Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam. The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

May 6 – Istanbul, Turkey

After spending the majority of the day at sea cruising through the Dardanelles, we approached Istanbul from the west at about 3pm.  The approach into Istanbul was beautiful, and I enjoyed pointing our parts of Istanbul to my girlfriend, Aunt, and Uncle.  I previously spent time in Istanbul about a year ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Because of this, I really looked forward to returning on this trip.

We ultimately didn’t dock until around 5pm due to high winds, but when we did my girlfriend and I disembarked and walked into town directly to the Galata Bridge.  We had the fortune at docking at the cruise ship birth closest to the Galata Tower and Bridge, so the location was extremely convenient.  After viewing the fishermen from the Galata Bridge, we proceeded to the Egyptian Bizzare – or Spice Bizzare to see the sights, sounds, and smells of the place.  Overrun with spice merchants, vibrant colors and smells filled the air making for a pretty intense setting.  Ater this, we walked back across the bridge, and up the hill to Galata Tower for a panoramic view of Istanbul.  As the timing worked out, we were up on Galata Tower right around sunset, which made for some amazing pictures.

We then continued up the hill to the Galata area.  We explored the side streets full of bars and cafes, and came upon a few of the bars that I’d been to last year on my trip to Istanbul with friends.  We started back towards the ship before stopping for a Turkish dinner of kebab and Turkish pizza.  It was tasty as always.  We returned to the ship around 9:30pm where the ship was putting on a Turkish Bazaar dinner up on board – they really did a nice job with it though we did not partake.

May 7 – Istanbul, Turkey

This was a unique port of call for a cruise since we were docked in Istanbul overnight.  The overnight call aspect of the cruise was one of the most attractive features of the trip for us.   Having been to Istanbul before, I had a pretty good idea of a proper tour itinerary for my girlfriend, aunt, and uncle that next morning.  We decided to take the tram to the Sultanahmet stop – a short, ten minute trip (for €3 per person, each way).  Here, we toured the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Sistern Basilica.  Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free, but we did have to wait in line for about a half an hour before being allowed to enter and take pictures.  The view inside was amazing as usual, and  reminds me of the cover of my high school World History textbook.  Next, we walked over to the Hagia Sofia, but decided not to enter due to the massive line to get in.  Entrance would have been €10 per person had we decided to brave the line.  I did go inside the Hagia Sofia on my last trip to Istanbul, and in my opinion, it would have been worth the wait.

Alas, the rest of the group didn’t want to wait, so we headed across the street to the Sistern Basilica.  Entrance to the Sistern was also ten euros per person.  I quite enjoyed this last time, and I did on this trip as well.  It’s a dimly lit cavern full of water and yellow and red lighting.  We then proceeded to the Grand Bazaar, which was only about a ten minute walk from the Sultanahmet area.  As usual, the Grand Bazaar was utter chaos – not quite my cup of tea, but the ladies wanted to get some shopping in.  We took a quick break for a lunch of doner kebap before taking the tram back to the ship in time for our scheduled 5pm departure.  The sail away from Istanbul was simply beautiful as we passed Istanbul landmarks like the Galata Bridge, Topapki Palace, Hagia Sofia, and Blue Mosque.  That evening, we enjoyed appetizers in the room before our dinner at Tamarind — the specialty Asian Fusion restaurant onboard.

May 8 – Mitilini, Lesbos, Greece

We awoke the following morning off the shore of Lesbos – a Greek Island just off the west coast of Turkey.  The ship was anchored about a mile off shore, so we utilized the ship’s tenders to transport passengers into town.  Mitilini is a picturesque, Greek fishing village centered around a harbor.  It really reminded me of the harbor in Georgetown, Grand Cayman about twenty years ago before the high rise buildings.  The harbor is lined with cafes that turn into nightclubs at night.  Since Mitilini is apparently a college town, these seemingly sleepy cafes convert into a raging nightclub scene after dark (or so we were told).  We enjoyed several beers and shots of ouzo at a couple different cafes in Mitiline before and after a stroll down the main shopping / market area of the town.  The ouzo was a must since Lesbos is where the Greek drink originated!  We decided against an organized tour to another location or beach on the rather large island, and this port served as a leisurely break in between the two, tour-intensive Turkish ports of call.

