Postcards from Eastern Europe

•November 27, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Best kept secrets from a Lower Danube Cruise

Travelling from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary is not a simple cruise, a touristic product created for everybody, is a jump in time and space in a world hidden for so many years behind the Iron Curtain. Is an amazing journey in a land were “normal” for western travellers tend to be “exceptional” for locals and “local daily life” is an “experience” for most of us. Everything in a space where the peace and calm of the landscape hide centuries of agitated history.

If, you, traveller, decide to discover the beauty, the history and the culture of this part of Europe during your Lower Danube cruise, some tips can reveal hidden gems of the itinerary and create memories for a lifetime

BUCHAREST

If you start your journey with some free time in Bucharest don’t hesitate to jump in a taxi and after a 20 minutes ride discover in the outskirts of Romanian capital the quintessence of the Romanian Renaissance style or Brâncovenesc style. The architectural gem was built between 1698-1702 by Constantin Brâncoveanu just before the Romanian ruler was executed with his entire family in Constantinople by the Ottomans. Spending couple of hours in the palace and in the beautiful gardens will give anyone the chance to discover the bitterness of medieval, modern and contemporary Romanian history.

One evening is a good idea to discover in the heart of Bucharest a traditional Romanian restaurant (my favourite is VATRA, located minutes away from the old city, on Brezoianu street) and indulge yourself in a typical Romanian feast. A “must have” are sarmale . There is no Romanian traditional meal without Sarmale. Usually prepared during winter time and Christmas holidays, Sarmale is a dish made of rolled minced meat (pork usually) mixed with rice and herbs and covered in cabbage leaves. It is usually accompanied by Mamaliga (or Mamaliguta) – polenta made of boiled corn flour, as well as by hot peppers and sour cream. The cabbage used is in fact sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), which gives a particular taste to the dish.  The meat must be quite fatty; sometimes pork greaves are added to increase the taste.

If you decided to try a full day trip to the Black Sea and you will visit the city of Constanta take some time and admire the beautiful Art Nouveau Casino. Once considered to be the country’s very own Monte Carlo, abandoned remains are now all that’s left of Romania’s majestic Casino Constanta. Perched on a cliffside overlooking the Black Sea, the impressive structure’s art deco shapes and details are still intact despite having shuttered decades ago. The Casino is challenging your imagination step by step, with every ornament, every broken mirror, and every crack in the wall producing an emotional roller coaster outlined by the magnificent view of the sea. What used to be the main social and cultural attraction of the city in the past today is lying in despair, completely neglected like a true old man celebrating alone his 100th anniversary. There is a legend saying that Constanta Casino was built by a navigator who had a girl. She died young at 17 years old. Then, her father decided to built the Casino for young people to share moments that his daughter couldn’t. If you look from the top, the casino supposed to look like a hearse and the windows like graves. Legend says that during the summer, those who lost gambling were jumping in the waves of the Black Sea. This explains the autumn and winter storms started in the seafront.

ROUSSE

Your day in the Bulgarian city of Rousse will take you for sure to Veliko Tarnovo. During the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, from the year 1185 to 1395, Bulgaria was the largest and the most powerful state in Southeastern Europe, and Tsarevets Hill was the main fortress of the medieval capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Gossip had it that a secret tunnel underneath the palace kept seven stone tubs full of gold, precious stones and jewelry. Three crowns and a scepter, symbols of statehood, as well as a Christian cross, were laid on a marble table in the crypt. This legend speaks of the relentless popular faith that the Bulgarian Christian state would resurrect after the Ottoman conquest.

A short ride from the city will take you to the village of Arbanasi with breathtaking views towards Veliko Tarnovo and Aegean air which, according to a local urban legend, arrives here after crossing thousands of kilometres and two mountain ranges. Built in the time of greatest prosperity, in the 16-18th centuries, Arbanasi was home to 1,000 households and 11 priests. Take some time to discover incredible churches heavily painted, tiny, dark, squat spaces, whose walls are covered with naive frescoes of strangely charming religious scenes and portraits of benefactors. The detailing and the state of preservation are astonishing, and you can gaze at these centuries-old faces for hours, until you feel light-headed. The most spectacular of the six Arbanasi churches is the Rozhdestvo Hristovo, or Nativity church. From the outside, the 17-18th Century bare stone walls of the church do not reveal anything of the splendid colours, figures and religious drama that await you inside. Separated into several sections, including one for women, the church is a claustrophobic maze of low ceilings and thick walls. Each room of the interior is covered with scenes from the Old Testament mingled with solemn saints and poignant episodes from the Gospels, with a particularly descriptive mural of the Last Judgement.

And for lunch try my favourite spot – Restaurant Isvora – The Spring (Opalchenska street) where the Bulgarian hospitality is at its best and the famous Shopska salad (the traditional cold salad made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onion/scallions, raw or roasted peppers, white brine cheese and parsley) is huge.

VIDIN

A stop in Vidin will take you to Belogradchik  Rocks and Fortress – a group of strange shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations located on the western slopes of the Balkan Mountains. The fortress’s walls are over 2 metres (6.6 ft) thick in the foundation and reaching up to 12 m (39 ft) in height. Three separate fortified yards exist that are connected with each other through gates on a total area of 10,210 square metres (109,900 sq ft).

 

If you go close to the rocks at twilight and just listen for a while, you will hear the cry of a cuckoo. It is the Cuckoo rock calling. The rock truly produces the same sound as the bird and for this reason people gave its name. Is this only a play of the wind or the Cuckoo rock tells the story of the nearby Horseman, Madonna and Nunnery rocks, no one can tell for sure. The legend tells that the rocks are connected. The Horseman’s name was Anton (Anthony). He was a poor shepherd. The Madonna (the lady with child in hands) bore the name of Vitinya. She was very beautiful and belonged to a rich family. The two of them fell in love, but Vitinya’s father didn’t allow them to marry and sent his daughter into the Nunnery on the mountain’s slope. Nevertheless, the two beloved continued to meet in secret and soon conceived a child. The nuns ousted Vitinya with her child and Anton came, riding a horse, and rescued them. In this moment a storm arose, one thunder stroke, the earth shook and everything around turned into stone! Only a cuckoo survived and flew out of the woods…

IRON GATES

The Iron Gates is a piece of a paradise between the Balkans and the European Union, in which is combined superior beauty of nature and traces of history that testify to its importance. The highest gorge in Europe shows the most beautiful face of the Danube River surrounded by mountains with Serbian and Romanian side of the border. There are no words enough to describe the beauty and the strength of this gorge: Iron Gates links four valleys and four gorges through which the Danube shows its changeable nature. Golubac gorge, Gospodjin Vir, Mali and Veliki Kazan are the gorges that are unified into one – the Iron Gate. Kazan is a place in the Djerdap Gorge in which the river seems to boil (as in boiling cauldron) because of the many vortices located in there. The deepest part of the Danube through the gorge is about 90 meters and it is the maximum recorded depth of a river in the world.

The gorges made transportation treacherous on this part of the Danube, so the Iron Gate Dam was constructed, starting in 1964 and ending in 1984. The water level is now 130 feet higher than before the dam was built. At least 7 towns were covered, the Turkish fortress island of Ada Kaleh was destroyed, and 23,000 people were relocated.Close to the Iron Gates Dam you have the unique chance to se the only place in the world where the flag of former Yugoslavia is still visible next to TITO’s name

The Europe’s largest monument in the wall is located in Djerdap Gorge. The monument is 40 meters high and it was built by powerful Romanian businessman Constantin Dragan who invested a fortune in the chiseling Decibel statue on the Romanian side of Djerdap gorge. It is said that he invested nearly two million dollars to the monument in which creation participated 12 carvers and several dozen of climbers. Its building lasted ten years, it was interrupted several times and it is very controversial. The most intrigued is the inscription on the monument: “Decebalus Rex Dragan Fecit” literally translated as Decibel ruled / or won but Dragan built. If you pay attention on the top of the statue you can see the cross – the legend says that a young couple jumped from the top of the monument because of their tragic love.

With a little bit of luck and good weather you will have the chance to see couple of caves on the Romanian side, each with interesting legends. One is Veteran’s Cave, from which Austrian soldiers once harassed Turkish shipping on the river. Another is Ponicova Cave. Romanians used it to attempt escapes from their communist rulers. A few succeeded to swim to Yugoslavia. Others were shot as they swam, and some made it across but were returned by the Yugoslav guards.

BELGRADE

Outspoken, adventurous, proud and audacious: Belgrade is by no means a ‘pretty’ capital, but its gritty exuberance makes it one of the most happening cities in Europe. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its chaotic past unfolds before your eyes: socialist blocks are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces, and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics. So many things to do, so many things to see.

Stop for a while and visit the charming Ružica Church and St. Petka Chapel. There have been several legends passed on as to the first Ružica Church, erected here during the rule of Serbian king Stefan Lazarević and destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1521.  One legend says that a knight, while tending to an injured maiden, found the water spring that still runs beneath the Saint Petka Chapel today. He used the healing water from the St. Petka Spring to nurse her back to health and she had a church built on the spot in gratitude. Another legend says that, around the same time, Serbian troops were surrounded and trapped in this spot without food or water. The miraculous spring appeared and enabled them to survive. Yet another legend says that three sisters, Ružica, Marica and Cveta, each erected a church here to show their devotion to Christ

Another stop, another exciting slice of Belgrade’s history: The Roman Well, located in the southwest part of the Upper Town within Kalemegdan fortress, though in truth the well really isn’t Roman, at all. More likely is that it was actually built in the 18th century by the Austrians and that the name could be connected to their ambition to be considered as the inheritors of the great Roman Empire, or as the holders of the title of the Holy Roman Emperor, a confusing title which came after the actual Roman empire and referred to the ruler of the Germanic lands. The notoriety of the ‘Roman Well’ comes from the many tales and legends of prisoners being thrown down the hole throughout the Belgrade history  and left to eat each other, rebels imprisoned by OZNA, Nazi treasure hunters whose bodies were never found, the communist secret service and a wife murdered by a jealous husband among many others. Alfred Hitchcock visited the well in 1964 and said that an environment like that is always a treat for him. The well is 51m deep (it’s bottom lies below the bottom of the nearby Sava river), with 3m in diameter and two spiral staircases that connect at the depth of about 35 meters forming a DNA-like shape. The water in the well is incredibly clean, and is home to an endemic species of tiny crab that lives only there.

If you really search for a thrilling experience a visit to the underground Belgrade is exactly what you need. Underground Belgrade has always attracted tremendous attention since it hides more than one hundred caves, canals, tunnels, passages and incredible stories. History of underground Belgrade is in connection to various empires and states that have ruled over ages in this area. Under Belgrade there are hundreds of cellars, caves, tunnels, bunkers and passageways, many of which have yet to be opened. Some archaeologists think that there are so many tunnels under Kalemegdan and Zemun that it would take decades to explore them all. The tour Underground Belgrade will take visitors to the Roman hall where lie foundation of the main gate of the Roman fortress and Roman aqueduct and they will hear stories about Tito’s (former president of Yugoslavia) political games and spy secrets from the time of Communist Information Bureau.

