Archive for July, 2012

new food

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

…well, not completely new; I’ve had yakitori before, where it was just chicken barbecued on a skewer. But I’ve never been to an entire yakitori restaurant before. That took things to a new level. It wasn’t just random bits of chicken on a stick; they had something like 25 different kinds of chicken on a stick, plus some other stuff. There were chicken breast, leg, neck or wing on a stick (I think they performed some surgery on the wing preparatory to imapling it, because the bones do not line up that way in nature). There was seasoned pieces of minced chicken, with seasoned salt, black pepper or wasabi on it (these three were my favorites) or with raw egg to dip it into (yuck).

And for variety, there were tiny tomatoes interspersed with tinier bits of chicken, or lengths of asparagus wrapped in thin slices of something of the porkish persuasion that was neither ham nor bacon, or mushrooms with tiny paperthin bits of something (fish?) that waved back at me due to the heat of the mushrooms. Here, look for yourself (there was no breeze in the room, I promise):

in Japan, and relieved

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Ted and I are on simultaneous business trips, him to Taiwan and me to Japan. I am pleased to report that both countries have much better Olympic coverage than Taiwan did in 2008. When I spoke to Ted briefly, he reported having the Olympics on four channels, all in Chinese. I have four also, though they only seem to show two different sports at a time. So far I’ve seen bits of swimming (women’s 100m) and badminton and intensive coverage of wrestling-with-your-brother, which I was not aware had been elevated to Olympic level. OK, I’ve looked it up and it’s actually judo, and I’m sure there are lots of tricky and skillful technical moves that I’m missing entirely, but what it looks like to uneducated eyes is lots of grabbing each other’s clothing and trying to knock each other over. The only major difference I see is that they aren’t trying to throw each other onto the sofa. (Don’t worry, it was a big sectional – no chance of hitting an edge and getting hurt.) I can’t help but wonder if adding a sofa event would bring new challenges and spectator thrills to the Olympics.

I’m just relieved that they are showing different sports – I was so worried that we’d end up missing most of the Olympics again. If I’m really lucky, the Japanese rowers are good enough that they’ll show a lot of rowing. I don’t think I have to worry that they won’t show gymnastics!

in the Baltic (2 of 2)

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

If you want to read about and see pictures of the place we visited, scroll down to the earlier entry. In this one I’m going to talk about the cruise itself – the ship and the cruiseline – for the benefit of anyone else making decisions about a cruise vacation with Celebrity.

General
We sailed on the Celebrity Constellation, one of their Millenium-class ships, in cabin 8108, on the ‘Panorama’ deck. The ship has 11 decks, and there are cabins on 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, and 9. There are two pools (outdoor and an indoor adult-only thalassotherapy (salt) pool), with hot tubs around each; three restaurants plus several bars, lounges and cafes; a theater, a cinema, a two-story library, a basketball court, a jogging track, several stores, a casino, and some areas that are only for kids. Planned activities on-ship include shows ranging from Broadway to dance to classical music; live music (more oldies than anything else), sports tournaments (basketball, soccer, shuffleboard), trivia contests, lectures, bingo, movies, “unveilings” of new products including a Faberge egg, and demonstrations. Of course there are also excursions on port days, and there’s a very wide range; “strenuous” excursions involved walking a couple miles on cobblestone streets, but there were also “mild” and “moderate” ones, including some designed specifically for wheelchair users.

Library:

The ship moved more than we expected, most noticeably in rougher water, of course. We noticed a lot of people wearing patches for seasickness. We never had a problem with that – in fact I think a ship’s motion tends to rock me to sleep – but it was a bit disconcerting now and then. Someone told me that they’d been on one of Celebrity’s newer ships and that it moved a lot less. Overall, I think I like the motion, though it does take a bit of getting used to.

