eternity Tours.  I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public.  Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour.  By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every square inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceilings, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the Vatican museum exhibits, the Basilica and finishing up outside at St. Peter’s Square. We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place.  We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles.  We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.

IMG_2841Colosseum Tour:  The next morning, we awoke refreshed and met our guide at 8:30 am for our pre-reserved 3-hour small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  Just as with the Vatican tour the previous day, this tour gave us early entrance to the Colosseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later. Tickets are reserved in advance by the tour company, so there was no waiting in line. Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw.  Experiencing these ancient ruins was just amazing, and it really made my day, knowing I walked along the same ancient road that great emperors walked.  We leisurely walked back to the hotel, stopping for pizza at an outside cafe and picking up a few souvenirs along the way.

IMG_2579The Pantheon:  Being within eye’s view of the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside.  Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 am ride with RomeCabs to the ship on embarkation day, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient wonder.  We stood in awe as we gazed upon the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, the inside Roman-style rotunda, the infamous dome, the tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome’s first two kings, and the vastness of it all simply took our breath away.

IMG_3367SANTORINI:  We took the Oia and Winery tour with Celebrity, mainly to take advantage of the early tender departure.  The ride to Oia was very pleasant, with the guide giving some history and pointing out the sights along the way.  Our first stop was the winery.  There were multiple busses parked, so the wine-tasting portion of the visit was a little crazy, but the views were incredible.  After tasting a sampling of three types of wine – all of which were nothing noteworthy, we continued on to the cliff-top town of Oia.  We aren’t in the best of shape, it was hot and humid, and the walk from the bus up the hill left us gasping for breath.  With only an hour in Oia, we decided to plant ourselves in the first restaurant we saw, which turned out to be a great decision.  We were shown to a shaded table with an awesome view, ordered a Greek Salad, Souvlaki, wine and beer, and we couldn’t have enjoyed our visit any more than we did.  Back aboard the bus, we continued to the town of Fira, where we browsed a few shops on our way to the cable cars for return to the ship.  There was no line at all, and it was a quick car ride down the cliff.  Later, from our cabin balcony, I managed to zoom in on the infamous donkey trail and photographed some riders going up and down the ziggity-zaggety pathway.  It looked like a long way up and not a journey we would have wanted to take on stubborn animals.

IMG_3625ISTANBUL:  Originally, we were going to take a taxi into the city to explore on our own, but at the last minute decided to book seats with Celebrity’s “Istanbul On Your Own”.  What a huge mistake!  Celebrity describes this excursion as a stop at the Spice Market “for the ones who would like to discover the market…with access to the old city”, then the last and final stop at the Grand Bazaar…with “plenty of time to discover the Old City and Bazaar on your own.”  This was a huge misrepresentation on Celebrity’s part.  We were hardly “on our own”.  It was all about shopping.  The group was herded to the Spice Market – which we didn’t mind, as we wanted to do a little shopping.  But after an hour there, we were instructed to board the bus and proceed to the second stop – the Grand Bazaar.  But wait!  There would be no Grand Bazaar until you were led into a Celebrity-preferred retailer to undergo a “carpet demonstration”.  To make matters worse, it wasn’t a demonstration of how carpets are made but, rather, a presentation.  In other words, it was a sales pitch, simply showing a number of carpets followed by a roomful of shady salespersons for the hard-sell.  Unless you’re interested in buying a carpet, it’s a huge waste of time that could have been spent at places more worthy.  Following the carpet pitch, the guide (and by the way, why does an on-your-own tour need a guide, anyway?) began to lead the group to the Grand Bazaar for more shopping.  However, this was where we said see ya later, bud.  With confirmation on where to meet up later, we left the group to continue on our own to the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque.

Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque was closed on this Friday morning, until 2:30, which was the time we had to return to the bus – how inconvenient.  After settling for some photographs of the exterior of the Blue Mosque, we walked over to Hagia Sophia to visit this incredible former church/mosque.  It took about 20 minutes to get through the line, and once inside, we were amazed by the architecture.  First a mosque for 916 years, then a church for 435 years, it became a museum in 1935.  The enormity of size, the spectacular dome and the artwork and mosaics are a feast for the senses.  It began raining, very heavily, and just like magic dozens of Turkish men, women and children appeared from nowhere armed with umbrellas to sell.  We declined and started to make our way back toward the bus, stopping at a restaurant along the way for lunch and to dry off.  However, the rain never really stopped, and by the time we got back to the bus, we were soaked.

