Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cruising! Radiance of the Seas.....

I consider we were very lucky to have been able to go on this.  A year ago, we were booked on one to go from Venice to Turkey, but I was unable to get on the ship for medical reasons.

Royal Caribbean, the cruise company, gave us vouchers, not for the full value but nearly and the insurance company topped up the rest, so we booked a cruise that left from Sydney, up to New Caledonia, Lifou, then Vanuatu, and back to Sydney. This is called the 9 day cruise.

Getting on board was relatively painless, only a 20 minute wait. Your first impression is of a luxury hotel, not a ship.  It has a large atrium right in the centre of the ship, which runs from Level 4 right up to level 10 (I think!).  This is a beautiful piece of  interior design.

The advertising/marketing goes on about the WOW factor, but in this case it really does live up to the hype.  It would be nice if every human on the planet could go on one of these cruises. In the past I was dismissive of the idea, but I would say, try it, you will love it.

You can stand on one of the levels and look down into the atrium and if you look carefully, you will see layer upon layer of subtle design variances.

It has two glassed in lifts in the inner part of the atrium, and several more on the outer part, which are glass fronted as well allowing a brilliant view over the sea on the left side of the ship.

This is the main atrium and a level just off it.

Finding our cabin was fun, but easy enough, we had room 3024, which meant we were on level 3, near the bow. There was a large round  porthole.  The room was quite spacious. The bathroom was fine, except the shower was on the small side, but OK.

Then up to deck 11 to look at the departure from Sydney.  Just a  fantastic view of this great harbour from high up on deck 11, and then off to the open sea.

This is just going past the North Head in Sydney Harbour.

Time for dinner. All food was included in the fare, so we were keen to see what was on the menu.  Our first call was at the Windjammer Cafe, located on the top at the rear of the ship.

Talk about food!  There was a smorgasbord going, and you could have chips, burgers, eggs, salads, you name it.  I tried to keep the  intake down, but it was tempting.

Just looking around it seemed like most of my fellow passengers  were overweight: was this because they came cruising often? At the end of the cruise I checked: a gain of 3 kg. Hmff.

The next evening we tried the fine dining option, in the Cascades Dining Room.  Imagine a 5 star restaurant with a view of the sea, a 3 course meal on offer. Yum!

This is the Cascades Dining Room on Level 5

This is the Solarium, a glass roofed swimming pool and hot tub.

They had bird noises playing, giving it a hanging garden feel. Artificial plants but the whole effect was wonderful.

Time on board went extremely quickly, what with exploring the ship, eating, and seeing a show or two.  They had live entertainment each night in a large theatre, and it seemed to be of mostly high quality.

The first day I climbed 9 sets of stairs to the gym and did a short  workout.  By the time we reached Noumea I had slid backwards into a  more relaxed attitude, besides we went on a bus tour of Noumea.

This is Lemon Bay in Noumea.

A day later and we anchored off a small island called Lifou.  They had tenders to take us to the island, where we walked along the beach and I did a bit of snorkelling in about 1500mm of water. Nice, but not spectacular.

At our next port, Vila in Vanuatu, we booked on a tour called "Dream Cove Cruise". A van picked us up from the ship, took us to a wharf in town, and onto a 70 foot yacht.  Half an hour cruising later, we  stopped in a bay with really clear water.  I jumped over board and  swam to a nearby coral reef, which had plenty of fish and coral to look at.

Then three days cruising at sea.  I just cannot believe how quick it went.

Back at Sydney, we were just off the ship thinking where was the train to my brother's place and there he was!

You can check out the ship here:

Radiance of the Seas

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Italian Railway Experience

What you need to know about Italian trains:

1. Buying a ticket and just having it is not good enough. Once you buy your ticket, look for a small box that says something like ticket validation. Insert your ticket and once inserted, move it to the left. You might get away with not doing this, but if they catch you, expect to fork out 52 Euros.

2. How to find out where you are going and which stations does the train stop at? At every station you will find a large (but not large enough!) sheet of paper. On it, it lists under hourly headings when trains leave, and if you look carefully it will list all the stops, with their times. I wondered what about Sundays? The catch is the asterisk, and you need to learn the word for Sunday, Saturday, and Public Holiday.  A listing of the months in Italian is also needed.

 3. There is sometimes a small electronic screen showing train times as well. Sometimes this will be at odds with the paper copy. We found the electronic on was more up to date.

4. Another puzzle is the strange case of up to 4 trains leaving at the same time. They are handled by the asterisk as mentioned in 2 above.

5. Watch out for multiple destinations of the city of your choice. It easy to get off out in the suburbs.

6. If travelling on a train that has first and second class, and you are booked on carriage no 2, do NOT get on the carriage that has a big 2 on the side. It means second class. Usually, 1st class is at the end of the train, with a tiny notice near the door saying which carriage it is.

