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WriterOnDeck

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  1. I was on the recent VoV and found the ship's staff from top to bottom excellent. I don't expect the captain to be the social director, but he was very accessible in the Crow's Nest when posting weather and sea condition updates. His positive attitude spread throughout, I believe. I agree that the dining room staff is overworked, and the delay between courses got worse as the cruise went on. I don't know if that was a kitchen problem or a dining room problem. But every year the stewards seem to have more and more tables. My last two cruises were Grand Voyages and they are different. Others have stated some differences; I would add all the instructors (watercolor, bridge, tai chi, etc.), local chefs joining for a week or two, etc. If the VoV were always on the Zuiderdam or similar sized ship, the price would come down. When I originally booked, it was on the Rotterdam. The change in ship (reported accurately above) meant there were many more cabins to fill. So last-minute bargain pricing changed the equation. Everyone has their own opinion, but I thought it was a great cruise. I have 4 more HAL cruises booked (two worlds and one grand included). Yes, I wish some things were different. But I just wanted to say the OP's experience wasn't mine. (I reported my experiences, good and no-so, in my blog at www.writerondeck.com.)
  2. I did the 80- and 82-day Grand Asias the last two years. The cruise critic rollcall may get busy, but it will be a great resource. In Singapore, book lunch at Spagos (Wolfgang Puck) on top of the Marina Bay Sands. It's 45 Singapore Dollars, I think, 3 courses and well worth it. I loved the Food and Win-sponsored HAL foodie tour in Shanghai. Of course the best is the view at night from the ship...
  3. Thanks, but I think both your writing and photos are great!
  4. It's fun reading this thread while on the same trip -- everyone gets different pictures and has different experiences. Thanks for your blog here! Rather than post some of my pictures and posts, I'll just mention that mine are included with my blog at www.writerondeck.com. If it is easier, you can subscribe there by email and get each new post that way. Onward to Bergen!
  5. I'll be on this cruise, too, and will try to post updates here as well. I mainly will be posting in my blog, www.WriterOnDeck.com. If you want to receive an email when I post (at least every port day), you can subscribe on the website. Now, back to packing!
  6. I had two cuts on the Grand Asia at the Amsterdam salon last year. I know exactly who the stylist "with attitude" was, and I didn't use him the second time. My requested 1/2" off was interpreted as 1 1/2", but hair grows... If you are just looking for a cut, the price was a very reasonable $35 without a wash and style. Of course they wet it to cut and generally blow it dry (my hair is fine so by the end of a cut it is getting pretty dry anyway). Then add their 15% tip and what if anything you was to add above that. On the Grand Asia the previous year, my on-board haircut was so good that I scheduled another for just before the end of the trip and cancelled my much more expensive cut back home. As for color, my stylist at home has suggested to me the Clairol Root Touchup color I need, and I take that to cover the incoming gray spots around my face during the cruise. If I were you going for 2 weeks and needed to cover gray, I would just do something like that and not get highlights done on the cruise. It can blend in with whatever you have. I consider my hair light brown and use Clairol's #7 Root Touchup. If gray is not your issue, even then by just doing roots you might just get slightly darker roots that will blend into your current highlights. Obvious darker roots seems to be all the rage now anyway.
  7. Viking banned children about a year ago. https://www.latimes.com/travel/la-tr-cruises-viking-adults-only-policy-20180904-story.html
  8. But the US Ambassador is a retired rear admiral.... Wikipedia: Kenneth John Braithwaite II is the United States Ambassador to Norway. His nomination by President Donald Trump was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on December 21, 2017 by voice vote. He has been a business executive and town councilman, and is a retired rear admiral of the United States Navy Reserve.
