Thursday, October 4, 2012

Europe to NYC Cruise



 

This was our fourth crossing of the Atlantic by ship.  The first was an irresistible opportunity to cross one way on the QE2 and fly home, all for the price of one, but it was 1977 when a "crossing" was just that, pure and simple, NY to Le Havre.  The difference between the old ocean liners and a cruise ship is the former was built for transportation and the latter is more a destination onto itself, with visits to various ports.  The ocean liners were built for speed, the QE2 routinely cruising at 28 plus knots whereas our recent crossing in the North Atlantic on the Emerald Princess was considerably slower, even at top cruising speed of about 20 knots.

Our QE2 crossing was in the late Fall, also in the North Atlantic, so we expected some rough weather.  Although the QE2 was stabilized, it could diminish the roll by only 60% vs. 80% of the more modern cruise ships.  Pitching was evident in both ships, but I think the QE2, with her sleek lines, took head seas better.  The Emerald Princess looked like a rectangular bathtub to me, its stern loaded with tons of balconies.  Different designs for different purposes. 

The Emerald Princess is the first Princess cruise we've ever taken and the largest ship we've been on.  It was the itinerary and the timing of the cruise which dictated our choice, being able to pack up our own boat, and our SUV, driving it to our niece's in Queens, leaving the car and stuff from the boat, taking our suitcases for the cruise and departing from JFK, a one way flight as the ship was returning us to NYC.  It was also our first flight on Icelandic Air which was surprisingly comfortable and on a spick and span plane, with a brief layover at Reykjavik airport, modern and comfortable as well, with all possible amenities.

Our arrival in Copenhagen went flawlessly, getting our pared down luggage, being met by Princess representatives and promptly whisked onto a bus.  At the pier we orderly and efficiently boarded the Emerald Princess, 113 thousand tons, an overall length of more than three football fields, a passenger capacity of 3,573 and a crew of 1,227.   

Having never been on such a large ship (although we have been on more than twenty), I dreaded the consequences of dealing with crowds, but Princess did good work managing the issue, at meal times and disembarkation and embarkation at the various ports.


Since we arrived only hours before sail away, there was little opportunity to explore the city further and, instead, viewed the harbor activities from our balcony. Also, jet lag was already setting in and by 10:00 PM, after "anytime dining", we were in bed.  Meanwhile, the ship set a northerly course toward Oslo, 265 nautical miles, cruising in relatively calm seas at 18.5 knots.  In the early morning hours, the Norwegian pilot boat guided the ship through the 20 miles of the Oslo Fjorden.

Knowing the size of the ship, many months in advance Ann cleverly and arduously planned only private tours.  I had sworn off tours arranged by the ship, ones which typically herd 50 or more people onto large buses after having to wait in a public venue on the ship for all to congregate.  Between getting on and off the buses, half the time is wasted.

Although our first tour was to be a private one as soon as we arrived in Oslo, a three hour walking tour with a photographer/tour guide (who we highly recommend: Rami Kafarov - info@oslophototour.com), Ann also arranged private tours at two other destinations through her activities on Cruise Critic (one for 6 people and the other for 16) and we participated in someone else's Cruise Critic arranged tour (for 18) in Iceland.  These smaller tours cover more territory, with more information, at half the price typically of ship-arranged tours.  

We disembarked in Oslo to meet Rami, with only the instructions to turn right and look for a blue Toyota. This was somewhat challenging as every parking area we walked past failed to meet with success.  I insisted he must have meant making a right after walking to the bow of the ship whereas we were walking past the stern.  Ann convinced me to go a little further and suddenly a blue Toyota swerved around, coming from the other direction, and it was our guide.  How did he recognize us?  He had Googled Ann and saw her photograph!  We thought that was very enterprising of him.
 
Once we were in his car, we had a brief city tour but then drove off to Frogner Park before the tour buses arrived en masse. There we were treated to a sculpture display in Vigeland Park like none other we've ever seen, the cycle of life laid bare by 212 outdoor sculptures conceived by Gustav Vigeland in 1907 but not completed until the early 1960's, 20 years after his death.  It is the world largest sculpture park designed and created by a single artist. These sculptures are in granite and bronze and they are unique in their individuality and as a composite.

