Archive | October 2015

The Beautiful Rhine

Now that I’ve ranted about the travel part of our trip – I can leave the negatives behind and talk about the good things.

Our ship – the MS Gerard Schmitter – was very nice – part of the CroisiEurope fleet of river boats – a french company.  It was built in 2012 with 87 cabins and a capacity for 174 passengers.  It sure seemed to be completely booked!  The cabins were small but completely functional.  We were all on the top deck (one below the sun deck) so we had french balconies.  Unfortunately it was so cold and windy, opening the patio doors was NOT going to happen – at least not for any longer than was needed to bring a blast of fresh air into the cabin.

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Breakfast was always buffet style and our group got into the habit of boiling eggs rather than trying to eat what passed for scrambled eggs and bacon.   One had to hook your egg onto a coloured gadget (then you had to remember which colour was yours), and time it, hoping it wouldn’t fall of into the tub of boiling, or almost-boiling water.  We got pretty good at this.  There was lots of choice – cereals, croissants, fruit, yogurt, etc. etc.

Lunch was always a formal 4-course meal as was dinner.  We usually had some options for the dinner entree.  There was never a shortage of food – in fact, it was usually way too much food – but always french, always delicious and beautifully served.  Wine flowed at lunch and then starting with happy hour in a small lounge at the rear of the ship, continued through dinner.  There were even some non-wine options included – beer, rum, scotch, etc.  Premium drinks such as single malt scotch or grand marnier were at your own cost – but there was more than enough alcohol !! If you were still interested in more – post-dinner drinks were also provided!

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Everything about Europe is so full of history!  Buildings are older than we can imagine and towns full of cobblestone and fascinating architecture.  Bicycles are the main mode of transportation and they were EVERYWHERE!  They seem to have the right of way no matter what so you had to take care not to get run over by one!  We had a few days in Amsterdam and area including a canal tour (beautiful city, full of life), a tour of Volendam – pretty little fishing village including a cheese factory visit and windmills.  I completely missed Arnhem due to a nasty tummy bug that flattened me – I slept for 36 hours straight! Then it was on to Cologne where we sampled some lovely local beer, followed by lots and lots of vineyards and castles and the Rock of Loreley on the section of the river called The Romantic Rhine.  In Rudesheim we had a tour by sightseeing train, and then a visit to a local winery with tasting (of course) – and a visit to a very unusual Music Museum.  We decided to stay in town rather than dine on the ship so we found a great German restaurant and had our fill of schnitzel etc.  We had been told we mustn’t miss the infamous Rudesheim Kaffee – so, of course, we sampled that too.  Our next stop was Heidelberg where we toured the Castle and the old town and then finally our last stop – Strasbourg where we had a city tour and a very unique farewell dinner in the Maison Kammerzell – a famous restaurant opened in 1427 where the rich and famous and the royal dine.  You can imagine our surprise when after a lovely pate, we were served pork hocks and scalloped potatoes!!!

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We travelled well as a group – there were 11 of us in our little group of friends.  It was a busy 9 days without much down-time but that’s the nature of a “tour”.  You see a little bit of a lot of places but nothing in any great detail.  We did have some free time in a few stops which was great!  One says it gives you an overview and an idea of where you would like to return and spend time.  That’s a great theory if you are 30 and have oodles of time to re-visit the places you especially liked!!  For me, it was a lovely taste of many beautiful towns and cities and doing it on the water was perfect – there was always a great view.

We had good local tours, well informed local guides, a great Collette tour leader, fabulous food, comfortable beds, friendly staff on the ship, more alcohol than we could consume (another sign of our getting older) and enough castles to last a lifetime!

River cruises are lovely – casual and intimate when compared with large ship cruising.  But – this may end up being the last “tour” type of holiday I take.  The travel is difficult, and the tour pace faster than I like to (or am able to) go.  A “stay put” vacation is calling to me – not sure yet where the next one will take me!



If Only Travel was Easy!

If they could take the “travel” out of “travel”, I’d be a happy camper!

I just returned from a lovely Rhine River Cruise (Amsterdam to Strasbourg – more about that in a separate post).  We flew via KLM (we didn’t have a choice).  This airline doesn’t do Ottawa, so they provide a bus service from the Ottawa Train Station to Montreal.  They even give this leg of the journey a flight number which made me giggle.

