Category Archives: Round-Britain Cruise

Titanic, Part 2: Why all the fuss in Belfast?

Belfast. Image courtesy of Belfast Visitor Convention Bureau

As promised, here is part 2 of our visit to the new Titanic Belfast project, currently under construction in Belfast.

Why is there such a big fuss in Belfast over a ship that sank a long time ago? ”At the time Titanic was built,”  Bryan Gregory, the executive in charge of Titanic Belfast says, “Belfast had the four largest industries in the world, in shipbuilding, rope making, linen production and tobacco. The city really was a hive of industrial activity and that spirit has sustained us through the 30 years of the troubles.”

Also intriguing is this question: Why is Titanic, beyond Belfast, still such a magnetic presence? Gregory, I thought, had an interesting answer. “The romanticism of the ship,” he says, “is part of it, as it as a ship of unfulfilled dreams, one that is an uncompleted journey.”

The Titanic-obsessed, dubbed “Titanoraks” have had this city on the radar for years. Says Colin Cobb, proprietor of Titanic Walking Tour, the name is “a geek version of anorak, the name for plane spotters, but a Titanorak is an honorable geek”.

Titanic crafts made by children

Even local kids have Titanic fever.  Through everything from arts and crafts to history, Belfast children actually learn about Titanic in school! Particular kudos to the young interpretive artist who created a papier mache version of the ship – he got it right about Titanic’s four funnels (these were on display at Titanic Belfast’s marketing office).

If you’re a tourist visiting Belfast, there’s much to see and do. You can take a boat tour that gives a close-up look at the slips occupied by Olympic and the drydock in which Titanic was built.

Take a boat tour in Belfast (Westerdam is in the background)

In Titanic builder Harlan & Wolff’s headquarters down on the Belfast waterfront, the drawing gallery is on the Titanic Walking Tour itinerary; with its soaring glass ceilings, it’s the place where the ship’s architects and designers drafted plans.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (a must visit on any trip to Belfast whether you’re interested in Titanic or not, and I figure you wouldn’t have gotten this far into the story if the ship is a snore!) has still and moving images and the world’s largest collection of photographic negatives.

Dry dock

But the highlight, the real moment of “wow!” has to be the dry dock in which the ship is built. It’s still here (and still dry) and the view, alongside the historic pumphouse (which houses a café and gift shop) is the most interesting visual of all.

Ultimately, the dream for the creators of the glossy new Belfast Titanic museum complex see it as a magnificent centerpiece for the magnet in this city that the ship has become. And it’s one that will connect, as well, with all of the disparate Titanic offerings, from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to walking tours and to the boat rides that sail up to ship slips.

Stay tuned; we’ll continue to follow Titanic’s progress in Belfast. And whether you’re thinking of booking a cruise that will call at Belfast in 2012, the anniversary year, or considering a more intensive visit (count me in there!), you might want to start planning the trip!




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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?



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Titanic, Part 1: Doomed Ship or Magical Journey?

The construction site

It’s always struck me as highly ironic that the mighty Titanic, which was launched with much fanfare and then sank in the Atlantic on its first voyage, is responsible for introducing cruise travel to a whole new generation of travelers. (Well, perhaps credit goes as much to the fictional love story played out in the flick “Titanic” by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.) But nowhere will you find a passion for Titanic as strong as in Belfast.

Titanic is already a huge tourist attraction in Belfast, where the ship was built, and is slated to grab an even higher profile in 2012, when the city will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its construction (and demise). Yesterday, on Westerdam’s day-long call in Belfast, I got a tour of the new Titanic Belfast project, currently under construction, and got to visit a few locations of historical import, including the dock in which the ship was built. Here’s part 1 of our visit in photos. Stay tuned for part 2, which will launch tomorrow.

Titanic in Southampton. Courtesy of

The mighty Titanic was built for White Star Line in 1912 by Belfast shipbuilders Harlan & Wolff. (The company is still in existence — though with no ship orders at present, it’s involved in producing industrial strength windmills.) The ship, along with its sisters Olympic and Britannic (both of which enjoyed longer lifespans than Titanic), was meant to be the most luxurious ever constructed. Its keel was laid on March 31, 1909; the ship underwent sea trials on April 2, 1912, and it arrived in Southampton on April 3. Titanic was heralded then as a masterpiece of Edwardian engineering and design.

Titanic was the Oasis of the Seas of its time — the biggest steamship ever built when it set off on its maiden sailing on April 10, 1912. Four days later, it had a fatal encounter with an iceberg and sank; 1,517 of the 2,223 passengers onboard perished.

A rendering of the museum

The under-construction building will be the heart and soul of the new Titanic Belfast, the £97 million project that includes what sounds like an incredible interactive museum. (It’s essentially designed as four ship hulls that meet in the middle). When it opens in 2012, the museum will be comprised of different galleries that showcase the building of the ship and also the role it played in Belfast.

So what’s different about this project at a time when there are already 20 exhibitions floating around in North America? Says Bryan Gregory, the executive in charge of Titanic Belfast: “Titanic is Northern Ireland’s history. The big difference is that we own the boat. You can’t be any more authentic than that.”

Gregory says that the other exhibitions across the pond primarily focus on the artifacts uncovered at the bottom of the sea. Titantic Belfast willtake a different approach. “We’ll tell the story of what, in the end of the day, is an immigrant ship.”

Gregory showed us the design plan for the museum’s exhibitions and while visually there’s not much to share yet, the ideas for the museum are fantastic! This will be a place not only for Titanic romanticists but also for shipbuilding aficionados. Its interactive features on the design and conception of the vessel look fabulous. Exhibits will include, for instance, a re-creation of a section of ship and shipyard; visitors will be able to inspect, up close and personal, the hull via a gondola-like ride.

Another gallery will focus on the fitting out of Titanic, with life-size models of cabins (from first, second and third classes) and a piece of the dining room, as well as its engines and funnels. There will be a multi-dimensional show that will make visitors feel as if they’re walking through Titanic’s rooms, an immersive theater with shows yet to be decided, and other galleries that center on topics such as Titanic legends and myths, and the rescue effort.

Of course the museum will spotlight stories about people onboard — but just as interesting are the tales of those who didn’t take the voyage, such as the priest who had to get off at the ship’s last land call, Ireland’s Queenstown, because he was ordered to return by his superior. His photographs survived as a result. I also heard the story of Belfast craftsman hired to make a dining table for the captain’s quarters. He didn’t finish the work on time and the ship sailed without it – and as such the handmade table still exists!

That’s all for today. We’ll have more Titanic tidbits from our Belfast visit tomorrow.

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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.


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Waterford – No Longer Just Crystal


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).



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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 (, 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.


*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 ( 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.


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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.



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