Cruising the Baltic – life on board

It was with some excitement & a little trepidation that we arrived at the quay to board the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star. The cruise was going to all the places we wanted to visit … but we weren’t too sure about travelling with more than 2000 other travellers! Check in was very easy, having already done it on line, we left our luggage to be delivered to our stateroom and made our way to the Versailles Restaurant, one of the many free restaurants on board, for a pleasant lunch in front of the floor to ceiling windows.  Most people go to a buffet restaurant on embarcation, but I had read that it was much nicer & less crowded to dine at Versailles, with good service. And then to our cabin/stateroom, plenty of room, good storage, sliding glass doors to the balcony – what more could one wish for? Met our delightful steward, who looked after us impeccably during the voyage, & entertained us by leaving a different bed mate on our bed each night when he turned down the covers & pulled the curtains! He also made sure we had enough cofee capsules for our coffee machine, so we could have good coffee with which to start the day. I have to say the coffee on board was abysmal!  We could go to the coffee bar in the Grand Atrium & pay extra for a triple shot coffee – but even that wasn’t great. Not good for we coffeeholics!

We should have realised (but didn’t) that the ship wasn’t Norwegian at all, though the captain was Swedish – it was American, with lots of Filippino & Indonesian crew – our cabin steward was Jamaican. But it was mainly in the restaurants we noticed the difference – the menus were totally American, with appetizers (our entrees), entrees (our mains) & desserts – & American coffee!

As it was May we didn’t take advantage of the pool area or the lounge areas on deck, sadly. We did try several of the restaurants, both free & ones we had to pay a little extra for (I had booked some of these on line before we arrived). Our favourites were the French Le Bistro & the Italian La Cucina, with excellent food & perfect service.  We also breakfasted mostly at Versailles, in fact we didn’t really go to any self-service restaurants except for one morning (which experience sent us right back to Versailles!) We went to some of the evening shows which were very professional.

As it was Mother’s Day when we boarded our son had organised for chocolate-coated strawberries to be delivered to the cabin – fantastic idea!  But they never arrived, so a few days later he had to ask if I had received them as I hadn’t mentioned them. I contacted the Service Desk – no apology but they arrived 5 minutes later!

We could even manage to get our exercise on board!  Didn’t go to the gym, but 4 times around the walking track was just over a mile. There was a small basketball court & 2 golf practice nets, & maybe other equipment which we didn’t see. We picked up a couple of books from the library, & I was tempted to go to the Sudoku competition (didn’t give in to the urge) though we went to the Trivia competition – what a farce. One lot of questions about American songs, first finished won, we decided it was just a ploy to get people to the bar to buy drinks!

We deposited $US300.00 at the Service desk to cover any incidental costs, including a $US50.00 each for internet access. It cost me about $US2.50 each time just to get connected, but at the end of the voyage we still had credit – which we could only spend on board! No giving that cash back! So off to Duty Free to spend. The day we disembarked I decided to get the photo which was taken at boarding, went to the Service desk to pay & was told we still had more credit! So if I hadn’t decided on a photo we would have lost out. Not a great feeling.

The worst thing was not the fault of the cruise line, but our group all contracted influenza – despite having had flu shots before leaving, and taking immunity boosters as well. People coughing & spluttering all over the ship.  There were hand sanitisers everywhere – at the elevator doors, inside & outside the restaurants, & scattered around the ship – but although we used them we didn’t notice a lot of others doing the same. I met a man who became so ill he was in intensive care on board at a cost of $US10,000.00 per day! And it cost $US140.00 to visit the doctor. Luckily we had our own antibiotics, but it took a loooong time to recover.

So, good & bad experiences. would we cruise again? The jury’s still out!

Our stateroom

Our stateroom

IMG_20160528_124328

Stardust Theatre

Stardust Theatre

Our bedmate!

Our bedmate!

