Tag Archives: Oceania

Venice to Barcelona September 2017

Cruising on the Oceania cruise ship Sirena, 11th September to 22nd September 2017.

 

We took a flight from London Heathrow to Venice where we boarded our Oceania cruise ship, the Sirena. Our first time on this ship, though we have previously cruised on her sister ship, the Regatta. The ships are identical in layout, so there was no excuse for getting lost on board! This was the first time we had had a room with a balcony. It was worth paying that bit extra so that we had the full benefit of seeing the iconic harbours and coastlines we would be visiting.

Days 1 and 2. Our first visit to Venice. A wonderful experience – so much to do! I guess we trod the well-worn tourist route; St Marks Square, St Mark’s Basilica, The Doge’s Palace, The Gallerie Dell’ Academia (art gallery) and the obligatory gondola ride along the maze of canals. The stand-out experience for me was the Doge’s Palace, rooms and ceilings heavily encrusted with gold, and over the Doge’s throne, Tintoretto’s masterpiece, Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world, 22 metres by seven metres. Christ and Mary are surrounded by a heavenly host of 500 saints.

Day 3. Zadar, Croatia was our next port of call. This was our first time in Croatia, and we both thought that Zadar was a beautiful and tranquil town, with a mix of ancient buildings and cobblestone streets leading to a fairly contemporary shopping area. We were told by a friend who had visited previously to look out for the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun,  two artistic creations by the architect Nikola Bašić. The former harnesses the power of the wind and the sea to make some beautiful and haunting music, while the latter collects the sun’s energy during the day to create a spectacular light show at night. We couldn’t really miss either given they were no more than about 20 metres from where our ship was berthed. We spent the rest of the day looking around the old town, taking in the sights and smells of the Old Town Market, visiting the 9th century Church of St Donatus and finishing off by having a few relaxing beers/wines.  I’d quite like to visit Zadar again one day, because I don’t think we had sufficient time to take in all of the sights.

Day 4. Kotor, Montenegro was our next port of call. We marvelled at the beauty of the Bay of Kotor as we approached the town, listed as a UNESCO World Natural and Historical Heritage Site. Kotor town is navigated through old, narrow streets, filled with bars, restaurants, small shops, antique monuments, churches and picturesque buildings. Having done a bit of prior research, we decided we’d start the day with a hike up the city walls to St John’s fortress. It was well worth the effort (which was considerable) with wonderful views of the old town and the bay opening up before us. Apart from which, it helped shed a few calories from our previous days’ indulgences! However, the effort only served to stoke our appetite for lunch, which was an enormous sea-food platter, consumed el fresco at one of the many romantic restaurants in the old town.

Day 5. Corfu, Greece. We did the obligatory (but lazy) tourist sightseeing from a pretend train that looped around the town and a short way up the coast. The rest of the day was taken up with eating and shopping, with an inordinate amount of time spent looking for cherry-flavour cigars for my father. He’s purchased these on the many times he has visited Corfu, but we couldn’t find any, and finally settled on some vanilla flavoured cigars. Overall, I’m not sure we really took to Corfu. The city’s old town is quaint, and (apparently) on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but it seemed very anglicised, and I’m sure there were more Brits there than locals. Even the majority of the restaurant and bar owners seemed to be English, judging by the broad Lancashire accents we heard. Close your eyes and you might think you were in Blackpool – but hotter!  I don’t think we’ll hurry to go back.

Day 6. Taormina, Sicily. The ship was at anchor, so a tender service was in operation to get us ashore. Then a taxi to get to the top of the cliff where the town was situated. Just about everything and anything of interest was on the Coros Umberto 1, a lovely pedestrian street lined with multicoloured 15th and 16th century mansions and shops. We headed initially for the Teatro Greco, an ancient Greek theatre built in the 3rd century BC. However, we found that all access roads to the Teatro Greco were blocked by swathes of police, with a pretty heavy security operation in evidence throughout the town. We learnt this was because the Dalai Lama was visiting the Teatro Greco, and in fact a little later we caught a glimpse of him leaving the Teatro in a back limousine. I’m not sure whether he noticed us though, given he didn’t wave!

