After a few days at sea we land in Hamburg, Germany. It’s Sunday, so most of the city is likely to be closed. Worse still, the local ferries that would take us straight into the city centre aren’t running.
It’s a two mile walk into town through the deserted docklands area, and the sights are few and far between. We pass the time doing a few geocaches of varying degrees of difficulty.
Top tip: There is a ferry which runs from a nearby dock straight into the St Pauli district of Hamburg – but it only runs Mon-Sat. If you visit on a Sunday, you’ll have to walk, use a taxi from the cruise terminal or pay (€15 each)for the shuttle bus overseen by MSC Cruises.
Eventually we arrive at the Old Elbe Tunnel, an old under-river passage that you may have seen Jon Voight running through in The Odessa File. Cars drive into large lifts and are hoisted to a subterranean roadway before being hoisted back up on the other side. Very cool – we enjoy our walk through this particular piece of history.
Cars do still drive down here at certain times of day
At the other side of the tunnel we arrive in the St Pauli district of Hamburg. It’s at least another mile to walk into the city centre but the local Hard Rock Café is right by the entrance of the tunnel. In the same way that I like to visit Apple Stores across the world, Linda loves Hard Rock Cafés, so we stop in for a beer and to purchase a local pin badge for her collection.
Afterwards we head back to the ship in some very (very!) fine snow. It’s a shame the ferries aren’t running – or any other public transport for that matter.
We’ll be back in Germany in June – but next time it will be way down south, in Munich.
The Virtuosa docks in Zeebrugge before dawn, offering an impressive moonlit journey into port. Having visited Bruges before, we have this time opted for an excursion into Brussels.
After meeting in the ship’s theatre, we’re loaded onto a coach for the drive into the Belgian capital. Our tour guide provides plenty of Belgian historical commentary, from the medieval beginnings of Bruges to the post-war resurgence of Brussels.
Top tip:It is possible to make your own way to Brussels by train from Zeebrugge. It’s about an hour each way and not particularly expensive – but it’s a lot easier (and more informative) to book an excursion on the ship.
Bonus tip: There is a free shuttle bus that runs from dockside to the dock gates – but that’s as far as it goes. Apparently there are a few public transport options within walking distance from the drop-off point.
The coach takes us past the King Baudoin Stadium (formerly known as Heysel) and on to the Atomium. Built to resemble a super-magnified iron crystal, it’s impressive to note this space age structure was erected in 1958. Sadly we don’t have enough time to go inside.
Afterwards, the coach takes us through much of the European Union heartland. Incredibly, the EU currently occupies 66 buildings – with many more under construction. If you ever wondered where the EU budget goes…
We are then dropped at the Boulevard de Berlaimont near Saint Michael’s Cathedral for a short foot tour with our guide. After showing us a few sights, he leaves us at the Grand Place for two hours to spend however we want. Linda and I head straight for the legendary Mannekin Pis – which is surprisingly tiny (and underwhelming!).
Some of the junk souvenirs look bigger than the real thing
We then head back to the Grand Place and another Hard Rock Café. As well as a local brew, we both enjoy a Belgian Waffle (and buy the obligatory pin badge). We even manage to squeeze in a quick (very simple) geocache before meeting up with our group for the return journey to the Virtuosa.
Top tip: Along with all the usual memorabilia, there are some very cool drawings and portraits by various artists on the top floor of the Hard Rock Café, including Keith Moon of The Who. It is well worth a walk up all those extra stairs.
Reykjavik. Another port that we missed back in May due to bad weather. Today we’re moored miles out to the east of the city at the Skarfabakki Cruise Terminal. Good news: the Reykjavik tourist centre is running free shuttle buses into the city. Bad news: The Norwegian Prima has followed us into port so there are at least 4000 people trying to board the buses.
Top tip: Feeling fit? You can walk into Reykjavik town centre, but it’s about 4km each way.
When we finally get on one, the bus drops us at the Harpa concert hall. Widely regarded as a symbol of Iceland’s recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis, it’s an interesting building to observe.
As always, we are compelled to visit the local Hard Rock Café. We’ve arrived before the restaurant opens however, so we pick up the ubiquitous pin badge and head into the city centre.
Due to mobility issues, we only have two goals – a geocache and a beer. Opposite the Hard Rock Café we pass the Punk Museum, located in a converted public toilet. We briefly consider hading down the stairs but instead choose to continue up the sloping hill of Laugavegur.