From the glass elevator looking down on the Grand Atrium

From the glass elevator looking down on the Grand Atrium

Copenhagen – wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

NNZ lamb in the market

NZ lamb in the market

NZ lamb in the market

Yes, it really was! We cleared customs at the airport with ease, bought the train tickets to the Central Railway Station (with the help of one of a band of volunteers who were there to assist travellers) & 3 stations later there we were. Finding the Scandic Weber Hotel was a little more difficult, as we walked from the station with all our luggage & the signage was not fantastic, but we arrived a few minutes later – to find our room was not ready! Free coffees offered and a pleasant sit in the courtyard – not a problem.

Dinner at a traditional Danish restaurant – expensive, & interesting that we were not able to just order an entree (after all the airline food, we really didn’t want a big meal), we had to order a main.

Glorious weather the next day, and a great day altogether. A walk around the nearby lake after breakfast, checking out the swans on their nests and the magpies which are so different to those in New Zealand. Then a meet up with our friends and a stroll into town to the pedestrian zone. The whole town was buzzing, people everywhere, music, hustlers – fantastic atmosphere. We had booked for a free walking tour of the city, so met our guide, Benjamin the Canadian, under the statue of Bishop Absolan on Horseback. Ben was so enthusiastic and gave us great insights into the life & times of King Christian IV. Apparently when Christian gained his majority and took on the royal role, he threw a 3 day party and had one of the town fountains running with wine! He loved women – it’s said he sired 19 offspring! We finished by walking through the Botanic Gardens and ending at the Food Market. Wonderful stalls filled with amazing food – including New Zealand lamb at 175 Danish Krone per 1/2 kg (about $NZ37.00) And what struck us most? Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles!!

Dinner was at a restaurant on the bank of the small lake we had walked around this morning. Unfortunately the indoors part was closed for a private function , so we sat outdoors – wrapped in rugs! We did have the advantage of a beautiful sunset, though!

And so ended our time in Copenhagen – we were bewitched!

En route with Emirates

So we have a huge amount of flying today! From Palmerston North to Auckland, Auckland to Melbourne, Melbourne to Dubai, Dubai to Copenhagen. About 25 hours in the air, and all the ground time. We must really want to travel! I must say, flying Emirates is an extremely good experience. From the check in (which is so easy because 48 hours before I received an email telling me that internet check in was open and it was so easy to follow the simple instructions. Check in done! No hold ups going through security, very efficient loading of passengers, and very helpful crew.

Off on our travels again!

Off on our travels again!

Melbourne was a different story! Inefficient, unhelpful, so last century. We disembarked & headed for transit – to find the entry door was locked! After quite a wait, one of the passengers used the service telephone to call the staff. More waiting, until at last, when the passenger was calling for a second time, the staff arrived. No apologies, just “Melbourne is a big airport, you know!” Through security – again – even though we had just walked off the plane, then into the transit area. Well, I CAN say it is not as bad as the barn of a room in which we used to be locked in Los Angeles, but it surely lacks a certain esprit. And then we come to the boarding procedure. I should have been alerted when I heard the ground staff discussing whether they were going to load by zones or not. Yes? No? Oh, all right then, yes. But was there a broadcast message to that effect? Oh no, just staff walking around holding signs & calling out “Zone C” “Only people seated in Zone C” – for goodness sake!

Actually a relief to get back on board and encounter another smiling efficient crew! A long leg this time, with plenty of time to sleep. Yes, I DO sleep – with a little help. And it’s truly worth it. Next stop Dubai, that glitzy beautiful airport with a great transit area. Even though it’s filled with people, restaurants, shops etc, it never seems too crowded, and is very quiet. The rest room facilities are spotlessly clean and although there were queues, it only entailed a few minutes wait. There are 3 Emirates Terminals, luckily we were using Terminal 1 which was also our arrival terminal. Other times we have had to change terminals, which can be a little confusing, especially if you have to take the inter-terminal train, but there is always a smiling person ready to help. Once the lovely man even accompanied us to the next terminal! Totally unnecessary, but a good advertisement for the airport.EmiratesA380

Apart from these good experiences, there are a couple of other reasons we like to travel with Emirates : 1) the seats are slightly bigger (I’m speaking of Economy, of course! Can’t advise you on Business Class!) with more leg room and a good seat recline 2) free wifi! Which means I can write this blog while flying over the Caspian Sea!
The screens are large touch screens, and there is a huge amount of information about the flight, complete with plane cams, as well as all the entertainment available. I feel really spoilt!

