My Top Ten Cruises and Ships for 2014

Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding
Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding

 

You may have read about my top destinations for 2014…now here are my top ten cruises and ships.  I find cruises are the ideal opportunity to visit several new places.  I can see many ports and facets of a country, or indeed countries, without ever having to pack and unpack except when embarking and disembarking, of course.  If you haven’t tried a cruise yet, now is the time to splash out and go to sea!  Here is my pick of the best:

 

Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL
Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL

 

1. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Quantum of the Seas

The 4,180 passenger Quantum of the Seas ‘changes everything’ (according to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line) and this is certainly true, particularly as far as technology is concerned.  This SMART ship has a dedicated satellite zapping down fibre optic type broadband that will create incredible bandwidth. This means superfast downloads and unbelievable connectivity.  Shazam!  Some of the other amazing features on board are: North Star (a London Eye type pod that pivots right out over the sea at about 350ft high), Ripcord by iFly which offers simulated sky diving, the Bionic Bar with robot bartenders mixing drinks and dynamic dining that encompasses 19 dining venues. I tried both Jamie’s Italian and Chops Grille.  Yum!!  And there is also first class theatre entertainment with shows like Mamma Mia.  The Anthem of the Seas will be sailing from Southampton in 2015.  Can’t wait.

 

Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

2. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

At the beginning of 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship, Getaway, had a spectacular launch in Southampton.  I wrote more about this ship than I ever expected to and it was, indeed, a beautiful vessel. Its bright and brassy livery and interiors are all about and dedicated to Miami, Florida.  And to top it off, the godmothers of Getaway were the Miami Dolphins Football Team Cheerleaders. I very much enjoy the exceptional venues (dining and otherwise) that Norwegian Cruise Line offers.  You can’t beat the Ice Bar for a bit of frigid fun and the Modern Churrascaria Brazilian restaurant is an all-time favourite of mine.  On this occasion, several people ‘walked the plank’ as part of a top deck that has water park type attractions.  Several also whizzed down a water slide tube while shivering in the English winter cold. At least the sun was shining!

 

Queen Elizabeth / Cunard
Queen Elizabeth / Cunard

 

3. Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

I am cheating a bit here because I sailed on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth at the very end of 2013 but I thought she deserves a mention and more.  I flew out to the port of Pireus in Athens and joined the cruise in progress. We sailed to several Greek ports of call enjoying the wonderful sunshine and history of these islands.  This Cunard ship is not as large as the Queen Mary, which is an all out ocean liner, but I love her traditional wood décor through-out and beautiful salons, theatres and dance venues.  To me it brings back the grand and glorious golden era of cruising that will hopefully live on forever!

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 

4. Eastern Mediterranean Cruise on Azamara Quest

My first visit to Istanbul was one of my top ten destinations for 2014 and the highlight on my Eastern Mediterranean Cruise with Azamara Club Cruises.  The Azamara Quest luxury ship is mid-sized with a capacity of 686 passengers but still manages to create an intimate ambience.  The pool deck is fabulous and swimming in the ship’s salt water pool is a real treat. Other ports of call on our trip were Chania, Crete and Santorini, Kusadasi, Turkey; Dikili, Turkey and Patmos, Greece. The AzAmazing Evening Concert in Turkey, in one of the amphitheatre in Ephesus was a stunning event and meticulously planned.

Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour
Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour

 

Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do'uro River.
Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do’uro River.

 

5. Do’uro River Cruise, CroisiEurope’s Infant d’Henrique

The Do’uro River in Portugal is known mainly for its UNESCO heritage terraced vineyards and for the making of exceptional fortified wines.  Our itinerary and trip began in Porto on board Infant d’Henrique and that day was, by coincidence, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.  Incredible fun.  All the residents had sardine dinners along the river and then there was a spectacular fireworks display near the Ponte D. Maria Pia.  Sailing up the river was beautiful. I recommend the excursion to Vila Real to visit the historic Mateus House and to also try out the delicious pastries created during medieval times.

