Underhill's Christmas Cruise Trip Report

Dec 15th, 2005, 05:18 AM
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Underhill's Christmas Cruise Trip Report

At present I'm in D.C., waiting to leave for California early afternoon IF the projected nasty weather doesn't throw a spanner in the works. I'll start the real trip report tomorrow, but just to whet your appetite let me say that flying business class on Austsrian Airlines is a small slice of heaven. My Dutch seatmate who travels widely rated it second only to the much touted Singapore Airlines, and I can only imagine what that might be like.

We had good weather all the way and returned here to beautiful snow; so thanks to everyone for crossing their fingers for my white Christmas.
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Dec 15th, 2005, 05:46 AM
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aggiemom
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Looking forward to reading all about it! Here's a prayer for good weather.
 
Dec 15th, 2005, 08:41 PM
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ttt
hopingtotravel is offline  
Dec 17th, 2005, 09:28 PM
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Looking forward to reading your report!
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Dec 17th, 2005, 09:44 PM
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Glad you had good weather! Looking forward to hearing about your trip!
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Dec 18th, 2005, 10:45 AM
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Hello Underhill, imagine you are now home and catching up on being gone. Isn't the weather terrible here. I just heard thunder so maybe we will have an electrical storm.

Hope all is well with you. I too look forward to your trip report.
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Dec 18th, 2005, 06:12 PM
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All is well except for the bad storm here--but better here than during my trip! Once the jet lag eases up I have to hit the cookie-baking trail, but I promise to post about the excellent rip as soon as I can. And I should have photos, unless my camera didn't do its job: it did NOT like the cold weather.
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Dec 18th, 2005, 06:19 PM
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No, no, Trip, not rip!

First off, about Austrian Airlines' business class: instead of a blanket you get a small eiderdown quilt, in purple, violet, white, and yellow. Then there's a huge fluffy pillow. Seating is extremely spacious, and the seats fully recline.

When Austrian eliminated business class on the Airbus 320 (I think) it looks as though the company just added some seats and left everything else the same. Food service was from a white-cloth-covered cart, and we even had a soup course (tortilla, no less), served from a silver tureen. No trays here! The plates for each course were individually prepared and offered, and the wine list was as good as we've had on American Airlines' international flights, which is to say very good.

The cabin crew wears classy outfits in bright red, and the crew are very attentive and eager to be of service--bit of a difference from U.S. carriers' personnel these days.

The food was excellent, but I'd give the nod to Am. Airlines because I'm not a big fan of Austrian/German food. Other than that, the flight from D.C. to Vienna was absolutely wonderful--and a lot shorter than from our usual West Coast departure.
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Dec 26th, 2005, 02:05 PM
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The trip began with a 3-day stay with a friend in Washington, D.C. We had snow the day before we were scheduled to leave, just as I had hoped. Leaving from Dulles wasn’t as bad as I’d expected; the mobile lounges beat the shuttle-buses at European airports any time.

Because of knee and back problems I flew business class. Grand Circle Tours had selected Austrian Airlines for the flight to Vienna, and never has a flight gone so quickly or so comfortably. Austrian’s business class feels much more like first class: seats that fully recline; big fluffy pillows; pretty quilts in violet, white, and yellow; and a very nice amenities bag. Flight attendants wear chic red outfits, making it very easy to spot them when help is needed. Food service was from a cloth-covered cart, with each plate served separately instead of on a tray. To my amazement we even had a soup course! My seatmate, a Dutchman who flies all over for Nokia, said that he’d rank Austrian second only to Singapore Airlines, which always gets very high marks in assorted surveys.

Day 1

Because the flight was a little over 8 hours instead of the 10+ from my usual West Coast departure, I arrived at the Vienna airport in reasonably compos mentis condition. We were met outside customs (which didn’t amount to much at all) by the Grand Circle agent and led outside for a fairly lengthy walk to the buses that were to take us to the river ship—that was the only downside of the entire trip, as there was no seating while we waited and waited for the buses to arrive.

Once on the bus we were taken directly to the dock to board our ship, the Adagio, the newest in the GCT fleet. We relaxed in the lounge while waiting for our cabins to be readied (the previous tour group had left only two hours previously), drinking wonderful hot chocolate from a mix made by Finesse. Then we learned that shuttle buses were going to be available for anyone wanting to visit the Vienna Christmas Market, something not on the original itinerary, and we jumped at the chance.