However, it was there that the rains and wind began, not really letting up as we returned for our walking tour of the Akershus Fortress.  Rami was going to leave us at the National Museum and we were going to tour on our own, as well as the nautical museum, and return to the ship later, but nature had other plans. We were soaked and asked him to return us and alas, poor weather spoiled our afternoon.   Nonetheless, Vigeland Park, alone, made Oslo one of the high points of our trip.  And kudos to the Norwegians for developing hydropower, and providing electrical charging stations at convenient places.  So we returned to the ship and had a late lunch.  Before the ship departed, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out but by then it was too late to explore Oslo any further.  Timing is everything.
 
Weather interceded again as we found a notice that tropical storm Leslie and hurricane Michael were converging in the North Atlantic and to beat the storm the captain had chosen to bypass our 2nd port stop in Norway,  Kristiansand,  which I had looked forward to for some ideal photo ops.  Instead, we proceeded the 762 nautical miles directly to Greenock, Scotland.  Even so, we were cautioned that the following day at sea could be rough, which it was as the wind built to Beaufort force 8 with 12 to 15 foot seas.  Alas, a big ship does not mean it is more seaworthy as during that night the ship lunged and pitched and rolled and banged.  Although the movement doesn't bother me the noise kept me up for a part of the night.

The following day I noted a number of North Sea oil rigs, mammoth platforms rising in the sea.

One of the private tours Ann arranged was in Greenock, Scotland, with only 6 passengers.  Again we had to locate our driver at the pier, David, who arrived wearing a traditional Scottish kilt.  David had a dry sense of humor and of course the Scottish Sean Connery accent.  When Ann audaciously asked David what he was wearing under his kilt (having heard some men wear nothing) he replied:  "that's for me to know and for you to find out!"
 
Our first stop was in the little town of Luss where we toured the current Luss Parish Church, built in 1875 but where church services were held on that very spot for 1500 years, right on the banks of Loch Lomond!  The ceiling was constructed to resemble the inverted hull of a ship. As we traveled around parts of Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater loch/lake in Great Britain, we were awed by the magnificent rolling countryside of the Highlands.
 
However, the indisputable highlight of our tour through this beautiful country was visiting Inveraray Castle, which sits on the western shore of Loch Fyne and is the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll who now live there with their young family in one wing of the castle. 

Ann asked if they were in residence on the day we were visiting and was told the Duke was away on business, but the Duchess frequently can be seen in the gift shop and sure enough we met the strikingly tall, young and loquacious Duchess of Argyll.   Naturally, she and Ann hit it off and in conversation, Her Grace revealed that three weeks ago, our favorite BBC production, Downton Abby, was there with cast and crew having filmed their Xmas special in several rooms of the Castle.  We inquired about the connection and she explained the Downton family was visiting their Scottish relations for the holidays.  Ann and she chatted for another few moments; and naturally there was no thought of leaving without purchasing a beautiful shawl from Her Grace before we left!

Wind - rain – sun - clouds every form of weather in Scotland seemed to present itself that day, but luckily little rain, although the wind gusts were considerable and we actually saw someone blown over by the wind.  This picture of Ann and David clearly shows the consequences of the wind.

That night the ship set course through the Irish Sea onto Dublin, some 180 nautical miles of relatively calm seas even though windy. Dublin was going to be a hop on hop off bus tour for us, an independent walk about town, but the bus we boarded became more and more crowded, to the point of everyone standing in the isles with hardly a view out any window.  What good is that, especially as Trinity college and its environs was to be our main focus, and everything is easily walkable. 

Out of the corner of my eye I spied "The Bank" going by, originally a bank of course but now a fine Irish restaurant, one of the best pubs in Dublin we had heard.  So we managed to get off the bus and make our way back to The Bank.  Just what we needed, more food, but how can one resist such a place?  And an added bonus, Wifi!  There, Ann had fish and chips like none other she's ever had, lightly battered with the freshest cod, while I had traditional bangers and mashed potatoes.  Ann washed hers down with a pint of Irish ale. And we both gratefully caught up with our emails from back home.

A trip to the men's room revealed that it was in the old bank vault!  From The Bank's brochure: "The interior, which was once the main banking hall, is a stunning example of merchant power and patronage displaying an extraordinary ornate setting, stained glass ceiling, mosaic tiled floors and spectacular hand carved plasterwork and cornicing...Note the huge oak doors and rich ambiance of the mahogany that was shipped specifically for this project from the furthest outposts of the empire."  Indeed, one of the jewels of 1895 Victorian architecture. 

An added bonus aside from the great food and extraordinary ambiance is being able to view an exact replica from The Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, written in the 9th century during the Viking invasions, and considered Ireland’s National Treasure.  The original is housed just nearby in The Old Library at Trinity College.  Regrettably, the line was a mile long to get in, so we toured around the campus on our own, noticing that a movie was being filmed in this beautiful setting, right in the heart of Dublin.

