Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Phoenix Holidays UK - DFDS Ferries

The company we booked our (very first) coach tour with was Phoenix Holidays UK.  We boarded the coach fairly close to our home and were driven to Newcastle to board the overnight DFDS Seaways to Amsterdam. 

DFDS Seaways:  The ferry trip across the North Sea took 16 hours.  Our ferry was the Princess of Norway, an older but comfortable ship.  Our berths were tiny but comfortable and adequate for a short stay.  We had booked our breakfast and dinners ahead of time and the buffet had many good choices.  However, the drinks were quite expensive and were not included in the buffet price.  The ferry had several restaurants, bars, live entertainment, and a small casino. 

After arriving in Amsterdam we drove through the Netherlands.  The scenery except for the old windmills, was less than exciting to say the least.  We continued on through Germany, France, Switzerland and into Italy. 

On our return trip we drove through Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and back to Amsterdam.  The return ferry trip was quite rough and many of us felt unwell.  I felt fine after lying down and the sea was calm in the morning.

Descriptions of our experiences in each country and reviews of accommodations and meals are in separate posts.

All three of us enjoyed our trip but are not without complaints.  A full tour would have included 49 passengers but ours was only 22.  A week before our trip began Phoenix changed two of our hotels (to cheaper ones).

Phoenix Holidays:  Overall we were pleased as the driver Michael was fantastic - good driver, friendly, helpful, pleasant.  The tour manager, Colin was very effecient, friendly, fluent in the language of each country.  His delivery of facts about history, culture of each area could use improvement.  We also felt he should have complained about the horrid meals we were given at our Rome hotel instead of laughing it off.

Our holiday was advertised as 4*.  It wasn't.  The hotel in Rome was possibly a 2*. 

Photos of our holiday are posted here:
Lots of holiday photos

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Highlights and the not-so-good

  • The Vatican was totally fascinating and awe-inspiring
  • The tour bus around Rome and the ancient Roman sites and architecture
  • I enjoyed using what little Italian I had learned
  • Proscuito ham and cheeses and breads
  • The drive through Switzerland and visiting Basel
  • Architecture in all the countries
  • Pompeii
  • Drive to Sorrento and the beautiful blue water
  • The ferry trip was like going on a cruise (which I've never been on)
  • French pastries
  • Many long hours on the coach when the scenery was humdrum
  • cheap hotels
  • bad food in the Rome hotel!!!
  • litter and dog poop on sidewalks in Italy
  • prices
  • loud fighting in the middle of the night on the ferry trip to Amsterdam


After leaving Switzerland the landscape quickly turned flat and boring and became interesting when we reached Bologna.  We drove to our first Italian hotel on the outskirts of Milan - Crowne Plaza Linate.  The hotel was a newer hotel, clean and modern.  The food was good, but nothing to rave about on our first stay there.  At breakfast the eggs, bacon and sausage were inedible but some of the pastries and other options were good.  The bar had a good selection of free snacks. 

On our return trip we also stayed at the Crown Plaze Linate.  However, the food in the evening was cold when it should have been hot, the coleslaw tasted off.  The desserts were very nice though.  Breakfast the next morning was okay, but the pastries weren't fresh. 

On arrival at the Crowne Plaza while we were all checking in a man followed the group in and stole the overnight bag of one of our fellow passengers.  The bag contained diabetes medication and pajamas.  So the man had to go to a hospital to get more medication.  The thief was seen on the CCTV taking the bag and also showed his licence plate as he got in his car.  So aside from stealing nothing of value he was going to be caught.  Ha! 

We were warned about petty thieves and pickpockets and were well-prepared with our vests with security pockets. 


Our hotel in Rome for 4 nights was the Parco Tirreno.  The hotel was surrounded by lovely gardens and outdoor bar area, was quiet and the rooms were large and clean.  It was an ideal location as it was 1.5 miles from the Vatican.  However, this hotel was obviously decorated and furnished during ancient Roman times, was shabby, dreary with a musty smell.  As this was a group tour the breakfasts and dinners were included.  What can I say about the food we were served??  Horrid. Boring. Tasteless.  To be fair there were a couple of desserts that were nice and the risotto on the first night was good.  Otherwise the food was horrific.  One dinner consisted of chewy creamed pasta with occasional tiny bits of bacon.  The second course was dried up turkey with spinach on the side.  A treat at this meal was that the rolls were not longer as hard as rocks and were edible.  Dessert was fruit which wasn't yet ripe.  Breakfasts were stale breads, stale cereal, often the juice was too watery. 

