Cruise Review: Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


I previously blogged about each port we encountered on the Nieuw Amsterdam, so this post is meant to be about the cruise itself.  Previous posts on the itinerary, ports, and the Pinnacle Suite can be found in the menu links above.  This is a full-fledged cruise review of the various aspects of shipboard life.  As such, it is much longer than my typical blog post.  Enjoy…

Holland America Line
ms Nieuw Amsterdam
12-night Mediterranean Empires cruise
May 2, 2014 – May 14, 2014
Depart:  Venice, Italy (round-trip)
Cabin / Suite:  7031 (category PS)
Itinerary:  Venice, Italy; at sea; Katakolon (Olympia), Greece; Piraeus (Athens), Greece; Istanbul, Turkey (overnight); Mitilini, Lesbos, Greece; Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey; Santorini, Greece; Argostoli, Cephalonia, Greece; at sea; Venice, Italy (overnight)

Nieuw Amsterdam in Katakolon, Greece

Nieuw Amsterdam in Katakolon, Greece

Introduction

This 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam was my 34th cruise, but my first to Europe.  I have previously sailed Carnival 23 times, Holland America and Royal Caribbean three times each, and once each on Celebrity, Princess, Majesty, and Premier.  I consider myself pretty well-versed and experienced in cruises, but I hadn’t taken a cruise in over two years before my trip on the Nieuw Amsterdam, and I hadn’t taken a cruise as long as this one.  My last cruise was a New Years’ trip to the Western Caribbean aboard the Carnival Legend, and my last cruise with Holland America was in July, 2008 to Alaska on the Oosterdam.   I had never cruised in a suite on a cruise except for one trip on Carnival’s Imagination back in 2005, so I especially looked forward to this cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

This review will cover the various aspects of life onboard the ship since I’ve already provided a port-by-port account of this cruise in previous posts.  We traveled in the Pinnacle Suite (PS) #7031 on Rotterdam Deck, and I also posted on that earlier.

In Summary…

This was easily my most memorable cruise for many reasons.  First of all, we were traveling in the largest suite on the ship — the Pinnacle Suite thanks to the generous invitation from my Aunt and Uncle.  Since I’m accustomed to standard staterooms, this was a real treat and a definite outlier from my “typical” cruise experience. Secondly, the fact that this cruise allowed us to visit so many destinations to which I had not previously traveled made it an especially memorable experience.  Finally, the company with whom I traveled — my Aunt, Uncle, and girlfriend all added to this cruise.

I’m not sure if it was because we were suite guests, but the service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was exceptional in all aspects.  Pretty much everyone we came in contact with went above and beyond throughout the cruise.  Just as exceptional was the food.  I found the cuisine all over this ship to be some of the best I’ve had on any cruise.  The ship itself was beautiful and filled with art, and it had more than adequate facilities for the guests.  Entertainment was for the most part pretty good, but considering the port intensive itinerary, it was not a priority for our party during this trip.  As mentioned before, the itinerary was sensational, as we visited eight ports during the twelve nights.  All in all, this cruise was fantastic and probably my best cruise to date.

Food

Since this was, after all a cruise, there was naturally food available whenever you wanted.  On the Nieuw Amsterdam, there were two primary food venues — The Manhattan Dining Room and the Lido Restaurant.  In addition to these two venues were four specialty restaurants — The Pinnacle Grill, Tamarind, Canaletto, and the Dive-In Burger Shack.  An extensive room service menu was also available, and for suite guests – snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and canapés were available daily in the Neptune Lounge (concierge lounge).

Manhattan Dining Room

We enjoyed dinner most of the nights in the Manhattan Dining Room.  As the main dining room on the ship, the Manhattan offered open seating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as two assigned seatings on the upper level for dinner.  We chose the late seating dinner and enjoyed a table for six by a window in the aft section of the upper level of the dining room at table #57.  Our waiter team led by Slamet and Ming provided impeccable service throughout the week.  By the second night, they knew our preferences, and accommodated special requests without hesitation.  The Assistant Dining Room Manager, Megan paid us special attention and ensured that our every wish was granted.  Starting the second night, we enjoyed most of our dinners with the ship’s doctor Richard and his wife Michelle — they were such nice people, and we enjoyed spending the evening with them on a regular basis.  The food served in the Manhattan Dining Room was fantastic.  It was a definite notch above the dinners I typically receive in the main dining room on cruise ships.  The steaks were cooked properly, the fish and pork dishes were fantastic, and the appetizers and soups were plentiful and tasty.  We found the menus each night to be varied and relevant, as fresh, local ingredients were used on regional specialties throughout the cruise.  All in all, dinner in the Manhattan Dining Room was a really special experience, and we looked forward to dining there throughout the cruise.  As I previously stated, the food was a cut above normal “cruise food” and seemed to be prepared for a much smaller group rather than a ship full of 1,800 guests.

Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind

On the formal nights, we dined in two of the three specialty restaurants.  The first formal night, we chose to eat in the Pinnacle Grill.  The Pinnacle Grill is the upscale steakhouse aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Though it carries a $29 cover fee, it is well worth it.  The menu features an impressive selection of steaks and seafood.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent, and my girlfriend had the filet mignon.  The filet literally melted in your mouth, and was one of the better tasting filets I’ve enjoyed anywhere.  We also had the opportunity to have lunch in the Pinnacle Grill on the last day of the cruise ($10) where I had a fantastic shrimp cocktail and a delicious Wagyu beef burger.  The last two formal nights, we dined in the ship’s Asian-Fusion restaurant, Tamarind ($20).  The food here was simply exquisite.  The appetizers and soups were extremely good.  On various occasions, we enjoyed the mixed satays, potstickers, pho, tempura fried shrimp, and spring rolls for appetizers.  The first trip there, I ordered the excellent Penang Red Currty Coconut Chicken, and the second time I had the Wasabi and Soy Crusted Beef Tenderloin.  For desert, the tempura fried ice cream is not to be missed!  The tenderloin, along with the appetizers and aforementioned fried ice cream was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life — anywhere, and certainly the best I’ve had on a ship.  The day we arrived in Argostoli, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a dim sum lunch in Tamarind, and it was also exceptional.