  9. A Night to Remember in Hong Kong Day 36, Grand Asia 2018 Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, Hong Kong: I keep thinking this cruise can’t get any better, and then it does. Our berth in Hong Kong is at Kai Tak, the site of the old Hong Kong airport turned into a cruise port on Kowloon. It’s not an ideal location, although if you go somewhere high on the ship you can see that you are virtually surrounded by skyscrapers. The best view of Hong Kong, though, is from room 2710 in The Peninsula Hotel. That’s where I stayed overnight instead of on the ship. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A friend on this cruise has always wanted to have high tea at The Peninsula, known as the Grande Dame of the Far East. She heard that the line for a table for tea could be long, and she isn’t a fan of standing in line. So she decided to splurge and book a harbor-view room, never dreaming that the hotel will give her a room on the top floor. And lucky me – she invited me to join her. I said only if she would let me pay for the tea, and we struck a deal. On the Amsterdam’s first day in Hong Kong, shuttles took passengers to two different subway stations, each of which also had a mall. We opted instead for a taxi to The Peninsula, and it was only 100 HKD, or about $13. Our room wasn’t ready so we left our overnight bags and walked a few blocks to the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry terminal, where we took the iconic boat across the harbor to Hong Kong Island. We wandered up the elevated walkway a few blocks to the Landmark, a – well, a landmark grouping of office buildings, hotels, high-end shops and restaurants. Looking down to the street, we saw thousands of young adults seeming to shop, fill large cardboard boxes with their purchases, tape them closed and address them, we guess for shipping. Hundreds of others were sitting on flattened boxes for blocks around, eating. We could never figure out if this was normal activity and what exactly they were doing. It seemed more than “maid’s day off,” as Sunday can be known in Hong Kong. We found lunch at Le Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon, a more casual offering from this 3-Michelin-star chef. Our small sandwiches were just what we wanted, because we had reservations at 5 p.m. for high tea at The Peninsula. At a Starbucks in the mall (they really are everywhere), we also saw our first signs of Christmas. I guess it is to be expected as Halloween has passed. While walking around the area waiting for our “tea-time,” I was amazed at the use of bamboo in Hong Kong as scaffolding – not only on small projects but also on high-rise buildings at well. Back at the hotel, we were delighted to see we were on the top guest-room floor, with a stellar view of the harbor. For someone more accustomed to a Comfort Inn, I found little surprises throughout the room – tablet controls for lights, temperature, curtains and privacy next to EACH bed, the desk, the foyer and the bathroom. Every kind of amenity we could imagine – an all-in-one printer tucked away, a Nespresso machine, terry cloth and cotton robes, slippers, etc. A tray of melt-in-your-mouth chocolates and a bowl of fruit awaited us in front of the huge plate-glass window. Earlier the line for tea in the lobby had stretched down the hall and around the corner. There were still about 25 people in line when we were seated – without a wait just as promised. Tea is served in The Peninsula’s beautiful lobby, and it’s a delightful location. The scones were my favorite, with wonderful strawberry jam. We also had a selection of small sandwiches, bread crusts removed of course. By the time we ate our way up to the dessert tray, we were full and had them boxed to take to the room. My only disappointment was with the service. We started with champagne, but were ready for our tea by the time our food came. But no one brought tea, or even stopped to ask how we were doing. We finally flagged a waiter, who then took another 10 minutes to bring the tea – 45 minutes after we sat down. Perhaps “no interruption” is the standard for service in Hong Kong or at The Peninsula, but it would have been nice to have a bit more attention. Still, a first-world problem, I know. Back in our room last night, we were in a prime spot to watch the 8 p.m. laser light show from skyscrapers all up and down the harbor. Again, the location was perfect for the show. (I had missed the show last year as I flew in too late from a land tour to Xian.) This morning we considered where to visit in Hong Kong, but decided we would just relax. We enjoyed gourmet coffee and the view from our room while I finished a sketch of the harbor I started the day before. Then we moseyed downstairs to have a late morning breakfast in the hotel lobby. The crepes and French toast were a hit and the service a bit of a miss, again. While eating, we saw several friends from the ship, who confirmed that the shuttle today was parked alongside the Peninsula. It was difficult to leave our little spot of paradise and luxury, but we have more ports awaiting us and more adventures ahead. I’ll never forget this one and doubt anything will top it.
