Champagne Bucket trips, trip planning

In case you needed a reminder… Scandinavia is EXPENSIVE.

The featured photo was taken on a day cruise we took in Oslo, Norway, back in 2009.

It’s not so often that I travel blog during the work week. We have the pandemic to thank for that, as it made taking normal trips a lot more difficult for the past couple of years. In 2023, things are pretty much back in full swing. I expect Europe will be, once again, teeming with people this summer. In fact, I expect there will be more people than ever.

A week ago, we did a champagne bucket draw, and Finland won. That meant planning a trip that included a stop in Finland. I marvel at the changes our plans have undergone within about ten days. We went from planning a Helsinki based trip that would include land based stops in the Baltic countries, to pulling the trigger on a luxury cruise, with a week in Norway beforehand.

When you see the words “luxury cruise” in my blog post, of course it goes without saying that this trip is going to be pricey. We are going to sail on Regent Seven Seas‚Äô newest completed ship, Splendor, in June. An even newer ship, Grandeur, will be sailing this year, but I don’t think she’s had her maiden voyage yet. So, as of this writing, Splendor, which was built in 2020, is Regent’s newest. This will also be the newest ship we’ve ever sailed on, as we usually opt for either SeaDream or Hebridean Island Cruises, both of which offer luxury on much smaller and older vessels.

One of many Regent Splendor cruise ship tour videos on YouTube.

I chose this particular cruise on Regent mostly because of the itinerary, which includes a stop in Helsinki, as well as most of the Baltic locations we wanted to visit, along with a couple of other stops. It’s not our first Baltic cruise, though.

Our very first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, back in 2009, and that was also a Baltic cruise. It was only four nights, and included stops in Tallin, Estonia and Copenhagen, Denmark, with embarkation in Oslo, Norway, and debarkation in Stockholm, Sweden. On that trip, we spent a couple of nights in Oslo, which we both really enjoyed. The cruise was loaded with Norwegians, and we found that we really enjoyed their joie de vivre. ūüėČ Later, we encountered a friendly bunch of them on our second SeaDream cruise and vowed we’d visit Norway again. So that’s why we’re doing a week in Norway, too… and staying longer, so we can see more of Norway than just the city of Oslo. Below are a few photos from our cruise from Norway to Sweden in 2009… As you can see, I need to take more photos of beautiful Norway, at the very least! That was before I had an iPhone.

When I saw Regent’s June 23 Stockholm to Copenhagen cruise, I knew it was a no brainer to book it, because I was finding it very difficult to plan a land based trip including Finland and the Baltics… And yes, before anyone comes at me, I know there’s a large body of water we’d have to cross to get to the Baltics. I was planning a few days in Finland, then a ferry ride to Tallin, where I naively thought we could arrange train travel or maybe rent a car or something… At this writing, a train route is being constructed to make that vision come to fruition in the future. As of now, though, it’s just not convenient. ūüėČ I also realized Bill wouldn’t want to be driving so much, and I wouldn’t want to be flying so much.

The cruise solution was simply more practical, and it was available during the time we wanted to travel. And– we had the money to pay for it, thanks to a big tax refund. Even better was the fact that the sailing I found was on sale… which was a damned good thing. In fact, I should have waited another week, because the price went down again, and it was quite a significant drop! Some people would probably tell me to cancel and rebook, but I’ve already had lots of words with my bank. Oh well… you win some, you lose some.

Anyway… last night, we were trying to decide how long we wanted to stay in the places we’re visiting before the cruise, and how we wanted to travel to them. It didn’t take us long to decide to visit Bergen, which is a very beautiful city on Norway’s west coast that offers enchanting scenery, fresh seafood, and lots to do. However, from Oslo, it takes seven hours to drive there or take the train. We could also fly; that takes just an hour. But if we fly, we’ll miss the incredibly beautiful scenery on the way, and have to deal with everything that flying entails nowadays.

I thought maybe we’d drive and stop somewhere on the way, maybe do some exploration. Unfortunately, renting a car in Norway, especially for a one way trip with drop off in another city, is VERY expensive. Gas and food are also very expensive in Norway, plus there are tolls on the road we’d be using.

The route from Oslo to Bergen is also rather devoid of places to stay. There are a lot of apartments to rent, and a few hotels that are either in the middle of nowhere or have dodgy reviews. I wouldn’t mind renting an apartment, but I’d hate to do that for just an overnight. Most of the ones I found were pretty bare bones, too. I did manage to find several hotels that allowed me to book now and pay later, and can be canceled up to the day of arrival. Clarion Hotels for the win! They even have a hotel out in the middle of nowhere that I considered booking, but then I thought again.

Finally, I think we decided we’d just take the train… which means we now have to decide if we want to leave at 8:23AM or 12:05PM. The later trip is notably less expensive, but slower. I suspect we’ll go for the morning time, so we can get to Bergen in the afternoon. If we wanted to spend another night in Oslo, we could get a really (relatively) cheap train fare… but then we’d be paying for another night in Oslo, which is legitimately a nice city, but one we’ve already seen. It’s not a super pretty town, either, although I do remember enjoying the day cruise we took on the Oslo Fjord in 2009.

