It is said that folks never forget their first love. It may also be true that we never forget our first cruise. Ours was on the Rotterdam from New York to Nova Scotia. Hours of Internet research taught us what to anticipate, yet we still found a ship full of surprises.
Much of what we experienced surpassed our expectations. The beauty of the ship (magnificent art everywhere), its cleanliness, our cozy stateroom, the elaborate and enormous dining room, the swimming pool that splashed side to side with the rolling of the ship...one could go on and on.
But these are only physical attributes. The soul of the ship is in its human element, and here the Rotterdam shines brighter than its brass work. The crew - almost to a man and certainly to a woman - pulled off a very difficult trick: Each member was serviceable but not subservient, ever observant but never obsequious. How these mostly Filipino folk manage to wait on 1,200 passengers hand and foot and yet act as our equals is a secret that Holland America Lines keeps locked in its training schools. Or maybe it is simplya feature of the Filipino character.
The Filipino character radiated on stage one evening in a Crew Show, a pure delight and the trip's highlight. We spoke to members of the crew. (We should note here that this was The Nation Cruise, and we were part of a 200-member contingent of readers of the liberal Nation magazine.) We were curious about the crew's working hours, living quarters, eating arrangements. Two waiters I spoke to answered my questions candidly.
They sleep in a small room over the engine with all its attendant noise and vibration. They work a 10-hour day. They may not partake of the lavish buffets they solicitously prepare and serve; they eat in their own dining room. They cannot use the swimming pools. I believe they earn $300 a month with, of course, room and board. They are not members of a labor union; they do not bargain collectively with their employer.
Some Nation Cruisers called for next year's trip to be on a union ship. (Is there such a thing?) But crew members seem pleased with themselves and proud of their work. This was especially evident in the Filipino Crew Show.
I must cite two examples of Holland America's courtesy and generosity. On our first morning aboard, the loud ringing of our stateroom phone woke us at 6 a.m.! We had made no request for an early wake-up, and reported so later in the day to the Front Office. They apologized profusely, explaining that it was a computer error. Later that evening, as we entered our room we found a letter of apology attached to a complimentary bottle of wine.
Another instance: I wanted to run off 250 copies of a cartoon drawn by a fellow passenger. The Front Office (by way of the Print Shop) did so happily without charging us a penny.
The food? I'm a guy who never eats out but at a smorgasbord, so the cruise was cuisine heaven. Though more discriminating diners (a retired judge at our table, for example) found many dishes disappointing, I thought everything was delicious. And yet I hardly ate everything, since I am a vegetarian. And would you believe they have at least one vegetarian dish at every meal, and that rice milk is available, and herb tea? That the Lido Grill will cook you up a veggie burger? (Although a purist would complain that the veggie burger is fried in the grease of the hamburger - hardly kosher!)
Only one dish on the entire trip did I find tasteless - the sweet and sour tofu. But the fact is they DO HAVE tofu! The pizza I thought outstanding and always made sure to say so to the chefs.
As a 'health food nut,' I try to avoid excessive dairy and sugar. In both cases, temptation crushed my self-control. The thick cheese on the pizza and the mouth-watering display of cheeses at every buffet were just too much. As for sweets - the berry pies were the most delicious in my experience, and to plop a scoop of ice cream on top...this is the heaven of which I spoke. And they always had sugar-free deserts.
I could easily have eaten all my meals at the Lido. I would entirely forego the La Fontaine dining room if I didn't need to join my Nation Cruise shipmates every evening for dinner conversation. Even that terrific salmon bake took place on the Lido. Yes, I could live altogether on the Lido Deck and never set foot elsewhere on the ship. With its steam room and sauna, Jacuzzis and swimming pool (both at ideal temperatures!), its Ocean Spa Gym, Terrace Grill and Lido Restaurant, why would I ever leave the Eighth Deck?
Why, to take pleasure in the music lounges not found on the Lido Deck! It was on the Fifth Deck, in the Explorer Lounge, that you could find me every night after supper. No Las Vegas-style shows for me in the Queen's Lounge, no gambling in the Casino...I sat and did my paperwork while listening to the Champagne Quartet.
These four gentlemen (violin, viola, bass, and piano) play schmaltzy operetta music, and I love the stuff. I sang Franz Lehar with them, and Victor Herbert, Emmerich Kalman, Rudolph Friml and Johann Strauss, Jr. I made friendly conversation with these musicians and learned they were all from Hungary. "From Hungary! Then play me Sigmund Romberg!" All four gave me blank faces. "Who?" Why, Sigmund Romberg, I told them: He was born in Hungary. No matter what I said they still looked dazed. "The Student Prince!" I cried, and even sang the drinking song. "The Desert Song!" I implored, and sang "Blue Heaven and You and I." Nothing. I found it unbelievable that these four Hungarian musicians never heard of their great compatriot!
The cocktail lounge pianist was equally ignorant. I could forgive him for not knowing "Blame It On my Youth," the great song written by Oscar Levant and made famous by Nat King Cole. But not to know "Isn't It A Lovely Day to Be Caught In the Rain?" Why, this is an all-American standard written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire sang it to Ginger Rogers in the movie "Top Hat." Abysmal ignorance!
A few more disturbing surprises: The Neptune Lounge with large-screen TV and fine cookies with drinks is open only to passengers with cabins on the Seventh Deck. Our cruise took place smack in the middle of the World Series, but we could not watch it; the ship does not subscribe to Fox TV. And for some crazy reason, every clock on the ship shows a different time.
Well, the ship is in a time warp of its own, a world unto itself--a very large world, a universe of food and diversions galore. But there IS a larger world beyond, and it is only when one leaves the ship to explore the land that one realizes how small that big ship is. And only when we return to the ship do we appreciate how wonderful it is.
But we're home now, and wonder if we'll take another cruise. The November 20 New York Times informs us "Cruise Line Cancels Trip After Onboard Illness." It's all over the TV news too. The very day we departed New York on Holland America's Rotterdam (October 22), the line's Amsterdam left Fort Lauderdale for the Caribbean, and 231 passengers and crew members fell ill. Altogether 500 passengers on recent Amsterdam cruises were made sick by the Norwalk virus. One man died. Holland America is taking the Amsterdam out of service for thorough disinfecting.
Another headline in USA TODAY proclaims "Cruise Ship Dumping Poisons Seas." Holland America and other lines are fined heavily for dumping toxins into the oceans.
Finally, the utter incongruity of it all: Readers of The Nation magazine are champions of the poor and homeless, but here they sail in luxury on a liner so lavish it would make an emperor of Rome blush for shame. The waste that takes place on these ships; the tons of food thrown out!
It'll be interesting to see how all this plays out in the upcoming year and how we will respond when The Nation magazine says "Hey! It's time for another cruise!"
My husband, Larry, and I decided on this cruise aboard HAL's Rotterdam VI for our 30th wedding anniversary celebration. We had only been on one cruise before, to Alaska on the Legend of the Seas. We liked RCL's cruise and at first thought we'd book them to see Europe. But, our travel agent thought we'd like HAL better, considering that we were a little put off by all the children on RCL's line and it had seemed a little crowded, with over 3,000 passengers. So, we booked this cruise on the Rotterdam. I tried to find reviews from cruisers who had been on the new Rotterdam, or been to the Mediterranean, but there were only a few reviews out there. Now that we've completed this cruise, I can see that the majority of HAL passengers are probably not frequent internet users, and that could be the reason for the lack of online reviews. So, here are my opinions, in case anyone is considering this cruise or this ship.
This cruise started in Rome (really Civetivecchia) on May 18. We knew that would mean flying overnight from our home near Philadelphia, and arrivingin Italy early the morning of the 18th, fully jet-lagged. To try to avoid some of that angst, we decided to pay for the extra day in Rome before embarkation. So we flew from Philadelphia to Rome on May 16th, arriving on May 17th. The flight was non-stop via U S Airways. Our cruise documents and tickets arrived at our travel agent's office about a month prior to our leaving and our quick-thinking agent called each airline and confirmed seat assignments for us as soon as she received these documents. It's a good thing she did, as some HAL passengers on this flight were not sitting together with their family members since they had waited to long to try to get seats assigned. Our seats were near the back of the 767, in row 23, but we were seated together with a window and aisle seat. We have thousands of frequent flyer miles from US Airways, but we could not use them to upgrade this bulk rate ticket, no matter who I pleaded with. So, we suffered the 8 hours in coach. The flight was fairly uneventful, other than that they ran out of chicken before they served us, so we ended up with the pasta entree. In spite of taking a sleeping pill, I didn't sleep much, but that's typical of overnight flights to Europe.
