Crossing the Pacific

Royal Caribbean cruise ship

view of the Pacific Ocean from deck 4 of Explorer of the Seas

Having enjoyed our previous transpacific cruise from Chili to Sydney onboard P&O Arcadia, we decided to book another one. This time we took Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas from Seattle to Sydney. A number of ships that cruise from Seattle or Vancouver throughout the summer move to Australia for the northern hemisphere’s winter, which is summer down under. Repositioning cruises are often available crossing the Pacific in the fall or spring as these ships move to their new summer routes, the Explorer among them. Arcadia, on the other hand, was one leg of a world cruise of which the full route started and ended in South Hampton, England circling the globe twice in a 4-month span.

port view of Seattle

view of Seattle from Explorer of the Seas

Our route and ports were all different on this 22 night cruise from Seattle to Sydney. It had 7 port stops scheduled with 2 each in Hawaii, Fiji, and New Caledonia, plus one in Vanuatu. The last cruise had just 5 scheduled stops, which ended up as 4 when we missed Bora Bora due to stormy weather.

ocean view cabin

watching the ocean go by from the window of our deck 2 cabin

After a fairly smooth passage through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the way from Seattle to the ocean, we had rough seas for most of the first couple full days of the voyage. With the weather outside windy and cold the outer decks mostly stayed closed. Barf bags set out at the elevators come in useful for some, but serve as a reminder that weather isn’t always conducive to smooth sailing for others. I felt a bit off one day, but reminded myself I’ve been in worse seas and never been seasick on a cruise ship before and got over it. I don’t know if queasiness is sometimes a mental thing for anyone else, but thinking about it affects me and is quite likely to make any sort of motion sickness worse. On a long voyage it’s likely to see a variety of weather. We have had ocean crossings with smooth sailings the whole way, but so far never one that had more than a few days of rough seas.

mini golf

I once made a hole in one on the next hole down beyond the one I was actually aiming for on this mini golf course where one hole pretty much flows into another

Cruise ships always have scheduled activities throughout the day, particularly on sea days, of which ocean crossings have lots of. There’s a variety of things to choose from. The usual offerings include trivia, lecturers, competitions, games, demonstrations, exercise classes, and sometimes special events or deck parties. Explorer also had lots of things people could do to entertain themselves. The ship has a rock climbing wall and a flow rider, both of which had regularly scheduled open times daily. The 24-hour mini golf course is available any time people want to use it, other than during a scheduled competition. They also had a sports court, gym, and several pools and hot tubs. With deck chairs in sheltered areas, sunny areas, quiet areas, and busy areas anyone can find somewhere to sit and relax, read, nap, or people watch. There’s also a jogging track, shuffleboard courts, arcade, and ping-pong tables. Though the mini golf course on this ship looks like an afterthought it’s still fun to play. It sometimes got crowded during the daytime, but in the evening there was rarely anyone else there. One day I went to play mini golf, but then people started a golf competition, so I went down to sit outside on deck 4 and a shuffleboard competition started up. Just not my day I guess.

inside a cruise ship

overlooking the promenade café end of the Royal Promenade

Inside the Explorer of the seas there’s an open area several decks high called the Royal Promenade that resembles a small city. It has shops, a pub, and a nice little café where everything except the specialty coffee and ice cream is free. People can hang out there or at the little tables along the walkway. There are also seats on overlooking decks where people can sit to read or people watch.

massage room in cruise ship spa

spa room set up ready for a massage

When we booked this cruise they had a starting price for massages lower than I’d ever seen on a cruise ship before. Of course when I went to book one that wasn’t the standard price (which was higher on sea days than on port days.) The really good price was only for the first day. We were originally assigned to late seating dinner, and on the wait list for early. By the time the cruise came we had gotten assigned to early dinner, which was during the time I had booked the massage so I missed dinner in the dining room and went to the buffet instead. It was actually pretty nice there. No crowd like there is at breakfast or lunch and the food was good.

Captain's table menu

menu from the Captain’s table

I didn’t meet our tablemates on the second day either. It was the first formal night of the cruise and we got an invitation that day for dinner at the captains table with the staff captain – 2nd in command of the ship, and on this ship he’s the guy who docks the boat. The captain’s table is a big round table on the main floor of the deck 3 dining room, visible from the other two levels. Dinner there is by invitation only.

captain;s table

eating at the Captain’s table

There were 4 other couples and the chief safety officer there too. Each seat had a name card. We were seated next to the staff captain, a very nice guy. His shift is 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off. The safety officer was on the other end of the table so we didn’t get a chance to talk to him. There was a special menu just for that table different to what was served to everyone else. It was the best meal we had on the entire cruise.

ocean sunrise

sunrise over the Pacific Ocean

At home I run 3 days a week in parks near to my home. On ships I usually run outside on the promenade deck, but on this one I actually used the gym because it opened at 6am rather than 8 like a lot of other ships we’ve been on. You pretty much have to be there right at 6 if not before because the treadmills fill up quick. Most of the people were just walking, but maybe they didn’t like the promenade deck or jogging track on this ship any better than I did since both go through or past smoking areas, which is not conducive to good health and the last thing anyone out for exercise wants.

cruise ship dining room

Sapphire Dining Room – Explorer’s main dining room

On the 3rd day I finally met 2 of our tablemates. The other 2 couples didn’t come to dinner in the dining room that night. One person was seasick and the other couple went to one of the ship’s premium restaurants called Chops Grille. Eventually I met them all. They were all nice people and we enjoyed talking to them. On short cruises we usually choose the any time dining, but on long cruises there’s less ports and more time to linger over dinner and meet new people so we tend to pick a set dining time there.

rock climbing wall

almost there – climbing the ship’s rock climbing wall

One day I tried the rock climbing wall, just because it’s there. It’s not super high, but harder than it looks. I climbed a much higher one at an REI store once without any trouble years ago, but besides being younger then it was long before I ever broke my elbow. I got about halfway up the wall before my previously broken elbow started protesting. I don’t quite have full range of motion in that arm and a bit of nerve damage that affects my fingers. By the time I made it three quarters of the way up the whole arm was shaking. I was closer to the top than the bottom by then though and climbed the rest of the way up out of sheer stubbornness. It took awhile for the arm to recover afterword so I didn’t climb the wall again during the rest of the cruise. The next day I watched other people attempt it. Most didn’t even get halfway, though there were a few that scrambled right up to the top.

Johnny Rockets

Johnny Rockets burger place up on an outside deck

We tried Johnny Rockets for lunch once, but weren’t impressed. It’s a burger joint that you have to pay a bit extra for, but the fries were exactly the same as what they serve free at the buffet and the other food no better than what you get there either. Milkshakes have an additional charge, yet ice cream sundaes are one of the included dessert options. The sundae was the best part of the meal.

cruise ship ice arena

ice show in the skating rink

Explorer has an ice arena. On the 5th day of our cruise they had an ice show. There’s not nearly enough room for everyone to watch at once so they had 4 performances over 2 days with show attendance times assigned according to muster stations. We had the last time, but it was worth the wait. It was the best show we saw on this ship. We met one of the skaters the first day of the cruise because he was the crew person in charge of our muster station at the muster drill, which is always a requirement to attend on the first day of any cruise so everybody knows where to go in the event of an emergency.

cruise ship theater

the main theater had lectures, dance classes, and sometimes movies as well as the nightly shows

Some of the evening shows were pretty good too. Just a few involved their production cast, which is set up for week-long cruises. Most shows this cruise came from guest performers. They had the usual things like musicians, comedy, and magicians, but they had some unique shows as well. One night’s show was a hypnotist. The next day I had lunch at a table in the dining room with other people randomly seated there by the order they came in. Luckily I did not say I didn’t like hypnotist shows when one of the guys at the table asked if people had enjoyed the show. I hadn’t gone to the show and didn’t know he was the hypnotist until others at the table recognized him. The pickpocket guy’s evening show was so popular he had a lecture on how not to get pickpocketed the next day. His show was pretty amazing. He could wander through the crowd and get things like watches and ties from people he talked to while the people were totally oblivious.

