CRUISING…. When Your Ship Is Your “Destination!”

By Robyn Bushong

The stunning new 750-guest Seven Seas Explorer - anchored in the harbor of Cayo Levantado, Dominican Republic
The stunning new 750-guest Seven Seas Explorer – anchored in the harbor of Cayo Levantado, Dominican Republic (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

How do we define the word DESTINATION?  One definition is “the place to which a person travels.” Another definition is “an attraction or event that people are willing to travel a long distance to get to – either because it is very good or distinctive or located in a popular and interesting place.” Another definition – as provided by the travel industry – is “a hotel or resort that guests seek out for its features and amenities.”

Having returned recently from one of the best cruises – ever… I can honestly say that the new 750-guest Regent Seven Seas Explorer is truly a “destination” unto itself!

Ed Hill and I booked this cruise over a year and a half ago. We chose the ship – because it’s brand new (launched in July 2016.)  We chose the itinerary – round trip Miami – because it was an easy  2 1/2 hour, non-stop flight – Houston/Miami, and we were also eager to experience and enjoy a new ship all “decked out” for the holidays.  Many of the guests were multi-generational families traveling together for the holidays  – such as grandparents, parents, children, aunts/uncles, cousins and family friends – with children ranging in age from toddlers through teens. Many of the guests were from Europe (Spain, France and Great Britain), as well as from other countries throughout the world. Needless to say, the ship sailed at 100% capacity.

It’s important to note that all Regent Sevens Seas’ ships (and there are four: Seven Seas Mariner, Seven Seas Navigator, Seven Seas Voyager and now the new Seven Seas Explorer) are all-inclusive. “All-inclusive” aboard a Regent Seven Seas’ vessel means that beverages (to include wines and spirits, specialty coffees, beer, soft drinks), in-suite mini-bar stocked with your favorite beverages, all specialty dining venues, shore excursions, gratuities, port charges/taxes, round trip economy air,  ground transportation to/from airport and the ship for air-sea guests, and more…are ALL INCLUSIVE in your fare. And depending on stateroom category,  a pre-cruise, one-night hotel accommodation in your city of embarkation and complimentary on board WiFi – may also be inclusive.)

Our 10-day itinerary showcased such historic and popular ports as Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; Gustavia,St. Barts; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; Cayo Leventado, Dominican Republic; and  Nassau, Bahamas, plus two sea days.

After the mandatory/compulsory Life Boat Drill, Ed and I returned to our stateroom for a glass of champagne  and a toast to the wonderful opportunity to enjoy the next ten days together on this beautiful ship.

We very quickly got our bearings and set our priorities as to what we wanted/hoped to accomplish on this 10-day holiday cruise getaway. Ed’s goal: read and rest and walk around in each port. My goal: work out in the gym every day, get a minimum 3 miles in every day on Deck 12 (weather permitting); eat healthy (well… with maybe just a little “extra” champagne to celebrate the season!), read and rest. We both needed “down” time and to have the opportunity for some much-needed R&R.  Not a doubt in my mind:  This ship was to be my “destination” for the next 10 days!  Let the cruise begin!

We enjoyed a lovely and spacious accommodation, with an equally spacious balcony. We chose a stateroom in the center of Deck 9 – all the way forward. There were just three staterooms on Deck 9 far forward, and our balcony was totally private, as the balconies for the accommodations on either side of ours opened either to the port side or starboard side. It was a perfect location.

Ed and I enjoyed many beautiful vistas from our lovely balcony. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Ed and I enjoyed many beautiful vistas  each day from our spacious balcony. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to the cruise cruise, we  made dinner reservations in each of the specialty dining rooms (Asian – Pacific Rim,  Surf/Turf – Prime 7, French – Chartreuse, and Italian –Sette Mari.) Note: Sette Mari  does not require reservations.) By far, our favorite specialty dining restaurant for dinner was Pacific Rim; Prime 7 – our favorite for lunch. Our first evening’s reservation was in Chartreuse. Described as a venue featuring a “classic French menu with a modern twist,” the food and ambiance were very nice.

And as we walked through the ship after dinner, you could feel the excitement building for Christmas and Hanukkah! The decorations were stunning – from a beautifully-decorated giant Christmas tree -prominently positioned at the base of the dramatic circular staircase between deck 4 and 5 – to fresh poinsettias gracing each public area throughout the ship.

The ship was beautifully decorated for the holidays with this giant Christmas tree the focal point in the ship's atrium. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
The ship was beautifully decorated for the holidays with this giant Christmas tree the focal point in the ship’s atrium. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Giant red poinsettias accented the public areas throughout the ship. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Giant red poinsettias accented the public areas throughout the ship. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

As many of us know, cruising has become one of THE most popular ways to vacation – and it’s a vacation that can appeal to – and appease – every member of your family/travel group.  When the ship promotes “there’s something for everyone at every age to enjoy on board”, or “there’s so many programs, activities, classes and entertainment options on board, you can’t possibly do it all in one day” – it’s true.  And that doesn’t count the diverse and fun shore excursion options from which you can choose to sign up for in each port!  On our ship, daily activities ranged from Ballroom Basics, a Blackjack Tournament and Boot Camp, to informative Smithsonian Lectures highlighting each upcoming port of call, “Top Toss for Youngsters” and Bingo! (played when at sea.)

For us – in keeping with “our ship is our destination” theme – we chose no shore excursions and we opted to watch movies in our stateroom as versus go to the evening’s live entertainment in the Constellation Theatre. (However, after hearing so many positive and enthusiastic comments from our “neighbors” next door and from “new” friends we met when we first came on board about the excellent and fun shows each evening, we realized we missed some great entertainment.)

Even though we didn’t take advantage of the evening’s shows, we  did take full advantage of the beautiful Canyon Ranch Spa – and their exceptional services and treatments. Plus, I thoroughly enjoyed working out in the very large gym on Deck 6-Aft – complete with three fully-equipped rooms (including a special area for yoga/pilates and/or spin classes) that all overlooked the sparkling blue ocean water below.

For cultural enrichment – specifically “culinary” enrichment – we signed up in advance for two of their awesome culinary classes: Gone Fishing and At Home Italian. First, we need to share with you the exceptional Culinary Arts Kitchen – which truly provides its 24 participants with “all the ingredients to expand your culinary skills in a welcoming environment reminiscent of the most prestigious cooking schools in the world in both layout and design.”  In addition, the “culinary workstations are fully equipped with top-of-the-line induction cooktops, stainless steel sinks and a comprehensive collection of cooking essentials.” And, indeed “the curriculum will appeal to a wide range of tastes and cater to all levels of aptitude – from beginner to experienced chef instructors.”  Our instructor, Annie Copps, was not only a highly-trained chef and excellent instructor, but she had considerable experience as a chef preparing dishes in front of a television camera, as a radio talk show host, as an author, and as a food columnist for various newspapers and magazines. Ed and I both like to cook, grill and bake and we thoroughly enjoyed each of the almost 2-hour classes that we took.

Culinary Arts Instructor, Annie Copps. with Ed Hill and me during our "Gone Fishing" culinary class. So much fun and we learned alot!
Culinary Arts Instructor, Annie Copps, with Ed Hill and me during our “Gone Fishing” culinary class. So much fun and we learned alot!

Our first class was “Gone Fishing.”  We learned how to saute, shallow poach, deep poach, and pan fry fish and shrimp; make ceviche, and pan-fry scallops to a “golden brown.”  Having a glass of white wine during our class only enhanced the fun and conversation all of us were enjoying.

Ed is pictured here searing scallops. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Ed is pictured here searing scallops. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

A couple of days later, we took the “At Home Italian” class. We learned how to make pasta – from scratch!  And for someone who was overwhelmed with just the thought of making pasta – it really was easy! We learned how to buy, store and cook with extra virgin olive oil and we also learned that you should not add olive oil to your cooked pasta if you plan to add a sauce – as the sauce will not stick to the pasta if olive oil has been added. Other class options ranged from “Everything French”  and “Light My Fire” to “Brunch Favorites”and “Healthy Greek.”   These culinary classes are highly recommended.

