Friday, November 11, 2016

On the Sea, on the Sea, on the Beautiful Sea…and Cruise Review

Since this cruise crossed the North Atlantic, there were several days that we were out of
Top: Three egg omelet
Bottom: Waffles
sight of land. This pleased Dave because he enjoys sailing in rather turbulent waters, fondly remembering his time in the Navy. I’m fine with a rocking boat, but there were folks aboard who were seasick before we pulled away from the dock. Generally on ‘sea days’ we slept in then ate breakfast in one of the dining rooms sharing a table with whomever appeared at the maître d’ station at the same time we did. This is much preferable than eating on the Lido deck where your only choice is to hunt a table then go through a buffet line. There are a variety of breakfast foods available and they can be prepared to your specifications; in almost all of the cases, there is a substantial amount of food – possibly preparing you to go out and haul fishing nets by hand.

Our first day at sea we spent either reading or going to lectures. On this cruise we had very well educated, knowledgeable folks who were, for the most part, adept at communicating
Left: Crossing the Arctic Circle
Right: Jon Vidar Sigurdsson
their information. Of particular value were the people (Martin and Dorine) who talked about the ports of call. From these lecturers you could find out what to do if you weren’t on a tour, schedules, information about transportation, and other odds and ends for getting yourself around the city/town. The first guest lecturer we saw was Dr Adrian Cooper from England. His specialty was the flora and fauna of the places we were to visit, presented in a rather dry, university style that left us twitching for relief before the lecture was finished. The other guest lecturer was Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, a remarkable scientist from Iceland who presented information spanning topics from human exploration to geologic phenomena; his presentations were outstanding! Since we needed to move around a bit, we took a turn around the deck. You have to pick your times to do this because it can be cold, windy and wet. Not once did we go out onto the deck at night in evening clothes to smoke cigarettes in foot-long holders or find romance in the fog; our cruise was nothing like those shown in movies from the 1940s! We did, however, get to cross the Arctic Circle, so we are now Shellbacks (crossed the equator), in the Imperial Order of the Golden Dragon (crossed the International Date Line), in the Order of the Spanish Main (sailed the Caribbean) and now in the Order of the Blue Nose (crossed the Arctic Circle).

There were a total of six sea days, and for us they were spent much like the first. However,
Out door pool
there were lots of activities offered in which we chose not to participate regularly. There was a gym facility that offered on-your-own exercising, as well as fitness personnel led workouts that focused on specific body parts or on yoga. An acupuncturist and several masseuses were available to answer questions or give you a treatment. An indoor and an outdoor swimming pool were available, along with hot tubs. Bar-type trivia competitions, chess/checkers, Scrabble, jig-saw puzzles, and a book club took place in the library/Explorer’s Lounge. There were also workshops to teach people how to use Windows 10, Photo Shop, and other common programs. There was an art gallery that we did explore, as well as art lectures and sales events. Entertainment was provided each night in the various lounges that ranged from a magician to Las Vegas style variety shows. We enjoyed the B.B. King’s Blues Club and Adagio, a violin and piano duo. And of course, there was a casino with all sorts of table games and slot machines.

One of the activities that I wish we’d participated in more than once was Tea. Each sea day some variation on High Tea was provided to anyone who wanted to attend. And while the
Cooking show
breads, sweets and teas were good, there simply wasn’t enough time between Tea and dinner to do justice to either. However, I did attend a cooking lecture that was supposed to feature the two ‘Second Chefs’ cooking dishes from India and from the Philippians. Hanna, the hostess, had a dandy time wrangling these two men into getting on with their tasks, particularly when the Executive Chef showed up to ‘lend a hand’. Finally one of the Second Chefs told the Executive Chef that someone was calling and to go find out who. It was all in good fun, and showed those of us in attendance that Indian and Philippine foods are very similar in their preparation and use of spices.

Probably the most interesting tour we had on the ship was our visit to the galley. This is the
Top L to R: Carving fruit, Cooks and stewards
Right L to R: Bread sculptures, Marzapan dragon
domain of the Executive Chef and he manages 134 chefs, cooks, stewards, attendants, and runners. It’s amazing to me that this small number of people can serve the almost 2,000 passengers and 800 crew members on the ship. What appeared to me a tiny galley prepares all of the food for the dining rooms, the Lido buffets, and for the in-room service. I can’t imagine the flurry that takes place at meal times. However, something is going on in the galley all of the time. All the breads we ate are baked on the ship; this was a real surprise since I had assumed that they would use heat/serve breads for meals and pre-packaged loaves for sandwiches. However, not all of the bread preparation is located here; on B deck (below the galley) is more space for baking as well as where all the fish are prepared. Also on A and B decks are storage areas for meat and vegetables. The crewmembers have a separate dining room and their own chefs who prepare their food. On a single cruise, about 64,400 pounds of food (meat, poultry, fish, butter, vegetables, rice, flour, etc.), 2,000 dozen eggs, 1,400 gallons of dairy (milk, buttermilk, half and half, etc.), and 1,150 gallons of ice cream are consumed; fresh meats/poultry, seafood, vegetables and dairy products are replenished at nearly every port. It was also surprising to find how much recycling of materials is done; everything that can be recycled is crushed and formed into bricks then taken ashore to recycling stations. What can’t be recycled is either dehydrated and burned or compacted to be disposed of in facilities in ports.