So that’s my take on long haul flying. When I first started flying to Europe, back in the early 1980s when we took our children away for 4 months, I was TERRIFIED of flying. My poor husband & family! But now, having flown long haul 22 times, well, it’s just like catching the bus! Except for the PACKING, of course. Oh, the packing … I do think we’ve got it down to a fine art, but 5 months is a loooong time. So a case each of approximately 17 kgs, a cabin bag of 7 kgs, a laptop bag & a small daypack. Not too bad, do you think? Time will tell …

Counting Down!

Five days to take off! Oh my goodness! How do I pack for 5 months? And with the same small case (though maybe 18 kgs instead of 17 kgs!)
First stop Copenhagen, with a couple of days to visit that beautiful city before boarding the Norwegian Star en route to Saint Petersburg. We’ve organised a private guided tour for 5 of us for 2 days there, it sounds really interesting. Also stops at Warnemunde, Tallin, Helsinki, and jumping ship at Stockholm. Flying to Norway in time for National Day and 5 days to spend on the beautiful Sognefjord before heading back to Amsterdam to pick up our van. And that’s just the start! Still a long time until the first tour, Stays in Germany & France first.

So I’ll keep you posted! Watch this space (as they say).

Time is running out!

Well, here we are, 2016 has arrived and our tours are ready to go!

champagne[1]

The bookings for our first tour, starting on June 18th and travelling through Champagne, the Loire Valley, and into the Perigord, will close late March, still places left, hurry up & book.

Welcome champagne in Epernay!We will be there at the villa near Lascaux Caves for a week – time to visit the chateaus involved in the Hundred Years War, the wonderful gardens, the pre-historic sites of Cro-Magnon man, the colourful markets, Josephine Baker’s fairy tale castle, the medieval town of Sarlat, with it’s honey-coloured stone buildings, or even take a canoe trip down the lazy Dordogne River. It is one of the most beautiful areas of France, which is why we visit nearly every year.

Canoeing on the Dordogne RiverOur second and third tours, starting August 20th and September 3rd, still have places available and there is still time to decide to join us.  We will be travelling through Normandy and Brittany, staying in some amazing places – a converted abbey, a B&B in the heart of Chartres, and a wonderful villa near Giverny, with an indoor swimming pool!  A visit to Versailles en route to Chartres, should start the tour off well for you!  Mont St Michel, that magic island, St Malo, the walled town destroyed in WWII and totally rebuilt, the Bayeux Tapestry, of course the Landing Beaches and the amazing artificial Mulberry Harbour, and lesser known places such as the family home of Christian Dior, perched on a cliff.  While at the Villa a visit to Giverny, Monet’s home & garden, is a must, as is a visit to the Cathedral town of Rouen.  So much to do!

Our tours are very competitively priced, as everything is included – all meals, land transport while on tour, all entry fees – even a mid-morning coffee! So have a look at our site www.touringfrance.biz and contact us straight away!

michel[1] beursaudiere[1]

2016 Tours

Right, everybody, decision time! The tours for next year are open for reservations – we already have some, which is exciting.

Our first tour starts on June 18th. We travel from Meaux (near Paris) to Epernay in the Champagne District; on to Nitry (Chablis area) for 2 nights, then to the Loire Valley, to stay for 2 nights in an impressive chateau near Amboise. Our last 2 nights are spent in a 15th century chateau between Aubusson (tapestries!) and Limoges (porcelain!). Finally, we have a week in a 5 star villa on the Domain du Cheyssignaguet in the Dordogne – gardens, markets, chateaus, pre-history (Lascaux Cave), food & wine. What more could one ask for?

