Wednesday, August 12, 2015

British Isles Cruise 2015 – Final Chapter – Crystal Cruises, Canterbury & Belfast

On Delta Airlines flying home:  I’m in a groggy shell shocked state of mind after a ten hour flight from London to Seattle, oozing with fatigue but happy that the transport from Canterbury to London Heathrow went well, and that we found our way to the gate and even spent an hour in the business class lounge before our on- time departure.  I must admit that the food was pretty good on the flight to Seattle and mighty plentiful.  But now I feel guilty that the extra pounds of flesh amassed during the cruise and the immediate aftermath, taken together, will agonizingly require at least a month of fasting to shed. Indeed, I sense the imminence of tomorrow’s remorse creeping upon me already, tummy prodding on and over my trousers, evidence of the damage that I have done to myself and its consequences.   But lets not jump the gun……..

One of many murals in Belfast telling the story of
the Protestant Catholic struggle

Crumlin Road Jail - A nearby surprise for those condemmed

Crumlin Road Prison
shipyard where Titanaic and other ships built in Belfast Harbor
Belfast: Belfast was the last city in Northern Ireland (remember Northern Ireland is occupied by the Brits unlike independent Ireland that resides in the south) visited since Londonderry was bypassed due to inclement weather preventing us from docking at our scheduled visit.  Belfast seemed a city in chronic mourning that is recovering slowly from the mayhem of the past.  We witnessed this theme during a walking tour that lasted three hours going from place to place, reliving the sentinel moments of violence, bombing, and shootings that fueled the hatred between the Protestants and Catholics.  To us, there was no adequate explanation or rationale for such hatred or violence………which nevertheless continues to embody the nature of man, proven over and over in history, never more palpable than now in the present.

But perhaps our most enjoyment –hummm maybe a better work is education or enlightenment… in Belfast came from spending the better part of three hours at the Titanic Museum where we relived the evolution and full history of the Titanic from pre-birth to postmortem.  It was truly a memorable museum experience.

Just by chance, Sally and John, very close friends of my wife Scherer were also on the
cruise.  This was mighty eerie since it was EXACTLY 20 years since her passing. 

Crystal Cruises: It was our fourth Crystal Cruise and I must admit there were a few differences that we observed.  But not all of them were negative.  Indeed, some guests were a bit more (and I think unfairly) critical as they described a progressive downward spiral in service and food quality that they have observed after umpteen Crystal cruises.  For me, it was undoubtedly the best of the four Crystal Cruises.  I won’t go into a detailed justification for this conclusion but just some general comments.

The food was excellent but maybe not spectacular.  The Silk Road on the Crystal Symphony maybe a bit better but Prego on the Serenity was better.  The entertainment was fabulous: singers and dancers, comedy shows, magicians, piano player, ventriloquist, political commentator, other staff including the gentlemen hosts, professional dancers, and cruise director – Gary Hunter (he was fabulous).  There were even a few shows using local talent: a fabulous Beatles show when we were in Liverpool, and a traditional Irish dance and song show when in Ireland.  I really cannot complain about anything except the inevitable let down that we felt the moment we left the ship realizing that your every whim will not be immediately satisfied by a host of pampering staff.  Back to the real world where you have to wait in line just like everyone else. Back to the real world where people eat two or three meals a day instead of twelve.   And it was particularly difficult on this cruise to control ones’ tendency to pick just one more item on the endless sumptuous buffet display, when so much food was constantly blinding you at every moment of the day, begging you to partake.

I got quite a few dances with the professional
dancer, Beverly Durand - that was quite
We observed more families this time; the rooms were not dominated entirely by the typical geriatrics crowd. Does this represent a growing trend of younger people wanting to enjoy their lives before it’s too late to do so?  More Asians than in the past as well, a lot of Chinese, many from Hong Kong.

When they gave out the awards, some cruisers were on their hundredth cruise, one lady was on her two hundredth.  A few of the ladies have sold their houses and make the cruise ship their home.  This is what I believe will be the beginning of a growing trend.  If you think about it, it makes sense.

