Amsterdam: 24 hours before our river cruise

Standard

There is no resisting the temptation of Amsterdam when your Rhine River cruise starts or ends there. How long since my last visit there? 39 years! And it’s funny what memory does to you. The last time I was there I visited the Van Gogh museum and very briefly, the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch. I was with a girlfriend and we wandered into the red light district. As I remembered it all that was very close together. Well, I remembered wrong. I guess I was walking faster then.

This time, Donna and I stayed at a funky hotel (The Exchange) above a cafe and across from the Beurs van Berlage (old exchange building) on Damrak. We could see the main train station from the entrance to the hotel. The room was tiny, but functional. Apparently each room was designed by a local art student, but our student was not very ambitious. After we arrived we walked down to the museum district which was about a mile and a half. We didn’t visit the museums this time, but took a canal boat ride, which was definitely worth the $20 per person we spent on it. Most of the time was spent on the narrow semi-circular canals that are the main routes in old Amsterdam, but we also spent time on the Amstel River and out in the large harbor. It is a great introduction to the history and layout of the city. We learned the history of how the city evolved, why the row houses are so tall and narrow and how the residents of house boats live.

We took a taxi back to the hotel and the route was much longer than our walk because of the road construction that is going on in Amsterdam. That night we went to an Indonesian Rijsttafel (Rice table) restaurant and had their specialty. There were about a dozen different spicy dishes about half vegetarian and half with meats. Aneka Rasa is a welcoming place with reasonable prices just around the corner from the Red Light district. We walked that area on the way back to the hotel. It was just as I remembered it – pretty tacky. It was a Saturday night so there were lots of drunk men wandering around having a good old time. Definitely not my scene, but to get the whole Amsterdam experience I suppose you have to do it.

After a restless jet lag night, we got up and wandered away from the bustle of the commercial district into Grachtengordel and Jordaan, with historic houses, small museums and great canal views. We had a nice late breakfast as a French boulangerie surrounded by French tourists. Inside the cafe the walls were typically non-perpendicular which we had seen from the outside during the canal cruise. The tall narrow buildings in Amsterdam are sinking unevenly into the swamp on which the city is built.

 

Grachtengordel is where you can visit the Anne Frank House. You should book online to avoid the long lines at the museum. It was a drizzly Sunday morning and the ticket line still went around the block. I took lots of pictures of the canals which I’m going to make into a collage. One thing that we saw in this area was a hotel I want to stay in next time – the Hotel Pulitzer. It is built from 25 different canal row houses, beautifully renovated and linked. Not cheap, but it gets incredible ratings.

amsterdam-trainstation

After checking out of the hotel, we got a taxi for a very short ride to our riverboat – Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette.

Colmar, France in colorful Alsace

Standard

When I was in college, I visited Colmar with a college friend who was studying in nearby Freiburg, Germany. He wanted to see the Isenheim Alterpiece, an amazing creation by Grunewald from the early 16th Century. Our Rhine cruise gave me the opportunity to go back. I did not remember the town, which is considered one of the prettiest in France.

Alsace has been part of France since the end of World War II, but for centuries it has gone back and forth between Germany and France, creating a culture and setting which mixes influences. It was not bombed during the last World War, so many of the half-timbered houses from as far back as the 14th century are still standing. These houses were painted unique colors. Rather than numbers, the address of houses in Colmar were based on their colors. Like Strasbourg, Colmar has canals in the central town.

One place we visited was Colmar’s smallest house (above) which was built into the corner of two other townhouses. Cute, but no private bathroom.

The designer of the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Batholdi, was from Colmar and there is a small museum featuring his sculptures in Colmar. Local artist Hansi created many unique signs for businesses in Colmar.

At the Unterlinden Museum you can see the Isenheim Altarpiece and a fine collection of works by other local artists from the Renaissance and a nice collection of modern paintings. The Altarpiece itself is a dramatic and visceral work which includes many panels painted to commemorate a local “plague” which infected the local population until it was discovered to be caused by a fungus found in local cereals. Below is the main panel and a portion of one of the most horrific of the panels.

If you are in Northeastern France, Colmar is worth going out of your way to see.

Strasbourg: Old and New

Standard

Strasbourg, France is the seat of the European Parliament and Court of Human Rights making in one of Europe’s capitols (with Brussels). The entire center city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the early middles ages on it has straddled the German and French regions, but since the end of World War II it has been the capital of the French region of Alsace (now part of Grand Est).

