Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa: Review

Kimpton Lorient Hotel & Spa Lobby
Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa lobby

Years ago, when it first opened, I stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa in Alexandria, VA. I wasn’t a fan, so I approached a recent visit with some trepidation. Not to worry! As the hotel has come into its own, everything about it has improved to become one of the better lodging options in Old Town Alexandria.

Décor: Contemporary mixed with historic accents

Favorite in-hotel experience: Happy Hour at Brabo

Location Advantage: Quiet end of King St.

Location Disadvantage: Somewhat shabby block.

Most distinctive public area: The courtyard you walk through to get to the entrance.

The Property

Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa courtyard
Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa courtyard

The Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa mixes contemporary décor with accents of Georgian architecture. For example, the property is set back in a traditional courtyard, with brick pavers underfoot and an old-fashioned clock in the center. The hotel nods toward historic Alexandria while still emphasizing contemporary clean lines and colors.

Public area in the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa

The public areas of the Kimpton Lorien are open and inviting. Because the hotel, like all Kimptons, offers a free wine hour starting at 5 pm, it has a large sitting room area adjacent to the lobby to accommodate guests. You can sit and read, or meet with friends, or chat with other guests. Brabo, the hotel’s restaurant, offers meals and an excellent Happy Hour.

The Room

King room at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa
King room at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa

Our king room was clean and modern, mostly white but with green/blue Rorschach blots on the wall above the bed. It had a large screen Samsung TV, a huge and wide mirror for checking dress from head to foot, and a long desk with mini bar fridge and storage.

For those like me who travel with tons of electronic devices, the room had plenty of open outlets. I especially appreciated that outlets, plus USB ports, on both sides of the bed.

The bathroom had a tiled shower with clear glass shower door. The Kimpton no longer uses individual bottles of shampoo, shower gel, and conditioner. Instead, you’ll find huge refillable dispensers of them, something I hate. Those dispensers make me feel as though I’m in a cheap hotel. Likewise, the small, rough, and thin bath towels didn’t match the hotel’s image.

The Staff

The desk clerks must be on the lookout for returning guests because they seemed to open the doors remotely when we approached them. Every employee we interacted with met us with a smile and complete attention. Housekeeping was thorough, resulting in a clean, fresh room every day.

The Location

The Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa sits on the far end King Street, close to the Alexandria Metro station and about a mile from Waterfront Park. Because of its location, it tends to be less touristy and therefore more quiet than other Old Town hotels. That said, everything is still within walkable distance: the historic sites, the restaurants, and the stores.

The Verdict

I would stay again at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa without hesitation. Because I’m a walker, I didn’t mind the distance to the waterfront. Besides, most things in Old Town Alexandria were much closer.

For nearby dining options, see my post Dining in Old Town Alexandria.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Cascade The Restaurant: Review

Filet of beef at Cascade The Restaurant
Filet of beef with chimicurri, sweet potato, oyster mushrooms, and goat cheese purée

If a friend had not told me about Cascade The Restaurant at Durham Springs, I would have never tried it. Without this recommendation, I would have missed out on the finest dining available in upper Bucks County, PA. Located in the country amid rolling hills, this restaurant offers innovative dishes that change weekly, perhaps even nightly.

Recommended dishes: Everything. No kidding.

Most surprising: The location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere

Cuisine: Innovative American

Dress: Business casual to dressy

Décor: Modern rustic

Price: Expensive for the area

Under New Ownership, in rural Bucks County

View from a table at Cascade the Restaurant
View from a table at Cascade the Restaurant

I’m shocked that such a fabulous restaurant exists only a few minutes from my home, in the country no less. I’ve had comparable meals in major cities such as San Francisco, Auckland, and New York at higher prices. Of course, the rent/property costs are much more expensive in those areas. That’s not to say that Cascade the Restaurant is cheap.

Many local residents know the building as the Cascade Lodge; however, new ownership has transformed it and stepped it up to a new level. Its new name, Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs, evokes the past while signaling the change. Owners Dan and Ian are hands-on management. Chances are, one of them will stop by your table to inquire about your experience. Kudos to them for hiring chef de cuisine Jon McCain, who has a palate for interesting flavors and an artistic eye. After all, when you’re paying for an upscale meal, you want the food to look as beautiful as it tastes.

