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Copyright © 1995-2002 
Linda Coffman


Brilliance of the Seas
Northern Europe
July 18-August 3, 2002

by Pam Murphy - Part Five

Wed. July 31

Flam  

Sailing into Flam shows more of Norway’s majestic scenery. We see charming little villages nestled into the mountains and bathed in sunlight. Beautiful Flam is situated in the innermost part of the Sognefjord surrounded by high mountains, in the heart of Fjord Norway. The longest of all Norway ’s fjords, Sognefjord thrusts deep into the inner heart of the country, some 110 miles in length. With depths up to 4000 feet, it is truly the “Father of Fjords” – that special landscape feature of Norway left as a relic of ancient Ice Ages when massive movements of thick ice packs inexorably carved out an exit to the sea. Here, the sheer mountain walls climb twice as high as the 1500 foot width of this, the narrowest of all fjords, creating an almost permanent shade.

The tiny town of Flam is the most dramatic part of fjord Norway and as most fjord settlements, is quite small. It is a very busy town center with approximately 400,000 visitors each year coming in on the Flam Railway. Flam has been inhabited for approximately 8000 years and was first inhabited by hunters after the ice left the area. Flam is also a busy farming area – the first farmers inhabited the area about 3000 years ago, and most of the original farms are still in use. The most popular attraction in Flam is the Flam Railway – it is a masterpiece of engineering which stands out as one of the ten most exciting railway journeys in the world, providing panorama views to dramatic Norwegian mountain landscape. 

Today we are taking the Overland Tour to Voss, Tvinde and Stalheim. Our tour meets in the Pacifica Theater and there are more people waiting for tours today than at any other time on the cruise. This tour gives us the opportunity to experience the beauty and grandeur of Norway ’s unsurpassed vistas of snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, sapphire lakes, and fjords from both a motor coach and aboard the Flam Railway. Our tour guide is Astrid. Once again we have no air conditioning in our coach and it is again a very hot day!

We drive through some very long tunnels on this excursion. In 1880 tunnel building began – today Norway has one of the best tunnel building technologies and the world’s longest tunnel is in Norway. Many were afraid to take jobs digging tunnels because of the Norwegian belief in supernatural creatures (trolls) – it is believed that the trolls live inside the mountains and they feared hitting the trolls.

It is a short drive from Flam to Gudvangen, where we have a photo stop. Gudvangen is a ferry junction at the head of the Naeroy Fjord, a branch of the mighty Sognefjord. Our coach follows the Naeroy River and on either side of the road are the Sivle and Stalheim Floss, at the floor of the valley. Stalheim Floss, the waterfall, cascades 413 feet down the mountainside to flow into the Naeroy Fjord.

We proceed up the spectacular hairpin bends of Stahlheim’s Keivane, the steepest road in Norway, with Gudvangen at its base. We see piles of gravel coming down the mountain – these are man-made to direct a snow-slide away from housing but instead it directs it to the road which is also a problem. It is interesting to watch the cars and buses navigate this very narrow road when they need to pass another vehicle. In one instance a car has to back up around the bends in the road until there is room for it to pass our bus. Jim has noticed that with all of these mountains we have not seen one bit of graffiti (rather amazing considering the United States and other countries with their graffiti problems).

There is a stop at the Stalhiem Hotel for coffee and tea cakes. The hotel was built in the 1950s at the very top of the road – it is a lovely hotel with its collection of antiques.  There is a beautiful garden area and from here we are able to admire the tremendous view of the valley far below with a river running through it and waterfalls plunging down the valley walls. At summer’s end the waterfalls grow smaller since snow has all melted.

A photo stop is made at the Tvinde Waterfall, which cascades down the side of a mountain perched on a cliff overlooking the Naeroy Valley.It is believed that if you drink the water of this waterfall you will remain forever young. We are able to climb up to see this magnificent waterfall up close. There is a kiosk here where I stop to get us a couple of cokes -- $7 for two.  