We docked in Kehl across the Rhine in Germany and took a bus across to Strasbourg where we boarded a tour boat for a ride along the canals of the city. The canal boat avoids the road traffic and noise of the city. But unfortunately every picture is tinted blue from the windows of the boat.

Our tour began south of the city where dozens of old barges were converted into houseboats as in Amsterdam. After circling to the eastern portion of the city we entered the area where the European government has it’s starkly modern buildings, such as legislature above. Following the southern edge of Grande Ile, the historic center, we entered a lock and were in Petit-France, a colorful neighborhood of half-timbered houses. From there we headed to the Pont Couverts on the outskirts of the center with its square guard towers and headed back into town where we disembarked for a short walk to the Cathedral Square.

The gothic sandstone Notre Dame cathedral was the world tallest building during much of the Renaissance and is the sixth tallest church in the world today. We did not go inside, but the main entrance amply demonstrates the wealth of the city during the Middle Ages.

sb-cathedral-door

On the Cathedral Square were several other late medieval and renaissance building such as the wooden Hammerzell House (left).

Strasbourg is a wealthy city that blends old and new, French and German and with its large University has a very young population. If cruises are the Whitman’s sampler of travel, then Strasbourg was a confection we didn’t get enough of.

 

 

Black Forest and Freiburg

Standard

At every stop on our cruise on the Rhine there were one or two free tours that were included in the price. About half the stops offered premium tours at an added cost. We took the premium tour to the Black Forest which was about about 7 hours long and included a nice lunch.

The Black Forest was named by the Roman invaders of the first century. The dark and forbidding mountains were just a little too spooky for the Romans, so they did not go into the area. During the Middle Ages farmers settled the region and to this day it has many farms on the slopes and in the valleys. Through the mid-19th century the trees were harvested for lumber and heat. By that time the Black Forest was only about ten percent forest. Since then a concerted effort has been made to ensure that the trees are replanted so today the region is about sixty percent forest. Like much of densely populated Europe there is a tidiness to the forest areas that seems odd to those from the US.

 

Because of the intense Winters of the region, the isolated farmers came up with indoor activities. And one of those was making clocks…giving rise to the Cuckoo clock and other local handicrafts. We visited the House of Black Forest Clocks in Hornberg-Niederwasser where Herr Adolf Herr and his family make clocks. Outside the store and restaurant is the world’s largest cuckoo clock. Inside there are many beautiful clocks and other crafts. On the second floor they serve coffee and the world famous Black Forest Cake.

For lunch we stopped at the Hohengasthaus Landwassereck near Elzach which offered a beautiful cutting board with local sausage, cheese and breads and a nice fresh salad. Included was a glass of wine or a bottle of local beer. They called it a snack, but no one went away hungry, including hearty eaters like Earl and me. Perhaps the best thing about this restaurant were the views including some nearby Black Forest Cattle. Much in evidence was Germany’s aggressive move toward sustainable energy. Most roofs had solar panels and there were two huge wind turbines along the ridge across the way.

bf-restaurant

Our last stop that day was at the Schwartzwalder Freilichtsmuseum (Black Forest Open Air Museum) which features several different farm houses and other buildings from the region. Our guide took us into one huge farmhouse – barn and told us how the locals lived before electricity became available. These houses did not have chimneys so during the Winter the residents breathed in the smoke from the heating and cooking fires shortening their lives significantly. This is a great stop for children, too, with lots of farm animals. I petted one of the goats, forgetting that I had to attest to not being near farm animals on the immigration form. Oops!

bf-goats

Baby Goat practices fighting with his Mother

During the rides between stops our guide told about tourism in the Black Forest. It is one of the most popular areas in Germany and outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing, mountain biking, hiking and fishing are very popular. There are many inns throughout the region for overnight guests. The villages of the Black Forest have their own unique customs and fashions. One of the most famous and bizarre are the girls hats with 14 red balls.

Freiburg is the capital of the Black Forest. In 1976, my brother and I visited a college friend of mine who was spending a year at the historic University in Freiburg. We hiked and did day trips around the area and had a wonderful time. The small city is right at the foothills of the mountains and is famous for its Gothic cathedral and young population. Sadly the day we visited it was cool and raining so I didn’t take many pictures. The center of the city near the Cathedral is mostly pedestrian. We had a nice time window shopping and going inside the Cathedral.

It wasn’t the blast from the past I was hoping for. I hope to go back. Hopefully my friend Zack will read this. You showed us a great time, Zack!

