Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are We There Yet?

We slept in because we had no plans in the port of Isofjordur. There were busloads of folks going into the countryside, and some across the water to a bird sanctuary, but decided ahead of time to relax today. We had a tiring day yesterday and will have one tomorrow as well.

We ate breakfast in the MDR, glad to be back among the crystal and linen. We have gotten up early and eaten room service too often and we are only 20 per cent into the cruise. When we were finished, we returned to the room and relaxed before venturing into the town.

Medical Update: D was still walking as if he should be playing the fife in a Revolutionary War recreation. The limp was so pronounced on the way to and from the MDR that MA suggested that we not go ashore. By later in the afternoon, he was walking better. Luckily, there will be lots of car-time tomorrow.

But go ashore we did. The walk into town was not terribly long in time or distance, but it was a strain on our hero. As a result, we made it a short trip and apparently missed the high points of Isafjordur. We went past the little museum near the ship because we took one of several paths which led into the town, and we missed the church, etc. because we simply did not walk far enough. It was far enough for us, though, and we decided this was another town which had no there there. We had hoped to buy a local lunch in town but saw only a bakery with yummy looking pastries in the window. We avoided temptation but saw no place else that was open. Ed and Roxanne said that there was a burger joint open around noon, but we missed it and turned around before seeing very much of the town.

We walked back to the ship and read before going to lunch, again in the MDR [fish and chips]. When we returned to the room, MA had the nerve to take a nap before trivia. We did not do badly at trivia but not well enough to win [who was the first rock star to release a CD? Which 2 South American countries are landlocked?]. Then, MA had the audacity to take her post-trivia nap! D went to the Crow’s Nest to watch as we navigated the Isafjordur Fjord on the way to open water and tomorrow’s port, Akureyri, Iceland.

The town was cute; there is no other way to describe it. As we sailed out of town, it looked like it should be the village in a Christmas garden. All it needed was train tracks running through it. Of course, there is no railway here and we have seen no evidence of rail service in any of the island ports. Isafjordur is primarily a fishing town surrounded by other smaller towns nestled in glacial valleys. The outlying towns depend on fishing and agriculture depending on the season. Ed said that the inhabitants have to own a boat before they can buy land. Despite the jokes we make about herring and eggs or a herring burger, herring is big business here.

Tonight’s menu included meatloaf, so both of us were quite happy. Since we have to be up early tomorrow, we went to bed early again.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Night and Daylight, You Are the One

As we sail farther north, the days become longer and longer. Even when we were in London, darkness did not occur until almost 9:00. Now, the sun is visible early and late. In Runavik yesterday, sunrise was 4:42 a.m. and sunset was 10:23 p.m. Of course, the sky is light well before dawn and after sundown. By the time we get to Spitsbergen, the North Cape of Norway, we will, indeed, be in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

We continue to have smooth seas and good weather. While the skies are overcast, there has been no rain since the sprinkles in Rosyth, and temperatures have been higher than predicted. Of course, warmth is relative. Even if they continue to be higher than expected, it will still be downright chilly above the Arctic Circle. When we visited Antarctica in 2004, the temperature hovered near 45F, but the wind chill made us glad to have the heavy parkas. On that trip, we were probably over-dressed and returned to the ship each day soaked through; without all of our layers, we would have been equally uncomfortable in the opposite direction.

Today was a typical day at sea. We stayed in bed until almost 8:30 and then went to breakfast in the MDR. With eating and chatting with our tablemates, we did not finish until nearly 10:00. As a result, and by design, we missed the Cruise Critic meeting which had been scheduled for 8:30 – 10:00. Since the others are also set for 8:30 – 10:00 on sea days, we are probably through with CC for this trip. We have met several of the members and chat with them, but formal meetings are done until, maybe, next year’s trip.

We returned to the room after breakfast and read for a while before trivia. As usual, we were early getting to the Ocean Bar and read until the others arrived. Barbara brought her new netbook, but D could not get it to connect to the internet or even the local network and suggested that she consult the on-board internet specialist. She later made an appointment for tomorrow before dinner. We skipped lunch in the MDR so MA could keep her 1:00 nail appointment and went to the Lido buffet when she was done. That experience made us all the more anxious to eat in the MDR as much as possible.

After reading again in the cabin, MA joined Roxanne and Barbara in the theater to see Young Victoria. David caught up on the journal and read until she returned and we prepared for tonight’s formal night. There is a cocktail reception with the captain at 7:15, late enough for the early seating diners and early enough for the late sitting diners. We think it is just for the 4-Star alumni who have 200 or more days on board HAL ships.

There are other perks for the 200-day plus alumni. HAL offers discounts on certain purchases [such as wine packages and dinner in the reservation-only restaurant], but the most important as far as we are concerned is that laundry and pressing service are unlimited and free. Granted, there are free self-service washers and dryers on board, it is so much easier to stuff a laundry bag every two days and know that your clean, folded clothes will be back the next night. As a result, we are doing laundry [or having it done] much more often than ever before. We could have gotten away with just three of everything: one to wear, one for the next day and one in the laundry. We will know for next time and pack fewer clothes.

Formal night in the dining room featured French cuisine and décor. There were red, white and blue crepe paper balls and red, white and blue bunting strung throughout. Even the waiters were in French-style apparel including berets. Of course the menu include escargots, onion soup, quiche, pate and coq au vin. MA had the snails, lobster bisque and quiche; D had the lobster bisque, Caesar salad and the coq au vin.

