Quebec City – Our Canada/New England Cruise Begins

fullsizeoutput_30f5And David and I were off … on another cruise, this one beginning in Quebec City, ending in New York. The plan originally was to rent a car and drive to Quebec City, but Air Canada had $99 fares, too good to pass on. Even when adding in the seat and bag fees, it was a lot quicker and cheaper to fly. My brother generously offered to pick us up at 4:30 in the morning for the ride to Boston’s Logan airport. I don’t know if I could have done the same AND have been so cheerful at that hour.

fullsizeoutput_30f9This Day #1 of the trip was David’s birthday, so what could be better than a flight to Canada to celebrate! Plus, we were to meet up with our good cruise buddies, Andi and Ed, and spend a few days exploring the city before we all boarded the Caribbean Princess, a ship we love – and oddly doing a northern route instead of the tropics it was named for. Go figure.Loved the plane on the first leg, by the way. Rows were 2-seaters on each aisle with no dreaded middle seat. I like to think it’s the big weight loss for both of us over the last year, but these seats definitely felt roomier than normal for economy.  

We finally arrived in Quebec City after a 3-hour layover in Toronto, and took an hour-long taxi ride in some pretty heavy rush-hour traffic, happily arriving at our destination hotel for a 2-night stay, the iconic Hotel Chateau Frontenac.wMyzWWGzQ62XbzNlwFHILw

Imagine our joy when the desk clerk at check-in announced that we’d been upgraded to Gold Class, and with that upgrade came access to the VIP lounge with free breakfast and more. The trade off was a room on the scaffolding side of the building being renovated, not a problem if you don’t mind workmen appearing outside your window and loud sandblasting starting at 9 a.m. The only time it was a bother was the last morning when we were re-packing the bags and spent a significant amount of time in the room. Otherwise, this beautiful and magnificent hotel lives up to its expectations, and you can feel the history within its walls. The room was luxurious and classy, though a little dark due to construction apparatus blocking a good amount of natural light. The hotel’s location, however, couldn’t be better for seeing Quebec. In all its glorious state overlooking the city, restaurants, shops and attractions are located just a short walk away, and if that’s not enough, an invigorating hike or the funicular down the steep hill to the Old Town is not far away.

Ja9dy5wHRtu0pWorw5dx4gA stay at a classic, historic hotel calls for an activity of equal class, so the four of us signed up for the Frontenac’s High Tea, complete with singer, piano accompaniment, a variety of teas to choose from and delicious finger food served in fine china by a friendly waiter. It was all so Downton Abbey-ish, except with a French flair instead of British. Even my husband, who has never showed any love for tea, seemed to be getting a big kick out of the whole experience! 

While we were in town, we took a 2-hour guided walking tour with Tours Voir Quebec for a good overview of the city, starting at the Frontenac, and downhill past Citadel, Place Royale, and ending in the lower old city. The day was not the best, as it was hot, humid and rained heavily nearly the entire trek down the hill. Fortunately, we came prepared with rain gear and enjoyed the tour and the exercise nonetheless. Still, we were tired, wet and not willing to make the steep uphill climb, so we boarded the  funicular and were whisked up the hill back to the Frontenac in just minutes.

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A stay in Quebec City would not be complete without sampling some of the city’s fine cuisine, and our friends Andi and Ed made advance reservations at two of the many cozy bistros in town, Chez Jules and Bistro Sous le Fort. Unfortunately, the outdoor tables were all spoken for in both cases, so we dined inside.  

Chez Jules was just a short, convenient 2-minute walk away from the hotel, and like many French bistros, the place was charming, but a bit small and cramped. It was particularly hot and stuffy inside on this steamy, humid night due to the lack of air conditioning. Our waiter, though, was great, had a good sense of humor, and served up some good French fare. To cool off after the meal, we bought ice cream at the shop next door, sat outside and watched the people stroll by. 

Better, still, was our meal at the charming Bistro Sous le Fort located in Old Quebec at the bottom of the hill conveniently by the funicular. Ambiance was nice, decor pleasant, and though the bistro was small, it didn’t feel as cramped or stuffy as Chez. Service was great and food delicious and well prepared. I had poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy) for the first time ever (despite my French Canadian roots), and it was good; but, then again, I have nothing to compare it to.

fullsizeoutput_30ffQuebec City is a charming city with an old-France feeling, and we loved walking the narrow cobblestone streets, passing by the outdoor cafes, boutiques and shops and listening to the conversations in French along the way. I definitely would love to return and spend more time here. From the Frontenac we had a beautiful view of the Caribbean Princess on the St. Lawrence river below, awaiting our arrival.ExodZ7eiRkS3n2It0Y2XaA1g62u3nxRASqNYteSW33qQ%FVwzb+dSpi0jfxPti7FvQ