Day 7. Sorrento, Italy. It was obvious as we approached the harbour from the Bay of Naples, if you want to visit Sorrento, you’d have to travel vertically! It’s perched at the top of a cliff. There is a mini-bus or a lift that takes visitors to the top. You could walk up as well, but not sure what state you’d be in when you got to the top! Anyway, we didn’t have to make the ascent because we had booked an excursion to visit Pompei, which is about 17 miles from Sorento. As we all know, Pompei was all but destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, covering the city of 20,000 inhabitants in more than 20ft of ash. Words cannot really describe the experience – so check out the photos!

Day 8. Civitavecchia for Rome. Ah, yes, Rome, “the Eternal City”, capital of Italy and the Catholic Church. Except we never actually got there. We decided against booking an organised tour from the excursions desk on board, since it entailed a 5-hour bus journey there and back from Civitavecchia, with barely 2 hours in Rome. There is the option of taking a train under our own steam (excuse pun), which might have reduced the travel time, but it all seemed a lot of effort for just a few hours in Rome, so we decided to have a relaxing day in  Civitavecchia (but not much to see), and the promise to ourselves that we would arrange to visit Rome on a short-break deal, sometime in 2018.

Day 9. Monte Carlo, Monaco. Literally “Mount Charles”, a 0.76 square mile pixel on the global map, but with a reputation that far exceeds its physical size, and home for the rich and famous. One good thing about its small size is that it’s a fairly easy walk to get to most places. Our first stop was the Prince’s Palace, which overlooks the magnificent harbour with it’s many super-yachts (one of which was Lionheart, owned by Sir Philip and Lady Green of BHS notoriety – boooo!) . We watched the changing of the guard, splendidly dressed in the white uniforms, which takes place daily at precisely 11.55am.  We then visited the Cathedral of Monaco (St Nicholas Cathedral), which houses the royal family (Grimaldi’s) tombs, including Princess Grace’s tomb, which was easy to spot given the amount of flowers that had been laid on it. Clearly a pilgrimage for many people who remember her as the film star Grace Kelly. We couldn’t leave Monaco without visiting the Monte Carlo Casino, which is the main source of funding for the principality. We didn’t enter the inner salons where the high-rollers congregate (and which require a fee just for visiting), but satisfied ourselves with the ornate and imposing entrance hall. Overall, a pretty city, and opportunity (?) to mingle with the rich and over-indulged!

Day 10. Cannes, France. Not a lot to say about Cannes. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and stroll down the Promenade de la Croisette. It was also an opportunity to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home, who might want to flash their Cannes – branded T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

Day 11. Palamos, Spain. Not too say about Palomos either. A clean and pleasant town with a nice beach and promenade. We visited the local fish, fruit and vegetable markets and then had a relaxing lunch and much sangria at one of the beach-front restaurants. There really wasn’t sufficient time to do any detailed exploring.

Day 12-13. Barcelona, Spain. This was our last stop before flying home to Blighty. We had arranged a 2-day stay at the Acta BCN 40,  which suited our main criteria for being clean, inexpensive and fairly central. It was less than a 10-minute walk to Las Ramblas, and close to many lively bars and restaurants. We’ve been to Barcelona a few times and done most of the usual ‘touristy’ things, but we’d never been inside Antoni Gaudí’s iconic Sagrada Familia, so that was our priority for our first day. Unfortunately, tickets were fully booked for the whole weekend, so massive disappointment. This means, of course, we are going to have to visit Barcelona again, but  next time I’ll make sure we’ve booked tickets well in advance. The remainder of our time was spent shopping (shoes for me), eating (can’t leave Barcelona without having at least one paella) and drinking (sangria by the litre). We could have made this more of a cultural expedition, but Lynda and I were both pretty exhausted from the hectic cruise schedule, plus we found we had to keep dodging the many Catalonia independence rallies that were taking place in various parts of the city. However, we did pause our shopping expedition to enjoy the rag-time jazz on offer from the New Orleans Ragamuffins, who were busking in the Passeig de Gracia shopping area. I was impressed enough to buy their CD, in anticipation that one day they might be famous!