Upon arrival in the heart of downtown Voss, a well known tourist town situated in a beautiful valley near Vangs Lake, we disembark our coach and walk a short distance to one of the many fine hotels for a traditional Norwegian Smorgasbord lunch (a hot and cold buffet). This center of Voss was heavily bombed during World War II and the only original building left is the Church. After lunch we have time on our own to browse around this lovely little town – Jim and I have extra time since we don’t bother with the lunch. Voss is approximately 39 miles from Flam – it is a small town which attracts many visitors as a major ski resort. Voss Church dates back to the 12th century -- it has an octagonal wooden tower and walls seven feet thick. There is a charge to go into the church. St. Olav’s Cross commemorates Christianity brought to Voss in the 11th century. The cross is the oldest relic in the town. There is a monument to Knute Rockne, a tribute to the great American football coach, who was born in Voss.  

We leave Voss by train (we won’t be returning to our coach), climbing up the Gaundalen Mountain Valley, passing through the Gravhalsen Tunnel on the main line. The train is stifling with this heat and I am ever so glad that I have a small battery operated fan with me. I learned that this is a necessary thing to have while traveling long ago – think I could have paid for the cruise with the number of people who wanted to rent it from me! Myrdal (means Flower Mountain ) is the junction on the main Oslo to Bergen Railway, and comprises only a few houses inhabited by employees of the Railway. At Myrdal we change trains and begin our trip on the Flam Railway.

The specially designed train takes us from nearly 2000 feet to sea level in less than an hour. The train is designed with five different sets of brakes, each one sufficient to stop the train as it winds its way down the 20 hairpin curves. During the descent, we are able to take photos of the beautiful valley and stunning waterfalls. We pass through many manmade wooden tunnels, which are snow sheds to protect the trains during inclement weather and also the longest tunnel, Nali (The Needle) enroute to Flam.

We stop during the journey at the Kjosfossen Waterfall, where we disembark the train for a brief photo opportunity. As we view this majestic and powerful waterfall, a woman appears in a long red dress and sings – this is the Hulder luring the men with her song (remember the half woman, half troll with cow’s tail under her dress?) This is a truly special experience!  

The train ride from Myrdal to Flam is a journey out of the ordinary. The scenery changes constantly during the trip.  High snow covered mountains, thundering waterfalls, and green pastures cover the valley floor. Ever since its opening in 1944, the Flamsbana has been an international tourist attraction, thanks to the wild splendor of its natural surroundings. Not surprisingly, this trip is said to be the world’s most beautiful rail journey. Twelve miles long with some 20 tunnels, rising to a height of 2845 feet, it represents an amazing feat in engineering technologically. The ride from Myrdal to Flam is 45-50 minutes, slightly shorter on the ascent and provides some fabulous views. We arrive back at the idyllic village of Flam at the head of the Aurlandsfjord.

We return to the ship and I can’t get into the shower fast enough – another very long and hot day but worth every minute of it. I loved today’s tour but I heard others complaining about it. I guess as with all things – there is no pleasing everyone!

After dressing for dinner I get all of my Norway purchases together along with my tax free forms and wait on line to get the tax refund. When you leave Norway, you must file your tax forms here – they can not be done at the last country you exit in Europe. There are customs people on board until 10 PM this evening – they will be removed by pilot boat. There was a long line but I think that if I had gone later it wouldn’t have been quite as long a wait -- I get a $60 refund so it is well worth the wait! Next I stop at the photographers to pick up today’s photo.

Tonight we have reservations at Portofino’s. Once again the meal is delicious – there is enough variety that I haven’t had the same thing twice. The service is also first class. We have a table for two at the windows and watching the scenery while sailing out of Flam is spectacular. After a lovely dinner, we go to the Pacifica Theater for a production show, ‘Turn the Beat Around’ – very enjoyable. Now I just bet you can guess what I did after dinner, can’t you? Yep, back to relax on the balcony – it’s a beautiful night and very comfortable for sitting out.  

Thurs. Aug. 1

At Sea

This morning it was very foggy when we got up at 9:00 AM, however, it seems to be slowly clearing so perhaps we will have a nice day. We have room service delivered, with bacon and eggs, pastries, rolls, coffee and juice – it may not have been great but it was warm and sure hit the spot.

I shower and dress and then decide to take a walk down to check out the shops – nothing left that I want. While there, we lose power – this happened a couple of times during the cruise but the power seems to be restored quickly – it supposedly has something to do with testing the engines.