After dinner we read for a while before turning off the lights after a very busy day. We will gain and hour tonight meaning an extra hour’s sleep, but we know we will give it back in a few days.\

Tomorrow – Reykjavik, Iceland.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

If there is one thing we have learned already, it’s that we can expect lots of water in lots of places on this cruise. We accept that we will be sailing on the water, of course, but we keep running into it, so to speak. In Rosyth, we encountered William Wallace and the Battle at Stirling Bridge followed by the Falkirk Wheel. In Scrabster, it was the rugged coast at Dunnet Head as well as at the Castle of Mey. In Runavik, it was all over – fjords, the ocean, waterfalls and underwater tunnels.

We were awash in water today, too. Here is the description of our trip, called the Golden Circle, as provided by the company. It is identical to the ship’s tour except there were eight of us, not fifty.

Tour description - this comprehensive tour covers all the major attractions of southwest Iceland, beginning with a drive to the national park and former parliament site at Thingvellir and continuing through the mountains to the area around the lake Laugarvatn, known for its high level of seismic activity. Next stop is Geysir, the world's most famous hot spring, and Strokkur, its smaller neighbour, which erupts in a spectacular of blue water every few minutes. The trip then continues to Gullfoss, the Queen of Icelandic waterfalls, returning to Reykjavík via Skálholt, site of Iceland's first episcopal see, founded in 1056, and the garden village of Hveragerði.
We followed the itinerary fairly closely. We switched the order of Gullfoss and Geysir to avoid tour buses and saw the alleged oldest extant church in Iceland [dating only from 1909] instead of Skálholt and Hveragerði.

The Thingvellir was the world’s first Parliament going back over 900 years. The park built on the site of the original thingvellir was dedicated in honor of Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944. It includes several buildings which we assumed stood where the thingviller had been; a multi-media display and explanation of the site’s history and geography; and startlingly stark rock walls and formations, streams and a large lake used by the populace as a recreation source.
We were at Gullfoss long enough to walk down to it, take pictures and get damp from the spray. We thought it was wonderful because it is our first Niagara-type falls, but several others were less impressed because it did not measure up to Niagara, Angel or Iguazu Falls. The river had cut a deep gorge below the falls, but we could not see it from the safety of the viewing area.

At Geysir, we were able to see – and catch in photographs – several eruptions of water and steam. We were smart/lucky enough to be upwind of the geyser when it erupted, but Jay, Sharon and Marvin got more than a little wet. Still, we and they enjoyed watching the bubbling water as it swirled in the pool where the geyser blew. It was sort of like watching a sneeze; there was a definite build-up as it prepared to shower us.

We ate lunch at the café/gift shop across the road because the Hotel Geysir dining room was booked until 2:00. Lunch was sandwiches and Cokes, not traditional Icelandic food. If we have had one disappointment, it is the lunches we have had on three of the four shore excursions [Runavik being the exception]. We hope we get luckier tomorrow.

We returned to the ship in time for trivia. There were only four teams today because of bus trips. All five of us were there and we added a “stray” whose team didn’t show. Using the ringer’s knowledge, we were able to win with a perfect score today. In all humility, we would have won without him, just not as convincingly. D’s knee was really bothering him to the point that MA finally noticed his limp, so we went to the room and MA slept while D wrote the journal with her gel wrap around his knee. There will no doubt be a report on his condition in a later entry.

We went to this evening's show after dinner [vegetarian/leg of lamb]. As singers, the group was only fair, but as entertainers they were the best we have seen in the last three cruises. By the time D went to post this entry, it was 11:15 p.m. locally and the sun was still up!

Tomorrow we will be in Isafjordur , Iceland, where we do not have any plans except to explore the town, shop and eat lunch. We should be back in time for trivia [There are priotities, after all].

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Keep to the Left

It’s important to know right off that no one died in the making of today’s adventure. With the possible exception of one side mirror, there were no physical injuries at all. There may have been a bit of psychological trauma, however.

We were docked in Scrabster, Scotland, this morning. The skies were overcast and there was a threat of rain. Temperatures were predicted to be in the upper 50’s. We are heading north and weather conditions will reflect this as we travel above the Arctic Circle. Today, however, we were just making a loop along the north-east corner of Scotland.

Jay had arranged for a rental car, a seven passenger vehicle actually, which had only two comfortable occupants on our journey. MA & D, Jay & Sharon and Ed & Roxanne shared the minivan while Marvin and Barbara had their own car. We could have rented a 12-seater but were justifiably concerned about death and dismemberment. Since Barbara and Marvin were the last ones in, they were the odd couple out.

Jay had a list of eleven[!] places he thought we ought to see but we convinced him that his list was unattainable. One of the men from the car hire service said it would take three hours just to drive the circular route even if we didn’t stop. We decided to start with the site closest to the ship and make up our itinerary as we went.

D was elected to drive because he normally drives a minivan and has also driven in the UK. Remember that he was sitting on the wrong side of a car situated on the wrong side of the roadway and shifting gears with his left hand; the only “normal” aspect was that the clutch, brake and accelerator were in the same configuration as in the US. Okay, we stalled leaving the parking lot by the ship when he did not hit the clutch in time at the “stop” sign. And he did sideswipe some curbs [or kerbs] in the early stages. And there was the possible murder of the side mirror on a parked car in the neighboring town of Thurso, but the car was parked facing the wrong direction and deserved to be punished. Oh, then reflexes has us pull to the right to avoid another car on a narrow road and almost crash into it. But nobody died today.

