What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

I am always excited each time I try a new or different cruise line.
In November 2017 my husband and I took a 10-day cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Panama and back. We have sailed on several different lines, but this was our first with Holland America (HAL). As far as ships go, it’s extremely similar to other large ships of its class. I will give my list of the good and not so good from this particular voyage. And I will also list a couple of ship tips I have learned.

Bird in Curacao

Good:
This is the first time we have tried open seating as opposed to a set dining time. We like having a table for 2 and this worked for the most part, but we also timed it right and kept our fingers crossed. Open seating is like walking up to a busy restaurant and asking for a table for 2. This all depends on table availability and you may have to wait. If you don’t mind sitting with others being seated without a wait is usually never a problem.

Holland America has a private Caribbean island called Half Moon Caye, and I really enjoyed this. It’s nice to get off ship and have a private uncrowded beach for swimming. On a cruise you forget that just because you are at sea for a week, you never get to swim in the ocean unless you take an excursion or can find a public beach on your own while at port. The private beach included beach towels, lounge chairs, and a wonderful gigantic lunch buffet.

There was a great selection of on-board activities. Since the Holland America demographic is more of a mature crowd, the activities are more geared towards classes, presentations, and demonstrations. Yes, I can live without Belly Flop and Hairy Chest contests. Many of the classes on board are health and fitness presentations, America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations, and my favorite -Microsoft computer classes.
Every afternoon, 4-5 pm, was happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks

Holland America Zuiderdam Pool

The not so good…. because nothing was bad this trip:
Air conditioning…. Yikes! The a/c in public areas seemed to be turned up higher than I ever remember on a cruise. I tried to look for a cozy quiet lounge area to read, but I always had to have on some pants and a heavy sweater. I remember sitting in a computer class with a sweater on and still shivering.

The buffet was always crowded, especially breakfast. It was such a chore hunting for a table. One thing I noticed that seemed to be different from other ship buffets was how much of the food needed to be served from behind glass. If I wanted a bowl of oatmeal I’d have to stand in line behind people ordering eggs and pancakes. Why can’t I scoop out my own bowl of oatmeal? Same with the salad bar–you had to instruct someone how to make your salad… am I wrong?  But most people like to build their own salad on a salad bar!

Cruise Tips:
Having dinner in the specialty restaurants costs about $20-$35 per person. We found that you can have lunch in the same restaurants for $10 pp.
Avoid the crowded buffet at lunch and have an elegant, non-hurried, sit-down lunch by eating in the big dining room. Just know that the menu is limited to about 10 items, and the dining room hours are 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm.

Cruisers watch as we pass through the locks, Panama Canal

Below are some street scene photos of Panama City

Ice cream shop in Panama City
Street Scene in Panama City
Painted Bus, Panama City

Closing Time, Yellowstone, September 2017

What a beautiful time to visit Yellowstone– mid-September, about 2 weeks before closing for the primary tourist season. The weather was really good, with temps in the mid 70’s. On the last 2 days it rained and was just starting to get cold, especially at night.


I had no idea that there was so much to see inside the park, and 4 days was perfect. Besides the famous Old Faithful geyser there are waterfalls, canyons, hiking trails, hot springs, wildlife, and a large lake. My favorite area was Norris geyser basin with walking trails on boardwalks.


Although we had booked this trip last-minute, we were able to get rooms inside the park lodges, but we had to move around to different hotels 3 times: Canyon Lodge for 2-nights, Old Faithful Inn 1-night, and 1-night in the Old Faithful Lodge cabins.