Cologne: Germany’s Most Diverse City

Standard

cologne-cathedral-park_edited-1

I’m not sure why, but looking at Rhine River cruise itineraries, not much time is spent in Cologne. We were there for only five daylight hours, which limited what we could see. Since it is one of the great cultural cities of Germany it was disappointing. But we had a nice tour of the Cathedral and the old city with an excellent guide who was passionate about her city.

Cologne (spelled Koln with an umlaut in German) was founded not long before the birth of Christ and became a major Roman outpost in the early first century after Christ. The city was named for Agrippina the Younger – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis – who was born there but left while still very young. The great granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, she was ambitious so she seduced and married her much older uncle, the Roman Claudius. While she was Empress she had her birthplace renamed. Claudius was plotting to disinherit his wife and her son Nero, but Agrippina managed to poison him. This was reputedly not the first time she had murdered a family member.  Her son Nero did not like having his meddling mother around, so he had her killed, though it took several attempts according to some sources. Despite this notorious history, Kolners still honor this fascinating woman as their founding mother.

The city was the largest city in Europe north for Alps for much of the Middle Ages which explains the stunning Gothic cathedral.

The Gothic Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark and features the world’s tallest twin spires. Construction was begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880 using the original design. It is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The vaulted interior is breathtaking as were the stained glass windows of many eras. These were hidden from the Nazi’s throughout World War II. It is also famous as the location of the relics of the Magi (the 3 kings of Christmas) which are housed in a stunning gold reliquary. As with many medieval buildings in Europe, the Cathedral is being repaired almost continuously.

Next to the Cathedral is the Roman-Germanic Museum, built over a near flawless Roman Dionysus mosaic, features archaeological items from early Cologne history. We viewed the mosaic from the outside window since the museum is closed Mondays.

The rest of our tour was a nice walk through the old part of the city and to the river which features many Romanesque churches and buildings, including the Great St. Martin Church, built between 1150 and 1250, which along with the Cathedral are the main features of the old city skyline.

The riverfront of the city offered parks and a mix of well taken care of ancient and modern buildings. Cologne is considered Germany’s most diverse city with almost 20 percent of the population non-German. Half of these immigrants are Turkish and there are large numbers of Italians, Poles and Serbians as well.

When cruising there are some places that you feel like you got a nice overview of the city, but some like Cologne deserve a longer visit. We will be back.

Seven Seas Explore: Most Luxurious

Standard

What does it take to be the Most Luxurious Cruise Ship Ever Built (TMLCSEB)? That was the goal Regent Seven Seas announced for their newest ship, the Seven Seas Explorer. Statistically it gives passengers more space than any other full-size luxury ship from major line. As far as staff to guest ratio, Seabourn’s Odyssey class has a slight edge. But the proof is in the cruising and I had the opportunity to sail for two nights to see if the Explorer is truly TMLCSEB.

First Impressions

Boarding the ship in Miami we entered on Deck 5 which features the grand staircase, atrium and huge crystal chandelier. The glass, wood and cream walls are set off by indirect lighting and ornate metallic elevator enclosures. Having just sailed on one of Uniworld’s ornate riverboats, the subtlety of the design was refreshing. Chrome, bronze, dark wood and indirect lighting were themes repeated throughout the ship – even in the suites. In the Compass Rose a blue crystal ceiling light was the visual centerpiece. The furniture was early 20th century modern, but comfortable. The only wrong note was the atrium with rectangular windows and sculpted walls giving the impression of horizontal stripes. It was just a little too subtle for my taste.

My Stateroom and others

I was assigned a Concierge Veranda Suite on Deck 7. With 332 square feet of interior space and a large veranda it is the largest non-Penthouse cabins I had ever seen. The veranda featured two chairs, a chaise lounge and a nice size table – definitely a comfortable place for a room service breakfast. The bathroom included a rain shower, plus a bath / shower combination and twin vanities. The closet was massive and actually larger than the ones in the Penthouse. The room featured an Illy single cup coffee maker that had personality issues. The huge TV offered several news channels and a wide range of movies and archived TV shows – including many travel and culinary programs. If you seek current sports programming – that might be an issue. The TV faced the sofa but swung on a hinge so it could face the bed as well. Champagne and fresh fruit greeted me. There were beer and sodas in the fridge and guests can request their choice of premium beverages to be available in the room. The desk was a bit narrow for a full size laptop, but the USB connections at the bed made charging my devices easy. The bed was extremely comfortable as you would expect.