Service is unpretentious, attentive, but sometimes awkward. I attribute that the newness of the restaurant. Still, the wait staff could use some better instruction on the menu items.

Seasonal Ingredients, With Artistic Flare

Wild-caught sockeye salmon at Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs.
Wild-caught sockeye salmon with rhubarb and blood orange sauce, yellow tomatoes

We’ve been to Cascade the Restaurant several times now, and each time the menu has been different. Chef Jon McCain uses seasonal ingredients to highlight the freshest flavors available. For instance, at one visit, I had a blow-me-away sweet corn risotto with crabmeat and shrimp, topped with fiddlehead ferns. At another visit, my husband ordered seasonal wild-caught sockeye salmon with late spring’s rhubarb underneath. My beef filet was adorned with a pansy flower for an edible pop of color.

Burrata appetizer, Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs.
Burrata cheese on a bed of rosemary sugar, with beets

Although I’d recommend ordering anything on a given menu, some dishes don’t rise to the level of others. For example, on a Wednesday night pris fixe menu, my scallops were slightly overdone. The rosemary sugar under a full burrata didn’t add as much interest as I had hoped. Despite those disappointments, everything else over four visits has been delicious and perfect.

The Events Center

Owners Dan and Ian have preserved and updated the events center for weddings and parties. Just outside the doors and next to the brook, they have graded a two-tier lawn area that extends to the duck pond.

Although I have not been in the events center itself, I’ve looked into it via the windows in the dining room. It carries over the same décor theme from the restaurant in a larger, open area.

Extras

Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs offers free valet parking in a gravel lot just across the road. Recently, they’ve announced the upcoming opening of a roof top café with lighter fare and more casual atmosphere.

The restaurant has a full bar. Although the cocktails are excellent, the wine list is limited, particularly in the by-the-glass offerings. Given the caliber of the restaurant, I wish they’d employ a Coravin to offer better wines by the glass. A Coravin allows restaurants to serve wines at per-bottle prices (that is, bottle price divided by five) without risk of a wine going bad over time. Even without a Coravin, however, the bottle list should be larger.

Recommendations

Make a reservation. Although the dining room hasn’t been completely sold out on our visits, accolades and word-of-mouth might change that. You don’t want to drive into the country, only to find out that you cannot get a table. Most of all, though, prepare yourself for an elegant and unpretentious dining experience.

— Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Three Days in Auckland

Three days in Auckland, view from Sky Tower
Auckland and its harbor, taken from the Sky Tower

Earlier this year, my husband and I spent three days in Auckland, New Zealand. If you think that’s too short, you’re right. The sprawling city by itself isn’t as interesting as Wellington; however, Auckland is a good jumping-off point to explore North Island.

Most memorable: A day on the island Tiritiri Matangi

Best Restaurant for Foodies: The Grove

Most Surprising: The excellent food at the Sugar Club, atop the Sky Tower

Most disappointing: The city itself

To Glowworm or not to Glowworm

We faced one of our biggest dilemmas before we even left the United States. Should we spend an entire day and hefty fees to see the Waitomo glowworm caves nearly three hours from the city? And if we did, should we bundle that with another stop? Were 5-10 silent minutes floating under the worms worth giving up a whole day with only three days in Auckland itself? The answer is, with caveats, yes. After all, we’d probably never get the chance again to see glowworms.

Because we hadn’t rented a car, we chose to book a GreatSightsNZ tour with Viator that included the caves, the Agrodome, and the hot springs and geysers at Rotorua. Our tour left at 7:30 am and returned to Auckland at around 6 pm. We decided to skip the Hobbiton bundle since we have no special affinity for the movie. GreatSightsNZ gave the option of stopping at Rotorua instead of returning to Auckland, a ticket that a handful of people on our tour bought.

Our tour guide Rachale mingled stories about her youth with the history of the land to help pass the time on the road.

The Caves

Our first stop was at the Waitomo Caves. Because you cannot take photos inside for risk of harming the glowworms, the tour guide makes you line up in front of a blue screen before you go inside. Cheesy, yes. We gamely pointed to the imaginary worms, but had no intention of buying the faked photograph at the end.

