Vistafjord September 10, 1998 Fall European Grand Tour
There is just nothing like returning to cruise on a favorite older ship, a long-established, classic beauty of a certain age who has retained her good looks, her grace and charm. I had this pleasure recently on the ms Vistafjord, a fine, vintage vessel who has not lost her ability to transport you back to a traditional way of cruising, which you really have to go out of your way to find today.
She has crossed the great deep cruising waters of the world in fine style for 25 years, and by maintaining her world-class standards of service, dining and shipboard comfort, she is now one of a kind, in a class by herself, for a select 600-plus passengers, for whom she seems a home away from home.
Originally built in 1973 for Norwegian American Cruises, then with Cunard for many years, and now in the Cunard/Seabourn collaboration, she still shows her Scandinavian flavor in many interior decorations and details. Refurbishments over the years have kept her up with luxurious and comfortable contemporary standards. I enjoy how there are hardly any straight lines anywhere - she is all rounds and curves and slopes, quite how a ship should be to me - and she is small by today's standards, only about 25,000 tons. Also unique is her international mix of passengers, the majority North Americans, but a third or more are Germans, British and others. With Scandinavian officers at her heart, and a mostly European staff and crew always at the ready, she sets out on usually two-week voyages, spending the major portion of the year in and around Europe, but annually striking out for The Americas and usually even the Pacific South Seas, a particular favorite of her regulars.
Except for the Dining Room below and the little Club Viking with Tivoli above it, all the public rooms are on Veranda Deck, making it the ever- humming focus of activity. With enrichment lectures; recently released movies in a real theater in both English and German; classical music and opera concerts; exercises and services for mind, body and soul; cards, chess, crafts; complimentary golf and dance lessons; gentlemen hosts and more, every day is an new experience. And you won't be frequently reminded of what you're missing - public address announcements, in English and German, are kept to a minimum. Mostly they are just the Noon Captain's Update from the Bridge.
Almost all the other decks are quiet with cabins, tending to be a smaller size than one might expect or prefer, though fully outfitted with every contemporary amenity. The many single cabins, a nostalgic remnant of the past, are quite small, but have good storage. In some areas of the ship, the cabin soundproofing is poor. One might want to avoid either of the cabins which share a mini-hallway. Of course, in any ship of this vintage, deck plans require scrutiny and careful cabin selection. However, in the four top categories you will find more space. All cabins have beautiful use of woods, up-to-the-minute bathrooms with blessedly quiet toilets, and there are even a small number of balconies on Sun and Bridge Deck. Of course, for the ultimate in sea travel, there are the two outrageously luxurious penthouse suites crowning Upper Bridge Deck. The Vistafjord's maintenance is excellent throughout. What a pleasure to see all those perfect teak decks and rails everywhere, and a full circle promenade on which to enjoy them.
I might as well break into rapture right now about the Vistafjord's many culinary delights. We were bewitched from breakfast to late buffet. On ships in this luxury category, there is full breakfast available in the Dining Room, on the Lido, and in cabin as well. No surprises here. The same is true for lunch. Dinner is either in the Dining Room or in cabin or at the very good Italian Restaurant, Tivoli, by reservation. An important and distinctive feature here, though, is that every meal is at a single seating, within a generous couple hours of possible arrival.
Everyone on the ship is doing pretty much the same thing at about the same time. It makes for a natural shipboard rhythm among all the passengers together. In the Dining Room, your familiar table and waiter are always there, just for you, soft linen, fine porcelain, sparkling hand-polished crystal and silver at the ready. Correct service, attention to detail, as much time as you like - this ambience sets the tone for fine dining.
Dining room menus at lunch and dinner tend towards the style of the prototypical Continental Gourmet, with time-honored, labor-intensive preparations of all the famous French classics. One hardly remembers them all, from the soulful Coq au Vin to the haute Carre d'Agneau Roti, but they are all here in their original glory. The young German Chef de Cuisine, Klaus Kremer, did sneak in some Italian and a few more contemporary dishes here and there, with varying success. At Dinner, there are always four cool appetizers and one hot (with a champagne recommendation); two hot soups and one chilled; a superb selection of greens and accompaniments at a salad bar where your waiter was always at your side, or already knew what you liked and brought it for you; the sorbet; and five entrees, one meatless, each with a wine recommendation.