We arrived in Rome and the immigration officials barely looked at our passports and waived us on. A HAL representative was standing just past the immigration checkpoint with a large sign. We approached her and she advised us to get our luggage on a cart, and get through customs where she would be waiting for us and several others to take us to our hotel. It took about 15 minutes for all of our luggage to arrive and it was all in order and undamaged. We had four big pieces, but there were large luggage carts right at the carousel and they were free. The customs agents declined to look at anything and again we were simply waived through into the main lobby of the airport. We waited there about ten minutes for the HAL agent, who was dealing with finding a wheel chair for one of the passengers who needed the extra assistance. Finally, about 12 of us were led outside and guided to two mini-buses. We were headed for three different hotels, depending on where HAL had assigned us. We were going to the Jolly Veneto. Ours was the second stop, and it took us about an hour to get through the traffic from the airport, through the city and to the hotel. The congestion was our first introduction to Rome. The driver didn't speak at all until we passed the Cathedral of St. Mary Majore, which we pointed out to us. At the time we didn't recognize the significance of this, or any of what we were seeing.
Upon arrival at the hotel, a bellman gathered the luggage and got it into the lobby for us. Another HAL representative greeted us there, took some of the vouchers from our cruise documents, and checked our passports. She showed us to the registration desk, but warned that our rooms might not be ready until afternoon. It was about 10AM by now, and we'd been up for many, many hours and really were in need of sleeping horizontally for awhile. We were thrilled when the desk clerk told us our room was ready and handed us a key!! The bellman led us to the elevator, and then to the room, through tiny winding hallways. We weren't sure what to expect, as some of the reviews we'd read had been critical of some of the "deluxe" accommodations HAL had provided to others. But, when we finally got to the room it was wonderful. It was on the 3rd floor in a corner. The room had windows on all sides of the room, a vanity/desk, a king-sized bed, two overstuffed chairs, a walk-in closet, and the large bathroom had a huge tub with shower, and a large sink with vanity, along with the typical bidet and toilet area. It was really a very nice room, which was clean, well stocked with extra towels, blankets, pillows, and chocolates on the nightstands. We immediately climbed between the sheets and slept for 3 hours.
When we forced ourselves to get up, we showered and then set off on foot to explore Rome. The hotel was just outside the Aurelian walls that surround the old city of Rome. We walked inside the walls through a gate just a block from the hotel. We were right on the Via Veneto, a street famous for high priced shopping and restaurants. We walked around for hours, past the American Embassy, the Hard Rock Cafe, and Harry's lounge…with their American influences. There were also many trendy fashion shops, with expensive jewelry and clothing. We had a map that the HAL representative had supplied us so we easily found our way around. She had remained in the lobby of the hotel the entire day and evening and offered us tours if we wanted to pay to take them. When we told her we preferred to go out alone she offered maps and directions, in perfect English. She had marked on our maps how to get to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain and we walked to both. We stopped in a sidewalk cafe and had some coffee and a sandwich. The waiters spoke English so no language problems arose. In fact, all of the menus had English writing in addition to the Italian.
After a few hours we arrived back at the hotel and rested a couple of hours, checking out CNN on the television, the only English channel we could find. We bought some postcards and stamps from the hotel lobby and left them with the concierge for mailing. Later we decided to go back out and walk some more. We went in the opposite direction and ended up in Borghese Park. After wandering around the park, trying to avoid the joggers, we decided to look for a place to eat dinner. We found a few cafe's advertising pizza, and thought that would be our best bet. We shared a pizza and then walked back to our hotel. We got a great night's sleep, and were up with our luggage out to be picked up in the hallway by 7AM the next morning. The bus was to pick us up for a tour of Rome and transfer to the ship at 8AM. We had breakfast in the hotel, which was a very good buffet that included American style eggs, bacon, bagels, and also more European breads, museli, fruit and fish. We were ready for the bus at 8AM, but we ended up waiting till about 9:15 for it to arrive. Supposedly it was hung up in traffic. I can believe it. Traffic was a nightmare.
When the bus did arrive, it was already half full with HAL passengers from other hotels. We had hoped for a stop at St. Peter's square enroute to the ship, but since it was the Pope's birthday, that had been cancelled. There was projected to be 20,000 in the Vatican for the celebration, so we wouldn't be going there. Instead we drove through the ancient ruins of the coloseum, forum, and circus maximus. We stopped at the Cathedral of St. Paul and spent about an hour there and in the gardens of the convent that is attached to the church. At about 11AM we left the city and headed out on a modern highway for Civetivecchia, where we were to board the ship. We arrived in the port town around 12:20PM, and sat on the bus for about 30 minutes waiting to be unloaded. There were other buses ahead of us and it was quite hot outside. The HAL folks had decided it would be more comfortable for us to sit on our air-conditioned bus while they worked down the line of people who were embarking. Finally we were taken to the embarkation area where HAL had representatives to take our forms and hand over our boarding cards. It took about 5 minutes and we were smiling for the photographer and walking up the gangway. The stringed quartet was playing as we entered the ship and a steward took our carry on bags and led us to the elevator to go to the 6th floor, the Verandah Deck. When we walked into our room, we were thrilled to see that 3 of our bags were already in our room! So far everything was so smooth.
I'd read enough about what to do IMMEDIATELY on embarkation to know what I needed to do first. Larry wanted to go straight to the Lido to eat lunch, but I knew there were more pressing details to check on. First, we had faxed in a form weeks earlier requesting our excursions. I expected to see confirmation in our cabin and there was nothing, except another form asking us to select which excursions we'd like to take. Some had been marked "limited participation" so I knew we needed to get them booked early. I took my previously faxed form, the fax confirmation I'd received from HAL, and we set off for the Excursion Desk. Others obviously had the same idea we did, as there were already people in line there. It took about 10 minutes to reach the desk and the staffer there said that I'd done all I should have done but for some reason HAL hadn't reserved them for us. He was able to give us every one we wanted, however, and he booked them for us right then.
My next visit was to the Spa. My children had given me a credit for a massage and facial as a Mother's Day gift, but I'd been unable to book it prior to embarkation. (Somehow though, others had booked these in advance, although I've yet to determine how). The line at the Spa only had about 5 people in it. However, one person was booking massages and hair appointments for many people and I stood in line there for almost an hour. The salon had only two people working on making appointments and everyone wanted their hair done for each formal night, as well as many other treatments on each day at sea. We only had two sea days on this cruise so it was going to be tough to handle everyone in those two days. We were planning to renew our vows on the ship and had found out that was scheduled for May 25th; so I wanted to get my hair and nails done that day. I had also hoped to have a massage that day, with the facial, but it wasn't going to happen. I ended up getting the massage and facial on a sea day, the nails done a day later, and only my hair done on the day of the renewal of vows. But, I could live with that. An hour and a half later and I just had one more stop to make before Larry could have lunch.
We'd requested a table for 2 in second seating in the dining room. Our card in our suite indicated we had 2nd seating and table #82, but we didn't know if that was a table for one or two people. According to the posted information, the maitre d'hotel was in the library meeting for dining room changes right now. So off we went to check on that. When we arrived and checked the seating chart, we learned our table was set for 2 and we didn't need to make any changes. Finally we were off to find lunch.
We went to the Lido deck, and this is where HAL has a marvelous "cafeteria" where they serve breakfast, lunch, an alternative casual dinner, as well as 24 hour coffee and tea, ice cream, pizza bar in the afternoons, and late night snacks. There were several entrees, a deli for sandwiches, a salad bar, and lot of desserts. Outside on the Lido deck near the pool there was also a hot dog and hamburger stand, a taco and pasta buffet. We got some lunch and sat on the deck to finally eat. The rest of the day was uneventful and we unpacked and had the lifeboat drill. We learned that there were 4 closets in our mini-suite with verandah, and more drawers than we needed. We were really impressed that we had so much room. There was a bowl of fresh fruit in the room (apples, oranges, and pears) and the refrigerator was stocked with bottled water, beer, sodas, and liquor. However, if we drank anything from the mini-bar we learned we'd be charged for it. We had a lounge chair and a side chair on the verandah, along with a small table. The verandahs have walls that separate the cabins so your neighbors cannot see into your suites. It was quite nice to go outside in a robe upon arrival in a new port, or just to watch for dolphins or whales. We really enjoyed the extra space and view from this suite.
The service on this ship was excellent. We really had no significant complaints, although we did overhear others griping occasionally, about things we considered minor. For example, some complained because the foreign currency desk closed while people were still trying to line up and buy currency when we were docked in Mallorca. But, they had published their hours of operation as 8-11AM that morning and it was already 11:30 when they were attempting to close. Many complaints were overheard about them selling bottled water to passengers leaving on excursions. Some suggested that should be free, given the cost of the tours. Perhaps, but I've never known bottled water to be free in many places.