On the way into the city we got a brief ad-lib tour of the Ringstrasse before arriving at the town hall and the huge Christmas market, the largest of our trip. It included two stages for children’s entertainment and what must have been over 100 stalls. The weather was crisp and cold, and the sights and scents (especially gingerbread and glüwein) of the market evoked instant Christmas. I was especially taken with the stalls featuring hundreds of beautiful ornaments, as well as several with stuffed animals and even a St. Nicholas, complete with his bishop’s miter and crozier—that one went home with me for a young friend’s birthday. Then there were the sausage stalls, the bakeries, the pretzel-sellers, the wooden decorations and toys…a shopper’s heaven.

In both Austria and Germany it’s customary at Christmas for service clubs, such as Rotary, to man the glüwein stands at the markets, with the profits going to the organizations’ charitable causes. The stands usually offer gingerbread and other tasty treats as well, and customers can buy the souvenir mugs in which the wine is served. I didn’t try glüwein then, but we were served it on the ship a few days later—it’s red wine with spices, served hot, a little sweet for my taste.

We returned to the ship about 4:00 p.m. for a rest before dinner. That was a very good thing, as dinner consisted of 7 delicious courses, all served by an extraordinary team of young waiters directed by a superb maitre d’hôtel. That night we ate for America.
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Dec 26th, 2005, 02:21 PM
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Nice start, Underhill! Looking forward to more!
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Dec 27th, 2005, 11:01 AM
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Day 2

We had set sail early on the previous evening, during the night going through the first two of the 23 locks along our route. The first three locks range in height from 36 to 52 feet, and we were amazed by the small clearance between our ship and the sides of the lock—sometimes less than a foot. Waiting in the lock while the water rose to lift us up to the next level was rather like being gently rocked.

On the evening of Day 1 our group of 152 passengers had been divided into four teams; my friends and I were in the blue group, with a program director named Gerold. He was terrific—well informed in matters historical, helpful, pleasant—an all-around nice guy. I still miss him.

During the morning we cruised along the Danube through the beautiful Wachau Valley. Some of the landscape had a light dusting of snow, and the terraced vineyards were interesting to view. Also along the banks were lovely churches with “onion” domes and a number of castles. Quite a few houses had cheery Christmas decorations facing the river.

After lunch we arrived in Melk, where we disembarked for a tour of the historic town and 900-year-old baroque Benedectine abbey. I had learned before the trip that the Abbey had recently done major structural improvements (including a blessed elevator), paid for by the sale of the Abbey’s copy of a Gutenberg Bible to an American university. Melk Abbey was, by the way, partly the inspiration for the setting of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The Abbey is all white and gold, with marble floors and an enormous fountain in the courtyard—presently boarded up against the winter cold. In addition to housing 15 Benedectine monks the Abbey operates a day school for about 900 students from the region.

Following our tour of the Abbey we had a, thankfully, short organ concert in the very ornate church. I had opted for transportation in a minibus rather than climbing the 64 steps up to the Abbey, and the nice driver took us on a short drive through central Melk so that we could see all the Christmas lights.

Then another superb dinner, and so to bed.
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Dec 27th, 2005, 11:26 AM
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Day 3

Up early for another wonderful breakfast so as to get on the bus at 9:00 a.m. We were docked at the port in Linz, and people had the option of a half-day trip to Salzburg or visiting Linz on their own. Our group headed through snow-covered landscapes to Salzburg, a trip of about an hour and a half. I had been to Salzburg before and was glad—today the town was wall-to-wall tourists, including many Italians who had come up for Christmas shopping. The crush of bodies (many clad in furs) made visiting the sights difficult this time around.

After we arrived in the city we had an uninspiring lunch at a local brewery restaurant, the only uninteresting meal of the entire trip; we were already spoiled by the excellent chef on the ship. I had already learned that I couldn’t keep up with my friends and so decided to spend what time was left on my own, first visiting the Christmas market—my least favorite of the trip, as it was much more commercial than the others we visited and prices were considerably higher (We were told about the “Salzburg Premium” on prices in the town.) But I spotted a Villeroy et Boch store next to the restaurant and went quietly mad looking at all the beautiful merchandise. I bought a charming candle-holding clown and a beautiful red ceramic heart featuring eidelweiss, both for friends.

