Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day 1 - Southampton, UK

Monday, May 21, 2012

Today we woke to the bright sunshine with temps are in the high 50's. The weather is continuing to work in our favor. The hotel had a limited assortment of breakfast items to take to our table. Compared with dinner last night it was a little disappointing. I ordered scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. It was a piece of toast piled with eggs and them the salmon on top. It looked ridiculous.

Consort Restaurant

Hotel entry

After breakfast we decided to take a 10 minute walk to the pharmacy and Waitrose supermarket to get a few things for the cruise. The walk was nice and relaxing. I purchased lavender hand soap, shower gel, shampoo and some throat lozenges. My mother purchased Greek yogurt at Waitrose. They had a great selection. Below is a funny plaque we spotted on the way to the market about someone who was caught speeding in 1899.

Back at the hotel and with check out at 10:30 am (seems a tad early) we requested a late check out at 12:00 noon which was accommodated.

At 10:15 am we took the 15 minute walk to Osborne House. It is located through the back of the hotel but as no one is allowed to pass through the Princess gate except royalty, we walked along the street. Osborne House is the former summer residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Prince was instrumental in the design and building of the residence which was completed in 1851 and resembles an Italian Villa. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children spent many summers at Osborne House and it was here that she died in her bedroom in 1901.

Osborne House

During this time of the year they do not have organized tours of the house. They do have docents in each room to answer questions. They do not allow photos of the interior but there is an inexpensive guide book for purchase. The photos below are from the guide book or free online. Photos of the exterior are of course allowed.

A young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with five of their nine children

Dunbar Room

One of the more impressive features of the house is the Dunbar Room. In 1876, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India (though she never visited) and Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood designed what would become the banquet room with an Indian Sikh influence. With a conferred ceiling and elaborate embellishments including plaster moldings, the room was completed in 1893. The Peacock above the fireplace was said to take over 500 hours to create.

The entire room required 26 workers who had 10 hour shifts over 2 years. The original Agra carpet (not shown in the photo) is now at Sandringham and the one in the Dunbar room is a replica.

Dunbar Room

Prince Albert's Drawing Room

The Dining Room

The private apartments upstairs are where the family quarters are located. They are elaborately furnished and quite interesting. Due to Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee they had a genealogy display in one room. It showed how Queen Victoria was "the Grandmother of Europe" having married off her progeny to princes and princesses in Spain, Germany, Greece, Russia, Sweden and several other places.

Queen Victoria also resided at Windsor Castle but spent considerable, mostly during the summertime at Osborne House. When Prince Albert died from typhoid in 1861 she instructed that the home should stay just as it was without any modifications. While I am not a Royal watcher, I do enjoy thinking about what it must have been like to work in this home with the Queen and her children running about. There were several children's groups touring the house today and it was a little bit of a challenge to stay well ahead of them. A few of them had colds and were coughing so we were determined not to get too close.

Occasionally I would ask questions to the docents who were very helpful. We did overhear two of the docents conversing privately. One gentleman remarked to another that he was married for 23 years and suffered in silence the entire time. We found that to be a bit funny. It is a stark contrast to Queen Victoria's relationship with Prince Albert, who she adored.

We walked around the grounds for about 20 minutes and then took the walk around the front to return to the hotel. We decided not to take the horse drawn carriage to the Swiss Cottage where the children had a working kitchen and learned how to sew and cook! There is also Queen Victoria's bathing machine nearby.

Terrace restaurant outside area

While walking around I looked hard for red squirrels which are common on the Isle of Wight but quite rare and almost extinct in other parts of England. I was disappointed not to see any.

We returned to the hotel and took a taxi to the Red Funnel car ferry in East Cowes. This ferry takes an hour to reach Southampton. We arrived just as the ferry was ready for boarding. The ferry is very large and has free wifi. We stored our luggage downstairs and then went up one flight of stairs. They have a full service cafe with hot food (lasagna, sausage rolls, salads). It was a very smooth trip across to Southampton. There were a lot of cars on the ferry and several people were walking their dogs on the forward deck below.

We had a nice snack and used the wifi. Even though there were several children aboard they were well behaved. I decided not to go to Boots or other shops on Harbour Parade as we found what we needed in Cowes. We disembarked near Mayflower Park and walked with our bags the 12 minutes to the City Terminal (on the Western Docks) where the Crystal Symphony was berthed. We could have cut through the parking lot but I couldn't tell if that was the best way and didn't want to back track so we took what turned out to be the longer walk along the road. We proceeded through security and boarded the ship about 4:00 pm. We didn't find the check in procedure very efficient. We had to pull out our passports at least 3 times before embarking on the ship. Perhaps some of the other embarkation ports are better. After a 5 minute check in at the Crystal Cove we made our way to our stateroom on Deck 7 AFT.

