cruises

The ending of a long vacation, maybe the most memorable part. For the ending of my two week Blount Small Ship Adventure Cruise, I chose to remain in the final destination port of New York City. Having been to NYC many times since 1972, I never before approached the imposing skyline of one of the world’s most dynamic cities from the water. My Blount cruise came down the Hudson and then glided by midtown on down to the harbor. With a long pause at the Statue of Liberty and with a kitsch playing of the Sinatra version of “New York, New York,” it was a fitting close to the end of a cruise and the start of a post cruise stay in little ole New York.
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The view of the dynamically changed skyline is impressive to see from the water, with the Freedom Tower punctuating the sky. I visited the serene memorial pools and the cavernous museum, which was not as saddening as imagined. The plaza is impressive surrounded by its towering glass skyscrapers contrasting with the pools of water effortlessly falling hypnotically down, down, down.

A highlight of my Blount cruise was my stay at the Waldorf Astoria New York Hotel for a weekend. Hilton is encouraging everyone to Be A Weekender with their www.HiltonWeekends.com site. I was greeted with spacious accommodations, an imperial set of Art Deco grand lobbies with impeccable service and fine dining and beverage options. As I was several hours earlier than their standard 3 pm check in, I was welcomed into the private lounge on an upper floor to await my Tower room. There is also a private check in and departure desk for Tower guests. While there is an attentive door man to assist with your taxi needs, I found a modest eight block walk to the Theatre district an efficient choice, particularly when taxis are hard to come by due to rain or rush hour, which seemed to me was all the time.
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My room on the 26th floor had a spectacular view of the Art Deco Chrysler Building, and was next door to the Lyndon B. Johnson Suite. The New York Waldorf Astoria hotel has a long history of United States Presidents staying there, along with a myriad of celebrities and entertainers. The 20th floor has the Marilyn Monroe room, where she once had an extended stay.

I took in the elegant Sunday Brunch at the Peacock Alley restaurant with an extensive buffet that spills over into the lobby, with a dining choice of piano or harp accompaniment. It’s not every Sunday you can have such an extravagant brunch. I had two of the signature Peacock Alley cocktails served in a martini glass ~ elegant with just the right touch of sweetness. It is a tradition at the Peacock Alley, to see and be seen, and observing the other dining patrons was intriguing. The next day. after a schedule tour of the hotel of ballrooms, kitchens and the 20th floor terrace with beehives and herbs, I also had an efficient acceptable lunch at Oscars, with their surprisingly different than expected famous Waldorf Salad.
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The history of the hotel is fascinating. On March 24, 1893, millionaire William Waldorf Astoria opened the 13-story Waldorf Hotel on the site of his former mansion at Fifth Avenue and 33rd street, and was joined in 1897, with the adjacent 17-story Astoria Hotel. The original Waldorf Astoria New York closed in 1929 and was reincarnated in 1931 where the current hotel reigns at Park Avenue and 50th, making it at that time the world’s largest and tallest hotel at 625 feet with 47 floors, and is today one of the world’s largest Art Deco buildings. The hotel is synonymous with the grandeur of the best of New York City and in 1993 was deemed an official New York City landmark. In this Internet age it is easy to explore a destination or hotel. The Waldorf Astoria New York has a myriad of internet links that illuminate its history and current amenities. There are way too many historical tangents to list here, but you can explore many at: www.waldorfarchive.com. I used their concierge and theater ticket desk for last minute reservations and found them courteous and efficient. Of course if you can make your own theatre ticket choices in advance you can save the added expense of last minute theatre decisions. I don’t regret my last minute choice as the theatre seats book through the Ticket Desk and the dinner reservations were excellent. Buying your theater tickets far in advance is always recommended. The Broadway Collection can help.
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While In New York I took in the comedy, It’s only a Play, with its star studded cast; Cabaret, a tired show and performance; Pippin, a ghost of a show I first saw on Broadway on my first 1972 visit; Disney’s Aladdin, an exuberant and true extravaganza of what a Broadway show should be; Kinky Boots, with outstanding performances and more fun than expected; and in its twenty sixth year, Phantom, with my home town connection of its co lead, Jeremy Hays. Hays is a product of Oklahoma City University’s performing arts school where other notable Broadway and theatre alumni were nurture including: Lara Teeter, Kelli O’Hara and Barbara Fox DeMaio Caprilli, among others. I was told Hays will be in the show through January. His voice is smooth and clear, his acting appropriately dramatic, his diction impeccable, and with his good looks and personality make him a perfect romantic lead.
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New York’s Metropolitan Museum always impresses with its prime collections inviting a pace of leisurely observation, as there is never enough energy or foot power to see it all. I enjoyed using my CityPass coupon book for entrance, which offers discounts to many New York City attractions, and offers you a road map for your own itinerary choice. And while the rooftop cafe closed a day early, I enjoyed my first time visit there with views of Central Park. New York City can be intimidating but with a little planning and a comfortable oasis like the Waldorf Astoria New York Hotel, it can be a perfect weekend getaway or the perfect end to a Blount Small Ship Adventures Cruise.

