What’s Your Favourite Travel Blog?

I stumbled across a lovely story about cruising on Jetcruise.com’s blog this morning (thanks for the shout out!) and it occurred to me that there are probably lots of new blogs about travel (cruise or otherwise) that we haven’t yet discovered. Ours is new — going on two months now — and the blog on Jetcruise.com, which I’d never seen before, made me wonder: What else is out there that we should be reading every day, whether its really good honest critique on cruise ports — or other cruise blogs?

We already do know, and have paid much kudos to cruise line blogs, such as Cunard’s weekly missives and John Heald’s Carnival blog. Check out our story on the best cruise line blogs.

Other favorites include blogs written by fellow journalists, such as Captain Greybeard’s on the Daily Mirror’s website and Jane Archer’s tales on Travel Weekly.

CSB

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I Am So Sorry

As I bounced up to a motorcoach yesterday on the pier at Greenock that would take us on a tour where we’d spend the day riding bicycles and paddling in canoes at Scotland’s Loch Lomond, my proffered shore excursion ticket was met by Westerdam’s shore manager with a stern “where’s your sticker?” I don’t have a sticker, I said, puzzled. I have a ticket.

What followed was a mini lecture in which, not having followed the rules (indeed the ticket did instruct me to check in to my tour by going to the Queens Lounge but I had missed that bit of detail), I would now delay our group while I returned to the ship to pick up that dratted sticker. The sticker is important, she said, because it’s is the only way we’ll know you’re here (though my name was actually on the ticket). I eyed the walkie talkie that the shore excursion manager wore on her hip and asked: You can’t just call them and let them know?

Ultimately, she capitulated to reason and allowed me to board the bus. And let’s be clear here: I was absolutely at fault for not following directions. But the exchange, and the staffer’s manner, which I’d charitably describe as rather too abrupt, reminded me for the first time in a week that I was part of a mass travel experience, a cog in a wheel of more than 2,000 passengers.

And it reminded me too of one downside of big ship cruising: When cruise staff treat their systems and procedures as more important than the customers they serve – with the obvious exception of situations related to health and safety – they unnecessarily denigrate the experience.

Come to think of it, a too-rigid passion for rules is not limited to large cruise ships with thousands of passengers. Cruise Critic’s Dan Askin, sailing on a Rhine River cruise on AMAWATERWAY’s Amacello last summer, tells in his review of an incident in which his traveling companion arrived for breakfast five minutes before the dining room was open for business. Instead of graciously offering to fetch her a cup of coffee and make her comfortable until the restaurant was open, they told her to go away and come back later.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget another incident when I unknowingly didn’t follow the rules and never even knew it. On a cruise on Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa from Muscat to Athens, our itinerary featured quite a few “turn your clock forward one hour” and “turn it back!” evenings. It got a little confusing. One morning I showed up for breakfast promptly at 7 a.m. and was a bit surprised to see that the superb buffet crew didn’t have it quite together (also perplexing: where were the other passengers? Perhaps they were sleeping in?). Only half the buffet was laid out, the grill wasn’t staffed. No matter, there was enough on the buffet to suffice, and a waiter promptly took an omelet order and brought me fresh-squeezed orange juice.

It wasn’t until I got back to my cabin that I realized that, due to a time change, I’d arrived at the dining room an hour before it opened. The crew could’ve sent me away. Instead they didn’t even let me know that I posed an inconvenience.  Their gracious attitude was incredibly heartwarming.

For passengers, one of the challenges of cruising is that you’re on vacation. As with any getaway, your brain slows down a bit (that’s a good thing!); as well, cruising is a unique kind of holiday. You are visiting different ports every day, adapting not just to one foreign land but in most cases to numerous countries.  As on this trip on Westerdam, as well, the crew has been so wonderful that you can be excused for feeling as if you were lulled into pampered euphoria. So you let your guard down a little bit. And maybe we’ve all inadvertently caused a bit of chaos or inconvenience at some point because we didn’t follow the rules.

Which made me wonder: Have you ever experienced a situation on a cruise when you’ve “messed up” and the cruise line staffers not only handled the situation but rose above the proverbial call of duty? I’m thinking just now of two different recent incidents (one on Disney Magic in Civitavecchia and one on Westerdam in Holyhead) in which passengers on independent shore tours arrived back at the ship as it was pulling away and the captain reversed course to capture them even though the rules said – be on time or get yourself to the next port.

I’m sure you’ve got others. Please share your story with us.