Jim and I go to the Windjammer Café for lunch. I had a hot dog which was ok but the fries were ice cold. Nothing special in the desserts but as usual the cookies are delicious. This is my first lunch on board and I am less than impressed. What I do like at the Windjammer is that they pour lemonade and ice tea which is waiting to be picked up. This is far easier than having to go to a separate station to pour your own (as on other lines) when you are carrying a tray of food.

I return to the room to spend the afternoon reading on the balcony – there is a wonderful breeze and the sun is shining brightly and warm. I love it! It is nice having a couple of sea days to just relax especially on this particular cruise with so many full day excursions.

I set aside some time to start the packing – today seems to be the day to do it since tomorrow (our last day) we are in Amsterdam. Since this is a real day of relaxation I decide to treat myself to a nap, while Jim is busy trying to pack the remainder into his suitcases. I wake up to fog and the fog horn on the ship blowing – all visibility is gone but it is still mild out.

Tonight is formal night and we decide to have dinner in the room and not deal with the dress up thing. The show also looks like a good one to pass on. So today has turned into one totally lazy day and I enjoy every minute of it. I even get the chance to sit on the balcony this evening since the fog lifts a bit. We do finally get everything into our suitcases but when I tell you we are packed, I mean packed! The ships paper is on the bed and tells us to turn our clocks back an hour – so looks like we gain time.  

Friday Aug. 2

Amsterdam  

Well, after my day of rest yesterday I am up at 6:00 AM and raring to go. Amsterdam, the Netherlands' capital, is one of the world's best hangouts, a place where you can immerse yourself in history, in art, in the head of a beer or a self-rolled smokestack -- Amsterdam seems to thrive on its funky mix.

There are miles and miles of canals to cruise and hundreds of narrow streets to wander, almost 8,000 historic buildings to see in the city center, more than 40 museums of all types to visit, diamond cutters and craftspeople to watch as they practice generations-old skills--the list is as long as every tourist's individual interests, and then some. Amsterdam is a network of tree-lined canals bordered by rows of gabled houses and 17th century warehouses, making it an architectural treasure. The fascinating canals wrap around the historic city center in a series of semi circles, the oldest and innermost canal is the Singel, embracing the Dam Square area. There are ¾ of a million inhabitants which makes Amsterdam much smaller than many European capitals. Today Amsterdam has more canals than Venice, about 100, containing more than 60 miles of waterway and spanned by some 1000 bridges. On the eastside of the Amstel River, which cuts through the city, is the old Jewish Quarter, the Water Looplein with the flea-market, and the 12 year old Stopera (City Hall and Opera). The Westside of the Amstel River built in the 1700s for the working class, is now an enclave of boutiques, restaurants and artists’ lofts. 

We have time to relax since before our tour leaves for Volendam and Marken at 9:00 AM .  We have chosen this tour because we have been in Amsterdam before and have already seen most of the other sights. Jim goes up for breakfast at 7:45 and since I am all ready to leave for the tour and have time to kill, I decide to go down and see if I can book another tour for this afternoon. I stand on line at the shore excursion desk for a few minutes and look at the clock and am shocked to see it is 9:05 – how did this happen, I came down here before 8:00? I asked someone if this is the correct time and everyone tells me that it is. Find out that the clocks are changed tonight and not last night (when I changed ours) – great, we have probably missed our tour! Run upstairs to get Jim and we race to the Colony Theater where our tour group was to meet at 8:30. They call down to see if our bus left and it has. The girl with shore excursions is lovely and exchanges our tickets for an afternoon tour – we are not able to get the same tour since that one only ran in the morning. I am spitting  mad – think the notice on the bed last night was confusing – they did put the day number but I don’t bother to count which day of the cruise we are on. (Later in the day, I heard that there were other people who made the same mistake and missed their tours.) Now what do we do?  We decide to go into the terminal and buy a ticket for the shuttle into town – round trip $8 per person. Taking the shuttle is very easy and it drops us off only a short walk from Dam Square

We enjoy our stroll from the bus stop to Dam Square where we spend our time. Dam Square, once the central market square in Amsterdam, is where the original dam was built across the Amstel, giving Amsterdam its name. We return to the ship and have about an hour for Jim to get some lunch before we leave for our tour (the one replacing this morning’s missed tour). This is a walking tour of Amsterdam and a canal cruise.  Many of Amsterdam ’s sights are within easy walking distance from the city center. We have a short coach ride to St. Nicholas Church, which is situated opposite Central Station, where we begin the walking portion of our tour. The bus is extremely hot, has rattling noises and the microphone isn’t working, so that we were unable to hear our guide. There are two elderly ladies on our bus, both have canes and great difficulty walking – have no idea of how they are going to manage this. Fortunately, we are split into two groups and we are placed in a different group from these women. All I know is that we leave them in the dust.