Here are some sites to aid in your planning: www.hiltonweekends.com; www.waldorfastoria.com;

www.citypass.com; www.blountsmallshipadventures.com; www.broadwaycollection.com

Travel is always an adventure and no more so than on a cruise where you are definitely not in control, as that is the responsibility of the ship’s Captain. With a Blount Small Ship Adventure you are sure to have an adventurous nature as their relatively small ships (80 passengers) traverse less traveled waterways and dock at destinations where only small ships can go. My trip aboard the Grande Caribe took me from Montreal (see Part One of this sojourn) up to Quebec, then back through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, along the trail of the Erie Canal via the New York Canal System, down the Hudson River and docking in little old New York City, after a farewell cruise by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan while pausing at the Statue of Liberty.
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This being my first time with Blount (it has about a 50% return booking of previous passengers) I have to commend the cruise staff from Captain John Hunnewell, to the all-important Cruise director, Lisa Pontarelli, down through all the seventeen support staff of housekeeping, galley servers and the deck hands who were all cheerful and helpful day after day of my twelve day cruise. A cruise ship company can have little control over weather, or tides, but when they pay special attention to passenger service, you know you have a good company and see why Blount has such a good return booking. Blount is not so much about luxury accommodations as they are about informative and enjoyable destinations where many other cruise ships cannot go. Among other destinations my favorites (I have several favorites) include historic Hyde Park, home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the Impressive West Point academy; Cooperstown with its charming main street shops, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and nearby Fenimore Art Museum preserved in an historic house. The Grande Caribe also stopped off at the Wooden Boat Museum, the town of Troy, the Fredric Remington Art Museum and a tour of the Singer Castle. But most enjoyable was progressing at a leisurely pace along the waterway with its homes and mansions of the Thousand Islands and all along the fabled Hudson River valley. Traveling on the water gives you a tangible concept of the country’s geography and how it influenced the area’s history.
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For true marine lovers the over thirty canal locks encountered from Montreal to NYC, is illuminating. Passengers continued to marvel at these engineering mechanisms and how adept the crew and captain was at navigating through them. These relatively short pauses give one time to reflect on the communities they bolster as well as a glimpse into American culture.
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A Blount Small Ship Adventure nurtures a leisurely pace of travel. While the day is structured with a 7:30 a.m. bell to call you to an 8 a.m. breakfast, and the following lunch and dinner, you never feel rushed, even though everyone on my cruise was eager for the delicious meal times. Breakfast offers a cold buffet of fruit, yogurt cereals, as the crew serves the specialty of the morning which might be eggs benedict, fresh scrambles eggs, hot pancakes, muffins or waffles. If there is a special egg order it is gladly taken. Lunch usually consists of a soup of the day and a variety of sandwiches throughout the cruise. After a BYOB cocktail hour, dinner may start off with a salad, followed by an entree of the day, maybe a steak, Mahi Mahi, pasta or Game Hen. Complementary wines are served by the glass during lunch and more extensively at dinner. Of course a desert of ice cream or cake or pie tops off the meal. All meals are open seating and it’s fun to mix up your dining partners, or cling to the congenial folks you like the most. The hit of any of our meals was the fresh baked variety of breads.
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As a single traveler I relished having one of the few cabins with an outside door to the walk around deck. While the sliding door often would not stay shut, when it was open during day cruising it was a joy to relax on the opposite bed with views out the door of the shoreline accented with a variety of homes and landscapes dotted with colorful autumn trees. My cabin was designed for two, and I might suggest for my tastes two persons might be one too many in any of the cabins, as elbow room in the cabins is at a premium. But such is the design of small ships. I did hear some first time passengers comment on the noise in the cabins of the individually controlled air system , the engine noise, and the challenge in taking a brief compact shower, but that has to be chalked up to part of the small ship adventure. Again, the Blount cruise is about destinations not accommodations.
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The evenings offered a formal cultural lecture in the common area, by Frederick Stonehouse, author of thirty books which made him an expert on the maritime history we were experiencing. A personable gentleman who was just as interesting when joining him during the informal family styled meals. Other evenings there was on board entertainment. The best perhaps was the jazz trio of Skip Parsons who brought a Dixieland style to this ultimate river boat. As my trip was in late October, when children would be in school, my cruise was made up almost entirely of senior citizens. I found all the fellow travelers well informed and well-traveled. Getting to know a portion of their knowledge was an added Blount Small Ship Adventures treat.

For your specal interests sign up for email alerts and explore a variety of 2015 cruise destinations at:

