Category Archives: Destinations

Westerdam Gets Warm Welcome to Wales

When a cruise ship pulls up in Naples, or Helsinki, or even Edinburgh, there’s a bit of a collective ho-hum yawn from the citizenry. Understandable, of course, when you see ships (and the thousands they disgorge) daily during spring, summer and autumn).

So it sure feels fantastic when you hear that a port is really excited to know you’re coming. In this case, a story this week in North Wales Dailypost.co.uk, notes that Westerdam’s visit on Saturday is the biggest-ever by a cruise ship (at least since a new jetty has been built). We’ll be welcomed ashore by Clare Jones, a Royal harpist.

In fact, so far we’ve had musical entertainment to welcome us (and send us on our way) in Rotterdam and Portland. It makes a fantastic first and last impression.

CSB

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I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside

Weymouth seafront

Where do you really go when your cruise ship docks at England’s Portland? You go to the seaside resort of Weymouth! Our cruise was officially underway Tuesday with Portland, on the Dorset coast, as our first port of call. This is a new destination for me (have spent a lot of time in Brighton, Southampton and in various delightful New Forest towns and villages but haven’t gotten this far west) and you can figure out a lot about a port stop by reading between the lines.

In this case, the fact that most of the ship tours were heading away from the port (Stonehenge was a big draw) was one sign. That the shuttle bus that took us from ship to town ferried us to Weymouth rather than Portland, well that’s another. It’s a little weird that all the info the ship provided was about Portland, rather than Weymouth, as if the onboard folks didn’t realize we were stopped here, at the former, to go there, to the latter.

On a longer cruise like this one (anything over 7 days I consider “long” and the more I cruise the more I love the more-than-a-week trips because there’s just more time to both explore on land and relax onboard), the best first port is a low-key stop.

Summertime in Weymouth

Now, while Weymouth, in the height of its summer seaside glory, was anything but low-key, the port is a reasonably relaxed one; there are no major pressures to trod from museum to museum and from historic relics to old castles.

The Weymouth tourism folks who greeted us at the dock  recommended a place to rent a bike, as I had planned  to go into town and find a great bike path to get some exercise and also see the place. But it didn’t in the end work out. In fact, quite boringly (but yet oddly satisfying), I spent time ashore picking up some miscellany for my husband at Marks and Spencer, bought a few books and magazines at W.H. Smith, and then headed across the bridge for a long, lazy meal at Lane’s, where a delicious two-course lunch was £10.95 (the local crab salad starter with a tomato and mango salsa is a winner).

Today, at Guernsey’s St. Peter Port, is another fun day – yes, there’s history here, but it’s also a terrific shopping port. After this, we’ll get serious!

CSB

P.S. By the way, Portland will be host of the 2012 Olympics sailing competitions….

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Join us as we cruise around Britain & Ireland

If an around-the-region Great Britain/Ireland cruise may seem a little bit too “in my own back yard” style of holiday – well you might be surprised.  This style of cruise is actually the hottest thing going not just around Ireland and the U.K. but also in Australia. (The U.S. would be a fantastic itinerary as well – can you imagine a trip that goes from Boston round to Miami, over to New Orleans, and then through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles and onward to Alaska? Unfortunately, antiquated American laws make it difficult to try such a itinerary.)

Anyway, I’ll be sharing vignettes from my 10-night cruise onboard Holland America’s Westerdam. We start off today from Rotterdam (photo taken this morning shows the ship heading up Holland’s Nieuwe Maas or New Meuse river, from our balcony in the fantastically retro Hotel New York). Then we head for ports of call that include Portland, Guernsey, Waterford, Dublin, Holyhead, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle, before returning to Rotterdam (the blog ends at Newcastle, however, as we’re hopping off the ship there).

I hope you’ll come along – and feel free to share your insights, opinions and questions.