The waiter circles with additional vegetables, potatoes, noodles and rice. Then the evening continues into cheeses (a very good and varying selection) and a choice of three to four desserts, as well as ice creams, and then finally cookies and chocolate truffles. Along with good presentations and the aforementioned exemplary service, this is distinguished fine dining at its classic best. There is encouragement to order off the menu if you can't find something there you like. And do inform your Assistant Maitre d' if you have a passion for something unusual - they enjoy any opportunity to satisfy this and make you feel special.
Wide selection and lots of options are the feature every day at every meal. Unfortunately, the charming little Lido was never quite meant to handle today's more popular casual daytime dining preferences, so overflow is handled in the adjacent ballroom. This is also usually the venue for afternoon tea, sometimes buffet style, sometimes silver tray service. At times this event even includes hot carved meats. Well, a few more generous bites can make a big difference after a long day's tour, especially when dinner is 3-4 hours away. Not that the room service menu is shabby - for those funny times when you're ready but no one else is. Again, it offers many options well prepared, presented and served.
Music & Entertainment
Music and entertainment abound on the Vistafjord. Tristan Keyte at the piano in the Club Viking was a dependable pleasure. Almost every other evening pre-Dinner Classical Concerts, which included some popular operatic pieces, were very well received. I recommend you arrive early to get a seat. The orchestra was good, particularly their offshoot the Jazz Quartet. Evening showtimes brought some hits and misses. Of course an important effort was made to accommodate language and cultural differences by providing entertainment which would cross those boundaries. Music today is without borders - good tunes are the same in any language - so the better performers were well received. Magic is universal, it just needs to keep moving. Dancers were usually well received, they just need to stay in sync. A small Flamenco performance, with dancers brought in from Palma, filled the entire ballroom with it's intensity. And a special mention goes to Judy Kolba; she sings and dances comedy and will steal your heart. Since she spends significant time entertaining on ships in the Caribbean, you may easily have the pleasure. She also makes a great lunch companion! It's easy to get to know many performers on such a small ship.
The Ports & Days At Sea
Another desirable attribute of the Vistafjord is that she has a fondness for days at sea. Even in the port-intensive Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, she is able to find time to cruise the deep blue in places other ships' navigators couldn't dream up on a clear day. As a matter of fact, it's not too difficult to find her on a fortnight's cruise from Miami to Los Angeles with only three or four ports. My only complaint on this itinerary was that we changed ship's clock forward and back several times for just certain ports. I thought we were adult enough to avoid the clocks in town.
Along with providing complimentary shuttle service to the town center at most ports, Cunard also provided a copy of the current Weissmann Travel Reports before each port of call. They are about three or four pages which provide an overview of the country, some highlights of what to do, buy and eat, and a potpourri of interesting trivia as well as a few essential statistics. Who knew the Balearics (Mallorca) were autonomous? Who knew Italy had 58 million people in a country slightly larger than Arizona?
On this cruise, a kind of repositioning from Amsterdam (and her summer season in Northern Europe) to Venice and fall sailings in the Mediterranean, we had the good fortune to call at some more unusual ports along with a few familiar ones: La Pallice for La Rochelle, France; Lisbon, Portugal; Palma de Mallorca; Tunis, Tunisia; Sorrento, Italy; Corfu, Greece; and Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Amsterdam is such a fun place to visit for any reason, and a great place to begin a cruise. It is a visually rich, vibrant, captivating city - so much to see and do. As trite as a canal boat tour sounds, it's a good way to get a feel for how the city is laid out, learn how the architectural styles came to be, and see the interesting ways the Dutch have of preserving and also moving forward with this heritage. Later we spent some time in the Rijksmuseum with Rembrandt and his friends, a spiritually fulfilling experience by anyone's definition. Embarkation day brought us to the ship located in a higher water level system of canals. We proceeded for a couple of hours through what we could see of the Zuider Zee - a large channel 20-30 feet above the surrounding farms and fields - to a final lock that raised us into the North Sea.
