The Crystal Mozart: Heaven (By Way Of Hell)

OK, before you accuse me of crafting a title strictly based on its click bait rating, at least give me a chance to explain myself.  This will involve a brief stroll through a personal hell (although for those of us who lived it, it was anything but brief) before we can turn our attention to the celestial portion of this post.

On December 4, 2018 I was on a Carnival cruise when I got a text from my son-in-law that my wife Teresa had been taken to the hospital by ambulance with what they feared was a heart attack.  That shocking message was followed fairly shortly with the update that there was good news, it was not a heart attack but only gall bladder stones.  While I was feverishly Googling gall bladder surgery (relatively routine, couple of days in the hospital, etc. and feeling very much relieved), the doctor called me mid-surgery to inform me that the stones had moved into the common bile duct and he needed my permission to remove them.  Naturally, I agreed.   Never have I made a more momentous decision with less forethought and more dire consequence.

In the process of removing the stones, the surgeon nicked the pancreas and thereby caused what proved to be the onset of severe pancreatitis.   Teresa spent the next 139 days in either the hospital or rehab with multiple trips to both.  During the entire duration she suffered from severe nausea and pain.  I will spare you the details . . . to be honest, more out of consideration of my psyche than yours.  Some very ugly memories are tucked away in the recesses of my grey matter that I am none to eager to disturb.

I will share one little window into the ordeal because it directly relates to our sojourn from “the outhouse to the penthouse”.   During some of those truly dark days when Teresa was loosing all hope that she would ever feel better (and honestly, my faith was wavering a bit), I would make her talk about the next great vacation we would take and all the cool things we would do and see and experience.

Finally, on Easter Sunday (rather apropos, I agree), she came home to stay.  She arrived home to a hospital bed set up in the spare bedroom, a wheelchair, and full daytime care.  She was so debilitated at first she could not even get out of bed.  She very slowly progressed to sitting in a wheelchair, to walking with a walker, eventually a cane and now mostly unaided.

Somewhere in the midst of this progression, a realization struck me with the force of a thunderbolt.  I had spent months in the hospital elevating her spirits by dangling an amazing vacation in front of her.   You know where I am going with this, right?  It dawned on me that I had a dug myself a very deep hole that would require some serious shoveling to escape.

This is where the story finally takes a turn for the better.  It’s about time, you are probably thinking.   Sorry for the slow slog though our misery but at least there is a happy, if not ending, middle.  We still have a few challenges to overcome on the medical front.

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As those of you know who (out of sheer boredom, I assume), follow this blog, I am not just an avid traveler but a participant in the travel business.  Over the years we have catered to every taste and budget.  This has afforded me familiarity with the good, the bad and the uninhabitable.   It didn’t take long before the options narrowed down to the one cruise line that has an unassailable reputation as the crème de la crème.   If you didn’t notice the name emblazoned across the bow of the river ship above, I am, of course, referring to Crystal Cruises.

In a couple of subsequent blogs, I am going to carry you along on our journey from Vienna to Budapest, with some magical stops along the way.  Before we set sail, however, let me regale you with a few of the reasons the choice was so self-evident.

Crystal Put the Lux In Luxury

Imagine (not that you have to, of course) one brand that has risen to the pinnacle of success in luxury travel regardless of whether you are dreaming of ocean, river, yacht, expedition or air travel.   In just thirty short years, Crystal Cruises has staked out a claim as the “World’s Most Awarded Luxury Cruise Line”.

The only way to reach such lofty heights is to have an unrelenting and unmatched focus on a superior standard of excellence.  Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, famously bragged that as owner and general manager he was in charge of everything from jocks to socks.  Well, as I found out, Crystal Cruises is the master of everything from turn downs to toilets.   Here is a somewhat humorous  illustration of what I mean.   Do you know what you are looking at below?