Speaking of oblivious people, I always wonder why on cruise ships everywhere on any walkway no matter how wide or narrow, if there is just one person they walk down the center, often drifting side to side to prevent anyone from passing. If there are 2 or more people they sprawl across the entire walkway and do everything they can not to let anyone past, all while moving at the pace of a crippled snail. Then again maybe it’s just human nature because people sometimes do that other places besides cruise ships, and that really slow car on the highway often speeds up as soon as there is a passing lane, only to slow down again once the road narrows back to one lane per direction.


lamingtons from the Royal Promenade café on Explorer of the Seas

I had all but forgotten about Lamingtons until I saw them one afternoon at the promenade café. It’s an Australian dessert that I first tried at an airport in Fiji, and had again later on a shore excursion to Hobbiton in New Zealand. These little squares of cake dipped in chocolate and coated in coconut were best dessert on the ship for the entire cruise. The first time the café had any the majority of passengers had no clue what they were so they were available all day. The café only had them sometimes and not every day. Each successive time they ran out earlier as more people discovered this super tasty treat.

flowrider on a cruise ship

John on the boogie board

Eventually the ship got far enough south for the weather to warm up enough to try the flow rider. They offered stand up surfing and boogie boarding. Preferring to stay alive and uninjured, I only tried the boogie boarding, which is quite fun. If you take too long before wiping out they try and get you to go up on your knees, which some people can do well, but newbies usually wipe out trying. Some people do all sorts of tricks, others need the attendant to keep them off the wall. Regardless of skill level most people enjoyed it enough to keep coming back on other days.

elevator floor

if you forget what day it is just go to an elevator

We tried dinner at Giovanni’s on night, which is one of their premium restaurants, serving upscale Italian food. Appetizers came in large enough portions to make a dinner just from them. The eggplant parmesan was excellent. John said the scallops were delicious as well. The entrée also had plenty of food. The shrimp tasted good, but was a bit hard to get out of the shell. We didn’t try it, but the steak got good reviews from other people. Tiramisu was the best dessert according to people who like coffee, which I don’t. Their chocolate cake was better than the dining room’s, but not as good as the lamingtons at the café.

cruise ship ice skating

the helmet is required and the skates are foot torture, but ice skating on a cruise ship is still fun

A couple days after our Hawaiian ports the ice arena finally started having some open skating sessions for the passengers. I hadn’t skated since I was a kid, but decided to give it a try. The pair of skates I got was bulky and uncomfortable and had a toe pick extending all the way down to the front of the blade. The last point actually pointed downward into the ice extending lower than the blade making it hard to skate without tripping on the toe pick, but I found out that I can still skate. I did trip once from not holding my toes up high enough to keep that obnoxious toepick out of the ice. Not all the skates have that so the next time when they tried to give me a pair like that I asked for different ones and had a much easier time skating with in a pair with no toepick at all. It was just as bulky and uncomfortable though. Maybe they got that style for cheap, or maybe they picked extremely uncomfortable skates on purpose so people wouldn’t stay out on the ice long to keep the arena from getting too crowded. At first I wondered why some people used up suitcase space to pack their own skates, but after skating in theirs it became obvious. I would have skated longer with better skates, but it was still fun. It’s not just me, other people mentioned the skates hurting their feet too.

solarium hot tub

one of two hot tubs in the solarium

Unfortunately selfishly leaving towels and other items on deck chairs to save them for hours on end with nobody there is prevalent on cruise ships and this one was no exception. Though all the ships have signs saying they will pick up things left unattended for too long nobody ever does. This often made it hard to find available deck chairs in prime places like the sheltered area of the solarium, although some passengers will move other people’s stuff when they want a chair since the crew won’t. That was our favorite spot since the solarium was non-smoking and had more comfortable deck chairs than anywhere else. Unfortunately the towels of the chair hogs spent more time in those chairs than any of the passengers. We did find a row of deck chairs we liked near the back of the non-smoking side of the promenade deck. It wasn’t as nice as the solarium, but nobody ever seemed to go there so we could always get a chair. It was a nice place in good weather since it had the shade of the deck above. It also had a shuffleboard court so one day we gave that a go. I won one game and John won the other. At first we didn’t think either of us would score at all, but we got the hang of it after a couple rounds. Not enough to say we are anywhere close to good at it, but we managed to score some points.

cruise ship galley

there are lots of sections in the galley for preparing different things

On one of the sea days we took a behind the scenes tour. Most of the big cruise ships offer them through the shore excursions department. They vary a bit from one line to another and even among different ships of the same line, but generally the galley, laundry, and bridge are among the things you get to see. This one allowed cameras which was nice since the last one we took on a different line did not.

cruising the Pacific

people on the bow watching the ocean go by

Ocean crossings have lots of sea days to relax and enjoy all the things the ship has to offer. People can spend their time doing one activity after another or just sit in a deck chair and do nothing. Whatever works for them. We made it to our port stops in Fiji and were on the way to Vanuatu when one of the passengers took ill. At first they were going to evacuate him by helicopter, but then decided it was too cloudy for that. Instead the ship sped up and bypassed Vanuatu, heading instead to New Caledonia where they could take him to shore for transport to a hospital. Vanuatu was the only port where we had an excursion booked through the ship. Just like our last pacific crossing where the missed port Bora Bora was the only one where we had a ship’s excursion booked. Maybe it is bad luck to book a snorkel excursion through the ship in advance on transpacific cruises.

cooking demo

sort of a cross between a game show and the cooking demo it was supposed to be

Generally food this cruise was a bit disappointing compared to Celebrity, which Royal Caribbean owns, although frequent Royal cruisers said it was not up to par for Royal’s usual quality on this voyage and one jokingly mentioned they were probably cleaning out the food storage areas before arriving in Australia. Some things besides the lamingtons were surprisingly good though, like the day we found fresh from the oven warm cookies at the lunchtime pool deck BBQ. They had pretty good chicken there too.

life pods

ocean view through life pods – which pop up into rafts that the crew use instead of life boats

We made both our ports in New Caledonia. You would think getting so many people off a ship this big would be a major hassle, especially at tender ports, but that’s not the case. They are so efficient that tender tickets are not needed and when docked the line moves very quickly – probably due in part to no photographers stuffing up the line because they are nowhere near the gangway. Australian customs people came on board in New Caledonia to run everyone through their customs system before arriving in port. Maybe that’s a thing with overseas cruises heading into Australia because they came on at the last port on our previous transpacific cruise too. It really speeds up the customs process with this many people arriving at once since it is all done before we get there. Appointment times were scheduled by muster station and the process went far more quickly than it would if we all lined up at random onshore.

flow rider competition

Australian guy in the flow rider competion

On the last day they had a best of the best flowrider competition with 6 pre-chosen people on the stand-up boards. Audience cheering determined the winner, which was the oldest guy. He was the only American in the competition and the worst of the bunch in performance so least deserving to win. The actual best was either the Russian girl or young Australian guy, but the crowd had a lot more Americans. The crew guys running the show tried about 3 different ways to get a more fair response, but finally gave up and let him win.

flow show

flow rider crew performing in the flow show – notice that he is standing on people

Following that the flowrider staff put on a flow show, which was one of the best shows of the whole cruise.

Sydney cruise port

view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the ship in Circular Quay

The ship docked at Circular Quay. Cruise ships too big to fit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge dock at the overseas terminal there. Which is the better of Sydney’s cruise ports since White Bay is out in the middle of nowhere. Circular Quay is in the heart of Sydney’s tourist area with a view of both of its main icons from the ship – the opera house and the bridge. The historic Rocks area is an easy walk from the ship. Harbor Cruises, ferries, and water taxis are docked in the same harbor a couple hundred yards walk from the ship and  across the walkway from a train station so you can walk off the ship and get just about anywhere. You can also catch a hop-on-hop-off bus over the other side of Circular Quay near the free botanical garden. Circular Quay itself is a tourist destination with shops and restaurants.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018


Posted in Explorer of the Seas, Pacific Ocean & Islands, Royal Caribbean, Shipboard Life | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fun on the Magic

Carnival Magic cruise ship

Carnival Magic

Cruises are always fun, but some are definitely more fun than others. The same goes for ships. Each ship has something to offer, some more than others. It’s not always the ship or even the itinerary that makes a cruise special though. We had an especially good time on Carnival Magic and really liked the ship, but part of the enjoyment came from traveling with a large family group. We shared one of the 5-person deluxe ocean view cabins with our daughter and Australian grandkids. Also cruising with us we had our American grandson, his mother and other grandmother, and my sister.

giant Jenga

Hannah playing giant Jenga – aka Carnival Tower

We tend to participate more in the fun and games the ship’s entertainment crew provides when traveling with other people. The Magic had a giant Jenga type game they called Carnival Tower that the kids really enjoyed – and they made a taller tower than the girl running it saw very often. We also played the bean bag toss a couple times with various kids. We found one of the nightly movies under the stars that all the kids wanted to see, and another that my sister and I watched with Justin, our older grandson. They also enjoyed the family-friendly comedy shows several nights.


kids after the scavenger hunt

I don’t think any of us did any of the trivia games this cruise, but with a group effort we managed to win a photo scavenger hunt. The kids aren’t so much into the nightly stage shows, but they did have fun at Hasbro the Game Show even though none of us got picked to participate this time.

cruise ship art

artwork from Carnival Magic

The Magic has a fun sort of décor. A lot of things have bright happy colors. One of the stairways had beachy pictures often with parrots in them which I liked. Another stairway had pictures of marbles on one level, which Daniel thought was the greatest thing ever as far as cruise ship art goes. Hallways to the passenger cabins had brightly colored pictures, of which my favorite was the toucan.

cruise ship kid's club entry

Camp Ocean lobby

The two younger grandkids enjoyed going to Camp Ocean, but the older one has never been into the cruise ship kid’s programs and never set foot in Circle C. He found other things to keep amused, water slides always being a favorite. I don’t think I’d take kids on a ship that didn’t have water slides unless it had something else age appropriate that was just as entertaining. We found time one day for a swim in one of the ship’s pools followed by sitting in the hot tub.

fun and games on the top deck

Sports Square

Hannah did have a big disappointment one day when we went to go on the ropes course though. Much as her mom tried to find out whether or not there was a height limit beforehand, she couldn’t find that information. Mostly Carnival’s website just says the ropes course is fun for all, but that’s a bit deceiving. Sheri never found the obscure bit in the FAQ (frequently asked questions) area of Carnival’s website where it actually does give a height limit to know beforehand that Hannah was a bit too small and wouldn’t be allowed so it definitely wasn’t any fun for her. She’s done ropes courses before at other places and quite enjoyed them so that was one of the things she had looked forward to most.

dinnertime entertainment

tableside magician

Even mealtimes can be fun on cruise ships. Carnival always has their singing waiters – who do one song and dance routine most dinners. The Magic also had a tableside magician. The kids loved him so much the first night that he came to our table with a different trick every night. We even gave him a tip – something he doesn’t see many of.

