Sunday, July 29, 2007

Inverness/Invergordon: Look out Nessie, here we come!

Thursday, July 12, 2007 – Inverness (Invergordon), Scotland

We docked in Invergordon bright and early, and upon arrival we were treated to the glorious sound of bagpipers serenading us as we went ashore.



I enjoyed all of the ports we visited on this trip, but if I had to single out just one as a favorite, it would be this one.

There were many things we wanted to see in Inverness, so we hired a private tour ahead of time from J.A. Johnstone Chauffeur Drive. The owner was an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I highly recommend him. Our driver/guide for the day was Ian (Our second Ian in a row!) and he was wonderful.

As soon as we stepped off the ship in Invergordon, Ian was waiting to whisk us away to Inverness. The plan: see all of the big attractions, while staying one step ahead of the tour buses in order to avoid the crowds!

NOTE: One of the great things about having a driver with a car, as opposed to a larger tour bus, is that many of the country roads in Inverness are picturesque but n-a-r-r-o-w—too narrow for a big bus to maneuver through, so we got to see some gorgeous backroads farmland, without hitting any traffic. In addition to the sheep and cattle, we saw some beautiful red deer grazing in the lush valleys of Inverness. Ian also pointed out some teenage boys working their lucrative summer jobs: picking out the wild oats that grow in the barley fields. The oats have to be weeded out before the barley can be harvested, and the boys are paid by how many bushels of oats they can tear out by the end of the day. We also saw some men playing “shinty”, a game similar to hurling.

BEAUTIFUL INVERNESS


Ian taught us a few things about Scottish vocabulary during the drive from Invergordon to Inverness. We knew that “loch” was the Scottish word for lake, but he also told us that “firth” meant “an inlet of water”, and that when you see a place name that has the prefix “Kil” in it (e.g. Kiltarlity), that means a monk lived there.

First up: we made a brief visit to the Loch Ness Visitor’s Center, to have a closer look at Nessie.



We also drove through a great little town named Beauly that was dotted with shops all along the main street, and we decided to stop there for some shopping on the way back to the ship later.

Along the way, Ian mentioned that although this area is commonly referred to as “The Black Isle” it is not really an island at all, but a peninsula. We thoroughly enjoyed the stretches of driving in between the tourist sites, because the natural, unspoiled beauty of Inverness is an attraction in and of itself.

Our next stop was Urquhart Castle, a medieval castle that sits alongside the waters of Loch Ness, and was the literary setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The castle itself is worth the trip, but the vistas of the loch from that vantage point are also not to be missed.

URQUHART CASTLE


The gift shop was large and very crowded (a tour bus arrived and everybody swarmed the place) but it’s a good place to pick up some souvenirs—lots of choices, including stuffed toys, books, jewelry, and housewares. My daughters picked up a stuffed Nessie doll, a Scottish wildlife calendar, and I got a few Christmas ornaments before heading out. (We also used the restrooms, which were very clean and handicapped accessible.)

Then we drove along the country roads again, stopping at some quiet spots to take a few photos and plead with Nessie to show herself, just once. (Alas, she was too shy, and didn’t accommodate us this time. Maybe you’ll have better luck?)

Our next stop was Culloden Battlefield. I confess, I did not know much at all about Scottish history before this trip, or the level of violence and bloodshed that occurred here at Culloden all those years ago. Ian spoke of Culloden with a reverance in his voice, and told us to take note of the utter stillness as we walked out onto the battlefield site. “You don’t hear a sound out there,” he told us before we went in. “It’s like even the crickets know it’s hallowed ground, and keep silent.”

CULLODEN BATTLEFIELD



Whatever you do, don’t just rush out onto the battlefield; start your visit to Culloden by watching the short film that describes the history behind the massacre that occurred there. Note for those with young children: the film was not overly graphic or scary, and our 7-year-old was fine with it.

After the film, a young boy came into the screening room dressed in traditional Highlander clothes and played a plaintive song on the bagpipes. Then, another man dressed in character as a French Regiment soldier gave a “living history” presentation. He did a great job, and was very engaging as he demonstrated the various battle weapons that were used during the fighting at Culloden in 1742. He showed how the Highlanders’ weapons were indeed fearsome (shields, swords, knives, and brave fighting techniques), but were no match for the advanced weaponry of the British soldiers and the French allies (canons, rifles, buckshot, and a take-no-prisoners/show no mercy military directive). It was then time to go out to the battlefield.



Culloden Battlefield is vast and beautiful and eerie. There are stone markers throughout the field that bear the names of the Highlander clans that suffered fatalities that day. The site definitely has a palpable “presence” about it that is stirring, and one that I will always remember.

A MARKER AT CULLODEN


NOTE: The City Sightseeing bus company that runs those Hop On/Hop Off buses had a route in Inverness that also includes a Culloden Loop Tour from May 26th-Sept. 30th. If you’d like to tour Inverness on your own, you might want to check it out.

Next was Cawdor Castle, a fine example of medieval architecture that has been beautifully preserved. The current owner, The Dowager Countess Cawdor, lives in the castle from October through April, but has it open to visitors from May to September. Ian spotted the Countess herself driving in as we were leaving, and mentioned that she stops in often, even during touring season.

CAWDOR CASTLE


The castle was in great condition, and it was interesting touring the bedrooms and seeing the traditional furnishings—antique furniture, artwork, fine tapestries—alongside more modern-day touches. For example, a sidetable in one of the guestrooms had a stack of old, leather-bound books…and a hardcover copy of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code nestled among them.



Make sure you stop in the dungeon (duck your head—low entryway) and see the famous Willow Tree. As the legend goes, the battle-weary Thane of Cawdor returned to his homeland a wealthy man, and decided that he wanted to build himself a grand castle to live in. He had his donkey with him for the journey, and declared that wherever his donkey lay down and rest for the night, that was the spot where he would build his castle. That evening, the donkey chose a shady spot under a willow tree, and that is precisely where the Thane of Cawdor had his castle built. Rather than cut the tree down, they built around it, and you can still see what remains of it to this day.

We were pretty hungry after all of that touring, so we stopped at the Cawdor Café restaurant for a bite to eat. The choices were a bit limited (not much for picky eaters here) but the food was very good. The younger kids made due with some fruit salad and a cheese platter, while Rich and I had toasted panini sandwiches and sampled some local beer from Inverness’ own Black Isle Brewery . Rich had a Blonde Ale and I had the Red Kite Ale; both were excellent.

After lunch, we explored the grounds a bit. The kids enjoyed the walled garden maze, but the star attraction was the breathtaking Flower Garden. It was the most lovely, colorful, fragrant garden I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Pictures can’t possibly do it justice. There are paths that wind through the garden, leading to benches where you can sit and take in the natural beauty around you. There’s also a door on the right side of the garden that leads out to miles of nature trails through the woods.



It was time to head over to Beauly for a bit of shopping before going back to the ship. I told Ian that I was looking for some authentic local crafts, not the usual touristy stuff, so he dropped me and the girls off at House of Beauly (formerly known as Made in Scotland) and took Rich over to a nearby Priory to take some pictures there while we shopped.

BEAULY PRIORY


There was a fine selection of woolen items and specialty crafts from local artisans there, but the section that drew my attention was the Food area. There was a wonderful selection of Scottish cookies, jams (some flavored with single malt whisky), chocolates, whiskey cake, spirits, honey, and—oh my gosh, can it be?—Haggis in a can.

And yes, I bought some.

After a few minutes, we met up with Rich and Ian again, and made our way back to Invergordon. As we drove over the bridge, Ian pointed out some seals sunning themselves on the rocks during low tide (they raise their heads and tails up in the air as they bask, forming a wide U-shape).

We made it back to the ship just in time to enjoy a terrific Scottish Folkloric show at 5pm (don't miss it!) featuring local musicians, singers and dancers. They wore traditional dress and put on a great show for the large and enthusiastic crowd in the Princess Theater. It was the perfect way to end our magical day in Inverness/Invergordon.

After dinner, we went to the late show to see Frank Delana, a comedian who has appeared on David Letterman and HBO. (I liked him immediately because, like me, he hails from Brooklyn, New York.) He was very funny and got a lot of laughs.

Coming soon: Beware of ladders and black cats…it’s Friday the 13th in Edinburgh!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

SCOTLAND TRAVELERS: MONEY-SAVING TIP!

I was going to incorporate this information into a blog entry, but decided it was important enough to pull out and feature prominently.

PLEASE pay attention, because I missed a great opportunity to save money in Scotland, and I am still kicking myself over it. The ONLY thing that will make me feel better about screwing up so badly is if someone else out there reads this, and learns from my mistake!

There’s this special offer called the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass. When you purchase it, you get FREE entry to all Historic Scotland properties (this includes sites in the Princess Cruise port itinerary such as Urquhart Castle in Inverness, Skara Brae in Kirkwall, and Edinburgh Castle) free entry to over 300 Historic Scotland daytime events, a 20% discount on audio tours at Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, and a 10% discount in the cafes at Urquhart Castle and Fort George. I did NOT realize this offer existed until we got to Edinburgh, so I ended up paying FULL ADMISSION PRICE at Skara Brae and at Urquhart Castle. #&^*!!!