VUKOVAR

When you visit Vukovar today, it’s a challenge to visualise this town as it was before the war. A pretty place on the Danube, with roots stretching back to the 10th century and a series of elegant baroque mansions, it once bustled with art galleries and museums. All that changed with the siege of 1991, which destroyed its economy, culture, infrastructure, civic harmony and soul.

You can not miss Vukovar water tower – one of the most famous symbols of Vukovar and the suffering of both this heroic city and the country in the Battle of Vukovar and the Croatian War of Independence. The tower, just like the city itself, was largely destroyed by the Serbian forces was one of the most frequent targets of artillery hit more than 600 times during the siege

When you are in Vukovar you must find some time to visit the incredible Vukovar City Museum – Castle Eltz – founded in 1948 by a donation of Roman money, furniture, weapons, and paintings given to his city by Dr. Antun Bauer. The museum started in the Coach Post Building in the old baroque centre, but was moved to Castle Eltz in 1966. Up until 1991 the Museum had about 50 thousand exhibits in four separate divisions. To this day the collection has gathered over 1400 pieces of modern Croatian and European art. This collection represented the beginning of the cultural restoration of Vukovar and it is displayed at the restored Castle Eltz today, along with other museum collections which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum. Now that it is renovated, the Castle Eltz complex represents a unique museum and gallery, science, and multimedia centre, which preserves and presents cultural heritage as an element of national identity and the continuity of life in this area.

In 2013 the Vukovar City Museum won a prestigious Anton Štifanić Award for special contribution to the development of tourism in the Republic of Croatia and in 2014 won the Simply the Best award.

And if you are hungry try Burek – a family of baked filled pastries is made from layers of dough, alternating with layers of other fillings in a circular baking pan and then topped with a last layer of dough. Traditionally it may be baked with no filling (prazan), with stewed minced meat and onions, or with cheese. Modern bakeries offer cheese and spinach, apple, sour cherries, potato, mushroom and pizza-burek, as well.

KALOCSA

Kalocsa was founded as Esztergom in the 11C by Stephen I as a bishopric. Elevated to the status of an archbishopric, a cathedral was built here. Despite bouts of destruction and the town’s small size, its religious past justifies the presence of two important buildings in the centre: the Archbishop’s Palace and the Baroque cathedral. Beside the history and the famous chicos ( Hungarian horsemen) Kalocsa is the paradise of paprika.

Paprika is not simply a popular seasoning in Hungary, but it’s at the very core of Hungarian cuisine. It is used for its flavor and for its bright color in two varieties: édes or sweet and erős or hot/ spicy. Most households will have both for Hungarian dishes like goulash (gulyás, or gulyásleves: say goo-yaash), which is the flagship Hungarian dish (alas, slightly threatened by more modern and healthy cuisine trends). Growing paprika in the Kalocsa region (mid-southern part of Hungary) goes back to the 18th century, but industrial production only started in the 1920’s. Paprika became a popular part of cuisine in the 1780’s in Hungary. The technique of making sweet paprika was gradually developed in Hungary from the 1850’s by getting rid of the seeds and stems, only keeping the pods.

The Magyar horsemen were highly-skilled and greatly-feared in the 10th century when they raided deep into the heart of Europe.T he rapport and trust between horses and riders was obvious with the noble animals submitting to all manner of unhorsely  behaviour. The Magyar horse-riding circus celebrates the age-old art of animal husbandry endemic to these Eurasian steppes. Horses are trained to endure gunfire with loud ostor (whip) cracks and taught to lie prostrate in the fields of long wheat so their riders can lie in wait and spring an ambush, presumably against the regular Turkish invaders. Our heroic riders command eight horses, standing bareback on the last two, and hang on like speedway sidecar riders.

BUDAPEST

Straddling the Danube River, with the Buda Hills to the west and the Great Plain to the east, Budapest is a gem of a city. I love Budapest for all the right reasons – architecture (especially Art Nouveau), romance (particularly the views from the bridges) and sticky apricot jam – and some of the wrong ones, too (killer pálinka (fruit brandy), and being lazy in the Turkish baths). Budapest’s beauty is not all God given; humankind has played a role in shaping this pretty face too. Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau (or Secessionist) buildings to satisfy everyone. Overall, though, Budapest has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, for it was then, during the capital’s ‘golden age’ in the late 19th century, that most of what you see today was built.

A unique experience is a drink in the always-popular Ruin Pubs remain the most unique part of Budapest’s entertainment scene. A must on every visitor’s to-do list, these pubs, located in formerly abandoned buildings, have a great atmosphere any time of the day. Ruin Pubs (‘rom kocsma’ in Hungarian, literally: pub in a ruin) are located in formerly abandoned buildings in the city and are very popular hot spots. Most are open year-round, some are temporary outdoor pubs, open from May to September and some are located in the cellars of old houses. Live music with the best Hungarian bands, charming retro décor, unique atmosphere and late opening hours make these places perfect for party. Ruin Pubs certainly represent a new wave of entertainment in Budapest. The trend started about 10 years ago and although some places come and go or change ownership; you will always find a Ruin Pub that’s popular

Home to some 40 statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx, Béla Kun and others whose likenesses have ended up on trash heaps elsewhere in the former-socialist world, Memento Park, 10km southwest of the city centre, is a mind-blowing place to visit. Ogle the socialist realism and try to imagine that at least four of these relics were erected as recently as the late 1980s. Newer attractions are the replicated remains of Stalin’s boots – all that was left after a crowd pulled the enormous statue down from its plinth on XIV Dózsa György út during the 1956 Uprising – and an exhibition centre in an old barracks with displays about the events of 1956 and the changes since 1989, and a documentary film with rare footage showing secret agents collecting information on ‘subversives’.

Of course, there are so many things to discover, to see or the learn in a journey on Lower Danube! You can try it for yourself.

VIKING LIF operates in 2017 “Passage to Eastern Europe” – Sail to lands rich in traditions: see Bucharest’s 3,000-room Palace of Parliament. Make banitsa bread with a home cook in Vidin. Explore Belgrade’s Ottoman and European treasures, including 6th-century Kalemegdan Fortress. View the Danube’s towering Iron Gate. Visit a Croatian family’s Osijek home. Witness Hungary’s daredevil Puszta horsemen. Behold Budapest’s grandeur. Once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, the eastern Danube still has secrets to reveal on a 11-day cruisetour from Bucharest to Budapest/ Budapest to Bucharest

Visit http://www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk/ for more information and special deals.

 

BA – HOW LOW CAN GO?

•November 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Recently I was writing a review about the drop-in standards and quality on a Club Europe flight London – Bucharest. I didn’t respect any reaction from BA and indeed the airline managed my expectations and never got back to me, even with an acknowledge of my opinion.

Three weeks later I took a Club Europe Amsterdam to London Gatwick and the experience was the same. Even if the flight was shorter the in-flight experience made me to decide to remove BA from my first choices list when flying.

Despite the excellent service on the ground – maybe one of the most efficient, pleasant and smooth check-in ever – the nightmare started when I board the plane.  The “very British welcome” was offered by one of the flights attendants busy with his chewing gum and to cover with his back the “Cabin Service Manager” (great title) who was having his lunch annoyed by the arrival of passengers.

The “Cabin Service Manager” – was the perfect image for a BA who lowered the standards at a level where, if passenger will have one, a GPWS will start screaming “TERRAIN, TERRAIN PULL UP!” – scruffy, with no worries about uniform standards and appearance, with shoes like his enthusiasm during the flight kept at home in a box marked “Wear and Tear items”.

The afternoon tea – long time ago the pride of the Britishness of BA service is now a rushed “push the trolley” filled with “cut the corners” sandwiches, “sad and depressed” sandwiches and some rolled eyes when you ask for a Vodka Tonic, or “VT” as the Cabin Service Manager corrected me in a very “informal” conversation.

Funny was the fact that during this amazing “Afternoon tea service” no tea or coffee was offered and when one of the passenger ask the flight attendant a little bit later for some tea to wash down the dry scones the answer was: “It was on the trolley; you need to ask, is too short the flight and we don’t have time to offer”. Great and very customer service orientated answer!

Including the delay – for which one of the pilots apologised with an amazing sample of “wooden language” – the flight was a little bit longer than one hour so I was hoping to get some work done. But no chance. The destiny placed behind me, on row 3 (D and F) tow British Airways flight attendants, both using their travel concession. No, I didn’t check their tickets but I think the entire Club Europe cabin and ½ of Economy find that during their conversation. While the elderly lady was trying to talk about BA from the “old days” point of view, the young flight attendant gave me a very “exciting” analysis of the company from inside spiced with “I don’t give a f***!” attitude of the general population of the Gatwick flight attendants. I am after cruising over the English Channel what the staff think about Walsh and Cruz, the new M&S food on board, work conditions and monthly rosters, everything presented with a loud voice and a “coloured” language which didn’t need a business power point presentation. Great mix between the photos in the in-flight magazine and the conversational background.

When during the service the young flight attendant in his days off (he was on 3F) was offered a tray with the delicious afternoon tea his replay “Give my just champagne, I don’t eat that s***!” made me realise that I paid £400 for that … scone!

I was trying to ask for a glass with water before landing but, the steward on duty, Andrew, was too busy leaning on the empty seat next to me and compare the December schedule with the flight attendant/passenger behind me. I found that during Christmas they have a “cross over” somewhere in Saint Lucia so they can plan some “funny fun”. Later after another 10 minutes during landing preparation (was it not part of their safety duty to check the passenger?) they realised that was a mistake and the St Lucia fun must be postponed as their flights don’t match. How exciting this slice of cabin crew life was … NOT!

A mother with two very young children was requesting to use the lavatory and one of the baby was crying in obvious discomfort but the Terror Service Manager refused it based on “safety reasons” while he was finishing his left-over scone in full view hiding his common sense in his pocket. At disembarkation when the poor boy left the aircraft with wet trousers the two flight attendants in the front were very amused like they just watch a good stand-up comedy show. Really?

When I was discussing my experience with some friends the next day the only replay that I got was “Why did you fly with them?”

And for sure is time for all of us to answer this question.

BA – how low can go ?

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TO FLY TO … DISAPPOINT

•November 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Promises and expectation versus Customer Experience reality on a British Airways flight

For many years, I was a loyal customer of British Airways. With all ups and downs our “relationship” was always special. Even when their former motto of ‘the world’s favourite airline’ was replaced with the company’s coat of arms and the words: ‘To fly, to serve.’ I was quite sure that my trips in a BA aircraft, business class will always stay the same: comfortable, on time, good value for money and a very “British service” both on board and on the ground. Big mistake.