Excursions, packages, and other expenses
When you get on the ship, they give you a card that serves as both room key and charge card for anything you buy on the ship, and there are lots of things to charge, in addition to what’s available in the stores. This is probably the biggest downside of all the things controlled by Celebrity; there’s a lot of pressure to buy this, upgrade that, and “save” on the other thing. There are excursions, drinks packages, restaurant packages, special sales of souvenirs, and savings if you book your next cruise before getting off this one. There are also a few activities, like wine or whiskey tasting or certain exercise classes, that have extra charges. The highest level of pressure was probably when I had a pedicure, to buy salon products or add other services.

We’d booked our excursions in Germany and Russia ahead of time but did get transfers from the ship into town in Stockholm and Copenhagen; those worked out well, though in Copenhagen we decided to walk all the way to the ship. In some cases it might have worked better to get a “Hop On/Hop Off” bus, which were available near the ship in several cities; we’d have seen more things, but probably wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth. Free drinks on the ship are limited to coffee, tea, water, lemonade, and ice tea (which was horrible, the one time I tasted it). We’d decided in advance not to buy the drinks packages that included alcohol, but once we were on the ship we did decide to get the “premium water” package for Ted, which includes both still and sparkling water, and the “premium non-alcoholic” package for me, which includes pretty much every kind of non-alcoholic drink. He did get his money’s worth; it’s $12/day for the package as versus $2.50 for small and $4 for large bottled water, and that was pretty much all he drank aside from coffee, tea, rum & Cokes, and wine with dinner. My package was $18/day and I probably would have spent a couple of dollars less per day if I’d paid a la carte, but I did enjoy a lot of the non-alcoholic mixed drinks, like mint lemonade and raspberry fizz. We had a bottle of wine with dinner almost every day; if we’d gotten the drinks packages including alcohol we’d have had to get wine by the glass. I think we saved money by not getting those packages.

We did decide to buy a restaurant package, that gave us three dinners, with a bottle of wine at each, at the two specialty restaurants. It’s hard to say whether this was a savings or not; on the one hand, it was certainly cheaper than buying the dinners and wine separately. On the other, it’s a bit ridiculous that when you’ve already paid for your room and board you are charged $40 per person to eat at the specialty restaurants. The food is of slightly higher quality, but food in the main restaurant is already very good. The big difference was more individualized service; the servers in the main restaurant were friendly, assiduous and prompt, but they weren’t able to take special requests, whereas the specialty restaurants encouraged them (minor changes to a dish, for instance, or extra olives on the antipasto platter).

In addition, each passenger is charged $12/day for gratuities, and 15% service charge is also added for spa services and so on. If you’re going on a cruise, be prepared for some sticker shock; on a 12-day cruise, we spent just under $2000. This included gratuities, all the wine and other alcoholic drinks, the drinks packages, the restaurant package, a pedicure and massage for me, and the shuttles into town in two cities. In addition, that includes a few souvenirs and some things like a bottle of rum, a watch for me, and some mascara, which three things we bought because they were actually cheaper on the ship than they are here in the Netherlands.

Cabin
We were in 8108, a concierge-class cabin. We ended up in that one because after we decided to go concierge-class, our cruise agent told us there was only one mid-ship cabin available in that class. I was a bit worried when, long after booking, I looked it up online and found that it has a smaller-than-usual balcony, because it’s encroached on by the suite next door, which has an angled window. Several people complained vociferously about this and one person wrote that their friends in the next cabin made unmerciful fun of them for their tiny balcony. I think that person just has mean friends, because it was just fine. It was small, and it’s true that you had to squirm past the table to get into the farther seat, but once you’re in it it’s comfortable with plenty of leg room and that’s what matters to me. The cabin next door does have a window overlooking the balcony, but the blinds were closed in it the whole time – and they would only be able see the balcony from that window, not into the room.

Otherwise, it was a comfortable room: double bed, sofa, and desk, night stand on both sides of the bed. There were 6 smallish drawers in the closet for clothing plus two more in each nightstand and generous hanging space – we had plenty of room for our clothing and were able to fit our suitcases under the bed. The bathroom was also larger than the one we’d had on our previous cruise; the shower was small by US standards, but not much smaller than the ones in a normal European flat or hotel.