http://www.blountsmallshipadventures.com/

As you can tell from the title I had a near 3 week tour of the North East which was an all-consuming adventure of over 1100 miles, 32 locks and many city visits via Blount’s Grand Caribe small cruise ship. Blount specializes in traveling where large ships cannot go and giving their guests exceptional access to destinations approachable by rivers in North America. Blount cruises are ideal for Senior citizens. (More details about my cruise in Part Two.) It’s always a good idea to arrive early for any cruise ship departure, as you’d had to miss the boat because of airline or weather delays. I did that with my 3 night stay in one of my most enjoyable city explorations in Old Montreal.
Taking the suggestion of Montreal Tourism, I stayed at the upscale boutique Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel, in the middle of historic yet modern old town. The hotel offered all the amenities expected with a flare and style for which you always wished. The dining, bar, concierge, bell men, Internet access, housekeeping and staff all were the best of the best with efficient and congenial service. Le Saint-Sulpice is indeed a pleasant and quiet oasis from your Montreal touring.
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Being my first time in Montreal, I enjoyed my morning car tour by expert guide, Ruby Roy, who showed me many Montreal iconic sights. They included the past Olympic and Expo venues, several overlook vistas of the Montreal skyline, an exposure to the variety of unique architectural styles of its neighborhoods (where the design of street lights change with each neighborhood), the Atwater Farmers market and of course topping off with a visit to the 1823 Notre-Dame Basilica (entry fee), which is only half a block from my Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel.
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It’s said that Montreal has over 6,000 restaurants, but as only having 3 days, I was pleased to accept the challenge and sample a few, most in Old Montreal and within walking distance. Many were near the main street of Old Montreal, Saint Paul Street, East and West. The street is filled with enticing upscale art galleries, shops and other businesses housed in vintage Montreal facades. At times I felt I was strolling through a European city, exhibiting its sophisticated culture. A short distance from Le Saint-Suplice is the Montreal Museum of Archeological and History, a must to see for its original foundations of Old Montreal, and to explore its history through a labyrinth of exhibition narratives. The experience of taking in their multiple image movie was a welcome diversion and informational. A real treat is the very popular museum café, Restaurant l’AArrivage. The concierge at the hotel retrieved the last table available for my noontime respite, where the food was economical and delicious along with a variety of local people watching. So as not to be disappointed reservations, even for a noon time meal, is a must at most all Montreal restaurants. My other dining pleasures included: Helena is very popular and crowded with a Portuguese style menu. Chez L’Epicier has an elegant atmosphere and food presentations which started off with a Kir Maison of sparkling apple cider, cranberry and maple, to accompany their amuse bush of a sweet macaroon and chocolate mint. This may be their “eat dessert first” philosophy. Ask for their Club Sandwich, which is a dessert of sweet delights presented as if it were a sandwich. Perhaps the best taste in all Montreal was their Roasted Butternut Squash (tasting like peaches!) with sour cream and walnut crumble.
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Osteria Venti, was again a very popular restaurant. It seems everyone in Montreal eats out all the time. The service here was congenial and I must say that they followed my Martini instructions to the letter without hesitation. It seems in Canada in particular, that martinis are stirred not usually shaken, so my detailed instruction (ice on the pond) was welcomed, as they wanted to please this customer, as they also did with my meal of oven roasted half chicken, rustic peperonata, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil.

You’ll need to take a taxi to Chez Ma Grosse Truie Cherie – but it was worth it to dine on their onion soup, pork tenderloin encrusted (port is their specialty), a hazel nut crème Brule, and accompany all with either an apple Martini or their special drink created by the bar tender, David, a martini of Montreal gin, herbs and a hint of maple syrup. To know that most their interior is from recycle materials including bowling alley wood made into table tops, is an added treat.
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Back at Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel your choice of breakfast dishes at the Sinclair restaurant is extensive, and who doesn’t need an early morning wake up for a full day of touring? If weather permits you might eat out on the patio, or if not, inside the enclosed terrace offering floor to ceiling windows. Having this hotel as your elegant, secure and convenient home in Old Montreal is a comfortable way to enjoy the city. There is even a Christmas shop halfway between the hotel and the Notre-Dame Basilica, and a liquor store across the street. Old Montreal…my new favorite haunt. Check out: www.tourisme-montreal.org, www.lesaintsulpice.com, www.restauranthelena.com, www.chezlepicier.com, www.pacmusee.qc.ca/en/plan-your-visit/larrivage-restaurant, www.osteriaventi.com, info@blountsmallshipadventures.com.

A walking holiday in the second largest country in the world seemed a bit ambitious for beginners, but my wife was keen to go.

Fortunately we weren’t covering the whole country. Our itinerary encompassed Toronto, Quebec and Niagara, some of the highlights of this vast country that is home to only 35 million people, less than the population of California.

So, armed with waterproof jackets (which we didn’t need) and our most comfortable walking shoes, we set off on our adventure.

We had to delay the start of our trip. However, we met up with the rest of the group over dinner in Quebec, caught up on what they had experienced in Montreal and Sacacomie and immediately made new-found friends.

The next morning we boarded our coach to the toughest walk of our trip. A short drive took us to the Jacques-Cartier National Park, 260 square miles of mountains, lakes, rivers and walking trails. Blessed with almost cloudless blue skies, warm sunshine and trees turning to their Fall shades of red and gold, we chatted to our new-found friends as we walked the steep inclines through the forest. As the going got tougher and trails became staircases, conversation ceased and it became a struggle for us two beginners to keep up the pace. Thankfully our guide, Jean-Francois, made regular stops to admire the view and allow us to catch up. Those views were fantastic and well worth the climb, and as the trail started to descend we felt we had already achieved something special.

We stopped at the Visitors Centre and Jean-Francois produced picnic lunches for us all at a spectacular location, right on the water’s edge. It couldn’t have been better.
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Later that day we had some free time to explore the city. Old Quebec has a strong European feel and is the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. It is divided into the higher and lower towns, the latter being right at the water’s edge of the St Lawrence Seaway and offering moorings to an increasing number of cruise ships. We enjoyed walking along part of the fortification walls and gates that stretch nearly three miles around the edge of the old city. The streets are lined with buildings of great character, none more imposing than the Chateau Frontenac. It claims to be the most photographed hotel in the world and we could see why.

We walked along the boardwalk past the hotel to the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham where, in 1759, the English and French armies, under Generals Wolf and Montcalm, battled it out. The Plains are now a spacious urban park and being right in the City are easily accessible to locals and tourists alike.

After a short flight the following day we found ourselves in Toronto. Originally named York, it changed its name in 1834. Situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, towering new skyscrapers and ongoing re-development are evidence of the rapid growth the city is experiencing. Tallest of the structures is the CN Tower and the best way to get an overall view of the city is from its revolving restaurant and viewing platform around 1,150 feet (351m) above the ground. If you are brave enough you can also venture onto the vertigo-inducing glass floor – great for selfies.