After all the social media waves created by the fact that British Airways will in future charge for food on short-haul flights, via a commercial tie-up with the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer, I was wondering if the product in premium cabins will be improved and in Economy BA will lower the flight price to compete with the real low-cost carriers of the world.

Now if you have an ex-budget airline CEO running the ship – as BA does with ex Ryanair and Vueling managers – the company will be taking the leadership from someone who could think this is ‘evolving the brand’ (to a model he is more familiar with?) And the reality is that the BA value proposition can stand the increase in cost and reduced service experience that we passengers will be treated to in future and BA will see a little bit more (quite bad) profit!!

OK, the background to ‘my experience’ is a trip to Bucharest on the 1st of November in Club Europe. I booked the flight choosing to fly BA as it is a full service carrier, which I prefer to the low-cost alternatives, connecting flights with Lufthansa or KLM or a direct flight with the Romanian airline TAROM (as the timeframe was more convenient with BA).. My expectation, based on hundreds of flights with BA over the years, was that it would be better from a safety point of view i.e. a relatively new and well maintained aircraft; sensible seating with a decent leg room; plus, perhaps, a nice gastronomic experience during the 3h flight and a luggage allowance. My expectation was based not only on previous experience but the company’s own advertising (http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe)

After my arrival in Heathrow T5 I was surprised to see that the check-in area for Club Europe was clearly marked and separated for the rest of the check-in lounge and a host was guiding you to the check-in line. I didn’t care the host was hosting on her face a grimace difficult to be called a “welcoming smile”. What I did care about is that after saying hello to the host making my way to the check-in line I was stop by the Lady Cerberus with an unpleasant “Excuse me, this is business class”. Like a naughty school boy I returned to the lady and show her my boarding pass which allowed me to access the “exclusive area”. Check-in  was smooth and I was airside in under 20 minutes. Enough time for some duty-free shopping in an airport already decorated for Christmas in case you will forgot the BIG DAY still placed in my calendar on 25th of December. But you can start your Christmas mood in November after placing in the attic the Halloween mood.

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Finally, having enough time before boarding I made my way to the Business Lounge, the Galleries Club Lounge located at the same level with the Security Control which was always a little bit quieter than the others.

BA promised on their website that “when you enter our Galleries lounge you are greeted with calm and tranquil surroundings” and the “lounge is a haven of peace and quiet”. Even the photo on http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe give you the temptation of stopping in the lounge. But the reality was quite different. The lounge was very busy with a 10 minutes waiting to have your boarding card check. Don’t hope for a quiet place to work or to relax…the lounge give me the feeling that I was the victim of teleportation and I was sitting in a dirty train station lounge during the rush hours. And the smelling not very clean toilets were present too.

Being a little bit hungry I was looking for the “light meals or snacks (…) especially prepared for you” and “drink from our World Wine bar” as BA promised again on their website. The only discovery was some sad sandwiches (hope not M&S, I am doing my shopping there and I can’t cope with two disappointments in one go) and after checking 4 empty bottles on display I found some warm French white wine. Therefore, I decided to cut my time spent in the “comfortable private lounge” and treat myself with some Costa coffee and some nice tasty ITSU sushi in the terminal.

The flight departed from Satellite B, which is easy to reach if you manage your time properly: 10 minutes to gates B and 15 minutes to gates C. At the gate, 5 minutes before the official closing time an announcement was made and informed us that the crew is not ready yet with the security checks and the boarding will be delayed 15 minutes. Finally, I found my seat 2F in a new Airbus 320.

On boarding the Purser was busy making coffee for the flight crew so I was greeted with a quick basic smile but No.4. The new Airbus 320 was identical with the one used by EasyJet, the same thin seat, quite uncomfortable, giving you the “chance” to feel all movements of the guy behind you, the seat in the middle blocked with a kind of a tray, and the same old over used magazines in the seat pocket. Exactly like EasyJet; the colour was different and of course the price!

Before departure the Captain. didn’t mention anything about the delay but mentioned that the airport is busy so we must wait 15 minutes before push-back and assured us that we will arrive in time because the flight is shorter due to a shortcut given by the Air Traffic Control. it is good to give your crew, particularly captains and flight crew, the words to use when things go wrong, but they also need to be smart enough to adapt what they say when they know that passengers are going to suffer because of a delay. Platitudes/insincerity only serve to inflame the situation and it was interesting to see that our captain failed to stand by the door saying goodbye to the unhappy passengers, choosing instead to remain locked away in his cockpit!

Finally, in the air, anxious to see what else BA changed in a Club Europe service. In the last 5-6 years, the product changed so much and so often, sometimes in good sometimes in bad that my excitement had a reason.

First a hot towel and a pre-dinner drink; I decided for gin and tonic and the “must have” nuts, which was always a nice touch when you fly Club Europe.

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I was waiting for the promised menu which “features irresistible meal options crafted to perfectly match the time and duration of your flight”. Couple months ago a tasty plate with canapés was offered to passengers in Club Europe. In the London-Bucharest flight I was offered the eternal option “beef or fish” with, indeed, a nice polite smile from the Purser. The tray looked like an Economy tray on a Tarom or KLM flight to Bucharest. No salad, an overlapping end-of meal option of cheese and lemon merengue and a fish which was the blandest food I ever had on-board. When I was still looking for my “very British experience” the tray was taken away.  Coffee and a second round of drinks were served shortly after the main meal service was finished. I couldn’t stop wondering where that smooth, stylish service from my last flight went. Of course, the crew was polite and nice as much as they can, shaping their enthusiasm according the product offered to passengers. And another odd element: no other drink service; you needed to ask for another drink as the crew was busy to stop the Club Europe toilet in the front from leaking and flooding the entire front galley.

During the flight I overhear a innocent crew conversation and felt sorry for the regrets regarding their previous airline and service. Were they talking about BMI which was “eat” by BMI couple years ago? I don’t know, but I missed for 2h and 40 min the old BA Club Europe.

 I think the only genuine smiles were of the staff at the arrival gate in Bucharest. That wiped the bad experience of the “priority” bags arriving in the last lot on the luggage belt.

If BA wants to maintain a premium brand position, it needs to reconsider adopting the practices of low-cost carriers. You are paying a very low fare and then know what to expect. BA, however, should not cut all possible corners in Premium cabins. It is a full-service airline, with high entry cost of a ticket, that now wants the product structures of a low-cost provider with “premium cabin” option, like Norwegian or Air Europa. Is a kind of a Vueling “business class” product, but at a far much higher price. That is a commercial decision and while it might generate a few more pounds, will cost the business in the long run. It is no longer acceptable to mislead and compromise that experience, hoping that, firstly, no-one will notice and, secondly, they will not call you out on social media or old-fashioned word of mouth for ‘cheating’ on the expectation.

I planned for December a trip to Dubai and taking now in the account the experience in Club Europe in a London-Bucharest flight I am considering very seriously to look somewhere else where for the same price I will get a better business class service. And Emirates as a direct option or Gulf air as a one stop flight sounds better.

For sure after this experience I am not happy to pay a premium price and flying on a low-cost carrier service style. I think that should be close to illegal and, certainly, an awful brand experience. Rather bizarrely, the over used BA High Life magazine was in the seat pocket – attempting to suggest how a BA experience supposed to be, truthfully, only serving to emphasise what you were missing.

To be honest I don’t expect any reactions from BA. For sure that “To Fly, to serve” is a big umbrella which can cover any alteration of real British customer Service practices polluting it with Ryanair and Vueling (obviously) strategies. Of course, the impact in the mid-term for them is less business from me and the knock-on impact of me relaying this story, therefore undermining the tens of millions the company spends on brand advertising.

But who cares about that?

To fly … to disappoint!

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A splendid escape on SPLENDIDA

•October 30, 2016 • 1 Comment

After 3 memorable experiences on MSC’s ships was not at all a surprise that I decided to comeback. This time I was cheating on my first MSC love “Preziosa” and choose,  for a 9 day trip, her sister ship “Splendida”

MSC introduced the luxurious Yacht Club — where passengers have their separate section of the ship, including a lounge, pool and restaurant — on Fantasia, when it debuted in 2008. Since then, the Mediterranean line has added the Yacht Club to all of its new-builds, including Splendida, Divina and Preziosa. Even larger versions of this exclusive-access area will follow on the line’s 2017 vessels, Seaside and Meraviglia. The Yacht Club aims to create “a ship within a ship”, dedicating the prestigious foredecks to guests who sign up for this unashamedly elitist experience. The fortunate few (up to 142 passengers) enjoy benefits including superior cabins, inclusive fares, a butler and concierge, access to exclusive dining and pool facilities and priority check-in and an air of calm – a tall order on a ship with hundreds of children on board.

Since the very first moment on board MSC Splendida I had the “back home” feeling; the ship has the exact layout of the Preziosa with some theme-lines changed slightly, just perfect to give me the comfortable balance between NEW and FAMILIAR.

Splendida is big on bling, with an eye-popping golden Swarovski-crystal-inlaid staircase in the Yacht Club’s double-height foyer which pales into insignificance when compared with its larger sister in the main atrium.

We start our voyage in Lisbon, an ideal embarkation port if you don’t like big airports and long taxi rides to the port. In the Portuguese capital is pointless to book a transfer when the taxi is always waiting for customer and a trip to the port will cost no more than 35 Euros.

Even if was stated on our travel documents that the embarkation will start at 1.00PM, due to our early flight we arrived in port around 10.30AM. We decided to leave the luggage in the terminal and run for a coffee waiting for embarkation procedures to start. The staff in the terminal informed us that they will call the ship to let them know that we arrived already but, to be honest we didn’t expect to board the ship earlier than the official boarding time. Wrong assumption and great proof that MSC Yacht Club service is most of the time above any expectations: in less than 10 minutes the Assistant Head Butler Dani find us in the terminal and in less than another 10 minutes we were in our stateroom – 15016 which was …. READY!  I checked my watch and it was 11.15AM…that’s a big WOW!!!

What else can prove that your Yacht Club experience begins at the curb. No lengthy embarkation lines for you. Instead, a butler checks you in and you’re whisked immediately onto the ship. Your bags will also arrive when you do; everyone else must wait a few hours for their luggage. This front-of-the-line service doesn’t stop on day one. Yacht Club members also disembark the ship first for excursions, for tenders and to leave the ship on the final day. If the idea of queues gives you the heebie-jeebies, this alone will make the Yacht Club worth it.

Our cabin, 15016,  was a YC1 grade, which doesn’t compete with similar cabins on other cruise liners; is not very generous from the space available point of view. A living area gives the cabin the “luxury air”, the walk-in closet – quite small if you care about your appearance on board – is a big plus taking into account the limited storage space in the room and the balcony is the size of a normal balcony cabin. Maybe the only feature which doesn’t match the “exclusive” marketed image of the Yacht Club is the bathroom: a very small space trying to accommodate a normal size bathtub. A big plus for the decor and colour scheme of the room which creates an elegant, home like feeling.