As mentioned before, we had a port every day, with the exception of two sea days – one on each end of the cruise. In each port, with the exception of San Juan, Ed and I debarked and just strolled around the town for an hour or so – just to say we’d “been there.” Gustavia, St. Barts was by far the classiest, prettiest and most upscale Caribbean port we visited. The variety of activities and local vendors on the beach in Cayo Levantado (Dominican Republic) were the most interesting; while the port of Nassau, Bahamas was the most fun. We had lunch/drinks at a packed open-air bar/restaurant near the cruise terminal.  It was great fun sitting at the bar people-watching and listening to live music for a couple of hours.

 

The harbor of Gustavia, St. Barts where we anchored. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
The harbor of Gustavia, St. Barts. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Of course, the onboard highlight for us was the Christmas celebration. Beginning Christmas Eve afternoon, activities included the “popcorn” movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” followed by Christmas Caroling in the Atrium/Deck 4 before dinner. A Hanukkah service, a special late-evening Christmas Carol concert and a Midnight non-denominational Christmas service rounded out the activities and programs for Christmas Eve.

Caroling on Christmas Eve was a delight - as both staff members and guests participated. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Caroling on Christmas Eve was a delight – as both staff members and guests participated. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Christmas Day began with a delightful “Christmas Caviar & Champagne Breakfast.” Another “popcorn” Christmas movie (“Elf”) was followed with afternoon tea featuring Christmas caroling and Christmas Teatime Trivia. Next, a late-afternoon non-denominational Christmas Day service and Lighting of the Menorah concluded the afternoon’s program. At 6pm, Santa’s “extra special visit” that included bringing gifts for all youngsters (under 12) was especially fun and festive. And for those who still wanted to celebrate, a late-evening “Christmas Karaoke” capped the ship’s holiday entertainment options in the Explorer Lounge.

Children of all ages enjoyed the special Christmas festivities.
Children of all ages enjoyed the special Christmas festivities. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Monday, December 26th was a much-needed day at sea and a chance for everyone to wind-down from a festive and busy weekend.

Tuesday was our last port of call – Nassau, Bahamas – and the realization that Wednesday morning we would say our farewells to everyone we’d met on board.  As we stood on our balcony for the last time Tuesday evening, we reminded each other of the stunning sunrises and sunsets and the beautiful “views” we experienced as we sailed into and out of a port almost everyday. Each view was comprised of luxurious yachts and sail boats anchored in calm, sparkling, clear aquamarine waters – all with a backdrop of white sand beaches dotted with brightly-painted homes and buildings along the shore line. Each morning we experienced a picture-perfect, postcard vista as we sailed into a new port and watched the sun sparkle off the clear blue ocean waters.

Colorful buildings and houses along the shoreline made for a great site every morning. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Colorful homes and buildings nestled along the shoreline made for a great views from our balcony. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Calm blue waters and colorful buildings and houses offered a delightful vista each morning from our balcony. ( photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Large and small yachts and boats dotted the harbor of each port we visited.  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Wednesday morning, following an early breakfast, we debarked and took a short 20-minute motor coach ride to the airport followed by an easy 2 1/2 hour United flight from Miami to IAH.  We were met at the airport and enjoyed a quick one-hour and 10-minute -drive to Galveston.  We are happy to be back on Galveston Island and home – rested and relaxed.

This truly was an incredibly pleasant 10-day cruise. With the theme Cruising… When Your Ship Is Your “Destination”…. this was – for us – the perfect ship and the perfect itinerary!

FOOTNOTES….

For more information about the new Seven Seas Explorer (or for specific information about Regent Seven Seas’ other fine ships, call your travel professional or visit  www.rssc.com.

Again, we booked with Fox Travel American Express in The Woodlands (Houston),Texas. Debbie Parker, our Travel Counselor, is highly-professional and knowledgeable and does an excellent job with the arrangements. Contact information: debbie@foxtravel.net; or call 281.363.0808.

Our ground transportation was again provided by Perry Corbo – a very professional gentleman and excellent driver who offers a superb staff and a variety of transportation services to meet – and exceed – your expectations.   His company is Parkway Transportation in Houston. Email:parkwaytrans1@gmail.com;  contact – 832.659.8365.

Another recommendation… if you and your family are considering a multi-generational family vacation and are considering a Holiday Cruise – now is the time to start thinking about your holiday plans for 2017.  It’s not too early!  As you plan, be sure that the ship you choose does offer something for EVERY member of your family – so that ALL of you will come home with “memories to last a lifetime.”

If some of your family with whom you’ll be traveling on this special holiday vacation are new to cruising – consider an itinerary that calls on a port every day (or at least most every day.)  That way everyone should feel comfortable about the itinerary, shore excursions options, as well as on-board activity options.

 

 

 

 

HAUTE…But Oh, So Cool!

 

Svalbard, Norway – An Arctic Adventure Aboard Silversea Cruises’ Silver Explorer –

June 23- July 3, 2016

By Robyn R Bushong

Silversea Cruises' Silver Explorer - Svalbard, Norway (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Silversea Cruises’ Silver Explorer – Svalbard, Norway (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

 

With such intriguing headlines as “Add Ice to Your Bucket”, “Remote Wonders Revealed”, “Edges of the Earth”, “Polar Precision”, or “Taking Comfort to Remote Places It’s Never Been Before”, my dear friend and neighbor, Dorothy Trevino, and I really had no idea what to expect when we decided over a year before to book an expedition cruise to this truly remote part of the world. Sailing aboard  Silversea Cruises’ 132-guest Silver Explorer Expedition Cruise ship, we departed Tromso, Norway, June 23rd on a cold, rainy and foggy afternoon. (Just to give you an idea where Tromso is – it’s over 700 miles north of Oslo, Norway and resembles the Alaskan towns of Ketchikan or Juneau.) Ten amazing and incredible days later…we debarked in Longyearbyen, Norway – a small, remote community that is just a few hundred miles from the North Pole!

Dorothy Trevino (left)and I at "the top of the world"!
Dorothy Trevino (left)and I at “the top of the world”!

Including us, there were 97 guests on board – from all over the world: Great Britain, Australia, Austria, Germany, South Africa, Spain, China, Belgium, Colombia and Switzerland.  Average age was mid 60s, with several families traveling together.  Our group was comprised of experienced cruisers ( many of whom had sailed with Silversea Cruises on an expedition itinerary in Antarctica and/or The Galapagos.)

The ship sailed with 115 crew – so on our itinerary, the ratio was more than 1:1. Our stateroom was small – but very comfortable and with exceptional amenities. There were two areas of the ship that attracted the most attention and the best attendance: The dining room (for breakfast, lunch and dinner – unless you opted for room service) and the theatre where all the lectures and briefings were held each afternoon/evening. There is no casino, no shows, no movie theatre – no entertainment except for one gentleman who played background music in the dining room and bar area each afternoon and evening.

From our first daily briefing of what was to be our itinerary/plan for the next day, we learned very quickly that the keyword was “Flexibility” as weather conditions could change on a dime and polar bear sightings on land meant we couldn’t be on the same turf at the same time with the bear. In other words, our expedition team was not only responsible for protecting us from the polar bears, but for protecting the polar bears from us.  This 15-member Expedition Team was an amazing group of gentlemen and ladies who were incredibly smart, funny, interesting, and very professional – such as our expedition leader, Juan, a geologist from Colombia; Robin, a Harvard-educated marine biologist from Boston who was the marine biology lecturer and also zodiac driver; and our birding expert, Simon – a middle-aged, self-taught Brit who gave up a career in banking  to start a new career from his hobby of ornithology. We learned so much from this group of wildlife experts. And there’s no doubt: This team loves what they do!

Now… let this amazing expedition adventure begin!  Dorothy and I quickly discovered that we probably burned at least 500 calories each morning just getting into our gear that included two sets of long underwear, ski/rain-proof pants,  heavy pair of sox, down jacket, rain-proof parka, wool hat, extra head gear for ears, glove liners, gloves, neck gaiter, life jacket and backpack with camera equipment, plus our very heavy water-proof boots. We needed every bit of our cold-weather gear – as the temps throughout the expedition averaged between 31- 37 degrees F. and daylight 24-hours a day.

