Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 12 – May 30 (Wednesday) – At Sea

Not much to report for today.  We went to the final lecture by General Zinni on leadership.  It was a wonderful talk about what makes great leaders and essentially how in today’s world pretty much approval ratings from all leaders from political to religious to military are below 50%, and in the US it is below 20%.  He believes that the problem is that the world has basically gotten so much more complicated these days that finding someone who can do the strategic thinking and have the right decision making skills is very difficult.  Apparently General Zinni has written a book on the subject, which we think that we will check out.  It was a very good talk.

Next was team trivia.  We got 13 out of 15, but there were two winning teams with 14, so we lost again.  Oh well.

Lunch next (the Mediterranean café lunch) and then we went to the talk by Thomas Lippman on “The Next Middle East War”.  What he really talked about was the huge problem facing the Middle East which is lack of water.  It really is a huge problem for them and something that is likely going to shape what happens in the Middle East in the not too distant future.

The Mozart tea was this afternoon, and as always, spectacular.  With the waiters all dressed up, the amazing table of various edible goodies and the beautiful stringed music. 

There was time for a bit of relaxing and before getting ready for the captain’s farewell party (formal attire) and dinner in the dining room.  After dinner, we went to the production show “Curtain Call.”
All in all, a wonderful, relaxing sea day. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day 11 – May 29 (Tuesday) - Still in Honfleur

Since this was an overnight port, we got up, had breakfast in the Lido and then headed out for the 9am shuttle into town (it is only about 2 miles into town, with Crystal providing a shuttle that runs every 30 minutes).  We had joined a group arranged by Guin for a walking tour of the city at 10am.  We found the tourist office and wandered around for a bit until the appointed time arrived.

The guide arrived and we started our tour.  We learned that Honfleur was originally a walled city with troops garrisoned inside.  Their goal was to protect the entrance to the Seine.  This was back in the 14th century.  The wall is no longer there, but many of the houses are still the same.  What was interesting is that they even had a harbor that was inside of the walls of the city.  We wandered around and looked at the various parts of the city: highlights included the building that held the salt that was used to tax the citizens; a discussion of how their houses were constructed;

Our guide leaning against a 14th century house explaining its construction.

the way houses ended up extending their square footage of their buildings out over the street in the front because they were only taxed based on the square footage of their first floor; and finally St. Catherine’s their biggest church.  The church was constructed by shipwrights and looks quite different from most churches.  For one, the bell tower is a separate building across the street (the shipwrights didn’t know how to build one and so made them separate so if the building collapsed due to the ringing of the bell, it wouldn’t take out the whole church).  Second, instead of being a large stone building, it was made of wood (which shipwrights knew how to build).  It was quite a nice church.  That ended our tour (after about 1.5 hours).

 Inside the church.

We then wandered around, explored the city, shopped, and eventually had coffee at a small restaurant by the harbor. 

We returned to the ship for lunch and some housekeeping duties.

We made it to tea again at 3:30.  The kids love interacting with one of the waiters named Zolton.  They are constantly joking back and forth with him.  After tea, Bob worked on the previous days blogs, but couldn’t post because the internet was down.  So, everyone got ready for informal dinner, had drinks and we then went to Prego for the third time.

This time, Julie and Bob both ordered a build your own, three item sampler for entrée. Julie had three different small spaghetti servings with different sauces, while Bob had a ravioli, spaghetti with Arrabiata sauce, and Paccheri.  Wow, what a wonderful way to try several different tastes. 

After dinner we went to see Brent Webb, the mentalist.  He did what was essentially a magic show based on supposedly mentally figuring stuff out from the participants.  Some of the tricks we could figure out, but most of them were quite amazing and very well done.  We were quite impressed.  After that, we hung out a bit and then hit the sack.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day 10 – May 28 (Monday – Memorial Day) – Honfleur

Clearly Honfleur is quite close to St. Malo as we were already docked when we got up in the morning.  We had signed up for the President’s Normandy excursion that was scheduled to leave at 10:15.  We boarded one of five buses bound for the D-Day Beaches.

