River Cruising in Europe Part Two

A Cautionary Tale Part Two

Note: See Part One Here

Low & High Water

We just got home from a European river cruise and it didn’t go as we had hoped. Sometimes the rivers experience high water conditions that prevent the long boats from passing under bridges. In our case, Europe has been suffering a long drought in the Danube and Rhine Regions, and the rivers were so low they kept the long boats from sailing in certain areas.

Our Experience

It is not my intent to single out Viking River Cruises but they are the company we cruised with this year. We were also novices to river cruising and were totally unprepared regarding a couple of areas where we experienced serious problems. We offer what has happened to us as a cautionary tale which will hopefully help others in their planning.

To start, we were very surprised at the number of longboats and cruise boats plying these European rivers. There were places where there were as many as six boats tied up three abreast at the docking area. Along one stretch of the Danube River, in the course of a mile, we passed five of these cruise boats headed in the opposite direction. Not that it affected us, but the traffic was almost unbelievable.

There are a few major companies offering river cruises and more than a dozen smaller ones. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are probably the two largest with the most experience. In addition to these, the list includes AmaWaterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Tauck World Discovery, Crystal River Cruises, Scenic Cruises and a number of newer operators. Generally they have similar policies regarding cancellation, itinerary changes and what is covered in a cruise package.

Getting the cruise you want usually requires making a selection over a year in advance so there is no way of knowing the water conditions ahead of time. Most lines reserve the right to modify the itinerary as conditions warrant. To fulfill the contract, this can include putting you on buses and in hotels instead of on boats. Once you show up to take the cruise, except in the case of a medical emergency, you are in their hands through to the end.

Air Fares

Many lines include airfare and transfers in the package price. In our case with Viking we asked if we could remove the air portion as we were considering taking a trans-Atlantic cruise back to the States. Viking’s policy without exception required us to pay for the air portion even if we weren’t going to use it.

Since this was our first river cruise we didn’t know that there were options in approaching airline ticketing. We were advised of a $100.00 per person deviation fee for Viking to schedule us into Budapest a week early. Apparently there is also a program called Air Plus which costs $50.00 and provides you a bit more flexibility with the airline reservations but can also increase the cost of the airfare.

In our case the reservations booked by Viking were terrible and nothing we would ever have arranged for ourselves. Going to Europe we were routed Florida to Frankfort with a connection to Budapest. We had an impossibly short time between flights so we missed our connection. For the return flight we were booked at 7:00 AM out of Amsterdam to Munich, connecting to a flight to Frankfort to catch our flight back to Florida adding up to a twenty-two hour travel day where a normal trip would be less than 13 hours. When we asked for changes to the schedule, we were advised that any alterations would require a change/upgrade fee of $600.00.

Added Tours

Also included in many itineraries are local tours in the cities visited. While this is normally a good feature, in our case Viking’s insistence on providing these tours ended up adding additional hours on buses getting to many of the tour sites. You could stay on the boat and choose not to participate but that meant you missed one of the places on the original itinerary. Some smaller cruise companies either don’t provide tours or charge extra and that should be a consideration when making plans.

Cabin Types

Most cabins on river boats are small and the options are usually a matter of the window size, having a French balcony or a full balcony. We had booked a French balcony cabin with Viking on this trip and if we return to Europe we will probably down grade our selection. First the cabin was so small that it was uncomfortable to use for just sitting (no chairs either) so we spent most of our onboard time in the lounge (there are also suites with sitting rooms). Additionally because when we were docked we were usually tied up to another boat. To avoid looking into another stateroom we usually kept our curtains closed. The French balcony wasn’t a valuable option.

Trip Insurance

Because of the high price of river cruising, in the future we will select trip insurance that allows us to cancel for any reason and pay much closer attention to river conditions weeks before the trip. It seems that an adjusted itinerary is not justification to cancel for many insurance plans including the one we used for this trip.

Information On River Conditions

For more information on river conditions see Ralph Grizzle’s information at River Cruise Advisor, a site that tracks water levels as does River Cruise Information. We will also pay for the air upgrade option (in the case of Viking that’s another $50.00 per person) and become more involved in selecting flights.

On the positive side Viking has recognized that they didn’t deliver what we were expecting and have provided some compensation for all of the problems we experienced, which makes for a slightly better ending to this story.

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Traveling With A Starbucks Card

Starbucks is becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds around the world. We have become accustomed to looking for these outlets as we travel. While we are not huge fans you can expect a consistent coffee offering along with free WiFi from Starbucks as you travel.

We just got home from Europe and we just jumped to conclusions about using our Starbucks Gold Card in Europe from our experience on previous trips. Several years ago we cautiously started using a Starbucks card to purchase coffee in various cities. Over time we came to expect it to work everywhere.