May 9 – Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey

Kusadasi is one of two port cities used by cruise lines to access the ancient city of Ephesus.  It is the much closer of the two ports (Ismir), and it is only about a twenty minute cab ride from the pier in Kusadasi to Ephesus.  We arranged a cab at the pier as transportation to Ephesus for a total of €60, round-trip.  The drive from Kusadasi to Ephesus is very scenic, as you hug the rugged coastline for most of the 15km trip.  Upon arriving in Ephesus, we paid an entrance fee to the ruins.  The ruins themselves were spectacular.  The pictures below speak for themselves.  Highlights of the ruins included the Terrace Houses (extra entrance fee), and the Great Arena, which held up to 25,000 spectators.

After spending about an hour and a half at the ruins, our cab driver drove us back to Kusadasi, where we briefly walked through the town bizarre before having a Turkish lunch at Toros, right on the harbor.  The kebab lunch was fresh and delicious.

Kusadasi itself functions as a major beach resort town on the Turkish coast.  The coastline, the beaches, and water are beautiful in Kusadasi.  The Turkish coast as a whole is renowned for some of the finest beachest anywhere on the Mediterranean, and this is certainly a region to which I’d love to return.

Next stop:  Santorini, Greece…

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Katakolon and Athens

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.  The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

We sailed out of Venice in the middle of a thunderstorm, forcing us to relocate from the open decks at the top of the ship to the our balcony.  Though it was dreary out, we still had some beautiful views of the rooftops of Venice as we sailed out of the picturesque city.

May 3 – At Sea

The first full day on the ship was spent at sea.   After a breakfast of eggs Benedict on the balcony, I headed off to the gym and then to explore the ship with my girlfriend.  The rest of the day was spent lounging around while she enjoyed her spa treatments.  This was the first formal night, and we dined in the Pinnacle Grill — one of two specialty restaurants onboard.  The Pinnacle Grill is an upscale steakhouse serving prime cuts of meat and amazing appetizers.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent.  Others ordered the filet mignon, and I go to have a few bites.  It was simply perfect — one of the best filets I’ve had anywhere.  The cost of the meal is $29 per person, and this is WELL worth it, as a comparable meal on land would run well over $150 each.  We were pretty much beat after dinner, so we headed back to the suite after a couple of drinks in the piano bar for some good rest before the barrage of ports ensued the following morning.

May 4 – Katakolon, Greece

We awoke to breakfast being delivered in our suite just after the sun came up.  As the fog burned off, we watched as the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in the port of Katakolon, Greece.  This town is a small fishing village that serves as the hopping off port for Olympia – the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  Though several tours were offered through the ship, we opted to head to Olympia on our own.  We bought a round-trip train ticket from Katakolon to Olympia for €10 each and arrived in Olympia 40 minutes later.  Olympia itself is a cute, clean Greek town with a number of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and shops.  We walked through the town in the middle of a light drizzle to the entrance of the Olympia archaeological site where entrance was €6 apiece.  Here, we viewed the excavated ruins of the ancient Olympic Games.  The highlight of this site was the original Olympic Stadium where my girlfriend and I ran a lap on the original 440 meter “track” which more resembles a couple of dirt football fields back to back.

We were done viewing the ruins after about an hour.  Unfortunately, we still had about two and a half hours before our scheduled train was to leave.  So, we did the only logical thing – we hopped a bus that we thought may go in the right direction.

The driver spoke pretty much no English, but the only thing he could say was “Pyrgos.”  We knew Pyrgos was a city a little more than halfway between Olympia and Katakolon, so we hopped the bus to see how that would work out – the price was right, at about €1.20 each.  About 35 minutes later, we disembarked at the bus station in Pyrgos – a large, somewhat dirty town about 10 kilometers from Katakolon.  There was another bus to Katakolon an hour later, but we opted for a taxi, who thought he was Sabastian Vettel.  This guy was flying down the road at over 140kph, and had us in Katakolon in no time.  This was a great adventure to get us back to the ship, and was much more fun than the standard bus tour shore excursion offered by Holland America.

