Tuesday, August 7, 2012

“3 Queens” review–with some pics

At long last, after a very hectic seven weeks away from home, I am able to gather my thoughts enough to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and place some belated pics of our journeys in this journal.
I have been dreading it, as I have been dreading talking to friends and relatives, because everybody wants to know what we did and what we saw, what the three Cunard ships were like, did we like Germany, etc – and the truth is that we saw and experienced so much that it is almost impossible for me to know where to start and finish. As for photos – well we each had a small pocket camera each – and we came home with a total of 4500 images. Some are rubbish – and the best of them cannot truly capture the wonderful things that we saw. How can anybody take photos of the fabulous buildings in St Petersburg – such that they give even an infinitesimal idea of what they are like. Maybe somebody can, but not me.
So, this retrospective blog entry will only scrape the surface. I have created 3x 10 minute Youtube videos to show friends a little of our experience

Essentially, we were able to do all of the shore tours and private visits as detailed earlier in this blog. One thing I do recommend is that people take shore tours in these places - you may never return and any money you save by doing your own thing everywhere will soon be forgotten - but the tours will not.

They are 3 Queens part 1  - Queen Victoria to the Baltic/Scandinavia.
                            part 2 – Queen Elizabeth to western Mediterranean
                            part 3 – Queen Mary 2 to English Channel ports – plus 2 weeks in southern Germany

Monday, May 7, 2012

Change of plan for this Blog

We arrived safely in London yesterday - only to discover that I have left the charger for my laptop computer at home. I had intended to carry the laptop in it's own carry bag - but, as we packed all the clothes we needed to take with us for the cruises, we found that we needed to take aircraft cabin bags with us as well as our two suitcases. So I transferred the laptop and mouse to a cabin bag - without remembering the charger and it's associated cable still lurking inside the computer bag.

At this time, I cannot think how I will be able to update this Blog on an almost daily basis over the next 7 weeks, without needing to charge the laptop battery regularly. So, I will probably have to keep my notes - and just complete it as a trip report rather than as a live Blog. This was what I did for our Tahiti cruise - but for a different reason.

Any way - our flight to London was uneventful (except for our seats being placed in the row immediately behind the "screaming baby and toddler" row)  My advice to all future long haul travelers is to watch for this!!

We were very fortunate to have a VERY quick progression through the infamous Heathrow Border Control - only 15 minutes from the time we joined the end of the queue to the time we walked out into the arms of our driver who was waiting with his brand new S class Mercedes to take us to our hotel opposite Lambeth Palace. The early morning weather was good - but did not last for long. We went for a short walk along Southbank - and then went to the Imperial War musem for the rest of the afternoon

Off to Southampton now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Shore excursions

Of all the cruises we have done so far, these will be the most “port intensive” – not only due to the total number of days that we are in different ports, but also because of their close spacing. During the total 30 days of the three cruises, we visit 17 different ports – with two instances of 5 consecutive days in port. The longest time we have at sea is only two days between Southampton and Gibraltar. Apparently, it is well recognized that cruising in European waters can be quite exhausting – with some visits restricted to only half a day. Fortunately, we have itineraries with reasonably long port days. The only half day visit we have is for Gibraltar on Queen Elizabeth– but even this is better than nothing because the last time we were in the vicinity of Gibraltar, we sailed right past on P&O Oriana.
Of the 17 port days, we are intending to do official Cunard shore excursions for 6 days, a privately arranged tour of St Petersburg for 2 days – and we will do our own thing for 9 days. Many ports in Europe are good for people who just want to go ashore and look around. Copenhagen and Barcelona are prime examples. But for others, you really need to be able to climb aboard a bus and be taken somewhere. Examples of this are the tour to the Tuscan towns of San Gimignano and Volterra from Livorno and the whole of island tour of Sardinia. Most of our 8 days on tour have a guide – but one is a cross between doing your own thing, while also being taken somewhere. We have chosen to be taken into Rome by bus (and return) – and then spend 5 hours looking around on our own. It’s a bit safer that way – and if the bus is held up by traffic on the return, the ship will wait for us.