This is the front and the back of the most sophisticated toilet remote control I have ever seen.  Which is not surprising as it is the only toilet remote control I have ever seen. With this little jewel you can adjust the water level, the temperature, pressure and width of the seat, you can set the seat to oscillating or pulsating (not an easy choice) and even program settings for two different users.  You can set the back of the seat to automatically rise when you approach the toilet.

OK,  admittedly I have never given much thought to my tush temperature (other than that one time on a boy scout camp out when a visit to the latrine put me in mortal fear of frost bite of my entire nether regions) but when getting out of bed on a cold night, having a warm repose is not all bad.  I guess my point would be, if Crystal Cruises devotes that much attention to bathroom niceties, just think how much attention they give to all the other components of a great experience.

As you will see, when you return for the next installment (I am the eternal optimist), I clearly made the perfect choice.   If you have any trouble finding your way back here, just reach out to my port side butler, not to be confused with my ship side butler.  I know, that sounds decadent . . . but in a very nice way!   See you back here soon!

River Cruising: A Languid Stroll Down Liquid Highways (3)

Well, I’ll be hogtied and hornswoggled!

If you are not from Texas (my condolences) and haven’t the foggiest notion what I am talking about, here is a helpful explanation from the Urban Dictionary, “Obviously refers to cowboys roping and throwing calfs or cows, securing the rope to the saddle horn (hornswoggled) and tying three of their legs together with the ‘pigging string’.”

Calf Roping

Of course, I am using the phrase metaphorically of my shock and awe. Having guest posted for IgoUgo once, they actually want me back for an encore.  Go figure.  I have always wondered what a second date would feel like and now I have a chance to find out.

This is the third in my series of posts about my own Viking river cruise.  Over at IgoUgo IViking Elbe River am calling the post The Genius of River Cruising. If you are a regular reader, you should know the drill.  I am going to lead you by the hand through cyberspace over to their site where you can read my third installment in this riveting series (my words).  All you have to do is click here.  Wait!  Wait!

Before you go, I trust you haven’t forgotten our one inviolable rule:  You go over to IgoUgo to browse, you always come back home to Travel Leaders / Main Street Travel to book!  OK, now you can click here.

River Cruising: A Languid Stroll Down Liquid Highways (2)

When last I left you  . . . or you left me . . . let’s not quibble over who broke it off, we were strolling hand in hand down that most renowned of liquid highways, the incomparable Rhine river.  I had made some tortured pun on the name of our ship and you had tittered in that coy way you have. Then, suddenly, you slipped away into the heavy mist that creeps along the river’s banks like a cat burglar in ballet slippers.   Let’s resume our journey and see if we can’t recapture a bit of yesterday’s magic.

Before we leave Amsterdam for good though, I just have to show you this picture as a dire warning that even a pastime as noble as gardening can go to seed, so to speak. You could build an entire reality show called “Horticulture Gone Wild” based on this yard alone.  Did you notice the garage roof?

Horticulture Gone WildOne of my favorite stops along the way was Cologne from which we get our word . . . cologne.  I figured that out without resorting to the guide book.  And speaking of guides, Viking River Cruises has this fantastic system whereby every passenger is given a headset to use on walking tours.  If you look closely at our guide, whom I called Hoss Cartwright (behind his rather imposing back, of course), you can see his microphone.

The reincarnation of Hoss Cartwright.

The reincarnation of Hoss Cartwright.

“Hoss” was an absolute mountain of a man.  Let’s just say he cut a wide swath and I quickly found that if you followed in his wake you could careen along behind him no matter how many Peppermint Schnaps you might have imbibed. I will say, “Hoss” had a masterful grasp of colorful local history and and a very entertaining way of presenting it.

The first picture below is a great illustration as to why comfortable walking shoes are an absolute must on this kind of experience.  The second picture is the perfect advertisement for:

1) living in the south of France instead of the north of Germany

2) letting your wife dress you in the morning

3) finally, for choosing a musical instrument that is smaller than you are! I wonder if this guy ever gave serious consideration to an harmonica.