The Lido Restaurant

The other main food venue on the Nieuw Amsterdam was the Lido Restaurant.  This was the ship’s buffet area, and it was split into several distinct food serving sections.  For breakfast, the had a fantastic eggs benedict bar, where one could choose from eight types of eggs benedict; a fresh eggs / omelet bar; several traditional breakfast buffet lines; a fresh Belgian waffle line, and a continental breakfast area complete with every bread, pastry, and fruit one could imagine.  I especially enjoyed the eggs benedict bar along with the waffles.  For lunch, the area changed with choices for a varying “Taste of Nations” line, two traditional lunch lines, two salad bars lines, an Italian / Mexican line, and of course pizza.  Though we only had lunch in Lido a few times (we were in port during lunch on most days), I really enjoyed the Taste of Nations — particularly their Asian specialties.  Overall, the food in the Lido was varied, fresh, and delicious.  The presentation in the buffet lines was clean and appetizing — it was an extremely good option for a meal onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Canaletto and Dive In

We did not try the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant, Canaletto simply because we found it pointless to eat Italian food on a ship full of so many different options, on a cruise that started and ended… in Italy.  On the other hand, we did eat at the “Dive-In” Burger Bar on a few occasions and found them to prepare a very tasty burger.  They utilize a pager operation at “Dive-In” which allows one to go relax at their table until the food is ready.

Room Service

We utilized room service for the majority of our breakfasts, as we enjoyed having coffee and a light breakfast in our suite or on the balcony.  Breakfast always arrived on time, though they did have problems grasping the concept of leaving the food in the butler’s pantry instead of coming through the main door, waking everyone up.  We also arranged for room service to provide appetizers on several occasions prior to dinner.  One one evening, we even ordered some appetizers from Tamarind and Pinnacle, and they were delicious (there was obviously a cost for this).  They really did their best to satisfy our requests throughout the week, as we had some pretty abnormal requests, such as a plate of nachos!

As previously mentioned, the food on this ship was probably the best I’ve had on any cruise.  It certainly was better than the food we had on my last Holland America cruise, and blows away the notion that cruise food is relatively bland since it’s mass-produced.  We found the cuisine onboard to be consistently excellent.

Service

Service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam truly was top-notch.  From our room stewards, to the concierge team, to the dining room waiters, to the dining room managers, to the bartenders and cocktail waiters — the service was simply spectacular.  Our two room stewards, Mugi and Daniel kept our large suite spotless.  They were friendly and accommodated all of our special requests.  The concierge team of Chris and Nickolai were fantastic.  Again, they went out of their way to ensure that all of our needs were met.  One of them was always available in the Neptune Lounge, and they arranged for everything from dinner reservations to spa treatments to in-room dining.  As previously mentioned, the dining room service was impeccable.  The Assistant Dining Room Manager, Megan literally couldn’t do enough for us.  He personally delivered a plate of fresh asparagus and spinach to the table nightly with a smile, since we’d asked for it on one occasion.  He also arranged for a private tour of the kitchen, led by Petr, the Executive Chef.  I know this was likely because we were guests in the Pinnacle Suite, but it was really appreciated and special, nonetheless.

The same sort of friendly service was found from all the bartenders and cocktail waiters.  They went out of their way to get to know us during the cruise.  Our favorite cocktail waiters, Roland and Fritz greeted us with smiles and conversation on a daily basis.  Again, the service aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was consistently excellent for the entire cruise.

Entertainment

We really didn’t partake in too much of the entertainment on board, simply because we enjoyed very long dinners and we were dead tired and ready to go to bed on almost a nightly basis.  However, one of the highlights onboard was the Piano Bar, where we enjoyed a drink on several different occasions.  We did see one of the production shows, and it was pretty good — my girlfriend especially enjoyed it.  One evening, we stopped in to see the comedian, but he wasn’t all that great.  On most evenings, we’d have a post-dinner drink in one of the many bars onboard, but usually we ended up in the Piano Bar as previously mentioned.  I did enjoy the casino on a couple of the nights — it wasn’t that large, but plenty big for the ship.  We did partake in one of the “pub crawls” and had a great time despite the paltry attendance of only six guests!

All in all, I’d rate the entertainment on the Nieuw Amsterdam as adequate.  While the entertainment is nowhere near the elaborate shows and non-stop energy found on Royal Caribbean and Carnival, it was certainly plenty for this itinerary and clientele.

Gym / Spa

The Greenhouse Spa and fitness center is located on Lido deck forward, with large windows and a wrap-around view off the front of the ship. I used the fitness center three times on the trip and found it adequate.  I primarily use dumbbells, and they had weights up to 75 pounds, though the lifting area was very small.  This wasn’t too much of a problem since I seemed to be the only person in the area.  Treadmills were plentiful, though they seemed to be almost always occupied by people walking slowly — isn’t that what the wrap around promenade deck is for?

My girlfriend had two treatments at the Greenhouse spa, and seemed to enjoy both of them.  On the first day at sea, she enjoyed a massage, which was preceded by an hour or so in the impressive Thelassotherapy pool and steam room.  On the day we arrived in Istanbul, she got a manicure, and seemed to like that too.  The only negative she mentioned was the price of the manicure seemed to be a bit exorbitant, which can be expected on a cruise ship.

Ship

The four-year old Nieuw Amsterdam is a beautiful ship.  At 935 feet long and 86,700 gross registered tons, she is by no means a small cruise ship, but at the same time, she’s nowhere near being as large as most of the ships our there these days.  This mid-sized ship and relatively low passenger count (1,800 on this cruise) made for a ship that really never felt crowded.  Not once did I wait in line onboard, nor did I have to wait for an elevator.  The Lido Restaurant never had lines except for the first day after embarkation when everyone seems to head straight to the Lido for lunch.  The size of this ship is really just perfect.

The Nieuw Amsterdam is filled with an impressive art collection.  Rich with art at seemingly every turn, one could really pass time checking out the various paintings and pictures that adorned the walls of hallways and public spaces.  Since it is, after all, the namesake of the Nieuw Amsterdam, New York City is the over-arching theme of the ship.  The atrium is adorned with a crystal, icicle-like sculpture of the Manhattan skyline, and the Explorers Lounge is adorned with a huge mural of the New York skyline in the 1930s. The colors on the ship are very nautical and earthy — certainly the antithesis to the Joe Farcus-designed interiors of Carnival.  The interior of the Nieuw Amsterdam had a very classic and elegant feel — I really enjoyed my time onboard this beautiful vessel.

Of its twelve bars onboard, my favorite was the Silk Den.  Located on deck 11, it features panoramic, 180-degree views of the ocean on either side of the ship, and the pool deck.  It is decorated in an Asian theme, and we found it to be relatively empty all week with fantastic waiters.  This was our go-to spot for pre-dinner drinks.  I do love the Crow’s Nest Lounge as well, but it seemed to be the most crowded lounge on the entire ship.  We also really enjoyed the enclosed Lido Pool area.  Since the weather was somewhat chilly (60-degrees) for a large part of the cruise, the retractable roof was closed atop the mid-ship pool.  This created a nice, relaxing, and open space where we enjoyed a few lunches and beers.  One of the great features aboard Holland America ships is the wrap around promenade deck that fully encircles the ship.  It’s a great deck on which to take an evening stroll as the world goes by.