The buildings in Amsterdam are built on steel and wooden pilings due to the marshy land. Many of the buildings are built on an angle (roof out further than the base) so that the rain doesn’t hit the front of the buildings. The buildings are very narrow due to the taxes being based on the width of the house. The gables are different on each house and have hooks on them – these are used for hoisting furniture up through a window to get it into the house -- one window can actually be removed for this purpose.

We pass many sidewalk cafes (think that everyone in Amsterdam is sitting at them today) and even one coffee house which is interesting, if nothing else. The coffee houses are places where soft drugs are sold and used – these drugs are not legal in Amsterdam but are allowed. This is the same for the prostitution in the Red Light District -- the tour does not take us into the Red Light District.

The major problem with this tour is that the cars and bikes have the right of way -- we can’t step in front of one thinking it's going to stop for us. When crossing the street, we have to watch out for trams and bicycles, particularly when we’re walking across a dedicated bicycle lane -- some cyclists will get unreasonably irritated if we should force them to crash into us. Walking in this city is taking your life in your hands – one woman was almost hit by a bicycle and I caused a motorcycle to stop making for a very angry biker!

We visit the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt), one of Amsterdam 's great spots. It's like a botanical garden that happened to go adrift on the canal. This is probably the best and certainly the most atmospheric place to buy cut flowers and bulbs.  It is filled with colorful goods spilling onto nearby canal barges and street stalls. The lively market, inviting sidewalk cafes and gift shops make it one of the most popular areas of the city. It is too bad that this is the last day of the cruise or we could buy some of these gorgeous flowers for our cabin. We were supposed to have a half hour at the market but we are running late so only have 10 minutes which is about enough time to run the length of it. The tour guide leaves and doesn’t count heads – wonder how many we lost?  Other than the flowers the other things sold are mostly junk – perhaps a half hour would have been too long?

We visit a superb collection of Dutch Masters in the Amsterdam Historisch Museum , housed in the restored 17th century building of Civic Orphanage. We see a porch dating from 1592 that used to be the entrance to the city orphanage and is now the museum entrance. The outer courtyard was for the boys; to the left are cupboards where they stored their tools. The inner courtyard was for the girls.  Schuttersgalerij is a magnificent gallery lined with 16th- and 17th-century militia paintings.  These paintings are of the old Guild Masters and to have one’s image painted there was a charge. We have very little time here,  there is only enough time to quickly walk past each painting and no time to actually look at it. Finally the guide counts heads and is quite a few people short – had a feeling that he lost people at the Flower Market. When he discovers that we don’t have our whole group he seems unconcerned. The walking tour is long and it is very hot out – the guide races and gives very little information so we really have no idea of what we are looking at.

We next board a glass topped motor launch and glide through the historic city passing elegant merchant’s mansions, churches and warehouses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The houses used to have crests on them to distinguish who lived there before the numbering of houses. The water-level view of the gabled canal houses and the picturesque bridges lends meaning and color to everything we see in the city. Amsterdam 's 17th-century Golden Age becomes a vivid reality as we glide through the waterways that were largely responsible for Amsterdam ’s years of prosperity. We view the canal houses from canal level, just as they were meant to be seen. This is also the best way to see Amsterdam 's large and busy harbor. We pass Central Station, the Harlemmersluis floodgates (used in the nightly flushing of the canals), the Cat Boat (a houseboat with a permanent population of more than 100 wayward felines), and both the narrowest building in the city and one of the largest houses still in private hands and in use as a single-family residence.  We also see the official residence of the burgomaster (mayor), the "Golden Bend" of the Herengracht (traditionally the best address in the city), many picturesque bridges, including the famous Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) over the Amstel, and the harbor. The tour also passes the Anne Frankhuis. There is a long line waiting for admittance to the house, where eight people from three separate families lived together in near total silence for more than 2 years during World War II. The hiding place Otto Frank found for his family and friends kept them safe until, tragically close to the end of the war, it was raided by Nazi forces, and its occupants were deported to concentration camps. It was here that Anne kept her famous diary as a way to deal with the boredom and her youthful jumble of thoughts, which had as much to do with personal relationships as with the war and the Nazi terror raging outside her hiding place.  