If you are traveling on the same Princess Cruise intinerary that I took, and if you plan to tour those ports on your own, then purchasing a 3-day pass will save you money for sure. You can learn more about the Explorer Pass at www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/explorer. They also offer 7-day and 10-day passes for those who are spending more time in Scotland (Glasgow Cathedral is also on the list of places where admission is included, but I don’t know that it’s worth purchasing a 7-day pass just for that. A 3-day pass will take you through several top sites in Kirkwall, Inverness and Edinburgh).

Please take a few moments to look into it, and avenge my touristy ignorance! Thank you.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kirkwall/Orkney: A cold place with a warm heart

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 – Kirkwall (Orkney Islands), Scotland

We anchored off of the coast of Kirkwall by 7am, but since we’d planned to tour the island on our own, rather than take a ship’s tour, we had time for a leisurely sit-down breakfast in the DaVinci Diningroom. NOTE: I’m happy to report that the staff at the DaVinci Diningroom was always friendly and attentive throughout the cruise.

Afterwards, we boarded a tender for the short but bumpy tender ride into Kirkwall. The driver of our tender was an amiable fellow, laughing the entire time that he was knocking the tender against the dock, trying to straighten it out enough to be secured by the land crew. At least we knew the tenders were sturdy!

We were told that the taxis would be scarce at the dock area, but when we got there we saw a line of them waiting. Rich spotted a large taxi van in the line and made a beeline for it. Luckily, we were able to hire the 7-seater “people mover” to take us around (Craigies Taxi, phone#01856 878787) for £45 an hour (expect to pay less for a smaller taxi). We told our driver, Ian, that we wanted to spend about 2 hours touring, and would most like to see Skara Brae, the Ring of Brogar, and St. Magnus Cathedral, with some venturing through the unspoiled countryside that Kirkwall is known for.

NOTE: You may see the Ring of Brogar referred to as the Ring of “Brogdar”, particularly in older guidebooks or on the Princess Port Guide literature. Both spellings have been used in the past and both are technically correct, but in 2003, the folks at Historic Scotland (the Tourism officials) decided to revert to the Orcadian spelling, which is Brogar. So, for the purposes of this blog, that’s what I’ll use.

We were also looking forward to seeing the local countryside and hopefully some of the wildlife that was there for mating season. We’d really hoped to see mating pairs of Puffins along the shore, but our driver warned that it was a bit late in the summer for that, and that most had left already. Still, we hoped to get lucky.

Our driver was wonderful: very friendly, and great with the kids. He told us that if we saw anyplace we wanted to stop (such as the various crafts shops off of country lanes or farmstands), we could just speak up and he’d pull over. We’d hoped to avoid the crowds, so our first stop was the Ring of Brogar. Good move going there first: it was empty!

RING OF BROGAR


Perhaps not as well known as Stonehenge, but just as impressive, the Ring of Brogar is an ancient stone circle that is purported to possess special powers. Used in seasonal gatherings thousands of years ago, about half of the stones marking this site are still standing in their original positions. Unlike Stonehenge, which is roped off and protected, visitors have full access to the stones at Brogar. You can walk right up and touch the monolithic stones, weaving among them and feeling the eerie, hallowed echoes of mystical ceremonies past.

Here I am, standing next to an immense standing stone at the Ring of Brogar


NOTE FOR THOSE WITH MOBILITY ISSUES: There is a bit of a walk over grassy areas from the parking area to the Ring. There are walkways with a rubber underlayment to make the way smoother, but it can still be uneven in places. Take your time and walk with care: the stones have been there for thousands of years, they’ll wait for you!

It was very windy, cold, and blustery out there by the Ring, and once the tour buses started to show up, we made our back to our taxi and continued on to Skara Brae.

Skara Brae


The story of Skara Brae’s discovery is almost as remarkable as the ancient village itself. Built more than 5,000 years ago, the village was buried under layers of sand and silt, until a strong storm blew through the area in the mid-1800’s, revealing the preserved houses below. The landowner who lived here allowed excavators to come in and uncover this amazing discovery: an ingenious network of tunnels made from stacked stones, leading from one home to another. Visitors can walk through a reconstruction of House #7 and see what these dwellings might have looked like when they were inhabited. There’s a bit of a walk to get from the visitor center over to Skara Brae, but you can pass the time by reading the stone markers as they count backwards from present day time, through the birth of Christ, the building of the Great Wall of China, back further to the time of the Great Pyramids, and then finally, 5000 years back, to when Skara Brae was constructed.

Once at the site, you walk along a series of raised platforms that allow visitors to peer down into the homes, which have been remarkably preserved through time and are surprisingly intact. There are informational markers along the way, so you know a little bit of the history behind what you’re looking at, and the views of the sea are breathtaking from that vantage point. Yes, it’s a bit windy, but bundle up and take some time to marvel at this astonishing glimpse into human history.

If you wish, you can also visit the 400-year-old Skaill House, the manor house on the grounds where Skara Brae was discovered. A tour of the manor is included in the price of admission for Skara Brae, but we opted to skip it so that we could see more of the island itself.

After a quick stop in the bathrooms (not great, but serviceable), we made our way back to the taxi, to take a drive through the countryside of this beautiful area and head back to Kirkwall. While he was waiting for us, our driver Ian chatted with the guides at Brogar, and they mentioned a spot where Puffins had been seen a few days prior. So, Ian took us there—to the Brough of Birsay—in the hopes that we’d see them. Unfortunately, the puffins had already made their way back out to sea, but the seaside views were incredible, and we did spy some beautiful local species of sea bird.

During our drive through the picturesque countryside, we chatted with Ian about Orkney and the local economy there. He mentioned that the island does not import any beef; it has so much cattle, the industry is self-sustaining. Orkney Beef, he told us, was of the very finest quality, because the free-range cattle are raised on an organic, natural diet of grasses. He said that you haven’t tasted real beef until you’ve tried Orkney’s beef—it’s that tasty. Hmmm…Rich and I looked at each other, and made a mental note to do our best to sample some before we left the island.

We made a brief visit to the ruins that were once the Earl’s Palace at Birsay, and since the 7-year-old needed to use the restroom again, it was a welcome stop. (Not exactly luxurious, but surprisingly clean for what was basically a glorified port-a-potty.)

Earl's Palace


Afterwards, Ian dropped us off at St. Magnus Cathedral, where we toured this serenely beautiful church and admired its architecture and inlayed floors. Built in 1137, the Cathedral is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic building styles. The church has been renovated and expanded over the years, but retains its historic appeal.

St. Magnus Cathedral


We walked through Kirkwall to do a bit of souvenir shopping and find a place for lunch. Many of the shops had beautiful woolen items, but the prices were the highest we’d seen thus far. We finally ducked into a little touristy shop and I let the two younger girls pick up a stuffed puffin and a puffin puppet—they didn’t get to see the real thing, but this was a good consolation prize. The teenager didn’t see anything that struck her fancy, until we reached a small shop that had dozens of colorful yarn skeins displayed in the window. Christina recently learned how to knit, and I taught her how to crochet years ago, so she decided the perfect souvenir would be some Orkney Wool.

The shop (Orcadian Crafts, 8 Bridge Street) was a zoo—packed with people, elbow-to-elbow, sifting through the moderately-priced “made in China” souvenirs items amidst the genuine tartans and wool sweaters. As we waited on the long line, we perused the stacks of yarn behind the counter, trying to choose what colors we wanted. It was then that I read the print on the sign: 80% acrylic, 20% wool. What the? ACRYLIC???

When we got to the register, I asked the guy if he had any wool that was specifically from Orkney itself. That was when he reached under the counter and pulled out the most gorgeous spool of natural, cream-colored wool. “This is spun right here in Orkney. 100% wool.” Perfect! Like an idiot, I asked, “Does it come in any other colors?” and he looked at me like the stupid city-girl I am and said, “No, this isn’t dyed or processed, you see.” Duh…of course….it was cream colored because THAT’S WHAT COLOR SHEEP ARE. I said, “We’ll take it” just as he said, “Oh, wait a second…” and reached under the counter again, shuffling things around and finally coming up with another spool in his hand, saying, “Ah, here, we have this, too.”

It was another spool of local Orkney wool, only this one had threads of black running through it—spun from the fleece of the two-tone and black sheep. I nearly died and went to heaven, I was so excited.

100% Orkney Wool


We bought 200grams (£6 per 100 grams) of each, and Christina plans to knit a 100% wool scarf for herself, with a matching purse, if there’s enough wool. It was, by far, my favorite souvenir we’d purchased this trip.

We tried to find a restaurant along the main strip, but everywhere we looked, we saw only bakeries and small cafés—nothing that would provide a solid lunch to tide us over until late seating. We decided to head back to the ship early and eat there instead.