CSB

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3 reasons to take an “exotic” Northern Europe cruise

If in cruise line marketing efforts, Northern Europe is largely defined through itineraries that focus on the great Nordic capitals or that dip into Norway’s fjords, well…that’s not all there is to the region. On a genuinely enticing itinerary this week aboard Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Journey, in which only the homeport of Copenhagen represented any destination even remotely on the trodden track, I discovered three reasons why an exotic ports cruise of northern Europe offers amazing adventures:

Azamara Journey in Orkney

*We’re the only ship in port. Forget the cruise hordes that flock to Nordic cities on summer days – ports on our route, like Reykjavik, the Orkney Islands’ Kirkwall, and the Faroe Islands’ Torshavn were one-ship towns. Locals seemed genuinely welcoming and at  attractions, from the Orkney Islands’ well-known Ring of Brodgar – an early Bronze Age precursor to Stonehenge – to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, the atmosphere was reasonably laid back and crowds were manageable.

*In summer don’t you want to be outside? “If there is such a thing as fun, this is it!” shrieked fellow passenger Justin Hilliard, a teenager from Nashville. He was talking about the “fjord and sea safari by RIB” excursion in Torshavn and he was right. The first boat ride I’ve ever taken wearing a helmet, the 12-seater can go as fast as 55 knots (trust me, the meek do not want to sit in the front seat) while you sit on a pommel-horse contraption and hold on for dear life.

Speed boat

The speed boat takes time as well to meander in and out of seriously gorge-beautiful fjords, weaving in and out of caves so narrow and low-slung (hence the need for helmets) that you can see where the rock formations were burned when they were hurtled out of a volcano eons ago to form the islands that make up the Faroes.  You also get up-close views of the myriad rock platforms where puffins have made their homes.

Faroe Islands boat tour

Just to make the experience a little bit different, the captain plays 1980s’ rock tunes; in the caves the audio reverberates against the rocks. And for cruise ship fans, the neatest moment was when he nudged the inflatable boat right up against Journey’s hull.

Iceland's landscape

*Do something daring! Azamara’s recently revamped its shore excursion menu to add numerous options not just for recreation but also for adventure. Iceland’s Reykjavik, famed for its “white nights” summer bacchanals, is a delightful urban capital, easy to explore independently. But less easy and more challenging is a visit to the rugged interior. While quite far from the troublesome volcanic duo of Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla (the former of course disrupted international travel this spring after a s eries of eruptions and the latter is reputedly on the cusp of a major eruption), our trip, via a Ford Club Wagon “Super Jeep” (used to cross Antarctica and also the deserts of the Middle East) wasn’t pretty but sure did capture an aspect of Iceland.

Roughly equitable to traveling down a farm lane studded with post-winter potholes, we crossed through lava fields, ascended steep off-road mini mountains, and splashed through a mighty river.

On a jeep in Iceland

Other ports visited on this cruise on Azamara Journey included Norway’s Geiranger, Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands, and Iceland’s Akeyuri.

Exotic spin-offs of mainstream cruises aren’t limited by any means to Northern Europe. For you, which offbeat ports in the Mediterranean do you think would make a memorable cruise more memorable?

CSB

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St. Thomas – No Longer a Caribbean Paradise?

In the aftermath of a tragedy – a 14-year-old girl, a passenger on Carnival Victory, was shot to death on the island of St. Thomas yesterday — people are understandably wondering if that Caribbean island is no longer a paradise.

Actually, it hasn’t been paradise for a long time.

A new post on the St. Thomas Blog, which generally focuses on the island’s charms, sums it up well:  “Today is the saddest day of my residency in St. Thomas because today I can no longer tell tourists, readers, locals and anyone else that St. Thomas is safe. It’s not. Criminals aren’t just killing criminals, they’re killing innocents.”

St. Thomas (along with other Caribbean isles with the same urban problems as many of the world’s big cities) hasn’t been safe in eons. This is not a secret, especially not among cruise line executives, politicians, tourism officials and residents. In a statement reacting to yesterday’s gang shootout, the U.S.V.I. governor John P. De Jongh, Jr. notes that “What we are experiencing today is the result of many years of neglect which we can no longer tolerate. Everyone must rise up against those who continue to wage violent crime on our streets.”

Fighting words? Not exactly. But it does seem that the citizens of St. Thomas feel powerless to effect change.

That’s exactly how I’d feel if I lived there now. That’s exactly how I felt when in fact I did live on the island – way back in 2000 – when gangs ran rampant, when random violence was common, when the only time you really felt safe was when you were hanging out in tourist areas. Yesterday’s tragic turn of events tells us now that you’re not safe even in those places.

