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Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Tour of the Magnificent Ruby Princess

The Magnificent Ruby Princess

The Ruby Princess is our favorite cruise ship.  Mary Alice and I have sailed on her four times now, the latest being a Trans-Atlantic crossing from Ft. Lauderdale to South Hampton, England. From the elegant dining rooms to the 5th floor Piazza, we feel right at home everywhere we go.

I thought I would take you on a photo tour of the Ruby and see why we love cruising on this ship.
To the left, you'll see our Cabin Steward Carlito and he's one of the reasons the Ruby is such a pleasant cruise.  He took care of everything, keeping us in fresh towels and crisp linens, taking our laundry and returning it, turning down the bed at night always leaving two chocolates on the pillow. The best thing about Carlito though was always his welcoming smile.
There are multiple dining options on the Ruby including three main dining rooms, the International Cafe, the Horizon Grill (buffet), the pizza station, hamburger/hot dog station, and the ice cream parlor.   
Our  evening favorite was the Da Vinci room because we could dine with friends, or make new ones, plus the service is usually very good.  There is nothing like having someone waiting on your every need at the dining table.

If you're really hungry, there's not a better place to eat than the Horizon Grill on the 15th floor. It's buffet style and you just help yourself.

We found ourselves much of the time at the International Cafe on the 5th Deck Piazza. You can get hot soup, salads, sandwiches, desserts and walk over to the coffee shop and order any kind of specialty coffee.

The coffee cafe proved to be a meeting place for friends aboard ship. That's Ron Jones with MA. Ron and his wife have sailed over eighty times and on each cruise he organizes a tribute to Veterans. On this cruise over 100 vets showed up and every single one of them had an opportunity to introduce themselves and tell us how they served our country. I had permission to set up a POW/MIA memorial table. You are not forgotten.

We splurged one night and had a steak dinner at the Crown Grill. It costs $25/person but well worth it. The steaks are premium as well as the service.

This is a sample menu from the evening dining service. Click on the picture for details.

Either before or after dinner we would often go to the Princess Theater for a show. On the Trans-Atlantic voyage we saw and excellent ventriloquist by the name of Ron Horn and a fantastic magic show, and I can't remember the magician's name..

Princess customizes each cruise by offering a place for groups to gather and meet. Following our veterans group meeting, MA asked the Assistant Cruise Director Frenchie if she would host an "airline" gathering of present and former airline employees.  About four nights later it was announced in the Princess Patter, a daily bulletin.  It was well attended by flight attendants, pilots and ground personnel. 

The Ruby Princess is commanded by Commodore Giueseppe Romano. He is the chief captain of all the captains with Princess. The Commodore makes his home in Cleveland, OH and is looking to retire in four years to Florida. A tour of the Bridge is offered to a select number of people and my friend Ron Jones treated me to this rare event.   These are some photos of our tour of the Bridge conducted by the Commodore no less.

This is on the Bridge and the Commodore is holding the ships helm.  Normally, no one has to stand at the helm as the ship is guided by computer.

The complete control of the Ruby Princess incorporates radars, electronic charts, and the track pilot autopilot system, all controlled from the large screens in front of the navigator with controls for the engines and thrusters. The thrusters allow the captain to enter a harbor and ease up to the dock sideways without the use of a tug boat.

Officers on Watch at the Con

Commodore Giuseppe Romano and WW
Officers on the watch:  The rotating watches begin at 12M and last 4 hours when a new crew takes over.

If you just want to watch a movie, the Ruby has Theater Under the Stars where you can watch a full length movie.  

One of our favorite acts that we've seen before is the Flamenco Express. These Spanish dancers made an impression on this Texan. MA bought one of their DVDs and they did a double take when they heard her speak Spanish like she does.

Well, that's about it.  Time to say Bon Voyage or better yet join us on our next cruise!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

London: Tour of Windsor Castle, City of Bath and Stonehenge and the flight home

Windsor Castle
Mary Alice had arranged this tour a long time ago through Trip Advisor. We were in London in 2010 and we saw much of the sights then and we had both been there before. So this time we decided to venture out of the city. 

She made arrangements for the tour bus to pick us up at the Hyatt and take us to the Victoria Coach Station where we met our bus driver, Adrian and tour guide, Rowan. The tour is offered by Evan Evans Tours in case you're interested in doing this. 

We left Central London, 50 tourists in a bus, and headed west to Windsor Castle. It was about an hour's drive in the morning traffic. We were given two hours to walk through the main residence of the Queen.  According to our guide the Queen spends the majority of her time at Windsor rather than Buckingham. Oh, she was "in residence here" as indicated by her flag on the rampart.
You can see the Queen's flag above us on the rampart.