Since this was, of course, Holland America, the average age of fellow guests onboard was rather… seasoned.  My girlfriend and I were pretty clearly the youngest couple onboard.  Though there were a few families with children, probably 90% of the passengers onboard were over the age of 60.

In its entirety, the Nieuw Amsterdam is a very manageable ship — it’s not too big, and not too small.  It’s an extremely pretty ship inside and out.  I wouldn’t hesitate to cruise her again in the future!

Overall

The whole experience was fantastic.  The Nieuw Amsterdam is a really special ship with a very warm, attentive, and amazing crew.  The service and cuisine were equality excellent, as was the incredible 12-night itinerary.  Holland America excels at providing a traditional cruise experience with superior service, food, and onboard experience, and the Nieuw Amsterdam certainly lived up to — and exceeded that standard of excellence.  I cannot recommend this ship and cruise enough!

Two Days in Dublin

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 14

We arrived into Terminal 1 at Dublin International Airport’s and proceeded through immigration easily in about five minutes. While my girlfriend sipped on a coffee, I purchased a €25 SIM card for my phone since we would be in Ireland for four days. For €25, I received unlimited data, and  €50 worth of international calls and txts. For the data alone, I feel this is a steal.  Since we would be renting a car, I really wanted unlimited data since I’d be living in Google Maps to direct me as to where to go. If I were to have purchased the International Plan through Verizon, it would have cost me $29 for only 100MB of data. Given my normal consumption, Id be through that after a day or two. We then took a cab into Central Dublin where our hotel awaited.

We stayed at The Morrison Hotel. A newly refurbished Double-tree Property, The Morrison is decorated with a rather modern look, and it’s certainly a very sharp property. My favorite thing about the property is it’s fantastic location on the River Liffey across the pedestrian bridge from the heart of Temple Bar.   Upon check-in, I was granted an upgrade to a Junior Suite that I requested several weeks before for €25. The upgrade to the Junior Suite gave us a ton of extra room. The bed was super comfortable, and the whole room was decorated in a contemporary look with clean edges and pink neon back-lighting.

After settling in and getting refreshed, we headed to check out the The Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate Brewery. I visited the Guinness Storehouse two years ago, but we really sped through the tour since we were extra thirsty that day. This time, the two of us really took our time to enjoy the entire self-guided tour through the Guinness Storehouse, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Highlights of the tour included taste testing and the Guinness Academy, where we learned how to properly pour a pint of Guinness. We were also impressed by the rich history and the pride that the Irish people have in the beer. At the end of the tour, we brought the pint we poured at the academy up to the panoramic “GRAVITY Bar” atop the storehouse and enjoyed it with a panoramic view of Dublin.  This is one of the better brewery tours out there – certainly in line with the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam – and we felt it was well worth the €16 entrance fee.

After a pint at the Guinness Storehouse, we wanted to make our way back to the Temple Bar area for dinner, but on the way we stopped into the The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, the The Brazen Head is a must see when you’re in Dublin, and I enjoyed another delicious pint of Guinness there.

By this point, we were famished, so we proceeded to Temple Bar where we had a wonderful dinner at Gallagher’s Boxty House in the heart of Temple Bar. We each ordered the boxty specialties for our entrees along with the bacon ribs as the appetizer, and it was all wonderful. I dined here two years ago and loved it, and it surely didn’t disappoint the second time around.

After dinner, we decided to take a little self-guided pub crawl. We started across the street from the Boxty House at the famous Temple Bar. As usual, the Temple Bar was pretty packed and jamming with live Irish music that we enjoyed for a bit. We then headed a bit away from the Temple Bar area and took a stroll up Grafton Street and stopped in a pub called The Hairy Lemon. We really enjoyed this place, and a friend of mine even recommended the Irish specialties here, but we were stuffed from dinner. After a few drinks at The Hairy Lemon, we wandered around taking in the night scene in Dublin before stopping at The Long Hall for one last drink before heading back to The Morrisson for bed.  All in all, we enjoyed the pubs much more that were several blocks south of Temple Bar, near Grafton Street.  We found them to be less touristy and filled more with locals.

May 15

We slept in the following morning a little more than expected and just did get to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, which was included in the room rate. The Morrison featured a great buffet spread that was heavy on pastries and hot dishes consistent with the traditional Irish breakfast.   One can also order from the menu in addition to the buffet, and we each did that. I had the eggs benedict, and my girlfriend ordered the French toast – each of which were cooked perfectly and deliciously. All in all, it was a very solid breakfast offering.

We walked into town a bit to visit the Post Office and the Dublin Spire.  At that point, it was well past noon, and I needed to pick up the rental car for our drive the following day, so we took a cab to the “City Centre” location of Budget Rental Car.  Sadly, this location is not exactly located in the city center, and instead is in Drumcondra, but I guess it was close enough. Picking up the rental car was painless. Once I started driving back to the hotel, driving on the left side (“wrong side”) of the rode definitely took some getting used to, but I managed just fine. After parking the car back in the garage, we set out for some more sight seeing in Dublin.

We headed directly for St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we enjoyed the park, and took some pictures, but opted not to go inside because we were ready for lunch. We were craving fish and chips. We went by Leo Burdock (probably the best fish and chips in Dublin), but felt more like a sit-down style place, so we went to a place where I’ve enjoyed before called O’Neil’s Bar and Restaurant, right near Trinity College. We both enjoyed some delicious fish and chips along with a pint. After lunch, we walked through Trinity College and then took a stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, the city center park in Dublin. We then hit up Grafton Street (Dublin’s main shopping district) for some shopping with a stops at Harry’s on the Green along the way.

At that point, the only type of touring we really felt like doing was pub touring, so that’s exactly what we did! We had a drink or two at several places in the Temple Bar district, including Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, The Auld Dubliner, The Ha’Penny Bridge Pub, and The Palace Bar.  All of a sudden, it was past 9pm (and still very bright out), so we headed back to the hotel for a dinner snack of sliders and fries at the hotel bar, which was delicious. We then retired for the evening, as we had an early wakeup the next morning for our drive clear across Ireland to Galway and Connemara, where we were to catch a plane for the Aran Islands!

Next stop:  The Aran Islands… 

Review: Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


We awoke to a beautiful, Venetian morning where we disembarked the ship early and had our driver waiting to take my Aunt and Uncle to Venice-Marco Polo airport for their Lufthansa flights to Frankfurt and London before a United flight back to Washington-Dulles.  The driver of the private mini-bus then took my girlfriend and I out to Treviso airport for our Ryanair flight to Dublin!

