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3 posts from September 2012

September 27, 2012

A VISIT TO MYSTICAL MONT SAINT-MICHEL

Archangel-michaelAccording to legend, Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert in 708 A.D. and asked him to build a monastery atop the rocky islet of what is now called Mont Saint-Michel. When Aubert repeatedly ignored his instructions, a frustrated Michael finally burned a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger. And thus the phrase, “You don’t have to ask me twice,” was born.

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I took a fantastic shore excursion, Mystical Mont Saint-Michel, to this beautiful monastery built in the 8th century on an island just off the shore of France. Many guests onboard Marina enjoyed this excursion last week, and many more onboard Nautica will have the opportunity when she calls on Saint-Malo next week.

Saint-Malo is a lovely walled town with a fascinating history. I hope to be able to return and spend more time in Saint-Malo itself, especially because I heard rumors of restaurants famous for fresh seafood, crepes and other French specialties!

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But as a first time visitor to this area, I knew I would be making the short trip to Mont Saint-Michel, “a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid,” as it was aptly described by Victor Hugo. I had dreamed of visiting this mystical place since I first learned of it in French class in high school. Like so many others, I was moved by the spectacular silhouette of this monastery perched in solitude on a rocky mount.

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Because the entire area is surrounded by vast, low-lying marshland, the iconic view of Mont Saint-Michel rising dramatically from the mist is visible from miles away. My first glimpse of the monastery was as impressive as I had imagined it would be. As we approached, the haze enveloping the abbey lifted, and the edifice grew even more imposing and inspiring as it sparkled in the bright summer sun. 

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Mont Saint-Michel is almost as famous for its tides as its monastery. The tides here are the highest in Europe. They vary greatly – roughly 46 feet between high and low tide – and can change very quickly. 

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As this has always been an important pilgrimage site, a causeway was built to allow pilgrims easier access to the island. This dramatically altered the flow of water in the area and led to the silting of the bay. As a result, Mont Saint-Michel is no longer surrounded by water.

P1010134A dam project, scheduled to be completed in 2015, will clear out the accumulated silt and allow tidal waters to once again flow freely around this tiny island. Visitors will no longer park at the foot of the island, so the hoards of cars and buses will not sully the view of the revered mount. Instead a separate parking lot will be built, and visitors will be shuttled to the island over a bridge.

The salt meadows surrounding the area create the ideal environment for grazing sheep – 30,000 to be exact! Salt meadow lamb is a prized delicacy served in the local restaurants, as the lambs’ high salt intake creates an especially tender and flavorful meat. 

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After navigating the sheep, we arrived at the base of Mont Saint-Michel, following in the footsteps of the millions that have flocked to this place of pilgrimage over the centuries. The site is so revered that many of the faithful settled at the foot of the mountain. Half-timbered houses were constructed, and eventually a village grew up below the abbey. Today the village is home to adorable little cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. 

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A narrow cobblestone street winds through the village and up the incline to the abbey. Our guide for the day was Gil, an expert host with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region, and as we climbed, he did a wonderful job of bringing the abbey to life with stories of its fascinating history.

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Its location along the English Channel meant that Mont Saint-Michel held not only religious significance but also strategic significance to the various powers that ruled the region over the centuries. After the Norman conquest in the 11th century, the larger Romanesque church of the abbey was constructed. Following a devastating fire in the 13th century, the abbey underwent repairs, and a Gothic-style refectory and cloisters were added.

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The diverse architectural styles along with the natural rock are what make the abbey so extraordinary, both visually and historically. Here Gil points out one of the original walls of the monastery.

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During the French Revolution, monasticism was abolished. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison to hold clerical opponents and other high-profile political prisoners. At this time a giant wheel was constructed, and prisoners were forced to turn the wheel to operate an enormous pulley that lifted loads of stone and supplies up the mountain.

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Gargoyles adorn most of the walls and were added to divert water from the building, which seems like a far more visually interesting solution than the current gutters that frame the eaves of my house.

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Even with the throngs of tourists that visit Mont Saint-Michel each day, the abbey inspires a sense of peace. Every aspect of the architecture – the vaults, the arches, the famous spire – was deliberately designed to turn your gaze upward toward the heavens. And when you reach the abbey’s highest point and direct your gaze downward to the sprawling countryside below, the views are equally breathtaking.