Upon arrival back into Katakolon, we found a nice restaurant called “Arhipelagos Fish Tavern” (this is directly from their business card, which may or may not have had a typo) right on the harbor where we enjoyed a lunch of gyros, fried cheese, greek salad, and a few beers (as well as free wifi).  This made for a great early afternoon before we headed back to the ship.  We enjoyed champagne and beer in our private hot tub on the balcony as the ship set sail from Katakolon — not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

May 5 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece

I awoke to the hustle and bustle of a very industrial port swarming with ferry activity.  This port – Piraeus is the port neighborhood of Athens.  Athens is a seemingly never-ending metropolis, and Piraeus is where the sea of white rooftops ends at the Aegean Sea.   We again opted against taking a ship-arranged tour, and set out on our own.  A cab driver approached us and offered a €20 ride to the Acropolis, which we thought was more than reasonable for the three of us.  After about a 20 minute ride through the lightly congested highways and streets of Athens, we arrived at the south entrance to the Acropolis.  We ascended the stairs to overlook the amphitheater, and eventually made it up to the famed Parthenon.  We walked all around the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, taking dozens of pictures of the recovered ruins and stunning vistas of Athens that were aided by picture perfect weather and blue skies.

Once we deemed that we’d seen enough, we walked down the north side of the Acropolis, stopping at a café  for a few beers in the Anafiotika neighborhood on one of the steep, narrow streets lined with cafes and restaurants.  This shady and picturesque street (Mnisikleous Str.) made for a great place to rest the legs, relax with a drink, and check up on e-mail with wifi.  We really enjoyed ourselves at Anafiotika over these couple of hours.  After this, we headed down to the main shopping area in Athens before stopping for a quick gyro lunch.  We decided to take the metro back to Piraeus since it was a straight shot (about 4-5 stops) and only a couple of euros a person.  The train station is about a twenty-minute walk from the ship, but that wasn’t a problem at all.  Upon arriving back in the room, we all crashed for an hour nap before enjoying the sail out of Piraeus into the deep blue Aegean Sea from the comfort of our balcony.

 Next port of call:  Istanbul, Turkey…

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Intro, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


The Nieuw Amsterdam on a rainy day in Venice

The Nieuw Amsterdam on a rainy day in Venice

We arrived at the Venice port on a rainy afternoon by water taxi from the Boscolo Venezia.  There in port was Holland America Line‘s newest ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Though I’ve been on dozens of cruises before, I was especially looking forward to this trip because of with whom I was traveling, the incredible itinerary, and the fact that we were booked in the Pinnacle Suite — the largest room on the ship!

As previously mentioned, my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to be invited on this cruise with my Aunt and Uncle.  They take a cruise every year and always invite me, but for some reason or another, I haven’t been able to go.  This year, the dates worked perfectly for my vacation, the cruise went to all new places for me (other than Istanbul), and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up — so we took them up on their offer!

This was my 34th cruise overall and fourth on Holland America, while it was my girlfriend’s first cruise of any kind.  My Aunt and Uncle have been taking about a cruise per year for the last decade, and it was their second trip with Holland America.  The bulk of my previous cruises were to the Caribbean and Bahamas, as this was my first cruise in Europe.

Itinerary

This particular cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam was a 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” itinerary.  As it was a very port-intensive cruise, we knew we’d need to savor the relaxation that comes with the at-sea days since other than that, it would be a non-stop parade of one port after another.

This cruise sailed us from Venice to Katakolon, Greece — a port city with access to Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympic Games.  The next day the Nieuw Amsterdam took us to Piraeus, Greece — the port city and access point for Athens.  The fourth day of the cruise included a morning cruising of the Dardanelles with an afternoon arrival in Istanbul.  A unique feature of this cruise was that the ship stayed overnight in Istanbul, and did not leave until the following evening, giving us a full 26 hours in one of my favorite cities.  The morning after leaving Istanbul, the Nieuw Amsterdam called at Mitilini on the island of Lesbos, Greece.  The following day was in Kusadasi, Turkey — a Turkish beach town and access point to the ancient city of Ephesus.  The next two days featured a stop in Fira on the picturesque island of Santorini followed by a call at Argostoli, Cephalonia in the Ionian Greek Isles.  Finally, after seven straight ports of call, we had a second and last day at sea before arriving back into Venice where we spent the day and night before disembarking the following morning.

As usual with cruises, most ports featured calls from about 8pm to 5pm, so it provided a good sampler of the Greek Islands and Turkey.  The fact that overnights in Istanbul and Venice were included was just icing on the cake for this robust itinerary.

