If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium Part 2


A Norwegian Transatlantic Cruise to Europe from New York City Part 2

This transatlantic cruise sailed late April 2019. This is part two which involves the the excursions in Ireland, France, England, Belgium and Amsterdam. In light of the ongoing Corona Virus Pandemic, obviously all ships are forbidden to sail. When it's safe to cruise, I wouldn't hesitate to do a trip like this again. In fact, I was booked on a transatlantic trip from New York City to Barcelona with stops in Portugal and Spain which was canceled due to the virus. So travel with me across the Atlantic and on to Europe, from the safety of our homes. And here's hoping we can travel again, soon. 

The Norwegian Pearl
 
After the 7 days to cross the Atlantic we would be making ports of call in Ireland, France, England, Belgium and finally, the Netherlands. Each excursion gave us about one day to explore. The ship offered a multitude of excursions but do your homework, sometimes a third-party company offers a better price and a more interesting itinerary. The major bonus with booking a ship’s excursion is you’ll never miss the boat. If you’re not back in time from a private excursion the boat will leave without you.

Dublin, Ireland

Temple Bar, Dublin
Dublin is a very walkable city so we chose to explore it independently as opposed to a tour. We did take advantage of Norwegian’s bus from the cruise port into town and it left us off at the corner of Merrion Square, right in front of Oscar Wilde’s house

Oscar Wilde's House
Using the GPS on our phone we worked our way into town and made our first stop at the National Gallery of Ireland

National Gallery of Ireland

What a gorgeous space. A couple of my favorite paintings were The Liffey Swim by Jack B. Yeats and Woman Writing A Letter by Johannes Vermeer. There were Rembrandts, Picassos, Turners and Monets - an impressive collection.

Trinity College

From there we walked down to Trinity College to view the Old Library and the Book of Kells - the famous 8th century illustrated Gospel book in Latin. Lesson learned: Book tickets in advance. The line to enter was endless.
 
Views of Ha'Penny Bridge from inside of The Winding Stair

Heading towards the Liffey River which divides the city we approached the Ha’Penny Bridge. A pedestrian bridge crossing the Liffey, this ornate metal structure was built in 1816 to replace dangerous ferries that chugged vicariously back and forth, overcrowded with passengers. To escape the throngs of tourists we ducked into The Winding Stair bookshop directly across the street and discovered they had a charming restaurant on the second floor with a great view of the bridge. Once a meeting ground for artists, musicians and writers, it closed in 2005 but Elaine Murphy bought the iconic spot and left the bookstore as is for historic value but revamped the restaurant. 

The Winding Stair Charcuterie
Focusing on fresh, local ingredients sourced from the island, she offers Irish comfort food bumped up quite a few notches. The Irish charcuterie board with homemade bread, pickles, and relish plus a couple of pints of Porterhouse Red Ale were delicious and gave us the strength to carry on.

Christ Church

We walked a bit and spotted the famous and very crowded Temple Bar. Fearing we’d never make it back to the boat if we enjoyed another ale or two, we moved on and unexpectedly found Christ Church Cathedral built in 1030. We missed the timing of their melodious bells but you can check their site for days and hours and hear a sample of what they sound like. Making a full circle back to Wilde’s House we strolled through the lush and beautiful St. Stephen’s Green and through to Merrion Square where there’s a life-size statue of Oscar Wilde. This being our meeting-up point to return to the ship, we realized we were pretty early so we strolled on and stumbled upon the National Museum of Natural History

Museum of Natural History
Two floors of fascinating exhibits with a charming gift shop. Added note: both museums in Dublin were free to enter.

Le Havre, France - Giverny and Ruen

Monet's Famous Bow Bridge

Years ago, I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary exhibit of Claude Monet’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This showing cemented my love of the impressionist’s paintings, especially his work centering around his gardens and pond on his property in France. So, when I realized that an optional excursion to his home in Giverny was a possibility, the decision was a no brainer. I could have taken a long bus ride to Paris or traveled to the beaches of Normandy, but I had to see Monet’s home for myself.

Monet's Home

In 1883, Monet traveled through Giverny by train and found the beauty of the landscape intoxicating. He rented the house, which he would eventually purchase in 1890. He created his gardens and built the Japanese foot bridge over his pond. He even imported the water lilies from Egypt and South America.

As Monet said, “I’m good for nothing except painting and gardening.”