We drove about 1.5 hours to “ferme de la Ranconniere”, a very fancy restaurant that serves food typical of the Normandy area.  As we were driving there, we went through Arromanches, right by one of the D-Day landing beaches.  This was cool because it is where they constructed an artificial harbor (from sunken boats and barges that they hauled across the Channel).  The streets of the city were extremely narrow and our guide (who was absolutely excellent) talked about how the tanks and other vehicles had to navigate as they were unloaded from the transports.  We didn’t have time to stop, eventually making it to the restaurant. 

The farmhouse was quite beautiful, made of stone, with flowers and just a beautiful setting.  First course was a crepe (maybe galette although it seemed more like a crepe) with vegetables and ham inside.  We thought that was quite an excellent lunch when they brought up the second course.  This was roasted chicken in an amazing sauce, plus boiled potatoes and vegetables. It was great, but a lot of food.  The third course was a mousse-like desert layered in three colors (much like Neapolitan ice cream).   Amazing, but a lot of food.  After eating, we boarded the bus for the coast.  This was another 30 or so minute drive.

We made it to Pointe du Hoc.  This was the location where the Germans had six 150mm cannon trained on Utah and Omaha beaches.  The idea was that a small group of rangers led by Lt. Col. James Rudder would scale the cliffs and attempt to take out the cannons.  After some false starts (the weather was not good and they mistook another point for Pointe du Hoc), they eventually scaled the cliffs and took control of the area.  Interestingly, there were no cannons.  About 3 months before the invasion, Field Marshall Rommel had decided to change the layout of the fortification.  The cannons were being changed for 8 cannons in a different configuration (and more fortified).  The cannons had been transported several miles inland waiting for the construction to be completed.  They were still sitting inland when the Rangers attacked.

Alex in a bomb crater.  We took this because we took a similar one when we visited the same area 18 years ago when Alex was 6.

We had just about 30 minutes to quickly see the area and where the Rangers scaled the wall and then had to hop right in back on the bus.  (This is a theme for the day, we ended up trying to do a ton of things and rushing through them all).  We then drove about 15 minutes to a small shop/restaurant/hotel where we were scheduled to sample some of the locally made cider.  What Crystal had done was arrange to have the D-Day Academy organization provide a number of actual World War II vehicles that we could ride in.  There were jeeps, troop carriers, and even a duck.  There were enough vehicles to hold 2 buses worth of people, so while one group would go for a ride, while the rest of us would do the tasting, and check out the WWII weapons, uniforms and other paraphernalia.  It was really, really cool to get to actually hold the various weapons.  Alex and Brenda clearly loved it (Bonnie and Clyde style).

The only downside of this stop was that there was only ONE bathroom (that is one) for all 200 or so guests.  So, the line never seemed to go down.  Eventually it was our turn for the ride.  We were in the first vehicle of the convoy, a troop carrier made by White Corporation.  It was 7 tons and had bullet proof glass.  We piled in and drove down and along Omaha beach while the driver told us what happened in that area on June 6, 1944.  We didn’t get to stop on the beach (however, there is nothing really to see other than the topography of the area, as it is now merely a beach with houses and kids playing in the sand and water). It was totally amazing and a once in a life time experience. 

 Brenda and Alex squeezed into the carrier.
 Our convoy.
 Omaha beach today.
 Here we are in front of the troop carrier.
The plate in the troop car that we rode in.

After we finished that, we went to the American Cemetery (which was fairly close).  We got to hang out for a few minutes waiting for the final group to finish up their convoy ride and show up.  

Once we were all present, there was a ceremony at the monument.  The ceremony began with the national anthem and then a trumpeter played taps.  That was followed by Crystal President Greg Michael and General Zinni who carried a wreath and laid it at the base of the monument.  A few moments of silence followed.  Then the assistant to the Superintendent said some a small speech about remembering our fallen and the ceremony ended.  The whole ceremony was amazingly moving.

We then had a few more minutes to hang out, until the flag ceremony.  They lowered and folded the French flag (normally they fly two American flags, but since today was also a French holiday, they flew both). 

