Next Cruise Blues

We’ve been holding off making a booking for our next cruise, for several reasons. Firstly, we’ve been wondering if we’re ‘cruised out’. Well, we’re not sure about that but we haven’t completely gone off them. Second, we’ve been waiting until Val’s work situation was clearer, and it now is – she’ll be working on a big software implementation project until June or July next year. So armed with that knowledge we’d started making plans for September 2018.

We had already spotted a tempting itinerary for a 7-night fly-cruise on Oceana in the right period: Valletta, Split, Venice, Ravenna, Dubrovnik, and back to Valletta. We need to restrict ourselves to just 7-night itineraries for these fly cruises, as the fact that they start mid-week means that Val would have to take three weeks off work, certainly more than two weeks, to fit in the fourteen nights of the actual cruise. But that’s OK – we’ve been feeling on this cruise that perhaps fourteen nights was a couple of nights too long, and in any case P&O helpfully invite would-be passengers to extend their holiday with a pre- or post-cruise stay at the Excelsior Hotel in Valletta. So a couple of extra nights there before the cruise would bring it up to nine nights which feels about right, would give us a day or so to recover from a 6:15am flight from Manchester, and would also allow us to explore Malta, a place we’ve never been to.

We found ourselves opposite the Loyalty and Future Cruises desk here on the ship, ventured in and soon found ourselves in conversation with Jack and Christian, the Loyalty and Future Cruise managers for the cruise. They couldn’t have been more helpful. Flights from Manchester? – no problem. A night at the Excelsior in advance? – of course. A second night? – I’m sure that will be OK. What with promises of hassle-free transfers, plentiful OBC (especially for a seven night cruise) and a low deposit, we were convinced and duly signed up; and more importantly from Jack and Christian’s viewpoint, we produced the credit card.

Later that day we got the booking confirmation printout, and that was when one or two questions emerged. The second night at the hotel couldn’t be confirmed, and while the round-trip was described as being Manchester to Manchester, the flight out seemed to be from Gatwick. Driving from Sheffield to Gatwick is not a journey to be undertaken lightly, especially if you have a deadline by which you have to get to Gatwick. So various further discussions ensued.

The issue seems to revolve around the fact that we’re booking so far in advance – more than a year from now. P&O know they’ll be running the cruise so that’s definite. They also know that they will be chartering flights for those travelling on embarkation and disembarkation days, so even though the charters may not have been arranged yet for the dates of our cruise, everyone knows they will be. But P&O don’t normally charter flights on other days to cover passengers staying extra nights at the hotel – they book passengers onto whatever flights are available, and at the moment (late June 2017) none of the relevant airlines have published their schedules for September 2018. So the advice is – contact our TA (the booking has been passed to them) in October to sort out the details.

Our first reaction was to feel very uncertain about this, but on reflection we’ve decided that we’re being wusses. So we’re booked on a fly-cruise plus a pre-cruise stay in September 2018 for which we don’t know the flight details nor even how many nights we’ll be away, and by our standards this feels like living dangerously. I’m sure we’ll come to relish it eventually!

(Update later but before posting: we’ve had the second night in the hotel confirmed so we do at least know how long the holiday will last. That’ll do for now.)

Belfast…

…is where we’ve been today. Val has never been here, and my last visit was over 50 years ago – my father came from N Ireland, and for some years when I was a boy, family holidays included visits here.

As I mentioned in an earlier post we were going to visit some of the places from those long-ago holidays, but in the event it was very dull and grey this morning and we thought better of it. We got the shuttle bus to the City Hall (15 to 20 minutes) and were dropped off outside the ‘Visit Belfast’ information centre. There was a bit of a scrum here but eventually we found a city map and decided to walk over to the Titanic Experience, with a view to going in if it wasn’t too expensive. The walk took about half an hour and was easy enough, though some stretches along the river were pretty open and would be very wet in rain. We hadn’t hurried off the ship so it was about 11:30 when we arrived. (Frustratingly, we were probably only a quarter of a mile from Azura when we got there; just on the other side of the river.)

The attraction itself cost us £14.50 each. That was a ‘Seniors’ price which I was able to get even though I didn’t have the proof of eligibility that I required. Val did, and they raised no objection to also giving me the reduced price. (The normal price is £18pp, btw.) That gave us access to two attractions – the Titanic Experience and a chance to walk around the SS Nomadic, which is berthed in a dry dock just outside.

We enjoyed the Titanic Experience. It’s an immersive museum/attraction in the modern style, and Val found the first stage,which covered the development of industrial Belfast in the 19th century, confusing, but once the story focused more clearly on the construction of the Titanic the experience improved. There’s one section where visitors enter cars which swoop around huge multi-storey displays about the shipbuilder’s experience of the construction – riveters, frame benders, and so on. It brings out what a very hard job a shipyard worker had in those days – I was particular struck by the ‘heating boy’ tossing white-hot rivets up in the air to be caught by a other workers who performed the actual riveting process.

