Saturday, August 31, 2013

Noordam 2013 - Day 1: Traveling to Barcelona

Our car was packed with all the luggage for 19 days: 12 days/11 nights on the Noordam and 7 nights in hotels in Barcelona and Rome. Flying from Brussels Airport has several advantages for us: it is only an hour drive from our home in The Netherlands. Another advantage: they have a reservation zone holiday parking just outside the departure hall of the airport. No bus transfers or taxi’s, just a 2 minute walk.

This is our first time on Brussels Airlines as you could derive from the disappointment with our carry-on luggage we reported yesterday. But to be honest: We had a great flight. No inflight movies, no free meal or drinks, but it is not even a 2 hour flight. In Barcelona we used Click AirportTransfer to get to our hotel. A great taxi driver with some great additional tips for sightseeing and restaurants.

Our hotel was the Grupotel Gran Via 678, right on the Gran Via Corts Catalanes and close to Placa de Catalunya. We had made reservations for a family room (actually two connecting rooms) through Great and luxurious rooms. The girls had a full bath and we had a rainshower. The rooms are overlooking the (small) pool. That is the quiet side of the hotel, since the hotel is on a very busy street. The pool looked very tempting, especially for Kim and Rhodé. But we decided to explore Barcelona.

First it was time for our basic needs, so we bought bottled water. Since the flight did not include lunch, we headed to a restaurant. We picked one with mostly locals on the terrace (a tip Rick Steves often gives on his radio show). After dessert we went to nearby Placa de Catalunya. That’s the square where the tourist information is, where we bought travel cards so we had unlimited use of metro, trains and buses (starting tomorrow).

Travel guides refer to Placa de Catalunya as ‘the heart of Barcelona’. We liked the fountains, but apart from that it was not as special as we hoped. So on to Las Ramblas. Seemingly one long street, all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Actually a couple of successive streets: Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla dels Caputxins and Rambla de Santa Monica.

Halfway Las Ramblas is the semi-covered market La Boqueria.

Nice fruit stands and fish stands. You can buy a pigs leg (for the ham: jamón). Great colors and smells, apart from the fish-smell.

La Boqueria
We continued on Las Ramblas, passing the beautiful Opera Liceu all the way to Port Veil. At the end is a monument for Christopher Columbus.

Monument for Christopher Columbus
Nice place to get some pictures of our ladies. Especially the lions at the base of the Colon were popular for photographers. Nice square, kind of like Nelsons monument a Trafalgar Square in London.

Time to refill our water bottles and on to Barri Gotic. That is the old (medieval) part of Barcelona. Mysterious little cobblestoned streets and beautiful squares. Every window has a small balcony and hatches. Great part of Barcelona, a must see.

We ended up on Placa Reial with the Fountain of the Three Graces in the middle and lanterns designed by Antoni Gaudi. 

Fountain of the Three Graces
Gaudi is the designer of the most beautiful parts of Barcelona. Also in the Barri Gotic we visited Placa Sant Jaume with the cute Placa de Ramon Berenguer.

Placa de Ramon Berenguer
Further on to a not to miss sight: La Seu, the cathedral of Barcelona.

Cathedral of Barcelona: La Seu
Close to La Seu is the interesting Placa Sant Felip Neri. You can still see the bulletholes of the executings during the Spanish civil war.

Enough for one day, so we walked back to our hotel. After a long day flying and sightseeing: just the right moment to really enjoy the rainshower.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Noordam 2013 - Preparing for the 11 night Mediterranean Explorer on HAL Noordam

We are Joost, Jolanda, Kim (13) and Rhodé (9), a Dutch family cruising the Mediterranean. Last year we blogged about our cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam. This year we travel on the Noordam. You will read about our trip (and the days before and after the cruise) on this blog in the next weeks. We hope you will enjoy it.

This is our itinerary:

We start in Barcelona, Spain. We decided to spend four nights before our cruise there to get to know the city. We end in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, Italy. After disembarkation we spend three nights in the eternal city.

This is our third cruise. Why do we love cruise vacations? Actually because of all the advantages that everyone always talks about: We pack/unpack only once, our hotel travels with us, we like to see different cities and enjoy the great food and entertainment.

We love to experience the sights in the different ports. Holland America offers excellent tours, but we seldom book them. We are more the Do-It-Yourself types. To be honest, the tours may be nice for us adults, but for the kids they are usually a bit boring. When the guides explain, the kids sit in the shade waiting to get back on the bus to the ship. We usually venture out on our own, but we prepare for our visit extensively. Sometimes even months in advance. Isn’t the internet great with sites like Tripadvisor? This year we discovered Shorebee. Great tips on their site for DIY-trips. So besides writing about our trips, we hope to provide other DIY-cruisers with some tips for their own shore-adventures.