UNTIL…we got to the street just before the tenders, and I noticed a restaurant at the water’s edge, aptly named The Shore (www.theshore.co.uk). As we stood outside reading the menu, one of the priests we’d seen earlier in St. Magnus Cathedral walked by and said, “I love that place! I highly recommend it!!” Well, okay then! In we went.

The Shore Restaurant


One look at the menu, and we knew exactly what to order: Orkney Steak and Ale Pie, coming right up! In keeping with our quest to try the local spirits whenever possible, Rich ordered a Northern Lights Ale while I had the Skapa Special Ale—both were smooth and distinctive, a perfect accompaniment to the meal.

Orkney Steak and Ale pie--YUM!


Unfortunately, there wasn’t much on the menu that appealed to the kids (they’d already had their hearts set on the Pizza by the pool area….oh well) so we let them order the Crepes with Orkney Vanilla Ice Cream and Orkney Strawberry Ice Cream. Both were rich and creamy and absolutely fabulous. (Did I mention Orkney is known for their superlative dairy, too?)

After a great meal (good lord, the beef was fabulous), we headed back to the ship on the next tender. Rich took the kids up for pizza, while I decided to try my luck in the Laundromat, while most passengers were still out on ship’s tours.

Sure enough, there were only a few people in the laundry room, and I had to wait just a few minutes for an available machine. While I was there, I made conversation with the other passengers, and was comforted to learn that they, too, were disillusioned with the behavior of some of the staff members on board. One woman was a Princess Cruises Elite Member, and she told me that “every ship has a personality,” and that she wasn’t pleased with the tone of the Grand Princess. Like me, she’d noticed the lack of helpfulness and experience in many of the crew, although she was enjoying her trip nonetheless, as was I.

I met another woman there from Georgia, a very nice gal who had cruised several times before, and was convinced that the problem on board was the elimination of individual tipping. Now that Princess charges every stateroom a flat fee for tips, which are shared amongst the crew, she believed there was no incentive for individual members to provide superlative service. Hmm…could be something to that.

She seemed like a very sweet and non-confrontational type of person, so it surprised me when she said that she had already stopped at the Purser’s Office and lowered the tip amount charged to her stateroom—something that all passengers have the option of doing, if they feel the service is not up to par. She said she felt strongly that a message needed to be sent. She was particularly unhappy with her room steward (he never refilled the toilet paper, and barely ever replaced the towels) and she refused to sit back and take it. That’s when yet another person in the laundry room also spoke up, and said that he, too, lowered the tip based upon the poor service he received, particularly from the Purser’s Desk. (He’d had trouble trying to get money converted, and had a bad experience with the staff when he tried to straighten it out.)

I mentioned all of this to Rich when I got back to the room, and he was horrified. He agreed that we’d seen some less-than-stellar service from the staff, but nothing that would cause him to lower their tips. He said that these crew members are not paid much, and that they count on their tips, and he wasn’t about to take it away from them. They showed up, they did their jobs, they deserved to be compensated. The other passengers, however, argued that one’s only recourse for poor service is to withhold or lower the tips, and that if you don’t, they’ll never have any incentive to improve. Strong arguments on both sides…I leave it up to you to decide the right course of action, based upon your own cruise experience. We kept the standard tip amount in place.

Another reason I’d made so many friends in the laundry room: I ended up sharing my laundry detergent with 4 other passengers, who were victims of the non-functioning vending machines. It pays to bring some detergent with you, just in case, and I was more than happy to help. It’s not only a nice gesture, it’s good karma, and a great way to meet people. After my jaunt in the laundry room, I had a whole other set of folks who waved and said hi as I walked ‘round the ship. Never underestimate the power of a good deed, even if it’s a small one.

We still had plenty of time before dinner, so we headed over to the Explorer’s Lounge for some Afternoon Team Trivia with Jason—a favorite activity for the kids.

After showers and dinner, everyone was beat, so we skipped the evening show and headed straight for bed, looking forward to our next port, where we’d booked a private tour of Inverness.

Coming up: Searching for the elusive Loch Ness monster. Here, Nessie…here girl!

all photos by RichYak copyright 2007

At Sea: a relaxing break for all

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 – AT SEA DAY

The kids had already decided ahead of time that they wanted to sleep in as late as possible, so we put the Do Not Disturb sign on their door, bolted it (we had direct access to their room through our shared balcony), roused the 13-year-old to let her know we were ducking out for breakfast, and headed to the DaVinci diningroom.

For the first time all cruise, we had an opportunity to share a table with our fellow passengers, since it was just the two of us. We were seated right by an oceanview window with a very nice couple, Ed and Colleen from Southern California. We shared our impressions of the cruise thus far, and agreed that we were all ready for a relaxing day at sea.

Then again, there WAS the laundry to deal with.

I finally got my quarters from the Purser’s Office, so I gathered up a bag of socks and underwear and headed for the Laundromat on my floor. No surprise, it was jam-packed, with no available machines. I headed to a few other floors, and it was the same scenario. Some of the machines were broken, too. It was clear that everybody had the same idea (At Sea Day = Laundry Day), so I decided to do a little old-fashioned hand washing in the sink back at our stateroom.

Fortunately, I have a bit of experience in this department, after last year’s Mediterranean cruise on the Celebrity Millenium, a 12-day trip with NO washers or dryers at all. The trick to successfully washing and drying your clothes on a ship without machines is very simple: you must have those little individual Tide detergent packets (they contain just the right amount of soap for a sink wash) and you need some extra bath towels (not something that’s a problem on a cruise ship—just ask your room steward).

Once you wash out your things, it’s important to wring them as thoroughly as possible, especially the socks. Then, once they’re only slightly damp, lay them out flat in one single layer on a big bath towel. Roll up the bath towel with the clothes inside (like you would a jelly roll or a roll of sushi), pushing down as you go. You’ll end up with a big rolled cylinder. Then, roll it AGAIN the other way, like you’re trying to make a Cinnabon roll (sorry for all the food references…my brain is just hard-wired for carbs). Press down on your little rolled circle as hard you can: this will squeeze out nearly all of the dampness from the clothes. After a few minutes, unroll it, and hang the clothes up to dry the rest of the way (best method, if you have an “outside” cabin: lay them on a dry towel across the chairs or windowsill, facing the sun.) Note: trying to dry stuff on the balcony is NOT a good idea, particularly for this cruise of the British Isles. Not only do you run the risk of having your stuff blow away into the sea, but the weather is so damp, the stuff actually gets wetter being out on the balcony than it does inside. There’s a clothesline located in the shower in the bathroom, and draping things on the towel racks will also speed things along.

This is not a method I’d use on something heavy, like jeans, but it works well for smaller items and lightweight fabrics, like t-shirts. Keep in mind also that the ship has irons and ironing boards available in the laundry rooms free of charge, so you can dry your stuff the rest of the way just by running a hot iron over it (and the entire time I was onboard, I never saw any lines for the irons/ironing boards).

After my laundry trick, I bought us a few more days of clean clothes—at least enough to get us to the next port day, when the machines would be far less busy.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I made a very smart purchase before leaving for this cruise. In addition to the Tide sink packets, I picked up a travel-sized bottle of Tide laundry detergent, which I found in my local discount pharmacy (it was either CVS or Walgreen’s, I forget which). I packed it in a suitcase in a plastic Ziploc baggie, and it didn’t leak at all. Bringing it was a smart move, because many of the passengers I spoke with in the laundry rooms complained that the soap dispensing machines DID NOT WORK half the time. They jammed frequently, and folks were stuck without detergent to wash their clothing. If you think you might want to do some laundry on the ship, bring your own travel-sized detergent, just in case. And don’t forget those quarters! The soap machines are $1 in US quarters per one load box, the washing machines are $1 per load, and the dryers cost 50 cents per cycle (but it took at least two cycles for everything to dry fully). So, figure on at least $3 in quarters for each load, start to finish.

While I was doing the laundry in the stateroom, Rich took the kids up to the Horizon Court for the buffet breakfast. Afterwards, we consulted the Princess Patter for the list of the day’s activities, and planned out our day: Jackpot Bingo at 11:15 (didn’t win, but we did see actor Jack Klugman there), Close-up Magic with Bernard Reid (great sleight of hand work, right in front of your eyes) at 12:15, then lunch in the diningroom followed by a Scrapbooking at Sea class at 2:15.

A few words about the Scrapbooking class: we had a great time, but it was only because I have scrapbooked before and knew what I was doing. The gal from the Social Staff who was supposed to be leading the class confessed at the outset that she had absolutely no clue how to scrapbook, and had never done it before. The real purpose of the “class” was to get people to order the “Souvenir Scrapbook Kit” from the Photoshop area. For $21.95, you get a bunch of stock photos of the Grand Princess and the ports she stops in, along with an album to put them in. They also provided access to die cut machines and colored card stock, regardless of whether or not you purchased the kit.