Interior of Uniworld's SS Catherine
Interior of Uniworld’s SS Catherine

 

6. The Rhône River, Uniworld’s SS Catherine

Launching a vessel with someone as famous and well known as actress Catherine Deneuve is always going to be an exceptional experience.  But when it is a six star vessel like her namesake, the SS Catherine, that brings everything to another level.  The launch was elegant and the meal that followed, luxurious.  This event was then followed by a cruise down the Rhone with visits to exceptional vineyard towns: Tain-l’Hermitage and Tournon-sur-Rhône. There was a special induction ceremony into the Touron-sur-Rhone wine-makers guild. Viviers was another stop on our voyage with a lovely village and spectacular climb to a well-known statue of St. Mary that overlooks the Rhone and the valley.

Cabin on Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star
Cabin on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star

 

7. Emerald Waterways

Another launch with a super celebrity was the Emerald Star river cruise ship which I joined on the Rhein River.  Twiggy was the godmother on this occasion though we saw very little of her during the actual cruise.  The ship is very modern featuring natural décor, white, black and crème coloured interiors and scaled back minimalist cabins.  Sailing through the famous section of the Rhein River, which is dotted with medieval castles, is always a treat. It was a dazzling afternoon and the beauty of this setting cannot be overemphasised.  There was an excursion to a beautiful spot in the Black Forest where they have refurbished, medieval farmhouses. This is not only a new cruise vessel but a brand new cruise line so expect to hear more about Emerald Waterways in 2015.

 

View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.
View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.

 

Bergen's Old Town
Bergen’s Old Town

 

8. Forever Fjords with Fred. Olsen on Balmoral

I just cannot get enough of the Norwegian coastline and ports.  This is such a rugged and gorgeous part of the world that I will always grab the opportunity to take a cruise to this wonderful destination.  And I also enjoy sailing with Fred. Olsen and writing about this good value cruise line. On this fjord itinerary, I got to see the Pulpit Rock which is a short boat ride up the Lysefjord Fjord near the port of Stavanger.  There were even mountain goats playing around on the craggy cliffs. Bergen and its old harbour plus bustling fish market is always a favourite destination as is Flåm and the incredible Flåm railway that climbs an enormous mountain traversing rivers and waterfalls along the way.

 

Hapag Lloyd's Europa 2
Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

 

9. Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

Nothing is better than Europa 2 according to Douglas Ward and his Berlitz Guide to the Top Cruise Ships.  This sleek modern ship, with luxury cabins with butlers, bathtubs and enormous balconies has a price tag that is not too unreasonable for well-heeled Brits.  There are speciality restaurants with exceptional cuisine (the Italian was my favourite) an amazing spa and spectacular pool deck as well as gorgeous art work through-out.  Though it was only a taster cruise on Europa 2 for me, I am looking forward to having the full experience in 2015.

 

The new Regal Princess
The new Regal Princess

 

10. Regal Princess, Princess Cruises

There was a launch in Florida this autumn of another brand new vessel, Regal Princess.  This new addition to Princess Cruises’ fleet was welcomed by well wishers including the former cast of the hit series The Love Boat.  Such a shame that, up to now, there has been little opportunity for the British press to experience the new ship but  I am sure this will be amended.  The sister ship of Royal Princess, Regal Princess has many similar amenities including the exceptional Sanctuary Spa. Watch this space for a report in 2015.

My Top Ten Trips in 2014

Storm approaching Boston
Storm approaching Boston

 

Sunrise traveling from Reykjavik and crossing Atlantic Ridge
Sunrise in Iceland.  Traveling from Reykjavik and crossing the Atlantic Ridge

 

Every travel writer worth their salt will tantalise you with a round-up of their top trips for the past year. So here is my list. Experienced new parts of both the U.S. and Europe I had never travelled to before though, I must admit, I did not go much further afield than that. But here’s hoping you get to enjoy and experience travel that excites you in the year ahead. Bring on 2015!!

Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour
Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour

 

1) Iceland
Relatively new as a winter destination, I went on a long weekend trip with hubby to Reykjavik and had a taste of what Iceland has to offer. The day of our Golden Triangle tour dawned clear and cold, perfect weather for seeing the natural sights. I decided my favourite thing to do in Iceland is luxuriating in the wonderful thermal pools – many of which are far from the capital city. Also seeing the Northern Lights is a surreal and soul-searching experience. I am really looking forward to my next trip there.