  10. The Fine Art of Making Perfect Dumplings Day 33, Grand Asia 2018 Friday, Nov. 2, Taipei, Taiwan: At some point while traveling to nearly a dozen ports in Japan and China, you realize that you’ve seen your fill of temples and shrines, just like many European tourists eventually tire of cathedrals and castles. That’s when a foodie tour is just the thing, and we had a great one today in Taiwan. Din Tai Fung opened in Taipei in 1972, specializing in xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). It shortly was named as one of 10 restaurants worldwide that inspires a pilgrimage and subsequently expanded throughout Asia. In 2013 it was ranked the best restaurant in Asia and in 2015 as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Some locations have been awarded Michelin stars. Now you can visit Din Tai Fung at west coast locations in the United States, but we were here where it all began in Taipei, Taiwan. We arrived an hour before the restaurant opened for lunch and entered through a double line of cute Taiwanese young women – one to assist each of us in making the dumplings. The women have been selected for training before going to work in overseas locations. They helped us don aprons, hats with hairnets and masks and then mainly cheered us on as we slowly tried to form 18 perfect folds in each dumpling. Once we each filled a bamboo steamer tray, they held fun signs for pictures and cheered our success. My awesome assistant, Nayumi, may just be a friend for life! Next we moved to dining tables and sampled spicy cucumbers and tea while we awaited the unveiling of our dumplings after steaming. I had put one dumpling made by a professional in the middle of my tray, which put mine to shame. But I must say that the flavor of mine was just as good, beyond the big wad of dough on the top. I first sipped the soup from the inside and then finished the pork dumping in one bite. You can probably guess which ones are mine and which are the chef made: Our lunch didn’t end there. Following our own dumplings was course after course of more dumplings (truffle, vegetable, spicy shrimp, crab, etc.), pot stickers, shrimp and pork shao-mai, hot-and-sour soup and shrimp fried rice. Our individual assistants stood by to refill our tea, swap out dirty plates and mix the perfect blend of vinegar and soy sauce for our garlic, which had been sliced into incredibly thin matchsticks. The meal ended with the most wonderful chocolate dumplings. We didn’t want to leave, but they sent us on the way with individual pineapple cakes. Tom Cruise is reported to have learned to make dumplings at the same Din Tai Fung location at Taipei 101, but it is hard to imagine that even he got better service and attention than we did. Speaking of Taipei 101, it is currently the sixth tallest building in the world, and when opened in 2004 was the tallest. It is 101 stories high and designed to look like a bamboo shoot that keeps extending itself higher and higher. The low clouds obscured the upper levels of the building, with the top occasionally peaking through. The ground floors are an upscale mall, where we had an hour to shop after eating. By now, the line to eat at Din Tai Fung was 70 minutes long. The smart people in our 14-person tour group spent the time getting some steps logged. I quickly found the Apple Store and used its superfast WiFi to upload all my dumpling photographs. It would have taken an hour minimum on the ship. We started our tour with a walk down an open-air market street, despite the rain that lingered all day from yesterday. The merchants were friendly, waving and encouraging us closer for photographs. I couldn’t resist adding an umbrella to my Asian collection. They have such cute designs, unlike what I see at home. After lunch and shopping, we stopped at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to watch the hourly changing of the guard in front of a giant bronze statue of the famous leader of the Republic of China. It was a fine display of military precision. Dinner was another gala night, with the theme of bygone glamorous days. Our dinner friends Judy and Glenn were decked out – she with a beautiful lace-embellished black dress and a glitzy headband with feather from the 1920s. They brought outfits for each of the dozen or so theme dinners – it’s a good thing they are in a Neptune Suite with lots of closets. I brought a few nice cocktail dresses and tops with black slacks. Following dinner was a Chocolate Surprise at 9 p.m. on the Upper Promenade – the deck with the lounges and public areas. I went looking to see what it was and found waiters carrying small chocolate treats, such as the tiny cone with chocolate mouse and white meringue that I sampled.