Waves from Hermine

Our last sea day was exciting for some and terrifying for others. The captain chose to skip our stop in Halifax to out run Hurricane Hermine. This was the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and the first to develop in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Ingrid in 2013. While we might have ‘ridden it out’ in Halifax, there
Waves from Hermine
was also a question of whether Hermine was going to weaken or not and the captain chose to get the ship into New York rather than risking our safety; he was also concerned that everyone not staying in New York would miss travel connections. Dave and I spent most of the day watching the eight foot waves either from our room or from the top deck. There was an 80 mile/hour wind that buffeted the ship, and the exterior decks were closed (although some folks had tried to go out for a jog early in the morning – idiots), but this was a very stable ship and we didn’t rock all that much. However, the number of people at dinner was substantially less than what we were used to seeing.

When I think about this cruise I compare it to our Viking Cruise of last year. Granted that the
One of the lovely statues that
decorated the ship
passenger size was almost ten times larger and the ship about that much larger, but there were a few things that would have made cruising with Holland America a bit better.

Where we stayed:
Four carrots
The staterooms, at least those with a balcony, are relatively large and the bathroom is adequate. There is plenty of space to walk around the bed, room to store the suitcases
Top L to R: Bath, Stateroom
Bottom: Cynthia of the balcony
under the bed, and even enough space to sit at a small table or at the desk. I did like the fact that we could always turn on the TV to see where we were in relation to where we were going and the current weather conditions. There was plenty of room on the balcony to sit in the deck chairs and there was a small table. I spent a good deal of the time I was outside standing because if I sit I can’t see over/through the railing. The bed was comfortable and the bedding was of good quality. You could get fresh towels and linens every day, but we opted to get everything changed every third day. Our stewards were in the room twice a day to clean and to bring us fresh fruit. When we did have breakfast in the room, the tray was removed promptly so there wasn’t an ‘old food’ odor at any time. The water from the sink was drinkable, although you could get water from the Lido deck and bring it into your cabin. I wasn’t particularly happy that the wall between the bathroom and bedroom creaked loudly when the ship rocked or that water could be blown in under the door to the balcony.

What we did:
Three carrots
Again, my comparison for these tours was the experience we’d had with Viking. One of the
Buses waiting for the tourists
overwhelming positives of the Viking tours was the set of headphones that allowed you to hear the guide no matter where you were in the group. These were not a part of the Holland American sponsored tours. When we weren’t on the ship, we were taking tours – at least in all the ports except those in Greenland, which we explored on our own. On the whole, the tours were mediocre. The guides talked a bit on the bus then most dumped us out to ‘see a sight’. Of the four who lead a group, one was nearly non-verbal, walking us through some paths, two told us a few things then left us on our own, but one was wonderful.

In Norway, a three hour visit to Bergen and Mt Florien: Our guide gave us a brief overview of what we’d see from the top of Mt Florien but said little or nothing about the history of the area and why this site was important. She did a bit better with her tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, then gave some brief comments about the fish and flower market and the Bryggen Warf. We weren’t impressed and took the earliest opportunity to begin exploring on our own.

Akureyri and a six hour trip to Lake Myvatn: Our guide was a lovely young lady whose focus was music and art. She was leading the tour to make a bit of spending money and to substitute for a friend. While she was more than willing to talk about the area and seemed to have a good grasp of what we were seeing from the bus, she wasn’t nearly as verbal once we reached a site. As we walked through the Dimmuborgir lava labyrinth, she did answer several questions, but didn’t volunteer any further information. I was a bit disappointed when I asked about a specific plant and her reply was, ‘I guess I should learn the name of that flower since so many people ask about it.’ Yep, you should!

Reykjavik and an eight hour ‘Best of the Golden Circle: Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir’: This was by far the best of the tours. The man who led us was interested in the area and truly delighted in telling us all about it. At each spot he gathered all of the people from the bus and gave an overview of the area. He then took those who wanted to walk along paths telling us about what we were seeing, putting things into historical perspective, and answering any questions we had. He took time for the folks who couldn’t walk quickly or were impaired to make sure that they had the same information without making them feel as though they were holding up the group.