The concierge-class cabins have the same layout as the deluxe oceanview cabins; the added benefits include concierge service, a small plate of hors d’oeuvres, nicer sheets, towels, robes and pillows, and preferred check-in (though only at one stage of the process) and preferred seating at meals.

Our room could have been quieter, though it was never too bad. Our door faced right out on a stair landing, so we occasionally had conversations drifting in from there at any hour. We started noticing more noise at the end of the cruise, especially. The people on one side seemed to make some friends, because suddenly we were hearing a lot more conversations from next door. They were only in the afternoons, though, never at night. On the side with the suite, I’m wondering if someone suddenly won an upgrade the final night of the cruise, because we suddenly began hearing more noise from there – again, it was never late enough at night to be a real problem. The one problem we did have was when they decided to clean the carpets at 5AM, on the landing right outside our door. No idea why anyone thought that was a good idea! When I complained they closed the safety door, which helped a lot – and would have helped more if it hadn’t emitted loud beeps while closing.

Food
The previous big-ship cruise we took (i.e. not counting the small research vessel on which we visited Antarctica) did not impress us with either food or security. Celebrity did much, much better on both counts. For one thing, there was always food available; I think there might have been a whole half hour between 5AM and 1AM when there was nothing in the buffet, and for anyone unable to wait that out they have 24-hour room service. (Come to think of it, I think the pool grill was open at that time too, with hot dogs and hamburgers.) In the morning, the buffet included a wide variety of US and European breakfast foods (no Asian breakfast, that I recall). At lunch and dinner there were hot dishes that changed every day, sushi, hot dogs, hamburgers. At lunch there were sandwiches, and at dinner there were always salmon, steak and chicken grilled to order.

We chose the late seating, because sometimes we got back from excursions into port too late for the early one. 8:30 is a bit late for dinner for us, but it’s no problem when you can just go grab a snack if you’re hungry earlier. Most nights we ate in the main restaurant, San Marco (we really liked the servers there) but there are two specialty restaurants; Ocean Liners with classic French food and Tuscan Grill, which is an Italian steakhouse. It’s not particularly authentic Italian (for instance, in the menu, they used the term “primi piatti” to refer to appetizers, not pasta dishes, and the food was similarly adapted to American tastes) but it was tasty and we liked it a lot. In fact, we bought a dinner package that gave us three dinners in the specialty restaurants and after eating at both places, we changed our second Ocean Liners reservation to Tuscan Grill.

The room service menu was limited but reasonable, and whenever we ordered room service it arrived on time. The San Marco menu did something smart: they had two complete menus. The one on the right side changed every day; it included steak, lobster tail (once), pasta, fish dishes and included everything from French and italian dishes to Cajun or Jamaican. The one on the left was the “classic” side; it included starters like shrimp cocktail, escargot, French onion soup and Caesar salad, plus several other things I’m forgetting, and the mains were broiled salmon, NY strip steak, and chicken. One thing that surprised us in the there was that we were seated at our own table, just the two of us. In a way we regretted it, because our tablemates had been the best part of our previous cruise, but of course there’s always a risk of being seated with people you don’t like, and that could be very unpleasant.

There is breakfast in the main restaurant but we never ate there, except on the one sea day that featured a brunch. It would be quicker to list the foods that weren’t served that day!

Itinerary
Not much to say here, though it was a deciding point for us; lots of cruise lines have very similar itineraries. We chose Celebrity largely because it started and ended in Amsterdam and took us where we wanted to go. The sea days were nicely spaced: two at the beginning of the cruise and two at the end, with at least one port day between any two sea days. It was funny to see all the different cruise ships together in each port; for a few days a Holland America ship seemed to be following us around!