While traveling in Australia and Ireland we were very surprised at how the process worked. After paying with the balance on our card we would get a receipt that showed the amount used in local currency along with the card balance expressed in Dollars and local currency.

After this trip a correction is in order. We were in Hungary, Austria and Germany and our card wouldn’t work at all. Checking the Starbucks web site we found the following statement:

Starbucks Cards activated in any of the participating countries can be used to make purchases and be reloaded in any other participating country. Starbucks Cards must first be activated by loading money onto the card in the country of purchase before being used internationally. The participating countries are; UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and the Republic of Ireland.

I guessed we jumped to conclusions based on too small a sampling. The good news is the coffee was what we expected and the WiFi is still free.

A Hotdog in Vienna

Street Food Is Sometimes A Good Option

We became”pen pals” with an Austrian couple after cruising with them a while back. In one of many e-mail exchanges, we told them we would be visiting Vienna which prompted them to send us a list of things to do while there. High on the list was a hot dog stand behind the State Opera House. Being too intriguing to pass up, as soon as we got into the center of Vienna, with cell phone in hand to navigate, we headed off in search of Bitzingers, the famous hotdog stand.

Arriving shortly after noon there was a line already formed. The customer directly in front of us was a member of the Polizei, the Austrian police. He provided inspiration for our selection choice as the proprietor was filling a carry away bag with a large number of different varieties of hot dogs/sausages/toppings.

Being unable to read the German menu, when it was our turn we very simply asked for two hot dogs, one plain and one with mustard. The preparation process involves having an end sliced, at an angle from what can best be described as a small baguette. The baguette is than pushed down on a stainless spike to make a hole for the hotdog. A squirt of mustard goes into the hole followed by a really good hotdog and than wrapped by a square of foil.

Simple, fast and remarkably tasty. Sometimes following the advice of locals is the best bet. Later while walking around Vienna we passed a couple of other Bitzingers stands, so this isn’t a one-off operation. However, most new visitors to this city are drown to the city center with its palaces, museums, cathedrals and blocks of shops and cafes so knowing the downtown location of Bitzingers could come in handy. It is right behind the State Opera House which is an easy landmark to navigate towards. Also within a few blocks of the Opera House quick a search on your phone with Google Maps should provide a precise directions.

Port of Call Manila

Welcome to Manila

The Port of Manila Philippines

The Port of Manila

Manila is the capital of the Philippines, an island country in Southeast Asia and a major city with a population of 1.7 million. It has been the country’s largest city for about 400 years. It sits on Manila Bay, on the island of Luzon. The Pasig River runs through the middle of the city.

Where You Dock

Cruise ships usually dock at the industrial piers and this can be at a number of locations. Most of the docks are along a half-mile stretch of waterfront only four to eight blocks away from Rizal Park, which is in the center of old Manila. Usually you will be allowed to walk out but be sure and carry an official photo ID.

Jeepneys in traffic
Jeepneys
Transportation

Taxis are readily available and fares are reasonable but you need to be very clear about where you are going and that the driver knows where it is and negotiate a fare before starting out. We had a full address for a restaurant in Pasay, which was less than two miles from where we started and the driver could not locate it.

Arriving in Manila

The Manila Metro Rail Transit System also known as the MRT is a rapid transit system of Metro Manila. Running on just 2 lines and serving 31 stations in total, the 33.4 km long network uses a single destination system (averaging 12 pesos per trip) or a loaded card. The main line runs in a circular north to south route following the alignment of the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). During rush hours the system is usually very full.

Manila is also famous for there unique vehicles. Jeepneys, sometimes called simply jeeps are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. The vehicles were originally created from abandoned WW II Army Jeeps but are now manufactured new in the Philipines. They are known for their crowded seating and fantastic decorations, which have become a symbol of Philippine culture and art. We have never figured out any route system regarding the Jeepneys however, so our recommendation is to use taxis.

Currency

The Philippine peso is the local money with ten pesos equal to about 1 US Dollar. Non-Philippine currency is not usually accepted. We would highly recommend carrying some pesos when you go ashore. There are a large number of exchange operations in Manila and the rate and fees vary widely. Most restaurants and stores will accept most major credit cards.

One time we were short on pesos and our taxi would not accept a credit card so he had to take us to an exchange to convert dollars for his fare.

A Cautionary Note

While we have no firsthand information about crime or how safe this city is, there were a number of indicators that made us question if we should have been walking were we did. Like a large number of security people with shotguns protecting businesses both large and small was one significant sign.

Attractions
Inside Rizal Park
Rizal Park

Rizal Park (Filipino: Liwasang Rizal, Spanish: Parque Rizal), also known as Luneta Park or simply Luneta, is a historical urban park in the Philippines. Located along Roxas Boulevard, Manila, adjacent to the old walled city of Intramuros, it is one of the largest urban parks in Asia. It has been a favorite leisure spot, and a botanical garden and orchid garden.