Also, be aware that EVERY tour with the cruise lines in all the Turkish ports include an obligatory stop at a rug or carpet demonstration, i.e. sales pitch.  Sadly, the “On Your Own Tour” was no exception.

Here’s a Tip:  If you do happen to take this tour or any Istanbul large group tour and are out on your own, remove your tour ID sticker.  The carpet hawkers are relentless when they find out you came in by cruise ship, and they will try to engage you in friendly banter to reel you in.  Just smile, say no, and continue on your way.

IMG_3734Bosphorus Cruise:  Later on in the evening of our first day in Istanbul, we did Celebrity’s Nighttime Bosphorus River Cruise.  After the ship’s on-your-own tour fiasco, I was a little apprehensive about this ship-sponsored tour, thinking it was going to be a crowded boat with hundreds of people packed into bench seats.  It actually turned out to be quite the opposite and a lot of fun. There were maybe 100 people spread out over two decks seated at large round tables with white linen, appetizers, and wait-staff pouring all you can drink free wine, beer and soft drinks.  We were one of the first to board and chose a prime table overlooking the back of the boat on the upper open deck on this warm beautiful night. We met some nice fellow American table mates from Arizona and Texas, and had a really great time.  A belly dancer provided lively entertainment, choosing some lucky victims to join in her dancing.  Great fun!

IMG_3937KUSADASI:  We pre-booked a private tour to the ancient ruins of Ephesus with Ephesus Shuttle.  Our guide was waiting for us at the pier, and we had a large, super-comfy mini-van all to ourselves.  As expected, it was very hot, humid and crowded, but our very knowledgeable tour guide allowed us to go along at our own pace through the Library of Celsus, ancient Brothel and Baths, the Theatre where St. Paul preached, and more, allowing us ample time at each point of reference along the way for pictures, water breaks and what little shade was available.  I highly recommend this tour for a reasonably priced way to see the tour at a relaxed pace and one-on-one with a guide.  We opted out of the step-laden terrace houses due to my recurring knee issues, but Ephesus was absolutely incredible and well worth the experience.

Tip:  If you’re heading out to Ephesus, you’ll most definitely need to bring water, a hat, sunscreen – and an umbrella as a shield from the sun wouldn’t hurt either, as there is little to no shade.  Be sure to wear sturdy, flat non-skid shoes or sport sandals, because the walk is entirely on slippery marble or uneven cobblestones.

IMG_3986After the tour, we stopped at The Temple of Artemis, even though it was not included in our tour. Unfortunately, all that remains are a single column and a few piles of rocks. Still, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is worthy of a visit.  We finished up our tour with a delicious lunch at a small local restaurant, and returned to the port. She asked, but we declined a visit to a carpet store for a demonstration, as we had neither the interest nor the money to invest, and we never felt pressured into attending one.  Besides, we’d been there and done that in Istanbul.

IMG_4074MYKONOS:  We had no excursion or tour booked here and originally thought about staying on the ship, since we’re not really beach people.  I am so glad we didn’t. We walked along the gorgeous waterfront, strolling by the shops and restaurants and were rewarded with beautiful views of a clear, turquoise sea and a refreshing ocean breeze. We continued along the ocean road to the right and came upon a little blue-domed chapel, and went even further for even more beautiful views and a quaint alley with shops and cafés.  We enjoyed lunch at an outdoor cafe overlooking the harbor with a front row seat to all the action around us.  Mykonos was a pleasant surprise and a few relaxing hours to spend on shore.

