Incredible Iceland— Akureyri-Day 2

I was glad we had come back a little early from our first day tour so I could be up at what would be dawn at home (5:30 am) to see old town Akureyri and I got lucky and had a great walk. I didn’t get rained on but the by the time I got back it had really started coming down. I will leave it at that and you can see what I saw in my photos. Later on, some of the group went into town but Kathleen was wiped out so we stayed on board and the whole gang was back for a late lunch at The Porch (a Reflection alternative seafood restaurant) and it was wonderful. A great lunch. Some super fresh seafood and some of the best sangria I have ever had. Drank way too much of it. We sailed out late in the day and it was a beautiful sail out up the fjord. This was followed by two sea days before we would dock in Cobh, Ireland. More about that coming on Sunday.

When I prepare, I am not messing around. I find the right places, the right people, and the right environment. Iceland is one of those places. —Conor McGregor

 

Incredible Iceland— Akureyri-Day 1

After what seemed like a very short night we sailed down an incredible fjord into Akureyri, Iceland’s most important northern city. It’s small town (a population of only around 27,000) but it is the gateway to some pretty amazing natural wonders. The day started with beautiful weather and the sail-in made for some great photos. 

I almost forgot to mention that before we got to Akureyri the captain of Reflection decided to make us all what my friend Bob (a long-time Navy guy) calls “Bluenose Sailors” which I am sure means we have been inside the Arctic Circle. He sailed the entire ship north of where he needed to so we could say we had been inside the Arctic Circle. What a guy! We even got a certificate. Kind of the like the one we got when we crossed the Equator many years ago on our SouthEast Asia cruise.

 

We were met by our guide Auðun of No.17 Tours. He had been recommended by the god of shore excursions, my buddy Mike Preisman. Mike had used the services of Auðun a few years ago on their Icelandic cruise and had spoken highly of him. He was right. I should point out that Auðun told us his company used to be Taxi 17 because when it wasn’t touring season, he would drive a taxi but now the government says he is too old to do that. He can drive a bus, a truck and a tour van but at 76 he can’t drive a taxi. Who would have thought. He is an amazing guy who really knew the area he was showing us. Plus he had some great stories from his 27 years as the skipper of a fishing trawler. 

We set out a little earlier in Akureyri as the ship was docked and let us off by 10:30. Auðun was ready for us and we were off to see the northern waterfalls, stand with both my feet in different continents and see some other amazing geological wonders as well as two versions of the Blue Lagoon. And we finally got to see puffins. We had missed them before on previous trips to places where they live but this time we got to see a bunch. Check out the photos for all the sights we saw. 

Even though we had gone out earlier than we had in Reykjavik, the weather had turned both cold and gray and by the time we had seen the puffins and the waterfalls, we were wiped out so we asked Auðun to just head us home and we were off to the ship were we pretty much caught a late dinner and collapsed. But we did have a super day and the Icelandic landscape is even more amazing up north. 

 

I still don’t know why, exactly, but I do think people can have a spiritual connection to landscape, and I certainly did in Iceland. —Hannah Kent

Incredible Iceland— Reykjavik-Day 2

Most everyone else in our party slept in a little bit after getting back at almost midnight from our Golden Circle tour with Birkir. I on the other hand, love it when a ship overnights in a port so that I can get up early the next day and walk through the city. (One of my best photo walks ever was in Québec last October when we overnighted on Summit). More and more cruise lines are doing this (overnighting in cities) and you can get off and on whenever you want all night long. This was a good day to do that but I really missed that early morning golden light I had when we were in Edinburgh and Dublin.

I got up at 5:00 am and headed out to walk the seaside walkway into downtown Reykjavik but the light outside was already like 10:30 in the morning as you can see from my pics. I got some decent stuff and then headed back to the ship to shower and meet Kathleen and others in our group to take a taxi back into downtown to see some more of the city. My pics and their captions will pretty much tell the tale on that. Don’t forget to click on the first one and view them as a slide show. And if you want to see more, check them out on Flickr by clicking here.

We were back on the ship by 2:00 pm and Reflection set sail for Akureyri at 3:00. It was a pretty great day considering how little sleep was involved. Thursday, I will post all about our travels in Akureyri, in the north. And we cross the Arctic Circle! 