One legitimate complaint that many people had was that the ship's air conditioning created too many chills. The dining room was freezing cold and many asked to move their tables from some extra cold areas. If it had been 90 degrees outside and it was the middle of the day, it may have made sense. But, it was in the 70's and when we were in the dining room it was dark outside, but it had to be 65 degrees in the dining room. And, many people were in summer clothing with short sleeves. I wore a sweater or jacket to all meals in there, and also in the movie theater. Whenever possible, we ate outside on the deck during the day to warm up. The complaints didn't seem to be resolved.
We heard someone complain about a toilet not flushing, but we did not have that problem ever. The ship was always spotless and the food was very good and beautifully presented always. Other than the original glitch with the excursions being booked, we had no tour challenges. Some people did complain that they were told something was a 10-minute walk and it turned into 20 minutes. But, we observed that this often was due to someone's inability to keep up. In all cases, the excursion guide had accurate indicators of how much walking was required. We were shocked to see passengers with obvious disability going on tours marked 'strenuous walking." After a few stops, sometimes these passengers elected to just sit on the bus. I'm not sure they got their money's worth.
The HAL passengers who elected the Vatican tour were given private entrance into the Vatican Museum after it had closed to the public for the day. This allowed us to tour the Sistine Chapel without waiting in line among hundreds of others. This was a great opportunity that HAL has arranged for passengers during this Jubilee year. I didn't realize how special it was until we spoke to others who had waited in line for hours. We spent about two hours in the museum with only our tour guides and other HAL passengers present. Prior to the museum visit we had spent about 2 hours in St. Peters basilica and the square. The only disappointment we had with Rome was that at the last minute our buses were not allowed to enter the city areas and park near the coloseum. We had been hoping to tour it and so we had not gone on our own. We didn't learn until that morning that it could not be included in the tour. This was not the fault of the tour company, but had been announced by the city government due to the huge number of tourists visiting the city for the Jubilee and the problem it was causing in overcrowding on the streets. So we visited a less crowded area of the city and did not have time to return on our own to see the ruins we had so hoped to walk around.
Other than this disappointment, all other excursions were interesting and enjoyable. We stopped in Palermo, Sicily; Malta; Livorno (with side trips to Florence or Pisa); Mallorca; Tunisia; Monaco; Morocco; Gibraltar; and disembarked in Lisbon, Portugal.
The passengers were predominantly over 65 years of age. My husband is 50 and I'm 49 and we were certainly among the youngest passengers. I think we counted no more than 10 children total among the 1000+ passengers. There were many, many wheelchairs, and canes, and it was often challenging in transports to and from airports and on excursions when entire groups had to wait for these passengers to be accommodated first. We were patient and never complained, but there were others who were vocal about being inconvenienced. In all cases, I felt that HAL was extremely considerate of those who needed assistance and staff members were patient and helpful to everyone.
We paid $95 to participate in the Renewal of Vows ceremony. For that we received a photo in an album, flowers in our cabin, a special dessert in the dining room; and the ceremony led by the Captain. At the ceremony each couple recited the renewal vows separately with the captain, photos were taken, champagne and wine were served, a cake was also served, and each participant was given a corsage or boutonniere (roses). It was completed while a string quartet played and it was very lovely. We felt we had gotten our money's worth.
Our final port of call was Lisbon and we arrived there around 6:30AM on May 30th. Our flight out was on TWA at 10:30AM, so we were concerned about making it to the airport on time. We needn't have worried. First, HAL had arranged for TWA agents to join our ship the day before. Anyone on TWA was given instruction on how to "seal" your luggage and it was taken from the ship and put right on to the flight. We never even had to see the luggage at the airport. In addition, we were given our boarding passes and had our passports checked by these TWA agents before we ever got off of the bus and went into the airport. Those of us on this flight were the first ones off of the ship at 7:30AM and we were in the airport departure area by 8:15AM. The flight to JFK was uneventful and although we wondered if our luggage had really gotten on to the plane, it was all there. We had no stopping in the immigration or customs areas of JFK and within minutes we had handed our luggage back to go on to our Delta flight to Philadelphia. We made it home right on schedule.
There is nothing in the village of Civetivecchia, as it is simply the Port for the ships. Not much of a town so if you dock there you need to sign up for at least a transfer into Rome. Rome is about an hour away by interstate highway. Once you arrive in the city of Rome, the traffic becomes a gridlock and sometimes barely moves. It seems their rush hour starts before 7AM and last till 7PM at least.
We signed up for the full day excursion to Rome that included a "private visit" to the Vatican. We had been told that the morning of this excursion would allow time to visit the Coloseum and Forum, which was top on our list to see. We had a day in Rome on our own and did not visit these sites because we thought we would see them on the ship's tour. However, what happened was that Rome officials have decided to limit bus traffic in the city because of the "Jubilee" year and all the tourists that are adding to the gridlock. So, we were bussed to the Plaza del Popolo and we had about an hour of free time there. This area has a cathedral, Augustus' Mausoleum and some shops. But, it's really too far away from the Forum area to take a cab there and back in the hour we were allotted. We were not happy about this, but there was really nothing we could do. We did drive past these sites, but it was not the same as being able to walk around them on our own.
After the hour or so in the Plaza, we took the bus to a restaurant in the Aurelian section of the city. About 8 busses from the ship were having their passengers all lunch there and the food was a pre fixe meal of fettuccine Alfredo, ravioli, anti-pasta, wine, veal and tiramisu. The veal was tough and there was not a great quantity of food. The inside of the restaurant had long tables that were filled with our passengers. It was quite warm in there as well. We were lucky to be on one of the last busses to arrive, so we were seated outside under a tent and it was comfortable there. The really bad part of the meal experience was the restrooms. There were three stalls in the ladies room and only one toilet would flush by the end of our visit. The owners finally took over the men's room for the ladies and led us in there. They were obviously not prepared for hundreds of women who wanted to use the restroom at one time.
After lunch we went to St. Peter's square and were given a guided tour of the basilica, the grotto (where the Pope's are buried) and the square. It is very impressive. The size is not to be imagined. We were able to take pictures and wander around on our own for about an hour. It has to be one of the best memories we have of the entire cruise. We are not catholic, but we were so impressed by the size and the opulence of this church and its history and significance.
After the visit to the church, we were bussed to the Vatican Museums. These are buildings that are actually located behind St. Peter's square, but it took over 30 minutes to drive around to the entrance. This was primarily due to the changing in the traffic patterns to accommodate the expected Jubilee year tourists. When we arrived at the museum, we finally realized why it was so special that Holland America had arranged a Private visit. This is where the Sistine Chapel is located, and normally there are lines of over an hour wait to get inside. We were being led in after the museum had closed to the public, so the several hundred from Holland America were the only people inside, along with the guards and the janitorial staff. These museums are exquisite. The ceilings of paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo must be seen to be fully appreciated. We walked through numerous buildings of paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, before our last stop in the Sistine Chapel. This is the most famous of all painted ceilings and the guards watch to ensure no one is photographing the paintings. However, many were managing to take clandestine photos as long as there was no flash.
After the museum visit ended, we were loaded back on our busses and we started off for the ship. It took over an hour to get back to the Rotterdam and it was after 8PM when we arrived. Some who had been scheduled for first seating dinner did complain, but surely they understood when they signed up for this 9 hour trip that they would have to make alternate plans for dinner. The Lido was open for them with tons of food, but we did hear some people complain because the dining room could not accommodate all of the 6:15 and 8:15 diners at once. Oh well, some people will complain about anything.
We had signed up for a half-day (afternoon) tour of Solunto and Bagheria. In the morning it was easy to walk from the ship into the village of Palermo. It reminded us a great deal of Rome. There were lots of cars and crowded streets with little shops. We walked about 6-8 blocks up the main street and back. There were a few shops where ceramics were featured, as this is a local craft for which Sicily is famous. We visited a couple of shops and I purchased a teapot with matching cups in beautiful yellow and blue glaze. The owners were working on pieces and you could easily see the craftsmanship. The set I purchased was about $40, but I decided to have them mail them home for me, which cost me another $40. It was worth it because I couldn't have packed them in my luggage. I collect tea sets so this was a great find for me. After lunch back on the ship we joined our tour to Solunto. Solunto is an area where an excavation of a Phoenician town is being undertaken. There is a long, long climb up a mountainside on the bus, and then lots of further walking up the hillside to reach the excavation site. Once up there the view of the Mediterranean is wonderful. At the site you can see the remains of some homes, shops, a theater, and possibly a temple where sacrifices were made. The intricate tile work on the floors of the homes is difficult to comprehend. The work that went into laying an entire floor of one-inch stones over 3,000 years ago is mind boggling.