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After visiting this remarkable place, I found myself incredibly grateful that St. Aubert finally got the hint! As reluctant as I was to leave, the tide was coming in, as if to say that my home on the sea was beckoning. I returned to the ship with memories of Mont Saint-Michel that I will cherish forever.

 

September 18, 2012

MEET THE OFFICERS: Marina General Manager Damien LaCroix

Of the many wonderful things I get to do in my role as Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, one of my favorites is getting to know the warm and generous officers and crew. From everything I see, hear and experience, the sense of family that the staff creates is one of the main reasons Oceania Cruises has so many loyal and returning guests.

DownloadOn a recent cruise, I had the great pleasure of meeting Damien LaCroix, who has been a part of the Oceania Cruises family for eight years. Though his official title is General Manager onboard Marina, Damien considers himself a conductor, and after watching him “perform,” it’s obvious he can hold a baton with the best. When Damien is in charge the show flows seamlessly. Indeed, one might be tempted to think that his job is easy, given how effortlessly things unfold.

Originally from Lyon, France, Damien started with Renaissance Cruises. It was a good product but not upscale. He left Renaissance and joined a luxury resort in French Polynesia. It was there that Damien first got a call from Oceania Cruises asking him to come aboard. At first he resisted, because he didn’t want to leave the elegant atmosphere of the resort.

Oceania Cruises coaxed him into visiting one of the ships. He was immediately impressed with the ship and its focus of fine cuisine – the elegance, the presentation and the quality of service. He knew he could be happy in this environment. So in 2004 he accepted a position as Food and Beverage Director, and in 2007 he was promoted to General Manager.

Onboard Marina, he says there is never a typical day. Each day begins with a ship inspection, followed by a meeting with department heads. But after that, it is Damien’s job to be prepared for anything. While there is always a plan for what the day should look like, changes inevitably arise. Something as simple as the weather can present a logistical challenge, because on a rainy day the outside venues aren’t used, and the inside venues are all much busier.

Listening to Damien talk and watching him work, he thrives on handling the unexpected. He told a story about when cruises first began originating in China years ago. Guests had arrived for their cruise and were scheduled to embark at 11 am, but authorities delayed embarkation. Damien didn’t want guests to spend precious vacation hours just milling about the cruise terminal, so he quickly pulled the crew together to organize activities and provide food and drink.

Damien is quick to credit the wonderful people working with him for helping make each day a success. It is clear that the reason Oceania Cruises feels like a home away from home for guests is that it is a home away from home for staff as well. There is a real sense of family within the organization that is easily passed on to guests. Damien can often be found entertaining guests, who clearly enjoy his company, as he hosts cocktail parties or tables for dinner.

Choosing a favorite port of call from the vast array of wonderful destinations is tough for Damien. He enjoys Venice and Buenos Aires because ships often stay overnight there, and he can spend an evening exploring and enjoying dinner ashore. He thinks Santorini and Rhodes are gorgeous. And because he worked in Vietnam for three years, he loves stops in East Asia where he still has favorite places he likes to visit.

Of course the best part of working for Oceania Cruises is that it is where he met his wife Jackie, a cruise director. Since both he and Jackie work for Oceania Cruises, they know the lifestyle and enjoy the months of time off they have together. They recently welcomed Elise, the newest Oceania Cruises baby, to the family. Oceania Cruises has a family program, so if accommodations are available, Damien can bring his family onboard with him.

I’ve had the privilege of speaking with several officers and crew members, and each one has been quick to tell me about Oceania Cruises’ commitment to family and to the happiness and well being of their staff. This is just one more reason that Damien and his team are so dedicated to the happiness of every guest onboard and to creating the warm, welcoming environment that makes guests feel so comfortable and cared for. No wonder so many guests say that each time they board an Oceania Cruises ship, it feels like coming home!

September 7, 2012

A THOROUGHLY MODERN EXPERIENCE IN VALENCIA

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I recently had the pleasure of sailing to Valencia onboard Riviera. Here I spent a wonderful day exploring the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or City of Arts and Sciences, one of the most famous modern tourist destinations in Spain. The structures here, designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, were as fascinating as the events happening inside of them. Built as an entertainment-based cultural and architectural hub of the city, the complex offered a blogger with a camera the chance to completely lose herself. It truly was photogenic from every angle.

