Thursday, December 15, 2011

Out on the Town in London

I can’t believe it has been 17 years since we were last in London! After debarking the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, we got on a motor coach arranged through Cunard for the 1 hour and 45 minute ride to Victoria Station in London. From there we took a taxi to the Grosvenor House, a swanky hotel located on Park Lane in Mayfair. In this area of London, you can easily drop ₤65 (approx. $100) every time you open your wallet.

The first thing I wanted to do after we arrived was take a walk to Harrods since this has to be one of the world’s best places to window shop. I can’t afford to do anything other than window shop. We walked through the door only a half hour after Harrods opened and it was already teeming with people. I found a pair of men’s loafers for ₤5,300! For that price I would insist they have a heater and massager built into them.

Although Steve and I are not generally beer drinkers, we discovered two great beers during our time out on the town. One was Innis & Gunn, an oak-aged beer brewed in Scotland; we discovered Innis & Gunn while sitting at the bar waiting for our table at the JW Steakhouse, one of the restaurants in the Grosvenor House. Steve also thought the chips (French fries) at the JW Steakhouse were the best he ever had and asked the waiter for the secret sauce. The secret sauce turned out to be cooking the chips three times. You normally don’t make eye-opening culinary discoveries at hotel restaurants so the JW Steakhouse was truly an exception. Regarding the other great beer we discovered – it was called Crafty Devil, which we enjoyed on Halloween night at the Salisbury Pub in Covent Garden before going to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre.

London is a wonderful city to get out in the fresh air and walk to see the major sights. However, if you only have two days like us and still want to see it all, take a ride on the London Eye. The London Eye is the most intricately designed Ferris wheel that I have ever seen. It’s the tallest cantilevered observation wheel in the world, rising 135 meters above the London skyline and you can see for miles. We happened to board it at 4:30pm which was ideal because we saw the city both in the slowly fading light and at twilight. I bought the 360° mini guide and had a great time identifying many of the buildings and pointing them out to Steve so he could take some great photos. What a team!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Never a Dull Moment on the Queen Mary 2

You might wonder what you would do if you were on a seven-day transatlantic cruise from New York to Southampton. After all, there are no port stops on the way. Surprisingly enough, days speed by as there is plenty to do on the Queen Mary 2 including films in the Planetarium; the Cunard Insights Lecture Enrichment Program; Bridge classes; performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; the Canyon Ranch Spa & Fitness Center; computer classes; afternoon tea; dancing classes; wine tastings; and darts competitions.

Even in seven days, there isn’t enough time to do everything. After breakfast, I would typically walk a brisk nine laps (3.3 miles) around the teak deck (Deck 7) to get my blood flowing and walk off the over-indulgence of the day before.

I particularly enjoyed the two presentations in the planetarium: Passport to the Universe and Cosmic Collisions. I used to go to the planetarium in San Francisco frequently as a child and didn’t realize how much I had missed it until I went to the presentations on board the Queen Mary 2. After watching galaxies collide, the problems I’ve been wrestling with seem small in comparison. We humans are but a small part of an enormous universe. I think it’s important to cherish what we have but let’s not take ourselves too seriously in the process.

I also heard an interesting art talk about artistic inspiration in the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery. I didn’t realize that Vincent Van Gogh wanted to be a preacher but was expelled from preacher school because he was too enthusiastic. Van Gogh apparently had incredible mood swings that were over the top and repelled people, including his dear friend Paul Gauguin. After living with Van Gogh in the south of France for a period of time, Gauguin left because he could no longer take Van Gogh’s intensity. Van Gogh cut off his ear in the hope that Gauguin would come back.

The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed Carmen in 3D. I’ve never been an opera fan but watching a performance in London’s Royal Opera House on screen at the Illuminations Theatre on the Queen Mary 2 while wearing 3D glasses was entertaining. It was nice to have the opera, which was sung in French, translated at the bottom of the screen.

About the food – it was good in the Britannia Restaurant (main dining room) but not great. On the Queen Mary 2, where you dine depends on the stateroom you’ve booked and there are four different dining rooms: Britannia Restaurant; Britannia Club; Princess Grill; and Queens Grill. I don’t know for sure but I would imagine that the food is better in The Grills. If you don’t happen to be staying in the Queens/Princess Grill stateroom categories and want to have an exquisite dining experience, go to Todd English, the alternative restaurant on board. I had the Love Letters truffled potato appetizer, which was delicious.