CSB

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Cruising the Med on Ruby Princess

While Carolyn, our editor-in-chief, explores Britain on Holland America Line’s Westerdam, I’m heading off to the sunshine and sailing on Ruby Princess  from Rome to Venice, via Monaco, Livorno, Naples and the Greek Islands. 

Ruby Princess

It may be a slightly unconventional trip. As I have my children (aged 11 and 13) with me, we’ll probably skip Ephesus and shop for bling in the market in Kusadasi, while there are demands for a beach trip from Katakolon instead of a cultural day at Olympia.

For Corfu, I’ve already located the Aqualand theme park and the bus that will get us there. The only concession to sightseeing my kids have made is Pompeii.

The way I see it, it’s going to be extremely hot and this is a family holiday, not my personal cultural odyssey around the ancient Mediterranean. So I’m contenting myself with the fact that in the absence of much that their school teachers would approve of, my kids will at least experience a bit of local culture, as they’ll be travelling by Italian train, Corfiot bus, Greek donkey (in Santorini) and on foot up to the crater of Vesuvius after Pompeii.

On board, we intend to eat our way round the ship (happy memories from previous meals in Sabatini’s!), check out the kids’ club (them), go to the gym every day (me, famous last words), celebrate a birthday and watch movies under the stars.

I’ll also be attending my first Cruise Critic ‘meet ‘n’ mingle’, having signed up to the roll call for this cruise, and am looking forward to meeting some ‘real’ members, instead of virtual ones!

Keep checking back as it’s going to be a busy week on the Cruise Critic blog! SJB

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Filed under Family Cruises, Mediterranean Cruise

Waterford – No Longer Just Crystal

Waterford

When big ships like Westerdam call list Waterford as a port of call they’re really stopping at Dunmore East, a small village with a picturesque harbor that’s about a 30-plus minute drive from the bigger city.

It’s also a bit of a hassle from the ship as this is a tender port, which means Westerdam doesn’t dock in town; it anchors out in the harbor and transports passengers via tenders, also known as lifeboats. That adds another 45 minutes or so to the journey (leaving time to queue on either end and then the 20 minute, very beautiful ride to the town dock).

Dunmore East, which sits high on craggy rock cliffs, looks sweet and charming but there are few shops or services here (I did learn that Powers is the pub to visit but alas, no time). To get to Waterford itself you can take a taxi for about 25 Euro or, as the region laid on a shuttle, pay 4 Euro each way to ride a motorcoach; you’re dropped right by the slick and splashy tourist center. It’s got a museum, a few shops and a cafe.

For a long time Waterford’s claim to fame is of course the presence of the mighty Waterford Crystal factory. The company was sold and most operations moved away (some pieces, particularly large commissions and trophies and such, are still made here), but that’s left the city with a marketing challenge. Though it’s got quite a lot of history – dating back well before the year I was born! – its 17th century history is the most evident, lying at the bank of the River Suir (particularly notable are restored parts of a medieval wall).

It’s clear too, on this short visit that even beyond the significant loss of much of the crystal industry, Waterford has really struggled with the recession.

Here are some snaps from the day:

Waterford's Christ Church Cathedral

Unusually for a town of Waterford’s relatively small size, it’s got two cathedrals. Even more unusually, the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral and the Catholic Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity were designed by the same architect. The former, pictured here, is one of the most beautiful, in a simple way, Anglican churches I’ve ever seen; walls are a buttercream color and it oozes peace and serenity.  Holy Trinity is also simple in its own way (having just come off a trip to Italy, where churches are crammed with art and artifacts, it’s really really plain!), and is also beautiful but a bit moodier.

You can see a number of deserted storefronts throughout the city’s retail area, but what I liked most about the shops is that so many had a local feel to them. You could find a handful of High Street chains like Debenhams, Monsoon, Boots and Next but they weren’t overpowering.

This sign, in Kilo’s Food Store, is pretty self-explanatory, don’t you think?!

Kilo's Food Store

The Hemporium purports to be a wacky, 1960s-like counterculture boutique with a “name your own price” bong collection and packaged herbs with brand names like Doobies that, according to the shop girl, are ersatz versions that have the same effect as the real thing.

the hemporium

Ireland of course is a country of readers and there’s no shortage of them here in Waterford. I don’t know though, this fantastic bookstore (with coffee bar and gift shop) has made it so comfortable to sit and stay for awhile, it feels more like a really swell library than a commercial enterprise.

Get into a good book in Waterford

Pick up a book, sit down and have a read!