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Emerald Princess: A Stormy Start and First Impressions

In attempt to keep the costs down for this cruise, we initially booked an inside cabin. However, the price dropped and we were able to upgrade to a standard balcony at no extra cost. I wondered, would a balcony even be usable on a cruise like this, one in which driving rain and wind kept everyone inside? First things first … get the balcony door open. We pulled and yanked to no avail, but finally the door slid open so that we could barely see the skyline and Statue of Liberty through the mist. Come to find out, when we had trouble with the door later that evening, we were told by our very gracious cabin attendant, Grace, that the wind makes it hard to pull the door open, to lean into the door and then pull. Whew … what a relief! I didn’t want to gaze at the scenery through a rain-slicked window!

Once we looked around the cabin, I realized what I love about Princess staterooms – the fact that the space is much more functional and usable than the Norwegian cabins we’ve become accustomed to. I like having a desk more than a couch, for instance. The couch becomes a place to throw stuff, whereas a desk has drawers to hide things away. Love the Princess beds, as well, and their comfy beds are everything they advertise. The bathroom is compact but leaves enough room to move. The large flatscreen TV is mounted on the wall directly across from the bed, freeing up precious counter space and making TV viewing convenient without having to strain your neck.

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This ship is absolutely gorgeous, and even though the weather kept most people inside, it didn’t feel crowded. The decorating  scheme is tasteful, done in muted colors, using lots of mirrors and creative lighting to make it look ever so elegant. Artwork throughout the ship is sophisticated, matching the elegant tone and design of the ship. The Atrium is absolutely stunning. A special mention goes to the Seawalk, a very cool walkway extending out from the upper decks over the ocean with views at your feet 15 decks below to the water. Pretty awesome, and not as scary as I thought it would be.

We have recently learned, after many a cruise, to head to our muster station about 15 minutes before the required drill alarm is sounded. In this case, our muster station was the Concerto dining room, to which we leisurely made our way, and had our choice of seats. We have also discovered other like-minded seasoned passengers who do the same – we saw one couple playing cards to occupy their time.

We had intended on stopping by Club 6 for the Elite cocktail party at 5:00 pm but found ourselves at the Wine Bar, instead, off the Atrium for sail away. The weather was too nasty for a proper deck party, so the festivities were moved inside. Being our first time in a wine bar, we decided to try a “flight”, which we learned was a set of three 2-ounce wine samples. Even though the menu showed 8 different groupings, strangely enough, only two were available. I chose the European, and David chose the Italian. We were soon joined by three other friendly people From Long Island, adding some great lively conversation to our wine sampling.

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Due to the storm, sail-away was delayed by about 90 minutes. By then, some of the mist had cleared, and we had a decent nighttime view of both the NYC skyline, Lady Liberty and the Norwegian Breakaway heading into port.

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Cruising Regal Princess to Canada – the Journey Begins

I remember my husband and I being aboard the Ocean Princess back in 2012 and watching a preview of the soon to premier Royal Princess. The new design looked so beautiful, with her large open atrium and understated elegance, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until we would sail this new class of Princess ship. However, it wasn’t until sister ship Regal Princess entered the picture a few years later that we were finally able to consider a cruise aboard the biggest ship in the Princess fleet. When I saw the Regal Princess was sailing a 5-night cruise to the Canadian Maritimes from New York in late October, I convinced my husband to juggle his schedule around in order to accommodate this short cruise, and it didn’t take much to convince my brother Norm and his wife, frequent cruise buddies, to join us! fullsizeoutput_2769

The big day was finally here. The only slight blip on the horizon was the forecast of a nor’easter heading our way, threatening our sailing. As a result, instead of the 4-hour drive from Rhode Island to Brooklyn on the morning of the cruise, we drove down the night before with a stay an hour away from the Red Hook port, in Stamford, CT. This was a good move, because it made for a much less stressful drive for my brother, and we arrived relaxed and ready to cruise!

fullsizeoutput_276cWe arrived at the port at 11:00 am in pouring rain, where Norm dropped off us and our bags, and went to park the car. Being Princess Elite, I was able to escort us all through priority embarkation quick and easy, and we were on board and in our cabins by noon. One of those fabulous things I love about Princess … the rooms are always ready after boarding. No need for schlepping your stuff around while occupying your time until rooms are ready. We dropped off our stuff, checked out the room (more about that later), admired the fog, rain and mist from the balcony (I think I spot the NYC skyline ever so slightly), and is that Lady Liberty peering at us through the haze?). In just a short time, we were off to explore the ship!

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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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