Getting into our gear every morning was a "laugh-out-loud" routine! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Getting into our gear every morning was a “laugh-out-loud” routine! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

First, a brief “recap” of Svalbard – our destination for the next ten days. Svalbard is defined as an archipelago in the Arctic. About one and a half times the size of Denmark, the entire region has a total population of only about 2,500 people –most of whom live in Longyearbyen -aka “Svalbard’s Administrative Centre.” Located in the northernmost part of Norway, this group of islands is midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds and also such mammals as polar bear, reindeer, and marine mammals (walrus and seal.) (Note: humpback whale are often spotted in these waters, however, they don’t breed here – only come to feed.) Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago thus protecting the largely untouched – yet fragile – landscape. Sixty percent of the archipelago is comprised of glaciers, with the islands showcasing stunning mountains and fjords. The management arm of this region that controls tourism is the Association for Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators. AECO is “dedicated to managing responsible, environmentally friendly and safe tourism in the Arctic and strive to set the highest possible operating standards.”

As we came towards Bear Island - on our first excursion, we realized the islands were "rich" with birds - such as the guillemot.
As we came towards Bear Island – on our first excursion, we realized the islands were “rich” with birds – such as the interesting Common Guillemot. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Our first excursion via zodiac (a zodiac is a sturdy, inflatable rubber boat powered by an out-board motor) was a two-hour tour of Bear Island. Truly an oxymoron, as the island  – not known as a permanent residence for  polar bear – acquired its name because the two men who founded the land mass in 1596 saw a polar bear swimming nearby – hence the name. Rock formations here date back to 400 million years! The island is rich with birds: Guillemot, Puffin, Fulmar, Black-legged-Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull and other beautiful seabirds.

Our next day’s excursion was a wet-landing and a delightful hike on tundra – with stunningly-beautiful flowers. What started as a cold, foggy day with low-hanging clouds quickly “brightened” when we encountered an arctic fox – a small, inquisitive creature (average weight only 5 1/2 – 11 pounds) that adapts to the changing seasons. In winter, the fox is snow white to blend with the snow; in summer, his fur changes to a brown/gray and he blends into the mountainside and tundra. The arctic fox has furry soles, short ears and a short muzzle – all very important adaptations to survive the brutal winters. His most valuable asset in winter: his bushy tail that he wraps completely over his head/ears to stay warm.

How exciting to see an arctic fox! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
How exciting to see an arctic fox! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

The next couple of days were very foggy and prevented us from any landings – as the scouts – i.e. bear guards were not able to spot polar bear in the fog. Practicing “flexibility”, we toured the islands via zodiacs and had great luck in spotting reindeer! (The Svalbard reindeer are short-legged and relatively small, with a rounded head. Their diet consists of almost all types of vegetation and the deer depend on the summer’s lush vegetation to sustain them during the harsh winters. Starvation is the most common cause of mortality.)

As you can see, the Svalbard reindeer is short-legged and relatively small. But how exciting to get to see these marvelous creatures "in person." (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
The Svalbard reindeer is short-legged and relatively small. How fortunate we were to see these marvelous creatures “in person.” (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Next day, another hike – and I mean hike!  By the time we got to the top of the mountain, we were soaked in perspiration – even though the temperature was only mid-30s F. The tundra was dotted in beautiful flora – such as purple or white saxifrage, yellow buttercup, and polar willow.

Purple saxifrage - an edible plant found in high areas of the Arctic. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Purple saxifrage – an edible plant found in high areas of the Arctic. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

For Wednesday, June 28th, we had to stay on board because of the fog. The itinerary was changed twice and you could tell the Expedition Team was getting very anxious that we might NOT see polar bear – one of the main reasons people choose this itinerary. Finally in late afternoon, the fog started to lift – just enough – that we were able to board our zodiacs and look for walrus. We “saw”walrus – from a great distance – but not close enough for good photos. After 2 1/2 hours of searching for wildlife, we returned to the ship – cold, wet and ready for a hot shower and a cold cocktail before our evening entertainment of the daily briefing and a delightful 2-hour, multi-course dinner.

Thursday, June 29th began with a ship-wide P.A. announcement at 6.30 AM that “polar bear had been spotted” and that we would start loading into the zodiacs in 30 minutes! Dorothy and I were very fortunate to be in the same zodiac with Juan, our expedition leader. What an outing this was!  The sun was out. The scenery was spectacular. Sun glistening on the glaciers and snow-capped mountains that merged with the calm blue ocean water. Absolutely the most beautiful sight- ever.

This group of walrus (known as a "herd"), enjoy the warm sunshine. Walrus are common in this Arctic region and reach weights in excess of 3,000 lbs. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
This group of walrus (known as a “herd”), enjoy the warm sunshine. Walrus are common in this Arctic region and reach weights in excess of 3,000 lbs. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

First, we spotted herds of giant walrus – lounging on rocks and rocky shoreline as we headed towards the other side of the island looking for bear. And there they were: TWO magnificent polar bears  – both young males. One was lounging in the snow and soaking up the sun; the other “dining” on a recent kill of seal -the polar bear’s favorite entrée.  (Polar bears in this region seem to be holding their own, and in some years have increased in numbers as versus polar bears living in other regions of the Arctic.) Males can weigh up to 1,300 lbs., stand up to ten feet tall and have paws that are 12 inches in diameter. Polar bear can smell seal up to 20 miles away and these bears can swim up to 3,800 miles a year.)

The Expedition Team "scout" each proposed landing site in advance of our boarding the zodiacs. IF the "all clear" signal is given, then expedition staff members - aka "bear guards" are posted at strategic locations around the site where we will hiking and exploring - to ensure our safety, as well as the bear's.(Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
The Expedition Team “scout” each proposed landing site in advance of our boarding the zodiacs. IF the “all clear” signal is given, then expedition staff members – aka “bear guards” will be posted at strategic locations around the site where we will be hiking and exploring – to ensure our safety, as well as the bear’s.(Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
THE most exciting day of our expedition - getting to see and photograph polar bear! - and all photographed from the safety of our zodiacs off shore. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
THE most exciting day of our expedition – getting to see and photograph a polar bear! – and all photographed from the safety of our zodiacs off shore. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Let the photo shoot begin!  Our group was taking photos of the two bears with everything from a cell phone to professional photographers utilizing tripods and lens three-feet long. It was just such an amazing and an incredible, incredible sight!  As we started heading  back “home” to our ship, Juan said  “I feel like 500 pounds have  just been lifted off my shoulders.” Twenty miles and three hours later, we returned to the ship at 10am – cold, hungry and so, so thrilled with the incredible sights we had just seen. (And it’s interesting to note – that just like an African safari where all the drivers communicate with one another about sightings of the Big 5 – all the zodiac captains were doing the same thing – giving coordinates and land marks as to where the bears were located.) Indeed,  it was all downhill from here… We saw THE bear!

Next, as we “coasted” on the morning’s adventure, our ship headed toward the Polar Ice Cap. Soon, we were experiencing – firsthand – what it was like to sail aboard an “ice breaker” vessel.  The ice formations and colors – like a kaleidoscope – hard to describe, it was so spectacular.

Just one of the many stunning ice formations we passed through enroute to the Polar Ice Cap. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Just one of the many stunning ice formations we passed through enroute to the Polar Ice Cap. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Our mode of transportation as we viewed the incredible scenery and vistas of Svalbard, Norway. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Our mode of transportation as we viewed the incredible scenery and vistas of Svalbard, Norway. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
It seemed like there were a "million birds" on this island. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
It seemed like there were a “million birds” on this island. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Two more excursions to go: this afternoon, a “must see” bird cliff of  “a million birds” (well, maybe slight exaggeration) and, then on our last day… a hike on the 14th of July Glacier. On Saturday, our last full day, we anchored early that  morning in  Ny Alesund.  A very small outpost community, the town is comprised of mostly foreign scientists. Located at the 79th parallel, it is recognized as “the northernmost town in the world!” After buying souvenirs – from the only store/port on the entire itinerary – we headed for the 14th of July Glacier (Bastile Day Glacier) for a 3 km hike.