Our first stop, security checkpoint and there were plenty of armed UK police around. 

After entering the castle grounds, you are issued a small audio guide that is programmed with all pertinent information.

Windsor Castle is the official residence of The Queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. It's been a royal home and fortress for over 900 years and it remains a working palace today. 

Looking at the number of fighting positions, the castle had substantial number of defenders and they were successful.

After going through the State Apartments, and seeing where ole King George slept we made our way outside where one of the friendly guards told us the changing of the guards was about to start.  We hurried down the hill to catch most of it.

Changing of the guard:  Windsor Castle....doesn't get any better than this, very British
Before boarding the bus we grabbed two sandwiches and chips for a "picnic" on the bus, next stop, Bath.

Bath, England is an old historic city dating back to the Roman Empire. The Romans discovered the rich mineral hot springs. The Roman baths were covered up through hundreds of years and found in the 18th Century. The hot baths and rich mineral waters attracted the wealthiest in England and the city of Bath emerged. 
I was impressed with Bath Abbey, a Gothic church build in 1500 on the ruins of a Norman cathedral. It took until the 18th Century before the church began to be rebuilt to its present structure. It was bombed and heavily damaged in 1942.  

Some photos of Bath Abbey:

We met some very friendly "Bobbies" in Bath. 

I should say the weather was fantastic. Even though it rained on us in Bath, we had sunshine in Windsor and Stonehenge. We departed Bath for a short drive to Stonehenge, the prehistoric rocks.

Here is the paragraph from the tourist's info map and guide to Stonehenge:  Stonehenge is an ancient temple aligned with the movements of the sun. The stones were raised 4500 years ago by sophisticated prehistoric people. English Heritage's project to transform the setting of Stonehenge returns a sense of context and dignity to this ancient marvel of human endeavor, leaving Stonehenge surrounded by grass and reunited with its ancient approach.

We were told that archaeologists and engineers attempted to move a rock similar to the ones you see from their source miles away. They thought the ancient ones used trees to roll the stones from a quarry to the site. The modern engineers were not able to budge it. How the stones got there remains a mystery today.

Our tour came to an end and we boarded the bus for the trip back to Central London.  The next day we would take a van to Heathrow Airport and United flight #5, nonstop to Houston.

May 13th, Tuesday
After getting aboard the newest passenger jet, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Mary Alice made friends with the flight attendant supervisor, Leigh Skinner. It turns out that Leigh was a Pan Am flight attendant as was MA. They bonded like sisters. 

Leigh gave MA a tour of the aircraft including the galleys, the crew rest bunks, and the electronic cabin control panels. She met most of the other flight attendants and then got to sit in the "jump seat". The captain even came back and introduced himself to us, thanking us for choosing United. Today in Houston he was kind enough to respond to MA's email thanking him for the warm welcome and sending him a photo we took of him. Turns out the Captain is from France and he told MA her "French" was "perfect". She's planning on print that for her French teacher!

Needless to say my wonderful wife was overwhelmed and very happy, almost to the point of tears. She sure didn't need an airplane to finish the flight back to Houston.  There's something special about Pan Am folks, that's for sure!

Here are some photos I took  on the 787 Dreamliner:

Cockpit of the 787
The captain invited us to come forward to see the cockpit after landing and gate arrival.  All in all, this trip was one of our best ever. We are very thankful to God for all of his blessing on us and watching over us as we travel. WW

PS:  We stopped at Susan's and picked up Tanner. He was so glad to see us. He's a happy dog. Thank you Susan for taking such good care of our boy. 

End of the Cruise: South Hampton, England and a bus ride to Central London

Churchill Hyatt Regency

The Ruby Princess arrived in South Hampton on Sunday, May 11th, Mother's Day.  One my veteran friends, Ron Jones came by Sat night with a rose for MA. She packed it in one of the suitcases and smuggled it into the UK. We departed the ship after breakfast, found our luggage, cleared customs and found our bus to London. The trip into central London took two hours and we soon arrived at the Victoria Coach Station.  We caught a friendly London taxi driven by Steve to the Churchill Hyatt Regency hotel near Marble Arch. We stay there using our Hyatt points. It was early afternoon, and we were tired. We chose to stay in rather than exploring London.  We were here in 2010 and we would be gone all day Monday on a tour.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Le Havre, France and a visit to Rouen, capital of Normandy

What do French teenage girls do? Same as American girls, they text on their I-Phones
Rouen's Notre Dame Cathedral

