We actually began our tour in London, by boarding a Southampton-bound train from Waterloo Station.  The British rail system seems to get a lot of bad press, often from natives who use it a bunch, but as far as we are concerned, it is unsurpassed.  The trains run regularly and often, are generally on time and are reasonably priced.  Of course, I am comparing it to what we have here in Southern California.  Here, there is basically nothing to compare to the British rail system.  You can be anywhere in England and go anywhere else in a relatively short period of time. 

I defy anybody coming into LAX to get out to Palm Springs in less than 4 hours, even with a car.  And Palm Springs is only about 100 miles from LAX.  If you don't have a car, as many tourists won't, the situation is far, far worse. 

But in England, you can go from Heathrow International to Southampton in just a couple of hours, and never get in a car.

So, we heaved our luggage onto the train and set out.  How do people travel light?  We have tried, but never fail, our luggage would cause a packmule to give out.  This time was no exception, but I am blaming it on the fact that we had to take dress-up clothes this time. (More on that later.)

In any event, we got on the train, then off again at Southampton.  A ship had come in, so cabbies were making a mint by taking one group of people from the ship to the trains and another group from the trains to the ship.  According to our cabbie, some days there were no ships, others there might be as many as four or five.  This day, one in and the same one out.  The ship in question ws the Sea Princess.

Once we turned in our luggage to the porters, made it through the line for checking our tickets, checking our passports, checking our room assignment, checking our temperatures, and made it to the waiting room, we got our first view of the ship:
The ship...

Yep, it's what I have learned to despise.  A floating shoebox.  There was something about the old oceanliners that was amazing.  And the new ships lacked that soul.  That was the problem.  I perceived the new cruise ships as lacking the character and soul of the older ships of the line.  Having been on one of these floating shoeboxes, I can now say that the following:  They are only floating shoeboxes from the outside.  From the inside, the ship is pleasant and does have a certain character.  It might not rival the Queen Mary or the Olympic, but it is quite nice.  I take back everything I said about them.  I enjoyed my time on the Sea Princess.  I recommend a cruise to anybody and everybody. 

So, we eventually got to get on board the ship.  I must say, it is really nice on board.  The staff is friendly, helpful and eager to please.  We found our room on B deck, room 731.  The first thing I found upon entering the room were the following two items:

Chocolate-dipped strawberries....
Dom Perignon certificate
For those of you who can't read microscopic print, this is a certificate for a gift sent by somebody to me on the ship.  In this case, it is for a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne.  Sheila and I have always wanted to indulge in a bottle of the stuff.  Sheila figured that this was the appropriate time, so she ordered a bottle as a special surprise for me.  We just had to figure out when to redeem it... (more on this later.)

Having stowed our luggage, we decided to explore.  At 848 feet long, and weighing in at 77,499 tons, this ship is large, with space for over 2,000 folks.  You could wander around for hours and not find everything that is available to you.  We did notice a few things we thought were interesting:

bringing in the flags
Those pretty flags don't fly all day long.  At one time they served the purpose of inter-ship communications.  Now, they seem pretty much to be decorative...

big screen
It seems that we have been in London for Wimbledon for the past five or so years.  We are not big tennis fans, so we really don't pay much attention.  However, there are those that follow the sport, and the Big Screen was set for those folks, so they would not miss a single volley.  At other times they used the screen to show movies, various sport and news shows. 

Then we left port.  For those of you familiar with "The Love Boat" where the ship left in a cloud of confetti and a massive mat of streamers, let me set the record straight.  Docks are not pretty places, and the only people near the docks are the dockyard employees.  Perhaps in the old days, before 9/11, there were lots of people there to see you off.  Today, that is not the case.  The lines holding the ship fast are dropped and the ship begins to move out, with no fanfare...

Then, disaster strikes!!!!!!!!
To your lifeboats!

Well, no.  Since April, 1912, regulations have been in place requiring several things. #1, there must be lifeboat space for every person on board.  #2, Every passenger must have an emergency muster drill before leaving sight of land. #3, staff must be fully trained to assist passengers in evacuating the ship.  Five bonus points if you can guess which ship disaster led to these rule changes. 

After a bit more exploring and running about, it was time to go to bed.  After a good night's sleep, we arrived in the Netherlands, and began the trip up the canals to the city of Amsterdam. 


Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level, they take keeping the ocean at bay very seriously.  While we were enjoying the tasty breakfast buffet, we were in the locks, slowly adjusting our altitude to match that of Amsterdam. 
breakfast remains
There is quite a variety of food on board.  It is hard to eat it all, and as it turns out, you probably won't want to eat it all.  However, we did try.  The promenade deck on these ships were set up just so you could burn off all the calories you take in at the restaurants.

After breakfast, Sheila found a lounge chair and decided to relax for a bit and watch the Netherlands go by.
Sheila on a deck chair
Relaxing is second only to eating on one of these ships.  On sunny days, it was common to see lots of pallid english flesh slowly turning the shade of red generally reserved for fire trucks.

As we came into Amsterdam, I was savagely attacked.
Ladybird strike!
Beetles are generally weak fliers.  Here we are, hundreds of feet from land, and 60 feet above the water, and I get slammed in the side of the head by this ladybird beetle.  I have to admit, I have a bit of respect for this little fella.  He managed to make it out to the ship and whang me in the side of the head.  He then bounced to the deck where softy me carefully scooped him up, to make sure he didn't get hurt.  After about 15 minutes, my friend flew away.  I hope he made it to land.