The tour of the cave took longer than I expected, mostly because our guide explained cave formation and facts about the worms. We saw a couple of dangling worms up close and several dotting the cave roof above us.

Finally, in complete silence and darkness, we boarded one of the boats that glided through the largest cave chamber. Overhead, thousands of blue lights glittered. The boat ride didn’t take long, and we were done. Because I knew what to expect, I wasn’t disappointed, although I understand why some are.

The Agrodome

I considered the Agrodome Rotorua the throw-away portion of the tour, but it turned out to be more interesting than I expected. By the time we arrived, a light rain had begun to fall. We filed inside to watch a sheep get her first shearing, then headed to the outside ring to watch a sheepdog-in-training herd her charges. The dog was so new and enthusiastic that the sheep just gave up in the chaos and went into the pen of their own accord. At least it was humorous!

Alpaca baby at the Agrodome
Alpaca baby at the Agrodome

We boarded a tram for a tour of the facilities. “Farming” in New Zealand means animal husbandry for the most part. We saw sheep, cattle, deer, and alpacas, including an adorable baby.

Naturally, they had a gift shop where we had a few minutes to browse.

Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve

We arrived at our last stop, the Rotorua Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, under a steady rain. The thermal reserve is akin to a mini Yellowstone, with geysers, hot pools, and mud pots. Unfortunately, the rain marred our visit. We saw no geysers, either, during our short stay. But the hot springs and kiwi house were worth the visit. The Maori cultural show was mildly interesting.

Thermal Reserve at Rotorua
Thermal Reserve at Rotorua

With the right weather and timing, this could have been fantastic. Even so, we enjoyed seeing this part of New Zealand.

Tiritiri Matangi

Although we should have booked this tour from the States, we locked into it only the day before. We didn’t have the ability to print the Viator tickets, and the ferry staff had issues scanning what I had on my phone. Thank goodness they finally waved us on board.

View from Tiritiri Mantangi
View from Tiritiri Mantangi

Tiritiri Matangi was absolutely the best thing we did in New Zealand. Hands down. No contest. We are bird lovers, and this sanctuary island without predators harbors some amazing species. Bring your binoculars! Even the 45-minute ferry ride offers views. And bring food and water since none may be purchased here. Even if you have only three days in Auckland and want to see the city, a trip to this island is well worth it.

Choose your path carefully, and keep track of the time. Once the ferry leaves in the afternoon, you won’t have another way off the island. Each ticket to Tiritiri Matangi entitles you to a guided tour. Avail yourself of this. Without our guide, I never would have known the history of the island, nor would I have known what to look for.

The island has forests, grasslands, and shorelines that attract a wide variety of birds. Despite all the birds I saw, I encountered none that I had seen before. Even the New Zealand pigeon was different — a giant about the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.

Other Things to Do

We walked to the New Zealand Maritime Museum from our hotel, the SkyCity Grand (not to be confused with the regular Sky City hotel down the block.) The Maritime Museum was the runner-up to “most surprising” aspect of our stay. I had expected little and found tons of intriguing facts and artifacts, from Maori canoes to World Cup racing boats. Not generally a fan of maritime stuff, I surprised myself by wishing for another 30 minutes to spend there. Alas, we had a lunch reservation to get to.

Because we had already settled on Auckland as a city of tours, we opted last minute for a Greylines city tour. We rode around the city on a giant coach bus, just the two of us and the driver. Although the driver was informative and we got to see things we wouldn’t have otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you, like us, have an afternoon to kill.

Sky Tower in Auckland
Sky Tower in SkyCity complex

The Sky Tower, located in the SkyCity complex, offers fantastic views of the city, plus thrill-seeking bungee jumping. We didn’t go all the way up. Instead, we ate at the Sugar Club for lunch, a pricy but well-worth-it restaurant with the same view.

Our three days in Auckland were well-spent, even if we didn’t spend much time in Auckland itself.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Loews Minneapolis Hotel: Review

Room at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel
Room at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel

I recently stayed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for an extended weekend. The hotel itself was comfortable with a modern décor. Theoretically, the location was also good, across the street from the Target Center, two blocks from Target Field, and a five-minute walk to Nicolette Mall. Unfortunately, what we experienced inside this hotel did not match what we experienced outside.