Green Eggs and Ham breakfast

the menu at the Dr. Seuss breakfast looked like a book – and green eggs and ham is on the menu

Once per cruise Carnival has the Dr. Seuss breakfast, where some of the food is as wild as the stories. Characters come for a visit and sometime during that day or one near to it there is a Dr. Seuss parade and storytime.

towel animals

the start of the towel animal collection – and one beanie boo

Towels are fun too when folded into animals. The kids collected our nightly animal all week and put them in the window – sometimes joined by one or more of their stuffed animals. One day during the cruise the ship had towel animal theater where towel animal puppets put on a show in the main theater. One morning the Lido deck was full of towel animals – the towel animal invasion that happens once each cruise on Carnival.

Hasbro the Game Show has life-sized versions of old familiar board games

Luckily there’s no age limit on the mini-golf since we all had fun playing that. A couple of the adults frequented the casino – a place I try to never even walk through due to the fact that smoking is allowed there and I’m allergic to tobacco smoke. None of us made it into the gym this cruise, but Tina and Evelyn enjoyed the thermal suite, the use of which came with their spa cabin.

cruise ship pool

Lido Pool on towel animal invasion morning

The ship also has ping-ping and foosball tables, an indoor shuffleboard game, and of course lots of bars. It has a few shops, and there’s a daily schedule of things available for people to do. With the large group we had we sometimes just found an empty table somewhere for some of us to sit around and play a game.

waterslides on a cruise ship

waterslides and splash park

We’re usually pretty good at entertaining ourselves. There’s always so much to do I can’t imagine getting bored on a cruise. Besides shows and movies, evening activities include music in places like the piano bar or nightclub and sometimes in other areas as well. Not to mention nature’s entertainment with sunrises, sunsets, and just watching the sea go by – sometimes with the appearance of things like flying fish or even whales or dolphins.

copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Birds, Bears, & Barnacles

Sitka cruise ship dock

Oosterdam at the cruise dock in Sitka

Previously when visiting Sitka our ship anchored offshore and tendered passengers to town. On our last visit we were surprised when the Holland America Oosterdam pulled into a dock over 5 miles from town. Though this dock at the Halibut Point Marina is called the old Sitka dock it’s actually fairly new, built around 2011, but not used regularly by cruise ships until a few years later. The name comes from its location near the old Sitka historic state park at Sitka’s first non-native settlement. The floating portion of the dock was once part of the Hood Canal Bridge which connects Washington State’s Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.


seagulls feasting on salmon that spawned and died

Ships in Sitka still tender if more than one come to town at the same time. Busses shuttle passengers from the dock to a shuttle stop just a few blocks from the tender pier. The local-ran excursions that used to wait with signs at the tender pier moved to the shuttle station in town for docked ships. There’s not much near the cruise ship dock so if you don’t have an excursion booked you can take the free shuttle to town to explore on your own or book last minute excursions with the locals. Although Fortress of the Bear is also quite a ways out of town it is off in the opposite direction from the dock so not something you can walk to from there. The Old Sitka State Historical Park is the closest thing at a mile and a half away from the dock in the opposite direction of town.

tiny owls

tiny owls sat on little perches by the help desk at the raptor center

On a previous visit to Sitka with different people we visited Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center on our own, but cruising with Alaska newbies this time I was unable to convince them beforehand that we could get to these places by ourselves. They wanted to book an excursion so we went with one called Birds, Bears, and Barnacles. This one went to the Sitka Sound Science Center/Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery as well as Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center. They would have liked more time at the raptor center and if we had it to do over again this time they’d agree to getting around Sitka on our own.

map of sitka

sitka map

At about a mile from where the shuttles or tenders drop passengers, if you don’t mind a bit of a hike you can walk to the raptor center. It’s on the do-it-yourself walking tour map. You can get there by road or on trails through a park. The science center/fish hatchery is an even easier walk located right on Lincoln Street about a half mile from the main touristy part of town. Fortress of the Bear is too far to walk on a road with no shoulders for walking on, but the time we went there on our own we took their shuttle from the local offerings at the tender pier.

young eagle

presentation at the raptor center with young flightless eagle

The first stop on our excursion took us to the Alaska Raptor Center, for the bird part of the tour. When you go there with a cruise ship excursion they have a presentation with a live eagle. Most of their birds are rehabbed and released into the wild, but some have injuries that leave them incapable of surviving on their own. Some unreleasable birds have a personality that enables them to become ambassadors for their species, used for demonstrations like this one or for educational visits to places like schools.

salmon carcass

the creek at the raptor center and trail to it were littered with the carcasses of salmon who completed their life cycle at the spawning grounds

We also saw the flight room where formerly injured eagles learn to fly again so they can someday return to the wild. The main building at the raptor center also has restrooms and a gift shop. We had time to hike down a trail to a creek where the eyeless carcasses of spawned out salmon lined the shore and seagulls feasted on salmon carrion in the river . We would have liked to go farther, but shore excursions have limited time at each stop. The raptor center has lots of outdoor enclosures with a variety of different birds. There’s definitely more there to see than excursion time allows so going on your own is best if you don’t want to hurry through.

Fortress of the Bear

black bear at Fortress of the Bear

Next we went to the bear part of Birds, Bears, and Barnacles with a stop at Fortress of the Bear, which has changed since the last time I went there. The space where it used to have some turkeys and other animals now houses several orphan black bears. They don’t have as much space as the brown bears, but none would have survived in the wild without their mothers. Two are biological sisters and the third is an unrelated male. The black bear habitat was pretty bare when we were there. According to Fortress’ website they are working on building a sort of bear version of a jungle gym to replace trees the bears used to climb in that habitat until they destroyed them.

brown bear

brown bear at Fortress of the Bear

The main enclosures were the same. These large round structures that are now home to brown bears once served their original purpose as clarifier tanks in a sawmill. The bears have about 3/4 of an acre within the circular tank, which is filled with plants, water, and hiding places to resemble a natural environment as closely as possible. Alaska does not allow rehabbed bears to be released into the wild so all bears raised there either have to stay or be placed in zoos or animal sanctuaries. Orphan cubs aren’t likely to survive on their own so if a mother bear dies the cubs who aren’t rescued don’t have much of a chance. One of the missions of Fortress of the Bear is trying to get the rules changed so healthy bears can someday be released to the wild once they are grown and ready to fend for themselves. While separated at the time of our visit, a tunnel is in the works to connect the two tanks making one double sized habitat and letting all of the brown bears live together.

bear enclosure

the bear habitat includes hiding places like this cave

Fortress of the Bear is a bit over 5 miles from town on a road with no sidewalks and areas with no shoulder.  As mentioned previously, you can visit on your own without booking an excursion by taking their bus from the shuttle station where the cruise ship shuttle drops passengers off, or the tender pier if your ship anchors. City busses are another option. When we took a shuttle there on a previous visit it also stopped at the Raptor Center making it quite easy to visit both.

aquarium in Sitka

starfish at the science museum aquarium

The last stop on our tour took us to the science museum and fish hatchery. The barnacle portion of the tour, though I did not actually see any barnacles. The building used to be part of a school. It’s still used for educational purposes in partnership with a university. The main building has a variety of aquariums and a few displays along the walls. The center has several open touch tanks. A smaller building is used for a salmon spawning shed. Outside there are quite a lot of fish pens where they keep hatchlings until they are big enough to release. 95% of hatchery eggs make it to the point of fish big enough to release to the salt water, while just 5% of wild eggs do. Only 2% of all fish going into salt water make it back to spawn whether they were born wild or in a hatchery. 2% of 95% of the eggs is a lot more fish than 2% of 5% though. From 1000 eggs 19 hatchery fish will return to spawn, but just one wild one.


crab in one of the aquariums at the science museum

While taking a ship’s tour insures both transportation and fitting everything in within the time frame of the ship’s stay in town, this could all be done on your own by anyone who doesn’t mind walking a bit. Whether your ship tenders or docks you can catch a shuttle that goes to fortress of the bear and the raptor center. Both the raptor center and Fish hatchery are within walking distance of the tender pier or shuttle stop. Going on your own has the advantage of choosing for yourself how long to spend at each stop. Going with a ship’s tour means you have transportation provided, and that people at each stop will meet with your tour group and provide information you might not get looking around on your own. It also means you will get back to the ship on time and that it will not leave you behind if your tour returns late, whereas when exploring on your own it is your responsibility to return to the ship by the all-aboard time or it will leave without you. Of course if you choose to stay in town when your tour ends rather than going directly back to the ship then getting back to the ship on time becomes your responsibility just as if you had gone out on your own.