Our first stop was Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of the British mainland. Let’s not quibble that Great Britain is an island; Dunnet Head is still its northernmost spot. Once we left the main road, we traversed a winding single-lane track which featured periodic wide spots to allow cars to pass in opposite directions. We made it down this road without incident, even pulling into a turn-off to allow a motorcycle to pass us. Barbara [navigator] and Marvin [driver] got separated from us but eventually found Dunnet Head where we waited for them. The view was vast, the cliffs were stark and sheer and the lighthouse an obvious necessity. Barbara had brought walkie-talkies so we were in contact with them most of the time, but it was still reassuring to hear her say, “I see MA! I see Roxanne!” as they pulled up to the parking lot.

We caravanned more closely on the way to the high point of the day, the Castle of Mey. Still, our minivan arrived before Barbara & Marvin. At one point, while we waited, the three women went to the ladies’ room and were sitting in their stalls when suddenly they heard Barbara call out from the walkie-talkie, “MA, where are you?” Nonchalantly, MA replied, “In the bathroom!”Needless to say, they emerged from the loo in hysterics

Built in 1636, the castle had been family owned for generations, perhaps centuries. Eventually, it fell into disrepair. In 1952, it was discovered by the Queen Elizabeth who was visiting friends in the area following the death of her husband, Edward VI. The Queen Mother, as she became know, bought the castle and had it restored [1993 – 1995] so she could stay there in August and September when she visited Scotland.

At one point, the estate totaled over 8000 acres but is now only 2500 acres or so. It encompasses the castle itself, gardens and animals. The gardens we saw looked more functional than ornamental and included flowers, hedges, roses, herbs and vegetables. The flowers and produce were [and may still be] used by the staff for decorative as well as practical purposes. We did not explore the livestock although we could see cattle and sheep in the fields. For that matter, we saw cattle and sheep everywhere we drove today except in the cities and towns.

The castle has been maintained as a museum dedicated to QM Elizabeth. All of her furnishings, tapestries, tchotchkes, clothing, etc. are on display and, in each room of the castle, there were docents to explain everything. No pictures were allowed inside, but we saw Christmas cards she sent; her favorite blue outfit [she had 4 copies]; the dining room set up for entertaining; the sitting room where she met guests; the kitchen; and other rooms used by family or retainers. It was a much better castle from our point of view than Stirling Castle yesterday. The only drawback, again, was the existence of steep and narrow staircases. None of us fell.

The staff at the Castle gift shop said that there was a pub at John o’Groat, another spot on Jay’s list. Barbara and Marvin followed us there, keeping closer this time. We arrived there around noon and discovered that there was no there there. John o’Groat was really just a tourist trap of shops and a café which served beer. This was not our idea of a pub but we were hungry so we stayed. To our surprise, the food was pretty good. Some had soup; some had toasties [grilled cheese and something sandwiches]; and several had both. MA had a cheese and onion toastie and D had a bacon and cheese one, both on good brown bread. We were disappointed yet satisfied.
We were going to go from there to a quarry to see exhibits about minerals and such, but Navigator Jay realized that we would have to go south to get there and we weren’t so sure of the time involved with the extra driving and the “tour” itself, so we continued back to Thurso, the village next to Scrabster. We debated going straight to the pier, dropping off the car and returning to town on the HAL shuttle but parked near the center of town and walked around. Somewhere along the way back, we lost Marvin and Barbara and assumed they had gone back to the ship. Their names were not called when we were ready to depart, so we knew they were on board.

We were in time for trivia but placed second, then stayed and chatted with other players who are also CC people. Nap and journal time before a drink and dinner [seafood Cobb salad/seared tuna]. We returned to the cabin only to find a message from Richard in Guest Services, so we trekked back upstairs to see him. There were, alas, no surprises – HAL was not willing to give us the million dollars to vacate our staterooms. We were welcome to stay for the entire trip although they would honor the original offer of refund/free cruise/on-board credit. There is little likelihood of an upgrade for the last two weeks. He also explained the confusion over MA’s gel nails – the process is available on the other HAL ships but not on the Prinsendam yet. And he offered the services of a priest or rabbi if we wanted one for the disposal of Henry and Pokey’s ashes. We declined that offer, too, fearing that their ghosts would haunt us if there was any hint of religion in the proceedings.

And so to bed and sleep by 10:30. We have to up early again tomorrow for our third port in three days.

Next – Runavik, Faroe Islands

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sheep May Safely Graze or a Tail of Two Cities

Today’s port of call is Runavik [roon-uh-wick], Faroe Islands. The Faroes are north of Scotland but are associated with Denmark. They print their own paper money, for example, but use Danish coins. When their youngsters go to university, they can have free tuition in Denmark. The language, on the other hand, may be closer to Icelandic. According to our guide, whom we called Rolf, there was no written Faroese until about 150 years ago.

We were to make port in Torshavn [tore-shawn], the capital, but today marks the beginning of a two-day national celebration and there were already two other ships landing in Torshavn. Since it is an hour away by car, we opted not to join the mayhem. Instead, we had a driving tour of several of the northern islands. There are a dozen or more islands in the Faroes, connected and ferries. There is only one bridge connecting islands in the chain.