Blustery Belfast

Sitting in the Club World Lounge in Terminal 3, Heathrow, I think I have enough time to upload Belfast (their WiFi is pretty good and it is already written). We shall see. It was the next stop after we boarded in Dublin where I left off (other my WOW Iceland post and my Woeful WiFi post).

We awoke on our first day after leaving Dublin to a truly blustery day in Belfast. Due to tides we weren’t able to dock until almost 11:00 am. As soon as we were able, we walked four of our party who had never been to Belfast before out to a private excursion I had arranged through Tours by Locals that would take them to up the Antrim Coast to Giant’s Causeway. We had done this on a previous visit to Belfast and we along with four others in our group who had been here before decided to forego that and pay a visit to the Titanic Experience. 

I fully realize that visiting a museum dedicated to a cruise ship that sank by hitting an iceberg while on a cruise seems to be tempting fate but we went anyway. If you are in Belfast, this is a must-see. They have done an excellent job of detailing pretty much everything about the Titanic, its building, the times it was built in and so much more. Not only are there a number of excellent exhibits, there is even a ride. Who knew? We were pretty surprised. It was a great tour and worth the money and time. 

Our original plans after the Titanic experience had been to jump on the HoHo bus but since it was pouring rain, we crammed ourselves into a taxi and headed back to the ship. All and all, a pretty decent day.

Remember, you can click the first photo to see the pics larger and as a slide show.

Post note: Wasn’t able to upload everything in the lounge. Finishing up at home with my usual AWESOME WiFi. Exhausted but more about that later.

The Titanic hit the iceberg not because they could not see it coming but because they could not change direction. —Dean Devlin

On to Dublin

After six days in Yorkshire we bid a fond farewell to Paul and Gail. Paul drove us to the airport at 6:00 am (thank you again Paul) and Gail got up to tell us goodbye (thank you again Gail). We caught our 8:22 Aer Lingus puddle jumper flight from Leeds-Bradford airport to Dublin. Arrived 10 minutes early, but unfortunately, our ride to the hotel arrived an hour late. After that snafu, we got a great driver who took us in to the city to our luggage drop where we…dropped our luggage. Then we walked a few blocks to meet our buddies Bob and Holly for lunch at a great little place called O’Neals. A real Irish pub. It was great seeing them again. Bob and Holly, not O’Neals.

After that it was back to pick up our luggage and head to our AirBnB where we got settled, welcomed my brother and his family around 4:30 (they were wiped out after flying non-stop from LA) and went out to dinner to Brookwood, an outstanding restaurant that turned out to be right across the street, we watched a little more of Britain’s Got Talent and it was off to bed.

A couple of quick thoughts about Dublin and our AirBnB. Dublin seems more crowded and crazy than Edinburgh and definitely more than wonderfully sedate Leeds and Yorkshire (where of course we were staying in a neighborhood and not right down town as we are here). For instance, we have a very famous pub (Toners) and a couple of bars across the street from us. Normally when I get up to walk in the morning (like today when I am up at 4:30), it’s quiet in the neighborhoods. Not here. There is still a loud crowd out in front of a bar down the street (I can see the bar from our front window). At 4:22 am??!! Do these people ever sleep? Our AirBnB is pretty cool. The host, whose name is Phil, met us and has really taken great care of us. A super guy. We have a big living room, a gourmet kitchen (not that we will cook) and a four bedrooms. Check out the listing at the link above. Another win for us picking great AirBnBs. It even has a bakery downstairs and we will see how great they are later today.

As I was finishing this up at 4:30 am I realized that for the first day in 10 days, I hadn’t taken any photos. Well, I took two. Both out the window from the living room. One of the world famous Toner’s Pub and the other of Brookwood, the restaurant where we had dinner (they make a wonderful lamb) so sorry, that’s all you get today. But as I am going out in about 10 minutes for an early morning walk, you should have much more tomorrow or tonight.

