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.

 

Quick Shots

Viking almost catastrophe follow up

Tonight just two quick things I want to share. The first is an awesome story about Viking Cruise Line’s ship that ran into trouble last week off Norway. If you missed it, I wrote about it late last week. Their crew and the whole company stepped up big time. You can click here to read the article. Worth the few minutes. Warning thought, it is a harrowing account. I would not have wanted to be on that ship. But I would have been thrilled by the way the crew onboard handled things.

Watching a big ship sail down a tiny canal

MeyerWerftAll through 2008 we were anxiously waiting the building and launching of Celebrity Cruise Line’s Solstice. This was not just a new ship, this was an entirely new class of ship. We (Kathleen and I) along with our Martini Mates were booked on Solstice’s 8th cruise in early March. So leading up to the launch we watched her being built at the Meyer-Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. They had web cams all over her and we checked every day to see the progress. We would try to figure out where our staterooms were and how the rest of the ship was coming together. Finally, after waiting for months, they had the “roll out.”

They call it a roll out because the ship literally has to roll to the sea though some pretty tight places. We watched that journey on webcams and from people posting photos taken along the way. When ships roll out from Meyer-Werft they are quite a ways from the open ocean. It is really quite a site to see a GIANT cruise ship in a tiny little canal floating through farm lands. I bring this up because it happened again this week. It wasn’t a Celebrity ship but a Royal Caribbean ship. Their new behemoth, Spectrum of the Seas, is really something to see. And she was captured in a really cool YouTube video being towed out to sea. You can watch it all by clicking here. It’s one of those things that I find fascinating and you might too. It’s only a little over a minute.

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend. — Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Odds and Ends

Going to touch on three topics tonight.

Topic 1: Viking cruise ship problems

VikingAs usual the day all the Viking ships problems went viral I got a ton of texts and e-mails from both my new-to-cruising friends and my non-cruising friends telling me things like, “See, that’s why I will never (or won’t go again) cruise.” Or, “You aren’t still going to cruise are you?” Well of course we are. Here’s why.

First, sailing off the coast of Norway at this time of the year is kind of like sailing in the Caribbean during hurricane season. You takes your chances. The folks on those cruise, if they did their homework or had a great travel agent to warn them, would not have taken that cruise without knowing it could be rough. These folks wanted to see the Northern Lights on this cruise. They took a chance. BTW: If one of my clients told me that they were extremely subject to motion sickness, I would have advised skipping this one. There are other cruises they might now want to take at certain times of the year as well. And global climate change is making those “times of the year” vary from historical norms. Kathleen and I have been through winds higher than that but thankfully always on a ship with fully functioning engines. Our first time through the Straits of Messina we had 60 knot winds and in the Tasmin Sea we had some amazingly heavy seas. I will address how Kathleen beats her motion sickness in a future post.

Second, if you haven’t seen the follow-up, the cause of the engine failure was lack of oil. So why didn’t the sensors tell them they were low on oil? Because the ship was rocking so much that the sensors were registering incorrectly. Still no excuse for pure stupidity on the Viking engineers part but I am sure it’s the kind of thing that won’t happen again.

Lastly, when I got a note from someone who said, see what happens when you cruise, “I am never cruising again.” My first reaction was to check the traffic stats for their particular city in the last week. I found that more than 30 people had been killed in their regional area. While that is sad, my question to them is, “Were they going to stop driving?” I doubt it. But in a storm situation when no one suffered more than minor injuries, they were going to stop cruising? Not that logical. And all those Viking passengers got their money back as well.

Topic 2: An absolutely excellent and awesome article about one of my favorite travel people

StevesArticleIn case you missed it last Sunday, the NY Times weekly magazine had a really long and really in-depth article about one of my favorite people, our local travel expert, Rick Steves. (Click here to read it.) We have seen Rick speak a few times and his office is just north of us. He even performed with Seattle Men’s Chorus a few years back. He didn’t sing but he did tell some great travel stories between the songs. It was fun.

We love Rick and often follow his travel advice. His books on touring and museums are the best. He even has books about cruise ports in Europe. We love his restaurant picks as well. His book helped us find a superb place in a basement in Sienna once. Great food! If you are touring museums or taking walks in cities in Europe, have Rick with you either on his app or one of his guide books. He rocks. The article is worth a read. It kind of defines why travel is so important.