So, once I found a hotel that offers parking, in case we drive after all, I went to book plane tickets. A flight from Bergen to Stockholm takes one hour and twenty minutes. I found seats on SAS– Scandinavian Airlines (although when I hear SAS, it reminds me of a cursed statistics program I had to use in grad school). I tried to book with my PenFed card, but for some reason, PenFed refuses to send texts with codes to overseas phone numbers, nor will they send the confirmation codes to emails. So that means I can’t authorize charges through their stupid two factor authentication program.

I went to USAA, which did successfully send me a text. But, even though I entered all of my information, gave them a fingerprint, and tried to authorize the charge, they still declined it and blocked my card. At 10PM, I was calling USAA– for the second time in a week– to ask them to unblock my card and authorize payment, so we can get from Bergen to Stockholm. The lady I spoke to last night was very nice and professional, unlike the other person I talked to a few days ago, who was quite rude to me.

We finally got the plane tickets sorted, and now we just have to confirm where we’ll be sleeping for our night in Stockholm. I had wanted to stay longer in Stockholm, since we never really got to see the city when we were there in 2009, but that would have meant arranging for another night there. Our night in Stockholm is already included in our cruise fare, so adding another would mean going to another hotel or paying more to Regent. I think we’d prefer another night in Bergen, anyway.

All that’s left to do now is buy train tickets, or arrange for a car to get us from Oslo to Bergen. I’ve even mostly paid off the credit card companies. I paid off the deposit and Lufthansa tickets last week, which I booked through PenFed. Then, this morning, I accidentally paid USAA for the rest of the cruise fare. I had only meant to send them $1000 today, but ended up requesting to pay the whole bill. Luckily, there was enough money to pay for it. Thanks again to Bill’s decision to pay taxes all year and get a refund, we had the cash available. Edited to add: I just got us our train tickets… good thing, too, because the seats were already sold out, and I had to get us a compartment for six people instead. That was another $500. At least it’s changeable and refundable.

Living in Germany sure has been good for us…

But dammit… the fares went down 2,000 euros this week!!!!

Oh well. We’re sure to have a great time. I look forward to blogging about it, and experiencing new places on a different cruise line. I’ll be surprised if I’ll want to give up small ship cruising for Regent permanently, but we’ll see. I suspect that if I ever spot a hot deal like the one they’re offering right now for our cruise, I’ll want to jump on it. Especially if we have the money!

If you’re curious about what we’re in for on our journey from Oslo to Bergen, have a look at a couple of videos… I think it will be unforgettable.

Let’s hope for sunny weather!
Looks good!

And yes, I know we don’t have to spend this much money to have a good time… but I have definitely done my fair share of cheap traveling. It’s nice to have an upgraded experience, and I’m grateful we have the opportunity. We never thought the day would come.

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Uncategorized

Negligent actions have consequences…

This post is also appearing on my regular blog. I’m cross posting it here, because it’s about travel, and my travel blog can always use extra content during a pandemic and “lite lockdown”.

Yesterday on my travel blog, I posted an article about SeaDream Yacht Club‚Äôs unfortunate COVID-19 situation. SeaDream, for those who don‚Äôt know, is a fantastic all inclusive luxury cruise line. It has two identical ‚Äúsuper yachts‚ÄĚ and it‚Äôs known for being an awesome cruise experience for couples. Bill and I have sailed with them three times. Our last voyage with them was in May 2013, when we sailed from Rome to Athens with a trip through the Corinth Canal.

Bill and I love SeaDream, but circumstances have not lined up for us to sail with them again since Bill left the Army. I still follow their message board on Cruise Critic. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis hit, I’ve been anxiously wondering if this line will survive the pandemic. Things were looking hopeful over the summer, when SeaDream managed to complete several Norway centric cruises without anyone getting sick from the virus.

After their success in Europe, SeaDream came back across the Atlantic and, last Saturday, attempted their first round trip Barbados cruise. In order to pull this off, SeaDream had to change a lot of its standard operating procedures. Prospective passengers had to get a negative COVID-19 PCR test at their own expense 72 hours before flying to Barbados. They had to take another COVID-19 test before getting on the ship, as well as have an interview with the ship’s doctor. Their luggage and shoes were cleaned with ultrasonic technology. Halfway through the voyage, they would have had to have another routine COVID-19 test to satisfy the rules for returning to Barbados. And, while they were cruising, they visited empty beaches, took catamaran cruises, and engaged in activities that did not allow them to be in contact with any host country nationals.

Having been on a SeaDream cruise, I can tell you that I’m sure it was just fine even without the freedom to engage with locals, shop on the economy, or go exploring. I’m not sure if the piano bar was open, but that was my favorite part of a SeaDream cruise anyway, besides the many cocktails and endless champagne.

Unfortunately, someone DID get sick with COVID-19. As of Wednesday morning, the 53 passengers have been stuck in their staterooms, which I can attest to being really nice, but not very large. The windows don’t open and there are no balconies. It’s a nice cage, but it’s still a cage.

