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Traveling to new places can certainly be a mixed bag of experiences. I learned a long time ago not to let expectations get in the way of the experience itself. Even if you’ve spent a lot of time researching a destination in advance, there are always surprises along the way. Something might be closed. There may be a new exhibit or a festival that suddenly draws your attention. It could be overcrowded or timing may play an important role. Weather may also be an important factor. Whatever the situation when you arrive, flexibility is the key.
During our stop in Avignon, we had six optional excursions to choose from. Four were included- a walking tour of Avignon, a walking/tram tour (for gentle walkers), the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, or kayaking on the Gardon river. Two offerings, for an additional charge, included: A cooking class with a master chef at the Hotel la Mirande, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting.
I was interested in seeing the Aqueduct but that meant sacrificing a visit to Avignon and the Palace of the Popes. So it was hard to choose. Michael and I ended up deciding we wanted the adventure of exploring Avignon on our own. I thought to ask our Cruise Manager Tania, if there was an admission ticket to the Palace of the Popes, which there was. She had a few tickets on hand, for those not taking the tour that wanted to explore on their own. Good thing I asked!
One other thing– in each city we docked, Uniworld had maps available to take with us, whether we went with a guided group or not. Taking one today was especially beneficial.
We crossed the main road that runs along the Rhone river and entered the fortified walls of Avignon.
Avignon dates back to at least the 6th century BC under Greek domination. Naples and France each had their own piece of early history here. By the 1300’s, it became the residence of the Popes– seven in all would make Avignon their home before the Papacy returned to Rome as the permanent residence. In addition, multiple plagues had a big impact on the city over the centuries. While the current city population is about 90,000, only about 12,000 live with the ancient city center that is surrounded by looming medieval ramparts.
We walked through narrow streets, into the city, finding ourselves in the Place de l’Horloge. Not only is it considered the city center, it is one of the most perfect squares (I’ve seen so far) in Europe. It was still early in the day when we arrived. The hour was reflected by the activities of the merchants and restaurateurs busily preparing to open up shop. What made it so perfect was the blend of colorful shops, historic buildings and an old world atmosphere that hadn’t been completely modernized or commercialized. It still had so much charm.
Just a few blocks away was the Square Below the Palace of the Popes (Place du Palais). Not quite as charming as Place de l’Horloge but still historically beautiful and well preserved. There we found an artist was setting up to sell his work. Across the square, an accordionist played his squeezebox; busking at the steps of the Palace.
Palace of the Popes. The Palais des Papes is one of the 10 most visited monuments in France. It is the largest Gothic palace in Europe. Built in the 14th century, it was first home to Popes, then Legates, and finally Vice-Legates up until the French Revolution. Six papal conclaves were held here.
The majority of the palace was constructed in less than 20 years.
Over 20 rooms can be explored during your visit. Most of the ornate embellishments that were the finishing touches of later Popes, are now gone. One of the most interesting areas of the palace are the Popes’ private chambers– with original frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. (No photography allowed.)
The palace was first opened to the public in the early 1900s. Today, exhibitions and performances are held here year-round. It is interesting that the palace has not been turned into a museum house in the way that many historic places have been. Here, the focus is on the magnificence of the building and architecture itself.
From the Palace, we wandered through the streets of Avignon, passing many shops and small theatres on our way to the Rocher des Doms Garden overlook. We strayed from the main path, discovering some unique passages and paused a moment to watch a sculptor at work.
After winding our way around, climbing many steps, we found ourselves at the top of the Rocher des Doms Garden Overlook. The gardens and panoramic views were nothing short of spectacular. It was just incredible up there. I couldn’t help but wonder if our cruise mates were going to miss out on all this beauty, or be rushed through, to stay on schedule. We had all the time in the world.