The Nieuw Amsterdam

Nieuw Amsterdam in Santorini

Nieuw Amsterdam in Santorini

Built in 2010, the Nieuw Amsterdam is Holland America Line’s newest and largest ship.  At around 86,700 gross registered tons, and over 935 feet long, she is a good sized ship, but not anywhere near the size of some of the mega cruise ships at sea today.  As such, there aren’t quite as many passengers, which generally results in better service and a higher standard for food onboard.  We certainly found this to be the case.  Unsurprisingly, the Nieuw Amsterdam had a New York City theme throughout the ship, with beautiful paintings and an impressive art collection spread throughout.   I’ve previously cruised the Oosterdam, which has the same basic layout as the Nieuw Amsterdam, so I was familiar with the ship immediately upon boarding, and served as “tour guide” for our party throughout the week.  I’ll get more into different aspects of the cruise with the full-fledged cruise review I’ll post at a later time.

The Pinnacle Suite

Though I’ve been on a cruise ship for over four months of my life, I’ve never cruised in such style as I did on this trip.   All of my cruises have been in standard inside or ocean view rooms, and on a few special occasions I had a balcony.  Our accommodations on this trip would be… just a tad better.

Yup, we were rocking Pinnacle Suite #7031.

The Nieuw Amsterdam features two “Pinnacle Suites” that each measure a whopping 1,357 square feet — almost 7 times the size of a standard balcony cabin – and larger than my apartment back in Virginia.  Needless to say, we had plenty of room.

We were escorted onboard by a personal concierge immediately upon arrival at the port in Venice, and this personalized service did not stop for the entire twelve nights.  As we initially entered our suite, we walked through our foyer and were greeted by multiple bottles of champagne, a huge fruit plate, and two plates of canapés.

Past the foyer, there is a dining room table for four with a desk and mini bar setup.  Located forward of this dining area is the living room area, complete with a sectional sofa, a large throne-like chair, and a full entertainment center with a flat-panel television, DVD player, and Bose sound system.  A king bed pulled out of the wooden cabinet beneath the television, and this is where my girlfriend and I slept.

The master bedroom is located on the other side of the dining room, and is separated from the rest of the suite by double doors.  Inside the suite, there is a huge king sized bed, plenty of desk space, and a full vanity.  The master bath includes a double sink, jacuzzi tub with separate shower, and a very large walk-in closet that had plenty of room for the four of us.  A separate half bath is located off the foyer, across from a butler pantry with sink, microwave, and full refrigerator.

The highlight of the room was a massive verandah that was accessed through a pair of sliding glass doors.  The verandah featured two padded chaise lounge chairs, a table for al fresco dining with seating for four including a sofa in a carved out, teak wood vestibule, two other chairs, and a hot-tub.

Yes — we had our own private hot-tub on our private verandah.

It was awesome.

The service we received all week was phenomenal due in part to the team of concierges we had for the cruise.  We could see these two, and they were happy to fulfill any wish that we had.  I can’t say enough about the room.  It was truly a special experience, but it may have ruined cruising for me!  It’ll certainly be difficult to go back to a “normal” room on a future cruise, but I’m sure I’ll manage.  Whatever the case, I can’t express how thankful I am that my Aunt and Uncle included us on their vacation — it truly was an experience of a lifetime.

More on the cruise to follow, including the ports and a full-fledged cruise review…

 

Review: Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_7541

Boscolo Venezia Lobby

I normally don’t make it a habit to devote an entire post to a stay at one hotel unless it is truly an exceptional property and/or stay.  Our recent stay for two nights at the Boscolo Venezia fits both criteria.

Situated in the quiet Carranegio neighborhood of Venice, about a 15 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the Rialto area, the Boscolo Venezia is a wonderful escape from the crowds of tourists.  The Boscolo is an Autograph Collection Hotel, and is part of the Marriott family of brands.

The front of this property is on one of the outermost canals, and the rear is located on the Laguna.  Though it was a bit of a walk to all the major tourist spots, I feel this neighborhood is a better representation of the “real” Venice. A number of restaurants and small grocery spots dot exist every block or so instead of the wall-to-wall boutiques and restaurants that one may find in other parts of Venice.