More Blogs About Sitka


Fortress of the Bear

Sitka Raptor Center

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018


Posted in Alaska, Holland America, Oosterdam, Port Cities, Ports of Call, Shore Excursions, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marseilles, France

Marseilles, France

Vista in Marseilles

Marseilles, a port on the Mediterranean coast of France, has been a major commercial port and trading center since ancient Greek and Roman times. It’s second only to Paris for France’s largest city. It has a mild climate and is France’s sunniest major city. There are several museums and a variety of historic buildings in Marseilles.

somewhere in France

view from the ship passing through the channel to the port

Carnival Vista docked across the pier from a French cruise ship, which looked to be boarding that day from the people with luggage crossing the pavement toward it. For us it was just a port stop. We had no plans, but from our balcony we could see people walking out of the port on a green line painted along the edge of the road as well as plenty of taxis and a whole slew of busses. Some of the busses were shuttles to take people to town, others waited to take passengers on cruise ship shore excursions. Ship excursion options in Marseilles included bus tours to other villages, some with food, wine, museums, or antiquities like an aqueduct or ancient buildings. Other ship’s tours included the top 10 sites in Marseilles and a coastal drive. The taxi cost 20 euro one way for two, and the shuttle was 17 euro each round trip.

Marseilles, France

building in Marseilles

The walking path led to what looked like a bus station where people could catch the city bus. If they continued on from there eventually the path split off from the road the shuttle took and went the opposite way. The shuttle went down to the old town area and dropped people off near a marina. By the marina people could take the little tourist train up to a cathedral called Notre Dame on a hilltop towering above the city. Not the famous Notre Dame, but the main attraction for the area. They could also opt for the hop on hop off bus which went to an old fort and some other places besides the cathedral.

big wheel

giant ferris wheel near the marina

From the shuttle stop passengers could just wander around the marina area. A giant ferris wheel sat near the end of the marina by a bunch of boats that looked to be day trip harbor cruises. We might have taken a ride on the ferris wheel if it hadn’t cost more than we were willing to spend. We probably weren’t the only ones who felt that way because it wasn’t very crowded.

marina in Marseilles

marina with cathedral in the background

Across the street from the marina little restaurants lined the sidewalk with outdoor cafes spilling out their doors. Little shops tucked between the cafes tried to tempt tourists with wine, olive oil, lavender, and other specialties of the region. There were also pharmacies among the shops, nice for American tourists looking for a better price than they can find at home. Epi-pens for instance cost just $60 for two rather than the $600 charged in the USA.

tourist train

train on the way up the hill to the cathedral

The day we went to Marseilles was sunny but cold with a brisk wind blowing through. We wandered about town a bit and took the little tourist train up to the cathedral.

pickpockets are everywhere in Europe

pickpocket warning – at a church

It’s pretty sad when there’s a sign posted on a stairway to a church warning tourists to watch out for pickpockets. Apparently they have no respect for anything and have no qualms about breaking one of the 10 commandments at a house of god. I suppose people who care little enough about others to prey on them for a living are not likely to be religious or to care about anyone else’s religion either even if it is common courtesy to be respectful in any place of worship regardless of whether you personally believe in that (or any) religion or not.

hilltop cathedral

Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica

The current basilica was built in 1864 on the site of an earlier church from 1214. A fort predated the earlier church, and a portion of it remains. The cathedral sits on top of the area’s highest hill. The church’s lower level is carved into the limestone rock. The upper levels underwent restoration from 2001 to 2008. Work included restoration of mosaics and stonework damaged by candle smoke, pollution, and bullets.

Notre Dame de la Garde

alcove of candles in the basilica

Inside the cathedral had an alcove full of lighted candles near the entry. Artwork in the church includes statues and mosaics. Churches are often an area’s best examples of the architecture and artwork of the time period in which they were built.

Marseilles, France

across the street from the Marina in Marseilles

Across the street from the marina a walkway passed by the area’s assortment of restaurants and shops. Many of the restaurants had outdoor seating next to the walkway.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Carnival, Europe, Port Cities, Ports of Call, Vista | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Havana “Walking” Tour

Havana, Cuba

Veendam in Havana from the fort across the channel

When cruising to Cuba it’s required to book an excursion through the ship for anyone who wants to get off the boat that didn’t book their cruise before June of 2017. That is if you are cruising from the USA, under which the ship and everyone on it has to follow USA rules regardless of where they are from. American restrictions don’t apply to people from other countries sailing to Cuba on ships belonging to other country’s cruise lines and not departing from the USA. Ships from non-American lines can even depart from Havana. Besides the cruise line people taking care of the mountain of required paperwork and obtaining the required Visa for passengers, Holland America Veendam’s excursions satisfied the USA’s people-to-people requirement for the visit. Anyone booking prior to June of 2017 and going out on their own had to take care of all those things for themselves.

Cuban fort

fort in Havana

We booked what was listed as a walking tour through old Havana. The ship docks in old Havana so walking there from the ship should not be an issue considering that’s where you are when you exit the port building. Speaking of the port building, Havana has 3 piers, one of which is in good condition where the ship docks and the other two unusable with their terminal buildings crumbling in decay. The Veendam docked at 2pm, having to wait for an MSC ship to first leave the one available pier. If your ship comes in early an 8-hour excursion is required, but with our late port arrival time the excursions from our ship only needed to last 4 hours to satisfy the USA’s rules and regulations. Despite warnings from the cruise director that we could be quite late in our arrival as we had to wait until the MSC ship cleared the channel before we went in and that it doesn’t always leave on time, we docked right on schedule.

walking park in the middle of a road in Havana

2 kilometer long walking park in the center strip of a busy road

Veendam was notoriously unorganized in getting their shore excursions going. Not just in Cuba, but at other port stops as well. While most ships would send someone from the crew along and keep each tour together from the start, this one just gave everyone a sticker with their tour number and sent them on their way when their excursion was called. For Cuba this means passing through customs, waiting in line at the money exchange, then going downstairs and finding your tour. They did not even seat people on the same tour together while they waited, leaving everyone to find their own seats at random. We were not near anyone else on tour number 7.

Havana neighborhood

Cubans on a street in Havana

Though they called each group one by one, some people move faster than others getting to the customs line, and some customs lines move faster than others so by the time people got to the money exchange line different tours had all mixed together. At the lower level in the bus area we finally found people waiting with numbered signs for the different tours. We found 1-6, and 8, but no 7. It was supposed to be a walking tour so we weren’t expecting a bus, just a guide to lead the tour. The person with the number 8 sign said 7 was on the next platform over. We went over there and saw 3 busses, but no guide for our tour. Then the driver stepped off the last bus in line from the exit, which was the closest bus to us. He stopped to write “this is 7” on the back of a piece of paper that had something else on the other side and hung it in the window. By then a couple other people from our tour had found their way to that platform.

fort at the harbor in Havana

lighthouse on the fort at the entrance to Havana harbor

We were wishing we had brought either Canadian money which it is easy to exchange for in local banks near our home, or euros which we had leftover from a previous trip. Either of those could have been used for tips meaning we could bypass the money exchange since we had no plans for shopping. We were told before leaving home that using American money in Cuba is a federal crime and that no shops in Cuba would take it anyway. Out on the tour we did see some other people leave American dollars for tips and I couldn’t find anything online verifying if that is indeed still a crime or not. Or perhaps tipping isn’t technically spending, which is what is or was a crime. A Canadian passenger said the shops in Havana would take Canadian money, but as we didn’t have any or try to spend any I can’t say as to whether or not that is true.

Revolutionary Square in Havana

building in Revolutionary Square

Wondering why we needed a bus, the four of us who had found it got on. A few more people trickled over from the other platform, and eventually the guide showed up with the majority of the group. By the time everyone got settled in the two busses ahead of ours had left. They waited a bit longer, but no more people came before they finally left. After a drive through town up a street with a wide walkway down the center that the guide called a walking park, which he said went for about 2K, we ended up at Revolutionary Square, which probably was farther from the port than most people would want to walk.

old American cars

1050’s American cars in Cuba

There was a parking lot next to it full of the brightly painted 1950’s American cars Havana is famous for. A rainbow of colors with little taxi signs in the window. On the outside they are all American, but under the hood is another story. Whatever they parts they can fit or modify to keep the cars running are in there. Before the guide would let anyone off the bus he stood at the front and yakked and yakked. Some of the cars started to drive away. People wanted out to take photos, but he droned on and on. All about the Cuban version of history and who their national heros are. About each building you could see from there, and what was inside that we’d never see since we were at some point just going to get out of the bus for a few minutes to take a few photos around the square.

old American cars in Havana

Havana taxi

More of the cars left. People started standing up and trying to get photos through the windows. Some different old cars pulled in, but not as many as there had been. Finally he let us out and people got some pictures of the cars and the buildings. We only had 5 or 10 minutes there and when we got back on the bus all the cars were gone so had he blabbed much longer nobody would have gotten any car photos.

Havana, Cuba

tour group walking to the little museum

Buildings throughout the old part of town are all ancient. Some are well kept up and at least from the outside look beautiful and appear to be in great condition while others look more like ruins. I wish I’d had my camera out when we passed by one where a whole corner section of the building had fallen down leaving a vacant lot littered with building debris, yet people still lived in the part of the building that remained on both sides of the fallen corner. Though it looked like a ruin, many of the balconies had laundry hanging out to dry.


Quisicuaba museum building

Next we went to a place called Quisicuaba, which was not on our schedule of places to go. Everyone has to do a people to people thing and it was listed on some of the other tours the ship offered, but we were supposed to go somewhere called Retazos Dance Company. The bus parked and after a short (for him) yak from the guide we got out, had another short yak and then walked about half a block to the Quisicuaba Museum.