Fabulous place, Dublin is. The trouble is, you work hard and in Dublin you play hard as well. —Bonnie Tyler

Whitby & Scarborough (Scar bruh)

Castle HowardBefore I even start telling you about today,  I have been very neglectful in not telling you about where we have been staying with our friends Gail and Paul Howard. We have been guests at their home since Saturday night and will be here until we go to Dublin on Friday. They just call their place, home but we call it Castle Howard. Here’s a picture and you can see why and the link will tell you all about it. It’s quite the place and we have loved meeting all their staff and the entire court. 😀

Back to our travels—we have been getting quite the education about proper British pronunciation. So today we learned that Scarborough is pronounced Scar Bruh. We were there today and I didn’t see a single scar or a single bruh. Everyone had great skin and my brutha was still back in California. But it’s still pronounced that way.

Today was beach day. We were out the door at 9:00 am and headed to the North Sea (doesn’t that sound cold) coast, first to Whitby and then to Scarbruh.

Whitby is quite the town. We parked and walked it from one end to the other as well as crossing the old swing bridge and going up the other side of town. Then Paul and I went all the way up the 199 old stone steps to see the Abbey. Paul was very surprised at the Abbey with its brand new visitor center. When he was last here three years ago with our fellow Martini Mates Mike and Carol, it hadn’t been in existence and you could not walk around the ruins of the Abbey. The Abbey itself was built in 1539 but there has been a church on this site since 604 AD. (Now that’s old.) And not only that but the author Bram Stoker set part of his novel Dracula here as well. Paul and I climbed the hill and walked all around. Please see my photos for more. They are at the bottom of this post.

Yorkshire Day 3-115After descending and finding Kathleen and Gail ensconced in a cute little pub, (Gail having a cuppa and Kathleen tasting an ale), we headed back down the hill to the village to see if we could get in the line at the Magpie Cafe which as Paul related to us a number of times, has the “Best Fish and Chips in England.” I have to say, he may be right. After standing in line outside for about 20 minutes we had some incredible fish and chips. If you go to Whitby, eat there. It is worth the wait…which may be much longer.

After our wonderful and very filling lunch, we were off to the car to continue onward to the seaside town of Scarbruh. The best way to tell you about this is through the captions on my photos so please see those below. That was our day. We did a slow slog back to Castle Howard due to everyone coming home from the Bank Holiday (which is today) and once we got here that was it. There was a lively discussion about what to have for dinner but my cold is so bad, I knew I would not be able to taste anything so while I write this, Kathleen, Paul and Gail are having some of his world famous Yorkshire scrambled eggs in the kitchen.

Some of my fondest memories are holidays by the seaside. —Mary Berry

Visiting every country in the world?

SALThink you can do that? Visit every country in the world? Do you even know (without Googling it) how many countries there are in the world? I will save you some time—there’s 193. Late last week I was checking my Twitter feed and I saw a post from Conde Nast Traveler’s website about a guy (Sal Lavallo—that’s him at right) who actually visited every single country in the world. All 193 of them. WOW! (I want his frequent flyer miles!)

So I checked out the article. It was great. Instead of a typical travel log or interview, Conde Nast Traveler asked this great guy 193 questions. One for every country he visited. I read every one of them and I loved them. Sal is the is the kind of guy who I would love to meet and I would love to travel with. The article that you can read by clicking here is worth a look. And the best part is, it reads fast.

You can find out all about his life and his journey in bits and pieces by reading just a few of the 193 questions. You can learn some cool stuff like, which country has the best tap water or what was his worst mistake. Or the most unusual place he slept and the hardest country to get into. I am betting if you start, you will finish. It’s that good.

Were you ever bored? There was always something new to see and learn.—Sal Lavallo, the man who visited all 193 countries of the world.

 

Food, Biosphere, Driving & Food

The headline and the pictures pretty much say it all for our last transition day from Tucson to Sedona. Let’s start with the morning food. If you are ever in Tucson and want an incredible breakfast, try one of the three Baja Cafes. Best breakfast we had on the entire trip and a truly cool place to eat. We were headed north out of town and stopped at their Campbell Ave. location early on a Sunday morning. The best way to sum it up is to say they had one of the most amazing dish of smoked brisket machaca huevos rancheros anyone has ever eaten. Not to mention that they give you sooooo much of it that even I couldn’t finish it. Kathleen had the waffle. I know, that sounds boring compared to my amazing meal, but it wasn’t. You see they make their waffles from dough and not batter. It is truly amazing. And the best part of the entire meal was the Snickerdoodle pancake. I need to mention that we did NOT order the Snickerdoodle pancake. About two minutes after our food (that we had ordered) our server came by and brought us this amazing pancake. Now I don’t really like pancakes but this one was amazing. If you are in Tucson, go to this place for breakfast. But get there early or you will wait a very long time on weekends. We got there around 8:00 and got seated right away. By the time we left around 8:45, there was a line at the door. Our server told us that it gets worse later in the morning.

