Friday, July 13, 2018

Three great cruise destinations and why

Celebrity Edge makes its maiden voyage in December with
innovations that will change cruising  (Courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)

CHARLOTTE, NC — Organizing the ideal cruise to suit your individual lifestyle takes more planning than most people think.

Cruising has countless variables to consider; cost, cruise lines, length, ports, ships and their size, amenities, days at sea, shore excursions, dining, entertainment, average age of clientele, service, shipboard activities and on and on.


Celebrity Edge will feature split level suites
(Courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)

Some considerations carry more weight than others but, in general, many cruisers either prefer to cruise for the sake of cruising or to be in a different port each day. For the most part, shore people do not enjoy the idea of being on board a ship when they could be out exploring.

The best way to cruise, at least from a personal perspective, is to seek out itineraries which feature a good mixture of both shore days and sea days. After all, what good is doing a cruise if you don't plan to spend some time on the ship?


Asian cruises are longer
(Phoro: Robert Taylor)
Perhaps the second most important consideration for most people is the length of the cruise. Again, personally a seven day itinerary is the minimum with a maximum of 12 to 14-days as the longest.

Cruise lines that pay close attention to logistics while at sea and in port are ideal because they maximize the cruising experience with minimal confusion for passengers. Logistics, when done efficiently and correctly, are subliminal since they are not typically something clients think about. They are, however, a key factor for cruise lines to ensure the best possible impressions for their clients.


With that basic background in mind, here are three cruise itineraries that have been personally satisfying and why.


Bermuda's Royal Naval Dockyard is its own destination
(Photo: Robert Taylor)

Bermuda: Cruising to Bermuda may sound limiting at first, but in truth it is an ideal itinerary for cruisers and non-cruisers alike. As a one port destination, travelers get the best of both worlds with several days at sea and three days to explore Bermuda on shore.

Celebrity Summit features a capacity of slightly less than 2,200 passengers making it a human-sized vessel for those who are put off by massive numbers of people.


Celebrity Summit sails to
Bermuda  (Courtesy: Celebrity
Cruises)
Summit's maiden voyage was October 2001 with major renovations completed in March 2016 including Celebrity's first rooftop terrace.

Summit sails from Cape Liberty Cruise Port, one of three trans-Atlantic passenger terminals in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Don't be confused if you hear it called Cruise Port Bayonne. That's just another name for it since the port is located Bayonne, NJ.


Shopping is a favorite pastime in Bermuda 
(Phoro: Robert Taylor)
Summit departs Cape Liberty on Sunday afternoons with a couple of days at sea before arriving at King's Wharf in Bermuda each Wednesday morning.

Two and a half days are more than enough time to explore the pink sand beaches and compact destination that made Bermuda shorts a household article of summer clothing.


Local pub
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Bermuda is roughly shaped like a large fish-hook with Kings Wharf situated at the western tip of the island. The name can be a bit misleading because the dock is actually one of two berths that are part of Bermuda's Naval Dockyard.

With the huge influx of visitors now arriving on cruise ships, the dockyard has become a destination unto itself chock full of attractions, museums, restaurants, pubs and boutique shopping.


There are lots of ways to see Bermuda, including ferries
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Access to and from the ships has been greatly simplified with regular miniaturized trains that pick up and drop off passengers at multiple locations.

Once ashore, there is ample opportunity for shore excursions or independent exploration of the two best known towns in Bermuda; Hamilton and St George's.


Out for a stroll with the pups
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Celebrity Summit departs Bermuda in mid-afternoon on Fridays with another day and a half at sea before arriving back at Cape Liberty on Sunday morning for disembarkation.

What makes this cruise unique is that, unlike most sea going adventures, there's only one port to explore, therefore allowing ample time to see anything and everything your lifestyle suggests.


Ancient stocks in St. Georges hearken to another time
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Best of all, by being aboard ship, you can avoid many of the higher priced amenities of this upscale destination which means more bang for your traveling dollar.


Celebrity Millennium sails in Asia part of the year
(Photo: Robert Taylor)

ASIA: For starters, a cruise through Asia is generally not an itinerary for first-time travelers. Secondly, it is virtually impossible to offer accurate information about a specific itinerary because cruise lines change destinations from season to season.


Shipboard activities such as Tango lessons add to the variety
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
As with all three itineraries suggested by this article, there is an equal balance between days at sea and days ashore, which is truly the best way to travel by ship.


Exotic Asian culture
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Asian cruises are typically longer than others primarily because of the distance involved in getting there. That said, the advantage here is the opportunity to visit multiple ports in a single itinerary, including shore excursions which reduce the apprehension that many travelers, even veterans, have in dealing with serious language barriers.