As the captain said this afternoon, we were lucky with the weather. There was a mix of cloud and sun – and fog – depending where we were and which side of an island we were on. The islands themselves seem to consist of either fjords or mountains, the highest of which is 880 meters [about 2500 feet] high. The mountains presented steep but stepped facades. They would have been easy for a mountain climber but were still sheer by tourist standards. Because of erosion, they appeared to be in steps or distinct strata. Each lower level was a little wider or closer to the valley floor. As the steps widened, they became grass covered

Erosion not only created the step effect, it also provided boulders for use in low walls between fields and even as a way to keep sheep from the higher steps. The hills and valleys were a bright green dotted with rocks and sheep but not trees. The only trees we saw had been imported. The fields were not used for vegetables but provided a limitless buffet for the sheep which seem to outnumber the people. There are so many sheep [How many sheep are there?] that periodically there are “sheep gates” in the road; like cattle gates in the US, these are metal tubes [rollers?] across the road to prevent the sheep from wandering away. At the sides of the road where these gates are install, barbed wire fencing connects to the fences in the fields. This system allows the sheep to cross the road [no chicken jokes, please] without becoming lost.

According to Rolf, there are only 48000 people living in the Faroes. Their main occupations are sheep ranching, fishing and sailing. The sheep are raised for food not for their wool and represent a major element of the islanders’ diet. Rolf said that they actually import lamb from New Zealand to meet the need. There are some cattle and geese but no swine. Rolf said they was a farmer who tried unsuccessfully to raise pigs but “they all burned.” In a supreme irony, the farmer was Moslem.
The population of native Faroese seems to be shrinking, supplemented by immigrants from everywhere but especially the Philippines. The young people who go away for college tend not to return which drains the resources of the island nation.

We had a marvelous day with Rolf. Mostly, we saw scenery, often a phantasmagoria of clouds and fjords. One minute we would see a fjord filled with cotton-candy-like clouds and then we would return five minutes later to find a clear view of the other side. We never tired of seeing the mountains with and without their hats, as Rold called the highest clouds. There were several cascading waterfalls and countless rivulets pouring down the mountainsides. And black and white [and black-and-white] sheep everywhere.

We saw, from a distance, a deserted village which was falling into disrepair. One day, all of the men in the village died on their boats during a bad storm, leaving only the women and children to live there. Soon after, the survivors all moved out because they could live there without the men. We found a little pocket park late in the day. It featured a bronze statue of a mother and her two children looking out for their husband and father who had been lost either at sea or on a mountain.
Life in the Faroes can be harsh. Not only are there occupational dangers, but also the weather can be hazardous, especially in the winter. Snow and strong winds combine to make living there dangerous; if it’s not one, it’s the other or, even worse, both. There is a good road system so the villages are not too isolated, but some of the villages have only half-a-dozen houses. Life can be lonely, too.

Small town life isn’t all bad, though. Before Rolf suggested a place for lunch, he called ahead to ask the owner of a crafts store across the street if she would open for us. She drove in, opened the shop and made a couple of sales for her efforts. Our lunch was in a restaurant in a little town with an unpronounceable name [as were most of them]. We had a buffet which had meatballs; sloppy Joes without the bread; breaded pork patties; roasted pork belly; fried fish; potatoes; and vegetables [frozen, we are sure]. There was little confusion about paying since D was the only one with Danish currency, but the proprietor was willing to take US dollars, British pounds and euros. Magnetic strip credit cards were not accepted. Despite the variety of payment options, D still had to bail out Ed who didn’t have any small bills.

Our last adventure of the day had us driving across the Atlantic Ocean. Last year, the Cruise Director swam across by taking a dip in the ship’s pool as we passed the half-way mark on our crossing of the ocean. Today, we drove across the only bridge connecting islands in the Faroes. Since the water is technically the Atlantic, we drove across the ocean. Tricky, but now we have bragging rights over most of our friends.

We arrived back too late for trivia [awww] but early enough for naptime and journal writing. Dinner was a curried vegetable cutlet and roast beef, followed by laughter and chocolate.

Tomorrow is a well-deserved sea day, so we can sleep in a little.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Firth of Forth, Fifth of Scotch

Today was the first of many early mornings. We try to get out of bed 2 hours before tours begin. As a result, we were up just before 6 because our breakfast try arrived early. We met Marvin, Barbara, Ed and Roxanne at the Stuyvesant Room and went in search of our minvan and “tour consultant” whom we had yet to meet. He missed Sunday’s meet-and-great because he was under the weather, so we did not know what he looked like. We had no trouble, however, as he was right in front of the only minivan on the parking lot. We set off a bit after 8:00.

Our driver, who was not a licensed guide, was charming. Craig told stories about Scotland and its history and gave us a feel for the country. Of course, he also told us much about himself and his youthful transgressions. We enjoyed his company all day.

We were docked at Rosyth, one of several ports serving Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Rosyth is situated on the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the Forth River leading to the North Sea. Our first stop today was the Stirling Castle, the Royal Lodgings of James V when his wife, Mary of Guise was in residence with their child Mary [Queen of Scots].

As castles go, it wasn’t great. The main attraction, the palace, has been closed for repairs for five years. We were able to see what little there was to the Regimental Museum in the King’s Old Building; the Great Hall [which wasn’t so great]; and the Chapel Royal where Mary Queen of Scots’ grandson was baptized. The battlements were interesting and the view from the walls was magnificent until the clouds rolled in and the drizzle started. We could see the entire valley spread out before us almost to Bannockburn, site of Robert the Bruce’s most famous victory over the British.