We have a C category stateroom designation which is a Deluxe Stateroom with a picture window. This is my first cruise after a dozen without a balcony. Although I will miss the fresh air, the $1000 savings per person on the cruise fare seemed a balanced trade off. The room is 202 sq feet and is similar in size to some of the other rooms we have had on other cruise lines. The picture window is large and the tinted glass provides privacy on the Promenade Deck. The room is elevated several feet above the deck so it would not be easy to look in but very easy to look out.

As has been said by others numerous times, the size of the "regular" rooms on Crystal are much smaller in comparison than what you will find on other luxury lines. However, the room is adequate for our needs and has plenty of storage (25 drawers). The closet has a sliding door that activates the overhead light. This is a great feature. The bathroom has glass sinks which take up most of the counter space. The tub/shower combo has a curtain. A glass panel door would be a welcome addition. One of the great features of the room is that you can keep the bathroom door open. The cabin door is the same way. On many other ships we have been on this not possible and the doors are heavy and slam shut.

We like the use of murano style glass in the room on the side lamps and on either side of the mirror. The sofa is a decent size. We have one of the rooms with a third birth. The sofa opens to a twin bed. I haven't tried it but it looks comfortable.

It took us about 1 hour to unpacked. I brought way too much stuff. I guess that is my reward for completing my packing after midnight before flying to Europe. However, on the brighter I do have enough clothing so as not to be an object of ridicule. We were greeted by our stewardess, Sunja. She was very pleasant and gave us a warm welcome and introduction to our room. We went to the Computer center to configure the iPad and iPod and purchase our Internet minutes. The staff in the computer center are excellent! I love the iMac computers on the ship. They are only about two years old and work great!

We returned to the room, showered and changed for dinner. The shower gets very steamy! I didn't have to send anything out for pressing and just used the shower instead. However, the entire bathroom turns into a sauna and all the surfaces get very wet. At 7:11 pm we headed to the Crystal Dining room where we were seated at a table for 2. The menu had some good selections.

I had the prosciutto and the pasta for dinner. While we were eating the Red Funnel car ferry passed by!

Birthday cake for dessert
It was my mother's birthday and the waiters sang "Happy Birthday" and brought a cake. It was nice that this worked without me having to say a word in advance. The waiters have great voices! They took the cake away and brought back two small slices with some ice cream on the side.

After dinner we walked around the ship and I took some photos. Symphony will be going into dry dock immediately at the end of our cruise. Some of the public areas will be refurbished and reconfigured. Sadly, the staterooms which are adequate (and very nice) but not as stylish as those on Serenity which got a redo last year, will not be "refreshed". Symphony staterooms will be getting the electronic door signage and the lighting. So I guess it is something.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the ship appears in very good condition. I would not say it is "beautiful" but it does have an certain elegance. I know I haven't even been on board for more than 5 hours but my favorite part of the ship is the spacious layout on decks 5 and 6. On many cruise ships the public areas can feel crowded. However, on Crystal the use of the public space is wonderful and makes it feel very welcoming. I thought I would like the outdoor AFT area on deck 7 of the ship but I am honestly not impressed. It seems like wasted space. It is great for photographs and tai chi early in the morning but there is so much space aft that is not is being fully utilized.

The Symphony decor is nice but it does not have a "wow" factor which probably most passengers prefer. I have sailed on Celebrity Solstice twice which has a modern vibe. Yet it is still elegant and does not feel crowded. We sail in Aqua class on the Solstice class which has its own private restaurant. Both the Solstice and Symphony have different styles and both are well thought out. It will be intereresting to see if Crystal has a new build what the ship interiors may look like.

We returned to our room and watched some TV. My mother thinks the TV is too small and would be better on the wall across from the beds. However, I remember reading something about it being difficult to move the the wires. The lights on the prommenade deck are very bright at night and it is necessary to keep the drapes pulled. Usually we sail with the drapes open. Also due to the bright lights it is impossible to see the water at night from the window. The C category is adequate in every way except not being able to see the water at night. In rough seas I like being able to see the horizon.

So far it looks like we are going to have a great cruise!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Isle of Wight

Sunday, May 20, 2012

By now my internal clock is perfectly in sync with the early Icelandic sunrise. Unfortunately we are checking out today and have a very early departure. As the executive lounge is not open this early (4:30 am) we choose to skip breakfast. The main restaurant downstairs charges $26 USD which doesn't seem worth it. I checked out of the hotel and had Gunnard do the processing. He also had checked us in. He has absolutely no personality, no emotion, and cannot even crack a smile. The other people at the desk are quite nice though.