Dining room Old Faithful Inn


Here are some things to know about visiting Yellowstone–

  • The park is very user-friendly. There are hundreds of miles to explore. As long as there are no orange cones up blocking the road you are free to roam. There are plenty of picnic areas and pull-offs to stop at and take pictures.
  • This park is very accessible. I was surprised at how many people I saw with wheelchairs and walkers. The park provides ramps, accessible rooms, and special parking.
  • The food was not very good. You have to eat in the park restaurants, or buy food in the little convenience store. The buffets were priced fair and the nicer sit-down restaurants were a little pricey for the quality. If I were to do it again, I’d bring more food in.
  • It gets really dark at night. You need a flashlight, and there are not many streetlights. This is great for star-gazing.
  • No televisions, no wifi, and no radio. Welcome to off-the-grid!



The Great Wall of …..Croatia (and also Touring Italy on a Windstar Cruise)

I have decided that early May is the best time to cruise in Europe–that’s my opinion anyway. The weather can still be a little cool and rainy, flowers are blooming, most other cruise lines have not yet arrived, and the crowds are minimal. This was our second cruise with Windstar and again it was superb.
Here are some of the highlights and my favorite photos.

Quiet deck early morning on Windstar

 

Amalfi Coast

 

Syrenbus, pleasure on wheels!


The old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia– you can walk around the top of the walled city. It costs about $25 per person and was worth it. Not good if you don’t like the heights and it can be a pretty strenuous walk with lots of stairs.

View from the wall walkway in Dubrovnik

 

Parade in Dubrovnik

 

Waterfront walkway in Split, Croatia

 

Restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia

Venice was busy, hot, and humid. I didn’t like it as much as I liked the other ports in Croata, Sicily, and Amalfi.  When I look at the picture below I realize this is not very crowded, it could be worse.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

 

Wonder how your luggage gets to your hotel?

 

Restaurant window, Venice, Italy

 

Mexico Resorts 2017 revisited

14 Resorts in 3-days!
In April 2017 I took an AmResorts “Fam Trip” a travel agent tour of several all-inclusive resorts in– Cancun, Cozumel, and Mayan Riviera, Mexico. I love these tours– a great way to see, eat, sleep, photograph, and meet the managers of some beautiful resorts. Here I will share some of the new and fun things going on at the resorts.
Seen one resort and you think you’ve seen them all? I don’t think so!

Dreams Playa Mujeres

 

Walkway to the beach Dreams Playa Mujeres

 

Dreams Playa Mujeres Beach

 

Cozumel Sunscape Sabor– Divers heading out

 

Cozumel Sunscape Sabor– Dining beach side

 

Room at Breathless Riviera Cancun. A glass shower in the center of the room (with some curtains of course)

 

Dreams Sands Cancun, a family resort with a loaded activities board/screen

 

Dreams Sands Cancun, a white sand and clear blue water beach

 

Dreams Tulum Spa

 

Dreams Tulum pool next to the beach

 

Dreams Riviera Cancun Hookah Nights…. what?

 

Now Sapphire Resort, setting up for a beach side wedding

 

Secrets Akumal, adult only resort, a porch swing bar

 

Secrets the Vine Cancun, a wine themed resort

 

Secrets the Vine Cancun… exercise with a view

 

Secrets Silversands Riviera Cancun, over the water bungalows

 

Secrets Silversands, friendly staff

 

Secrets Maroma Beach, lunch in the water?

 

Secrets Maroma, how about ping pong in the water?

 

Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun, dining room Portofino

 

Secrets Capri, beach side dining

 

Norway and the Arctic Circle in Winter

The primary reason for this winter trip up north was to see the northern lights. In the 8 days we were there, we only saw the lights one time. Yes, I am disappointed, but it is the way nature works. On the other hand, I was curious to experience the extremely long days of darkness. This did not disappoint.
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The Hurtigruten cruise started in Bergen, where we spent one night prior to embarkation. Their version of daylight (dusk) started about 10 am and ended around 3 pm. When we crossed over the Arctic Circle the days grew really short, the sun never rose above the horizon.
Hurtigruten is a different type of cruise experience. It is a passenger/ferry ship. Accommodations were simple, but comfortable. Our ship Trollfjord sleeps about 600 passengers, and for our cruise week we had about 250 people on board. The ship stops at approximately 30 ports in the 6-night voyage to Kirkenes before it turns around and goes back to Bergen. A lot of the stops are for 30 mins to an hour and passengers are able to get off and walk around, or pick up snacks from the small convenience stores at most ports. The ship also picks up day passengers going from one port to the next.
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Arctic Superior Cabin, couch folds down to another bed

