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8 Reasons You Should Go on a River Cruise

It’s springtime in the Balkans, and I watch the trees unfurl their leaves while plying the Danube on a 10-day Viking River cruise from Bucharest, Romania; to Budapest, Hungary. The shoreline is forever in view as we gracefully glide past small villages and the occasional riverside castle. Each day, the Jarl pauses long enough for us to explore a new port-of-call, sometimes an obscure medieval town with an unknown name and other times a capital city rebuilding its glory in this former war-torn region of southeastern Europe. The area’s history comes to life each day on this floating leisure classroom.

Like the water that pours into the Danube’s locks, slowly lifting the ship to a new level, river cruising is on the rise. From interesting destinations to high-quality experiences, here are eight reasons to book a river cruise right now in any part of the world.

viking cruise ship beyla in port

More Time in Port

Unlike ocean sailing, which is primarily about the onboard experience, river cruising focuses on the very places you’ve traveled so far to get to. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic, “River cruises are destination-centric, and the ship is a backdrop. It’s like a boutique hotel that moves with you so you don’t have to pack and unpack.”

Most days on my Passage to Eastern Europe cruise, the Viking Longship set sail in the evenings during dinner service and continued moving along until it reached the next port the following morning. It docked right in town and passengers could either join a shore excursion—usually a combined bus-and-walking tour of the town and nearby sights—or wander off on their own.

Of the trip’s 10 days, just one full day was spent on the water, though sightseeing remained on the agenda. Not only did we get to fully enjoy the ship’s amenities (such as basking on the sun deck and having drinks delivered to our favorite reading nooks), but we also had front-row tickets in what felt like a mobile theater. Our program director, Cornelia, narrated our passage through Serbia and Romania’s famed Iron Gates, a dramatic transit between 1,600-foot cliffs with a glimpse of the larger-than-life rock sculpture of Decebalus, king of the Dacians. (Scroll down to watch this epic experience).

 

What to Wear on a River Cruise:

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SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.

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Watch: The Jarl’s transit through the Iron Gates locks

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Arts & Culture Historical Travel Luxury Travel Senior Travel

Why This Viking Ocean Cruise Is the Best Way to See Northern Europe

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Cruisers love Viking for its river cruises, but the company is making a splash with its ocean cruise offerings as well. The Viking Jupiter is the sixth (and newest) ship in the fleet—with a seventh ship, Viking Venus, coming soon. The cruise line is adults-only, so passengers are all 18 or older. With a slightly higher price tag (though still great value) and longer itinerary than many cruises, the majority of passengers are around retirement age. Onboard highlights include the gorgeous Wintergarden space, outdoor infinity pool, fine-dining options, and nearly all-inclusive experience. Cabins are clean, modern, and reasonably sized, with ample closet space and a large bathroom. The ship almost always feels uncrowded, with plenty of places to tuck away, including the upper level of the Explorer’s Lounge and the atrium area.

As the newest ship in the fleet, the Viking Jupiter both set and met high expectations on the Homelands itinerary I joined in 2019. The Viking Jupiter mostly embarks on European (Baltic and the Mediterranean Sea) itineraries, but it’s also making a southern Atlantic crossing this year and heading to South America.

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Viking Jupiter Pros

  • A smaller ship with less than 1,000 passengers (double-occupancy); never felt crowded
  • High crew-to-passenger ratio
  • Quiet cabins
  • Adults-only
  • Cozy spaces like the library and Wintergarden
  • New ship (2019) with refined and modern decor
  • Attentive and friendly crew
  • Outdoor infinity pool and hot tub
  • Indoor/outdoor pool with large deck area
  • A large cafe/buffet space, three main dining spaces, a pool grill, and two quick-service food areas
  • Restaurant with a five-course menu (menu rotates every two to three days)
  • Two onboard sommeliers
  • Tea time every day from 4 to 5 p.m.
  • 24-hour room service
  • Musical theater performances, live band every night, instrumental and acoustic performances multiple time per day
  • Jazz club, four open area bars, and plenty of lounging areas
  • Explorer’s Dome with nightly light shows
  • Sports deck with mini-golf, ping pong, bocce, and more
  • LivNordic Spa with a snow grotto, steam room, sauna, cold plunge pool, heated pool, hot tub, and treatment rooms
  • Nightly presentations on the next day’s port
  • Shore excursion (usually a walking tour) included at every port
  • Easy disembarkation process (ground transfers included when booking with Viking Air)
  • Easy-to-use app and website for itinerary planning
  • Heated floors in cabin bathrooms
  • USB ports and North American outlets in cabins
  • Wi-Fi at no extra charge
  • Free use of laundry machines
  • Free drinking water

Viking Jupiter Cons

  • Reservations required at two of the three dinner restaurants (although generally easy to get in last-minute)
  • Expensive shore excursions
  • Included shore excursions went at a slower pace
  • Windows in the lounge viewing area were tinted dark

What’s Included (And What’s Not) on Viking Homelands

view from deck on cruise ship in norway.

Almost everything is included on the ship and the Homelands tour, making for a stress-free experience.

Cruise rates include all food and meals at all of the ship’s dining areas, bars, and pool deck, and 24-hour room service. Non-alcoholic drinks are also included as well as house beer and wine with lunch and dinner service. There are two dinner restaurants that require reservations: Manfredi’s (Italian) and The Chef’s Table (Fine Dining), but I had no problem getting last-minute reservations when needed.

All entertainment, books and games, and use of the fitness center and spa are included. In each port, there is a free shore excursion included, which is typically a walking tour of the area. There are also free movie screenings and lectures onboard as well as dozens of complimentary movies on demand. Wi-Fi is included in the cruise rate as well. I found the Wi-Fi to be above average, especially for being out to sea. There are also computers onboard for use if needed. There are laundry rooms throughout that are free for guests. Free drinking water is replenished daily in the cabins and bottled water is provided when you disembark in port.

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Alcohol, spa treatments, and most shore excursions come at extra charge. The Silver Spirits Beverage package is around $20 per guest per night, which is reasonable in comparison to other lines. This includes all beer, wine, and drinks up to $15 as well as an upgraded wine pairing at The Chef’s Table dinner. If you think you’ll be having a few drinks while on your vacation each day, it’s worth upgrading to this package. Otherwise, drink prices start at $5 per drink. You may also bring your own drinks with you; there is no corkage fee.

For gratuities, Viking automatically adds a discretionary hotel and dining charge of $15 per guest per day to your shipboard account, which appears on your final invoice at the end of your cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar, beverage, wine, and deck service tabs. If you want to make changes to the amounts or pay in cash, you can do so onboard. You can also pre-purchase the standard recommended gratuity ahead of time, which is shared among the onboard staff.

Review: Onboard the Viking Jupiter – Amenities, Activities, Entertainment, & ‘The Scene’

interior view of viking jupiter cruise ship.

  • Rating: 4.0

Live music, cozy corners, and a glimpse at Viking culture make for a well-rounded onboard experience.

The Viking Jupiter is an upscale casual ship focused on providing a cultural experience onboard and at every port of call. You’ll find plenty of relaxing spaces onboard in the atrium levels, as well as a library, games for use, and interactive maps. There are also two small exhibit areas featuring Viking clothing and artifacts. Viking hosts a daily series, “Munch Moments,” which showcases several Edvard Munch pieces each afternoon in The Living Room/Atrium area. You can also download a specific app that walks you through the art and design onboard. Don’t miss out on guest lecturers, port talks, streamed TED Talks, destination performances, film screenings, and more onboard. There is also an onboard cooking school, The Kitchen Table, where on sea days, you can learn to cook dishes highlighting an upcoming destination.

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Music is an integral part of the Viking experience. The Viking Jupiter has a resident pianist, guitarist, violinist, and cellist that play throughout the day. There is also a band that plays in cast performances as well as nightly at the Torshavn lounge. There’s an onboard cast that puts on shows ranging from Broadway-style musical performances like “Decades” to cabaret.

The ship is on the quieter side, with music ending at midnight each night. Most guests are in their cabin before then. Port arrivals range from 7 to 10 a.m., and on port days, we were required to be back on board between 1 and 9:30 p.m., depending on the day’s itinerary.

The layout of the ship is easy to figure out, and by the second day, you’re likely to have a good feel for it. All of Viking ships are similar, so if you’ve been on one before, you’ll be right at home. Deck 1 is home to the specialty restaurants and spa, Deck 2 is where the main dining and entertainment options are, and Deck 7 is where you’ll find the main pool, pool grill, the infinity pool, World Cafe, Explorer’s Lounge, and Wintergarden.

Overall, the dress is semi-casual, with the only rule being no jeans in the main dining restaurants for dinner. The staff is very accommodating, though, and any sort of enforcement of dining room dress seems to be rare.

Review: The Cabins on Viking Jupiter

Viking jupiter deluxe veranda.

  • Rating: 4.5

Spacious bathrooms, ample closet space and storage, and comfortable beds are all you can ask for in a cruise cabin.

On Viking Jupiter, you’ll find modern, clean, and brand-new cabins. All rooms have flat-screen TVs, ample closet space with built-in shelves, bathrobes, safes, a small seating area, and a desk with a pop-up vanity. Rooms are serviced twice per day, and a room steward is on duty. I stayed in the Deluxe Veranda Stateroom, which totaled 270 square feet, including the private veranda. On my cruise, I did not experience any noise from the hallways or surrounding cabins.

The bathrooms are thoughtfully designed. There are multiple glass shelves for holding toiletries as well as a drying clothesline, towel racks, and drawers. Additional amenities include a spacious glass-enclosed shower, heated floors, toiletries, robes, slippers, and a hairdryer.

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Veranda staterooms (there are three tiers: standard, deluxe, and penthouse) come with a King-size bed with an optional twin-bed configuration. Square footage ranges from 270 to 338 square feet and only the standard does not come with a stocked minibar. The penthouse stateroom gets you a welcome bottle of champagne, complimentary pressing and shoe shining, and a larger space.

In the suites category, Viking offers several types of suites, including the Penthouse Junior Suite (at 405 square feet), the Explorer Suite (757 to 1,163 square feet), and the Owner’s Suite, which includes a private library, and wine and music collections curated by Viking’s Chairman Torstein Hagen.

Review: The Food and Drink on Viking Jupiter

norwegian waffels

  • Rating: 4.0

Plenty of free food options that surprise and delight.

Onboard the Viking Jupiter, you’ll find plenty of all-inclusive dining options. On Deck 1 are the specialty dining restaurants, Manfredi’s (serving Italian favorites like lasagna and gnocchi) and The Chef’s Table. The latter offers a five-course themed menu that comes with wine pairings; the menu rotates every two to three days. On the night I went, the theme was West Indies, and I was pleasantly surprised by the flavors and execution of each dish. Reservations—which can be made in advance of the sailing or once aboard—are required for both specialty dining restaurants. On Deck 2 you’ll also find the main dining restaurant, The Restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner. Also on Deck 2 is Torshavn, an intimate lounge with a jazz-club feel that’s a favorite late-night hangout for live music. Dinner attire is elegant-casual, but there was never an overly stuffy feel—or judgment for being underdressed.

On Deck 7, you’ll find the World Cafe, which is Viking’s version of a buffet, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are many stations serving different foods, but favorites include the sushi bar and gelato bar. I appreciated that the food was refreshed constantly and that there were plenty of options for all types of diets. The Pool Grill (also on Deck 7) offered a smaller version of the World Cafe buffet (and a killer burger), but also occasionally had specialty dinner offerings like “Surf and Turf.” The Pool Grill is open for lunch and dinner daily.

For eating and drinking outside traditional meal hours, you can head to The Viking Living Room and Viking Bar on Deck 1. On Deck 7, there’s also the Pool Grill and Bar, Aquavit Bar, Explorer’s Lounge, and Mamsen’s, a Nordic-inspired snack bar of sorts that serves late-morning waffles, mid-afternoon smorrebrods (open-faced sandwiches), and late-night charcuterie. The Wintergarden, also on Deck 7, hosts a lovely tea with finger sandwiches from 4 to 5 p.m. every day.

The onboard liquor is priced fairly, with most beer, wine, and well liquor selling for $5 per drink. Onboard, there are two sommeliers, so the wine selection is always well-considered. (Upgrading to the drinks package offers an even finer selection for lunch and dinner.) In both the Explorer’s Lounge bar and Torshavn lounge, there’s a large selection of liquor ranging from well to premium.

Room service is available for more basic food items and is included 24/7. I only ordered breakfast once, and it was on time and warm when it arrived.

Review: The Spa & Fitness Center on Viking Jupiter

interior view of cruise ship spa.

  • Rating: 4.5

A Nordic spa and gorgeous fitness center make working out and self-care easy onboard.

The LivNordic spa is an ideal spot to visit during sea days or after a chilly shore excursion in the fjords. Each locker room has a cold plunge pool and sauna, while the joint spa area includes a snow grotto (a cold room with piles of ice that you rub on your body to open up your pores), large hydrotherapy pool, a cold bucket dump shower, a hot tub, and a multi-jetted experience shower that refreshes you with water at various temperatures. The spa itself is free to use for all guests.

Treatment prices at the spa are in line with what you’d find at a high-end spa or luxury hotel, though discounts were available on certain days. There’s also a salon onboard offering blowouts, manicures, and pedicures.

Also included in your cruise rate is the use of the fitness center, which offers excellent views and plenty of brand-new machines and weights. For an additional cost ($10), you can sign up for group classes like Pilates.

Review: Shore Excursions/Itinerary on Viking Homelands

white historic houses in norway.

  • Rating: 4.0

Plenty to do in each port, but you will need to dish out some extra cash for experiences.

The Viking Homelands trip is a 15-day itinerary that makes port stops in Stockholm (embarkation port), Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk, Berlin, Copenhagen, Alborg, Stavanger, Eidfjord, and Bergen (disembarkation port). It highlights true Viking culture at each port, with enriching shore excursions like home visits and walking tours with locals. This is an ideal itinerary for seasoned travelers looking to blend new destinations and revisit favorites. It was my second time visiting Berlin and Copenhagen and it was nice to have a relaxing day to enjoy the city and return to some of my favorite spots. Cruising is also the best way to experience Norway’s fjords—many passengers I spoke with named this part of the journey as their favorite. While generally, you need a visa to spend time in Russia, as a cruise passenger, you won’t need a visa if you are booked on one of the cruise’s excursions—a convenient and simple way to visit St. Petersburg. Overall, I thought the itinerary was well-planned, with an interesting mix of cities and the perfect amount of time in each port. There is only one at sea day (on day seven); and the boat stays overnight in Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Bergen.

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I booked two shore excursions with Viking: a RIB boat tour in Stavanger, where we got a closer look at the landscape via a speedboat; and a kayaking excursion in Eidfjord. Both were active and exciting excursions that I probably wouldn’t have booked on my own. I also liked that the excursions were only a few hours long, which left me extra time in port to explore. Viking’s walking tours are also a great option for travelers looking for an introduction to the city; they are followed by enough free time to walk around at your leisure. Viking did a fantastic job explaining the optional activities at each port—you could even book excursions via your stateroom TV if there was still availability, though passengers are encouraged to book in advance. There’s an activity level listed with each excursion. In talking to other passengers, many enjoyed the Flam railway (Eidfjord) and flightseeing excursion offered in Eidfjord and Bergen.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this ocean cruising experience and revisiting a few of my favorite cities in Europe in a completely new way. And, there really is no better way to take in the natural beauty of the fjords than by sailing on them. Plus, the region is the cruise line’s home, so this itinerary is especially thought out and exclusive for travelers.