I think we found the best view of the famous bridge- Pont d’Avignon or Pont Saint-Bénézet. Originally completed in 1185, it crossed the Rhone, only to be destroyed 40 years later by Louis VIII when taking over Avignon. It was rebuilt with 22 arches but river flooding repeatedly damaged the bridge. The surviving sections of the bridge are believed to have been constructed around 1345, with the Chapel of Saint Nicholas at the middle of the four remaining arches. The bridge is considered an important representation of the city, as well as the inspiration for the song, Sur le pont d’Avignon.
We took a break, grabbing a drink from a small cafe on the hill, and continued to enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We had perfect weather. It was hard to leave this place but we needed to start making our way back down the hill.
We reached the bottom of the hill, once again passing the palace and finding ourselves back at Place de l’Horloge. It was a little busier now, the carousel was in motion and tourists were beginning to fill the streets and shops.
We’d only covered about a third of Avignon but felt like the experience had been totally fulfilling. It was still early afternoon and we could have spent more time but I was anxious to get back to the ship.
Lighting Paulo. I ended up volunteering (getting volunteered) to try and help improve the lighting for tonight’s concert. After the daily briefing in the Van Gogh lounge, while everyone else headed to the Cezanne Dining Room for dinner, I stayed and helped the staff transform the lounge into a makeshift theater.
On all the previous Playbill cruises the ships had actual theaters (or performance spaces) with a stage. Being a much small ship, specifically designed for river travel, the S.S. Catherine had only the large Van Gogh Lounge (with no stage) that could accommodate all the guests at one time.
I’m not sure I was able to improve the lighting that much– but at least music director, John McDaniel would be lit. (The night before, he was totally in the dark.) The ship staff seemed grateful for the assistance and asked if I’d hang around for sound check.
A Private Moment. There really wasn’t time to go join our group in the dining room– so I went to our regular spot, which coincidentally was just off the lounge– on the front-lower deck of the ship. I got out there just in time to watch as our ship passed through one of the river locks– the first one I got to observe from start to finish. It’s fascinating how it works, moving from different water levels– and the fact that these locks help prevent most of the flooding that could occur along the river is pretty incredible.
After the lock, we were back in open water. Mostly natural, undeveloped land drifted by– with the occasional building or the remains of some ancient building coming and going from view. The sun was still quite hot as it was slowly starting it’s late afternoon descent from the sky. It was peaceful, quiet, and really a beautiful moment. How lucky I was to be experiencing it!
Paulo Szot In Concert. What a voice! Strong, rich, resonant– a joy to listen to. Paulo treated us to a wide variety of songs that included selections from his Tony Award-winning performance in South Pacific to Sondheim. I think the audience favorite had to be his rendition of Stars from Les Miserables; performed in many different languages and ending in English.
Paulo Szot is one of the most acclaimed and versatile baritones in the world, having garnered international acclaim as both an opera singer and actor. Born in Sao Paulo to Polish immigrants, Szot has appeared in leading roles with many major opera companies throughout the world including the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Dutch National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Rome Opera and Opera Australia. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Emile De Becque in the Broadway revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, for which he also won the Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle and Theater World Awards. Szot was the first Brazilian actor to receive such honors. In the recent 2016-2017 season, Szot appeared as Don Alfonso in a new production of Cosi fan tutte at Opera National de Paris and presneted a solo recital at Teatro Royal de Madrid as a salute to Frank Sinatra’s recordings of Antonio Jobim’s bossa novas. He also originated the roles of Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney in the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s The New Prince at the Dutch National Opera. — Playbill
Going Through the Locks. After the concert, the gang gathered on the deck and we were treated to quite a show. We went through probably the most unique of the locks on our trip– passing under, and then watching the massive gate drop behind us closing our ship in the lock, creating what felt like a medieval dungeon. It was dark and eerie, the ship’s floodlights reflecting off the dark, glistening walls as the water level changed before releasing us back out into the river.
It had been quite a day! I always tell people that doing the Playbill cruises is like getting two vacations in one. You enjoy traveling to, and exploring, fascinating destinations– and then you have the wonderful Broadway concert experience on board. Today was the perfect example of the best of both worlds.
Travel Date: May 23, 2017, Tuesday (Day 11)
Transport to train station: 8 AM. What?!? No! This can’t be! But alas, that was indeed the schedule.