Now for the good stuff....

On our first full day we did a tour which took us to the outside of the Colosseum.  The fee for going inside was not included in our tour.  As we had already booked a tour of the Vatican for the afternoon we left the tour early via taxi.  I was amused by the taxi driver who kept swearing at other drivers in what sounded to me as very fast Italian.  Traffic in Rome was as expected.  Crazy.

Vatican tour

I had booked our tour with Maximus Tours and we were very pleased with our tour guide, Joanna.  The tour lasted just over 3 hours and included key parts of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and visited St. Peter's Basilica on our own at the end of the tour.   The Vatican Museums were fascinating but we all found the Sistine Chapel a disappointment as it didn't feel like a chapel and was filled with crowds of pushy people who kept talking in spite of constant reminders to be silent.  St. Peter's Basilica was jaw-dropping amazing!  We also visited the Tomb of Popes.  One surprise we found was the Stuart tomb which contained King James II and III and Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). 

Pompeii and Sorrento

The next day we toured Pompeii for 3.5 hours and discovered one would need an entire day to see it all properly.  Fascinating!  Pompeii history on BBC

After leaving Pompeii we had a lovely drive to Sorrento on the Bay of Naples.  It was very difficult to get photos from a moving coach but I did get a few good ones.  The header of this blog is in Sorrento where we were able to explore for a couple of hours.

We had 3 hours to spend in Florence after our time in Rome was finished.  It's a place I could easily spend a day or two.

The cathedral was Santa Maria del Fiore and was amazingly attractive for a church that didn't look like a church.

Ponte Vecchio, the oldest of Florence's six bridges, is one of the city's best known images. Probably going back to Roman times with its stone pillars and wooden planks; it was built in stone but then newly destroyed by a flood in 1333. It was built again twelve years later, perhaps by Neri da Fioravante (or Taddeo Gaddi, according to Giorgio Vasari).


WOW!!!  Gorgeous country. 

Basel is in the area of Switzerland where they speak a dialect of German.  Weather was ideal.  We spent a couple of hours wandering the town which we found lovely and charming. 

Driving past the Rhine, Alps, lakes and splendid architecture was simply fabulous.  We drove past the village near one of the lakes where the mythical William Tell was said to have lived and shot an apple off the top of his son's head. 

On our return trip through Switzerland we took the long, winding route through the St. Gotthard pass which at its peak is 6929 feet.  The scenery was breathtaking!  We had a short stop to take photos near the top.  The homes were the typical picture of charming swiss chalets.


Our first night after leaving the ferry was spent in Colmar at Campanile Colmar Hotel.  The rooms were comfortable but a bit drab.  We were running very late evening due to the ferry and a detour and the staff stayed behind to prepare our dinner for our 9pm arrival.  The meal was delicious and the staff friendly.  Breakfast was lovely as well and, most importantly, fresh croissants!

A duplicate and smaller statue of liberty was located near the hotel. 

On the return trip through France we drove through the lovely Alsace region.  Flowers and flower boxes in windows were prominent in the villages we drove through.  Even the shabby houses looked pleasant with the presence of many flowers to brighten them up.  We noticed an abundance of boulangeries and patisseries and wondered why there was a lack of waddling French people with such heavenly treats so easily accessible. 

We stayed at a different hotel on this trip - Ibis Metz Woippy.  The rooms were not fabulous but acceptable.  Drinks were quite expensive - €6 for a beer - but meals were good.  Our dinner had a starter of salad, pate and rolls which were delicious.  Main course was an acceptable chicken and chips. Dessert was ice cream with rhubarb and other fruits which was tasty.


Except for a lunch we made no stops in Germany.  We drove on the autobahn past the Black Forest, Rhine River, the area where the brothers Grimm wrote fairy tales.  The cars, of course, passed us with amazing speed!  I enjoyed the unplanned detour through Baden Baden as I find seeing different types of architecture interesting.

No pics to upload of Germany.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Forgot one! Villa Adriana, Tivoli, Italy

On our last day in Rome we took a tour of Villa Adriana.  It is a World Heritage Site and is a large complex built in the 2nd century AD by Hadrian. 

It took about an hour and a half to get there from our hotel in Rome.  Interesting place!