No trip would be complete without a shopping trip on Grafton Street where Ann managed to find a "Marks & Spencer” (Marks & Sparks to locals) where she has been purchasing (among many things) her night gowns all her adult life (in the London M&S) since 1963!  They never seem to wear out and she swears by them. No, she reminded me, she doesn’t still have them dating back almost 50 years!! So I was left to wander Grafton and enjoy the street entertainment.  We walked around Dublin and then grabbed a bus back to the ship, passing Number One Merrion Square, the former childhood home of the writer Oscar Wilde. 

Early the next morning the ship passed the Isle of Man and set a northerly course, entering the Belfast Lough and we prepared for another private tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland, one Ann organized for 16 people. This was an all day excursion along the beautiful Glens of Antrim coast, the luscious hills of Ireland exactly as I had imagined from movies and picture books.  Our tour guide, Tom, in his Inner-city Belfast accent, at times a little difficult to understand, tried to explain the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland, one which is far more cultural than religious.  Things are on the mend he thinks and I remember him saying that they feared violence on Sept. 29th where there were going to be demonstrations commemorating the signing of Ulster covenant in 1912, which opposed Irish home rule. Thankfully, it came off peacefully.

First stop was at the seaside town of Carnlough which, with its fishing boats and small harbor, made for a nice photo op.  The adjacent hill rolled down to the sea.

Tom encouraged all of us to take the ambitious walk across the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which links the mainland to the island of Carrickarede, a span of about 65 feet but 100 feet above fomenting waters from the sea below.  Few on the bus wanted to take the walk over the bridge.   
 
It's not for the faint of heart (or the old or infirm), but Ann and I decided to try, until nearing the rocky, winding passage down to the bridge itself, Ann saw the steep and slippery steps, first down, then up, and down yet again to a rickety rope bridge above the crashing waters, so she turned back, the knees were not going to make it. 
 
Onward I went.  No more than 8 on the bridge going “one way” at a time, but the mostly younger tourists challenged the bridge (why not jump up and down a little?) - this while I'm trying to hold onto the rope and balance my camera in the other hand.  This exciting experience, in spite of the physical endurance needed to get there and get back (actually crossing the bridge was the least of the problems), was a high point of my day.

A stop at Bushmills Irish Whiskey distillery, the oldest working distillery in County Antrim, resulted in a lunch of Irish stew for me and some hearty soup for Ann, a welcome respite.

Our next stop: The famous Giant’s Causeway, an area of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns created from centuries old volcanic eruptions. I wondered whether the Superman movie got its idea of Superman's retreat from the columns. Although showery, some intrepid tourists climbed these columns making one wonder how many people are injured each year recklessly clamoring over these sharp stone outcroppings.  (Actually, a woman injured herself slipping from one of the columns as we were boarding the bus back to the visitor's center.)

The night after we left Belfast- as soon as we were out of the lee of the Irish coast -- we again had some rough seas, the stern being lifted and crashing back down.  We were at sea the following day, and Ann settled into a routine of morning and afternoon Mah Jongg games with a group she helped to organize on the ship and as we had many sea days ahead of us, I settled down on reading the novels I brought for the trip.  More on those later. 

Our day in Reykjavik, Iceland was spectacular -- an all day "golden circle" tour on a small bus enabled us to see the major sites.  The first thing I noticed was the air -- pure oxygen it seemed to me.  Bob was our tour guide, an American who became an Icelander, having married a "native."  He served in the Air Force in Iceland and understandably fell in love with the country.  I think of Iceland as being a cross between Hawaii and Alaska, volcanic like Hawaii, but with glaciers and snowcapped mountains.  The moon probably looks a little like parts of Iceland. Still the climate is temperate in the lower regions.  And throw in a few spectacular waterfalls and active geysers for good measure -- so a little bit of Niagara Falls and Yellowstone Park as well!

Most impressive is their development and utilization of geothermal energy which offers clean, efficient energy throughout the country, more than enough energy to heat their water and produce their electricity.  If only it could be exported!  I think Bob mentioned his electricity bill for his home -- all of its heating and hot water and electricity -- was about $30 a month!  Imagine.

I was fascinated by the power stations and the piping and the steam rising from recently tapped geothermal pools.

The Thingvellir National Park is the location of the "Althing" -- the site of the oldest parliament gathering on earth, founded in 930 AD.  And it is here one can view the valley between the American and Eurasian plates -- a continental divide and see deep fissures in the ground.  The scenes here are other worldly.