What I wasn’t expecting was how much I enjoyed touring his home. 




Left as if he were still living there with his family, you really got a sense of what life must have been like back when he was working and inviting fellow artists to enjoy his property and discuss the current art scene.

Moulin de Fourges


The tour included a lunch, just fifteen minutes away at Moulin de Fourges. Inspired by Marie Antionette’s hamlet constructed at Versailles, the picturesque watermill restaurant is beyond charming. It was like stepping into a fairytale. We were a large group so we were seated in the converted barn and served a three-course meal where endless bottles of red and white wine were flowing. I’d definitely return to have dinner in the main watermill.

Ruen
And from lunch we traveled to the Medieval city of Ruen with its original half-timbered buildings. 



Probably best known as the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, Ruen is the capital of the Normandy region. 

Gros Horloge astronomical clock
The charming city also has the Gros Horloge, which is an ornate astronomical clock which sits on a renaissance arch located on the rue du Gros Horloge. Also of note is the astonishing Ruen Cathedral of Notre Dame, built in the 16th century with its enormous nave. Many will recognize its front façade because Monet loved to paint this structure.

Tilbury, England

 
Leeds Castle
Tilbury cruise terminal is located at the mouth of the Thames River. From here we had several shore excursion options. One was a day trip to Canterbury which is famed for its Tales, Cathedral and charming shops. Sounds nice but it wasn’t grabbing us. Or there was a transfer into London, twenty-five miles away. Both of us had been to London before. And there was a trip to visit Leeds Castle. Leeds Castle won. 



Leeds Castle is located in Kent. From the entrance area of the estate, there is a winding walkway that meanders through the Queen Alexandra Gardens following the River Len. Situated on five hundred acres, it’s a botanical garden and bird sanctuary full of lush and mature plantings including alders, willows, and birch trees that create a majestic background for the spring flowers such as, daffodils, narcissi, anemones and bluebells. There’s a Segway tour of the grounds if you like and if you have mobility issues there’s a trolley tram from the parking entrance to the Castle.



The first stone castle was built on this site in 1119 and over the centuries generations of Kings and Queens have lived at Leeds. From 1517 to 1523 Henry VIII made extensive renovations so that he and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, could live in the dwelling comfortably. But by 1552 Leeds transferred from Royal ownership to civilian. 

In 1926, Lady Baillie, a socialite at the time, bought the estate and her renovations and design choices are what you see in the more modern rooms today. Upon her death she donated the castle and grounds to the Leeds Foundation for all to enjoy. Still, there are areas left untouched and/or restored that allow you to experience Henry and Catherine’s life at Leeds.


On the property is the Castle View Restaurant offering just that - amazing vistas of the castle. Behind the restaurant is a fascinating if not unusual Dog Collar Museum exhibiting collars spanning the past 500 years. Beyond that is the Culpepper Garden, the maze and grotto, as well as the Bird of Prey Centre and the Lady Baillie garden.

Bruges, Belgium


On a gloriously sunny day, we hopped into a van at our cruise terminal in Zeebrugge, which drove us into Bruges. Again, a very walkable city, we headed down Katelinjestraat towards the center of town. We passed one charming establishment after another and made the obligatory visit to a Belgium waffle shop. 


Afterwards we stopped on an ancient stone bridge and watched as a boatload of people gracefully floated underneath us. It’s such a touristy thing to do but it felt right so we headed into Boten Stael at Katelijnestraat 4 and spent ten euros each for a thirty-minute canal cruise. 


It was totally worth it. Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage city and we passed by gorgeous houses along the canals as well as major points of interest like the Church of Our Lady... 


and the Belfry of Bruges, which is a Medieval Bell tower constructed in 1240.



If you dare to climb its 366 steep and narrow steps, you’re rewarded with a magnificent view of Bruges and beyond. Plus, the carillon houses 47 chiming bells. Originally the tower operated as a warehouse and market in the Middle Ages. The tower also anchors the Markt Square which is truly the heart of this city.


There were scores of museums to visit, from diamonds to the Belgian fries. But it was such a beautiful day that we chose to play hooky and grabbed a table for two at La Civiere D’Or restaurant in Markt Square, ordered a fine lunch and happily people watched the international crowds streaming by.

I would definitely return to Bruges for a longer visit.