IMG_4247ATHENS:  We took a taxi from the cruise port for the 20-minute drive to the Acropolis Museum.  If you want to see the Acropolis but are unable to make the climb (like me), go to the museum.  It may not be the same as being there, but it’s an excellent alternative. What you will see are many of the original ancient artifacts and statues, as well as the ancient streets and ruins of buildings below as seen through the glass floors throughout the first floor of the museum.  No photography is allowed inside the museum, but while some areas had the camera police standing around, other areas of the building, particularly the third floor, seemed to be more lax.  In fact, be sure to go to the third floor viewing area where you will be able to see the ancient monuments of the Acropolis on the “holy rock” and take photos.  One of the museum’s exhibits which really impressed me was the Caryatids, the original gigantic figures of 5 of the 6 maidens which supported the roof of the Erechtheion, one of the ancient temples on the rock.  Also, near the third floor viewing area, you’ll see many of the original statues and sculptures removed by the Greeks from the Parthenon to protect them from the elements.  We spent a couple of hours at the museum and continued on our way down the road and around the corner to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus, the latter of which we photographed through the fence without actually paying to walk through the gate.  By the way, you can get some interesting photos of the Acropolis through the Arch.  Of course, no first visit to a city is complete without sampling the local food, so we stopped for lunch between the museum and the Arch.

Amalfi CoastNAPLES:  We joined a small group tour with AP Tours (8 people) bound for the Amalfi Coast, Positano, Ravello and Pompeii.  Our driver was professional, friendly and had a great sense of humor.  Our first stop was Positano, where we walked a little ways along the quaint, but crowded streets and picked up a couple of ceramic gifts to take home. We continued on our way for another brief stop at The town of Amalfi, where he had a quick lunch and then back to the van to continue to our third stop of Ravello.  This was our favorite town on the tour.  It was not crowded, and very pretty with some lovely homes and scenery.  The town square was lined with shops and restaurants, and we wished we had more time to spend here.  

PompeiiOur last stop was a wonderful guided tour of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The group hired a guide, who showed us around to the most important buildings and homes and gave us a good history of Pompeii and its destruction with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I was worried about what the uneven stone pavement and stairs would do to my bad knees, but Pompeii was not difficult to maneuver at all.  We found our earlier visit before the cruise to The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to be much more challenging. Of course, it helped that we had a bit of cloud cover to keep the heat down.  This was a great tour, and the only thing I might suggest to others – and do differently next time – would be to choose no more than two towns to visit on the tour.  It’s a long day, there was a lot of traffic along the coast, and cutting one town would have allowed us more time to explore in each place.

DISEMBARKATION AND FLIGHT HOME:  We had a flight home at 11:50 a.m., and were off the ship with the first group at 6:50 am.  It took all of 5 minutes to collect our luggage and meet our driver from RomeCabs.  We shared a ride with some new cruise friends and shared stories of our 11 days on board the Reflection.  Our return flight to Boston – particularly, the Dublin portion – was the low point of this trip, not just because it’s always sad to leave, but because of the security ordeal in Dublin and nearly missing our connection.  We had a 2-hour layover, with barely enough time for three different security checks, carry-on bag inspection (me) and a full pat down (me again).  I guess it was my lucky day.  It was 2 hours of long lines and frustrated passengers.  We made it on board the plane with minutes to spare and had a safe flight to Boston, where our driver was waiting for us to take us back to the real world.

IMG_3448This cruise was fabulous – both the ship and the itinerary.  I would love to revisit Rome, Istanbul and Naples some day to see the sights that a day in port can’t possibly cover.  The Reflection is a gorgeous ship. Even though the entertainment on board was not as varied as what we’re accustomed to, we were very impressed with Celebrity and would sail the line again in a heartbeat!

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Return to a Summer Favorite … Wellfleet, Mass.

IMG_2333With the focus on cruise travel the past few years, a favorite family summer destination had begun to fade to the background.  Not that Wellfleet, Mass., wasn’t still my favorite seasonal escape.  In fact, Wellfleet will always be our go-to spot to do nothing but relax, enjoy the beach and take in the sea air in this most peaceful of places on outer Cape Cod.  While cruising is a great way to explore new places all over the globe, there is just something so special about re-connecting with family and retreating to an old favorite for a week of fun, relaxation and quiet reflection.

David and I discovered the magic of Wellfleet nearly 30 summers ago.  Thanks to President Kennedy, the Cape Cod National Seashore became a reality in 1961, providing miles of protected beaches, ponds, salt marshes, sand dunes, hiking and bike trails from Chatham to Provincetown. 