A video done by a couple of Geordie lads who have been blogging about SeaDream’s voyages. They are on the ship as I write this.

The person who got sent to a Bajan hospital with COVID-19 was part of a group of six who evidently decided to overnight in Miami on the way to Barbados. From what I’ve read, other passengers heard the afflicted one talking about partying in the south Florida city for a night. Four others in that group also had positive COVID-19 tests, but evidently aren’t showing symptoms. The fifth person’s test was inconclusive.

Now… in thinking about this, it occurs to me just how many people have been affected by this group’s decision to overnight in Miami…

  1. 47 people have had a very expensive and luxurious vacation ruined.
  2. 66 crew members have had their livelihoods directly threatened.
  3. 113 people have had their health threatened.
  4. The entire cruising industry has had another blot on it regarding health and safety standards.
  5. Hundreds of future passengers will be affected because SeaDream will be cancelling upcoming cruises.
  6. All of the businesspeople depending on support revenue for the cancelled cruises will lose money‚Äď ie; pet boarding, taxi services, airlines, etc.
  7. People watching SeaDream to see if cruising during a pandemic could be done safely will be affected.
  8. A whole lot of people have been affected by this… I hope that night out in Miami was worth it.

It really is a shame that this happened. As I wrote in my travel blog, I won’t consider cruising again until there’s an effective vaccine against COVID-19. I don’t think cruising while fretting about a virus on a luxury ship is a lot of fun. Hopefully, we’ll get this virus under control before too long. On the other hand… I’m not holding my breath.

Hopefully, those who got sick won’t get too sick… and the passengers will be able to get off the ship and go home without too much trouble. We’ll see what happens. Actions have consequences. But, on the bright side, by undertaking this experiment, SeaDream has provided some valuable data for others. Perhaps that will help some smart people figure out the best way to get back to a life approaching normal at some point.

ETA: the count is now up to seven COVID positive.

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Hebridean Island Cruises

Whisky at Torabhaig Distillery… then church and dolphins!

Sunday morning found us in lovely Armadale on the Isle of Skye. This was a very attractive area, not quite as remote as some of the previous stops we made on this cruise. Because Isle of Skye is a bit more populated, Princess guests had a couple of options on shore. We were offered a chance to visit the brand new Torabhaig Distillery or Armadale Castle. Or, as always, we could take walks. Naturally, Bill and I opted to visit Torabhaig Distillery. This distillery, like the two before it, is new. Investors bought a beautiful old farmstead called Torabhaig and spent four years restoring it to its present glory.

I think this distillery might have been my favorite. The architecture of the building is so beautiful. Also, I enjoyed hearing the story of how this new distillery came to fruition. Torabhaig is the second licensed distillery on the Isle of Skye. Owned by Mossburn Distillers, which previously had no official distillery of its own and had to use other facilities to make its whiskys, Torabhaig is not quite ready to roll out its own label yet. But visitors can try Mossburn whiskys, which are available in a variety of types.

Our tour guide, Hans, was a very charming Dutch man who speaks French, German, English, and, of course, Dutch. He presided over our tour like a college professor might. Of all of the tour guides, he was my favorite because he was genuinely interested in the product. I wore my new blue Isle of Raasay Distillery sweatshirt to the distillery, mainly because it was cold and rainy. I also wore my Isle of Aran sweater, which I hung up on a coathook because it was warm in the distillery.

After we walked through the distillery and learned its story, we sat down to taste a couple of drams of Mossburn’s whiskys. We had a Speyside and an Islay whisky. They came from different parts of Scotland because they were no doubt made at different distilleries. Now that Torbhaig exists, Mossburn can be made on its own site. The Danish guy, once again, was amused by my expression when I tasted the Speyside whisky. It kind of blew my brains out.

In fact, I was so distracted by the whisky and the new Harris Tweed purse and keyring I bought in the gift shop, I forgot to retrieve my sweater. We got all the way back to the pier before I remembered it. Fortunately, the minivan driver was a kindly sort of man and he willingly drove me back to get my sweater. His name was Kenny, and he was really nice to talk to. We ended up talking about Mormonism, of all things. I was explaining that Bill was a teetotaler when I met him, because he and his ex wife had converted to the LDS church. But when we started dating, Bill was happy to lose the Mormon church.

Kenny told me he had a friend who had been recruited into the church via the “baseball baptism” program the church used to run in the 70s. The church formed baseball teams and, oftentimes, people on the teams would wind up joining the church. Sadly, Kenny told me that his friend, the LDS convert, ended up committing suicide. I’m not sure the church had anything to do with the man’s suicide… but it sounds like it wasn’t much of a help, either. I ran into the distillery and got my sweater. On the way back to the pier, we commiserated about the strange state of U.S. and British politics these days.

Here are some photos of our trip to Torbhaig Distillery. It’s well worth a visit!

My ever faithful husband was waiting at the pier for me to return. He really looks after me, which is kind of a strange thing. I grew up with “underprotective” parents who pretty much let me do whatever I wanted and didn’t dote on me at all. Bill is, by contrast, living up to the meaning of his name, which is “determined protector”. That, he is.