With no doubts the biggest asset of our journey in Splendida’s Yacht Club was our butler Edwin. This was the third time when we had the privilege to have him on board and I was more than happy and please to see that his standards hadn’t change at all. Originally from Honduras, Edwin has the perfect personality and knowledge for his position, recording with maximum care the likes and dislikes of guests and always add a sort of special touch for any requests that he received. Having Edwin for 9 days created a sense of calm. He quietly and discreetly thought ahead and ensured that every detail that makes the day go smoothly happened with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss. With his assistant butler Oleana, a charming girl from Ukraine, the kept our room in a perfect state, with everything being in the same place, the right one, all the time. Is interesting how during the entire voyage we didn’t need to ask for anything, and both Edwin and Oleana, were one step ahead us anticipating any type of requests, bringing a sense of security in our experience in an unnoticeable way.

The Yacht Club offers to the guests the “Top Sail Lounge” a perfect multifunctional laid space for any moments of the day: an attentive Continental breakfast service in the morning, a high tea in the afternoon, a pre-dinner drink ambiance in the evening and even a late snack for those looking for a quiet night-cup. A small army of butlers and assistant butlers were always around ready not only to take orders but to suggest our next delicious choice.  Anna, a lovely Ukrainian young lady, was an elegant and charming presence in the Top Sail lounge, always ready not only to serve but to have a smooth pleasant conversation with all the guests. The atmosphere was complimented with live music sometimes in the afternoon and evening. I must say that my previous suggestion regarding the diversity of musical acts was implemented and three different musical styles were rotated in the lounge during our cruise. Maybe something more lively will be a good idea, especially in the evenings when the audience was up for some fun

The perks for Yacht Club’s guests don’t end with a nice room and personalised service; even during the day when we were part of different shore excursion, the YC status gave us the chance to avoid long lines and wasting time in different areas waiting for the excursion to starts, like on Norwegian Cruise Line or Cunard. With our tickets, we received the time when we will meet our host in the lounge, relaxing with a cup of coffee, before the excursion starts. The host will escort you directly to the point where the guide will start the tour: no lines and waiting for the elevator, access to gangway or security checks. Smooth and very pleasurable!

Another big asset for the MSC Splendida’s team was the Assistant Head Butler – Dani. More than once I was sure that he must have some clones in his cabin because he was always anytime everywhere if you will need any assistance. I mentioned our early embarkation in Lisbon, but Dani surpassed himself in Malaga when he appeared from … nowhere and escorted us straight to the shuttle bus avoiding the long and unnecessary queue. More than that his way to anticipate needs and wishes was more than a skill, it was a talent! One day, before a long tour he overhead myself talking about having a typical Italian pizza room delivery later that day. And what a surprise, at my return in the cabin, a lovely MSC Splendida Special fresh made pizza was waiting with all the toppings that you can dream about. What an amazing little special touch! And the pizza was delicious too! I do hope that, on my next MSC cruise, I will have the privilege to have Dani as a Head Butler, he deserves it 150%.

“The One Pool”, the special sundeck dedicated to Yacht Club guests, is a well design area where you can enjoy the sun without facing the invasion of pools, overcrowded hot tubs and eternal fight for sunbeds in the rest of the ship. A full drink service and a basic lunch is offered there and the entire place is a very pleasant and, surprisingly, quiet for a big noisy ship, outdoor space. Again, another victory of MSC in the fight with the competitor with the same “ship within ship” product.

This unashamedly elitist experience vanished when I left the YC and I was wondering the rest of Splendida trying to enhance my experience on-board. No difference with the other cruise ship: a feeling of mass produced cruise, with “must have fun” dictated by a, maybe too energetic, animation team and a service which seems to be rushed and tributary to a general routine and “whatever” attitude. Maybe I exaggerate a little bit, but the difference between YC experience and the rest of the ship is more than obvious.

I discover a single “breath of fresh air” in the entire ship outside Yacht Club: Alex a bartender in the Aft Lounge. Originally from Romania, Alex didn’t stop to amaze us not only with his bartender and mixology knowledge but with his positive attitude, his high standard manners, his sense of humour and conversational abilities. Actually he was the only reason for which we were spending couple of hours every evening in quite a noisy and busy lounge filled up with low key entertainment. I was wondering couple of time why Alex was not a presence in the Yacht Club where his skills and talents will be well used and appreciated?

What I do like about Splendida lay-out is that the designer manages to create a lot of different spaces with different personalities, able to attract different sub-populations of guests: a cosy piano-bar, a quite trendy disco-club, a bright light “piazzeta” style area, an elegant wine bar or the large glitzy atrium. No matter how fussy you are for sure you will find on-board your favourite spot. And nothing is too big or too much.

An intrigue choice is the speciality restaurant; on Preziosa you can choose between an Italian and a trendy up-market Fusion restaurants, but here, on Splendida the only choice was a Tex-Mex! I was a little bit reluctant initially, but, after the first dinner there, the efficient service, delicious food and reasonable price made me to return before the end of the voyage

Moving to things that need to be change if MSC wants to be a strong competitor on the very busy cruise market I think the biggest disappointment is from far the on-board entertainment. On one hand, some acts are on expected cruise ship standards: the duos in the Purple Jazz Bar, Irina – the pianist in the Top Sail Lounge or the excellent Swarovski trio are filling the space and time with decent performances. On the other hand, what I don’t understand is the “talent competition” level of the big theatre shows! On a ship under a flag bearing a history of fantastic Italian entertainment (San Remo, Rai Uno or Canal 5) the dancers and especially the singers made any attempts to watch the shows painful. The lack of interest or personality of the Cruise Director Franco was maybe the reason for the performance of noisy and amateurish animation team, in line more with a cheap holiday all-inclusive resort than a famous cruise line. All the team parties were full of screaming and jumping with the same line dance routine no matter the music! Fortunately, the cocktails in the Aft Lounge manage to ease the pain created by a very annoying animation team. Who told them that good entertainment means screaming in a microphone and rolling on the dance floor?

Don’t be surprised that I didn’t mention anything yet about the dining experience on board MSC Splendida. That was, I think, the only downside of our trip. L’Olivo, located at the back of the ship, is the restaurant dedicated to Yacht Club guests and is an elegant Mediterranean ambiance. Unfortunately, our experience on Preziosa was repeated this time on Splendida too: the quality of the dishes and variety of the menus seem to be results of a dramatic budget cuts. Nothing that will remind you of the fresh and simple Italian traditional cuisine. But as I eat to live and vice versa the over-processed and not at all inspired meal choices didn’t bother me at all. Most upsetting was the level of service. A Maitre D’ quite arrogant and with little manners, a complete absence of standards and consistency in service and a rush and “whatever” service style made me to avoid as much as possible (only 3 nights of 9 dining in the restaurant) the place. If MSC wants to impose the Yacht Club product on the luxury cruise market a lot of work must be done in the restaurant department, where the lack of efficient and professional middle management ruin the culinary experience on board placing the standards of the Yacht Club restaurant on the same level with P&O or Costa main dining room. And that’s not a compliment!

What I would like MSC to change? Couple of small but important things:

  • A restaurant menu and service which match the level of service in the Yacht Club and expectations from an exclusive product
  • A Concierge Service more focused in finding solutions than using NO as a general answer
  • A real package to differentiate the different loyalty level of guests to the same standards as other cruise liners.
  • An entertainment more modern and flexible without the air of a cheap holiday resort.
  • The extension of the perks associated with the Yacht Club on the entire ship (beverage service for example)

I know that nobody is perfect but being a great believer in MSC quality and future, I am sure that the company will start moving in the right direction in the Restaurant and Concierge/Front Desk department to support the amazing efforts and results of the rest of Yacht Club team.

For me, MSC Yacht Club is for sure one of the choices when is time to book a new cruise. Is close to what exclusivity and luxury means when I am thinking about cruising. The almost perfect product, the amazing crew and the feeling that pampering is a lifestyle on board MSC ships make me hope that the company is on the right path.

That’s way I can’t wait for our next MSC Yacht Club experience: a week on Fantasia in December and a return on Splendida in January.

Thank you very much MSC Splendida, thank you amazing crew of Yacht Club team! See you soon!

CRUISING LIKE A TSAR

•August 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

 

12 DAYS SCANDINAVIA AND RUSSIA CRUISE on CELEBRITY ECLIPSE

Last year, sometimes in the middle of July, I come across a special offer on Celebrity Constellation (you can see my review on this website) and I started to think that Celebrity Cruises is a very powerful option to contra-balance the recent and constant disappointment with my “all time

favourite” Norwegian Cruise Line-NCL. And one morning I got in my email information about a 12 days trip to Scandinavia and Russia on board of Celebrity Eclipse from Southampton. As last time when I was visiting Sankt Petersburg was in 1987, when the city was still Leningrad and as I loved my last experience on Celebrity, didn’t take me too long to book a Sky Suite and start packing for my northern journey on ECLIPSE.

Leaving from Southampton means you can take everything you need in your car, drop your luggage with a porter, and soon be relaxing on board with a drink in hand ready for the 4,000-mile voyage

Introduced to the Celebrity fleet in 2010, Eclipse is one of the line’s largest vessels, carrying up to 2,850 passengers and more than 1,200 crew members. But don’t be scared about the size, ECLIPSE was designed in such a way that, even the ship was very busy, I never got the overcrowded feeling like on NCL or Cunard. Eclipse is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful big cruise ships we’ve ever sailed. Its interiors blend sophistication with a bit of trendy hotels look alike, but with softer edges.

The check-in in Southampton was one of the best, smooth and quickest ever. Actually we needed around 30 minutes from the moment when we park the car at the City Terminal until we were enjoying the first drink in Mast Bar on 14th Deck. Celebrity has a separate check-in for Suite guests with very helpful staff so the idea of queuing at the beginning of your journey is eliminated in a very nice and friendly way. And guess what? Our luggage arrived in our suite in no time, far much quicker and hassle-free that we experienced on NCL Epic in our last trip.