You cannot spend a penny here
Christmas shops appear to be a year-round fixture in Reykjavik, so we stop in and buy a tree decoration – a mean looking cat that, according to Icelandic legend, eats badly behaved children. Perfect.
The geocache (GC85V62) is a nice easy find opposite the world-famous Lebowski Bar. However, having never seen the movie, we don’t bother to drop in.
Instead we head for the fantastically-named Bastard Brew & Food – for a Hazy Bastard beer of course. It’s not bad at all.
Bizarrely, Reykjavik city centre feels like it is pitching itself as a stag/hen party destination, packed with ‘cool’ bars and nightspots. But given that a beer costs at least five times as much as Prague (upwards of £10 each), you do have to wonder who is holding their parties here.
Afterwards, we take a steady stroll back to the bus stop at the Harpa. There is a big queue and the bus is completely packed by the time we set off for the cruise terminal again. And I mean uncomfortably packed. Not cool.
Top tip: Transfer buses run on a loop, visiting each cruise ship berth in turn. You can potentially avoid the crush (and snag a seat) by walking to the bus stop at the previous berth – assuming there isn’t a massive queue there too.
Would we visit Reykjavik again? Maybe. But probably only as the starting point for a Golden Circle road trip or similar.
As we sail away from Iceland, the Captain makes a cryptic footnote to his daily report, promising us a ‘surprise’ when he broadcasts tomorrow…
Because of Linda’s mobility issues, we haven’t really planned a lot for our stop in Tromso. In fact we have just two items on our itinerary – a stop at the local Hard Rock Café and a quick drop-in on one of my relatives.
When visiting Tromsø, Princess ships dock at Breivika, to the north of the city. It is approximately 2.5 miles to the city centre and you have three options for getting there.
Note that there is an underpass at the port which saves the half-mile loop shown on the directions above
First, there are regular shuttle buses run by a local company. Tickets are $19.95 (USD) each and allow you to make unlimited trips to and from the city.
Second, there are local buses departing from a stop just outside the port gates – a 250 metre walk. These buses are much cheaper but may not be suitable for less-mobile travellers.
Third, you can walk into the city – which is what we chose to do. Linda rode her scooter into town and eventually I was able to pick up a hop-on hop-off electric scooter. The journey is quite hilly and, for the most part, lacking in sights. It is also extremely draining on the mobility scooter battery. Thankfully I bought a spare, because the first is almost empty by the time we arrive at the Hard Rock Café.
Another one off the list – the only HRC in Norway
Linda is pleased to discover Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc on tap – it’s one of her favourite beers. I opt for a Norwegian lager which is insipid and uninspiring. A round of drinks costs over £20 GBP, so one is definitely enough. The café itself is quite small and the memorabilia collection extremely limited – but still better than the one in Amsterdam.
Afterwards we meet my relative in a nearby park.
Apparently we are (very) distantly related
Facing a long walk back if the scooter battery fails, we begin the long journey back to Breivika. This means we have to skip the Troll Museum and Tromso Cathedral which is a shame. However, we do attempt (and fail) two geocaches on the trip to the ship. Thankfully we make it back on board – the scooter’s battery indicator is flashing empty.
Tromso looks like the kind of place we could have spent another day or two exploring. But we sail at 11pm, so maybe we will have to come back one day – once Linda has her hip done so we can try out the snowy mountains. Notably, Wizz Air has cheap direct flights departing from London Luton. And onwards to Gdansk if you want to make a good trip of it!
The sky is quite cloudy overnight and the Northern Lights are mostly obscured. Shame.
We’re awake early again this morning, to discover that Sky Princess is the first cruise ship in a long line sailing into Petersburg, Sint Maarten. Eventually six ships dock, disgorging more than 10,000 passengers.
Cruise Ship City – Five of the Six ships in Petersburg, Sint Maarten this morning
The cruise terminal itself is not unlike Antigua’s (albeit much, much larger and slightly shinier) with lots of duty free shops and bars trying to part travellers from their cash. There is jewellery, clothing, liquor and perfume – just like an airport duty free area, but with sunshine.
The walk into town is fairly straightforward and the pavements are generally well-maintained. I guess they have to be when you have 10,000 or more passengers making the trek each day.
Despite hearing that the local Hard Rock Café (HRC) may be closed, we can see its sign from our balcony. So we head along the “Boardwalk” just to make sure – we don’t have any specific destination in mind. The view is suitably tropical, with palm trees, turquoise waters and white sand stretching the length of the bay. Sadly the weather is a bit mixed so there are a few light showers as we walk. To be honest, the damp and the light breeze are a little bit of a relief from the heat and humidity in between.