One of the city’s best restaurants is La Boheme which alas, wasn’t open for lunch. But L’Atmosphere, a French country bistro, was – and it was magnificent (the duck confit, served in an iron pot, was superb).

L'Atmosphere is ranked #12 on TripAdvisor's Waterford restaurant picks

The House of Waterford Crystal is described as a “fascinating visitor centre and crystal factory tour and an opulent retail store housing the largest collection of Waterford Crystal”.

To me it felt like a tourist trap with little authenticity (but a very nice loo if you need one) and very high prices on the crystal. When I popped in it seemed as if half the passengers from Westerdam were mingling around (most of whom were on shore tours).

Westerdam waits for us in Dunmore East

We’re heading back to Westerdam from East Dunmore across a pretty rocky bay with swells so deep you expected wavelets to break into the tender. Alas, the ride was dry if a bit of a roller coaster and we set off this evening, under gloomy skies (that seem to be sticking with us).

CSB

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Eye Openers in Guernsey

Having visited Guernsey’s St. Peter Port several times on cruise ship calls and loving it (it’s definitely on the list for a more in-depth, non-cruise-related holiday in future), I looked forward to yesterday’s call there on Westerdam. But this time I got a chance to learn about the island without actually setting foot off the ship!

This time, a bit of Guernsey came to Westerdam.

We had reached out to local journalists Mark Windsor and Nicci Martel from the Guernsey Press and Star, and Claire Brouard, from Island FM radio, with an invitation to come onboard the ship for lunch, a tour, and good conversation. The afternoon delivered on all three counts.

From left to right, Mark Windsor and Nicci Martel from the Guernsey Press and Star, and Claire Brouard, from Island FM radio

Some interesting tidbits:

*First, the complicated stuff and I only include this info because Mark tells me that Brits often don’t really get what Guernsey is all about:  Guernsey is one of England’s Channel Islands and a British Crown Dependency. Sark, Isle of Man and Jersey are among others. They’re not part of the U.K. – they’re a separate possession of the Crown.

*Remember “Bergerac”? The popular 1980s cop show was actually based in Jersey but gave the Channel Islands a big jolt as a tourist destination at the time. The basic gist of the series was, according to Wikipedia, “the blend of holiday locations, the island’s tax exile millionaire populace and, of course, some unsavoury criminals.” Our Guernsey journalists were stunned to learn from my Finnish husband that the show was such a huge hit in Finland that charter air and package tours were created to ferry Finns to the Channel Islands.

*Did you know that Guernsey’s big “crop” is money? It’s a banking mecca on the scale of Bermuda and the Caymans. The next big industry is tourism; horticulture’s on the wane but islanders do grow tomatoes and flowers (I’m told the gorgeously scented freesia is the most common flower)

*There was a spirited debate about Guernsey’s awareness among travelers. My husband, Teijo Niemela, who’s editor of Cruise Business Review (www.cruisebusiness.com), a cruise industry business to business magazine, and who joined us for lunch, really peppered the trio with questions about why the Channel Islands doesn’t market itself more aggressively to cruise lines.

*It’s almost as expensive to live here as it is in London! Claire, who’s shopping for a home, regaled us with tales of too-small, garden-less condos here that were more expensive than detached homes with big backyards in other parts of England. Island living is definitely London-esque, real estate-wise.

Shopping

*Speaking of shopping, one of the big selling points for Guernsey when it comes to cruise visitors is its variety and quality as a shopping destination (and its light tax position). It has a nice blend of high street chains and unique-to-Guernsey boutiques. But it’s a controversial issue. The Guernsey Press and Star (http://www.thisisguernsey.com/2010/07/19/the-high-streets-ship-fails-to-come-in/#ixzz0vd9SEZRH) reported recently that on a day with two ships (and 4,000 passengers) in port, the High Street was deserted; cruise shoppers did not materialize. On our visit, I noticed that many, many passengers returning onboard from their day ashore were carrying shopping bags (certainly saw more of these than on our Portland/Weymouth call).

Westerdam's Crow's Nest

On their part, neither Claire, Nicci or Mark had ever been on a cruise ship before and it was illuminating to see what caught their attention. One great comment from Claire on the pool deck, looking back towards the island: I’ve never seen Guernsey from this vantage point before! Other hits onboard for these first time cruisers included Holland America Line’s Explorations Café (the coffee bar/library/card room/Crow’s Nest bar), the lavish theater (easily as big as anything we have on Guernsey, Claire noted), and a tour of our cabin, a standard balcony that was roomier than they expected.