This is an elementary school in Amsterdam:
Talk about bright colors!
If they could get it to flash, every kid would have seizures!

And here is our house:
our house, in the middle of a canal.

The people who failed to inform us that this was our house and let those people live there will pay dearly when we find them.

While the send-off from Southampton was nothing special, Amsterdam made up for it a bit by sending out a fireboat to greet us.
squirt, squirt!
The docks are next to a small island.  In years past, the ships had to go past the island, execute a tight turn and come into port.  Then they built a bridge from the island to the mainland.  If you look at the picture of the elementary school, you will see the bridge.  Because of this, it is now impossible for ships to go around the island.  What to do?  Well modern ships are equipped with special propellers that push sideways through the hull.  These thrusters come into play at this moment.  The ship pulls just past the island, comes to a halt and executes a slow pirouette in the water.  Now pointed in the right direction, the ship pulls into port.


Amsterdam is interesting, to say the least.  However, it was not the really cool place we were expecting.  As Sheila put it, it is like Berkeley, California, but without the intellect.  The city center, where we spent a lot of time, is a bit grimy.  It was a bit more foreboding than other city centers we have been in.  It does not feel unsafe or anything like that, just... disreputable.  However, parts of it are really pretty, and if you can get out of the heart of the city, (Something we could not do on foot in just a few hours) you will find a great deal of beauty. 

There is a lot to say that is good about Amsterdam.  For one thing, they are not nearly as dependent on cars and oil as we are.
lotsa bikes!
There are many, many, many bikes in Amsterdam.  They have their own sections of the roadway and are every-frikken-where.  Saves a lot of gas, that's for sure.

One thing that the Netherlands is known for is its flowers.  If you go outside Amsterdam, it is possible to see immense fields of them.  Inside the city you will find flowers, but not nearly in the profusion outside the city limits.  However, if you go to the blooms market, you will find dozens of vendors eager to sell you a bit of color.
Sheila at the blooms market
Here we see Sheila in front of a typical stand, selling a zillion kinds of flowers.

A tip for American Tourists:  If you want to buy tulip bulbs, make sure you buy the ones that are labeled for export and have the laserfoil stickers from the government.  If you don't, they will be confiscated at the airport when you come home. (We did not have a problem, but the Agriculture guy at LAX did inspect our bulbs rather carefully.

Moving on into the city we come across the "Nieuwe Kerk", which means "New Church". It's about 500 years old...  But remember, that's younger than the Old Church!
New Church

The city of Amsterdam is built on canals, which form concentric rings around and through the city.  The areas around the canals are charming and generally well maintained.  An important thing to remember is that these canals are not merely doecorative, they are vital transport arteries in the city.  There can be a large amount of traffic on them at times, with many small boats carrying people and goods around town.


more canals!

even more canals!

Having said how busy they are, you will note that the pictures seem to show something different.  That's because we liked the calm, restful pictures of canals.  The busy ones were just too... busy.


The Netherlands are known for their food (Particularly certain cheeses) as well as thier flowers.  We found the Pancake Bakery and had lunch.  In Amsterdam, a pancake is not like what you would think if all you ever do is eat at IHOP.  It is rather thing, and large, and packed with an amazing variety sweet or savory goodies to tempt you.

I got the Apple pancake (sweet)
Apple pancake

Sheila got the Greenlander.
greenlander pancake
It is a savory pancake, with spinach, french Brie cheese and cashews, all of which I guess are staples in the average greenlander's diet.

After lunch, they gave us conversation hearts!
Of course, they were written in dutch, so it makes them a bit of a challenge to read.
conversation hearts
We did figure our two.  "Pret" means "ready" and "Nee" means "No".

And the restaurant itself.
Pancake bakery

Sheila, posing for a moment with the above restaurant.
Sheila at the pancake bakery

After lunch we found the Anne Frank House.  It was here that Anne Frank and her family hid for 25 months during World War II, to avoid being sent to the concentration camps.  Sadly, they were captured and Anne died in Bergen-Belsen. 

sheila at anne franks

The sign

Me at Anne Frank's

It was here that we saw our first Ugly Americans of the trip.  Some family had stopped to take pictures, as many, many people do.  We had to wait several minutes for the doorway to clear so we could pose by the sign, just as all the others were doing.  However, this one family was just obnoxious.  They were loud and annoying.  The worst part was mom and daughter.   The daughter had obviously taken some modeling classes, and mom appeared to be one of those pushy stage moms you hear about.  In any event, it became the daughter's turn to stand by the door. She poses. Like she's in an ad in some fashion magazine.  Not a cute pose, but one of those kinda slutty poses.  And to top it off, she's maybe 13 years old and dressed like Paris Hilton.  Now granted, this is a street in Amsterdam, but if ever there was a solemn place in the Netherlands, it would be here. 

Somehow I suspect this family really did not have much of a clue about the history of the area.

Here's another of our houses.  Once again, we were not informed...

I take a brief break to adjust my load.
Along the canal

So, finally, we got back to the ship.  We walked more than five miles around the city.  While we are fairly healthy folks, we did suffer a bit from shoe problems.  Sheila's feet were by far the worse for the wear.
Sheila's feet (ouch!)
When we were nearly done with the trip, we discovered an amazing foot product that cured all her foot problems and insured she would not get any more blisters.  Of course, we did not find it at the beginning of the trip, but at the end.


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