Décor: Contemporary

Favorite in-hotel experience: Cocktails at Relevé

Location Advantage: Walking distance to event centers and restaurants.

Location Disadvantage: Weekend night crazyiness

Fun part of stay: Sharing a hotel with the Milwaukee Brewers

The Property Itself

Although the Loews Minneapolis Hotel has a small lobby, the area offers some low, upholstered, bench-type seating for ten or so people. Off the lobby, the Apothecary Bar offers drinks and snacks until 5 pm, when the bar upstairs, Relevé, opens. A Starbuck’s is just outside the hotel’s side door and across the hall.

Relevé Champagne Bar
Relevé Champagne Bar, on the fourth floor

The architect for the Loews Minneapolis Hotel came up with a strange design, probably for security. To access your room, you must take the elevator to the fourth floor where you exit and proceed to a different bank of elevators. The second bank of elevators require you to use your card key to get to your room’s floor. Since the fourth floor is public space both for the Relevé Champagne Bar and the dining room, people can’t gain access to your floor without a key.

Although Relevé specializes in sparkling wines, it is a full service bar with a limited Happy Hour menu. Check the hotel signs for hours. You may choose to sit at the bar or at a chair next to a small table.

We did not eat in the dining room because we chose to patronize Minneapolis’s excellent restaurants. Also on the fourth floor, you’ll find a grab-and-go market.

The Room

We booked a room with a king-size bed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Although not huge, we found that it had ample room for two. My husband always claims the desk for himself, so I was glad to have an upholstered chair with a side table for myself. The calming grays-and-white went well with the accent wall of blue and green.

Bathroom at the Loews Minnaepolis Hotel
Bathroom

The bathroom had a contemporary green glass sink and a walk-in, tiled shower. The bath towels were small and rough. I’ve had bigger, softer towels at a Spring Hill Suites, and so thought the bath linens did not match the quality of the rest of the hotel.

The room contained plenty of power outlets, particularly at the long desk. The large screen TV, Keurig coffee maker, and bedside lamps completed the amenities in an otherwise spare room. Except for the rough towels, the room fit the chain’s “luxury” self-branding.

The Staff

We were greeted every time we entered by a friendly and efficient staff. They opened the door for us, both when we left and when we returned. When we had a question, they had an accurate answer. The largely unseen housekeeping workers kept the room clean and well-stocked. In terms of the staff, Loews Minneapolis Hotel couldn’t have done better.

The Neighborhood

During the day, we found nothing undesirable about the hotel’s surrounding area, but on Saturday night, all hell broke loose just a half-block away. The sidewalks filled with partying and often drunken (or high) people. A fatal stabbing occurred that night just two blocks away. While the stabbing may have been an anomaly, the rowdy pedestrians probably were not. We had previously stayed at the Grand Hotel Minneapolis several blocks away, and we had experienced none of this.

The Verdict

We loved the short walk to Target Field and local restaurants but not the Saturday night madness. After serious consideration, we decided that we would probably not return to the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis solely because of the neighborhood at night. Even though the Grand Hotel has changed ownership from Kimpton to Hyatt, we may return there next time.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Princeton University and Reunions

Alumni council president Jennifer Daniels
Outgoing Alumni Council President Jennifer Daniels, with University President Chris Eisgruber on the left.

We spent a weekend at Princeton University and Reunions in late spring. For Princetonians, every year is a reunion year.  This year, approximately 25,000 alumni, dressed in flamboyant orange-and-black blazers and “beer jackets”, returned to campus.  Tents cropped up with their beer spigots.  At night, bands played into the wee hours.  In order to get into the parties, though, you need a wristband that comes with paid registration.

In the past, famous alumni such as Brooke Shields, George Will, and Ralph Nader mingled with their classmates.  (I’m still waiting for Michelle Obama and David Duchovny. I missed Jeff Bezos in 2017). The P-rade, a raucous 3.5 hour parade through campus, starts in the afternoon.  Local people come just to watch the spectacle.  While you’re waiting for the P-rade to begin, you can explore the campus and town.

Best experience: Seeing old friends

Favorite non-reunion experience: Visiting the art museum.

Most innovative class costume: 2009, Super Mario Bros.