Interested in finding out more about this ship or this cruise itinerary? Send me an email at editor@smartertravel.com.

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Ashley Rossi was hosted by Viking Cruises. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

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Adventure Travel Beach Booking Strategy Island Travel Scams Travel Trends

6 Cruise Scams You Should Never Fall For

Those slick TV ads can make a cruise look like the “dream come true” experience of a lifetime. And a cruise can, in fact, be a wonderful experience. But sometimes that experience morphs from dream to disaster. A cruise is both a means of transportation and a destination resort with its own passport requirements. As a result, it can suffer some of the problems of both—especially if you fall victim to certain cruise scams.

The “Free Cruise” Scam

Cruise scam

[st_content_ad]This ploy has been around a long time, and it dominates the online reports of cruise scams. You get a letter saying you have “won” or “been selected for” a free Bahamas cruise (often from a company with “Caribbean” in its name despite the fact that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean).

What you actually get in this cruise scam is some combination of (1) “fees and taxes,” including those imposed by the cruise line in addition to government fees; (2) a requirement to sit through a high-pressure timeshare presentation that may go on for four or five hours; (3) a dingy cabin in an obsolete ship without air-conditioning; (4) land accommodations in a run-down resort; and (5) constant pressure to “upgrade” ship or land accommodations. The internet is full of stories from folks who took the bait of this cruise scam.

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Local Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

Among the most prevalent cruise scams are those involving locals at ports of call. Usually they involve a minor loss of time and money, but occasionally they can be worse. Typical scams include fake taxi drivers who call out “taxi,” grab your baggage, ask for a payment, then hand you over to a real taxi driver who ignores what you paid the tout and charges you the going rate. In other cases, drivers will take you 10 miles for a two-mile trip.

Of course, you can find (or be found by) pickpockets, exchange dealers who give you counterfeit currency, and merchants who cheat on your credit card bill. Be especially wary of a merchant who tries to bill your card in U.S. dollars—it sounds nice, but it puts you on the hook for an extra exchange scam. Vigilance and wariness can insulate you from most of these local cruise scams, but there’s always a chance you’ll still fall victim. And if you get caught, you have very little chance of any recovery.

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Bad Sightseeing Tours

Cruise scam

This one isn’t quite an outright cruise scam, but many port visitors are really annoyed by a sightseeing tour that spends an hour at a souvenir store chosen because of the quality of its kickbacks rather than of its merchandise. A related minor cruise scam is the artwork produced by local street “artists” who are really just coloring in between the faint lines of a pre-printed scene.

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Online Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

A potentially dangerous cruise scam can compromise your identity, files, or both: an email apparently sent by a cruise line or resort asking you to hit a link for more information on your upcoming cruise. These originate with someone who has hacked the cruise line’s or operator’s data to get the names of current and prospective customers. And, obviously, either the message itself or the link contains malware. This online cruise scam is like those fake emails from FedEx or UPS going around that ask you to verify something about an upcoming shipment.

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Fake List Prices

Cruise scam

If it’s “75 percent off,” it’s bound to be a good deal—right? Not necessarily. The base price from which that 75 percent is deducted is often complete fiction. Even “brochure price” means very little. So forget about big discounts from fake list prices. You can decide whether a deal is good by comparing its price with prices for comparable cruises and by checking impartial cruise review websites such as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.

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The Cruise Line Contract

Cruise scam

Although not a cruise scam in the classic sense, the worst problems you can face arise from the contract that you agree to when you buy a cruise. Those contracts are outrageously one-sided “contracts of adhesion” you would never sign if you had a chance to negotiate them yourself.

Although contracts differ a bit from company to company, almost all let the cruise line off the hook for a lot of problems and make you sign away what would normally be your rights as a consumer. Among them, the cruise line can:

  • Cancel your trip for any lawful reason without prior notice.
  • Disembark you or change your accommodations without liability for compensation or refund.
  • Require that you accept its refund fees without recourse.
  • Deviate from routes and schedules without prior notice.
  • Refuse any refund or damage claim resulting from a cancellation or change due to factors not within the cruise line’s exclusive control.
  • Make a proportionate refund if your cruise ends early or, at the cruise line’s option, give you only a future cruise credit.
  • Insulate itself from any liability for actions performed by any subcontractor, including the ship’s doctor and shore excursion operators.
  • Search your stateroom and belongings without prior notice.
  • Refuse liability for emotional distress or mental suffering under any circumstances other than those you can prove in court as resulting from personal injury or imminent risk of injury.
  • Limit your ability to litigate an issue to a single designated federal court or even a foreign country.
  • Prohibit you from entering a class-action lawsuit.
  • Value your personal property at no higher than $50 per traveler or $100 per stateroom unless you buy supplemental insurance.
  • Prevent you from drinking locally bought liquor while on board.
  • Require that disputes be resolved by compulsory arbitration.

The is just a partial list; be sure you’re aware of what you’re signing up for when you make that initial cruise purchase. Consider buying cruise insurance for a little extra protection in case things go wrong.

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Family Travel Packing

Cruising Alaska with Disney Cruise Line: A First-Timer’s Guide

If you’re like many travelers, you’ve long dreamed of taking a cruise to Alaska—and for good reason. An Alaskan ocean voyage provides an enviable almost-Arctic itinerary, opportunities for adventure at every port, and a constant supply of magnificently icy views, the likes of which probably won’t exist in 50, or even 20, years. You get all this via the comfort of an ocean liner that’s stocked with restaurants, theaters, hotel-like guest rooms, and much more.

I, too, had yearned to cruise to Alaska, so when the opportunity to hop aboard the Disney Wonder presented itself, I enlisted my husband and daughter as my travel mates. We flew to Vancouver to embark on a trip that would end up supplying us with exhilarating experiences, unforgettable nature encounters, heaping helpings of Disney fun, and, ultimately, lifetime memories.

If you’re not sure whether a Disney Alaska cruise is right for you, here’s a good idea of what you can expect based on my experiences and observations as a fellow first-timer.

Why Choose a Disney Cruise?

There are a few factors to keep in mind if Disney Cruise Line (DCL) is among the companies you’re considering for your journey to the Last Frontier.

[st_content_ad]Foremost among them: If any of the travelers in your group is a Disney fan, a Disney cruise will very much play into that enthusiasm. This may be too obvious to mention, but almost everything on a Disney cruise is Disney-themed, right down to the ketchup that’s squirted onto kids’ plates—in the shape of Mickey’s head. The characters and their stories pervade the ship, as well as some of the shore excursions.

The level of service, too, is thoroughly Disney. Everyone who works on the ship is there to make their guests’ experience magical, and it’s obvious that the hiring process is geared toward picking cheerful people who love to make other people—children, especially—happy.

“We have a fabulous, diverse team on board,” says Martin Kemp, Disney Wonder’s hotel director. “Basically, we get to go around the globe and hire the best talent out there. And when our team members first come onboard, we go through a very, very extensive training program to introduce them to our Disney brand, our culture, and our heritage.”

In addition to providing the exemplary hospitality that the company has become known for, other Disney-specific elements that you can expect during a Disney cruise to Alaska include exclusive shore excursions that are enhanced with Disney touches, like Goofy showing up at the lumberjack show in Ketchikan, or Donald Duck panning for gold alongside your kids in Skagway. Disney hand-picked the top Alaskan tour operators, then worked directly with them to create experiences that are reserved solely for Disney Cruise Line guests.

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Onboard, Disney characters wear Alaskan gear—resulting in photos that are Instagram gold—while naturalists lecture about glacier science, and nightly menus spotlight regional cuisine: buttered king crab legs one night, roasted salmon steak the next, alongside Alaska-inspired cocktails that carry the theme even further. Also exclusive to Disney’s Alaskan itineraries: a “Frozen” deck celebration featuring Anna and Elsa, plus a joyous Pixar party in the atrium.

“We truly do believe that Disney Cruise Line is a great way for families to see Alaska,” says Melanie Curtsinger, a company spokesperson. “From our themed dining spaces to the live entertainment, extensive children’s spaces, and exceptional detailed service, there truly is something for everyone in the family on these sailings.”

Disney Alaska Cruise Itinerary

Disney’s Alaska cruises depart from Vancouver for five-, seven- and nine-night summer cruises, with stops, depending on your specific itinerary, for Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka, Victoria, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, and Endicott Arm.

Mine was a seven-night cruise, and we spent a full pre-cruise day in Vancouver, where we rented bicycles from Club16 and took the spectacular waterfront ride around Stanley Park. (Other excellent in-Vancouver-for-the-day options include the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain.) We stayed overnight at the Fairmont Vancouver Waterfront Hotel, where Canadian hospitality is on full display, and where they personalize your shampoo bottles with your last name. The hotel is conveniently across the street from the Port of Vancouver, where we boarded the Disney Wonder. (Tip: Before boarding the ship in Vancouver, try an exotic flavor, like osmanthus flower, in a black cone at Bella Gelateria.)

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After a day at sea, our first port of call was Skagway, where we took a stunning helicopter ride to a glacier (more on that below), hiked to land’s end, explored the Western-style State Street full of shops and saloons, and watched the visitor center’s film about the short-lived and ill-fated Klondike gold rush.

Next up was Juneau for some satisfying whale watching and browsing the shopping strip. There’s also the Mount Roberts Tramway, an aerial gondola that transports visitors to the top of the 3,800-foot peak for a wide-spanning, eagle-studded view over Gastineau Channel. Everyone kept saying how lucky we were to be here during such gorgeous weather.

In Ketchikan, we took a morning trolley tour to see the town’s iconic totem poles at Saxman Village. The afternoon was reserved for the raucous Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (more on that below). In the early evening, as a light rain started to fall, we meandered the above-water walkways past Ketchikan’s former brothels—as colorful as the local characters—that now house curated art galleries, one-of-a-kind souvenir shops, and down-to-earth places to eat and drink.

At each port, there’s souvenir shop after souvenir shop, giving you no excuse to come home empty-handed. To save money, we returned to the Wonder for lunch, but there was plenty of opportunity to sample the local restaurants, many of which seem to be mom-and-pop outfits.

We also spent three full days at sea, including one in the Endicott Arm fjord during which the captain pulled the ship in as close as possible to see the 600-foot-tall Dawes Glacier, then did very slow 360-degree turns so that every passenger could take in its full splendor. Meanwhile, smaller icebergs floated past, crackling their presence. It was poignant to be in the presence of such threatened beauty—people all around us were telling their children to remember this scene, since they might not ever be able to see it look this way again. During the glacier viewing, Disney characters, donning galoshes and parkas, were on deck for hugs and photos.

After our last night onboard, we were shuttled back to Vancouver for an early-morning disembarkation. (Tip: Pack your bags the night before to have staffers lug them off the ship for you.) During our bus transfer back to the airport, Disney trivia played on the screens overhead, though our fellow passengers mostly slept through the ride, happily exhausted from such an activity-packed journey.

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The Shore Excursions

Called “Port Adventures” in DCL lingo, there’s a menu of more than 200 family-friendly things to do whenever the Wonder docks in Alaska. Make sure to reserve ahead of time for these memorable shore excursions—you can easily find independent vendors to haggle with once you’re at the destination, but you’re taking a chance with the quality of your experience. You’re much better off booking in advance through Disney, whose contracted operators are total pros.

Disney’s most popular shore excursions in Ketchikan include the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour (a Disney exclusive that gives an inside look at the life of Alaskan crab harvesters) and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a down-home demonstration of manly men showing off their impressive timber-sport skills, like chainsawing and log rolling. There’s plenty of enthusiastic audience participation, and Goofy makes an appearance. Wear red-and-black plaid if you’ve got it.

In Skagway, there’s the KlondikeGold Dredge and White Pass Railway excursion, during which you take a gorgeous train ride and pan for gold; and Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp, which includes a narrated motor coach tour of Skagway, panning for gold (you’ll find some, guaranteed), a scavenger hunt, a puppet show that’s both hilarious and educational, a Donald Duck cameo, and a salmon bake.

In Juneau, the Dog Sled Summer Camp lets you feel what it’s like to be pulled through the Alaskan wilderness at the speed of sprinting huskies, while the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest on Stephen’s Passage guarantees humpback and bald eagle sightings aboard a comfortable catamaran stocked with a full bar; an expert naturalist explains everything you see.

By far the most memorable event of our Disney Alaska cruise—and that’s saying a lot—was the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter excursion, operated by Temsco Helicopters in Skagway. After a quick safety briefing, we boarded an Airbus helicopter manned by a very capable and personable pilot who was also an expert at calming any nerves, mine included. We flew over crystal-blue lakes, above vast expanses of gleamingly white ice fields, and incredibly close to steep, lush mountainsides. When we landed, it was on the 650-foot-deep Meade Glacier, but it may as well have been another planet. Confident, reassuring guides were there to explain what we were seeing—and to stop us from walking into danger—as we took in the surreal scenery before flying back to the Disney Wonder. The word “awesome” is egregiously overused, but this was awesome.

If you’re worried that your children won’t be able to make it all the way through that excursion you’re eyeing, or you’d just prefer some grownup time ashore, don’t feel bad about dropping your little ones off at the ship’s kids’ spaces before you disembark for some adventure. Most youngsters are ecstatic to have more time in these colorful rooms, where the storytelling is epic, the games and crafts are age-appropriate, and the movies are all Disney. Attentive camp-counselor types from around the world do an excellent job of supervising. (Read on for more about the kids’ spaces.)

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Life Onboard Disney Wonder

The Disney vessel that shuttles passengers to and from Alaska is the impressive Wonder, which first set sail in 1999 and is one of DCL’s fleet of four (a fifth will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023). The 83,000-ton ship has 10 floors, 875 guest rooms, 950 employees, and room for up to 2,713 passengers, a third of which are typically children.

Every day, there’s a program so packed with entertaining activity options that it’s easy to fall prey to some initial FOMO, but once you get into the swing of life onboard a Disney cruise (which doesn’t take long), the fun really begins.

Putting together the ship’s complex entertainment and dining schedule, says Natalie Bailey, Disney Wonder’s cruise director, “is a Tetris puzzle, truly a group effort of everyone coming together to try to create variety for our guests throughout the day, and the entire cruise. Our biggest thing when it comes to planning is truly ensuring that we do have something for everyone.”

To that end, there are live shows, deck parties, character greetings, first-run movies in the theaters, trivia games, karaoke, crafts, bingo, chef demos, and plenty more. The handy Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which you should download before your trip, tells you what’s going on at any given time. In addition to providing the day’s full lineup, it lets you “heart” the activities you don’t want to miss, text your fellow travelers for free, book shore excursions, make spa and specialty dining reservations, link your reservation number, and check in online.