Topic 3: Cruise lines need to do a better job of getting in front of stuff like the Viking thing.

Whether it’s something as crazy as the Viking news earlier this week, norovirus or an unscheduled cruise cancellation, the cruise lines need to get out there with what is going on a whole lot faster. In this day and age of constant social media posting, things often end of looking a lot worse than they are but when people post about them and nothing is said by the cruise line involved for 12 hours or more, it looks bad and it gives social media control of the issue.

The same is sometime true when you are on a ship as well. Things will happen, there will be alerts or schedule changes and you won’t know what happens for hours. For instance, on our last cruise a port was cancelled. It was obvious from where we were when we woke up that we weren’t going to the port we missed. On the ship’s television map, we were far beyond it. And outside our windows, we couldn’t see land, which meant we were at sea. Yet there was no announcement about the change in course until around 10:00 am of that day. Pretty obvious by then that we weren’t going to the port.

Just an aggravation when I was just a passenger but more so now that I am a travel professional.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. — Confucius

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.

 

The worst part of traveling

busy office workerSo you know how much we love to travel. And I can say that I love coming home and sleeping my own bed. But the worst part of traveling is coming home to catching up. For some reason no matter how well I plan ahead of time, or how long we are gone, it’s always crazy to get back. With my old job and my new job, I need to write, write and write but not the stuff I want to write…like this site—that’s what I want to be writing. And I need to design websites, brochures and book travel and follow up on other people who are currently traveling or people who are about to travel not to mention catching up at home with things that need doing. Like the stuff I cook once a week that I now need to makes batches of, all on the same day. So much to do and just living as well.

All the while I am trying to get around to updating this site and writing one last post about our trip from Tucson to Sedona. So that is still coming (probably tomorrow) but I have been so busy I just haven’t been able to get to that yet.

The worst part of traveling? Coming back to work. Lots of it. I heard a radio discussion while driving this week about “free time.” I have heard that people actually have that. Kathleen says if I have it, I will just fill it up. She’s probably right. I have to be busy. Always doing two things at the same time. Like right now, writing and watching TV. We went to the movies today and saw Captain Marvel (Really fun film!) and I realized that this is one of the few things I do that I just do one thing at a time.

As much as I love to travel, coming back can be trying.

 

Martini Mates Forever

I have written in the past about the Martini Mates but I am just not sure I have written about them on this site. So here’s a short bit of explanation about who we are and a sad bit of news about one of our best friends—a Martini Mate.

Back in 2005 we booked our second Celebrity Cruise on Infinity that would take us on a short repositioning trip from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA. As is our habit, as soon as we booked the cruise, we joined the Cruise Critic roll call (click here if you don’t know what that is) for it. Little did we know how life changing joining that roll call would be. There were about 100 people posting on the roll call but one day (about six months prior to the cruise) we started discussing the Martini Bar on Infinity. Now none of us were big fans of martinis but it was fun to discuss all the different kinds that X serves in its many martini bars throughout their fleet.

During that discussion someone suggested that we (everyone on the roll call) start calling ourselves the Martini Mates. This caught on and pretty soon we were all a bunch of Martini Mates. By the time we all arrived in Vancouver for the cruise, a bunch of us who had done a TON of posting felt like we were good friends. Many of us gathered the night before the cruise for a pre-cruise cocktail party that was organized by Carol Preisman who is the wife of the god of shore excursions Mike. We met in the bar at the Sheraton Wall Center hotel and when I walked into the hotel, Carol came up and I put out my hand to shake hers. She said, “I’m from the South honey. We don’t shake, we hug.” And she did. And I did. And I made a friend who lasted from that day until last night when we lost Carol.

Carol would always say that she wasn’t sure why she and I were friends. Neither was I. We were pretty much the opposite of each other. She was a conservative, reserved Southern Belle of the highest order and I was a liberal, loud, ex-hippie from California. And we became friends. And every time we saw each other or she would introduce me to someone, she would say, “Not sure why Jim and I are friends…but we are.”

Of course there were many Martini Mates on that cruise but for some reason, six of us stayed Martini Mates. We still correspond with others from that 2005 cruise. We have sailed with some of those people as well. Over the years we have added more folks to the Martini Mates but the six of us were the core—Bob, Jude, Mike, Carol, Kathleen and me.