If you are reasonably ambulatory and self sufficient, living on a cruise ship that travels the world compares positively with being relegated to the confines of a nursing home.  To be sure, the advantages and perks are much more attractive on a high-end cruise ship than the unequal treatment that you might get in a nursing home, which is legend.   And in Honolulu at least, it is less expensive to live on a cruise ship!!!  Do the math and you will see that nursing home costs may run you about 20k/month or more.  I figure that the average expense for a month on the Crystal Serenity would be about 16k, but to be conservative, lets say its 20k.  So if you can afford a nursing home, you can afford a cruise ship.  And you get service with a smile, food in your room or at one of a half dozen venues, entertainment, lectures, dancing, bridge, computer instruction classes, swimming, afternoon tea, and the ability to venture out into the world to explore a new city adventure, or to return for another look.  Moreover, you get to meet new people and they are genuinely friendly since they are on holiday on their best behavior…..a far cry from seeing the same desperate looking faces every day wondering whether that day would be their last on earth.  On a cruise ship, dying is the last thing on anyone’s mind.  

An old house leaning forward and to the right

CanterburyCathedral - unbelievable in its design and detail

Canterbury Cathedral as seen from walking street

named after the Archbishop who died at the hands of Henry II

A guest house of the Queen that was used by some of her suiters
generating a number of salacious tales

the venue from our row boat tour

Canterbury: I never like to disembark from a cruise to the airport and fly out on the same day.  Shit happens and I feel that it reduces stress to buffer in one day of transition.  It was only a 20 min drive from Dover to our hotel in Canterbury where we spent the day, a splendid sunny day exploring the Canterbury Cathedral and the beautiful sights of Canterbury.  Walking cobblestone quaint streets were filled with an international mix of tourists, groups of children and adolescents, venders trying to get ones attention, restaurants and tour guides.  To be sure, there was an endless stream of things to do and see.  We took a wonderful walking tour that was led by an energetic and knowledgeable middle aged local who really knew her English History, was engaging and professional and kept us alert and interested for the two hours of touring.  Having to shoulder my heavy backpack, I was pretty spent by the end of the two-hour tour.  Back to the hotel to check in and unload most of our valuables in the sanctity of the room, and a few moments of rest revived the rest of the day for more adventures.

A tour by rowboat provided access to other sights along a bisecting city waterway but the quality of the tour was just a little too casual and the young man rowing the boat doubled as the tour guide.  I think he was a little spent since ours was his ninth tour of the day.  He was also distracted by a pretty British girl that was sitting just to his right, who could have been wearing a little more cover – to protect herself from the sun and the piercing eyes of the hormonally clogged guide pretending to not notice.  I must admit I glanced once or twice myself.

In any case, we ended the day at a local Italian restaurant.  The restaurant was of decent quality and price and the cliental were international and subdued.  The culinary experience may not have compared to the Crystal Serenity but it was good enough and a welcome change from eating on the Cruise ship.  And our dollars are worth more today than in the past, making our stay in Canterbury an enjoyable experience that did not break our bank.  This is an opportunity for more Americans to travel to Europe while the dollar is strong!  What a difference a few years makes in affordability.

The truth is that Canterbury is a beautiful town to visit and enjoy, and the experience punctuated the end of our two weeks of travel with an exclamation of pure delight.

A few more photos follow of Weymouth and the English countryside.............

Weymouth, a lovely English coastal town


Weymouth beach
Final photos: other views of the English countryside

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

British Isles Cruise 2015 - Chapter 3: Dublin – the Best City

What makes a great city?   My answer; you will know one when you see one.  Dublin is a great city!

I’ve had enough travel experience to know. I’ve been to New York and I’ve been to London.  I’ve been to Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Athens, Brussels, Stockholm, Oslo, Hamburg, Munich, Beirut, Montreal, Ho Chi Min City, Da Nang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Anchorage, Toronto, Milan, Istanbul, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Jerusalem, Auckland, Sydney, Cairo, Tangier, Casablanca, Barcelona, Siem Reap, Madrid, Lisbon, Dallas, Bangkok, San Jose, San Antonio, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jackson, New Orleans, San Francisco, Budapest, Tucson, Bergen, Amsterdam, Florence, Salzburg, Dubrovnik, Vienna, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, San Diego, Quito, Lima, Helsinki, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio De Janeiro, Charleston, St Louis, Salt Lake City, Prague, Phoenix, Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nara, Kyoto, Beijing, Shanghai, Durham, Columbus, Pittsburg, Washington DC, Baltimore………and these are only the ones I could think of in the first five minutes.

I wasn’t all that impressed with Dublin on day one of our stay.  Navigating in a clunky tourist bus amid the congested traffic and stopping for a few minutes to quickly view a few sights was unsatisfactory and unsettling.  Even posing next to Oscar Wilde was rushed and felt inconsequential.  We drove to one of the most beautiful places on earth and took some pictures (Wicklow Mountains and St Kevin’s monastery preceding back to the 6th Century).  Still the fatigue from the long curvy drive neutralized the benefit of the journey while rendering my knees and ankles frozen from the lack of movement of the long drive.  And then there was the vibratory torture from the bus’s pulsations transmitted from the road, which battered my leg muscles lifeless and intensely burning as if they had been slapped repetitively for 90 minutes with a wooden stick.