Toronto is the commercial hub of Canada and home to the Canadian Stock Exchange as well as its five biggest banks. This contributes to not only a high standard of living but also high housing costs and high-rise accommodation.

The city is culturally diverse with more than 80 ethnic groups. Street signs often proclaim the nationality of the immigrants who built their community there.

However, it’s not all concrete and glass skyscrapers, some older building survive including the famous ‘flat iron’ building and the St Lawrence Market, an indoor market founded in 1803 and full of stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Toronto is also a major Arts centre and boasts theatres, concert halls and galleries as well as the University of Toronto which dates back to 1827.

After two days of city walks we needed some open spaces, and where better than our next destination, Niagara Falls.
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Many people think that the Falls are in a remote area but they are in the city and the hotels are in walking distance. There are in fact three falls that flow into the Niagara River which forms a natural boundary between Canada and the US, but the Canadian falls, the Horseshoe Falls, are the biggest. The other two falls are the American falls and the much smaller Bridal Veil falls, separated from the American falls by Luna Island, a mere 130ft (40m) wide. All three falls are best viewed from the Canadian side but recent passport controls have reduced the number of people walking or driving over the Rainbow Bridge that links the two countries.

The area along the waterfront consists of well manicured gardens and smart hotels but just behind this area, downtown Niagara Falls and particularly the Clifton Hill area, looks more like an amusement park with a range of attractions, lower priced accommodation and eateries catering for families. Attractions such as the upside down house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and several wax works can keep kids, young and old, amused for hours.

No visit to Niagara would be complete without a boat ride into the whirlpool at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls. All passengers are provided with hooded plastic ponchos to help keep out the water which, as you get closer to the falls, feels more like driving rain. It is from the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, cascading half a million gallons of water a second into the Niagara River, that you really appreciate the might of the second largest waterfall in the world.
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Whilst the Falls are the central attraction, the area boasts numerous vineyards, many of which are happy to welcome visitors in the hope that you might buy a bottle or two. There is also the famous Welland Canal, allowing cargo ships to sail between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, its seven locks allow ships to navigate the Niagara Escarpment which, in 1990, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It is part of a network of canals linking the Great Lakes that allows cargo from both Canada and US cities like Detroit and Chicago to reach ocean-going vessels at ports such as Montreal and Quebec.

Nearby townships such as Niagara on the Lake and Jordan provide picturesque places to visit and the nearby Balls Falls Conservation Area, one of the earliest settlements in this part of Canada, includes the Grist Mill dating back to 1809 and St George Church, built in 1864.

Our final walk was along part of the famous Bruce Trail. The trail follows the Niagara Escarpment for over 500 miles (800km) and is the longest marked trail in Canada. It’s paths and bridges are maintained by a number of clubs that have sprung up along its route. For many hikers around the world it ranks as a ‘must do’ trail.
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This is just a slice of what Canada has to offer, from big modern cities to wide open plains, forests and mountains. One thing all the places had in common, however, was the warmth and friendliness of Canadians themselves who, from the assistant in a local Subway to the staff at the smart city hotels, were genuinely pleased to see us, happy to help and keen to hear about our experiences in their great country. We had walked many miles along trails, sometimes steep and rocky, along canals and through cities; we had enjoyed great exercise, fresh air and making new friends with our fellow hikers. Truly a trip to remember.
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For more information on this and other walking holidays around the world, go to www.hfholidays.co.uk, email info@hfholidays.co.uk or contact their US partners Fugazi Travel Agency Inc, email info@fugazitravel.com tel: (415) 393 1588.

Day 1: We’re off!

Our family of six has left home for our final vacation before our oldest graduates and heads off on his own. Tomorrow, we will embark on a seven night Carnival cruise through the southern Caribbean. We’re especially excited for this particular cruise because, instead of just the standard five stops, this week-long cruise ports at six different islands. As enjoyable as a cruise ship can be, the real fun for us comes from exploring islands and getting a bit more “cultured”.

So on day one, we’re visiting the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan a night early, to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. The cruise port and the international airport are only 15 kilometers apart, so we split the difference and stayed in Isla Verde, almost exactly halfway between the two. From the airport, we jumped in a taxi which comfortably fit all of us, and headed to a condominium we had rented through vrbo.com. The trip was quick (6 kilometers), the conversation fleeting (the driver knew little English, and I know less Spanish), and the fare reasonable (being regulated and standard across the city.)

Since it was still early afternoon, we ventured out on a walk, looking for a place to eat lunch. Isla Verde is close to the water, so the area attracts both tourists and seasonal residents alike and so in turn hosts many restaurants, hotels, stores, and a vibrant nightlife. After enjoying just a few blocks of leg stretching and sunshine, we stumbled upon a treasure. Gorda’s Baja Taco, located right on Avenida Isla Verde, beckoned us with its brightly colored storefront and invitation to try its fish tacos. Ivan, the restaurant’s sole proprietor (and cook, and cleaner, and accountant), told me he had eaten at a similar establishment while visiting Arizona and fell in love with it. So he came back home to his native Puerto Rico and opened up Gorda’s, with the same flavors and dishes he experienced, but with his own Puerto Rican flair.

According to my oldest daughter McKell, it was “like a food truck in a building!” ‘Cause we love food trucks. Even her sister Kaylee proclaimed, “I don’t even like tacos, but I love these!” After looking through the menu of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and tacos, we took up the invitation to try the fish tacos and ordered those and a few other kinds.

