Let’s Go Cruising
People are always asking what is the difference between a voyage on an ocean liner versus a cruise in a smaller boat going down a river. This year I tried both so would like to share my conclusions. In January I went on the largest ship purportedly In the world, Royal Caribbean Line’s Oasis of the Seas which can carry up to 6000 passengers with a crew of over 1000 and is the length longer than three football fields, no less. For me the best part of this big ship experience was that their choices of entertainment was endless and excellent, whether you wanted to see a musical show, an ice skating production, a high diving show experience or comedians and magicians entertaining in the smaller showroom areas. For sports enthusiasts, their excursions to Caribbean islands provided chances to snorkel, deep sea dive, go on fishing expeditions, or just lounge on the beaches away from winter’s east coast storms. On board ship, the kiddies had a carousel, wave pool besides a regular pool strictly for the kiddies to splash around in. Personally I liked the Serenity deck at the front of the ship, with its adults only Spa area and restaurant, which was free and accessible for all adults wanting to leave the kids to find a peaceful quiet area with multitude of jacuzzi hot tubs and small pools.
Royal Caribbean did a good job of keeping everyone as busy as they would want to be or provided a nice peaceful Central Park area for those wanting quiet times in the park-like setting. Yes, there were often lines getting on and off the ship during excursion days and although they had a lot of personnel to handle the incoming and outgoing hordes coming on board each week, there were the expected glitches and crowds to contend with. There is an impersonal nature to a large ship, no matter how hard a ship line instructs their personnel to be friendly and accessible to the passengers but there is no denying, large cruise liners provide something for everyone to do throughout the day if they so desire. For this one-week cruise to the Caribbean on the Oasis, probably the ship was the destination everyone was on board for rather than the island destinations. There was very little cultural or educational travel learning happening in the ship but the cruisers here enjoyed the big ship cruise experience for itself, and many were frequent repeat and happy patrons of this type of vacation.
This month I tried the small river cruising experience by booking on Viking Cruise Lines’ Theodor Fontaine which cruised us on the Elbe River beginning in Prague and ending in Berlin. The two end cities were perfect for me as I had traveled to both beautiful cities over a dozen years ago, and always vowed to return for more time there which Viking provided with pre and post cruise tours. Thus when Pauline Lee of Frosch Travel Co. organized a group for this cruise, I was happy to join the Norman and Mary Morettos, Steve and Gerlinde Smiths, Howard and Pat Lums, Stan and Linda Iversens, and Howard and Pat Setos on this small ship European experience through the Czech Republic and Germany.
I always like to come into the first city a few days before the cruise. Number one reason is that in case flights are delayed you won’t miss the ship’s departure which did happen to me before when I only flew in on the same day as the ship’ departure. Second reason is then you get to explore the city and it’s environs leisurely before getting on the ship. We booked a 10 hour excursion to Unesco World site Cessky Kuromhoff with Jay Pesta of Custom Travel Services who drove us through the beautiful countryside, all the while telling us about life in the Czech Republic before exploring the castle and quaint old village of this historic town. Viking provided a city tour for our first cruise day of Prague which gave the patrons a good overview of the beautiful city too.
Although this cruise was 7 days like my big ocean liner cruise, there was a feeling of traveling with an extended family or neighborhood group as there were only 115 passengers on this, Viking’s smallest and oldest ship of its line. Staff and passengers got to know each other easily whether on the three busses that took us on excursions or in the small dining room where everyone could eat together In one sitting. We met the very personable and friendly Captain Martin Bousa and handsome Hotel Manager Jochen Prigge right away as they greeted all the passengers coming on board the first day. The boat is narrow as it needs to be to pass the six locks on the river, making the staterooms spartan and slim, but one finds one can manage in a no-drawers and one tiny closet set up and end up feeling pretty comfortable in the small cabin the rest of the week.
The best thing of a river cruise is that it is easy to get off and on the ship daily to visit interesting riverside villages and palaces. Our very interesting itinerary included such well-known sights as the castle where the Potsdam Agreement was signed. In Dresden and Meissen, we visited the factories which produced the famous delicate porcelain pieces well-known around the world. I had a cold hard history lesson when we visited the village of Terezin which was once used as a ghetto by the Gestapo during World War II and as a punishment prison for Allied POWs. Inhumane conditions included hustling 60 Jews into one small room which made it necessary for everyone to sleep standing up with only one tiny window for ventilation. It was a dark period in Germany’s history to remember.
Evening entertainment on small ships are minimal. In addition to some nightly entertainment including local dancers performing their cultural folk steps or local professors giving their perspective on recent history of the German settlements, there was piano music nightly for listening pleasure in the lounge. Program director Matthew Webb did an excellent job arranging the daily excursions, which, by the way, are included free of charge, a definite plus to all cruisers in comparison to paying for all land excursions on the big ships.
Captain Bousa, a Czech Republic native, admitted he loved the intimate nature of being on this small ship, and had trained since he was 11 years old when students in his country chose the career paths for their next 8 years of compulsive education, to work in ships. Munich born Hotel manager Jochen Prigge had trained in Switzerland to enter the hospitality profession, and had worked on the Princess cruise Company’s big ships as Food and Beverage Manager before joining Viking over 7 years ago. His friendly and caring nature for his cruisers was evident, and he admittedly had made many longtime friends who had been on previous trips. When he told me of Viking’s new Viking Star 900 passenger ship coming out in 2015. I told him he would be perfect with his past experience on large and small ships to join the Viking Star’s on its inaugural staff. He admitted he would enjoy that new challenge and both he and I hoped we would meet again on this new ship’s inaugural cruises next summer. However I will have to cross my fingers for this to happen, as I was informed that the Viking Star is already sold out for the total 2015 itinerary of voyages even before it hits the seas.
Obviously Viking has won a large following, as the fastest growing river ship company in the world today and it’s clientele was ready and eager for them to open up a medium size ship.
I agree for the over 55 year old senior population which is its biggest market, the river cruise experience Viking provides is a good one. There are good cultural lectures and land excursions for the educationally interested clients and quiet and slower paced offerings for those not as physically capable. There was an electric elevator chair and a wheelchair on board for handicapped patrons and the personnel was particularly attentive to the senior cruisers.
The final city of Berlin is a wonderful city to explore, especially for history buffs eager to learn about the changes in Germany’s history in the last century. Those of us who lived through World War II were especially fascinated by the lives experienced by Berliners through those trying years of Nazism followed by communism and socialist government changes. Through Toursbylocals.com, we booked a private tour guide for our group of 10 which for four hours gave us the history behind the Berlin Wall experiences, and walked us among Berlin’s memorable palaces, museums, and memorials. A highly recommended experience to make the most of extra post-cruise days in Berlin or any large city.
So my conclusion is there is a cruising experience for everyone’s taste. For me, it is the destination that piques my interest and final choice, and for Calvin and me who have been fortunate enough to have visited most corners of the world, these cruise experiences give us an easier way to revisit some of our favorite places through our Golden Years perspectives and capacities. So big or small, ship ahoy and enjoy!
A parting golden mantra of advice to my readers: See and visit the world while you can with young minds and bodies. Enjoy these travel adventures with your families as these treasured memories will always be remembered by all of you as the best times of your lives. Travel with friends are treasured times never forgotten and kindred bonds flourish with the sharing of experiencing this wonderful world together.
Let me hear from you about your latest travel stories to share with all of us and hope I can get a chance to explore the world of cruising with you someday.