One interesting thing I did learn was that, while Celebrity is an upscale line run by the Royal Caribbean company, there’s still one more luxurious line, Azamara. It and its competitors like Silversea or Seabourne have smaller ships, tend to be more all-inclusive (e.g, not charging extra for drinks) and more often have 2-3 day stops in ports, so that you’re not rushing to get back to the ship on time. We did have 2 days in St. Petersburg, and with the excursion we took they were long and full days, though we could also have chosen evening outings to the ballet or opera there.

Service
The service was uniformly excellent everywhere: steward, restaurant servers, activities staff, random people you passed in the hall, and the guides on our two excursions. Most of the staff were extremely friendly. For some reason, the one exception to the latter were the bartenders; they seemed to be grumpier on average. On the other hand they were always polite and got us exactly what we wanted, which is really all you need.

Shows and live music
Most of the music on the ship seemed to be aimed at people a bit onlder than us, though there were passengers of all ages. The evening shows featured a fairly broad range; one night the theme was movies, with the Celebrity singers and dancers, but they also had British theater singer-actress, Lindsay Hamilton and classical pianist Brooks Aehron. (My favorite part was the little girls sitting next to me who were spellbound when Lindsay Hamilton sang Edelweiss and Climb Ev’ry Mountain; I think they knew the words as well as I do.)

At random times around the ship they had everything from classical music to a guy with a guitar singing James Taylor tunes. We were a bit disappointed with the nightclub music, which was heavy on the disco and very rarely played anything more current.

Gym
Very good: weight machines, dumbbells and weight benches, all the steppers and treadmills and stationary bikes you’d expect. They had a fair range of classes for Pilates, Zumba, spinning and so on; we never took any, so I’m not sure how many had extra charges, though I know some did.

Spa
I had a pedicure and a Swedish massage. I wasn’t all that pleased with the pedicure; she was a bit snarky when I asked her not to cut my cuticles (a good way to get infections) and not to slough off too much of my calluses, she actually filed the surfaces of my toenails to get the previous polish off, and she tried hard to sell me other salon products. And after all that, the polish chipped in a few days. On the other hand, the masseuse was excellent in both skills and personality, and didn’t try to sell me anything extra. In both cases a 15% tip was included in the bill, but the masseuse earned hers and I added a bit to it.

Activities
We didn’t do too many. I did play a few of the different trivia games and I think I developed a bit of a reputation as someone you’d want on your team. (This would be one of the many arguments for cruising with family: give me my birth family on my team and I’ll venture to take on the world at trivia.) We went to a talk on Faberge eggs by a senior executive of the Faberge company, that was fascinating – lots of stories about Theo Faberge, whom he knew well, and the history of the family and company. We also attended a talk on the ship’s engines, which was given by someone who is no doubt a better engineer than presenter. (We were itching to get our hands on his slides, because we do enough of that to know how to improve them!) The few things we did shouldn’t be taken as any reflection on the quality or range of activities available; there were more activities and lectures that sounded interesting, but that happened at times when we were working out or eating or doing something else – or that we forgot about. Our main focus was on seeing things in port.

Agent
We booked this cruise through an agent. If we’d booked directly through Celebrity we’d have had more control over exactly what cabin we got (there was only one mid-ship cabin available, but then again since we’re not bothered by seasickness we don’t really have to be midship). Also, we still had to figure out excursions and whether the drink packages were worthwhile by ourselves. On the other hand, I do think they really did get us a good price on the cruise overall, and they also had a couple bottles of wine and a $50 discount on ship charges sitting in our cabin when we got there, so I guess it was worthwhile using an agent. Next time I’d probably use the website to figure out exactly what cruiseline, itinerary and room I wanted ahead of time, though, and then seen if they could add value.

Overall, it’s too bad that Celebrity couldn’t control the weather, because they did an excellent job with the things that were in their span of control. We had a great time and would definitely sail with them again.

in the Baltic (1 of 2)

Friday, July 20th, 2012

We’re back from the Baltic, and luckily we have a few more days off before we have to go to work Monday. It’s always rough getting back from vacation; Ted was a bit disappointed that there was no buffet for dinner. The only problem was having the same cold and rainy weather we’ve gotten at home all “summer” – we got rained on in four of six stops and got back barely in time to avoid it in Copenhagen. Overall, we were happy with the cruise and with the things that were under the control of the cruise line. St. Petersburg, especially, was amazing.

