The Changing of the Guard (and also Copenhagen)

Sixteen Days flew by just like that, and suddenly our transatlantic cruise was docking in Copenhagen, and it was time to change our mindset and get ready to explore the Baltics.  So what was different about the two cruises?  Well to begin with, a 16-night transatlantic sailing typically attracts a different type of passenger. Often, those with more time, and more money.  Usually these are older cruisers.  I don’t want to say that they were a whiny, complaining, self-entitled bunch… so I won’t say anything.  They were also overwhelmingly American.  The Baltic sailing was much more international with a lot more Europeans, Asians, and children on board.  It made for a completely different vibe.

The transatlantic cruise was 16 days of relaxation, interspersed with ports we had (mostly) been to before.  The Baltic sailing was to be seven new countries in a row.  Each with new sites, culture and candy to explore.  Most importantly, our friends Ben and Caitlin were joining us for this sailing, and we were looking forward to seeing them.

So what’s it like to spend all this time cruising?  Well, a picture is worth a thousand words.

On the transition day, we took a local bus into Copenhagen to do some exploring while the ship transitioned off the first batch of people, and welcomed the new cruisers on.  We really wanted to get inside City Hall, but it was closed for a wedding.  Fortunately, we would be spending a few days here with Ben & Caitlin after our cruise of the Baltics.  We did see the famous Round Tower, and found a lovely park in which to stroll around.

With time running out until our ship sailed, we made the decision to go see the Little Mermaid statue.  This statue was a gift to the city of Copenhagen to commemorate the works of Hans Christian Andersen.  By the time we got there, we had about 20 minutes to snap a photo, and find the city bus back to the ship.  A panicky crisis was averted when we saw a bus labeled “Free shuttle to the cruise port.”  We were able to relax enough to get some tourist-free photos of the Little Mermaid, and enjoy a nice leisurely ride back to the ship where we made it with seven minutes to spare before “All Aboard.”  Bye Copenhagen.  See you in ten days!

336 The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Back on board, we got settled into our new cabin.  Originally, we had arranged to stay in the same cabin for the entire sailing.  But when the price for our Baltic cruise dropped dramatically, Royal Caribbean offered us a free stateroom upgrade.  Our “guaranteed ocean view” cabin ended up being an extra-large balcony cabin all the way up on deck 10 (right next to the suites).  Usually, we stay down in the depths of the ship, so it was weird being so close to the top.  We both decided that while the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows were spectacular, we prefer being lower down so we can get some exercise on the stairwells. In fact, in 26 days of cruising, we used the elevators exactly once (by accident).

1003 Our huge stateroom

Our huge stateroom

Another factor that made the Baltic cruise a little more fun was that we had at last achieved diamond status with Royal Caribbean. What did that mean for us? It means some free photos, some free internet, and various other discounts.  Best of all, it means free drinks. The free drink menu, however, is very limited.  For example, you can get tequila, but not triple sec, so t-e-c-h-n-i-c-a-l-l-y, you can’t get a margarita. Fortunately we found a bartender who was willing to make me my daily ‘rita for free, and they were damn good!

Margarita

More importantly, Ben and Caitlin were on board at last.  Let the frivolity commence!

1004 Ready for a night on the town

Ready for a night on the town

 

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Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

The Perfect Cruise

Almost 18 months prior, I had booked an exciting 16-night Royal Caribbean cruise from Venice to Dubai via the Suez Canal.  At $22pp/night plus taxes, who could resist?  But as the departure time grew close, we realized the cruise itself was the only thing that was going to be a good deal.  The one-way airfares were going to cost a fortune – even with my travel miles and expertise!  We had a heart-to-heart and came to the conclusion that after all of travel we had done in 2016, our primary goal in December was simply some major relaxation.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves on a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise on the Grandeur of the Seas, round-trip, out of Baltimore.  Maybe not quite as exciting as the original plan, but it fit the budget, didn’t require airfare, and had plenty of R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N written all over it.  Elliott was thrilled that he could pack a million pairs of cufflinks and shoes, throw all of the luggage in the car, and not have to worry about airline baggage restrictions.