7. Watch out for terribly helpful persons that appear to have official looking shirts on wanting to grab your suitcases out of your hands and lift them on board for you. They expect 5 Euros. Make it a point to say NO thanks!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hong Kong subway trips

Bead shopping in Hong Kong.  I was not looking forward to this, but it turned out a bit of a touristy type of exercise.  First find out where to go via the Internet.  It appears to be an area about 6 km north of our hotel, conveniently close to the subway line.  We bought two Octopus cards, similar to 
London's Oyster Card. The subway is clean, fast, and very efficient.  
As usual, all the streets look the same: shops forever with six story apartment buildings above.  A small amount of beads, and lunch was required.  Ever tried to place an order with a counter lady (who wore an air hostess type hat), who does not understand English? Rose did not want to eat, but we ended up with two meals anyway. Once the order was placed, we sat down to wait for our meal to arrive.  The people at our table were amused by this and pointed to the other end of the restaurant, where there was a counter, at which you queued up with your ticket.  Talk about fast food, it was a bit like Macdonalds.
Home for a well earned rest, the out again to look at Hong Kong across the water from the waterfront.  
Before coming to Kowloon I was not looking forward to crowds of people all pushing and shoving and being generally rude to each other. I was surprised and pleased to find none of this, given there are lots of people here, that almost without exception, people are relaxed and behave very well.  If you ask for directions, they usually have a language problem, but are friendly anyway.  We felt safe on the streets, even at night.
The will be my last post,  except for a piece on the Italian Railway System.
We return to New Zealand next Monday.

From Italy to Germany to Hong Kong

Riomaggiore. We were going to give this a miss, but decided to make the effort.
An unusual village, split into a sea part and a rural part. No beach, but people were swimming in the harbour. Needless to say, we got there by train, which took only about 15 minutes.  A lot of gelato consumption, and a strange snack: a thing like an ice cream cone, but made of cardboard, and filled with deep fried seafood. Tasty.
The previous day while swimming, I got stung by a jelly fish, which knocked the chrome off the snorkelling.  The next day, I was careful to look where I was going, spotted him, so no stings.
A lot of angst was generated by the rail timetable for the day of our leaving, but it all turned out ok, going from Monterosso to Genova, changing to the Milan one at Genova.  We were going to get a taxi to Milan Airport, but Rose spotted a shuttle bus just outside the station, 5 Euros to the airport-unbelievable value!
Much long waiting around and we got on board our plane to Frankfurt.
No horsing around this end, we got a taxi to the Dormero Hotel, just near the city centre. This is a picture of Frankfurt.
A brilliant hotel: 2 large screens, one for Internet, the other for TV, and a choice of free movies. We had a day to have a look at the city, as our flight did not leave till 10pm.
We walked towards the city centre, and came across a brand new shopping mall, Skyline Plaza.  Spotless, and very tastefully done.  Back out onto the main road again and eventually reached the heart of the city.  It felt a bit like La Rambla in Barcelona. Nice enough, but not spectacular.
Leg power failing, we decided to get out to the airport early, and proceeded to wait forever for boarding.
 This is a picture of Hong Kong, from our hotel in Kowloon.

The usual not fun trip sitting for 10 hours,  now we are sitting up 19 floors in the Panorama Hotel, looking towards Hong Kong, a bit zapped as we have been virtually up all night.  It is now 5.15pm and it feels like we had breakfast about 5 hours ago.  Everything here seems to cost mega bucks. A buffet dinner downstairs is HK 400=NZ 60/ person.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Monterosso Al Mare

Link to pics on Flikr.  Blue Mediterranean Sea. Not very clear, but around 3m visibility. We are now in Monterosso Al Mare.

 A bit of a train jumping job to get here. From Venice to Firenze, very fast, in first class. Then onto an ordinary train to La Spezia. A short half hour wait, and another to Monterosso.
Straight out of the station entrance, and a walk of one kilometre to the Hotel La Palme, along a very nice promenade above the beach.
Very happy with this hotel, it is two minutes walk to a really nice beach. First task was to buy a mask and snorkel. Done. Then out to say hi to the fish, of which there were some, not a lot. Dinner: pizza,hmm.
First full day, I was up fairly early and had an early morning swim to check out my fish.
Monterosso is divided into two parts by headland with a tunnel through it, so that part of the town, which seems much older was paid a visit. The part in the photo above is called Figina, but seems lumped in with Monterosso. This is a picture of the main part of Monterosso:

A bit like Venice, minus canals.
Lunch was good, I had fried fish and spuds, Rose had a salad.
Today, the usual swim then an attempt to walk the one mile around the cliffs to the next village, which is Vernazza.
This is the harbour at Vernazza...unreal!