Those four people have been a huge part of our lives since the day we met them. We have sailed with Mike and Carol at least eight times and done a couple of land trips with them as well. They have stayed at our place and we have stayed at theirs. Yes, we were closer to Bob and Jude but that’s just because we were geographically closer since they lived in BC and Mike and Carol lived in Florida but the six of us were still the best of friends. And when we were able to travel to all the parts of the world together, we felt like no time had passed between trips.

When we returned from the original trip in 2005, Carol wanted us all to be able to have a place to keep talking to each other on the original Cruise Critic roll call so she started the Martini Mates “friends of Cruise Critic” board that we still post on to this day. This morning it was filled with love for both Carol and Mike.

I am posting more photos than I usually post because when I went to look for them, I found so many that I loved of us with our Mates all over the world. Bob and Jude never did the really long and adventurous trips—Bob hates to fly. But we still went everywhere together.

This morning after I had found out about Carol passing I took a long walk and was thinking about all the places we had been with Mike and Carol. Besides the initial Martini Mate foray in 2005, we sailed with them to Alaska twice, to SE Asia from Singapore to Hong Kong, through the Panama Canal in 2014, to the Baltic a few years before that, on the eighth voyage of Solstice in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

So that’s kind of a short history of the Martini Mates. The Mates suffered our first huge loss when Jude passed away a few years ago. Today we lost Carol. And she will be missed but I like to think that she is undoubtedly in a heavenly Martini Bar, sipping her chocolate martini with Jude and another of our group, “The Straw.” She and Jude are rolling their eyes as “The Straw” (that’s a whole other story) tells the story of how she became “The Straw” for the 1 millionth time.

We love you Carol and will miss you. I wish I could see you right now to give you that hug because you taught me that “we don’t shake hands, we hug.”

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.

Our best shore excursions ever

After writing a few days ago about shore excursions it brought me to create another list. If you have checked out our page of lists (see the menu above) then you know I love to rank and list things. So here is a quick list of our favorite shore excursions that we have taken in our 20+ years of travel. In a couple of days, I will do the same thing for our least favorite shore excursions.

Touring Amalfi with Marcello

MarcellaBack in 2006 we took a cruise that was billed as the “Exotic Mediterranean” by Celebrity Cruises. It was a 14-night cruise from Rome to Rome on their ship, Galaxy. It’s funny that this shore excursion took place on the same trip with two of our worst. To prove a point though, the two that will be on our worst of list were cruise line sponsored shore excursions on that cruise while this one was a trip we found on our own or rather from the “god” of shore excursions, our good friend Mike Priesman.

Before I go any further I need to tell you about Mike Preisman. We first met Mike and his wife Carol on a short repositioning cruise onboard Celebrity’s Infinity in 2005. Mike likes to see the world. He likes to take incredible shore excursions. Since 2005 we have taken a number of cruises with Mike and Carol which means we got to share shore excursions with he and Carol. When we weren’t sailing with them, we would read about whatever great shore excursion they had done on the cruise we were about to take and take that one. In my top shore excursions list, five of the top eight were either with Mike and Carol or someone they had recommended to us.

Mike had given his strongest recommendation to us that when we docked in Naples, we had to tour with Marcello. He was right. Marcello not only took us on an incredible tour that included the Amalfi Coast, the hills above it and Pompeii but he has stayed in touch for all these years. We are still Facebook friends and I still continue to send him notes and good wishes until now as does he to us. Our day with him was magical from the time he picked us up until the moment he dropped us off. He started by telling us that if we were looking for shopping and highlights, then we were on the wrong tour. He was going to show us “his Italy,” and he did. The highlight for me was lunch in a tiny Italian bistro, high in the hills above Sorrento in the little town of Pantone. The place was amazing but the food was so much like my grandmother’s cooking that it took me right back to my youth being in her kitchen. Sitting outside in the fall sunshine on that day is something I can see just like it was yesterday. For me, that day was as close to perfect as shore excursions get.