The University

Although I did not go to Princeton (other than taking a few classes), I’m a part of it. My husband and I lived in graduate student housing while he worked on his dissertation.  Since then, we return every year to Princeton University and Reunions.  The open campus in central New Jersey is not just for alumni, though.  Its art museum houses a world-class collection. The world-class Firestone Library puts on exhibits that are open to the public. Sporting events bring in a lot of spectators.  And Richardson Auditorium hosts classical music concerts.  Off-campus, McCarter Theater, a well-known regional theater not officially part of the university, puts on fabulous shows.  If you’re an architecture junkie, you might visit to see the collegiate Gothic or the new, more innovative buildings.

Architecture

Back of Nassau Hall, prior to the P-rade.
The back of Nassau Hall, prior to the P-rade.

The old parts of the university look exactly as you’d expect at an Ivy-league school, constructed in the collegiate Gothic style.  And, yes, many buildings are covered in ivy.  Nassau Hall, the iconic building at the entrance to the campus, was once occupied by the British during the American Revolutionary War. Like many well-endowed universities, Princeton is constantly expanding and renovating.  History is everywhere, but so are modern buildings. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry, sits on Washington Avenue. The all-glass Sherred Hall, home of the chemistry department, was designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners.  

Lewis Science Library
Lewis Science Library, designed by Gehry

The Art Museum

Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton University Art Museum

For a small, free museum, the art collection found inside is remarkable.  The European galleries contain works by Fra Angelico,Goya, Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Currently, the museum has a fascinating exhibit titled “Gainsborough’s Family Album” featuring Gainborough’s portraits of himself and his family.  Another room contains Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States.  The modern and contemporary galleries contain art by Georgia O’Keefe, Warhol, de Kooning, and yes, Tom Wesselmann.  You’ll find galleries devoted to photography, Asian art, African art, Ancient, Byzantine, and Islamic art — and more.  

(Any) Body Oddly Propped by Doug and Mike Starn
(Any) Body Oddly Propped by Doug and Mike Starn,
outside the art museum
Oval with Points by Henry Moore
Oval with Points by Henry Moore

The One-and-Only P-Rade

The 25,000 attendees include Princetonians and their families all dressed in class costumes.  They gather for the P-rade on Saturday afternoon, a 3.5 hour extravaganza that starts at 2 pm. The oldest alumni lead the way, followed by the 25th reunion class.  After those two groups, the classes count down from oldest to youngest.  The P-rade has marching bands, bagpipe players, Mummers, orange cars, and a few floats.  Everyone has a blast, from toddlers to nonegenarians — and beyond.  Joe Schein, from the class of 1937, was the oldest attendee.  As always, he walked the route despite being over 100 years old.  To get a true glimpse of Princeton University and Reunions, you need to either be there or, if you can’t, view a photo gallery.

Dining in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Fresh bread and house-made butter at Vermillion
Fresh Bread and House-made Butter at Vermillion

Two and a half days in Alexandria, Virginia? For me, that’s about perfect, especially when it comes to dining in Old Town. Since the DC metro stops right at the end of King St., you can easily combine visits to both Alexandria and Washington. Below I’ve reviewed some of my favorite restaurants in Alexandria, VA. The historic section may be small, but it has plenty of dining options. We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa, and everything below was within walking distance.

Vermillion

My favorite meal, hands down, was at Vermillion, a small, cozy restaurant on King Street. You won’t find white tablecloths here, although the food certainly deserves them. The chef creates dishes that sound simple but are really a complex melding of flavors and textures. Even the butter is house-made.

The menu changes with the season, so you can’t expect everything to be the same; however, you just know from the first bite that you can’t go wrong with anything.

Cocktails are excellent, and they have a wide selection of draft beer. The wine list is limited.

Recommended: roasted Wellfleet oysters; anchovy toasts (two tiny pieces); prime New York strip steak; Skuna Bay Salmon; Marcona almond tart.

Hank’s Oyster Bar

Hank's Oyster Bar
Window seat at Hank’s Oyster Bar

We lunched at Hank’s Oyster Bar, also on King St. and my second favorite dining experience in Alexandria. The restaurant has a typical long, dark bar in one room and a small, bright dining room in the other. You can eat in either room.This casual restaurant has a large selection of oysters — 7, the day I ate there — so of course we had to start with oysters on the half shell. (My favorites were Glacier Point and Salty Wolf. )

Neither one of us could resist the Maine lobster roll with Old Bay-seasoned fries. Yum! Stuffed with sweet Maine lobster meat, easy on the mayo, they were worth every penny.

