Day 164: End of Cruise Blues

Day 164 of the Nowhere To Be Project had us up and off the ship at 4:30am. As always, the Viking staff was so efficient with the transfer to the airport in Bergen, Norway (they need to give some pointers to the shore excursion crew, but more on that in a future post:). We flew on Norwegian Air for the first time (booked by Viking on our behalf). It is a bare bones airline and we had a several hour delay for our connection at London-Gatwick. The one positive thing I can say about Norwegian Air is that their seat-back entertainment system is great! We loved ordering drinks and snacks right from the screen! We’ve just landed after 20 hours of flying and cannot wait to climb into our bed. Sleep was exceptionally rare for us during our British Isles Explorer journey aboard the Viking Sky, so we have some major catching up to do tonight;). Many more details and photos to come over the next few days…

Day 163: Norwegian Sunshine in Bergen

On Day 163 of the Nowhere To Be Project we arrived in Bergen, Norway. Norway is known for cold air and abundant rain and today was no different. Travel tip: pack a hooded raincoat when visiting Norway. I did not and was soaked to the bone by what the locals call “Norwegian Sunshine” (rain…over 80 inches each year)! Umbrellas are pretty useless here as the wind can get fierce.

Bergen itself is a busy port city filled with seafood, boats and tourists. The colorful wooden row houses are the signature of this former capital city. Travel tip two: bring a very fat wallet for a visit to Norway because prices are at least double what one might pay in the U.S. for the same item. A pint is $15 and an average glass of wine around $25. The ever-popular Norwegian sweaters range from $200 to $600. A casual dinner for two can easily cost several hundred dollars. We kept (most of) our money and enjoyed the free scenery instead, haha. It is very easy to whittle away the hours just watching the boats come and go and we did that very thing with great pleasure.

Day 162: I Want All the Ponies

On Day 162 of the Nowhere To Be Project we were given the chance to explore Lerwick, a small port town in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. The town itself is very, very small. However, by venturing out into the countryside on an included Viking tour we were able to learn about and meet some of the famed Shetland Ponies. They live idyllic and long lives roaming the vast countryside. What they lack in size, they make up with in spirit…so lovable and affectionate (reminded me of my Golden Retriever). Many families in the Shetlands bring their ponies inside their homes in inclement weather and I can totally see why!

Day 150: London…well, Greenwich really

On Day 150 of the Nowhere To Be Project we arrived in London on a red-eye to board the Viking Sky. Despite the exhaustion, we’re thrilled to be back although the record heat hit us like a ton of bricks. Upon arrival at Heathrow, we were greeted by friendly Viking staff and transported via coach to Greenwich, an area that is completely new to us. Since our luggage hadn’t caught up with us yet, we hoofed it out immediately to explore Greenwich and stumbled upon the Greenwich Market, a mix of vendors hocking hand-crafted and vintage items. It was then that I found Ruby’s of London and my jet-lagged spirit lightened at the sight of their vegan cakes and cupcakes. I’m much too tired to say much more as we sit and sip at Greenwich Tavern, so I’ll just leave you with a look at my takeaway haul.

Ruby’s of London Vegan Cupcakes

Day 149: Getting There

Day 149 of the Nowhere To Be Project was a “getting there” day. Living in the mountains is great except when it’s time to get to the airport. We rely on a shuttle service, Colorado Mountain Express, to transport us on the two-plus hour trek to the airport. Today’s shuttle was jam-packed and smelled of wet dog due to the fact that everyone (and their luggage) had gotten soaked on the first rainy day we’ve had in Vail this summer. The good news is we’re heading to London. The bad news is the rain is following us from Vail to Denver so we may end up with delays. Oh well, just an opportunity for an extended pre-flight happy hour, I guess!

Packed like a pickle in the back of the bus!

Day 148: Travel Guilt

Day 148 of the Nowhere To Be Project was an absolute frenzy as my husband and I prepared for our British Isles Explorer ocean voyage on the Viking Sky. If you’re anything like me, the time you set aside for pre-travel preparation and packing never seems to be enough. This is always the case no matter if we’re preparing our RV for a lengthy voyage, or cramming two weeks worth of necessary items into a suitcase as we are now.