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The Hemisfèric is an IMAX theater designed to resemble an eye. The centerpiece of the complex, it was the first building to be completed in 1998. The exterior of the building, or the eyelid, actually opens to access the water and reveal the dome, or the pupil of the eye, which is the theater. Surrounded by water, the bottom of the pool is glass, creating a reflective illusion that the eye is whole. 

Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

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El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe was built to resemble the skeleton of whale. This interactive museum aims to entertain visitors while educating them about science, the environment and technology. It opened in 2000 and quickly became one of the most visited attractions in Spain, in large part because it is perfect for kids of all ages.

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Looking like something out of a Star Trek battle, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is the tallest opera house in the world. The company attracts major names from the world of opera, including Plácido Domingo, who performs there regularly. There are four separate performance halls, and performances are usually held on Saturdays and Sundays.

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L’Agora is a striking multi-purpose event space that can seat as many as 6,000 people. Officially inaugurated in 2009, it was opened to host the Valencia Open 500 Tennis Tournament. When completed, the fixed roof will be covered with glass panels, and the lower section will be covered with opaque panels of Valencian mosaics. 

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En route to the oceanographic museum, I meandered through L’Umbracle, a gorgeous landscaped walk with native and tropical flora that change according to the seasons. The garden is surrounded by 99 palm trees, 78 small palm trees, 62 bitter orange trees, 42 varieties of shrubs native to Valencia, 16 beauty of the night plants, 450 climbing plants, including honeysuckle and hanging bougainvillea, 5,500 carpet plants and 100 aromatic plants, such as rosemary and lavender. And I thought weeding my flowerbed was backbreaking work!

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Built on 17,500 square meters, L’Umbracle allows visitors to admire the views of all the buildings, lakes, walkways, and landscaped areas of the whole complex. Much of the garden is canopied by the 55 fixed arches and 54 floating arches that stand a little over 59 feet high. In contrast to the natural surroundings is an exhibition of contemporary sculptures by internationally known artists including Yoko Ono. 

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After L’Umbracle, the rest of my day was spent at the truly impressive L'Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest aquarium. Containing re-creations of all of the world’s primary marine habitats, each building is identified by its ecosystem: the Mediterranean, Wetlands, Temperate and Tropical Seas, Oceans, the Antarctic, the Arctic, Islands, and the Red Sea, plus the added bonus of the Dolphinarium. 

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The aquarium is enormous, and after a leisurely trip through all of the ecosystems, I had experienced over 45,000 examples of 500 different species of marine life. But what was even more impressive was how the aquarium was designed to give visitors a truly unique understanding of the different species through the architecture and layout of the buildings, the lack of visual barriers, the superb educational components, the huge aquarium tanks and the amazing underground tunnels, the longest of which spanned more than 70 yards. I felt as if I had somehow explored the oceans and seas of the entire world in a single afternoon. 

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Walking with sharks.
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Walking underneath sharks.

 

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Mola mola: A face only a mother could love.
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Weird scary shark (scientific name: angel shark)

 

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Seals at play.
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Seal being cute.

 

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For some reason I started humming The Little Mermaid soundtrack...
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The starfish section is waiting for its cue.

 

 

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The rhythm section.
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Jellyfish the way I like them... behind glass.

 

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I took a dozen photos of this beautiful bird. Not everyone can pull off red and black.
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    I am pretty sure this eel was flirting with me.

 

“Aquarium” seems a woefully inadequate word to describe this amazing museum, and I was so engrossed I failed to realize that the time for Riviera’s departure was imminent. Luckily, the berth was immediately adjacent to the city, so I needed little time to return to the ship and was able to savor every last moment in this fascinating port of call.

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Riveria will return to Valencia just a few days from now, and I wish I were returning with her! On this trip, I was so intrigued by the City of Arts and Sciences that I did not get to visit the famous Central Market and the Plaza de la Reina with its renowned cathedral. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to return and explore the other side of Valencia, the historic city center that will offer the perfect contrast to my thoroughly modern and thoroughly enjoyable experience at Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias.

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