After breakfast we had previously-purchased tickets to see Biosphere 2. It’s about a 30 minute drive north of Tucson. First, in case you are wondering where Biosphere 1 is, look down. You are standing on it. This particular fact was repeated to us a whole bunch of times during our 2.5 hours visiting Biosphere 2 which we found very interesting. One of our fellow travel agents (Thanks Jim M) had recommended it to me about a month before our trip. To be honest, I remembered it from back in the 90s but I had no idea it was north of Tucson but when Jim M told me about it, we decided to buy tickets. I am glad we did.

If you are in Tucson, make sure that you make it part of your plans. Doesn’t take long to get there and the time we spent on the included tour was outstanding. Learned so much about climate change and so much more. Check out their website and stop by if you are in Tucson.

After Biosphere 2 we were off to Sedona. But as we sometimes like to do, we took the back roads. The normal way to get to Tucson from Sedona is to take I-10 to I-17. That route would have taken us on a very boring 4-hour drive. Instead we opted for a 5+ hour drive up Arizona 77, 188, 260 and 89A  through the great communities of Winkleman, Globe, along Lake Roosevelt, through Payson, Camp Verde right into downtown Sedona. Along the way we drove through deserts and mountains. Temps went up and down as we climbed from the low 80s in Globe to the low 40s at 7,000 feet where we drove through about two feet of snow. Quite a day.

And we finished off our day (after having that amazing breakfast and no lunch) with dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the world, Dahl & DeLuca. We had been there before and had a superb meal. After that we spent that night and the next one at the Sedona Rouge Resort and Spa, which was very nice but reinforced my belief that I much prefer AirBnB rentals to hotels. (More about that later this week.)

So the next day and the one after it were pretty much uneventful. We did a day in Sedona relaxing and then did a drive to Phoenix on the aforementioned boring I-17, and had brunch at the Daily Dose Grille in downtown Scottsdale. We have been there on many Arizona trips before and highly recommend it if you are in the Phoenix area. After lunch we stopped at the most amazing brick and mortar bookstore (yes they still have those), The Poisoned Pen, only a few blocks away. It’s a real, live bookstore and it’s all about mysteries and we are both really into mysteries. Then it was off to PHX for our 3-hour flight back to Everett. A nice get away. Hope you enjoyed joining us (if belatedly) for the trip.

 

Just a quick heads up

IMG_4095Starting on Tuesday, you will be seeing a lot of posting on this site as we are off on a one-week trip to Arizona. No, we aren’t there yet. The photo above is from our 2015 trip which is the last time we were there.

We fly out around noon from Paine Field in Everett, WA. This is remarkable because this is only the second week that this airport has been open for commercial flights. Previously it was just used by private aircraft and Boeing as it’s the site of the world’s largest building where they manufacture the Boeing 787, 777, 767 and 747. Pretty much all of Boeing’s aircraft other than the 737 which is made in Renton.

As we tour Arizona, I will be trying to post every night with a little bit about what we are doing and how we are enjoying the traveling. We will be in Phoenix Tuesday and Wednesday, Tucson on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sedona, Sunday and Monday. We fly back a week from Tuesday.

So, watch for my updates. No cruises this time. Just a great little road trip around the southwest.

Our worst shore excursions ever

Disapoint copySo in case you missed it, a couple of days ago, I listed our favorite shore excursions of all our 25+ cruises. Now the bad ones. Its funny that all but one of them were cruise line shore excursions that were in one case dangerous and in the others just terrible. The real theme of this post is disappointment.