Our dog, who is a almost as well traveled as we are, was not happy when the suitcase came out. Somehow he knows that he will not be accompanying us on this trip. Initially he tried the block move where he presents himself as a barrier between me and the suitcase. Next was the attention-getting scheme where he feigns illness to distract me from packing. Despite a bath, a brush, and extra love, he remained miserable, finally retreating to his chair for a nap leaving me with a heavy dose of travel guilt.

He finally gave up!

What gives you travel guilt?

Day 147: Three Reasons Why the Viking Way Works For Me

For the past few days I’ve been reviewing my previous voyages with Viking River Cruises. Today, on day 147 of the Nowhere To Be Project, I thought I’d explain why I’ve taken four river cruises with Viking in the past few years and why I am gearing up to hop on board the Viking Sky for my first ocean cruise with them this Saturday. There are three very simple reasons why the Viking way works for me:

1. VALUE: Many people assume that Viking, an upscale cruise line, is out of their price range. I am here to tell you that cruising with Viking, a line that is consistently voted a favorite by cruisers from all walks of life, is a value. First of all, the price you pay includes pretty much everything (food, wine and beer with meals, excursions, and lodging). Sometimes airfare is included as well. I occasionally purchase optional excursions, but only if there is something special that I’d like to see or do. The only expense I’ve found necessary aside from the cruise fare is the onboard tipping of staff (well deserved). For example, I paid around $5000 for my family of four to cruise the Danube at Christmastime. We flew from the U.S. to Europe, were picked up at the airport, had two cabins, went on eight excursions (one for each day of the voyage), ate and drank to our heart’s delight, and were positively pampered for eight days by Viking staff who then transferred us back to the airport for our return flight to the U.S. Simple math tells me that this peak season vacation cost $156.25 per person per day. To me, that is an incredible value!

2. REFINEMENT: When my kids were young we took a lot of ocean cruises. Living in Florida, we found it so easy to hop on a megaship for a few days of fun. We have cruised on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival and Disney cruise lines. Over time we tired of what I call the “drunk culture” where all activities seem to revolve around getting wasted by the pool or on the beach. Not to say that we didn’t enjoy these trips, but they got old after awhile and we were seeking something more. Viking ended up being a great alternative for us because it provides a nice balance of relaxation, fun and culture. The ships are elegant yet simple. The service is attentive yet nonintrusive. More simply stated, we’ve found it to be a more refined approach to cruising.

3. CULTURAL IMMERSION: I’ve always believed that travel is the highest form of education. Walking in the steps of historical figures, touching stones that were laid centuries ago and gazing upon storied lands are the staples of Viking voyages. Each itinerary is respectfully built around the region in which it occurs in regard to food, language, excursions, music and even cultural norms. I’ve learned amazing things about languages, history, art, politics, food, culture, religion, and people in the 39 days I’ve spent as a Viking guest. As a former educator, I know that this level of comprehension cannot be taught. Rather, it must be experienced! There is just no replacement for cultural immersion and that is something that Viking excels at.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments. As always, these are my opinions and I am never compensated in any way for my travel reviews.

Day 146: Sailing the Waterways of the Tsars on a Viking River Cruise

Day 146 of the Nowhere To Be Project is dedicated to a full review of my most recent river cruise in Russia. Of all of the cruises I’ve done (over 50), this was the most unique. As a child of the Cold War, I was taught to fear Russia. Of course this background made it even more appealing when the chance to visit arose due the mystery of it all. It was also different from my other voyages with Viking because a travel visa was required. I took Viking’s advice and used Generations Visa company and was able to procure the appropriate visa in about six weeks. Viking also arranged air travel (it was included in the cruise fare via a sale) through Lufthansa which has become a favorite for international travel. My husband and I flew from Orlando to Frankfurt and then on to St. Petersburg. We were greeted by Viking staff just outside of the customs area and were then transferred by motor coach to our ship.