The Cunard excursions

clip_image001 Tømmerstø  and Lillesand, Norway.  Explore the picturesque south coast of Norway by coach and boat.Situated on the south coast, Kristiansand hosts charming small towns and a coastline dotted with tiny rocky islands and skerries. Boarding your boat at the pier, you’ll sail along the protected Blindleia shoreline, past picturesque white-painted houses in sheltered inlets — all set against a backdrop of lush green forests and rugged mountains.
Arriving at Tømmerstø, a maritime centre in a pretty setting, you’ll switch to a coach for a panoramic drive through scenic landscapes of green fields, hills and coves to the Lillesand. Lillesand is a lovely little town on the waterfront which is famous for its summer floral displays. There will be free time to stroll through the narrow streets, browse the shops and galleries or sit back in a café and enjoy the views of the old harbour and the pretty summer houses.

 Costa Smerelda, Sardinia. 

WOOPS!! Just received news that the Queen Elizabeth will now not be stopping at this port - but will go to the town of Alghero on the north western side of Sardinia. The shore tours have been withdrawn.

So - new tours have been published and we have booked the ALGHERO & CASTELSARDO tour which includes a Sardinian lunch. Just a little more expensive than the one we had booked on the Costa Smerelda - but actually suits us more. We rather see the historic old areas of Europe than the beachy resorts.

Alghero & Castelsardo.  A combination of spectacular scenery; the intriguing Iberian charm of Alghero and the quaint, walled hill town of Castelsardo. The little city of ancient Alghero today conserves a look of a typical coastal town - unplanned, with narrow and twisting streets. The old town barely covers one-tenth of todays city, but is a delight to explore on foot. Discover Alghero’s ancient Catalan origins as your guide takes you on a fascinating walking tour of the town.

Overlooking the wide Gulf of Asinara, from an elevated site, Castelsardo has a truly picturesque aspect. Here, you will see a Gothic mixture of well-preserved ancient walls and characteristic narrow streets and steps. Dominated by an ancient castle and an imposing girdle of walls, the centre still preserves much of the essence of simple old town life.  Products of the local artisans can be found brimming from the numerous shops in Castelsardo. Keep an eye out for the typical baskets woven by the locals.

A Sardinian-style luncheon will be served whilst you are entertained by local Sardinian folk-music.

During the journey, you will pass the trachytic mass, Elephant's Rock, resembling a reclining elephant.

clip_image003 Rome on your own -- An opportunity to rediscover Rome if you have been before, and the ideal option for those who prefer to explore independently.
As you walk through this treasure-filled city, the shadows of the past surround you. Images of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and the Pantheon mingle with the splendour of the Vatican, the magic of the Trevi Fountain and the warmth of a hundred flower-filled piazzas.
On arrival in Rome you will leave the coach for a full day of independent exploration. Wander through the shops or sample Italian cuisine at restaurants nearby. Venture further afield and discover as many of Rome’s treasures as your pace allows. This is the perfect opportunity to tailor your day to suit your needs and make the most of your time in this wonderful city. At a time specified by your hostess, you will meet up and walk back to the coach park for the return drive to Civitavecchia.

clip_image004 Treasures of Tuscany, Italy- Two enchanting medieval hill towns await you, along with boundless countryside scenery and wonderful traditional Tuscan cuisine.During your scenic drive you will pass medieval hill towns surrounded by beautiful valleys en route to central Tuscany. The landscape is adorned with cypresses, olive groves and vineyards.
The ‘Manhattan of Tuscany’, San Gimignano is one of the best-preserved san_gimignanomedieval towns in the region. The striking skyline bristles with 13th century noble towers giving the town its skyscraper look. Dramatic walls surround the small town, and medieval charm can be found around every corner. You will have free time to explore the quaint cobbled streets, admire the medieval architecture, browse the shops or simply relax in a nearby café. Even for first time visitors the surroundings may look familiar, as this was the location for the film ‘Tea with Mussolini’. Tuscan specialities are on the menu for a rustic style luncheon at a delightful farmhouse. Enjoy fabulous views over the rolling hills and the simplicity of Tuscan cuisine. 
Set on a high plateau, the Etruscan town of Volterra offers views over the countryside and roadways winding into the distance like ribbons. Volterra is renowned for its Etruscan artefacts and for the beautiful, locally mined alabaster statues. You will have free time to explore independently.