 We got about a quarter of the way, after climbing a thousand stairs, when a queue formed  in the baking sun. So we flagged the path at idea away, and walked all the way back and caught a train instead.  
Vernazza is much smaller and did not take long to check out, so we had a nice lunch looking out to sea on a perfect day. We are now waiting for the train back.
Here is another picture of Figina:
This is a misty day looking south, from Montorosso Al Mare towards Riomaggiore:


Friday, September 20, 2013

Mestre and Venice

Commuting to Venice from Mestre can be ok, but not  if the bus is full, thanks.
I should have looked up on the net for the ten must do's for Venice, or tips for seeing Venice. I have since and now realise the error of my ways, but to be fair, we were in a position where planning was not easy.  One of the tips was to stay in Venice.  I would agree with this, but having stayed in Mestre was an experience we both enjoyed, because this is a real, working Italian city, albeit a small one.
Our hotel was right on the edge of a main square, and in the evenings we went out and everyone else was too.  It seemed to have a good atmosphere, with old and young all cruising around, some looking at the shops, others just standing about, or promenading.
This is the main piazza in Mestre:

Getting the right bus was eventually mastered, along with the ticket system. You buy a ticket at the hotel desk, which seems made of card, but maybe not, as you can refill them.  It has a barcode on it, which you swipe as you get on the bus.
Annoying in some ways, as you cannot tell how many rides you have left.
We are about to get a taxi (ouch!) to Venice now, then a vaporetto, or water bus. I had thought these were expensive at 25 Euros a pop, but that is for a day ticket. It costs just 7 Euros to go one way, which is almost the only way to get suitcases to our hotel, way up the right hand end of Venice.
One of the top tips was to get lost in Venice, which we managed easily on the first day in.  Yesterday, we managed to it again, but not quite so badly. The previous day we did not get lost, but made it our mission to get to San Marco square, and then locate the hotel, which we did but it was almost too much, and we got back to the bus stop with rubber legs.  According to Mapometer, it was 8 km. Anywhere near the Rialto bridge or the square was clogged with tourists,  not much fun.  Get away from there and it seems deserted.
The best experience is to come out of a narrow alley and see a calm canal with those  water ripples reflecting the colours of the buildings.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

More walking around Asolo

Sounds boring, and probably is to read about it. 
But then, the idea of this blog is for us to have a record to look back on,  and I am not looking for a job as a travel writer.

We walked down one of the main roads to a small settlement called Pagnano, about 2 km down the hill.  Beautiful walk down through a wealthy area, trees, vineyards, olive trees, nice houses.

The little settlement was not as affluent feeling, but still Ok.  On the corner was an old water mill, which we found out later was used for metal working.
Looking up property on the net, it appears it is for sale at around $250,000 NZ. At a small cafe we had a coffee.  I asked for a Latte, as this usually results in something like a NZ flat white. No, a tiny cup arrived with a teaspoon of milk.  I give up: you just cannot get NZ coffee in Italy. The hotel comes close, supplying blow your head off coffee in a jug every morning.  After 2 cups of this you wonder why you feel dehydrated all morning.

The next day a walk was chosen by me which almost resulted in mutiny by the crew.  Well it is not my fault if someone has a kilometre long driveway to their house, all up hill, gravel under foot and lots of flies, saying, yes, Asolo this way!
Turns out the sign was talking about a road five metres further on.
It did start out nice though, the usual country lane with nice views.
For the record, it started out as Via San Martino, end ended up as Via Forello.
On arrival in the piazza, it was found necessary to have large ice cream sundaes and a cheese sandwich.  Yes, naughty, but that is all they sell!
Here is the view from the cafe of he piazza:

Man are they busy, like one armed Italian ice cream sellers.  Another year of this and those two brothers can retire to the Bahamas.
Today is sad mad day,  as we are leaving Asolo, and this is being written in a railway station waiting room in Castelfranco,  Veneto.  We hope to get on board a train back to Mestre, where we have three nights at Al Vivito Hotel in Mestre, which is a fifteen minute bus ride to Venice. 
We did have a trip in to Venice about seven days ago, just for one day. Nobody told us just how big, and confusing it all is.  Pretty, but you have to trudge for miles, consuming coca cola and bits of pizza along the way.  Our plan was to get to the main square.  We  did not even get close!  Of course you can buy a water bus ticket, but at 25 Euros each, not something you would do every day.
Funny thing about Italy: nobody speaks any English, yet whenever you hear a radio, it is playing a song with English words.
Another funny thing: when us cheapskates go looking for a Laundromat, it seems the locals just do not comprehend Italian. The word for laundromat is lavenderia,  so if you say "dove la lavenderia?",  you get a blank look.
After saying it several times the penny drops, and they go "Oh, la lavendeeeeeriiiiiiaaaaa!"  Guess it pays not to say it in a monotone Kiwi accent.