We arrived at the Viking Truvor on May 6, 2017 and were very warmly welcomed aboard with a toast of Russian vodka. The Truvor was different from the more modern Viking Longships. While comfortable and immaculate, the ship seemed chopped up and lacked the light and open feel of the European ships. We were in what was described as a “deluxe stateroom”, cabin 206. The amenities and furnishings were in line with those that we experienced on our previous Viking voyages (bedding, linens, use of space, bath products, etc.). Russian-themed movies were on a rotating loop throughout the cruise which was good because there were not many other television channels available.

Our voyage on the Truvor began with four full days in St. Petersburg. The ship was docked in a quiet residential area of the city. During our time in St. Petersburg we visited the Hermitage on a Viking tour (included). The museum itself was breathtaking, but the crowds were insane and more than uncomfortable. We also joined two additional included tours of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and an up-close tour of the city itself. Our favorite tour in St. Petersburg was an optional excursion to a Soviet-era Kommunalka (shared housing). It was remarkable to sip tea with a woman who expressed (through an interpreter) nostalgia for communism. The architecture of St. Petersburg pits modern versus ancient in stark contrast. We dined out several times during our time in St. Petersburg and visited a few pubs. Communicating with the locals was never a problem and we found them to be as curious about us as we were about them. On the fourth evening of our Waterways of the Tsars journey we set sail for Mandrogy along the Neva River. The cruise director provided an interesting narrative on the ships’s speakers to highlight key sights visible from the ship as we dined on regional favorites in the restaurant. We cruised from the Neva River through Lake Ladoga and into the Svir River to reach Mandrogy.

We feasted on a lovely buffet breakfast on day five of our voyage before our noon arrival in Mandrogy (yes, the signature Viking sautéed mushrooms were there:-). Mandrogy is a tiny riverside village of brightly painted homes and skilled artisans. We had just a few hours in Mandrogy, but managed to stock up on a stash of unique handmade items including matryoshkas, lacquered jewelry and hand-knitted mittens and shawls. After a snowy afternoon in Madrogy we were ready for the warmth of happy hour back on board the Truvor and were pleased with the Russian wine offerings. We set sail for Kizhi, Russia at 4pm and found the onboard evening activities on the Truvor bountiful. There were Russian lessons, cooking demonstrations and cultural presentations offered throughout the cruise. Live music in the lounge was also a popular draw.

We were awakened in the early morning hours of day six of the voyage to the sounds of ice hitting the ship. We were the first voyage of the season and the ice had not yet been broken through. We made our way on deck to find that the Truvor was tailing a cutter. The cutter was literally plowing the way for us through the icy waters. Due to these conditions, we were not able to reach the island of Kizhi. With no pending destination, we ate and drank our way through the day, making this a good time to discuss the food on board. As with all Viking voyages, regional influences prevail. This meant a lot of soups, boiled meats, cabbage, and root vegetables. I had adopted a vegan diet just a month or so before embarking on the journey, but had not notified the staff of this. Even without special accommodations, I was able to eat fairly heartily. My husband, who isn’t vegan, enjoyed the piroshki (Russian meat pies) and the borscht, but also managed to get his steak and potatoes on board quite regularly.

We traversed the Volga-Baltic waterway to reach Goritzy at the one week point in our journey. We were eager for some fresh air at this point and were happy to join our fellow passengers for the included Krillo-Belozersky Monastery Tour. We were taken by bus to Kuzino to view the medieval monastery and churches. We also toured a local school and were given the opportunity to meet the students and purchase some of their artwork. Once again we learned that most Russian citizens are as fascinated with American culture as we are with their culture. It really is a small world! We met the ship in Kuzino at 3pm (it had sailed from Goritzy while we were at the monastery) and sailed for Yaroslavl. The staff of the Truvor went above and beyond to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities for engagement throughout the cruise and this evening was no different. There were more Russian language lessons, trivia challenges and Russian-themed entertainment to fill the hours. Perhaps the most popular event of the evening was an optional vodka tasting. My husband imbibed while I observed. The highlight was hearing about the pivotal role vodka plays in Russian culture from a waiter who was born and raised in Siberia.

On day eight of the voyage we awoke to the statue of mother Volga on the starboard side of Truvor after which we entered our first lock of the itinerary. We arrived in Yaroslavl at 3pm. Yaroslavl is part of the Golden Ring of quaint historic cities and is peppered with old homes and churches. We joined an included walking tour of the city and happened upon a lively street fair. At the fair we tasted local treats and purchased handmade tiles, a signature item of Yaroslavl, before gathering back on board the Truvor for our 7pm departure.