I’m going to write this up in two parts: one about all our destinations and another about the cruise itself – that way anyone who’s looking for photos and travel stories has it all in one place, and so does anyone who’s looking for data to make decisions about a cruise vacation.

We sailed on the Celebrity Constellation, to Warnemunde, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; St. Petersburg, Russia; Talinn, Estonia; and Copenhagen, Denmark:

Warnemunde appears to be more or less the port area of Rostock. They call it a Berlin stop, but it’s not really: to go to Berlin you have to spend 3 hours on the train each way, to have 6 hours or less in Berlin. We chose instead to go on a tour to Wismar and Lubeck, which were important trading cities in the Hanseatic League. Both have small old town centers; we got to see old churches and buildings, a demonstration on brickmaking, and the market squares. I wouldn’t want to spend more time there, but it was interesting for a day trip, though it would have been nicer without all the rain!

My favorite things there were the astronomical clock in one church in Wismar, the adorable little devil outside it, and the pigs on each pillar of a bridge in Lubeck.

We’ve been to Stockholm before, but that was in January and a lot of things been closed, though we did see the old town (Gamla Stan), the Nobel Museum, the Armory and so on. This time we got a combination ticket for the Royal Palace that got us into the royal apartments, the Treasury, the Royal Chapel, the Tre Kronor museum (showing the former palace’s history, before most of it burned down in 1697), and Gustav III’s own collection of sculpture. I’m glad we did get to go back – the residential part of the palace was enormous, definitely worth seeing, and royal treasuries are always fun. We also cruised around Gamla Stan; last time we visited a great yarn shop, and since the hat I’d made for Ted from yarn bought there mysteriously disappeared in airport security, I wanted to go back. We couldn’t find it though – our present theory is that it wasn’t in Gamla Stan at all, but closer to the hotel we stayed in last time. (If you’re going to Stockholm for the first time, though, don’t miss the Vasa museum – that was our favorite stop before. It shows the restoration of a fantastic 17th century ship that sank as soon as it sailed out into the harbor on its maiden voyage.)

This was the only time we sailed out in sunshine, and they let us on the ship’s helipad (!) to watch the departure:

Helsinki is probably not a place we’d visit again unless it’s on the way somewhere (I suspect it’s a great place to live; there are just not a huge number of things to visit), but I’m glad we got to see a little of Finland. We had a relatively short time there but we got to see the Helsinki cathedral, the beautiful university library, and the ornate Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (in stark contrast to the restrained Lutheran one!). We also took the ferry to the Suomenlinna fort, which is now a park with a few museums, old barracks, and lots of green space. We didn’t get to walk around for long, though, before we had to rush back: an old colleague of mine from Houston just happened to be in Helsinki that day, doing some sightseeing on the way back from a business trip to Moscow. It wasn’t clear we’d get to meet up, but in the library on Suomenlinna I got to check my email and he was in the market square. So we went back and managed to meet him and also the two people he was traveling with, whom I also know. I worked with Bob in Houston in about 1993-5, when I was at a NASA contractor, and we were friendly enough that Ted and I went backpacking with him a few times too, so it was amazing that our schedules just happened to mesh. He’s still working on similar stuff, and so are the other two colleagues – I worked with them all on the Space Station simulator used for astronaut training, and they’re still working on improvements to it.

The shopping in the Helsinki market square, and in the several of crafts stores there, was also good – lots of handmade jewelry and knitted and felted goods – there was a fairly high ratio of nice handmade stuff to tourist crap.

St. Petersburg was the highlight of the trip. You need a visa to go on your own there, but not if you’re on a cruise excursion, so that’s what we did. We chose to take a two-day excursion; the first day was in the Hermitage museum, and then a bus tour around St. Petersburg with a stop in St. Isaac’s cathedral, then the second day was a tour of the Catherine Palace, followed by the fountains of Peterhof.