Celebrity's Millennium will begin the 2019 Asian cruise season after a multi-million dollar makeover while her sister ship, the Constellation, has also added upscale amenities for its upcoming sea-going journeys.


Ruin of an ancient civilization
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
A single Asian cruise can take you to as many as six different countries to experience multiple exotic cultures such as Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and beyond.

Each port is unique, with an equal balance of days at sea to rest and relax for the next place on your itinerary.


Fishermen return after a long day to My Khe Beach
(Photo: Vietnamguide.com)
For travelers with a wanderlust spirit of adventure and witnessing destinations completely different from our own, Asia offers a wealth of things to see and to do.

Note, that Asian cruises traditionally appeal to an older and international clientele, so if you are looking for a party, head to the Caribbean. On the other hand, seniors can, and do, get rowdy when they want to.

Celebrity Solstice in port in Ketchikan, Alaska
(Photo: Robert Taylor
ALASKA: For all of its immensity, Alaska may have the easiest shore access than any other cruise destination. Docking facilities are on a human scale that minimize the amount of walking to get to places travelers desire to visit, including towns.

And there is much to see in Alaska. One of America's greatest wilderness destinations offers incomparable scenery, wildlife, history and culture.


Photo ops from the deck of the ship are frequent in Alaska
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Best of all, much of the scenery can be witnessed from the ships, which are rarely out of sight of land. Thus, sea days in Alaska have the added dimension of an opportunity to view glaciers, whales and porpoises from the deck of the ship or while sipping your favorite adult beverage in a lounge.


A view of Dawes Glacier from Celebrity Solstice in Tracey Arm Fjord  (Photo: Robert Taylor)
Like most cruises, Alaskan itineraries change, but in this case, there are definite favorites such as Tracy Arm Fjord and the Inside Passage. Many ships also embark from Vancouver or include a stop in Victoria with a visit to the famous Butchart Gardens being a highlight.


When Celebrity Edge debuts in December it will feature the "Magic Carpet"...a massive outdoor elevator
(Courtesy: Celebrity Cruises
These are just three great cruise itineraries that marry the best of both worlds, cruising and time ashore. The key to success is first to determine your personal interests and then do your homework, do your homework and do some more homework.

Following that, just sit back and sail away into one of the best vacations you will ever experience.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Choosing the ideal cruise

Celebrity Summit at sea, en route to bold new adventures
(Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)

CHARLOTTE, NCIn the world of cruising, "one size does not fit all." Basically there are two types of people who cruise; veterans and novices. Savvy sea-going travelers long ago figured out how, where, why and which ships or cruise lines they prefer. Novices tend to be more cautious and selective, frequently looking for the best deal as their primary frame of reference.

Since most veteran cruisers are set in their ways, for one reason or another, it is hardly necessary to offer tips on how to choose an itinerary or a ship.
Celebrity Millennium in port in Ketchikan, Alaska
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Tips for first-timers is a completely different story, but there are ways to maximize the cruising experience without being overwhelmed by the choices.

Experienced cruisers can tell you the name of virtually every ship in a fleet, what the itineraries are and anything else you want to know, or don't want to know, about travel at sea.
 
New worlds await in each port
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
The first recommendation is to avoid those people at all costs. They can literally ruin a cruise adventure for just about anyone because, for the most part, travel for them is all about status and little else.

"My wife and I have been to the Caribbean so many times, we don't even bother to get off the ship," bragged one snooty passenger recently. That isn't travel, its using a ship as a private restaurant and beach. All of which is fine, but then again, why not just go to a nice resort somewhere?

For people considering a cruise vacation, who are truly interested in travel for travel's sake, here's a basic list of tips for planning your voyage.

Dragon stairway in Danang,
Vietnam  (Photo: Robert Taylor)

Price & Length: Many people are enthralled by the idea of saving money and doing a short cruise to the Bahamas or some small destination in the islands. There's nothing wrong with that, but don't forget the adage "you get what you pay for."

Today's medium sized cruise ships hold about 3,000 passengers and they are basically horizontal floating skyscrapers.

Like any and all forms of travel, the cheapest price is not always the best way to go. Cruising is no different. Check the costs closely and you may quickly discover that a rate that is just a couple of hundred dollars pricier may be worth a thousand or two more value.

Cruising into the future in a split level suite aboard the new
Celebrity Edge which debuts in December
(Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)
Two months after you return from your vacation of a lifetime, that extra money will be long forgotten, but the overall experience will be an eternal memory.