The property itself was formally the French consulate, and it is simply a stunningly beautiful building.  The lobby features a couple huge Murano glass chandeliers, which is fitting since one can see Murano from the pier in the rear of the property.  Connected to the lobby is the restaurant, bar, and patio where breakfast is served daily — more on that later.

The highlight of the property is a massive garden that stretches a good 100 yards from the rear of the lobby to a smaller wing of the hotel overlooking the Laguna.  Off to the side of the garden are a pair of garden rooms that each feature their own private patios in the middle of a separated rose garden.  We were fortunate enough to be assigned both of these rooms when we checked in to the Boscolo after our flights from the States.  Though the rooms were not available until about 3pm, they were well worth the wait.

Garden rooms with patios

Garden rooms with patios

The rooms themselves weren’t overly huge, but they were very nice inside with marble flooring, wood ceilings, and a marble bath with double sinks.  Without question, the highlight of these two rooms were the massive patios.  Each patio is roughly the same size as the interior space of the room.  It is a stone tiled space with a table and four chairs.  Directly adjacent to the patios is a grassy area featuring plush lounge chairs that can be used during the day for relaxation and sunning.  About twenty yards away is the pier overlooking the Laguna where there was another table and set of chairs for a wonderful little happy hour spot.  These rooms simply made our stay, as they provided a wonderful little semi-private oasis where we could relax and adjust ourselves to European time.

Service all around the hotel was prompt and friendly. Ice was brought to the room upon request in a silver champagne bucket without a problem. As Marriott Gold and Platinum guests, we received complimentary breakfast every morning. Breakfast consisted of quite an elaborate spread filled with breads, meats, cheeses, jams, fruits, yogurt, and an incredible selection of pastries. There were at least five different types of fruit juices available along with champagne for those mandatory vacation mimosas. A full menu with eight or so made-to-order warm dishes was also available. I enjoyed the poached eggs one morning, and another egg dish the second morning. My only complaint would be that this restaurant seemed to get quite busy and crowded on the second morning, and the staff seemed to be a bit overwhelmed. It wasn’t really a problem, as we were not in a rush, but some of the service did fall between the cracks that morning.

Water Taxi

Water Taxi

A great service offered by the Boscolo is a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square. Running four times daily in each direction, you can take a scenic, fifteen minute boat ride directly to St. Mark’s Square in a wooden Venetian water taxi. Space is limited, so you must sign up with the concierge, but we didn’t have a problem getting the boat we wanted. The hotel also offers a free daily shuttle over to Murano, but we did not partake.

All in all, I really enjoyed staying at the Boscolo Venezia. The massive garden provides a wonderful space in Venice to relax away from the crowds. I really enjoyed the quiet Carranegio neighborhood in which it was located.   Though a bit on the pricey side, it is readily available with Marriott points, and because of that, I would certainly consider staying here again on a future visit to Venice.

How we booked it…

We originally planned on staying at the Boscolo for only one night, but about a week prior, we changed out flights necessitating an extra night. My uncle used Marriott Points to pay for our second night. The Boscolo is a category 8 hotel, and can be reserved for 40,000 Marriott points.   Since this is the only Marriott family hotel in Venice proper (on the actual island), I consider this a very good use of Marriott points if the price is as high as normal (> €300). It would be quite the hassle to stay in the Mestre area on the mainland and have to train or bus to Venice every day, in my opinion.

We booked the first night with cash, as there was a last-minute special available for the property at about 180 per night. This is a pretty good price for a property of that caliber in the very expensive hotel city of Venice.

 

How to Use American Miles to Book US Airways Flights to Europe

I recently enjoyed a US Airways business class flight in their Envoy Suite from Philadelphia to Venice, which I mentioned that I booked with American Airlines AAdvantage miles.  Now that US Airways has officially joined OneWorld, and is in the process of integrating operations with American Airlines, it is very easy to book award space on US Airways flights using your American AAdvantage miles!  The ability to do this is especially advantageous for transatlantic flights from the US to Europe.

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Before the addition of US Airways, your options for flying to Europe with American miles were relatively limited.  Most of the options involved a connection at London-Heathrow on either American or British Airways.  Aside from the headache involved with transiting one of the World’s busiest international airports, these flights include significant taxes and fees that significantly decrease the value proposition of redeeming your miles.  Other than this, American does offer some non-stop flights from the US to other gateways in Europe, but those seem to be increasing difficult to find on points.