Tomorrow we leave for Barcelona. Today we had our first disappointment. We are flying with Brussels Airlines. On the e-ticket we saw something we didn’t count on: carry-on luggage allowance at Brussels Airlines is only 6 kg (13 lbs). On KLM it is usually 12 kg (26 lbs) and that is what we were packing: 4 days of clothes in our carry-on for Barcelona. Not going to happen…

So we packed an extra carry-on and stuffed the rest of the excess luggage in our “ladies bags” that are free to carry-on according to the airlines website. I wonder if that was what they intended to achieve, even more bags on the plane.

Tomorrow we drive from The Netherlands to Brussels, Belgium for our flight to Barcelona, Spain.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Debarkation and Back to Reality

At 6:30 a.m. it was already sunny in Venice. We had hoped to see the sailing into the Venice lagoon from our balcony, but we arrived well before the scheduled time. Actually the azipods, used to berth the ship, woke us up. It was a busy day in Venice’s Stazione Marittima. Ruby Princess, Celebrity Silhouette, Costa Fascinosa and Grand Celebration were also docked.

It was time to leave our temporary home. Our suitcases were already off-loaded. We only had to pack our carry-on luggage. One last breakfast in the Lido and then waiting until it was time for our group to debark. We were scheduled to leave between 9:00 and 9:15 and so we did.

Way to the gangway.

The sign we didn't want to see.
The sign we didn't want to see.

Leaving Nieuw Amsterdam.
Leaving Nieuw Amsterdam.

We met our luggage in the cruise terminal. One of our suitcases had joined another “green” group, so we had to search a little bit longer for it.

The driver from One-Click Airport Transfer was already waiting for us. It was already very hot outside, but the van was air conditioned. After about fifteen minutes, we were at the Marco Polo Airport. We had already checked in online while we were in Split, so we only had to drop our luggage. That turned out to be easier said than done. The line for the KLM drop-off was huge. We stood in line for at least one hour. Fortunately, we had more than enough time but, already, we could feel that we were away from the great service of Holland America and had arrived in the real world again.

After one last Italian pizza we boarded the plane. We recognized a lot of passengers on the plane from Nieuw Amsterdam. Some were going back home to the Netherlands like us, but most of them were transferring to their final destination at Amsterdam Airport (Schiphol). At least that’s what they thought…

We were due to depart at 12:35 p.m. but we had a minor delay because not all the luggage had been loaded, but after 10 minutes we had our push-back to the runway. We had just arrived on the runway when the captain announced we had to return to the gate due to some technical difficulty. It was probably something with the air conditioning because it was terribly hot in the plane. After 20 minutes, the problem was resolved and we waited for the push-back car to get us to the runway again. We waited and waited, but no push-back car came. We could actually see one of those things standing close by, but it was probably siesta time. We just waited.

We waited for a long time, and all that time the plane was using fuel to keep the air conditioning going. The plane didn’t have enough fuel to reach Amsterdam anymore so we had to load fuel before we could fly. Another half an hour delay. We finally departed and arrived two hours late in Amsterdam (while the normal flight time is way under two hours). For the four of us it was just inconvenient, but almost all the transferring passengers had missed their connections. A disappointing ending of a wonderful vacation.

Yes, wonderful it was. We liked the cities we visited. We were impressed with the great food on Nieuw Amsterdam. We enjoyed the entertainment on board. Above all we really loved the service provided by the Holland America staff. We hope to return home to one of the HAL ships very soon!

This is our last post from this cruise. We hope you enjoyed reading about our trip. We look forward to reading your comments, and would like to read your own experiences cruising Holland America.

Family picture.
Family picture.

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Split, Croatia

Tonight we have to put our luggage in the hallway, so this morning we selected the clothes we are going to wear today and tomorrow. The rest is to be packed in our suitcases. Only 23 kilo’s per bag, so that took some weighing and repacking. Strange how your luggage weighs more on the way back. All those great experiences weigh a lot.

Around 10:30 a.m., we took the tender ashore. There were some pretty high waves, so it was not a comfortable trip at all. But a good conversation with an Australian former headmaster made up for this. Amazing how many nice people you meet on these trips. The advantage of tendering ashore is that you usually arrive in the heart of the city. In Split, Croatia, we walked right onto the Riva Boulevard. Beautiful, with lots of palm trees.

Riva Boulevard
Riva Boulevard.