First, a little background for those not familiar with Ryanair.  Based out of Dublin, with hubs at Dublin and London-Stansted, Ryanair is Europe’s largest discount carrier, and Europe’s largest airline in general based on passengers carried.  Ryanair is a no-frills carrier that operates extremely cheap flights throughout Europe, and really makes its profit with ancillary revenue, such as bag fees, seat assignments, and an aggressive buy-on-board campaign featuring food, beverages, gift items, and lottery / raffle tickets.  Many are critical of its charges, but if you successfully navigate their website, you can really get an awesome deal on airfare within Europe.IMG_7570

Ryanair (FR) 9451
Venice-Treviso (TSF) – Dublin (Dub)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  1C
Wednesday, May 14
10:10AM – 12:25PM
Duration:  2:15

As this was my first flight on Ryanair, I was expecting the worst.  Check-in certainly did not disappoint.

Since I consider myself a somewhat savvy traveler, I thought I understood Ryanair’s checked bag policy.  After the following experience, it became clear to me that I did not.

I’d previously purchased each of us 20kg worth of luggage, and the night before the flight, I bought and additional 15kg for myself since I anticipated my checked bag to be more than 20kg.  Check-in and bag drop at Treviso is contracted out, and the experience was abysmal.

Ryanair utilizes an extremely glitchy automated bag-drop machine at Treviso.  After finally getting my girlfriend’s bag checked, the machine could not process my bag, so I was directed to wait in a massive queue to work with a human being.  At this time, there was only ONE desk being worked by a real human, despite three Ryanair flights departing during this timeframe.  So, as you can imagine, it was pure chaos.  After about a thirty minute wait in line, I was advised by the contract check-in agent that though I had gladly paid the €20 fee for the extra 15kg of luggage, it could only be accepted AS A SEPARATE BAG – a separate bag that I did NOT have.    My bag ultimately weighted 23kg, and I’d intended on the extra weight I’d purchased to pay for the overage.  Alas, this was not how the agent saw it.  She said that I must split the contents of my 23kg bag into two bags – one weighing 20kg or less, and the other 15kg or less.

Um… really?

Since we did not have another bag in which to put the extra 3kg of luggage, I tried taking my suits our of my checked bag and putting them in a hang-up garment bag.  This decreased the weight of my big bag to 19.8kg.  I then asked if I could hand carry the suits in the garment bag onboard, and I was denied that privilege as it was deemed “oversized.”   A hangup / garment bag – deemed over-sized.

Seriously?  I take this as a “personal item” on domestic US carriers, and they even offer to hang it in the closet 90% of the time.

The agent then asked while rolling her eyes, “Is this seriously the best thing you can come up with?”  I replied in the affirmative, to which she responded that they would be happy to check the hang-up / garment bag, but would have to label it as over-sized and as such, I’d have to pay an additional €50 fee.  I was not having this, since I’d paid €20 + €20 for my bags already, so I naturally argued this.  Eventually, the agent succumbed to reason and agreed that I had a valid point.  She allowed me to check this “oversized” hangup bag without an extra fee.

This ordeal finally was resolved after about an hour and 15 minutes.  Thankfully, the rest of the boarding process was uneventful.

Going to Dublin!

Going to Dublin!

Since I’d purchased seats with additional leg room, they included priority boarding, which was nice since the queue was pretty long.  The flight itself was fine.  Plenty of leg room in row 1, so I can’t comment on what others claim is terrible seat pitch throughout the rest of the cabin — it was worth the €10, for sure.  The crew was friendly, attentive, and very pleasant.  The flight was on time, too despite a delayed departure.  The constant sales pitches for scratch off lotto tickets, bus transfers, and everything else were indeed cheesy, but expected.  I did not purchase any food, but did partake in a drink after my luggage ordeal.  In other words, if ancillary revenue is the goal, Ryanair certainly made some money off me.

Overall,  the price and timing were both right for this flight.  At only €49 a piece, and a wonderfully timed schedule, we were really left with no other option.  Even after the extra €40 in bag fees and €10 for additional leg room, this option was still less than half the price of the next cheapest alternative, so it was clearly the best option for us.  The abysmal ground services along with the deceptive and terrible booking process would make me think twice before flying Ryanair again, but if the price differential is anywhere near as vast as it was for this trip, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them — the price is just too cheap to totally avoid them.

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Sailing into Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam. The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

May 12 – At Sea

After seven ports in eight days, we were pretty exhausted and ready for a day off at sea.  We spent most of the morning hours before meeting the Dining Room Manager for a private tour of the kitchen.  It was a pretty impressive operation.  After that, we dined in The Pinnacle Grill for lunch before heading back to the balcony for a relaxing afternoon of the coast of Croatia.  Dinner that evening was had again at Tamarind, where I had one of the best meals I’ve experienced — anywhere.  More on that later.

May 13 – Venice, Italy

Another unique feature of this cruise was the overnight in Venice before we disembarked the cruise.  Since the ship was set to arrive around noon, this allowed for the better part of a day and an entire evening in Venice where we could use the ship as our hotel room before disembarking.

The arrival into Venice was simply stunning.  We had perfect weather as we sailed past St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal to the cruise port on the northwest tip of Venice.

The view from our suite’s balcony was just amazing.

Upon arrival in Venice, we had a quick lunch on the ship before exploring Venice for the afternoon.  We planned to meet my Aunt and Uncle at San Marco around 5:30pm where we took the Vaporatto to the Lido.  Before that, the two of use decided to cheese it up by taking a gondola ride.  Though very expensive, we felt it was worth it for the experience – even if it was the ultimate tourist trap.  After meeting the Aunt and Uncle and motoring our to the Lido, we explored the town for about an hour, which was highlighted by a trip to the beach club and Adriatic Sea, where my girlfriend was able to dip her toes into the water.  We then shared a great meal of bruschetta, mozzarella, pasta, and pizza at a nice local restaurant named Pizzeria Ai Do Mati in Lido.

We decided to take the Vaporetto back to Pi’azzle Roma through the Grand Canal.  This was a beautiful hour and five-minute run through the Grand Canal at night.  It was well worth the extra time to get to experience motoring through the canal.  We took the short, people mover back to the cruise terminal, where we boarded the ship to pack our bags and take in a final night’s sleep onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.

 May 14 – Venice, Italy

We awoke to a beautiful, Venetian morning where we disembarked the ship around 7am, and had our driver waiting to take my Aunt and Uncle to Venice-Marco Polo airport for their flights back to Washington-Dulles via Frankfurt and London.  The driver of the private mini-bus then took my girlfriend and I out to Treviso airport for our Ryanair flight to Dublin!  We booked this transfer through Airports Shuttle Express, and the experience was first-class, all the way.  The customer service was fantastic, punctual and friendly, and the mini-bus was exactly what we wanted.  It really made for an easy transfer from the ship to the airport.