The second & third tours (20th August and 3rd September) are in Normandy and Brittany – Mont St Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Normandy Landing Beaches, Monet’s garden at Giverny … and lesser-known attractions such as Christian Dior’s childhood home on the Atlantic coast. One week in excellent accommodation en route, 1 week in a 5 star villa near Giverny.

If you hurry up & book, we are offering a 200 Euro discount per person – bookings to be made before December 31st!

Hope we see some of you joining us on our journey of discovery. read some of the testimonials on www.touringfrance.biz and you’ll find out what fun we have!!

Travelling to Provence

Edward Whymper, first man to climb the Barre des Ecrins in the French Alps,

Edward Whymper, first man to climb the Barre des Ecrins in the French Alps,

Typical steep narrow street in Briancon

Typical steep narrow street in Briancon

Bistrot on the Col des Leques

Bistrot on the Col des Leques

Well I’ve really fallen by the wayside with the blogs!  However, I discovered that when one is looking after guests 24/24, there really is very little time to do other things – like a blog. So now the tours are over, I can give you a brief outline of the fun we’ve had, and then maybe some in-depth descriptions of some of the awesome sights and experiences.

We left Beaune heading for the French Alps and had to change our route because we had heard that the Col de Lauteret (one of our favourite routes) was closed because of a rock fall in a tunnel. However we did manage to cross the Col d’Orlon, which gave our group a taste of the “high” life! We arrived at Chateau Picomtal, beside the Lac de Serre Poncon (the largest hydroelectric dam in Europe) where we were hosted by Sharon and Jacques Peurreux. They have done a marvellous job of restoring the chateau, and delight in showing people the video of the renovation.

Next day was a beautiful day, perfect for a boat trip with the Carline on the Lac de Serre Poncon. We spent the morning in Briancon, the highest walled town in France, and on the way back we stopped at the huge carved wooden statue of the British climber Edward Whymper, who was the first to climb the Barre des Ecrins 150 years ago. A lunch stop beside the small Lac de Rame before embarking on the Carline. Before we left the following day, Sharon took everyone on a tour of the chateau and gardens – very impressive.

Heading to the Cote d’Azur, we stopped at the Col des Leques for a delightful lunch of shared platters of meats & cheeses, with a very friendly owner. We arrived at Relais d’Agay, our hotel on Cote d’Esterel, in the afternoon, with time to relax before having drinks and dinner in a restaurant on the beach. Idyllic.

A free day followed, with time to relax on the beach, or – as some did – take a bus the few minutes to St Raphael, to explore the rather more glamorous town. We had an excellent dinner at Maobi Plage, always a superb place to eat, with excellent food and service.

On our final day of travelling we left the Esterel Coast and drove along the Cote d’Azur past St Raphael, Frejus, St Maxime, then got caught in the usual queue going to St Tropez market so headed off into the hills to the beautiful little village of Vieux Grimaud, and on to La Garde Freinet for lunch. After that it was Autoroute du Soleil all the way to Cavaillon and thence to Barbentane, where we had rented a villa on the outskirts. A lovely place which we have rented before, with 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, large patio & swimming pool – a very tranquil place.  Though in March it wasn’t so tranquil, the mistral blew down about 40 trees on the property, and the neighbour lost 100 trees!

Long distance travelling over for 2 weeks – time to relax and enjoy our “home”.

A Day in Beaune – WET!

Yes, a wet day, but it didn’t dampen our spirits, and after a superb breakfast of breads, pastries, a delicious cherry clafouti, soft boiled eggs etc, we made our way to the Hotel-Dieu. Also known as the Hospices of Beaune, it was founded in 1443 by Nicholas Rolin, Chancellor of Burgundy, as a hospital for the poor. The elderly, sick & destitute are offered treatment and refuge to this day. A fine example of Northern Renaissance architecture, it is famous for it’s roof of typical Burgundian coloured tiles.