We then entered the walled city, which is actually the Diocletian Palace. We were a bit disappointed. We were expecting something like Dubrovnik, Croatia. In our opinion, Split doesn’t come close. The city is nice, but really “overshopped.” You can hardly see the sights because of all the booths standing in front of them, all selling junk. In Split, tourism seems to prevail over history. That is not what we are used to at other UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps we were just spoiled by all the beautiful things we had already seen. We checked out Peristyle Square with the St. Duje Cathedral and after that we tried to avoid streets with shops and wandered through the smaller alleys.

St. Duje Cathedral.
St. Duje Cathedral.

This way we passed Zvonik sv. Arnira Bell Tower and arrived at the statue of Grgur Ninski (touching his golden toe is said to bring good luck), just outside the Golden Gate.

Statue of Grgur Ninski.
Statue of Grgur Ninski.

We also went up Marmontova street to the National Theater, which is colored bright yellow and a nice contrast to the clear blue skies.

Marmontova Street.
Marmontova Street.

National Theatre.
National Theater.

After walking back over Trg Republike we felt like returning to the ship.

 Trg Republike.
Trg Republike.

There were nice activities in the Queens Lounge, swimming in the Lido and cocktails in the Crows Nest. Tomorrow at this time we will be back home. After dinner in the Manhattan Dining room, we ventured over to the showroom where Mark Donoghue was performing again. The responses to his first show were very positive, so he did an all new show on the violin, guitar, piano and using his nice voice. Now it’s time to label our suitcases for debarkation. Luckily we are in the “Green” group, leaving the ship as late as possible

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Day at Sea

The seas were a bit rough last night so Nieuw Amsterdam gently rocked us to sleep. Today is a day at sea, so the list of activities offered on the ship is extremely long. The most difficult part is to choose what not to do.

Executive Chef Martin showed us how to prepare the soup we loved so much in Tamarind, as well as the filet mignon from the Manhattan Dining room that’s so tasty. The demonstration stimulated our appetite, so afterwards we went up to Tamarind for another excellent Asian lunch. We are so going to miss Tamarind. This venue should really be on all HAL-ships!

Also famous on every cruise ship are the towel animals. Holland America offers a workshop where you learn to make the animals yourself. That’s where the ladies went after lunch. We don’t have many pictures of the other activities today, so enjoy the pictures of the towel animals that the cabin stewards made for us each day.


Sunbathing on a sea day is particularly great because there is always a great cooling breeze when the ship is sailing. That makes lying in the sun much more comfortable and less transpiring then while in port. There is one disadvantage. Because of the breeze you might not notice you are actually getting a sunburn. Time for the aloe crème to do it’s job…

The mandatory debarkation information session was held this afternoon. That is when you actually realize that the cruise is coming to an end. They do try to make it look like a show, but the show element contained the usual jokes like the top 10 stupidest questions asked on a cruise ship. Same jokes as previously, like “what do you do with the ice sculptures after they melt” and “where is the elevator that takes me to the front of the ship”. They should try to make up new jokes at least once a year.

At 3 pm we went to another highlight: Indonesian High Tea served by the Indonesian staff and so delicious.
Later that afternoon we changed into our formal wear once again for the final formal night. It was also the dinner where the waiters and kitchen staff performed their goodbye-show. So nice that they are thanking us. However: All the thanks should go to them. They made our cruise fantastic with their great service and ever present friendly smiles.

Great entertainment tonight. In the Showlounge they performed “Live at the Avalon Ballroom”. Afterwards Cruise Director Dan hosted the wedding show. Really hilarious. It got quite late, but this night we cross the border between Greece and Croatia, so the clock is set back one hour. That means we get an extra hour of sleep before arriving in Split, Croatia.

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Santorini, Greece

Our phone rang with our wake-up call at precisely 7:30 a.m. After showering and a Lido breakfast we went to the Queens Lounge to get tender tickets. That went really smooth and there was no line so we didn’t even need tickets. We could just go to the tender and then ashore in Santorini, Greece.

Port of Thira, Santorini.
Port of Thira, Santorini.

Just as last year when we were on ms Noordam, there was a giant queue for the cable car to go up to Thira. Last year we hiked up and down the ridge. A pretty strenuous climb. You also have to be very careful because you share the path with herds of donkeys transporting the tourists up. I remember the moment when a donkey stepped on my foot, which wasn’t very pleasant. This year we didn’t go up. We wanted to visit the volcanic islands in the middle of the Santorini caldera. There was no shore excursion from Holland America going there, so we had pre-booked with a local company: Pelican Travel Services. We had some spare time between arriving by tender and sailing to the volcano. We had a drink in the port at the foot of the hill. At 11 a.m., we boarded the Albatross and sailed to the island Nea Kameni.