Our final hike was almost 3 km straight up the 14th of July Glacier ( Bastille Day Glacier.) Many of our group standing on the ice after the descent. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Our final hike  was almost 3 km straight up/down the 14th of July Glacier ( Bastille Day Glacier.) Some of our group pictured here “resting”  on the ice after the descent. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Accented with very narrow, rocky passages and steep climbs up to the top of the glacier followed then by a steep descent to the ice, it was challenging.  Plus, the temperature that day got up to almost 50 degrees F. so you were hot wearing all your gear.  Again, the vistas were indescribably beautiful as clear, pristine air enhanced our view of glacier ice touching calm blue waters and all surrounded by mountains that jutted straight up – seemingly for miles – until disappearing into the clouds.

Dinner this evening was bittersweet. It would be great to get back home, but we were leaving behind one of THE most beautiful – truly beautiful – parts of the world. Everyone we visited with the last night all seemed to express the same feeling – a feeling of gratitude and appreciation for having  had this incredible chance to see and experience and enjoy such a pristine and pure part of this world – a part of our world  that not many people would ever have the fortunate chance to see and explore.  Dorothy and I were truly grateful for this opportunity.

The next morning, we debarked – via zodiac – in Longyearbyen for our charter flight back to Oslo. We overnighted in Oslo at the airport Radisson Hotel on Sunday, July 3rd.  We departed  the next morning around noon (Norway time) and arrived back in the USA and Houston/Galveston that evening -on the 4th of July!

Indeed, each of these intriguing and enticing headlines: “Add Ice to Your Bucket”, “Remote Wonders Revealed”, “Edges of the Earth”,  “Polar Precision”, or “Taking Comfort to Remote Places It’s Never Been Before” truly and authentically described our Arctic Adventure in this remote archipelago of Svalbard, Norway! To say that this expedition cruise aboard the Silver Explorer was a “trip of a lifetime”… is definitely an understatement. Highly recommended!

 

Footnotes: For more information about Silversea Cruises and the Silver Explorer’s itineraries, contact your travel professional or visit www.silversea.com/destinations/arcticcruise. Dorothy and I booked our cruise through Fox Travel/American Express, The Woodlands (Houston), Texas. Our cruise planner was Debbie Parker, a very knowledgeable and professional individual who provided us excellent service.

It’s also very important that you have the proper gear. Everything we took, we wore. Silversea provides an excellent outline of what you need – including special waterproof boots (that are almost knee high and rugged.)  You can not do this itinerary without the boots. One important thing I learned, however… should your luggage be lost – the boutique shop onboard Silver Explorer should have everything you’ll need for cold-weather gear so that you can participate in the daily expeditions. In addition, most likely, you would be able to “borrow” a pair of boots, as many departing guests choose to leave their heavy boots for future guests, as versus lugging them back home. The reason I’m sharing this with you, is that my one checked bag was delayed between Frankfurt and Oslo. And we weren’t sure IF it would arrive before we flew the next morning to Tromso. (And since there are NO ports of call on this itinerary until the last day, there’s no opportunity for your luggage to catch up to you.)  Just know that you should have a chance to replace what you need in the ship’s boutique in the event you have to sail without your luggage.

 

 

 

NORTH to Alaska… Aboard Regent Seven Seas Navigator

North to Alaska... and our Last Frontier!
North to Alaska… and our Last Frontier!

NORTH to Alaska… The Last Frontier… aboard the casually- elegant – but very classy… 490-guest Regent Seven Seas Navigator.  We planned this itinerary during the spring “shoulder” season (of mid/late May)to Alaska – to take advantage of fewer visitors in port; fewer ships in port and for a better opportunity to enjoy this magnificent destination without being so crowded everywhere we went.  AND…It was PERFECT!

Ed Hill and I in Vancouver before board the Navigator.
Ed Hill and I in Vancouver – enjoying the historic and charming Gastown (with the district’s ancient Steam Clock in the background.)

Ed Hill, my significant other, had never been to Alaska, and as this was my 4th cruise ( three of which were with Regent Seven Seas), we opted for the north-bound itinerary of Vancouver to Anchorage (Seward.) We enjoyed a delightful overnight stay in Vancouver at The Four Seasons (which was inclusive with our cruise fare). Our visit again to this beautiful city included a fun afternoon strolling the cobble stoned streets of historic Gastown, enjoying a delightful two-hour lunch and people-watching, and seeing the famous steam clock “blow” on the hour at 5pm.  Tourism in Vancouver is very good. Every shopkeeper with whom we spoke – said business had been “terrific.”   And the weather could not have been more beautiful – mid 60s, light breeze and sunny.

The next morning, we walked to the pier (about 10 minutes from the hotel) to get our bearings. Came back and got our carry-on bags and swiftly and efficiently proceeded through RSSC’s embarkation and were on the Navigator in about 30 minutes. Another absolutely gorgeous day in Canada and we are so excited to be on board.   First, we met with our butler, Zahid  ( a native of India) and enjoyed a “welcome” glass of champagne before embarking on a quick tour of the ship.  We both agreed: What a grand itinerary we had ahead!  Time tor relax and enjoy room service dinner our first night on board and to watch a movie.

Thursday was a sea day and we started with massages, then Bingo, then naps and concluded our relaxing day at sea with dinner in their Italian restaurant – Sette Mari at La Veranda. (This venue serves buffet breakfast and lunch and then converts to the Italian restaurant each evening and offers an exceptional menu, ambiance and service.)  Indeed, this first day was the perfect definition of “vacation.”

The gym on top deck ( Deck 12) is small but well furnished. A variety of classes – stretch, tone, spin, yoga – are offered in one room, cardio equipment, free weights and machines in the other. The Canyon Ranch Spa is adjacent to the gym/fitness area.  The spa services were absolutely superb.  We enjoyed deep tissue massages and I also enjoyed a manicure/pedicure.  The staff is excellent, attentive, and very professional.  Truly one of the best massages and pedicures I’ve ever enjoyed.

We are on Deck 10 – the best deck as far as we were concerned:  The Pool Grill, The Veranda/Sette Mari  and also Prime 7 (specialty dining venue) – all located on Deck 10. We have a lovely balcony and the scenery is spectacular!

Friday started with a brisk 3- mile walk around the deck and gym work out.  Then we headed into Ketchikan – our first port – to do sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Once known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Ketchikan today settles for the title of “First City.”

Ketchikan.... Our first port of call.
Ketchikan…. Our first port of call.

Although several miles long, the town is only 10 blocks wide and centers on its main drag – Tongass Avenue. Founded as a cannery site in 1885, Ketchikan’s mainstay for most of its existence was salmon, then timber when a huge Pulp Mill was built in in the mid 1950s. The name Ketchikan is a native term “Katch Kanna”  – which loosely translated means “spread wings of a thundering eagle.”  Even though commercial fishing industry generates almost 1/3 of the income for the local economy – it is definitely tourism that’s bringing in the money.  In speaking with several local merchants – IF the business is family-owned, it stays open year around.  For example at this huge, multi-level retail store –just steps from our ship – where you could purchase everything from quality clothing and souvenirs to grocery items and over-the-counter medicines, the “season” is roughly early May to late September. Then the store converts to Christmas decorations, etc through the holidays  before starting up again in Spring stocking merchandise for the next round of visitors.  (And there are days during high season where 6 ships could be in port at the same time.)  After all the shopping, we needed a refreshment  – and wandered through town till we found a local bar.  Our bartender told us that her bar also stayed open year round as it was “family-owned.”   Once back on board…Another relaxing evening ahead:  Room service served from the main dining room – Compass Rose – and more movies to watch as we sail to our next port.

We were up early on Saturday morning, May 23rd – for our first excursion.  (Just to regress a bit…Since Ed had not been to Alaska before, he asked that I select the Excursions.  One of the nicest perks – and there are many!! – to sailing with Regent Seven Seas is that there are so many wonderful, exciting excursions offered that are totally free of charge!   We did, however, opt for a special excursion in Wrangell and again in Juneau – but more about Juneau next.)

First a brief “overview ” of Wrangell.  Strategically located near the mouth of the Stikine River, Wrangell is one of the oldest towns in Alaska and the only town to have existed under three flags and ruled by four nations: Tlingit, Russia, Britain, and America. The Tlingit people and their ancestors inhabited this area for thousands of years and migrated down the Stikine River during a time when the river still flowed under glaciers!  Wrangell itself was founded by Russians  – who began trading furs with the Tlingit in 1811 – as one of “the oldest non-Native settlements in Alaska.”

