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Laundry dilemma

Laundry dilemma

Planning on using the self-service laundry during your cruise? Well, as I’ve discovered on Ruby Princess, you’d better have some American quarters with you.

The logic behind getting coins to use the passenger laundry room is bizarre. We’ve trekked up Vesuvius, slogged around Pompeii, sweltered on a public bus in Livorno, hiked up and down the zig-zag cliff path on Santorini and got sand in everything on the beach in Mykonos. So it’s not unreasonable to expect I might need to do a batch of washing by now.

The washing machines only take American 25c coins, as does the machine that dispenses powder. So I asked at reception if I could change a couple of Euros to dollars as I’m not in the habit of taking American coins on a cruise around the Med. The answer is no. They will convert dollar notes to dollar coins, but not Euros. So can I change some Euros for dollars to get my dollar coins? No, they don’t offer currency exchange at all, as there is a machine on board that does that.

I need $4 for powder, one wash and one dry. So the smallest Euro note, a five, should do. But no; the machine charges $3.50 commission, regardless of the amount of the transaction. So I need a 10 Euro note and in any case, the machine is broken. At which point I get annoyed and go back to reception. The kind assistant purser patiently explains that even if the machine is broken and they do have to change money for the laundry, they still have to charge $3.50 commission.

So essentially, if you don’t have US dollars on you, notes or coins, you will pay $7.50 for one batch of laundry instead of $4. I know it’s petty of me to raise the issue, and Princess Cruises is by no means the only line to offer washing machines operated by US coins, and there is more to life than this, but still.

Eventually, I got my 25c coins and noticed that one was a Princess token, the kind you get in the casino. It struck me then how stupid I’d been; I should have nipped in there and played the fruit machines for a bit. I could have won my laundry money!

SJB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Mediterranean Cruise, Opinion

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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Man overboard – or not?

Man overboard - or not?

There was an hour of intense drama on Ruby Princess last night when a passenger gave the ‘Man Overboard’ alert.

While the way the crew handled the event was nothing but impressive, the reaction of the passengers was fascinating and in some cases, bizarre.

The captain made an announcement about an hour out of Mykonos, as the sun was beginning to set. “Man overboard, port side”.  I’m on the starboard side. So what do I do? Rush out onto the balcony, only to find that pretty well everybody else on the starboard side had rushed out onto their balcony. I met many of my neighbours for the first time.

Everybody was in a state of mild shock, wondering if it was for real.

Being a nosy journalist, I went down to the promenade deck to see what was going on. But in under five minutes since the announcement, the crew had sealed the outside decks with ‘crime scene’-style yellow tape. All the officers who weren’t on the bridge or guarding the doors, where small crowds had formed, were gathered on the port side and a red flare was streaming smoke from a distant spot on the water. One man said excitedly, “This is awesome,” as though it was some kind of entertainment that had been laid on. Another guy said to his friend, “Come on, let’s go to the casino.” A Japanese man turned up with a huge Nikon, full zoom lens attached, presumably hoping for some gruesome action.

Most upsetting was the frightened parents who were running up and down the stairs in panic, trying to remember where they last saw their kids (there are a lot of families onboard with teens who do their own thing on the ship).

Meanwhile, the art auctioneer calmly continued to describe the ‘Picassos’ in the Explorers’ Lounge. The scene was truly surreal.

At this stage, we still didn’t know if there was an actual person in the water and the ship was a-twitter with rumour; it’s incredible how quickly untrue speculation spreads, the most chilling part of which was that a child had gone missing. Passenger Services started naming people who should make contact. The captain made a grim-sounding request for the person who had sounded the alarm to identify themselves. A Greek coastguard boat was spotted heading towards us. But by now, the flare had burned itself out and the sun had set.

The crowds dispersed and people ambled into dinner, where I kept a vigil by the window; at this point, the ship was almost stationary in the water as the search continued. I don’t know how you’re supposed to react in a situation like this; it seemed like something potentially so enormous and so tragic, but most people just kept on eating. On the other hand, what else were they supposed to do?

Eventually, the captain made another announcement and the entire dining room fell quiet; you could have heard a pin drop. The person who sounded the alarm had failed to identify themselves; the crew had done all they could; nobody had seen a person in the water or, indeed, the blue sunlounger which had caught the alarm-sounder’s attention in the first place; and we would resume our course to Piraeus.

So it was a false alarm that turned out to affect a lot of people. The officers, the engine room crew, the dining room service crew, all the passengers who were separated from their family at the time, the Greek coastguard… I imagine one passenger is feeling very foolish indeed today. But the episode has certainly given me a thorough respect for the intense emergency training that cruise ships’ crew receive.

SJB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Family Cruises, Mediterranean Cruise, News

Table for three

Cruise lines have plenty of events for single travellers

Most big cruise lines offer social activities for minority or special interest groups, but I’ve never seen a line embrace the subject as enthusiastically as Princess Cruises does.

On the day we boarded (Monday), there was a Singles’ Mingle, which I missed as we were having dinner, a special gathering for 18-20 year olds, who are too old for the teen club, and a GLBT Get-Together (whatever happened to Friends of Dorothy?).

On Tuesday, the Friends of Bill W had a meeting (for those of you who are not familiar with the term, this is the wording used in the daily programme for an AA group and all big cruise ships have them).  I missed the Singles’ Mingle yet again on Wednesday as it was at a weird time (5.15) and we were swimming, although the golfers, scrabble players, GLBT and 18-20s on board all had a chance to hook up.

Today is a sea day and it’s non-stop opportunities for finding kindred spirits. There are social events for bridge players, first-time cruisers, Service Club members, GLBT passengers and freemasons, a Friends of Bill W meeting, a veterans’ gathering and a service for anybody wanting to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath.

No Singles’ Mingle today, though, which makes me worry that I’ve missed the boat, as it were. Maybe all the singles paired off on the first couple of days?

I appreciate that I’m including a religious event and an AA support group with the social activities all in one stream of thought here, but it seems there is something to encourage everybody to connect – except me, as a single parent on a cruise. Even if there were a single parents’ mingle, I expect I’d be the only one there as I haven’t spotted any other obvious candidates. Everybody is either paired off or travelling in a big group. The three of us – me and two kids – certainly seem a curiosity to the crew and every time we sit down in a bar or restaurant, I am asked, “Where is your husband?”

I don’t mind at all and this is not a sob story, although we are thinking of inventing some colourful reason as to why he’s not here; ran off with a showgirl, perhaps, or on a secret mission somewhere. It just seems strange to me that more single parents aren’t attracted to cruising, as it’s such an easy holiday. The kids love it, I’m quite happy lying around reading, we’re ashore every day and we’re very happy having dinner together and going to the shows in the evenings.  But if I did want to hook up with people, it might be easier if I were travelling solo, a scrabble enthusiast or a masonic Friend of Dorothy.

SJB

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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!

CSB

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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 Titanicinbelfast.com

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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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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