The next day was much better.  The city is divided into zones or quarters: Creative, Georgian, Shopping, Temple Bar, Antique, Historic, and Viking & Medieval Quarter.  We only got to see a smidgen during our second-day outing.

The weather was uncharacteristically sunny and cool, perfect for a walking tour.  The commentary from the tour guide was energetic, engaging and even funny.  The city was easy to walk, just enough to enthrall the senses, but not overwhelming or suffocating.  You were able to focus on the subject at hand. The city was fluid and had something for everyone.  Shopping in a beautifully crafted glass and iron shopping center just off of the walking street was pleasant and comfortable………although the shops were not as interesting as the shopping center structure.

If it was a museum you were looking for, the Natural History Museum or the National Gallery of Ireland were wonderful, free of charge (true of many museums in Dublin) and an easy to enter and begin to browse.  There were many that we didn’t go to that we wished we had (Irish Whisky Museum, National Wax Museum). Without all of the security clearance devices and ticket purchase booths and other roadblocks that are typical of well known attractions, it felt so easy wonder on the street one moment, and into the museum the next with virtually no down time or obstructive deterrents.  No one was looking at you or over your shoulder. It was indeed a pleasurable experience to navigate anywhere in the city without feeling like you were a foreigner, a tourist, a revenue source, or a potential terrorist. 

Trinity College was a lovely college filled with bright youth, and long lines of visitors waiting to see the Book of Kells.  We also ventured into the National Library, a historic building what was filled with displays of James Joyce, and WB Yeats. 

A dozen or more parks were found everywhere in the city (parks in Dublin were purposefully situated every so many blocks!), like the one that housed the statue of Oscar Wilde.  Some were large (St. Stephen’s Green) and some were small but all provided a friendly green and calming backdrop to a vibrant city filled with young people and not some not so young like us. 

A German woman asked our tour guide why no pedestrians in Dublin heed the traffic signals.  The tour guide responded with a lighthearted response……….  In Dublin, traffic signals are considered guidelines, not required legal commandments. 

Then our tour guide stopped at a curious statue of a fictitious Molly Malone and told an odd story that spawned a song which became the unofficial anthem of Dublin City.

There were many walking streets lined with curious shops and outdoor cafes (Grafton Street).  Everywhere there were musicians playing music and looking for handouts and maybe to be discovered.  The Temple Bar area was also a must for party enthusiasts with bar after bar filled with tourists and probably some locals drinking a pint of Guinness beer, chatting and laughing and pretending there was no tomorrow.

The Irish are an exceedingly friendly people who have no qualms about striking up a conversation anywhere anytime.  The city filled with the new and the old (buildings and landmarks) and the young and old (locals and tourists) all blending into a lovely community that was easy to navigate, friendly and inviting.  Indeed, each street corner included a multidirectional sign that pointed you in the proper direction of the most popular tourist attractions and important landmarks.  Even if you didn’t sport a map of Dublin, you could find your way around using these directional indicators without difficulty.  Signs were everywhere in Dublin; nobody got lost if you could read English.

And of course, directions were clearly marked to find the one landmark no one visiting Dublin should miss; the Guinness Brewery that commands a large block of land in downtown Dublin!

Dublin is truly a great city!  One of my most favorites - belonging to the highest category that includes: Prague, Florence, Copenhagen, Vancouver and San Francisco. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

British Isles Cruise 2015 – Chapter 2: History of Slavery in Liverpool!

Three more days have passed and you must think I drank some bad tonic to enlist such an inappropriate subtitle! But please be patient.

Liverpool, Glasgow and Dublin have now been visited.  I’m happy to say that I have finally set foot on Scottish and Irish soil and it was truly a wonderful experience.   But I expected as much after so much chatter from friends about how beautiful Scotland and Ireland are - both in the cities and in the countryside, its kind and proud people, and its key role in local and world history.  Nevertheless, for now, I’ll leave these memories locked up inside, and dedicate the rest of this blog Chapter 2 to Liverpool. (I have one more day in Dublin and maybe I will be inspired to write something later).

Liverpool: I was prepared for Liverpool as an industrial wasteland, dirty, dreary and depressing!  It was the home of the Beatles, and that’s the only reason worth going there.