City tour excursions where a little disappointing since it was usually dark as night and hard to see anything. The mid-day trip to Nord Kapp (North Cape), the northernmost point of Europe, was very cold and windy, and the dark pictures I took were taken around 12 noon!

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North Cape, above the Arctic Circle

71°10′21″N 25°47′04″E     Nord Kapp coordinates 
 I spent a good amount of time in the front lounge reading and looking at whatever scenery was visible. They keep the lights dim so there is not a lot of glare for looking out of the large floor to ceiling windows. The lounge has small twinkling lights above like a nights sky and it was warm and cozy.
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And the most wonderful thing of all is the food! Fish, seafood, fish, and more seafood, delicious! I never saw anything made with chicken and ground beef the whole week. So many varieties of fish, salmon, coalfish, smoked dogfish, pickled halibut, etc. I did try some reindeer meat: to me –not that good. Piles of seafood–king crab is considered everyday food to them so it was always on the buffet, a staple. As always in Europe the bread and butter was heavenly. And I really need to figure out how to make those sweet Norwegian pancakes.
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I would go back in a minute. I’d like to try this same cruise in a different season next time. In summer it would be a completely different cruise with more daylight and opportunity to actually see the great fjords.
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Planning a Family Reunion: How To Get Started

Maybe you are thinking about how to plan a family reunion. Here are some quick guidelines you might find useful for getting started. Keep in mind that Pickwick Travel can provide any assistance you might need in setting up or organizing a family reunion vacation or any other type of group travel.
Set up committees

Don’t go it alone. Share the work. Everyone has different skills and experience to bring to the planning. More than likely, you’ll have to do this long-distance with emails and phone calls.

Some of the different ways you can divide up the organizing—
• Food/Catering Committee
• Communications–Compile a list of invites and send invitations. Keep guests in the loop with updates. (See below: “Creating a family information web site.”)
• Establish one person to collect money and keep track of the finances.
• Activities, decorating, putting together a memorabilia table.
• Committee to organize the set-up and clean-up.

Create a timeline & payment schedule

The first meeting should be to determine what kind of get-together you want to have– a one-day party, a weekend, a family vacation week, or a cruise. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of deposits and final payments.

Set up a budget
Remember to add up all the little things. You may want to pad it just a little for unexpected expenses.

Things to budget for–
Venue rental * Banquet/Catering cost * Decorations * Invitations and postage * Entertainment * Family website * Welcome packets and award gifts.

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After your planning committee is formed and dates and location are established, the next step is to fill in the details.

If you are going to block hotel room space at a group discount, be careful–some hotels require a contract with an attrition clause.
• Negotiating guest rooms sometimes involves an attrition clause, which basically guarantees the hotel that you will use a certain percentage of the guest rooms contracted or blocked. Most standard hotel contracts have an 80 percent attrition rate, where the group is financially responsible for eight out of 10 guest rooms blocked even if they aren’t reserved. It’s vital to go into a contract negotiation knowing your group. If you overestimate the number of rooms needed, you may find yourself receiving a hefty attrition bill at the end.

Create a family information website.
There are several internet companies that let you create a small simple website for events. These websites are reasonable–around $10/month. You can also set-up a Facebook page.
Catering/Banquet room
Buffet style is best and is usually the most affordable for a group. When getting a quote, be sure to get beverage (non-alcoholic) and gratuities included in the per-person cost. If you are planning far in advance, touch base with the restaurant manager or sales director periodically to ensure they are still in their positions, and confirm that your group reservation is still on the schedule. At least a week before event call to give them your final head count.