More photos of the Queen Mary 2.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Queen Mary 2

 I’m now enroute across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 and there are days on this classic ship that I feel like a member of British high society during the 1930s when an ocean voyage was the only way to get from New York to Southampton. I’ve been spending some of my leisure time enjoying scones and clotted cream served by white-gloved waiters at afternoon tea, dancing at the Black & White Ball in the Queens Room, and taking power walks on the teak deck around the ship on Deck 7 with the wind rushing through my hair.

Sailing away from New York Harbor past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty with the New York skyline in the distance was truly my most moving sail away experience. I thought about my father who arrived in New York Harbor from Genoa on the SS Dulio in 1927.

Before getting on this cruise, I had made it a point to upgrade my wardrobe because I had heard that the Queen Mary 2 was very dressy compared to most other cruise ships. On this seven day cruise, there are four formal nights. Although ladies need to wear a dress on these evenings, it isn’t necessary to invest in an expensive beaded gown that would feel like an anchor in your suitcase. And the vast majority of people were dressed very casually in the morning and afternoon. If you don’t feel like dressing up for dinner, you can always go to the King’s Court, the Queen Mary 2’s rendition of the Lido Deck. I’m going to have to convince my fellow Northwesterners, most of whom don’t like to dress up, that this cruise isn’t as stuffy as they might think. It is a distinctively British experience but it isn’t outrageously stiff and formal.

Half of the passengers on the ship are British, and although I haven’t met all 1,200 of them, the ones who I have met are warm, friendly and witty. Most are retired but I’ve met some traveling with children. Many have done the transatlantic crossing more than once.

On day 1 of our voyage, the weather was beautiful. It got progressively worse on day 2 and on day 3, the outside decks were closed due to strong winds. Instead of taking my daily walk around the deck, I had to resort to the gym for my exercise. According to the Captain’s Log, the waves were from 7.5 to 12 feet and although we all could certainly feel the rocking motion of the ship, it wasn’t rough enough to knock anything off shelves or tables. In fact, the rocking motion must have put a lot of people to sleep because as I was taking a tour of the ship, I could see that many had found cozy spaces in front of the windows and had apparently dozed off while reading a book. The Commodore Club on Deck 9 is a particularly good place to watch the waves crashing against the ship because it is located forward on an upper deck. At any rate, the Queen Mary 2 is an ocean liner that was built to handle conditions in the North Atlantic so it has been pretty much a smooth up and down ride.

I’ve been really impressed by the speed of the satellite Internet connection in the middle of the ocean. The bandwidth is even good enough for me to check my voicemail using Skype. So if you’re concerned that you will be cut off from the world while taking a transatlantic voyage, you don’t have anything to worry about.

More photos of the Queen Mary 2.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Spectacular Days in Switzerland

Before we boarded Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette in Basel, Switzerland, I thought it would be fun to plan a four-day pre-cruise adventure by land to see some of Switzerland’s gorgeous countryside. I don’t know about you but when I think of Switzerland, mountains and lakes immediately come to mind and that was what I was bound and determined to see. Although Switzerland is a small country, you really can’t cover it in four days so I had to make a decision about what section of this gorgeous country we were going to see.

Knowing that we were going to end up in Basel, I focused on the northwestern part of the country. As I started doing my research, I quickly realized that buying a four-day Swiss Pass would be an excellent investment as it would entitle us to free travel throughout the Swiss Travel System with a few notable exceptions.

We landed in Geneva and spent a day exploring the city, including Geneva’s Old Town and the shore of Lake Geneva. Not wanting to spend a fortune for dinner (our dollars didn’t buy us many Swiss francs and a very ordinary dinner could easily cost at least $100), we found a cozy little restaurant called Fifty-Fifty with a convivial atmosphere. We met a Brazilian couple, David and Daniela, sitting next to us who lived in Geneva and struck up an interesting conversation with them. Before long, the owner was offering us a glass of the house limoncello.

The next day we were off to Montreux to catch the GoldenPass Line, one of Switzerland’s classic scenic train routes which goes from Montreux to Lucerne. Our plan that day was to take one train from Montreux to Zweisimmen and catch another train from Zweisimmen to Interlaken. However, due to a bridge undergoing renovation, we had to get off the train at Château d’Oex and bus it to Zweisimmen. Yes, even the super precise Swiss Travel System hiccups once in a while.

In Interlaken, we stayed at the Hotel du Lac, a charming hotel located between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun that has been run by the same family for generations. Our corner room had a gorgeous view of Lake Brienz. The cream of asparagus soup I had at the hotel restaurant was very tasty.