Overall, a wonderful holiday, with many beautiful towns, cities and sights explored on the way. My favourite places, and ones that I must visit again one day were, Venice, Kotor and Taormina. The photos will be a lasting memory.

From To Nautical Miles
Venice, Italy Zadar, Croatia 150
Zadar, Croatia Kotor, Montenegro 255
Kotor, Montenagro Corfu, Greece 192
Corfu Greece Taormina (Sicily), Italy 272
Taormina (Sicily), Italy Sorrento, Italy 205
Sorrento, Italy Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy 160
Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy Monte Carlo, Monaco 220
Monte Carlo, Monaco Cannes, France 71
Cannes, France Palamos, Spain 214
Palamos, Spain Barcelona, Spain 66
TOTAL DISTANCE FOR CRUISE – NAUTICAL MILES 1805

 

The Map

Photos:

[FAG id=175206525]

More photos on Flickr

Palms Of Paradise – Central America & Panama Canal

I’ve been a bit tardy in posting any details about our last cruise, which was over 8 months ago. One of those tasks I’ve been meaning to do but never quite getting high enough up the priority list to actually invoke some action! Anyway, at long last.

This was our first cruise with Oceania, on the Regatta, 24th April 2016 to 12th May 2106.

Highlights

Food

Oceania promotes itself as providing the finest cuisine at sea, and I can’t fault that statement. The food throughout our cruise was varied, plentiful and excellent. Lynda (wife) took an immediate liking to lobster, which became a staple part of her diet during out time on board, while I was quite happy to overdose on sushi.

Miami

Our port of embarkation. You can take it or leave it, I prefer to leave it (see Lowlights). Big, brash, unfriendly.

Key West

The southernmost point in the USA. First settled in the 1880’s, at the very end of the island chain stretching from Miami. Separated from Florida mainland by 42 bridges and closer to Havana, Cuba than it is to Miami. Still has a homely, small town feel. Safe to walk. Quaint brightly coloured houses and shops. Home to artists, writers and treasure hunters.  Made famous by Ernest Hemingway (For Whom The Bell Tolls, etc.) and no visit would be complete without a drink or three at his favourite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s. I recommend the ‘Sloppy Rita’.

Cartagena, Colombia

A ‘must visit’ for anyone in the vicinity of the southern Caribbean. Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. You could easily spend a whole day exploring the old walled city with its colonial architecture, historiucal homes, churches, palaces and courtyards. The Old Town has several museums, restaurants, shops and cafes. The Church of Saint Peter Claver,  the Cathedral of Cartagena and for those with a morbid disposition, the Palace of the Inquisition where many torture devices are on display are all worth a visit. A taxi ride away is The Castle of San Felipe de Barajas  which is simply amazing. By all accounts the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. We spent a couple of hours there snd still didn’t see everything. Cartagena is also renowned for its jade, and you’ll get a good price for quality jade at any of the shops or jade factories.

Panama Canal

This was the main purpose of this particular cruise, I’ve always wanted to see the Panama Canal, and I wasn’t disappointed. It took us about 9.5 hours to complete the traverse, from the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean Sea side to departing the Locks on the Pacific Ocean side. We could see the new, wider locks that have been under construction for several years, which were due to open on the 26th June 2016. I assume they are now working. Photos of the journey through the canal are included at the end of this post. This diagram gives an overview of the lock system (source: Wikipedia).