Disney is, first and foremost, an entertainment company, so yes, you will be thoroughly entertained the whole way to Alaska and back. Twice nightly in the extravagant 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, a cast of Broadway-caliber performers display their prodigious talents, with a new live production to enjoy each night, including the Alaska-appropriate “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular,” “Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic” (a production that helped launch Jennifer Hudson’s career), and the life-affirming “Golden Mickeys.” You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra to see these shows—just show up; seats are first come, first served. (Tip: Even if the theater appears packed when you enter from the back, there are often seats available way up front.)

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If you time your sailing to coincide with the release date of a new Disney movie, you’ll get to see it premiered onboard, to much fanfare—we were at sea the day Toy Story 4 came out and got to see it for free, with Green Army Men photo opps in front of the theater and a bag of popcorn as an in-room amenity.

As mentioned above, children have a whole realm of entertainment catered to them: the fifth-floor Oceaneer Youth Club. Whenever I came there to pick up my daughter, she asked to stay longer, a testament to the amount of fun she was having and the level of comfort she felt with the kind staffers.

These elaborate kids’ spaces were created to immerse youngsters in Disney stories—kids can hang out in the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s playroom from Toy Story, or the Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, where kids train alongside their favorite superheroes. There are many enriching activities for kids to choose from, like crafting, scavenger hunts, dance parties, performing in a talent show, story times, character greetings, and so on; you can use the Navigator app to find out what’s going on in the kids’ spaces. (Tip: Once you’ve made your cruise reservation, you can have a Disney character call your child to get them excited for the trip.)

As for the guest rooms, they’re comfortable and cleverly designed, with enough space for a full family to live, sleep, bathe, and store luggage in. While we dined, our room attendant transformed the couch into a kid’s bunk, adding a guard rail for safety. He also left memorable Disney amenities on our bed, along with Ghirardelli chocolates and towels folded into amusing figures.

The themed restaurants aboard the Wonder are extraordinarily thought-through and exist for much more than just feeding you. Take Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which the title character dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Yes, the menu at Tiana’s Place includes gumbo and beignets, but the stage also features a talented quartet jazzing up favorite Disney tunes, while Tiana herself visits each table to take photos with young fans; the grand finale is a joyful parade that stars all the servers.

Over at Animator’s Palate, a screen-enhanced shrine to Disney’s drawn history, your server instructs you to draw a character on your placemat. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a magical on-screen mashup. The food is good, too.

There’s also Triton’s, a traditional cruise restaurant, and Cabanas, a huge buffet on the ninth floor with great ocean views. Several walk-up-and-go snack counters hand out pizza, gyros, ice cream, and more. All food and beverage is included in the cost of your cruise (except alcohol; you can bring a small amount onboard), so you can order whatever you want without fretting about the tab.

The only restaurant with an upcharge is Palo, the adults-only Italian eatery atop the ship. The cuisine there is a step up, and the service is top-notch, too. If you’re interested in dining at Palo, make a reservation as far ahead of time as possible.

As you cycle through Tiana’s Place, Animator’s Palate, and Triton’s each night at your set dining time (5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., your choice), your dedicated team of servers follow you from restaurant to restaurant. They’re genuinely kind and accommodating, and clearly hired in part for their ability to make kids smile, laugh—and eat. They joke around, bring you whatever you want, do magic tricks and origami, and give generous hugs and high fives.

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If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included in the cost of your Disney Alaska cruise, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra.

Other features worth mentioning on the Wonder include the spacious spa and top-floor fitness center, where you can run on a treadmill while watching glaciers and icebergs glide by. No matter the weather, people are always using the swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, while Disney movies play on the huge outdoor screen above. And the “nightlife district” is a collection of three handsome bars, including a classic British pub.

Wi-Fi on the Wonder is prohibitively pricey ($89 gets you 1,000 megabytes), so it’s wise to use your cruise as an excuse to unplug from email and social media.

Whatever you’re planning to do onboard, book as much of it that’s bookable well in advance, before departing for your vacation, to make sure that you get the spots you want. This includes nursery times, spa appointments, character meet-and-greets, shore excursions, and specialty dining reservations. Then once you get onboard, you can simply relax and enjoy.

What to Pack for a Disney Alaska Cruise

Once you’re ready to get your stuff together for your Disney cruise to Alaska, check out DCL’s full list of what to pack—and what not to.

There are some pretty specific things that you’ll want to bring along for this type of cruise, including binoculars (which are available for purchase at the Port of Vancouver), rain gear, boots, layers, and waterproof jackets. Bring fancy attire for the ship’s formal and semi-formal nights, and if you plan to dine at Palo, keep in mind that the dress code there encourages dress pants or slacks and a collared shirt for men, and a dress, skirt, or pants and a blouse for women.

It’s fun to wear red-and-black plaid in Ketchikan, especially if you’re planning to see the lumberjack show there, and it’s also fun to bring Disney-themed door decorations—check Pinterest and Etsy for ideas. Don’t forget Disney autograph books for your little ones to get signed, princess dresses for the young princesses in your life, Disneybounding gear for you (if you’re into that), and at least two bathing suits so that you can wear the dry one while the wet one dries.

It’s also smart to fold an extra duffel bag into your suitcase—what with the merchandise available onboard and the many souvenir shops on shore, you’ll be coming home from Alaska with way more than you packed.

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Follow Avital Andrews on Twitter @avitalb or on Facebook.

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Beach Booking Strategy Family Travel Group Travel Island

TripAdvisor Now Offers Cruise Reviews and Price Comparison

[st_content_ad]TripAdvisor users can now create and share cruise reviews and photos and compare cruise prices with TripAdvisor Cruises. In a statement, TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) said the new feature will simplify the process of planning a cruise by bringing the hotel, flight, and cruise components together on one platform.

“The addition of Cruise will help solve the complexity of planning and booking a voyage,” said Bryan Saltzburg, president of TripAdvisor Flights, Cruise & Car. “For example, cruisers can research and book their flight to the port, a hotel room for the night before departure, review ‘Ship-tinerary’ pages, compare cabin options, book excursions, and read reviews all in one place.”

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TripAdvisor says 32 percent of its users have cruised before, and 44 percent are “cruise shoppers.” And cruises are evidently popular overall; 30 million people are expected to take a cruise in 2019, an increase of more than 34 percent in the past five years, according to Cruise Lines International Association.

The State of the Stateroom

The centerpiece of TripAdvisor Cruise is the Ship-tinerary, which TripAdvisor claims is “the most comprehensive tool in cruise planning.” Ship-tineraries are robust ship profiles that TripAdvisor says allow travelers to “quickly get a sense of ‘is this the right ship for me.'”

Ship-tineraries are the equivalent of TripAdvisor’s hotel reviews, built from on unbiased TripAdvisor user reviews, advice and photos, as well as detailed amenities and itineraries.

In addition, TripAdvisor will extend its travel metasearch tool to include cruises, giving travelers the ability to compare prices while they read reviews. TripAdvisor says it will offer an inventory of over 70 million cruises.

Readers: Are you interested in using TripAdvisor Cruises for a trip? Comment below.

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Beach Entertainment Luxury Travel

Virgin’s New Adult-Only Cruise Ship for Non-Cruisers Is Open for Bookings

When it comes to deciding where to go on vacation, cruising can be a very divisive topic. Often the reasons why people love cruises (the never-ending buffets, the organized activities, the family-friendly options) are the same reasons non-cruisers avoid them. But with the announcement of Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise line from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, cruising is about to change.

What Makes It Different

In 2020, Virgin Voyages will begin their new four to five-day cruise itineraries for a whole new model of cruising that aims to eliminate common cruise pain points. Their first ship, The Scarlet Lady, will be adults-only and crew gratuities will be included in the cost of the ticket, which means no last-day stressing about tips. Instead of a buffet, there will be over 20 onboard restaurants to choose from, with flexible dining hours that will sometimes extend past midnight. All dining cover charges will also be included with the initial cabin price. At no extra charge, all guests will also have access to unlimited Wi-Fi and can take advantage of group workout classes.

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In addition to a restructuring of the cruise business model, Virgin Voyages has also made a commitment to do away with single-use plastics like straws and water bottles, and will instead offer water-refilling stations and free sparkling water throughout the ship.

What Makes It Really Different

With so much included, a Virgin Voyages cruise is not likely to be on the affordable end of the market, but onboard, Virgin Voyages is promising an experience that goes way beyond the food and Wi-Fi. From circus acts and dinner theatre to experimental dance parties and midnight dodgeball games, their entertainment program is aiming to bring metropolitan vibes to the Caribbean. Virgin Voyages invited unique artists like Pig Pen Theatre Company and 7 Fingers Creation Collective to create special entertainment experiences for the ship, and is even planning to start a residency program at their private Bahamian beach club for up-and-coming DJs.

The adults-only Scarlet Lady will be a large ship with a capacity for 1,700 passengers, and Virgin Voyages is planning a program that aims to appeal to all guest profiles. Whether you’d feel more at home in an athletic club, a cooking class, the onboard tattoo parlor, or at the drag queen brunch, Virgin Voyages wants to make sure there is truly something for everyone.

Launching April 1st, of 2020, sailings to the Dominican Republic, Havana, and Costa Maya are now open for booking on the Virgin Voyages website, starting at $1,450 per cabin.

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Instagram @jamieditaranto.

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Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Entertainment Health & Wellness

Norwegian Bliss: Norwegian’s Largest Cruise Ship Heads to Alaska

I saw the photographs before I boarded the behemoth cruise ship, so my biggest priority once I arrived was getting in a go-kart and speeding around a cruise ship racetrack like it was a real-life Mario Kart course. When my turn on the track was done, however, I discovered that there was a surprising element to the Norwegian Bliss that was being overshadowed by its deck-topping showstoppers—its sophisticated sense of style.

Norwegian’s newest ship just made its debut in New York City, flaunting two full-size waterslides, a laser tag arena, and a multi-level go-kart track. With enough beds to sleep over 4,000 passengers, 20 decks, and an impressive weight of 168,028 tons, the Norwegian Bliss is Norwegian Cruise Line’s biggest and most ambitious ship to date.

The Norwegian Bliss

Norwegian bliss

This summer the Bliss will offer a 7-Day Alaska Cruise, and during winter months it will service the Eastern Caribbean, Panama Canal, and Mexican Riviera.

The Norwegian Bliss is attempting to usher in a new world of cruising, one that carries on the tradition of classic cruise fun but creates an ambiance that feels personal and classy.

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Cold Boat, Warm Boat

norwegian bliss

The Bliss was designed with Alaska’s sweeping glacier views in mind, and it’s apparent by the size of its Observation Lounge. The spacious lounge wraps around the front of the ship and offers a cozy assortment of coffee tables and lounge chairs: It’s the perfect place to read a book and watch the icy seascape roll by. Because the Bliss will be traveling to Alaska, it has the feel of a cold-weather boat—cozy. But, especially for the world’s ninth-largest cruise ship, it’s surprisingly sophisticated and private. While the top of the ship screams summer fun, the rest of ship is reminiscent of smaller luxury expedition ships.

Blissed Out

norwegian bliss

When you’ve had enough adrenaline and partying, the Bliss is ready to live up to its name, offering a full-service spa with a barber shop and also the option to add-on access to the Thermal Suite area, which features sauna rooms, heated loungers, a hydrotherapy pool, and wraparound views.

For entertainment, the ship offers specialized areas: The Cavern is a bar entirely dedicated to the Beatles, and there are stand-up comedy clubs and live lounge-music acts scattered throughout the decks. However, where Norwegian really steps it up is in its theatre, offering a program of two very different shows: ¡Havana!, an original musical created exclusively for the ship, and the Broadway classic, Jersey Boys.

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The Haven

norwegian bliss

Tucked away at the top of most Norwegian ships, The Haven is an exclusive area for guests staying in luxury cabins. On the Bliss, this area feels like a private expedition ship that’s been plopped onto another mega-ship.

On top of luxury suites and family villas, exclusive access to The Haven’s shared spaces is another worthwhile extra if you’re looking to splurge. From the gorgeous sunroom with its own pool and a retractable roof to the Horizon Lounge (with the best view on the ship through a large slanted glass window that makes the room feel endless), you’ll feel worlds away from the busy pool deck and public lounge areas. Staying in The Haven also gives you priority when reserving entertainment and excursions, access to The Haven Restaurant and exclusive cocktail parties, and your own 24-hour butler.

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Jamie Ditaranto visited the Norwegian Bliss as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

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Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors Sustainable Travel

10 Things to Know About Hurtigruten, Norway’s Expedition Cruise Line

Sailing on a modern-day cruise ship may be a long way from the perilous polar expeditions of 19th- and 20th-century Norwegian explorers—but when you cruise with Hurtigruten, those adventures don’t seem so far away.

This expedition company based in Norway isn’t your typical cruise line. Onboard, the vibe is more about casual dress and learning about wildlife than evening wear and hairy-chest contests. Hurtigruten sailings draw adventurous travelers seeking to explore remote places like Greenland, Antarctica, and the far reaches of Norway.

Intrigued? Here’s how to decide whether Hurtigruten cruises are right for you.

Hurtigruten Has a Long, Adventurous History

Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, Hurtigruten was founded in 1893 as a solution to a problem. Back then it was difficult and time-consuming to travel by sea between northern and southern Norway; because there were relatively few lighthouses, nighttime sailing was dangerous. But Richard With, a sea captain from northern Norway, was adventurous enough to take the risk.

In 1893 his steamer, DS Vesteraalen, began weekly sailings between Trondheim and Hammerfest and, later, between Bergen and Kirkenes. The latter route took just seven days and was dubbed hurtigruten, or “the fast route.”

A few years later, With pioneered a regular service between mainland Norway and the remote northern islands of Svalbard. Since then, Hurtigruten has expanded its operations to exotic destinations around the globe.

hurtigruten ms fram greenland

Hurtigruten Sails to Norway, the Poles, and Beyond

For many years the company’s North American name was “Norwegian Coastal Voyage,” and this route is still the one for which Hurtigruten is best known. Eleven ships explore the fjords and islands between Bergen and Kirkenes year-round, allowing travelers to enjoy the midnight sun of the Arctic summer or the northern lights that wash over the winter sky. You can book a one-way journey or stay aboard for the entire 12-day round trip from Bergen.

What makes this voyage unique is that Hurtigruten’s Norwegian coastal ships also serve as ferries for locals (some of whom only stay on for a few hours) and as cargo delivery vessels. This means they make frequent—and sometimes very brief—stops, but you’ll still have time to explore the larger ports along the route.

A few of Hurtigruten’s expedition ships travel more widely, offering cruises to Antarctica and to various parts of the Arctic including Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, and the Northwest Passage. During the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), you can explore non-polar destinations such as Europe and the eastern coast of North and South America.

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The Ships Aren’t Large

If the thought of cruising with thousands of other passengers makes you want to run and hide, the modest size of Hurtigruten cruise ships might offer a better fit. No ship carries more than 970 passengers, with most having a capacity of 400 to 600. MS Fram, the line’s main expedition ship, carries 318 passengers, and Nordstjernen, which sails in Svalbard, holds just 149.

These vessels have a more intimate feel than bigger ships from lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but keep in mind that this also means fewer amenities. On Hurtigruten ships you’ll only have one to three restaurants to choose from, and onboard entertainment is limited, with no casinos or production shows. If you’re content to read a book, soak up the passing scenery, and attend lectures about the local culture and wildlife, these ships might be right for you.