Poppy Fields and Swans– Springtime in France 2016

We have just returned from another fantastic river cruise in Europe. This time we went on Avalon Waterways and we weren’t disappointed. There were quite a few cloudy days with splashes of rain here and there, and our boat just missed hitting some of the flood areas (early May). 

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My favorite thing about river cruising…. The lazy days of gliding down the scenic river, the food, and the freedom.  I think I noticed it more this cruise than with others. We were encouraged to get off the boat and go for walks around town or down the river walkways.  The tours were great but sometimes I chose to skip them and wander around by myself. One day I walked around town alone, hurried back to the boat before the tour groups came back so that I could go updeck and sit in the hot tub. There was no one else around and I sat in that hot bubbling water alone, smiling and staring up at  a castle on the hill.
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St Paul de Vence
St Paul de Vence cemetery

My Highlights of France

  • Paris-  Montparnasse cemetery, Pompidou Modern Art Musem,  and crepes with homemade toffee and vanilla ice cream.
  • Wildflowers and poppies growing on the side of the road.  In Beaune, there were grapevines growing in the center of the roundabouts.
  • Sampling Beaujolais wine at a local winery.

The ship– Avalon Affinity
Pro’s— Sliding full window/door in our stateroom, and spacious bathroom. Daily happy hour with discounted drinks, good food, especially lunch buffet and cheese assortment. This was a smaller ship and we were able to get into smaller town ports that some of the bigger boats like Viking would not fit into.
Con’s— We wished there were better wine variety pairings with dinner. And the breakfast/lunch buffet layout was not the best, very congested in places.

Beaujolais Winery
Beaujolais Winery

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My most favorite part of the trip was Monaco/Monte Carlo. It was about 10 days prior to the Monaco Grand Prix Race. The town was setting up bleachers, banners, fences, and guardrails. We drove the route and walked a good part of it, and our hotel Fairmont was situated right at the infamous hairpin curve.  Other great sites were the Exotic Garden, and the Monte Carlo Casino.

Paella
Paella
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Monte Carlo
Monaco Grand Prix track
Monaco Grand Prix track

 

Jerusalem: a living museum

Israel has long been a destination at the top of my bucket list, and I recently returned from there deluged with the knowledge of a very foreign culture and its history. A trip to Israel is history brought to life, a living museum. Personally, it’s the culture, daily lives, and rituals of the people that fascinate me.
Israel is such a small country containing a conflux of numerous religions. The main 3 are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The feeling for me while there is how extreme religion is. By this I mean religion is life! Everywhere you look there are synagogues, temples, mosques, public prayer areas, prayer rugs, prayer shawls, and leather straps called Tefillin. Various types of headcover can be seen all around–Kippa or yarmulke (skullcap), Kufis (Muslim), and Yeshivish (orthodox).

Shabbat (Jewish sabbath) is still strongly observed starting Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and large family gatherings can be noted. The day we visited the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem was a Thursday, a big day for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs–a big day of celebration, families dressed up taking pictures, playing drums, forming parades through the narrow streets. In my observation of Israel, there is such a commitment and devotion to belief and rituals.
Tel Aviv felt like a European city, upscale shopping, outdoor coffee shops, markets, kiteboarders on the beach, and BBQ picnics on the waterfront. The city is lively and felt perfectly safe. Our guide taught us the hora and we danced in the city square of old Jaffa.
The geography of Israel is so diverse, everything from desert, craggy rocks and caves, to green rolling hills with tall pine trees. We drove route 90 from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem along the Jordan River where Bedouins and shepherds still reside on the hillsides.

We visited the Holocaust History museum in Jerusalem. Although a sad place to visit, I enjoyed being able to experience this while in the country. The highlight of this museum is a memorial to the children who died: separate building where you enter the darkness holding onto a handrail and walking slowly into a starry night sky. The dark auditorium is lit only by 5 candles that are reflected in many mirrors. It’s a quiet darkness with thousands of twinkling lights–yes, I got a little choked up.