Like Old Faithful, Iceland's Strokkur Geyser is predictable and thus a little patience is rewarded with a spectacular blow off.  While we were there, there was a double blow-off which our tour guide remarked was very unusual.  The smell of sulfur permeated the air. Check out this brief video:

video





The Gullfuss Waterfall has been called a "little Niagara" although massive in its own right.  We were a good distance from the falls but the spray reached out everywhere.

The tour lasted until 10 PM.  We were hoping to stay up to see the possible northern lights, but by the time the ship departed near midnight, our all day tour had us stumbling back into bed and asleep.  Iceland was a favorite stop and we were looking forward to Greenland but when we returned to the ship we were notified that 40 knot winds, high seas, and even icebergs were expected in the area. This naturally dictated that those plans be aborted, more effects from Tropical Storm Leslie and Hurricane Michael that had been meandering about. The ship's Captain, Commodore Giuseppe Romano, made the decision to cancel and substitute the ports of St. John's, Newfoundland and then St. John, New Brunswick.  We had never been to the former and although we had previously visited the latter, both destinations were welcome ports of call on the way back to New York City.

We now had three full sea days ahead of us as the next port was 1,431 nautical miles from Reykjavik, so it was during that time that I knocked off the first two books that I brought with me, Louis Begley's About Schmidt and the sequel, Schmidt Delivered.  I might as well discuss all four novels I read at this point although I will not go into any great detail as the focus of this entry is our trip.

I decided to read the first two books based on the reviews of Begley's recently published Schmidt Steps Back which I have on order.  I'll probably discuss all three in a later entry, but the appeal of these books, to me, is similar to the one that made Updike's Rabbit novels fascinating -- relevancy to the phases of my own life as I have aged.  Like Updike, Begley follows a character through some of those phases, although Begley starts with the character already at the age of 60 (he's 78 in the third novel).

Another book I read on the trip, my fourth actually, was Jonathan Tropper's Plan B, Tropper's first novel.  Tropper and Begley serve as perfect bookends, Tropper's novel concerns his characters angst about turning 30.  After reading the first two Begley books, I did not think I could quickly decompress to Tropper (being familiar with Tropper's other works, having read, I think at this point, all of them).  I needed a work to clear the palette so I rummaged around the ship's library and found one of the few Anita Shreve novels I haven't read, A Change in Altitude.  This turned out to be the perfect antidote even though I thought it was not up to Shreve's usual work.  The characters seemed to be going through the motions and I just could not connect.  Maybe it is because she wrote it in the traditional third person, although I found the setting, Kenya, interesting in its own right, along with her description of being an ex-pat in that area.  Obviously Shreve lived there earlier in her life.  But as I said, going from Begley to Tropper without a stop in between seemed impossible to me.

It is not only because of the subject matter, 60 something vs. 30 something, but the style of writing as well.  Begley writes with a preponderance of seriousness, a style befitting his legal background.  In fact, some of the narrative almost reads like a legal brief, but a well-written one.  Tropper on the other hand writes with a breezy abandonment, with humor lurking in every corner.  No sense recounting the plot -- very similar to his other works, neurotic guy trying to grow up, having to deal with friends going through similar anxiety and family reproach.  Too bad I will not be around when Tropper reaches Begley's age, when he too can look in a rear view mirror, life on the path of deceleration rather than the buoyantly expectant promises of the future expressed in his novels.  But he (Tropper) and Begley are both good writers within their own genus, and I'm grateful to have literary "friends" such as them (and Shreve too) in my reading life.

So, sea days were devoted to those four novels, working out perfectly with the time I had.  I also attended several lectures on the ship, particularly those about the workings of the vessel (for instance, it carries 3,200 tons of fuel and the ship gets 50 feet to the gallon!) and the history of ocean crossings, including the Titanic tragedy and equally interesting, the building of the SS France which became the SS Norway, one of the last true ocean liners.

The 1,431 nautical miles to St. John's, Newfoundland followed a southwesterly track in unusually calm seas.  I was able to sit out on our balcony in total quiet most days and sufficient warmth to read.  We arrived at St. John's at about 7:00 am and later in the morning disembarked to be greeted by the traditional Newfoundland dog, more than 100 lbs, replete with webbed feet and a water-resistant coat, ideal for the climate.  The dog also likes to slobber a little (well, lots), but that's OK -- we're dog people!

