Category Archives: Destinations

Mykonos Top Tip

Agios Stefanos, a mere 15 minutes' walk from the ship

Ruby Princess spent yesterday docked at Tourlos, the big ship port on Mykonos. Small ships anchor off the pretty town and ferry passengers ashore by tender but anything sizeable goes alongside further down the coast.

Tourlos is a nothing kind of place, just a dock and no facilities, but it was a perfect day. I didn’t fancy a tour, having been here many times before, and I was too late to book the beach trip to Platis Yialos, one of the most popular stretches of sand on the island; it had sold out before we got onboard. So it was a shuttle into town (which is too far to walk) and a taxi to a beach, or taking pot luck with a walk along to Agios Stefanos, the nearest beach to the dock, 15 minutes on foot over a low hill.

You can see Agios Stefanos from the ship and it looked like a decent little cove to me.  And it was more than that: we all loved it. We pitched up at 11 and there were plenty of sunloungers (5 euros each, with a big umbrella). The sea is beautifully clear, the beach spotless and sandy, there’s a lifeguard in attendance and a huge, roped-off swimming area. Not a jet ski in sight and no noise except the waves and the bustle of the three tavernas that line the bay.

The perfect Greek taverna

We lazed, read, swam and had lunch in Epistrophi, a real Shirley Valentine-style place, right on the beach, with a vine-shaded terrace and tables with blue cloths. A huge Greek salad, assorted hot and cold starters, stuffed vine leaves, two bowls of pasta, soft drinks and half a bottle of Retsina came to 75 Euro. Not the cheapest, but it was spectacularly delicious and the owner gave me a big platter of iced watermelon to take back to the sunlounger.

The ship’s Platis Yialos tour would have cost me $107 for the transfer alone for three of us – umbrellas, loungers, food and drinks are all extra. And it was only a half day. We had a full six hours on Agios Stefanos. So I’m quite grateful that I was too slow to book the official tour!

SJB

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Whether your photos capture genuinely interesting or simply fun  in-port or onboard cruise experiences, why not send submit them to us?

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Can England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland Compete Against the Med?

My round-Britain/Ireland cruise aboard Holland America’s Westerdam, which concluded yesterday, was one of the best voyages I’ve taken in years. And while the ship was superb (especially the food and service), what made it so special was the itinerary. We revisited some of my favorites (Belfast, Guernsey, Dublin, Edinburgh) and got to experience some new places, too (Newcastle, Waterford, Holyhead, Glasgow).

As an experienced cruiser to the Mediterranean (east and west) and the Baltic, what puzzles me about round-Britain/Ireland cruises is that they’re not more popular than they are. Rarely do cruise lines offer more than a handful of these voyages every year (as opposed to full season and full year schedules in other European regions). Ports here have every bit as much to offer as those on Med. and Baltic routes.

In a hotly debated story on The Scotsman this week, it would seem that one reason that British Isles itineraries lack the hot-popular factor that other regions enjoy is a lack of infrastructure and inspiration by ports, with Edinburgh in particular coming under fire. Certainly the fact that a city of such stature as Edinburgh (which incidentally was voted “most popular” U.K. port by Cruise Critic readers) requires all ships larger than small ones to anchor at S. Queensferry and tender passengers on to land, is a big disappointment (and frankly a huge time-sucking hassle for passengers and cruise line crew alike).

You can tell from shore excursion menus which ports are starting to understand that cruise travelers are no longer limited to the traditional “newly wed and nearly dead” cliché. Those that offer family-oriented tours (families are the largest growing niche in cruising) or active, recreational opportunities (cycling trips in Holyhead and Glasgow’s Loch Lomond were highlights of our trip) get it – cruise ships are increasingly roping in an incredibly varied type of traveler.

There were some incredibly warm and welcoming moments by some of the ports. In Newcastle, passengers returning back to the ship were greeted with local cheeses to sample. Upon arrival at Greenock, the port for Glasgow, kilt-wearing chaps greeted passengers with an effusive hello and a handshake.  And in Holyhead, a harpist played at the pier all afternoon – and offered a memorable, and haunting, send-off. Contrast that with your welcome at places in the Med. (when was the last time you got a hearty greeting at Civitavecchia, Barcelona, Naples, Pireaus?) Or even on Baltic cruises (when was the last time your ship’s send-off came with local music and snacks?)

Clearly, cruise ships are valued in the British Isles. And from a passenger perspective, the itinerary possibilities are beautifully varied (nature in the Orkneys, shopping in Guernsey, culture in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow, gorgeous scenic cruising past the Isle of Skye that rivals the fjords of Norway and Chile, and history — everywhere!). Not only would I happily cruise around the British Isles anytime — I also plan to revisit places (Inverness is top on the list) that I was introduced to via a cruise stop.

As well, a story in today’s Times seems somewhat timely on this issue. David Cameron says that half of all Britons need to take their holidays here — in order to foster economic recovery. His quote in the paper is pretty stark and reminds me that in spite of some successes, ports in the British Isles need to try harder when it comes to attracting and enhancing cruise visits: “For too long tourism has been looked down on as a second class service sector. That’s just wrong.”