The spectacular scenery... breathtaking!
The spectacular scenery… breathtaking!
One of many magnificent waterfalls - up close and personal - from our jet boat on the Stikine River and Glacier Lake.
One of many magnificent waterfalls – up close and personal – from our jet boat on the Stikine River and Glacier Lake.

Our excursion was the “Stikine River & Glacier Lake by Jet Boat.”   For almost 4 hours ( from 8am till about noon), we  sped along the river and the lake and viewed many soaring eagles, a beaver’s dam and took photos of waterfalls, sky-blue giant chunks ice that had broken free of the glaciers and viewed gorgeous snow-covered mountains  – all as a back drop to the stunning scenes on the water.  There were three jet boats on this early morning excursion (we boarded at the pier where our ship was docked), with a total of six of us in Becky’s boat. (Becky was not only an Alaskan native, but an accomplished fifth -generation boat captain, and she was also a very well known local artist.  The reason we knew there were a total of 3 boats in our group is that Ed and I ended up on all three.  Becky had engine trouble about half-way through our excursion and we were “rescued” by another boat.  Then after about 15 minutes on that boat, we were transferred to a third boat to conclude our excursion.  The tour concluded with all of us enjoying a delightful wine and cheese and smoked salmon tasting before we returned to the dock. This tour: Highly recommended!

Lunch today was in The Compass Rose – ( Deck 5) in addition to providing exceptional service, a varied and extensive and quality menu, this venue offers single, open seating dining without reservations. The menu features daily specials, Canyon Ranch health-conscious options, vegetarian dishes and local specialties ( e.g. Alaskan salmon and halibut.)  Reservations not accepted – first come/first served.   Come early and get a window table.  Very nice (and romantic…)

And dinner this evening…. Prime 7.  We shared a table with two other couples who were both celebrating anniversaries – 5th and 15th.  It seemed we all had a story to tell –  especially since it was the first marriage for the 5th anniversary couple, second marriage each for the couple celebrating their 15th anniversary, and for Ed and  me – since we had both lost our spouses several years ago – we shared funny stories about how we met (7 mutual friends had set up our “blind date”)  and how at “our age” in our late 60s – we had both become very set in our ways. All in all…great conversation, lots of laughter and lots of toasts all around.

On Sunday morning, following a brisk, cold and windy( emphasis on “cold and windy”) walk on deck while our ship cruised the icy waters near the spectacular Tracy Arm (a fjord), we prepared for our second excursion from Juneau that afternoon:  “Taku Glacier Lodge Flight & Feast.”

But first… a bit of background about Juneau.  Known as a “capital of contrasts and conflicts”, Juneau borders a waterway that never freezes but lies beneath an ice field that never melts.  It is the state capital – “but since the 1980s, Alaskans have been trying to move it. Juneau doesn’t have any roads that go anywhere, yet half of its residents and its mayor opposed a plan to build one that would.” As the state’s first major gold strike and the first town to be founded after Alaska’s purchase from the Russians, Juneau became the territorial capital in 1906.  Known for its superb hiking, Juneau also is the departure point for numerous wilderness attractions – including paddling “paradises” at Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Wilderness Area and Admiralty Island National Park. The waterfront bustles with cruise ships, fishing boats and float planes. Without a doubt, Juneau is “the most beautiful  city in Alaska and arguably the nation’s most scenic capital. The downtown area clings to a mountainside, while the rest of the city “officially” sprawls some 3,100 square miles to the Canadian border – making it one of the largest cities (area-wise) in the U.S.

Now for our incredible trip to the Taku Glacier Lodge – via float plane.  There were 4 float planes from the ship going to this lodge. Our plane held 10 passengers.  I took so many photos from the plane (each of us had a window seat) -e.g. vistas of snow-capped mountains, glaciers, deep blue ice piercing the waters below – and all spectacularly-beautiful.

Juneau Ice Field from our float plane window.
Juneau Ice Field from our float plane window.
The view of the ascending Taku Glacier from the  fron lawn  of the 1923 Taku Glacier Lodge.
The view of the ascending Taku Glacier from the front lawn of the 1923 Taku Glacier Lodge.

We flew over the Juneau Icefield that stretches more than 1,500 square miles and is home to over 40 large glaciers and 100 small ones.  Of all the glaciers we saw during our flight, the Taku Glacier is the most unique as it is recognized as “the deepest and thickest glacier known in the world!” It is also the largest glacier in the Icefield and it is the ONLY advancing glacier!  After about 20 minutes of incredible sights, we landed at Taku Lodge.

Constructed in 1923, the Taku Glacier Lodge was built by a Juneau physician who used the lodge for hunting and fishing.  Even to this day, supplies are transported from Juneau by river boat or barge and trips have to be timed for passage over the numerous sand bars at high tide. Ownership changed over the years and it wasn’t until 1979 when the current owners decided to share their love of the Taku Glacier Lodge with visitors of Southeast Alaska by offering Wilderness Salmon Bake and Scenic Flights – very similar to what Ed and I enjoyed this beautiful Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend.

One of the Lodge's resident bears
One of the Lodge’s resident bears “Gabi”  came to “dine” on scraps from the grill -left-over from our delicious salmon luncheon.

What an incredible adventure and what an incredible destination.  The highlight of the afternoon – we thought – would be the freshly-grilled salmon and a delicious variety of sides, served with beer and wine.  It was truly the finest grilled salmon we had ever enjoyed. But this fine meal turned out to be the second best part of our adventure on this island.  #1 – the bears!  According to our hosts, there are six resident black bear who “reside ” in the area.  And just as we were finishing lunch, a young black bear (about 6 years old, weighing around 200 lbs, and named “Gabby”) jumped up on the giant grill area and began licking up all the scraps, and marinate/sauce that was used to flavor the salmon.  She was quite the “show”. as we stood maybe 20 feet from her while taking photos.

Taku Glacier Lodge and the warning about the bears!
Taku Glacier Lodge and the warning about the bears!

Whenever Gabby and her mother, “Lois” visit -especially during salmon bakes – the staff move all five of the big yellow, brown and black labs indoors so these friendly canines won’t be tempted to bark and chase the bear.  Following Gabby and Lois’s visit, we all took a nature walk and saw blueberry, strawberry and cranberry bushes.  What a beautiful, peaceful, gorgeous setting.  As Ed and I both agreed:  This is what the “real” Alaska is all about!!  This tour has to be #1 in all of the excursions I’ve ever taken anywhere!!  Simply, the best! Needless to say, we skipped dinner (and watched another movie in our suite that evening.)

Skagway - our last port of call on this wonderful cruise.
Skagway – our last port of call on this marvelous itinerary.

Monday, the 25th was Memorial Day and we docked in Skagway. We didn’t have an excursion planned, so we just opted to enjoy lunch in town and “people-watch.” It was fun.  Skagway is  located at the head of Lynn Canal – and is one of the driest places in an otherwise soggy Southeast part of the state.  As a comparison, Ketchikan averages 154 inches of rainfall annually; Skagway – 26  inches.  Much of Skagway is within the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park – which encompasses downtown Skagway, the Chilkoot Trail, the White Pass Trail corridor and a visitors center. In 1897, Skagway was one of two starting places for the more than 40,000 gold-rush enthusiasts who headed to the Yukon via Chilkoot Trail.

Tuesday was our last day and it was also a sea day. Time to get everything together to debark early Wednesday morning. As I look back on the week – activities that we personally enjoyed the most were the excellent spa services, excellent room service, playing bingo and for me- working out in the gym.  The only “show” we attended was the last evening with the “Krew Kapers.”  Both our stewardess and butler were in the show and it was FUN!!!  We had dinner our last evening in The Compass Rose and it was superb.

Wednesday morning, we debarked the ship around 8am for the 2 1/2 hour motorcoach ride to Anchorage.  It’s only 120 miles – but we took a rest stop enroute and in many areas the maximum speed limit was 45 mph.  The  ship had arranged for about 50 of us to spend the afternoon in a Hospitality Room on the top floor of the Anchorage Hilton. The hotel provided coffee and tea and cookies and plenty of places to plug in a phone or ipad while  we waited to take the short bus ride to the airport.  IF there was a downside to this trip – it was having to fly home from Anchorage.  Even with an air deviation on Delta Airlines to be more accommodating  to our schedule, we still had to fly seven hours all night from Anchorage to Atlanta, then a quick transfer to our Houston Hobby flight Thursday morning. The good thing: We were back in our homes in Galveston before 10am.