After our distillery tour, it was time for the weekly church service offered by Hebridean Princess. Bill and I usually skip them because we’re not particularly religious as much as we are spiritual. However, this time we decided to attend, because one of the guests was a British Navy Chaplain and he struck up several conversations with Bill, whom he immediately recognized as a fellow Brother in Arms.

The chaplain also had his twin brother with him. They were clearly fraternal twins, though you could easily see a resemblance. The chaplain’s brother was decidedly un-military, but a nice enough fellow, just the same. The service only lasted about ten minutes, but it was pleasant and kind of interesting. I gave thought to taking communion afterwards, but decided not to when I saw that everyone was drinking out of the same cup. I might have been braver had I not gotten sick with norovirus after our first whisky cruise in 2016. That’s an experience I never want to repeat!

After lunch, guests were allowed to go for walks on the beach and/or visit the Old Forge, which is said to be Scotland’s most remote pub. I had every intention of at least visiting the pub, but it was raining and, you guessed it, a nap was calling. I started reading my latest trashy celebrity tell all and, before I knew it, was fast asleep. I don’t usually sleep this much on Hebridean Cruises, but it was rather wet and rainy and that kind of weather does make me want to hibernate. Bill did visit the pub. He said it wasn’t really “special” in terms of anything more than being in a remote area. It sounded like missing it wasn’t such a bad thing. If it had been sunny, I would have been up for a walk there.

All week, we looked for dolphins, puffins, orcas, and other wildlife. I did manage to catch a glimpse of several orcas playing in the mist early in the cruise. I didn’t have a camera ready at the time. Even if I had, it was foggy and I was sitting by a window that wasn’t very conducive to picture taking. However, on Sunday night, I got lucky. I was sitting near the front windows of the Princess when two dolphins suddenly started leaping right next to the ship. I had my iPad ready and managed to score these pictures!

It was a little sad to realize, Sunday night, that Monday would be our last full day on the Princess. On one hand, I was a bit ready to come home, do laundry, and see my dogs again. As much as I need breaks from the beagles, I do miss them after a couple of days. A week is almost torturous, especially as they get older and I read tragic stories about people who lose their dogs unexpectedly, such as those whose dogs were exposed to blue-green algae and died hours later. On the other hand, this time, our cruise was full of a great group of folks and a mostly fantastic staff. I mean, Hebridean’s staff is almost always perfect anyway, but some people mesh better with me than others do. We really had a good time on our trip.

Read about the last full day onboard in the next post.

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cruises

SeaDream Yacht Club drops a bombshell…

Recently, SeaDream Yacht Club has been teasing its prior passengers with promises of “big news”.  Even though our last SeaDream cruise was in May 2013, I still really like this cruise line and would love to sail them again… soon, if possible.  Although I haven’t signed up for an upcoming cruise yet, I did sign up to get the big news.  Just a little while ago, I got the email with the latest scoop.

Ever since its inception, SeaDream has had two ships– SeaDream I and SeaDream II.  They are identical, except SeaDream I was built in 1984 and SeaDream II was built in 1985.  They used to be called Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II.  For years, there have been rumors swirling about a new vessel.  In fact, in 2013, during our last cruise, the cruise director had dinner with Bill and me and told us about plans for a new ship.  But then, that guy ended up quitting his job just a few weeks later.

Well, as of today, we know SeaDream will have a new vessel called Innovation which will allow SeaDream to add over 200 ports around the world, to include polar regions.  The new ship will have three marinas, a seaplane, and its own helicopter.  The staterooms will also all have balconies.  At this point, they’re saying the ship will be ready by September 2021.  I hope to do another SeaDream cruise before then, if time and finances allow.

Since Bill left the Army and has been establishing his new career as a contractor, the opportunity to take a SeaDream cruise has eluded us.  We have been fortunate enough to take Hebridean cruises in Scotland and, in fact, I actually prefer Hebridean in some ways.  However, SeaDream was our introduction to small ship cruising and they go to places Hebridean can’t.  SeaDream has things Hebridean Princess doesn’t have, like a piano bar and a marina… and a pool and Thai spa.  Plus, the clientele is a bit different, although not necessarily better or worse.  I’ve met a few celebrities on SeaDream, while on Hebridean, it’s more likely to meet very wealthy British people.

Computerized screenshot of the new vessel.

So this is exciting news, although I highly doubt any voyages on the Innovation will be in our price range.  SeaDream cruises are very expensive and they annoyingly add port taxes after the already high fare.  I like the way Hebridean does things.  You pay a huge fare, but it’s truly all inclusive.  Once you pay, you don’t have to worry about anything else, except whatever you might buy in their tiny gift shop.

So far, we’ve done three SeaDream cruises.  Our first, in April 2010, was San Juan, Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, USVI.  It was just five nights and cheap, especially for SeaDream.  I think I booked a guaranty fare for $1599 a person.  The second was in November 2011, St. John, Antigua to Bridgetown, Barbados.  And the third was in May 2013, Rome, Italy to Athens, Greece, with a passage through the Corinth Canal.