Lobster roll at Hank's Oyster Bar
Lobster roll at Hank’s Oyster Bar

In a distinctive touch, Hank’s serves a small bowl of chocolate chunks when the bill arrives.

Recommended: oysters any way you like them; Maine lobster roll.

Brabo

We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel and Spa on King St. Their brasserie, Brabo, is a hopping place. For convenience, we ate there twice, for Happy Hour and for dinner before we left for home. We thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the drinks. My husband was a huge fan of Le Burger, a hamburger topped with gruyere, black truffle aoili, and pickles. The only dish I wasn’t wild about was the roasted cauliflower with capers. The flavors just didn’t meld.

Recommended: mussels mariniere; cheese and charcuterie board; Bartlett pear and goat cheese salad; Le Burger.

The Wharf

Sidewalk seating at The Wharf
Sidewalk seating at The Wharf

After a full morning and early afternoon of sightseeing, I turned once again to King St., this time closer to the waterfront. I had wanted to try The Warehouse because of its excellent reviews; however, the day was so gorgeous that I couldn’t bring myself to enter the darkened interior. Instead, I opted for The Wharf and its sidewalk seating area. (They also serve inside, in a dark and clubby space.)

I ordered a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a crab cake. The food and service were competent, good without being excellent. Of course, what I really wanted was to enjoy the day, and The Wharf gave me that.

Recommended: Sidewalk seating for lunch.

Crabcake at The Wharf
Crabcake at The Wharf

Bastille

One of my favorite restaurants from past visits to Alexandria was Bastille. I had high expectations, and I was disappointed. The restaurant has located to a more traditional building that makes it feel somewhat staid and like any other French restaurant. Gone are the exciting, modern vibes of a farm-to-table restaurant.

The chef offers a Monday pris fixe bistro menu of three courses for only $29. They also offer $29 bottles of wine. Both are great deals. Still, the waiter actually asked me how I would like my duck confit cooked. (Duck confit is a dish slow-cooked in fat to preserve it.) The dishes were flavorful and artfully plated, but all far too salty, as if prepared by a smoker.

Recommended (if you don’t mind salty food): duck confit with roasted pear, greens, and potato chunks; filet of beef with fries; arugula salad with salmon rillette, radishes, and cucumber

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Inaugural Alaskan Cruise for the Norwegian Joy

Alaska Cruise on the Norwegian Joy, the ship
The Norwegian Joy, the night before her maiden Alaska cruise.

In early May, I took an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy. My husband and I weren’t always cruise people. But when we decided several years ago to give it a try, we chose Norwegian Cruise Lines most because of its “freestyle dining.” We’ve been hooked ever since.

Most Memorable: whale watching; cruising Glacier Bay

Best Food: Le Bistro on the Joy

Most Surprising: We expected Juneau to be more of a city than it was.

Most Disappointing: The foggy/rainy weather often obscured the views.

We decided on an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy because the price seemed reasonable and the incentives were right. Unbeknowst to us, we had booked not only the first week of the season, but also the inaugural sailing of the Joy after a massive renovation. Many passengers chose the cruise specifically to experience the ship as a (sort of) brand new addition to NCL’s fleet.

We tend to cruise for the excursions. Other people cruise to cruise. Norwegian makes it easy for both types of travelers.

The Ports-of-Call

The Joy’s itinerary doesn’t always include Glacier Bay, and that was a must for me. The ship cruised round-trip from Seattle, stopping in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and an evening in Victoria, BC to satisfy foreign port regulations.

Although technically not a port-of-call, the day spent cruising through Glacier Bay is an all-day affair, with national park rangers providing lectures and commentary in public areas and on the TV.

The Ship: Joy, Indeed

We absolutely loved the Joy. The Observation Lounge, two-stories of glass viewing at the bow with small seating niches extending to the forward stairs, surprised us since we had not experienced anything similar on other ships.