Observations:

  • First the level of service… Regardless of where you go onboard – you  will be greeted with a smile filled with warmth. And I am not exaggerating!  We were so impressed with the quality of service and friendly staff.  From our butler, Zahid, to our  housekeeper, Rose Marie – everyone quickly learns your name and your routine.
  • Age of passengers… on this cruise ( since school was not yet out), the average age would have been late 50s – 60s – mostly experienced cruisers and quite active, energetic and interesting people. (When I was on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner six years ago it was end of June – and about 1/2 of the passengers were youngsters traveling with their families and enjoying a multitude of special age-appropriate activities, programs and excursions.)
  • To us the best definition of all-inclusive …is complimentary alcoholic beverages and specialty coffees. How classy to walk into a dining room, bar area or lounge and just order whatever libation you prefer and  know that “it’s included.”
  • Next cruise: Either fly into Anchorage and get that LONG flight out of the way and sail southbound to Vancouver and  then fly home from Vancouver to Houston /Galveston OR, even better: Select a roundtrip Vancouver itinerary.
  • Also, Alaska is on its own time zone: AKDT (Alaska Daylight Time.) So from Houston/Galveston – it’s a 3-hour difference.
  • Dress code on this Alaska sailing was defined as ” Elegant Casual” which meant nice dress; slacks/sweater/jacket for ladies; sports shirt/slacks; jacket optional for gentlemen.  In Prime 7 – most gentlemen wore a jacket and many wore a tie.
  • Throughout the ship, you always felt comfortable, relaxed. It was a great feeling!  Every amenity, service – whatever you wanted/needed – it was there for the asking.
  • I understand that the Navigator will be deployed to The Caribbean starting next year, and that the stunning and spacious 700-guest Seven Seas Mariner will sail the spectacular Alaskan coastlines.

And last, but certainly not least… the quality of service, professionalism, knowledge and attention to detail that Fox Travel’s cruise expert, Debbie Parker, provided us was exceptional.  How fortunate to have had Debbie handle all our arrangements.

I’m so ready to return again to This Great Land… it’s ever changing, yet always beautiful and so peaceful.

The Regent Seven Seas Navigator... this intimate classy ship is itself...a destination.
The Regent Seven Seas Navigator… this intimate classy ship itself was for us …a “destination.”

Our Asian Adventure Concludes… Aboard Crystal Symphony

All of a sudden, during our final sea day while cruising the Yellow Sea, the realization sets in: This incredible11-day cruise is almost over.

On the last day of our “Pearls of China” itinerary we docked in Dalian – Friday, April 18th.  Crystal offered a complimentary shuttle to downtown where we could shop at the Friendship Shopping Center – a 10-story department store that featured literally everything from ice cream to fine jewelry. Cynthia especially made good use of this shopping “stop” as she purchased a fine, 8-piece hand-painted china tea service.  (We decided we’d figure out later how to get it back home to Galveston.)

Once back on board, we got our packing completed, had our final room service dinner and said our “goodbyes” to Rainer. Breakfast, our last morning in The Lido Cafe was sad as we said our “farewells”  to our favorite servers – Nuno,  Derrick, Norman, John-John and others  – who made our cruise so special for us.

Yet now…It’s on to Beijing.   We’re fortunate to be traveling with Pat and Colleen (our Dallas friends who we met early on during the cruise.)  And, we were also fortunate – although we didn’t  know it when we were assigned to Bus #10 – that we had THE best guide and a fun group to share the next three days with as we toured Beijing.  There were 32 of us and we represented not only the US of A, but South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Bolivia, England, Australia and Switzerland.  The consensus: We all really, really loved the cruise and none of us were ready to leave our beautiful “home” at sea.

Altogether, there were 13 motor coaches of Crystal guests who were embarking on this three-day/three -night land package to Beijing.  Our hotel for the next three days would be the China World Hotel Beijing – a 5-star property that is  part of the Shangri-La Hotel Group.  But first, we had a 150-mile journey from the cruise terminal to downtown Beijing.  Enroute, our guide Jason – a native Beijinger – shared some more facts with us about his country that we had not heard before.

  • 65% of the country’s population lives along the east coast of the country.
  • Manufacturing is # 1 industry – silk, agriculture ( rice), porcelain production, tea, and of course – automobiles.
  • Pandas are the national animal.
  • Beijing is recognized as the cultural and political center of China; Shanghai – the industrial and financial center of the country.
  • AND – this is the best… when we (and other foreigners) shake our heads at a decision or action that doesn’t make sense to the western world, The Chinese response is: “CHINA IS CHINA.”  And that essentially ends the conversation.
Cynthia (left) and I on our rickshaw ride through The Hutongs ( alleways) of Old Beijing.
Cynthia (left) and I on our rickshaw ride through The Hutongs ( alleyways) of Old Beijing.

The highlight of today’s tour was a visit to Old Beijing and a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets and alleys  – aka Beijing’s hutongs. Besides the fun rickshaw ride, we were ushered in to a private home for  literally a “glimpse” of a local Chinese family’s way of life. Jason translated for us the introduction by the elderly homeowner who shared with us his profession, family history and why he loved where he lived in Old Beijing.  Soon after that, we headed to our hotel and checked in.

It was impressive to all of us how well organized and efficient Crystal’s check-in process was at the Hotel since 13 motor coaches arrived essentially all at the same time.   Within less than five minutes, we were in and out of the registration area and up to our room, with our luggage there. (Also throughout the three days we were staying at the hotel, Crystal had reps on duty in the lobby to assist us as needed.)

Our second day of touring Beijing began early.  It’s worth noting: The buffet breakfast in the dining room was the most expansive, I have ever seen. The buffet lines were immense and featured at least 75 different food and beverage choices – everything one could imagine ( or not imagine!) for breakfast.  By 8am, we were on Bus #10 with our first stop  the Forbidden City and the home of The Last Emperor.

60,000- 80,000 people a day! visit The Forbidden City. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
60,000- 80,000 people a day! visit The Forbidden City. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Actually home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties,  this giant complex of over 200 acres of pavilions, gardens and courtyards,  is considered “one of the largest and best-preserved palace complexes in the world.”

From there, we went to Tiananmen Square.

Well-guarded and well patrolled, Tiananmen Square, is also well-known for military parades.  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Well-guarded and well-patrolled, Tiananmen Square is the site for military parades, student demonstrations, daily flag-lowering ceremonies, and other events. The Square can hold more than one million people! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Originally built in the mid 1600s , it was enlarged to almost 100 acres in 1958 and can accommodate more than one million people!  For most of us, the most memorable event was the pro-democracy rally in May/June, 1989.  It’s also interesting to note that Jason  told us before we got off the bus, that we were NOT to ask any political questions of him while in the Square as he (as a Chinese citizen) was forbidden by law to discuss what happened and/or to give his opinion.  Before heading back to our hotel, we stopped very briefly for photos at Olympic Park and to see the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube” that were part of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games.

Just one of many exciting performances at The Great Hall of the People - just for our Crystal Cruises group.  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Just one of many exciting performances at The Great Hall of the People – just for our Crystal Cruises group. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

We made a quick trip back to the hotel to shower and change clothes before reboarding Bus # 10  for a private dinner and entertainment at The Great Hall of the People – ONLY for our Crystal Cruises group.  And what an evening it was…. entertainment ran the gamut from opera singers to young Chinese acrobats and all performances were very, very well done. Dinner (served Family Style/Lazy Susan)  was delightful with impeccable service.

Our very last day of our Asian Adventure was Monday, April 21st, and we were heading to The Great Wall. For Cynthia, Pat, Colleen and myself – this was the highlight of this three-day land excursion.  We climbed to the top!  And it wasn’t easy.