01 car full of luggage

Leaving Philly with all of Elliott’s shoes, cufflinks, and dress shirts.

We really didn’t have any expectations; we simply relished the idea of warm weather, calm blue seas, and not having to cook for a while.  We started out with three days at sea, as we left the cold North and headed down to the Caribbean.

 

It only took about a day and a half to get to the warm weather, which really surprised and pleased us!  I was out swimming in the pool before I knew it.

01a Relaxing in the pool

It’s my favorite place to be.

That wasn’t the only surprise, however; the entire cruise turned out to be one, big, happy surprise.  In those first three sea days, we went to Ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and found there were many more dancers onboard than we are used to.  What a treat!  We got to know many of the other dancers, and traded moves and inspiration night after night.  In addition, the onboard dance instructor loved dance so much, she offered free private lessons to anyone who wanted them.  What?!!  Unheard of!  We took her up on her offer more than once and added a few new beautiful moves to our Waltz and Foxtrot.

I had sadly assumed that since we were on a cruise, any holiday spirit would be totally forgotten for 12 days; it was, after all, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!  I was wrong and couldn’t have been more pleased.  In the beginning of the cruise, there wasn’t much to remind us of the holidays other than the decorations a few passengers had hung on their cabin doors (which were really cute).  As the days passed, we’d hear a Christmas song here and there, then a Christmas tree was put up in the atrium… then at the end of the cruise some of the crew wore Santa hats!  We found it was the perfect amount of holiday spirit without being in-your-face or overwhelming.

 

There were a lot of fun activities onboard.  One night I joined in the fun for a rendition of an old favorite, Family Feud.  My team was terrible, but somehow made a comeback in the last minute (perhaps due to the fact that the last question was worth 3x the points?!).

 

Another night, we celebrated the ship’s 20th birthday with a big celebration and ship-shaped cake in the atrium.

 

Watch the balloons fall!

The itinerary was a fabulous one, and at the same time, an itinerary about which we felt very relaxed.  We had been to all of the ports before, so we didn’t feel pressured to do a lot on each one.  On our first port of St. Thomas, we walked around a bit and went shopping.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Thomas has many jewelry bargains; and it’s one place where I feel very lucky to have a husband who likes to shop!

04 More jewels from St. Thomas

Happy with my St. Thomas souvenir.

On Dominica, we didn’t even get off the ship, preferring to have a relaxing day of our own “at sea” and having the ship mostly to ourselves.  We did see a gorgeous rainbow from our ship:)

08 Rainbow over Dominica

Rainbow over Dominica.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, to the shock of the locals we walked a whole half hour to a local beach.  We spent a blissful afternoon relaxing under a poisonous(!) tree and swimming.

 

In Castries, St. Lucia, we got off the ship and walked around the town for a few minutes.  We didn’t feel the need to do much more, as we honeymooned there, and had a 10th anniversary trip there a few years ago.  Plus, we were on the wrong end of the island, in our opinion!

 

The most fun and adventure we had on land came the next day, on Saint Martin.  We made our way by local transportation (always fun) to Maho Beach, which is next to the Princess Juliana International Airport.  Maho Beach is directly under the flight path of the planes, so you can stand under them as they come in for a landing.  Pretty cool!

 

See a plane come in for landing yourself!

It is so close to the runway that you can stand on it and feel the jet blast of the planes taking off.  Should you though?  Well, I guess each person has to make that determination for him/herself…

 

Elliott was smart like most of the people standing there and ran to the side when the blast got to strong; unfortunately I simply tried to run away from the blast, going further onto the beach and into the ocean.  Warning: don’t do what I did!  Not only did the bare skin on my back get totally sandblasted, every time I popped up out of the water to see if it was over yet, more sand got pelted into my head and hair.  Not a fun experience!

60 Sandblast

Run, Forrest, run!

Sandblasting and all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise.  So much so, that we did something we’ve never done before; we booked the same exact cruise for 2017, while still on the 2016 sailing!  I’m not saying it would be perfect for everyone, but this appeared to be the perfect cruise for us.  And we’re really looking forward to this year’s version:)