“This is the best taco I have ever had!” When my wife compliments the food that profoundly, it means something. Truthfully, the tacos really were good. My favorite was the chicken, which meant it had to be absolutely delicious, as good as the fish taco was, as promised. After lunch, we found the nearby beach and dipped our toes in the water for a few minutes, and then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in Viejo San Juan, the historic center and oldest settlement of the island. We spent some time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the old city, but it’s always the old architecture and history that calls to me.

So I dragged the family (who were thankfully willing to go) to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish to guard the old settlement of San Juan. About a third of it has been torn down to make room for the growing city, but it still looms over the coastline. We didn’t pay the six dollars to wander its quarters and tunnels, since the old walls and guerites, or sentry boxes, that looked out into the ocean were free and open to the public. The stone walls and towers offered a fun place to climb, but I have to admit, since they tower high above the shoreline, and there are many spots with no barriers, I got nervous watching my kids peek over the edges. But I did it too. It’s hard to resist! But we had to be careful.
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Day 2

We’re on the island of St. Thomas. The ship has been fun, and we like all the eating, but we were excited to disembark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital. We had signed up for a scheduled excursion with Castaway Girl for a half-day catamaran and snorkeling adventure, so we immediately found the tour guide and made our way to the boat, harbored just a short distance from the cruise ship.

Our catamaran, despite its size that could easily fit fifty, was fast. Simply under the power of the wind, we were still faster than many of the other boats leaving the harbor. The smooth ride over the water was thrilling, the brisk wind cool, and the sight of the St. Thomas coast speeding by constantly reminded me I wasn’t in Utah anymore! The captain sailed us over to Buck Island, a small uninhabited piece of land just off the coast. Buck Island claims the second-oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, but the real draw was the potential of seeing turtles in its small bay and the pieces of shipwreck lying under the water just off its protected beach. We stopped a few meters from the island, dropped anchor, and proceeded to jump off the catamaran’s deck, which sat about 6 feet above the water. Even though there is a ladder we could have climbed, the jump was much more fun.
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We followed the snorkeling guide to a spot where we could see the turtles, fish, and other wildlife in the ocean. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and get a good view of the vegetation and rock formations. My family loves to experience new things, so when the tour guide dived down, brought up a Brittle Sea Star, and asked, “Who wants to put this in your mouth?”, McKell was the first one to yell out, “I do!” This turned out to be one of the greatest pictures of the vacation. The starfish crawled out of her mouth on the first attempt, but she got it to stay for the picture on the second try. The starfish wasn’t harmed, and the guide eventually put it back on the ocean floor, but what a great experience I’m not sure we would have had anywhere else. This journey just keeps getting better.

Day 3

It’s our day at sea. We enjoy the all-inclusive food and drinks, the professional shows, the games and fun on board, and not having to unpack more than once this whole trip. Enough said.

Day 4

We’re in Barbados. I had read the island is known for its luscious pink and white sand beaches. That reputation is well deserved. This island easily had the best beach on our trip. We had looked at a few maps and done some research, and thought we could just walk off the ship and over to a beach. It would have been a 25 minute walk, which didn’t seem too far away. We spurned all the taxi drivers offering us rides, until we finally gave in just outside the port entrance. A driver offered to take us to a much better beach for only $3 a person, rather than the double and triple amounts that others were charging. We climbed in his van and rode off through Bridgetown, ending up at a beach in Carlisle Bay you wouldn’t realize was there from the street unless you knew where to go. We rented a beach lounge chair and umbrella from the local vendors, but I ended up not using it much. The beach was a gorgeous white, cool to the touch, and the softest sand I have ever stepped in. Even throughout the day, with the sun beating down on the beach, the sand stayed cool. I didn’t want to stop standing in it! Just running my toes through the soft sand is an experience I still haven’t forgotten. No other beach, even the ones with nicer boardwalks and stores, could stand up to this one. Ah, that sand!
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Day 5

Another island, another beach, another glorious day in the sun. We are here on the absolutely gorgeous St. Lucia. Out of the all the islands, this one is the most beautiful. There is so much green covering rolling hills and high mountains. Based on what we thought was good research, we walked out of the ship, by the small stores, and past the drivers asking for $40 or more a person to take us to one of the many beaches on the island. We finally stopped and asked one to take us to the much closer Choc Beach. At only $5 a person, we thought it was a great deal.

Once again, just as in Barbados, listening to the experience and guidance of the locals turned out to be our best choice. The taxi driver, willing to take us wherever we wanted to go, strongly expressed how unappealing Choc Beach is. No security, no services. Frankly, it was the no security that sold me, wanting to watch out for my family, but it wasn’t until he drove us past the beach, a small stretch of dark sand and broken trees with no one on it, that we decided to take his advice. Of course, the fact that he only raised his fare by $10 for our entire family helped sway us, so off we scuttled to Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay, a beautiful area built up for tourism and with a good view of Pigeon Island and its small ruin. The beach was nice and renting another chair and umbrella made it comfortable, but unfortunately the constant hawking of wares by the locals got to be a bit annoying. Every one of them was kind and gracious, but when you can’t rest for 5 minutes without being offered aloe vera straight from the plant, bowls and hats made of banana leaves, an assortment of jewelry and shells and scarves, or what admittedly looked like a very tasty assortment of chickpeas, potato, and meats wrapped in flatbread, it was difficult to relax. We still enjoyed our time and purchased a couple items (the banana leaf bowl still sits on our counter at home), rented a kayak for a ride out in the bay, and took a stroll down the beach, before our time was up and we were heading back to the ship.