St Johns Highlights and the Rooms: This two and one-half hour tour was billed as a panoramic drive, a visit to Signal Hill and a self-guided tour of The Rooms. Unfortunately, we didn’t save the best for last. The drive was rushed and didn’t really do justice to this interesting city. Our visit to Signal Hill was mere minutes and our guild said relatively little about any of it, including the museum. I expected substantially more for the $70 per person we paid. We’d have done better to have taken a walking tour or to book something locally rather than through the ship.

What we ate:
Four carrots

Top: Escargot
Bottom: Poached pear
Since I have food allergies, I was concerned about navigating the menus for my meals. There is a way to inform the kitchen about your needs, but it is well hidden on the Holland American web page; I eventually found it, but not before the 30 day prior to departure deadline. However, the menu is specific enough about how meals are prepared that allergens are not hidden in the preparation.

On each of the previous (Se seg omkring Bergen through Back in the Big Apple) blogs I’ve shown some of the meals we enjoyed. There were only a few edible disasters. One was a sticky pasta dish and the other was a rather nasty serving of squash. For us, the Lido dining
Top L to R: Papaya, Salad
Middle L to R: Surf and Turf, Angel food cake
Bottom: Flourless chocolate cake
room/buffet was a disaster. It is hard to find a seat while burdened with food and dodging other diners. There were two restaurants we didn’t sample simply because the food was an additional price and expensive. The best things the kitchen presented were the soups, the fish, and the meat. Pretty much all of the poultry was used as a carrier for whatever sauce covered it; that’s not saying any of it was bad, just that it was the sauce that was interesting. Although the breads were made on board, we never got any that was more than room temperature; at least the butter was softened so it could be spread without ripping the bread. Desserts ran the gambit from amazing to merely okay; I was not enamored with sweets that are more sugar than flavor. As I’ve posted on two blogs, we thoroughly enjoyed the burgers and dogs with their accompanying fries. In general dinner consisted of three courses, but the Gala evenings had four courses. At the first Gala I got to sample snails with cheese and garlic; I loved this dish! The second Gala presented a Tequila Poached Pear for me to try; it was excellent. The last Gala meal was a surf and turf; the steak and the lobster were done to a turn. The papaya appetizer and the salad with cucumber and cherry tomatoes were good. The desserts, angel food cake and flourless cake were very good, also.

On the whole I would recommend Holland American cruises. Getting on the boat was
Left: Fish bar stools
Right: Towel elephant
surprisingly easy; because we were early, it didn’t take more than 30 to 45 minutes to actually get aboard. We were able to get to our room and relax, then wander all over the ship. I did find that I took too many ‘nice clothes’ and not nearly enough warm clothes. I could have done with a warm scarf, gloves, and a hat. It doesn’t matter that it’s high 40s to low 50s, a 20 to 40 mph wind off of the water cuts right through you. However, the air in the ship is VERY dry so bring lots of hand/body lotion and lubricating eye drops. Another thing that dries out your skin is the hand sanitizer, but since everyone is coughing and sneezing, the use of the hand sanitizer that’s provided after you’ve rubbed all over the hand rails is a really good idea. The service staff are all Indonesian or Pilipino; they come from a nurturing culture and bring that to their jobs. Whatever we asked for they provided and they did it with charm and courtesy. The only person we had an issue with was the librarian (an American); she was extremely rude to one of the elderly passengers. Tipping is automatically added to your bill at the rate of $12.50/person/day. That’s not a bad amount, but I would have liked to have known about this early on and have had a choice in the matter. I would have given a larger tip to certain people. There was plenty to do on the ship and most of it was included in the cruise price except internet access. Internet is expensive and it sucks; I couldn’t get into my MSN account, but I could get onto google mail and Facebook. At 100 minutes for $55 I ought to have been able to contact the space station. The sea ports were lovely and we had plenty of time to explore all but one of them; I would have liked more time in Nanortalik. It would have been nice to skip the hurricane, but that was beyond the control of the cruise line.

And a final note: first class means different things to different transporters. On this trip I used
Top L to R: Lying in first class, Stuffed ravioli
Bottom L to R: Breakfast of meats, fruits, cheese, Business class
every travel point I had to get us into first class on our flights. The flight from Dallas to London was wonderful with excellent food, a seat that converted to a bed, and time to chat with the pilot. We did find that the difference between first and business class was that the seats in first are leather. Service, meals and comfort are pretty much the same. We were a bit surprised by the business class space in the flight from London to Copenhagen. While we got a small breakfast, what made the space business class was that no one was seated between us; a placard placed on the middle seat said ‘Business Class’. Dave and I both thought this was pretty funny. We both love to travel, Dave less than I, but we do agree that coming home is always one of the best parts of the trip.

View of the DFW area from the air

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