clip_image005 Introduction to Amsterdam  - Journey to the capital of Holland, check out the wooden clogs and cruise the famous waterways.
A panoramic drive of Amsterdam will show you Dam Square, the Royal Palace, Nieuwe Kerk, and the Central Railway Station. Of particular interest is the lovely 15th century Weeper’s Tower, one of the most famous of the city's collection of stunning towers and steeples.
No visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a canal cruise. Containing amsterdam (1)more than 60 miles of waterways, the city has more canals and bridges than Venice, so this is one of the best ways to become acquainted with its waterside scenery. From your glass-topped motor-launch, you willl see the fine old houses of the city's rich Dutch traders, picturesque houseboats, Anne Frank's House, and many other attractions to capture on camera. 
Enjoy some free time to explore on your own or sit outside one of the many delightful cafés and bars relaxing and taking in the atmosphere of this cosmopolitan city.

clip_image006 Monet’s garden and Giverny, France- Visit the house and gardens of Claude Monet located on the banks of the River Seine in the picturesque village of Giverny. Giverny is internationally renowned for Claude Monet’s house. The world famous impressionist lived in this house from 1883 until his death in 1926. Between 1886 and 1890, a colony of painters joined him in order to take advantage of the ‘garden art’ form.
The first part of the visit will be to a part of the gardens where the arches of monetflowers are surrounded by amazing flower beds which provide a palette of varying colours from spring to autumn. Take time to wander through the various parts of the famous gardens which include weeping willows and the famous Japanese bridge. You will also see Wistarias, Azaleas, and the pond which inspired Monet in his work. Continue inside the pink and green house standing at the top of the gardens. You’ll view the blue salon, bedroom, old studio, the yellow dining room with its delightful painted wooden furniture and the tiled kitchen. Reproductions of Monet’s works and his collection of 18th and 19th century Japanese prints can been seen in the different rooms. You will have free time to look around the gift shop which offers numerous reproductions of the painter’s work and souvenirs. 
You’ll then have free time in the picturesque village of Giverny for luncheon in the numerous restaurants and cafés. Afterwards, there will be the opportunity of meeting up with your guide for a walking tour of Giverny village or to enjoy extra free time on your own for exploring and shopping independently before returning to the ship.

Other ports – self guided (on our own)

kristiansand Kristiansand, Norway  In addition to our guided tour here, the town itself is small enough to have a look a around – the Cathedral, Fortress and Fish Market will be points of interest for us.

oslo operaOslo, Norway        Lots to do here. There is a Hop on –Hop off bus which we will use to see Aker Brygge, Vigerland Sculpture park, Viking Ship museum, Akershuss Castle, Royal Palace and Changing of the Guard, Opera House, Munch’s “The Scream” painting at the National Gallery.

copenhagen Copenhagen, Denmark  Also much to see and do here. Probably we will take a canal cruise or the hop on –hop off boat from the famous Nyhaven waterfront area . Places to see include the Little Mermaid, Tivoli Gardens, Amelianborg Palace and Changing of the Guard, National Museum (for Viking helmets) . Copenhagen is small enough to spend the day on foot here.

stockholm Stockholm, Sweden  - Hop on –hop-off busses and boats here. Vasa museum is a MUST!! – as is the Old Town (Gamla Stan) , Royal Palace (another Changing of the Guard), Cathedral and Museum of National Antiquities

Helsinki Helsinki, Finland  - Senate Square, Market Square,Uspensky Cathedral, The Rock Church, Sibbellius Park

tallinn Tallinn, Estonia  Apparently a very beautiful old Medieval town – ideally suited for just wandering around. In Upper Tallinn --Toompeah castle, Alexander Nevsky cathedral, St Mary’s cathedral, St Olavs Church– with steps to top of the tower. In Lower Tallin – Town Hall square, Town walls and towers.

Zeebrugge is the port for Brugge, Belgium. To get to Brugge on your own, it is common to get the ship’s shuttle to the seaside town of Blankenberge and then a short train ride to Brugge – but the same train also takes you to the town of Ghent. As we have two visits to Zeebrugge on two different ships, we will go to both Brugge and Ghent.

Brugge Brugge – a Medieval town to walk around. Everybody does a canal brugge2cruise – famous for it’s beer, chocolates and lace. We have a self guided walking tour which we have downloaded from the Internet

ghent1 Ghent – also Medieval, but apparently larger and less “touristy” than Brugge. Reseach on the Internet seems to reveal that different people have ghent2their favourites between the two. Only time will tell which we prefer. 