The walk is punctuated by the smell of barbecued meat and bar-side entertainers who are singing and dancing. There’s also a man selling fresh coconut punches (of course). In the distance our cruise ship towers over the bay.
Eventually we reach the HRC and discover that yes, it is permanently closed. The downstairs floor is now occupied by some kind of clothing shop. The upstairs still looks like the restaurant could re-open tomorrow – sans memorabilia.
Hard luck at the Not Hard Rock Café
We have also heard that Front Street (Vorstraat) is worth a look, at least in terms of duty free shopping. We head one block back from the sea and immediately run into a problem. The pavements are narrow and really badly maintained this far west on the street and there are no drop curbs anywhere. Progress with the mobility scooter is impossible. Back to the Boardwalk.
Top tip: The pavements in Petersburg are fine(ish) – so long as you stay in the very busiest parts of town. The moment the quality of the shops decline, so too does the sidewalk. So if you’re travelling with a mobility scooter, don’t go too far west along Front Street. Also be prepared for a bumpy ride because of the block paving. The Boardwalk is smooth cement for its entirety, so so long as you aren’t planning on shopping, it’s a better choice for scooters and wheelchairs.
After a few blocks we try Front Street again and find that although not perfect, the pavement has improved. The block paving is still quite uneven and Linda likens it to the toning plates found in gyms! We pass dozens of stores selling designer labels and jewellery, many of which have staff eagerly inviting us in. Thankfully they are far less pushy than their counterparts in Antigua which makes this stop more enjoyable.
Contender for weird moment of the trip: As we passed a beauty parlour, a lady said to Linda, ‘I like your hair. Is it a wig?’
At the old Guavaberry Rum distillery we do a very quick geocache (#GC3EEPY), then head back to the Boardwalk. We stop at the Lazy Lizard bar and Linda samples the guavaberry colada – it’s not too bad, sweet and slightly fruity. It’s also 2-for-1, so we get two for $10 USD. There are some picnic benches on the beach under the palm trees which are a great place to hang around for an hour or so – especially as there is a slightly heavier rain shower while we drink.
Top tip: St Maarten is a Dutch territory, so technically the local currency should be the Euro (€). However, the locals are determined to hold on to the Netherlands Antillean Guilder (ANG) instead. Not that it matters because every bar and shop advertises prices and accepts payments in US dollars ($). And if you have a Revolut card, it doesn’t matter at all.
Back on board, it is time to relax in the Wake Bar watching intermittent rain showers sweep over Petersburg. It’s still very warm – far too warm for our British sensibilities.
Our departure is somewhat delayed because there is a queue of ships waiting to leave port, and so we trail the other out. These ships are so brightly lit it looks like they are on fire…
Is that a fire? No, just a Carnival cruise ship
Would we visit St Maarten and Petersburg again? Probably not. And certainly not until Linda is fully mobile again. If we were passing this way on a cruise ship in future we would definitely try out the local zipline (it’s massive!) and make a trip out to the world-famous Maho Beach to watch the jets landing at the airport.
San Juan is the first US port of this cruise which means that everyone onboard Sky Princess must disembark and pass through immigration. Everyone. Even if they don’t want to go ashore.
All passengers have been issued with a disembarkation time – ours is 9:45am. Which gives us plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in our stateroom.
But there’s a problem. Both batteries for Linda’s scooter are flat and they failed to charge overnight – despite checking everything was connected properly last night. I plug the charger into another socket and shove a battery in the charger as soon as I realise. We have about three hours until we have to disembark – and the batteries take eight hours to fully charge…
It looks like our ‘Stuff to do in San Juan’ list just went out the window. Will the battery even hold up long enough to go through the immigration rigmarole and return immediately to the ship?
When our departure group is called, I plug the battery into the scooter and it shows as being 100% charged. We leave the ship, keeping a very close eye on the battery level. And then the day gets worse…
The Luton Airport of cruise terminals?
Immigration processing takes place on the upper floor of the cruise terminal – and the lift at the entrance is out of order. Thankfully, one of Sky‘s officers leads a group of mobility impaired guests to a lift at the other end of the terminal where he loads eight of us into a lift.
The lift goes up. The lift goes down. The lift door does not open. The lift is broken. And cramped. And hot.
