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Valencia Inspires an 'F' Word

 

VALENCIA, Spain — As we departed this port stop during the Oceania Riviera's Christening Cruise, one word seemed to cover the experience of visiting Valencia.

Fascinating.

When the America's Cup came to the city in 2007, the port had to be re-built. There was some controversy and, in the end, an "open vote" of the people was taken. When the Turia River was diverted around the city because of terrible floods, another open vote…what to do with the river bed. The government asked the people, and then acted accordingly.

Fascinating.

In the geographic center of the city, there is a cathedral — naturally — at Virgin Square (above). Not that many years ago during an excavation, Roman ruins were discovered under the area where the cathedral sits, and it is now an underground city of ruins from 138 BC that can be explored by locals and visitors alike (a glimpse of it is available through water-covered glass in the square). In the same square every Thursday at noon, a "water tribunal" of eight people in traditional dress emerges from a building to mediate any and all disputes arising from the eight irrigation channels designed to share the water. What they say is law. It is all done verbally. Nothing is written.

Fascinating.

The streets and sidewalks of the city are clean. The old architecture of yet another typical, centuries-old European city is almost all restored, so that it looks new. Our tour guide (Alicia) says she likes to think that the fact the mayor is a woman (Rita Barbera) has something to do with it, because during her 21-year reign this city has been transformed. The cars, the bikes and the pedestrians sometimes share the same space, and there are no middle fingers nor angry voices raised. It just works. At least during our walking tour of such city streets, it did.

Fascinating.

The dried-up river bed knifes through almost every neighborhood of the city. It is almost seven miles long and each section — between the bridges — has a different look and theme. While sparsely populated on the day of our visit, it is a veritable beehive of activity in evenings and on weekends. There is a huge children's playground built around a giant image of Gulliver, lying on the grass, and traveling there is safe. There are bike paths, athletic fields, swimming pools. It could have been a giant parking lot except that the government, a political power appropriately called the People's Party, asked the people first.

Fascinating.

As old as Valencia is, it is modern enough to have the Formula 1 race it has staged since 2006, the high-speed 90-minute train to Madrid since 2010 and the magnificent City of Science that has punctuated the old river bed since its first building went up in 2002. The "city" — almost all of which was designed by Santiago Calatrava (he's a household name here) now includes the largest aquarium in Europe, Oceanografic, which is really five aquariums displaying inhabitants from the waters of the world…and an impressive dolphin show for tourists who need a rest. It also includes a planetarium that seems to open and close like an eye at day or night, science museum, IMAX theater, arts museum and the only opera house in Europe built solidly on a tiny base that was designed for a communications tower. Construction of the tower was halted because the people in the neighborhood didn't like it. An "open vote" led to the opera house.

Fascinating.

In Medieval times, this was a walled city. Only two towers from the old wall remain. "One tower was used as a prison for women," says Alicia. "Thanks to that, because it was still in use, it was not destroyed." For those of us from the "new world" there is much about the "old" that always educates us. Much of it doesn't fit into the same descriptive category that Valencia does.

Fascinating.

 

 

Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas
11 nights
September 14, 2012
Vancouver, Lahaina, Hilo, Mount Kilauea, Kailua, Nawiliwili, Honolulu
Inside: $1,204
Cost per day: $109
www.rccl.com

 

Marseilles: Two Ports Busier Than Ever

 

MARSEILLE, France — We loved this first-ever Mediterranean seaport the last time we were here. Then we remembered why.

We'd been travelling the roads of France with two teenagers and a pre-teen, squishing five people in hotel rooms built for four (or less), and when we arrived in Marseille, the people at the Novotel gave us an extra room for the kids, at no charge.

That was then, this is now, and now means there is much to love about Marseille, first stop on the Oceania Riviera's  cruise en route to its christening in Barcelona.

It starts with easy access, at least with Oceania ships. There's a shuttle bus that takes you from cruise ships arriving in the new harbor to the Old Harbor. The new one is 70 kilometers of ports, and the old one is in the heart of this city that's growing aggressively towards a million people. The one-way bus ride can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic.

The "Vieux Port" is busier than ever. The cargo ships from its earliest days have been replaced by tour boats waiting to take visitors on a myriad of sea adventures. Just by the lines, business is brisk. If you're coming this year, however, a large chunk of the Old Harbour is under construction so that when it's completed in 2013 there will be 50% less vehicular traffic, more room for tourists and speed limits of 30 kilometers per hour. In France, that's like standing still.

The first thing we noticed about the downtown area is no shortage of places to eat. Sidewalk cafes with upscale menus and, naturally, many of them featuring fish. The gastronomic aromas of seafood fill the streets, especially on a sunny day with the windows open.

There are 16 museums (from motorcycles to Roman docks) and enough shops to fill any and every suitcase. A hop-on, hop-off bus is always a good idea with the traffic congestion in European cities, and cruise-line shore excursions can take you deep into the area around Marseille. A ferry boat crosses the Old Harbor in what is billed as the shortest commercial boat ride in Europe.