Our last port of call was Le Havre, the largest port in France located on the English Channel. We docked very early on Saturday morning because many of the ship’s passengers were leaving for Paris, on a one day excursion. That’s a 3 hour bus ride to Paris, a 3 hour tour around Paris and a 3 hour bus ride back to Le Havre.  That’s no way to see Paris. 
We’ve been there more than once and also to the D-Day Beaches which we saw last year, so we chose to take a shore excursion to the medieval city of Rouen, (pronounced roo-ah), home to one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe, the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  If you’re wondering if this is the same as the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the answer is no, it’s not! They are all named after Mary (Notre Dame) in France. 
The afternoon rolled around and we were soon packed into a bus headed for the one-hour drive alongside the River Seine.  It was pouring down rain, the kind that comes down sideways and we didn’t think this was going to turn out too well, but it did!
The Cathedral dominates the skyline of the city.  It is the epitome of the development of Gothic art starting back in the 12th Century. It was built on the foundations of a 4th Century basilica and an 11th Century Romanesque edifice.  The Vikings destroyed it in 841, then it was rebuilt and then bombed and partially destroyed by mistake by Allied bombers in WW2. Today it is in a constant state of restoration. The central spire is 151 meters high making it the highest in France.  Inside you’ll see the tombs of the Dukes of Normandy and another one containing the heart of Richard the Lionhearted.

I am always amazed at the height of the ceilings of these Gothic cathedrals. They just seem to go all the way up to the sky. Our walk through the old quarter included some other Gothic churches, also the Parliament of Normandy and the Court House. What we didn’t know was this part of France was actually a part of England in the 9th and 10th Centuries. It is very evident in the architecture in the houses in the old quarter.

I met two French policemen coming out of roll call and going on duty. One spoke English so I was able to introduce myself and show them my “badge”. They offered to take me on patrol with them but I had to decline because of time. It would have been fun.
Our guided walking tour concluded at the spot and church where 20 year old Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1340. She was a casualty of the Hundred Years War.
We all got some free time to talk around the city square and market on our own and enjoyed meeting a clown entertaining kids and tourists as they walk by.  It helps if you drop a coin into his bucket.
By the way, the driving rain stopped just as we rolled into the city, blue skies started to appear and in no time at all it was a beautiful sunny, if not crispy, day! However, it went by too fast and soon it was time to board the bus and back to the Ruby Princess.

Site of Joan of Arc execution

Tomorrow (Sunday) we arrive in South Hampton and depart by coach for Central London.  We are staying at the Churchill-Hyatt Regency near Hyde Park. Monday we’re doing an all-day tour going to Stonehenge, Bath and Windsor Park.  Tuesday we head home, nonstop on United, back to Houston and Tanner!

MA and our friend the Clown of Rouen

Rouen's Market

Some of the exterior facade of the Cathedral

One of my better photos inside the Cathedral

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bilbao, Spain and the Guggenheim Museum

MA in the Spider
Bilbao, Spain and the Guggenheim Museum
What a day Mary Alice and I had in Bilbao!  Our cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, docked around 7:30 this morning. We signed up for a tour which met at 9:45 so we had time to grab some breakfast at the buffet.  Then we grabbed our bags, camera and water and made our way to the Princess Theater. Our group was soon called and we were off the ship and onto a tour bus. The first stop of the day was the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art.
This is art?

The Guggenheim is a three story structure made from titanium and limestone rectangles. It is actually difficult to find a straight line on the exterior. I thought it was beautifully designed. I just have a hard time with what they call art. For example, there an exhibition called “The Matter of Time”. The art has eight sculptures which are 15 foot steel plates arranged in circles or waves. I guess you’re supposed to get an idea of what time is by walking through them. 

On the same floor was a room with a giant net with a cluster of plastic balls.  This art work was by Ernesto Neto who no doubt got rich from his creation.  There was an exhibit by Yoko Ono.  I should point out the art hanging from the ceiling on the foyer entrance. They remind me of a bull’s anatomy. I thought the outside sculptures were a lot more interesting; mirrored balls, chrome tulips and a giant spider. I hope you enjoy the photos
Architectural beauty
After the walk through the museum we met our group, boarded our bus and we made a quick drive to the “old city”.  MA and I elected to walk around by ourselves.  We found a neat cafĂ©, had some coffee and tapas (snack of cheese and bread). It was soon time to walk back and meet our group at the park. A short time later our bus arrived and we headed back to the ship.

One thing on this cruise is that we have made some great friends, new and from former cruises, mostly from the Veterans and Airline groups.  It makes you feel “at home” aboard this huge ship!

Old Plaza in old town
Outside exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art