Since Rich had already taken a zillion pictures of the ship and the ports, and I have enough scrapbooking supplies to open my own store back home, I didn’t see any need to purchase the kit. However, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the die cut machine! I spent the entire session making free cruise-related die cuts for me, my girls, and the other lady who sat with us at our table (hello, Barbara from Texas!). My younger two girls busied themselves by laying out a page, using the one free stock photo of the ship that was provided to each passenger, while my eldest daughter saved the diecuts in a plastic baggie to take home with us, and Barbara helped me work the machine. By the end of the class, we had tons of cruise-related die cuts for our scrapbooks. Score!

I felt a little guilty afterwards, so I pulled aside the photographer guy and told him that next time, he really ought to have some sample pages for folks to copy, or better yet, expand his offerings to increase the chance of a sale. For example, I told him that if made some of the die cuts ahead of time and arranged in the frames they had for sale, they could pitch them as “ready made souvenirs”…all you’d need to do is drop in a 4x6 picture, glue on the die cuts, and you’ve got an instant memento of your trip. He nodded enthusiastically at the idea, but nothing ever came of it. Other passengers asked the girl from the Social Staff if there would be another class on the next sea day, and she said, “Well, I don’t know, we’ll see” in the same tone of voice that I use when my kids ask if we’ll ever get a puppy anytime soon. I later offered to help her whip up some samples that she could use with the next class, but she wasn’t interested. Oh well…I tried.

Next up was Afternoon Tea at 3:30. They sat us at a big table, which we shared with a very nice couple from Arkansas. The woman was a middle school principal, so she was very friendly and comfortable with the kids, and went out of her way to make conversation with them.

We tried our luck at Bingo again at 4:15 (fun, but we still didn’t win), then browsed the boutiques. My daughters were fascinated by the “fashion rings” they had for sale, because they were so sparkly and impressive-looking (even though they’re faker than a $3 bill). I let them each buy one to wear to formal night—unfortunately for my 7-year-old, the smallest size they carry is a 4, so she couldn’t get one. I was able to appease her by getting her some flavored lip gloss in the cosmetics boutique, where we also bought some perfume (Vera Wang “Princess” for the teenager and Vera Wang “Sheer Veil” for me). The prices on the perfume were about 20% less than we pay at home, so I thought those were a good deal. The Seiko watches they sold in the atrium, however, were sold at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price—no discounts at all.

Note: The Art Auctions seemed to be a really popular activity with our fellow passengers, but we didn’t partake. I’m not sure how the prices compared with galleries back home, but lots of people did seem to be purchasing the art.

We popped into the library for a bit (they have puzzles out on a table that everyone is invited to help solve—another great way to meet new people and mingle with your fellow passengers) then headed back to the room to get ready for Formal Night.

Wouldn’t you know it, on the first Formal Night, I saw another woman in the 2nd dinner seating who was wearing the same exact black & cream-colored dress that I was. And, since I didn’t know there would be THREE formal nights, it was the only dress I had with me. The high-end boutiques on the ship carry some nice dresses and separates for those who want to get a new outfit, but I honestly couldn’t see spending $78 for a beaded top just because another gal was wearing the same outfit. At the last minute, I took out a silk flower scarf I’d brought along and wrapped it around the top of the dress, securing it with an antique pin I had in my jewelry box. The scarf covered up the cream-colored bodice, making it look like a completely different outfit. I praised myself on my ingenuity, and we headed down for more pictures before dinner.

A NOTE FOR THOSE WHO ARE READING THIS AND GOING ON A CRUISE WITH PRINCESS IN THE NEAR FUTURE: I know that many of you don’t enjoy hearing negative things about a cruise ship you’re about to take a trip on (no one does, really), but as a journalist, I feel that I have a responsibility to report the facts as they happened. There are no shortage of sanitized travel articles released by the cruise line publicity machines and port tourism bureaus that will paint a 100% rosy picture, but we all know that’s impossible to achieve. Things go wrong, nobody is perfect, and you have to expect some glitches along the way. This blog aims to provide an honest account of MY experience, which is almost certain to be different than yours, given all the variables from cruise to cruise. When I mention my encounters with clueless or less-than-accommodating staff members, it is not meant to scare you or make you feel nervous about your upcoming journey. I’m told they actually do read those passenger comment cards after each voyage. If that is the case, then trust me, they got an earful from several passengers on my cruise, including me, so with any luck, things can only improve for future sailings.

That being said, here’s what I saw in the dining room at dinner:

From where I was sitting, I could see the station where the head waiter hung out. He was behind a half wall that shielded him from the view of most of the other diners, but from my vantage point, I could see him clearly. Over the past several evenings, I started noticing the other wait staff going up to him periodically, whispering and gesturing over towards the passengers at their table, complaining about them. I could not hear much of what they were saying, but there was enough derisive laughter and eye-rolling for me to figure out that they weren’t exactly trading scone recipes. I know that some passengers can be a real pain in the tush, and that these staff members work long hours for very little pay, but I was surprised at how openly they showed their dislike, knowing that at least a few of us could see what they were doing (I made eye-contact with them several times during these exchanges. Rather than stop their gossiping, however, they simply turned their backs to me or raised up a menu in front of their mouths so that we couldn’t read their lips.). I don’t mind them letting off steam about the passengers—and I’m not saying their frustrations were without merit—but a little decorum would have been appreciated. It didn’t surprise me that the staff was making comments about this passenger complaining that she was cold or that passenger not liking the way his steak was prepared, but to see it happening so openly was disconcerting. Can’t they wait until we leave the diningroom to trash us?

After dinner, we went to the evening show at the Princess Theater, which was a night of comedy starring British comedian Rikki Jay. He was HILARIOUS! Even the kids enjoyed the show, although most of the double-entrendre jokes went right over their heads. They said that he’d be back again to do another show later in the cruise, and we all agreed that it was not-to-be-missed.

Refreshed after a laid-back day at sea, were ready for our next stop: the northernmost port on our trip, Kirkwall, Scotland.

Coming up: Touring a 5,000 year old village, visiting an ancient Stone Circle, and making some new and interesting friends in the laundry room.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Glasgow, Scotland: My teenager's big day!

One of the fun and memorable exhibits at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum


Monday, July 9, 2007 – Glasgow (Greenock), Scotland

My baby turned 13 today! OMG, how can I be old enough to have a TEENAGER? I demand a recount.

We docked in Greenock at 8am, and after a nice birthday breakfast, we went ashore. Just past the gangway (after a quick port picture by the ship’s photographer, naturally) we were led through a tented area filled with tourism guides handing out free maps (make sure you take one, they’re very detailed) and offering to answer questions about the port. There were also several vendors selling souvenirs, so we made a mental note to shop there on our way back to the ship. NOTE: No credit cards! They only accept CASH at these tent-side vendors, preferably in Pounds (although I did hear one vendor say later that he’d accept Euros, or in a pinch, American dollars, but I have no idea what kind of conversion rates he’d been offering).

MONEY-SAVING ALERT: Make sure you get a copy of the Glasgow Leading Attractions map from the Tourism officials in the tent. On the back, there are discount vouchers you can use in the museum gift shops, as well as admission price discounts for many of the city’s attractions. You can also print out a map and additional discount vouchers ahead of time by visiting their website, www.visitgla.com.

Once we got through the tent, we headed for the taxi stand area to grab a taxi to the train station. We were told the Greenock station was only a 15-minute walk, but since we were anxious to get started (and had no idea how to get to the train from there) we decided to hop in a taxi to get there. The guy at the taxi stand was a charming fellow—he definitely had the gift of gab—and he did his best to talk us into booking a taxi for a full day private tour. We very nicely held firm, that we only needed a ride to the train station, and he simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders, saying, “Aye, well, you know it’s my job to try!” With that, he called us a cab big enough for all 5 of us, and for £2.80 we were whisked off to the train.

NOTE: I made sure to pay attention to the route along the way so that we’d be able to walk back from the train station later in the afternoon. There are no cabs available for the return trip from the station unless you specifically call and request one.

Catching the train at Greenock


We purchased a Family Day Tripper train pass for £15, which was cheaper than buying individual fares for the 5 of us. The train ride was quick, and we got to see some lambs and cows out the window along the way, which is always fun. (Mooooo......baaaaaa.....never gets old for kids, does it?)

NOTE: We were told during the port talk that the Tour Office and/or Purser’s Office would have copies of the train schedule available, but they didn’t. Fortunately, Rich had printed out a timetable ahead of time and brought it with him. You can check the Outward Journey and Return Journey times at www.firstscotrail.trainsfares.co.uk.

Unlike other cities like Dublin and Edinburgh, the attractions in Glasgow are not all clustered together, so to do the complete route for the Hop on/Hop off City Sightseeing bus takes about 1 hour 15 minutes. I had a list of attractions I wanted to see, but the one that I was really looking forward to was the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life & Art, because according to the guide books I read, that was the museum that houses Salvador Dali’s breathtaking painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross. (Keep reading, though: we eventually learned that the guidebooks were incorrect!)