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Day 6

St. Kitts was our day off from the beaches and water. The ship docked right at the capital city of Basseterre, so we spent our day wandering the town. It is small, only about four blocks square, but has well-restored buildings and local flair that drew us in. We headed first for St. George’s Anglican Church and were rewarded with a wide open and welcoming structure. We climbed the restored bell tower, up some very steep stairs. Above the large cast iron bell, the hatch was open to the roof, so we promptly climbed up and out. I am sure it isn’t the safest place on the island because of its height and has no barriers to stop us from tumbling over the side, but it was refreshing to be in the cool wind and take a panoramic view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding island.
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After the steep descent, we wandered the church grounds and cemetery, and then made our way a couple blocks further to the Basseterre Co-Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. This Catholic church seemed much newer, and still provided a calm, peaceful visit, but it didn’t quite hold the history and feel as the other church. However, it gave us an opportunity to see the everyday life of St. Kitts a little bit closer. Situated directly behind the church is a school. The students were out for lunch, and we said hello to some, who were dressed very nicely in matching school uniforms and rushing off to buy local fare from either the street vendors or the grocery store, or just spending time in the neighboring Independence Square, a one-block park that historically was the site of the slave market.

We followed the students, Trina and I laughing at our kids (and my) reaction to the large fish heads being sold on the street, and found ourselves in front of the grocery store. We were a bit tired and thirsty from our walk, so we jumped at the chance to buy some “local cuisine” in the shape of juice boxes. We chose the most unique we could find, sampling currant berry juice and peanut butter drinks. It wasn’t the cuisine we’d been eating on the cruise ship, but it was just as refreshing. Day 7 It’s our final port, St. Maarten (for the Dutch side) or St. Martin (for the French side). We wanted to get to Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, the place made infamous by so many youtube videos and travel shows we’d seen, showing off how close to the beach the planes have to land on the short 7500 foot runway.

We found our way to the beach by way of a bus. It takes a little longer than a taxi, but at $2 a person, it was much less expensive. The taxis and busses look the same, but we figured out which one to take by looking at the license plates, which prominently say either Bus or Taxi on them. We made it to Maho Beach after a 20-30 minute ride, and promptly put down our bags and set up our towels. Even with all the warning signs of possible jet blasts, we didn’t think too much of finding a spot right in the path of the landing planes, since we wanted to get the best pictures and videos possible. Planes frequently came in to land, some small, some larger, and we enjoyed every one, feeling so close to each plane it seemed like we could reach up and touch it. None gave us any trouble, although the noise of the larger ones required us to cover our ears. Once in a while, a smaller departing plane would back itself up close to the fence bordering the beach before taking off, but they didn’t cause much alarm. A couple who had arrived earlier in the day said they experienced one “that was interesting”, but gave no reason to move from the beach.

And then it happened. We were so excited to see the largest plane yet back up closer to the fence than any other we’d seen. We jumped up, with our phones and cameras at the ready, standing on the beach close to the fence, excited to see what this one was going to do. Then it revved up its engines.

I haven’t ever stood in front of a sandblaster, but now I know exactly how it would feel. The propulsion from the jet engines was so strong, and lasted for so long before the plane actually took off, that I couldn’t think of anything but finding a way to block myself from the torture. I couldn’t even come to enough presence of mind to think of walking sideways out of the blast zone. There I stood, trying to wrap a towel around me to block the barrage of tiny bullets in the form of blowing sand. People were running and screaming, and I suddenly realized towels and bags and hat and glasses were flying by us into the ocean. We all jumped into the water to save what we could, all while sand kept blasting into our skin, our ears, our hair. Finally, it ended. The few seconds it lasted seemed to have gone on for minutes, but I was finally able to lift my eyes and look around. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone dumb enough to sit in a blast zone, realized what it was going to be like. Least of all me and my dear family. We were covered in sand, but with only the loss of my sunglasses, we fared well. It was an experience I would never, ever recommend, but it was one we will remember the rest of our lives. Day 8

Then it was all over. Cruising is a fantastic way to visit so many different locations on one trip, while enjoying the ease of prepared meals and the same room every night. It’s been one of our kids favorite vacations so far, but I think and hope we’ll create many more memories for them. But we’d all do it again tomorrow if we could.

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In the long, glamorous history of ocean voyages, there has never been a better time to book a cruise. Today, it’s possible to visit exotic ports of call our grandparents could only read about. Holland America’s Baltic Cruise on the Eurodam explores the mystery and beauty of St. Petersburg, Russia, the charm of Tallinn, Estonia, and Scandinavian capitals.
From Copenhagen, the ship sails through narrow channels before heading out through the Baltic Sea to Estonia and Russia, circling back to Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden, and finally to Rostock/Berlin and Kiel/Hamburg in Germany.
A cruise is the most efficient and convenient way to see these ports. Where else can you see the sun set at l0 p.m. in Denmark and ll:30 p.m. in Russia a few days later?