No Sunday in the Park with George…. and Jeff and Michael and Mary.
As I’d posted before our trip, I had hoped we’d be able to spend a little of our Sunday morning on the l’Île de la Grande Jatte– where Georges Seurat spent much time sketching and painting. I guess it was just an art/theatre geek thing. I’d hoped we wouldn’t have been leaving Paris before noon– 10 am at the very earliest. I guess that moment just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next trip. (You hear that George and Mary?)
The night before, Michael and I somehow managed to pack our large and carry on suitcases inside each other so they would go on the truck ahead of us to the ship. (They told us we could send one bag ahead.) This way we didn’t have to lug a big suitcase on the train.
Everything actually worked out perfectly. We got up, had breakfast, and then it was time to head to the train station. No waiting around, killing time.
We arrived at the Paris station, Gare de Lyon, with plenty of time to look around the beautiful, building before boarding the high speed TGV train to Avignon.
It was hard to believe that after the whirlwind adventure we’d had so far– the ‘main event‘ was still ahead! Broadway On the Rhone! This would be our fourth cruise with Playbill Travel but our first-ever river cruise.
We arrived in the south of France (Avignon) in just under three hours. Even though there wasn’t a lot of unique scenery to speak of, it was a relaxed, comfortable trip.
We were warmly greeted and welcomed aboard the S.S. Catherine by the crew and encouraged to visit the buffet. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours so we ate and explored. We saw a number of people had arrived that hadn’t gone to Paris first– so we said our hellos and ended up camping out on the top deck.
It was empty up there– a beautiful sunny day and little hot. We guessed most were choosing to stay inside where it was cooler.
After a bit, we saw people coming up the stairs. It was none other than Grammy and Emmy Award winner, John McDaniel and his niece! We made introductions, had a nice conversation and then they were off to explore around the ship some more.
A crew member came around and told us we could check in and go to our rooms but our bags might not be there until later. When they arrived, we had enough time to unpack and take a short nap before the security/excursion briefing in the lounge.
The ship set sail, unceremoniously, while the meeting was going on. That was followed by cocktails on the upper deck and the introduction of our cruise’s entertainment: Liz Callaway, Paulo Szot, James Barbour, and Rebecca Luker; with music director, John McDaniel.
Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, is a small ship, specifically suited for river cruises. It only accommodates 159 guests and 57 staff in 6 suites and 74 staterooms. It has to be short enough to fit under the many low bridges. We would also be passing through 17 locks on the Rhone river from Avignon to Lyon.
The ship has most of the amenities of a larger ship, just scaled down. There’s one large dining room (most ships have three or more) and a big lounge that can hold everyone at one time. There’s also a smaller bar with a ‘pool’ that would be better described as a large hot tub. The only things missing are a gift shop and casino.
One of the first things I noticed, after the Murano chandelier in the lobby, was the beautiful modern art lining all the hallways. Tasteful and appropriate.
At 7 pm we met our friends for an enjoyable dinner and then retired early. I always feel exhausted on travel days, I’m not sure why. Looking forward to a new adventure on the day ahead!
Travel Date: May 21, 2017 Sunday (Day 9)
Southeast Asia Travel -11/14 – Day Sixteen: We woke up early to the news of the Paris attacks, as they were in progress; and we were instantly glued to the TV. Outside our balcony door, we could see our ship was cruising closer to the peaceful, sparsely populated island of Tioman, Malaysia… our destination for the day.
In the marketing materials for the cruise, Playbill touted (what other sources have as well) that Tioman was the island used to represent Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific but this isn’t true. Those scenes were actually filmed in Hawaii. Nevertheless, this beautiful island was here waiting for us.
The chaos playing out in Paris was diametrically opposed to the serenity before me. It just wasn’t right.
We broke away from the TV and headed to breakfast. Only a few people had started straggling in. Of course we wondered if anyone else knew what was going on in France. Our ship is French—did the crew know yet?