We climbed to the top!  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
We climbed to the top! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Young and old... everyone wanted to make it to the top of The Great Wall. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Young and old… everyone wanted to make it to the top of The Great Wall. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
This guard is balancing on on a narrow ledge of The Great Wall as he watches the crowds.  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
This guard is balancing on on a narrow ledge of The Great Wall as he watches the crowds. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Built in the 3rd century B.C. to protect China’s northern border from marauding nomads and “barbarians”, the Wall stretches almost 4,500 miles – east to west – and required the labor of almost 1 million workers to complete! The steps varied in height between 6″ and 18-20″ and at least for the four of us – we held on dearly to the hand rail -both going up and coming down.  As with every place we toured, there were thousands and thousands of visitors.

Our last stop of our three-day/three-night Beijing land tour was the Temple of Heaven – a stunning complex comprised of buildings and gardens, trees and colorful landscaping. Built between 1406 and 1420, this is where the Ming and Qing emperors went to worship Heaven and to pray for a better harvest.  Covering almost 680 acres, this site is considered “one of the best in Beijing  to observe ordinary Chinese at play.”  We observed myriad of people playing card and tile games, line dancing, a karoke singer, individuals playing musical instruments, familes having picnics, as well as other fun examples of the locals simply enjoying a relaxing afternoon with friends and family.

Finally, we head back to our hotel.  Everyone on Bus #10 was exhausted and we ready to get packed and get back home.  The next morning following a leisurely breakfast, we departed for the airport.  Again, we were accompanied by Crystal staff on the shuttle.  Not only that, but we had a Crystal rep with us all the way through check-in at the airport.  A very nice and much-appreciated service as the Beijing airport was huge.

We boarded our Air China flight for a 13 1/2 hour non-stop journey over the North Pole to Houston.  Since we lost a day coming over, we gained our day going home, so essentially landed about the same time/day we departed Beijing. ( Thirteen hour time difference for us.)   We zipped right through customs, got our luggage and headed to Galveston.  We were “home”.  Yes, we were HOME!  As first-time visitors to China, our 17-day Asian Adventure  had been, indeed… an amazing and very interesting adventure!

 

 

A few additional comments and observations…  Dalian is considered a “remote Manchurian seaport” that lies on the shores of the Boi Hai Gulf.  Throughout history, this ice-free port has been a coveted prize for conquerors. Showcasing Chinese, Japanese and Russian architectural styles attest to Dalian’s strategic importance. Although a big city, it has a “small town” feel -more so than any other city we visited. Beautiful beaches, parks and a long-established population of popular folk artists seemed to give the city a more “casual” ambience.  Also, tourism is very important to the economy  here – as evidenced by a contingency of local college students greeting us – and  wearing “Welcome”  Badges – as we got off our shuttle bus at the Friendship Shopping Center.

Would I go back to China and Asia?  ABSOLUTELY!  But only on a cruise.  With Crystal – as I’ve said many times – you’re “home” when you board your ship.  The quality, professionalism and sincere friendliness of the staff, combined with the interesting and exciting onboard enrichment programs; the extensive and diverse options for each port’s shore excursions and the well-planned,  multi-day land excursions offers one an incredible opportunity to see, explore and experience so much of the local culture.  And “all” of this is enhanced by knowing you have your ship to come “home” to after a long and busy day ashore. It’s a wonderful, wonderful way to see the world…. And the difference really is Crystal clear.

 

 

Our Asian Adventure Continues Aboard Crystal Symphony… SHANGHAI!

We have just docked in Shanghai... the largest city in the world!  (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
We have just docked in Shanghai… the largest city in the world! (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Following a delightful Palm Sunday at sea, we docked in Shanghai early Monday morning, April 14th. Situated at the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River – actually situated  in the Yangtze River Delta of East China –  Shanghai is not only the largest Chinese city – it is THE largest city proper in the entire world with a population of almost 24 million. As we stood on our balcony, it was hard to grasp the magnificent vista before us: A  skyline backdrop that went on – seemingly forever – combined with bustling river traffic right below us.  Looking down,  we are mesmerized as the “old” navigated  the waterways of the Huangpu River along with the “new” in an endless flotilla of sampans sailing  side by side with giant tankers, tugs, and barges.

Foggy, hazy view from the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Building - second tallest skycraper in China.  ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Foggy, hazy view of Crystal Symphony from the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Building – second tallest skyscraper in China. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

We had opted for the all-day “Highlights of Shanghai” tour that began with an elevator ride to the 88th floor of the Jim Mao Building (the second tallest building in China.) Standing on the Observation Deck, we had a 360 degree view of the “largest city in the world”.  Even more amazing from this vantage point was trying to comprehend  what it must be like to live and work in a city of such mammoth size and scope.

From there, we boarded our motorcoach to the Jade Buddha Temple. (The temple was built in the late 1800s to house two jade Buddha statues that had been brought  by a monk from Burma to Shanghai. The two precious jade Buddhist statues are not only rare cultural relics but also porcelain artworks. Both the Sitting Buddha and the Recumbent Buddha are carved from whole white Burmese jade.  The quiet, peaceful serenity of this temple – on the inside – was certainly in stark contrast to the frenetic pace of life taking place just outside its doors.

Family-style dining was typical for all lunches and dinners when sightseeing in China. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Family-style dining was typical for lunches and dinners when on tour in China. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Next stop – the iconic Jin Jiang Hotel where we gathered for lunch.  Served family style ( i.e. served from a Lazy Susan in the center of our table for eight),  we first enjoyed a variety of fresh salad vegetables.  Next, we were offered at least 10 different dishes that included beef, chicken, seafood, soup, rice, noodles, cooked vegetables, dumplings, and watermelon for dessert. (It’s interesting to note that this famous hotel was the site of the 1972 Sino-American joint communique by Chairman Mao and President Nixon.)

The 16th century Yu Yuan Garden - accented with huge stone dragons, rockeries. tea houses, ponds, and beautiful landscaping.  (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
The 16th century Yu Yuan Garden – accented with huge stone dragons, rockeries. tea houses, ponds, and beautiful landscaping. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Following lunch, we traveled  to the Yu Yuan Garden. Covering about five acres, this scenic garden was built during the Ming Dynasty ( 1557) and has gone through multiple renovations, ownership, decline, restorations, and finally was taken over by the government and opened to the public in 1961. Highlighted with pavilions, corridors, unusual stone sculptures, statues, rockeries, quiet resting areas, lush landscaping and streams filled with colorful fish, this large garden is surrounded by restaurants, food courts, souvenir stores, silk shops, clothing, jewelry, and shoe stores, tea shoppes and even a Starbuck’s!

We’re now headed back to the ship and venture through a very densely-populated residential area. “Densely-populated” is an understatement, too!  Every single – without exception – apartment balcony had clothes lines strung from roof top to a pole and all lines were filled with clothes blowing in the breeze.  Another common sight were outdoor sinks – used as big basins to wash clothes and dishes  -plumbed and positioned next to a curb in front of a store/shop.  Also, we were amazed at the quantity of “stuff” the locals could stack on a bicycle and still be able to balance and  maneuver through heavy traffic.   One other interesting bit of local trivia, we learned from our guide that buildings up to six floors generally do not have elevators; only buildings taller than six stories.

From the promenade of The Bund - considered Shanghai's "premier attraction."  ( Photo by Robyn Bushong
A stunning city view from the promenade of The Bund – considered Shanghai’s “premier attraction.” ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

We’re almost back “home” – with just one more stop: The Bund.  What an incredible vista standing atop this promenade.  While we were there, a bridal shoot took place and visitors were posing for pictures with the backdrop – not only of the bustling Huangpu River –  but  with a backdrop of an eclectic mix of buildings of such diverse architectural style as Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classical and Renaissance.  This proved to be a marvelous “snap shot” of Shanghai… that showcased not only the impressive architecture, bustling river traffic and the Pudong  New Area ( Shanghai’s New Economic Zone), but literally a snapshot of the condensed version of just “all” this city has become.

Once back on board, Cynthia and I stopped at our favorite bar on deck five for a late-afternoon cocktail, and toasted to another marvelous day of our Asian Adventure. We were also very happy to be back “home” on our ship. That evening, Rainer brought us a superb room service dinner.

Shanghai at night... It's in technicolor!  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Shanghai at night… It’s in technicolor! (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Our “entertainment” for the evening was watching all the party/dinner boats sail right by our “window to the world.”  What a great day.