After that, we moved to the American flag and that was lowered (to the playing of taps) and then folded.  All of the veterans in the group (including three or four that were WWII vets) helped to fold the flag and pose for pictures.

Finally, Brenda had brought a medal from the Maine organization of Greeters who meet the soldiers returning to Maine after their service.  She presented the assistant Superintendent with the medal.  He accepted it and said that it would be displayed in their offices area (which was being remodeled).  

This is the wall of the MIA soldiers.

After that, we had to head back to the buses for the long trip back to the ship.  Again, we did not have any time to wander around the cemetery and reflect on the significance of what we were experiencing.
As we boarded the bus, we found out that one of the buses did not have a working air conditioner.  So, after some false starts, eventually we were able to get the guests on the broken bus spread onto the other buses for the trip back.  That trip took us about an hour and three quarters.  We finally arrived on the ship at about 8:15pm.  We felt that it was a very long, very rushed day.  However the experience was absolutely priceless.

That evening they had open seating dining, so we went in, had another great meal and then hit the sack early (the only entertainment of the evening was a show by the string quartet at 8pm).

Day 9 – May 27 (Sunday) – Saint Malo

In this port, we had arranged a tour from Westcapades.  We had an eight passenger tour bus with the four of us and two other couples (Cookie and Larry and Bill and Patty).  Originally we were scheduled to arrive in port at 7am and our tour was to start at 7am as well, but due to the tides, we didn’t actually arrive until 9am.  We met down in the lobby at 8:45 and hung out until about 9:15 when they finally got things set up so we could board the first tender.  The President and his wife were on the tender with us.  It was funny, we were sailing in toward the pier when the tender driver, turned around and started to go into another entrance (they have two).  Then he decided that he was headed in the correct pier and eventually we made it (although we ended up being in the second tender at that point – ha ha).  

The folks from Westcapades met us inside of the terminal and we went out and got into their 8 passenger van.  Lucie was our guide (and she spoke beautiful English).  Interestingly, the seats in the van were extremely nice and comfortable.

St. Malo was very crowded first because it was a Sunday and second because Monday was declared to be a bank holiday, so everyone had a 3-day weekend.  Thus they were flocking to the beaches.

We drove the approximate 45 minutes to Mont St. Michel.  Our guide had a magic access code and we got so we could park right at the place where the shuttle takes you across the causeway.  Note – we remember when we saw it almost 20 years ago that there was no road and you had to walk across.  Our guide told us that there is a big renovation project going on to bring the sea back around the island.  It has been so eroded away by silt that Mont St. Michel is no longer much of an island.

Our guide left us at the shuttle buses (apparently you can’t have private guides there) and gave us instructions.  Note – the shuttle buses are kind of cool, as they have a way to drive it at both ends of the bus, so they don’t need to turn around, they just drive down to one end, get out and change to the driver and drive back.  The first big item was she got us group tickets for fast track entry to the abbey (8 euros each).  This is important as the usual line to get in by buying tickets is extremely long. 

She then said, as you get to the island, everyone is queueing up to go into the main entrance.  She said, go to the left (looks like an archway) and go up that way.  You bypass the long street where all of the shops are, you take less steps (180 vs over 300) and you get to the abbey quicker.  

This is the entrance that you go into.

Wow, was she right.  It was like we were at the abbey in no time.  (We learned later that the streets were so crowded going down that we hardly could move.). 

The group tickets let us bypass a huge “buy tickets” queue to get up where you entered the abbey.   We were not able to get the audio sets for listening to stuff (we think that they were in the other queue), but we did get in quickly.  They were holding some kind of service in the abbey when we got there, so we had to be really quiet.  Then we started the trek down through the various rooms, crypts, etc. of the three levels of the building.  They were all quite fascinating. 

 This is St. Michel.

Eventually we emerged and made our way back down, but this time going through the streets.  It was SO crowded that often you got trapped and had to push your way through.  It was nuts.  Fortunately we were going down (we saw a Crystal excursion making its way up through the streets while we were going down), so they had a long day in front of them. 

The crowded streets.