Touring Bangkok with Tong

TongAs fun and perfect as touring with Marcello was, four years later in Bangkok we were actually touring with Mike and Carol as well as other friends and we met the effervescent Tong of Tong’s Tours. We were on a cruise aboard Azamara Cruiseline’s Quest (I think this is my favorite cruise I have taken) and Mike had found all our tours and everyone of them was amazing but our two days with Tong knocked our socks off. First she picked us up in her fully pimped-out van (tuck and roll leather), and then she gave us the best-smelling, coldest wipes to help with an incredible hot and humid day. She took us to the Palace, to temples, to the floating and the train market. Through all of it, she kept us in stitches with our hilarious and enthusiastic descriptions of everything Thai. Even today I can remember the reverence she had for her aged king. It was a superb two days for everyone there.

Inverness with Ian

img_4991In August of 2016 we sailed on Celebrity’s Silhouette from Amsterdam on a two week British Isles cruise that included the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well as a bunch of other great ports but the one that really stood out for us was our tour of Outlander sites with Ian. From the battlefield at Culloden to the cairns on the cover of Donna Gabaldon’s novels, Ian knew it all. (That’s him at right in a pic from a Culloden battle reenactment) His knowledge and expertise about all things Scotland was wonderful. He truly entertained and educated us and took wonderful care of us. One big example of this: As we were getting off the ship two of our friends were talking to Ian before we arrived and they told him about a problem I was having with my Nikon. I had somehow gotten a huge piece of dirt on my sensor. I had done the auto cleaning routine a number of times but it just did not work. Every photo I took had a huge blotch on the right hand side that I would have to Photoshop or crop out of every photo. Ian asked me about it and I told him I hoped to find a camera shop in Edinburgh the next day. Just after lunch, we were on our way to a historic priory and we swung off the road into a parking lot. He led me into what might have been the largest camera store I have ever seen…in the absolute middle of nowhere. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars of cameras and lenses on display and a complete service department who promptly cleaned my sensor. Outstanding! And I hadn’t even asked him. That’s the kind of guy he was.

Touring the Panama Canal control room with Roberto

CanalAnother Mike Preisman special! So we are on a Panama Canal cruise (our second) with our Martini Mates (which includes Mike and Carol Preisman) and Mikes sets up a tour with a guy in Colon, Panama. Turns out the guy has connections.

This, for me, was the absolute highlight of our tours off the ship on this cruise. Mike had arranged another great tour (maybe one of the best we have done with him and that is saying a lot). We were touring with Roberto from Robtad’s Tours in Colon. Our previous canal crossing had not stopped in Colon.

This time we had the entire day in Colon and we really wanted to see the canal itself, close up. Not only the current canal but also the new construction of the canal that should have been already finished. When Roberto picked us up he took us directly to the Gatun Locks where he had a wonderful friend (who was like his brother) who worked as a lock master at the canal and he had arranged for us to actually walk across the canal gates and tour the Gatun Locks control room. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every single person we met in Panama that day were some of the nicest folks we have ever met. We also got to see monkeys, the new canal and so much more. What a day!

Touring Villefranche with Sylvie

SylvieAnother Mike Preisman recommendation was the amazing Sylvie who we met while taking a Western Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity’s Century in 2007. This was one of our favorite cruises and we loved most of the ports (you can keep Gibraltar) but our day in Villefranche with Sylvie was the best. She picked us up early and took us to the market in Nice, then on to a superb lunch in the hilltop town of Eze and finally a complete tour of the entire country of Monaco. She drove us on the entire race track which really gave me some street cred yeas later when I became a Formula 1 fan. (We’ve been on three tracks and I am always looking for more.) The day was fantastic and we would go back out with Sylvie anytime.

Harv & Marv whale watching

WhalesWe will finish up the Mike Preisman arranged shore excursions by touching on the best shore excursion of all our six (soon to be seven) cruises to Alaska. We were sailing once again on Celebrity’s Infinity but this time on a reunion cruise of the original Martini Mates to Alaska. Mike has arranged for the four of us (Mike, Carol, Kathleen and I) to go whale watching. I know…whale watching. What’s so special about that? Well, we were on a boat with just the four of us and two other people. Just six of us. And we moved fast. We went looking for whales while Harv (or Marv–not sure which we had) monitored the radio. The minute that he heard someone had spotted whales, we were off. And we saw some amazing whales that day. But to me, the most amazing thing that happened that day was before we went to look at the whales and the seals and the sea let ions, the boat stopped off a Juneau neighborhood and we saw a woman in a kayak paddling towards us. She came up next to our boat and handed a box to Harv. Harv blew her a kiss and handed us some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had. That was his wife and  she brought out freshly-baked cookies for us. Now that’s service. And a really special day.