We checked the news again after we ate, and then decided to catch the first tender, figuring it was only going to get more crowded if we waited for a later one. We got down to the deck only to find out it had temporarily been postponed. After an hour, the temporary delay had become a questionable, permanent decision. No Tioman.
The story of what actually happened will probably always be a mystery. We were told that the resort we were supposed to visit (and use their beach)– suddenly went bankrupt overnight. This was odd as we were also told that as of the night before they were excited we were coming. I should also note that the population of Tioman (in 2008) is estimated at 432. So to believe this story, you’d have to believe that a small beach resort, knowing a ship was bringing over two hundred customers for the day– suddenly decided to close shop and not even wait an extra day, collecting whatever income it could. It makes no sense.
Add to this, there were two other resorts visible from our ship and no one could be reached at either of them. From our viewpoint, the coast was completely deserted. A rumor started on our boat, early on, that initially I didn’t give much credence. A few people were suggesting that because of the Paris attacks and because our ship was French; the islanders were afraid to let us come ashore. Later I had no choice but to believe it, especially after seeing movement on shore as soon as our ship started drifting further away. A few small fishing boats also started to appear. It was curious to say the least.
At noon, the crew organized a brief gathering on the rear deck to remember the people of France and lowered the French flag to half-mast. Yes, all over the world- even on a small ship floating in the South Pacific– people were touched and solidarity ruled over despair.
It was announced that at 2 PM the Broadway performers were rallying together to put on a variety show to entertain the ship. This thrown-together event turned out to provide some pretty exciting moments. All the performers (except Liz Callaway whose concert was scheduled for tonight) performed; giving us a wonderful show. For many of us, it was probably a better way to spend the afternoon than basking in the sun anyway.
This was our last night on the ship; tomorrow we’d dock in Singapore.
Liz Callaway’s show was moved up to an hour before dinner. She pulled out all the stops and gave us a terrific show. I was especially thrilled because her final song was, The Story Goes On, from the musical Baby. Particularly poignant for many reasons. Liz is another of the many Broadway performers that gives her whole heart when she sings. It was a perfect last concert among so many great performances we received.
Following the concert, we had the introduction of the ship’s crew and our final toast to the end of a great cruise. Michael and I just happened to be sitting in front of Hunter Foster and Jennifer Cody, so we got to clink our glasses of champagne with them.
I regret not getting to say goodbye to a lot of people after dinner. I really wasn’t thinking about the unlikelihood of seeing many of them in the morning. We were smart enough to get most of the email addresses exchanged early though, so we’d be able to stay in touch.
We spent the last couple of hours before bed packing and dealing with the reception desk. The cruise has gone way too fast and I’m just thankful for all the wonderful memories. Luckily, we have a full day in Singapore tomorrow before we start the long journey home.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Ten: Michael and I woke up ridiculously early, considering we didn’t get to bed until after midnight. We were both up before 3 AM. I took advantage of the time to upload pictures to Facebook and for future blog posts while everyone else was asleep—meaning a faster Internet connection.
I worked on my blog, we watched some TV and explored the ship a bit before getting ready for breakfast. Breakfast has turned out to be my favorite meal of the day on the ship. The bacon is the best I’ve ever had. Apparently, some people were complaining it wasn’t crispy enough and I thought that was pretty funny.
This morning, Phil Birsh gave a talk about Playbill and its long association with Broadway and theatres around the country. It’s been in his family a long time and they do a wonderful job supporting the theatre community, from Broadway all the way down to providing services for schools.
This afternoon we were anchored in Sihanoukville, Cambodia and many people had excursions planned. We’d researched it before the trip and decided not to leave the ship. Re-entering Cambodia meant we needed another Visa and we felt it wasn’t worth it. None of the excursions appealed to us; besides, it was a short stay of only about four hours. Instead, we took a long nap.
We made the right choice. I didn’t hear one person say they enjoyed their excursion and there were some horror stories from people as well. One group ended up hiking through swampland to get back to dry ground after rain and an aborted tour.