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Sailings Can Be Unpredictable

Cruise ships are always at the mercy of waves and weather, but that goes double for expedition sailings in remote parts of the world. A few years ago, I was aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Fram on a trip from Iceland to Greenland, and we missed two scheduled port days due to heavy fog and ice.

“We always have a plan B, C, D, E, and F,” a member of MS Fram’s expedition team told me on a more recent sailing. This means you shouldn’t have your heart set on visiting a particular port—but you can count on the captain and the expedition team to make necessary changes to maintain passenger safety and comfort.

dinner on ms fram hurtigruten

The Cuisine Reflects Norwegian Heritage

If you’ve ever wanted to eat like a Norwegian for a week or two, this is your chance. Even on non-Norwegian sailings, items like brown cheese and gravlax (cured salmon) are regular items on the buffet, and other Scandinavian dishes—reindeer soup, anyone?—often show up on the set dinner menus.

It’s all part of the line’s “Norway’s Coastal Kitchen” initiative, which focuses on locally produced ingredients and sustainable seafood. If you love fish, you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, there are plenty of other alternatives, including meat, pasta, and a small salad bar.

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Expect a European Crowd and a Laid-Back Vibe

Despite growing popularity in North America, most of Hurtigruten’s passengers come from across Europe. PA announcements are given in multiple languages depending on the mix of nationalities onboard; this typically includes English, Norwegian, and/or German.

Onboard dress is casual at all times, though many passengers take it up a notch for dinner (think dress pants and a nice top). You can leave your suit or formal gown at home.

arctic superior cabin on ms nordnorge

Don’t Expect Fancy Cabins

As on many expedition vessels, the staterooms on Hurtigruten’s ships are more functional than luxurious. In lower-priced categories, expect fold-down single beds that can’t be pushed together. If you’re looking for a more romantic option—i.e., a double bed for you and your partner—you’ll have to upgrade to a superior cabin or suite.

Balconies are few and far between, available only on select suites on certain ships. But if you have the budget, they’re worth paying for; imagine gazing out at Antarctic icebergs floating under the midnight sun from your own private verandah.

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Do Expect a Variety of Excursions

Hurtigruten excursions vary widely depending on where you’re sailing, but might include activities such as snowshoeing in Antarctica, hiking through a Viking settlement in Greenland, dog sledding in Svalbard, or visiting a working farm in Lofoten, Norway. There’s generally a range of options for all physical abilities. As on most larger cruise lines (and unlike on many expedition lines), Hurtigruten excursions cost extra.

lecture aboard hurtigruten ship

You’ll Learn Something New

Most Hurtigruten ships have a dedicated expedition team aboard all sailings. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, these experts lead excursions and give onboard lectures on everything from Viking history to Arctic wildlife. You might also hear them over the PA system offering information about the port you’re sailing into or about a whale just spotted off the bow.

Hurtigruten Is Environmentally Responsible

With sailings in some of the world’s most endangered places, Hurtigruten takes its environmental obligations seriously. The company recently announced that it will eliminate single-use plastic items aboard all its ships by July 2018 and retrofit up to nine of its older vessels to run on a combination of liquefied natural gas and battery power (both cleaner options than diesel fuel). MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen, new expedition ships that will debut within the next two years, will use hybrid technology that reduces CO2 emissions by more than 3,000 metric tons per year.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Canada and New England as a guest of Hurtigruten. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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Booking Strategy

The Best Cruise Ships for Every Taste and Budget

Looking for the perfect cruise ship? There’s a source of solid advice for that: the 2108 Cruisers’ Choice Awards, from Cruise Critic.

[st_content_ad]Based on reviews posted to the Cruise Critic site during the past year, the awards recognize the best ships in multiple categories: best cabins, best for dining, best for entertainment, best for fitness, best for value, best for families, and so on.

Whatever your idea of the perfect cruise ship entails, Cruise Critic has you covered.

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Here are some examples of the best large ships in several categories. If large ships aren’t to your taste, there are also ratings of mid-sized, small-mid, and small ships for each category, making it easy to home in on ships that meet your criteria.

Top 5 Large Ships Overall

  1. Celebrity Equinox
  2. Harmony of the Seas
  3. Celebrity Reflection
  4. Celebrity Silhouette
  5. Allure of the Seas

Top 5 Large Ships for Value

  1. Celebrity Silhouette
  2. Celebrity Equinox
  3. Harmony of the Seas
  4. Celebrity Reflection
  5. Allure of the Seas

Best Large Ships for Entertainment

  1. Allure of the Seas
  2. Harmony of the Seas
  3. Disney Dream
  4. Oasis of the Seas
  5. Freedom of the Seas

Best Large Ships for Dining

  1. Celebrity Equinox
  2. Celebrity Silhouette
  3. Celebrity Reflection
  4. Allure of the Seas
  5. Oasis of the Seas

As an admitted non-cruiser, I find these recommendations very helpful; without them, I’d be clueless. If I were in the market for a cruise on a large ship, my clear choice, as someone who cares most about dining and value, would be either the Celebrity Silhouette or the Celebrity Equinox. Both are top-rated in the relevant categories, as well as in the Best Overall category.

Reader Reality Check

What are you looking for in a cruise ship? Comment below.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Budget Travel Frequent Flyer

Here’s How You Can Win 500,000 American Miles, Plus a Cruise

Enter the American Airlines “500,000 Miles” sweepstakes by January 31, 2018, for a chance to win the grand prize: 500,000 American AAdvantage frequent-flyer miles, and a $3,000 cruise voucher redeemable at aa.cruises.com. There are five runner-up prizes of 100,000 AAdvantage miles each.

To enter, provide the requested contact information (name, email, etc.) on the sweepstakes landing page and press “Submit.” Done! Time required to participate: less than 30 seconds.

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NOTE: As is often the case with online sweepstakes, by entering you are agreeing to receive email marketing messages from the sponsors. You can easily opt out at any time.

The Fine Print

  • Sweepstakes is open to legal residents of the 50 United States, including the District of Columbia, who are at least 21 years old at the time of entry.
  • Limit: one entry per person.
  • Approximate Retail Value (“ARV”) of the grand prize: $12,950.

Somebody has to win this trip, right? Might as well be you.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Holiday Travel

How I Spent Thanksgiving Week on NCL’s Jewel

Author: Louise Strong
Date of Trip: November 2006
PROLOGUE:

NCL treated me like a goddess and a family member all throughout the week on the Norwegian Jewel. They must have known I needed some R and R, some TLC, excellent dining, great activities, good dance music, fabulous ports-of-call, the opportunity to make new friends, and most of all, to laugh. This cruise will go down in the books as the best yet.

GETTING TO THE NORWEGIAN JEWEL:

I originally booked the lowest level category balcony and was upgraded to the highest level balcony for the same price. About one month prior to 11/19/06 I received the phone call for an upsell to a penthouse suite. Once I saw the suite was in front of the ship I immediately said yes. I flew into FLL on 11/18/06 and knew the week was going to be great when my luggage was the third and fourth suitcases to come through the belt! For 18 dollars I shared a van with seven others going to various places. One lady was my superhero. She goes on cruises for free while giving lectures on board all cruise lines. I want to be just like her some day.

My travelmate, The NewYorker, is a friend who I met on the NCL Sun two years ago Thanksgiving week. We called this our anniversary cruise. My hubby did not mind that I was leaving because he knew if I stayed home, then my large family was probably coming over for the holiday!

We enjoyed the Beacon Hotel in South Beach, Miami for our precruise stay. We walked to Lincoln Mall for dinner and shopped our way back to the Beacon. We bought expensive dresses for formal night that we did not really need for freestyle cruising. You can wear whatever you want on NCL freestyle cruises. We decided to dress every night of the cruise and most of my outfits had a black and white theme. I found a great black and white BCBG dress. We finished the evening drinking and dancing at the Clevelander Bar. The next morning we walked South Beach, dipped our pedicured toes in the ocean and chatted it up a bit with the homeless men who spent the night on the shoreline.

The cab ride from South Beach to the ship was about 20 dollars. I had so many thoughts and questions going through my head as we approached the Jewel. First, I liked her hull artwork. I wondered if there would be a tango-guy to teach me to ballroom dance. Would I never leave my penthouse? Can the bridge officers see down onto my forward balcony? What ports are we going to again and when? Who will show up to our planned Cruise Critic (a website for cruisers) party? Will I finally win the bottle of champagne at the latitudes repeat passenger party? Lastly, since I left my big family behind, would there be a family to take me under their wings during this holiday week…A family to adopt us?

Embarkation was a breeze and once on board we went to the buffet lunch. A lot of yummy food was present! Stations were set up all over with different categories of food. For example, there was a pasta station, a soup station, a sandwich station, a hot selection station, a meat carving station, a dessert station and so on! For breakfast and dinner, the buffet area was also filled with great selections. This ship also had dining rooms and specialty restaurants for extra extra fine dining.

The NYer suggested we check out our suite #10000 and see if our luggage arrived. We loved the couch and chairs, the huge closet with doors on both sides (one from the entry hallway, the other from the vanity hallway), the huge bathroom, the fabulous balcony, the living area, the dining area and the bedding. We concluded if we were thieves, we would have stolen the linens, the duvet, the pillows, and the bathrobes.

Our steward stopped in to say hello and he asked us to close our curtains at night. He said closing them would avoid glare on the bridge directly above us. Once he left we exclaimed, “Yeah, right! If we were young and beautiful, maybe the request from the bridge would be to keep the curtains OPEN at night!”

The craziness began after we noticed fresh flowers on the table, a bottle of champagne in a bucket and fresh fruit in a basket. A note attached said it was compliments of NCL. The doorbell rang and in comes another bottle of champagne with a note attached, “hope you have a wonderful cruise” from Colin Veitch, the President of NCL. Papers started arriving too with special things written on it. Our repeat passenger benefits included 20 dollars off body and facial treatment, 30 free minutes in the internet cafe, a party invitation and a free meal in a specialty restaurant. There was also a 75 dollar credit on our account (37.50 each) which probably had to do with our booking.

The doorbell rang again and in comes someone else delivering a basket of fruit and a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon…the little note attached is from NCL again. I wrote to NCL regarding their new commercials and the message thanked me for my suggestions. Their new campaign is about being able to eat WHENEVER you want and to wear WHATEVER you want.

Our phone rang next. Our Concierge called to tell us he had already scheduled a free meal (another one) in a specialty restaurant for us. He asked if the date and time were okay. I reminded him we were on vacation and we could eat at WHATEVER time and where ever place!

The doorbell rang again and we thought it was our luggage arriving. We open the door and in comes another delivery…a bottle of wine and fruit basket! No note was attached and we did not press the issue in case it was a mistake delivery. We were darned happy as we re-organized the fruit, champagne bottles and wine bottles. We were going to crack open a bottle but had to go to the muster drill, a required and necessary safety drill before the ship’s sailing.

After the safety drill we returned our life vests to our suite. We decided to check out the sailaway party as the ship starting moving. Always remember to close the balcony door before you open your stateroom door…if not, then papers fly all over the place. But that can be a good thing too. I looked at what I picked off the floor and I found a letter from the Jewel’s Hotel Director stating we had a free meal in any alternative restaurant!

As we left for our Thanksgiving Week Sailaway we concluded it was more like Christmas week!

THE CRUISE BEGINS:

Everyone seemed to be at the pool deck for the sailaway party. This was a great opportunity to see the overall mood of the passengers and of the cruise staff who entertain all week long. Overall, it was going to be a fun and happy week. We returned to our suite and found our luggage was arriving. We scored a dinner reservation for Teppanyaki, a specialty restaurant.

Teppanyaki is “a style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food.” The chef cooks in front of you while “displaying slicing/dicing/juggling” techniques. Their tools make a beat as they perform. Our chef was a lot of fun! We laughed, we cheered, we hollered “yeah” when he caught pieces of food in his hat and we hollered “ohhhhh” when he did not. An anniversary cake was brought out in the end and we all sang happy anniversary to a couple celebrating their 45th.

One of the anniversary couple’s daughters was one of the very first winners of the happy birthday NCL free cruise on the new Norwegian Pearl. I thought this could be the family I was looking for because we shared our parts of our meals with each other. Most of us selected the Land and Sea and a few selected the Seafood Diablo. I had the Land and Sea and it was absolutely fantastic! The family later invited us to sit with them that evening at the 70’s dance party.

The other table had a well dressed family and I could not help but watch the two children stare up in awe at their chef. The kids were so cute. The son had his chopsticks tied together by the waitress in a particular manner so he could eat his food easier. I wanted mine tied the same way but they brought me a fork instead. Something new I noticed was that a black napkin was brought out for me but everyone else got a white one. I asked why and they responded so the white napkin would not leave stuff on my black satin pants or black satin shirt. I responded “oh” and thought to myself that I really should go out to eat more…!

During dinner we missed over 40 singles mingle (for the New Yorker), the ballroom dancing and the family karaoke. The Jewel also had a traveling alone social and dinner where one could meet other solo travelers and go to dinner with them. We thought how nice! Two years ago the NYer and I had to find each other on our own…now NCL helps set up solo travelers. Smart move.

After dinner we went down one deck to check out three bars with unique themes and designs as advertised on NCL. Since I was wearing black, I looked great in all three color schemes. I ordered a cosmopolitan at Magnum’s martini and champagne bar and then we headed up to the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13 forward for the 70’s Night dancing. The place was mobbed and they did their signature John Travolta/Gloria Gaynor/YMCA contest. The Cruise Director did a great job with this.

At the end of the night we talked about what we liked so far about the ship. Our suite and balcony was a given. We also loved the open railings with horizontal rungs all over the ship. They were great for viewing through our balcony, the decks, and the pool area. Some ships have that awful Plexiglass that gets fogged up from sea salt. The Jewel is wonderful for viewing the ocean. The furnishings in the lounges were also plush. Our feet even sunk into the ship’s carpets.

MONDAY…A PERFECT RAINY DAY AT SEA:

I got up at 6:30am and headed up to the buffet breakfast in my high-water black yoga pants, white flip-flops, an old skanky white t-shirt and black head-band. I made sure to put some mascara to not scare anyone in case others were awake at that time. It was cloudy and I noticed some of the pool chairs already claimed. Tempted to throw the towels/books/single shoes into one of the four hot-tubs I just chuckled knowing my option was the awesome forward balcony attached to my suite if the weather got nicer. Besides, I had A Cruise Critic party planned at 11am and a latitudes repeat customer party at 1pm.

At the Garden Cafe I had a beautiful selection of freshly prepared food. How wonderful to be an early bird. I asked an older gentleman (the only other passenger up at that time too) at the table nearby what his tag was for around his neck. He replied that over 300 Norwegian dancers were on board. A large group from Norway booked the cruise and they were all learning to dance. He invited me to watch as they were going to practice in Spinnaker’s Lounge at 8am and on the basketball court at 10am. So this is what goes on early morning! Who knew?

After breakfast I could have gone to early morning exercises, the casino, trivia, handwriting analysis seminar, golf seminar or arts and crafts all before 11am if I wanted to. I opted to head back to bed and watch the waves break the bow of ship. As I exited the cafe, I turned a corner and ran into five guys in white. Startled, I bid them all a good morning. I was asked what I was doing up so early on vacation. I replied I wanted to be the first in line for the omelette man and the first in line for the waffle man. I was next asked if I was enjoying the cruise so far. “Yes, it is great” I answered. I then added, “Who are you?”