Indeed, traditionally, British Isles cruises were aimed mostly at Americans. But as cruise vacations continue to gain steam among British, European, Asian and Australian travelers, what do you think should be done to increase cruising’s popularity in your own neck of the woods?

CSB

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It’s Thursday, So It Must Be Naples

A funny guide makes all the difference; Diego indicates the direction of the brothel in Pompeii.

August is peak season in the Mediterranean and a leaflet has arrived in the cabin explaining exactly what this means. There are caveats galore: crowds, traffic delays, renovations of historic sites, heat, guides with funny foreign accents. Clearly, expectations have not always been met on shore excursions and Princess Cruises wants us all to be fully prepared for reality.

The truth is, running the shore excursions for a couple of thousand people is, and has to be, a well-oiled machine; a sightseeing factory.

While the excursion we’ve just done (Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius) was excellent, let’s not pretend there is anything romantic or exclusive about these tours at this time of year and with this many people. We arrived at the top of the mountain road, 25 minutes walk from the crater of Vesuvius, and there were 15 coaches lined up. Pompeii was heaving, drooping tour groups trailing behind jabbering guides bearing giant cardboard lollipops designating their cruise line and tour number.

If you want Vesuvius to yourself, or to enjoy air clear enough to see all the way to Capri from the top, or to get photographs of Pompeii without someone else’s baseball cap in the foreground, come in October!

Having said that, many of us are limited to travel in school holidays, which means making the most of the situation. Happily, our tour today was really good, brought alive by a funny and entertaining guide, Diego, who has been guiding for 33 years and sometimes does Pompeii three times a day. “Vesuvio e last erupt 1944 and e blow every 64 years,” he drawled (do the maths). “Imagine. Catastrophic eruption. More exciting than boring Pompeii. Everybody on bus dead. Except the guide.” Makes a change from an endless string of dates and facts, I suppose.

Pompeii, too, was perfectly judged. We had a lot of teens in our group and as we approached the site, Diego announced: “Vesuvio, e wake up one day in AD79 after really bad McDonald’s and e explode for three days and three nights.” And even when it’s packed, I find Pompeii awe-inspiring, especially the warehouses at the end of the tour where a lot of the artefacts from the site are stacked up, waiting for labelling or display in museums; today, we saw plaster casts of a writhing dog and of a pregnant woman, killed by the eruption and frozen in time from 2,031 years ago. Both have toured the world in Pompeii exhibitions and, today, they were just sitting there, gathering dust. Makes you feel very privileged to see these things, even on the hottest and busiest of August days.

SJB

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Bienvenue a Monaco!

Monaco

We’re alongside in Monte Carlo today and it’s unbelievably hot and humid; the kind of heat that leaves you lethargic and drained. Flat sea and no wind, and it’s only now, in the late afternoon, that a few yachts are pottering out of the harbour in search of a bit of evening breeze.

Because of the heat, we’re all too floppy and apathetic to do much and besides, have been here before and ‘done’ the sights. And in Monaco, what better activity is there than people, car and yacht-spotting anyway?

There’s a vessel just across the yacht basin from Ruby Princess that’s bigger than some small cruise ships: Al Mirqab. I was so blown away by its enormity that I Googled it and found that at 436 feet and displacing 5,000 tons, it’s one of the largest private yachts ever built and belongs to the prime minister of Qatar. A mere 10 guests are accommodated and cared for by a crew of 60! Six crewmembers each!

Meanwhile, up in Casino Square, the scene was as insane as it ever is and we played a game of spotting locals and yachties (men in loose shorts, baggy shirts and loafers, the women in huge, stacked heels, glittery sun dresses, immaculate hair, improbable tan, carrying Louis Vuitton bags), who stand out among the throng of tourists. A round of one milkshake, one Evian and one iced coffee came to 23 Euros.

I photographed a Rolls Royce with the numberplate ‘1 ME’. A crowd suddenly materialised from nowhere like bees around honey and started snapping shots of a young man cruising past in an open-top white Merc.

I’ve no idea who he was but a woman rushed up to the car and threw a bottle of water over him as he drove away. This place is barmy. OK to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here!

But for all its conspicuous consumerism and unimaginable wealth, Monte Carlo provides a fine and surprisingly unsnooty welcome to cruise passengers, whose vessels, after all, change the entire look of this tiny place.

Singer Dame Shirley Bassey once complained that billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Le Grand Bleu, ruined the view from her Monaco apartment. But the Russian’s boat wasn’t a patch on Ruby Princess, which effectively creates an 18 deck-high wall along one side of the harbour.

Our handy welcome pack

Yet we’re greeted by a cool, air-conditioned cruise terminal with an information desk staffed by helpful locals. Little welcome packs are given to everybody, including a map, postcards, a leaflet detailing all the attractions and their opening times and a handy discount book worth 26 Euros off entrance to museums. There are details of restaurants offering a cheaper ‘plat du jour’ menu and discount vouchers for shops.

The boat man on the Taxi-Bateau that crosses the harbour for one euro each was chatty and even the waiter in the Café de Paris had a certain brusque charm.

Although Shirley Bassey might not approve, you get the feeling that Monaco makes a real effort to host cruise passengers. Even if we do stand out somewhat.

SJB

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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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