The next pleasant surprise was our Sky Suite (2135). From the moment when I enter the stateroom I had a nice feeling, which will be amplified during the entire journey in every corner of ECLIPSE that the ship did not feel like a ship, and more like a 5-star hotel that happened to go to sea. Which is great! The layout of the stateroom was perfect for our journey, with its 300 sq. ft. and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors opening to a 79 sq. ft. veranda. We enjoyed a nice sized balcony with a good sized table for wonderful breakfasts. The bed was also higher than normal, allowing more luggage storage beneath, and the mattress was designed with rounded corners to make moving around it even easier. This cruise was the first one when I didn’t have a problem to find storage space for everything compressed in our 5 suitcases. Add to all of this the lounge seating sitting area with sofa bed and you will get the perfect space of a 12-day journey to Scandinavia and Russia

Of course, as a Suite’s guest you will have enough time to enjoy all special Suite Amenities: your 24 hour European butler service, priority check-in, welcome bottle of sparkling wine with fresh fruit and flowers, assistance with packing and unpacking your luggage, an expanded room-service menu with full meal service in your suite, in-suite afternoon tea service, evening hors d’oeuvres, shoeshine service, and Celebrity tote bag. Another surprise was waiting for me in the bathroom. I will not talk again about the storage space or the actual size of the bathroom, but, in a time when all the cruise line cut corners offering “company branded” amenities (aka cheaper stuff than well-known brands), Celebrity pampered us with a wide range of Bulgari products…and that’s in my opinion a touch of luxury

When you stay in a Sky Suite, you’ll enjoy the luxury of personal butler service. This includes assistance with unpacking and packing, in-suite lunch and dinner service. And Harold, our butler was absolutely fantastic.  A smooth and un-intrusive service always with a big smile and a solution for small problems and a sense of “being here and everywhere when needed” – that was Harold presence during our journey. And of course his entire team – Elsa the stewardess and Simeon the assistant steward was fallowing the same style. After an 18 hours’ trip to Moscow at our return to the stateroom. when all the restaurants were closed, Harold left in our room a plate with my favourite cold cuts and a “sleep well” message. How sweet!

Dining on board ECLIPSE was another high-light of the trip. When you book a suite you have access to Luminae restaurant. Right from the entrance, where a smiley and helpful host will find for you the right table, you are amazed by the celebration of light, chrome and glass, as well as white and yellow furnishings to reflect the meaning of its name (light). Luminae is split into two separate spaces, which gives the feeling of intimacy and exclusivity Celebrity is trying to create.

Dining on board ECLIPSE was another high-light of the trip. When you book a suite you have access to Luminae restaurant. Right from the entrance, where a smiley and helpful host will find for you the right table, you are amazed by the celebration of light, chrome and glass, as well as white and yellow furnishings to reflect the meaning of its name (light). Luminae is split into two separate spaces, which gives the feeling of intimacy and exclusivity Celebrity is trying to create.

The service in Luminae restaurant is another strong point of ECLIPSE. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, perform at very high standards. From the waiter to Maître D’, from the assistant waiter to sommelier, everybody has a strong product knowledge, are familiar with the ingredients and always able to pair different courses and wine to achieve a fantastic gastronomic experience. Victor our waiter had always an excellent recommendation for us and after couple of days he knew exactly where our preferences are heading for. Tomislav, the sommelier, acknowledge immediately our taste in wines, recommending the perfect pair for the food chooses but he try most of the time to divert our habits to some new experience. And guess what: he was right 99.99% of the time.

We try couple of time the Oceanview Cafe on Deck 14 – an expansive multi-station buffet for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. And surprise: the quality of food and service was far above everything else that we experienced on other cruise ships. The buffet layout is excellent, with many serving and prep stations situated as islands in the middle of the room, rather than stretched along the walls. The result is a dependably uncrowded, spacious operation offering an extensive number of choices and I was in love with the Sushi station and the freshly made Shaworma.

Bottom line: The quality of cuisine is so high and the choice so extensive that it feels as if you’re eating in a different restaurant every night

Perched at the very top of the ship, Eclipse’s most distinctive feature is definitely the Lawn Club, a half-acre of real grass that offering a quiet, country-club feel. Real Grass on a ship! I thought it was a joke when I read about the half-acre grassy area on the top deck of the ship, but it simply works. The Lawn Club is a great place to relax, play croquet, putt, picnic, practice bocce or wiggle your toes in the cool blades of real grass. You can play croquet, putt around some golf balls, play a game of bocce, or take a little picnic.

At one end of Lawn Club, the world-famous Corning Museum of Glass has created a studio to present Hot Glass Shows, in which master artisans explain the art of glassblowing during creative, high-energy performances centred around creating a finished vase or bowl.

As far as activities go, travellers can enjoy three pools, 18 retail shops and enrichment programs like cooking demos and dance lessons by day and theme parties, comedy acts and kind of Broadway-style shows by nigh. But to be honest Celebrity didn’t pay to much attention to activities and entertainment and the quality is lower than on other ships. But we will talk about that another time.

My favourite places were the Library and Team Earth, a museum-like interactive environmental awareness experience, which, on our cruise, housed an exhibition of photographs from the line’s Global Encounters competition with the World Photography Organisation.

My favourite places were the Library and Team Earth, a museum-like interactive environmental awareness experience, which, on our cruise, housed an exhibition of photographs from the line’s Global Encounters competition with the World Photography Organisation.

Inside, Eclipse feels like a spread in an upscale lifestyles magazine. At the base of her atrium, translucent, backlit onyx panels and white drapes give a modern and chic hotel ambience, while fifty feet up a full-size, 20-foot tall tree sits suspended in a planter, adding a hint of surrealism. There’s the usual theatre, spa, pools, library, shops, casino, art gallery and children’s clubs but the ship holds many surprises for new guests – including a four-storey tree suspended between glass-fronted lifts and eye-catching works of art displayed in the spacious area around the specialty restaurants

If you are organised enough to get a Premium Package before boarding or jump for an upgrade whilst on board that’s a very smart move. ECLIPSE is a real paradise of fancy drinks and the choice is impressive in the venues field too. From Cellar Masters featuring wines from across the world to Ensemble Lounge a pre- and post-dinner bar a cosy, jazz club feel with live music was a perfect place for a drink our too.

On our first Celebrity cruise the favourite place was the fashion-world Martini Bar with a perpetually frosted bar top and entertaining demonstrations of cocktail-making by the bar staff. This time, due to the fact that 90% of passengers got a Classic Drink Package included in the price of the cruise and chose not to buy an upgrade, Martini bar was always overcrowded, serving less Martinis and more cheap G&T and Sparking wine by the glass. Such a pity !

Fortunately, I discover another fantastic venue: Word Class Bar – the former Molecular bar. The Cinderella of the drink venues on the ship located by the art gallery, it’s unnoticed by most passengers and the atmosphere is spoiled by its openness which allows music from different venues and passengers going to and from the theatre to intrude. But once you decide to have a drink there the surprise is a massive one. World Class serves interesting and sophisticated cocktails at almost twice the cost of regular drinks elsewhere on the ship, based on great quality spirits  That was my place for the rest of the cruise enjoying “world class” cocktails an attentive service and a new experience, different every time.

Twice during our journey, we stopped in Quasar – a fun nightclub often playing very good music, chosen by the DJ according to the crowd age. Good place to hang out if you still have some dancing energy left after the rest of the evening.

Sunset Bar- at the back of the ship and Pool Bar- closes surprisingly early even when the weather continues to be good into the late evening they didn’t pass the level of a normal outside cruise ship bar with average drinks and service.

Michael’s Club is the lounge dedicated to suite’s guests. Sounds too good to be truth….and in a way that was the reality. On ECLIPSE Michael’s Club is far away to be a “gentlemen’s club” environment. When you step inside you have the feeling that you left behind the modern luxury of the ship and you entered an old and outdated space with Grandma’s furniture collected during couple of decades and piled up in an old storage room. I was trying to find a logic of the mishmash of styles and ages of all that collection of sofas and chairs…it was impossible. Until the moment when I found some photos of ECLIPSE before 2015’s refurbishment and I understood that Michael’s Club is the resting place of chairs, tables and sofas which could still cope with our weights.

The only reason why we returned couple of time to Michael’s Club was Ildi, an excellent concierge who was trying very hard to place this lounge on ship’s map organising every day different events: music recitals, lectures, presentation, informal meetings. But without Ildi, her perfect smile and excellent advices for sure we will avoid “The Morgue”. I do hope that in the future ECLIPSE will give a makeover to the lounge and rise the services to the ship’s standards; you can be “old fashion style” in a modern approach for sure !

As the journey to Scandinavia and Russia had couple of see days I had enough time to explore the ship and join different activities offered on board. And even if the entertainment or enrichment lectures didn’t manage to convince me (we will talk about this in my next post) some events grab my attention and energy: a fantastic Faberge presentation followed by private viewing in Michael’s Club or the full of fun Sing-Along ABBA party after our departure from Stockholm

And what a surprise the invitation sent by our lovely Concierge Ildi with the chance to discover in a private tour the bridge of Celebrity ECLIPSE and a Q&A session with the Staff Capitain. That was a real treat !

Celebrity doesn’t enforce a strict dress code throughout your cruise but you will be expected to look smarter on “Evening Chic” nights! There were two evening chic events per cruise and I am happy to say that the dress code was not only respected but, in both occasion, my fellow traveller could give a lesson to the “over-sold” Cunard’s Gala nights: no Matalan tuxedos and no e-bay dresses.

If you’d like to spend your money (and definitely get something in return!) there’s also shopping on-board, and we’re not just talking a few gift shops! You can browse the likes of Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Bvlgari and many more. There’s even an art gallery for you to buy art and you can also exclusively purchase apple products from the on-board iLounge – which is the only certified seller of apple products at sea. All products bought are tax free, making the purchase worth your while

Celebrity is perfect for those who want something extra out of their cruise – especially if it’s a luxury experience. It’s a five star experience akin to a modern boutique hotel with ultra-modern amenities, décor and atmosphere. For those first time cruisers wanting to experience a stylish voyage, couples or solo travellers, Celebrity has something for everyone.

So no surprise that we left Celebrity ECLIPSE with the strong idea that we have to come back and now I’m planning the next cruise with them. Is a little bit sad that my old friend NCL lost us to Celebrity but, at the end of the day, cruising is not an easy market and one mistake (or more if we talk about NCL) can cost you somebody loyalty.

After 14 cruises last year and 7 this year (up to now, you know me) I don’t have any problems to accept that this one, on Celebrity ECLIPSE, was one of the, if not, THE BEST.

Thank you Celebrity! Thank you ECLIPSE Crew!

Stay tune for my next posts:

  • Scandinavia and Russia in 12 days – what and how you can see ALL!
  • What can eclipse the ECLIPSE? – what I didn’t like on Celebrity Eclipse

POST SCRIPTUM: Selectia Nationala Eurovision 2016

•March 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Cand , pe 6 martie, TVR-ul transmitea in direct de la Baia Mare Finala Selectiei Nationala Eurovision 2016 ma aflam undeva departe, incercand sa imi petrec asa cum imi planuisem ultimele zile de vacanta. Asa ca am ratat transmisia in direct. Ajuns acasa am inceput sa citesc pe Facebook mesajele de felicitare adresate de prietenii care inca sunt in TVR echipei de realizatori. Si m-am bucurat de succesul Selectiei Nationale Eurovision 2016 care vine intr-un moment extrem de delicat pentru TVR putand demonstra ca institutia din Dorobantilor 191 mai merita o sansa. In plus m-am bucurat ca am avut si de data asta dreptate cu alegerea lui Ovidiu Anton sa ne reprezinte la Stockholm.