After exiting Central Station, we walked over to the Radisson Hotel to wait for the bus there. Unlike the other cities we’d visited thus far, however, it took FOREVER for the bus to come! We waited about 40 minutes for it to show up, wasting valuable touring time. The price for the bus is £9 for adults and £3 for children, but we opted once again for the cost-saving Family Fare of £20 for 2 adults & up to 4 children.

We took the bus to stop #16, to visit the Museum of Transport and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (You can learn more about these and other Glasgow museums at www.glasgowmuseums.com.)

The Museum of Transport is a great place to visit if you’ve got kids, or if you’re a train and antique car buff. They have displays of old steam trains, trams, horse & buggy carriages, and antique cars (including a model that is just like the flying car featured in the Harry Potter movies). On the upper level, there are all variety of bicycles, as well as scale models of many of the great ships in history, many of which were built right in Glasgow, including the QE2. The bathrooms are decent if you need a pit stop. The gift shop is small and has mostly generic plastic things, but they had a nice selection of Corgi cars and trains, so we picked one up for my brother-in-law’s collection.

A funky van at the Museum of Transport


The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was an unexpected treat. We absolutely loved it! The landscaped grounds are picturesque, and the wide variety of artwork and exhibits offered something for everyone in our family. The kids were fascinated by the Natural History displays on the lower level (Sir Roger the Elephant was a big hit), and we were all impressed by the Impressionist works in the French Art gallery (gorgeous works by Cassatt, VanGogh, Monet, and Matisse). There were also paintings by Rembrandt, Baldan, and Mackintosh, but the biggest surprise was on the West side of Level 1: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross! What the? Yup…I guess they moved it from the St. Mungo museum, because there it was.

Dali's Masterpiece


NOTE FOR INTERNET ADDICTS or BORED TEENAGERS: If you’re itching for an internet fix or are suffering from email withdrawl, there’s FREE internet access available at the computers in the Reading Room on Level 1.

After touring the museum, we figured we’d hop back on the bus for a quick picture stop at St. George’s Square, grab some lunch, then head to the Glasgow Cathedral. Unfortunately, it took nearly half an hour for the bus to come, and by the time we got on, we were pretty hungry, and time was running out. We had a limited amount of touring time because 1) the train ride from Glasgow to Greenock is about 40-45 minutes, plus the 15 minute walk back to the ship, and 2) it was my daughter’s birthday, and the one thing she really wanted to do that day was SHOP, so we promised her some retail therapy. Oh, and did I mention, the skies were getting darker and darker, with heavy rain clouds on the horizon?

Another wrench in the works: due to construction, they had to alter the bus route a bit, and stop at Glasgow Cathedral first, then St. George’s Square. Fortunately, the bus we were on had a live tour guide, and when we asked her for a restaurant recommendation near the Cathedral, she confided that there really ISN’T anyplace close by there to have a bite to eat. So, we made the executive decision to simply hop off for just a second, snap a quick picture of the Cathedral from the outside, and then hop right back on. We took some more pictures at St. George’s Square, and then proceed to Merchant Square to grab some lunch before we all keeled over. We ate at a chic restaurant named Metropolitan. The food was very good, although there was no kids menu to speak of, so getting some simple pasta with butter for the 7-year-old wasn’t easy. At least the bathrooms were super-clean, so after a quick freshen up, we ventured out into the still-pouring rain towards St. Enoch’s Shopping Center.

NOTE: There is a food court at St. Enoch’s, but it was crowded and noisy, so I was glad we didn’t go there for lunch. It was much nicer “re-fueling” in the quieter, relaxed atmosphere of a restaurant. Another downside of the mall: would you believe the toilets there cost 20 pence apiece? They have turnstiles, so you can’t get in without $$, and the change machines were broken. Yikes.

The good news is, my brand new teenager found two pairs of to-die-for shoes at a great price at Barratt’s (a discount shoe store on the lower level), along with some makeup purchases and a few little things at Clare’s. Another notable purchase: she found a Nintendo DS game she’d been looking for called Nintendogz: Labrador & Friends. The cool thing about buying the game in Glasgow was that it was the UK version, so the money amounts are all in Pounds Sterling, and the date on the game is listed differently from her other Nintendo DS games (day first, then month, then year, like they do it in Europe). Before we knew it, it was time for the short walk to Central Station to catch the train back to Greenock. We checked the board, headed for Platform 11, and were on our way back to the ship.

The walk back from the train station wasn’t bad—it took about 15 minutes, and the rain held off until just before we got to the tents. There were no taxis at the station, so walking was the really the only option. Take the steps to cross over to the other side of the platform, then a few more steps to get to street level. Cross to the other side of the big street and start following the signs that say, “Waterfront.” The Waterfront is a big indoor waterpark that is located just before the port area, so by the time you reach it, you’ll be able to see the Grand Princess in the distance and follow the fencing around to get back to the tent. We shopped for a few more souvenirs at the vendors (cash only) and headed back to our staterooms.

Since we’d gotten back a bit earlier than most people, I decided to try and do a quick load of laundry. I headed to the laundry room on my floor, but all of the machines were already in use. I tried a couple of other floors, and it was the same story. Just so that my wanderings wouldn’t be a total waste, and since I had brought some American money with me, I decided to try getting some quarters while I was on each floor. Unfortunately, the change machines on the wall didn’t work on ANY of the floors. Lovely. I trudged back to my room, dirty laundry in tow, and made a mental note to stop at the Purser’s office for some quarters later.

Sail away from Greenock harbor was beautiful, and afforded some lovely views of the Scottish countryside. Rich got some great pictures of the lush homes along the waterfront, as well as the peaceful farmlands beyond.

Sailing away from Greenock


NOTE: If I had it to do over again, I probably would have tried hiring one of those taxi drivers for the day after all. Even though it would have been a lot more expensive than taking the train, we would have been able to see a lot more of the city’s attractions because we wouldn’t have wasted so much time waiting for the hop on/hop off bus. Glasgow itself is not what I would call a “picturesque” city—it’s a post-industrial area that is still evolving into a Tourist spot—but as a Native New Yorker, I felt right at home there. There was some beautiful architecture in Glasgow, but it also had its fair share of crumbling, decaying buildings and eye-sore scaffolding/construction sites. We didn’t get to see many of the items on my list (Glasgow School of Art, House for an Art Lover, Willow Tea Room) but I enjoyed our tour of the city nevertheless. Most importantly, Christina thoroughly enjoyed her birthday visit to Glasgow.

Before dinner that evening, the photographers were taking Casual portraits in the atrium area. We decided to skip those (we’d gotten plenty of great shots during the formal night shoot), but we saw the pictures that other passengers had taken, and they came out great.

When we got to our table in the dining room, Christina found a bouquet of red roses waiting for her (yes, Rich strikes again), which made her feel very special. Once again, our waitress and her assistant brought over a chocolate cake (with 5 candles in it this time) and sang Happy Birthday at the end of the meal.

NOTE (If you’re squeamish, please skip this part): Dinner was lovely, as usual, although when I ordered the sugar-free carrot cake for dessert, I found a big hunk of some sort of nut shell (I think it was walnut) in my cake that I nearly broke a tooth on, and there were two tiny bugs (like small fruit flies) crawling on my plate. I didn’t flip out because my nature-loving kids are always asking me to save some spider or slug every other day, so having a little crawly or two visit me on my dessert plate just wasn’t that big a deal. I discreetly handed the plate over to our waitress, and she quietly took it over to the Maitre ‘D. He said nothing to us about it afterwards, so I’m hoping they let the kitchen know.

The 10:30 show that evening featured singer Phillipa Healey, billed as having “The Voice of an Angel.” She did have a beautiful, classically-trained voice, but the crowd was tepid that night (I think lots of folks were tired from covering so much ground in Glasgow) and we saw many people get up and leave before the show was over.

I stopped at the Purser’s desk for some quarters, and was told curtly, “We’re all out.” Excuse me? “We only have $50 worth of quarters in the drawer. Once it’s gone, that’s it. I can’t open a new drawer.” Since the next day was an At Sea day, I asked how long I’d have to wait to get some quarters. The gal behind the desk gave me an impatient eye-roll and said, “Uh, come back tomorrow morning. Maybe then.” Gee, thanks.

I decided to try the casino to see if I could get some quarters there. I went over to a 25-cent machine and put in some bills, and within a few moments, a casino worker came over and said, “Excuse me, I need to check the machine for a second.” This was my second time in the casino all cruise, and the second time that happened to me! I stepped aside, he opened the machine, fiddled with some stuff, and closed it back up again (with difficulty…took him a few tries). I played for a few minutes, and when I went to cash out, a bunch of Princess tokens came out instead of quarters. I took them to the cashier, and asked if I could have a few quarters, and she said, “No, I don’t have any.” Looks like they share the same drawer with the Purser’s office.

I headed to bed, quarterless and looking forward to a much-needed At Sea day.

all photos by RichYak copyright 2007

Coming up: The $64,000 question: will I ever be able to use that darn Laundromat?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Belfast: A low-key Sunday in Northern Ireland

Sunday, July 8, 2007 – BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND

Put away those Euros...it's back to Pound Sterling again!