Closer to the Castle was the site of William Wallace’s best-known battle against the English, immortalized by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. There is now a monument to Wallace atop the hill overlooking the battle site itself, but there will be more about that shortly. What Wallace did, and Robert the Bruce imitated, was to lure the British away from their practically impregnable castle and into the open. In Wallace’s case, his men were on the afore-mentioned hill; when the British tried to storm the hill, they fell into Wallace’s trap: water from the nearby river had been brought in to soak the river bank creating a quagmire that trapped the attackers’ horses. This made their riders easy targets for the Scots. When the ground forces crossed over, they, too, were bogged down. They could stay and fight – and die – or flee back to the river where they were weighed down by their armor and drowned. Note that by 1776, 200 years later, the British still did not know how to handle unorthodox or guerilla warfare when the faced the Colonists.

Craig suggested that we spend 90 minutes or so at the Castle, in retrospect way too much time. When we arrived at 9:05, we had to wait for the gates to open at 9:30, so we didn’t leave there until 11:00 a.m. Following our visit to the Castle, we drove through Stirling and across the valley to the Wallace Memorial. The drive up the hill was twisting and narrow and we were glad not to meet any vehicles coming down. The road reminded D a little of the roadway to the House of Mary outside Ephesus. From the “gateway” we took a shuttle bus up the remainder of the hill and got out into a fine mist – not exactly rain but wet enough to make us glad we had our rain jackets. Ed and Jay had paid to climb the 264 steps of the Tower [built in the 19th Century]. The rest of the party exercised its collective right to survival. Apparently the view would have been marvelous if not for the clouds and rain. There were exhibits at several levels which afforded them the chance to catch their breath as they climbed. The rest of us were relegated to [wait for it!] the gift shop. At least it was dry.

By the time we re-joined Craig at the entrance, it was 12:15, time to go to our last stop. All of us were starting to get hungry, but instead of stopping for lunch, we went straight to the Falkirk Wheel. In hindsight, it was good that we did. We arrived at the Wheel at 12:45 and bought tickets for the next “ride,” scheduled for 1:30. While we waited, we wolfed down dry sandwiches like the ones in vending machines. This was not a typical or gourmet meals, but we were starving.
We joined the line at 1:20 for what was really a short boat ride, but the ride was the least important part of the experience. Roxanne and Ed were science teachers and Jay was an engineer, so they can probably explain the Wheel more accurately, but….Picture a giant capital S with a spindle in its center. The bottom half of the S is barely in the water creating a cradle with the top half directly above it. Next, picture a flat-bottom passenger boat in the cradle formed by the S. The S rotates on the spindle and the boat rises 115 feet in the air where it is released into a canal. What makes it more ingenious is that the boat is actually in a water-tight compartment and the entire compartment is lifted up with the water and the boat in it. As with traditional step locks,the process is reversed to get the boat down. A series of gears keeps the boat level; and no water is lost, just moved up and down. The process of lifting the boat the 115 feet takes 4-1/2 minutes. Watching the process was much more interesting than actually being in the boat for an hour.

We meandered on the way back to the Prinsendam since we did not have to be aboard until 4:00. Craig took the scenic route through Dunfermline [made famous in Sir Patrick Spens] where we passed the childhood home of Andrew Carnegie as well as the Carnegie Museum and the church where most of Robert the Bruce is buried; his heart was supposed to go to the Holy Land during the Crusades but rumor has it that is still [or back] in Scotland.

We were on board just past 4:00 and headed off to our rooms to rest. After cookies, pizza and iced tea, MA took a nap while D wrote in the journal while he could still remember most of what we did. Because we were tired from our excursion, we skipped the evening drink but met the rest of the table in time to go into the MDR together [chopped salad/sauerbraten]. We laughed through dinner and then all headed to bed.

We have another early day tomorrow in Scrabster. We expect it to be even more exciting than today!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fun and Games

Today was our first full sea day although we could have been in Tilbury still based on the ship’s motion. The seas were perfectly flat as we sailed toward the North Sea and Scotland. On the way this morning we passed a wind farm full of large windmills in the middle of the water as well as quite a number of oil rigs. Shades of the Gulf of Mexico [without the oil skimmers]. We expect to see many more off-shore rigs as we travel north toward the Faroe Islands.

As usual, we had breakfast in the MDR before heading to the Crow’s Nest for the first meeting of the Cruise Critic contingent. For those who have not read any of the other blogs, CC is a loose aggregation of passengers who have met on the internet and exchanged information about the ship, the cruise and shore excursions. Some of the members have met on previous tours and other via the “Roll Call” devoted strictly to this trip. We met Ed & Roxanne and Barbara & Marvin through CC prior to previous cruises. This year, we have hooked up with some additional members in order to lower expenses on shore excursions.

The meeting featured remarks from the Captain, the Hotel Manager, the Beverage Manager and the Cruise Director as well as the Future Cruise lady [who is married to the Cruise Director]. Following their presentations, the group broke up so people could finally meet the people with whom they had been chatting on line for the past year or so. D found two of the three members who are touring with us in Runavik and collected their share of the cost, but otherwise we had little interaction outside our group. Last year, when D became group-leader-by-default, we had only the Beverage Manager, Roger, at our meeting, but we took the time to introduce and tell a little about ourselves. We missed that this year. Rather than “playing it by ear,” the organizers have already scheduled 4 more meetings which we plan to ignore; who would expect us to meet a bunch of relative strangers at 8:30 in the morning? We will have to be up early on shore days --- we will sleep in a little on sea days.