 

Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine
Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine

 

2) Maine
You haven’t lived if you haven’t lobstered in Maine. This is the real deal where you get to go to sea, set traps, handle the lobster and generally get to grips with what it is like to be a real fisherman and seafood scavenger on this rugged coast. We sailed out on a glorious day from Portland’s harbour and had the time of our lives. Just before coming to Portland we visited and had a wine-tasting at the Cellar Doors Winery near picturesque Camden. Another wonderful experience.

Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans
Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans

 

Typical French restaurant in New Orleans
Typical French restaurant in New Orleans

 

3) New Orleans
This intriguing historic city on the banks of the Mississippi River is all about the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. New Orleans’ residents consider themselves to be more European/Caribbean than American with immigrants from many backgrounds including Sicilians, Creoles, Africans, Acadians, Spanish, German, Cubans and the list goes on and on. The obsession with food must go back to the early settlers who were of French extraction. The first setters, who got on well with the local Indians, were Acadians; French Canadians that were booted out of their northern home by the English. They are famous for Cajun cooking (which entails lots of highly seasoned game). And speaking of game, I took a trip out to the swamp and really enjoyed the natural surroundings and wildlife.
Turtle soup, oysters, oysters grilled and topped with cheese, shrimp gumbo, crawfish and crab were just a few of the dishes I tried and enjoyed. And a trip to R’evolution Restaurant in the French Quarter was a revelation.

 

Pelican's at Robbie's Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Pelican’s at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys

 

4) Florida Keys
Rock n’ Roll and Wild, Wild West begin to describe Key West which is one of the funkiest and fun-nest places I have ever visited. Sunset at Mallory Square is frantic and yet relaxing, with most folks trying out conch critters and washing them down with Margaritas. A few were even smoking Cuban cigars. A back water kayaking tour was one of the best activities of my year.

 

Florida Manatees © emol.com
Florida Manatees © emol.com

 

5) RHONE VALLEY
Lyon in France is one of those overlooked destinations that everyone should make the effort to see and experience. I stayed overnight in the historic old town staying at the Phoenix Hotel. Such a lovely part of town to explore. I then joined the river cruise vessel SS Catherine for a magical short cruise down the Rhone.

Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston
Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston

 

6) Boston
It is hard for me to believe that I have never been to Boston before now. It was tremendous staying at the XV Beacon Hotel on top of Beacon Hill and right next door to the golden domed State Capital. We also were very close to the famous Faneuil Market and scores of other historic sights such the famous Boston common founded in the 1600s. The proximity to water and the Freedom Trail, plus the many other great places to visit, such as the museum of fine art, make Boston a unique destination.

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

7) Istanbul
What can I say about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul? It is probably the oldest establishment of its kind in the world and such a rich experience for the senses. The spice market, the glorious pashminas and the hustle, bustle and bartering make this a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. Seeing the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn and the Hagia Sophia for the first time was nothing less than spectacular.  I can’t wait to visit again and explore further.

 

View from the Do'uro River
View from the Do’uro River
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real

 

8) Porto and the Do’uro River
Don’t miss the opportunity to take a river cruise with CroisiEurope on the Do’uro River if you possibly can. Visiting ancient Porto and learning about the making of port wine is fascinating but it is seeing the terraced vineyards, now a UNESCO heritage site, that make this cruise something different. Don’t miss the excursion to Vila Real to see historic and fascinating Mateus House and, when in the town, try out the specialist pastry created in medieval times and still baked to this day.

 

Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island
Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island

 

9)  Nantucket
This mystical island off the coast of Massachusetts was renowned for being the world capital of whaling for several centuries.  It is now a tourist destination without peer and boasts white sand beaches, and an historic town centre with clapboard buildings plus lighthouses, windmills and other ancient landmarks. An incredible place to visit. I stayed at the authentic and evocative White Elephant Hotel.

 

Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios
Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios

 

10) Orlando, Florida
Speaking of magic, at the tail end of the year I visited Universal Studios, Orlando to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Island of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks. I would recommend it highly to families as it is such an interactive, fun experience. The new Hogmeade Train and Escape from Gringotts were my favourite attractions as was the evening performance of the Blue Man Group. My guest and I had an authentic Italian meal at Mama Della’s Ristorante at the Portofino Bay Hotel where I tried both the creamy risotto and also grilled sea bass. We were entertained by the restaurant’s strolling musicians while sipping wine. A relaxing way to top of our stay.

 

All photos @roaming_scribe / Lynn Houghton