Beginning that night and following us through the English Channel and into the Bay of Biscay (and even beyond), we had tremendous winds and seas, great movement of the ship, closed elevators, all kinds of excitement. In good weather, the Vistafjord has a little vibration and noise aft, but when called into full action, her deep draft gives a sure, gentle ride. What a seasoned group of sailors, too: very few vacant seats in the Dining Room and for the evening shows. This also caused us to arrive late at La Pallice, giving us only a brief afternoon there. I surrendered (again) to jet lag, but my companions said the little town was clean, charming and delicious, and they brought me tinned truffled fois gras and French chocolate, both always a considerable cheer.
Two days later, we cruised up the Tagus River into Lisbon, on a bright, warm day, the very first of our cruise. I enjoyed a shore excursion to Queluz, Sintra and Cascais.
Perhaps most fascinating to me were the Palace and Gardens of Queluz. The interior ornamentation, light fixtures, paintings and furniture created for the rooms is all in it's exact place, as if the occupants had just left maybe decades ago, rather than almost 200 years ago. Their history is vivid in the style of decoration, in the very air left behind. The gardens, though not in perfect condition, are magnificent in their bold design and the way they accentuate the various facades of the Palace around them.
Then it was on through the rugged countryside to the coast at Cape Roca, the westernmost point of mainland Europe. It is a dramatic and beautiful site. How many men and women through the centuries have stood on that beach and wondered what was across that water? I could have spent a week there. But around and south we went to a stop at Sintra for a feel of the Portuguese vacation town, then on through Cascais, modern condos following us all the way back into Lisbon.
The next morning was hazy for our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, but what a sensation to pass through that historic portal, first Tangier and the monumental Atlas mountains on the right, then the unmistakable profile of The Rock on the left. The history, the humanity, and this was just the entrance to the Med.
Yet another beautiful day dawned for our visit to Palma. By now all the days were sunny, clear and warm, and we were ready for it. Eschewing anything formal for this vacationer's paradise, we negotiated a taxi fare with an English-speaking driver and headed due east, looking for a more quiet beach than the west is said to have. This is a dry land. Our driver found a perfect long crescent of sand with breathtaking aquamarine water, and we felt like we were stepping into jewels and swimming with crystalline sunshine. On the return, we inspected some spectacular sandstone cliffs, then, following the beach, came into town the long way and saw the large part of Palma that is the haven for German vacationers, the most numerous visitors to the island. Downtown was more interesting with the massive Gothic Cathedral, rich, old Spanish architecture, picturesque winding alleyways and some good shopping for leather and ceramics.
After a luxurious day at sea, which included the famous Scandinavian Gala Buffet at lunch and the glamorous Black and White Officer's Ball, came exotic North Africa in the guise of Tunis, Tunisia. A specially organized tour brought us into the center of Tunis, dropping us off at the entrance to the medina, the marketplace. Olives and spices and live chickens being plucked next to t-shirt stands, leather boutiques and shops and shops of large brass platters - the constant hammering of designs into them was the music of the day. A quick visit to the Dar Ben Abdallah Museum, once a Turkish Palace, revealed beautiful tiles and a collection of traditional costumes and everyday items. Then it was on to the famous Bardo Museum, with floor after floor, wall after wall of ancient, enchanting Roman mosaics, murals and remnants of marble statuary. We could have spent much more time here. Lunch was out on the coast at a "Ricky-Ricardo-goes-Moroccan" inspired restaurant, l'Orient.