Horseback riding in Hualtuco, Mexico

So this one was the closest we have come to being injured on any of our cruises. It was our first Celebrity cruise, through the Panama Canal and we stopped in the beautiful little town of Hualtuco in Mexico. We had decided to go horseback riding on a ship’s excursion. Happily, it was limited to only 12 people. Sadly, 14 people took the tour. The extra two were crew members who decided they would like to join us. As soon as we got there the people running the stables had a problem. They only had 12 horses. They had us all stand around a corral and they told us which horse to take. When they found a nice one for Kathleen, one of the guys helped her up on to that horse which promptly decided to lay down on its side. Since this was pre-hip replacement, she was able to scramble out before the horse put its full weight on her. Disaster avoided. We thought.

Then before they assigned me a horse, they ran out of horses. The two people that were left horseless were a very nice lady who had decided not to go and…me. The man running the stables said something to one of his workers who brought down a huge, black horse and the boss indicated that horse was for me, I guess since I was biggest person on the tour.

I did my best to get on the horse but that horse did NOT want to be ridden. I am not now nor have I have ever been a horse person but I got up on the horse. They put the horses in a line to head to the beach and I was in the middle of the line on a horse who was really mad about being ridden. He kept biting the horse in front of mine and the horse he was biting kept kicking him. Finally he got tired of being kicked so as we walked a trail  through a bunch of nasty, prickly bushes he took off through those bushes at a gallop. I had a heck of a time staying on. When he finally stopped, I got off as quickly as I could (kind of fell off, really) and when the guys from the stable caught up with us, I told them I would walk back to the stables. They could keep their big, nasty horse.

When I got back to the stables there were a couple of young ladies working there who were from Canada. They asked me what had happened and when I told them my story, they say, “You rode El Diablo? Even the boss won’t ride El Diablo.” Suffice it to say that when we got back to the ship and lodged a complaint, we got our money back from the cruise line. Had a nice rest of the day in the village and haven’t been horseback riding again since.

Ship’s shore excursion in Constanta, Romania

Ship’s shore excursion in Odessa, The Ukraine

I am grouping these two together because they happened on the same cruise on two successive days. We were on a Celebrity Galaxy cruise back in October 2006 that was called “Exotic Mediterranean” because it went to Istanbul and then into the Black Sea for two stops. It was the first time that a cruise ship, any cruise ship, had ever stopped at these ports and they were NOT ready.

In Constanta, we  (52 of us on a great big bus) were first taken to a church (within sight of the ship). It was an interesting church but there were no pews or seats and we were told a choir was going to come in and sing for us. Sure enough, a choir made up of seminarians joined us. We thought, great they are going to sing a song for us. No, we were told that they were going to sing for us…for an hour. While we stood there. We snuck out and sat on the steps of the church until they were done as did most of the group. Then we reboarded the bus to head to a winery for a wine tasting.

When we got to the wine tasting (after a long bus ride) we met a group from the ship coming out. They told us we would have a choice of tasting wine or having a bottle of water. They said, “Take the water!” We did. Smart move on our part.

After the “water tasting” it was off to do some local shopping and have lunch on our own. The bus drove us another our back into the city where we pulled up outside a really big building. We were told that there were shops in the building that the city of Constanta had specifically invited to open for visitors. Guess what shops were in the building? If you said American-based stores like Gucci, Armani, Rolex, Banana Republic, etc. What was in the building was a second-world country’s idea of what an American mall of that time would be like and it was sad. If we did want to go shopping, we would have wanted to see some Romanian products, made by locals. Not what we got. So we tried to find someplace to have lunch and try the local cuisine. But no luck. Guess what kind of food was in the “American mall?” If you said American chain, fast food, you win. KFC, McDonalds, you name it but with prices three times what they charged back home. Not what we had in mind. Pretty much that was true for everyone on the bus.

By this time, it’s around 1:00 pm so a lot of us went back to the bus and asked how soon we would be heading back to the ship. The guide from the ship said we were “lucky enough” to be there to eat and shop until 4:00 pm. THREE HOURS! We asked the guide how far it was to walk to the ship (we had been driven all over the place so it was impossible to tell on our own, and this was pre-iPhones so we had no GPS not that there would have been coverage in Romania) and were told we were miles away from the ship and there was no way to walk. We were also told that because of the type of port we were in, it would NOT be advisable to try and take a cab (also pre-Uber). So we were stuck. Some of us tried walking away from the “American mall” to local stores that served locals but in many cases we were either asked to leave or ignored when we tried to buy something. It was spooky. After an hour, many of us just went back to the bus, got on and sat to wait. At 4:00, with the entire bus full we headed back to the ship. The bus had gone about three blocks when it drove over a hill and there was the ship. It had been about a 20 minute walk away the entire time.