I highly recommend a trip to the Holy Land. We know that security issues are prevalent now around the globe, but I never felt unsafe. Our guides lived in Israel and were knowledgeable of areas that were unsafe. We were always encouraged to get out and walk around our hotel neighborhoods, which we did.
This trip, a small group of 15, was a travel agent “fam” trip to familiarize us with Israeli tours. Thank you to our main guide, Joel Rosenfeld of Isram Tours. He made this an over-the-top experience.

My Top 5 Highlights of Turkey 2015

I really hope to be back here again someday. There is so much more to see and do. I barely had enough bonding time with Turkey.
Turkish Air
What a nice airlines. We flew economy round-trip and it was as comfortable as a long haul flight could be. The food was Turkish and pretty good for airline food. Alcohol was free of charge and the selection of juices offered where OJ, apple, and cherry (?)—several people around me were ordering cherry– it must be a Turkish thing. The flight was comfortable, with individual entertainment screens in the head rest offering a great variety of movies and TV shows. There was even a channel to watch take-off and landing from camera views on the front and belly of the plane.

Cooking class for one
Before leaving on this trip, I alone from our group had signed up for a cooking class in Bodrum. As I found myself riding in the passenger seat of a car heading 18km outside of the city with a not so talkative stranger– a man named Haluk, I asked if we were picking up any other classmates from hotels. He said I was the only student that day. I have to say I started to feel a little nervous. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies about tourists wandering off the beaten path.  I just held my breath and anxiety inside until he dropped me off at a farmers market to meet up with his mother-in-law Elena. This ended up being the best experience ever! Elena showed me around the market, we bought some fresh produce, and Haluk picked us up and took us to his house in the country to cook. Haluk is an artist and he and his wife live in a sort of rustic, farm, bohemian-style house. I had a great time cooking and visiting with the 2 of them, and later we sat down for a nice home-cooked meal.

Farmers market
Farmers market
Elena and I eating our home-cooked meal
Elena and I eating our home-cooked meal

Ephesus (Kusadasi)
I had heard from other travelers that the ruins of Ephesus were not to be missed. They were right. This place is expansive, and only a small portion of it has been excavated. These ruins are in great shape and the vegetation and geography of the area felt a little like Tuscany.

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Ephesus

 

Terraced Houses, Ephesus
Terraced Houses, Ephesus

Istanbul
I loved this city—I believe I even prefer it over Athens. We were only here for a day, but it has such a vibrant young-people feel to it. Something I had been looking forward to and was a little disappointed by was the Grand Bazaar. I was expecting a more primitive outdoor flea market. From what we saw, it is basically a gigantic mall of shops. I also loved the waterfront–a busy, lively, walkway of couples pushing strollers, people with picnics on the rocks, vendors selling nuts and fruit, men sitting together playing the guitar and singing, and of course lots of cats for me to feed.

Picnic on the rocks
Picnic on the rocks
Vendor selling mussels Istanbul waterfront

Armada Hotel- Istanbul
I love quirky boutique style hotels and this one fit the bill. It sits just 1-block from the waterfront. Inside the lobby there was a turtle pond and fairly loud bird sounds. I’m not sure if the bird sounds are taped or real, but upstairs off the patio there were several cages of boisterous birds—maybe there was a microphone next to them. Anyway it sounded so relaxing and tropical in the lobby. There was a patio bar upstairs with a terrific view of the city mosques. This hotel had the most extravagant breakfast buffet I’d ever seen. In addition to the small area of actual breakfast-type food there was a variety of nuts, spices, cheeses, and a large honeycomb to scoop out. There was an orange juice station where you cut and squeeze your own oranges into a juice glass.

Honeycomb- Armada Hotel
Honeycomb- Armada Hotel

 

Squeeze your own oranges- Armada Hotel
Squeeze your own oranges- Armada Hotel