Ieri dimineata am citit o excelenta cronica in libertatea.ro care contrazicea invazia de #-uri de auto-felicitare tipic TVR-ista. Alice si Simona au dovedit, inca o data, ca au puterea de a fi obiective si realiste prin cronica lor: “Si uimiti si cu bani luati” (http://www.libertatea.ro/editorial/editorial-de-alice-nastase-buciuta-eurovision-2016-si-uimiti-si-cu-banii-luati-1307544). Singurul lucru care nu mi-a placut a fost ca analiza lor m-a OBLIGAT sa petrec 3 ore si ceva pe TVR+ ca sa vad inregistrarea. Chinuitor, frustrant dar, amuzant in acelasi timp, sa realizez ca mesajele de felicitare de pe Facebook erau de fapt e mai important sa pastrezi un fluturas de salariu decat o coloana vertebrala dreapta.

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Asa ca azi noapte, dupa memorabila vizioare, m-am apucat de scris. Nu o sa vorbesc din nou despre melodii; de data asta vorbele vor fi legate de spectaciolul TV – pentru ca pana la urma Eurovisionul este un spectacol de televiziune.

Inceputul a fost ca o gura de aer proaspat. Muzica dinamica, montajul alert si modern cu imaginile din Baia Mare m-au facut sa cred ca in sfarsit merita sa te uiti din nou la TVR. Emotia a durat pana la transmisia primelor momente live din sala.

“Moro-show”-ul a fost o dureroasa si palida copie a filmarilor de la Cantarea Romaniei. Diferenta este insa talentul regizoral a lui Hero Lupescu care semna spectacolele de dinainte de ’89. La Baia Mare am vazut o adunare/adunatura de nume consecrate asezate in semicerc si topaind fara sens intr-o lumina foarte bine pusa. E trist daca cineva s-a gandit ca Maramures inseamna NUMAI Paula Seling iar restul artistilor dau, doar,  bine in back-ground. In plus, desi e clar ca tot momentul se rotea in jurul ei, Paula a uitat sa-si ia vocea de acasa iar tipetele de la “Miracle” m-au facut sa ma ridic de la calculator si sa-mi iau o bere din frigider. Ideea inedita de localizare a selectiei nationale intr-un spatiu cultural genial a esuat lamentabil.

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Iar cireasa de pe tort a esecului a fost imaginea cu primarul de Baia Mare avand-o alaturi, ca pe o statuie de ceara a Andreei Marin, pe Iuliana Tudor. TVR-ul iese la atac cu arme puternice in razboiul pe care-l duce, iar “O data-n viata” ca locomotiva de audienta a postului public a adus promovarea prezentatoarei in pozitia de PR Girl. Am avut un deja-vu al momentului trait la ultimul Cerb, la Brasov, intr-o limuzina cu Augusta si Lazarov in drum spre Poiana.

Intr-un final pe scena apar prezentatorii; frumosi imbracati si cu zambete mari, desi daca te uitai mai atent vedeai ca nu prea e loc de dragoste intre Cornel si Ioana, mai ales dupa taiatul de replici si suprapunerile din seara semifinalei.

Cornel are o prezenta scenic foarte buna si se vede ca are experienta in prezentarea show-urilor live cu public mare si in spatii greu de controlat. Eurovisionul este un show de televiziune si i-a fost greu sa stabileasca in primul rand o relatie cu telespectatorul si camerele de filmat. Eternul clipboard din mana nu l-a ajuta, ba mai mult l-a incurcat cand incerca sa tina balantul intre scriptul prezentarii si improvizatiile stangace cu aer de conversatie cu pretenarii la o bere.

Ioana este superba…si atat. Adica nu, este o dovada perfecta ca “dictatura pizdolinelor” face pare si acum, in al 12-lea ceas, din politica editoriala din Dorbanilor 191. Iar eu sunt Stan Patitu’. In 25 de ani de TVR am avut sansa sa tin in gradina proprie o multime de exemple. Diferenta este data de faptul ca mandrel mele, blonde sau nu, aveau bun simt si dorinta de a nu se face de ras. La Ioana numele de familie si rochiile superbe au fost de ajuns sa anuleze auto-cenzura si simtul ridicolului. Ce conteaza ca la doua fraze plasezi 10 balbe, ca e greu sa gasesti camerele, in afara de cea plasata taman in fata ta, ca pui intrebari care incep dar nu stii exact unde se termina sau ca e greu sa-ti muti ochii din textul de prezentare. Important e ca sunt fumusica si ca ma place “Domn’ Primar” (citat din clasica prezentatoare in viata)

A existat si o a treia prezentatoare. Va duceti aminte prestatia Conchitei din Camera verde anul trecut la Viena. Jo nu are de ce sa fie acuzata de catastrofa propriei prestatii. Ea nu a a avut o camera verde ci un culoar negru, la iesirea din scena de unde-si racnea intrebarile tampe si rasul nervos. Nu e vina ei ci a pilei care a propulsat-o in situatia respectiva.

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A existat si un juriu. Asa cum este normal si care a facut o treaba extrem de buna la preselectii si semifinala. Ce nu am inteles eu este de ce a trebui sa se mearga pe varianta de “XFactor” sau Vocea Romaniei ? Comentariile juratilor, de cele mai multe ori inutile cu exceptia interventiilor lui Horia Moculescu, nu au facut altceva decat sa influenteze dramatic votul publicului. Se vedea clar la fiecare comentariu cum se spalau lucrurile murdare din muzica romaneasca, cine pe cine place sau displace si asa mai departe. Inutil si costisitor pe deasupra. Inca ma doare sufletul ca Sandra Cepraga, un om special si adevarat profesionist a acceptat ingrate postura a scaunului de vinilin rosu. Dar despre interventiile “genial” ale juriului o sa mai vorbim.

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Cartile de vizita ale concurentilor au demonstrate inca o data ca Dan Manoliu stie si poate sa face televiziune moderna. Pacat ca mesajele au fost enervant de tembele. Poate la anul cineva o sa le supervizeze vorbele cantaciosilor nostri.

  1. Florena-Behind the Shadows.

Exceptionala scena, un complement perfect pentru o voce foarte buna si o melodie pe masura. Mi-ar fi placut insa ca atmosfera ireala create de fum sa stea pana la sfarsit ca sa evite imaginea unei scene goale si nu foarte curate, partial acoperita de trena solistei. Sau poate “Domnu’ Primar” nu a mai avut fum la buget pentru tot momentul ? Mi-a placut momentul asa de mult incat am ignorant eterna problema a transmisiilor live TVR: si camerele si microfoanle cauta cu disperare vorbitorii si ii gasesc la jumatatea frazei. Jurizarea mi-a demosntrat ca dincolo de titlul The Voice, Cezar Ouatu merita titlul de “The Mascara” si cam atat, iar Randi incearca cu disperare sa demonstreze prin stilul inutil bascalios ca este disperat sa prinda un contract cu Antena 1 pentru editiile viitoare X Factor. Nu de alta dar ProTV si Vocea Romaniei au un anumit standard. La finalul momentului Ioana isi adjudeca fara drept de apel titlul Miss No-personality iar Jo tipa intrebari stupide al caror raspuns nu-l stie nici ea (“care a fost cea mai tanara participant la Eurovision…stii…nici eu…ha-ha-ha!”). Genial.

  1. Irina Baiant&Doru Todorut – The Voice

Mi-a placut grafica din background inspirata de castigatorul suedez de anul trecut dar nu am inteles rostul manusilor de conducator auto. Dar melodia este buna chiar daca interpretata putin cam “sharp” in variant live si merita mult mai mult.

Cornel, bun ca prezentator de show-uri dar catastrofal in interviuri incearca un dialog cu Moculescu dar dupa ce lanseaza intrebarea nici el nu mai stie ce a vrut sa intrebe. Asa ca, consternarea Moculescului, este pe deplin inteleasa. Din duelurile verbale ale juratilor se vede clar disperarea lor de a vorbi….este Eurovision fratilor, nu JURIO-VISION. Iar la finalul momentului o noua portie de ras tamp a la Jo ! Melodia nr. 3 va rog.

  1. Dream Walkers – Let it shine

A fost singurul moment pe care il reprosez direct realizatorilor TVR. S-a vazut clar efectul disputelor dintre Faur si echipa TVR; nu numai de anul asta de la Baia Mare, dar profesionistii TVR aveau de platit polite lui Faur de la Craiova 2015 si chiar de pe vremea lui “Let me try!”. Asa ca baietii de la Dream Walkers au avut de suferit. Accentul s-a pus pe lumina din fundal si efectele special, greu de prins cateva prim planuri, importante pentru o trupa care promozeaza imaginea de “good clean boys”, unghiuri neinspirate si o imagine incarcata cu prea multe umbre. Noroc cu vocile foarte bune si melodia excelent construita. In dialogul cu juriu Ioana este din nou “inspirata” in comparatia cu Boyz 2 Men (ca de Il Divo nu auzise saracuta) si disperata ca juratii vorbesc prea mult. Si prost in cazul lui Randi.

  1. Vanotek – I’m coming home

Nu am nici o problema sa recunosc ca in precedent cronica M-AM INSELAT ! Vanotek au fost super pe scena, lumina si efectele special de exceptie si totul ar fi fost perfect daca cineva puneam o piedica operatorului de steady-cam care si-a facut norma pe 3 ani la melodia respectiv. Interventia juriului aduce noi perle: Cornel care continua cu discutiile la un Gambrinus rece, Randi si Cezar discutand savant locul lui Mozart in muzica universal iar Jo tare mandra de ea ca au dat-o la televizor.

  1. Ovidiu Anton – Moment of silence

Fantastica punerea in scena cu lumini si miscari de camera dureroase si agresive potrivite melodiei care este excelenta si vocii impresionante. Nu am inteles rolul baiatului cu sabiuta (desi am fost impresionat de sabiuta) dar noroc cu backing vocals care au fost la inaltime. La momentul juratilor ma tot intreb cand o invata Randi ca Moculescu stie de o mie de ori mai multa muzica decat el si o sa inceteze sa se lanseze in discutii fara rost ? Sau poate asa a fost scriptul. Pacat insa ca juriul influenteaza prin comentarii atat de mult decizia publicului, iar Ovidiu isi datoreaza in mare parte plecarea la Stockholm acestui fapt. Jo ? Tortureaza momentul cu tembelisme ca de obicei.