Westerkerk is nearby the Frank Family’s hiding place – these are the church bells that Anne wrote about hearing in her diary. The Renaissance-style Westerkerk (West Church) holds the remains of Rembrandt and his son, Titus, and is where in 1966 Princess (now Queen) Beatrix and Prince Claus said their marriage vows.

The canal boat is also very hot, with the glass top there isn’t much air circulating. This is not a tour that I would recommend – feel that a canal cruise can be easily done on your own for much less money. The ship’s shuttle drops you off near the canal boats.  Perhaps with a better guide the walking portion would have been more informative. On the other hand, Jim enjoyed this tour and feels that he saw a lot -- it is all a matter of opinion.

We return to the ship and I shower and do a bit more packing. We even find time to sit on the balcony with a drink as we sail. There is a message that our flight has been cancelled and that we have been booked on a new flight. Need to call the limo service to tell them of the change. We call information and are unable to get the number, so call a friend at home who graciously offers to call the limo service for us. Not easy to do these things when the calls are $7 per minute.

I now realize that the coke card was a total waste of money for me. I only used it twice – two soft drinks aren’t worth $60. The card is only for fountain drinks and not for the cans in the room from the mini bar. Most of the time I ordered drinks outside of the room they were alcoholic so not covered by the card – and the soft drinks I drank were from the mini bar.

We pre-paid our tips with our ship board account. When this is done, you are given gift certificates to give to the crew on the last day of the cruise. Since we haven’t eaten in the dining room, Jim asks if we can give the certificate to the waiters in Chops and Portofinos. We are told that the waiters in the specialty restaurants cannot accept them. Guest Relations credits our account for the tips and tells us to give cash to those we are tipping. They tell us that in our case it is not necessary to tip the dining room staff. As for the specialty restaurants we have tipped $20 each time we have eaten there which means that we are paying $60 rather than $40 to eat there.

Since this is our last night on board we go down for a pre dinner cocktail. Dinner is at Chops and tonight everything is just delicious – I order the lamb chops and am served two double thick ones. This is a perfect ending to our cruise – we have a window table to watch the ship sail through the channel out of Amsterdam and to watch the ship go into a lock to leave the channel and go into the open sea. There are many locals out to watch the Brilliance manage this maneuver. Return to the room, put our bags out and there is still time to sit on the balcony one last time. Of course, Jim meets his friends for their cigars!                

Sat. Aug. 3

Today we dock bright and early at Harwich. We are told to be in the lounge waiting at 6:00 AM. We are the only ones here for about 45 minutes – begin to wonder why no one else had to be out of their rooms this early. We all have color coded tags on our luggage and are called by color. We are finally called about 7:15 and leave the pier at 7:45. It is approximately 2 hours from the pier to Gatwick. I must say that Royal Caribbean handled the debarkation in a very organized way. They only let a certain number of people in to claim their luggage at a time which avoids mass confusion. Porters are lined up to assist us in collecting our bags. There are some very nice people sitting near us on the bus and visiting with them makes the two hours go quickly.

Once we arrive at Gatwick Airport chaos rules. There are no porters to help with the bags – only carts for us to use to transport our own bags to the check-in counter. We arrive at the US Air counter and hit a mob scene. No one knows where the line ends and there are people all over the place. We get on line and wait a good hour plus to check in. At one point one of the US Air personnel tells us that we need to go to a different counter to have our tickets changed since our flight has been changed. Rather than get off the line, I stay on line with our bags while Jim gets the tickets changed. The good news is that when we finally do check in there is no question about the weight of our bags. Two are overweight but all we need to do is take these bags to another conveyor belt for oversized luggage – no additional charge. Another problem is that the seating we had booked on our original flight was an aisle and window seat together (plane configuration is 2-4-2 ). Since we aren’t able to get seating for the new flight until check-in we are seated in the center section and Jim gets a middle seat. Once we knew our flight was changed we probably should have called the airline from the ship to get new seating – but at $7 per minute we chose to take our chances. The flight is very smooth and comfortable. Really enjoy the private screens at each seat where you have the choice of so many films and shows to view. I finish watching Shipping News, the film I started on the way over.