Cuban house with open roof

open area of the roof in the Cuban house

The first door we entered went into what they said was a typical Cuban house, but they must have just meant the building structure because the inside of this one was quite fancy and had a very lot of things. Way more and nicer things than the average Cuban family could afford, or that would fit comfortably in that house if anyone were actually living there. All sorts of things from furniture to figurines to artwork, even pictures hanging on the wall where the whole picture frame bent around a corner. Once out of the main first two rooms a hallway ran down one side of the house that was open to the sky other than wire fencing. One of the people who worked there said that is typical of the row houses like that one that have no windows other than at the front and back of the house. All the rooms in between have buildings on both sides of them so there is nowhere to put a window. There were plants under the open space, but not enough to catch all the water that would come in if it rained so that hallway must get wet at times. The back of the house had a little kitchen and a dining room with all sorts of fancy dishes displayed on the wall. There were lots of things in there that would have made interesting photos, but taking pictures inside was not allowed.

rapping Cuban grannies

rapping grannies at the front of a crowd

Next we went a couple doors down and inside a similarly sized, but much plainer house. It had the same open hallway, and one side that was several rooms in the other one had been opened up into one room in this one. It was full of plastic chairs where everyone was directed to sit for a performance from 5 rapping grannies. After filing out past their tip bowl we went back to the bus. Even after dividing it up among the grannies and the rest of the museum workers, tips over a month probably add up to considerably more money for each of them than the average Cuban makes in that same month.

statue of Christ in Cuba

giant Christ statue in Havana

Next the bus took us through a tunnel under the harbor to see the giant Christ statue and a fort built in the 1500’s on the other side of the bay. The bus parked near the statue and we got to walk down and see it up close.

missile display in Cuba

missile display

Along the way to the fort we passed a roadside display of Russian and American military planes and missiles which prompted a brief stop for a history lesson from the Cuban point of view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to our tour guide the Soviets had snuck missiles into Cuba without Fidel Castro’s knowledge, and their national hero Castro stopped an invasion from the Americans and prevented a nuclear war by having Kruschev on one phone and Kennedy on the other and talking both of them out of blowing up the world. I suppose every country teaches their children the version of events they would like their people to believe. Once again we could only take photos through the bus windows because it was more important to our guide to give us his version of history than to let us get out and see anything.

We stopped in front of the fort and listened to another long yakking session before the guide let us out of the bus near a small booth where locals hand cranked sugarcane into juice on a small mill. Only one person wanted stay there long enough to wait and taste the juice so he stayed behind while everyone else walked up to the fort, anxious to finally get inside. We could see one small section of an outdoor area that had a couple shops, but had to wait there for the guide to return with the last person. After walking up through the outer fort area he stopped us in front of an archway into the main part of that section of the fort so he could talk some more. Why can’t we ever get a guide who can manage to walk and talk at the same time? Instead of standing there seeing nothing while he yakked on and on we could have gone inside where he could have told us about the different areas of the fort we could have seen if we’d gone in while we still had time to see them.

fort in Havana

Archway into the fort

Instead we had a good long look at the entry arch while wishing we could go in while he yakked endlessly. Mostly it all went in one ear and out the other. Basically bla bla bla, Fidel Castro is our hero, bla, bla, bla, Fidel saved us from this or that, bla, bla, bla, what a great guy Fidel was. You would think he was required to say all that except that he seemed to truly believe in what he said and seemed intent on convincing everyone else as well. I don’t suppose anyone who doesn’t support the government gets a job as a tour guide even on tours Americans are allowed to take, which can’t be government sponsored. He also said they have free health care for everyone and that schooling is required to the point that parents could go to jail if their children don’t attend. Even attending the University is free, but not required, though up through Community College is. Three years of military service is required for males, but voluntary for females.

vendors at Cuban fort

on the other side of the arch vendors sell their wares

He didn’t say much about their actual living conditions, but did say that material things aren’t important, just people. He also said getting a heart transplant is easy, but finding a bar of soap is hard. After at least 20 minutes of yakking we finally got 10 minutes to see the fort, most of which he spent in a room full of pictures of Cuba’s heros yakking some more to whoever stayed in the room while everyone else went outside to a nearby viewpoint to take photos of the sun setting over Havana and the ship across the channel.

Cuban tour guide

talkative guide

When he came out and had everyone follow him it looked for a minute like we might actually tour the fort then, but no. We just went to the nearest stairway and back to the entrance. So we saw a very small portion of one section of the fort. A semi-distant lighthouse marked the end of the fort nearest the sea and we got nowhere near that part of the fort. Back at the area that was within the fort, but beyond that archway into the main interior he led everyone to a gift shop to buy rum and cigars – something they could have got in giftshops right at the port after the tour was over.

catapult in Cuban fort

catapult display at the fort

He said 20 minutes there and I had no desire to go into a smelly cigar shop so I went back through the arch intending to walk up a ramp I’d seen when we were by some cannons before we went down the stairs. I got to the ramp, but since it had a barricade nearly all the way across I thought it might not be wise to go up there. There were Cuban military people all around the fort including at the top of that ramp and it wouldn’t be a good thing to go somewhere tourists didn’t belong all alone with the rest of the group nowhere nearby. So I went down to the plateau where we hadn’t gone before and found several rooms with different displays, all far more interesting than anything the guide showed us – which was basically nothing. Most just had small stuff in glass cases, but one room had a catapult and another was set up like a chapel.

chapel in Cuban fort

fort room that looked like a chapel

Even with my extra loop around the fort I didn’t get in a whole lot of walking during our tour, though probably double what anyone else did. The sun went down before we left the fort and headed into town to walk through 3 plazas in the dark. All were quite close to each other so the total distance we walked through town was not very far at all. So much for the 4-hour walking tour. They really should have called it a bus tour with a bit of walking. Or maybe a Cuban history lesson on a bus since that’s where most of the time went.

cathedral in Havana

church at Cathedral Square

Once in town the guide offered for anyone who didn’t want to walk around to take the bus back to the port. A couple people had been whining about needing to get back because they had another excursion, but one of them got off the bus to take the walk when the guide said it would take about half an hour.

Havana, Cuba

restaurant at Cathedral Square

We only walked a few blocks before stopping at the first plaza for another 15 minute yak session. The guy who needed to get back should have known better by the way things had gone so far that day. A few blocks to the next plaza with a stop along the way to talk about a castle had him well over the half hour without even reaching the second plaza – even though it was right next to the castle.

Cuban cat

cat in a garden at a Cuban plaza

The first plaza had a church in it and an open–air restaurant under a roofed area boarderd by Roman style columns. The second one had somewhat of a parklike area with fenced in plantings. One of the planting areas seemed to be a favorite hangout of neighborhood cats. Whether they were strays or people’s pets heading for the only greenery around I have no clue. While the guide yakked about the statue at the center of that square a black and white spotted dog ran through and scared all the cats up a tree. When we left there the dog followed along for awhile, marking his territory on nearly everything we passed.

Cuban plaza

Plaza across the street from the cruise ship terminal

The final square was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal. It had a pink building as well as the usual stone colored assortment. The street in between was quite busy, where we saw very little traffic walking from square to square. Although the total amount of walking we did was small we gave the guide a tip anyway. They depend on that money and we did get to see some stuff in Havana.

sunset in Havana

sunset over Havana

There was a crossing guard in a crosswalk between the square and the terminal, stopping traffic so people could cross. It did have the sort of striping that means pedestrians have the right of way in the states, but whether it doesn’t have that meaning in Cuba or the drivers just don’t care I can’t say. At least the crossing guard was there. Once the excursion concludes people have the option of wandering around on their own rather than going straight back to the ship if they want to for the rest of that day, but if they spend another day in Cuba whether at the same port or a different one they again have to fulfill the excursion requirement in order to get off the ship.

Back in the terminal the line at the money exchange was quite long. Cuba takes a 10% tax when you use American money to change for their money, but other currencies just get the 3% exchange fee. They change it back for just the 3% fee, no tax, but that still means losing money on both ends of the exchange. On the way out the line moved fairly quickly, but by evening it went quite slow. Though it had a lot of stations, all but one person had gone home for the night so just one guy had to take care of the whole line on his own.


Havana from the ship on the way into port

Some people skipped the long line by visiting the gift shops and souvenir booths along the sides of the long hallway and buying stuff just to use up their money and wait in the shorter gift shop lines. The rest waited in the barely moving exchange line. And waited. John checked out the shops while I held our place in the line, but didn’t find anything worth buying. After moving about 15 feet in 45 minutes and having more than 3 times that distance left to go it occurred to me that we could tip our cabin steward in Cuban money. He wouldn’t be disembarking when we got back to Florida and the ship goes to Cuba every week so he’d have a use for it. Might even save him from waiting in that line. Great solution, just wished I’d thought of it 45 minutes earlier. We saw him in the hallway on the way back to our cabin and he said he was planning on going out later that night so John just gave him the Cuban money as an extra tip right there and we left him a tip in American money at disembarkation.