The food, interesting and fun, peaked with a rosemary-scented whole grilled loup. Following on to the archaeological site of Carthage, we were quickly to see that after the Phoenicians, Romans, and Magreb Arabs (and, apparently, the Tunisians) had their way with it, not much was left. The site was small, all the precious mosaics removed to the Bardo, our imagination stressed to conjure the grandeur that once was. Ultimately, the empty arches and fallen columns were nothing to compare with just resting your hand on a fallen pediment for a moment and feeling the vibration of the life that had once thrived there.
The following day, Capri came into view, and then Sorrento, hanging on sheer cliffs over a hundred feet above the sea, on the side of a ragged Italian mountain. There were 20-knot winds coming right across the Bay of Naples, we had difficulty securing anchor, the bobbing tenders looked like they could be too much of a problem, and I feared we might have to cancel the port call. Soon things calmed down, but we were considerably delayed.
However, a couple hours later and once on the grounds of Pompeii, it was forgotten. There is much more to see here than at Carthage - streets, plazas, temples, homes, a theater, extensive bathing and pleasure houses with their saucy fresco murals and finely detailed mosaic floors intact, and once again the resounding echo of lives lived so long ago. We were very late returning to the ship, but, bless her heart, the Maitre d' greeted us coming off the tenders in the entrance foyer with the news that the Dining Room would of course remain open until we were seated.
After an early morning passby of Stromboli volcano, the next day brought us through the Strait of Messina before we headed east northeast for Corfu, Greece. A tour of the bridge was offered that afternoon, fascinating for an avid mariner like me, checking out all the navigation charts and instruments. And I learned we were 1026 souls aboard - 620 passengers and 406 crew.
In Corfu, the Italian, French and English occupations over the hundreds of years have left their influence, and today's residents have gone along with the theme by not painting most buildings in the Old Town for apparently decades. A horse-drawn carriage ride took us in a great circle around the "new" fort which looks only slightly less ancient than the "old" one, both substantial. We had a delicious lunch of Greek specialties, then a good afternoon of shopping, or rather bartering, for jewelry and leather.
Northwest we then headed for the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. What an unexpected and extraordinary experience this was. On first approach, the massive stone walls of the Old City were intimidating. Walking across the drawbridge, passing under the statue of St. Blaise (the city's patron saint, posted above every gate) and then into the Old City was like walking back in time almost to the middle ages - when most of it all was first formed.
The city has been very well repaired from the 1991-1992 conflict. The biscuit-colored limestone pavement on the main "drag" was so smooth from the hundreds of years of footsteps that you could skate around in your socks. The great convents, monasteries, churches and chapels go back as far as the 12th century, with some icons, relics, bibles and a koran even older. Here there was such a great wealth of living remnants of Christian history. I was astounded at the meaning of it, the treasure of it. Churches like that of Saint Sebastian which were completely lost in 1992, are meticulously rebuilt. New, contemporary artwork, which says so much about a culture, had a bold vision, a strength of spirit as deep as the vast and serene Adriatic. Dubrovnik is a unique gem in this world, a feast for the eyes and the soul.
Back on the ship it was the last formal evening, and included the International Norwegian Folkloric Dance Show held at the end of each cruise. It is a sweet, genuine entertainment, engaging and charming and completely without pretense. Part of the natural appeal is that the dancers are clearly from many of the 25 or more nations represented in the staff and crew of the ship - actually rather few Norwegians. This show is always a delight.
So then we finished in Venice, coming through the Lido and around the famous islands in the full sun of a late September afternoon. The Queen of the Adriatic glowed. I could go on and on about Venice - she is easily one of my most favorite cities in the world. Just a few minutes in St. Marks Square, before the Cathedral, and I am overwhelmed by the magnificence of the achievements of mankind in this world. The riches of Venice are many and varied, quite like the Vistafjord herself. In 1999, the Vistafjord will call Venice her main home port for almost all of the summer and fall, so for sure you won't miss Venice, when you too sail on this classic and classy ship.
Tim Josephson is a long time San Francisco-based Mariner, passionate about blue water cruising, and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. He can be reached for questions or comment at: TimJosephson@juno.com.
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