Amsterdam, Netherlands


Central Train Station

Our last stop was Amsterdam and I had booked us an apartment through Tripadvisor for three nights. From the cruise terminal it was a short walk to Amsterdam’s Centraal Train Station and out front on the Stationsplein, was the I Amsterdam Visitor Centre. Their City Card allows you to visit 70+ museums, ride public transportation for free and enjoy a canal cruise and you can purchase cards that last 1 to 5 days. Amsterdam is totally walkable or if you dare, you can bike it, but we really used the free transportation to zip around and see as much as we could during our three-day visit.




The lovely Art Apartment we rented was on the edge of the Jordaan Neighborhood. The owners are Robert and Anna and five generations of their family have owned this property and it's something you can feel. It's a living, breathing home full of good memories. We had the second floor-thru apartment while the family had the other floors. It had a sense of calmness and security, knowing who else was in the building.

Rijksmuseum

First up, I had made advance reservations online to see the All The Rembrandt’s exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. The show was free as was the museum with our I Amsterdam card. 2019 marked the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death and in honor, the museum displayed 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 best examples of Rembrandt’s prints, together in one location. I particularly loved the miniature sketches he made quickly on the streets of the everyday man, woman and child. 

Rembrandt street sketch

They were breezy, effortless and spectacular. And of course, there were his larger works, like the famous Night Watch.

Rembrandt's the Night Watch

For an upscale dining experience consider the Blue Spoon with its modern Dutch cuisine & award-winning cocktails. The décor is eclectic and you can choose from their tasting menu or order a la carte. Make sure you try their gnocchi with egg and truffle and their beetroot bloody Mary.

For the next two days we ducked in and out of as many museums as we could handle. Must sees are the Van Gogh, Ann Frank’s House (book tickets in advance!), the very cool Nemo Science Museum which looks like Noah’s Ark, and if you have time and visit in the Spring, make a day-trip to Keukenhof Gardens. Not just tulips, it’s a breathtakingly sumptuous botanical garden.   


We took advantage of our free canal cruise via the city card and it was so relaxing after all our running around. It gave us a unique perspective of the city with a lot of added history provided by the captain. And right where the canal cruise begins and ends, in front of the Centraal Train Station, was Loetje Centraal restaurant. Located on the water, it was the perfect place to grab a bite of traditional Dutch food while watching the boats and people go by. 


Nightlife never stops in Amsterdam and most of the bars are located on Reguliersdwarsstraat. My favorite watering hole was PRIK and I had the great pleasure of chatting with owner Gerson Van Eck and asked him, “What do you attribute the success of the bar to?”

The crew at PRIK
“The key of PRIK's success is our bartenders. No attitude, genuine interest in people and making people feel welcome and at home. During the week Prik is Amsterdam's gay living room where you can hang-out, relax and enjoy our signature cocktails and finger food. In the weekend it turns into a party place, when we take out a lot of furniture to create a dancefloor and have good DJ's. Oh, and Prik in Dutch means fizz or bubbles, very innocent indeed!”

The last day of our trip was spent walking along the Nine Streets area. Stretching from the Singel to the Prinsengracht canals, the shops, galleries, canal houses, and restaurants in this neighborhood are delightful.  

MOCO
Two final museum stops: MOCO (Modern, Contemporary and Street Art) which housed very important works of Banksy, Warhol, Basquait, and Haring and Rembrandt’s House and museum. Located in the Jewish Quarter, this was his home from 1639 to 1659.  

Café de Sluyswacht

Across the street is the quaint Café de Sluyswacht. The structure was built in 1695 as a home for the sluice master, who was in charge of operating the lock, which controlled boat traffic and water flow through the canal. Now it’s a picturesque bar - great for coffee, drinks and pub snacks.

So, the end of an epic journey. Would I do a transatlantic cruise again? In a heartbeat. Was it sensory overload? Honest, not really. But it was a great tasting, like a smorgasbord, of different cities in multiple countries. Some I've had my fill of, others I can't wait to visit again.


Bon Voyage!

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium Part 1


A Norwegian Transatlantic Cruise to Europe from New York City

This transatlantic cruise sailed late April 2019. This is part one which involves the ship and the crossing. In light of the ongoing Corona Virus Pandemic, obviously all ships are forbidden to sail. When it's safe to cruise, I wouldn't hesitate to do a trip like this again. In fact, I was booked on a transatlantic trip from New York City to Barcelona with stops in Portugal and Spain which was canceled due to the virus. So travel with me across the Atlantic and on to Europe, from the safety of our homes. And here's hoping we can travel again, soon.