We awoke in Uglich, Russia on day nine of our Waterways of the Tsars voyage. The activity for today was tea with a local family. We were divided into small groups and taken by van to the homes of local families. The family we met consisted of a grandmother, her daughter and her grandson. The family lived together in a tiny three room home. They grew most of their food in their yard and supplemented their income by allowing Viking guests to visit their home. We enjoyed homemade pickles, tea and, of course, vodka, before making our way back to the ship for an optional matryoshka doll painting class. The farewell celebration was hosted at dinner with a toast and a parade-type tour of the galley for all passengers.

On the tenth day of the trip we arrived in Moscow where we would remain docked for four days. The ship docked in an area just outside of the metropolitan area. It took a decent walk through a park to reach the subway which was easily navigable. We joined the included Up-Close City Tour at 1pm on our first day in Moscow to get a lay of the land. We spent the rest of the evening roaming the city alone. Moscow is a very wealthy, safe and heavily-populated city. The dining and shopping options are limitless and go way beyond the impressive Gum department store. We stayed out rather late on that first day in Moscow, soaking up the Russian culture as much as we could. The rest of our time in Moscow was just as fascinating with a tour of the Kremlin and a Moscow By Boat tour. We were really wowed by this modern metropolis!

Our Waterways of the Tsars journey ended in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 18, 2017 when we were transferred to the Moscow airport by Viking staff. Throughout this voyage (our longest yet with Viking), each and every staff member was exceptional. The ship was kept spotless, the food was good, the wine selection was outstanding and the itinerary was magical. There was always something to do on board during sailing times and there were plenty of opportunities for free time both on and off board. Our fellow passengers were friendly, well-traveled, mostly retired, and hailed from America, Australia and the United Kingdom. We were awestruck by Russia and its people and would absolutely consider visiting the country again.

Day 145: From Switzerland to the North Sea with Viking River Cruises

Day 145 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent recalling our time on board the Viking Lofn. For the past few days I’ve been reviewing my previous Viking voyages in an effort to share the good news and to prepare myself for my upcoming British Isles Explorer ocean voyage next week. Come along as we travel back in time to May 13, 2016, the day we embarked on Viking’s Switzerland to the North Sea journey.

We flew from Orlando to Amsterdam with Lufthansa. Their premium economy was a treat and we were able to easily and rather inexpensively upgrade from the basic economy seats that were included with our Viking cruise fare. Viking collected us, and some fellow guests, at the airport and transported us to the ship, the Viking Lofn, where we were warmly greeted by staff before being escorted to our standard cabin (112). The ship was very similar to the Viking Lif which we had traveled on previously. The shipped was docked in a location (Ruijterkade Oost) that was an easy walk to the heart of Amsterdam, making it simple to hop on and off to explore the city. On that first day and night we roamed through the winding streets of Amsterdam taking in its unique energy. We toured the Anne Frank house and museum with the tickets I had purchased online well in advance of our visit (thankfully). It really is a place unlike any other, the infamous red light district notwithstanding!

We stayed docked in Amsterdam for our second day of the voyage and joined the Amsterdam Canal Cruise and Walking Tour with our fellow passengers. Bikes and boats are most definitely the preferred means of transportation in Amsterdam, adding to its allure. We, like many of our fellow passengers, skipped dinner on board again to enjoy our final night in Amsterdam. With so much to see and do just steps from the ship, we were back on board just shy of the 11:30pm sail away.

On day three of the itinerary we arrived in Dordrecht, Netherlands. After a full breakfast in the restaurant (oh, the sautéed mushrooms…) we skipped the Kinderdijk Windmills Tour to wander through the town. We were still able to get our fill of the majesty of the windmills while exploring the quaint village. There was a lovely park with roaming deer and several cute shops and pubs rife with dutch flair. The ship sailed for Zons at noon, so the remainder of the day was spent on board where the staff went out of their way to keep everyone full and entertained with cocktails, trivia games, language lessons and Appelflappen cooking demonstrations. The dinner served as a “welcome aboard” celebration, focusing on regional favorites.