The Concierge category pricing includes a pre-cruise luxury hotel night and other added amenities. The F1 and F2 categories are the same size but don’t include the concierge extras. The G category are slightly smaller and the H category are the smallest suites. The Penthouses offer two separate rooms and a considerably larger veranda.

The other larger suites have many stunning features, but I will only mention one. The Regent Suite, at nearly 4000 total square feet, is so popular that Regent has plans to raise their price next year. It features two bedrooms, two and a half baths and a private spa with it’s own Sauna and Steam Rooms. And some rather bizarre lamps and sculptures.

Cuisine

It is rather difficult to get a full sense of the cuisine offered on a 2-night cruise. I think they should have given us a week, don’t you? Here is what my colleagues and I thought. The options were amazing. In the Compass Rose, the menu featured more options than any other ship menu I’ve ever seen. One side of the menu was available every night and featured a wide selection of meats and seafood which could be cooked a variety of ways, plus soups, appetizers and sides. The other side featured that night’s special options. Seafood and Pasta items were favored by my friends and judging from empty plates all but one item were highly rated. I had the Peking Duck which was delectable. The other night we ate in Chartreuse, the French restaurant. We had deconstructed soups which were good, but a bit salty. My entree was lobster and scallops with a mild sauce and fava beans – very nice. I had an excellent Caesar salad and a foie gras appetizer with apricots.

At Breakfast, my Eggs Benedict was as good as I’ve ever had – fresh with yolks still runny. The buffet offered a huge variety considering the small number of guests on the ship. Lunch when we boarded offered the buffet, plus some grill items which could be ordered to be delivered fresh to the table.

On the second day the ship offered a seafood buffet that reminded me of some very expensive hotel brunches I’ve had.It feature sushi, marinated fishes to be fresh grilled and chilled shellfish including whole split lobsters, Alaskan King Crab, shrimp and oysters on the half shell. Amazing!

Entertainment

1-theater

The theater was beautiful and spacious. The production show was called My Revolution and it was the best big production I’ve ever seen on a small ship, featuring a dozen singers and dancers performing songs from the British invasion. All performances were solid, but a couple of the singers really blew the roof off. The second night featured an excellent comic. I highly recommend sitting on the lower level. Because the stage is so wide, views from the upper level can be limited.

Shore Excursions

I stayed on the ship the one day we had in Nassau, but my friends all participated in the Swim with the Dolphins and had a wonderful time. You probably know that Regent Seven Seas offers free shore excursions with their cruises. While some premium excursions include a surcharge, the vast majority are free and those with the surcharge are discounted. The all-inclusive concept creates a quandary for any hospitality organization. Where do you draw the line when top-quality competes directly with fiscal discipline? This is, in my experience, the one area where Regent Seven Seas occasionally fails to reach their goal to be the most luxurious of the luxury lines.

Service

The service was always friendly and never overbearing, which can sometimes happen on luxury cruises. I was a bit surprised at the inexperience of some of the staff who seemed to still be learning the ropes. Since the Explorer was launched in July, many in the original group were probably recently replaced. I don’t see this as a long term issue, especially given the very positive attitudes of the entire staff.

I was not surprised when I went to the front desk to ask for a computer mouse (I’d left mine at home) and one was delivered to my suite within 30 minutes. That is the kind of service you can expect on Regent Seven Seas.

Conclusions

The designers and decorators have arguable accomplished their goal of creating TMLCSEB. If luxury is visual appeal, I think the Explorer is the most beautiful cruise ship I’ve ever seen. If luxury is comfort, then we were nested in pillows all night and day. If luxury is being catered to, I was always able to get what I wanted. If luxury is not waiting in line, then I was never delayed.

And how much does all this luxury cost? Regent frequently has the highest price among the luxury lines, but when you consider what you would pay for all the extras that are included in their price, it is often the best value in the luxury market. Air is included – starting in 2017 business class for international cruises. Shore Excursions are included – that would cost you $100 or more per day for each guest. And unlimited internet comes with your price.

Nothing is perfect, but the Seven Seas Explorer seems to be as good as luxury cruising gets. And the Seven Seas Explorer is TMLCSEB.