Finally, the door opens – back on the ground floor. After a lot of messing around, Linda and I finally make it to the first floor – it seems that there were too many people in the lift.
Now we get to join a queue to have our passports and ESTAs processed. An eternity later we’re out on the street in front of the terminal – and the scooter battery seems to be holding up ok.
There’s a geocache (#GC2CZN8) a couple of hundred metres away, so we head to a nearby park, Plaza de Hostos, where there is a small market taking place. One of the stallholders quickly realises what we are up to and leads us straight to the cache, hidden in one of the flower beds. The battery is still showing a full charge, so we keep walking along the broad, palm tree-lined Paseo de la Princesa, following it until we reach a fountain at the end.
The battery is still showing a good charge, so we keep following the road, winding between the sea and the high walls of Old San Juan. As we pass a tree hanging over the path, a large green lizard climbs above us which is quite cool. The path continues curving gently until we reach a large, red gateway – the original entrance to Old San Juan, Puerta de San Juan. This was on our list of Stuff to do in San Juan.
Passing through the gateway, the road climbs steeply, and unevenly, towards the Cathedral Basilica of San Juan. The sidewalks are narrow and bumpy and the cobbled streets are even worse. It is not a comfortable journey for Linda. But the area is very pretty and photogenic.
Top tip: The steep, cobbled streets in Old San Juan are not hugely friendly for anyone using a scooter, wheelchair or who has difficulties walking. Keep an eye for the drop curbs – they are painted blue to make them easier to spot.
Old San Juan is very photogenic
Halfway up the hill I log another geocache next to a super weird Cat/Dolphin/Giraffe statue (#GC2JWTD). Turning right at the Cathedral we encounter a large crowd at the Calle de la Fortaleza, taking photos of the famous umbrellas hung above the street.
The ‘world famous’ coloured umbrellas have been switched out to promote a diabetes charity
Top tip: Entering the city via the old gate has a couple of benefits. First, you will avoid the rush of cruisers heading towards Calle de Fortaleza for a while. Second, you get the hill climbing out of the way sooner – the walk back to port is all downhill. Third, you can imagine what it would have been like arriving in the city ‘back in the day’, passing through the thick and imposing defensive walls.
Add this to your Stuff to do in San Juan list
Pushing our way through the throng, we get to the second item on our Stuff to do in San Juan list – the picturesque Chapel of the Holy Christ of Health. The chapel has a cool legend:
During the San Juan Bautista celebrations of 1753 a rider, Baltazar Montanez, lost control of his horse and plunged off a cliffs onto the rocks below. The Spanish Secretary of Government Don Mateo Pratts was watching the drama unfold from a nearby balcony, and allegedly cried out, “Christ of Good Health, save him!” Though the horse didn’t survive the fall, the young rider did. Montanez then built the chapel on the exact spot where he had gone over the cliff.
Annoyingly, the chapel is only open on Tuesdays – and today is Wednesday.
Make sure you try and visit the Chapel of the Holy Christ of Health on a Tuesday
Astonishingly, the scooter battery is still showing full charge. But rather than push our luck, we go east along Calle de la Fortaleza towards the port.
We still have some things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Would we visit again? Maybe if we were passing this way again. Our Stuff to do in San Juan list included a visit to the old cemetery and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, both of which we missed because of concerns about the scooter battery going flat. Linda would also like to visit the Hard Rock Café in Ponce, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico.
So far San Juan has been our favourite port on this cruise. And there’s only one more to go…
There’s only really one item on our to do list – the Hard Rock Café at Miami Bayside. In fact, back when we first planned this trip, the only reason for staying an extra day in Miami was to visit the HRC.
This gives us the opportunity to waste the morning, watching Tottenham lose to Aston Villa on TV before we have to check out of the Sheraton at 11am. Down in reception, we leave our suitcases with the concierge, promising to collect them this evening.
Outside, the heat hits us like a wall. Thankfully it is only a short walk to the metro station, although we have to take a couple of elevators to get to the platform.
Top tip: Don’t forget – all public transport in Miami is free until December 31st 2023
When we arrive on the platform, there is a train already waiting, so Linda launches her scooter through the nearest door just in case it is about to leave. It isn’t. Shortly after the journey begins, our driver informs us that the trip will terminate at the next station. So we disembark at Earlington Heights and wait for a ‘Green’ line train to take us the rest of the way into the city.
Top tip: The gap between platform and Miami Metro train door looks large but Linda found in most cases it can be crossed on the scooter – with a decent run-up.