  11. Our Weather Luck Runs out at Taiwan Day 32, Grand Asia 2018 Thursday, Nov. 1, Keelung, Taiwan: The farther we sailed southwest toward Taiwan, the heavier the clouds. Soon we had light rain. By noon, as we approached the harbor at Keelung on the northern side of the island, the waves became choppy. The small pilot boat tossed and turned as it drew alongside the ship so the brave (or crazy) pilot could step to the rope ladder of the Amsterdam. Our original plan was to anchor today at Ishigaki, Japan, to enjoy the sun and beaches. But as the remnants of Typhoon Yutu neared Hong Kong, the seas at distant Ishigaki were still too rough to take the tenders to shore. And no one wanted to go to the beach in the rain, anyway. Once we were docked in Keelung in the early afternoon, some passengers ventured out in the steady rain to explore. Others like me stayed on board. I watched from the outdoor covered promenade as passengers returned to the ship carrying the umbrellas but few shopping bags from their brief sojourns ashore. A night market is only a few blocks away, but I waited to hear some reports before deciding not to head out tonight. I’ll be on a foodie tour in Taipei tomorrow, anyway. I used what essentially became for me a sea day to catch up on writing and posting blogs, adding watercolor to my journal, appliquéing a few more pieces to a quilt block and chatting with friends. Despite the weather, a fireboat welcomed us to Keelung with sprays of water. In the harbor, I spotted a reminder of my career in telecommunications – the Alcatel-Lucent LODBROG, a ship designed to lay cable under the sea. Once we docked, we watched Chinese cruise line Star Cruises’ Aquarius expertly back the huge ship into the berth ahead of us. I sat on the balcony to sketch the hillsides surrounding the harbor. The air was muggy but still, and the covered balcony protected me from the steady drizzle. All in all, it was a lazy day – and enjoyable way to pass the time while the rain fell.
  12. Remember, the photos are with the blogs at http://www.writerondeck.com. Okinawa: Laid-Back Japan for Tourists Day 31, Grand Asia 2018 Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, Naha, Okinawa, Japan: After a month of near-perfect weather, the tide is turning and affecting our itinerary. While I was in the city of Naha on Okinawa, Capt. Eversen announced that our stop tomorrow in Ishigaki, Japan, is canceled due to unfavorable weather conditions. Ishigaki is a popular beach holiday island for the Japanese, part of the Ryukyu chain that also includes Okinawa. It is a tender port, meaning that we anchor instead of dock and take the ship’s tenders (which do double duty as lifeboats) to shore. It doesn’t take much in the way of rough seas to make the tendering process difficult. The remnants of super typhoon Yutu (aka Rosita in the Philippines) are heading toward China, bringing us cloudy and rainy weather. Just close enough to spoil a day at unspoiled beaches. Instead, we left Okinawa in the early evening today as scheduled and will arrive in the following port, Keelung, Taiwan, at 1 p.m. tomorrow, a half-day earlier than scheduled. This will give us an overnight in this port city an hour from Taipei. The shore excursion team is busy today trying to book some afternoon tour opportunities for our early arrival. Meanwhile, Okinawa provided a different view of Japan. Even the main street in the city seemed more like a tourist destination, with blocks of cheap souvenir shops offering T-shirts, flip-flops, magnets and mugs. There was no shuttle service, so most of us not on tours took off on the 25-minute walk to the main street. By 1 p.m., I had overachieved my 10,000-step goal. After pausing to sketch the main street with its crowded sidewalks and palm trees, I found the folk arts and crafts center, which had beautiful silk weavings, artwork, glass and ceramics for sale at prices above my budget. Thank goodness I can shop for my new grandnephew, who will eventually grow into the T-shirt I bought him. Tours took passengers to a castle, a system of caves and a memorial to the deaths and devastation of World War II. Perhaps because this island was governed by the United States after the war until it was returned to Japan in 1972, and perhaps because of the U.S. military base here, English is noticeably more prevalent than on the other major Japanese islands. Still, most tourists seem to be young Japanese visitors – never far from their smartphones. Back on the ship, as if our housekeeping staff did not have enough to do, they had decorated the indoor pool area with dozens and dozens of towel animals – the Amsterdam Zoo. The weather is warmer, so I spent a pleasant few hours on my balcony finishing Eric Ripert’s memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line. Of course, we couldn’t let Halloween pass without celebrating. The evening included a pumpkin-carving contest and a Monster Mash party. Most passengers, like me, made modest if any attempts to dress up. I wore an orange shirt with black pants and sweater. Joyce donned a witch-hat headband to go with her orange shirt and black pants. One table at dinner caused a stir when they all showed up in full costumes.