I had my eye on a voyage happening this summer, but Bill didn’t want me to book it.  Now I realize I probably should have gone ahead and booked it.  Especially now… because I really, REALLY need a real vacation.  

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for Innovation’s fares.  I might just laugh at them for awhile as I dream.

One of my favorite SeaDream memories.
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Hebridean Island Cruises

Scotland and Northern Ireland 2017, Part six…

The big clock, where everybody meets up in Glasgow…

 

And another British nanny sign!

 

In March 2016, when we took our Hebridean Scotch Whisky tour, The Spirit of Scotland, the train station had a couple of bars that were about to close.  They were open for our visit, but they had little stock.  We sat up in that bar for a couple of hours and drank beer until it was time to meet the ship.  Although the train station still has a place for beer drinking, we wisely opted to go to a restaurant outside of the station.  I think maybe next time, instead of meeting the coach, maybe it might be better to simply go to where the boat is.  A three hour ride on a coach isn’t all that much fun, even when it’s Hebridean Island Cruises offering it.

I think we were the first ones from our cruise to get to the train station.  Our guide, Bryan Hogg, was next.  He was easy to spot because he was wearing a kilt and had the telltale Hebridean luggage tags on his bags.  Hebridean Island Cruises employs qualified guides for each of its cruises.  Bryan lives in Edinburgh and is a freelance guide (and a marvelous one at that).  He guided our cruise and is also guiding this week’s cruise.  Here’s a link to his blog, which is probably more interesting than mine is.  It looks like his isn’t as updated as often, though.  He’s also on Facebook, though I don’t see a link to a business page.  We really enjoyed having Bryan as our guide this week.  He’s very friendly, funny, and relaxed… and he also knows a lot about Scotland and Ireland.

Just so you know, it’s not free to pee in the train station.  It costs 40p to pee…  

 

The view from our seat on the coach.

Bill is excited because the Brits have lap and shoulder belts on their buses.  You’re supposed to wear them because the Brits are pretty strict about safety.  However, I will go on record as being naughty all week because the damned things were too uncomfortable.  Bill was a good boy, though.  I’ll be sure to give him a cookie later.

After all of the folks who had arranged to be met at the train station were accounted for, we collected our lanyards, which basically served as our identification all week.  Wearing them around the neck identified us as members of the Hebridean Princess cruise, which allowed us admission to activities and coffee and tea breaks pre-arranged by the ship.  Yes, that’s right, the ship pays for your coffee breaks when you’re aboard Hebridean Princess.  You don’t pay admission fees to the activities arranged by the cruise line, either.  In fact, you don’t have to pay for anything once you get aboard, unless you want something from the tiny gift shop.  It’s probably the only cruise ship on the planet that does not require passengers to hand over a credit card immediately upon boarding.

We stopped at the airport to pick up a few other people, including a couple of perfumed ladies who acted as if they were long lost sisters.  They sat in front of us and immediately started chattering quite loudly, which quickly became annoying because I was also trying to listen to Bryan talk about points of interest on the way north.  I’ll also admit that Auntie Flow was putting me in a foul mood.

I noticed a spunky looking lady sitting across from us who had a can of gin and tonic.  I immediately thought she was cool as she sipped it.  I wish I had had the same foresight.  I ended up moving to another seat just before the rest stop and the lady with the gin and tonic congratulated me!  Below are a few pictures I got of our rest stop…

Looks like a nice town to stop in for a visit.  Maybe another time.  One of the passengers, a guy who is still aboard this week, purchased an ice cream cone during our stop.  He made everyone laugh when someone asked him if the ice cream was good and he said it was “Dee—light–ful!” in a very comical British accent.  All week, he was cracking us up because he was very comfortable in his own skin and not afraid to use a bib (a man after my own heart, for sure!).

The two pictures above are of Inveraray Castle, as we passed it on the way to Oban.  I wish I had gotten a shot of it on the way back to Glasgow, since the weather was a lot nicer that day.  Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the bus! 

 

We arrived in Oban at around 6:00pm or so.  It was raining and rather grim outside, but there was still a piper out there waiting to welcome us properly.  It was at this point that I learned our purser was to be the legendary David Indge, who was our purser on our second Hebridean cruise in 2012.  He truly is fabulous!  Queen Elizabeth II has been on Hebridean Princess twice and she liked Dave so much that she reportedly specifically requested his services during her cruises.  I can see why she liked him so much!

Here’s a brief clip of the piper.  He piped each party aboard, though some had already arrived at the ship before the coach got there.  Bear in mind that the Hebridean Princess carries, at most, 49 passengers at a time.  I think there were 45 on our cruise.

Here’s a shot of Oban that I took as we waited for the obligatory muster drill…

And here is an obligatory shot of Bill in his life jacket.  I do this every time we cruise.  I think this may be one of the better shots of him in his life jacket.