Our taxi driver was waiting for us at 5:30 am. We made great time and were at Keflavik airport in only 30 minutes, (about 15 minutes early). The taxi was expensive, about 19,000 ISK. However, it was much better than taking the Flybus. We had checked in online with Icelandair the day prior so we just had to go through security and wait for the flight to depart. As in Boston, there was no monitoring of the carry-on baggage weight

We looked in the duty free shops and saw many of the same items for sale in Reykjavik and at the Blue Lagoon. We are usually good shoppers but the only item I came away with (literally) is the logo pen that I kept at the Blue Lagoon to sign the lunch receipt. Hopefully we will do better in the cruise ports. The flying time from Reykjavik to Heathrow is less than 3 hours. We boarded the plane and this time economy felt a little more comfortable even though it was another 757-200 aircraft.

We departed 5 minutes early and took a southerly route over Iceland. The ground is very brown and there is very little vegetation. I imagine it must look nice in the winter.

The flight was great and I watched a very strange Icelandic movie about a women who gets a job doing role playing (i.e., ninja warrior stuff) with some geeks from a comics shop while her boyfriend escapes from prison and tries to access his money in the Cayman Islands. Needless to say I didn't finish watching it. I glanced out the window for a while from seat 12F. The inflight direction information stopped working halfway into the flight on the right side of the plane. However, it was possible to tell we were flying over England and it was nice to see the green landscape after two days of brown/black lava covered ground in Iceland. Heathrow had a ground delay so we had to circle for 20 minutes. Immigration took over an hour and was painful. When we exited I could not locate our driver so I called Airport-London-Pickps and they said it would be 5 minutes before the driver returned to the terminal. They expected us sooner as we only had carry-on and immigration is usually only 30 minutes.

The driver appeared shortly thereafter and was very nice. We proceeded to the car and entered the motorway for the one hour drive to Southampton. We have spent time in the UK before but there are many places we have not been. I considered spending our overnight in Bath, Hampshire, Costwolds and even the Channel Islands. Last year we spent the night in Cambridge, where my cousin is a Professor of the History of Science.

Isle of Wight

Ultimately I decided to spend the night on the Isle of Wight due to its historic nature and being conveniently located near Southampton. I think it is fair to say that the IOW is not exactly on the radar of many UK visitors or in fact many of its citizens. I made my determination to visit as it is only 25 minutes by fast ferry from Southampton, is easily accessible and has historical significance as the former home of Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria on her Wedding Day

The Isle of Wight is now far removed from its heyday as the stomping grounds of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, writer Charles Dickens and philospher Karl Marx. Currently the major industry on the Island is tourism. It does have an interesting history as the home of the world's first Hovercraft and where they conducted testing and development of the Britain's space rockets. Huh, the UK had a space program? During WWII the IOW was instrumental in supplying a fuel pipeline that supported the invasion of the Normandy beaches. It was called PLUTO (Pipeline Under the Ocean) and went from Shanklin, IOW to Cherbourg, France from June 12, 1944.

The Isle of Wight used to be part of the county of Hampshire and has a current population of approximately 132,000. It is represented by a single Member of Parliament (MP). Until 1995 the Island had its own Governor. Lord Mountbatten served in this role from 1969 to 1974.

On Sunday's the Red Funnel FastJet Ferry departs every hour at 45 past. We only had 2 minutes to spare to catch the 1:45 pm ferry from the dock in Southampton. We made it and had a fun 25 minute trip across the Solent. The ferry travels at up to 40 knots! We arrived in West Cowes and made our way down (10 minutes) to the Floating Bridge. It was a little tricky to find our way. I stopped to ask a lady with a little parson terrier for directions. I am not passing judgement but next time I need to look more carefully as this lady who appeared to be about 60 years old had white and bright blue streaked hair. She also had several piercings. However, more importantly she was very exacting with her directions. We finally made it to the floating bride. This bridge has had several incarnations and is the means for foot and car passengers to travel over the River Medina from West Cowes to East Cowes. The floating bridge (also known as the chain bridge) departs every 10 minutes and takes only 5 minutes to get to the other side. There is a charge for car passengers but not foot passengers. This is one of the few places in the UK where they have not built an actual bridge linking the two sides. It is hard to understand why they have done so as the distance is very close. I could easily swim it.