Chapel in Port of Thira, Santorini.
Chapel in Port of Thira, Santorini.


There are seven craters on the island, one of which is still active. Part of the earth you are walking on is just a little over 60 years old, formed by the last eruption. Hot fumes are still coming out of some holes in the crater.

Nea Kameni crater
Nea Kameni crater.

Rocks on Nea Kameni
Rocks on Nea Kameni.

Once we were on top we had a marvelous view over the whole caldera. The guide gave us some free time to look around and check out the craters. We could stay as long as we wanted, but we had to be back at the pier in 25 minutes or the Albatross would sail away. Oh, by the way: walking down takes about 25 minutes. So we had hardly any free time before rushing down. You don’t want to miss the boat. We took some hasty pictures on the way down and arrived at the Albatross in time.

View from Nea Kameni
View from Nea Kameni.

Nieuw Amsterdam from Nea Kameni.
Nieuw Amsterdam from Nea Kameni.

We were in time, but most of the others were still climbing down. So we waited for over 20 minutes before sailing away. I wish we had spent these 20 minutes at the crater instead of waiting on the ship. Unfortunately we were too obedient I guess. After visiting the crater, we sailed to the hot springs on the smaller island Palea Kameni. You could dive from the boat and swim about 50 meters into the “cold” water to the hot springs. The water there is brownish in color because of the sulfur and is really much warmer than the blue water. They say that the mud has healing powers. We’ll see.

Jolanda, Kim and Rhodé returning from the hot springs.
Jolanda, Kim and Rhodé returning from the hot springs.

At 3 p.m., we were back at the pier and ready to go to the Nieuw Amsterdam by tender. All in all, it was a very nice experience to visit the islands. Especially if you have been to Santorini before. It beats going up to Thira again. But this excursion was a bit too much “hurry up and wait.” I would recommend that Holland America add this excursion to their collection. Then you can leave from the ship without transferring at the port. Also take more time, because three hours is not enough to fully enjoy the magnificent sites. You can easily spend four to five hours. But even though it was a bit of a hasty experience, we wouldn’t have missed this. It was great to be on an active volcano and swim in the hot springs.

Back on the ship and after showering the salt and sulfur off our skin and hair, we relaxed again with the usual recipe. The kids in the Lido pool, the parents in the Crows Nest sipping piña coladas. Sailing out of the Santorini caldera was beautiful again. They opened the forward bow on “our” deck 5 again — the best spot on the ship. After dinner we went to see the Comedian Tom Sutton. He had a bit of a slow start, but after a while he was absolutely hilarious. Later that evening they had karaoke in the Queens Lounge. A chance to sing together with Shanty and the HALCats. Kim and Rhodé where the first ones to perform. Together with their friends Ella and Kayla, they sang ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Not even that bad.

Later that evening the chefs presented their famous desert extravaganza that included huge pies and delicious pastries. The event was hosted by Holland America’s Master Chef Rudy Sodamin himself. He is ultimately responsible for the quality of the food on all HAL ships and we must say that he does an excellent job!

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Kusadasi, Turkey

Today we docked in Kusadasi, Turkey. Our first stop on the Asian continent on this cruise. Most guests left the ship early to see the excavations at Ephesus. So did we, last year on ms Noordam. This year we stayed in Kusadasi.

Nieuw Amsterdam at Kusadasi.

Around 11 a.m., we walked to the Karavanserai. This was a medieval resting place for travelers. Now it's a hotel, but still a very nice historic building.

Through the streets we walked up to Pigeon Island (Güvercinada). That is a very cute island and quite close to the port. Located on the island is an ancient Byzantine fortress where sailors used to store their belongings to protect these against pirates while they were at sea.

Pigeon Island.

Byzantine fortress on Pigeon Island.

Joost, Kim and Rhodé on Pigeon Island.

Since this is our last day in Turkey, we spent our last Turkish Lira on a terrace in port. The bar offered free Wi-Fi, so a nice chance to send some pictures home. The afternoon we just hung around the ship. Some sun tanning on our balcony, trivia in the Crows Nest and a nice cocktail at happy hour. We had our dinner in the Manhattan dining room, a lovely leg of lamb. After dinner we gathered the kids and decided to take some casual photo’s. They turned out really nice.

Tonight’s show was a musical production: Garageband. All of the dancers and singers performed in this great show. Afterwards in the Queens Lounge, Cruise Director Dan hosted Deal or No Deal. He’s a great Cruise Director, always lots of fun.