More Blogs About Cuba

Cruising to Cuba

Havana Cruise Ship Port

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Behind the Scenes Tour on Explorer of the Seas

view from cruise ship bridge

view from the bridge

A lot of the big cruise ships offer a behind the scenes tour on a sea day through their shore excursions department. Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas is no exception. This tour was available for booking online pre-cruise or through shore excursions on the ship. Every line runs things a little differently. Royal Caribbean required a waiver signed for participation, and to show up with long pants, closed toed shoes, photo ID and ship cards. They collected the waivers first thing, but never asked to see the ID or cards. Cameras were allowed, but no flash photography or video or audio recording.

cruise ship galley

there are lots of sections in the galley for preparing different things

We started out with a tour of the deck 5 dining room galley. The dining room spans 3 levels and has a galley on each one. The main galley for the whole ship with giant soup vats and things is at the deck 3 dining room, but all the other dining venues each have a galley of their own.

preparing room service

setting up trays for room service

In the deck 5 galley they had an area where they prepare things for room service, a room where people were preparing fruits and veggies for the upcoming lunch service in the buffet, dish and pot washing areas, and other prep stations. Our guide said the bakery was in the deck 4 galley.

galley crew

galley crew in colored neck scarves designating their positions

Some of the galley crew wear colored neck scarves that designate their rank among the galley workers.

galley on a cruise ship

each galley worker has specific tasks to do

Galley staff is a large percentage of the ship’s crew and includes those who serve and clean up for meals as well as the people who prepare the food. Between all the passengers and crew they serve around 15,000 meals daily. Besides food varying from one dining venue to another, there is also a separate menu for the crew who have food options available with the sorts of foods they find in the countries they come from – which means things from a variety of regions since it’s an international crew.

cruise ship crew area

I-95 is a long corridor for the crew on deck 1

Passenger areas on the Explorer end at deck 2 other than medical and disembarkation areas on deck 1. Our tour brought us further into deck 1 down their long central corridor called I-95, the same name as on ships of other lines we have toured in the past. This corridor gives crew easy access from one end of the ship to the other.

crew info

one of the more colorful of many displays for the crew along the walls of I-95

A variety of crew information was posted all along the walls of I-95. Everything from safety info to upcoming events, and all sorts of other information for the crew. Cruise ships usually have several decks below the waterline, accessible to crew only except for the behind the scenes tours which usually include some spaces on one or two of the lower decks.

security check for behind the scenes tour

security officer checking one of the women on the tour

After a thorough security check which included signing the list they had of tour participants next to our names and scanning each person with a wand we went into the engine control room. Women formed one line and men another for the security check. A female security officer scanned the women while a male scanned the men.

engine control room

engine control room

In the engine control room they had screens to view what the cameras monitoring the ship’s engines and propellers had to show at the time. The ship has 6 engines and needs 5 to run at top speed. The ship can go sideways as well as forward or backward, which aids in docking as well as in holding position at anchor.

engine camera monitors

monitors showing what the engine cameras see

That leaves the 6th for a spare unless it is time for routine maintenance, which is done at sea and takes a month for each of the diesel electric engines. Besides powering the ship’s propulsion, they also generate electricity for the ship. Heat generated as a by-product is used to make steam for water desalinization.

deck plans

deck plans to the lowest decks on Explorer of the Seas

A table in the engine control room showed deck plans for all areas of the ship including the decks below the passenger areas and the crew area portions of decks that are blank on deck plans posted in passenger areas. It showed deck 0 plus 3 more decks below that.

cruise ship storage

storage area on a lower deck

Down a couple steep sets of stairs we saw a storage area. Supplies come in through large doors just above the waterline where things are loaded by forklift in port. Different types of foods each have their own freezer. Poultry has its own separate freezer, as does ice cream. Refrigerators too are segregated, with one just for booze.

booze cooler

a whole giant refrigerator just for alcohol

Cruise ships do what they can to become greener as technology becomes available allowing them to do so. One of the next upgrades scheduled for Explorer is to add scrubbers for the exhaust that will remove the black smoke and leave nothing but steam. Currently they have incinerators to take care of the non-recyclable garbage, though burning it does not generate any power for the ship at this time. They did say they have solar panels to get some clean energy though. They also have a sewage treatment plant that results in only clean water being discharged from the ship. Food waste is processed into pellets that are sent out to feed fish.


recycling area

The money made from the recyclables is used at 80% for things that benefit the whole crew such as funding crew parties or video games for their recreation areas. The other 20% goes to the 6 people who work in the recycling area.

towel folder

towel folding machine

Our next stop brought us to the clean room of the laundry, on one of the decks below the waterline. There they press or steam uniforms and passenger laundry. They also have large machines that fold sheets, towels, and other linens. The people who operate them were out to lunch so we did not get to see them feed a sheet into one end that pops out the other end pressed and folded.

cruise ship laundry

when you wash a lot of clothes you need a big machine

They said dirty laundry was down another deck so no dirty and clean things would ever get mixed up. We did not go down there to see the massive washers and dryers used for ship’s laundry like sheets, towels , and tablecloths on this ship, though we have seen them on other ships. We did see some machines used for clothing.

docking station

docking station on the bridge

Our tour ended with a stop on the bridge. Before entering we went through the same security procedure as before. We were allowed to wander the portion of the bridge not roped off, which included one docking station, a view out the front windows, and a seating area. Some of the rest of the bridge could be seen and photographed over the ropes. From there we could see that the bridge viewing windows on the deck above only show a peek at a small area of the bridge. This ship did not have the floor windows in the docking station used for aligning the ship at the dock that we have seen on some other cruise ships, but since we were told not to ask the bridge crew any questions I couldn’t find out what they use instead to line themselves up. There is a docking station at each end of the bridge in the part where the bridge windows stick out beyond the main area of the ship. When docking they use whichever one is on the side next to the dock at that port.

cruise ship bridge

bridge area with windows where passengers can look in from the deck above

It’s always fun to take a behind the scenes tour and see some of the areas where passengers aren’t normally allowed to go.

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Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Carnival Magic in San Juan

Magic in Puerto Rico – taken from Pigeon Park

When visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, we almost always end up at one of the historical forts there. Partly because it’s cheap to get in and there are 2 forts within walking distance of the ship, but also because we always seem to be there with someone different who hasn’t seen them yet. The forts are so big that no matter how many times we go back we always find something in the fort that we hadn’t seen on a previous visit.

feral cat in San Juan

one of San Juan’s feral cats

Although Castillo San Cristobol is closer to the ship, when Carnival Magic stopped in San Juan we chose to go to El Morro because our little grandson adores cats and we knew we could find some along the seaside pathway on the way there. It’s kind of the long way to get there, but well worth the trek. Usually there’s a free shuttle people can take around old town San Juan and to the forts if they don’t want to walk. We had thought we might try and catch it to go from fort to fort, but it wasn’t running that day. Perhaps due to the roads being stuffed up with a huge amount of unmoving traffic due to some big upcoming event  all the locals seemed to be setting up for.

hidden places inside El Morro

ramp to the original tower

We did find a few undiscovered areas inside the fort where we hadn’t gone before. This time it was on a lower level. It had mostly empty rooms that were once living quarters and a kitchen area. It also had a ramp leading down to the fort’s original tower, which is now incorporated into a larger building. The original fort built in 1539 held just a few men and 4 cannons.

cannon at old Spanish fort

cannon at El Morro

During the next few hundred years as the threats to Spain’s rule of Puerto Rico grew, so did the forts and walls protecting San Juan from pirates and invasions from other countries. Nobody managed to take over for centuries until walls could no longer keep up with technology. During the Spanish American war the USA gained control in 1898.  There’s a sign at the fort saying when walls lost their effectiveness as a means of protection to the technology of the times – which was before airplanes were even invented. That’s why walled cities are all ancient.

El Morro fort

courtyard full of nooks

The fort was used as an outpost in both world wars before retiring into the National Park Service in 1949 along with Castillo San Cristobol, who had protected the city from attacks by land for centuries while El Morro guarded from attacks by sea.

hidden stairway at El Morro

spiral stairs in a low-traffic area of the fort

Near an old kitchen area we found for the first time this visit we discovered a circular stairway leading back up to the open area of the main lower level. In the main upper level it’s always interesting to look at the hall of maps progressing through the years from room to room. In the first one Spain claims to own pretty much everything in the Caribbean as well as a good portion of Mexico and the USA. By the last one Spain owns nothing.

fort in San Juan

sea view from El Morro – with a garita (lookout tower)

From the fort we had a great view of another cruise ship coming into port. Framing the ship with one of the fort’s arched viewports would have made a great picture, but the viewports all had people in them so that shot never happened for me. We briefly covered all the major areas of the fort during our visit, but it would take a long time to look into every nook and cranny. Which is why we always manage to find something different each visit.

old San Juan

colorful buildings and blue brick roads in old San Juan

Though a few raindrops fell at the start of our walk, the skies soon cleared and the sun grew hot. The bit of a breeze couldn’t manage to keep anyone cool. By the time we got through exploring El Morro people felt sweaty enough that nobody wanted to walk the mile to Castillo San Cristobal in the heat to explore another fort. We walked back to the ship through town instead. The colorful buildings with grand old Spanish style architecture always make nice scenery to walk by.