The rest of the conversation was a blur. Not only were these guys in white, but they were the guys in white with stripes. I remember hearing Something-Director, Something-Director, Head-So-and-So, Big-Wig from Miami office and Assistant to the Something-Director. I could have run away. Here I was in my skanky clothes that I slept in with no make-up on. I thanked God to myself that I had put a bra on and applied mascara prior to leaving the suite. I held my ground and commented on NCL’s new menus. I thanked one of the Directors for dinner the prior evening. I then had to explain what I meant by that and they laughed. I then told them I had to go do a Norwegian dance group. When they laughed I realized I had to explain what I meant by that too. I ended their entertainment by wishing them a good day. I did not need my cabin key to get into the suite. I just crawled under the door…

I later checked out the Jewel’s spa. I began first with with the free area that women can use. You can use a hot-tub, a steam room, a sauna room, or sit on a few chairs overlooking the bow of ship. The spa is directly above the bridge and it has a fabulous view. I assume the guys on the other side had the same thing. They had regular bathrooms and regular showers along with two special showers that give an ice blast (which you are supposed to cold rinse after getting out of hottub or sauna/steam room to close your pores). I ventured down a hallway past the acupuncture room, the teeth whitening room, the massage rooms and the body tanning room into the therapy room which was unisex.

A juice/coffee/tea bar/water was set up as mellow music played lightly in the background. If I had my bathing suit on I would have checked out the therapy pool that seemed built for two with little rollers that one floats on. Instead, I sat on one of ten stone beds ergonomically designed for the body. The stones were heated. I sat there alone for about 20 minutes and de-stressed from my guy-in-white rendezvous. I almost fell back to sleep while looking out at the vast ocean ahead. I concluded that had I not had a penthouse suite to relax in, or if I was traveling with family members and wanted to get away, then this room is definitely where I would hang out!

I was so relaxed after my therapy room experience I returned to cabin to wake up the NYer and get ready for parties. I donned a black skirt, black sketcher sandals and a black/white/pink dress tank top (resort casual?) outfit. I was not sure of the decor in the Star Bar and I did not want to clash.

I brought our champagne to the Cruise Critic party and NCL set up glasses and orange juice to mix mimosas for those Cruise Critics in attendance. I also brought maple sugar treats from my home state of Vermont. NCL provided coffee and cookie treats. The best treat of all was getting to meet the Captain, the Food and Beverage Director, the Hotel Director, the Cruise Director and the group services coordinator. When some introduced themselves to me I reminded them I met him earlier that morning! I then shared the wonders of make-up.

Altogether, the officers were very nice and very personable. I noticed they took time with each of the Cruise Critics in a casual atmosphere. Their conversations were not boring and they were not stuffy at all. As a matter of fact, I began to think they were real people just like us! Overall, this was a great opportunity to ask questions of them if you wanted to. Lastly, it was great to put faces to people I communicated with online. After the gathering ended, we finished off the remaining mimosas.

Our next party was the repeat customer latitudes party at one o’clock. It was fun to go through the entry line and to not be afraid to talk to the guys in white with stripes. NCL served free champagne, wine, mimosas, rum drinks along with nice hors d’oeuvres. We stayed with mimosas. I dislike champagne but I had a nice mimosa buzz and my ultimate goal is to win the champagne bottle in the raffle. The party was well attended…it filled up the Spinnaker’s Lounge and the Captain talked to everyone and introduced the officers.

Prizes drawn included items from the gift shop, a pedicure and facial from the sap, NCL t-shirts and NCL hats. Prizes vary on each ship depending on who sets up the party. Once again, I did not win the bottle of champagne. I know if I ever win I am going to pull a Price Is Right move and run down and make a fool of myself. After all my suite treats, I was not too disappointed…

After the latitudes we were more buzzed and decided we better eat because more champagne was coming at the VIP party early evening. We selected the Blue Lagoon that serves chicken wings, potato skins, hamburgers, hotdogs, noodle soup, shepard’s pie, and some other stuff. This is one of the restaurants open all the time.

Afterwards, The NYer went up to the pool deck and it was time for my nap and solitude on the suite balcony. Upon my arrival, another surprise bottle was in the cabin and I have no idea where it came from. As my head hit the pillow on the lounger in bewilderment, I thought ‘Whatever!’ As I slept, I had no idea what the evening would bring…VIP party, another alternative restaurant, a dress malfunction, suite treats, and New Years Eve Bash…

During my nap I missed the afternoon activities that included champagne art auction, sexy legs competition by the pool, casino blackjack tournament, mega jackpot bingo, Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, spinning, martini clinic and margarita clinic. I wished I stayed up for the beauty seminars because I really could have used the seminar titled “Drop a Dress Size” or the one titled “Fab Abs” with the fitness instructors.

Monday evening and the V.I.P. party was billed optional formal night and we opted to dress up. While in South Beach I purchased a great strapless silk (ish) black and white cocktail dress. Each vertical black stripe and each vertical white stripe overlapped the other from top to bottom. I decided the dress was more important than going on shore excursions and getting my hair cut in the ship’s salon. Since black and white was my fashion theme for the week and it fit perfectly, I bought it.

When the time came to put the dress on, I wondered what happened. How could the dress have shrunk? How come I could not zip up the back? I forgot Caribbean humidity makes me swell. I forgot champagne makes me bloat. I forgot something else that I should have remembered. Since trying on the dress originally, I think I was ten pounds heavier. How was I going to chow down on lobster in a few hours?

We were almost late for the VIP party as the NYer (who is the size of a peanut soaking wet), had to help shove me into the dress. We laughed and laughed at the little flaps flipping up in certain spots whenever I walked or stood up after sitting down. Strange how it did not do that when I was dancing in the South Beach dressing room! I told the NYer I was going to wear the dress and just not move all night long. We could walk slowly; she would let me know if anything was showing, she could sit at the bar and I could stand up against it. When I had to sit down, I would remove my black sheer shawl (a burka head covering from Saudi Arabia I use as a shawl) and wrap it around my waist in a giant bow. Perfect. We were ready to go.

Before leaving, our suite treats arrived. We had treats arrive every night. This night had TWO platters of chocolate covered strawberries. We stuck them in the refrigerator in order to save room in our bellies for lobster. Lobster was being served in every restaurant that evening. We headed off very carefully to the Fyzz Lounge…

The Captain’s VIP party was very well attended. The Fyzz Lounge was very colorful and I did not clash with it in my dress. The Fyzz Lounge is used for karaoke and for other venues such as country line dance lessons. At the party, I did not move from the bar. We met a very nice woman who offered to show us her Garden Villa, an amazing 5500 square foot cabin with private courtyard. One of the officers introduced himself and I had to remind him I met twice already that very same day. This time I got to laugh and what him squirm. I explained to him the wonders of hairstyling and a little extra eye shadow. I thought to myself he probably did not recognize me because I gained weight since I saw him last.

Another officer asked which dining room we were eating in that evening and we had not really thought about it. He picked up his phone and made a reservation in a specialty restaurant. I wondered if we would ever see the freestyle dining rooms, the dining rooms that you go into anytime from 5pm-10pm.

Lastly, I noticed all the officers made sure they spoke to everyone who attended. I concluded this was a great group of officers. I secretly hoped they had fun at these events because they have to do it every week. The best part was that they were all very personable, cordial and funny.

During our fabulous lobster dinner in Mama’s Italian Restaurant, another bottle of wine was sent to our table. The lobster and wine helped stretch my dress appropriately. We had missed the opening main event show by Jean Ann Ryan Company which other people reported as being fabulous. So after dinner, we checked out the ship store instead of arriving late to it. I found the store pleasant. Cigarettes and liquor were definitely a bargain compared to where I come from. You could buy a carton of cigs for 23 dollars or 2 cartons for 40 dollars. If you purchase liquor from the store, you pick it up the night before the cruise ends. Just remind yourself you can not “carry on” the plane. You will have to pack it in your luggage. The regulations might change by the time you cruise, but keep this in mind.

We returned to our suite and found towel animals and chocolate on our pillows. I had been awake a long time and NCL contributed to an appropriate “good feeling.” I do not think I had a bar bill yet but was feeling great. We next headed up to the New Year’s Eve bash in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We arrived to a packed house and everyone was having a good time! The crowd ranged from 18 to 80 years old. I immediately got my glow sticks, my streamers and began to work out on the dance floor. I noticed the older Norwegian dancer from early morning standing by himself. I grabbed him and took him out on the floor. This guy could boogie! I found out later that he was in the same profession as me.

This was the only night I kept track of how long I stayed out at night. The NYer and I returned to suite at 3:30am. I had been awake partying for almost 24 hours. It was a perfect rainy day at sea.

TUESDAY…SAN JUAN:

I awoke early and headed up to the breakfast buffet instead of one of two main dining rooms. It was a new experience for me to see just who was out and about early morning! I sat with a lovely Hawaiian couple from San Francisco. Their plan for the day was to find a long lost friend from year’s ago. I told them I would say a prayer to St. Anthony that they would find her. I never saw them again that week but I hope they made someone’s day!

We did not arrive in San Juan until noon so I caught some early morning sun on the penthouse balcony. The ship was moving slowly and I think I had the best view…even better than the Garden Villa passengers. We had special early debarkation tickets but we were not in any hurry to go anywhere. We were on vacation. We had no plans. We let everyone else get off the ship first. We walked around town and bought souvenirs. I concluded that you must wear comfy shoes in Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets. We walked along the pier boardwalk and throughout the streets. I was so tired that I asked in one store if I would get back American dollars. The shopkeeper announced that I was in the United States and I would get back American dollars because that is all he had. I replied that a certain percentage of Puerto Ricans did not want to belong to the United States…he happily responded, “What do I care? I am Mexican!” We ended our shopping day drinking giant margaritas in a Senor Frogs bar.

My general rule is to be back on ship at least one hour before the recommended time. If you do not go with a ship tour, then there are no guarantees on the ship waiting if a traffic accident ties up the main road back, or if a privately scheduled tour is running late. On the ship I ate yummy pizza, chicken, pork ribs and potato salad. The NYer and I returned to our suite for a nap but it was interrupted by a suite shrimp platter delivery. We concluded no sleeping today and that we must begin to crack open all the wine we had sitting on our counter-top.

We sat out on our balcony eating shrimp and drinking Colin’s Cabernet Sauvignon while watching everyone return to ship. We watched the sun set. We opened the second bottle of Cabernet and heard a report from our suite neighbors out on their balcony about the San Juan tour. We finally met the honeymooning couple out on the balcony of the Diamond Suite (saw their suite at debarkation and it was beautiful…great decor…will book that one next time) and they were having a great cruise. Good thing because I would have felt bad if they were not having any fun!

As darkness fell and the ship started sailing we realized that we had not had dinner since nobody told us where we were going to eat that evening! Would we ever make it to the regular restaurants? The Nyer then remembered the double platters of chocolate-covered strawberries in our refrigerator and brought them out on balcony. We commented on the fabulous lights of El Morro shining in front of us and how great a tour that was the last time in San Juan, we laughed also at the shiny lights of the brand new parking garage directly below it.

As we left port, the gentle wind and night-lights were mesmerizing. I was bundled up in an extra blanket and the NYer could not believe that I was chilly. I said I was just comfortable. She pointed out the constellations as she had once lived on a sailboat traveling the Caribbean for two years.

Once we were full speed ahead towards Antigua, we went back inside and got ready for ’80’s night in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We missed dinner, the main show the Action Comedy Showtime Edge, the Big Band Tribute to Glen Miller, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Audience Participation gathering and the adult karaoke. Even so, I would not have traded the NYer, the wine, the shrimp, the chocolate covered strawberries, the balcony view leaving San Juan at night for a million dollars…

WEDNESDAY…HOW I FOUND JESUS IN ANTIGUA:

The NYer and I awoke to the ship docked in Antigua. We found the room service request sheets in the cabin booklet’s back pocket the night before. Our butler was on time and he set a beautiful table setting on the balcony. While dining, we basked in the glorious sunshine and wondered whether or not we would ever make it to one of the big shows offered almost each night. We missed the comedy show but had asked a family the night before if it was funny. A middle-aged dad with his family said it was a riot and that we missed a good performance. The NYer and I concluded that it possibly could not have been funnier than the two of us hanging out together all week.

The NYer left after breakfast to get a salon appointment and I continued to work on my tan and to catch up on sleep on the balcony. The Antigua welcome band down below played. As I tried to rest, my eyes kept opening to view this awesome cathedral in hills of downtown St. John. I wondered how far a walk it was…I rested…I opened my eyes again and was drawn to the immaculate structure. It stood out among all the other buildings…I rested again…opened my eyes and felt the beckoning…”Louise…Louise…Come To Me…!”

I asked the NYer if she wanted to walk up and check out the Cathedral. She replied not only no, but “heck no!” I finally fell asleep but awoke once again. “Louise my child, you must come to me!” the church bellowed once again. We had talked about hitting the beaches in Antigua but we were content with just doing our own thing…a perfect agreement when cruising with friends or family. Falling asleep again, I was jolted with a bolt…”Louise you better get up here right now and pay homage!” I got dressed and told the NYer I was going for a walk to the church. She decided to join me.

Before heading out we checked the ship’s magazine, The Freestyle Daily, to make sure of the required return time. We noticed on each port-of-call the advisory notice: “While ashore drink only bottled water, be cautious while dining in port, wash your hands often, and discourage hand shaking.” This is one of the great things about NCL…the multitude stations of hand sanitizers everywhere you go throughout their ships. I truly believe this is the reason one hardly hears about norovirus on NCL ships.

St. John’s Cathedral was not as far a walk as I thought. Closer than it appeared from the suite, I was glad I had comfy shoes on as the sidewalks were in need of repair. The view was beautiful from the outside. The cemetery around the church was interesting. The structure inside was extremely interesting. We read through the brochure that noted the history, the organ, the wood, the stained glass, and the altar. Suddenly a local hands us a bible and a hymn book. Mass began.

We went to leave and turned around. The church was semi-filled with locals. The NYer said, “Let’s GO!” I replied, “NO!, think of the grace we can get by staying!…I will meet you back at the ship if you want!” She stayed as we moved to the back. The mass was very interesting. I remembered the words to most of the responses but followed a local when it came time to stand and to sit and stand again. I even sang…and I never sing! This was great, I thought! I could have been at the beach, on a tour, drinking at the bars while on vacation, but here I was praying in St. John’s Cathedral.

I prayed for my family, for my community, for my friends, for my colleagues, for NCL and for the locals. I thanked God, Jesus and Mary for having the life that I have. The priest’s main message was no matter how great you are (a great teacher, a great doctor, a great lawyer), what truly matters is how GOOD you are at the end of the day. Knowledge is wonderful, but how you use it to help others is what counts.