A three or four day cruise may sound like fun, and it will be, but know that by the time you are settled in and oriented to your ship, it will just about be time to disembark. Therefore, plan ahead and think about a 7 to 10 day cruise at a minimum in order to get the maximum benefit of the adventure.

When Celebrity Solstice docks in Juneau, it is the tallest
structure in town  (Photo: Robert Taylor)

Cruise Line & Ship: Do your homework. Go online and research lots of information about various cruise lines and their ships. Tend to avoid reading online comments from other travelers because it is impossible to determine whether their lifestyle matches yours and what level of actual knowledge they have. A first-rate experienced travel or cruise agency is your best source of good, solid information.

Ship's library on Solstice
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
All cruise lines and ships are not the same. As with any form of travel there are bottom of the line and top of the line operators. For most people, somewhere in between usually offers the best value for the money.


My Khe Beach in Vietnam looks much different than it did in the
late 1960's  (Photo: vietnamguide.com)

Ports & Itinerary: You and you alone know best what strikes your fancy so let that be your guiding light to choosing the best cruise option for you.

For example, sailing out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale might save a little money, but if you are going to cruise the Caribbean, why not start closer to your destinations and depart from Puerto Rico? By doing that, it's like getting an extra port from the outset and you can probably visit another island or two in the process.

Bermuda is a fun place to visit
(Photo: Robert Taylor)
Don't forget, different itineraries will generally cater to different personnel. The Caribbean typically has a younger group of cruisers than those sailing in Alaska. European cruises will obviously be more international.

If you are looking for parties and all-night activities, chances are you will do better in the Bahamas and Caribbean than sailing to the Galapagos Islands.

Celebrity Reflection in port (Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)

Sea days vs Port Days: This is one of the most important things to consider when planning a cruise. If you just want to enjoy the ship and its amenities, an itinerary with more days at sea is ideal. Most first-timers however, prefer to use the ship to visit several places in one tour where they can see multiple ports in a single trip.

Dramatic Mendenhall Glacier
in Alaska (Photo: Robert Taylor)
Check to see how many ports a ship visits during any given cruise and make your selection based upon the destinations and number of places you wish to see.

A note of caution, always avoid cruising on an itinerary that offers two ports in a day. One port in a day can be limiting enough, but two is next to impossible.

Celebrity will change the face of cruising forever when the Edge
sails its maiden voyage in December
(Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)
Logistics: This is arguably the most overlooked category of any cruise planning process. Talk to a travel professional or someone you trust who can give you the low-down on the ships that are most capable of handling large number of passengers in ways that minimizes the sense of congestion.

Cruise lines offer all manner of shipboard activities and the ones that are best are those that diversify interests, especially on sea days, to greatly reduce the feeling of being crowded.

Celebrity Edge's "Magic Carpet" will be like a gigantic multi-story exterior elevator  (Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)
There are numerous cruise lines from which to choose, but for starters check out Celebrity which does an excellent job of making their passengers happy with great service and cruises that can be done without breaking the bank.

Bon voyage!                                                                                                  


Friday, June 29, 2018

Oslo is small but it packs a big punch

Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II is exhibited in Oslo, Norway 
(commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RaII.InMuseum.jpg -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license  Image:  China Crisi)

OSLO, NORWAY Good things often come in small packages, and in the jewel box known as Scandinavia, Oslo is a tiny gem.

The Norwegian capital has a lot going for it these days. Especially considering it once languished in the shadow of its larger sisters Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

One factor for its newfound prestige is that "Lonely Planet" recently named Oslo one of its Top Ten best cities to visit in 2018. Thanks to "innovative architecture and unmissable museums alongside cool bars, bistros and cafés.

Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo
(visitOslo.com)
Combined with the status of being one of Europe's leading maritime centers as well as a major base for many Norwegian oil and gas companies, in recent years Oslo has been named one of the "European Cities of the Future."

Oslo is compact making it easy for travelers with limited time to see a lot without having to rush. On the other hand, travelers with the luxury of being able to dawdle can surround themselves within a city that has a variety of interesting sites. The key in Oslo is diversity.


The Stave Church at the Norsk Folkemuseum is more than
800 years old (Image: Mischa L. Rieser)


Begin with the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) which features more than 150 buildings that have been relocated from all over the country. The most popular attraction in the outdoor folk-center is Gol Stave Church which dates to sometime around 1200.

Among the lesser known aspects of Scandinavian culture is discovering the fascinating heritage of the Sami people. Americans more likely know them better as Lapps.

Not far from the city center, within easy walking distance, is Frogner Park. Frogner Park is the largest and best-known park in Norway, thanks primarily to the massive collection of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.