Pigeon Park

Pigeon Park – living up to its name

We stopped by the aptly named pigeon park in our meanderings through town. Our older grandson Justin wondered why we didn’t go to Castillo San Cristobal instead of El Morro when he saw how much closer to the ship it is, but the paseo doesn’t lead there and we’d promised Daniel he’d get to see the cats.

view from the fort

view from El Morro

Every time we come to San Juan it seems that more of its historical blue brick roads have gotten paved over. This time we noticed quite a few streets re-done in brick rather then just straight pavement, but they didn’t bother to dye the bricks blue and since San Juan is famous for blue brick roads, not gray ones it’s a bit disappointing they don’t save that part of their history. I’d imagine it would take a lot more work to dig up the old bricks, re-level the road, and then lay them back down than it does to replace them or pave over them, but doing so would save that unique part of their heritage.

old Spanish fort

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

More blogs about Puerto Rico:

In Search of Cats in Old San Juan

The Cats of Old San Juan

Staying in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Bicycling in Old San Juan

Paseo de la Princesa and Diving Pelicans

copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Houston, Texas

statue of Sam Houston

statue of Sam Houston in a Houston park

When cruising from Galveston, anyone not from the area will most likely fly in and out of Houston, which is just under an hour away. For anyone with a bit of time before or after their cruise, Houston has a lot to see.


geode at Houston’s science museum

Like most cities, Houston is ever expanding. It currently has 3 freeways ringing the city in loops getting farther from the center with each new addition. Some of these are toll roads. Houston has a lot of parks. In the suburbs surrounding the city trails are often found along the bayous that drain rainwater away from people’s homes. Or at least they are supposed to. When a massive hurricane dumps record amounts of water the houses closest to the bayous are likely the first to flood, though that hasn’t stopped new construction in those areas. So pretty much if you’re there for a visit the parks and trails are great, but if you’re looking to buy find high ground.


wildflowers near Houston

I was just recently near Houston for a visit with my son, who luckily bought a house on high enough ground not to flood, though the other side of his neighborhood near the bayou did. Each of the neighborhoods throughout the suburbs there seemed to have their own park and trails, some of which were close enough to walk from one to another. One of those parks had some flood damage all around a lake. Right next to it on ground downhill from the park at a lower level than the lake developers busily cut down trees and leveled ground in preparation to build new homes in what was flooded woods during the last hurricane. Apparently they take their money and run, leaving the new homeowner to deal with it when the floods come. Houston is still working on recovering. All the previously flooded areas we visited had some restoration work done and some yet to go, including that neighborhood park.


iris growing in a bog in the woodsy part of the botanical garden

We went to a free botanical park one day called Mercer Botanical Gardens that had been underwater during the hurricane. Some of the gardens had been fully restored, others were fairly sparse or empty with signs telling what new exhibit would be there when it was finished. One trail that had led to some other gardens and a turtle pond was closed due to hurricane damage. The botanical garden had a forested area with trails through tall trees that had all survived the storm making it hard to tell in that particular area that they had all been flooded not so long ago. It was a nice park with several swing chairs and lots of benches in the garden area. Quite a popular place for the locals to take photos as we saw several who seemed to be taking either pre-wedding, prom, or graduation shots.

blue bonnets

blue bonnet flowers

While Houston has plenty of tourist attractions people pay to see, there’s always something people can do for free. We were there during Blue Bonnet season, where anyone with a car can drive out to the country in search of fields full of blue flowers. Of course most of those fields are behind somebody’s fence, but we did find a bunch out in the open in what looked like a recently built industrial park that for the time had more open fields than buildings.

historical building in Texas

historical building where the Texas declaration of independence was signed

We also found a few small patches of blue bonnets among other wildflowers in a historical park called Washington on the Brazos. It was once a town at a river crossing, and played an important part in Texas history being the place where their declaration of independence from Mexico was signed during the same time period that the battle of the Alamo took place in San Antonio (1836). Mexico had recently gained independence from Spain and Texas broke away from Mexico, existing as its own country called the Republic of Texas for about a decade before joining the USA.

Texas wildflower

wildflower at Washington on the Brazos

One of the trails there crossed a bridge with a sign saying not to feed the alligators. Which you could either read as don’t throw food into the water for the alligators to eat, or don’t go into the water because you could become alligator food. The creek under that bridge was dry at that time and there were no alligators in the vicinity unless they were hiding in a swampy area on the far side of a big mud flat.

Fabergé eggs

Fabergé eggs at the museum

In Houston there are a lot of museums. We went to the Museum of Natural Science one day. It has a large rock collection with all sorts of different geodes and crystals. There’s even a Fabergé exhibit among the rocks that has some of the original eggs made for Russian imperials as well as many other things from the donor’s Faberge collection.

rock crystals

rock crystals at the museum

The museum also had exhibits on sea life, dinosaurs, chemistry and random curiosities. It even had a temporary exhibit on messages in bottles which displayed bottles and their messages found in a river cleanup. There was also a list of how many things like refrigerators, washing machines, cars, and such were pulled out of the river. People just have no respect for the planet we all share. We did see considerably less litter along the roadsides in Texas than in some places, but whether that is due to everyone cleaning up after the hurricane or if the people there aren’t quite such slobs as in some other places I can’t say. The museum is a good place to go on a day when the weather isn’t so nice. The gift shop stays open about an hour after the museum closes, and has some things that are just as interesting as the museum displays.

rabbit at Texas park

rabbits like the gardens at the park near the museum

There’s a park and garden near the museum, which is a nice place to take a stroll if the museum closes too early and you want something else to do.

space shuttle

space shuttle on 747 at Johnson Space Center

Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center. While all the launches are done in Florida at Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center, mission control is at Houston. Even without the moon rockets and space shuttles of the past, Florida still has occasional launches for satellites or probes. Mission control in Houston is currently involved with projects at the international space station. Right out in front of the Houston visitor’s center sits a 747 with a space shuttle on top. Entry into both is one of the exhibits there, and it is the only place in the world that has that set-up. We have seen other space shuttles in various places, but none with the 747 attached.

Johnson Space Center

lunar lander display at the space center

The rest of the visitor’s center has quite a variety of displays of former, current, and future space projects. Their current project involves an updated version of the old Saturn moon rockets intended to eventually go to Mars. There is a theater where astronauts give talks, and for a price you can book lunch with the astronaut of the day. Pretty much everything else is included in the price of admission. There are shuttles offering half hour or 90-minute tours. The half hour one goes around the grounds and out to the building housing an unused Saturn moon rocket.

moon rocket

Saturn rocket

The 90-minute one goes to mission control and to a viewspace into an actual working area before dropping people at the Saturn rocket display. The working area had robots and mars projects in the works. The 90-minute tour is definitely the more popular choice as it had a considerably longer line.

orion project

looking down into a work area for the Orion project at the Johnson Space Center

The Johnson Space Center is not a good choice in bad weather since the tram ride between buildings is in an open-sided tram, and both the shuttle/747 display and tram tours sometimes shut down in inclement weather – particularly if there’s lightning. It’s kind of expensive to get in so it would be a real disappointment to miss those things.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Food on Holland America Oosterdam

eggs Benedict station

Eggs Benedict station at the buffet

Holland America‘s ships offer mostly the same food venues without a lot of variance from ship to ship. Though the main dining room has different names on different ships, they all have one. They all also have a buffet on the Lido deck. These two things are standard on most all ships from any major cruise line. The Oosterdam also included Holland America’s standard pay extra eateries – the upscale Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto, a sort of pop-up Italian place set up in a section of the Lido buffet each evening at dinnertime. Other food onboard includes the Dive-In poolside grill and Explorations Café which serves specialty coffee and tea and sweets at an internet café next to the forward-viewing Crows Nest bar on deck 10.

serving afternoon tea

afternoon tea includes a variety of goodies as well as pots of tea

The dining room and buffet are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The dining room also serves afternoon tea. Other food venues each have their own hours. Open times for all food venues are posted in the daily newsletter left in cabins each night when the steward does the evening cleaning.

berry tart

triple berry tart

After having had some of the best cruise food ever on my last Holland America cruise out of Boston on the Veendam, the Oosterdam’s food – while generally good –  was kind of a letdown because it just didn’t measure up to what the Veendam had served. Cruise ship food is kind of that way. Even within the same line quality will vary from ship to ship or even on the same ship on different cruises. We took another cruise on the Veendam after the one on the Oosterdam and while good, the food didn’t often hit the exceptional mark it had on the cruise out of Boston. Perhaps it was the menu with the northeast itinerary or maybe the chef and galley staff that particular cruise were more outstanding than most.

test kitchen

America’s Test Kitchen salmon demonstration

Holland America had something new this cruise since the last time I sailed with them. They had cooking demonstrations before, but they were done by either galley or entertainment staff. On this cruise the cooking demonstrator was a dedicated person just for that job, not from the crew, but from a show called America’s Test Kitchen, which I had never heard of, but apparently it’s a PBS show that has been around for some time. The onboard demonstrator makes recipes from the show. The recipes they use might be for common things like brownies, but a recipe that they’ve tested and altered to come up with what they say is a better version.

surf and turf

formal night lobster came with steak

The things they made in the test kitchen demos looked good, but they did not hand out samples at the demonstration so I guess we are just supposed to take their word for it that it tastes better than the average recipe for that item. They did give out free recipes of the items they made at each demonstration and a free sample of their magazine, which had a bunch more recipes so if someone really wanted to know how things tasted they could make it for themselves when they got home. I think it’s nicer when the food demonstrations include a taste of what they cooked though.

