Wrap-up: Continental Connoisseur Marina Cruise

We have been home now since Friday evening, getting back into the swing of things.

All in all, we had a very nice trip and enjoyed almost every moment. If I had to make a list of the top ten highlights, it would be the following:

1) Seeing the inside of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – words can’t begin to describe this sanctuary
2) A fun horse carriage ride in Sevilla and seeing the Sunday crowds at the exquisite Plaza de España in the park
3) An excellent 4-hour tour of Lisbon and Belèm with Inside Lisbon Tours (just us) – what a charming city!
4) Our private tour for six with Henri Challau and his company Bordeaux Wine Tours to three chateaux in the Medoc region plus lunch at a wonderful restaurant in Margaux. Boy, was that duck good!
5) Our private tour for six to Cognac, especially our two-hour experience at Remy Martin – we now know how to drink Cognac!
6) Seeing Santiago de Compostela cathedral and Monserrat monastery, which are he two huge Catholic pilgrimage sites in Spain
7) Visiting the charming town of Concarneau in Brittany on a Sunday and sitting at a sidewalk Cafe watching people walking their dogs and seeing artists painting the scene.
8) Relaxing at a riverside cafe on a sunny day in the Port of Dinan, near St. Malo, while Steve ate an industrial-sized pot of steamed mussels (I had them the night before in Jacques and they were awesome).
9) Visiting the Bayeux tapestry and cathedral, the artificial harbor at Arromanches built for the D-Day invasion, and strolling around beautiful Honfleur
10) Dinner at La Reserve on the ship and at Petrús (a Gordon Ramsay restaurant) in London

There were a few disappointments and lowlights (not very many, that’s for sure):

1) The top one for us was whining and rudeness of some of the people we met on the cruise – Some readers might take issue with this to some degree, based on comments (sorry, it is our blog, so we document it as we see it), but we seemed to have the bad luck of running into quite a few folks that were not having a good cruise and did not like Marina or had to start a conversation about why they were unhappy about something, rather than sharing any positive moments. Some were just plain rude. This was our 20th cruise and we have had our share of “fun” folks on other cruises, but this went to a whole new level. The folks from our Roll Call are not the ones that had this tendency, just in case there are concerns. We learned quickly to stop asking people if they were enjoying the cruise.
2) Bruges was a bit of a disappointment – it seemed too touristy, the locals were a bit unfriendly and we didn’t like the way the ship’s “on your own tour” was managed, with them treating us like children who couldn’t find the bus (same thing happened in Seville). I also committed the faux pas in the Church of the Sacred Blood, which was not a positive moment.
3) Steve’s wallet adventure in London was a heart-stopper initially, but turned into a very positive experience about a taxi driver’s honesty and good memory.
4) Bilbao was also a little disappointing, but we did enjoy seeing the great architecture and the food market. The shuttle bus scrum to return to the ship was not a lot of fun.
5) Mont St. Michel looked pretty, but it was definitely not in my range of capabilities right now. The parking lot payment system was also a fiasco (it allowed them to make more money because you wasted time having to walk a long distance to pay the fee because the exit kiosks didn’t work).
6) Finally, the treatment we received at the hands of the fine security at Frankfurt airport – They make the TSA look like amateurs when it comes to intrusive methods, including engaging in a bit of sadism (I still can’t believe that woman hit my knees and made me kneel and bend my knees as far as possible). Thoroughness is a good thing, I guess, but this went beyond the pale. We will try to avoid this airport on future trips, if at all possible.

For the cruise itself, I gave it a 5 out of 5 review on Cruise Critic (you can up to a 5+). Oceania always gets downgraded for their tours, which are very expensive and not very good. The food was awesome, other than the steak in Jacques. The service was superb, other than one young officer who needs better people skills. Our PH2 was superb and our room staff and butler were the best we have ever had. The drinks and internet packages were positive developments. We really like the ship, including its size (it is certainly not a “cattle car”). It will be interesting next year to compare Marina again to a R-ship, because we are doing an 18-day cruise on Nautica up the coast of Norway and as a far north as Spitzbergen (Svalbard), which is several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

We did not have any real issues with the itinerary changes and are glad for the concerns for our security. Oporto would have been interesting, but the strikes were apparently random and I am sure the crew did not want to risk getting stuck in port. Plus, the bonus day at sea came right at the right time for me to recover from so much activity. Casablanca is no great loss, according to many have been there and we thoroughly enjoyed Gibraltar.

My new knees behaved well, although I had lots of stamina issues and tired easily. In retrospect, I am amazed at what I did on this trip and hope it continues to get better and better.

One more observation: We are concerned for the future of some of these countries. Spain may become three countries before the end of 2012 (lots of Catalonian flags in Barcelona and the Basques are voting soon on separation). Portugal is at the end of their rope in terms of austerity programs. France is starting to see the issues with a Socialist president, as their wealth-producers are fleeing the country. London looks more and more like the Middle East. We hope and pray for the best for everyone.

Well, that’s it for final thoughts on our 2012 cruise adventure. Stayed tuned for more travels from Steve and Barb.

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