The Norwegian Pearl

I love cruising, so when I saw that Norwegian was offering a 13-day sailing, leaving from my home port of New York City and ending up in Amsterdam with prices starting under $500 per person, I leapt at the chance and booked the trip. Ports of call included: Ireland, France, England, Belgium, and finally disembarking in Amsterdam. As many meals per day as you desired, entertainment every night, free gym and a plethora of activities to take part in, it was cheaper per day to sail to Europe than stay home!

Having traveled with Norwegian previously, I was part of their “Latitudes Rewards” program and with that privilege come perks: room upgrades, free dining in specialty restaurants, deals on WiFi, discounts in the ship’s spa and in my case, even open bar for the entire trip. Trust me, that saves you a wine bucket full of money.

So, I asked my travel mate, Bud, if he was game and we jumped into a cab and headed to the cruise port in New York City located at 55th Street and the Hudson River. Now, how convenient is that?

THE SHIP

The Norwegian Pearl was built in 2005 but completely refurbished in 2017 which made the ship feel brand new. All 1,179 staterooms had an upgrade which included new carpeting, new televisions, new furniture, new beds, and USB outlets where guests can charge their electronic devices.

Throughout the ship, over 2,220 pieces of artwork were installed, including a stunning Chihuly sculpture sitting proudly in the main atrium. 

Chihuly Glass Sculpture on the Pearl
When it comes to food, there are so many venues to choose from; 8 complementary restaurants plus room service, 6 specialty restaurants with additional fees plus 15 bars and lounges.

What makes Norwegian stand out from the other cruise lines?

Their biggest claim to fame is their “Free-Style” cruising. On many other lines you must sign up for a certain time to dine and you are given a specific table to sit at in the evening and on designated nights you must dress up in formal attire. On Norwegian, dress is casual, you can dine any time you like and sit anywhere you prefer. The last thing I wanted to lug around on this long trip was a business suit and a tuxedo. But if one desires, you’re more than welcome to dress up.

Balcony Cabin - Norwegian Pearl
Bathroom - The Pearl

Is Norwegian Gay Friendly?

Absolutely! Every night, a Freestyle Daily pamphlet appears in your cabin with a list of everything available to do on the ship for the next day. For years, Friends of Dorothy, was listed and indicated where and when people could meet. But this trip something simple but very powerful happened. Friends of Dorothy was gone and LGBTQ+ Informal Get Together showed up instead. In my mind, this is a true indicator that we, as gay travelers, have been welcomed openly and with respect. This was my 6th cruise with Norwegian and not once have I felt slighted or experienced any sort of homophobia from either the staff or other cruisers. In fact, on this trip, a 72-year-old gay couple appeared onboard holding hands and dressed in matching baby doll sailor suits with full make-up and wigs. Now, even my jaw dropped but with a smile. And they maintained baby doll characters for the entire trip, changing costumes every day. Many befriended the couple and even the Captain requested a photo with them. As one straight traveler shared with me, “I observed people treating them with respect rather than ridicule. Totally refreshing.”

The Baby Dolls

The Activities and Entertainment

They have bingo, slot machine and black jack tournaments. There are art classes, you can learn bridge, or take dance lessons. Audience participation games are numerous including a Deal Or No Deal show based on the television version where you could win $5,000.00 or a cruise for two. There were cooking classes and lectures about upcoming ports of call. And for those who love their libations, there were wine tastings, martini tastings, beer tastings, scotch tastings, and tequila tastings. 

Casino - The Pearl
The first couple of days, most people explore the ship and all it has to offer. I hit the gym at least once a day. They had scores of physical programs you could participate in from Pilates and body sculpting to classes in nutritional education and weight loss. One of my favorite onboard activities was the bowling alley. Not having played since a teenager, it was a bit daunting to lace up the shoes and pick up the ball while others were watching and the ship swayed side to side but I did pretty well. It was like riding a bike, it all came back to me.

The Pearl's Bowling Alley

Every night a different movie is viewed on the main atrium’s ginormous screen and simultaneously on your cabin’s television. We also explored the many different bars and lounges to pick the one or two that we would probably frequent the most. For me, I like the less crowded, more secluded spots. Plus, you often get to know your bartender and they you, for the trip.