The Experience finishes with a brief account of the voyage and the sinking, but I did get a feeling that that wasn’t the story being told (although it’s impossible to ignore it, of course). The main focus was its construction and the role of Belfast and its people in that, and how it fitted into a long and proud industrial tradition. We enjoyed it. I suppose if I was being really critical I could wish that Titanic’s position as the middle one of three huge (for the time) sister-ships, and not a unique object, was brought out more clearly – Titanic was built more quickly than Olympic which preceded her, as all of the problems had been sorted out during the construction of the earlier ship. Butt that’s a counsel of perfection – it’s Titanic that the world remembers, not Olympic, even though she did 25 years service on the Atlantic run, or even Britannic which was also sunk. It’s an extraordinary fact that of that class of world-beating ships, built specifically for the North Atlantic run, only one of the three ever reached New York.

SS Nomadic was less interesting, but as our ticket included it we did visit her. She was used as a high-class tender at Cherbourg for 1st and 2nd class passengers of the Olympic-class liners, Cherbourg harbour being too small at that time for them to berth alongside the quay. (Third class passengers had to use a different tender ship – perish the thought that the great and good should come into close proximity to the great unwashed…) She was interesting enough, I suppose, but if I’d paid the £7 pp just for admission to Nomadic, I’d have been pretty disappointed.

Then we walked back to the city centre, quickly got a shuttle bus back to the ship, and were back on board just after 4pm, having had a more enjoyable day than we expected at breakfast time.

This morning we’re at Belfast and therefore I have a good phone signal and can post some pictures from the Faroes. Unfortunately I don’t think they’re very good. My memories of the Faroes are of ever-changing light, with cloud and rain changing quickly to sunshine and then back again. Even when it was raining where we were, I could almost always see somewhere – a mountainside, for example – where there was sunlight. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve bought this very well. Ah well, here they are.

 

Belfast today is grey and drizzly, so we’re uncertain what to do. I was really hoping it would be sunny for the call here and we were planning to revisit some places I’d visited on childhood holidays. Instead I think we’ll take ourselves ashore to the tourist information centre and see what inspires us once we get there.

Sunset pictures

I took the pictures below at around midnight on the day we didn’t call at Reykjavik. This was the first actual sunset we’d seen for days, and it did us proud.

 

So today we’re at sea, on a passage from the Faroe Islands to Belfast. That’s the sixth sea day of the cruise so far, and we have another one to come for the passage from Belfast to Southampton. Seven sea days in a fourteen night cruise is too many. Of course, it would have been only six in total except for the cancelled call at Reykjavik. But we have been getting bored, and we’ve probably found ourselves gravitating to the Glasshouse too often.

All that said, today’s passage has been spectacular. Our course was through The Minches (?),  between the Inner and Outer Hebrides. I hadn’t realised that a ship running down the middle of the channel would have good views of both groups of islands, but that’s the case. We started with Lewis to starboard at breakfast, followed by the mountains of Harris and then the Uists. By lunchtime Skye was in clear view to port, and it just went on all day. Unfortunately the weather was overcast so the light was quite flat and I didn’t bother taking any photographs. However I did see a number of serious cameras in use today, e.g Canon 5D IIIs and IVs, and some good Nikons, all with f2.8 long zoom lenses on them ( the photographers among my readers will understand all this), but I also saw frustrated and disappointed looks on their owners’ faces rather than smiles so I think I was right to simply enjoy the views and not try to record them.

Yesterday evening we had another meal in Sindhu. I have to report that this wasn’t as outstanding as we’d hoped. We both had a chicken korma, and we both found it very bland. Yes, a korma is a mild dish but we had been expecting at least some hint of spicyness. We’ve been a little disappointed with Sindhu this cruise – is it getting a little stale, I wonder? Certainly the procedure hasn’t changed for a number of years: first you get the amazing expanding hand towel, then the pre-starter, the starter, a sorbet, then the main course and finally dessert. It all seemed a bit mechanical this time. Are we getting too used to it, or is it getting tired?

Belfast tomorrow. The weather isn’t promising so our plans to take ourselves out to the Co. Down coastal towns of Bangor and Donaghadee may have to change. More at the end of the day.

Today (Monday) we called at Torshavn in the Faroe Islands. This was definitely one of the calls we had most been looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. We docked at 8 o’clock. This was Azura’s first call at this port, and we learned that Azura is the largest cruise ship to call at Torshavn so far. Certainly it looked to be a tight manoeuvre getting into the berth – Azura had to be swung to starboard around the end of the pier which only extends from the bow to midships, and there didn’t appear to be much clearance as her stern moved to port. But we got in, on time, so we were happy.

We were booked on an excursion, “Scenic Faroes and Pancakes”. This consisted of a drive of an hour or a bit more to a very small village at the north of the islands. During the drive we went through a tunnel under a mountain and over a bridge “across the Atlantic”, between one large island (Streymoy, on which Torshavn is located) and another (Eysturoy). This bridge is referred to thusly because the water channel it crosses is indeed an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way the road climbed very high up steep hills until at one point, where we stopped for a photo opportunity, we were at a height of nearly 700 metres (over 2000 feet in old money). And it was a genuine 700 metres – we were looking down all of them, very steeply, to the sea at the bottom.