We arrived in Zons on day five of our journey. Our time in Zons was short and we didn’t really see much of the area. We, along with most other passengers, boarded a bus in Zons headed for Cologne, Germany. As soon as the bus left, the ship sailed for Cologne as well. Cologne is a remarkable city and the tour highlighted its historical, architectural and cultural nuances on foot. After the tour, most passengers headed back to the ship after the tour to sail for Wesseling. We decided to spend some additional time in Cologne before our optional Cologne Beer Culture Tour. This evening tour was a delight as we walked the streets with a local beer aficionado, popping in to many of the famous breweries as we went. We met up with the ship in Wesseling at around 10pm, just in time to sail for Koblenz.

Tuesday, May 17 began in Koblenz, Germany and ended in Rüdesheim. After another full breakfast (more of those amazing mushrooms) we joined the included Marksburg Castle excursion. The tour of the well-preserved castle was long, but very fascinating and we were glad we did it. While we were on the tour, the ship was heading for Braubach which served as a meeting point for all passengers who had taken excursions. We jumped on the ship in Braubach at noon and sailed for Rüdesheim, arriving at 5pm. We spent the evening at an historic pub in the small German town before reboarding at midnight to head for Mannheim.

At the one week mark on our journey we awoke in Mannheim which basically served as a gathering point for the included Heidelberg excursion. Heidelberg is one of the larger cities in the area and still has the distinct feel of a college town. The lengthy tour included the university, the castle and the old town areas. After Heidelberg, we opted to join another group headed for Speyer which is a cool town with great outdoor cafes and lots of shopping. We met the ship in Germersheim in the evening, just in time for a very German dinner in the restaurant.

The eighth day of the voyage took us to amazing Strasbourg, France via Kehl, Germany. Strasbourg was probably my favorite destination on this voyage. It is a bustling historic city that is unique in that it is very French and very German at the same time. The food and wine in this region (Alsace) are incredible, unlike anything else in the world. Once again, we chose to explore Strasbourg for as long as possible, boarding the ship shortly before it sailed for Breisach, Germany.

Day nine of the voyage was spent in the fabled Black Forest of Germany. We hopped on a bus shortly after breakfast and wound our way through the mountains of the forest. The bus stopped along the way for a few photo opportunities, eventually parking in a touristy spot rife with Black Forest Cake and Cuckoo Clocks. This tour was a lot of riding and very little exploring, which was a bot of a struggle for those who like wandering. The bus brought us back to the ship in the evening for dinner and a team trivia challenge. We sailed for Basel, Switzerland, our final destination, at 10pm.

We were docked in Basel, Switzerland for two days, the first of which was spent on an included city tour. This included a lot of walking and a tram ride which allowed for a 360 degree view of the bustling city. The food market in Basel was remarkable and should not be missed! Other favorites included upscale shopping and some of the most delightful chocolatiers in the world. The ship provided shuttle service to and from the ship well into the evening, so we stayed in Basel for dinner and drinks as a sort of last hurrah.

We awoke early for our transfer to the airport where, once again, the Viking staff went out of their way to ensure that we were taken care of. Overall, this was a fabulous trip and itinerary. There was a lot of daytime cruising on this voyage which was a first for us. The Rhine is so scenic and the attentive staff narrated the many sights we were passing along the way. We marveled at the fact that we sailed by Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Lahneck Castle, Katz Castle, Schönberg Castle, Gutenfels Castle, Sooneck Castle, Reichenstein Castle, Rheinstein Castle and Klopp Castle on May 17th alone! The food on this voyage was very good, but sausage-heavy in keeping with the regional tradition. The regional included wines were awesome. This itinerary seems to have been abandoned by Viking and I’m not really sure why as we truly loved it and would highly recommend it to those who like a lot of activity jammed into one voyage.

Day 144: Touring Paris & the Heart of Normandy with Viking River Cruises

Day 144 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent recalling my Seine River voyage with Viking. My son, who is a huge WWII buff, chose the trip (his high school graduation gift) as a way to pay his respects to those who died for his freedom on Omaha Beach. This trip took place from May 29 through June 5, 2015.