The fountain in Vigeland Park 
(commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vigeland_Park_fountain_5.JPG -- 
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license  Image: Nickrds09)


Vigeland Park, the largest sculpture park in the world made by a single artist, was the life work of its creator. With 212 sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron, most of the complex was completed between 1939 and 1949.


Bronze sculptures line the Vigeland Bridge (commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bronze_Sculptures_Stand_on_Right_Side_of_the_Bridge_-_Vigeland_Park,_Oslo.jpg
 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license -- Image: Ignaz Wiradi)
Most of the sculptures are nudes, but lest you think there is anything salacious in the work, the figures range in age from very young to very old. Vigeland's idea was to represent the cycles of life from birth to old age through his art, thus displaying many of his pieces in less than sensational or seductive appearance.

A newer, more landscaped park known as Ekebergparken Sculpture Park features works by Norwegian and international artists such as Salvador Dali.


One of the lesser known facts about is Vigeland is that he also designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal.



Home of the Nobel Peace Prize
(commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oslo_nobel_peace_center.jpg
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike  3.0 Unported  2. 5 Generic
 license and 1.0 Generic licesnse
Image: JZ at wikivoyage shared)
Speaking of the Nobel Peace Prize, every December 10th, the award is presented in the town hall in Oslo. All the other Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm.

December 10 marks the day of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. Oddly enough, he went to his grave without  explaining exactly why the Peace Prize was to be given in Oslo with the others being presented in Stockholm, leaving the reason up for speculation.

Several renowned writers either lived or were born in Oslo including Knut Hamsun and Henrik Ibsen.


Exterior of the Munch Museum in Oslo
(commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Munch-museet-jody.JPG --  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license -- Image: Jodyno)

Recently the Munch Museum honoring provocative expressionist artist Edvard Munch opened in Oslo featuring, of course, his most famous work "The Scream." Upon his death, Munch donated his entire collection to the city.


The Scream by Edvard
Munch  (
Image: Robert Taylor)
The museum itself with its wave-like curl at the top is a perfect example of Oslo's newfound reputation for  architectural diversity. In 1814, when Oslo was made the capital with the name of Christiania, there were hardly any buildings at all that were suitable enough for government institutions. Architecturally, Oslo has come a long way in the past two centuries.

You can always tell a city that has great attractions when it offers museums that appeal to non-museum lovers. Oslo has two.
The famous  reed boat, Ra II, sailed by Thor Heyerdahl
(Image: Daderot)
The Kon-Tiki Museum showcases both of Thor Heyerdahl's historic boats in a single fascinating exhibition. In 1947, the famous adventurer crossed the Pacific Ocean on the balsawood raft Kon Tiki.

He later accomplished a similar achievement when he piloted Ra, Ra II and Tigris across the Atlantic in papyrus and reed boats in an effort to prove that ancient civilizations could indeed make contact over long distances.

Heyerdahl also explored the Galapagos where Charles Darwin set forth many of his theories, and he did archeological excavations on remote Easter Island as well.


The Gokstad is one of three Viking ships on display at the Viking Ship Museum
(commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gokstad_Ship_Side_View.JPG -- 
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.-- ImageL Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

The Viking Ship Museum is the second place of interest for non-museum fans. Three ships trace the history of the age of the Vikings. The Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune along with numerous other relics from the era are more than enough to appeal to even the toughest museum critic.


Oslo has its own fjord in case you can't get to the west coast to
visit Bergen 
(fjords.com)
With more than 20 theaters, including the National Theatre of Norway situated between the Royal Palace and Parliament as well as six Michelin rated restaurants with Maaemo being the only three star restaurant in Norway's history, Oslo can keep travelers occupied for many days. And with a host of lively festivals each year, such as the six-day Oslo Jazz Festival, Oslo is truly making its mark for recognition among its better known sister cities.

The city nestles like a horseshoe along the shores of the Oslofjord with forests and hills radiating in most directions. Consequently, no place in the city is far from the countryside and, best of all, scenery lovers who cannot make it all the way west to Bergen and the fjords can get a taste of Norway's best known picturesque wonders in Oslo itself.

It all comes down to the fact that a traveler can no longer ignore little Oslo because its "fjords have a better idea."


Friday, June 22, 2018

Hiking in the heavens of Kandersteg, Switzlerland

Kandersteg is surrounded by mountains that appear to plunge from the sky  (from wikimedia commons Image: Earth Traveler)
KANDERSTEG, SWITZERLAND — Every now and then travelers will happen on to a place they overlooked in their guidebook and immediately fall in love with it. Kandersteg, Switzerland is one of those places.