Then came the sign of peace. Back home we just say peace be with you to whoever you are standing next to. In Antigua, the ENTIRE group leave the pews, walks around and SHAKES HANDS with everyone! The NYer is freaking out and I am whispering, “Just don’t put your hands to your mouth after!” We shook hands with all the catholic Antiguans including the priest who also walked around. There were five other cruisers and we just nervously shook each others hands and gave each other a look of “Oh Jesus!”…

Thirty minutes and four songs later I forgot about the hand-shaking. It was time for the body of Christ. I wanted to go up to the altar and kneel just like I did as a little kid when the catholic masses were done in Latin. The locals were also up at the altar on the left and I was the first cruiser on the right of them. Back home, the body of Christ is now given out in your hand for sanitary reasons. In Antigua, the priest delivers the host directly to your mouth. “Oh Jesus,” I thought…”Please do not let the priest’s finger touch my tongue! Oh Jesus, please forgive me for thinking this!”

I watched as the body of Christ came my way. My turn arrives. I stiffen, shut my eyes and stick out my tongue as far as possible. Then it was over. “Thank you Jesus…no wet finger!” Of course the priest was probably thinking, “Oh Jesus, please do not let my finger touch this heathen cruiser’s tongue!” as he delivered the wafer to me. I watched in glee and in anticipation to see if his finger touched the other cruiser’s tongues. I then bowed my head and thanked God.

Nobody left the altar. I prayed some more yet wondered why we were all still kneeling up there. The priest shuffles, says some prayer and starts going down the line AGAIN. Another host? A blessing on the forehead? What was going on? I strain to see down the row and I spot the holy grail…the chalice of Christ’s blood…placed on the lips of each local in the same spot as they sipped.

“OH JESUS!” I prayed. “Oh Jesus, can’t that priest wipe off the chalice using a little more force with that napkin?” The priest was getting closer. I strained some more to see and thought, “Oh Jesus, how come he is not turning that freaking cup?!” The priest was now ten locals away from me. “Oh Jesus, will I offend these people if I get up and leave?” The priest was five locals away. I turn to the right and look at at the other tourists. They looked as if the devil himself was on his way to steal their souls.

I wish I had a camera to capture one tourist’s look at me. It was sheer horror. I returned the look, shook my head no to her, bowed my head and prayed, “Father, forgive me!” as I stood and left just as the priest arrived. I returned to my pew and prayed more for forgiveness if I offended anyone in Antigua. The NYer wanted to ask me what the heck happened…because all she saw was me get up and then five others disappear in a NY second…but I was too busy praying.

Church closed with everybody leaving the pews once again and standing in a circle holding hands singing a hymn. I think I prayed to Jesus more times in 75 minutes than I did my entire life. I felt like a good person upon leaving. I left a hefty donation to help preserve St. John’s Cathedral. Jesus is going to be with me for a solid two years after that “tour!”

After church, the NYer needed a drink. She informed me that she was not Catholic. Who knew? I then spotted a school across the street and she then had to endure my conversations with the students, the teachers and the security guards. Amazing how things are different yet still the same throughout the world.

We ended up at the “BeeHive” a bar near the ship which serves local beer for 2 dollars a pop. Good thing I was buying. We were so full of Jesus that we found something good during every beer we drank. The beer was good…The tourists were good…The rain shower felt good…The ancient Antiguan street dancer who balanced a pineapple on his head was good…Life was good!

I was so full of Jesus, goodness and Antiguan beer that I decided to buy presents for all the people who had to support my job while I was away. One stop at “Lipstick” perfume factory and I had all my thank you presents. The only perfume shop “packed” with customers, I assumed the deals were good. One Obsession, Dolce and Gabbana, Red Door, Pure White Rain, Wish, Angel, J-LO Glow, and Versace-something later, I was done. I told the lady at check-out that it took 8 people to do my job while away. The male customer behind me replied, “What are you? A Housewife?”

Stumbling back onto the ship, the security guard just did not understand why after I placed each hand under the sanitizer that I also wanted to try to drink out of it. We returned to our suite and realized we do not have a cabin in the back of ship. Always remember on the Jewel that the carpet fish swim towards the bow. I somehow managed to lose my key along the way. I think I sanitized my purse and my key under the machine and it somehow slipped out. The information desk people were very kind in replacing one. If you lose your key, go there immediately and they will void out the lost one and give you a new one. Others in the cabin will also have to have their key replaced too. So do not go to church, get drunk after, carry around 350 dollars worth of perfume, take a sanitizer shower and expect to have everything you started with.

The NYer headed off to her hot stone massage which she loved and highly recommended. I headed off to sleep in my suite lounger on the balcony. Jesus was happy with me and he finally let me get some good shut-eye since boarding on 11/19.

For dinner that evening, we ate at NCL signature French restaurant, Le Bistro. I donned a black halter top and white sailor pants. The NYer was late meeting me there. As I waited at the entrance a couple came up to me and stated their reservation. I told them they would have to wait 45 minutes to be seated but if they slipped me a 20, then I would get them in sooner. They looked at me as if I had three heads until I informed that I was a passenger and not an NCL employee. Immediately afterwards, the Maitre D arrived and seated them.

I loved my array of lobster/scallop appetizer, escargot, and seafood. The NYer loved her warm goat cheese tart, the salmon and the creme brulee. We both enjoyed the complimentary bottle of wine that came with our meal since I am a platinum member with NCL. I chuckled at how I was turning into a wino. I also concluded by the end of the meal that platinum is now my new favorite precious metal.

Unable to finish the wine at dinner, we brought it to the Fyzz Lounge to see what “Edge Unplugged” was all about. Families were enjoying themselves and a crowd of young and old were learning to juggle on the dancefloor. We met a lovely group from England and we laughed a lot with them. Could this be my cruise family? They were fun and we shared jokes. I gave them my best British, Irish and Scottish ones. Afterwards, we went searching for our photos taken by the ship’s staff. We had fun looking for and finding them but we never purchased any. For some reason we looked old in all of them.

The International Crew Show won over our interest in nightly venues. Instead of karaoke or the Latin Fiesta Dance Party, I knew the crew show would be more entertaining. It is a treat to see your servers, your stewards, your cooks sing, dance and entertain. I believe shows like this add to morale and the passengers appreciate them. The Cruise Director and his staff did a funny finale. We finished the evening dancing in the Spinnaker’s Lounge.

THURSDAY…ST. THOMAS:

I awoke early to the immigration call. Any ship that stops in St. Thomas must go through immigration because of re-entry to the United States. All passengers must show their passports or photo identification to the immigration officials who come on board. I left my cabin at 8pm and was back by 8:04pm. St. Thomas had enough officials show up and the entire process was painless.

The foreigners had to go to Spinnakers Lounge and the Americans had to go through Azura restaurant. I realized later that NCL organized approximate times for passengers depending on various things: 7:45 was for citizens booked on shore excursions, and the remaining 15 minute intervals were for citizens on deck 11 and 14, then deck 10, and downward. I was still asleep while going through the Azura main dining room and noticed it seemed a favorable place to eat.

While eating breakfast on our suite we discussed St. Thomas. Wasn’t he the one who doubted Jesus? Or, was St. Thomas named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher/theologian/teacher/traveler? We never reached an answer but agreed we had seen and done just about everything on the island in the past. This included Coki Beach, Megan’s Bay, jewelry/watch/linen shopping, island tours and turtle cove. Other possible shore excursions we discussed included snorkel tours, scuba tours, parasailing, St. John beach escape, Kon Tiki Party Raft, coral world and champagne catamaran sail/snorkel.

I have almost everything on previous cruises and by this Thursday morning, I was not interested, especially since I bought that darned dress! The only thing both of us had never done was the screamin eagle jet boat or the skyline ride directly off the ship. Somewhat disappointed in ourselves that we were having to think about making a decision, the crew drill offered some relief.

I commend NCL for their passenger safety. I already mentioned hand sanitizers but need to mention cameras all over the ship. A newer ship, I felt safe and secure knowing they were everywhere. Should a crime occur on board, I am sure that at least one if not four would show one spot. If you are bored on board…try to find the cameras…they are hidden everywhere. Phones are also all over the ship. Portable phones in each stateroom can be used to stay in contact with family members while on board.

In addition to the life-raft crew drill, the crew onboard this week had to participate in missing children simulations. The first simulation was Jill. The announcer described her and the crew had to find her. She was found within two minutes (the crew really has to search until found). The NYer said that was an easy one…she was probably in Jack’s cabin! The second simulation was missing Willey. The NYer had a field day with that one and I laughed for over an hour.

Laying in the sun on the balcony won us over until the shade arrived and we sunbathed at the pool for the very first time. We were soooooo relaxed. While many passengers were on St. Thomas, some of us had the pool to ourselves. Two Sapphire pools are located on deck 12. One for kids with a giant water slide, the other for adults with a waterfall. Swimming under the waterfall gives a wonderful back massage. Be sure to stay under the water unless you want a head pounding. The kids waterslide was uneventful for me. I had a hard time sliding down it. Maybe because it was for kids? The peanut NYer had no problem but I was slighted by getting stuck on the slide. No fast downhill motion-plunge-at-the end for this heavyweight!

I probably ticked off the little kids waiting their turn behind me, assuming their complaints to peers how the big adults were not staying in their own pool. Even so, I took my time as I gently had to push my tush one arm movement at a time all the way down. A little guy at the bottom said I was supposed to lay down to go faster. I said to him “Ohhhh!” while wanting to say “Whatever!”

We had great bar service all day and the pina coladas were great. We knew already to order them in a regular glass so we did not pay the extra cost of the fancy-smancy glasses. The pool band was very good as they played easy-listening music. Showers are located nearby the pool but we found a large shower area on deck 13. It had gigantic fake shower handles with a large overhanging shower head. You press a button and the water flows to cool you off. Do not worry if the water keeps going and going…it shuts off automatically. I am sure if the camera guys were watching, they got a good laugh at the look of panic on my face when the water would not stop for me.

The pool areas on deck 12 and deck 13 began to fill up as passengers returned from the island. I watched one use their cell phone and I remembered The Family! Oh my gosh, it is Thanksgiving! Here I was on the beautiful Norwegian Jewel, it was 3pm in gorgeous St. Thomas, and I was enjoying the warm sun combined with a cool pina colada while they were all eating warm turkey in the cold green mountains. I missed them. I called them (My verizon cell phone worked in San Juan and in St. Thomas). My immediate family is so large that I had to call five houses to wish them all a happy turkey day. My family is so large that some were surprised when told why I could not come over for pumpkin pie that afternoon…I discussed the toss-up over who spoiled me more…my older brothers and sisters or NCL! I told them NCL won out this week!

We left the pool area by sailaway time and decided to work off the pina coladas. The Fitness Center on deck 12 was large and many cardiovascular machines faced an ocean view. The NYer pointed out the corner water fountain with a very long spout. She whispered in my ear. No more Evian purchases the rest of the week. We finished the workout powerwalking the promenade deck as St. Thomas’ view drifted further away. I think 2.3 times around the promenade is one mile. A jogging track is on the upper deck but it is too short for me and it is in full sun which I do not like. You can not run on the promenade as some passengers go out there for relaxation, for shuffleboard, to watch the sunset, to read quietly, to kiss their lover, to think alone, to gather thoughts, to Whatever. Promenade decks are the best-kept secrets of any cruise ship.

I worked up a hefty appetite. An invitation to dine with officers was extended at the V.I.P. party earlier that week. We were suggested to pick a day and time. I responded that they were the ones who had the busy schedules and I thanked them. I commented to let us know what was convenient for them. After 27 cruises, 17 with NCL, I had Red Buttons fever (the comedian on the old Dean Martin roasts who never got a dinner) and always wondered how passengers get the invite. Figuring the invitation was just a nice gesture I assumed it would be forgotten. Besides, think of the stress of it all.

We were told on Le Bistro night to meet in Star Bar Thursday at 8pm with dinner at Cagney’s to follow. Oh My Gosh. How do you decline that? I still wonder as of this writing how we got the invite. I am guessing the following: 1. They know I am a Cruise Critic?, 2. I am an NCL platinum member?, 3. They liked my commercial?, 4. I was in a penthouse suite?, 5. My SouthBeach formal dress flipping up?, 6. Jesus was with me?

Thursday was Caribbean night at sea. While getting ready the NYer and I discussed what we were supposed to wear. Was it formal? Was it resort casual? Was it Caribbean? Should I wear my black and white polka-dot dress? No, Caribbean night is usually the night the passengers and officers/staff/crew wear those horrible looking multi-colored caribbean shirts and goofy pants. We concluded the Star Bar and Cagney’s Steakhouse had the least amount of color of all lounges on the ship so we would wear our brightest outfits too.

I called for help anyways to make sure. The response was this was freestyle cruising and that we could wear “whatever.” At that moment I felt like making a bed-sheet toga to show just what I thought about “whatever!” None the smarter, the NYer ended up in a casual caribbean dress and I ended up in a multi-colored floral halter top with white capris. We concluded they were definitely our worst outfits the entire week. At the very least, we would match the officer/staff/crew’s worst outfits of the week too.

The Concierge, a.k.a our limousine driver, escorted us to the Star Bar and waited with us while the others showed up. We were all going to dine in Cagney’s Steakhouse. I just about died when the officers entered. Seems NCL took my previous advice and got rid of their goofy caribbean outfits. These guys showed up in black dress pants, black dress shoes and Gorgeous silkish solid color Cuban-style shirts. Here we were in our stupid outfits and there they were looking like they just returned from a Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine shoot. Oh my god, this was going to be the longest dinner of my life, perhaps my last supper. I immediately ordered a mount gay rum and tonic with lime.

After nervous introductions once again of everyone, we were asked how our day was. The NYer responded in an exasperated voice, “I am EXHAUSTED!…I have been looking for Willey ALL day!…Have you guys found him yet?!” Mount gay rum and tonic actually came out of my nose. I almost fell out of my chair laughing as did everyone else. The rest of the meal was fabulous. The only way to describe the dining experience was that I was dining at home with my family, especially my brothers and sisters. How surprised was I? We laughed, we told stories, we laughed, we ate a lot, we laughed more, we talked a lot and laughed some more. The NYer pointed out the ones (including me) from big families talked the most. She described it perfectly how we all grew up…we had to compete for the attention!

Overall, what a special treat for me to have been missing my family earlier that day and to have NCL find a way for me to feel right at home. My perception of officer stuffiness has changed as I realize they are people just like you and me. I come from a family of officers and I should have known better all along. Even so, I thank NCL for one of the best Thanksgiving dinners to remember.

If anything, I hope that they in return enjoyed themselves. Since this is done on a weekly basis, I somehow wonder how they view the dinners. There were a few times they almost had water coming out their noses, so I suspect it was something different for them too!

While dining, I did not have a problem missing The Second City comedy improv earlier that evening. There was enough laughter and joy at our table. After thanking the Jewel officers for Thanksgiving dinner and wishing them and NCL a happy birthday, the NYer and I went to the Caribbean deck party. After the Caribbean deck party, I went to the Spinnaker’s Lounge to dance off my jumbo shrimp, prime rib dinner with au jus and horseradish, Idaho baked potato and steamed asparagus. Since the next day was at sea, the disco is usually crowded because nobody has to get up early. Like having to get up early makes a difference to my late night dancing!