 

Most nights on Hebridean Princess, passengers dress up a bit for dinner.  On the first night, it’s permissible to dress casually.  That’s because there’s a lot to do once you get on the ship.  Before the muster drill, you have to unpack your stuff and leave your bags to be stowed during the cruise.  Depending on how light you travel, unpacking may or may not be a chore.  It usually is for me, because I am incapable of traveling light under any circumstances.

Another thing to know about Hebridean Princess is, again, almost everything is included, including booze.  That means you can drink all you want and no one will be making you sign any chits and you can try all sorts of stuff.

After the muster drill, it was time for dinner.  You can see below that we tried both the red and white wines with dinner… and had a little bubbly, too.

I had duck, which was lovely with potatoes and green beans…

Bill had salmon on top of potatoes and garnished with broccolini.

 

There was more to this meal, but it was one of the rare ones that I didn’t photograph completely.  I guess I was just overwhelmed by the abundance of excellence.  Our waiter last week was a friendly young Polish lad named Mariusz.  He took very good care of us… almost as good care as the bar staff!

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Hebridean Island Cruises

Scotland and Northern Ireland 2017, Part two…

We left Stuttgart for our trip to Scotland and Northern Ireland on Saturday, September 9, 2017. ¬†I was in a pretty edgy state, thanks to a full summer of worrying. ¬†Although we probably take more trips than most Americans, I have gotten used to traveling a lot since we moved back to Germany in 2014. ¬†Travel is one of the main reasons I like living over here and we hadn’t had a trip since my birthday in June, when we drove to Belgium. ¬†I was itching to get out of Deutschland, which only sounds crazy if you aren’t living here as an American.

As I mentioned previously, I booked a cruise on Hebridean Princess about a year ago. ¬†It’s necessary for us to book well in advance when we cruise on the Princess because it’s very expensive. ¬†We chose the Call of the Emerald Isle cruise, which would take us from Oban, an adorable city in Scotland, to ports in Northern Ireland. ¬†We also had a couple of stops in the Republic of Ireland.

This was technically our fourth trip on Hebridean Princess. ¬†Our very first trip on Hebridean Princess was in November 2012, when we took two five night cruises back to back to celebrate our tenth anniversary. ¬†We took our third cruise with them in March 2016, a scotch whisky themed trip, which you can read about in this blog. ¬†Fair warning. ¬†That series was divided into fourteen parts and I imagine this series will be similarly lengthy! ¬†If you like whisky and are interested in distilleries in Scotland, it might be worth reading. ¬†I did write about our first trip, but it was before I had a travel blog, so it’s not a very detailed description.

Since Bill and I are in better financial straits than we’ve ever been, I decided to make this trip as upper class as possible. ¬†I booked business class tickets on British Airways and got us a Club Executive room at the Carlton George Hotel¬†in Glasgow, which is our hotel of choice when we’re in Glasgow because they offer a nice executive lounge and a free minibar ;-). ¬†I did not upgrade our stateroom on Hebridean Princess, though, since doing so requires quite a lot more money. ¬†We stayed in Loch Harport, a category H stateroom which is their cheapest “room”, all the way at the bottom of the ship. ¬†The cabins in H have no windows or portholes, but they are otherwise pretty nice. ¬†More on the stateroom in a later post. ¬†We have now stayed in all of the “cheap” rooms with twin/king sized beds, so I can later offer a comparison of the three.

Because Bill changed companies in July, we weren’t sure if he was going to be able to accompany me on this cruise. ¬†Had he not come with me, I probably would have either gone alone or Bill’s mom might have come with me. ¬†Fortunately, Bill’s mom is a good friend and we get along great! ¬†However, she did recently have hip surgery and I was a little concerned about the prospect of her staying in an “H” room, since getting to and from there involves climbing and descending a lot of steps. ¬†Hebridean Princess doesn’t have any elevators. ¬†As it turned out, Bill’s new boss was very accommodating, so we were able to take this unforgettable trip together. ¬†If he is reading this post, I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart.

So Saturday, September 9th was the big day. ¬†We dropped off our dogs, Zane and Arran, at Dog Holiday bright and early in the morning, then headed for the airport. ¬†We checked in on British Airways, enjoying a brief wait since we were using their Club Europe (business class) service. ¬†After we checked in, we were whisked through security. ¬†One thing I noticed on this trip, our first using the airport since we visited Ireland last November, was that Stuttgart has invested in a new security method that only takes a couple of seconds and doesn’t involve any intimate scans or pat downs. ¬†I liked it very much and hope to see its use become more common.

After we passed through security, went up to the very pleasant but small lounge in Stuttgart’s airport. ¬†A delightfully cheerful German lady was running things that day. ¬†I remember her well, since her extreme cheerfulness is kind of an anomaly in these parts.

For those who are curious about British Airways’ lounge in Stuttgart, here it is… ¬†You get free WiFi, drinks, and snacks. ¬†It was the smallest and least impressive of the lounges we used on this trip, but it was still pretty nice.

We were in Club Europe, which is British Airways’ business class in Europe. ¬†Basically, the seats are the same as they are in coach, except you don’t have anyone sitting in the middle. ¬†Instead, you get this cute little table thing in the center seat. ¬†Business class also entitles you to a meal and free drinks.