  13. I heard it from the EXC staff. I agree that they should publicize that. I think all the Food and Wine tours are small groups. In Yokohama they did not have enough signups, but we have since then.
  14. A Different View of Shanghai Day 29, Grand Asia 2018 Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, Shanghai, China: The chirping drowned out almost everything. This was a side of Shanghai, with its skyscrapers and designer shops, that I hadn’t seen before. We had passed through a narrow door into a market behind the storefronts in the old Chinese area into a large indoor market. The aisles between the stalls were crowded with mostly men. Here and there were birds in hanging cages, bowls of small turtles and boxes of hamsters and rabbits. But the busiest stalls were loud with the chirping of crickets. The sounds were coming from clay pots, boxes, vials and cardboard tubes. This was one of more than a dozen cricket markets in Shanghai. For more than 1,000 years the Chinese have engaged in cricket fighting, in which two crickets, agitated by disturbing their antennae with a bamboo stick, fight until one loses interest. And were he there, Capt. Renault (see “Casablanca”) would say, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.” Today’s tour was one of a new series on Holland America – co-sponsored by Food and Wine Magazine, another of the cruise line’s promotional partners. This was Amazing Shanghai Eats, “exploring the city’s less-trodden streets and several authentic Shanghai restaurants that have been featured in Food & Wine magazine.” I would say it was more about the discrete areas of Shanghai than really about the food, but we did start out with Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings at Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, near an area of old neighborhoods in the shadow of new skyscrapers. The tour was a little more expensive ($150) than some and limited to 10 or 12, but we only had eight. It was the perfect size for a tour as far as I am concerned. Much bigger and the tour slows, becomes disorganized and doesn’t allow you to hear the guide. We visited the Old China section with the cricket market, narrow streets with second-hand shops and food booths. During the lunch hour it was teeming with people buying noodles, meatballs of all kinds including fish balls and other local foods. We moved on to the French concession, the area set aside for French control more than a century ago, and had a light lunch of a rice wrap with pork and cucumber and a large mug of soybean milk. The restaurant was in a mall and near an area of old buildings, including one that housed the original meeting of the Communist Party Congress. The area now is filled with restaurants, bars and upscale shops. Things change. In the shrinking Muslin area within the English settlement, we sampled lamb kabobs cooked right on the sidewalk and then walked to the “Fleet Street” of Shanghai, filled with bookstores and the original locations of the city’s newspapers. Our final stop was in The Press, a restaurant and bar housed in the original building of Shen Bao (formerly transliterated as Shun Pao), the old Shanghai News newspaper. The window sported a Thomas Jefferson quote supporting the media. Of course, I ordered the drink called The Press, a combination of vodka, Kahlúa, Grand Marnier and espresso, accompanied by a slice of passion fruit cheesecake. My only disappointment was that they didn’t sell the t-shirts their waitresses wore, with an old picture of Chinese reporters on the front and the word “reporter” in English on the back. After putting more than 14,000 steps in the second day, I was ready to return to the ship. But first, I managed to purchase a mah jongg set at a booth at the pier. It’s easy to bargain when you only have a small amount of yuan left. The merchant can take it or not, and they took it. We left Shanghai in reverse – backing down the river about a mile before it was wide enough to turn around. Joyce and I enjoyed the sail away from her balcony, a few doors down from mine. It was too bad that we left before the stunning colors lit up the buildings. But we milked the visit for every minute until we were in the industrial part of the river and the sky was dark. The Lido had been transformed into a Chinese night market for dinner, featuring local fruits, noodle dishes and other interesting options. After taking photos, I went to the dining room, ready to just sit and be served. Tomorrow is a welcome sea day.
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