FRIDAY…DAY AT SEA:

Friday morning arrived and it was a full day at sea. All the documents and information for debarkation were delivered the night before. I suggest reading through them all to avoid confusion on debarkation day. On NCL, one debarks the ship in a variety of ways: Express walk-off (you get off first)…you must carry off all your own luggage, then passengers with flights to MIA or FLL before 3pm, then guests with shore excursions (you meet in a separate area), then guests with independent travel arrangement (arranged by deck locations), following with guests who have FLL or MIA transfers with flights after 3pm. If you do not want to read through the directions, just watch it on your stateroom television.

I suggest you fill out your customs cards, comment cards, luggage tags and check your onboard account within the last two days of cruise. This avoids the potential long line at the purser’s/information desk debarkation morning. Who wants to end their holiday stressed out?

I wrote out my thank-you letters for the Thanksgiving dinner invite and then packed a bit while watching “Pirates of the Caribbean (part 2)” on the movie channel. Oh my gosh, who knew of the selection of free movies along with the selection of other dvd games available? I never get the chance to go to the movies at home so it was a treat to see this one for free.

I decided to spend the day at sea checking out all other area’s of the ship. After the breakfast buffet I went up to sports deck and to the sun deck. A full size basketball court (also used for tennis and volleyball) with stadium seating was impressive. I found a golf swing area, a giant size chess board game, more shuffleboards, and the private area to garden villas. The sun deck was forward and I concluded this was a nice private area away from the pool. A few passengers were vegging out on the loungers and I did not want to disturb them. The ship’s chapel was small and not very decorative.

My attention was captured in the card/lifestyles room and in the library. The card/lifestyle room had a view of the ocean. Tables were set up where one could play games (bridge/cards/checkers/chess). I looked in all the cabinets and found plenty of board games including monopoly, rummikub, cribbage, sorry, just to name a few. I even found decks of cards!

The library room was the best library at sea I ever noted. A view of the ocean, comfy cubby chairs, and tables by the windows, the book selection was fantastic. I noted fiction, non-fiction, best-sellers, children’s, health, travel and other subjects. Passengers have the opportunity to check out books throughout the cruise and to return them by week’s end. I found three great travel books on Paris and spent the next two hours perusing them. My first visit to Paris was soon thereafter this cruise and I learned a lot. I guess while on the streets in Paris I am not supposed to look French men in the eyes nor respond to their greetings…unless I want to get picked up. I also learned how say, “Bonjour Monsieur! Je suis bien! Et tu?”

The Jewel Club Casino is a brightly decorated one with plenty of slots, tables and tournaments. I bought the perfume in Antigua with my gambling money so I never made a donation. I spoke with a nineteen-year old who had beginner’s luck at the crap’s table and according to him, he spoke to people who had won big at various times. I asked him on the last night if he was in the black or in the red. He had broke even yet commented he enjoyed every minute of it. At least he learned the correct way to gamble.

The internet cafe, located on deck 7 had about six computers. A staff member is nearby to assist passengers. An art gallery was nearby and art auctions took place all week. There were some pieces I liked. The Galleria shop staff was excellent in all areas. The employees were cordial and helpful. I bought t-shirts for hubby, boxes of caribbean rum balls and a great carry-on duffle-bag for 26 dollars. I could not bring the perfume liquids on the plane ride home so I had to re-arrange my packing. The store also had perfume, jewelry, gift ornaments, clothing, and toiletries. So, if you ever forget something, the Galleria store will probably have it.

I finished my self-guided tour with a buffet lunch of cold soup, pork ribs and iced tea. Yummy. Back at the cabin I told the NYer I was going to finish packing so I did not have to rush that night. She politely informed me that we still had another port of call the next day (Great Stirrup Cay) and what the heck was I thinking? Having no concept of time or date all week, I thought we were debarking the following morning. Could this cruise get any better?

I still packed a little bit and The NYer attended a towel making demonstration. Once I was done, I attended the ice cream machines. My first dessert of the week, I found two stations at both ends of the Garden Cafe. You can get chocolate, vanilla or mixed. They have sauces and sprinkles available. Cones (the good kind) are present but I don’t eat them. Instead, I gave the ice cream server my best smile when I handed him my giant soup bowl. He grinned as I whispered, “whatever, right?”

I thought of my father, now deceased, as I sat by myself amongst the crowded Sapphire pool area. Having a family of 13, our special treat was taking us for rides in the car and going to the Dairy Queen. If it was just him and I, he would always get me the super-giant size creemee as long as I could eat it all before I got home so my mother and siblings would not find out. I could never do it and he always helped me out as we pulled into the driveway. I remembered toward the end of his life taking him for rides and for creemees. He still finished what I could not. As 1/2 the ship’s passengers gathered at the Sapphire pool area, it only felt like it was just him and me as I ate the entire serving of icecream. I even licked the bowl.

Feeling like a little kid again, I watched a great show at the pool. A grand illusionist performed an underwater escape challenge. In true Houdini fashion, he had the entire crowd in awe. Passengers chained him up and threw him in the water. Amazing how long this guy could hold his breath. The real little kids were jumping and pointing in anticipation as the minutes passed. I found myself jumping and pointing and holding on to stranger’s arms as I watched. This was a great addition to NCL’s program. Totally cool.

I discovered the NYer at the Sky High Bar and we decided to pass on the bingo, casino tournaments, name that tune, exercise classes, seminars at sea, and singles socials all taking place on this sea day. Instead, we perched ourselves on the bar stools overlooking the pool below and met a lot passengers…some new and some familiar. We began with mojitos which were full of mint and yummy. I can only drink one of those though. We continued with her double-scotch and me double-mount gay cocktails. Much to our surprise, the activities came to us.

We took part in a Kid-Bingo-Coverall taking place by the pool. The prize was 400 dollars and it was one game only. NCL set it up in the cutest way. Each little kid received a beach ball. At the top of the slide, the staff had the machine balls and wrote out the number on each beach ball. The little kids slid down with their beach ball bingo number and held it up for the cruise director to announce. It was coverall and some of the little tykes were pooped towards the end. Some dropped out. I admire the ones who endured the entire game. If you want to make sure your child goes to bed early, then have them participate! They got to keep the balls too!

The sun was setting and the NYer and I were still perched at the SkyHigh bar and we met two wonderful gals having just a great time as we were. The four of us laughed a lot and we wished we met earlier in the week. Come to find out, one gal was from Cruise Critic. She did not make it to our gathering earlier that week so I told her what she missed. The four of us remained there until they had 20 minutes to get to dinner and left. The NYer and I met more passengers along their way. Who says you can’t meet interesting people at a bar? It had been dark for a while and it was getting foggy out. We noticed everyone dressed up while we were still in our shorts and bathing suits. After sitting and drinking all sea day long, we left the Sky High Bar with a Sky High bill. Returning to cabin, we realized we were indeed Sky High.

We went to dinner in Tango’s restaurant with a Tex-Mex flair. We had fun practicing on the Tango carpet during the day. The carpet has foot pictures and directions on how to do the tango. Who knew my tango guy would be a rug? We loved the ambiance of Tango’s at night with the lights dim and hearing the live music playing one deck below. Our waiter was excellent. I had the chicken soup and fajitas…the NYer had the spring rolls and quesadillas. Tex-Mex Burger: beef, shredded chipotle, avocado, Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, spicy fries

After Tangos we went to the Fyzz Lounge and watched the cruise staff teach line dancing. A few started out and others joined as they realized just how fun it is! The cruise staffmember was excellent and a very good teacher. I remember she taught me a few moves on the Norwegian Sun a few years ago.

The big main event show that evening was Cirque De Bijou. Held in the beautiful Stardust Theater forward, every seat was a great seat. There is nothing to block a view in this theater. The design was very well thought out. With exception to the peacock curtain, the colors and decor worked well.

The show was fabulous. I sat in the very back at the top and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Billed as “an artistic and awe inspiring aerial ballet featuring world recognized aerialists, rhythmic gymnasts, acrobats and bungee jumpers hurling from 40 feet in the air…” I totally agree this is a show NOT to miss and that it is definitely the “the best show on the seven seas.” If you sit in the first 8 rows, you have to stay the entire performance due to safety reasons. You have performers flying about above you coming within feet of your head!

Also not to miss is the after-show farewell by officers/staff/crew. NCL does the best send-off compared to my Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. As the farewell progressed, I realized the answer to my question all week long. As I heard the words sung “This is your home…away from home…you are part of our family…” and saw everyone up there, I reviewed the week in my head. How true those words were for me on this cruise. I opened this review with stating that NCL treated me like a goddess and like a family member at the same time. These are the words I use when anyone at home or work ask how my vacation was.

After the show we had good intentions of attending the well announced chocoholic buffet set up in the Garden Cafe and the Late Night Comedy Liars Club. Instead, The NYer went to sleep. I watched The Da Vinci Code, another movie I was pleased to see for free. I found myself having a hard time following along even though I read book two years ago. I did enjoy seeing the sites of Paris knowing I would see it for real very soon.

Not wanting to think too much about the Holy Grail once again, I ventured up to the Spinnaker’s Lounge and danced with myself. I had a good time with me! I found out that my favorite music is played late late late night. Not hearing it on other nights (although I still liked the DJ’s selections and I was only out late late the other nights), I was very pleased. My favorite music is trance/techno/club music and had I known, I would have taken longer naps during the day in order to stay up later. Even so, I am very proud of myself that I never once on this trip closed down the disco. I think I am growing up!

SATURDAY…GREAT STIRRUP CAY:

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day off Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island in the Bahamas. The wind and the waves moved the stationary ship. I was thankful we could tender to shore because sometimes the island is missed due to weather/strong winds. The NYer was going to stay on board and I was going on island to seek out the lighthouse and secret beaches.

The Nyer ended up coming ashore and we left the ship at about 12:30pm. Most of the passengers were already on island. We took our time getting off although we could have have used our priority tender tickets to leave earlier. Upon arrival, I saw many people sunbathing and not too many in the water. On less windy days, the beautiful calm waters beckon swimmers, snorkelers, and water loungers. We saw the quieter beach to the right but it was closed off probably due to safety reasons. We watched the Caribbean band play as passengers danced. Many of them were the diehards in Spinnaker’s late nights. Passengers rested in hammocks, played volleyball or ping-pong located near the very clean bathrooms. Kids built sand sculptures while others buried each other.

We did not eat the buffet lunch provided on the island by the ships crew, but saw many eating at the picnic tables set up. We did not go to the straw market because I already bought my straw hat there when I was on my April 2006 NCL Spirit cruise.

We did find the lighthouse marked two miles away from the main area. Along the way we found a private rock beach (no sand…just rocks) and had a great laugh at the Great Stirrup Cay Airport. The NYer should have a wonderful photo of her there at the entrance. Where I live back home, we can go into our lighthouses. Since this lighthouse was a working one, it was closed up. I found out later from some that there is another private beach in front of lighthouse. We kept walking past the lighthouse and found a private area with beautiful calm waters. We sat in the sun on a rickety old dock and watched a few crew members and a few passengers enjoy the peaceful water. Some snorkelers arrived from around the bend and reported they saw pretty fish, lobster, a stingray, a shark and starfish. We stayed there for a few hours and ended up watching a couple of passengers catch fish. This getaway was ideal and I shall not forget the serenity I felt upon leaving.

Before boarding the last tender back to ship, we watched the operation of breaking down the island. The crew certainly works hard to bring everything ashore and then to bring it all back to ship again. All the umbrellas and loungers are stored on the island while all the food, drink, and passenger trash returns to the ship on a separate tender. Fortunately for the crew, the red-shirt bar staff versus the blue-shirt kitchen staff could play some volleyball prior to boarding the ship.

Categories
Island

Monarch of the Seas to the Bahamas

Author: VentureForth
Date of Trip: September 2009

I just got back from my very first cruise ever with my DW, celebrating my 10th anniversary aboard the Monarch of the Seas, sailing from 9/28 to 10/2. I will try to answer some of the questions that I had, and hopefully this will help any other newbies that are looking forward to sailing on the Monarch.

We drove to Port Canaveral, arriving around 1 PM. We thought we could carry our own two bags (a garment bag and a large duffel with wheels), so we did not drop off any bags where we were guided to and went straight to parking. $60 for a 4-night cruise, paid up front in cash (though ONLY MC/Visa accepted, additionally). At 1 PM, we were parked on the 5th deck – last level before being in the sun. The elevators were not designed to carry many people and their bags – shortsightedness on the part of Port Canaveral. Needless to say, we had to wait a few rounds before we got our ride down.

We then proceeded to Security where they examine your ID and confirmation information. Having it out was appreciated by the staff. At this point we were told to take our large bag all the way to the other end of the terminal building and have it checked. I then realized that we should have done that to begin with. You should only carry with you what is easily passed through a standard X-Ray machine. Note that the Port Porters are salaried, and tipping, though appreciated, is not required.

After security, we took the stairs up and went to check in. A HUGE waiting room, but none of the queue was being used at the time we were there, so we went straight to check in. This is where they take your credit card information to tie your sea pass to. After obtaining our sea pass, we show it to another lady then proceeded through the glass walkway to our first of MANY irritating and non-refusable photo ops. They take your picture in front of a backdrop of the ship and then send you on your way. Next stop is picture time so that they can match your sea pass to your mug everytime you get on and off the ship. After walking the gangway, you’re welcomed aboard and they help you find your stateroom if necessary. Not too bad for us, ‘cause we entered deck 4 and our room was on deck 5. Very easy to find our way around the ship. Nicely laid out and LOTS of maps/ship diagrams. We went to our stateroom and freshened up, hoping to get lunch in Windjammers. An announcement came out, telling us of a presentation to tell us about touring in Nassau where all participants will receive a charm bracelet. DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME unless you LOVE JEWLRY and want to spend LOTS of money in Nassau. If that’s you, then definitely go. We enjoyed it for the cheesy giveaways in the presentation and the coupons/drawings offered in Nassau. The charm bracelet was goofy and my wife won a watch from EFFY which was nice, but definitely a cheesy promo piece. Got some free rum punch, coke, and water though, so that was neato. Some may find true value in the $25 coupon book they pawn off in the show. Show was cut short for the muster drill at 3:30. Still no lunch.

Muster drill was about 20 minutes, and lifejackets were NOT required. YAY! Nice view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (where they assemble the space shuttle) off in the distance. Amazingly, many young ‘uns were already sloshed and mocking the drill. There’s one in every crowd…

Muster drill ends around 4 PM and we’re HUNGRY! Finally head up to Windjammers and EVERYTHING is closed! We finally found pizza up stairs (deck 12) and “Grab & GO” and it was very yummy and well worth the wait. At 4:30 we cast off and sailed away. We had a nice view spot on the bow end of deck 12 and stayed up there until we were in deep sea. We returned to our stateroom for a nap. Our dining time was at 8:30, so we had plenty of time to get settled. I highly recommend the later dining time, as going to bed before 12 never happened and it just seems to help open up one’s day.

We ate in Claude’s every night. Our waiter was Mehmet from Turkey and was terrific. He gave us each an “evil eye” charm. Very nice touch. Susana from Peru was our assistant waitress and did not speak much English, but nice. My water glass went empty several times – the service was just a wee bit slow but no major complaints. Steak was wonderful! My wife returned to her room and I just mulled around the ship until about 12 and then watched TV for about an hour before finally falling asleep.