  1. MIHAI – Paradisio

Inca o dovada ca nu e bine sa te pui cu TVR-ul. Piesa si imaginea scenica au fost distruse sistematic. Coregrafia si spectaciolul care sustinea melodia a fost ocolit cu profesionalism de regizorii de emisie, Mihai a stat in umbra si la propriu si la figurat iar juriul a demolat caramida cu caramida orice speranta a lui Mihai de un al doilea Eurovision. Piesa nu era geniala dar nu merita demolata cu atata constinciozitate de juriu si producatori

Cand la final s-a facut recapitularea pieselor a devenit si mai evident pe cine place si nu place TVR-ul. Ca o informatie tehnica, clipurile prezentate in recapitulare sunt inregistrate la repetitia generala. Atunci cand managerii fiecarui artist mai au ceva de spus, de schimbat sau de adaugat. Asa se explica diferentele majore intre prezentarea scenic din recapitulare si cea live pentru Deam Walkers si MIHAI. La transmisa live era imposibil ca cineva sa mai schimbe ceva, asa ca Marciuc&Co puteau sa-si faca jocurile (si) de lumini nestingheriti.

Cornel si Ioana revin pe scena cu acceasi dificultate de a interactiona cu telespectatorii dar preocupati de o noua serie de osanale lui “Domn’ Primar”. Cut pe camera dedicata oficialului si surpriza: “O data-n viata!” e tot acolo.

A urmat in desfasuratorul chinuitoarei finale momentul juratilor. A fost un mixaj interesant de lectii pe care poate cineva la va baga la cutiuta:

  • Lectia 1: Moculescu, contestabil sau nu, este un Profesionist (cu P mare) care stie sa joace pe degete muzica, audienta, charisma si tot ce le-a lipsita altora in momentul respective.
  • Lectia 2: Zoli ar trebui trimis cu arme si bagaje la Eurovision. Show-ul lui a fost total si ma intreb de ce TVR nu economiseste bani si energie si urmand exemplul altor televiziuni nationale comisioneaza la anul melodia participant lui Zoli lansadu-l pe el sa construiasca totul de la muzica la prezenta scenica ?
  • Lectia 3: Mi-am schimbat parerea despre Cezar Ouatu. Ce-i drept creionul de contur a ramas la locul lui dar, propun inlocuirea titlului “The Voice” cu cel de “The EGO”
  • Lectia 4: Randi este definitia perfect pentru nonsensul cu fumuri de vedeta. Nu si-a facut un serviciu cantand la Baia Mare. Ce-i drept, sa-I dam Cezarului ce-i al Cezarului. L-as lua acasa pe baietas dar nu ca sa-mi cante !

Anuntarea castigatorilor a fost precum anuntul doctorului dupa 7 ore de travaliu ca tanara mamica are tripleti! De ce oare nu se repeta si momentul asta asa cum se face la Eurovision cu scoruri si castigatori falsi ca sa fim siguri ca totul merge ca pe roate. Asteptarea vocii in casca care anunta rezultatele televotingului a dat o noua sansa prezentatorilor de a fi ridicoli pana la extrem cu o Ioana pierduta undeva in mijlocul scenei cu spatele la public si un Cornel care incerca sa umple timpul cu bla-bla-uri fara rost. Si este forte greu sa te scoti dintr-o asemenea situatie, am patit-o si eu.

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Irina si Doru nu au putut sa-si ascunda dezamagirea pentru pozitia ocupata iar MIHAI a reeditat momentul Luminitei Anghel de anul trecut, ce-i drept indulcind putin tonurile. Cornel bombardeaza tot in jurul lui cu intrebari stupide: pentru Dream Walkers –“Aveti cuiva cui sa multumiti?”, Ioana din fericire tace iar Jo spre satisfactia generala a disparut definitive in culise.

Prezenta reprezentantei Moldovei a fost interesanta (poate invatam si noi ceva) si a fost o optiune decenta pentru un buget la usa caruia bate insolventa.

La revenirea pe scena a concurentilor pana si primarul s-a ascuns si intarzierea intrarii in scena a dat o noua sansa prezentatorilor se se acopere de … glorie!

A meritat sa stau pana la final sa vad prestatia Primarului Erou. Cred ca invatatoarea domniei sale a facut stop respirator cand a auzit lectia de mitologie data de fostul sau elev. Daca te uiti in orice dictionar o sa vezi ca Isis este mama universal, protectoare familiei, a naturii si a magiei si nicidecum zeita frumusetii. Sa nu fim rai, Isis este si protectoarea infractorilor si pacatosilor si poate de aici a venit confuzia !.  Oricum Domn’ Primar era mandru de trofeul care arata ca Omul cu Masca de Fier si care sper din suflet sa nu fie o premonitie.

Imi cer scuze pentru exagerarea cu “Domn’ Primar” dar daca va uitati la inregistrare o sa vedeti ca ioana a repetat expresia asta de vreo 10 ori in 5 minute. Asa ca m-am infectat si eu.

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Iuliana Tudor banuiesc ca a avut ceva emotii cand Domn’ Primar a inceput sa o curteze pe juna minoritara. Nu va ganditi la altceva…spun minoritara pentru ca ea a fost singura care nu a primti flori asa ca primarul a rectificat greseala cu…UN TRANDAFIR ! Electorala genialitate si originalitate. Pacat ca Ioana nu l-a lasat pe primar sa trimita bezele la Madrid. Eram curiosa sa aflu cine este prietenul misterios, voi nu ?

Anuntarea castigatorului nu a fost un moment de suspense ci unul de enorma plictiseala. Dar pana la urma am aflat: Ovidiu Anton este reprezentantul nostrum la Stockholm. Felicitari Ovidiu si success !

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Revenind la show si ignorand balbele, ridicolul unor momente si valul de stupiditati stau si ma intreb de ce toata lumea a fost asa de mandra de audienta cand totalul de voturi a fost sub 20500. E un impact cu care sa ne laudam, este alegerea telespectatorului TVR ? Cred ca nu. Transmisia de la Baia Mare a fost inca o dovada ca in TVR schimbarea este necesara, bisericutele dizolvate, politica “felicitarilor in lift” abolita. Daca nu merge asa singura solutie este sa trageti oblonul si sa o luati de la zero.

Dar asta nu este problema mea sau al comentariului de fata.

Stau si ma gandesc reascultand piesa lui Ovidiu si celalate melodii anuntate pana acum pentru Finala de la Stockholm ce s-ar putea face. Ce s-ar putea face pentru a intra macar in finala pentru ca e clar ca nu prindem primele 10 locuri.

Piesa e foarte buna dar nu pentru Eurovision; formula rock s-a mai incercat cu Islanda, Grecia, Turcia, Norvegia in anii trecut si nu a tinut. Finlandezi  de la Lordi  cu Hard Rock Hallelujah au castigat in 2006 in semn de protest la mafia blocului estic si a imaginii anti-eurovision. Dar asta s-a intamplat in 2006. Acum cred ca ar trebui sa:

  • il lasam pe Ovidiu si grupul de back-ground sa cante rock asa cum stiu atat de bine sa o faca
  • renuntam la costume si machiaj ridicole (vezi cazul Oatu in anii trecuti) si a coregrafiei vizionar-penibilo-futuriste fara sens (Balkan Girls sau I admit sunt bune exemple de cum sa distrugi o piesa la Eurovision)
  • gasim un grafician bun pentru proiectiile de scena care sa faca spectacol si sa sustina piesa
  • eliminam ideea oricaror mesaje subliminale. Voltaj nu a castigat nimic promovand o campanie care ii lasa rece pe europeni, ba mai mult chiar ii irita. Se canta pentru Europa nu pentru noi.
  • eliminam din delegatia pentru Stockholm prieteni si amante si sa ducem acolo oameni care pot ajuta melodia, sunetul si spectacolul de scena. Cumparaturile si plimbarile prin parcurile suedeze pot fi facute si in vacanta.

Poate doar asa prindem un loc in finala si ne plasam onorabil in primii 15-20.

Bafta Ovidiu ! Felicitari lui Dan Manoliu si celor care chiar au facut ceva la Baia Mare !

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HAVEN has fallen

•March 7, 2016 • 2 Comments

Before reading just a warning: this review is not for cheap budget cruise passengers. If P&O, a special offer from Daily Mail or an interior cabin is a landmark for your cruise choice is better not to read this! I am not a snob but I like quality, style and don’t mind to spend money for a real cruise experience. I prefer to stay home than travel in an inside cabin and have the only view of the sea from an overcrowded lounge on deck 5. Thank you !

“Olympus has fallen” , “London has fallen” … and now “Haven has fallen”

No, it is not another blockbuster for the movie series. Is what I sense recently in our 11 days Canary Island Cruise from Barcelona on Norwegian EPIC.

For more than 4 years I’ve been one of the biggest supporter of the Norwegian Cruise Line. Their concept of “ship within ship” called HAVEN never let me down and the inscription on the ship card, “Welcome to you sanctuary” was always backup by the reality on both JADE and EPIC. Until now…

We did in December a canary Island Cruise from Barcelona and we left the ship with an imperious need to come back as soon as possible. And here we are, less than three months after, back on board, on Norwegian EPIC, in Haven, room 17017.

What a joy this cruise could be! Unfortunately the reality was far away from our December experience and I am still trying to find what and how things on board can change in such a short time.

The NCL website (https://www.ncl.com/thehaven/experience/#overview) describe de experience as “a private world of luxury at sea – a ship-within-a-ship reserved exclusively for Norwegian’s special guests”. And as a guest you are informed that “from the moment you choose The Haven, your VIP treatment begins”

The embarkation was the first step on a journey which contradicts the build-up expectations. A very “can’t be bothered” check-in followed by a short stop…a very short stop in the Haven Check-in lounge where some tired staff invited us to “enjoy” some cold coffee and some breakfast leftover cookies from breakfast. In all our previous trips the Concierge or one of assistants were welcoming the guests at check-in or in Epic Lounge. This time nobody was guiding us and the check-in experience and arrival on the ship was far from the exclusive welcome for which Haven guests pay for. Finally we arrived in Haven were a very “busy” concierge ask us to wait for other arrivals to “don’t repeat” the information again. What’s so difficult to treat everybody as individuals and not cabin numbers or to check the information about Latitudes members on the guest list at least to provide a polite “welcome back” to them?

The room (17017) was what we expected: lots of space, elegant, Elemis amenities, clean and welcoming. Great first impression but, when you start looking around you realise that the maintenance of the ship needs to be reconsidered big time.

First the toilets; the revolutionary bathrooms — which split the toilet and shower into two separate units — got most tongues wagging with much talk about the “see through” doors. In reality, the doors are translucent and couples and traveling companions of a nervous disposition can pull across a drape that effectively shuts off the bathroom area from the rest of the cabin. Never had any problems with the design or functionality and in the photos the bathroom area looks nice & trendy. In reality the translucent glass door was broken in a previous cruise and even the guests in a 2 bedroom villa pays a lot of money nobody at NCL found a proper door as a replacement and the result was a piece of plastic very bad cut which resembles a little bit with the original. And was there THE SMELL. Due to the bad design or bad maintenance the main toilet smell continuously no matter how many times was cleaned or how many air freshener were placed in the room.