After over an hour at this site, we were happy to board our air-conditioned bus to ride to Bagheria. This town has a villa that must have been constructed by a crazy person. The wall around the old villa has sculptures of monsters. In addition, there are paintings on the walls and ceilings of the home of very strange characters. It's interesting, but quite run down and decaying. It was not the highlight of the tour.
We had told our guide that we'd heard people raving about the gellato (ice cream) in Sicily and he told us that it was, in fact, the best in the world. So, he added in a stop at a big gellato shop and we all got out and bought some. It was wonderful. Gellato is made here only with fresh fruit, and the taste is something to be experienced. On our way back to the ship we drove through the town of Palermo and past several cathedrals. It was easy to see here old buildings still showing scars from bombing during World War II. Some new buildings are going up, but it still looks like a run down town. It took us about an hour to return to the ship because the traffic was so congested. But, we made it back in plenty of time for the 6:15 diners this time!
Tunisia is a North African country and we immediately saw that it was quite different from the European places we had been earlier. There were mosques and no more cathedrals. Here we signed up for a visit to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. We stopped first at Sidi Bou Said, where all the buildings are painted white, with bright blue doors, windows, and trim. This is a hold over from the years when the French ruled this land, according to our guide. It's really a beautiful little town with cobble stone streets in front of lots of little shops on the top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. However, it turned into an hour of harassment for many of us. The vendors in the shops and in the souks along the streets and in the bus parking area were very, very aggressive. They walk right up to tourists, pull at their arms and ask if they are American, English, French, and say, "come see my shop," and "anything is one dollar," or similar phrases. They follow people down the streets and get right up in their faces. When we arrived in this area the guide offered us two choices: go with him for a guided tour of the town and discussion of the architecture, or shop on our own for 45 minutes. My husband wanted the tour and I wanted to shop, so we split up. Bad idea. I think that because I was a woman walking alone, I looked like an easier prey. I was really bothered, and almost accosted several times by these aggressive men. It was very intimidating to me, and I tried simply ignoring them, but they just keep following. I'd seen vendors act similar to this in Korea years ago, so it wasn't surprising, but it was annoying. I did buy a silver necklace from one vendor after bargaining from $20 to $5. I also bought a gold filled chain, and a coffee mug in a craft shop for $5. But, I was happy when we re-boarded the buses and moved on to Carthage.
Carthage is another area where there is an excavation of the old city from the Phoenician days about 1000 BC. Here they are excavating the remains of baths, and the old port area that was used for their military ships. It was really impressive to see how huge the baths were, obviously an important part of life in the ancient times. There is quite a large area excavated so it is very interesting to walk around and here there is not a huge mountain to climb like in Sicily. We spent over an hour in Carthage, and then stopped at an American military cemetery on our way back to the ship. Here the dead American's from World War II are buried. It was a beautifully landscaped setting and it seemed so strange to see the American flag flying here among hundreds of crosses. It's so odd to realize that during that war the dead were simply buried where they were killed. Quite a moving experience and it was nice that we stopped there, as it wasn't part of the original tour description.
Prior to our arrival in each port, an expert presented a short briefing on what to see in each location. His comments on Malta started with, "If you are awake in the morning when we arrive at the port, you must look outside and see how magnificent this city looks as we arrive." He described it as looking like a huge sandcastle with layer upon layer of light brown buildings. Well, we were lucky enough to awaken before 7AM that morning and I remembered his comments so I opened the drapes on our verandah doors and what a sight! It was truly a unique visual experience. The light sand color is what each building is made of, and it does appear as if each building was built upon another, rising up from the sea to the top of a mountainside.
We hadn't signed up for any tours in Malta, as we'd read several books and heard that this was a great place to just walk around and experience the town. It was obviously a big hike up the mountain to the town gates, however, so we did take a taxi, which cost $5. The citizens of Malta seem to be partially British, and some Italian, some French. There were many languages, but the shops appeared to be mostly English in nature and in content. Once inside the walls of the city, there is almost no vehicle traffic, and just lots of walking among shops and restaurants. We spent many hours there and did a good deal of shopping. I purchased some silver filigree jewelry there, which was a specialty in the country. We also purchased a huge tablecloth, which I'd been wanting for a table that seats 10. It came with 12 napkins and we bargained the price down from $125 to $85 from a vendor set up near the dock. I also purchased a hand knitted sweater for $15 near the ship. There was also a duty free shop that I purchased a coral necklace and bracelet for about $50 total. After shopping we took a horse and carriage ride back to the ship for $10. This was a restful day because we weren't set to anyone's schedule, other than getting back before the ship left.
After a day at sea we arrived in Livorno, another port city in Italy with not too much there other than the port. However, this is the port of Florence and Pisa. Many, many passengers took the daylong tours to Florence. We were not interested in going into Florence for the full day, so we elected to take the half-day tour to Pisa instead. I just couldn't imagine getting that close to the Leaning Tower and not seeing it.
The bus ride to Pisa is about 30 minutes and then there is a walk of about 15 minutes from the parking area to the cathedral and tower area. The leaning tower is actually the bell tower that is next to the cathedral and the baptistery. They are all situated inside old city walls and all along one side of the walls are souvenir booths. It's a little disconcerting to see all these souvenir shops set up so close to the church, but that's they way they do it.
The tower is undergoing construction work to try to stabilize it, so there are cables holding it up and lots of construction workers and vehicles around it. The tour includes visiting the inside of the cathedral, where Galileo was once a member. There is a lot of art work there which is impressive, and I was really impressed by Galileo's lamp. This is a light fixture that hangs by a rope from the ceiling and it swings like a pendulum when the wind blows through the sanctuary. Here the young Galileo supposedly watched the swinging lamp and formulated one of the famous theories of physics (for each action there is an opposite reaction).
After visiting the cathedral and photographing the tower, we had about an hour to shop and I picked up some toys for my granddaughter. The author of Pinocchio was from this area and they sell puppets and dolls there, so we bought one.
We took the tour to Valdemossa in Mallorca, Spain. Valdemossa is the location of an old Cartugian monastery that was made into "rental units" during the 1800's and rented to vacationers. Some of those vacationing visitors just happened to be Frederick Chopin and George Sand (his lover). They were there to help him recuperate from tuberculosis, but he did not do well there. They were not treated kindly by the locals, probably because she was not married to Chopin but was living with him, and she later wrote a criticism of their stay there. The monastery is now partially a museum to him and includes many artifacts from his life that have been moved to Mallorca from all over the world. There are also rooms redecorated in the original monastery way. At the end of the tour of the grounds and building, there is a 15 minute concerto of Chopin's performed by a student from a local conservatory. It was excellent. Of course there is also about an hour to shop, which was great. I was hoping to purchase pearls, as were many others and there was an authorized dealer in the village so I was able to get them there. About $100 for a 16 inch strand of 6 mm pearls. I also purchased an embroidered dress for my granddaughter and an apron there. These shops were very lovely craft stores in a beautifully preserved village. Earlier on the way to Valdemossa we stopped in a beautiful overlook in the mountains and the tour guide pointed out to us a new home recently built by Michael Douglas. It is truly a beautiful area with a wonderful view of the sea.
We did not sign up for a tour of Monaco, but took a tender to the shore on our own and walked up the long hill to Monaco-Ville and the Palace. It was a long walk up the side of the mountain and when we got to the top we learned there was an elevator we could have used. Oh well…Monaco is a very modern city near the port, but if you go to the top of the mountain to the village, it looks like a tiny French town. There are cobblestone streets so narrow you can only walk down them. Lots of souvenir shops and sidewalk cafes there. We also walked through some beautifully manicured gardens and saw the cathedral where Princess Grace is buried. Jacques Cousteau's Oceanographic museum is there, but we did not go in. It was being renovated and we had been told that much of it is not open. There are guards parading in front of the palace and a ceremony at noon each day when they change. We walked through a shopping mall and past hundreds of very expensive yachts on the way back to the ship. Obviously very wealthy individuals live here.
Morocco was another port that was definitely not European. There were many mosques that were evident on the skyline as soon as we were in the port area. We took a half-day tour of the city of Casablanca. The tour guide was a real character. He was a bit difficult to understand and wore a caftan and Moroccan sandals. He spoke French well, but his English was broken. He was almost stern with us, chastising us to "keep up, " and "You aren't listening, I just told you that." He would smile after saying these things, and it was obvious he was enjoying himself. He showed us the open-air markets where vendors were selling everything from flowers and baskets, to turtles and lobsters. Some of the fruits and vegetables were beautiful. In addition to chastising us, he also yelled continually at the vendors who kept following us trying to sell us T-shirts, Rolex watches (for $5) and other trinkets. We saw several beautiful buildings (the King's summer palace, the city hall, and the Mosque) and also visited the one catholic church in the city. At the end of the tour we stopped in a craft store he said was "government" sanctioned so we wouldn't get ripped off. But, it seemed that he must be getting a kick back from this crew as he was really anxious for all of us to buy and to keep us there as long as people were still browsing. We did buy a few things there and they were quite inexpensive.