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Mykonos, Greece

We love the way Holland America compiled the itinerary for this cruise. Not just every day an early arrival in port to leave around 5 pm but more or less tailored to the destination. Our arrival in Mykonos was scheduled for 1 pm, so we had an extra half sea-day. Time enough to sleep in, have an excellent breakfast and enjoy the pool and the Mediterranean sun.

We loved our lunch at the Asian specialty restaurant Tamarind, so once again we went to our favorite venue. The restaurant has large ocean view windows. Looking out we saw a dolphin accompanying us to the Greek island of Mykonos and its beautiful bay.

We weren’t the only ship in port today, so we waited until it was time for the guests of Norwegian and Celebrity to embark their ships. Then we took the tender boat to Mykonos.

It was very hot, but the narrow streets provided enough shade. These streets are so cute. All the houses are painted white (twice a year). Also very typically painted doors and windows. It was like walking through a fairytale village.

We walked to the Paraportiani church. Actually it is not one church but four adjacent chapels with a fifth chapel built on top of the four.

After a short walk we arrived at the windmills that made Mykonos famous. Great spot for making idyllic photo’s.


From the hill where the windmills were, we also had a beautiful view on the bay with the Nieuw Amsterdam, and also on the Alefkandra quarter. The houses here are so close to the water that they call it “Little Venice”.

Instead of returning to the ship, we hiked uphill to the Boni Mill. From the outside it is just another windmill like the ones near the port. But the nice thing is that you can visit this one. So we climbed up the narrow stairs in the mill and looked around. We also had a great view from the hill.

At that time we were already very impressed with Mykonos. We had seen all the “must sees”. Except … The pelicans that are supposed to live near the harbor. Just when we reached the pier to return to the Nieuw Amsterdam, this promise was also fulfilled. A pelican was walking on the pier as if it was trained to do so, ending up at the local fountain for a drink.

Now we could check all the boxes on our Mykonos checklist. Time to shop for some souvenirs and then go back to the ship.

Kim and Rhodé immediately changed into their swimwear en went up to the Lido pool. There was a poolside barbecue, so we could refill our stomachs right away.

As said, we are very impressed with the arrival and departure times at Mykonos. We stayed in the bay until 11 pm. Some guests stayed ashore for dinner; we enjoyed the lights of Mykonos from the ship. We also saw one of the prettiest sunsets ever.

The show tonight was at 11 pm. The Indonesian crew performed for us. They proved not only to be very friendly cabin stewards, cooks or waiters, but also very talented singers and dancers. This is a crew to be very proud of. HAL would never be this successful without these wonderful men and women. Away from home for such a long time: Respect!

Nieuw Amsterdam 2012 - Istanbul, Turkey

After eating a solid breakfast we took the tram to the city again. We first went to the Gülhane Parki to walk around the Topkapi Palace, which was closed on Tuesdays. Unfortunately, the Topkapi Palace could not really be seen from the park because of the old wall surrounding the palace. The park, however, was very beautiful and quiet. 

The Hagia Sophia is quite close to the park. There was a lengthy queue to get in but it moved pretty quickly. Once inside we truly enjoyed this great historic site. You can see that it used to be a church and later had been turned into a mosque. Today, it is a museum and has remains of both periods.

Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia.

After Hagia Sophia, we went to the Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III in front of the Topkapi Palace. The sultan himself made the calligraphies on the fountain. We then walked over to At Meydani (the Hippodrome) and saw the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius, the bronze Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine.

The Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome.

Time to move on to the Grand Bazaar. We wrote yesterday that Istanbul is a very crowded city. In the Bazaar, it was even more crowded. All the shop owners could tell we were from the Netherlands. I wonder how they can tell our nationality just by looking at us. They probably know by our “Kijken, niet kopen” attitude, meaning “Just looking around, not buying.”

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
Entrance to the Grand Bazaar.

We headed over to the Süleymaniye Mosque, the second largest mosque in Istanbul. The tram stop seemed close but it was a long and tiring walk downhill to the Galata Bridge. There we took the tram back to the ship. We were not alone in port today. At our aft was the Ruby Princess. The Ruby Princess has a webcam on her bridge so we could wave to our parents back home.

View of the port from Süleymaniye Mosque.
View of the port from Süleymaniye Mosque.

Upon sailing away we were treated to “turkish delight.” Again, we enjoyed the scenic sail away and then we changed into our formal wear for the second formal night.

Istanbul sail away panorama.
Istanbul sail away panorama.

At 8:00 p.m. we went to the show. The singer had a classical voice but also sang a lot of musical songs and modern music. It was quite beautiful. After the show we picked up a DVD and watched it in our room. We actually saw almost half of it, exhausted from our day in the city.