We were incredibly sad that our amazing cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam had come to an end, but eagerly awaited the adventure that awaited us in Ireland.

Next Stop:  Dublin, Ireland

Coming later:  A full review of the cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Santorini and Argostoli

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam. The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

May 10 – Santorini, Greece

We awoke early in the morning to witness the scenic entrance into the harbor near Fira, Santorini.  It was beautiful, as we passed the gorgeous town of Oia before stopping in the caldera and natural harbor below the town of Fira.  Since there is no pier, this is also a tender port, but we utilized the local Santorini tenders to take us to the base of the mountain.  Here, one can either walk the over 900 steep steps up to the town of Fira, or they can spend €5 each way for a donkey ride up the steps or a tram up to the top.  We opted for the tram to the top of Fira, where views were spectacular.

We then hired a cab to drive us to Oia.  The drive to Oia was very scenic, but that was just warming us up for the town itself.  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many, many places.  However, the town of Oia, and the views from the white buildings with blue roofs was probably the most beautiful, picturesque place to which I have ever been.

Ever.

There is one main market street in Oia with dozens of cafes and lodges that overlook the caldera and Aegean Sea.  The views are simply spectacular.

After a brief, 45-minute visit to Oia, our cab driver took us clear to the other side of the island to one of the black beaches, in Kamari.  What we found here was a cute little beach town full of bars, restaurants, beach shops, and boutiques.  The beaches themselves are black beaches – make up of volcanic rock.  We ventured down to the water to dip our feet in the Aegean for the first time.  Since the water was too cold to swim, we settled down at a café overlooking the beach for a beer before cabbing back to the town of Fira.

By the time we returned to Fira, the shops were setup in full swing, and my girlfriend enjoyed popping into the various boutiques.  We met my Aunt and Uncle at a beautiful café that was perched on the cliff overlooking the caldera and our ship.  After a couple of beers, we decided on a cheap, delicious gyro lunch from one of the many street food vendors in Fira.    Sadly, we departed Santorini at 3:30, so we had to get back to the ship and didn’t get to witness a sunset from the famous setting of Oia.  On the return, we decided to take the stairs.  It as a relatively easy, twenty-minute descent, but you did need to move a lot to avoid the donkeys…. and donkey poop.  At the bottom of the hill, we were walking past a herd of donkeys, when one decided to buck, and kicked me right in the shin.  Luckily, it didn’t kick much higher, but nonetheless, I was the recipient of a nice bruise on my shin.  It could have been much worse, I suppose.

Overall, Santorini was by far our favorite port of the cruise.  I certainly plan to return to Santorini to spend several days in the future.

May 11 – Argostoli, Cephalonia, Greece

We had a late arrival in Argostoli – the largest city on the Ionian island of Cephalonia.  Unfortunately, our short time in port of only 4.5 hours did not leave us enough time to explore one of the famous beaches or caverns of Cephalonia.   Luckily, the town was pleasant enough.  We didn’t do much at all in Argostoli, other than exploring the town, shopping, and having a few beers.  We did stop for a snack of fried feta and tzatziki at a restaurant about two blocks to the west of the pier before we went back onboard.

I’d love to visit Cephalonia in the future, and I’d certainly suggest for the cruise lines to spend considerably more time on the island, as the island itself has the potential to be an absolute highlight of the itinerary.

Next stop:  Venice (again)…

 

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam. The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

May 6 – Istanbul, Turkey

After spending the majority of the day at sea cruising through the Dardanelles, we approached Istanbul from the west at about 3pm.  The approach into Istanbul was beautiful, and I enjoyed pointing our parts of Istanbul to my girlfriend, Aunt, and Uncle.  I previously spent time in Istanbul about a year ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Because of this, I really looked forward to returning on this trip.

We ultimately didn’t dock until around 5pm due to high winds, but when we did my girlfriend and I disembarked and walked into town directly to the Galata Bridge.  We had the fortune at docking at the cruise ship birth closest to the Galata Tower and Bridge, so the location was extremely convenient.  After viewing the fishermen from the Galata Bridge, we proceeded to the Egyptian Bizzare – or Spice Bizzare to see the sights, sounds, and smells of the place.  Overrun with spice merchants, vibrant colors and smells filled the air making for a pretty intense setting.  Ater this, we walked back across the bridge, and up the hill to Galata Tower for a panoramic view of Istanbul.  As the timing worked out, we were up on Galata Tower right around sunset, which made for some amazing pictures.

We then continued up the hill to the Galata area.  We explored the side streets full of bars and cafes, and came upon a few of the bars that I’d been to last year on my trip to Istanbul with friends.  We started back towards the ship before stopping for a Turkish dinner of kebab and Turkish pizza.  It was tasty as always.  We returned to the ship around 9:30pm where the ship was putting on a Turkish Bazaar dinner up on board – they really did a nice job with it though we did not partake.

May 7 – Istanbul, Turkey

This was a unique port of call for a cruise since we were docked in Istanbul overnight.  The overnight call aspect of the cruise was one of the most attractive features of the trip for us.   Having been to Istanbul before, I had a pretty good idea of a proper tour itinerary for my girlfriend, aunt, and uncle that next morning.  We decided to take the tram to the Sultanahmet stop – a short, ten minute trip (for €3 per person, each way).  Here, we toured the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Sistern Basilica.  Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free, but we did have to wait in line for about a half an hour before being allowed to enter and take pictures.  The view inside was amazing as usual, and  reminds me of the cover of my high school World History textbook.  Next, we walked over to the Hagia Sofia, but decided not to enter due to the massive line to get in.  Entrance would have been €10 per person had we decided to brave the line.  I did go inside the Hagia Sofia on my last trip to Istanbul, and in my opinion, it would have been worth the wait.

Alas, the rest of the group didn’t want to wait, so we headed across the street to the Sistern Basilica.  Entrance to the Sistern was also ten euros per person.  I quite enjoyed this last time, and I did on this trip as well.  It’s a dimly lit cavern full of water and yellow and red lighting.  We then proceeded to the Grand Bazaar, which was only about a ten minute walk from the Sultanahmet area.  As usual, the Grand Bazaar was utter chaos – not quite my cup of tea, but the ladies wanted to get some shopping in.  We took a quick break for a lunch of doner kebap before taking the tram back to the ship in time for our scheduled 5pm departure.  The sail away from Istanbul was simply beautiful as we passed Istanbul landmarks like the Galata Bridge, Topapki Palace, Hagia Sofia, and Blue Mosque.  That evening, we enjoyed appetizers in the room before our dinner at Tamarind — the specialty Asian Fusion restaurant onboard.