Akaroa on our own

AkaroaIn January of 2012 we headed south, way south to Aukland, New Zealand to cruise on Celebrity’s Century from Aukland to Sydney, Australia. We had a lot of really awesome shore excursions with some really great friends but the day that was the most memorable was Akaroa. We had originally been scheduled to visit Christchurch that day but six months prior to our arrival, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake. So we were informed that we would be stopping in the sleepy sheep-ranching village of Akaroa. We scrambled to find something to do there. First we decided to take a harbor cruise in the morning (we were the first ones off the ship), then had what I still remember as the best hamburger I have ever had and finally went with some friends to a working New Zealand sheep ranch where we helped sort sheep, shear sheep and were invited into the sheep rancher’s home for tea. It was such a typical Kiwi thing to do. It made our day.

Jet boating in Acapulco 

Of all our favorites, this last one is the only ship-sponsored shore excursion in the bunch. It happened in Acapulco on our first Panama Canal cruise back in 2004. We both count it as a great shore excursion because it’s probably the most exciting one we have ever done. The jet boat drive with our guide Walt, through a mangrove swamp (really stinky) was one of the many highlights of this trip. We still remember (more than 15 years later) Walt whipping his hand around over his head as he pulled the boat in a tight circle. It was so much fun we really wish we had done it over and over…except we didn’t. We piled back on the bus and headed to a…turquoise factory for a sales pitch that wasted an hour of our touring time. See what I mean about cruise ship sponsored shore excursions. But think how great the jet boat part must have been to outweigh the turquoise factory.

How about you? I would love to have some comments about your favorite shore excursions. Later this week I promise our worst…and there were some doozies—one that almost killed us!

 

 

 

Why we don’t take cruise line shore excursions

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Two days ago I wrote all about Cruise Critic and why if you cruise, you should be on Cruise Critic and on the roll call for your particular cruise. Today is the follow up and it’s all about shore excursions. If you aren’t a cruiser, a shore excursion is what you do when  you arrive in a port of call on your cruise. You have a number of choices. Of course you can stay on the ship. (We often do that when we go to Alaska because we have been there six times and have pretty much done all the shore excursions we want to do.) Or you can arrange a private tour or you can take a cruise line shore excursion. When we go to a new port we have never visited before, we ALWAYS do some kind of tour to see as much of the port and area around it as we possibly can in one (or if we are lucky) two days.

The other day someone on our current Ireland/Iceland cruise roll call posted about shore excursions. This is what they said:

We are new to sailing cruise line X and I see that everyone is booking excursions through other sources besides cruise line X. Are there issues with the excursions that cruise line X offers? The cruise line X excursions look so much more adventurous than most of these sightseeing trips, which is why I’m asking.

This was my answer to this person’s post:

We stopped doing cruise line tours after our fourth cruise for the following reasons:

First, when you take a ship-sponsored tour you only get to tour as fast as the slowest person on your 55 passenger bus. Many times we would be done with the attraction and be ready to get back on the bus when the last person had just gotten off.

Second, There is no room for any spontaneity on a ship’s tour. They must stick to their schedule. When we are on a private tour with just our group and we see an interesting place, we can just ask the guide to stop. If we go someplace that is on the schedule and it turns out to be boring, we can just ask to leave. When you are on that 55 passenger bus, you go where they want and when they want and there is no chance to change anything.

Third, one of the biggest complaints that experienced cruisers have about cruise line shore excursions is that they often include shopping stops that no one on the bus wants to make. They are stopping for the shopping because the store, factory or attraction they have added to your tour is paying them to do so. I can’t even imagine a private tour guide that we have hired stopping anyplace that we didn’t want to stop.

Lastly, the cruise line shore excursions are very often more expensive than the private ones we book. As a travel agent we have a number of shore tour options that are outside the ones from the ship. Many of these are tours with local guides that take you in small groups to see just what you want to see at much less cost than going on the ship’s tour.

So how do we tour? We do it privately. The pic at the top of this post is from an amazing private tour we had in Bangkok a few years ago that was planned completely by a close friend. Only eight of us in a van touring all over Thailand. More about private shore excursions later this week.