Depiction of Cowes Floating Bridge circa 1896

The Floating bridge today

Once on the other side it was only a 15 minute walk to the hotel but my mother was getting tired of rolling her bag up and down the streets (I can't blame her - I am delighted she made it this far) so we called the hotel and they sent a taxi to pick us up. We were very close and it only cost 3 pounds.

Albert Cottage Hotel

The Albert Cottage Hotel used to be part of Osborne House, Queen Victoria's stately home. It was constructed in the mid 1800's and was turned into a hotel only recently. There are 10 rooms on two floors and they have a full service restaurant. We checked in and were soon shown to our room on the first floor. Our room (Prince's category) had twin beds but it was not adequate (the beds were so low we would have almost been sleeping on the floor) so we requested to change rooms and were accommodated. The second room was very nice had a nautical theme.  It was for a family category room so it was very spacious. We were tired of sitting all day and were also hungry so we decided to take a walk to Osborne House and visit their cafe. The hotel has a very tranquil setting.

Hotel bar area

Sitting room

Back at the hotel we were seated in the lounge prior to dinner. We were offered drinks and I had a black and cider and my mother had wine. We were given menus and our order was taken. About 15 minutes later we were lead into the Consort Restaurant. There were other guests at the hotel but we were the only dinner guests tonight. The meal was excellent. My mother had a seafood appetizer and sea bream. I had leek soup and the paella.

After dinner we rested in the room. The hotel advertises free wifi but there wasn't any. I was very disappointed. As we were very tired anyway we wisely called it a night.

Our room

Isle of Wight Council Coat of Arms

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reykjavik, Iceland - Continued

It was overcast when we woke and frankly didn't look much different from a few hours ago. It is amazing Icelanders can remember what day it is. We went to the Executive Lounge for breakfast. They had the same choices as yesterday. After a nice relaxing breakfast we went to the lobby to look for our pickup bus.

Today we are joining Iceland Excursions for the Icelandic Horse and Blue Lagoon tour. I booked online and it cost 22,000 ISK per person plus the entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon. We decided not to do the Golden Circle tour as we would be sitting on the bus for most of the time and the only site I was interested in seeing is the Gullfoss waterfall. Perhaps we will do the Golden Circle next time.

Yesterday we received a note that our pickup time would be at 8:30 am instead of 9:00 am. We didn't see anyone in the lobby with a sign so we walked outside and asked one of the bus drivers who pointed to the bus behind him. We were not on the list but decided to take the first bus and drove to two more hotels to pickup more people before we arrived at the ticket office. The van for the Ishestar stable was out front so I my mother wait in the van while I traded in the voucher for printed tickets.

My mother promised herself several years ago after she survived our riding adventure in Patagonia (it was very muddy, rocky and the horses kept stumbling and you had to keep ducking below tree branches) that she would never get on another horse again. My mother was a rider in her youth and had her own horse for several years at summer camp. I respected her decision not to put herself in a situation where she did not feel comfortable. Nonetheless, I was hopeful she would change her mind once she saw the gentle Icelandic horses.

Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic horse weighs between 730 to 840 lbs and is an average of 13 to 14 hands high. They resemble a pony more than a horse. However, the Icelandic language being "purist" has no word for "pony". The horses have a double coat which protects them from extreme temperatures. They shed the double coat in the spring.

The Icelandic has five gaits: walk, trot, canter, tolt and flying pace. The last two are specific to the Icelandic breed. The tolt is a four beat lateral gate similar to the running walk of the Tennessee Walking Horse. It is interesting that the tolt is a natural gait from birth and the Icelandic horse is not taught how to do this. The Flying Pace is used for racing, and as it sounds, is very fast. This gait is more specialized and is not as common among the breed. Hope we are not doing that one. The Icelandic horse is most famous for the tolt.

There were 26 riders in our group plus a leader and 4 assistants. We watched an instuctional video which was well done and explained how to hold the reins and how to treat the horse (no loud noises and no kicking) We were lead into the barn and choose helmets. The leader helped select who would get which horse starting with the 2 children and then the experienced and beginner riders were lined up and given a horse. The Icelandic horses are adorable! They are very sweet and friendly too. We walked the horses outside and were instructed not to get on until they told us to. I had a white horse named Freiya who seemed a little sleepy but she was well mannered.

Freiya looks a little sleepy!