After the CC meeting, we went to the cabin to gather our things and then went to the Ocean Bar for trivia. We read while we waited for the competition to begin. We lost by a wide margin again, but none of us really wanted the key chains anyway. [What country prints postage stamps without the including name of the country? How many total degrees in the interior angles of a pentagon? What type of triangle has 3 unequal sides?] Afterwards, we read until we got hungry and went to the MDR for lunch [MA – salad; D – paella]. A quick e-mail check and then MA’s nap while D went elsewhere to update the journal and read.

Tonight was the first of TEN [!] formal nights. MA looked beautiful and D looked like a Swiss banker. The officers were all in their dress uniforms and even the waiters were dressed up a little. Before dinner we were having our usual drink in the Ocean Bar [lemon drop martini/ice water] when Roger Flauta, the Beverage Manager stopped by to chat. We met Roger last year when he was the contact person for our CC meetings. He reserved the Crow’s Nest for us, provided refreshments and even sent out the printed reminders. We enjoyed meeting him last year. Tonight, he sat and chatted with us for about 10 – 15 minutes, mostly about his life. We are looking forward to seeing more of him on this cruise and next year’s as well.

The dinner menu was a little fancier tonight. Shrimp cocktail, pheasant and a lobster/fillet surf-and-turf were available. Of course, MA had the vegetable lasagna but D opted for the surf-and-turf. Dessert was a pear tart which was really more like cheesecake and cinnamon ice cream.
By the time we left the table, it was almost 10:00 but the sky still held a little light. The North Sea was calm, the sky starting to clear. Tomorrow in Rosyth, Scotland, we have an all-day [6 hour] tour that another CC member [Jay] organized and we have to be on the dock at 8:00 a.m. Breakfast will be delivered to the cabin between 6 and 6:30.

And so to bed, a bit early.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sailing Away

The water was so smooth this morning it was as if we weren’t sailing at all. Well, we weren’t; we were still docked at Tilbury awaiting a 5:00 p.m. departure. After breakfast this morning, we all piled onto the Tilbury Shuttle [no, not the Teaberry Shuffle] and went to the superstore. It was a lot like Walmart except it was clean and the employees went out of their way to be helpful. D bought some flat batteries in hopes of getting a reading light to work but could find only two when he really needed three. Still, it was a start. Naturally, they didn’t make the situation any better but he discovered that if he squeezed the light’s housing it would work. He will try it tonight or tomorrow to see if using it is feasible.

Back in the room, we spoke to Made [MAH-day] our cabin steward about stowing the luggage and about putting MA’s gel brace in a freezer for future use. No problem. By the time we met up with Made and his partner, also named Made, they had made up the room, brought the apples we requested and taken care of the laundry. [BTW, Made means second son indicating their place in the birth order].

We ate lunch in the MDR with Marvin & Barbara [meatloaf sandwiches and apple crisp for both] before meeting with a representative from Ship’s Services about a possible upgrade for the second segment of the cruise. The morning we flew out of Miami, Ted our travel agent called to say the HAL had offered a full refund, a free 2 week cruise next year and $500 in shipboard credit if we would disembark in Amsterdam instead of Tilbury. He and we assume they oversold the ship or at least our category. If we had not made plans to visit friends in London in August and if we did not have non-refundable tickets and if we had looked so forward to the Baltic, we would have jumped at the chance. Today, we suggested to Richard from the Front Office that we would be willing to take an upgrade [not an upsell] to a better cabin [with the right of refusal if we didn’t like it] if they really needed our cabin. We also let him know that we would be willing to vacate if the offer were sweetened; since we have already booked a cruise for next year, we thought HAL might give that one to us instead of the 2-week offer. It never hurts to ask. D told Ed & Roxanne about the conversation and suggested they should talk to Richard as well. We reassured them that we would not abandon them and the Prinsendam. Richard seemed less than thrilled to hear from a second couple but said he would let us know when he heard from the main office in Seattle. With an eight hour time difference, we don’t expect to hear before tomorrow morning our time.

And then it was time for the first Team Trivia [TT] of the cruise. We weren’t even close to winning but had a good time [What product used the slogan “Hello, boys?” What color is the black box on an airplane?] Following TT, there was a boat drill, a standard procedure on cruise ships. This time, however, passengers were told not to wear their life jackets to the life boat stations. Naturally, some did anyway. We theorized that HAL was trying to minimize injuries caused when passengers untie their vests; drag the ties on the floor and steps; and thereby trip others. The drill itself was orderly and efficient unlike some of the social events we have witnessed in the past. Shortly after the drill, the Prinsendam began its journey down the Thames.

Nap time. Drink time. Dinner [vegetarian/beef]. Done at 10, MA went to the cabin to go to bed while D went to finish the journal.

Tomorrow – The first sea day and Cruise Critic Meet-and-Greet.

Friday, July 23, 2010

All Aboard

We all agreed at dinner tonight that starting a cruise without actually cruising is the most relaxing way to do it. Normally, the first day on board is frenetic with lots of running around trying to find out everything, but there was no rush today knowing that we could always go ashore tomorrow if we forgot something.

We left the hotel around 11 this morning and traveled almost without incident to the Tilbury Passenger Terminal. Without incident because our departure was a bit delayed due to the fact that today’s driver could not figure out how to load all of our collective luggage into his minivan. The bellman/doorman at the hotel saw his dilemma and took over, rearranging everything so we had more space than we did when we drove in from Heathrow.