This trip was for my son!

We flew from Orlando to London for a few days in advance of our voyage, so did not use Viking air or transfer services this time. We hopped on the Eurostar high speed train to travel from London to Paris on the morning of embarkation. We were then able to take the Metro to a stop close to Quai de Grenelle where our ship, the Viking Spirit, was docked. This location is not necessarily in the heart of Paris, but is convenient to the Metro and we had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the sun deck. We arrived in the early evening after I spent some time sharing my adoration of Paris with my son and chuckled when the staff expressed that they had been worried about us. They genuinely meant it and that is a testament to the attentive nature of service on a Viking ship. We were escorted to our staterooms which were across the hall from one another (my son requested his own room this time, haha). We were unaware until boarding that this would be the Spirit’s final voyage for Viking. While the ship was not as modern and impressive as the longship we had sailed on previously (Viking Lif), it was comfortable and clean. We were quickly whisked to a welcome briefing followed by dinner (very French forward) in the restaurant. The night closed out with some pleasant live music in the lounge and eventually a movie in our stateroom. The ship offered a rotating loop of French-themed films like Moulin Rouge and Midnight in Paris during our time on board.

We remained in Paris for the second day of our voyage and joined an included half day tour of the city with our fellow guests. The tour provided a nice historical background of the city along with key facts about the city’s design and architecture. Afterwards, we wandered off on our own so that I could share some more of my favorite Parisian spots with my family. We made it back on board in time for the sail away toast and a French language lesson in the lounge followed by apéritifs for all.

We awoke in Vernon on Sunday, May 31, 2015 and enjoyed a full breakfast in the restaurant where my son and husband swore by the French toast. We explored the quaint town of Vernon for a couple hours before joining the Viking tour to Giverny and Claude Monet’s home and stunning garden. We paid our respects to the great artist at his tomb (located at a cemetery just blocks from his home) before heading back to the ship for an optional Impressionistic painting class. The class was quite a treat, but our skills were lacking and the strict French painting instructor was not at all shy about letting us know it, lol. The restaurant’s dinner focused on specialties from the Normandy region and included a lovely local wine selection.

Day four of the voyage was structured a bit differently in that we sailed from Vernon at 6:30am, headed for Rouen. This made the morning a bit more relaxed, allowing for a leisurely breakfast (more French toast) before an informative onboard lecture about Joan of Arc. We arrived in Rouen after lunch (a buffet) and joined the included walking tour. Rouen was probably my favorite stop on this cruise simply because of the Medieval architecture and the profound history of the place. The food was very delicious as well (a favorite of Julia Child) and the village offered a host of opportunities for shopping and nightlife.

On the fifth morning of our voyage we boarded a bus headed for the beaches of Normandy (included full day tour). The drive through the countryside was lengthy, but very beautiful. The experience of Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum, the memorial and cemetery was nothing less than overwhelming. Unfortunately, our time there was very, very limited. We finished the day onboard with a toast to the fallen heroes.

We departed Rouen on the morning of sixth day of the cruise, making our way to Les Andelys. The highlight of our time there was a guided hike to Château Gaillard, the failed fortress of my 19th Great Uncle, King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart). The farewell dinner on board was served as we sailed for Conflans (we arrived at 11:15pm and docked here overnight).

The morning of the seventh day onboard the Viking Spirit was spent roaming the charming French town of Conflans where I found a lovely seamstress shop stocked with unique designs made from vintage French fabrics. Sadly, the wanderlust in Conflans was cut a bit short by the ship’s 1pm departure to Paris. As we sailed back to our point of origin, a cooking demonstration by the chef (tarte au citron) and farewell cocktail party filled my time while my family enjoyed the optional oyster tasting with the head chef in the dining room.

We awoke early on the final morning as the ship’s concierge had been most helpful in procuring a taxi for us (we did not purchase Viking transfers on this trip). As always, it was sad to leave the beauty of Paris and the luxury of the Viking experience. The service, food, wine and tours on this journey were outstanding. As I mentioned earlier, the ship was a bit tired though and we had been disappointed by our very limited time in Normandy. Aside from those things, our second Viking River voyage was outstanding and we would have happily repeated the cruise if given the chance!