Friday, August 16th, 2013, started off like most of the Friday's since I started working. 12 hours worth of work crammed into 8 hours, if nothing went wrong. My Karma was good, I left work on time with all tasks completed. Vacation started at 14:30 Arizona Standard Time (regardless of its official designation).
We made it to Sky Harbor in plenty of time to make it through security. Unfortunately, our flight was leaving from terminal 4's B gates, the side with the least palatable food. I opted for a milkshake from Mickey D's, as anything else would be more likely to be problematic on a 10 hour flight.
We ended up boarding the plane about the scheduled time for its departure, as there was a slight delay. We took off about 30 minutes behind schedule, which was to be expected. The British Airways 747 was a full flight which generally means if you are not flying in first or business class, pray for people that actually fit in one seat are next to you, that was almost the case, with not having access to my left armrest the only inconvenience I faced. Due to the guy sitting in the aisle seat sleeping with a blindfold, my wife used the ends of the armrests as a place upon which she could step in order to get to the restroom. That is not an option for me.
Food on this flight was chosen by a sadist! No person with an ounce of kindness would serve beans to passengers in a confined space, but that was one choice, the other being pasta in a runny tomato based sauce designed to loosen one's bowels. Times like this make me thankful for a clearly defined limit to the torture. I will have to remember the British hold grudges about losing the American Revolution.
British customs was a fairly short ordeal, with civil servants that made you feel as if they actually liked their job and meeting you. At least this trip has a relaxing aspect to its first stop.
The taxi ride from Heathrow Terminal 5 to our hotel (Doubletree Hilton Westminster) is the first indication you get that travelling in Britain is expensive. The black cabs would run 75 to 85 BP, an independent took us there for 60.
One word of caution about the Doubletree Westminster, be cautious of where you aim your camera as MI5 doesn't like to have its picture taken. Aside from that the hotel is in an excellent location for seeing the major tourist attractions. If booked early enough, it's a wonderful bargain. Booked late, you will pay more than double for the same room. Based upon our experience, it is a waste of money to add meals to your bill.
The Original London Tour is a Hop on Hop off service that includes a boat tour along the Thames off of the Red and Yellow routes. This is the best type of touring for photographers, as it takes you to all sights of interest London has to offer. If you choose to use this service, I highly recommend you look for a bus with a live narrator. The tour is more fun when there is interaction between tourists and the guides.
Breakfast at the Doubletree was expensive and not worth the price if it had been half of the total! The scrambled eggs were quite runny and bangers was the only breakfast meat. Don't waste your money on convenience. Places in Trafalgar Square offer much better food and more reasonable prices. Little Frankie's has a fairly good spaghetti and meatballs dinner big enough for 2 to share at a reasonable price, unless you add garlic bread. Garfunkel's has really good fish and chips.
Unless you enjoy being pickpocket bait, standing for a long time in a crowd, spending more than an hour for a 5 minute spectacle and breathing in the aroma of the unwashed masses, the Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace is not going to be your cup of tea. For me it was the biggest waste of time on this entire trip!
After doing the normal tourist stops in London for the weekend, we took the Eurostar to Paris on Monday August 19th. We booked it through Viator and they in turn arranged it through Premier Tours. It included the following;
Round trip Eurostar travel,
Bus tour of major tourist attractions in Paris (Arc d'Triumph, Champs Elyse, Opera Houses, etc.), minor stops for pictures but not designed for a photo tour,
Cruise along the Seine (a narrated boat ride that is quite enjoyable),
Sparkling White Wine (reminiscent of Champagne) Brunch at the First level of the Eiffel Tower.
My first impression of the Paris train station came from my nose, I suspect the French must not have any qualms about urinating in public, as the stairwells reeked and had small puddles along the walls. This is not the kind of thing I would have expected in a city known for its art and food. I was glad that that was not the way the rest of the city turned out to be.
The tour itself turned out to be something I cannot recommend to photographers. It was rushed and there were few opportunities for taking pictures. If you want a good tour for that purpose, purchase your own Eurostar ticket and use a hop on hop off bus. The tour is very informative and hits all the major points of interest. The principle aim of the tour is for you to spend time at the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. It accomplishes that goal fairly well.
The food at the first level of the Eiffel Tower is surprisingly mundane for a French Restaurant. I have eaten at local dives on the Cote d'Azur that were far better. Is it possible that the quality of the food was due to the displeasure of the Parisian French with dealing with foreign tourists? At any rate, I can at least say I've been to the Eiffel Tower and it was no big deal.
We headed back to the airport to catch or ride to the Carnival Legend. Our cab ride was negotiated for a lower rate to Heathrow Terminal 1 (closest terminal to London), which is also where I highly recommend catching the bus for Carnival. Your luggage will be travelling with you on the bus as opposed to being crammed into the cargo hold of a truck where it can easily sustain crushing damage. Most of the passengers that travel from Heathrow will have been taken to Terminals 4 and 5.
Our bus driver provided a nice narration along the way and the ride was enjoyable.