Our primary reason for coming to Interlaken was to visit the Jungfrau region, where majestic Mt. Eiger, Mt. Mönch and Mt. Jungfrau make their presence known. The $64,000 question of the day was how far up this Alpine massif were we willing to go given the weather conditions. Our Swiss Passes would get us from Interlaken (elev. 567 feet) to Wengen (elev. 4,180 feet); to go any higher we would have to start shelling out Swiss Francs – lots of them. At Wengen we decided to bite the bullet and pay an additional 84 Swiss francs and take the Wengernalp cog wheel railway to Kleine Scheidegg (elev. 6,762 feet), where the views of the Eiger north face were spectacular. We spent over an hour breathing the clean fresh air, photographing the stunning landscape and appreciating Mother Nature at her finest.

As much as I had wanted to board the Jungfrau Railway, Europe’s highest-altitude railway which runs partly through a tunnel hewn out of rock to Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe, elev. 11,333 feet), it was obvious at Kleine Scheidegg that we would see nothing but fog if we took the trip. If our Swiss Passes would have allowed us to do it without paying an additional 250 Swiss francs, I would have done it in a heart beat just to experience this pioneering masterpiece among mountain railways. However, for 250 Swiss francs, a view of fog just doesn’t cut it.

From Interlaken, we took the GoldenPass Line to Lucerne, where we spent two wonderful days. In Lucerne, we particularly enjoyed strolling across the Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe and walking on the walls of Old Town Lucerne where we savored some beautiful views of the city. The highlights of our visit, however, were the trip to Mt. Rigi (its name stems from the Latin “Regina Montium” or “Queen of Mountains”) and a boat ride around Lake Lucerne.

We started our venture on a boat from Lucerne to Vitznau and transferred to the cogwheel railway that led to the summit of Mt. Rigi (elev. 6,000 ft). The weather was gorgeous and the views of the Swiss Alps and Lake Lucerne from the top of Mt. Rigi were breathtaking. It was everything that I imagined Switzerland to be and more! I’ve never been fond of German food, but the bratwurst and fries I had for lunch at the summit sure hit the spot. We then walked partly down Mt. Rigi to catch the cable car from Rigi-Kaltbad to Weggis.

Rather than returning by boat directly from Weggis to Lucerne, we decided that there was still a lot of Lake Lucerne to explore so we opted to take the five-hour boat road all the way around the lake to discover its idyllic bays and romantic inland lake fjords. Lake Lucerne and Lake Tahoe are both beautiful but Lake Lucerne is surrounded by Old World European elegance. I happened to strike up a conversation with a Swiss woman who was traveling with her father and he pointed out the location of a secret munitions factory in which he worked during World War II. We then cruised by Tell’s chapel, where according to legend, William Tell leapt from the boat of his captors during a storm and escaped, allowing him to assassinate the tyrant Gessler and initiate the rebellion that led to the foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. God knows how many other interesting stories I could have uncovered about Lake Lucerne if I had spent more time.

After four days of unpacking, re-packing and running around to catch trains, buses, boats and cable cars, I was ready to board the S.S. Antoinette, my floating boutique hotel which would take me down the Rhine from one fabulous destination to another.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

St. Petersburg was a Disappointment

I was really looking forward to our two days in St. Petersburg because I had heard about how dazzling it was so I felt let down when we disembarked the Emerald Princess and were met by a bunch of grouchy immigration officials who obviously didn't like the idea of getting up at the crack of dawn to meet a shipload of tourists.

Samson and the Lion at Peterhof Palace
After being hauled around on a bus for two days and herded through the Hermitage, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Yusupov Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, Church of the Spilled Blood and the Peterhof Palace, I was dragging my butt and felt much like a wet noodle.  It was hard to believe how crowded all of these places were and how quickly we shuffled through them.  It all seems like a blur.  And the traffic -- it was horrible.  It took us about as much time to travel between sites as it did to tour them.

Although the palaces and churches were magnificent, I still can't help thinking that St. Petersburg was a pretty depressing place overall.  Gray skies (I was told that St. Petersburg gets only about 30 days of sunshine per year), buildings that were once brightly painted but had obviously faded and the generally dour people made a lasting impression on me.  During our tour of the Hermitage, I was struck by the women who were sitting in chairs in each of the rooms.  I smiled but never once received a smile in return.  In fact, if I actually caught the eye of any of them, they immediately looked away.  

We did, however, have a very informative Russian guide who I could actually understand when she spoke English.  She was quite proficient at giving us a titillating account of the history of the Romanovs, the most interesting of which was how Rasputin met his maker in the basement of Yusupov Palace.