The only thing that worked really well was our Sprinter Van to take 12 of our group from Granite Court to the train station and return.  Elite Limousine did a great job – even though we were late arriving at the Train Station on our return.

Two of our group of 20 had requested “wheelchair assistance” at all airports.  It simply didn’t happen.  At Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal, about 6 airport employees stood around with their fingers you-know-where lamenting the fact that there were people needing assistance and there didn’t seem to be any wheelchairs…..even though they had a list of names and the service had been booked in advance.

The flight itself was long and my seat was in the last row, checking out the number of bathroom trips people made during the 6 hours or so we were in the air.  I learned that there is economy and then there is “economy comfort” – which one has to pay for.  This moves you forward in the aircraft and might, if lucky, give you 4″ more leg room.  The upgrade to “comfort” isn’t cheap  at approximately $144 per person – per trip (not per return trip either).  I also learned that KLM staff (particularly airport staff) are rude and have no idea what customer service is supposed to mean.

Things didn’t work any better in the Amsterdam airport.  There eventually was some assistance, but it was in the form of a golf cart vehicle which could only go certain places – and one of those it could not go to was baggage retrieval.  Imagine!  One bag went missing – and our group leader had gone ahead without waiting to ensure everyone had their luggage.  The errant bag was eventually found and we headed into a central Amsterdam hotel where a “waiting room” was arranged since we couldn’t board our ship for hours!!!  This room had dreadful coffee from machines that seldom worked and a dismal plate of small biscuits. We had about 6 hours to wait.  The hotel wasn’t very happy about having us there since we were a large number (close to 150 people by the time everyone had arrived from various places) and associated suitcases – and our presence clogged up their lobby.

We had time to find a meal and eventually we boarded buses to go to the ship.  It was a long day made longer by travel issues galore.

Our return journey was only slightly better.  Firstly, up at 4:30am Strasbourg time to get our suitcases outside the hotel room door by 5am.  There was a breakfast of sorts – but only 1/2 hour to consume it and then find a bathroom before a 2-hour bus ride from Strasbourg to Frankfurt.  Because of tour routing, we had a flight from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and then another from Amsterdam to Montreal, and finally the KLM bus ride from Montreal to Ottawa.    Wheelchair assistance was an improved scenario from our initial trip out – but only after a great deal of insistence and lots of waiting – again, this service was pre-booked but it appears that truly means absolutely nothing.  We didn’t have time between flights (in Frankfurt) to eat and, due to airport renovation, there were no bathrooms in the area of our departure lounge.  The partner of our tour leader chose one of the airport line-ups to have a tantrum of sorts, complaining about whining bitches and how his vacation had been ruined.  Geesh – weren’t we customers?  Wasn’t it the job of a tour leader to work rather than take a holiday?

The last flight from Amsterdam to Montreal – finally on the plane and this time I wasn`t in the last row of the plane – just in the last row of a section – again beside the washrooms!  My Kobo had given up the ghost so I managed to watch a movie and even dozed a little.  The flight was late – not sure why – and our KLM bus wasn`t there  waiting for us – we had to wait outside in the cold – nobody was impressed and we were all very tired.  The bus ride was a quiet one.  We were so happy to see our Sprinter Van from Elite Limo waiting for us at the Ottawa train station.

Flying is no longer fun – not even a little bit.  Airports are huge and very busy.  Line-ups are long and customer service has almost completely disappeared.  If you need assistance, you not only need to pre-arrange it, but you must yell and scream at every junction of the trip and that still won`t get you much. Everyone (travellers and airport/airline staff alike) is tired and irritable.  Planes are not comfortable (at least in economy class), space is at a premium, getting on and off means waiting, pushing/shoving or being pushed/shoved, meals are barely edible, there are never enough washrooms – one feels like cattle being moved around by box-car – and for this you pay a lot!!

The next time I go anywhere requiring air travel, I want to transform myself into Samantha from Bewitched, wiggle my nose and instantly be wherever it is I want to be.  Or maybe I’ll just stick closer to home and drive!