Cobblestone streetsStreet Musician

 If you are foolhardy enough to book another river cruise company besides Viking River Cruises, the picture below depicts the cabin you will likely end up with.  Ancient casteJust so you know, having waterfowl hanging on your wall will cost you a surcharge..  OK, just a little harmless joke, other river cruise partners.  Actually, there are several quality river cruise companies out there but Viking is certainly an industry leader in many categories.  They are not the cheapest nor the most expensive but they provide incredible value for price.  They have won a number of very prestigious awards.  You might want to read my recent post on Travel Deals And Other Mythical Creatures for a little perspective on travel values verses supposed deals.

If I have rekindled your affection as well as sparked your passion for this wonderful way to see the world, are you willing to indulge me one final installment in this little trilogy?  If so, let’s make a date to meet back here in a few days where we will conclude our river odyssey.

River Cruising: A Languid Stroll Down Liquid Highways

There is a very good reason that so many great cities, not only in Europe but throughout the world, are found alongside some of the world’s most majestic rivers.  Before relatively recent times, challenging terrain posed many obstacles to travel over land.  In the rivers, however, the merchants found ready-made highways to transport their goods and thus these cities sprung up as inland ports-of-call.  River cruising is capitalizing upon this reality and rapidly becoming one of the hottest vacation options in travel.

View from the Viking HelvetiaA couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to experience a truly magnificent river cruise aboard the Viking Helvetia.  We sailed from Amsterdam to Basel mostly along the Rhine River.  Part of what made the experience so enjoyable was that I was sauntering along with eighty or so of my closest friends.  You are no doubt shocked I would have 80 casual acquaintances much less that many close friends.

Viking River Cruise Excursion

The wheels on the bus go round and round.

You might be surprised to learn how much natural affinity there is between us like-minded, quirky travel folks.  We tend to congregate in large clusters, kind of like the Amish but without the beards . . .  and the foggiest notion of what’s appropriate in public, of course.  Actually I count the folks in this picture among my dear friends. At least I did before I published this candid shot on the internet without their permission where it will linger in some dank corner of cyberspace for all eternity.  Flip’s not really driving.  It just sort of looks that way.

I discovered that there are a whole host of things I like about river cruising, first and foremost being the leisurely pace.  Someone like my fellow blogger Lesley Carter over at Bucket List Publications, a frequenter of these pages, God love her,  would probably have to parasail behind the ship upside down, blindfolded and tethered to concertina wire just to stay awake.  Check out her blog to see what I mean.

However, for those of us for whom an adrenaline rush is defined as sipping a mellow Malbec in a dimly lit room, it is ideal.   When you are trying to absorb several hundred years of European history through the bar’s gigantic picture window, even five knots an hour seems like wave running.  Captain, can’t you slow this thing down a bit!

Archimedes' screws in Amsterdam

Giant Archimedes’ screws

Our first stop was in Kinderdijk where we did a windmill excursion.  If you have ever wondered how they move water around in a country which is largely below sea level check out these gigantic Archimedes’ screws.  Those of you who are expecting one of my typical crude attempts at humor will have to wait a sentence or two.  I’m not touching this one.

Just to prove I actually was in The Netherlands, here is one of many windmills dotting the landscape.  And no, dear skeptics out there, I did not photoshop the third hole at my local miniature golf course.  Windmill in KinderdijkI can tell by your drooping eyelids that I am not going to be able to hold your attention all the way to Basel.  Therefore I have made an editorial decision, seeing as I am what passes for an editor around here, to return next post with more of my heart-throbbing river adventures.  I have decided to do this just for the  Helvetia of it.  (Now there’s the kind of pathetic pun you have come to expect from your humble blogger.)

Have you ever been on a river cruise?  After reading this scintillating post, would you like to?  Check it out here. At you own languid pace, of course!