We made it out of the hoards, back to the shuttle, and back to the van, a bit after our scheduled time (12:30).  All eight of us headed toward the town of Dinan.  Dinan is an old city with numerous medieval buildings.  Lucie dropped us off near one of the churches and we agreed to be back at about 3pm.  Again, she didn’t guide us, we were on our own.  The goal was to wander around (she gave us a nicely marked map) and also stop and get lunch.  She recommended galette (a heavier crepe made out of buckwheat flour filled with eggs, veggies, or whatever filling.  you eat with your hands like a burrito) and then a Crepe with local Caramel inside.  Also, we were supposed to taste the local cider (they can’t grow grapes around here, just apples and make their drinks with apples). 

 The restaurant that we went to is the one on the right.

 The crepe.

We stopped at a local restaurant and ate outside having their prix fixe meal of a Galette, Caramel Crepe and cider.  It was excellent.  It was also entertaining as sitting one table away from us (in a different restaurant) were about four guys who were obviously celebrating some soccer team or something, yelling, singing, and getting really drunk (yes, this was at about 2pm).  We then wandered a bit and headed back to the van. 

After that, she drove us to the walled city of St. Malo where our tender was located.  She dropped us off at the gates of the city and our tour ended there.  We had time to explore the city (mostly walking on the ramparts which takes about 40 minutes to walk around the entire city).  Then walk over and catch the tender back.  The city was really beautiful in wonderful shape.  Amazingly great shape.  However, we remembered that Lucie told us that much of the city had been destroyed by bombing and after the war was over it was completely restored to its exact original shape – which is why it looked so good).
One cool thing that we saw near the city was a swimming pool in the ocean.  Essentially they built 3 sides of a swimming pool out into the ocean.  The top side was just the beach.  Clearly, the pool is filled with water when the high tide comes in, otherwise it gets caught there during low tide.  They even had a huge diving board with multiple heights for diving.

 The swimming pool.

Eventually we made it back to the ship for another evening of dining and relaxing.  Sail away at about 8:30 was quite spectacular with St. Malo off in the distance and the sounds of “It’s a Wonderful World” playing in the background.  BTW – we ended up skipping the entertainment (a variety show of the Kent Dancers, the Scottish brothers, and the comedy piano person).

Day 8 – May 26 (Saturday) – At Sea

Today we planned a lazy day at sea.  We got up, had breakfast in the Lido, and then went to hear General Zinni’s discussion on the state of the world from his point of view.  The main point of his talk was how after World War II, the Americans under Marshall essentially put into place mechanisms on how the world was going to operate for the next many, many years (such as world organizations).  That plan was effective and lasting.  General Zinni was a newly promoted brigadier general and during his training to be a general, he had to go to Berlin.  This happened right after the wall fell.  He observed that although the “hot war” of World War II had a clear ending and the creation of the Marshall plan followed, when the cold war ended no such thing happened.  He feels that because no plans were really put into place, the world is struggling to find its way (an international based plan was attempted by Secretary Baker, but nothing really came of it).  Now, with globalization, the changing face of power, the environment, and others, the world is struggling.  It was quite a good talk.

Next we had the President of Crystal Cruises speak.  He talked about the renovations to the ship and his view of the future of Crystal (they have many new improvements in the works including a new marketing campaign).  Q/A followed including the annual is there going to be another ship question (yes was the answer, but no time table was given, mostly because the NYK that owns the line would like to see better financial numbers before embarking on the construction of a new ship). 

We then went to team trivia (scored a 12 – should have been 13, but let’s not go there (ha ha)).  One team won with a perfect score of 17, so we pretty much were out of it.  Lunch followed (Asia café but we opted for the Grill). The only pain was we had to eat outside as both the Lido and the covered area by the grill were full and it was a bit chilly outside.

Next was the port talk through the eyes of Monet and a talk on Saudi Arabia and its future.  Next up was the Crystal Society reception.  After that, at 6:30 we had dinner in Silk Road (our first opportunity there this cruise).  We are missing French night in the dining room.

The entertainment was the production show “I Write the Songs.”  After, I heard many people say that they liked it, while others didn’t care for it (I think that they didn’t like that it was so “modern” with things such as Little Shop of Horrors, Avatar, etc.).  We enjoyed it (so did the kids).