We arrive at Philadelphia Airport at about 3:30. Customs is a breeze – our only problem is that we had been to a sheep show and need to go through agriculture. They wanted to disinfect the shoes we wore. Ours are packed and I have no idea of exactly where they are buried in my overstuffed cases. Fortunately, when they realize that we were in stands watching and hadn’t touched the sheep we don’t need to give them our shoes. I will wipe them off with Clorox when I unpacked to be on the safe side.

Once through customs our limo driver is no where to be seen – was supposed to be here with a sign. Jim calls the limo company and they tell us that he is waiting in the limo parking lot and to wait for him to drive up at a certain place. We have 90 degree temperatures in Philadelphia and wait for over half an hour for him to drive up. I finally look and see him way down the platform with the sign. Once we find him, he has to go to parking lot to pick up the car. Have no idea where he was when we came out, since Jim looked all over the place while I stayed with the bags. They obviously lied to us about him being in the parking lot, waiting. Anyway, after about 45 minutes to an hour we are on our way home.

SUMMARY

It is difficult for me to compare this ship to others. In the past Jim and I have sailed on much smaller ships such as Silverseas’ Silver Wind, the Radisson Diamond and the Renaissance ships – comparing these ships to The Brilliance would be like comparing apples and oranges. The only similar ship that we have sailed on was the Ocean Princess which is my only base of comparison. I enjoyed the Ocean Princess far more – it seemed to me that it was less congested and had a nicer class of passengers. However, this really isn’t a fair comparison since we sailed on the Ocean Princess in January when school was in session – there were only two small children on that cruise. Even though the Ocean Princess is a very large ship it seems to be set up so that you have a small ship experience. One of my major problems with Royal Caribbean is the assigned seating in the dining room. Princess has Personal Choice Dining and also Assigned Seating for those who prefer it. Personal Choice is open seating where you go to the dining room when you choose and eat with whomever you choose. On this cruise I felt like we were forced into paying to eat a decent and peaceful meal. I would say that the buffets were about equal and I really can’t compare the dining room food since we only ate in the Brilliance dining room once. Room service on the Brilliance offered a more varied menu and what we did order was better. I’m not able to compare the specialty restaurants since we never ate at the one on the Ocean Princess. Both ships have a charge to eat at these restaurants but the Brilliance has a steeper price. Believe that the Ocean Princess charged $7-$8 per person as opposed to the $20 charged on the Brilliance.  

On the positive side the Brilliance has larger balcony cabins with much more storage than the Ocean Princess. Both ships have a wonderful staff that is very accommodating. Both have wonderful production shows. I feel the talent on the Brilliance is better but the choice of material on the Ocean Princess is better. Both ships offered three large production shows with the lavish costumes and spectacular lighting effects. The show schedule is set up differently on the two ships – shows only run one night on the Brilliance where two shows run simultaneously on the Ocean Princess and run for two nights. Both ships are very pretty – the Brilliance offers more, like the rock climbing wall and miniature golf course. We don’t use these facilities so this wouldn’t be a factor in choosing a ship for us. The Brilliance has the indoor pool (more attractive than any on the Ocean Princess) which is a very nice feature when in Northern Europe where it can be cold and rainy. I preferred the pool set up on the Ocean Princess – they had one large pool where most of the ship activities took place but also had two smaller outdoor pools which were not as congested – this is one of the ways in which the Ocean Princess was set up to give a small ship feeling. I can’t compare the organized activities which are offered on the two ships since we don’t take part in them. The casino on the Brilliance is far prettier but once again this is not something that we use. All in all, there were much longer lines and more waiting on the Brilliance. Also the tours on the Brilliance packed the buses to capacity, where this was never a problem on the Ocean Princess  -- of course this may not be the fault of the ship but of the tour companies used.

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