They also have multiple cabaret performers as well as bands that rotate from one lounge to another throughout the day and into the evening. And there’s the Mandara Spa where you can receive just about any type of pampering you can imagine.

There’s a very quiet library to escape the crowds. Around the 5th day at sea I had a hankering to write and with an article due while I was traveling, the library was the perfect spot to create while occasionally looking out to sea and spotting a humpback whale or two.

The Stardust - Main Stage Theatre

The Casino opens once you are one mile out at sea. Previously I’ve won up to $700 with slots but not this trip. And every evening there was a complementary show in the theatre. The specialty acts were superb on this crossing. There was a magician, a husband and wife adagio act who defied gravity but my favorite was Izabella Zebrowska, a Polish violinist. Her first show was totally classical and breathtaking. But Bud turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if she also included some pop and showtunes?” Well, her second show later in the week was geared around the West End’s hit musicals and famous movie scores.

Dining

I’ve never been disappointed with the food on Norwegian cruises. I do have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of buffets...buffets anywhere. I end up piling on too much of too many different types of food and the stomach isn’t crazy about that. Besides, I love to be served when I dine out. And because there are so many sit-down restaurants onboard, you have plenty of options to choose from. But the food the buffets displayed were always well presented and looked delicious.

On warm days it was wonderful to have breakfast in The Great Outdoors which is a bar and restaurant area at the back of the ship. 

The Great Outdoors eating area in the back of the ship
The two main dining rooms are Indigo and the Summer Palace. Indigo is the smaller of the two and offers a more intimate dining experience. The Summer Palace is very large and its décor is inspired by the great summer palaces of Russia. I found it fascinating that the Summer Palace has scores of life-size paintings of the Royal family, clearly done just before they were executed. An odd choice in my mind for a restaurant, but most were beautifully done. Both restaurants are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they share the same menu for each particular day. A typical evening meal may consist of a starter of bouillabaisse soup, followed by garlic roasted leg of lamb and for dessert, a warm peach tartlet. The menus change every day and if you’re really hungry, you can order as much of anything as you like.

Staircase down to Summer Palace Main Restaurant

Of the 6 specialty restaurants, we ate at Cagney’s Steakhouse and the French café, Le Bistro. For an entré at Cagney’s I ordered the grilled ribeye with their green peppercorn sauce. The steak was superior, as good as some that I’ve had at renowned steak houses in NYC.

Cagney's - The Pearl

And in Le Bistro, I ordered the pan-seared jumbo bay scallops with a sherry vinegar glaze and cauliflower mousseline, which was perfectly cooked, and Bud ordered a glorious Napoleon of Portobello mushrooms and vegetable puff pastry with goat cheese, red pepper, sweet potato, and a beurre blanc. It was almost too pretty to eat.

Le Bistro's Vegetarian Napoleon

Often, we would see the earlier of two shows in the theatre which was at 7:00 pm. Traditionally they last one hour, so from there we’d go to our favorite bar, have some martinis and then head on down to the Summer Palace for a late-ish dinner. Very civilized.

THE CROSSING

I’ll admit, a week to cross the Atlantic had me a bit concerned. Would I get bored or restless? Ships can make the journey faster but that eats up much more fuel hence it’s worse on the environment and the cruise fares would increase. Plus traveling across the pond, your body very gradually adjusts to time changes therefore, no jet lag. And honestly, the 7 days at sea went by like a breeze - no pun intended. We were traveling late April and into May so the weather was extremely mild.


Often people were in the outdoor pools and hot tubs or playing human chess, basketball, shuffleboard, or scampering up the rock-climbing wall. There was even a driving range where you can work on your swing or you could just grab a deck chair, a smart cocktail and people watch.

Outdoor area - Norwegian Pearl
After the 7 days to cross the Atlantic we would be making ports of call in Ireland, France, England, Belgium and finally, the Netherlands. Each excursion gave us about one day to explore. The ship offered a multitude of excursions but do your homework, sometimes a third-party company offers a better price and a more interesting itinerary. The major bonus with booking a ship’s excursion is you’ll never miss the boat. If you’re not back in time from a private excursion the boat will leave without you. 

Part two of this journey will cover all of the shore excursions in Ireland, France, England, Belgium and then 3 nights in Amsterdam.

Bon Voyage!