We had hopes that the next day in Odessa in The Ukraine would be better but wishful thinking on our part. About the same kind of day except in different venues. We did get a local lunch in a local restaurant but the “lowlight” of the trip was the Odessa Art Museum. They were doing their best to protect the painting from light and fading. To do this in a “low-cost” way, they covered each painting with a towel stapled to the top of the frame. Seriously. To see the painting you had to walk up to it and hold up the cloth and peek underneath. The rest of the day was about at that level. And again, the worst part was that if we were someplace we would rather skip, we were stuck. We couldn’t leave until they said it was time to go.

These two days, in succession were almost too much to take. Thankfully they followed two incredible days with a private guide named Gem in incredible Istanbul. We basked in the glow of those days while being bored to tears in these two ports.

Heat in Portland, Maine

This one was on our last cruise to New England on Celebrity’s Summit. Sadly, it was on a private tour that I had arranged. We were touring in October but the temperature was more like July.

The heat wave we had encountered in Boston (the high there on October 9 was 86) got worse in Portland. It only got to 84 in the shade but the sun was blisteringly hot (my guess is about 92). We had scheduled a food tour (Old Port Culinary Walking Tour) with Maine Foodie Tours. That turned out to be a HUGE mistake. First, when I booked this for our group of eight, we were told that our party (of 8) would be the only people on the tour and SURPRISE there were eight other people on the tour. The tour started at 10:00 AM when we all met at a local wine shop. We were hoping to have wine but the tour never went inside. Instead we moved to the back of the building next door, a spice shop. The shop was supposed to have AC and it might have but we couldn’t tell. 16 of us were crushed into a space about 8 feet by 10 feet where we had to stand for about an hour while we first tasted a tiny glass of mead (honey wine) and then some of the worst macaroni and cheese I have ever had with tiny bits of lobster in it to put some of the spices from the shop on. In the meantime our guide told us some fun Portland and food facts. When we were done eating (by now it is at least 11:00 am) our guide said you can now look at the rest of the store while I do the dishes…DO THE DISHES! On our time?

Most of us went back outside and walked down the street as it was about 90 inside the shop which faced the full sun while our guide cleaned up for about 25 minutes. By now it is almost 11:30 and we have not been offered water (even though some of the spices we tried were pretty spicy) and it is HOT and we were off to our second place. On the way our guide (who somehow had no clue that most of her tour were seniors and perishing in the heat) just took her sweet time getting us to the second place.

And that friends is as much as I can tell you. My bride had heat exhaustion and she and I abandoned the tour and took an Uber back to the ship. Our friends went on with the rest of the tour and told us later that the food was mediocre and that even though we had started the tour with very little food, at the end there was a ton. So much that they couldn’t even eat it. One of the things everyone was looking forward to was the lobster rolls but by the time they got to where they were served, they were too stuffed to eat them.

We have done food tours in more than 10 cities including two here in Seattle, one in NYC, one in Amsterdam, one in Québec and others in Portland, Oregon, Sante Fe, Savannah and Victoria, BC. This was the worst. It was so bad that I refused to take money from the other six people who were touring with us. I had paid for the tickets in advance so I am stuck but I couldn’t in good conscience charge them.

One of the only good things about this tour was that since it wasn’t a ship’s tour, we were able to walk away and go back to the ship when things went south.

Wannemude–Berlin

We were on a Baltic cruise off of Celebrity’s Eclipse and it was a WONDERFUL cruise. The ports were amazing and there were lots of them. On our fourth day, we pulled into the cute little port of Warnemunde, Germany. This is the port where about half the ship did what we did (a six hours round trip on a bus to tour Berlin for 5 hours). The other half either wandered around Warnemunde or Rostock (a nearby town) or went to tour a nearby castle. We chose Berlin because we wanted a taste of the city to see if we would want to come back later. We do that a lot. Use our cruise stop to decide if the port is someplace we would want to do a land vacation. We were traveling with Mike and Carol Preisman so we had booked with a large private tour company, for this and the next four ports after it. The only problem with this port was that because of the distance, they had to combine a bunch of small tours into a one big bus…oh no!