A couple of aerial shots of Stuttgart as we took off.

This was the food they served us. ¬†The first photo is chicken with some sort of potato salad, that I didn’t touch. ¬†There was also bread, salad, and key lime pie (which was pretty good).

I also enjoyed champagne.  

Bill had the “beef panini” with red wine. ¬†This was the same food they served us yesterday on our return flight from Glasgow to London, although the red wine was a cabernet. ¬†

And here’s an aerial shot of London as we were about to land at Heathrow.

A word about Heathrow Airport… ¬†This was probably my first experience there since the late 1970s, when my dad retired from the Air Force after his last job as base engineer at Mildenhall Air Force Base. ¬†I seem to remember we flew Pan Am, which is a long defunct airline. ¬†Because I was a small child in the late 70s, I have no memories of Heathrow during that time and only the vaguest memories of Dulles Airport, which was where we landed when we arrived stateside. ¬†Consequently, I had no idea of what a zoo Heathrow is. ¬†Sure, I had heard stories about it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the madness of the place. ¬†I thought Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris was bad. ¬†Heathrow gives it a good run for its money. ¬†I think I will try to avoid using it in the future, if I can.

This is actually not as chaotic looking as the airport was at the time.

We landed at Heathrow at about noon and had to go through border control. ¬†The guy who stamped us into the country had one of those mustaches that curls up on either side. ¬†He was very charming and we had no problems getting through. ¬†Next, I’m pretty sure we went through customs, then another very obnoxious turn through security, which was complete bedlam. ¬†After that, we found our way to British Airways’ enormous south lounge. ¬†I say “south lounge”, because there is also a smaller north lounge, which apparently gets very busy. ¬†There is a sign out front that says if you have a long layover, you should use the south lounge, so that’s what we did. ¬†It, too, was a total madhouse, though slightly less obnoxious than the airport’s facilities for the masses. ¬†Imagine being a captive audience at a large mall which is completely overrun with people, most of whom are walking slowly and not watching where they’re going. ¬†It reminded me of Breuningerland in Sindelfingen during the Christmas season.

We spent our four hour layover trying the many drinks and snacks offered in the lounge. ¬†There wasn’t a lot of seating available, since apparently a lot of people are either frequent flyers or booked business class on British Airways. ¬†We sat near a man who spent over an hour on the phone speaking what must have been some sort of East Indian language. ¬†He was pleasant enough, but it was like eavesdropping on tech support, since he was clearly talking business and seemed to be instructing someone.

There are a couple of other lounges for first class passengers.  They are closely guarded by staffers who shoo away any lowly business class passengers trying to sneak in.  The British Airways lounge also has a spa, which I was tempted to try.  I never got around to it.

At about four o’clock, it was time for our flight to Glasgow. ¬†We had to go through yet another annoying security feature. ¬†When we first arrived at the airport after our Stuttgart flight, we had to go through a scanner which involved showing our tickets and having a photo taken. ¬†When it was time to board our flight to Glasgow, we had to go through the same type of scanner and another photo was taken. ¬†Of course, the second photo came after I had spent four hours in a packed lounge drinking wine. ¬†And, naturally, it didn’t work properly when it was my turn. ¬†I had to have an agent help me through, which was irritating. ¬†I probably looked pissed off in my second photo.

Once we were settled into our seats, it was time to lift off. ¬†We enjoyed an uneventful flight to Glasgow after a short weather related delay. ¬†I enjoyed British Airways’ new safety film.

They showed this on three of our four flights… ¬†It’s pretty clever. ¬†Sadly, at first, I only recognized Thandie Newton. ¬†After the third viewing, I also recognized Gillian Anderson, even though I never watched the X Files.


Upon landing in Glasgow, we collected our bags and took a cab into the big city.

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Italy vs. Germany…

Well, folks, the time has come to decide what to do next. ¬†Bill’s job ends in 56 days. ¬†A few days ago, he got a tentative job offer to move to Vicenza, Italy as a GS employee. ¬†That would mean he would no longer be a contractor. ¬†Instead, he’d be working in the government service, something that I think would make him happier in the long run.

It’s a good job. ¬†We love Italy. ¬†I hate moving, but I’ve done it plenty of times… If we moved there, it would be my fifth overseas experience and my fourth country. ¬†But…

I think it will take a long time to arrange moving to Italy. ¬†We may or may not get an overseas living quarters allowance. ¬†And while we could live on what the government would pay, it would be hard to move to Italy without help from the feds. ¬†And… did I mention that I HATE moving? ¬†I have done it many times and don’t enjoy it. ¬†And I am perfectly happy staying here in Germany, even though Italy is lovely.

Compounding matters is that we have a Scottish/Northern Irish cruise planned for September. ¬†I will be going on this cruise regardless, even if Bill can’t come. ¬†I can’t buy plane tickets or plan for a hotel room, because we don’t know where we’ll be. ¬†And we also have our dogs booked with Max at Dog On Holiday. ¬†Although this trip is after Labor Day, I worry that we won’t find care for them in Italy. ¬†From what I’ve read, it can take time to get approval to live in Italy, which is a big problem.

