Sunday, May 19, 2013

Across the Atlantic to the Azores

To get to Europe these days, you have to take your shoes off.  Most Americans do so for the TSA folks at airports, but there are thousands of others who do so only when it's time to climb into bed on their cruise ship doing a Transatlantic Crossing.

It's a matter of time, not money.  For about the cost of a plane ticket from the East Coast to Amsterdam, we instead had 12 days on the Celebrity Infinity with good food, good lodging and an interesting visit to the Azores, thanks to the institution known as the "repositioning cruise."  In winter, lots of folks like to take cruise ship tours of the Caribbean.  But really only in winter.  Come late March, April and early May, some of those ships head through the canal to Alaska but many more reposition to Europe to browse about the Baltic, meander through the Mediterranean, nose about Norwegian fjords or bounce around the borders of the British Isles.  We looked at about 20 possibilities, particularly the eight we found that were headed to Atlantic rather than to Mediterranean ports, all with inside rooms at less than $100 per person per night, 2 at less than $50!  Come summer, these ships will be collecting 2 times as much or more while they ply the European waters, as they did during the peak of winter in the Caribbean.
Now anyone who's been on a cruise ship knows that they ding you for more, such as the $12 per person per day our ship tacks on to cover gratuities for room attendants, waiters, and many other less visible service personnel.  Then they entice you to spend lots more.  Your voyage can get pretty pricey indeed if you like a cocktail or wine every evening, hit the casino, or take lots of shore excursions.  But we  mostly skip the former, totally avoid the gambling, and do a lot of touring on our own at ports of call.  As a result, we expect our final cruise bill to be almost identical to what two plane tickets would have been!  And that's with an outside room -- the boat didn't quite fill up and they offered an upgrade for $20 each -- total -- that we happily accepted.
Our ship left port at 4:30 p.m. in a light rain, and by 5 North America was quickly becoming a grey memory to hold onto 'till our return in September.  For that evening and six more days and nights, we would be in the vastness of the Atlantic.  There's just nothing out there but other ships, and darned few of them.

On day 2 we saw a tanker going our direction, two or three miles ahead of us.  Three hours later we could hardly see it astern after speeding by at 20 knots -- see that dot on the right horizon?  Then on day 6 we noticed our ship turn from its 75 degree course for the first time since leaving Ft. Lauderdale.  A few minutes later we saw why.  A small sailboat with its sails furled was puttering along, probably just recharging its batteries.  Our ship had gotten a message the night before that there might be a ship in distress somewhere out here, so we dropped by to check.  We suspect this small boat was rather amazed to see our enormous ship bearing down on it!  Once they reassured our captain that they were just fine, thank you very much, we got back on course and saw nothing more 'til day 8, when we woke up to see the Azores out our window.


Food is always an important part of the day on a cruise ship, and it was generally quite tasty and always artfully presented, such as this petite Beet and Feta appetizer.  One piece of cheesecake even looked like the prow of our ship.  Even with scrumptious desserts about, we've eaten healthily, particularly with lots of seafood.

The newest fad in cruising is specialty restaurants on board that charge a fee for even fancier cuisine than the regular dining room.  This sample of just one regular dinner menu shows you that it was was more than adequate for us, but it was fun to see some of the over-the-top offerings, especially those at "Q-sine," with their iPad menus and cubic food presentation.

We generally had lunch or dinner as a sit-down meal in the dining room, then the other meal plus breakfast in the cafeteria.  While a meal in the dining room was slower, we almost always chose to be at a table with others, and met a number of interesting fellow travelers from the U.S., U.K., New Zealand and the Netherlands.  The time went quickly, and we learned very important things, such as what "Bubble & Squeek" means when you see it on a British menu.

Walking about the ship was another daily activity.  We averaged 5 miles a day on our pedometers.  A good bit of that was stair climbing, since we swore off elevators for the voyage and our stateroom was on deck 2, the dining room and other public areas on 4 & 5, and the cafeteria and sports areas on 10 & 11  We also did a few sessions on the exercise bikes in the hope that we're not totally out of cycling condition when we get on our own bike two weeks from now. 

There's a small walking/jogging circuit on the 11th deck, but by climbing 12-15 feet to deck 12 at the bow and again to deck 12 at the stern, we could supplement that circuit to do a mile in just three laps around, plus of course the stair-climbing.  Below us on deck 10 were folks using the covered thalassotherapy pool, and others mainly not using the unheated outdoor pool.

We've been somewhat disappointed with the lectures compared with prior cruises on Holland America, though one talk on Trans-Atlantic crossings through history was interesting.  As you can see, we snapped this photo as the speaker was describing a famous voyage that didn't quite qualify as a "crossing."  All cruise ships seem to have a lecture or two on how the ship propels itself and how the crew navigate their way about, and Jeff always attends.  The Infinity uses about 60% of its fuel for propulsion, the rest to power the lights, heating, cooling, cooking, making of fresh water, etc., etc.  Although it moves only about 60 feet per gallon consumed, that actually works out to almost 40 miles per passenger per gallon for the portion of the fuel that pushes us along.  Before you get too excited by that number, remember that a car that gets 25 mpg but has a passenger as well as the driver is getting 50 miles per passenger per gallon.

