Wrap-Up: Vikings, Castles and Kings

Our long journey home was successful on Tuesday, July 7, with flights mostly on-time and no real hurdles. The only problem was a bad encounter with a ICE or TSA or some such minion at the exit to Customs on Tuesday. We have the Global Entry program, which required $100 fees for each of us and face-to-face interviews, background checks and approval from ICE and TSA. This program allows you to scan your passport, get a photo taken, and use four finger prints to expedite the passport/customs process, while also answering the customs form questions on-line. In the past, when we have used the program, we have just handed the printout of the photo and customs questions to the person at the exit of the area at the airport and we are all done (no need to see the passports, because they have already been validated with biometrics).

The heavily-tattoed guard, who was also armed, was sitting at the exit in DEN and asked (in a nasty tone) to see our passports. I challenged him, saying that we successfully passed the Global Entry process and have never had to go through an additional passport check. He said “So what, you could have cheated with someone else’s passport”. Huh??? If there is a security gap in this program like that, they certainly never informed us and who would have our fingerprints to complete the process? I got the passports out to show him, but he wasn’t interested in looking at them. The fact that I argued the requirement got him spun up faster than whirling dervish and he was berating me for actually questioning his authority, glaring at me in a most uncomfortable way. We both said that we were tired after 24 hours of being awake as an excuse for being a bit short-tempered. He countered with the excuse that he was on his eighth day straight working. I had enough at this point and said “Are we done? I guess you don’t need to know that we also pay your salary, as taxpayers and don’t appreciate being treated this way”. Oops…I think that was a step too far and he ranted back at me that he could cancel our Global Entry if that was what we wanted. I said “Nope, we’re good” and started moseying towards the exit. Steve was not happy with me and I went into panic mode, expecting to be arrested or have this creepy clown (who was armed) come after us at home because he had our names. I’m still worried a few days later, but Steve did admit that he was completely out of line (and I guess I was too, but I do have problems with Barney Fife types) and if we do get letters canceling our Global Entry, we are planning to contact our Congressman and Senators. The bureaucracy in this country is getting completely out of hand in so many areas. TSA and ICE are “security theater” in every aspect, given our porous borders and screening failures, and they seem to hire the folks not adept at any other career who also have the inability to deal with tired travelers who don’t want extra hassles.

OK, enough of that rant. Now, on to the highlights and lowlights of the cruise.

Top ports of call:

1) After much discussion, our top port of call was the Faroe Islands. These beautiful, remote and sparsely populated islands lived up to their reputation. Our tour was great and including seeing the magnificent scenery of Vagar Island and the much-photographed Gásadalur village.
2) Although we sacrificed three ports and had three extra days at sea to get there and back, we did very much enjoy our day in Nuuk, Greenland. The weather was spectacular, the fjord tour was great, and we can now claim this huge island as a place we have visited, instead of just flying over it all the time to/from Europe.
3) It was a tough call for number three, with two locations very close in the race. We finally decided that Liverpool won out narrowly over Akureyri, Iceland. Liverpool was vibrant, very interesting, and our Beatles tour was a lot of fun! The dock area has lots of interesting museums within a relatively close walking distance from the ship.
4) Akureyri, Iceland was a photo finish behind Liverpool. This spectacular region of Iceland sported lots of dramatic scenery, volcanoes, the Myvatn (midge lake) area and a lovely cruise out through the fjord. Our tour and the guide was excellent.
5) “A Day in St. Patrick’s Country” in northern Ireland (from Belfast) was a wonderful tour of the country side and small towns, with St. Patrick as the focus. Although it was a full day, it seemed relaxing.
6) The Shetland Islands were also worth visiting and we enjoyed our tour that visited Scalloway castle and the Shetland ponies, plus we enjoyed finding out about the Shetland bus story from WWII (great little museum in Scalloway).

Cruise Highlights:

1) The food and service were fantastic, with a few minor exceptions noted in the lowlights. We had some excellent meals in the Grand Dining Room, Toscana and the always-wonderful Terrace buffet. The staff, almost to a person, was superb. We also really liked our Cruise Director, Ray Carr, who was very funny!
2) The ship was in great condition, although very much close quarters for 10 days at sea. Our room maintenance was excellent.
3) Trivia was a lot of fun and a good way to bond with a few nice folks (we came in third out of 14 total teams). We didn’t get too involved with most people on the cruise and did have some close encounters with some real winners, but maybe not as bad as other Oceania cruises.
4) The shipboard internet wasn’t bad, although very pricy. We used as many gigs as we could and usually had no problems getting on and doing most things.

Other highlights:

1) The Rubens at the Palace was a very nice hotel and had a great location, right across from Buckingham Palace. Service was good, too. One minor gripe about the hotel is noted in the Lowlights.

Bottom ports of call.

1) Probably the least interesting port was Dublin. The city was very crowded, it rained (hard) while we killed time roaming around in the bus between stops on the tour visiting some of the areas of the city, and our tour guide was new and quite silly. St. Patrick’s cathedral (an Anglican church in a Catholic-dominated country) was drab, dreary, crammed with groups and really not interesting at all. Probably the highlight was Trinity College, the Book of Kells, and the exquisite old library, but we had to wait for a long time to get in and it was difficult to see the Book of Kells display.
2) Although we like Reykjavik very much, the super 4X4 tour was merely “OK”. We spent a lot of time crammed into the vehicles racing between short 4WD adventures. We also lost a lot of our time in this port because of the itinerary changes.
3) Scone Castle outside of Edinburgh rated a “meh” from both of us, although the grounds were beautiful and our tour guide was excellent.

Cruise Lowlights:

1) The itinerary changes were not a lot of fun. We ended up with 10 days at sea on a 20 day cruise that is the most expensive cruise we have taken so far (out of 26 total). Lost in the shuffle was southern Greenland with two villages and the magnificent fjords, Londonderry and our tour to the Giant’s causeway, and half of our time in Reykjavik. We understand the reasons, but believe this cruise would be more successful later in the summer.
2) The officers on Nautica were almost completely invisible, unlike our great experiences with Captain Meinhardt Hanson on two other cruises.
3) Polo Grill was not that great and, in fact, we had a better steak in the Grand Dining Room. The grill items at Waves were also not as good as on other cruises.
4) We did not use our balcony at all on this cruise and will reconsider booking a veranda cabin for any cold-weather cruises in the future.

Other Lowlights:
1) Although we liked Rubens at the Palace, I am very weary of British plumbing. The bathroom had a deep and slippery tub and no hand rails, so I skipped a shower there and waited until we got to the ship.
2) Icelandair is a little problematic for us now. It is a cheaper way to get to Europe, but the seats in Saga Class were quite uncomfortable this time, the planes are not necessarily in very good repair, and the food (in all cases) was terrible. This was accompanied by indifferent service for the most part.

Well, that’s a wrap. My personal favorite cruise is still “Voyage of the Midnight Sun”, but this was an interesting adventure, too. This blog may expand to include postings about travel in general, rather than being only updated with a new trip. Speaking of new trips, we have a couple of driving trips coming up in the next few months and have booked another Oceania cruise in November, 2016, from Rio de Janeiro to Miami. We look forward to actually using our veranda on this trip and also ditching the need to bring layers of clothing.

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