The Norm Lewis concert was tonight. He’s always phenomenal. There’s just something really extraordinary about the way he connects with an audience—his powerhouse voice is pretty astounding too. Norm was on the Baltic cruise (BOTHS3) too. He’s one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Nine: Michael and I woke up this morning just as we set sail, leaving the port in Ho Chi Minh City at 5:30 AM. We sailed along the Saigon River heading out to sea. Little did we know that for the next hour we’d be part of some craziness that would be the talk of the ship.
As the Le Soleal was maneuvering through the river, we’d feel the ship slightly tilting as we sailed. I had jumped in the shower while Michael was dressing. The ship rocked a bit tilting to the left and I heard a loud rushing sound like someone dragging something across the floor. When I came out of the bathroom Michael explained the sound– and our morning adventure began.
It seems that when they were getting the ship ready for boarding, someone forgot to lock the wall adjoining our cabin to the one next to us. (With the wall open it is reconfigured as a suite.) So every time the ship tilted to the left, the wall would slide open revealing our neighbors who were sleeping in the next room. I emphasis WERE sleeping.
As the wall opened, Michael was staring directly at them and said he couldn’t think of anything else to say besides, “Good Morning!” Luckily, it was a couple (Peggy Sue and Champ) we’d already met and toured with, so they weren’t complete strangers.
After an hour of repeatedly shutting the ‘wall’ (and trying to hold it shut) and four phone calls, three men finally showed up at our door to fix the problem. I’d been sitting there working on my computer and holding it closed while Michael finished getting ready.
Phil Birsh, President and CEO of Playbill, stopped us in the hall later in the day, apologized and asked us if it was okay if he used it as a funny story to tell that night before the concert. We said ‘yes’. He, of course, embellished the story and had everybody laughing. He added that Peggy Sue and Champ and Michael and I had already booked Italy (BOTHS7) and had requested adjoining rooms. It was pretty funny.
A day at sea is a little more relaxed than an excursion day but full of programing with the Broadway stars. First, Seth Rudetsky hosted a talk about Miss Saigon with Liz Calloway who played Ellen in the original Broadway company (and had a baby a month before it went into production), and Norm Lewis who played John later in the run.
That was followed by a talk, later in the afternoon, with the legendary Tommy Tune– who’d been a surprise guest on the cruise, talking about his career.
Before dinner, Michael and I went up to the deck that overlooks the pool and found a bat hanging in the corner, just inside door. We had to get a crew member to come remove it because we thought it might scare someone, or God forbid, start flying around inside the ship. Yes, these things happen to us.
The concert that night was with Lindsay Mendez. Of course it was wonderful. We were thrilled to finally see her performing live for the first time.
The finally event of the night was Playbill After Dark. Seth Rudetsky hosted a Broadway trivia game and we won a 2016 Playbill calendar. It was quite an adventure for the first full day aboard ship.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Eight: We had breakfast early and then had to check out of the hotel before our tour this morning. We almost didn’t book this Vespa tour… so very glad we did! It made up for the shortcomings in yesterday’s tour and then some. If we had only gone on yesterday’s and not today’s, I’d have said I didn’t really see much in Saigon. Luckily, choosing to ride all through Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike was the best thing we could have done. The experience itself was pretty thrilling. Add to that, all the sights we visited and we really got an opportunity to see and feel the vibe of the city.
The tour was with Vespa Adventures and there were 10 in our group plus our guide, Yu. We each had a driver—all we had to do was enjoy the ride and not fall off. My driver was Gai and she was definitely skilled at manipulating the bike through some pretty tight situations. I have video I’ll try to post later. It’s too difficult to just describe how crazy the traffic is; combining all the motorbikes and cars is intense for an outsider.
We started out at what is known as a bird park. Residents bring their birds (in cages) to socialize and learn how to sing and fly from other birds. I thought this was pretty unique and certainly something you don’t see in the states. There’s a little outdoor café there and people sell treats for the birds like grasshoppers and crickets.