We were helped onto the horses (including my mother) and followed in single file. Talk about snout to tail - the horses were very close to one another. We were told they feel more comfortable that way. The ride took us on mostly flat terrain for about 90 minutes. The scenery was pretty with the mountains in the distance. I think we were walking on what appeared to be a lava field. There were no flowers and we didn't see any birds. It felt a little barren. At the halfway mark we entered a clearing and told to dismount so the horses could rest. They are very good to the horses. During the break I was told by one of the guides that Ishestar has 130 horses at the stable and another 1000 around the rest of the country. Of the 4 guides, one was from Finland and another from Denmark.

My mother in the foreground on her horse
 We were offered the opportunity to join the medium group where we could tolt and walk. Only a few people joined. My horse was still sleepy and I also thought I should stay with my mother so I remained in the slow group. As the horses got spread out a little on the ride back I did get a chance to tolt for a few minutes. It felt like a combination of a trot and a canter. It was very smooth and relaxing. The United States features two primary riding styles: Hunt seat, which is more English where you are positioned forward; and Balance seat where you are more in tune with the horse's movement. I prefer balance seat as you don't have to be propped out of your seat and post while riding. The tolt was perfect for the balance seat aficionado.

My mother enjoyed her ride and only did walking which for her was sitting. She said her horse had a lot of spunk but was very responsive. He had bangs and to me strangely resembled Justin Bieber. The ride was our highlight for our trip to Reykjavik.

The Blue Lagoon

At 1:00 pm We boarded the bus for the 45 minute drive to the Blue Lagoon. It was a nice drive and I was more awake to admire the scenery than yesterday morning. We entered the building and paid the entrance fee 30 euros per person plus 5 euros each for a nice fluffy towel (rental). We were given a plastic bracelet (which kept falling off) that activated the locker. I decided to pay in Icelandic as the conversion seemed more favorable. All guests are required to shower before entering the lagoon. There is a large communal shower (separated by gender) and private stall cubicles to the side . Sadly I do not have a body like Rihanna and being rather modest, I chose the cubicle. My mother decided to do the communal shower. We changed into our swimsuits, stored our items in the locker and proceeded to the Lagoon outside.

The outside temperature was very cold but we waded in. The water was nice and warm and the bottom of the lagoon is kind of mushy. The water in the lagoon is replaced every 40 hours and it seemed very clean.

The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's great tourist attractions. It was actually created by accident when super heated water and steam escaped from the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Station and flooded the lava field. Locals realized that the water and minerals had curative powers so in the 1980's the Blue Lagoon was open to the public.

The water was does not get below 99 F. The blue color is a result of minerals and blue/green algae in the water and on the surrounding lava rocks. It really felt great on my muscles after 90 minutes of riding plus sitting on the bus. We stayed in for about an hour. I made sure to tie my hair up as I read that the minerals can damage it. I didn't do such a good job and the ends up dangling in the water. It was curious that there were several groups of men in the lagoon. Perhaps they come to Iceland for stag parties? I am afraid Some of their language was not suitable for my puerile upbringing.

It was way past lunch time by now so we decided to get a snack. There are options at the Blue Lagoon. 1) Cafe 2) Lava restaurant and 3) Pool bar. We decided on the Lava restaurant which seemed to be a bad choice as the service was unbearably slow. It does overlooks the lagoon so at least we got a view while we waited and waited for the food to arrive. Mother had the seafood soup and I had a cheeseburger. She said the soup was delicious.

We looked in the shop at the Blue Lagoon products which are also available at the airport. We decided not to buy anything although they had merchandised everything quite nicely.
We had arranged with the excursion driver to be picked up at 5:15 pm to go back to the hotel. We went outside for our rendezvous with the driver for the ride to the Hilton. Thankfully we were the first drop off point after leaving the lagoon. The drive back took about 40 minutes.


We had dinner reservations at 8:00 pm downtown at Tapasbarinn. That gave us almost 2 hours to relax in our room at the Hilton and also get ready for dinner. I used the free wifi to download photos and check email again. I am not looking forward to having to pay for the Internet once on the ship.

The Hilton shuttle dropped us off not far from the restaurant. It is a nice looking building with several rooms. We were seated at a table on the end in a quite area and were warmly greeted. As the name implies, Tapasbarinn serves tapas. The owners are from Spain but they also serve a variation of Icelandic dishes. We like ordering small plates instead of a big dinner so this restaurant suited our needs perfectly. We ordered 4 dishes and shared a dessert. The meal was good but not great.

Foie Gras

Seafood Paella

After dinner we took a walk around the historic waterfront and then to the Harpa again before returning to the pickup spot for the shuttle.

Harpa windows

Solfar (Sun Viking Sculpture)

We returned to hotel and made some final preparations for our early pickup tomorrow morning for the trip to the airport.