The Hermitage was amazing. We’ve been to the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the British Museum, the National Palace Museum (Taipei), the Rijksmuseum, and a whole bunch of other national museum, but none of them were like this. There was Leonardo and Michelangelo, there were rooms full of Rembrandt and Matisse and Picasso and van Gogh, and most of all there was the palace itself. If you ever get a chance to go, do. We took photos of too many amazing things to choose just a few, so here’s a slideshow plus a couple bonus photos of the outside of the Church of the Spilled Blood and the inside of St. Isaac’s Cathedral:

The Russian ruling family’s main concept of home decor was “the more opulent, the better”, and both the Winter Palace (home of the Hermitage museum) and the Catherine Palace are full of the most amazing ornate detail. The Catherine Palace has room after room blazing in gold leaf, culminating in one room entirely crusted in amber mosaic. Also, in its Concert Pavilion we were treated to a short concert by a small choir of 6 men that was utterly magical. (I recorded just a small snippet on my iPhone; they were selling CDs so it didn’t seem fair to pirate more.)

We didn’t get to see inside the Peterhof, but I’m told is basically a smaller version of the same. What we did see was its fountains, which are entirely fed by gravity – no pumps. The most interesting part of that was all the trick fountains – you walk under a tree or sit on a bench and a fountain comes on to soak you. (They had them on continuously, so no tourists were unwittingly drenched and the kids could play in the water.) I have the distinct suspicion that after the first time, no one was ever really surprised, but a lot of courtiers brought extra clothing along so they could pretend to be caught for the emperor’s amusement. Peter sounds like exactly that kind of guy, though he does have a more appealing side in his passion for water and his craftsman skills.

This slideshow has photos from both places:

The next day, we were in Tallinn, Estonia, which is a completely different sort of place than Stockholm or Helsinki. There are newer, active parts around the edges, but the old town is entirely, well, old – buildings dating back to the 1100s, used and remodeled since then. That’s probably why it’s such a popular cruise stop.


Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate for photography, even when we went up to both the cathedral tower and the Fat Margaret tower that is now the Maritime Museum. The cathedral tower had interesting beams and what would have been a spectacular view on a sunnier day:


Quick shopping note: if you’re on a Baltic tour and you want anything woven or knitted of linen or knitted of wool, do not buy it before you get to Estonia or your wallet will hate you for it. Prices there are ridiculously low; Nordic sweaters are as low as 45 euros, less than the yarn alone costs elsewhere. (I suspect they’re mostly machine-knitted, but they’re still well-made.)

In the harbor on the way out a tall ship sailed right up to us; we saw a really surprising number of them still in use (well, for tourists, but still) in other ports as well:

Our final stop was Copenhagen; again, we’d been there before and seen most of the tourist highlights. This time we went along Nyhavn and to the Amalienborg Palace, where you can see several studies of previous kings and queens, plus a selection of formal dresses worn by the Queen, and the Frederik Church nearby. Then we walked around the long way, by a 16th-century church and the Christiansborg Palace (where Parliament meets) for the highlight of the day: lunch with my Danish friend Maria. I’ve known her online since around the late 1990s, but we’ve only met in person three times: once before in Copenhagen and another when she was in Amsterdam, so it was great to get to catch up. We even got to meet her mom and youngest sister briefly. Afterward we checked out the Lego sections of a couple of toy stores, walked back to the ship by way of the Kastellet fortress, and got back to the ship just in time to avoid getting rained on again.


After one more day at sea (we had four total) we arrived back in Amsterdam early in the morning, took the train home and arrived by about 10:30 Thursday morning. At least we have a few more days off before going back to work again on Monday! Then we have a week of normal work before we both have business trips to Asia (Taiwan for Ted, Japan for me).

Next entry: about the ship and the cruise experience.