We docked in Belfast, about a mile and a half from the downtown area. The Belfast Welcome Center provided free shuttle buses starting at 8am for all passengers to their offices near City Hall, so we were able to take our time and have a leisurely breakfast in the DaVinci diningroom. NOTE: Since it was Sunday, we’d already been warned that most of the shops don’t open until at least 10am, but in reality, the vast majority did not open until closer to 1pm.

Belfast City Hall

We were anxious to get started, so we took a shuttle that got us into town right at 10, and sure enough, it was like a ghost town! None of the stores on the main strip were open, except for the Belfast Welcome Center. We went up to take a quick peek, and the gift shop was very large and had lots of great offerings. I promised the kids we’d come back later and do some shopping. We didn’t want to have to carry around our purchases all day long, so we figured we’d save it for later, right before hopping on the shuttle back to the ship.

There are several ship’s tours you can take in Belfast, but we opted to keep this more of a low-key day. Some of the attractions you might want to see include Belfast Castle (located a couple of miles northwest of the harbor), the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, or The Botanical Gardens (behind Queen’s College). You could also visit Carrickfergus, a small suburb of Belfast that is 12 miles north of downtown and is accessible by bus or taxi (I’ve read that there’s an 800-year-old castle there, some pretty churches, and other attractions.) All of these sights sounded tempting, but Rich and I decided that after all of the touring we’d done so far (museums, churches, galleries, etc.) it was time to focus on some things that the kids would really enjoy, so we decided to visit the Belfast Zoo.

We asked the folks at the Welcome Center what the best way was to get to the Zoo, which opens at 10am. They advised us to take a city bus on the #1 route, 1A, B, C, D or E. Tickets were £2.50 for adults, £1.25 for children.

We decided to take a walk over to Belfast Cathedral first, before hopping on the bus to the zoo. On the way, I saw lots of people lining up to catch the red City Sightseeing bus, since there really wasn’t much else to do at that time of the morning—not a bad idea, and probably a good way to kill time until the shops open.

Across the street from the Belfast Cathedral (also known as St. Anne’s), we found Writer’s Square, which had quotations from famous writers carved into the slate walkway. It was warm that day, so Rich wore shorts, but realized afterwards that he probably wasn’t dressed well enough to enter the church, so I went in on my own with the girls while he snapped some pictures outside.

I wanted to go to the Cathedral to say a prayer for my father, who passed away last year. Before we left for our vacation, I was feeling sad that this would be the first birthday I’d be celebrating without my Dad around to wish me a Happy Birthday. I decided to ask my Dad for a sign, a signal that he could send during the trip to let me know that he was up there watching over me. I’ve read that you need to be really specific in what you ask for, so I decided to give my Dad a real doozy of a task: I asked him to show me some pink roses in a green container. Pink roses are my favorite, and while Rich and the girls did send me a bouquet of them for my birthday the day before, they were in a clear vase, so that didn’t count. The container had to be green! Rich said it was probably an impossible thing to ask for, but I had faith that my Dad would find a way to make it happen.

We entered Belfast Cathedral, and Sunday Mass was about to start. The usher told us we were welcome to stay, but I said we just wanted to say a quick prayer, so he showed us to some seats towards the back. As I was praying for my Dad, my 11-year-old pointed to the floral arrangements at the rear of the church and said, “Mom....LOOK!” Sure enough, the flowers adorning either side of the aisle were big bouquets of pink roses, artfully arranged in a large, green basket. Just then, the Mass started, and the choir gathered at the back of the church, forming a semi-circle between the two floral arrangements. They sang the most beautiful hymn, bringing tears to my eyes, and in that moment I knew for certain that my father was sending me a message that he was still around, and was answering my request for an unmistakable sign. It also dawned on me that he chose to send me the sign I asked for in a church named "St. Anne's", and my mother's name is Ann. When the processional hymn was over, the girls and I slipped outside to continue exploring Belfast, but it was those magical moments in the Cathedral that will stand out as the highlight of my trip.

We walked back to the main street and waited just a few minutes before our bus arrived. We let the driver know that we were going to Belfast Zoo, and another passenger alerted us when our stop was coming up. It was the Bellvue stop, but it’s hard to see the sign until you’re almost upon it.

When you get off the bus, you have to walk up a V-E-R-Y steep uphill incline to get to the entrance of the Belfast Zoo. It’s about a 5 minute walk, and was certainly good exercise. (Thank goodness, it wasn’t raining.) Admission is £7.80 for each adult, £4.10 for children, so it was worth it for us to get the Family Fare for £21.

Peacock at Belfast Zoo


The Belfast Zoo was great fun, and the world-class exhibits featured many endangered animals. Since the weather had changed from sunny to cool and overcast, the animals were also very active. Some of the memorable animals we saw: Barbary lions, a Red Panda, a White Tiger, a Moloch Gibbon, Tamarins, and a sweet little baby Lemur being cuddled protectively by his parents. The zoo itself has many hills to walk up in order to see the various exhibits, but the reward for all of that uphill climbing is some absolutely gorgeous vistas of Belfast and the surrounding area.

View from Belfast Zoo

There are picnic areas located throughout the zoo, and on the far side was a small café with sandwiches, drinks, chips and ice cream. We wanted to eat lunch at a pub downtown, so we let the kids have some ice cream to tide them over. There are bathrooms located just below the café, and they were surprisingly clean.

After a couple of hours, we made our way out of the zoo (successfully avoiding the gift shop!) and were very grateful the walk to the bus was all downhill, because it started to drizzle. By the time we got to the bottom, it was raining pretty hard, so we quickly crossed the street and got under the bus shelter. By this time, it was 1:40pm. We checked the schedule, and there were buses due to depart at 1:37pm and 2:15pm. We figured we’d missed the earlier bus, but it was running a few minutes late and came shortly after we got there. It was a very quick ride into downtown. We took the bus all the way down, to the other side of City Hall (which is closed on Sundays), and hopped off to explore that side of the city. We found two pubs that looked good, and they were right across the street from one another: The Crown Pub and The Broken Docket. We opted for The Broken Docket because they had some more varied menu choices. (The kids’ menu for both pubs was the same: chicken nuggets or fish sticks.) My 7-year-old ended up having a hot dog, while my two older girls had lasagna and said it was terrific. Rich had Stuffed Chicken (the stuffing was homemade) and I had the “Pie of the Day” which was Ham & Chicken Pie. The food was absolutely delicious! In keeping with my quest to sample the local food & drink in each port, I had a Harp beer to go with it.

The bathrooms at The Broken Docket were super-clean (another good sign that it was a top-notch place) and after freshening up, we headed out for some shopping. Rich stopped at a liquor store across the street (they’re called “off license” stores there) to pick up a bottle of Bushmills Whiskey to bring back to the ship. If you try to buy the duty-free alcohol on board, they don’t give it to you until right before disembarkation, because they want you to buy your drinks from the bar. Purchasing our own bottle off the ship saved us some money, and was a lot more convenient when we wanted a nightcap before bed.

We took our time heading back to the Welcome Center (big mistake!), stopping in a few shops (one in particular, Past Times on Fountain Street, had some beautiful crafts). We got back to the Welcome Center at about 3:50pm and found out that it closes by 4pm! YIKES!!

They weren’t letting anyone else upstairs, but I begged the guard to PLEASE let us up, and promised that we’d take less than 5 minutes to make our purchases. He relented, and we ran up the escalator and shopped like high-speed superheroes. I really wish I’d had more time there, because the prices were surprisingly good, and they had a nice selection of authentic local crafts and linens. I purchased some tea towels, a table runner, our obligatory fridge magnet, and some Celtic wall decorations. They started turning the lights off so we hurried to the registers and paid. They were literally locking the doors behind us as we left!

Once outside, we hopped on the shuttle and headed back to the ship.

Rich took my oldest daughter, Christina, to see the pre-dinner show, which was a tribute to the Beatles, while I stayed behind with the other girls and had a much-needed rest.

The dinner menu was a little strange that night. It was “International Night”, so the menu choices were quite eclectic: Asian-inspired choices alongside heavy French dishes and spicy Mexican food. Kinda strange, but interesting.

Afterwards, we went to the Princess Theater to see the rescheduled performance of Cinematastic, which had been postponed the night when the weather was really bad. The show was outstanding. They had a great audience turnout, and the show was a spectacular presentation of music and dancing from a variety of movies. (They even sang a medley that included the song My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. Talk about brave!) The costumes were colorful, and the dancers did a great job.

All photos by RichYak, copyright 2007


Coming up next: My eldest child celebrates her first “teen” birthday, as we explore Glasgow, Scotland.

Dublin, Ireland: A birthday to remember

Saturday, July 7, 2007 – DUBLIN, IRELAND

The seas were much calmer now than they had been yesterday, and the ship docked in Dublin right on time at 8am. When I left my stateroom, I saw that our room steward had affixed a colorful cluster of Happy Birthday balloons to the doorway—a very nice way to start my day! We had a quick breakfast in the Horizon Court (the food there is okay, but I prefer the sit-down diningroom when time isn’t an issue), packed up our Euros (the currency they use in Ireland), then headed for the gangway to go ashore.