The tiny village of roughly 1,200 inhabitants is sandwiched between the valley of the River Kander, situated to the west of the Jungfrau and the entrance, or exit, to the Lotschberg Tunnel. Basically, what that means is, if you are traveling to or from the capital city of Bern toward the canton of Valais, you cannot help but come to a halt in Kandersteg.

The Lotschberg Tunnel links
Kandersteg to Bern
(MySwitzerland.com)
Thanks to the construction of the 10-mile Lotschberg rail tunnel in the early 20th century, which connects Brig to the south with Bern in the north, Kandersteg's touristic economy has thrived even though its name doesn't always slip off your tongue.

Nearly a century after the opening of the original tunnel, the Swiss constructed a second tunnel in 2007 that is approximately 1,300 feet beneath the first. Today the new tunnel has become the primary connection between the two Swiss states.

Car shuttle train in Kandesteg
(Creative Commons
Image: Roland Zumbuhl)
Using typical Swiss ingenuity and engineering skills, the Lotschberg Tunnel is a masterpiece of architectural design. Travelers who require their cars during the snowy winter season, need not worry about using them. The Lotschberg Car Shuttle train transports passengers who remain in their cars  in open sided transport vehicles on the train.

Travel time from one end of the tunnel to the other is about 20 minutes, with transport service operating in each direction every  7 1/2 minutes during peak periods.

Since the northern end of the Lotschberg station unloads its cars in Kandersteg, it's little wonder the tiny Swiss village benefits from a steady influx of visitors.

The tunnel is 10 miles long and was renovated in 2007
(from wikimedia commons Image: Adrian Michael)
At nearly 4,100-feet above sea level at its highest point, the Lotschberg Tunnel boasts of being the highest point of the main Swiss national railway system.

Even without the tunnel however, Kandersteg would still thrive as a recreational haven for skiing and hiking thanks to its setting beneath majestic alpine landscapes which seem to plunge into the village.

Gorgeous lakes, hiking trails and cable cars abound in the Kandersteg region (MySwitzerland.com)
Kandersteg is cable car heaven, where you can elevate your spirits to dozens of magnificent lakes amid stunning sylvan scenery that immerses you in optimistic vibes.

Trite as it may sound, here you can almost hear the sounds of alphorns and yodeling among the serenity of the hills filled with wildflowers or snow.

Lake Oeschinen is the largest in the valley and a favorite
spot for visitors  (MySwitzerland.com)
Lake Oeschinen, the largest lake in the valley, is located about a mile east Kandersteg at the foot of Bluemlisalp Mountain.

Lake Oeschinen, which many Swiss consider the most beautiful lake in the country, can be easily accessed by the Kandersteg-Oeschinen cable car, which is one of numerous other mountainous cable car adventures in the region.

Blue Lake is world famous
(MySwitzerland.com)
Also nearby and accessible by bus from the railway station, is world-famous Lake Blausee (literally "Blue Lake") which, like so many mountain villages in the region has fervently retained it rural character.

In fact, the International Scout Centre is situated at the edge of town where it hosts more than 11,000 scouts from all over the world each year. The Swiss Alpine Club offers rustic accommodations in several mountain huts that are located in the valley.

Riding the train from Bern through the Kander Valley to Kandersteg is an adventure all its own. The tracks are elevated so passengers look down into scenery that becomes almost a world of "Lilliputian" proportions. A sensation of an omnipotence is not uncommon as riders peer into  miniaturized landscapes of rolling farmland set beneath massive mountains and snowcapped peaks.

Winter is also a great time to visit Kandersteg (MySwitzerland.com)
Kandersteg fulfills the growing desire to get off the train and explore. The village beckons as it emerges with its "Toonerville Trolley" setting that is both awe inspiring and humbling at the same time.

Among the most famous routes for rambunctious travelers who wish to stay on the move, is across the Gemmi Pass that runs to Leukerbad in Valais with cable car transportation operating at each end.

 Another popular outing, that is a bit more adventurous, is traveling through the wild Gastern Valley across the Lotschen Pass to the Lotschental. The Lotschental is the largest valley on the northern side of the Rhone Valley in the Bernese Alps. It, too, is in the canton of Valais.


Bernese Oberland
(wikimedia commons
Image: Cristo Vlahos)
Kandersteg packs a lot of punch in a very small package. It's a year-round destination complete with typically clean, comfortable Swiss accommodations to suit any budget.

It is a great stop for a day trip coming from Bern or from Brig, but even better is to plan to spend a couple of nights to discover an aquatic playground nestled in fresh mountain air and stunning alpine vistas.


In fact, next time someone tells you to "take a hike", Kandersteg, Switzerland is a great place to start.