 

 

The Eurodam

The 2,104-guest ship features a new Asian restaurant and bar, the Tamarind and Silk Den, as well as a casual Italian eatery, Canaletto. Other additions are the Explorer’s Lounge Bar, a new atrium bar area, and a show lounge with theatre-style seating. The dazzling Rembrandt dining room and Pinnacle Restaurant are upscale options.
Galley tours showcase the vast array of equipment and manpower that goes into producing 13,000 meals a day.
Themed dinners relate to the food of the country visited. A beer and bratwurst bash complete with Oompah band is held on deck when the ship is docked in Germany. A new Master Chef’s International Dinner showcases signature dishes from six continents along with regional wine pairings. This year a vegetarian-only menu adds 30 new dishes to the Rembrandt dining room menu.
Cruisers who never danced before get a chance to try on board. A new Dancing with the Stars at Sea experience features a dazzling production starring celebrities and dance pros. Cruisers can take dance lessons, meet the dancers, and take photos.
The ship is a sanctuary of rest and relaxation for weary passengers after long days of walking, climbing concrete steps, and waiting for buses. The Greenhouse Spa and Salon offers a full range of services from a customized bamboo massage to a pro-collagen facial lift. The thermal suite has a heated ceramic room with lounges that conform to the curvature of the spine. A Hydropool is enriched with mineralized bubbling water and powerful jets to melt away muscle tension.
My favorite spot on the ship was the Crows’s Nest and Internet library and bar. With its stunning panoramic view, this is the place to meet people and to hear the pre- excursion talks by travel experts. It’s also the best spot to view the unparalleled beauty of the Swedish archipelago—a waterway between Helsinki and Stockholm containing 24,000 islands. On the five-hour journey navigating the channel out of Russia, we passed by President Vladimir Putin’s summer residence, a former estate of the nobility.
The Eurodam is handicapped-accessible. Thirty staterooms are marked for the disabled, and the ship’s elevators make it easier to get around. I saw at least seven people with canes, six with walkers, and a few in wheelchairs who went on most of the excursions.

 

 

Shore Excursions

People cruise the Baltic to see exotic destinations they may never see otherwise. Going ashore in another country is one of the highlights of the cruising experience. Tours are organized by the cruise line and include all costs, lunches and snacks. They are booked in advance, but can be changed at the ship’s Shore Excursions Desk.
The ship’s tours are pricey. Some passengers opt to walk around the towns on their own, and shuttle busses are available for this purpose. Rostock and Kiel in Germany and Helsinki are walkable, but individual tours can be pre-arranged through travel agencies or the U.S. tourist offices of these countries.
The cruise begins and ends in Copenhagen. Pre- and post-cruise tours of the capital take in the highlights: Christianborg Palace, Tivoli, the fairytale amusement park, the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, and the opera house. The beloved poet, Hans Christian Anderson, once lived in picturesque Nyhavn, now a hip, regentrified area on the harbor. Outdoor dining and lively bars draw crowds who stroll along the quay.
The elegant Palace Hotel is in the middle of the action directly across from historic city hall with its distinctive bell tower, and five minutes away from Tivoli. The Glyptotek Museum is also close to the hotel; it has an incredible Rodin sculpture exhibit and lush conservatory.
Holland America added a second night in St. Petersburg because there is so much to see. Russia was the highlight of the trip, by most accounts. On a canal cruise through the city, one passes under a few of the city’s 365 bridges for views of the Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Favorite tours go to the summer palace of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, plus the fabulous Church of the Spilled Blood in the center city, and the magnificent Hermitage Museum.
Evening tours of the Hermitage are set up exclusively for cruise passengers on Mondays when museums are usually closed. This is a good way to avoid the crowds, and the air is cooler. The sweet Matryoshka (nesting dolls) are popular souvenirs in Russia (about $10). The ship also sells them during Russian night on board.
In Tallinn, Estonia, you can embark on a bicycling adventure through the countryside or take a laidback panoramic bus tour of the main sights (for scenic viewing only.) I chose a Stroll through Tallinn’s Old Town, one of the finest medieval town centers in Europe. It meanders along narrow cobblestone streets past crafts shops and up to Palace Square and the stunning Baroque Toompea Palace now used by the Estonian Parliament.
On the itinerary was the great Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its glorious mosaics and icons. Guests were treated to a medieval concert at St. Nicholas Church. Estonia, which gained its independence from the old Soviet Union in l991, is a wired nation. Skype was invented here, and 98% of the population is computer literate.
Stockholm’s splendid beauties can be best seen in the 7-hour Best of Stockholm tour, but a 3-hour stroll is also worthwhile. The city is built on a chain of islands. Highlights are the harbor and fabled city hall, where the Nobel festivities unfold each year.
The l7th century warship Vasa is on display at the Vasa Museum, highlighting Sweden’s inspired maritime heritage. Tours also take in the Royal Palace and Old Town, with its unique Bohemian atmosphere.
Helsinki’s famous Rock Church is a fascinating attraction. The church is built out of the side of a huge rock hill. It has l5 miles of copper wiring built into a frieze over the sanctuary. The acoustics are fabulous, and you may catch part of an organ concert. The movies Reds, Gorky Park and the last scene of Dr. Zhivago were filmed in Helsinki before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Designated as the 2012 World Design Capital, Helsinki’s Design District has 200 shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. The Tori Quarters, the neoclassical old city center, has been revitalized with restaurants and new design shops. A stroll around the harbor amid colorful produce stalls and outdoor cafes is a great way to experience the city in a short time period.
For fine dining, the stylish Salutorget bistro next to Market Square is ideal. It features locally-sourced fare, Finnish culinary treats, and is adorned in chic design.
Contact: www.HAL.com.