Unfortunately, the Petit Train was booked out by tour groups – it’s usually good to take a Petit Train in various towns, in order to get an overview of the area and history. So after a lunch of onion soup (welcome on this wet day!) we went out of town to the Clos de Vougeot, a vineyard that was established in the 12th century by Cistercian monks. The Chateau itself dates from the Renaissance period. Clos Vougeot was for centuries considered the finest of all burgundies, but no wine is produced there now. The Clos de Vougeot is now the seat of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.

On the way back to our B&B we stopped for a wayside winetasting at Nuits-St-George and bought some excellent Pommard wine!IMG_20150616_085627

En Route to Beaune

First stop, Mondemont-Givroux, to see the Marne Memorial. An amazing structure, and a panoramic view over the Marne Valley. The small graveyard at the church is very interesting, commemorating both the French AND the Germans who fought and died here. The ceramic display board shows the shifting battle lines – it’s hard to believe that this peaceful valley is drenched in blood.

I had read on TripAdvisor such good reviews of the Relais de la Marne at Langres that I decided to book for lunch en route. I was disappointed when Monsieur Vincent told me he wouldn’t be open on the Sunday as he was preparing for a big event. However, in the morning he phoned me to say that he would finish his prep work early and would open for our group!  So kind of him … and when we arrived, we found the restaurant almost full!  Word had obviously spread that he would be open!  And the meal did not disappoint, it was inventive and delicious, and we had a most convivial time. Will definitely go back.

Our stop for the night was Le Clos de L’Aigue, a B&B in Beaune. Beautiful grounds, a peaceful atmosphere, and a warm welcome from Sandrine & Laurent. As is usual on a Sunday, there was no supermarket open, and as our group had eaten a large lunch we didn’t feel like another restaurant meal. So Sandrine very kindly offered us aperitifs and tapas, just what we wanted. We sat outside and enjoyed the food, wine (2 bottles!) and company … and so ended our second day of travelling.

Aperitifs with Sandrine & Laurent, Le Clos de l'Aigue

Aperitifs with Sandrine & Laurent, Le Clos de l’Aigue

Vincent & Filanie, Relais de la Marne

Vincent & Filanie, Relais de la Marne

IMG_20150708_141127

First tour 2015

Saturday : By the time we had met up with the others in the team and packed the bags in the van, we arrived in Reims in time for lunch. Such a lovely place to eat – Epicerie Au Bon Manger. Not much to look at from the outside, but a charming welcome from 2 smiling & helpful young women, champagne (of course! After all, we were in the Champagne area), and a shared platter of wonderful meats, cheeses, salad – all organic & with provenance. Just the right sort of meal to start the tour.

On to the Cathedral, where we organised audio guides for the others, then nursed a cold drink in the square in front of the Cathedral while they took in the magnificence & history. After years of public works, the area around the Cathedral is now alive with little restaurants and shops, and shaded with trees. A great place to people watch!

Next we headed off to our accommodation in Epernay, Parva Domus B&B. the only B&B on the Avenue de Champagne, in the old Moet et Chandon family home. It’s great to stroll past all the Champagne Houses, and on the way home after dinner to see their names cast on the footpath in lights. We had aa pleasant meal in the courtyard of La Banque Brasserie in the heart of Epernay.

Au Bon Manger, 7 rue Courmeaux, Reims. Tel. 03 26 03 45 29  www.aubonmanger.fr

La Banque Brasserie, 40 rue de General Leclerc, Epernay.Tel. 03 26 59 50 50  www.brasserie-labanque.fr

Parva Domus, 27 Ave de Champagne, Epernay  Tel 03 26 32 40 74  www.parvadomusrimaire.com

 

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

Cafe in the square in front of Reims Cathedral

Cafe in the square in front of Reims Cathedral