May 8 – Mitilini, Lesbos, Greece

We awoke the following morning off the shore of Lesbos – a Greek Island just off the west coast of Turkey.  The ship was anchored about a mile off shore, so we utilized the ship’s tenders to transport passengers into town.  Mitilini is a picturesque, Greek fishing village centered around a harbor.  It really reminded me of the harbor in Georgetown, Grand Cayman about twenty years ago before the high rise buildings.  The harbor is lined with cafes that turn into nightclubs at night.  Since Mitilini is apparently a college town, these seemingly sleepy cafes convert into a raging nightclub scene after dark (or so we were told).  We enjoyed several beers and shots of ouzo at a couple different cafes in Mitiline before and after a stroll down the main shopping / market area of the town.  The ouzo was a must since Lesbos is where the Greek drink originated!  We decided against an organized tour to another location or beach on the rather large island, and this port served as a leisurely break in between the two, tour-intensive Turkish ports of call.

May 9 – Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey

Kusadasi is one of two port cities used by cruise lines to access the ancient city of Ephesus.  It is the much closer of the two ports (Ismir), and it is only about a twenty minute cab ride from the pier in Kusadasi to Ephesus.  We arranged a cab at the pier as transportation to Ephesus for a total of €60, round-trip.  The drive from Kusadasi to Ephesus is very scenic, as you hug the rugged coastline for most of the 15km trip.  Upon arriving in Ephesus, we paid an entrance fee to the ruins.  The ruins themselves were spectacular.  The pictures below speak for themselves.  Highlights of the ruins included the Terrace Houses (extra entrance fee), and the Great Arena, which held up to 25,000 spectators.

After spending about an hour and a half at the ruins, our cab driver drove us back to Kusadasi, where we briefly walked through the town bizarre before having a Turkish lunch at Toros, right on the harbor.  The kebab lunch was fresh and delicious.

Kusadasi itself functions as a major beach resort town on the Turkish coast.  The coastline, the beaches, and water are beautiful in Kusadasi.  The Turkish coast as a whole is renowned for some of the finest beachest anywhere on the Mediterranean, and this is certainly a region to which I’d love to return.

Next stop:  Santorini, Greece…

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Katakolon and Athens

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.  The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

We sailed out of Venice in the middle of a thunderstorm, forcing us to relocate from the open decks at the top of the ship to the our balcony.  Though it was dreary out, we still had some beautiful views of the rooftops of Venice as we sailed out of the picturesque city.

May 3 – At Sea

The first full day on the ship was spent at sea.   After a breakfast of eggs Benedict on the balcony, I headed off to the gym and then to explore the ship with my girlfriend.  The rest of the day was spent lounging around while she enjoyed her spa treatments.  This was the first formal night, and we dined in the Pinnacle Grill — one of two specialty restaurants onboard.  The Pinnacle Grill is an upscale steakhouse serving prime cuts of meat and amazing appetizers.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent.  Others ordered the filet mignon, and I go to have a few bites.  It was simply perfect — one of the best filets I’ve had anywhere.  The cost of the meal is $29 per person, and this is WELL worth it, as a comparable meal on land would run well over $150 each.  We were pretty much beat after dinner, so we headed back to the suite after a couple of drinks in the piano bar for some good rest before the barrage of ports ensued the following morning.

May 4 – Katakolon, Greece

We awoke to breakfast being delivered in our suite just after the sun came up.  As the fog burned off, we watched as the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in the port of Katakolon, Greece.  This town is a small fishing village that serves as the hopping off port for Olympia – the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  Though several tours were offered through the ship, we opted to head to Olympia on our own.  We bought a round-trip train ticket from Katakolon to Olympia for €10 each and arrived in Olympia 40 minutes later.  Olympia itself is a cute, clean Greek town with a number of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and shops.  We walked through the town in the middle of a light drizzle to the entrance of the Olympia archaeological site where entrance was €6 apiece.  Here, we viewed the excavated ruins of the ancient Olympic Games.  The highlight of this site was the original Olympic Stadium where my girlfriend and I ran a lap on the original 440 meter “track” which more resembles a couple of dirt football fields back to back.

We were done viewing the ruins after about an hour.  Unfortunately, we still had about two and a half hours before our scheduled train was to leave.  So, we did the only logical thing – we hopped a bus that we thought may go in the right direction.

The driver spoke pretty much no English, but the only thing he could say was “Pyrgos.”  We knew Pyrgos was a city a little more than halfway between Olympia and Katakolon, so we hopped the bus to see how that would work out – the price was right, at about €1.20 each.  About 35 minutes later, we disembarked at the bus station in Pyrgos – a large, somewhat dirty town about 10 kilometers from Katakolon.  There was another bus to Katakolon an hour later, but we opted for a taxi, who thought he was Sabastian Vettel.  This guy was flying down the road at over 140kph, and had us in Katakolon in no time.  This was a great adventure to get us back to the ship, and was much more fun than the standard bus tour shore excursion offered by Holland America.

Upon arrival back into Katakolon, we found a nice restaurant called “Arhipelagos Fish Tavern” (this is directly from their business card, which may or may not have had a typo) right on the harbor where we enjoyed a lunch of gyros, fried cheese, greek salad, and a few beers (as well as free wifi).  This made for a great early afternoon before we headed back to the ship.  We enjoyed champagne and beer in our private hot tub on the balcony as the ship set sail from Katakolon — not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

May 5 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece

I awoke to the hustle and bustle of a very industrial port swarming with ferry activity.  This port – Piraeus is the port neighborhood of Athens.  Athens is a seemingly never-ending metropolis, and Piraeus is where the sea of white rooftops ends at the Aegean Sea.   We again opted against taking a ship-arranged tour, and set out on our own.  A cab driver approached us and offered a €20 ride to the Acropolis, which we thought was more than reasonable for the three of us.  After about a 20 minute ride through the lightly congested highways and streets of Athens, we arrived at the south entrance to the Acropolis.  We ascended the stairs to overlook the amphitheater, and eventually made it up to the famed Parthenon.  We walked all around the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, taking dozens of pictures of the recovered ruins and stunning vistas of Athens that were aided by picture perfect weather and blue skies.

Once we deemed that we’d seen enough, we walked down the north side of the Acropolis, stopping at a café  for a few beers in the Anafiotika neighborhood on one of the steep, narrow streets lined with cafes and restaurants.  This shady and picturesque street (Mnisikleous Str.) made for a great place to rest the legs, relax with a drink, and check up on e-mail with wifi.  We really enjoyed ourselves at Anafiotika over these couple of hours.  After this, we headed down to the main shopping area in Athens before stopping for a quick gyro lunch.  We decided to take the metro back to Piraeus since it was a straight shot (about 4-5 stops) and only a couple of euros a person.  The train station is about a twenty-minute walk from the ship, but that wasn’t a problem at all.  Upon arriving back in the room, we all crashed for an hour nap before enjoying the sail out of Piraeus into the deep blue Aegean Sea from the comfort of our balcony.