Next we visited the monument for Thich Quang Duc. He was the Buddhist Monk who burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. He did this to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government on June 11, 1963. This was a pretty powerful moment. Our guide Yu, turned us around from the monument and showed us the exact spot where it happened. One person can make a difference. The photo of this tragic event was seen around the world; for the first time bringing worldwide attention to what was happening here.
We visited three more beautiful temples, each as different as they were alike. We did have to remove our shoes at one of them, as is the custom, showing our respect.
At a pharmacy, we were able to watch natural medicines being assembled for a variety of ailments. Many are delivered to customers and then brewed into teas by the person in search of a cure.
Pho 24 was our stop for lunch. I can now say I’ve had authentic Vietnamese Pho soup. Pho soup is basically a fresh clear broth with noodles, meat and seasoning. I prefer Pho Ga (chicken). It is both delicious and filling.
After talking with our guide, we made a little change in our tour and she took us through a fish and flower markets. In the flower market we also went down a maze of alleys and were able to see some of the small rooms and apartments people call home. I’d guess most of these tight alleys couldn’t be more than three feet wide.
We were supposed to go through the highway tunnels out to a spot for a great view of the skyline, which we did—as it started to pour. We pulled over long enough to put on rain ponchos and then continued but didn’t stop at the spot due to the rain. It was a typical tropical downpour and didn’t last long.
Our last stop was near what was the U. S. Embassy during the Vietnam War. From that spot we could see where the last helicopter lifted people to safety from the roof of the Embassy. It was another powerful moment personalizing history to childhood memories.
The Vespa Tour made the trip to Ho Chi Minh City complete. It’s a must do for anyone wanting to get a great, short introduction to the city.
All Aboard. In the afternoon we were driven to the port and finally boarded the Ponant ship, Le Soleal for the actual Broadway On The High Seas 5 cruise. We had the always annoying (but mandatory) safety drill (this one was especially bad) followed by dinner.
The first concert of our cruise was given by two-time Tony Award Winner, Christine Ebersole. It was magical. The perfect start to many wonderful performances we’d be blessed with on this year’s BOTHS5 cruise.
We’re finally packed and ready to go. In less than 24 hours, Michael and I will be on the first of four flights taking us to the other side of the world. Chicago to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Singapore and finally Siem Riep, Cambodia.
We had an incredible time traveling with Broadway on the High Seas 3- two years ago; and Broadway on the High Seas 5 is destined to be an exciting adventure. From the wonderful talent to the exotic destinations; it’s like getting two vastly different vacations in one.
Sponsored by Playbill and Playbill Travel and arranged by Judy Perl Worldwide Travel, Broadway on the High Seas is an exciting way to travel the world and tour on land by day; and at night, meet and be entertained by some of Broadway’s best performers.
Here’s our itinerary:
Nov 1- 3 2015 Siem Riep, Cambodia
Nov 4- 6 2015 Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam
Nov 7, 2015 Sailing the Saigon River
Nov 8, 2015 Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Nov 9, 2015 Ko Kood, Thailand
Nov 10, 2015 Bangkok (Siam), Thailand
Nov 11, 2015 At sea
Nov 12, 2015 Ko Samui, Thailand
Nov 13, 2015 At sea
Nov 14, 2015 Tio Man, Malaysia
Nov 15, 2015 Singapore, Singapore
For over 30 years, two-time Tony Award winning actress, Christine Ebersole…
Growing up in the oldest Black chartered Municipality in the US,…
Liz Callaway is a Tony nominee and Emmy Award-winning actress, singer…
Hunter Foster cut his teeth on Broadway in the companies of Les…
Jennifer Cody’s Broadway credits include Rumpleteazer in Cats, Cha-Cha in Grease and a blind…
Seth is the afternoon host on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio’s “On Broadway”as…
Growing up in Brooklyn, Kerry Butler grew up around the theater…
Rachel York recently concluded her critically acclaimed performance as Big and…
Lindsay Mendez recently starred in Roundabout’s critically-acclaimed premiere of Josh Harmon’s…