At Historic Overtown/Lyric Theatre we navigate another couple of lifts back to street level. Then it’s a half mile walk/scoot east towards the sea. The buildings here are tall and uninspiring. There is also quite a few roadworks and diversions to navigate on the way.
Miami’s ‘famous’ Freedom Tower is also undergoing work – like much of the downtown area
Crossing several roads and navigating the traffic jam caused by the five cruise ships docked in the Port of Miami, we finally make it to Miami Bayside. It is extremely touristy, packed with people trying to look like they are having a good time. There’s plenty of restaurants and bars, along with a few different stores (clothing, cosmetics, shoes, cigars, souvenirs etc). After messing around with lifts, we finally make it to the upper level and drop into the Bath & Bodyworks store. Linda succumbs to the hand soap again and buys five – at least our bathroom will smell good for a while.
We then trundle down to the Miami Hard Rock Café on the other side of Miami Bayside which involves more lifts, but eventually we are seated at a table. The service is fast and attentive, although I swear these are the smallest burgers we’ve had at any HRC in the world. What happened to the legend about super-sized portion sizes in the USA? Linda is quite excited to see the Electric Blue cocktail back on the menu – it seems to have disappeared from all the European restaurants. I enjoy my vanilla milkshake for dessert.
Linda poses at Hard Rock Café Miami Bayside
In the gift shop Linda gets the ubiquitous pin badge – and a Christmas tree decoration. For some reason everything in store is 20% off – just don’t forget to add tax to the ticket price when trying to figure out how much something really costs.
Top tip: At the time of writing, the sales tax rate in Florida is 7%. So don’t forget to add an additional 7% to any prices advertised on goods for sale at Miami Bayside.
We dither for a while, trying to find something else to do. We still have a few hours before we have to collect our luggage from the Sheraton and go to the airport. Finding nothing however, we meander slowly back to the metro and return to the hotel to sit in the air conditioned lobby for a while.
At this point, the first major snag of the day occurs – I have lost the ticket for luggage collection. It takes some negotiating (and a $5 bill) to convince the concierges that the specified suitcases are ours.
Top tip: Snap a pic of your luggage receipt on your phone – that way you have always have a copy, even if you lose the paper slip.
The hotel shuttle drops us right back where our Miami adventure began and I manhandle three suitcases into the terminal. At check-in we go through an extensive bureaucratic process to get Linda’s scooter on board. There’s questions about the battery type, its Watt/Hour rating, whether it can be removed, where it will be dropped off and collected etc etc. The check-in team are very friendly, but everything seems to take forever.
When we finally offload our cases, we’re directed to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge which Linda’s BA Executive Club Silver status grants us access to. But before that we must first navigate TSA security.
I have heard legends about how bad TSA is – and most seem to be true. The process is slow and inefficient, making Stansted look half capable. Here are my complaints:
The trays that pass through the x-ray scanner are too damn small – we needed five and that still didn’t fit all of our stuff
You have to take your shoes off and then do a full body scan
You can leave your liquids in your bag, but you have to remove your laptops and iPads
Even with my pockets emptied and belt removed, the TSA agent still felt the need to give me a quick grope
I guess my biggest complain is the arbitrary nature of these rules – they just don’t make any sense. This is especially true when you consider that they are not applied consistently across the world.
Top tip: You can leave your liquids in your bag when passing through Miami Airport security. Just make sure they still fit in your miniature plastic bag.
It’s a bit of a trek to the American Airlines lounge (find it opposite gate E30), but there are plenty of seats when we get there. The buffet choices are very limited though. Linda has a chocolate mousse of some kind while I have a little Temari & Honey Glazed Mahi with rice. It’s ok. On the plus side, they serve Piper Heidseck champagne which is a nice touch.
We leave the lounge in Zone D and trundle across to Gate 25 in Zone E where our BA A380 is waiting. There is even more confusion about mobility scooters and where they should be dropped, whether passengers should be pushed up the boarding ramp in wheelchairs or if they should walk, whether batteries have been disconnected blah blah blah. In the end, Linda rides her scooter to the door of the plane and we dump it for the ground crew to load into the hold.
Top tip: Leave plenty of time to make the trip between the AA lounge and the E gates (where BA flights depart from). There’s a bit of a walk and a train ride to get there.
We’re on the top deck of the plane, right at the back – similar to the seats we regularly choose on BA’s 777 fleet. This is our first time on an A380 and I’ve always wanted to fly one of these unfeasibly large beasts.