European cruises are generally very port-intensive, because the ports in various countries are relatively close together, thus allowing more time on shore. It's a good thing, too, because most European ports have a lot more interesting things to see than a southern Caribbean itinerary, for example. This particular sailing is a bit unusual in that four of the 13 days are at sea, which will give us time to recharge the batteries (of our bodies and our cameras) after some highly active touring.
Some people might question the wisdom of seeing Europe by cruise ship instead of taking a land vacation, and admittedly it can be a challenge to see Paris, Nice, Florence, Venice, or other great cities during a one-day stop. But for a person like me -- basically a somewhat lazy traveler -- it's perfect. We unpack, settle into our temporary "home," and let our "home" move around the continent. I don't have to worry about hotel reservations, transportation (whether by train, rental car, etc).
I also like it because I'm not constantly faced with decisions to make about everything from where to eat, to where to find a bathroom. And the true luxury is not paying the costly expenses of a land vacation in Europe. True, a cruise may only give you the appetizer version of what the various countries in Europe have to offer -- but like a cocktail party, if you stuff yourself on enough great appetizers, you can walk away satisfied.
Others might use these appetizers to help them decide where they would like to spend more time on a later land vacation for the full meal.
Speaking of meals...This evening we had our first dinner in the Constellation's San Marco Dining Room. In keeping my expectations of Celebrity after my last two cruises with them, the food and service were excellent. The service staff is professional, attentive and friendly. Of the three Millennium-class ships we've sailed (the Millennium, Summit, and now the Constellation), the Constellation's San Marco Dining Room was the least appealing to my uneducated and often questionable taste in interior design. This is somewhat odd since the physical layout of each is almost identical, but the San Marco doesn't seem to have the same warmth as the sister ships' dining rooms.
After a surprisingly busy day at sea crossing the English Channel, we awoke in the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. Zeebrugge is a busy harbor for cargo vessels, trans-channel ferries and passenger shipping. For the cruise ship passenger, it's the starting point for touring the cities of Brugge, Ghent, Brussels or Antwerp.
I had originally planned to take the ship's tour to Antwerp, which is about a 90-minute bus ride. The plan called for me to torture Mrs. Kuki as we watched master diamond-cutters working their magic on stones, with her knowing full well we weren't going to buy anything.
But the magic of CruiseMates' worldwide readership changed our plans. Prior to our departure, we got an e-mail from Brigitte, a member of the CruiseMates community who lives in the region. She kindly offered to meet us at the ship and take us for a tour of the area. We can think of no better way to experience a destination than by seeing it through the eyes of a local, so we happily accepted.
Brigitte first took us to the historic city of Brugge, known as the "Venice of the North," with medieval canals and bridges running throughout the city. While there are no gondoliers paddling through the canals, there are plenty of very popular boat tours.. We spent our time enjoying this lovely city on foot. The city, which has the feel of a small gothic village, combines the beauty of its historic architecture with some very modern shopping, including the lace and chocolate for which Belgium is famous. Along the way are many cafes, where you can grab a drink or a meal and re-energize. We also visited Our Lady's Church, near the center of Brugge, which houses Michelangelo's marble Madonna and the 15th-century tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy.
If you're not lucky enough to have Brigitte as your personal guide, Brugge is easy to get to on your own. Celebrity offered a free shuttle to the train station, where you can take a 20-minute train ride to Brugge; taxis at the pier would also take passengers to Brugge for 40 Euros, or about $40. And of course there is always the ship-sponsored excursion for those who feel more comfortable with a tour group.
We can't thank Brigitte enough for giving us her day, her knowledge of the area, and sharing her charm with us. As a result of CruiseMates' arms reaching around the world, we were able to meet a wonderful new friend, and spend a simply delightful day in Belgium.