Check-in at the pier was smooth and there was only a little wait as passengers boarded the Prinsendam. As soon as the six of us were on the ship, we stowed our carry-on pieces in the Stuyvesant Room [which is right across the hall from our cabin] and went to the dining room for an alumni lunch. The peasants [i.e., new HAL cruisers] were relegated to the Lido buffet. While we ate, the beverage services staff came to the table hawking wine packages and drink card. As 4-star Mariners [alumni], we thought we were eligible for a 50% discount on these, so we paid for Marvin’s wine which will save him almost $25. By the time we were finished lunch, the cabins were ready. When we went to ours, three out of four bags were already in the room. Maybe there something to this alumni thing.

We went wandering the ship for a bit. MA booked a nail appointment but was disheartened/angry that the nail tech on board does not do gels [whatever they are]. D had called HAL’s office in Seattle specifically to ask about gels before the last nail appointment in West Palm. The Ships’ Services staffer even put him on hold to double check before asserting that gels were available. Not so, and we will let HAL know of our displeasure before the cruise is done.

We also took the time to sign up for internet time and noticed that the maximum time package has gotten smaller but the per-minute cost has gone up. Then it was time to return to the room and unpack. For better or worse, the fourth bag had arrived, so there was no excuse not to unpack.

By 4:00, the clothes and other things were stowed away and MA took a nap while D played with electronics before he, too, lay down to rest. We were up at 6:15 to shower and dress for dinner. A bit past 7, we went to the Ocean Bar, our regular hangout last year, for a pre-dinner drink [mojito and ice water]. Marvin and Barbara joined us in time to walk into the MDR together where we found Roxanne and Ed already at our table for 6.

The MDR on the Prinsendam is on one level unlike the double-deck dining rooms on the other ships. Those of us who prefer to eat at the same time and table every night have what is called “fixed” dining. We are eating in the smaller, outer area. Those who want the flexibility to eat when and with whom they want can opt for “As You Wish” dining, what Norwegian calls “freestyle.” We prefer the fixed because we will have the same wait staff every night; the steward and his assistant will quickly learn our likes and dislikes and hope to be rewarded accordingly. The waiters in the AYW section don’t have the same motivation to provide excellent service.

We laughed and talked all through dinner [Mediterranean salad for her; halibut for him] and were the last ones to leave to MDR at 10:00 p.m. We agreed to meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. to take the free shuttle into Tilbury in hopes of finding the local version of Walmart since we all need something. Back in the room, MA hung up some c lothes which had been on the shelves and then read before going to sleep [Thanks, again, kids for the Kindles!]. D went upstairs to complete the journal in an area with better wi-fi, then he, too, turned in for the night.

Tomorrow- Retail therapy in Tilbury.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thursday, July 23, 2010

Boats and Billy

After a restless night, we met Ed & Roxanne for breakfast where we giggled and made plans for the day. We are, indeed, going to take London’s version of the bateau mouche, a tour boat down the Thames as far as Greenwich which was our original port of departure. The concierge also gave us the paper work we will need to get our tickets for tonight’s show.

Cruising down the Thames will be interesting because yesterday we flew up the Thames. As we approached Heathrow airport, we followed the river past the Tower of London, Buckingham palace, Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye, a large Ferris wheel constructed for the Millennium. Our boat trip to Greenwich took us by all but the Palace. We were also able to spot St. Paul’s Cathedral through the crowd of buildings on the shore and passed under the new London Bridge [the original is in Lake Havasu, Arizona].

We started the trip on the top deck of the river boat but soon went under cover as the rain started. Even though we had our matching rain jackets, it was a prudent move. Once the rain let up, Ed went back on deck to take more pictures; Ed is the one who says that if he doesn’t have a picture of it, he wasn’t there. We were surprised to learn that we had to change boats at the Tower Bridge. The Tower Bridge is the one seen most often in pictures of London. In fact, it is so iconic that most people believe that it is London Bridge. Tower Bridge is adjacent to the Tower of London which is, in fact, a collection of buildings surrounded by battlements and not a tower at all. Remember – two countries divided by one language.

Although there had been no narration of the sights as we meandered from the Embankment dock where we started until we reached Tower Bridge, the driver of the boat from Tower Bridge to Greenwich was positively chatty, in a British sort of way. He pointed out a church and cemetery where the captain and some of the crew of the Mayflower were buried practically next to a pub with a replica of the ship on its weathervane. Mostly, though, we saw converted warehouses and “wharves” which were now expensive condos.

At Greenwich, we walked through [or past] the Old Royal Navy College campus and spent a little time in the National Maritime Museum, but it wasn’t all that interesting once we got there. What eventually became the Royal Naval College was originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren as Greenwich Hospital for veteran sailors. Before that the site was home to a palace in which both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born. We also walked past the Cutty Sark, a tea clipper built in 1869 but best known for the Scotch whiskey of the same name. Alas, she is under repairs [and under wraps], so we could not see anything.

Because of the intermittent showers, we opted to find a pub and get lunch. Armies and tourists travel on their stomachs. Indeed, we found The King’s Arms and three of us had jacket potatoes and Cokes whilst Ed had fish and chips and a Guiness. Perhaps next time, if there is one, we will walk through Greenwich Park and visit the observatory and stand on the Prime meridian.
After lunch we easily found our way back to the dock and took the express boat back to Embankment and then walked to our hotel. By then it was 3:30, nap and journal time. D called Marvin to let him know that we were meeting at 6:15 in the lobby to go to see Billy Elliott.