Note: Every evening before turning in for bed, we found the next day’s issue of the Princess Patter outside our stateroom door, along with an Adventures Ashore Port Guide for the next day’s destination. The Port Guide provides an overview of the city’s history, and mentions some of the top attractions. There’s also a small street map to help you get oriented once you leave the Princess shuttle into downtown, along with additional info on taxis, shopping, and local cuisine.

Going ashore was much easier this time, since we were docked and simply had to walk right off the ship. NOTE FOR THOSE WITH MOBILITY ISSUES: depending on the tide level when you dock, they sometimes use these annoying gangways with bumps in them that are difficult to navigate. If you are traveling with someone in a wheelchair or use some other assistive device like a walker or cane, be sure to flag down a crew member and tell them that you’ll require some extra assistance getting off the ship.

We took the Princess shuttle bus ($5 per person each way) into downtown Dublin. It drops off and picks up on Kildare Street, which is a short walk from Trinity College/The Book of Kells. There were several other tour buses in that area, however, so rather than fight the early crowds, we headed the other way on Kildare towards the National Museum and National Gallery.

Unfortunately, it was still just a bit early, and neither one was open yet, so we took a few minutes to walk around and visit the shops in the Grafton Street area. Many of the shops that were open this early were of the touristy variety, and the souvenirs were overpriced. We decided to hold off on buying anything until later in the day, when more of the stores were open and things would be more competitively priced.

We found a bookshop that had the Daisy Meadows Pet Fairies book my 7-year-old was looking for (from a popular book series that isn’t available in America yet), and when we went to the upstairs children’s department, there was a great Harry Potter display. We took a fun picture there of my eldest daughter in front of the elevator, which was decorated to look like Platform 9 ¾.

At this point, we headed back to the National Museum, which had just opened. The domed rotunda at the entrance way is absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately, they don’t allow you to take pictures there. Don’t forget to look down, too, at the Zodiac mosaic on the floor as you walk in.

Admission was free, and we found the museum to be a wonderful way to start the day. We saw exhibits that included old artifacts from the Bronze Age, hammered gold jewelry, stones that were 5,000 years old, and the famed Ardah Chalice, a Celtic Christian relic dating from 800AD.

After a bit of time, we set off back down Kildare, passing the Irish Parliament building, towards the National Gallery. NOTE: there was scaffolding/construction going on just up the street from the Gallery, so you can’t actually see the building until you’ve gone around the bend in the road and are practically standing in front of it. We saw lots of people looking confused and consulting their maps, when they were actually just a few yards away from the Gallery. Just keep walking and you’ll find it once you’re past the construction.

Admission to the National Gallery is free. They have many works by great artists such as Picasso and Vermeer, as well as a fine collection from Irish artists, but the highlight is seeing Caravaggio’s Taking of the Christ on level 2 of the museum. The Gallery itself is beautiful: open and airy, and there weren’t any crowds when we were there, so touring it was a pleasure. The bathrooms are also very clean and handicap accessible, so keep that in mind if you’re in the area and need to make a pit stop.

We headed back towards Trinity College to see the Book of Kells.



There were long ques, but they moved quickly. It was a sea of people inside, very dark and crowded, but it was worth it not only to see the 9th century Book of Kells, but also the wondrous Long Room in the college library, built in 1732. There you’ll find floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with antique books, exhibits of old military posters, and the oldest harp in Ireland (the same one you’ll see on the back of the local coins, and in the Guinness logo).

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The gift shop is large and has some good choices for souvenirs (jewelry in particular). We went outside and took some pictures on the grounds of Trinity College, then headed for the Temple Bar area to get some lunch.

I was looking forward to some traditional pub fare, so we ate at Quay’s Irish Restaurant, which was absolutely perfect. It had wood hewn beams and a great ambience, and the food was good, too. They had a kids menu, so the place was family friendly as well (chicken nuggets, €7.95). I had some Fish & Chips with salt & vinegar fries (€13.95), my oldest daughter had a burger off the kids’ menu because she didn’t want coleslaw or fixin’s with it, which was cheaper than ordering the adult portion (€7.95), and Rich had a steak sandwich (€13.95) that was terrific. Of course, he and I washed it all down with a pint o’ Guinness (€4.95 each), and then we were on our way again.

A quick look at the clock revealed that we were running out of time, and still had lots more to see, so we made our way to the nearest Hop on/Hop off bus stop and boarded one of those red City Sightseeing buses.

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Visit Irish City Tours to see route maps. They have a discounted family fare for adults w/children, and it was a great way to cover lots of ground in a very short time. In quick succession, we saw Dublin Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Christ Church.

NOTE: they actually have two different types of hop on/hop off buses that operate, using the same ticket. The yellow ones run every ½ hour, and have a live tour guide that announces the sights to you as you pass them. The red ones run more frequently, about every 10 minutes, and have headphones available for you as you board so that you listen to a pre-recorded message about the sights as you pass them. It was very difficult to find a taxi large enough to accommodate the 5 of us, so the bus was definitely a convenient way to go for our group. The bus ticket also gives you discounts for admission to some of the local attractions, including 10% off adult admission at the Guinness Factory, so be sure to read the brochure/route map they have when you board the bus.

NOTE: I recommend sitting on the LEFT side of the bus, if at all possible, because you get better views for picture taking that way (remember, they drive on the left there). If you have regular headphones with you (from your MP3 player, for example) those work on the bus, too. Try to get a seat in the open section of the upper deck if you want to snap lots of pictures.

Another note for those with iPods/MP3 players: The Dublin Tourism Bureau offers FREE downloads of self-guided "iTalks" for Dublin, available on their website, www.visitdublin.com. I also signed up for their free newsletter to receive info on special events before we left.

We hopped off the bus at stop#14, the Guinness Storehouse. Woo-hoo...let the birthday celebration begin! There were long lines both inside and out, and we saw some older folks bailing out on the line because they heard that the tour takes an 1 ½ hours, and time was getting short. However, the tour is SELF-GUIDED, so you can take as much or as little time as you want going through the exhibits. We decided to hang in there, and sure enough, the lines moved pretty quickly, and pretty soon, we were inside and on our way.

NOTE FOR THOSE WITH MOBILITY ISSUES: Guinness is located on a very bumpy, cobblestone street. You can push a wheelchair there, but it is not easy and will be a bit jarring, so prepare yourself for that.

There’s a large gift shop inside that carries every Guinness-related item you could possibly imagine: shirts, golf balls, glasses, pub signs, coasters, magnets, you name it.

We saw our cruise director there with his buddies, but didn’t say hello because he was dressed casually and we figured he’d prefer to be “incognito.”

We opted to forgo the 10% discount on each adult admission because it was cheaper for us to get the Family Fare tickets, since we had the kids with us. Instead of traditional tickets, they give you each a plastic Guinness paperweight that has a plastic ring sealed to the back of it.



Adults get a black ring, which is exchangeable for a free pint of Guinness at the Gravity Bar on the 7th floor, while kids get blue rings that are good for the soft drink of their choice. I told the gal at the ticket counter that it was my 40th birthday, so she gave me an extra paperweight and seal, in case I wanted to drown my sorrows. I love the Irish!

There were lots of escalators to get from one exhibit to the next, but also some steps. There was elevator access as well, but the elevators were a bit crowded, so we only used them to go down after we’d reached the 7th floor.

The bathrooms were a little gross (we used the ones on the 7th floor) so you might want to try one of the other locations instead (they have toilets on the Ground floor, as well as the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th levels).

We worked our way through the exhibits at a moderate pace. There are some cute photo ops near the waterfall, and also on the model train. We saw exhibits on how the hops and barley are roasted and combined with the water to create Guinness, and then we reached a “tasting area” where they offer the adults a small shot of Guinness to sample before continuing on. We ended up skipping a few floors after that because the kids were getting bored with the exhibits on “Guinness Around the World” and “Guinness Advertising”, so we headed straight for the Gravity Bar on the 7th floor.

It was packed with people, and there were very few chairs, but I was determined to have me my birthday pint! The windows afforded 360 degree views of Dublin, and major sights & attractions were labeled on the windows so you knew what to look for. We could also see our Princess ship off in the distance, and realized that were really cutting things close if we didn’t start heading back soon. After a quick drink (and no, I didn’t go for my second pint...I couldn’t even finish the first one!), we went back down to catch the bus.

The lines for the buses were long, but three of them arrived in just a few minutes time, and we were able to get on without a problem. I had really wanted to see the Dublin Writer’s Museum on this trip, but time was getting really tight, and if we didn’t hurry up, we could very well miss the last shuttle back to the ship and have to end up finding a cab.