We were only in Gibraltar from 9AM until 2PM. I took a shuttle into town and went shopping in this village that is very much British with a little bit of Spanish and African overtones. My husband went on a walking tour, which included a tram ride, a tour of the caves and the siege tunnels, as well as a stop at the Barbary apes. He enjoyed it immensely although it was tiring to walk so far. I had a great time because I found one shop selling genuine Pashmina shawls for $135. I checked every shop there and no other one was selling anything like it. I made sure it was genuine and am very pleased with it. It's also possible to take a cab to the tram and do the tour alone of the caves and siege tunnels, as some on the ship did.
We had no tour of Lisbon as we had a 10:30 AM flight out and didn't have time to do anything but look out the bus windows as we left the port for the airport.
In all this was a wonderful cruise and a great way to get an overview of Europe without unpacking every day. In retrospect, there are a number of places we wished we could have spent more time in, so we could do the shopping as well as seeing the sights. We've already discussed going back to Rome to see the Coloseum on our own some day. I hope this is helpful to someone who may be considering Holland America, the Rotterdam, or these ports of call.
Just got back from the Rotterdam, Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Barcelona. It was grand. But I can go into more details.
The cruise contingent consisted of myself, my husband (both in our early 40s) our daughters ages 6 and 11, my parents, and my husband's father and his wife. For our immediate family, this was our 3rd cruise, 2nd on HAL. My parents received their 50 day HAL Mariners pin on this cruise, and have cruised on other lines, so I'm guessing this was around their 10th cruise. My father-in-law had never cruised before, his wife had once, years ago.
Now, for those suggesting long Mediterranean cruises on HAL to get away from the kids, let me warn you, their were 205 children on this cruise. That said, I didn't see any big problems. The staff was a bit worried at the beginning of the cruise. They brought in extra kid staff and had to sit people a bit more cozy at the dining room tables, but all in all it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be. Average age on this cruise was around 50. I mentionedto one of the hair dresser ladies I was surprised to see such an active group, my Alaskan HAL cruise had several folks with oxygen tanks, and this had none. She confirmed it was quite a change from the world cruise, which this ship had recently completed. If you were looking for a sedate crowd, this wasn't it.
My family had been traveling a few weeks around Tuscany and the lakes region with another family with young girls when we got to Venice on Friday. My ILs also arrived in Venice on Friday. My parents opted to take the HAL air option. Though they left home on Friday morning, got to overnight at a hotel in NY, and then arrived in Venice Sunday morning at 5am. Note that only a charter would get them into Venice at 5am, the airport wasn't totally open, and the HAL representatives weren't even there yet. For the same price they could have left Friday evening, got into Venice Saturday evening, ate, wandered, slept, wandered around San Marco some more, and then checked in on Sunday. Instead they got to spend an afternoon at JFK airport, since the hotel wanted them out by 12 and the HAL reps took them directly to the airport for their 5 pm flight, and 6 hours in a dreary unopened cruise terminal in Venice, just a mile or two away from San Marco, until HAL was ready for them and their 400 HAL charter friends. Just a cautionary tale.
On Sunday we got up, went shopping in Venice again, and took a water taxi to the ship around 3. Check in started at 11:30 instead of the 2pm written on our tickets, so by the time we got there the lines were non-existant. They sent us to the suite checkin area any way, even though between us and ILs, we took up all their suite checkin folks. Then they gave us a shuttle ticket, which was funny since they didn't have enough folks there to fill the shuttle anyway, and off we went.Our suite looked exactly like our suite on the Volendam, which was great. Lots of room to unpack a months worth of stuff. The ship was similar enough I could find every thing easily. The big difference for us was the Neptune lounge on the suite floor. Food all day!!! Wonderful folks to track down your laundry. Uncrowded breakfast even on those early shore excursion days. And last, but not least, 24 hour cappuccino machine. We took advantage of this lounge alot.
Now, the laundry and dry cleaning is free for suites, and we were counting on that as we don't pack that heavy, and it had been 8 days since we'd been somewhere with laundry service. However, not only does express service not work, but laundry was running 3 days, not two. The really bad part of that is they didn't tell you that 'til you not only turned in all your laundry, but were expecting it back. We bought a few Rotterdam shirts earlier in the trip than expected, but once we got that first batch back, and expectations were set, we did fine. They did lose a few things, but those wonderful ladies from the Neptune lounge (BG and Melanie) managed to find them again.
The food was uniformly good. The best part of cruising was exhibited at lunch the first day on ship. My FIL is on a low fat diet, which his wife lovingly prepares for him. She, however, prefers lots of red meat sausage type dishes, as she grew up in Germany. She was thrilled to see the pork loins and bratwurst on the welcome buffet. She loved the food on the Rotterdam, as they had many traditional dishes she doesn't get to try out much anymore. He could find his low fat meals both in the Lido and the dining room. Meanwhile, I got my father hooked on the bread pudding (how can you cruise on HAL for 50 days and not know about the bread pudding?) and my mom loved the other desserts. My older daughter got to experiment on fancy foods, my younger one stuck to the kid's menu.
This is one area HAL could work on, the kid's menus. Though they offered them in the dining room, in the Lido they did not have them at dinner. If you asked, they could make something from the kids menu, but they didn't offer it. I thought that was weird, as the kids program suggested the Lido so second seating kids could make their evening programs. This could easily be fixed by posting a kids menu.
The evening Lido menu was the same as the main dining room, and a waiter brought the main course to your table. It was quite nice for alternative dining.
The food in the Odyssey dining room was also good. At a dinner for suite guests they had a special menu that was superb (though no kids menu...). Their regular menu was also good, but not up to the standards of Italian restaurants on land. I could understand getting better mousakka or antipasto on land than in the main dining room, as that would be quite a chef with that kind of breadth of repertoire for 600 simultaneous diners. But the Odyssey, with its limited menu and number of diners could have been equal to those Italian restaurants in Venice, Rome, and Florence.
Despite the numbers, the kids program never got more than 30 kids at a time. HAL needs to do a lot of work to draw the "Tween" kids, those 9 to 12, but the smaller kids loved their activities. Often they grouped both together, and chances of an activity entertaining kids 6 to 12 is pretty much null. Outside the program the kids dominated the kids pool, and Lido area. I didn't see this as a problem. One thing that was confusing was the signs around the pools and information given out other places didn't match. The pool signs said kids were allowed in the jacuzzis as long as they were supervised. This made sense as the jacuzzis were attached to the Lido pool. There were also signs saying kids could be in the aft pool, just supervised, though I didn't see kids in that pool often. The kids' orientation meeting said kids weren't allowed in either of those places, but those meetings tend to be downers (more info on what is off limits than info on what is offered for the kids) so it is not surprising it is sparsely attended.
For entertainment there was an extremely funny juggler, a ventriloquist, a piano player, an accordion-violin duet act, a vocal stylist and, of course, the Rotterdam cast singers and dancers. The Rotterdam cast shows were my favorites, though I admit I'm willing to sit through many a dance school recital. The one night I went up to the Crow's Nest to dance it was packed. The band playing rock and roll was quite good. Those looking to practice their salsa and swing dancing could also find quartets about the ship both before and after the late seating.
My dad was extremely happy with the tons of activities on sea days. I'm not a big sea day type person, but I enjoyed the chat with the Rotterdam cast, the kitchen tour, and the bridge tour. My very favorite tour was the engine room tour. Our tour guide was a young apprentice who was graduating that very day, and would leave the ship, after a year of service, the next day when we disembarked. He was extremely friendly, and great at explaining all the different systems, from the huge 16 piston engines to the vacuum sewage system. When he had trouble explaining the thruster mechanism he drew us a diagram on the knee of his white coveralls. I was amazed at the amount of duct tape involved. Everything is at least redundant; the steering has four different methods in case others fail. I felt extremely safe on that ship. Though he said he really shouldn't, he also gave us a tour of the laundry facilities. They have a mangle that presses and folds table clothes in one step. Amazing!! This combined tour took over an hour, but was well worth it.
The other entertainment to be mentioned was Frank, the port lecturer. He didn't really say much about shopping, but his lectures were incredible. He was a professor of ancient European History. He could tell stories of every city that could go on forever, but unfortunately he was limited to an hour. If Frank is ever on your ship, go listen, you will not regret it.
