Live! From Beijing

It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)

The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.

In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.

We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.

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Discovering new places: Cruise ships as transportation

Sometimes you get in the car and hit the open road to discover new and exciting places and experiences. Other times you hop a train. There are also times when you can only see the places you want to see by flying (try driving between Tahiti and Fiji in the South Pacific!). In recent years, however, we’ve discovered that a cruise ship might just be one of our favourite ways to move between specific destinations.

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We prefer the one on the right! The Silver Cloud was our first Silversea ship.

Unlike others who love cruises, we are probably not what is truly meant by the term “cruisers.” Or at least that is only a small part of how you could describe us. When we embarked on our first cruise so many years ago, we were traveling with a young child, and we didn’t really know what to expect beyond our plan to have a great vacation. And we did. But we have learned over the years – and 15 cruises later – that we are not those people who believe that the ship is the destination. For us it has become a very comfortable conveyance for getting us from one interesting destination to another.

The truth is that we avoid like the plague those mega-cruise ships that offer everything from wave surfing to rock-wall climbing with wall-to-wall food in between. These days we confine ourselves to a small number of cruise lines and choose our trips by itinerary. And as for loyalty to one line? Like airline loyalty programs, they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  So we decide where we want to go and search among the cruises on offer from the lines we love: Cunard, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent and Silversea mainly. And now we’ll return to Silversea which captured our attention for our upcoming cruise to check a few things off our bucket list: The Panama Canal, Peru and Chile. In fact, we leave on Tuesday.

The first time we realized that a cruise ship was a wonderful way to discover new places to which we might like to return for a longer visit was our first Mediterranean cruise some ten years ago. The cruise left from Barcelona, so we planned a few days there in advance of the cruise. This is a key feature of a destination-rich cruise; the embarkation and disembarkation points. If all of your cruise experiences leave from the same port (e.g. Port Everglades or Miami), you’ll never be able to have that land-based adventure of a new city. This was the first lesson we learned: even if it’s a Caribbean cruise, if it leaves from, say Saint Martin (so sorry for their recent hurricane issues) or even Barbados, that provides a great opportunity for an add-on.

And the disembarkation point is also important: leaving and arriving at two different places is the best since you have two chances to spend time in new cities. On one cruise we left from Monte Carlo and ended in Venice. On another we sailed from Rome and ended in Istanbul.

That first Med cruise introduced us to cities to which we have returned – sometimes again and again. For example, while we were anchored off Monaco, we visited Eze, a place we thought we might never have a chance to visit again. It turns out we’ve been back several times! On that same cruise, we visited Rome for the first time and have since returned twice to get to know it better.

A few years ago we had another of those “bucket list” places that we had wanted to visit for some time: The South Pacific. But as we began considering how to arrange a tour of the islands, it became clear that flying in and out of those tiny islands would only eat up valuable time with at least a half a day each time devoted to airports and flying – and that’s if there are no delays. A small boat didn’t seem like a good idea at all since the distances are too great. So, what about a cruise ship?cruise map South Pacific

We discovered an Oceania cruise that left from Papeete, Tahiti (a chance to spend a week in Tahiti? Yes, please), visited a range of islands between which it cruised during the night giving each day over to an island, and ending in Sydney, Australia. Perfect!

Next week we begin our cruise with a few days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s not exciting, but it will be fun. After three days of unwinding, we embark the Silver Muse, Silversea’s newest ship which launched earlier this year. We’ll cruise to Key West then onto Costa Rica. Only one day here is fine with us since we spent a wonderful two weeks touring the country some years ago. Then we’ll transit the Panama Canal before making our way down the west coast of South America stopping into Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile ending in the port city of Valparaiso. Once there, we’ll pick up our Tours-by-Locals private guide who has four days of cultural and wine country touring for us while we get to know Santiago. And all because we will use a cruise ship for transportation.

Cruise map

We love to tell stories about our travels – that’s what this blog has always been about. This time, however, we’re going to also do some live blogging and post short pieces and photos along the way. I hope you’ll come along with us. We’ll save the longer stories until we get back home in Toronto.

See you on the high seas!

A Cruise Education: Using a Cruise to Learn Something New

 

A while back we mused about our 10 Rules of Engagement for Smooth Cruising. Among those “rules” was the following:

Rule #6: Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

Although we choose a cruise holiday for a relaxing way to visit new places while being waited on hand and foot, any cruise you might consider taking is also a wonderful opportunity to actually learn something new.

A relatively new phenomenon in the cruise industry, hands-on cooking classes are available on only a handful of ships on only two cruise lines that we know about at this point. Oceania cruises pioneered this approach and evidently – although we haven’t experienced this since we haven’t sailed on HAL for some years – Holland America now offers this experience on several of its ships. Oceania offers this to groups of 24 lucky guests who register early enough on their two larger ships: the Marina and the Riviera. And we have taken classes on both.

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The chef instructor’s demonstration counter with overhead cameras and two viewing screens so that we could see everything she was doing.