Perhaps The Thirty-Nine Steps would have been a better play to see because it seemed that all we did once we left the hotel was climb up or down steps. There were steps from the roadway to the entrance of the Tube station; several flights down to the platform [we picked the right one by sheer luck]; steps both up and down to exit the Tube station at Victoria and more steps, mostly up, to reach our seats in the Dress Circle which is fancy talk for first balcony. And at the end of the show, of course, we did all of it in reverse!

And we would do it all again for Billy Elliott was well worth the effort it took to get to the theater. The cast was marvelous; the dancing superb; and the story one to tug at the heart-strings. We had only two minor annoyances – we had trouble hearing and understanding some of the dialog because of the accents used and the theater was abnormally warm. We can only imagine how hot and tired the cast was, yet they performed with unimaginable energy even in the blockbuster finale/curtain call. We were exhausted from watching the show.

We had had no dinner before hand, so we schlepped back to the hotel [see above] and were able to get sandwiches and drinks in the lounge. We sat and made small talk with Ed & Roxanne now on familiar terms with Marvin & Barbara. To top it off, Marvin had a 50% off food coupon which we used.

Tomorrow, we leave the hotel for the Prinsendam and will actually sail from Tilbury on Saturday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Let the Games Begin

We arrived in London a bit early today but made up for it by waiting on the tarmac until there was an available gate for our plane. We flew on Virgin Atlantic for the first time; we figured if they were good enough to partner with Singapore airlines, they had to be good enough for us. The flight wasn’t too bad despite occasional turbulence, but we didn’t get the rest we wanted. We were in the “premium economy” seating area which meant that we had more hip room no more leg room than in the regular economy. There may have been better food and baggage handling, but we’ll never know for sure. [Food Note: MA had Thai red curry for dinner and D had brisket; both dishes met with approval. Breakfast was a choice of a ham-and-cheese bagel or an egg croissant. Again, both were more than adequate.]

As usual when we travel, we had requested a wheel chair, so we were told to wait until the plane was empty before exiting. We did as we were told but discovered that we could have gotten off with the rest of the passengers since the chair had been there the whole time. Ours was the only one this morning, more proof that we were not in Florida anymore. Our wheelie, as we call the designated pushers, zoomed through Heathrow so quickly that D had trouble keeping up with him and MA. Eventually we came to the top of the ramp to Immigration and baggage claim [or re-claim, as the signs called it]. At this point, we were told that we would have to wait for someone else to come with a different wheelchair to take us the rest of the way. Since there were no steps involved and we were almost at the end, we decided to forsake the chair and strike out on our own. Several others who had been waiting when reached this transfer point did the same, not wanting to wait another 15 minutes or more.

The line for Immigration was short by the time we got to it but became crowded shortly after we joined the queue. We breezed through and headed for the baggage claim area. There were no luggage trolleys at the near end, so MA sat and waited while D retrieved one from the far end of the area and then circled back for the bags. Because we had taken so long to get to this point, our luggage was waiting beside the belt, making it easy to find and avoiding the strained back associated with chasing and retrieving baggage.

With our trolley loaded with 4 matching suitcases and our 2 carry-ons, we headed for the exit where we immediately saw our traveling companion Roxanne. Next we saw our driver holding a sign with both couples’ last names and lastly, we found Ed who had gotten separated from Roxanne somehow. Colin, the driver, pushed Ed’s trolley while D pushed ours which did not want to go in a straight line; it acted like a drunk on a highway, weaving left and right and forcing to D to over-steer in order to make any headway. For readers of the 2008 blog, Colin reminded all of us of Mr. Otah, the befuddled guide we had in Kobe/Osaka. He forgot to push elevator buttons; wasn’t sure how to pack all of us and our possessions into the van; and had to have us figure it out plus keep count of the bags. Once we and the luggage were stowed, we proceeded to our hotel in the Covent Garden section of London.

By the time we arrived at the Swissotel The Howard, it was not quite 11:15. MA had hoped to meet a former student for coffee at 10:30, but the student could not wait for us so she left a note. Our rooms were not ready, so we checked in, checked our bags and went to the hotel’s outdoor café for a light lunch [MA – goat cheese salad; D – lox and horseradish sandwich. Both yummy]. While the others sat and talked, D explored the hotel’s Wi-Fi and discovered that if one joined the Swissotel “club,” the Wi-Fi was free. So he joined. Roxanne and Ed had stayed at a Swissotel property in Istanbul, so they didn’t even have to sign up.

After lunch, it was time to go to our rooms which were finally ready. D set up the Wi-Fi and tried to change seats for our return flight, but there were no bulkhead seats available. Since we will be traveling during daylight, the legroom issue won’t be so great; other passengers are not as likely to recline their seats into our knees.

We had decided at lunch to pursue theater tickets for tomorrow night and selected Billy Elliott which looked like a good choice. D called Barbara and Marvin, other travel friends, to see if they were interested and left a message. Then, we all took naps with varying degrees of success. When we got up later we found an e-mail from Barbara saying to include them in the theater party. Since they will be arriving from NY tomorrow, they said we should kick them if they started to snore during the show.

We met Ed and Roxanne in the lobby at 6:30 and walked through the neighborhood to find some place to eat dinner. We are not far from the theater district and may even be able to walk to and/or from the show tomorrow. We ate at Live Bait, a seafood restaurant a 15-minute walk from the hotel and had a very enjoyable meal [MA – scallop risotto; D – seafood stew of mussels, fish, prawns and tiny scallops]. Then, back to the hotel to relax and try to get on the new time schedule.

Tomorrow we may take a riverboat cruise down the Thames since we won’t see much when our ship sails from Tilbury on Saturday afternoon.