Should cruise lines pull out of St. Thomas altogether? It’s a fair question. Would you want to go there now? This isn’t meant to punish some really fine folks who live there, who put their hearts not only into what makes it potentially such a beautiful vacation destination but also into improving the community in which they live. But the U.S. Virgin Islands needs to get this house in order.

Ironically, one of the most positive memories I have of my time there came about after a young man was shot and paralyzed from the waist down while in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’ main city (and arguably the premier duty free shopping mecca in the Caribbean). Islanders reacted by volunteering to host “Bringing Peace to Paradise,” a music festival that aimed to motivate residents to fight crime – and provide the former surfer with funds needed to pay for surgeries and, hopefully, to help him walk again. The powerful spirit of the volunteers, who came together from so many different life paths and offered such a variety of skills, created a glow of goodwill that penetrated into some pretty dark spots. At least for a short while.

But without lasting peace, you can’t have paradise.

I ask again: should cruise lines pull out of St. Thomas? Should you vote with the power you have – to choose Caribbean cruises where St. Thomas is not on the itinerary?

Perhaps it would be the wakeup call that the island needs to make a significant and lasting charge against the runaway violence that plagues it now. Perhaps the local leadership would be wise to understand why St. Croix, the largest American virgin island, and one replete with attractions, gorgeous scenery, great surfing, pristine beaches and charming small towns, went from being a popular cruise port to one that, because of crime that wasn’t battled, has become almost nonexistent.

CSB

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Get an eyeful of Eyjafjallajokull

I’m probably tempting fate, talking about Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano and the dark days of the ash cloud. On the other hand, it’s peak season for cruises to Iceland and I’ll bet it’s the first topic of conversation for anybody cruising to Reykjavik.

So why not splash out on a scenic flight over the volcano, ash plume permitting? Several cruise lines, including Voyages of Discovery, Azamara, P&O Cruises and Fred. Olsen, offer a light aircraft flight of an hour and a half, zooming in low over the smouldering beast. Amusingly, P&O’s website is the only one I visited that acknowledges the recent eruption; the others word the description of the tour as though nothing had ever happened.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupting/Shutterstock

Eyjafjallajokull in full flow in May 2010

The flightseeing tour (which costs £200 upwards) is undeniably breathtaking and you’ll see other unpronounceable geological features, like Tindfjallajokull, Blahnjukur and the river Jokulgilsa. And the volcano Hekla, of course, reckoned to be the next Big One, Eyjafjallajokull having merely been a supporting act.

Meanwhile, in preparation for your visit, check out Cruise Critic member FlyerTalker’s cringe-worthy volcano humour here!

And for the armchair traveller, here’s a webcam, which shows Eyjafjallajokull itself, steaming peacefully. For now.

SJB

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The last word

Okay, for the last word on NCL’s Norwegian Epic (well we make no promises — but this is the last word for awhile!), check out this Cruise Critic interview on U.S. radio magnet Peter Greenberg’s national show. It’s a frisky look at what works and doesn’t on the ship : http://bit.ly/ap9Gwx. Cruise Critic also got a very nice shout out from the BBC’s Fast Track program on Epic-related opinions but it’s not available to watch in the U.K. so…sorry about that.

And if you’re catching up on cruise news and reviews this weekend, here are a couple of other Cruise Critic stories from this week worth checking out:

*Strikes in Greece have impacted cruise travel (and travel in general) in Athens this week; we’re keeping an eye on the situation throughout the weekend: http://bit.ly/cOalRE.

*If you’ve ever thought about heading to Glastonbury for the famed rock festival (or more probably if you’re reading this blog, you haven’t ever considered such an experience — but maybe you know someone who has?), a cruise ship rock festival is a lot more intimate and you don’t have to deal with mud (and tents). Check out this virtual slideshow on sister site Cruisecritic.com (http://bit.ly/avNuI0 ) as Dan Askin takes us along with him on a trip aboard Carnival Inspiration. He keeps it pretty clean!

*For the latest reviews from Cruise Critic members just off ships, check out brand new submissions from Independence of the Seas, Thomson Celebration, Island Escape and Azamara Quest. Start here: http://www.cruisecritic.co.uk/reviews/.

Have a great weekend!

CSB

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