In retrospect, I should have been smarter about my visit to St. Petersburg.  Instead of trying to see everything in two days, I should have selected two or three sites to see and done it at a leisurely and more enjoyable pace.  In fact,  I could have spent the entire two days at the Hermitage!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Copenhagen -- The Beginning of Our Baltic Cruise

After five fun-filled days of visiting family in Stockholm, we flew to Copenhagen and were immediately hit with sticker shock.  When we arrived at the Copenhagen Marriott and looked at the menu at the restaurant there, we noted that it cost $40 for a standard American breakfast and $30 for a Caesar salad with chicken.  This was particularly hard to stomach given that we were going to be boarding the Emerald Princess the next day and knew that we wouldn't have to spend a single dollar for food.

One of the highlights of our brief stay in Copenhagen was the boat ride along the canals.  Thank God we decided to spring for the expensive one which was covered because during our one hour ride we rode through a cell that dropped an awful lot of rain within five minutes.  In an open boat, we would have been drenched!  I must say that Copenhagen is an ideal city to see from the water.  We had an excellent guide who not only pointed out all of the interesting sites but also took us up alongside Abramovich's beautiful sleek smooth yacht, which he said cost $400 million to build -- about as much as it cost to build the Emerald Princess.

During our ride through the canals, we were particularly struck by the golden steeple of Our Saviour's Church.  Given that our guide told us that we could have one of the most striking views from the city if we were willing to climb the 400 steps to get to the top of the church, I was ready to go.  The trip up the stairs was anything but routine -- it included narrow passageways and steep ladders to climb.  Although it was very windy at the top, the glorious view was worth every step of the way.

 There were a couple of disappoints in Copenhagen:  Tivoli Gardens and Christiania, a "free city" founded in 1971 by a group of alternative thinkers.  I found Tivoli Gardens to be tired and dated.  If you've been to enough amusement parks in the United States, Tivoli Gardens is old-fashioned and underwhelming.  Believe me, it's no competition for Disney World.  Although the guide book made Christiania sound like a quaint, fun and bohemian place, I just found it to be weird and dirty. (Do I sound like my mother 40 years ago when she eyeballed me in dirty jeans and a suede jacket with fringe?)  After taking one look at the restroom, I decided to "hold it" until I was back at the Marriott. 

More pictures of Copenhagen

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stockholm -- My Favorite Baltic City!

If you ever take a Baltic cruise, I recommend that you book one which embarks and/or disembarks in Stockholm because you will want to spend more than one day there.  I was lucky enough to spend four wonderful days visiting my husband's nephew, Bruce and his wife, Tove-Lise and their daughter, Isabelle.  Steve and I arrived at the Stockholm Arlanda Airport on a gorgeous sunny day where Bruce picked us up and promptly took us to his 42-foot yacht, Tirawa, which is docked within a few feet of his home on the water in Djursholm on the outskirts of Stockholm.    I was so excited to be there that I hardly noticed the jet lag.  We sailed in the archipelago east of Stockholm past scenic islands for a few hours before giving up on the dying wind and motoring to our destination in the Nacka region.  You don't have to get very far out of Stockholm before you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. This poor, sun-deprived girl from Seattle just loved soaking up the rays on the foredeck!

Tove-Lise was a very gracious hostess during our stay as she juggled her schedule to spend some time showing us around.  We visited Skansen, an outdoor museum where we experienced life in Sweden back in the early 1900's; we visited an old furniture-making factory, glass-blowing studio and old-fashioned grocery store and drug store, spice shop and farm.

I had the pleasure of having Isabelle escort me through the Vasa Museum which houses the Royal Warship Vasa.  The Vasa sunk in 1628 while it was still in the Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage.  Rumor has it that there were just too many heavy cannons on the upper decks for this boat to float!   Isabelle was particularly fascinated with the skeletons of some of the crew that were salvaged so I spent a good deal of time looking at old bones and other archeological finds.  There was a particularly fascinating demonstration of the reconstruction of a face from a mere skull and I stood there wondering whether the crew member whose face was being reconstructed actually looked like that.   There was also some speculation about the diet of the crew members, which was based on examining what was left of their teeth and bones.  If my teeth are found 300 years from now, will archeologists be able to determine that I was a chocoholic?

We visited Drottningholm, where the Swedish royal family currently lives.  Although the palace was beautiful, I thought the most interesting part of the grounds was the theater.  The Drottningholm Court Theater dates back to 1766 and still offers live performances during the summer.  During our guided tour, I was chosen to demonstrate the thunder machine, which is a large wooden box near the ceiling that contains stones.  As I pulled ropes that were connected to the box, the box tilted and the stones moved from side to side to create the sound of thunder.