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In the midst of this natural wonder lies Wellfleet, known for its art galleries, big ocean waves, tranquil bay beaches, fishing, boating … and oysters!  We’ve had many week-long summer retreats here – and a few brief off-season ones, too!  Memories of sunsets, long bike rides, swimming, beach combing, clam shacks and family hikes fill our minds and our photo albums.IMG_2476

With another cruise planned this summer for the two of us, this time to the Mediterranean, it looked as though another summer would pass with no family week on the Cape.  With vacation time scarce and the small fortune involved in a 2-week European sojourn at sea, an additional week on the shores of Cape Cod seemed highly unlikely.

Then came Alex!  When my daughter and son-in-law mentioned last fall their desire for a beach rental this summer in Wellfleet with our first grandchild, that was all I needed to hear.  Time and money be damned!  I immediately sprang into action, searching for the perfect bayside cottage to show off our beloved Wellfleet to 15-month-old Alexander.  A new tradition with many future years of Cape Cod summers immediately came to mind, and I made it my mission to start one.

There was just one problem:  The tiny 2-cottage colony we called home for our many years of Wellfleet summers were sold, and I now had to find something similar which would leave us with similar new memories.  

IMG_2561With great excitement, I went to my computer and googled Wellfleet rentals, which brought me to Home Away, a site dedicated to weekly vacation rentals.  With a family of 8 or so, we needed either a roomy 4 bedroom house or a pair of 2-bedroom cottages.  Finally, we found exactly what we were looking for: a pair the cutest little white-brick, blue-shuttered cottages I’d ever laid eyes on, directly across from the beach.  I contacted the owner, and learned that both side-by-side cottages were available for the second week in July.  While not the best week for Grandpa’s busy summer work schedule, he begrudgingly agreed to spend part of the time with us, and commute the rest.  With our cruise buddies also on board – also known as my brother and sister-in-law – I happily paid the deposit and eagerly awaited the arrival of summer and our return to family bayside bliss.

IMG_2354That week in July had finally arrived, and as we drove through the familiar narrow street to the tiny two houses on the shore, I felt that inner warmth and happiness that overcomes me whenever I arrive here in Wellfleet after a long absence.  It’s like returning home. 

IMG_2563As I sat there one early morning, amidst Wellfleet’s unassuming splendor, I thought how so very grateful and so very blessed I was to have this opportunity to share this best of vacations with my grandson.  I hope he learns to love and appreciate this amazing place as much as I do.IMG_2146

 

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My Top 10 Most Memorable Travel Moments of 2013

Japanese Gardens-San Francisco

Japanese Gardens-San Francisco

In 2013, David and I were blessed with another year of amazing travel firsts – first time to Alaska, first time to San Francisco, first time to the Grand Canyon, first time in a tiny 6-seater plane, and other notable moments of first glimpses. New and different sights and opportunities always produce an abundance of fresh stories and photos to share.  Here, in no particular order, are our top 10 most memorable travel experiences of 2013:

IMG_2455Flightseeing in Ketchikan, Alaska.  While aboard the Grand Princess on an Alaska cruise, we spent a large stack of bills on this privately-booked floatplane flight to see bears in their natural habitat.  Unfortunately, the bears did not come out to play with us, but the ride was exciting nevertheless, landing and takeoff smooth as silk, and the view from the sky was beautiful.  My initial fear of taking off in a tiny plane was replaced by sheer excitement, and the ride was worth every precious penny we paid.

IMG_1111The Grand Canyon, Arizona.   The thought of cold and snow at the South Rim made me really hesitant about visiting the Grand Canyon in February.  However, I was so glad we did.  Thankfully, the forecasted major snowstorm, which threatened to create a traveling mess, never materialized.  Instead, we were left with a fine layer of fresh powder and sun. The effects of natural light and snow-layered rims of the canyon enhanced the beauty and splendor of this natural wonder.  As we drove and stopped for photos at several points along the rim trail, I lost count of the number of “Ahhhh” moments where words could never describe what lay before my eyes.  The quiet solitude of the canyon in winter was a gift, making me wonder why anyone would want to fight the heat and crowds in summer.

