Monday, May 7, 2018

An Epic Voyage On An Epic Ship: Prinsendam

By Georgina Cruz

The Grand Africa & Mediterranean voyage on Holland America’s Prinsendam, visiting ports in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, can best be described in one word: epic! Fifty-four days, 28 ports, including five overnight visits, offered opportunities for exploration and to get to know the cultures, history and flavors of regions in Africa and Europe.

Stops at three ports, including an overnight stay in the Canary Islands—Spanish isles that sit in the Atlantic off the northwest coast of Africa—were among the top highlights of the voyage for my husband Humberto and me, as we had never visited them. The Canaries are sometimes associated with the myths of the Lost Continent of Atlantis—they are, after all, in the Atlantic for which Atlantis presumably was named, and a theory holds that when Atlantis sank, its highest points remained as the Canaries we know today, and that their original inhabitants, the Guanches, were the descendants of the surviving Atlanteans.

But Atlantis or not, the sapphire waters of the magnificent harbor in Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife on the island’s eastern tip, were like a siren call, welcoming us to a vibrant city filled with interesting architecture and excellent shopping—Spain’s famous El Corte Ingles department store has a branch here and the colorful Our Lady of Africa market beckons with exotic fruits and blossoms. And the island also has many wonderful restaurants serving up the delightful cuisine of the Canaries, which is Spanish, with African and Latin American influences. Tenerife was and is a popular stop for ships going to and from Europe to Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, with Columbus himself stopping here for a few days in 1492.

We went for strolls to points of interest in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, including the daring, Conquistador-helmet-like Auditorium of Tenerife, the Parliament buildings of the Canary Islands and the lovely squares including the Plaza de España and the Square of Candelaria.

On our second day in Tenerife we took an organized tour to La Laguna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island’s former capital, and participated in a walking tour to the Church of the Convent of Santa Catalina, the market in the Plaza del Adelantado, the cathedral, the episcopal palace, the History Museum in the Lercaro Palace and quaint Calle de San Agustin, where we passed old convents and rows of beautiful carved wooden balconies, many adorned with flowers. Our next stop was Tacoronte, the most important wine-growing area of the island. Here at the Bodega Alvaro we enjoyed a wine tasting—we learned that the first vines planted in the Canary Islands came from the Eastern Mediterranean, including the vines that produce the famous Malmsey wines that were immortalized in the works of Shakespeare. We sipped the wines and they were delicious! Then, from the Casa del Vino winery we drank in big gulps the scenery over the north coast of Tenerife—with panoramic views of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest point at 12,198 ft. Teide is to the Canaries what Mt. Fuji is to Japan, its quintessential volcanic cone often snow-capped, majestic and breathtaking.

The other ports of the Canary Islands we visited included Arrecife, Lanzarote’s capital, from where we headed to Timanfaya National Park with its Montaña de Fuego (Fire Mountain) and lunar-like landscape. Here, at Islote de Hilario (Hilario’s Big Island), wonders include volcanic cinders from just below the surface that are hot enough to kindle wood and to produce steam. In Santa Cruz de La Palma, we walked on cobblestone streets to see lovely Spanish colonial houses with flower-draped balconies in the Avenida Marítima (Maritime Avenue) and took a guided tour to San Antonio Volcano National Park, where a trail reaches right to the edge of the volcano’s crater. It was Good Friday when we visited Santa Cruz de La Palma and we were able to take in one of the Holy Week Processions—with marching bands, floats and penitents: very impressive!

More local color was ours to enjoy during a special onboard performance by the flamenco group Fuego (Fire) and a wonderful Spanish Evening in the dining room—specially decorated and with Spanish specialties like “paella” (the world-famous rice and seafood dish).

But though the Canary Islands were big highlights, there were many others. On the way to Africa and Europe, we made stops in Caribbean isles with the opportunity to walk the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and visit El Morro Fortress in Puerto Rico and bask in warm aquamarine waters in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Stops in the Cape Verde Islands offered the chance to enjoy beautiful, uncrowded beaches, and calls in Africa included Agadir, Morocco for tours to the 16th century Oufella Fort and opportunities for a camel ride and to take the ultimate selfie: with a camel, which we took, of course; Casablanca, Morocco, for a chance to visit Rick’s Café, in a courtyard-style mansion built against the Old Medina walls of the city and inspired in the classic film with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; and Dakar, Senegal, one of West Africa’s largest cities.

In Dakar, an option was a tour that took to Independence Square with colonial-style buildings and the Presidential Palace, where the Spahi in their red and blue uniforms stand guard. Other points of interest included the African Renaissance Monument, a 160-foot-tall statue; the Lighthouse of Mamelles; the Medina (Old Town) and the Kermel Market, the Town Hall, the cathedral, the Great Mosque and the Deity Mosque. Stops at the Sand Painting Gallery and the Soumbedioune Handicraft Village provided cultural insights as well as opportunities to buy souvenirs.

Passing through the Pillars of Hercules, the Prinsendam ventured into the Mediterranean, the centerpiece of the voyage. The name, Pillars of Hercules, was given in antiquity to the two promontories flanking the Strait of Gibraltar, the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and Mount Acho in Ceuta in Africa that, according to legend, were parted by the strong arms of Hercules. In Gibraltar, we took a tour to Europa Point, Europe’s southernmost point, and to The Rock where we were delighted to see the antics of the Barbary Apes and toured St. Michaels’ Cave, now a venue for concerts. This being one of our favorite cruising regions in the world, we were happy as clams, as we believe, like British scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson once noted that “The main object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean.”