We spent over an hour at the little village and had refreshments, and then had the opportunity to stroll around. It was all delightful – dramatic cliffs and mountains, and the sea breaking on the rocks in the bay below the village. (Pictures in a few days.) Then it was back onto the coach to continue the drive with a couple more brief stops for photos and fresh air. Best of all, the route the drive took was very nearly circular, or actually “figure of eight” – there was very little ground that we covered twice. We did go over the bridge in both directions as that’s the only way of getting from one island to the other, but on the return to Torshavn we drove along the old mountain road that the tunnel replaced. The old road is still there, and still in use, but most traffic uses the tunnel – it’s a lot easier, especially in winter.

The scenery along the drive was really wonderful – high and sometimes craggy mountains dropping steeply to deep fjord-type inlets, with occasional settlements. Most are very small – the population of the Faroe Islands is only 50,000 and over a third of them live in Thorshavn, so almost all of the other settlements are very small, and generally getting smaller. The weather was very changeable – we went from bright sunshine to cloud to rain and back again several times. It wasn’t warm – 10° or 11° at best, and perhaps just 7° in the rain up in the mountains. It was very refreshing, however, and we both really enjoyed it. I have to report that we preferred this drive to the one at Akureyri in Iceland.

We returned to Azura at 1:30, had a quick lunch, and then went back ashore for a gentle walk around the old town for an hour or less. We didn’t even spend any money, so the Danish Kroner we’d brought with us have survived to fight another day. (They use Danish Kroner here, as the Faroe Islands are a self-governing country within the state of Denmark. The relationship is a little like that between Scotland and England but even more complicated – the Faroe Islands is not a member of the EU, for example, although Denmark is.)

There was one disappointment. As I mentioned in a brief post during the morning, it turns out that the Faroe Islands isn’t included in the new ‘free roaming’ arrangements (possibly through not being in the EU). When we were having refreshments on the excursion there was wifi but I only had my phone and therefore wasn’t able to publish posts already drafted on the iPad. This afternoon I took the iPad out with me on the walk around Torshavn, and found free wifi in the information centre at the cruise & ferry terminal. However, although I could connect to the wifi it didn’t seem to be connected to the internet, so I was still unable to post. Ah well – it will have to wait until Belfast  on Wednesday. But you’ll already know this because that’s when this will have been posted. (Update – I got a good connection as we sailed past the Hebrides, so you can enjoy it a day early!)

I’m writing this at just after 4 o’clock on our second sea day in succession. The first, yesterday, was of course impromptu – we should have been in Reykjavik but were unable to dock because of high winds. (Incidentally, we heard from a couple of other passengers who overheard a crew conversation suggesting that the problem at Reykjavik was as likely to be difficulties getting back out of port in the late evening – we were scheduled to stay until 9:30 or so – as actually getting in.) Today was always going to be a sea day as we undertook the passage from Iceland to the Faroe Islands.

Once we’d got over the disappointment, yesterday was actually quite interesting. The on-board team pulled out all the stops to provide service during the day – waiters, waitresses and shop staff were dragged from their beds and put to work, and a programme of events was hastily assembled for the various venues. We spent a couple of hours in the theatre. First we listened to the members of the Headliners company describing their backgrounds and how they got into entertainment, the competition for jobs and the audition process for the company, and many practical aspects of their work. What was clear was that none of them just “got lucky” – they all knew that dancing and/or singing was what they wanted to do from a very young age, and they had all worked very hard for many years to gain the skills, qualifications and experience required to even get them into the competition. We also picked one or two interesting pieces of factual information – for example, that the ‘fly tower’, the area above the stage where scenery is held suspended and moved around, extends up to deck 10.

After that we stayed in our seats and listed to another of Priscilla Morris’ talks on well-known literary figures. Yesterday’s impromptu talk was on Shakespeare, mainly a brief overview of his life and the Elizabethan theatre, and was the first time the speaker had ever delivered that talk.

But the best part of yesterday – and the most frustrating – was that the weather was actually gorgeous for most of the day. Late in the afternoon we sat out on our balcony for an hour and I found it necessary to apply the sun cream. Then after dinner we ended up in the Planet bar and watched the most amazing sunset – yes, we were just far enough south for the sun to actually disappear below the horizon, and for the first time for a number of days it very nearly got dark. I hope to be able to post some pictures later.

If yesterday was unexpectedly good, today seems to have been less enjoyable. It’s been colder, for one thing – 30 knot winds – and often cloudy. The sea has been rougher and Azura is moving around a bit. I think a lot of people are feeling a bit stir-crazy, and everyone is secretly worrying about the call at Torshavn tomorrow. It’s a docking port, not a tender port so the call ought to be certain, but then so was Reykjavik. We’ll know early tomorrow morning.