cathedralrockCathedral Rock Hike in Sedona, Arizona.  On our drive back from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix for our flight home, we stopped for a night in Sedona.  The drive through the winding, mountainous roads blessed us with some of the most beautiful snow-covered vistas we’d ever seen, and as we drove closer to Sedona and caught our first glimpse of grand red rocks, the scene took our breath away.  As with the Grand Canyon, the light layer of snow against backdrop of red proved to enhance the beauty of these majestic rock formations.  We are not the adventurous or active sort, but we managed to hike our old, tired legs a short way up the trail in the lightly falling snow toward the grandest of the red rocks, Cathedral Rock.  Our hiking shoes were caked with red mud, but it was well worth the experience.

IMG_2361Glacier Bay, Alaska.  This is what we came to Alaska for and why we chose a cruise with Glacier Bay as part of the itinerary.  We were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day when we sailed in, and as she ship slowly guided past the great ice, we marveled at the majestic splendor of the glaciers and mountains reflected in the calm, blue water of the Bay.

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Muir Woods, California.  A visit to the stately redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument was part of a post-cruise day tour of Sausalito and Marin County.  Although the sections of the park were crowded with noisy tourists, there was plenty of opportunity for quiet tranquility on the walk through this forest of old, beautiful redwoods.  The towering, majestic trees were simply stunning and I couldn’t help but feel small and inconsequential next to such natural beauty.

 

IMG_1705Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.  We had several opportunities to see the bridge, both on a pre-cruise city tour when we stopped for the obligatory photo ops and again on a post-cruise tour when we traveled over the bridge to explore the Marin County area and Muir Woods.  It seemed that the bridge appeared different each time we gazed at it.  At times the bridge was barely visible in the foggy mist, other times it was shrouded in clouds.  On our final day in San Francisco, the fog lifted and a blue, sunny sky revealed the bridge in all its glory.  But perhaps the most dramatic Golden Gate Bridge moment was gliding beneath the bridge aboard the Grand Princess on our way out of the Bay to Alaska.  You could almost hear a collective sigh as the bridge approached then disappeared above us, and the applause that followed by all the cruisers on deck said it all.

IMG_1664Dim Sum in Chinatown, San Francisco.  Chinatown in this amazing city is a huge area of kitschy souvenir shops mixed in with authentic Chinese art, sculptures, crafts and other unique wares.  There is a never-ending feeling of hustle and bustle here, and it was nice to stop at a small restaurant along the way for dim sum – good, inexpensive appetizers and tea to hold us over until dinner time while resting our weary feet.

IMG_1534Alcatraz, San Francisco.   I’d always been curious about this old prison since seeing Burt Lancaster as the Birdman of Alcatraz, and I wasn’t disappointed.  A steep hike up to the prison from the pier was well worth the informative self-audio tour.  Listening to the voices of former inmates tell of their time behind bars, stories of attempted escapes, the famous criminals imprisoned here, and what life was like at the prison made for a very interesting – and a little bit haunting – experience.

 

IMG_1956Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, Juneau Alaska.  This was a 5-hour ship-sponsored excursion while aboard the Grand Princess on an inside passage cruise from San Francisco.  Unlike many large group shore excursions, this one was refreshingly different.  We were part of a small group of 12 other shutterbugs, both experienced and point-and-shoot type of travelers, and were led on a nature hike at Mendenall Glacier followed by an amazing small boat ride to search for whales.  This tour did not disappoint.  We saw amazing whale activity, enjoyed breathtaking views of Mendenhall Glacier, experienced beautiful plant and animal life, and learned some helpful photo tips along the way.

IMG_3091Japanese Hot Rock at Izumi, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas.  My daughter, with whom I traveled on a cruise to Canada aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, is an avid fan of Japanese food.  So it was only natural we had to try Izumi, the newly-added Japanese restaurant to the ship’s roster of onboard eateries.  I decided to be adventurous and try grilling my own dinner right at our table, all by myself, with just a 550-degree blazing hot rock, some steak, vegetables and a spatula.  Like the waiter said, if it came out bad, I had only myself to blame.  Not much of a griller at home, and steak not being my specialty, I was a little intimidated.  However, it turned out to be lots of fun and the highlight of my onboard dining experience.

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