Highlights in the Med included several Italian ports that charmingly occupied our attention beginning with Genoa, that vibrant maritime city with a harbor front newly renovated by noted architect and native son Renzo Piano of the George Pompidou Center in Paris fame. The harbor front is now a modern center filled with shops and cafes as well as such points of interest as the Genoa Aquarium and the Biosphere, a glass dome with more than 65 feet in diameter filled with plants, trees, birds and other animals. Other Genoa attractions include the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, once the home of the ruling Doges; the Christopher Columbus House, where the explorer spent his childhood, and the baroque Gesu Church, a Jesuit Church that boasts two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Other Italian ports included Livorno for tours to Florence and Pisa with their treasures of Renaissance art like Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia in Florence and the world-class view of the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Additional options from Livorno included tours to explore Tuscan gems like exquisite medieval Siena with the relics of St. Catherine, and quaint towns like Lucca and San Gimignano. Some guests, who like us had been to Florence, Pisa and other destinations in Tuscany, opted for strolls in Livorno to see its “New Fort” (that dates from the 1600s) and colorful buildings at and near the Piazza della Repubblica.

A call in Sorrento provided opportunities for excursions to the lovely isle of Capri and the breathtaking Amalfi Drive, which we never fail to take to be delighted by its emerald waters and the picture-postcard-perfect town of Amalfi, where we picked up a bottle of the local lemon-flavored liqueur, limoncello. A local folkloric group, Sorrento Folk, came on board to entertain us with lively tarantellas.

Stops in Naples, for programs to Pompeii, and, of course, great pizza; and Cagliari, Sardinia, offered a chance to explore this less-often-visited island with its five-mile Poetto Beach and its old section, Castello, with its medieval walls and 13th century towers.

A big highlight for Humberto and me was a “Best of Rome” full day ship’s tour. It took in all the de rigueur sights of the Eternal City: St. Peter’s Square with the colonnade by Bernini that symbolizes an open-arms welcome to the Vatican; St. Peter’s Basilica with Michelangelo’s magnificent Pieta sculpture of Jesus and Mary; the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the fabled Tiber River and the Trevi Fountain. No matter how many times we go to Rome, we always head to the Trevi Fountain to throw in a coin that according to the classic movie, Three Coins In The Fountain, ensures our return. The tour also included a walking tour to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona with its lovely fountains and a typical Italian lunch with pasta and a sinful pastry for dessert. Delicious!

But we were not done yet. Other highlights still in the Mediterranean included several stops in Spain including Barcelona, where the La Rambla pedestrian street was lively with living statues, and Antoni Gaudi masterpieces like his emblematic modernism Sagrada Familia Basilica awaited; Malaga, with its noted Picasso Museum, devoted to the arguably most influential artist of the 20th century in the city where he was born; Cadiz, with its impressive golden-domed Cathedral, sightseeing routes and cultural highlights marked on the city’s pavements like Boston’s Freedom Trail, and Valencia with its Old Town with its Cathedral, Basilica of the Virgin, Central Market and Silk Exchange, as well as the futuristic architecture of Santiago Calatrava, not to mention the delicious paella valenciana, the city’s wonderful rice dishes that are world-famous.

Back on the Atlantic Ocean, calls included one in Lisbon with scenic cruising on the Tagus River, and chances to see the Portuguese capital’s monuments including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the iconic Belem Tower, Monument to the Discoveries, and other points of interest including the Jeronimos Monastery with Vasco da Gama’s tomb, as well as opportunities to tour Fatima, 88 miles north of Lisbon, one of the most important Catholic shrines, where three shepherd children reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. We took a tour that in addition to Lisbon highlights went to the royal retreat of Sintra and charming seaside Cascais.

It was a fabulous—epic—itinerary, allowing opportunities for regional exploration. And it required an equally wonderful ship to carry it off. Through the entire voyage, the Prinsendam rose admirably to the task: an 850-passenger vessel personifying Old World elegance and charm, it was like a club: with everyone getting to know each other during our extended voyage. We had sailed on this lovely ship through some of its incarnations that began in 1988 as the Royal Viking Sun, then in later years as the Cunard Royal Viking Sun and the Seabourn Sun, and finally, since 2002, as Holland America’s Prinsendam. She had never disappointed us, and she delighted us again now, refreshed after a 2016 drydock, and with her customary attentive, personalized service, delicious food, varied entertainment and activities including America’s Test Kitchen classes and demonstrations as well as with many enriching itinerary-focused offerings including excellent port lectures and local folkloric groups and entertainers like Gabriela Mendez & the Cape Verdean Group, who performed onboard while in Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands.

The Prinsendam’s accommodations are attractive and comfortable. Our ocean-view cabin, #450 mid-ship on Dolphin Deck, was a cozy home at sea with picture window, sitting area, mini-bar, walk-in closet and bathtub/shower. This cruise being designated as a “Grand Voyage,” we were treated to special events and activities including a Spanish Fiesta with paella while in Spain and commemorative pillow gifts including journals and carry-on luggage.

All too soon, we had begun the crossing back to Fort Lauderdale with calls at the picturesque Azores and a stop in Hamilton, Bermuda with its multiple attractions including architecture in pastels and the pink sands of Horseshoe Bay Beach, to delightfully break up the string of sea days of our epic voyage.

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