Dover is very picturesque. The cliffs look very nice and part of me wishes we had spent a bit more time there.
The Carnival Legend is trimmed out in black silver and gold accents on dark red stained wood. The ship is smaller than many of the others we have sailed on, but that is a necessity for the Baltic ports of call. Its size also makes it much easier to learn the layout so navigating to the places on the ship you want to your favorite activities is much easier. The upgrade to our cabin was well worth its price. This is the first time I had enough space to put my shirts, suits and pants in the closet as opposed to keeping them folded in drawers. Our next cruise will require going back to my wife having all the hangers. Having a full bathtub with jets is clearly something not to be avoided. It came in handy after some of our excursions. Our cabin steward was very nice and always had a smile whenever we saw her.
I am one of those people that likes to buy t-shirts of places and events I have been to or participated in. Upon seeing a particular one I liked on board, I was very disappointed finding out that it was unavailable in any size except 2XL or larger. Further examination revealed that the smallest size T-shirt in the ship's store was 2XL. Were they expecting this to be a voyage for strictly obese people? Is Carnival telling those of us of normal size that our clothing is not something they wish to sell? I can understand limiting the purchase of goods to avoid excess inventory, but it is better to have too much inventory than not enough when you have a limited window of opportunity to sell something and angry passengers who want clothing that fits!
After a sea day, spent mostly in the trivia games on the ship (with the answer sheets used by the emcee often having incorrect information) we hit our first port of call, Copenhagen, Denmark, home of the Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson, Danish Modern Furniture, and the favorite breakfast pastry of millions.
The Little Mermaid statue fits its name, it is small. The crowds around it are huge, and because it sits on an easily reached perch, there often are people standing in the way of your shot, but if you are patient you can find an opening. It is worth waiting for that brief duration. A brief walk from that location towards the cruise ship pier you will see the other mermaid statue of Copenhagen. She is bigger in every way and that includes her chest, which is nicely proportioned. One can see that if this one had been located at the water line she would have been more of a Siren.
Architecturally, Denmark has some very interesting buildings. The only problem one encounters in trying to photograph them is the over head electric wires. With patience, one could remove them in Photoshop, or leave them in for an authentic photo. The buildings along the canal are found in almost every travel brochure, and do not disappoint anyone that wants to see them. Keep in mind that if you take a canal tour, you are not going to see them from the boat. Do not let that be an excuse to not take a canal tour though. The boat ride has other benefits.
The guards at the Royal Palace are changed every day at noon. If you thought the changing of the guard in London was worth seeing, this one has far fewer people, and you can be very close to the action. The only thing it lacks is the pageantry and music of the London event. It is every bit as formal and we enjoyed it.
Our next stop was in Waremunde, Germany. It is an industrial city, with its 2 major attractions being its typical German beach (not recommended for prudish people or children) and its closeness to Berlin. We chose to go to Berlin.
Our tour of Berlin was with Alla Tours, out of St. Petersburg, Russia. It was their Grand Tour which was to include a one hour lunch and one hour of free time at the end of the tour of Berlin. The actual tour did not match up with what was paid for. This disappointed several people who didn't take time to shop immediately after eating lunch. It is also not a good tour for serious photographers as the bus was completely closed in and not everyone has a chance to shoot because each person is stuck with the view from their window and there were very few stops for taking pictures.
Our host, Yve, was an excellent guide and very knowledgeable of the history of Berlin. Had he not been on our tour, I would find it very uninteresting. It is my hope that at some point the tour get moved to an open air bus similar to the hop on hop off busses. The price of the tour is better than the cost of the train ride to Berlin offered by Carnival, and if you book this tour, ask to be in the group led by Yve.
The food at the restaurant we had lunch at was reasonably priced and tasted great, but the same food was offered by a nearby restaurant for considerably less making one wonder if somebody made arrangements based on something other than customer's best interests. They also only worked on a cash basis, but took Euros or Dollars. Being partial to pork, I can recommend their pork schnitzel with French fries, though I was hoping for noodles.
The return to the Carnival Legend was later than most of the normal eating times, so the Chef had a special German buffet prepared. It must have been extremely hard on him. The last time I had food this tasteless, I was in a hospital on a bland diet and even that food had a more enjoyable flavor.
During the sea day, I presented a challenge to the waitress at breakfast by ordering one of my favorites, waffles with ice-cream. It was met, making a good start for a sea day.
I did well at the movie trivia challenge, but didn't win it this time. They didn't specify exactly what they meant when they asked for the 3rd Star Wars Movie's title, the 3rd one made or 3rd in the actual series. The third one made was the 6th in the series. Nor did they know that "I'll be back" was used by Arnold Schwarzenegger in more than one Terminator movie. Neither of those items would have made a difference though (I had written the most likely answer due to previous knowledge of their source), as I had drawn a blank on their clue for a couple of movies I hadn't seen.
I spent a fair amount of time watching ships sail by and photographing the ones that were close enough to be interesting. They were mostly freighters and tankers with the occasional ferry.