Celebrity has made up for its lecture deficit with outstanding music, particularly the Fiore Trio, three extremely talented musicians who went to music academy together in Moscow.  They performed Bach, Schubert and Tchaikovsky impeccably, but also Piazzolla, Gershwin, Leroy Anderson and even Dave Brubeck's complex "Take Five."  They performed three times a day, with only one day off, and we caught them every day or evening, in various venues around the ship.

We've also had a series of 15 minute concerts from a very talented a Capella quartet, and went to one evening show with a comedian who clearly explained the main difference between a "mile" and a "nautical mile."  It's quite simple, really -- a nautical mile is just waaaay more expensive.

And, about 3,000 nautical miles from Ft. Lauderdale, we reached Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, one of the 9 volcanic islands that make up the Azores.  A brilliant morning sun made the city seem magical as we had breakfast and waited for our exploration to begin.

Some shore excursions are crazy expensive, but the prices here were reasonable and we selected a 5-hour bus tour that took us over much of the island and gave us a great look at, and into, Azorean life.

We lucked out with seats right behind but well above the driver, and had views down narrow streets that reminded us of shots on TV of the Tour de France when the riders are shooting through small towns. 

We then did some 20 km on a high speed highway built very recently with financial help from the mainland.  Our guide explained that the road-building has recently wound down, and unemployment is now up to 17%, about the same as in the rest of Portugal. 

 Besides telling us about the sights, she also did a good job of giving us a flavor of Azorean culture.  For example, she explained that Portuguese TV stations usually put captions on the screen when they feature an Azorean speaking Portuguese.  The islanders' version is too heavily accented from the mainlanders' point of view, and Azoreans have adopted many English words not used in Portugal, thanks to almost two centuries of close contact with the U.S.  It started with whaling ships stopping in the Azores, then taking on Azorean crew.  Today, she explained, there is scarcely an Azorean family that does not have numerous relatives living in the U.S.  As we walked through one of two towns we explored on our bus trip, we saw a street sign that read "Rua East Providence."  Yes, our guide told us later, it was indeed named after the little-known sister-city to Providence RI where many Azoreans now live.  WW II renewed the close association when the U.S. built naval and air facilities in the Azores.  Today up to 50 cruise ships a year bring many Americans ashore, although Europeans are of course the mainstay of their tourist economy, particularly Scandinavians in the winter and Portuguese, Spaniards,Brits and Germans in summer.


At last we turned off the highway onto a cobbled, sycamore-lined country road to visit the Furnas Valley, actually the caldera of an ancient volcano.  After a peek at some local streets we headed into a lush garden, the centerpiece of which is a pond-sized hot spring once considered medicinal.  It would certainly cure anemia, as our hands smelled rusty after touching the water rushing in at maybe 104 degrees F.

Other highlights were tropical and sub-tropical plants brought from around the world, such as bananas on the edge of this next photo, and taro lushly growing beside Furnas Creek in the second.  Alongside one pond were perhaps the most colorful ducks we have ever seen.

Although this volcanic crater was formed eons ago, there is still enough tectonic energy underground to fuel a number of hot springs.  Less than a kilometer from the hot spring in the gardens was a grouping of almost two dozen more, ones that were boiling hot.  The third one shown below was the least visibly demonstrative but still the scariest, as it made deep throaty rumbles that sounded like an ancient and angry evil spirit.

The creek has found a way out to the sea, but from town it's not clear where that might be, one just sees the tall walls of the caldera all about.  Our bus did another Tour de France-like run through the narrow streets of town and up to a viewpoint on the crest of the crater rim.


From our high perch we could see the first clouds come in that would soon turn to rain.  Before they did we used our telephoto lens to zoom in on some of the lava stone walls that criss-criss the Azorean islands, and on the town of Furnas we had just left, with its attractive church at the near end and the steam of the hot springs rising not far behind.


We had come some 35 km from Ponta Delgada, and headed back via the second-largest city on Sao Miguel, Ribeira Grande.  We passed two tea plantations on the north shore plus a few small villages, clusters of bright white stucco homes hovering above the sea much like the second photo, taken later from our ship as we sailed away.

Ribeira Grande means "large river," and our bus stopped near it for a 45-minute walk through town.  We explored the inside of one church nearby, then wandered down side streets, stopped to examine this shrunken Ferrari, and admired another church from a block away.

En route back to the highway our driver took us down this remarkably narrow road between old walls of lava stone. As you can see, an oncoming car decided he didn't really want to come down this road when he saw us heading up it.

A light misty rain that didn't stop us from walking in Ribeira Grande had become heavier and steadier when we got back to Ponta Delgada, so we spent most of our last hour on land in a mall close to the pier, using free wifi to catch up with email.  We're now off to the mainland of Europe.  We have two "sea days," then 6 hours in Cherbourg, France.  We hope we can find an Internet cafe in order to post this blog.  If it shows a posting date of May 11, we succeeded.



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