Popular Fast Food Outlet

Fort Santiago (Spanish: Fuerte de Santiago; Filipino: Moóg ng Santiago) is a citadel first built by Spanish conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi for the new established city of Manila in the Philippines. The defense fortress is part of the structures of the walled city of Manila referred to as Intramuros. The fort is one of the most important historical sites in Manila.

Manila Ocean Park is the country’s first world-class marine theme park and a premiere educational facility. An integrated urban resort with marine life attractions and aqua-themed hotel, the park is geared towards an all-year, all-weather destination for locals and tourists.

inside the Mall of Asia
Mall of Asia

SM Mall of Asia, also abbreviated as SM MoA or MoA, is a shopping mall in Bay City, Pasay, Philippines, near the SM Central Business Park, the Manila Bay, and the southern end of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue. The mall has a gross floor area of over 3.5 million square feet and if you are into shopping you need to allocate several hours here. A taxi ride back to the cruise pier will cost about twenty dollars but watch the time as Manila traffic can take almost forty five minutes at busy periods.

Finding food in Manila isn’t hard. There are a number of upscale hotels with good restaurants. McDonalds takes a back seat behind a Philippine fast food chain called Jollibee which features burgers, chicken, shakes and the usual fare and a good choice for a quick meal (it is now opening shops in the U.S.). Our favorite restaurant is Singing Cooks and Waiters with a review HERE.

Links to Additional Information

Things To Do

Mall of Asia

Port of Kings Wharf Bermuda

Port of Call Bermuda

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory or one of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories of which there are 14 that fall under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom. They are the parts of the British Empire that have not been granted independence or have voted to remain British territories. Bermuda is located in the western Atlantic due east of Hilton Head South Carolina. Even though it is at a northern latitude it is a tropical island being washed by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. The islands boast a lush landscape that includes a large number of cedars and palm trees. Famous for its beautiful beaches (one pink) it has long been a favorite destination for the wealthy from around the world that probably helps support a reasonably high standard of living for Bermuda.

Where You Dock

The northwest tip of the islands is home to British fortifications that date back to the 17th century and included the dockyards including Kings Wharf which is now home to the cruise piers. The British fortifications were greatly expanded during the American Civil War over fears of attack by the Americans and now house the Bermuda Historical Museum, a dolphin encounter, a glass blowing operation, a nice beach with snorkeling areas and a number of shops and restaurants. The dockyards are also the center of the areas water sport concessions and excursion boats.

 

Transportation

Taxis are readily available but the best way to get around is by public transportation. You can buy a one or two day pass that provides unlimited use of the ferries and buses starting at B$18. Bermuda is actually a set of islands very close together and arranged in the shape of a fish hook. The cruise port is located in the west near the tip of the hook. The town of St. George is near the hook’s eye to the northeast and the capital of Hamilton is near the inside bend of the hook. Most large beaches are on the coast across the island from Hamilton. The islands have about fifty miles of roads serviced by a very good bus system along with regular ferry service between those three major locations. There are also scooters and cars that can be rented but this is not recommended because of the narrow roads and the English left hand driving system.

Money

The local currency is the Bermuda Dollar and is kept on par with the US Dollar. American currency is readily accepted as well as most major credit cards.

 

Attractions

There is a lot to see and do right in the Kings Wharf area but don’t miss visiting Hamilton. There is a large fortification high above Hamilton with sweeping views of the city and beyond. Hamilton is also home to a number of historic buildings and some beautiful architecture. Good restaurants and great shopping are also a feature of Hamilton and a trip out to St. George is highly recommended. Almost everywhere you go in Bermuda boasts great scenery including pocket beaches, attractive seaside villages and historic landmarks.

Horseshoe Bay is perhaps the most famous beach in Bermuda. It has been rated the #8 beach in the world. A popular tourist spot, it lies on the main island’s south coast, in the parish of Southampton.

The Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo is a facility located in Flatts Village, Bermuda. It was established in 1926 by the Bermuda government.

Crystal Cave is a cavern located in Hamilton Parish, close to Castle Harbour. The caverns are approximately 1,500 feet long, and 186 feet deep. The lower 60 feet of the cave are below water level.

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. Built in 1844 by the Royal Engineers, is the taller of two lighthouses on Bermuda, and one of the first lighthouses in the world to be made of cast-iron.

Bermuda Institute of Marine Science http://www.bios.edu/#!/who-we-are is a non-profit institute located in Hamilton and features a number of exhibits and programs.

Fort Hamilton Bermuda. Located in Hamilton City, Fort Hamilton is a picturesque site with lush gardens overlooking the harbor. It was built in the mid 1800s to protect the Hamilton Harbor and form a defense from American forces during their civil war.