Forward Observation Lounge
Forward Observation Lounge

You have to fight to get seats in this area, particular when the ship enters Glacier Bay. Most of the best seats were taken by 5 am that day, although I found a window seat in one of the niches by arriving a few minutes before 6 am. Good thing I was still on East Coast time!

The Observation Lounge has its own bar, plus three continental breakfast/snack areas. One of the ship’s Starbucks is located adjacent to the bar, although you can get regular coffee at one of the two longer food areas. On Glacier Bay and at-sea days, the crew sets up Irish coffee carts.

But the Observation Lounge isn’t the only attractive area in the ship. Our mini-suite with balcony was comfortable and even roomy, although storage was reduced from some of the other Norwegian ships we had experienced.

We loved the District Brew House, with its draft and bottled beer as well as cocktails, not so much for the drinks but for the bright and modern atmosphere. With its rugged, wood-and-glass décor, we felt as though we had left the ship for another space.

Juneau

Having cruised before only in the Caribbean, the arrival and departure schedules of this cruise took getting used to. We docked in Juneau at about 2:00 pm. Our first excursion departed at 3 pm and was expected to last until 8:30 pm. Like everything else on this cruise, we arrived back at the ship late, after the all-aboard time. Fortunately, if you book excursions through the cruise line, they guarantee that they won’t leave port without you.

We chose the Mendenhall Glacier and whale-watching combination excursion, hoping to get as much out of the port as we could. On the coach ride to the glacier, we saw a few bald eagles and a black bear, just out of hibernation.

The tour allowed an hour at the Mendenhall Glacier site, although we could have used more time, especially since the line in the women’s restroom was 15 minutes long. We were able to walk down to the edge of the lake, photograph the glacier, walk up to another viewing point — but couldn’t explore the visitor’s center in addition to that.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

Also in the Juneau area . . . .

From the glacier, our coach bus took us to our whale watching tour on a relatively large, heated boat with an open top deck for viewing. As with many of our stops in Alaska, it was in the 40s and drizzling, but that didn’t stop us from climbing upstairs to witness from above the pod of orcas right next to the boat. We also saw several humpbacks, including a mother and her male calf.

Skagway

Skagway looks like a typical gold rush town with its boxy wooden buildings, albeit it now occupied with jewelry stores and souvenir shops.

Skagway, Alaska: Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy
Skagway, Alaska

We chose to ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway one way to the top and then to take a coach to a suspension bridge, then through the Yukon Territory back to the ship.

Thanks to the entertaining commentary, the train ride helped us understand the history and the geography of the area. While the weather obscured more than we would have liked, the ride offered some memorable views, including the sight of the train’s engine passing through tunnel ahead. If you do this and plan to go only one way, choose the left side for better views.

And into Canada . . . .

Crossing into Canada at the top end of the ride, the skies turned miraculously blue, with white-capped mountains in the distance.

I expected more of the suspension bridge — I had thought we would take a short hike to it when it was more or less a roadside attraction — but the stop was worthwhile regardless, with gorgeous views of the river below and the white-capped mountains beyond. The ride through the Yukon Territory was socked in by fog, thus obscuring what we had expected to see. We did see another black bear walking alongside the road.

Glacier Bay

We secured seats by 6 am on the port side of the Observation Lounge. Starboard would have been better; however, we had our window seats. With Irish coffee in hand, we delighted in sailing past frolicking sea lions and mountain goats on the way to the glaciers at the head of the bay.

Yes, the day was cold, foggy, and drizzling. Everyone feared that we wouldn’t be able to see the glaciers. True to the park ranger’s word, we shouldn’t have worried. Still, we missed a lot of the supposedly spectacular scenery, making me want to return in future later in the season.

Lamplugh Glacier
The blue of the Lamplugh Glacier

I consider cruising Glacier Bay one of the highlights of our trip, equaled only by seeing the pod of orca whales. Even if it’s raining, you have to go outside to get a feel for the bay and to hear the thunder of calving glaciers.

Ketchikan

All the literature and cruise excursion materials warned us that we would experience rain in Ketchikan no matter when we visited, since the town measures its annual rain in feet, not inches. Remarkably, the day dawned with brilliantly sunny skies and temperatures that climbed to the low 60s.