cruise ship desserts

this molten chocolate cake was tasty

The dining room food was kind of hit or miss. Some items were excellent and others disappointing. Not always the entire meal one or the other, but parts of it. For example one night I had turkey scaloppini which had the taste and texture of a pressed meat patty, but it came with delicious side dishes. Another day I had a tasty pork chop that came with less than impressive sides. As for desserts, if given the choice of molten chocolate cake or baked Alaska, the cake is better. Their lemon pie and soufflé were good, the crème brulee so-so, and the cheesecake could have been better, at least on this particular cruise.

fancy cruise ship soup

fancy soups start with bits of food in the bottom of a bowl, over which soup gets poured at the table

Their soups were generally good, and often of the fancy sort that come with a few bits of things at the bottom of an otherwise empty bowl, over which they pour a creamy soup at the table.

chicken coconut curry

chicken coconut curry from the dining room

I tried a chicken coconut curry one day when nothing on the menu sounded especially enticing, not expecting much since I’m not much of a fan of Indian food or spicy things. It was surprisingly good and not too spicy.

crepes made fresh

making fresh crepes at the buffet

Breakfast had some good options with freshly made crepes and waffles at the buffet. Their eggs Benedict are tasty and available both at the buffet and in the dining room. Unlike most ships where eggs Benedict at the buffet are pre-made, Holland America has a station at the buffet that makes them fresh to order. Not only is the food from the Eggs Benedict station quite good, but there’s rarely a line. One of our friends tried the dining room’s crab Benedict and said it was too shy on crab for his liking.

halibut and chips

halibut and chips

We tried lunch in the dining room once or twice. The halibut & chips were quite good, and the halibut was really halibut. We have in the past had a cruise ship serve rockfish while insisting it was halibut. Not that the rockfish wasn’t good, they just shouldn’t call it halibut when it’s not. Most of the guests probably assume the fish is whatever the menu says, but my husband is an Alaskan fishing guide. He’s caught enough halibut and rockfish to know the difference so there’s no fooling him.

fancy cruise ship soup

soup at the Pinnacle Grill

Pinnacle grill was worth the extra cost. We enjoyed it and our friends gave raving reviews on the steak. The mushroom ravioli & veggies were good and the volcano cake quite tasty. Particularly mine, which was cooked to perfection while others that night were a bit overdone. The chocolate truffles there are always good. I didn’t like the snail pre-appetizer thing, but the others did. Our friends liked the Pinnacle Grill so much they went back a couple more nights.

Pinnacle Grill ravioli

ravioli at the Pinnacle Grill

At lunchtime the Lido Market buffet had a stand making big salads that we liked quite a lot. It never had much of a line to get them either. Lines always figure into where I’ll go in a buffet, as in if there’s a long one I pick a different station. I suppose they might have had those salads at dinner as well, but we never ate dinner at the buffet so I can’t say for sure.

ice cream sundae

even the sundaes are fancy on the Oosterdam

Outside by the pool grill they had a taco bar at lunchtime. It was a good place to go when everywhere else had lines. The food was pretty good, but poorly arranged with the plates next to the toppings and the main food at the other end. That made it a little awkward because people would grab a plate, skip over the toppings to get the main food, then go back for toppings. Meanwhile if someone else came along and went straight to the toppings without getting food first you had people from both directions trying to get into the same spot. Luckily it wasn’t normally very crowded so with only one or two people to work around it was doable.

fruit appetizer

at dinnertime in the dining room there are all sorts of appetizer options, including fruit

Overall the food was pretty good. It’s pretty hard to starve on a cruise ship. Even special diets can be catered to on most ships these days, though some types of special diets need to give the cruise line advance notice to insure whatever special things they need will be available for them.  There’s no grocery stores anywhere in the middle of the sea so if it’s not on board when the ship leaves port you aren’t getting it.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018




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What’s Inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

Pisa's leaning tower

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Probably the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Pisa is the iconic leaning tower. At Carnival Vista’s port stop in Liverno, Italy we decided to go to nearby Pisa to see it. Florence and Pisa are both accessible by train from Liverno, and the shuttle from the port drops people at the train station. Of course excursions are another option whether booked through the ship or privately.

baptistry in Pisa

the tower is not the only thing leaning in Pisa (baptistery in the foreground, then church)

One advantage excursions have over do-it-yourself travel is if you book through the ship it has to wait if your excursion returns late. Another advantage of excursions is pickpocket-free transportation. Watch out for them when taking busses or trains. Once off the tour bus you may run into them along the streets though so even on excursions make sure your valuables are safely stowed where pickpockets don’t have easy access. One more advantage of excursions is the option to leave bulky items on the bus. You can’t take backpacks or bags up the tower stairs should you choose to climb it so don’t bring anything large with you. Cameras, phones, and small camera cases are allowed.

tower door

doorway into the leaning tower of Pisa

You can’t just randomly walk into the tower and climb the stairs. You have to buy a ticket for that in advance and go at your assigned time so it doesn’t get too crowded, again something taken care of by the excursion people when taking one that includes tower entry.

leaning tower of Pisa

details at the top of the leaning tower

We hadn’t made prior plans to visit Pisa before our cruise. Taking the shuttle (which isn’t free) from the ship into Liverno and then a ride on the canal boats there sounded good, but once on the ship we decided to go to Pisa instead. We booked the ship’s excursion that included tower entry. On excursion day we went to the meeting point on the ship with what we thought was time to spare, but by the time we got through the very long line to the table where they handed out bus numbers it was a bit past the time we were supposed to be there. We got the last bus for our excursion along with the rest of the stragglers. It was only about half full so at least we had a smaller group.

cathedral door

intricately carved doorway into the cathedral

The bus parking area in Pisa is a bit of a walk from the tower. Initially we walked past it with just a bit of a stop for quick outside photos before moving on to a café/gift shop at the end of the street that had free bathrooms for cruise ship passengers – no doubt in hopes that they buy something. There are restrooms near the tower, but they aren’t free.


old school at the square a few blocks away from the tower

Once everyone got through the line we took a scenic detour back to the tower through some other streets rather than going straight back. On the way we stopped in a square with an old school and church. Pretty much all the buildings were old.

church in Pisa

inside the cathedral

Back at the tower we first went into the cathedral and then the baptistery. One of our friends said when she visited there on her own a few weeks earlier a guard came in and sang the entire Halleluiah chorus, with the echos filling in all the parts not currently actually being sung, which she said was pretty awesome to listen to.

baptistery at Pisa

inside the dome at the baptistery

During our visit the baptistery singer just sang a few notes, which was not enough to get an echo going. That was a bit of a disappointment after our friend’s description of her visit there. The baptistery exists because back when the cathedral was built nobody could enter it unless they had been baptized first. The round shape and domed roof provides perfect acoustics, which is why they have the singing there.

in the leaning tower

the stairway goes round and round inside the tower

Just after the singing our time came for climbing the tower. We were told it had 290 stairs. Before we went there I walked from deck 0 to deck 15 on the ship and counted 238, after which I thought the tower would be quite the climb since it had even more stairs than the ship. The tower stairs are wider and flatter than what the ship has though, and are actually pretty easy to walk up. Much easier than the cruise ship’s stairs.

alcove in the leaning tower

view from one of the alcoves

The tower also has lots of alcoves along the way where people can step aside to rest and enjoy the view or take photos through the openings at those places. The stairs are just wide enough for two people going the opposite way to pass by one another.

getting to the top of the tower of Pisa

tiny stairway to the highest level where the bells are

In spite of being made from stone, the center of each stair has a dip from centuries of feet walking there. The main stairway ends at a platform circling around the tower with great views and an obvious slope due to the lean of the tower. A small semi-hidden alcove opens into another stairway up to a higher level.

bell tower

one of many bells at the top of the leaning tower

This level is open at the top and has large bells built into the walls. So apparently the purpose of the leaning tower is a bell tower. You can look down the inside of the tower from the top and up the inside of the tower from the bottom. There’s nothing inside, the entire thing is hollow. Climbing the tower was the highlight of this excursion. If you go to Pisa, try and make the arrangements for the tower climb. It’s well worth seeing.

inside the leaning tower of Pisa

looking up from the bottom inside the leaning tower

We were given a time to meet back at the restaurant at the end of the street. The meeting time came and went and one couple never showed up. After waiting quite some time the guide called her boss and then we left. On the walk back to the bus she loudly called out a warning that there were pickpockets on that street, which besides making everyone hyper aware of protecting their valuables probably also let the pickpockets know they would have no luck as everyone had been alerted to their presence. She did say at the start of the tour that she knew how to spot them. They tend to work in pairs or groups. These particular ones were a pair of women, but they can be men, couples, mothers with children, or anyone else who can sneak, corner, con, or distract people into parting with their belongings. Unfortunately a lot of touristy areas of Europe are full of them. Someone else on the ship who had ventured out on their own said they thought they were safe with one of the purses with cut proof straps, but that did not stop thieves from taking the entire purse.

tower walkway

walkway around the tower at the top of the main stairway up the tower of Pisa

Back on the bus the guide said the lost couple had been found and would return to the ship on a different bus. Quite a few tours went to the tower so luckily for them we were not the last to leave. She turned the things they left on the bus over to people from the ship so they could have them back once they got onboard. We finally got a good guide on this tour, quite a relief after the ones we had in Herculaneum and Rome.

tower view

view of the church from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Carnival, Europe, Shore Excursions, Vista | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments