I go on an amazing cruise with Holland America Line around Europe.
(#AD This is a sponsored post as I was a guest of Holland America Line, but all views are my own)
I was lucky enough to be invited on a press trip, in the summer, aboard Koningsdam, one of Holland America Line’s newest and most innovative ships. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend 13 days on a ship (always a ship when it comes to cruising, never a boat!) visiting nine different places in Europe (Rome, Croatia, Montenegro, Corfu, Italy, Sicily, Malta and Naples) but it was SO amazing that for the first time in my life I am actually contemplating booking, and paying for, a cruise with HAL next year! Here are a few of my highlights……..
First stop after a fabulous day at sea, Dubrovnik. A destination suffering from over-tourism but, fortunately, I was forewarned by a friend who suggested I head straight off to the beautiful island of Lokrum. (Thank you Mary, it turned out to be one of my cruise highlights!)
Dubrovnik is beautiful, photogenic and full of history, with walking the City Walls on everyone’s agenda. It was heaving and hot so I passed on the Walls walk and went straight to the ferry port, passing beautiful shady cafes, shops and buildings on the way.
Top tip: you can’t pay for the ferry to Lokrum with Euros (and many other things in Croatia) but they do change your Euros into Kuna in the nearby local restaurants and bars, weirdly!
Lokrum is a Nature Reserve and an absolute gem. It cost about 150 Kuna (15 Euros) and was just a 10 minute boat ride away. And just look at that water……..
You can wander around the tiny island completely shaded by pine trees, spot peacocks and bunny rabbits all over the place, visit the monastery, sit on the Iron Throne, from the Game of Thrones, and relax in one of the many cafes. (You can’t spend overnight there.) I met an Australian couple (from the cruise) in one of the cafes and complained that I had forgotten my swimmies. They had forgotten theirs too and pointed me in the direction of a nudist beach they’d been to! There, I met a very naked Englishman called Benedict who helped me down the rocks! You can just see him waving in the photo below. It was delicious swimming in the buff in that gorgeous water.
Top tip: don’t forget your swimmies, don’t tell too many people about this lovely Island, but do go for the day if you’re staying in Dubrovnik!
So, my first independent excursion turned out to be one of my cruise highlights. The next stop I must share with you, because it was so special, was Split in Croatia. Here I went on an actual excursion and although I do hate being herded, I really loved this organised trip. I thought it would make a nice change to go to the countryside and visit a traditional Dalmation house in Srijane, to see how they make their own olive oil, bake bread the old way and have a delicious typical local lunch. Bobo and his wife were fantastic hosts and he even pointed out another Game of Thrones location on the way back to the ship (not that I’ve ever seen it!)
I loved what I saw of Split so an island off the main coast will be on my must re-visit list following the cruise. Come to think of it, any island in Croatia would do. I couldn’t stop swimming in that beautiful, clear, blue warm water!
Our next stop was Rijeka, Croatia, pronounced Ree-eka, a new destination for cruise ships and the European Cultural Capital in 2020 and, so far, pretty free from mass tourism. I just loved the architecture and, in places, the buildings had a bit of a St. Petersburg look to them……..
I enjoyed this lovely city with one of my blogger friends, Linda of Linda On The Run, from the press trip, where we posed in front of as many interesting doorways and gates we could find! We did enjoy our ‘photo shoots’ and there were plenty of shops to peruse too (the first time I saw the big chains such as Zara). Can’t wait to see what they do in this architecturally fabulous city in 2020.
Then we hit Italy and I have to say Trieste proved to be another of my port highlights. It was Sunday so lovely and quiet, traffic-wise, but with lots of the shops and a lovely market open. It was the only place on the entire cruise where I saw loads of people with their dogs! In fact, the pharmacist we were chatting to told us he calls it the City of Dogs!
This was an 11.00 pm departure for the ship so gave us lots of time to explore, photograph the endless prettiness and do a bit of shopping. I loved the late departure and the easy disembarkation at Trieste as you just walk straight off and you’re there…..no need to take a shuttle bus or a tender to get to port which gives you enough time to amble, go back to the ship for lunch or a siesta, and then out again for more ambling! There were great excursions from there too, including Venice, but as I had visited all on offer but had never been to Trieste, it was a pleasure to spend time in this delightful city, beautiful by day and beautiful by night.
Leaving a port at night was another one of my “why I love cruises” highlights, especially a city as beautiful as Trieste.
And another port of call that delivered one of my cruise highlights was Catania in Sicily. Most passengers headed off to Mount Etna, which I had been to before, so I went off to Taormina on an excursion bus. Wow, what an amazing town on top of a hill, and just look at those views.
I absolutely loved it there and it is now on my list to return to for a long weekend! Beautiful beaches, independent shops galore (I bought a bra there!), restaurants & cafes with stunning views, an amphitheatre with views of Mount Etna in the distance, plus a lovely breeze! What’s not to love.
And staying in Italy, our next stop was Catania in Sicily. I haven’t got one photo of Catania - it was a bit of a dump - but most headed to Mount Etna, which I had been to before, so I headed to Taormina on an excursion bus. Wow, what an amazing village on top of a hill, and just look at those views. I absolutely loved it there and it is now on my list to go back to for a long weekend! Beautiful beaches, independent shops galore (I bought a bra there!), restaurants & cafes, an amphitheatre and Mount Etna in the distance and a lovely breeze! What’s not to love!
And this is why I want to go back. A long weekend in a boutique hotel with these views would do me fine!
Another new destination for me was Malta. It was a bit too touristy and British for me (I even saw an M&S and Boots from the hop on and off bus!) but Valetta itself was just gorgeous so I made the best of the lovely warm temperatures at night, and the ship’s late departure, and met up with friends from England who just happened to be on holiday there!
Our last stop before heading back to Rome was Naples. This was the day I decided to stay on the ship and enjoy it’s facilities and to do some filming. It’s a popular destination because of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast but, as I have visited both places before, I felt ready for a change of pace and a bit of a chill. I got off the ship first thing in the morning to get a few snaps but it was stinking hot so I was soon back “home.”
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m not a big one for excursions and tours but whether you like going independent or really prefer being taken to a place with a guide, there’s something for everyone. I met passengers who didn’t go on one excursion and others who did at every single port! Sometimes a bit of both. The choice is immense, they’re not cheap (no different to any other cruise or hotel and our weak pound and the Aussie’s weak dollar certainly doesn’t help) but they’re very well organised and on the few I took I never felt herded getting on and off the ship. It was a breeze with our electronic cards and HAL also have an App for smart ‘phones reminding you of your planned trips and where to go to disembark. Very useful.
Excursion-wise, I have one big regret. The day trip from Trieste to Ljubljana & Lake Bled sounded and looked amazing and I really suffered from FOMO when I saw one of the blogger’s photos. Thank you to cruise expert Ben Souza for this fabulous shot of Lake Bled. I may have to go back to Trieste one day and do the trip from there. As an aside, Ben has been on over forty cruises and he rated this HAL Koningsdam ship way above most. You can read his take on all things cruise on his site, Cruise Fever.
So, just a few of the many port visits we made….. some new to me and some old, and a few I really want to go back to. For passengers, especially those coming from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand a cruise like this is a wonderful way to see as much of Europe as possible without any of the transport, travel and hotel hassle - all that packing and unpacking every couple of days - and it’s way cheaper than it would cost any other way plus you wake up to a different view each and every day!
But I also really enjoyed the days at sea and could have done with a couple more I loved it so much! There was nothing better than waking up to that beautiful blue Adriatic or Med and planning my day, even if it was just sitting on my balcony with a good book!
Yes, Koningsdam does seem a big ship, holding some 2,650 passengers and 1,036 crew, but there are many cruise ships with twice that capacity and, as you’ll see, I never found it too busy or crowded and could always find a quiet area, much like any big 5 star hotel - except this one is a floating 5 star hotel and costs a hell of a lot less!
Now, let’s take a tour of the ship (there’s also a short video at the end of the blog for you to have a quick whizz around) starting with my cabin and those views…….
…….this is what I loved about my balcony state room: the balcony for starters; the cabins are so quiet, you can rarely hear your neighbours; the beds are very comfy; the shower’s powerful; there are plug-in sockets all over (better than my own home) making my Instagramming life so much easier; the best air-con I have ever had, it was never too hot nor cold; coffee being delivered to my cabin every morning; a motion sensor so you don’t trip over at night going for a wee; great movies on TV and loads of hangers and space. Oh, and that daily changing view!
Although the cabins aren’t the size of 5 star hotel rooms, obviously, everything has been thoughtfully designed. I couldn’t fault a thing, apart from the wifi, the less said about that the better! Don’t expect to stream in the middle of the sea, it just doesn’t happen on any ship. But it was fine for emails and Instagram etc.
Now the rest of the ship……...
……..on the embarkation day I literally walked from the top deck (10), where I found another pool for smokers & adults only. A lovely find if you smoke! And a word about children, there were families with kids on-board, completely dispelling the myth that cruises are only for pensioners, but I rarely saw them as they had their own amazing play area: Club HAL for children and The Loft for teens, and the few I met were just lovely. Ship life seems to induce a really happy and chilled mood, even the kids, that you rarely experience in a large hotel.
The walk-ways were always un-crowded, even on sea days, and on that first day I found a relaxation room where you can just lie down, listen to tinkly music and watch the world go by……
The interior of Koningsdam has been beautifully designed and has a musical vibe throughout with examples such as a 7.5 ton harp-like stainless steel sculpture, for the ship’s central atrium staircase, seen below. Each deck is named after a composer (I was on Deck 5, the Gershwin Deck, and often walked up and down the stairs looking at the art and photography instead of taking the lift/elevator.) The art on the walls is as good as you’ll find in a museum, art gallery or the Ritz-Carlton, and probably worth as much.
Carrying on with the musical theme, if you love live music, which I do, this is the perfect ship for you. You won’t find all singing and dancing huge productions on the ship as they’re moving away from the old-fashioned big shows and into more “cultural” entertainment. There’s even talk of TED Talks coming which makes me very excited! Oprah Winfrey has also held events on Koningsdam, so it bodes well for even more cultural cruises.
There’s plenty more entertainment and things to do in the evening: from shopping to gambling in the Casino, to our evening addiction the Trivia Quiz and Happy Hour. (Drinks are an add-on but during Happy Hour you get your second drink for $2 - very tempting!) Thank goodness I could work it all off by dancing……..
From the B.B. King’s Blues Club to my absolute favourite, the Rolling Stone Rock Room, you can dance your socks off every single night or just sit and chill listening to a classical ensemble.
Apart from the entertainment, there’s plenty more to do on-board: from Morning Stretch & Meditation to health talks and tech lessons. Pictionary to ping pong. But for a real spa experience, Koningsdam’s Spa and Gym were second to none and another of my highlights. The gym was packed on sea days, just proving again that cruises are no longer just for doddery pensioners. The Spa was my idea of heaven, despite it costing extra (around $45) but it was open late so you could spend a whole day and evening there enjoying the steam, sauna (there’s also a free sauna nearby), the fabulous hydro-pool and the relaxation room. I had a mouth watering $184 facial but it would probably have cost the same in a posh hotel and there were much cheaper treatments available. Again, the weak dollar/sterling exchange didn’t help!
And if that’s all too healthy for you and you like a drink….. there are some great mixology sessions on-board, from martini sampling to cocktail mixology. We went to Blend, the first wine blending session on any cruise ship, and I am proud to say that my mix of two Merlots got the nod of approval from the sommelier. It cost $47 for the session but was worth every dollar as learning to blend wine was a blast and I got to keep my bottle, called Suzi’s Smooth (it was that smooth!), which then followed me around for the rest of the week, wherever I was eating that night!
And talking of eating………. the food on-board was incredible!!!!! I’ve been on three other cruises a long while ago (doing nutritional work-shops) and got so frustrated by the lack of “healthy” food that I took to growing my own alfalfa sprouts in my cabin! On Koningsdam, both the food included in the price of this cruise and the speciality restaurants were the best, the most varied, and the healthiest I have ever eaten on a two week holiday, anywhere……and compare favourably to a 5 star hotel. The main casual restaurant is the Lido Market where I ate most of my lunches as well as some of my breakfasts……just look at the view as I munch on my awesome omelette.
Apart from the amount of Prosecco I drank (I had one night off!) I didn’t put on much weight because I could eat healthily and do my 10k steps a day on-board. I could have sushi and an enormous green mixed salad every lunchtime if I wanted to. And if you are vegan or vegetarian, there are plenty of options as well as fabulous desserts and joints of meat and steak, if that’s your thing.
Koningsdam is also very hot on hygiene and does not have a self-service buffet anywhere. You ask the staff for what you want so the passengers don’t ever touch the food on offer. And, as you enter the restaurants, there are electronic hand washers that would make any operating theatre proud.
Another option, if you want table service, is the Dining Room. Set on two levels it’s huge and more formal with white linen tablecloths, waiters and an extensive menu. As a group, we met there for dinner a few times to have a catch up and the food was always excellent, quick and my travelling wine always found me!
As I was on a press trip, we were very spoiled and upgraded to Club Orange. (Did I tell you the ship is Dutch flagged hence the orange theme?!) This cost an extra $50 a day but, in hindsight, if I was paying for the cruise it’s worth the extra as you get that VIP treatment that just makes life even easier: priority access to all the speciality restaurants (more about these coming up); dedicated Club Orange Guest Services (which meant little queuing); quicker disembarking and embarking; private behind the scenes tours; (you can visit the Bridge and the kitchens) and, best of all, a dedicated Club Orange restaurant for a leisurely breakfast or dinner.
Apart from the aforementioned restaurants, included in your cruise price, there is also an excellent choice of speciality restaurants, that you pay for. We were lucky enough to be taken to them all but as it was difficult to take photos at night, that would do the food justice, I’ll just cut to the chase: The Canaletto for fabulous Italian, The Pinnacle Grill for meat eaters with, I hear, the best steak in town, The Tamarind for the best Asian, including sushi to die for, and my absolute favourite after the Tamarind just has to be Rudi’s Sel der Mer specialising in fresh fish. It was f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s! (A lot of the food on-board is bought at local markets at port stops so you know you’re eating fresh, local vegetables, fish and meat).
So after all that eating and drinking, some gentle exercise was definitely called for and completing my 10k steps a day, around Deck 3, was another of my absolute highlights on-board. Round the deck three times is the equivalent of nearly 2 kilometres so, even on sea days, I could easily get my 10k steps done……magical in that warm air with a gentle sea breeze and views to die for. I even heard a stowaway cricket on a few nights - poor thing, he was so lost at sea!
Finally, it was the little things that made my cruise with Holland America Line so fantastic that I can’t wait to go again. From reminding passengers what day of the week it is to the towel art in my cabin every night it’s the little touches that make a holiday, I’m sure you agree.
And the staff, how can I not mention the staff? From calling me to check that my breakfast was ok, despite only having coffee, to getting my laundry done in less than 24 hours, they were the friendliest, happiest crew I’ve ever met.
There are too many to mention but I have to mention Mary for her constant cheery helpfulness, Thomas for making sure I got my favourite breakfast in my cabin of yoghurt, walnuts and banana, despite it not being on the breakfast menu, and the wonderful Captain Werner Trimmers who always went that extra mile. From making sure the ports weren’t too busy with other cruise ships, even changing the schedule if they were, to stopping Koningsdam right opposite Stromboli so we could witness the volcano spewing its dust, and then turning the ship around so passengers on the other side (starboard) could get their photos, nothing was too much trouble for the Captain.
A 13 day cruise is a long one for me but for folk flying in from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, I can’t think of a better and more cost effective way to visit the best Europe has to offer. It would cost way, way more to hire a car, book hotels, and see all those destinations in 2/3 weeks.
And talking of prices, the best advice I can give you is to go and look on the Holland America Line site, click here, where you can check out the many cruises HAL does all over the world. And talk to your travel agent as they can often get a really good deal for you as well.
I think you’ve realised by now how much I enjoyed my HAL cruise, especially only unpacking once and waking up to a different view every day; the food and choice of cuisine; the ease of everything and the service on-board; the comfort of my cabin that was so well-designed that I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it, unusually for me! (Oh yes, I wish the balcony doors didn’t close automatically behind you, it’s probably a safety thing!) But most of all I loved walking around the ship day or night and seeing nothing but the sea, the sky or a stunning new European city. What’s not to love?
I leave you with views from Koningsdam that I will never get out of my head and a short video tour round the ship follows…….
Finally, I must say thank you to the Holland America Line and, in particular, Sally Andrews from HAL for arranging the best press trip ever! I will be back! And a big thank you to Gransnet for sending me in the first place!
I would be so interested to hear if you love a cruise or are thinking of going on one now. And if you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them. And well done if you’ve got this far! It’s probably the longest blog I have ever written, I’ve omitted lots of the other places we visited otherwise we’d be here all night! If you’ve still got the energy, here’s a short video showing you on-board life…….