We will be in Shanghai two more days/one night before we have a sea day crossing the Yellow Sea and then our final port of Dalian. We will then debark in Beijing on the 19th.  

A few additional comments and observations…First the weather.  Could not have been better – mid 60s, sunny and breezy.  Very light pollution. We were told in the summer – temps can exceed 100 degrees and the air is very humid.  Again – just as it was in Hong Kong and Xiamen – the city was clean and very green.  Even in the crowded neighborhoods, you didn’t see litter. Major commerce here: Textiles and automobiles.  Skyscrapers continue to be built as fast as possible. It’s amazing to see hundreds of buildings that are at least 50 stories tall. What is even more amazing to us – how/where are they going to get the businesses and people to fill these buildings?  The  “one-child”  law is already becoming a factor as the Chinese labor force is not as plentiful, plus the younger people are better educated  now and don’t want factory work. So some industry is having to move their assembly line work to the Philippines and/or Indonesia where labor is cheaper and more plentiful.

Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt: So happy to be “home”!  Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler -Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

The first morning onboard, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I  sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from my previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too.

Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

A relaxing, sunny day at sea on the Lido Deck.  (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
A relaxing, sunny day at sea enjoyed on the Lido Deck. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

I think one of the best ways to describe the delightful ambience on this gorgeous, sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests relaxing on the Lido Deck, their favorite beverage at their side and book in hand, and visiting with new friends  – and all the while… listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen – a gorgeous tropical seaport – is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, .BC., I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple— we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear her commentary. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

 

One of some 15,000 artifacts in the  Chinese Oversea Museum.  (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
One of 15,000 artifacts in the Overseas Chinese Museum. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the United State’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and through the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. (Only suggestion: It would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada.)

Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony for our group of 34 held at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert that evening in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities –  ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad – highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was extremely enlightening.  Highlights of his talk:

  • China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.
  • Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year.
  •  Pork is the preferred meat.
  • There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants, 300 local dialects spoken. And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our two new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.

Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

HONG KONG…Our Asian Adventure Began Here!

Welcome to Hong Kong! Let the picture taking begin… (photo by Robyn Bushong.)

We arrived in Hong Kong as first-time visitors only to be greeted with torrential rains and dense fog. Welcome to Hong Kong! But the pouring rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. My dear friend Cynthia and I had just completed 21+ hours of travel from Galveston, Texas to begin our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony “Pearls of China,” itinerary that was to begin in Hong Kong, April 9th, with calls in Xiamen, Shanghai (two overnights), Dalian and then concluding with a three-day land package in Beijing on April 21st.

We were met by our private guide (who we had arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and taken to our hotel –The InterContinental. Highly recommended as the property is located directly on Victoria Harbor and the unobstructed view from our room: Simply Spectacular! First order of business upon arrival at the hotel was lunch and to review our priorities for sightseeing in this intriguing and enticing city. Since the hotel’s specialty restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, featured dim sum, we quickly chose this venue and learned it was a recipient of a “1-Michelin Star.” Our guide ordered for us and the quality and presentation was outstanding. As we concluded our fine lunch, we told our guide we wanted to walk since the rain was subsiding, as we were ready to see, do and experience everything possible in the short time we had to enjoy this exciting, world-class city.

We headed to the Star Ferry for the 10-minute ride between Kowloon (where our hotel was) and Hong Kong. A  good friend who handles tours in Hong Kong had set our priorities for us: First and foremost, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Next, see the Financial District, Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple and browse the fine shopping district; enjoy dim sum (check!) and experience the Stanley Street Market.

With all the trees, dramatic and colorful flowers, and gorgeous landscaping, Hong Kong’s “green space” was amazing. What was also amazing were the hundreds and hundreds of tourists out and about on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. What we learned was that the previous Saturday (April 5th) was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day. In Chinese it’s Ching Ming – which literally means “Clear and Bright” and is a tradition where families travel to their family tomb to sweep, clean and place flowers or other memorials on the gravesite. Because the national holiday fell on a Saturday, the banks/financial institutions were closed on Monday and apparently many people added an extra day to their holiday weekend.

We walked through the Financial District and the IFC (International Financial Center), and passed such fine stores as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Piaget, Rolex, etc. As we headed towards the Peak tram station, we passed St Andrew’s, an elegant Anglican Church (Episcopalian) and the historic St. John’s Cathedral completed in 1849. Then we boarded the tram for the ride to the top of the Peak. The trams, which have been operating for over 125 years, hold 120 people each and run about every 8 minutes. Following the brief—albeit very steep—ride to the top, we arrived at an incredible sight. Our friend was right: Standing on the top of Victoria Peak and looking down over the entire city…WOW! While we were walking around, a volunteer greeted us with a complimentary headset device that provided a detailed overview of the area. We had wanted to do the 90-minute walk around the perimeter of the peak, but it started raining again so we departed.

Rainy, cloudy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Rainy, cloudy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

After we took the tram back down, the rain had stopped again and we walked to Man Mo Temple. Built in 1847, the temple is one of the oldest traditional-styled temples in Hong Kong and is dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). From there, we stayed on Hollywood Road to view some of the city’s most beautiful antique shops and fine jewelry stores. To ensure we got a bit more immersed in the local culture, our guide suggested we take the subway to the Temple Street Market area. Living in Texas we’d never experienced anything like this before. Crowds on the New York City subways couldn’t hold a candle to the throngs and throngs and throngs of people traveling in all directions in Hong Kong’s subways. Everyone had an electronic device in their hands. And how these commuters could maneuver from one escalator and subway car to another—while seemingly never taking their eyes off their cell phone—was simply incredible.

Neighborhood food vendors offer a popular stop for dinner.  photo by Robyn Bushong
Neighborhood food vendors offer a popular stop for dinner. (photo by Robyn Bushong)

From there, we worked our way along the busy streets of food vendors, pastry and coffee shops, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, camera shops, and other small, neighborhood businesses. Food vendors sold fresh crabs, fish, lobster, and “internal organs” of other creatures cooked to order, and served on a skewer with hot and spicy sauces. As we observed the frenzied pace at which everyone was moving, our guide told us that since most locals work from 9am till about 7pm, we were right in the middle of the prime rush hour pedestrian traffic.

We kept moving along the bustling streets, heading towards Temple Street Market. Once there, we were amazed at the stalls—everything from cheap watches, imitation leather goods, jewelry, silk scarves, t-shirts, shoes, camera and electronic equipment, toys and souvenirs.

Open only at night, Temple Street Market is worth a visit. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)
Open only at night, Temple Street Market is worth a visit. ( Photo by Robyn Bushong.)

Our guide told us that the market is only open nights from about 6pm-midnight. Each of these hundreds of vendors packs up their wares at night, only to set-up again the next evening. What a hard way to earn a living. We didn’t buy anything, but were glad we saw the market. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel, bid our guide farewell, and at 8pm on our first night in Hong Kong… we were DONE!

The next morning we awoke early to gorgeous sunshine and an indescribably beautiful skyline. As we ate breakfast, we watched the buildings come to life as neon signs lit the skyline starting around 7am. We were to board Crystal Symphony early that afternoon, so we had time to do a little shopping and sightseeing on our own. We set off on a leisurely walk through the streets near our hotel to shop and later enjoyed lunch at the world-renowned hotel, The Peninsula. We didn’t realize at first just how close we were to the Ocean Cruise Terminal as it was only a short walk from our hotel. We also learned that Hong Kong had recently completed a new terminal, but that it was miles from the city centre. Ocean Terminal, where Crystal Symphony was docked, showcased multi levels of retail shops offering everything from Gucci to Nike and all literally just footsteps from where we were to board our ship. What a great way to start a cruise.

I also recalled that Crystal Symphony will return to Hong Kong during the holidays this year for a 15-day “China Sea Holiday Spectacular” (December 21- January 5, 2015), and will be docked at Ocean Terminal during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Can you imagine what an experience that would be to see one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays light the skies over Victoria Harbor—and all to be enjoyed from the prime vantage point of a balcony or deck aboard your ship!

Well, we’ll be boarding soon and our Asian adventure aboard the Crystal Symphony…it’s just about to begin!