By that point, the bus was driving through the Temple Bar area, and would soon turn left to up towards the Writer’s Museum before looping back down again. We realized that if we hopped off and walked over the Liffey Bridge, it would be a shortcut that would leave us close to Trinity College and the shuttle bus. Made the decision to skip the museum this time, and hopped off the bus. As we crossed the bridge, there was a huge store on the corner, Carroll’s of Dublin, which was filled to the brim with souvenir items at much better prices than the stores that we’d passed earlier. Now that we’d skipped the Writer’s Museum, we had a few minutes to pop in and stock up on mementos. Yay! (It was 4:10pm, and the shuttle was leaving at 4:30, but it’s okay—we’re quick shoppers!) We grabbed a few handknit wool scarves (all made in Ireland, €19.99 each), a smaller fuzzy scarf in pink for my 11-year-old (€4.99), some Christmas ornaments (€2.99 each), some cute stuffed leprechauns (€2.99) and another fridge magnet to add to our collection (€1.99). NOTE: I discovered after I got home that Carroll's has a website, and they guarantee to offer the lowest prices on Irish & Celtic items. Here's a link: Carroll's of Dublin Online Store

We hustled back to the shuttle on Kildare Street and got there just in time to get the bus back to the ship. After a quick rest, we all showered and got dressed for dinner, watched some of the Port Talk for Belfast on the TV, then headed to the dining room.

When we got to our table, there was a bouquet of pink roses waiting for me from Rich & the girls. Awwww. Nice touch! Our waitress Monika and her assistant sang Happy Birthday to me after dinner, bringing a decadent chocolate mousse cake dessert with 4 candles in it, which she cut into 5 pieces so we could all share it.

We ended the night by seeing that evening’s show, a comedy & magic act by Bernard Reid. He was very funny, and mentioned that he’d be doing a “close-up magic” demonstration later on in the cruise, which the kids decided they would definitely go to see. He also mentioned that he’s one of the foremost experts in the world on legendary magician/escape-artist Harry Houdini, and that later in the cruise he’d be hosting an informative lecture that would dispel the myths surrounding Houdini. (More details on that later—it was a fascinating lecture, and I highly recommend it.)

All in all, it was a terrific birthday, and one that I will never forget! (It almost made turning 40 worth it. Almost.)

Next up: Our visit to Belfast, where I got a sign from my Dad that he is still watching over me

Holyhead, Wales: A few false starts on the way to the castle

Friday, July 6th, 2007 -- HOLYHEAD, WALES

We awoke to 40 knot winds and 23-foot seas, with an announcement from the captain that conditions were very poor, and not suitable for tendering. He said that we’d anchor a few miles offshore and wait to see if conditions improved.

By 9am, the captain informed us that we’d be skipping Holyhead and heading to Dublin later in the afternoon, when sea conditions were predicted to improve.

This was a real bummer, since we’d booked a full-day Princess tour that would take us to Caernarfon Castle, and included lunch and some shopping in the downtown area. The castle was built during the 13th century, and was one of places Rich was really looking forward to photographing, so he was very disappointed. Now that we had plenty of time for breakfast, we went to the DaVinci diningroom for a sit-down meal (the hash browns were great—I highly recommend them!).

Suddenly, they announced that the tours weren’t necessarily cancelled yet! Apparently, the captain spoke too soon, the weather had improved earlier than expected, and we WOULD be going ashore after all, in just a few hours. We sat tight and waited for further instructions.

By lunchtime, we’d still had no word, so we went to Horizon Court for a quick bite to eat. While we were there, they announced that all of the full-day tours were cancelled, but that the half-day tours were still on. They also said that the half-day tours were fully booked, so there was no room for anyone from the cancelled tours to be accommodated.

HOWEVER, we found out later that there were several folks who had booked two half-day tours, rather than one full day tour (one was originally scheduled to leave in the morning and the other in the afternoon), and THEY were told they had to choose which half-day tour they’d like to go on. Which meant, of course, that there were going to be a limited number of open slots on some of the half-day tours, depending on the decisions made by the passengers who were now double-booked. Unfortunately, the staff onboard did not publicize this fact, and we only found out about it through a stroke of luck.

Tendering for Holyhead was chaotic, and a bit of a nightmare. The tender boats took FOREVER to come, and we were left waiting for tender tickets for a long time. When they did finally call us down, there weren’t enough seats for us on the tender, and we had to wait for the next one. During this entire procedure, the staff in charge of loading the tenders were rude and arrogant. They were clearly stressed out over the unusual change in procedures, but I thought their disregard for the passengers who were left stranded was uncalled for. They just kept calling for more passengers, in groups of 100, even though they knew they could only fit another 70 or so on the next tender. When the passengers in front of me tried to reason with the staff member to hold off on bringing that many people down to the holding area (why make them give up their comfortable seats in the dining room waiting area, so that they could stand on their feet and wait for the tender on deck 4?) she turned a deaf ear.

Eventually, another tender came and we got to the dock area. There were representatives from the Anglesey Tourism Bureau who handed us a shopping bag with a tourism brochure and immediately tried to wrangle us onto a free shuttle bus to downtown Holyhead. We very nearly got on the bus, until I noticed some larger tour buses that sat empty a bit further down the dock area. I asked, “What are those?” and the tourism folks said, “Oh, those buses are $81, this bus is free! Hop on!!” I realized that the other buses were the half-day tour buses to Caernarfon Castle, and it was obvious they still had plenty of room left. I approached a Princess Cruise employee and asked if they had seats available for the tour, and they said, “Absolutely. Hop on.” We got on the empty bus, along with a handful of other people. We sat there for about 15 minutes, and there was no sign of us leaving anytime soon, so I got off the bus and asked the woman standing outside with a clipboard, “When are we scheduled to leave?” Her answer, “I don’t really know. We have to fill this bus first.” So, could it be 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour? “Uh, well, I really don’t know.” Ooh-kay then. Who DOES know? She went off to find someone who had some answers, and I went back on the bus to inform the others that we had to be a little more proactive or we wouldn’t end up getting to Caernarfon in time to see anything.

Finally, a guy who actually knew what he was doing showed up, and told us to board a different shuttle bus that was just starting to load up with the afternoon tour to Caernarfon. Just as we boarded, another tender arrived and the bus filled up, and we went on our journey to Caernarfon Castle.



The bus ride was very pleasant, with a local tour guide who explained a little bit about the history of the area, and pointed out sites along the way. We saw some beautiful countryside, snapped a few pictures (including one of the very first suspension bridge in the world), drove past some really quaint-looking shops, and ended up at Caernarfron Castle at last.

We didn’t have a lot of time, but we did get to see quite a bit of the castle, and took loads of photographs. I wish we’d been able to head into town to purchase some linens, but the gift shop at the castle had some very nice offerings, so we made do with that. My 7-year-old picked up a traditional Welsh craft known as a “lovespoon”, while I purchased a Celtic cross necklace and some silver earrings. There was also a small touristy gift shop located just off the parking lot where the buses picked us up, but most of the souvenirs there were “Made in China” and constructed of plastic; the stuff at the Castle gift shop was better and more authentic to the region.

Before long, it was time to head back to the ship. It was a quick visit, but we were happy that we got to see it at all. NOTE FOR THOSE WITH MOBILITY ISSUES: the Castle has a lot of tight spiral staircases and uneven rock surfaces, so proceed with caution. There are bathrooms available at the Castle, but to reach them, you have to walk down a set of stone steps, so tread carefully. Tendering on the way back was much better, and we didn't have to wait long.

The service at dinner was definitely better than the previous night. There were no lines to get in, the food arrived much faster, and the crew seemed much more relaxed now that the seas had calmed a bit. Overall though, this ship’s crew appeared to be far less experienced than the crew I had while onboard the Celebrity Millennium last year. Most of the crew that I spoke with during the day had never been to the ports we were visiting, and knew absolutely nothing about them. The only one who seemed to be familiar with our itinerary was Jan, the woman who gave the port talks. Another sticking point for me: they didn’t seem to be as diligent in offering sanitizing gel before and after meals on this ship, and many of the automatic dispensers in the food areas didn’t work. Fortunately, I carried my own antibacterial gel with me, but was surprised that they weren’t a bit more cautious on a ship that large.

After dinner, we saw the Celebrity Showtime show with piano vocalist Kyle Esplin, who was a big Jerry Lee Lewis fan. It was kinda weird, to tell you the truth. He had this thick Scottish accent, but was singing Jerry Lee Lewis songs and other types of American rock ‘n roll. My husband and kids thought he was great, though, and his piano skills were definitely impressive.

We put the kids to bed and then snuck away to the casino for a little bit. I ordered a double shot of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, and played an annoying “Luck O’ the Irish” slot machine (it had a high-pitched leprechaun voice that kept saying things like, “O, so you be after me gold, are ye?” every 5 seconds, but I tried to tune him out) until midnight on 07/07/07, when I officially turned the big, nasty, icky 4-0. After that, I put my geriatric butt to bed, and looked forward to our next stop: Dublin!

Coming up: Spending my 40th birthday under the spigot at the Guinness Factory!