Rocking the Caribbean since 2006, the Decades of Rock and Roll Oldies Cruise set sail on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas, presenting yet another successful event from February 1-9. Kicking off in Fort Lauderdale, the cruise included 200 avid music fans, many of them return attendees.
Organized by founder Penny Greene of Ohio, the event drew many Ohioans, most of them fans of headliner bands Phil Dirt and the Dozers, McGuffey Lane, Hadden Sayers, and Mad, Mad Men.
“We just love the bands,” said newlyweds Erica and Bill, whose last name is – ironically – Music. “You couldn’t ask for a better line-up of talented musicians.”
Talented is an understatement. Wowing the crowd with vintage covers from the ‘50s on up, plus some originals, the roster of musicians aimed to please.
Attendees, most of whom were over the age of 40, be-bopped and danced, laughed and cheered, and generally let loose on the ship. Poodle skirts and prom gowns were all the rage, as the schedule included both a sock hop and a senior prom.
Founder Penny Greene, 46, seemed to flawlessly manage the event and it went off without a hitch. A few last-minute issues such as a performer’s necessary cancellation were handled quickly and efficiently, and the attendees were happy and satisfied.
From the “Time to Rock and Roll” Dance Party to the “Surf’s Up” Pool Party to the “Rock and Roll Extreme” Beach Party, the music rolled on like the waves, and relaxation was the theme of each day and night on sea and land.
“We come on the ship as strangers and when we leave, we feel like family,” said Penny Greene, who plans to continue Decades of Rock and Roll as long as she has cruisers to twist the night away.
The ship’s Eastern Caribbean island destinations included St. Maartens, St. Kitts, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Royal Caribbean’s private island of Labadee, Haiti.
“We loved each stop,” said Jane and Tom Lake of Ohio. “This was so much fun.”
The Independence of the Seas was in ship-shape form, with service and cleanliness being top-notch. Lots of activities were offered in addition to the private events held by Decades of Rock and Roll, and cruisers enjoyed game shows and lectures, art shows and parades.
“There’s so much to do that we’ll need to rest after we get home,” said friends Colleen Roundhouse and Laura Crosby, who made a Girl Getaway of the trip. Many of the 2014 cruisers are already making plans to return in 2015, when the roster once again offers sets from Phil Dirt & The Dozers, McGuffey Lane, Hadden Sayers Band, and a mystery guest to be announced. Next year’s cruise will take place on March 8-15, on Royal Caribbean’s Adventures of the Seas ship, setting sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Believe it or not, it actually costs less to fly into San Juan than into Fort Lauderdale,” said Penny Greene.
2015’s ports of call include Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, and St. Croix. Cruisers and music lovers are marking their calendars and reserving spots by calling Penny Greene at 740-438-0382. Save your spot and pack your poodle skirts: Rock and Roll is here to stay.

Last fall when I visited Albany, New York, I just had to explore a little farther north to the Lake George area. There I found a small town “Festival of the Lake” in progress next to the southern end of the expansive lake itself.

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My home base was the Fort William Henry Hotel with an upper story lake view. It’s so nice to wake up and go to bed with the ever changing view of water and distant mountains. The hotel offers several styles of accommodations, but staying in the main historic building was optimal, and the prime location for viewing the weekend fireworks over the lake from the room.
I had an unpleasant lunch at the little snack bar café on the waterfront where the manager was almost rude and not accommodating to this paying customer. But with that unpleasantness aside, the rest of my tourist visit to Lake George was very pleasant.
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One of the most congenial , informative and entertaining outings was the Sunday Champagne Brunch Cruise aboard the Lake George Steamboat Cruise which toured up the Lake all the way to the Hotel Sagamore. Viewing Sagamore ever so briefly from the water gave a new perspective to the historic white facade hotel. I was to have a luxurious lunch and hotel tour later in the weekend. While the hotel might be booked when you are in the area, a regular hotel tour is scheduled and at the very least a stop for a beverage or food is a must. Free parking is available after you go over a short quaint bridge and winding road to the resort. The lake views and hotel infuse you with the lux life of a gone by era – but an ever so enjoyment today.
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Another dining treat was the Algonquin Restaurant at Bolton Landing, near the Sagamore Hotel, where locals take their boats, docked them by the water front restaurant , enjoy a meal or cocktail, and then retreat to their lake homes via the water, before the sun completely sets. Boating to them is as casual as taking the family car out to dinner ~ so quaint and a hint at the local lake culture.
A staff member of the Sagamore, suggested I travel, if time allowed to go a bit farther north, to the northern most part of Lake George and visit the Fort Ticonderoga area. I had always heard about this revolutionary war locale and it was enlightening to tour the reconstructed fort and see its importance for guarding the waterfront. Approaching the Park area I came across a fox hunt, complete with riders and hounds in progress, temporarily halting car traffic. It was as if I was transported back in time.
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I enjoyed dining at the very popular Lake George’s Marios Italian Restaurant, and at the Lake George Dinner Theater, where the play was well done and my congenial extemporaneous senior citizen ladies table mates, was more entertainment. The Lake Gorge man street plays host to a number of assorted shops and eateries, including the wine tastings at the Adirondack Winery.
While I was there in late September, I found I was at the end of their season, so you may want to arrive earlier in the year, and plan now for your spring/summer upstate New York getaway.
Before you go check out:
www.fortwilliamhenry.com
www.adirondackwinery.com
www.thesagamore.com
www.lakegeorgedinnertheatre.com
www.lakegeorgesteamboat.com
www.thealgonquin.com