Marina at Ketchikan
Marina at Ketchikan

We chose the “Rainforest Adventure” excursion that took us by Kodiak boat to an uninhabited island with towering trees and a moss-covered forest floor. Our guide gave us a knowledgeable 1-mile tour of the flora around us. We saw starfish on the island’s rocky shore and a few bald eagles perched on other islands.

Ketchikan was the only town we wished we had had time to explore beyond our excursion. When we had booked, we were supposed to return to town at 12:30 pm. Knowing that we weren’t scheduled to sail until 2:30 pm and that all-aboard times are generally 1 hour before sailing, we figured we’d have an hour. Nope. We were told upon arrival that all-aboard time was 12:45 pm, exactly when we arrived back (late) at the dock. The crew was so disorganized at this port that we had to stand in line for at least 30 minutes to board.

And, Last, the Food Aboard the Joy

Service was shaky throughout the cruise, even in some of the specialty dining restaurants, which we had always loved. In Cagney’s, when we asked for a wines by the glass list, our server said that she didn’t have one. Say what? Other servers, especially in the complimentary dining rooms, seemed perpetually in the weeds. Either that, or the kitchen wasn’t yet up to the task of serving 3000+ people.

Complimentary Dining

We visit the Garden Buffet only if we have to due to time constraints because, well, we aren’t buffet people. Others eat there exclusively because of the variety of selections. If nothing else, the buffet is worth visiting for the macarons, cookies, and ice cream.

Short ribs and pappardelle
Short ribs and pappardelle, at Savor.

We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches at the complimentary Savor or Taste. Although I prefer the chairs in Savor, the two dining rooms are virtually indistinguishable since they serve the same menus. The two dinners that we ate there were good, even if the service was spotty.

Premium Dining Options

Dover sole
Dover sole in Le Bistro

Le Bisto, NCL’s French restaurant, was the best dining experience we had, with excellent service, appetizers, entrées, and desserts. The Dover sole was deliciously delicate and pan-fried to a perfect brown without being overcooked. My husband’s filet of beef was better than what he got in Cagney’s. Profiteroles for dessert were out of this world.

Profiteroles at Le Bistro
Profiteroles, in Le Bistro

Ocean Blue, one of the à la carte restaurant that carries an upcharge even for dining packages, likewise had excellent service, although our surf-and-turf entrées weren’t as good as we had hoped. Our other courses were outstanding. The hamachi ceviche perfectly balanced the bite of lime with the heat of jalapeño. The appetizer may have been the culinary highlight of my trip, even if the meal as a whole didn’t measure up to that at Le Bistro.

Hamachi ceviche at Ocean Blue
Hamachi ceviche, at Ocean Blue

My major disappointment was Cagney’s, the cruise line’s signature steak house. We ate there twice. The first time, my rib-eye steak was decent, not great. The second time I ordered a New York strip for a better experience. My husband had no issues with his filets. Really, though, the best part of the meal was the tuna tartare appetizer. Maybe it’s just that we’ve experienced much better steakhouses.

Tuna Tartare at Cagney's
Tuna tartare, at Cagney’s

The Verdict is In

I would return for an Alaskan cruise on the Norwegian Joy in a heartbeat. The NCL Bliss is supposedly almost identical, so I’d book that in place of the Joy. The ship is amazing, and the food is good. Excursions tend to be more expensive than in the Caribbean. Based on how late we arrived back at the ship every day, I wouldn’t book a private tour company for less. Norwegian holds the sailing for its own excursions, not for others.

— Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Wellington New Zealand

Te Papa Tongarewa museum, Wellington New Zealand
On the pier near Te Papa Tongarewa, the premier Maori museum of New Zealand.

My husband and I traveled to Wellington New Zealand for spring break, which was, of course, the country’s early fall. We arrived exhausted but ready to explore.

Most Memorable: Eating oysters and drinking champagne on the waterfront

Best Food: Logan Brown

Most Surprising: The intimate feel of the capitol city

Most Disappointing: I wanted to stay one more day.

Although the seat of the government was originally located in Auckland, South Islanders complained about the distance. In 1865 it was moved to Wellington, located at the tip of North Island and the geographic center of the country. The Wellington Harbour, as seen above, is a bustling shipping and boating hub with restaurants and “sheds” lining the waterfront.

Continue reading “Wellington New Zealand”
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