This is where US Airways comes in.

Since they started to merge with American earlier this year, US Airways non-stops to Europe are also bookable online on American’s site.  Since you’d be using American miles, you would use the American partner award chart.  American charges 20k-30k in economy (based on the season), 50k in business, and 62.5k in first class for a one-way flight between the US and Europe or vice-versa.   Since US Airways only has economy and business class, we will be focusing on business.

I will search for a flight to Venice from Philadelphia (though the mileage price would be the same from any city in the US — you’d just need to change planes).  To search for these awards on the American site, it’s important to check the “Redeem miles” checkmark.  I usually search one-way awards, and if a round-trip is needed, book it as a round-trip once I’ve verified availability.Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.11.15 PM

By default, economy class will be chosen.  I’m interested in business class seats, so I’ll select the blue, business class button and the available dates will be populated in the calendar.  Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.12.58 PM

I select Friday, May 30th, and voila — there’s availability on the route in US Airway business class on the same flight I took — US Airways flight 714 from Philly to Venice!Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.14.54 PM

This is available for 50k miles + $2.50 per person (please note that if the reservation is made inside of 21 days, there will be an extra $75 charge per person for passengers without elite status on American).Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.18.57 PM

As I mentioned in my previous post, I consider the product on US Airways to be one of the best business class options to cross the Atlantic (on their A330-200 and A330-300 aircraft).   American offers a similar, but newer product on their new B777-300ER aircraft, but these currently only fly to Europe between New York-JFK, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and London-Heathrow with very limited award availability.  American seems to be releasing this very comparable business class award space on these US Airways non-stops  even mores than some of their own flights to Europe.

US Airways currently operates the following routes to Europe, which are all bookable using your American AAdvantage miles:

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Charlotte to: Dublin, London, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.26.57 PM

Philadelphia to: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Shannon, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Zurich, Venice, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

*Be sure to check the operating aircraft, because the Envoy Suites product is only offered on their A330 planes.

All in all, it’s pretty easy to do this if you have a bunch of American miles.  Even if you don’t, it’s easy to accumulate American miles through generous signup bonuses for one of many Citibank AAdvantage credit cards.

 

Two Magical Days in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_6726We met my Aunt and Uncle just past customs at Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport about twenty minutes after we arrived.   Due to the location of our hotel in the Cannaregio neighborhood, the Orto Stop on the Alilaguna was by far the easiest location to access.  This happens to be the first stop on the Venice’s Alilaguna Orange Line, and cost €15 per person for the 30 minute boat ride.

From the Orto stop, it was a short, three-minute walk to the Boscolo Venezia Hotel.  Upon check-in, we were informed that our rooms would not be ready untl 2pm, so we stored our bags at the front desk and headed out to explore Venice.

The Boscolo Venezia is located in the quiet Cannaregio neighborhood – about a 20 minute walk from the crowds of the Realto and San Marco Square areas.  We walked around the streets and canals of Venice before stopping for lunch near San Marco Square.  We settled on a restaurant with a nice courtyard where we enjoyed pizza and beer – both of which were excellent.

After lunch, the rain started to come down, so we walked back to our hotel.  Upon returning to the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were upgraded to a set of two garden villa rooms.  The rooms were standard sized, but they each featured massive courtyards situated in a secluded rose garden away from the main building of the hotel.  Jet-lagged from the night before, we took a three hour nap before having a nice happy hour out on our patio of the Boscolo Venezia.  We had a tasty dinner of pasta and seafood at a local place in Cannaregio– Ristorante Diana and then retired for the evening for some much needed sleep.

IMG_6703After a good ten hours of sleep, we woke up to a fantastic breakfast spread at the Boscolo, which was free due to my Marriott Gold status.   The Boscolo runs water taxis four times per day to and from San Marco Square, so we took the 10am taxi through the canals of Venice right to the front steps of St Marks.  After taking in the sights and sounds of the San Marco, we proceeded to one of Venice’s most exclusive hotels, The Gritti Palace for a drink on its back patio overlooking the Grand Canal.  What a spectacular way to spend the afternoon!