 

National World War II Museum, New Orleans

Standard

Originally opened as the D-Day Museum in 2000, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans has expanded in the last decade to include interactive exhibits titled “The Road to Berlin” and “The Road to Tokyo.” Boeing Corporation contributed significantly to the US Freedom Pavilion which features bombers and fighters from the war hanging in its massive atrium. My father-in-law, Michael Amditis, wanted to visit the museum so we flew down to New Orleans for the weekend. Mike served in the Marines during World War II and saw action in the Pacific at first in the Aleutians and then in the Marianas Islands – Tinian, Saipan and Guam.

dsc_1045

This is the second interactive Museum I have visited after the Newseum in Washington DC. Mixing video, pictures, staging and interactive stations you are immersed in the places and events of history. This is a great way for anyone to learn about the heroism of the soldiers who fought in the war. TripAdvisor has rated it as New Orleans top attraction and the #11 museum IN THE WORLD!

Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters

We spend parts of two days in the museum and honestly you could spend two full days there without seeing everything. Part of the reason is the extensive use of video. The exhibits about Europe (Road to Berlin) and the Pacific (Road to Tokyo) are a sequence of rooms each of which featured artifacts and staging modeled after the place where the action occurred. In addition each had individual stations where you could touch screens to see maps of the action, read brief descriptions of battles and events and see videos and photos of the veterans who were there. The first day we went through the Pacific exhibit.

dsc_1003

There were rooms devoted to the major battles such as Guadalcanal, Midway and Okinawa. The Marianas campaign which Mike participated in was a part of the island hopping strategy of the US. Rather than attacking the major Japanese bases, the US took lightly defended islands nearby and disrupted the supplies and transport of the Japanese. We listened to the recorded testimony of Marines who were in the same area as Mike was. The next day we went through the Road to Berlin exhibit. Highlights included Tom Brokaw’s film about D-Day.

4-D Film Experience: Beyond All Borders

Tom Hanks narrated and produced this experience which lasts about 40 minutes. It is presented hourly. Before the film you see an introduction about what lead to the war. Then you enter the theater with a gigantic curved screen much like an IMAX. Props such as an old console radio, a guard tower for a concentration camp, the nose of a bomber rise from the stage floor and come down from the ceiling and mix with the film. The theater seats rumble and shake when you become the pilot of a plane or a soldier on a battlefield. Snow falls from above. Translucent screens give a stunning 3-D effect as you walk through the jungles of Guadalcanal. Small screens rise from the stage telling you whose words you are hearing from FDR to generals to foot soldiers who participated in the action. And Tom Hanks narration blends it all into a heroic story. Honestly, it was so intense I was a little worried about Mike, but he thought it was great.

US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center

The main attraction is the planes which hang in a massive room and can be viewed from the floor but also from walkways above and below. The planes are originals and each has a story. We didn’t listen to all of these. But we did watch the story about the B17E “My Gal Sal” and about the general history of the Corsair, the Marine fighter plane. Again there were interactive maps and narration about each plan which helped you learn about the large planes without having to read long plaques.

On the second floor of the building there are stations where you can hear dozens of two to three minute recordings of veterans testimony about their experience. And on the first floor there is an interactive experience called USS Tang: The Final Mission. You enter a mock up of the submarine and take an assigned position. Mike and I were at the radar station. As you listen to the communication between the captain and staff regarding the action, a film of what is happening above is displayed on the ceiling. The USS Tang was the most successful submarine of World War II. It sailed for about 10 months in the Pacific, sinking 33 Japanese ships before being sunk in its final mission. Nine sailors survived and were taken prisoner by the Japanese, making them the only submarine sinking survivors in history.

Comments:

The US World War II Museum is rated as one of the top museums in the country and I can see why. It is a great experience. The second day we were there there were lots of school kids and they were not bored!

Be sure to set aside at least 4 hours for the Museum. If you don’t you will be sorry.

World War II Veterans get in free. Mike was given a lanyard which let everyone know that he was there. And dozens of staff and other visitors shook his hand thanking him for his service.

The price for the museum is $26 per person with reduced rates for seniors, students and veterans. There is an additional $5 charged for the Beyond all Borders film experience and for the USS Tang Final Mission. It’s worth every penny. You can return the next day for only $6.

Each visitor is given a dog tag which can be used to collect items of interest. We didn’t use this, but it allows you to save parts of the experience which you can look at again on the museum website.

While the museum is accessible, many of the doors would not open when you push the button to open them. The volunteer staff was very nice and tried to be helpful. However, they were not well-informed and were not able to give good directions. Hopefully, they will correct these minor inconveniences.

wwii-tags

Museum Dog Tag, USS Tang assignment, WWII vet hang tag