I was relieved when we attended the "Game Show" that my wife did not put my name
into contention because I felt as if I have been breathing in too many diesel fumes from the slow moving buses and idling ships when we are docked. I have been coughing quite a bit. While watching it from the audience, it also became apparent that it would have been extremely single sided as the contestants missed many very easy answers.
Our Alla Grand Tour in Finland, had it been run in accordance with the posted schedule, would have been a disaster. Once again, our guide never was given the same information the clients received. Our guide however, knew enough of the local events, what was open and when, and managed to include stops that would have only been drive throughs according to the original schedule. It is good that Alla doesn't impose a rigid schedule on their guides, but it would be nice if the guides were given an outline of what the tour was to include that matched the one given to the clients.
All this walking was starting to make my arthritis act up. Down slopes and going down stairs was becoming painful, and both knees were swelling by the time the tours were done. I had to resort to starting the day with Aleve and ending it with Ibuprofen. By morning, my knees looked normal.
Alla Grand Tours were scheduled for our two days in Russia. Our first day in St. Petersburg was fantastic and exhausting. Valentina was our guide and her vast knowledge of Russian history brought to life the places we were seeing. I was very impressed with her ability to keep our group of 16 together in spite of some extremely crowded sites. We always were able to get to the right places at the right time. A snack and later on a hot sandwich were provided for the first day.
I now understand why we didn't get to go in many of these places, they are HUGE. Just walking the perimeter photographing the exterior items of interest can make you very tired. To properly see the interiors of these sites would take at least a month! The first day in Saint Petersburg left us tired and looking forward to the next one.
On paper, our second day's tour looked like it would be shorter than the first. We were going to fewer places, but after seeing the exterior of the Hermitage, since we were going inside today, it became very obvious today would be even more walking for us.
We saw about 1/10 of the public rooms of the Hermitage which took at least 2 hours at our fast paced walk. It is a vast and expansive place, that to see properly would take a serious art lover a week and a half to see.
Our tour by Alla far exceeded our expectations. Resurrection Chapel or Savior of the Spilt Blood Church was even more impressive from up close and inside. Once again, the amount of information we were presented with made it possible to truly appreciate everything we were seeing.
Valentina is the most impressive guide I have ever had in all of my travels. If you sign up for a grand tour with Alla, ask for Valentina for a trip that will be very informative and will leave you with an impression of Russia in a way that fosters friendship through understanding. She presents the history and culture of Russia far better than any of the history books I have read, Russia is a very beautiful country with a very rich history.
Tallinn, Estonia is a photogenic city that has many interesting buildings, some new and many very old. Our Alla Tour here was basically a bus ride to the upper city and a lot of walking back along cobblestone streets. Helen, our guide, for the next 3 hours was once again well versed in the culture and history of Estonia and Tallinn in particular. This was the most strenuous of all our tours. If even the thought of walking on uneven surfaces down steep slopes makes you cringe, do not book this tour. If you want to really get a feel for the history of Estonia, this tour is great. The 2 hours of free time at the end, was a bit too much for me, so instead of waiting 2 hours for the bus to arrive, we chose to walk back to the ship. Upon spotting a T-shirt I liked here, I was dismayed to learn mine was the only size unavailable. Such is my luck, could this place have the same agent ordering shirts as the ship?
I was very pleased with our Alla Tours. They were informative, fun, at times a bit strenuous and a far better value than any tour described to me by my fellow cruisers that took the ship's tours. We saw and did a lot for our time in port and had a lot of fun.
Two more sea days followed. They were spent playing trivia games, seeing shows, eating and enjoying the comedians in the George Lopez Punchliner Comedy Club's adults only shows. Taylor, the club's hostess, needs to tell more than one joke per night, or at least make the intro more entertaining! Sitting in the first 2 rows of an adults only show is one way to get the comedian to notice you. This can be good or bad, but either way it s entertaining.
Amsterdam is a wet place. That is to say, there are many canals and most of the best sights are easily reached by a hop on hop off boat. An all day pass is fairly inexpensive and if you stay in your seat long enough, you can travel through all of the zones (the boat signs are changed as it approaches Central Station and it starts a new route). If touring the Anne Frank House, buy your tickets online and ring the bell when you get there. It will be a lot cheaper and faster than taking an excursion from the ship.
Upon returning to the ship, it was time to pack for the return to Dover. The bags needed to be in the corridor no later than 22:00. Ensuring our bags were not going to be over the weight limit was going to be a challenge. It also meant that our carryon bags would have to have a bit of room in case we had to do some last minute shuffling at the airport. To do this properly, I ensure our bags were underweight when we left the house. Even with those precautions, we just made it this time.
The shuttle to the airport was very quiet, almost too quiet. I suspect that unlike the ride to the ship, this meant the end of a vacation for most people, back to their daily dull routines. The difference between the average person and me, I live life along the lines of Work Hard, Play Harder, so I was exhausted and trying to rest up for the time change I'd have to face.