Category Archives: Destinations

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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What do you really want from a port of call?

Every now and then, one of the opinion polls in the Cruise Critic message boards captures the imagination of our members and fires off a spirited debate.

The one I’m referring to (it’s here: http://tinyurl.com/2felwxo) was inspired by the announcement a few months ago by Azamara Cruises that it was going to offer more port-intensive itineraries, with deeper ‘immersion’ in the local culture. We asked you what cruise lines should do to improve the whole destination experience – a question that’s particularly relevant as the Mediterranean, where culture is one of the main attractions, enters its peak season.

Personally, I would have ticked nearly all the boxes; surely anything that makes it easier to explore the local culture is a good thing? As it turned out, though, everybody has a different idea!

Top billing went to the suggestion that cruise lines provide suggestions for independent exploration, like self-guided walks; 58.48 percent of the respondents voted for this. Similarly, more authentic port lecturers, who actually lived in the ports of call, would be popular, as would an alert to any festivals going on when the ship was in port. More food and wine from the region in which the ship was travelling got the thumbs up from 57.75 percent, while 53.17 percent wanted free destination information. And by that, I imagine they don’t mean photocopied maps of the shopping area.

The ensuing discussion pointed out that we’d missed out more overnights in port, which I imagine would be a winner (and in the case of Azamara, is beginning to happen).

What made me smile was the universal slamming of the dreaded ‘shopping programme’, whereby a ‘lecturer’ advises the willing on board where to shop in port. Needless to say, the cruise line gets a kickback for any purchases made.

Member SeaStar2 wanted “Port talks that don’t stress shopping but rather the history and culture of the ports….better maps that show something besides the stores in an area.”

Member MrsMuir was less charitable: “The so-called port ambassadors should walk the plank, and port lecturers should take their place.”

Member Hlitner, meanwhile, has a conspiracy theory: “The dirty truth about cruise lines is their main interest in ports is selling their own overpriced excursions. Cruise line excursions are a nice profit center for cruise lines who increasingly rely on-board expenditures to fatten the bottom line. Many cruise lines no longer provide any good information for travelers who want to do things on their own.”

Strong stuff. And may I put in my own request for improving the local experience? Although 38.03 percent thought it was a good idea to bring local entertainers on board, does it always have to be the ubiquitous ‘folkloric’ show? I’m all for a spot of impromptu Greek dancing after dinner in a taverna (after enough retsina) or taking a flamenco class in Spain but how many of you really attend/enjoy/remember yet another display from a handkerchief-waving dance troupe with, heaven forbid, audience participation?

Shout me down if I’m wrong, though!

SJB

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Southhampton Needs to Spruce Up

What does it say to you about Southampton’s appeal as a pre- or post-cruise destination that the top ranking hotel on TripAdvisor is not a place down on the city’s quite lovely waterfront – but the Premier Inn Southampton Airport?

Clearly Southampton wins, hands down, when it comes to be the U.K.’s busiest home port. So a lot of us have little choice if we’re cruising from England (Dover’s way behind). Southampton has a lot of quiet charms – and quite a bit of potential — but after my most recent stay here it seems that its hotels, in particular (which are a key aspect of a pre- or post-cruise visit) have gotten smug and lazy. Let’s put it this way: It’s no Barcelona.

The hotels that are located in cruise-centric places are primarily a utilitarian Novotel and Ibis (nothing wrong with cheap and cheerful but it’s not exciting). Numerous friends have grumbled about the Holiday Inn on the Solent. At the DeVere Grand Harbour Hotel, which is considered the city’s top-rated hostelry, it would appear that there have been few if any upgrades since the place opened in 1994. Beds are lumpy, rooms are tired, there aren’t many contemporary amenities (slow Ethernet, no Internet, lousy selection of television channels, fans in rooms in place of better air system). One caveat here is its balcony rooms; snag one that overlooks the Solent and you won’t care about the limitations!). Speaking of which – this photo of Celebrity Eclipse was snapped this morning from just one such balcony as the sun began to creep over the horizon at 4:15 a.m.!

With one exception – the delightful boutique hotel Ennios, which lies at the foot of the Red Funnel ferry and is a six-room place atop its own delightful Italian restaurant – the best way to sleep well in Southampton is to get out of town. Otherwise, New Forest-area places like Hotel Terravina and Lime Wood are superb spots for splurge stays.

Do you have a favorite Southampton (area) hotel? Tell us about it.

CSB

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What’s your best exotic cruise? Mine’s….

Sometimes, reliving memories of a really special cruise is almost as fun as taking it. When Thomas Cook Magazine asked Cruise Critic editor in chief Carolyn Spencer Brown about her favorite exotic cruise, she didn’t have to search back too far to find one:

“Burma, Bombay, Cochin and Dubai were key ports on my best-ever far-flung cruise. The 17-night trip on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony, which we took last year, and which started from Singapore, featured a rather unprecedented three full days in Burma (more accurately known these days as Myanmar), which was definitely the exotic highlight. It’s tropical and steamy, beautiful and poor, very poor, but with shrines and historic sites that are simply incredible to visit. Cruise ships visit rarely in Burma; one fantastic memory was of our first venture into Yangon, about an hour’s drive from our ship. Treated as VIPs, uniformed officers stood at major intersections to make sure our buses were permitted to pass through, red lights or not! People stood on the side of the road and waved and smiled.

“Other ports that intrigued enough to make a longer return visit include India’s Cochin (we want to sample a backwaters cruise in its chain of lakes and rivers in Kerala), Bombay, with its English-inspired monuments, and Dubai, for the admittedly indulgent chance to shop and shop and shop.

“Because the itinerary was so exotic, our days in port were understandably intense – we didn’t want to miss anything if we could help it. So what also contributed to making our Symphony cruise a great one is that there were plenty of sea days mixed in, so we could rest up, recharge and relax between port calls. Crystal has a fantastic enrichment program (from current affairs lectures to port-related talks to foreign languages and arts and crafts workshops). There were wine tastings and cooking lessons and health-oriented speeches. Or you could just kick-back, enjoy the best service and cuisine at sea – and watch the sea go by. The balance was perfection….”

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