The Haven offers guests another touch of luxury: a cell phone contactable around the ship. Great idea even if a little bit exaggerated. But in previous cruises we used it proving to be an useful tool on a ship where free style cruise includes a lot of choices for everybody. This time the phone didn’t work and any feedback give to the concierge ended with a lot of excuses and the blame place on the shoulder of “maintenance guy. So the posh cell phone on board was never functional.

As a Haven guest you have free access to a TV system which allow you to have free movies 24h. Excellent idea and the selection was impressive and, what a surprise changed since December, including now Oscar’s nominated productions. But again the bad maintenance (again a Concierge opinion) made necessary to spend 9 hours (indeed NINE hours) to watch the last James Bond. The system crashed every 5 minutes and I never spend in my entire life so much time with Daniel Craig and his funny running style!

Right from the get go, we needed to have the clogged toilet fixed, later it was a ceiling tile with a light came down, the door needed to be fixed (and avoid to spend an extra 2 h in case of emergency to get out). The list goes on. So we got to know the electrician, carpenter, and plumber pretty well (all very nice people)

The Haven supposed to be a quiet place, “announcement free”. But once again the reality was different. A malfunction of the system brought the too many and in too many languages announcements every day in our cabin. Was funny but we weren’t able to listen to the entire announcement…only the DING-DONG and the first half because after that the sound stopped. Don’t say it…we spoke with the Concierge about that but I bet you can guess already the answer and the outcome. So Ding-Dong and Pedro’s ½ sentence 5 times/day for us!

Fortunately for us the only thing that made this Haven experience memorable, in a good way, was the excellent service of our butler and cabin steward. Polite, excellent manners, smooth service and very strong consistency made the room team an excellent asset for EPIC’s Haven. Richard, the steward, was funny and chatty and Sahmed the butler was always there without being too much in to your face ready to assist with whatever you need: from laundry to organising a private party in our cabin.

Haven has it’s own gym, sauna and steam room but, again, somebody miss the point of having such facilities on board. The changing room was always full with stuff for cleaning or sunbed cushions, the gym was not very clean and if you wanted to use the sauna or steam room you needed to wake up 1h earlier and switch on the facilities if you want to use them around 9AM.

Reading again the NCL website I am still surprised by the Concierge’s role description: “Once on board, a concierge will help plan your day whether it’s hosting a private party or reserving a private tour ashore”. In our previous cruise was exactly like that with a Concierge having lots of genuine smiles and polite conversation even if the guests in Haven are not all the time “Premium Guests” and the feeling of “new money-bad manners” is quite common on NCL. This time was different. Both Concierge (Elvie) and a gentleman who was the Assistant Concierge were the perfect example for “Concierge Don’ts”. I will need another review to write down everything so let’s try some examples looking at main Concierge skills:

  • Active Listening – both of them all the time when we approach their desk were busy “doing something” on the computer. No eye contact, no interest in the conversation, having phone chats or conversation with others in the middle of our request and so on. One moment we decided to skip the Concierge desk and started to organise and sort our issues ourselves.
  • Service Orientation – the skill of being pro-active didn’t find a space in their CV. When my partner was ill and we ask the concierge about medical emergency procedures and costs on board, her assistance was limited to a “put you through the medical centre” like a hotel operator. No follow up call, at least as a courtesy if “duty of care” was not in her language.
  • Social Perceptiveness & discrimination awareness – as gay market is a massive source of income for any cruise lines and NCL was brilliant from this point of view until now, I didn’t expect such an aggressive and rude homophobic behaviour from both Concierge and Assistant Concierge. I was thinking that one can make a lot of money from complaining about gay discrimination and taking in the account all the rolled eyes, ironic smiles and close to the end of the cruise the constant “ignored” applied to us. Nothing to do apart of smiling when we didn’t get any answers to our “hello” or “how are you”
  • Judgment and Decision Makin – or in simple words “The answer is NO, what’s your question? That was a constant attitude at the Concierge desk. One of my friend wanted to change a booking for a show and the answer was NO. When we check later, directly in the theatre and with the help of an excellent Cruise Director they were plenty of seats and no problem with re-booking.

We missed so much our previous concierges Adrian, Monica and all the others who really understand why and how they can make somebody experience in Haven an “experience truly first class” (https://www.ncl.com/thehaven/experience/#service). Maybe some training or a temporary demotion will do well to both Concierge and Assistant Concierge.

Dining experience was again of mixture of good and bad.

The Epic Club – a private restaurant dedicated to Haven guests exceeded our expectation. Justin and his staff were perfect. The new menu and China are very close to a high class restaurant. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are now indeed an amazing experience in Epic Club and for sure when the crew will be more comfortable with the product the service will polish at the same level as the food (food knowledge, peace of service, wine knowledge, and recommendation system). But we come back again and again to enjoy the new menu and the service standards.

Same story in Cagney’s. The Maître D manager superbly his team and food match perfectly the service. Not too much waiting, a waiter always ready to serve or to recommend, new China, glassware and cutlery and an ambiance which made us to go for at least 6 times for dinner.

The other side of the coin were two speciality restaurants were the disappointment was part of the menu. MODERNO – the Brazilian restaurant used to be our favourite spot with excellent food and great service. Now the service flow changed, the meat arrived in a chaotic order and if you are a first timer you have the chance to eat ONLY chicken and sausages and miss the excellent Fillet Minion or Picana. The salad bar changes and now NCL seems to give Brazilian passports for Sushi (Japan) or queso manchego(Spain), question of taste ! The most annoying thing about Moderno was that the excellent quality meat was always cold. Even after we sent back twice some dishes the rest was still cold and as we didn’t get any reaction from the Maître D or staff we ended abusing the salad bar. Not a good idea if you pay for the restaurant.

BISTRO was another favourite of mine in old days. The French restaurant used to be an oasis of taste and style. Now only the escargots survived….Slow service, lack of customer service and cold food made us cutting the diner after the starter and save our figure in one night. Such a pity for old good days!

Disembarkation was another failure for NCL on this occasion. Our flight was at 11.15 and the Concierge informed us that we have to leave the ship with our transfer at 6AM. When I inquired about the reason to leave the ship 5h before th flight when the distance to the airport can be covered in max 45 minutes, the “lovely” Concierge started to be very annoyed by my question and mentioned that “I can move the transfer whenever I want but is my problem if I miss the flight”. Professional reaction…Thank you! We left the ship at 6.45AM and when we were trying to, locate our luggage, even if we had coloured tags we found them in 4 different location around the terminal and we needed 45 minutes for that. Adding all time lost during disembarkation we still arrived at the airport 3h before our flight – maybe Elvie the Concierge can learn something from this!

I was reading again this review and my previous review about Norwegian EPIC and I experience now a bitter sadness. EPIC is a great ship, HAVEN is an amazing product but all the effort of EPIC staff can be destroyed so easily but some basic mistakes!

Just for my own curiosity I was applying SWOT and PESTLE strategic analysis models, to understand what NCL is doing wrong and I manage to understand a bit. No worries I will not bother you with the entire analysis but you deserve a short briefing. I gathered my information not only from official NCL sources but mainly from conversation with other guests in Haven and some from NCL experienced staff on board Norwegian Epic.

The cruise market is at the moment very competitive and the obsession of “all-inclusive” like a cheap holiday resort made NCL to go in the wrong direction. Is understandable why NCL started to have very cheap cabin with drinking package included – they want their ship full and soon they will cruise from Southampton. The risk is obvious: if you charge little you will attract the “P&O” or Benidorm crowd. A crowd who will drink for the sake of drinking, eat for the sake of eating and base their holiday on the CHAV’s rule: “I prefer to be sick than sorry!”. How strong crew members can be to keep their service standards if the passenger drinks Baileys, a paint and a glass with “dry white wine” (the brand is not important in this case) in one order! Even for the “free style cruising” invented by NCL this is too much…have a look at the photos to understand better.

Trying to give a lot for free will not bring you any profits. Therefore you have to cut and cut and cut under this “included free…” blanket. The cocktails are not as they supposed to be (I discover the recipe for Long Island Iced Tea with one type of spirit and lots of Diet Pepsi), the food is cold and mediocre quality because nobody care as long as it’s free, the manners and service standards are under performed because nobody is able to appreciate or say thank you! Is like a snow ball reaction: the new passenger profile downgrade the product and the lower quality or product/price attracts a new type of passengers. The time of style in free style cruising on NCL is gone and replaced with low cost airline’s labels on the suitcases in embarkation day.

Another marketing mistake will alienate the former traditional guests of NCL: on-board upgrades. And this phenomenon is very obvious in Haven. More than 95% in older time and around 10% in the last cruise of guests in Haven paid full fare for their “pure paradise” – as per NCL definition (www.ncl.com/thehaven/experience/#overview). In our 11 days Canary Island Epic cruise 90% of guests in Haven were upgrades with 2 and sometimes 3 grades (balcony to Haven or Mini Suite to Haven). Of course when you pay almost nothing you act in the same line with the rest of the ship…is not an exclusive area anymore. How can be an exclusive experience when in a 2 Bedroom Villa created for a family of 2+1 and use and paid in our case by 2 guests you accommodate 5, 6 or even 8 people. Next door to us was a family of 6 adults+2 children in the same space….For sure no space left for style, class, ore more than 2 shirts/cruise/family member. Quite sad!

How you can explain to full fare guests that is difficult to achieve high standards and performance due to the high number of guests, when most of them paid 1/3 price of the full fare ?

Of course we meet some exception…in all cruises. This time sadly the “exceptions” were outnumbered by main stream passengers “lucky” enough to be in Haven but not smart enough to behave accordingly.  And the general question for full fare guests was “why to pay more?” and for well trained staff was “why to give 6* service for third class passengers?”

Looking at the figures a Haven guest spend in a 10 day cruise in average 3 times more than a Balcony passenger. And I am talking about a full fare guest not upgrades! Therefore I am afraid that NCL will soon lose the real and happy to pay Haven guest and replace them with “fix budget” holiday makers happy with anything ias long as is free. Is a dangerous spiral and one of the staff suggested that is what the new marketing strategy of NCL wants: keep Oceana and Regent as high end and push NCL to the low level. Something similar like the relation P&O – Cunard.

Is sad…because I love NCL…I like Jade and Spirit and Epic…and I always feel like going back home stepping on-board. And is sad because the latest experience made me re-think twice and keep in hold my next 3 cruises with NCL this year, despite of the professional pressure of Paloma-a great cruise consultant.

Not so sure that I want to go back very soon on an NCL ship. At least not this year!

Like Olympus in the famous blockbuster, Haven has fallen this year! Not because of a group of high trained terrorist but an army of tourists armed with a huge collection of bad manners, Primark clothes, fix holiday budgets all packed in Sports Direct suitcases.