I thought the service throughout the ship was just good. Tales of dining stewards who remembered your preferences from here in this newsgroup tended to set my expectations a bit high. Our dining steward couldn't remember which of our party preferred coffee after dinner after even twelve days. We gave up on decaf after noticing the first day that refills were filled on both decaf and regular out of the same pot. Careful watching the second night showed he never got a second pot for decaf even the first time around, he would just pour "decaf" at our table, pour from the same pot at another table, then come back to our table with the same pot and pour regular. Unless we specially requested it each night, he wouldn't bring the girls' dinners before ours. He was very used to serving in order, and did an excellent job of ensuring the adults all had food in front of them, but had trouble with those who only ordered main courses. Several times my older daughter fell asleep before her dinner came. (And this was a girl who had been eating dinner at 8:30 for two weeks before we boarded.) We finally turned to Merel, our assistant maitre'd, and she ensured the children got their food in a timely manner. She also remembered to my younger daughter's birthday with a cake and always chatted with the girls whenever we made it to the dining room, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My girls, particularly the younger one, really liked her. The wine steward reminded me of the rug merchants in Turkey. The first night, when he was out of our first four choices, he came back with a wine twice as much as any of our choices. We sent it away and he came up with a wine similar in price and style to the first four. He had the odd practice of bringing the wine at random times, sometimes during appetizer course, sometimes not until main course.
The room steward my parents and ILs had both cleaned their rooms well every time they stepped out of their rooms. Their menus, daily programs, and newsletters were all left in separate piles, with the latest on top. Their laundry was delivered before dinner. Their rooms were always neat. My mother said next trip she would get a mini suite instead of a suite because the service of her room steward in the suite overwhelmed her. I think the zealous room steward is more luck of the draw. Our room steward tended worked more like a hotel maid service. He cleaned our room once a day, sometime between breakfast and late afternoon. During dinner he did turndown service and brought laundry. He lumped paper in piles throughout the room. If new notices or invitations came it might take us awhile to realize we even got them, as they were piled with other stuff. With a family of four, instead of two, and the additional kids' club papers, our room was not as easy as either of the grandparents, so I can understand they wouldn't be quite as neat. Our first day, we needed extra laundry bags. We couldn't find him anywhere. The front desk paged him yet he still didn't show up. We asked the concierge for laundry bags, she tracked him down and made him come to our room. I think he was afraid of talking to us, and preferred we didn't talk to him directly. The concierges in the Neptune lounge turned out to be great intermediaries.
My kids like cruising, and would be happy on a cruise to Hawaii with 5 sea days in a row. I need ports, and this itinerary really fit the bill. We went on many shore excursions. Now, I haven't been on a organized tour in year, maybe even never, so I was very worried that I wouldn't be good at following the flag. But it wasn't as bad as I had thought. The kids were great at following, and I didn't worry about them as much. My dad didn't get lost. My worry that the tours would be held up either by my children or by an incredibly slower crowd never came to fruition.
Venice, Italy Venice is my favorite city in the world. Since we had been there a few days before boarding the ship, we decided to take a shore excursion. We took the Burano/Tortela excursion, and it was fun. We didn't have as much time as I hoped to shop for lace in Burano, but we did get a taste of what to see for next time.
Katakolon, Greece Everyone headed off on Olympia excursions this morning. We had a mixup with group times, and my parents ended up on a different bus. It helped us get organized for the next time. Olympia was wonderful, our tourguide was good. My six year old ran the track the original Olympic athletes ran. They have two excursions to Olympia, one stops at the museum, the other stops in town to shop. I think the museum is even more interesting than the ruins, as the original sculptures are there. Though we tendered to port, when we returned the ship was docked! Apparently the port authorities had just finished dredging the area and were interested in seeing if the Rotterdam fit. This meant it was easy to go into Katakolon for lunch. We, and most the ship staff including Frank the port lecturer ate at the last restaurant on the water farthest from the docking area. It was wonderful. The town is small, much like ports in Alaska. It was a very manageable to walk the town for shopping.
Piraeus, Greece Next was Piraeus, for Athens. We again took a tour of ruins, this time the Acropolis. Our guide was good, but terribly long-winded. I would have preferred more time to look around. The Parthenon was incredible, and the guide's attempt to awe us with the amount of money being spent to restore buildings about the Acropolis was quaint. Our local elementary schools are spending more money on remodeling. You can tell tour guides that also travel, and this one was more of a local guy. The tour offered to drop you in Athens, but we declined. We probably should have taken them up on it. When we got back to port we ended up taking a taxi back to an area of Pireaus near some marinas for an excellent seafood lunch and some shopping. Here the prices were half that of the store the tour stopped at.
Ephesus, Turkey More ruins, and these were incredible. This tour, as was the others, does require quite a bit of walking. One lady stayed on the bus, for two of the 3 ½ hour tour, I'm not sure she got her money's worth. Our guide was incredible. She knew everything, held my 7 year old's hand as we walked along, and always stopped in the shade to make it comfortable as possible for her charges.
She was a tour guide for 3 months of the year, and traveled the other nine, and it showed. She could explain things in a way people from the United States could empathize. The town of Ephesus was at one time an absolutely wonderful city. On the way back we stopped at a Turkish Rug factory for a demonstration. We listened to the demonstration as we thought it was interesting, though we just got our custom Tibet rugs, and have no need for more. I didn't think it was a hard sell, but I found the Turkish habit of trying to get your attention entertaining, rather than annoying. Others preferred to walk on to the ship and skip wandering through town.
Valletta, Malta I was up as we sailed past the very modern skyscrapers of Valletta and then turned into the medieval harbor. It was breath taking. We then made the mistake of actually leaving the ship. The very best part of Malta is the harbor. The ship should offer harbor cruises. Instead it offered a tour of ancient temples. At this point we tourist are pretty savvy about our ruins and were sorely disappointed when they tried to pass off crudely plastered walls as ancient. The tour guide finally admitted we were looking at reproductions, and not particularly good ones. The real temple was in a museum in Malta, we never saw it. Next stop a cave to see dwarf hippo and dwarf elephant bones. They never came up with enough bones to build a dwarf hippo, and the dwarf elephants they could only find their jawbones, so the major part of the exhibit were skeletons of modern baby elephants and hippos from a zoo in Germany. Next stop a restaurant where the "poor" guide bought us all extremely weak orange juice. He made it a point to tell us he was buying us orange juice at least 10 times. It got to be an in-joke amongst the cruisers, as we trudged back to the buses. He always assumed we could find the buses ourselves, as he had to stay behind for one last cigarette. The restaurant we stopped at for "orange juice" (perhaps it was tang.)would have had a lovely view of the ocean, but they walled it off, I don't know why. Next stop another set of ruins with no original pieces. The Malta countryside was desolate. It was a Sunday, so the shopping and church touring shore excursions were called off. The only folks happy they got off the ship in Malta were a family that collected Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. Needless to say, "Hard Rock Cafe, Valletta Malta", is quite a coup. The crew said Malta is entirely different if you stop on a week day, but if you happen to hit Malta on a Sunday, stay on the ship and enjoy the view of the harbor.
Naples, Italy Our excursion to the cameo factory and Pompeii was excellent. I had no idea cameos were actually carved out of a single shell, I thought it was two layers. Pompeii looked better than the books, and our tour guide made the tour in the hot sun enjoyable. He knew where to stop where there was shade, and how to hit the more popular sights without running into crowds. Here I noticed that P&O cruise lines was using one guide per two buses, as opposed to the guide per bus that HAL was using. Our ship wasn't docked near the passenger terminal, and we had to take a shuttle to the passenger docks, but it was well worth it. Clothes in Naples were extremely good deals, and the architecture was wonderful. Don't miss wandering around Naples, even if its just to get a pizza.
Civitavecchia, Italy From there we went to Civitavecchia, for our only all day excursion into Rome. We took the city tour and private tour of the Vatican. This tour was somewhat frustrating to me, as I had spent a little time in Rome before and knew what I wanted to see. This tour guide was extremely long winded, and not particularly loud. It gave me a headache attempting to hear him over the hubbub that was Rome. And his version of what was important just didn't match mine. For instance, he stood in a parking lot, with a view of the forum in the distance, as well as several monuments, and talked about the history of Rome for 25 minutes. But when it was time to go we whisked by the forum without time to even look over the edge and into the fields. We did get a "private" tour of the Vatican, with the other 400 folks from the Rotterdam. I remember of the suggested tours of the Vatican museum, the express version took 2 ½ hours. This tour was about an hour including the Sistine Chapel. Then the bathroom line (as they had closed all but one bathroom) took another ½ hour. I went on this tour, instead of just taking the transfer into town, to see my parents faces when they saw Saint Peter's, and for that, it was worth it.