On the three hour trip in we had a guide who thankfully did not think he had to fill up the entire time with info. He did however tell some really bad jokes. But when he did talk it was often to tell sad and pathetic jokes that we think, due to the language difference, never quite had a punchline. We knew they were jokes because he kept announcing he had another joke for us. We all groaned. He did the same on the way back.

When we got to Berlin about half of us were arbitrarily moved to another bus (about the same size) and we headed off with another guide (a Frenchman named Yves) to see Berlin. I need to mention that our entire day in Berlin, it POURED rain. If it wasn’t pouring, it was steady. All day long. It made for a dreary day.

As far as I am concerned we got off on the wrong foot with this guide immediately when Yves told us that he was taking us someplace not on our itinerary, the Olympic Stadium. Now if we had wanted to see the Olympic Stadium (looked pretty much like every other stadium) we would have asked to see it or made sure it was on our itinerary. But we were not given a choice. We spent almost an hour driving to it, stopping for a few minutes in front of it, driving around the back of it, stopping to take pics (not a single person got off the bus to take pics) and getting back to the tour. Now if you had asked almost any of us, we would have skipped the Olympic Stadium and spent the time at Checkpoint Charlie (which we drove by at 35 mph) or any of our other stops.

After the Olympic Stadium it seems like we spent the rest of the time before our 2:00 pm lunch driving around avoiding construction. This was in no way the fault of our guides but certainly the detour to the stadium was. And what is it about Olympic Stadiums? Our Helsinki guide pulled the same thing on us.

Our tour said, “Time for lunch.” The one thing it didn’t say was a decent place for lunch. While other people from the ship who were not on our tour got great German food for lunch we were dumped in a spot with no choices at all but tourist fast food. Not at all nice places. The kind of place I would never go to here at home.

We did get to see everything else on our itinerary which included the Charlottenburg Palace (from the outside when we returned), the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Tiergarten and Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Hitler Bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmentmarkt, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (Book Burning Memorial, Humboldt University, State Opera House), Neue Wache Memorial, Museum Island, and Alexanderplatz (TV Tower and Red Town Hall). We did see all of these…many at about 30 mph through rain-streaked windows. Other places we got out for a quick picture and back on in no time. At more than three sites only Mike and I got off the bus and shot photos and everyone else just stayed on. We promised to share. One thing that really bugged some people on the bus was that the guide took us to many of these out of order. Now we understand they did that in order to avoid traffic delays but he never announced where we were going or in what order.

We had the same bus set up on the way back and we arrived back at the ship at 10:40 pm. Our only stop on the three hour drive back was at a truck stop for a 10 minute “comfort break.” This meant no dinner (not that we were in any way in danger of starving to death) but it would have been nice if we had stopped at the same type of place we stopped in the morning that had food other than candy bars and ice cream.

Helsinki, Finland

On the same Baltic cruise, four days after Berlin, we did the last large-group shore excursion we will ever do. That morning we sailed into the port of Helsinki, Finland. If we had to skip one port, this would have been it. Even as much as I did not like Berlin, Helsinki was a bore. Again we were on a big bus. We drove to a church, to a square in front of a church, to another Olympic Stadium, through downtown, the Sibelius monument (which would have been pretty cool for about 20 minutes, not 90)  and that was about it.

Here’s the thing. We spent 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium (What is with guides and Olympic Stadiums?) and driving by and hearing the entire history of Helsinki and Finland. The guide was like the elderly lady in the old medical alert commercial, the one that’s fallen and she can’t get up, except that this guide was talking and she couldn’t shut up. Seriously, she started talking from the minute we got on the bus until the minute we got off. And when we did get off for what was supposed to be a scheduled full hour of free time in downtown Helsinki that had shrunk down to a very short 15 minutes at the local farmer’s market due to our unscheduled Olympic visit. We might have really liked downtown Helsinki if had had more than 15 minutes there.

So for us, it’s not just the ship’s shore excursions that are a problem, but in many cases, it’s the size of the group. Even the last two of our least favorite were private tours, but they were BIG tours. Big tours where we were captives. Keep that in mind when booking your future shore excursions.