Smart Cruise Itineraries Make All the Difference

March 10, 2011  
Filed under Travel

By Robert Selwitz, CNS

As even more 5,000-plus-passenger floating theme parks are launched — essentially limited by their size to sailing between a handful of Caribbean ports –it’s refreshing to note there are still adult-focused, comfortably appointed cruise ships where innovative itineraries are the first priority. That’s certainly the case with Holland America Line’s Westerdam.

I recently sailed for a 12-day routing that started and ended in Rotterdam. The ports of call were an ideal point for stopovers that ranged from seven to 18 hours. That meant passengers were able to blend the convenience of a cruise ship with the chance to see a number of colorful destinations.

For this voyage the ports of call were St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands; Dublin, Ireland; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and in Scotland Greenock (Glasgow); Portee, Isle of Skye; Invergordon (Inverness); and South Queensferry (Edinburgh). Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, was the last call before returning to Rotterdam.

The 1,916-passenger vessel first called at Guernsey, largest of the Channel Islands that was recently popularized in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Schaffer and Anne Barrows. The Channel Islands, near the mouth of the English Channel, are comprised of two bailiwicks — Guernsey and Jersey.

Guernsey is a favorite vacation spot for British as well as French visitors since it is accessible by boat in less than two hours from either country. The weird juxtaposition of surreal-appearing German defensive bunkers and observation towers — and even an underground German military hospital — are the most memorable images from a day’s excursion. Another highlight is the Little Chapel, a tiny grottolike church entirely decorated with seashells, pebbles and broken bits of crockery. Serene rural lanes, verdant woods and a stunning harbor are other Guernsey highlights.

The rugged and stark Isle of Skye in northwestern Scotland proved to be another ideal off-ship day trip. Starting from the main town of Portee, an excursion led by Alastair Cunningham allowed for time to sample the rugged terrain and visit the Clan MacDonald museum, a former grand home of clan leaders that also features its own castle “folly.” We also toured Dunvegan Castle, the stronghold of the chiefs of MacLeod that has been occupied continuously for nearly 800 years.

Forays among the wind-swept hills also brought us to an engraved ninth-century Pictish stone and past numerous remnants of now-deserted stone homes and fortresses. With just 9,000 permanent residents, Skye is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destination.
Stops at Dublin, Belfast and Greenock brought passengers to places ideally requiring more than a cruise call to realistically sample. Nevertheless, during stops in Ireland’s capital, sojourners had time enough to enjoy the eighth-century Book of Kells, Trinity College, the National Gallery and a walk along the River Liffey. Via the Belfast call, a ship-offered half-day trip to the naturally beautiful Giant’s Causeway proved most satisfying.

In Glasgow, visitors spent their hours strolling the city’s revitalized and cleaned-up center and sampling memorable sights including the vast but user-friendly Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and a variety of culinary delights.

Another terrific stopover at Invergordon, the port nearest Inverness, Scotland provided good dining and a chance to see the real Loch Ness (if not its mythical monster)while others strolled the Victorian streets of the portside town.

The Westerdam next spent 36 hours in South Queensferry, a major port near the famous Firth of Forth Bridge and a 45-minute bus ride from Edinburgh’s center. Edinburgh is a great walking city, and a stroll up or down the Royal Mile — between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse — is a definite must. The castle itself is well worth the pricy admission, giving access to formidable fortifications, a fabulous jewelry collection and museums of armaments and armor, as well as the ancient St. Margaret’s church.

Since this was an overnight stop, many passengers chose to watch the famous Royal Military Tattoo parade in the courtyard immediately in front of the castle entrance.
Because my visit coincided with the internationally famous Edinburgh Theater Festival, other diversions included all manner of theatrical performances. Shows ranged from quirky off-off-Broadway productions in odd settings to full-fledged renditions of modern and classic plays that feature world-famous actors.

The last stop before our Rotterdam return was Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. The once gritty but now beautifully restored industrial center features fabulous Victorian structures, a series of eye-catching bridges, excellent dining and a dynamic range of performing arts venues. But the best reason to get off the boat is to visit Durham, 42 miles to the south. This beautifully preserved medieval town is home to one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals and ancient universities. In between Durham and Newcastle it’s also possible to drop into the eighth-century Saxon church in the village of Escomb.

Typical of Holland America vessels, the moderate-sized Westerdam features comfortable cabins, a decidedly comfortable and relaxed milieu (no need for gowns and tuxedos) and excellent dining options. Particularly noteworthy was the outdoor barbecue that was served poolside soon after the vessel left Rotterdam. Grilled lobsters, shrimp, steaks and chicken proved to be an ideal send-off for a voyage that packed an extraordinary amount of fascinating visits into a compact piece of time and geography.

Before or after docking, many Westerdam passengers added on a day or two to sample some of Rotterdam’s subtle yet fascinating draws. Highlights include the stunning Erasmus Bridge, the few bits of old Rotterdam that survived its World War II fire-bombing, several top quality museums and Delfhaven, the well-preserved town, now part of Rotterdam, that was the takeoff point for 17th-century, United States-bound Pilgrims.

Rotterdam is also just an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam, and equally easily accessible to such wonderful old Dutch cities as Delft, Dordrecht, Gouda, Haarlem, the Hague, Leiden and Utrecht.

WHEN YOU GO
Holland America Line: www.hollandamerica.com
Netherlands Tourist Board: www.holland.com
Guernsey: www.visitguernsey.com
Visit England: www.visitengland.com
Irish Tourism: www.irishtourism.com
Isle of Skye guide Alastair Cunningham: www.clansandcastles.com
Scotland tourism: www.visitscotland.com

Robert Selwitz is a freelance travel writer.

 

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