 Next port of call:  Istanbul, Turkey…

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Intro, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


The Nieuw Amsterdam on a rainy day in Venice

The Nieuw Amsterdam on a rainy day in Venice

We arrived at the Venice port on a rainy afternoon by water taxi from the Boscolo Venezia.  There in port was Holland America Line‘s newest ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Though I’ve been on dozens of cruises before, I was especially looking forward to this trip because of with whom I was traveling, the incredible itinerary, and the fact that we were booked in the Pinnacle Suite — the largest room on the ship!

As previously mentioned, my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to be invited on this cruise with my Aunt and Uncle.  They take a cruise every year and always invite me, but for some reason or another, I haven’t been able to go.  This year, the dates worked perfectly for my vacation, the cruise went to all new places for me (other than Istanbul), and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up — so we took them up on their offer!

This was my 34th cruise overall and fourth on Holland America, while it was my girlfriend’s first cruise of any kind.  My Aunt and Uncle have been taking about a cruise per year for the last decade, and it was their second trip with Holland America.  The bulk of my previous cruises were to the Caribbean and Bahamas, as this was my first cruise in Europe.

Itinerary

This particular cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam was a 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” itinerary.  As it was a very port-intensive cruise, we knew we’d need to savor the relaxation that comes with the at-sea days since other than that, it would be a non-stop parade of one port after another.

This cruise sailed us from Venice to Katakolon, Greece — a port city with access to Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympic Games.  The next day the Nieuw Amsterdam took us to Piraeus, Greece — the port city and access point for Athens.  The fourth day of the cruise included a morning cruising of the Dardanelles with an afternoon arrival in Istanbul.  A unique feature of this cruise was that the ship stayed overnight in Istanbul, and did not leave until the following evening, giving us a full 26 hours in one of my favorite cities.  The morning after leaving Istanbul, the Nieuw Amsterdam called at Mitilini on the island of Lesbos, Greece.  The following day was in Kusadasi, Turkey — a Turkish beach town and access point to the ancient city of Ephesus.  The next two days featured a stop in Fira on the picturesque island of Santorini followed by a call at Argostoli, Cephalonia in the Ionian Greek Isles.  Finally, after seven straight ports of call, we had a second and last day at sea before arriving back into Venice where we spent the day and night before disembarking the following morning.

As usual with cruises, most ports featured calls from about 8pm to 5pm, so it provided a good sampler of the Greek Islands and Turkey.  The fact that overnights in Istanbul and Venice were included was just icing on the cake for this robust itinerary.

The Nieuw Amsterdam

Nieuw Amsterdam in Santorini

Nieuw Amsterdam in Santorini

Built in 2010, the Nieuw Amsterdam is Holland America Line’s newest and largest ship.  At around 86,700 gross registered tons, and over 935 feet long, she is a good sized ship, but not anywhere near the size of some of the mega cruise ships at sea today.  As such, there aren’t quite as many passengers, which generally results in better service and a higher standard for food onboard.  We certainly found this to be the case.  Unsurprisingly, the Nieuw Amsterdam had a New York City theme throughout the ship, with beautiful paintings and an impressive art collection spread throughout.   I’ve previously cruised the Oosterdam, which has the same basic layout as the Nieuw Amsterdam, so I was familiar with the ship immediately upon boarding, and served as “tour guide” for our party throughout the week.  I’ll get more into different aspects of the cruise with the full-fledged cruise review I’ll post at a later time.

The Pinnacle Suite

Though I’ve been on a cruise ship for over four months of my life, I’ve never cruised in such style as I did on this trip.   All of my cruises have been in standard inside or ocean view rooms, and on a few special occasions I had a balcony.  Our accommodations on this trip would be… just a tad better.

Yup, we were rocking Pinnacle Suite #7031.

The Nieuw Amsterdam features two “Pinnacle Suites” that each measure a whopping 1,357 square feet — almost 7 times the size of a standard balcony cabin – and larger than my apartment back in Virginia.  Needless to say, we had plenty of room.

We were escorted onboard by a personal concierge immediately upon arrival at the port in Venice, and this personalized service did not stop for the entire twelve nights.  As we initially entered our suite, we walked through our foyer and were greeted by multiple bottles of champagne, a huge fruit plate, and two plates of canapés.

Past the foyer, there is a dining room table for four with a desk and mini bar setup.  Located forward of this dining area is the living room area, complete with a sectional sofa, a large throne-like chair, and a full entertainment center with a flat-panel television, DVD player, and Bose sound system.  A king bed pulled out of the wooden cabinet beneath the television, and this is where my girlfriend and I slept.

The master bedroom is located on the other side of the dining room, and is separated from the rest of the suite by double doors.  Inside the suite, there is a huge king sized bed, plenty of desk space, and a full vanity.  The master bath includes a double sink, jacuzzi tub with separate shower, and a very large walk-in closet that had plenty of room for the four of us.  A separate half bath is located off the foyer, across from a butler pantry with sink, microwave, and full refrigerator.

The highlight of the room was a massive verandah that was accessed through a pair of sliding glass doors.  The verandah featured two padded chaise lounge chairs, a table for al fresco dining with seating for four including a sofa in a carved out, teak wood vestibule, two other chairs, and a hot-tub.

Yes — we had our own private hot-tub on our private verandah.

It was awesome.

The service we received all week was phenomenal due in part to the team of concierges we had for the cruise.  We could see these two, and they were happy to fulfill any wish that we had.  I can’t say enough about the room.  It was truly a special experience, but it may have ruined cruising for me!  It’ll certainly be difficult to go back to a “normal” room on a future cruise, but I’m sure I’ll manage.  Whatever the case, I can’t express how thankful I am that my Aunt and Uncle included us on their vacation — it truly was an experience of a lifetime.

More on the cruise to follow, including the ports and a full-fledged cruise review…

 

Review: Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_7541

Boscolo Venezia Lobby

I normally don’t make it a habit to devote an entire post to a stay at one hotel unless it is truly an exceptional property and/or stay.  Our recent stay for two nights at the Boscolo Venezia fits both criteria.

Situated in the quiet Carranegio neighborhood of Venice, about a 15 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the Rialto area, the Boscolo Venezia is a wonderful escape from the crowds of tourists.  The Boscolo is an Autograph Collection Hotel, and is part of the Marriott family of brands.