If so inclined you can even visit the neighborhood where arguably Marseille's most famous native son, retired soccer star Zinedene Zidane, was raised. It's called La Castellane but the great player was born into poverty so there's not much worth seeing…don't mistake it for Place Castellane, a roundabout with an impressive fountain and sculpture, cafes and cinemas.

There are magnificent churches, none more impressive than Notre Dame de la Garde, where fishermen used to take their boats to be blessed, and you can find them with a good map from the tourist office at Vieux Port, or many tours of the tours offered on or off the ship.

Or you can just go to the Novotel and see if they still have free rooms for kids.


Island Princess
7 nights
July 4, 2012
Vancouver, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, College Fjord, Anchorage
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.princess.com

Holland America Ups the Veggie Fare

Hands up, if you know somebody who has or has had cancer. Hands down, if you've thought about eating better because of it.

We've never been vegetarians. One of us (hands up) is more of a carnivore than she is. Yet we have both felt the urge, or need, to become "more vegetarian" because, frankly, it's healthier.

Holland America's like that, too.

This week, the venerable cruise line that's sometimes linked with the most senior of cruisers blew the lid off the veggie pot and introduced a vegetarian-only menu and 30 new vegetarian dishes to the main dining room menu. For the most senior of cruisers this might be like an event most will remember…when non-smoking rows in planes suddenly became non-smoking  planes.

Translation: Vegetarians are growing, and not in the same way junk-food addicts are. On all 15 Holland America ships, you'll find a difference: here a veggie, there a veggie, everywhere a veggie.

Rudi Sodamin, who last month was named the Best Cruise Line Chef by Porthole Magazine for the second year in a row, is the designer of Holland America's new menus. Decorations and plaudits aside, there is a good reason for this. Rudi is Holland America's Master Chef.

He has come up with a 22-dish vegetarian and vegan menu that highlights…wait for it…vegetables! Appetizers, main courses, soups…the while nine yards. They're all available (upon request) for either lunch or dinner. And guess what?

No extra charge.

Holland America calls Chef Rudi's creations "vibrant, flavorful culinary selections." The key word there is flavorful.

Just ask the resident carnivore. If Rudi can succeed there, he might have a convert.


Norwegian Jade
7 nights
May 26, 2012
Venice (return): Naples, Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos, Olympia
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $64
www.ncl.com

Cruise Ship Safety Moving to New Level

Again, a sobering moment about cruising. Again, a news item that makes people nervous about going…anywhere. Again, a reminder about the world we live in today.

In case you missed it, police in Germany questioned a 22-year-old Austrian who a year ago this month was returning from Pakistan and discovered — after weeks of breaking codes of digital information he was carrying on him — that one al-Qaeda plot was to attack cruise ships.

As reported on CNN, investigative journalist Yassin Musharbash — a reporter with the German newspaper Die Zeit — was the first to report that one plan was to "hijack a passenger ship and use it to pressurize the public."

The plan would include dressing passengers in orange jump suits, as if they were al-Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and then videotape their executions.

If that makes you nervous about cruising, think how the cruise lines feel…and the ship captains. And in case you're inclined to "jump ship" remember that in today's world, it seems you're really not 100% safe anywhere any more.


Carnival Splendor
7 nights
May 27, 2012
Long Beach (return): Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta
Inside: $619
Cost per day: $88
www.carnival.com
 

Oceania Cruises: The Twins Are Alright

 

Only in the family of cruise ships can siblings be born 15 months apart and be called twins. As parents of boys born 14 months apart, it seems like a reasonable time to have an addition to the family, although we do recall the comments of well-meaning individuals that it was, er, a little soon.

In the ship world, much like the people world, families expand as the parents can afford it. In the Oceania family, it was time for Marina to have a kid sister…and last week Riviera emerged from the safety of the shipyard in Italy.

The Riviera is an identical twin in almost all respects, and in 10 days she will have a bottle of bubbly broken on her bow in front of hundreds of onlookers, which surely beats being exposed to (or in) a diaper change. It will happen in Barcelona, as good a place as any to break bubbly on a bow. Among the celebrities will be Cat Cora, she of Iron Chef fame and a fitting choice for the Riviera's Godmother as the flagship of an upscale cruise line that appeals to people who enjoy cuisines of the world…and who doesn't?

The introductory cruise, not to be confused with the inaugural cruise, starts Sunday in Monte Carlo and ends nine days later in Venice where, as a medium-sized cruise ship it will be more popular than the large ocean liners that are eroding the fragile ground that supports all those canals.

That cruise, which you'll be reading more about here at Cruising Done Right, will be followed by 20 more in the waters of the Mediterranean, featuring a dozen different itineraries between now and November.

That Oceania Cruises has doubled its fleet (a fifth ship, the Insignia, is on a two-year charter to Hapag-Lloyd Cruises) is a testament to the attraction of what the cruise line calls the "upper-premium category" of cruising, and a testament to what the Oceania family can afford when it comes to offspring.

And it's okay that they're only 15 months apart, and okay to call Marina and Riviera "twins."


Norwegian Dawn
7 nights
June 1, 2012
Boston (return): King's Wharf (Bermuda)
Inside: $649
Cost per day: $92
www.ncl.com

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