I  experienced a new and unexpected taste treat in Sweden -- smoked reindeer!  It was particularly good sliced thin with a bit of horseradish.

More photos of Stockholm

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our Brazilian Adventure on the Azamara Journey

Steve & Colleen with Captain Karlsson
 It was a joy to sail on Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Journey on a repositioning cruise from Santos, Brazil to Miami. Over the course of our 18-day cruise, the crew began to feel like family. The captain, Leif Karlsson, was very personable and spent a lot of time talking to Steve and me about his favorite cruises as we concluded our tour of the bridge. Captain Karlsson’s favorite cruise was to Antaractica because it was challenging to navigate through the ice and the scenery was stunning. Our Hotel Director, Niyazi Korkmaz, had a cocktail with us one evening to give us some tips about Istanbul. Our favorite server at the Cova Café was a young Brazilian woman who was on her first cruise and first job at sea; although her English was excellent, she enjoyed relieving a little stress by talking to me in Portuguese. The harpist was a woman from Austin, Texas who was working on board along with her husband, who managed the Internet Café. According to her, they shared a room that was a quarter of the size of my balcony stateroom and it wasn’t large!

View of Rio from Corcovado Mountain
 The 694-passenger Azamara Journey was a gem and so was the destination. I lived in Rio de Janeiro from June 1976 to June 1977 and returned in 1992. However, this time I was cruising with my husband, Steve who had never been to Brazil. He just couldn’t believe how beautiful Rio is. I must agree that the views of the city from Corcovado Mountain and Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) are some of the most spectacular in the world.

 One of the options we took advantage of in Rio was the escorted tour by H. Stern, a prominent jeweler based in Rio de Janeiro with 130 retail stores all over the world. H. Stern provided us with a private car, driver and English speaking guide for the two days we were there and it didn’t cost us a thing. Our only obligation was to tour the jewelry factory, which was fascinating. Under the watchful eye of my dear husband, I was dragged out of the factory before I could buy anything. Much to my chagrin, I left a pair of beautiful earrings with a rainbow of sparkling Brazilian gemstones on the counter.

Our next port of call was Paratí, Brazil, a picturesque colonial Brazilian town with a lot of architecturally interesting buildings. We decided to walk into town. It was hot and humid and I introduced Steve to the strong, fruity flavors of Brazilian ice cream. I also managed to buy myself a hand-painted, one-of-a-kind skirt with a distinctive Brazilian flair. Thank God we visited this little town in the morning because on the way back in the tender, a tremendous downpour began.
Streets of Salvador
 Our next ports of call were Ilhéus and Salvador da Bahia, where the heat was stifling. In Ilhéus, we decided to hire a private taxi to show us around. The driver was Brazilian and didn’t speak English but my Portuguese was apparently good enough. In Salvador da Bahia, the H. Stern bus took us into town which we explored on our own. Since I remember enjoying the distinctive Bahian cuisine that features palm oil, pepper sauces, dried shrimp, soft-shell crab stew and coconut milk, I insisted that we go to a traditional restaurant for lunch to savor it. Salvador da Bahia is very different from any other region in Brazil. Nearly 80% of the population is of African descent and the religion is distinctly different from Catholicism. Perhaps it could be compared loosely to New Orleans.

Sometimes I feel like I left some of my heart in Brazil when I left in 1977. Although I don’t know my way around Rio like I once did and my Portuguese is a little rusty, the warmth and gracious hospitality of the Cariocas (residents of Rio) made me feel right at home.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Venice – One of the World’s Most Romantic Settings

A couple of years ago, I was one of 20 Cruise Holidays franchisees to participate in the Cruise Holidays President’s Circle cruise, which was a seven-day Mediterranean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of the Seas that departed from Venice.   If you’re taking a cruise that begins and/or ends in Venice, do yourself a favor and spend a few days exploring its fascinating sites. I guarantee that you will experience at least one of the following:

1. You will get lost while wandering through the rich labyrinths that are part of the magic of Venice
2. You will fall in love all over again
3. You will wish you had more time to play in Venice
A few words of advice about staying in Venice: Stay as close to the heart of Venice in the vicinity of St. Mark’s Square as you can afford. Transportation in and around Venice can be very expensive and besides, if you’re only in Venice for a few days you don’t want to waste precious time traveling to the major sites such as St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) and the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale).

On all of our trips, Steve is the designated photographer and in Venice he remarked that all you need to do to take a great picture is to aim the camera at just about anything because Venice is so incredibly picturesque. My favorite memory was the gondola ride with the young Italian on board singing O Sole Mio with his heart in his hands. Just for the record, I was with Steve in the gondola.