Another plus to this tour was the lunch. We stopped in a restaurant on the Via Vennetto called "Le Pomadorino". It was excellent. They were feeding 200 tour folks as well as serving their normal walk in clientele, and they did so without missing a beat. The antipasto plate was set when we got there, with stuffed mushrooms, deep fried eggplant, and various other vegetables. The crusty white Italian bread was still hot. Second course was pasta, then chicken. It was topped off with tirimusu. The red and white wines were included.
We got back barely in time for late seating dinner. As it was a lovely day, not hot, in Rome, and it was casual night, we more or less made a bee line for the dining room. We had a nice relaxing dinner. Apparently those on the tour from the first seating got to attend a topside bar-b-que with extremely long lines where I heard they ran out of food. There were quite a few angry folks. Our room steward ran toward us as we stopped in our room on our way to dinner with room service menus, which we thought was sweet, though we didn't need them. My ILs took the tour of Ancient Rome. Warning, there are 3 ½ hours in that tour with NO bathroom. This didn't sound horrible to me, but then I wasn't there. At the end there was an hour or so available for shopping, but most spent it looking for a loo.
Monte Carlo, Monaco I have tended to business in Nice in the past, and know the area a bit. Nice doesn't have what Southern Californians would refer to as beaches, yet it is considered a resort area. The shores of the Mediterranean are shallow, and lined with rocks. Shopping in Nice is much more reasonable than shopping in Monte Carlo. We opted to take the train to Nice, where it then started pouring. We ate lunch while it rained, and then wandered around a bit. The bunch I was with wanted to go to Nice, but not leave too early (noon) and get back for our last formal dinner. I was under the impression they wanted to shop, but they didn't have the patience to go into any stores. I should have pushed harder to just stay in Monte Carlo and look around. In Monaco there are tours of the castle in the summertime, an okay aquarium, and lots of cute but expensive shops. It ended up being a longer day than those in our group pushing for Nice expected.
Barcelona, Spain We disembarked in Barcelona. The grandparents all got off the ship early, as they had plane flights out that morning. We had a leisurely breakfast and hung out on our balcony watching the head chef check out all the oncoming produce while waiting for our number to be called. We were finally called at about 10, and in our hotel rooms at 10:30. Barcelona is a wonderful city, with an extensive subway system that can get you anywhere. We were staying at the Hotel Juan Carlos Rey I, which was at one end of the green line. We made it to the Sacred Family Cathedral, the park designed by Gaudi, the Ramblas, and the port all on the subway. We ate lots of paella, and then after two nights in Barcelona and a month away from home, headed back to San Francisco. It was a great cruise, and a wonderful vacation.
We just got back from our 9 day voyage from NYC to Lisbon on Holland America's Rotterdam. We had a great time and liked the ship very much, but there are some minor criticisms too.
For you lazy readers out there, here's my quickie guide to this cruise:
For the truly information deprived, here are all the details....We booked our land and air arrangements on our own, so we took the Amtrak Metroliner from Washington's Union Station to Penn Station in New York. Since we had 4 good sized bags we got a porter within steps of getting off the train and we got our bags up from the subterranean depths to the cab stand-- worth the $10 tip. We got a cab quick and went to the Passenger Ship Terminal on 55th and 12th Avenue in no time. Arriving there we didn't see anyone in a Holland America shirt or jacket so I was wary of leaving our bags there (it is NY after all!) so we rolled our bags into the terminal to face a very long line--they were not letting anyone on board yet. So it took us a good hour to get on board and there was no real organization to the lines at the 7 or 8 check in counters once inside. We were not amused, but hey, we were going on a cruise and the memory of that would soon fade. We got to the gangplank (finally) and HAL staff carried our bags to our room right then and there, which was nice, so we could unpack right away. It was a nice bit of white gloved service.
The Cabin: We had a Category A mini-suite which was quite sizeable, with a veranda. We had the 2 beds put together to make almost a king sized bed and the sitting area near the veranda had a very large leather couch which was very comfortable! It was definitely larger than the comparable room on the Celebrity Galaxy which we sailed in December. The bathroom was nice and had ample storage and a small whirlpool tub, which I always enjoy a good soak at night before bed--you can make your bubbles get real big by turning on the water jets! The veranda was slightly bigger than the Galaxy's as well with a full lounge chair, a regular chair, and small table, enough to put some drinks on and your book. There were 5 closets and 13 drawers, very ample storage indeed. This room also has a TV and VCR which we utilized a couple of times to rent movies from the Library (free of course) since we had 5 "at sea" days on this cruise. There was a safe in one of the closets. The decor of the room was a somewhat subdued Scandinavian modern look which I liked, although the finishes on the furniture seemed a little less real wood-like than on the Galaxy, but it was a nice big attractive room nonetheless. The coffee table in front of the couch could be raised or lowered according to your likes, but looked rather formica-like. There were also a chair and a stool under the vanity, really more seating than you would ever need for 2 people. The wall and the door to the veranda were floor to ceiling glass, providing very nice sea views at all times, a big plus--we kept our curtains open at all times! All and all a rather attractive room which we enjoyed spending time in. The veranda was nice and I took a few naps out there while we were at sea. The cabin also had 2 nice robes for our use on the ship and one of those hairdryers in the bathroom with the vacuum-hose-like tube.
The Public Spaces: We loved the Crow's Nest at the top of the ship and the Ocean Bar. Both rooms were used for various functions throughout the day (and night) and were among the nicest rooms on the ship. In both rooms HAL would serve appetizers before each dinner seating, a very nice touch. Since there were so many days at sea one needed to fill one's time with activities at times. To that end, we attended the team trivia at 11:00 am in the Ocean Bar nearly every morning with Jason, who was a very funny man. Everyone had a good time. My partner, the Java Junkie, loved the Java Cafe one level down and got capuccino and espresso every day there and brought it up to the Ocean Bar for our trivia fix. He thought the coffee in the Lido restaurant and in the La Fontaine dining room left something to be desired so the Java Cafe was a must stop for coffee lovers on board. In the Crow's Nest, in addition to having great views out to the ocean, had wonderful leather chairs and ottomans to read in by day or relax in by night. They also had these Biedermeier-esque leather chairs that we very much wanted to take home.
The Lido pool area became a favorite place to sit and read while people watching. I liked the big seal sculptures at the foot of the pool but didn't like the use of the color yellow (but that's my own personal taste--I don't like yellow) and the tiles at the bottom of the little kiddie wading pool were yellow too, which under water makes the water look dirty-- not a good choice. The Lido pool has a retractable roof which was opened on nice days--about half of the days were good weather and half not. There is also a nice open air pool area at the back of the ship as well which I enjoyed on sunny days and got a nice tan, which I wasn't expecting on a transatlantic crossing, but then again, I tan easily!
The LaFontaine dining room was very nice and we had a table for 6 on the upper level in the back of the ship right next to the windows looking out the back of the ship. It was a very nice view but it was hot every night back there in ways that it wasn't hot in other areas of the dining room, even on cloudy days without the sun streaming in. Guess they needed more air conditioning back there! We did enjoy looking at the wake of the ship every night thought. The one public room that I thought did not work was the main theater, the Queen's Lounge. It needs a design overhaul. Lots of yellows and golds that didn't mix well together (but remember my bias against yellow.) It just wasn't harmonious. The seating was haphazardly designed in some ways and not attractive. But that was the only room I really didn't take to. The other decor problem I had was with the antiqued mirrored tiles they used to line the staircase wall in the atrium--in a word, yuck. A little too glitzy for my taste on a ship that was generally low key and classy looking.
The flow of the public spaces I thought was pretty good once I figured out where everything was. The signage was generally in the 3 elevator lobbies on each deck. We are "stair" people generally on cruises since we need to work off all those extra calories and if you're taking the stairs you don't see a lot of the signage. This sailing was not full, they said around 1000 people on a ship that fits 1300+. We liked the somewhat smaller size from the Galaxy, which that combined with so many days at sea meant we would bump into people we had met on a regular basis, which was nice. Speaking of meeting people--we had arranged a lunch the first day at sea with 4 other couples we met in advance on AOL. It was wonderful meeting them and we felt like we had friends onboard from the first day which was very nice. We had a great time bumping into them onboard all week (hi gang!)