Nothing was further from the truth…really!  As for some examples, a few pictures, when posted, will showcase the beauty and majesty of the two cathedrals, one representing the Church of England and the other one Catholic.  But more broadly, the city was filled with old and well preserved buildings centuries old, but it also had its share of those in some disrepair.  Town squares, statutes of famous dignitaries, the hustle and bustle of a vibrant city and a very well done harbor area prepared perfectly to accommodate a growing number of visitors making Liverpool an easy and enjoyable city to visit and navigate.  Some lovely historical residential areas were in the process of revival and repair, not unlike other cities in England or elsewhere on the globe.  Liverpool was quite a nice city overall, nothing to be embarrassed about, as for example one truly in disrepair - Blackpool, which I have disparagingly written about previously.

Of course, memorabilia and historical landmarks about the Beatles dominate the city with places to go and things to see.  Nearly every street is dotted with reminders of the places and events that were crucial in the evolution of the Beatles.  The Beatles Museum was quite wonderful and entertaining…and brought back memories of when I first heard the Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan Show as a senior in High School, three months before graduating and going off to college.  And of course, everyone needs to go the Cavern, the underground venue that the Beatles became famous playing in.

Having squandered the better part of the morning at the Beatles Museum, in anticipation of our scheduled afternoon half-day city tour, we drifted back to the ship for lunch.  On the way, we visited several other museums without the time to fully invest in them, which was truly a shame.  They included the maritime museum that included displays and historical relics from the Lusitania as well as the Titanic.  The other museum that was located on the top floor of the complex was the Slavery Museum!!!!  What was that all about??????

It turns out that Liverpool was extremely engaged in slave trading of the 18th Century.  In fact, it was the European slave trading capital, responsible for over half of the three million slaves transported from Africa and then sold, including those sent to North America.  In its busiest period in the late 1700’s, hundreds of ships were working simultaneously to transport Africans around the globe. Of course, without the time to fully invest into the museum, I have very little insight into how this plays into the history of the city or its moral recompense.  I do know that slave trading made many folks very rich and bolstered the English economy until slavery was finally abolished in 1807.  To be honest, it makes me extremely uncomfortable to write about this without further explanation or context.  It becomes even more painful to admit that anything so offensive as slave trading had any positive impact on the health and wellbeing of a major British city; indeed, this is beyond repugnant!

Am I the only human on earth that didn’t know about Liverpool’s role in slave trading????  And so I am now completely embarrassed that my knowledge of Liverpool was heretofore limited to its portrayal as a boring industrial town, whose most important claim to fame was that it was the home of the Beatles.

Maybe I should not be so hard on myself.  Certainly, Liverpool does not want to dwell on its roll as a slave trading capital for the same reason it was a slave trading capital – because it created economic prosperity. Obviously, dwelling on this theme in the present would have the opposite effect.  The Beatles venues now sit as the major attractions for tourists and other visitors to spend their money on.  They will remain forever a major attraction and cash cow.  The city would like nothing more than to bury its dark history of the past and concentrate on the story of the most celebrated musical group in the history of the world! 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

British Isles Cruise 2015 – Chapter 1

Dover Castle on the horizon
I’ve travelled to India and China but I have never been to the Grand Canyon.  In the same vein, I have been to almost every major eastern and western country in Europe but I have failed to visit Ireland and Scotland. I hope to correct the former deficiency sometime in the near future. For the now, this present outing will rectify the latter shortsighted failing. 
After a not too unpleasant two-legged flight from Honolulu to London, we found our way to Dover for the night. In the morning, we cabbed to the Dover Castle for a few hours of tourist gazing, which we found fascinating. To be sure, the massive Dover Castle was filled with history and intrigue. The historically accurate refurbished interior of the massive Keep, the underground tunnels including a fully equipped hospital, the strong fortifications and impermeable barriers that held a perfect record of withstanding foreign invaders, King Henry II contentious relationship with Thomas Becket (St Thomas of Canterbury) who he later had brutally killed fill pages of wonderful and interesting historical truths (assuming this possibility).

Finding our way back to the cruise ship harbor, our cruise ship eventually slipped into the sea revealing a long awaited extended view of the White Cliffs of Dover.  On close inspection, the cliffs needed a little whitewashing.  But to me they were spectacular less for their “off-white color” but rather from the spooned out appearance that formed the cliffs, with carved out drastically vertical cuts rudely interrupting the otherwise smooth and fluid rolling green horizontal terrain.   