The front of this property is on one of the outermost canals, and the rear is located on the Laguna.  Though it was a bit of a walk to all the major tourist spots, I feel this neighborhood is a better representation of the “real” Venice. A number of restaurants and small grocery spots dot exist every block or so instead of the wall-to-wall boutiques and restaurants that one may find in other parts of Venice.

The property itself was formally the French consulate, and it is simply a stunningly beautiful building.  The lobby features a couple huge Murano glass chandeliers, which is fitting since one can see Murano from the pier in the rear of the property.  Connected to the lobby is the restaurant, bar, and patio where breakfast is served daily — more on that later.

The highlight of the property is a massive garden that stretches a good 100 yards from the rear of the lobby to a smaller wing of the hotel overlooking the Laguna.  Off to the side of the garden are a pair of garden rooms that each feature their own private patios in the middle of a separated rose garden.  We were fortunate enough to be assigned both of these rooms when we checked in to the Boscolo after our flights from the States.  Though the rooms were not available until about 3pm, they were well worth the wait.

Garden rooms with patios

Garden rooms with patios

The rooms themselves weren’t overly huge, but they were very nice inside with marble flooring, wood ceilings, and a marble bath with double sinks.  Without question, the highlight of these two rooms were the massive patios.  Each patio is roughly the same size as the interior space of the room.  It is a stone tiled space with a table and four chairs.  Directly adjacent to the patios is a grassy area featuring plush lounge chairs that can be used during the day for relaxation and sunning.  About twenty yards away is the pier overlooking the Laguna where there was another table and set of chairs for a wonderful little happy hour spot.  These rooms simply made our stay, as they provided a wonderful little semi-private oasis where we could relax and adjust ourselves to European time.

Service all around the hotel was prompt and friendly. Ice was brought to the room upon request in a silver champagne bucket without a problem. As Marriott Gold and Platinum guests, we received complimentary breakfast every morning. Breakfast consisted of quite an elaborate spread filled with breads, meats, cheeses, jams, fruits, yogurt, and an incredible selection of pastries. There were at least five different types of fruit juices available along with champagne for those mandatory vacation mimosas. A full menu with eight or so made-to-order warm dishes was also available. I enjoyed the poached eggs one morning, and another egg dish the second morning. My only complaint would be that this restaurant seemed to get quite busy and crowded on the second morning, and the staff seemed to be a bit overwhelmed. It wasn’t really a problem, as we were not in a rush, but some of the service did fall between the cracks that morning.

Water Taxi

Water Taxi

A great service offered by the Boscolo is a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square. Running four times daily in each direction, you can take a scenic, fifteen minute boat ride directly to St. Mark’s Square in a wooden Venetian water taxi. Space is limited, so you must sign up with the concierge, but we didn’t have a problem getting the boat we wanted. The hotel also offers a free daily shuttle over to Murano, but we did not partake.

All in all, I really enjoyed staying at the Boscolo Venezia. The massive garden provides a wonderful space in Venice to relax away from the crowds. I really enjoyed the quiet Carranegio neighborhood in which it was located.   Though a bit on the pricey side, it is readily available with Marriott points, and because of that, I would certainly consider staying here again on a future visit to Venice.

How we booked it…

We originally planned on staying at the Boscolo for only one night, but about a week prior, we changed out flights necessitating an extra night. My uncle used Marriott Points to pay for our second night. The Boscolo is a category 8 hotel, and can be reserved for 40,000 Marriott points.   Since this is the only Marriott family hotel in Venice proper (on the actual island), I consider this a very good use of Marriott points if the price is as high as normal (> €300). It would be quite the hassle to stay in the Mestre area on the mainland and have to train or bus to Venice every day, in my opinion.

We booked the first night with cash, as there was a last-minute special available for the property at about 180 per night. This is a pretty good price for a property of that caliber in the very expensive hotel city of Venice.

 

How to Use American Miles to Book US Airways Flights to Europe

I recently enjoyed a US Airways business class flight in their Envoy Suite from Philadelphia to Venice, which I mentioned that I booked with American Airlines AAdvantage miles.  Now that US Airways has officially joined OneWorld, and is in the process of integrating operations with American Airlines, it is very easy to book award space on US Airways flights using your American AAdvantage miles!  The ability to do this is especially advantageous for transatlantic flights from the US to Europe.

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Before the addition of US Airways, your options for flying to Europe with American miles were relatively limited.  Most of the options involved a connection at London-Heathrow on either American or British Airways.  Aside from the headache involved with transiting one of the World’s busiest international airports, these flights include significant taxes and fees that significantly decrease the value proposition of redeeming your miles.  Other than this, American does offer some non-stop flights from the US to other gateways in Europe, but those seem to be increasing difficult to find on points.

This is where US Airways comes in.

Since they started to merge with American earlier this year, US Airways non-stops to Europe are also bookable online on American’s site.  Since you’d be using American miles, you would use the American partner award chart.  American charges 20k-30k in economy (based on the season), 50k in business, and 62.5k in first class for a one-way flight between the US and Europe or vice-versa.   Since US Airways only has economy and business class, we will be focusing on business.

I will search for a flight to Venice from Philadelphia (though the mileage price would be the same from any city in the US — you’d just need to change planes).  To search for these awards on the American site, it’s important to check the “Redeem miles” checkmark.  I usually search one-way awards, and if a round-trip is needed, book it as a round-trip once I’ve verified availability.Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.11.15 PM

By default, economy class will be chosen.  I’m interested in business class seats, so I’ll select the blue, business class button and the available dates will be populated in the calendar.  Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.12.58 PM

I select Friday, May 30th, and voila — there’s availability on the route in US Airway business class on the same flight I took — US Airways flight 714 from Philly to Venice!Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.14.54 PM

This is available for 50k miles + $2.50 per person (please note that if the reservation is made inside of 21 days, there will be an extra $75 charge per person for passengers without elite status on American).Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.18.57 PM

As I mentioned in my previous post, I consider the product on US Airways to be one of the best business class options to cross the Atlantic (on their A330-200 and A330-300 aircraft).   American offers a similar, but newer product on their new B777-300ER aircraft, but these currently only fly to Europe between New York-JFK, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and London-Heathrow with very limited award availability.  American seems to be releasing this very comparable business class award space on these US Airways non-stops  even mores than some of their own flights to Europe.

US Airways currently operates the following routes to Europe, which are all bookable using your American AAdvantage miles:

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Charlotte to: Dublin, London, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

 

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Philadelphia to: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Shannon, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Zurich, Venice, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

*Be sure to check the operating aircraft, because the Envoy Suites product is only offered on their A330 planes.

All in all, it’s pretty easy to do this if you have a bunch of American miles.  Even if you don’t, it’s easy to accumulate American miles through generous signup bonuses for one of many Citibank AAdvantage credit cards.