Panama Locks

 

 

Cruise ships pay a rate based on the number of berths, which is around $138 per occupied berth, i.e. number of passengers that can be accommodated in permanent beds. For our ship that would be about 834 berths or a total of almost $114,000. I heard (anecdotal evidence) that the most expensive traverse was one of the giant cruise liners (e.g. Oasis of the Seas) with over 6000 berths , which would have cost around $850,000.  Given the number of ships going each way on a daily basis, this is clearly a signifiant contribution to Panama’s GDP. Hence why Nicaragua wants to grab some of this commerce when in June 2013 they awarded the Hong Kong-based HKND Group a 50-year concession to develop a canal through the country. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the Panama Canal pricing model when the route through Nicaragua opens, since there will no doubt be competition for business.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Puntarenas is the the capital and largest city in the Province of Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Costa Rica has remained among the most stable, prosperous, and progressive nations in Latin America. Following a brief civil war, it permanently  abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Around 25% of the land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. It is renowned for its variety of wildlife.

Quetzal
Quetzal
Our visit took in the San Luis Park, a scenic drive inland of just under 2 hours, with the land getting ever more verdant as we approached the mountains. When we arrived at the park we walked a short trail until we arrived at the hummingbird garden. This was an amazing photo opportunity, since literally dozens of different species were coming to feed from the plastic bottles hung from the trees. Further along the rail we were told to look out for the strikingly coloured quetzel. Easily spotted, you might think,  given its striking colours, but we never saw one. I don’t doubt they are there somewhere though!
Our day was mostly taken up with our nature trail walk, so no time for shopping, which was fine with me!

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Once a fishing village, the town is now a small tourist centre, with the emphasis on ‘small’. There was a tender operation to get us from ship to shore since there was no docking facility, even for a small ships like ours.  We were welcomed by local singers and dancers on the quayside, all in their colourful local costumes. There are not many restaurants, outdoor cafes or stores, which give it a quaint feel. The food is excellent, especially the fresh seafood. We had a relaxing afternoon with a wonderful view of the lagoon, and being serenaded by the wandering minstrels (that’s probably not the real name – two or three locals with Spanish guitars). Overall, a very charming port of call, full of local colour and good food.

Porto Quetzal, Guatemala

There’s not much of interest in the immediate vicinity of the Port, other then a few vendor stalls. We decided on a guided tour out to La Antigua, Gautemala’s colonial capital , about 90mins by bus from Porto Quetzal. La Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its Spanish-influenced Baroque architecture and its many ruins of colonial churches.  The busy central marketplaceis known to locals as the Mercado, and was a great place to sit and observe the local colour and purchase handicrafts. The vendors weren’t too pushy and took no for an answer if you weren’t interested. A pleasant day out.

Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Our original itinerary was to call at Acapulco, but we received news after we left Porto Quetzal that there had been some trouble there; shootings and at least one death, so our captain decided to call at Zihuatanejo instead. This was the first time a cruise liner had called at the port in over 2 years, so we were quite popular with the locals. There were no docking facilities so a tender service were used to transfer passengers to/from the shore. Zihuatanejo spent most of its history as a sleepy fishing village. The area is now the third most visited area in Mexico, after Cancun and Peurto Vallarta. We spent a pleasant afternoon at one of the beach restaurants, eating locally caught fresh seafood, served to us as we reclined one of the sun-loungers on the beach.  Luxury! The locals were all very friendly; we didn’t get bothered by any beach vendors. Altogether a perfect afternoon.

Cabos San Lucas

El Arco de Cabo San Lucas
El Arco de Cabo San Lucas where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Gulf of California.

In the 1930’s, the population of Cabo San Lucas was around 400 people. It soon gained a reputation as a sports fishing haven, accessible only by plane, boat or anyone willing to travel 1000 miles of rutted dirts road to get there. After World War II, word started spreading around Southern California’s elite and Los Cabos became a playground for the rich and famous. By 1950, Bill Cosby, Phil Harris, Desi Arnez and The Duke had built the exclusive hotel Las Cruces on the East Cape. More development followed. In 1974 the peninsular highway was built and Los Cabos became accessible to Middle America.  Now with a population of over 70,000, Los Cabos has been rated as one of Mexico’s top 5 tourist destinations, famous for its beaches, scuba diving, the sea arch ‘El Arco de Cabo San Lucas’, and marine life. This was another tender operation for us, but worth the effort to get ashore. Lots of very good restaurants, shopping, a marina, some beuatiful properties and miles of pristine beaches. What is there not to love!