We had no idea what to expect that first morning when we arrived in the cooking school to don our chef’s hats and aprons; we only knew that we were looking forward to that class on French Classics. Led by chef instructor Noelle Barille, we along with eleven other teams of two, were instructed in some of the fine points of classic French cooking and we were able to actually make several ourselves including classic haricots verts with shallots to accompany the Jacques Pepin roasted chicken, and classic quiche Lorraine. Later on that cruise we took a class on wok cooking and a brunch class.

 

What set this experience apart from others we’ve had on cruise ships was the sheer amount of organization and precise execution that was on show. The chef was assisted by two sous chefs and a kitchen worker who was responsible for cleaning up everything after us. Each time we were called to the front to observe the chef’s demonstration, when we returned to our stations (complete with individual work counters, sinks, cooking implements and induction cook-tops) the mise en place dishes were all lined up for us – pre-measured ingredients to facilitate the cooking process without wasting time to measure everything. Although to be truthful, it’s a prep technique that we took to heart and employ almost all the time at home now!

The chef herself was personable, extremely knowledgeable and entertaining – all important qualities for this kind of class. The experience was so useful – and the recipes so good that they are now in our permanent repertoire at home – that a few months ago aboard the Riviera we took three more such classes.

We were a bit nervous since that first time had been so good. The new chef instructor Karlis Celms was on his very first contract doing this and he had a hard act to follow. But follow it in good form he did! We enjoyed the three classes we took that time just as much (Asian cooking including a sushi experience, and two Italian-related ones including pasta-making).

The $60-70.00 per person or so we paid for these courses was worth every single penny. We’re not planning another Oceania cruise in the immediate future (we’re booked back on Silversea for South America and the Panama Canal next year), but if we ever do, we’ll be back in the kitchen.

Bon voyage to new learning experiences!

Cruise Ports on Your Own: How We Do Nassau, Bahamas

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The straw market in Nassau isn’t what it used to be.

As the rain pelts down on us here in Toronto on a blustery early spring day we have wonderful memories of our most recent cruise through the Caribbean. First stop: Nassau in the Bahamas.

Not strictly speaking actually in the Caribbean (it’s actually in the Atlantic), Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and isn’t actually an island. The island is New Providence, but no one ever seems to say they’re going to New Providence, rather they say they’re going to be in Nassau since the city does dominate. Nassau has long been a favorite winter vacation spot for Canadians although in recent years that has skewed more toward Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (yes, there are hundreds of actual resorts in Cuba contrary to the impression you might get from the American media recently) because of the price differential: The Bahamas is much more expensive, but it does make for a nice day ashore when cruising in.

Although it’s sometimes sensible to take a ship’s shore excursion – first-time visits to European ports come to mind – we try to avoid them when at all possible. The reasons will fill a future story, but for now just accept that discerning travelers prefer to be on their own or with a private guide! Avoiding the dreaded shore excursion means that we often like to self-direct our day ashore. Here’s how we did Nassau.

A familiar stop for us, Nassau is like an old friend and we knew exactly where we were headed when we left the ship that day. We do love the chance to walk a distance so we planned our route from the cruise terminal left along Bay Street toward one of the two bridges to paradise Island (one takes traffic in one direction the other takes it in the opposite, but you can walk in either direction on both). It’s about a 1.6 km (about a mile) walk to the bridge – takes about 20 minutes going through the part of downtown that has seen better days. We hadn’t been there for about four years and the recession seems to have taken hold.

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Atlantis, Paradise Island

We then headed up and over the bridge. That end of Paradise Island is dominated by the monstrously large Atlantis Resort complex. We spent a week there a number of years ago and if you haven’t ever been there before, it might just be worth taking an excursion that gives you access to their acres and acres of property, lagoons, beaches, impressive aquariums and the lot. We just walked over and back along the farther bridge that passes over the Potter’s Cay Fish Shacks and back to East Bay Street.

 

We retraced our steps and then went on past the cruise terminal along the part of Bay Street where the requisite duty-free shops and souvenirs are located. There is little about all of this that is Bahamian, but a visit to the storied Nassau Straw Market is designed to make you feel closer to the authentic Bahamas. Sadly, that is no longer true.

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Most of the ‘straw’ isn’t local!

Historically, the straw market showcased the traditional skills of plaiting, braiding and weaving of straw into myriad baskets, hats and other kitschy products. You used to even be able to watch the process. These days you’ll find more ‘straw’ hats from China, T-shirts and hordes of other trinkets from as equally far-flung places than traditional hand-crafted products. But if you look closely, you will find a Bahamian straw product or two. We didn’t spend much time there.

 

We walked along Bay Street as far as the British Colonial Hilton, a hotel where Art stayed too many years ago to even count now! Across the street there used to be a terrific spot for conch fritters, a must-try when visiting the Bahamas. Sadly, it, too had closed, and the space was forlorn and empty.

With that we made our way back to the ship to toast another warm and breezy Bahamian day.

 

If you have a few minutes, we invite you to come on that walk with us…