A week ago, we were worried about whether we could stay in Germany. ¬†But now, we have a choice between two appealing places. ¬†Both have their plusses and minuses. ¬†I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but it does appear that we won’t be leaving Europe. ¬†That suits me fine.

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Sailing with Sea Cloud cruises…

Last week, I was hanging out on SeaDream Yacht Club’s messageboards on Cruise Critic and someone mentioned the Sea Cloud cruise line. ¬†I think I had heard of Sea Cloud before, but never really explored it. ¬†Since I have loads of time on my hands and enjoy luxury cruising on small ships, I thought I’d take a look.

 

When you sail with Sea Cloud, you’re actually sailing. ¬†Both of these vessels have masts and actual sails on them, making them very unique in the cruising world. ¬†The original Sea Cloud has a long and celebrated history dating from 1931, while Sea Cloud II is a much younger and more modern ship built in 2001.

I requested information from Sea Cloud cruises, which is based in Hamburg. ¬†I just received a package special delivery. ¬†I was expecting an envelope with a brochure that maybe included a DVD or something. ¬†What I received what a box of stuff. ¬†And it’s all in German!

My German skills are still evolving, so it may be hard to understand all of this… ¬†I may have to use Google Translate. ¬†Fortunately, I can look at their Web site, which does offer English translation.

From what I can see, it looks like a lovely, albeit expensive, vacation possibility. ¬†It’s also not all inclusive, though beer and wine is included at lunch and dinner. ¬†Of course, if I’m going to be spending four or five figures on a cruise, I prefer not to have to worry about signing chits. ¬†On the other hand, it looks like this line would offer a very unique and exciting experience. ¬†I have heard that onboard, both German and English are spoken.

Sea Cloud also gets very good reviews, both from the professional reviewer and regular folks who have sailed with them. ¬†I may have to get Bill to check this out with me and see what he thinks…

For now, I think I will just be tickled by the box of information they sent me and the opportunity to practice my German as I plow through it.  I see on Cruise Critic, Sea Cloud is sometimes chartered by Lindblad cruises, too.

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A little while ago, my dogs announced the mail…

And in the mail was a final bill for our upcoming Hebridean cruise.  In July, we paid a $1600 deposit.  We now have $4800 left to pay for our Spirit of Scotland cruise in mid March.

It’s funny, because we were just talking about the cruise last night. ¬†It sounds like it’s very expensive, but we actually got a really good deal. ¬†We took advantage of a sale being offered and, for some reason, it was cheaper to pay in pounds. ¬†Also, when you sail on Hebridean, absolutely EVERYTHING is included, unless you buy something from the gift shop. ¬†Once you pay your fare, that’s it. ¬†They don’t even ask you for a credit card when you board.

Booze is included. ¬†Excursions are included. ¬†Entry fees to museums and parks are included. ¬†There is no tipping at all. ¬†Transportation is also included. ¬†So yeah… it seems like a lot of money, but having sailed with them before, I know it’s worth it. ¬†And there are only 49 or 50 people sailing at a time.

Still… for many years, the idea of us doing a cruise this expensive was out of the question. ¬†It hurts to drop four figures on a vacation. ¬†And I still need dental implant surgery. ¬†So yeah… ¬†ouch.

But this is so worth the money… ¬†I can’t wait. ¬†Scotland is one of my favorite places in the world.

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SeaDream’s turnover…

I probably shouldn’t blog about this because I’m definitely not “in the know”…

Over the past year or so, there has apparently been quite a bit of turnover at SeaDream Yacht Club.  The UK Director of Sales who worked for the company for years left in January of this year, as Pam Conover, former big wig for Seabourn took over.

On our cruise in May, there was a new cruise director named Nat Green aboard. ¬†Bill and I got to meet him and really enjoyed him. ¬†But then this morning, someone on Cruise Critic said Nat was “long gone”. ¬†Our cruise was only a few months ago and Nat was new then, so it makes me wonder what happened if he’s really already “long gone”. ¬†He seemed excited to be onboard and had told us about some big plans. ¬†Other people who had met him seemed to like him a lot. ¬†So if he left, I wonder why…

One of our favorite waiters “jumped ship” and moved on to Seabourn, while a few others now work for Azamara.

And then there’s been the complaining about kids on the ships as prices have gone downhill. ¬†I don’t know what’s going on at SeaDream, but it’s troubling. ¬†Bill and I have enjoyed all three cruises with them, regardless. ¬†I sure hate to see such a nice cruise line go downhill.

As for our upcoming travel plans, they haven’t really been settled yet. ¬†I think we’ll probably go to Europe again, though. ¬†I don’t know where or exactly when. ¬†Right now, we’re just trying to deal with all the government shutdown business and my dental woes.

Speaking of Seabourn, I would like to try them at some point… they definitely have nicer prices than SeaDream has. ¬†On the other hand, I love SeaDream’s staff… those who haven’t jumped ship, that is.

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