San Francisco

We reach our final destination for this particular voyage. It’s been a great experience – many wonderful places we’ve never visited before, and I can tick the Panama Canal off on my bucket list! Excellent food and excellent crew on the Regatta. Hope to see them again sometime. We’ve been to San Francisco several time before, but it’s always a great experience, and inevitably rounded off by a visit to Pier 39 and the Crab House!

Panoramic view from the top of Coit Tower, showing (l. to r.) Bay Bridge, Ferry Bldg, Financial District, Russian Hill, Golden Gate Bridge, SF Bay, Alcatraz.

Lowlights

Day one of our holiday when we arrived in Miami was an unwelcome reminder of the pernicious tipping culture prevalent across the USA. Tips are required – or at least expected – for just about any service, even if the service is a basic and fundamental part of the actual job rather than as a value-added extra.  We were also often reminded (maybe because of our British accent) that the normal tipping rate was 18-20%. At dinner on the first evening, our waiter – a young lad of maybe 21, performed the basic tasks of giving us a menu, taking our order, and delivering what we had ordered.

There was no help, explanation or recommendations about the food, just a perfunctory process of writing down the order. At the end of the meal the bill for $55.20 was delivered with a handwritten scrawl suggesting 18% or 20% gratuity. The waiter had conveniently worked this out as $9.94 or $11.04 respectively. I didn’t want to start the holiday on a sour note, so I dutifully gave the waiter $65.55, which was $55.20 + $10 + $0.35 I had in loose change. I was somewhat taken aback to be told by the waiter “we don’t take coins”, which I inferred to mean I should round up my amount to $66.00 in notes.

Instead I took back all of the coins and left him with $65.00. His loss, albeit a small one. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had tendered the exact amount without the “optional” gratuity. Would they have rounded the bill down to $55.00 or (more likely) round it up to $56.00! Anyway, we learnt a lesson – coins are no longer legal tender in some restaurants. This set the scene for the rest of our holiday, where tipping was treated more as an obligation than an option, and had absolutely nothing at all to do with the quality of the service. Hoping that one day the American hospitality sector will cease relying on its customers to subsidise the low pay rates they give their workers and legislate for a decent living wage.

Cruise Itinerary

Our itinerary as follows, see also the map below (use your mouse roll-over to expand).

  • 23rd April – fly to Miami. Overnight stay in Miami.
  • 24th April – Miami, board the Regatta, sail at 6pm.
  • 26th April – Cruising the Straits of Florida
  • 27th April – Cruising the Caribbean Sea
  • 28th April – Cartagena Columbia. Arrive 7am, depart 1pm.
  • 29th April – Transit the Panama Canal
  • 30th April – Cruising the Pacifica Ocean
  • 1st May – Puntarenas, Cost Rica. Arrive 8am, depart 6pm.
  • 2nd May – San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. Arrive 7am, depart 5pm.
  • 3rd May – Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. Arrive 1pm, depart 8pm.
  • 4th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 5th May – Acapulco (changed to Zihuatanejo)  Arrive 8am, depart 5pm.
  • 6th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 7th May – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Arrive 8am, depart 2pm
  • 8th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 9th May – Cruising the Pacific Ocean
  • 10th May – San Francisco. Arrive 8am.
  • 11th May – San Francisco
  • 12th May San Francisco. Depart 5.40pm.
Date From To Nautical Miles
24-Apr-16 Miami, USA Key West, USA 154
25-Apr-16 Key West, USA Cartegena, Columbia 1136
28-Apr-16 Cartagena, Columbia Transit Panama Canal 273
29-Apr-16 Transit Panama Canal Puntarenas, Costa Rica 490
01-May-06 Ountarenas, Costa Rica Peurto Quetzal, Guatemala 521
03-May-16 Peurto Quetzal, Guatemala Zihuatanejo, Mexico 685
05-May-16 Zihuatanejo, Mexico Cabo San Lucas, Mexico 580
07-May-16 Cabo San Lucas, Mexico San Francisco, USA 1161
TOTAL MILES 5000

Photos

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