Rock_of_Gibraltar Gibraltar  - I have always wanted to go here. Only a short 4 hour visit unfortunately. I don’t know why the cruise ship companies do this. I think that we should have enough time to ride the cable car to the top of the Rock, see the monkeys (Apes), back down to the Alameda Gardens and a final English Beer in an “English” pub in Casemates Square

monaco Monte Carlo, Monaco – we have been here before in 1996. So we have seen the outside of the Casinos, so will not bother with that this time. The Cathedral (burial place of Grace Kelly – Princess Grace)  is of course a must see touristy thing to do here – as is the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace. But there are a number of other interesting things as well – such as the Oceanographic Museum and the Exotic Tropical Garden

Barcelona2 Barcelona, Spain  - another place we have been to before . But the last and only other time, Christine was sick and missed most of it. We will walk up La Ramblas to Constitution Square (via the wonderful Mercat de la Boqueria (Market), get a hop on – hop off bus out to Sagrada Familia (maybe even go inside this time) and then on to Guell Park. I just loved Guell Park last time – and I am sure we will spend quite some time there. It will also be interesting to see how much Sagrada Familia has changed and grown since 1996.

2 day Private Tour of St Petersburg, Russia

For this we are doing the "All St Petersburg Highlights" tour with TJ Tours http://st-petersburg-tours.ru/

It will be a quite hectic tour - seeing all of the most famous sights of St Petersburg. We are really looking forward to this. Another place that I have always wanted to go to - but never ever really expected to get the opportunity

City tour in St Petersburg, Travel to Petergof by hydrofoil,Guided tour of the Fountain Park, Traditional Russian lunch, Travel to Tsars’ Village, Inside guided tour of Catherine Palace with the Amber Room, Visit to the subway station, Inside guided tour of St Isaac’s Cathedral, Inside guided tour of the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood,  Boat Ride along the rivers and canals with a glass of Champagne, Inside guided tour of the Hermitage Museum, Inside guided tour of St Peter and Paul fortress/Cathedral, Inside guided tour of Yusupov Palace.

Of Course – all of the above is highly dependent on the Weather Gods !!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Here we go - again!!

After our "World Cruise" on P&O Oriana and Arcadia - Brisbane to Brisbane - 12 months ago and our month long cruise to Tahiti via a number of South Pacific Islands on P&O Pacific Pearl in July, we weren't expecting to do any more cruising for quite some time. My son has moved to Germany for his work - so plans were in place for a relatively inexpensive and short visit to him. But sometimes things just "pop up" and they are too good to resist. In this case, it was a package of 3 cruises - one after the other - on Cunard's Queen Victoria (to Baltic/Scandinavian/Russian ports), Queen Elizabeth (to western Mediterranean ports) and Queen Mary 2 (to Western European lowland countries ports). These three cruises all tie together with a meeting of the 3 "Queens" in Southampton Harbour on 5th June 2012 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth 2. This will be only the second time that these 3 Queens have been together- the first being in New York Harbour.

This trip (still over 6 months away) will kill a number of birds with one stone for us. Firstly, the opportunity to experience all three of these Cunard ships, secondly to visit the Baltic/Scandinavian ports (including St Petersburg, Russia for a 2 day stopover), thirdly to see a little of Europe from the Mediterranean ( we cruised straight past Gibraltar last time - how frustrating was that!!!)  and finally to ride on some of these super high speed trains on the European continent and through the Channel tunnel- all things that have been on our "bucket list". It will also mean that we get to have a tryout of the new (to us) Airbus A380-800, about which I have heard great things.

 Off we go to London via Singapore Airlines A380-800

Queen Victoria - to Kristiansand Norway, Oslo Norway, Copenhagen Denmark, Stockholm Sweden, Helsinki Finland,  St. Petersburg Russia, Tallinn Estonia, Zeebrugge Belgium (for Bruges)
Queen Elizabeth - to Gibraltar, Costa Smerelda Sardinia, Civitavecchia Italy (for Rome), Livorno Italy (for Florence/Pisa, Monte Carlo Monaco, Barcelona Spain 

Queen Mary 2 - to Rotterdam Netherlands (for Amsterdam), Zeebrugge Belgium (for Brussels), Le Havre France (for Paris) 

         Last but not least - the Eurostar and the French TGV high speed trains to Germany

Once we are in Germany, I am sure we will get to ride on the German ICE trains.

Deposit has been paid - research for the various ports done. All we have to do now is to wait for the next 6 months to pass. After our experience of waiting for 6 months for our planned (but aborted) 6 week driving tour of the UK in early 2010 and then waiting for another 6 months for the World Cruise in late 2010, I said I would never book that far ahead ever again - but here we are!!