The weather, which was gloomy, spitting rain throughout the day, was definitely  more conducive to staying cozy and dry onboard! Ironically, just as Westerdam began to raise its tenders in preparation to heading back out to sea, the skies cleared and the sun shone brightly. Alas, it was too late to do passengers any good.

CSB

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The Eggs Benedict Test

Eggs Benedict

The “eggs benedict test” is my ritual go-to quality indicator when onboard a cruise ship. Let me explain: On every cruise I take that’s longer than a few days, I head down to the ship’s main restaurant and order the dish – poached eggs, slightly runny, served with Canadian bacon or ham, and with a dollop of hollandaise. It’s a treat (I only order it once a cruise) that I never make at home because the dish is a bit too fussy to get right.

Which is why eggs benedict is a great way to test a restaurant kitchen. Are chefs paying attention? It only takes a few seconds for the eggs to go from undercooked to overcooked.  Are waiters responsive enough to get the dish from kitchen to table before the hollandaise congeals? And, if the dish is not quite right, if for instance, the egg yolks are cooked too hard, does staff respond quickly and pleasantly?

On Westerdam, my eggs benedict test (the only score is pass or fail) took place yesterday in Vista, its main dining room. The dish was a huge pass (a new inspiration occurred to me: add one triangle of fried hash brown potatoes – hey nobody ever said this was a healthy endeavor —  and mix the potato up with the runny yolk and the hollandaise). Delicious!

The test actually was born out of a disastrous cruise dining experience  and has served me well in the years since. Traveling on Silversea’s Silver Wind, I’d ordered the dish. That it came so badly overcooked on a luxury line was a manageable disappointment, but what turned this into a lasting memory was the fact that the waiter balked when I asked for another try – and later engaged in a rather unpleasant argument, within ear-shot, with his maitre ‘d over who would tell the chef that his dish didn’t please.

I was appalled and embarrassed and the experience reflected the mediocre level of food and service experienced elsewhere on that journey.

Having reviewed some 150-plus cruise ships over the past 13 years, there are certainly other symbolic indicators that tell me more about the quality of that voyage than a particular incident would normally suggest. Do the majority of crew members say hello and look you in the eye when they pass by in corridors or bring you a cocktail? (On Westerdam, so far, check, check, it’s been a pass all around). If so, they’ll be personable all around. Does the cabin steward clean the balcony as well as your stateroom? It shows an attention to detail (so far, so good on Westerdam) as far as cleaning standards are concerned. On another recent cruise, my balcony never felt clean (cigarette ashes from other smokers on other verandahs were omnipresent, and dirty water pooled there every day;  frankly the lack of attention to detail was also reflected in other parts of the stateroom).

Do security officers smile and greet you when you return to the ship from a day in port? Actually this one’s mostly in jest – no one really expects security staffers to offer a smile or a sense of humor but on Azamara Journey a few weeks ago, I was startled when the men and women who man the screening machine would say “welcome home” when I came back aboard. It was a nice touch.

Before I leave for my cruise, I also look at Cruise Critic member reviews, particularly the most recent ones, to see what to expect. Ships do change personalities, often depending on which hotel director, who oversees everything from cuisine and housekeeping to entertainment and services like casinos, art auctions, and photography, is onboard at the time. Hotel directors typically serve four month contracts. Those who deftly manage their huge staffs typically run excellent ships.

What’s your go-to indicator for cruise quality? Share it with us.

CSB

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No karaoke, thanks, we’re British

When it comes to the new concept of performing karaoke on board to a live band , Cruise Critic’s UK fans have spoken! And put it this way, they’re not queuing up to be first in line for ‘My Way’.

We ran a poll yesterday on our home page asking “Karaoke with a live band on a cruise is…”, and these were the answers:

  • A great opportunity for budding singers: 6.8%
  • An activity that should be banned: 46.60%
  • Something that should be subject to audition first: 16.5%
  • A good idea after a few drinks: 30.10%

Seems slightly Scrooge-like, wanting karaoke scrapped altogether; I’ve always felt it fits well in small, enclosed, ideally private spaces, late at night and dimly lit. Nearly a third of you seemed closer to supporting this more tentative approach, saying it would be ‘a good idea after a few drinks’.  

But it doesn’t look as though our sample audience is buying into the full rock band and backing singers that’s becoming all the rage at sea. We’ll stick to the dodgy lyrics and cheapo backing videos of pub karaoke, thanks! SJB

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