After my minimal shopping I stopped at the Café Tomaselli, which was Mozart’s favorite. The café was full, but I found a table occupied by a woman of about my age and asked if I could join her (the Austrian/German custom is to share). She turned out to speak very good English, and we had a nice talk over her wine and my hot chocolate. She too bemoaned the hoards filling the town and explained that it was partly because the previous day had been a Catholic holiday, making for a long week-end.

After my pleasant break I tried to find the shop where I had bought a lovely little ceramic clock back in 1989, but without luck. So after walking for a while and looking into what shop windows over other people’s heads I returned to the Mozart square and seized upon a very cold stone bench to wait out the hour until we were to return to the bus. By then the weather was becoming increasingly cold, but fortunately we had neither rain nor snow.

Gerold had bought a CD with Christmas songs on it, and we sang along with the music on our way out of Salzburg, back through the Christmas-card scenery to Linz and our waiting ship.

We were greeted again with hot chocolate, and after freshening up in our cabin we returned to the capacious lounge for our evening’s port talk. The port talks were given alternately by the four program directors and described the following day’s activities; those were spelled out on the sheets that were left in our cabin each evening when the beds were let down for the night.

About the cabin…we were on the top deck, which meant we had sliding doors that opened onto a small balcony. We didn’t make much use of it, given the weather (in the 30’s), but it was useful for providing fresh air when the cabin got on the warm side. The cabins have two beds that pull down from the wall; during the day those are made up into small sofas. Above the beds are two long shelves for storage, and under the beds are two-drawer units, one on each side of the cabin. There was a small desk with a mirror above, and between the beds was a round table topped with a poinsettia. The cabin doors were all decorated with Christmas stockings and ornaments, and each of us had a chocolate Advent calendar. The two-story reception area was decorated with a Christmas tree, and another held pride of place in the lounge. Yet another tree was in the dining room, and the library held four small, bare trees. We wondered about that.

Later that evening, however, we were all given 1 Euro to use for buying an ornament for our team’s tree, with the ornaments’ going home with their owners. Most people spent more, and the decorating became very competitive by our last day out. I noticed that the gold angel’s hair from the many Christmas table decorations was thinning as one of the trees developed a golden glow, and my friends and I decided that we had to find some of the material to take home with us.

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Dec 27th, 2005, 04:20 PM
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I'm enjoying your report - sounds lovely! I would love to do something like that. Problem is, being from South Florida, I would probably freeze. Maybe not, if I bought some winter clothes (which we never need here)!
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Dec 27th, 2005, 07:04 PM
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I'm really enjoying your report, too; I'd love to do this trip someday. It sounds idyllic!
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Dec 27th, 2005, 07:49 PM
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It was a very relaxing, enjoyable trip--you would really like it, grandmere. As for the weather, I invested in silk long underwear and felt the cold only in the cathedral in Passau (next installment). If you have a good, warm coat I don't think the cold would be a problem. I wore my loden coat (heavy wool; ankle length), but most others on the tour just wore heavy jackets. I didn't even wear wool pants! As long as you have one or two wool mufflers and warm gloves, you'd be fine.
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Dec 27th, 2005, 08:05 PM
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I'm enjoying your trip report. How did you find the quality of the on-board accommodations?
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Dec 27th, 2005, 08:28 PM
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We cruised almost the identical route with Viking in November 2003. This brings back great memories. Thanks for posting this. I'm looking forward to the next installment.
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Dec 27th, 2005, 08:28 PM
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Delightful report, Underhill! Looking forward to more!
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Dec 27th, 2005, 08:37 PM
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Enjoyed your trip report. Glad you packed your loden coat. Likewise enjoyed my time in Vienna market - the tram a huge bargain and great sightseeing adventure from my hotel. Mildred
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Dec 28th, 2005, 05:40 AM
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After reading your post last night, I went to GCT website and am not sure I could find your actual trip, Jean. I didn't see any for next Dec. Can you give me any more info about the name of your trip? Merci!

Sue
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