Ann and I found a cab to take us up to the site I was anxious to visit:  Signal Hill, famous for several reasons, but, in my mind, most notable as this is where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission in 1901.  Ironically, Marconi was supposed to have been booked on the Titanic but had to cancel to be in NYC on important business days earlier and it was his persistence with his invention that helped to save some lives in that disaster.  Had he been on board, he probably would have perished as did other notables such as John Jacob Astor IV.

The Marconi exhibit is housed in Cabot Tower which is at the top of the Hill and was used primarily for flag signaling.  Marconi operated a wireless station on the second floor.  The view from the Hill on a clear day is spectacular.  Unfortunately, it is frequently shrouded in fog, as was the morning we were there. 

From there we visited an historic fishing village right in the heart of Newfoundland, Quidi Vidi.  Some beautiful scenes are to be seen there, not to mention the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, a microbrewery, probably the eastern-most one on the North American continent.  

 There we bought a gift pack for our nephew, Angelo, who was taking care of our car for our return to NY.  Finally, we went back into town to walk around, parts of it reminding us very much of Halifax.

As we departed St. John's, Newfoundland, the people lined up on Signal Hill.  Our ship was one of the last to leave for the season, everyone waving, biding us adieu.  The ship proceeded out to the deep water harbor through the Narrows and set a course south for St. John, New Brunswick, 810 nautical miles away.

Another sea day and another so-called formal night, although the tux has become somewhat passé on these ships.  I haven't said much about the Princess Cruise line and the food (the chief reason for a cruise for some, not us, of course :-).  It exceeded our expectations and the anytime dining worked out wonderfully, with two dining rooms to chose from, but we got comfortable in one, the Michelangelo, and the maitre d, Godwin (from India, where Ann is visiting later this month, so they got along famously) was very solicitous, always seating us promptly and where we wanted.  Naturally, we had to be force fed dessert, literally having to be tied down, we objecting strenuously, but all that food going to waste? 

In the middle of the next morning we entered the Bay of Fundy with its incredible tides.  One could see the tides ripping around the buoys as we came into the harbor.  This was our second visit to St. John, New Brunswick, and the last time we toured the outer environs, seeing all that the Bay of Fundy offered, but this time we decided to walk around the town, a lovely place, clean and refreshing, with friendly people. 

Some of the hills were challenging but up we went, anxious to see the City Market, the roof of which resembles the inverted keel of a ship, the construction which is more than a century old a testament to the handiwork of sea-side craftsmen.  The market itself is bustling with energy, the local tradesmen and farmers offering their crafts and food to locals and tourists alike. Naturally we had to purchase something, that being a litre of locally made Pure Maple Syrup for Jonathan to enjoy over his pancakes!   

We wearily made our way back to the ship to prepare for departure, marveling at beautiful St. John at night.  The ship sailed out of the deep harbor, through the channel passing Partridge Island and then turned in a southerly course through the Bay of Fundy toward New York.  We were at sea for one additional day, time to say some goodbyes, last Mah Jongg games for Ann and for me to finish the last novel of the four I read.  We passed close to Nantucket in the late afternoon, conjuring up memories of our several visits there on our own boat in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Those were the days.

Originally, we were supposed to dock around 7:15 AM but the Commodore announced that we would be entering New York harbor earlier, probably passing under the Throgs Neck Bridge at about 3:30 AM.  I wanted to get some shots of NY as we entered, particularly as we would have a good view of downtown Manhattan since we were docking in Brooklyn.  I made a mental note of the early arrival, hoping my body clock would awaken me without disturbing Ann to slip out onto the balcony for the photographs, but nighttime photography, hand holding a camera, is challenging.  I got up after we passed the Throgs Neck but still managed to get shots of the Statue of Liberty, downtown Manhattan, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and dawn with the Williamsburg Bank tower in Brooklyn in view, a landmark in my life.

This is probably our last transatlantic cruise, but well worth the trip because of the itinerary.  We covered 4,938 nautical miles which is equivalent to 5,682 statute miles!  Future cruises will be fewer but on smaller ships.

Disembarkation went smoothly and we were in a cab on our way to our niece and nephew's home in Queens where we had left our car, already packed up with stuff from the boat, for our drive back to Florida.  We departed their home in the mid morning, meeting up with lots of traffic around Washington and bedded down in Fairfax VA, 804 miles from home.  I asked Ann to expect an early departure the next morning as I was determined to get home without sleeping in another hotel bed and we managed to leave at 6:00 AM the next morning, returning home twelve hours later.  Wearily we unpacked the car, ate, and fell into bed.  Another wonderful cruising experience to remember!