The Staff: We found the service in the dining room and our cabin steward to be great. Warm and friendly without being too friendly if you know what I mean. They were genuinely nice people and their tips were most certainly earned. Our wants at the dining room were anticipated, for example I like iced tea with dinner and decaf with dessert. It took Robertus and Jaya one day to figure that out. Our cabin steward, Sam, kept our room very clean and well stocked with towels and soaps and stuff like that. The one thing that mystified me about Sam for several days was what his voice reminded me of--ET the Extra Terrestrial! You'd have to hear him to believe it. In any case, speaking of soap, I liked the bathroom products HAL has, the soaps and skin lotions--pretty nice stuff. On our disembarkation day we had one irritating thing happen, Sam came into our room while I was half naked very much rushing us to get out. That left a somewhat sour note so I reduced his tip! We literally needed 10 minutes more (it was quarter to 8 am for goodness sakes) and we would have been gone soon enough so I felt a little bit like "don't let the door hit you on the way out". Otherwise it was all very nice service. Robertus, our waiter, thoughtfully remembered to give me a copy of our dinner menus for the whole cruise, which being the information junkie that I am I loved. The Cruise Director was Gary Walker who we basically enjoyed, but I think most of these type people come off as pretty fake and cheesy, and he was no exception. I am cynical 36-year old what can I say? But he was nice and friendly when we saw him out and about on the ship. by the end of the cruise we were on hello terms with most of the cruise and entertainment staff, a friendly bunch. Jason, the triva king, and Jenny, his occasional substitute, were both lively and entertaining.
The Food: It started off not very well. Maybe the kitchen staff was just tired and bored since the Rotterdam was just finishing up her world cruise for 1999. Not very interesting desserts and small, tired looking cuts of meat. My dining mates liked the seafood entrees though and one lady had a very large lobster tail one night that she liked. Some of the cold soups were very very good but the salads were not imaginative usually. Too much iceberg lettuce! Some nice salad dressings though--including a chardonnay sesame seed and a few other interesting ones. They couldn't seem to cook rice without making it too mushy. Oh well, the food did get better as we went along, and started coming close to the more interesting food we had on Galaxy. We are foodies to a certain extent.
The Rotterdam also has a special Italian restaurant onboard (the "Odyessy") which you need reservations for (but which is otherwise free, of course) and we didn't get to eat there until the last day onboard--which was a mistake. Run and make reservations your first day on board to eat there--the food is absolutely terrific and puts the dining room food to shame in terms of quality and presentation.
The food from room service and up in the Lido was acceptable. I generally avoid buffets on a cruise ship--after going to school for 20 years and then working for the government the last 15 years the last thing I want to do on vacation is wait on line for food served cafeteria style! I don't know why people find this attractive. Speed is one thing I realize, especially when you are on a very port intensive cruise and are in a rush, but for me the dining room and sitting down is always the way to go. No one says you have to order every course and sit there for an hour and a half for lunch. Just get an iced tea and the entree and you can be on your way in no time. No waiting on line for me unless I have to! We loved having the soft serve ice cream in the Lido late in the afternoon in a very large waffle cone! Now that is worth the wait! We also did enjoy getting capuccino and baked goods and an omelet or two in the morning via room service to eat out on our veranda--always a nice thing to do. Our friends up a deck in the really high rent district missed having a butler to bring appetizers before dinner and such.
The Activities: I tend to think most of the production shows on these things are pretty tacky and stupid and certainly this cruise didn't change my mind at all. The women in the shows were the better singers but the men were the better dancers. They were trying certainly. The best show was the Salute to Broadway or whatever it was called. Good reliable show tunes and production values. The other 2 shows were only passable, but hey go anyhow (what else are you going to do for 5 days at sea!) The ship's orchestra was very good and handled the music for some special acts with quite a bit of professionalism, I was impressed. There was a comedian on this sailing who did impressions, Joey Van, whose act was 30 years old (at least) but very funny. There were quite a number of musical cues for his act and the band was on the money and well rehearsed. The most intriguing act were two older ladies who called themselves the Marimba Mamas who played the marimbas, instruments which are like bells you hit with little mallets. They were a hoot and had a good schtick going. To think they could do all that playing just exhausted me looking at it. They were lively and fun and had a sense of humor about themselves, very refreshing.
There were all sorts of other activities like bingo and horse races and the usual cruise ship stuff which you could do or not do depending on your choice. They did make announcements over the PA for such things several times a day which I find annoying! We like Celebrity's policy of not having such announcements better. We can read the daily program for ourselves, thank you! Two other activities I enjoyed were a tour of the ship's galleys and the 3 art tours they had of the ship's art. Denise, the art tour guide on the ship staff, was very good and the art was fascinating in many ways. The large reproductions of the Chinese warriors and horses from Xian are nice but in an inappropriate location for their size. They deserve to be shown off better than they are.
The Ports: Obviously, on a transatlantic crossing there aren't too many ports! We had 5 at-sea days which we spent reading, relaxing, occasionally sunbathing, going to the well equipped fitness center, or napping. To us that is what vacation is all about, but I'll run you through the ports we visited anyhow. Hamilton, Bermuda--we had rain all day there so we didn't do all that much expect walk around Hamilton, which seemed pretty nice. Horta, the Azores--Horta did not have much to offer as a port town. We tendered there and got to take some nice pictures of the ship from some hills in town. Hopefully they will come out nice, but really nothing much to do in town. We probably should have signed up for a nice island tour! Ponta Delgado, the Azores--Ponta Delgado is a bigger, rather attractive town and the capitol of the Azores. We found a nice store in a mall downtown that sold products made on the islands that had interesting stuff. Got a nice bottle of wine for under $5, should have bought more. We brought 2 bottles with us to share at our dinner table, and everyone enjoyed that. Even with the corkage fee it keeps the bar tab down! We took the Crater Lakes tour on this island and took a bus up to the rim of a now dormant volcano. It was breathtakingly beautiful with 2 gorgeous lakes inside the crater with a little village nearby. Quite stunning. Hope the pictures of that come out good! We then went to a pineapple plantation that was skippable. In the store at the plantation they sold pineapple liquer in some cute ceramic flasks which I thought would make nice little gifts until I tasted the awful stuff! Oh well, it was a funny moment for me!
Disembarking: We arrived in Lisbon and took our time having breakfast in the dining room one last time and saw lots of our new friends one last time. We were off the boat after our number was called in no time, but waited on the ground over an hour for a taxi to our hotel. The people who got the bus transfer from HAL fared little better in the speed department. This was very frustrating and somewhat hot and uncomfortable waiting there outside with all our luggage. HAL needs to get it's act together I guess on long lines getting on and off the ships. I suppose they could have had their port representatives call for more cabs in advance?? Might have been a good idea. Lisbon was a very charming city and I would certainly go back there. Other than the immediate compact downtown area (charming old buildings and pedestrianized streets) Lisbon is all hills with many charming cobblestone streets winding their way between old buildings. Not for people in walkers but very charming. We took a cab up to the castle and walked down. The downtown has been largely untouched by the wrecking ball thank goodness. We had a hotel room for the day at the Sofitel which was close to downtown on the Avenue Liberdade, which we booked on our own.
Late that night we hopped a cab to get on the overnight train to Madrid. We also loved Madrid which reminded us somewhat of Vienna or Paris, very grandiose in some ways. We toured the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum, of course, and flew back direct to Washington, DC the next day. My partner hates flying so that's why we went to Madrid--there are no direct flights back to DC from Lisbon. We could have otherwise stayed many extra nights in Lisbon which we like very much. I think we might have to take a nice land vacation to the Iberian peninsula sometime soon to spend more time exploring Lisbon, Madrid, but also Sevilla, Barcelona, and maybe a beach or two, something you don't really have time to do in depth on a cruise. But this cruise gave us a nice taste of the region to entice us back! A nice safe way to check things out in advance of a longer exploration.
It's more than a passing grade, and I hope I don't sound too negative because we really did have a great time. Would we take this ship or Holland America again? Yes probably, but we would take second seating at dinner to get a somewhat younger crowd, although we met many older folks whose company we thoroughly enjoyed. I think the change in seating time probably would have been a smart change and certainly that wasn't the cruise line's fault--we were assigned late and switched to early thinking the extra time at night would allow us to do more after dinner. As it was, even at sea for 5 days we felt rushed going to dinner at 6pm! I guess also more of a passenger diversity mix would have been preferable, but realistically going into this cruise we were aware that on a longer sailing in an off time of the year and on HAL we were likely to have a somewhat older crowd. It was fine though and really we had a great time regardless--we can pretty much get along with anyone and aren't too nit picky! The one other little oddity that we didn't think about was that when you sail across the Atlantic West to East you lose 5 hours to Lisbon, so there were 5 nights that we had to move our clocks forward 1 hour! Imagine our sadness at having 23 hour days 5 times! Next time we'll sail west and have 5 25 hour days instead!!! Much better for catching up on all that sleep on your vacation!
Anyhow, anyone who has any questions about the Rotterdam VI or this cruise in particular (the ship makes 2 transatlantics a year to reposition to/from Europe) certainly can feel free to write me with questions!