DAY 3: We missed the first two ports of call due to inclement weather.  That was sad for us because we were looking forward to visiting Guernsey due to its significance in WWII being the only British land that was occupied by the Germans as beautifully described in the literary best seller – “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” book that almost everyone I know has read.  So the captain decided to divert the Crystal Serenity to Cork, Ireland in its stead.  We were then left with an additional day at sea (AKA sea day) to ponder our fate in a rough ocean spilling over with a treacherous blend of wind and rain that carelessly slapped the Crystal Serenity to-and-fro, fro-and-to, and to-and-fro. Indeed, it was the perfect storm set to do the most damage to the greatest number of cruisers as the ship rocked back and forth repeatedly like a toy in a bathtub occupied by a agitated toddler!

It was unsettling to walk down the ships corridors; thank God for the strategically placed guardrails.  Of course it was near hell for me to even attempt participating in social dancing at the Palm Court; everyone looked worse than a beginner trying to dance after inhaling a bottle of vodka.  But otherwise, life went on as usual in the world of the luxury cruise ship and people did what people do best in this or any other situation – they ate.  And ate they did!

Nor rain, nor wind, nor malfunctioning toilets, nor unexpected and unpredictable electrical problems, widespread nausea and seasickness, physical limitations and obvious chronic medical conditions, age, sex or body type, in short nothing in the world short of a titanic level disaster would stop the unrelenting procession of cruisers from one meal venue to the next.  To be sure, there was almost nowhere that you could venture on the cruise ship that you were not inundated by the sounds and sights and smells of more food than you could ever imagine being consumed. 

For lunch, there were at least five venues you could eat at or you could eat at all of them in sequence and not be noticed for overindulging.  Everything looked yummy, but not everything was tasty at all times. I focused on the fruit in the morning, one egg white from a boiled egg separated from its yolk, and ½ piece of an English muffin (OK, I admit that I also ate the other half!).  Most people ate some amount of meat like bacon or sausage.  Meat was the big item that was consumed at lunchtime as well as dinner. Beef, lamb, veal, pork, chicken, there was never a shortage.  The same could be said for shellfish; shrimp, lobster, clams, muscles, scallops, and crab.

And to be sure, for every one salmon burger that was prepared and served at lunchtime, a hundred meaty cheeseburgers and fries found their way into the GI track of an ostensible lot of ravaged cruisers that acted like they were eating their first meal in two months.  I can even visualize the burger grease melting into the blood and traveling to the descending coronary artery to settle in for a long stay by burrowing its tentacles into the vessel’s intimal wall, thereby limiting normal blood flow - by reducing the radius of the vessel caused by the glob of gunk glued permanently to the inner wall.

Now, you know I’m prone to exaggerating this eating craze on Crystal Cruises because of my own obsessive and pitiful bias against those gluttonous individuals who lack the wisdom and willpower to moderate their fuel intake.  These folks eat with abandon and do not give a shit whether their waistline expands weekly like they would wish their stock portfolio would do.  In fact, most people on the ship displayed a modicum of restraint.

But still it has becomes more difficult with every days’ passing to maintain any hope that I can continue indefinitely to watch my diet and care one iota about my waste line and all that!  Most days it takes the most strength to pass up the temptation to just let it all hang out – grab for food like everyone else and enjoy the tastes that I have sworn to avoid for the sake of some distant benefit that will translate itself to a few days more on earth sans disability…….

DAY 4: Well, even if kissing the Blarney Stone at the Blarney Castle in Cork didn’t make me more eloquent, it hasn’t changed my overly verbose writing style and my propensity for writing long winded and difficult to follow run on sentences.  I will continue to work on this.

But in Cork, the Blarney Castle and its grounds were filled quite lovely, interesting and very peaceful, including the Poison Garden, the eye ball garden fronting the castle, and the beautiful and expanded landscape filled with mature trees perfectly situated to pose on. If you are interested, Cork is Ireland’s second largest city. 

DAY 5: The seas are better on the next day, as it feels like we’re on nearly solid ground.  Viva la difference!  Arriving in Holyhead, Wales.

The light of the Lighthouse

In Holyhead, our excursion took us to visit the South Stack Lighthouse.  To get there, we took a bus and then had to trek more than 1000 steps (down and up to get back and forth).  It was blustery day but the jaunt was still doable, well worth the effort.  And the effort that was taken ended up atoning for the big lunch that I have just consumed which I shall not describe, one I am not proud of, or want to experience again!!!  The majestic beauty of the surrounding area, not to mention the commotion made by thousands of birds nestled into the side of the adjoining cliffs and flying about was a special and spectacular treat.  A few pictures are indeed worth a thousand words.

And so ends Chapter 1 of my travel adventure.  Now I need to ready myself for Liverpool and the home of the Beatles.