We followed this up with another (expensive / overpriced) drink at a Bar Gelateria Al Todoro, which was on the water near St. Marco Square.  At that point, we were ready for a late lunch, so we lost ourselves in the winding alleyways of Venice and found ourselves at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia, a cute little restaurant overlooking a canal for a quintessential Venetian lunch of calamari, pizza, wine and beer.  Later in the day, I stopped for about 45 minutes to watch the world go by in a nice plaza near the Rialto Bridge while my girlfriend shopped in some of the great boutiques.  We took a nice, afternoon stroll back to the hotel to have a continued happy hour on our wonderful patio at the Boscolo.  Later on that evening, we took a short walk to a local seafood restaurant for an excellent dinner at Ostaria da Rioba.

After another glorious night of sleep, we awoke to a rainy Venice morning – and it was cruise day!  We packed all our things after a short breakfast and met a water taxi at the Boscolo pier on the Lagoa just a few feet away from our room.  In less than twenty minutes, we were at the Cruise Ship Terminal ready to board our cruise on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.

Thoughts on Venice…

I absolutely loved Venice.  It’s such a magical city.  It’s the only city that I can think that is purely a pedestrian city (with the exception of the boats and gondolas in the canals).  We thoroughly enjoyed just losing ourselves in the winding streets and alley-ways of the city, sampling the incredible Italian cuisine, and taking in some of the sights in one of the most picturesque cities you’ll find anywhere.

 

Review: US Airways Business Class (Envoy Suites) Philadelphia to Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


After a quick and uneventful, yet pleasant flight from Washington-National Airport, we arrived in Philadelphia with about two hours to spare until our scheduled departure time.  We were welcomed into the Terminal A US Airways Envoy Lounge where our passports were checked and we were issued two premium drink certificates apiece.  The lounge offered a great view of the evening European departures from Terminal A.

I felt it was a very solid lounge for a US domestic carrier – probably one of the better I’ve seen domestically.  Boarding for our flight to Venice was announced around 6pm, so we proceeded to the gate and arrived as some of the last passengers to board.

US Airways (US) 714
Philadelphia (PHL) – Venice (VCE)
Aircraft:  Airbus A330-200
Seat:  4F (Envoy Suites)
Tuesday, April 28, 2014
6:45PM – 09:15AM (+1 day)
Duration:  8:30

My initial impression of the business cabin was that it looked awfully spacious and nice with the wood paneling on the bulkheads and tables.  The US Airways A330-200 features only twenty business class seats (or “Envoy Suites”) as five rows in a a 1-2-1 configuration.  The reverse herringbone configuration of these seats is a scaled down version of the same seats used by Cathay Pacific in their international business cabins.  Though they lack some of the storage of the Cathay seats, these Envoy Suites are some of the most spacious and nicest business class seats one can fly across the Atlantic.  Certainly, they’re currently the best hard product on an US carrier (with the exception of the new American 777-300ER cabin, which are the same type seats as these Envoy Suites).   The 1-2-1 business cabin is quickly becoming the standard among airlines, and US Airways deserves some credit for being the first airline to introduce this seat a few years ago.  I had more than enough room to stretch out.  While fully flat, I was able to stretch out without hitting the wall of the foot well .  This is pretty spectacular since I’m 6’4”.

We were offered champagne as soon as we took our seats, as well as a newspaper, an amenity kit, and brand new Bose QC15 noise-canceling headphones.  I was quite impressed by the Bose headphones, as I’m used to a much inferior offering on United.   They featured American Airlines branding, so they’re on of the first signs of the integration of the two airlines.  Menus were distributed and orders were taken prior to departure.

About ten minutes after takeoff, the flight attendant delivered a vodka tonic with warm mixed nuts.

The starter featured a pesto shrimp dish, which was excellent.  The salad was quite small, and came on the same plate as the shrimp.

For the entree, I selected the panko-crusted tilapia with mashed potatoes and green beans.  The fish was  a much larger portion than I was expecting.  It was tasty enough, and the mashed potatoes were delicious.

I had the tiramisu AND the Ben & Jerry’s chocolate brownie  ice cream for desert – both of which were excellent.  My girlfriend ordered the cheese plate and enjoyed that.

 

Dinner was quite good overall.  It was not overly memorable, but was certainly adequate for a business class dinner.