Somerset Bridge. Advertised as the worlds smallest draw bridge (see our story about the bridge HERE). If you pay attention while taking the bus from Kings Wharf to Hamilton you will drive right across the bridge.

St. George. This is a picturesque town located at the far end of the islands from Kings Wharf serviced by bus or ferry.

Good Sites For Additional Information

Bermuda Tourist Board

 

 

A First Try at Seeing The Emerald Isle

Visiting Ireland On a Rainy Spring Trip

Our first visit to Ireland was this past spring. Most people rave about this lush, green island and we now understand why. I’m not sure if it’s the sense of place, the history or the Irish people but we will surely be back again. This trip we spent eight days traveling around Ireland with an agenda that included Cobh, Waterford, East Dunmore, Cork (including Blarney), Dublin and Belfast.

The Emerald Isle is divided into two parts; the Republic of Ireland in the south (actually about eighty percent of the island) with Northern Ireland in the northeast, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is an independent nation and a member of the EU and uses the Euro. Northern Ireland because of Brexit uses the English Pound. It seems that Brexit created a new riff between the two Irelands and could create new tension going forward. Most of the towns and cities are located along the east coast with high cliffs facing out into the Atlantic on the west coast.

Cobh, The Seaport of Cork

 

Before visiting Cobh we inquired about the weather. The response was “it’s a beautiful day here with just a light rain and a high of 46°”. Welcome to the Emerald Isle.

Because of the rainy weather we spent the first day in Cobh, which is the seaport that serves Cork. It’s a picturesque town with many streets that seem to be running up hills at about forty-five degrees. The principle business seems to be celebrating the fact that the Titanic made its last port of call here. There’s the Titanic Pub, the Titanic Museum and gift shop and memorials to many of the one hundred and thirty passengers that boarded the Titanic here just before it steamed into the Atlantic and history. One pub claimed that several Titanic passengers had their last pint ashore in their pub before sailing (that would be one hundred six years ago) and who can refute that?

 

A monument to a local celebrity is on the pier in front of the visitors center. It is of Annie Moore who is confirmed as the first Irish immigrant to the United States that arrived at Ellis Island. The statue shows her and two younger brothers on the pier as if they are ready to set off on their new life in America.

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The city also has the gorgeous St. Colman’s Cathedral which was started in 1867 but not finished for almost fifty years. The cathedral tower contains the largest carillon in Europe with forty-nine bells. The bells strike on the hour and at fifteen minute intervals and plays a longer program for Sunday Mass and on special events.

Cobh is the end of a train line with easy access to Cork for only a couple of Euros with trains leaving about every twenty minutes. The trip takes less than a half hour with continuing service on to Blarney just a few minutes farther away.

All in all it was a great first Irish day and I realized that to make English a really beautiful language it needs to be spoken with an Irish accent.

East Dunmore, A Seaside Village

This Irish fishing village isn’t far from Waterford and is a quant seaside resort town with a number of bed and breakfasts and upscale hotels. We visited on a Saturday and there seemed to be a surprising number of people in town and at the beach considering there was still a chill in the air. We spent the day walking the coastal trail and visiting the galleries and craft shops.

A Day Trip Out of Belfast

The Giants Causeway

Up on the North coast of Northern Ireland is a geological World Heritage Site named The Giants Causeway. It was created when volcanic magma cooled on the surface millions of years ago and looks much like someone constructed it. It is composed of thousands of basalt hexagonal columns standing in clusters at various heights along the edge of the sea.

When we got to the site the weather was a balmy 42° and clouds were gathering quickly. From the visitors center down to the shore is a good steep walk and while there is a shuttle bus, on a busy day the wait in line for the ride is probably longer than the walk – so off we hiked. Once we got to the bottom it started a light rain with wind blowing at 40 or 50 mph. The temperature also seemed to plummet and when climbing back up I swear there was sleet stinging my face. At one point the wind got inside my hood and it seemed it lifted me off my feet.

 

Once we reached the top we sought refuge in the bar of the Causeway Inn. It was a cozy place and much less congested than the other options. We all had coffee and scones and spent a long time thawing out. Sitting next to us was an Irish family and we got to talking. Asking if they had hiked down yet they replied “No, we live here. We’re staying here keeping cozy while our guests freeze their noses off.” I couldn’t agree more. While it is an amazing place and we would recommend a visit, if we had the option of waiting for a warm and sunny day?!

One of the biggest issues to a planned itinerary with a limited amount of time is you don’t get to change much and you are stuck with the weather that fate deals you. 

DSCN4986Ruins of Dunluce Castle near The Giants Causeway

It would also seem that this area is also used in a number of Game of Thrones episodes. We are beginning to think that we are either just lucky to keep running into GOT sights or perhaps they film just about everywhere?

Back To The Florida Keys? (In 4 Parts)

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)