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day 7 – May 25 (Friday) – St. Jean de Luz

This was a tender port and is the first time that the ship has visited this French port.  We were scheduled to start tendering at 8am, but the captain came on the speakers saying that they were very worried about the wave action and it maybe was going to require them to cancel tender operations and recover the guests on shore.  The problem is that the ship had to anchor outside of the breakwater. 

Eventually the seas calmed down and the operations began.  We had a leisurely morning because we didn’t have a tour until 1:30pm.  After breakfast, we asked if it was ok to get off the ship early and meet the tour at the pier.  They said sure, just show up by the same time they were meeting in the Starlight lounge.  So, we got off at about 11am. 

From the sea, you could tell that this was a very picturesque town.  There is a HUGE beach that dominates the shoreline and a bunch of houses and buildings most of which were white with red trim.  The city is just beautiful (it has about 15,000 residents).  It is the location where King Louis XIV and Marie Teresa were married. 

There are a bunch of narrow streets with restaurants and shops.  It is just beautiful.  We stopped at a patisserie to buy half a dozen macarons which are very different here in France than the US version (one flavor and one layer).  They were great.  Eventually we landed at a restaurant in the main square and sat down for some coffee and beer.  It was fabulous.

At a bit before 1:30pm, we wandered over to dock area and waited for Jim and his crew to put us on a bus for our tour.  It was really hot, in the 80’s.  We eventually made the bus and headed out of town and up in to the Pyrenees into the heart of Basque country.  Most of the Basque people live in Spain (several hundred thousand), but a few (ten’s of thousands) live in France.  The Basques are very impressive.  They have lived in the area for 10,000 or more years (some say that they go back to Cro-Magnon era) because it offers access to the sea, a great climate, and the mountains for protection.  

As we drove up the mountain, the guide told us more and more about the incredible Basque people.  For example, the houses are painted white because they didn’t have anything to create pigments with.  The red wood trim was blood from animals (originally) which protected the wood.  Each house owns the family that resides in it.  Yes, I said that right, the house (and land) owns the family.  The way it works is the eldest child (man or woman) is in charge of the house.  They inherit it when the parents die.   If the eldest child does not wish to stay, then it goes to the next in line.  Younger brothers and sisters who are unmarried may live in the house and work for the house.  The oldest child looks around to marry a non-eldest child in a different family (there is no merging of houses).  In a very pragmatic way, they don’t get married until they can prove that they can have babies by having one or two first before marriage.  It does not serve the house if the person in charge can’t have children to take over. 

Another interesting and progressive fact is that the person in charge of each house gets to vote on issues affecting the area (whether female or male).  This way of voting dates back 400 years.  The guide talked about how the Basque people were involved in an awful lot of history.  It is absolutely fascinating.
We ended up in a very small village named Ainhoa.  We visited a Basque church and spent a bit of time wandering the town (every town includes a wall for playing their ball game – like handball with paddles, a church, and a town hall). 

After that, we went to a farmhouse (Ortillopitz) that has been restored to exactly the way it was in the 17th century.  Since the Basques were great shipbuilders, the farmhouse had a lot of features (such as hallways) that were featured on Basque ships.  The house was fascinating and so was the host (who spoke French/Basque, which was translated by our guide).  At the end, they offered us some Basque cider (some of us liked it and some of us didn’t), a great red wine, and some cheese, dried meats and a traditional fruit filled cake from the Basque area.  It was great.

The east side of the house (all houses are pointed so the side without windows goes in the direction where the storms come in from the sea.

 Julie snagged this amazing picture from the courtyard of the farmhouse.

 The host pouring the cider (he is the eldest of this family and we also saw his wife and two sons).

Part of the gardens.

After the tour and food, we returned to the port and were on the next to last tender back to the ship.  We then dressed and went to dinner in the dining room.  The entertainment was singer Michel Bell (who was a member of the group Fifth Dimension and also sang on Broadway).  He had an amazingly powerful and deep baritone voice.  After that, we went to the Avenue Saloon to listen to the piano player do a tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel.  It was a wonderful cap to a great day.