After dinner, I attempted to finish a movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but didn’t last more than ten minutes, as I fell asleep in the lay-flat bed.  For whatever reason, I didn’t sleep particularly well that night though the seat itself was quite comfortable.  I finally gave up trying after about four hours or so of on-and-off sleep.  Not too long after that, the flight attendants started preparing the cabin for breakfast – about 75 minutes prior to scheduled arrival into Venice, as we flew over Paris.  There was a choice of fruit and yogurt, or a mushroom and sausage quiche.  I opted for the fruit and yogurt while my girlfriend chose the quiche.  The fruit was fresh and tasty.  The quiche was excellent – easily one of the best egg dishes I’ve sampled on any flight.

After breakfast, I changed and prepared my things for landing.  We arrived into Venice about ten minutes ahead of schedule with a beautiful view of the city, the lagoon, and Murano our the starboard side of the airplane.

Overall, I was very impressed with US Airways.  I was expecting a very solid hard product, and that’s exactly what I got.  The Envoy Suite is an excellent choice for crossing the Atlantic, and it blows away most other US carriers’ offerings as far as comfort is concerned – namely United’s BusinessFirst products and American’s old business class.  Admittedly, I had somewhat low expectations for catering and service, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The flight attendants working the business class cabin were friendly enough and very efficient – not necessarily memorable, but they certainly provided good enough service.  The catering was overall quite good, and I enjoyed a change from the somewhat standard United BusinessFirst menu that I’m used to.

I certainly recommend the US Airways Envoy product, which is found onboard their Airbus A330 fleet.  I would choose it again if the choice was between US Airways and /or United.  At the end of the day, the 1-2-1 configuration is clearly the most comfortable business class configuration out there, and is one of the best business class options across the Atlantic.

How I booked it…

I was able to book this cabin using 50,000 American Airlines miles and $5 per person for the one-way North America to Europe award ticket.  Award availabilty for US Airways flights is easily available via the American Airlines website.  An added benefit of using American miles for flights on US Airways is that it presents a Transatlantic option that avoids London-Heathrow and the significant taxes associated with such a flight.  There are also no fuel surcharges on US Airways flights, as opposed to the hefty surcharges that exist when flying American’s other transatlantic partners British Airways and Iberia.

SPG offering up to 3X Starpoints on Oktoberfest stays in Munich!

Starwood has just announced a promotion in which you can earn up to 3X Starpoints for stays at one of their Munich properties during Oktoberfest.  This includes probably the closest hotel to the Theresienwiese (where Oktoberfest is held), the Four Points by Sheraton Munich Central, where I have stayed the last four years for my jaunts to Oktoberfest.  It’s crazy convenient!

Sadly, it looks like my booked stay at the Le Meridien will not be valid for this promotion since I booked it so far out.

Your three best SPG options in Munich for Oktoberfest are:

Details are as follows:

  • Book at least three months in advance for triple Starpoints and two months in advance for double Starpoints
  • Minimum 3 night stay at one of the participating Munich properties (including the three mentioned above)
  • Offer valid for any rate that is eligible to earn Starpoints
  • Offer valid for stays booked between May 07, 2014 and August 19,2014 and completed between September 20, 2014 and October 05, 2014.

For full terms and conditions, go here:  http://www.starwoodhotels.com/preferredguest/offers/termsandconditions.html?offerCode=32168807RK

If you haven’t been to Oktoberfest, go!  It’s a blast, and is my favorite trip of the year!  This will be my fifth year in a row to attend, and it’s quite the experience.  It’s a beer lovers dream!

Hacker tent

Back from Europe

After almost three weeks, I’m back from Europe!  Unfortunately, I was unable to provide regular updates on the blog due to the prohibitive expense and slowness of the Internet on our cruise ship.  As much as I wanted to get some blog posts out there, the $0.75 per minute cost just wasn’t going to happen.  Additionally, the slow speeds would have made posting pictures pretty much impossible.

Luckily, I did spend quite a bit of time during the trip chronicling my journey.  I have several posts already written — all I need to do is edit and add some pictures.  Hopefully I’ll get a few of those out this week.  I’ll leave this short note with a few teaser pics of US Airways Business Class, our Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, and the return trip in business class of Aer Lingus’ newly acquired 757.

US Airways Envoy, Aer Lingus Business Class, and the Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line's Nieuw Amsterdam

US Airways Envoy, Aer Lingus Business Class, and the Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam

Stay tuned…