On Day 2, we arrived at CocoCay. It was a very small island compared to the other ones, but it wasn’t bad. It was just the right size. We walked along the beach and collected shells (then told it was a no-no!) and enjoyed wading in 10”-deep water. There were thunderstorms all over the place and so they would not rent out snorkeling equipment. We had lunch on the island at around 11:30 and it was great – hotdogs, burgers, ribs, and chicken. Only complaint was lack of extra bbq sauce (which there may have been, but I didn’t see any). Lots of fruit, tea, water, and lemonade plus the sodas, beer, cocktails and cocolocos. Have I mentioned how irritating the photographers were? A cute older couple were sharing a cocoloco and then using the straws to make elephant sounds. FUNNY! Never did get a cocoloco, but they sure looked good! At around 12:30 we took the tender back to the Monarch around 12:30. Seas were much rougher, we were on the top deck of the tender and it was raining pretty heavily. Getting off the tender onto the ship was like walking in one of those fun houses at the local carnival. I thought it was fun! Rest of the day was filled with miscellaneous things on board – all fun, all relaxing. That night was formal night and we were back in Claude’s with our dining friends, Kelly, Paul, Mike, and Kenya.

Only being around 70 miles or so from Nassau, we cruised at around 9 knots and arrived in Nassau about 6:30 AM on Wednesday. I enjoyed watching the ship reposition on channel 36, doing its 180 turn and then docking. The Norwegian Sky came in right after us and I got to watch them do the same maneuver. We had breakfast in Windjammers and got to see one of the US Navy’s newest San Antonio-class amphibious assault vehicles depart. That was a treat. Note that this class of warship includes the USS New York which was built from steel recycled from the World Trade Center. Very neato! We disembarked at around 9 AM and hit the shops. Didn’t spend much money, but enjoyed looking around. Note: I found the same $15 Tortugas rum cake available in the ship’s store for only $5.99 at the local grocery store. Hmmm… We did the previously mentioned tour of “Authorized Jewelers & Stores” and got our little free tokens. Not hardly worth the plastic it was packaged in. But, we got to meet a couple other CCCruisers. Hit the straw market and a nice little bookstore (my wife’s a teacher) then went back to the ship for lunch. After lunch, we went back out and rode the #10 Jitney full circle for $1.25 per person, each way. A nice $5 tour for the both of us. If you don’t get off, you can take ANY Jitney and return back. Total trip time was about an hour. Coming back, we stopped at the fish fry and had some fried conch. Nice, but for $10, I wasn’t super impressed. It’s a great “locals” spot, though, and few tourists hang out here.

We got back to Bay street and everything closed at 6 PM. Went to a little internet café near the Harley store that was open until 7 and called home for 10-cents a minute. WAY better than the $2.49 on the cell phone and $7.99 onboard the ship! Kids were fine, so we were fine.

Since the $3 water taxis and the jitneys stopped running between 6 and 7, we had no cheap way to get to Atlantis and back, so we didn’t go. We could have walked up and down the island a bit more but we were getting tired so we returned to the ship. Had dinner at Claude’s and then enjoyed The Quest game show. We left port at 11:30 after a call went out to two cruisers who apparently hadn’t gotten back on board yet. Don’t know if they ever made it.

After The Quest, we went back to our stateroom watched another 30 minutes of the same movie we watched 30 minutes of the night before, but unfortunately, it was the same 30 minutes.

We set out of Nassau cruising at nearly 11 knots (13 MPH) back towards Port Canaveral. The next day we just enjoyed the ship, tried our luck at bingo twice and played the scavenger hunt. We bought Champaign for our table to celebrate our 10th and then called it a day. OH YEAH – about Bingo. For most games, you can pay $32 for 4 games of 6 cards each or $45 for an electronic gizmo that gives you 4 games of 30 cards each – and keeps track of all the dots. We noted that in all the games we watched EVERY winner was on an electronic system. Paper players got 1-away a couple of times, but never won any of the games we watched. On the last game of the last day – a $2000 jackpot – we were one of two teams that were one away…and the other guy won. Drat! Whatta bummer!

Enjoyed the Can’t Stop the Beat farewell show [before dinner] and later had a good night’s sleep after having our checked bag outside our room by midnight.

Day 5 was nice. Again woke around 6 and got to watch the approach back into Port Canaveral and the 180 turn. We were probably docked by 7:30. I totally was wrong in the whole gratuity thing. Even though it’s prepaid, it’s NOT AUTOMATIC. You get vouchers and envelopes in your room on the last day, and then YOU put the vouchers in the right envelopes and pass them out yourself to those who served you. It left me scrambling on Monday. And that was interesting. By 8 AM, armed border cops were all over Deck 4 corralling folks towards the gangway. If you don’t watch it, you could end up off the boat before you’re ready! After getting the gratuity envelopes taken care of, we went to Windjammers for breakfast and not being in any sort of hurry waited until around 9 to disembark. Getting off the ship was very easy – a couple of Sea Pass checks and immigration and that was that. I advice folks who are parked in the lot not to buck the system and to stand across the street with their bags and allow a 2nd person to get the car. It’s makes it much easier to ride the elevators, and pick up is a piece of cake.

All in all, it was a terrific experience. Our expenses were as follows: Tickets and taxes – $375 Parking – $60 Onboard Expenses (Casino, Bingo, drinks, gratuity, etc) – $250 Shore Expenses (Nassau shopping, snacking, and jitneys) – $250 Total – $935

Could have been done for as little as $500 with discipline.

Categories
Miscellany

By Land & Sea – San Francisco – Dawn Princess

Author: donnaw
Date of Trip: May 2006

What do you do when you are down to the last of your vacation days, spent or committed the vacation budget and need to get away?

A Little Background
Almost mid 50’s couple (I have been told that the almost is quite important) who have spent a good deal of the last five years vacations on cruises. April comes along and we realize that we need a break. Personnel changes at work have increased the number of hours that I am working each week and I am burning out rapidly. Next scheduled cruise is March of 2007, and we are looking at one in May of 2007 so realize that whatever we do cannot wipe out the budget moving forward. Last cruise was in January and DH loudly announced that he really needed a land vacation yet again! This has been the refrain after the last couple of cruises, so I am beginning to think that he really is serious!

Sitting at my desk one evening in April and taking a break from the work I brought home, I started looking to see if there were any cruise deals out there. No matter his insistence on a land vacation, I know that if I find a good enough deal, he will buy off on it. As I wander through the Internet travel sites, Dawn Princess jumps out at me. We have been on this ship several times and it is DH is all time favorite. She is moving from the Mexican Riviera in May to Alaska and has a three-day repositioning from San Francisco to Vancouver then a one-day to Seattle where she will start the Alaska season. Now bells really start ringing! The only time we have been in San Francisco was a layover to Hawaii and we never made it out of the airport due to a late arriving flight. We have always meant to go back but have never found the time. Add that we have always wanted to go to Seattle and there is a potential vacation plan here. This can work so time to hand it over to DH and see what he can do with it. I have planned the last six vacations so it had already been determined that it is his turn to plan.

Let’s Get the Snags Out of the Way
First snag that we hit was the fact that the Jones Act/PSA would not allow us to take the three-day cruise followed by the one-day cruise even if we disembarked and then re-embarked to a different cabin. We thought that it only affected us as U.S. citizens but later found that the Princess computer would not allow the Canadians to do it either. We had already spent four days in Vancouver after an Alaskan cruise on Dawn so we were really committed to spending time in Seattle this time so decided on taking a shuttle from the port to SEATAC on disembarkation.

Air
The proverbial second snag was the airlines yet again. Hundreds of thousands of Frequent Flyer miles on multiple airlines did no good for the dates that we were looking for. Hours of playing with itineraries failed to make it look any better. The cruise was in the middle of the whole trip so any moves in the start, end date affected how long we spent in either of our destinations, and we were unwilling to give up time in either San Francisco to Seattle. We live mid-way between O’Hare and Milwaukee airports but could not find a reasonable direct flight out of either. It was time to pull out our Southwest reward ticket. Midway (Southwest territory) is 80 miles each way and is definitely our third choice but it was worth a try. We hit paydirt. Southwest had great times for direct flights to OAK and from SEA at $99 each way. If flying out of MKE, we stay at a park and fly hotel the night before, if flying out of ORD, we do an inexpensive one-way car rental each way, if flying out of MDW, we need a new game plan. When we fly MDW in the winter, it is limo all the way. However, that is a very expensive option and not necessary on a Saturday afternoon in the summer. Internet research came up with the solution. We booked Midway “Park, Ride, Fly” for $8.50 a day online and took our older and more gas efficient vehicle. This company has concessions at many airports throughout the country. Parking is in a fenced lot, and shuttle to the airport is included in the cost. They pick you up at your car (in their lot) and drop you off right behind your car. The service was fantastic with the shuttle bus being there before we were ready for them both times.

Southwest Airlines

This is the “budget” airline. As times have changed with the “premium” lines, we find that Southwest is actually a little better than most of our “premium” flights of late. Trick: Southwest is open seating using A – B – C codes for who gets to board first. The first 45 who check in are “A.” We checked in online the night before each flight and were “A” on both flights. This open seating arrangement does mean that passengers line up early to board the plane to get the best seats. We were at the back of the A line on both flights and still got great seats and managed to get a row of three for the two of us on both flights. With the extra legroom on Southwest planes and the quite comfortable leather seats, we were quite happy with our choice. The snack provided was a cute little box with a pack of Ritz cheese and crackers, a pack of Oreo 100’s, a pack of dried fruit and a pack of peanuts. Definitely not premium but better than what we received on our last three flights on other airlines. Eat first if you are going on a long flight or bring food onboard with you!

SAN FRANCISCO

To San Francisco
There are many transportation choices from either SFO or OAK to the San Francisco downtown area. We arranged a town car pick up prior to leaving and were quite happy with the results. Our driver, John, was at the airport waiting for us and was full of helpful information even though part of the conversation was sidetracked to Boston (his original hometown). He was even nice enough to drop DH off at Powell and Market to pick up our three-day transportation pass and circle to pick him before dropping us at our hotel.

San Francisco Hotel
As stated in the beginning, this was a budget trip. We have had good luck using Priceline in the past and decided to use it for both hotels on this trip. An important part of using Priceline is doing your research and knowing what you are bidding for. We used both biddingfortravel.com and betterbidding.com to determine what zone we would bid and what price. We decided to bid the three-star in the financial district of SFO since we felt the three-star in Union Square had a property that we would not like. We got the Courtyard by Marriott in the Financial District and were more than happy with the results (more later).

Before we got to San Francisco, we both had concerns that this property might be too far out of the mainstream. Those concerns were put to rest as soon as we got there. A short three-block walk put us on Market and in the mainstream. The #15 bus brought us back to the hotel and stopped at the opposite corner on Folsom and 2nd Street. To take the #15 down to the pier area was a one block walk to Folsom and 3rd Street. A Starbucks with limited hours was located in the lobby and the rooms were very nice with the most comfortable (pillow top) bed to date. The only negatives were the lack of a room safe (we took our documentation down to the desk and used a safety deposit box there. Note: there is a $250 charge if the box key is lost.) and the limited Starbuck’s hours but they appeared to be every other block so easily made up for.

Seeing San Francisco
One of the first things we realized was that the core of this city is much tighter than it appears on maps. This is a walking/public transportation city. It would totally be a walking city except for the hills (think mountains at times). Our three-day passport ($18) gave us access to unlimited use of above ground transportation for the time we were there. For us this meant numerous trips on cable cars (main station at Powell and Market), trolleys and buses. A one-way trip on the cable car is $5; a one-day pass for the cable cars is $10. The three-day pass quickly becomes a deal since we traveled extensively around the city.

Weather

Overall, beautiful! The rainy season appears to have ended before we arrived. First night found us having dinner at Pier 39. We had made advance reservations at Swiss Louis, where we had an excellent dinner and wonderful views. Recommended by friends, this was our splurge dinner in SFO and it lived up to expectations. However, now for the weather part, I was wearing a light jacket and DH was in a long sleeve shirt. We walked out of the restaurant just as it was getting dark and it was cold. We walked into a shop a couple of doors down and bought SFO jackets for less than $20 each. This was the best deal of the trip. They are reversible with one side furry and the other waterproof. They also got a lot of use until we reached Seattle. Someone said that SFO has six microclimates and I have to believe them. Depending on where we were, we want from hot to cold in a matter of seconds. During our stay, we went back to the hotel so I could change jackets several times.

Must Do’s

Cable Car Museum — We took the Powell/Hyde line up Nob Hill then walked down to the Ferry Building at the port. First stop on our walk was the Cable Car Museum. Yes, this is a museum with a lot of the history of the cable cars in San Francisco posted in very nice displays; however, this is also the heart of the current cable car system with full view of the working system that provides power and keeps the cars moving. This is free and fascinating even for those of us who are not mechanically inclined. Also has a nice little gift shop with very helpful employees.

Chinatown — Continuing our wandering down to port and we were in Chinatown. This is a working Chinatown. Yes, there are many tourist shops but there are also markets and stores that support the local Chinese population and they are there en-mass. This is the second largest Chinatown outside of Asia and is a definite must see.

Fisherman’s Wharf — we somehow managed to wind up at this definitely touristy location at least once a day. This is not a surprise since we both love being on or near the water and automatically gravitate towards it. The wharf area is filled with restaurants, shops and small stands selling food including whole Dungeness crabs cooked when you order it. Must see at this location is Boudin’s Bakery and Café (reputed by a good friend to have the best clam chowder in SFO but take the bowl with the roll on the side since you get more soup). We went in after stopping at Ghirardelli’s for chocolate sundaes and just the smell made us hungry again.

Pier 39 is a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. Stop and see the sea lions who have taken over a good portion of the boat docking area. They put on a show continuously. San Francisco was not too happy when they decided to make the slippage their home, but have resigned themselves to live with it and have posted the history of this group and pertinent information about them. Live entertainment, restaurants, shops and bars are the order of the day here. Great spot for people watch with lots of locals enjoying the sights along with the tourists on weekends.

Alcatraz
— “The Rock” is in view of the port area but deserves a trip. Blue and Gold holds the concession to the prison tours until the end of May, 2006 so by the time this is read; it may be handled by another vendor. We ordered our tickets for the Sunday evening tour prior to our trip and went to one of the computer stations at their dock to print our tickets early on the day of the tour. All that the computer needed was the charge card that we used to place the order and it printed the tickets without having to wait in any lines. The ferry ride over is rather chilly so dress accordingly. The climb up to Alcatraz once on the island is somewhat steep but it appears that they do have transportation for handicapped. An audio presentation allows you to take the tour inside Alcatraz at your own pace. The only disappointment was that we hoped to return as the lights of the city were going on for some great pictures but it was still too light out for that to work.

Golden Gate — This is an absolute must though we did bypass the land portion since we would be sailing under it. It has been reported by a reliable source, that the best hot chocolate in San Francisco can be found at a little stand at the entrance to the bridge.

Cable Car
— All routes but especially from the port area to Powell and Market. We took it in this direction on the last evening and got a whole new perspective of the HILLS of San Francisco as we looked down at the city center (think almost straight down). The view equaled any roller coaster ride.

Only One Day in Port
For those who have only one day, this is a tough city to see but a lot can be done by taking the one day transportation pass which can be purchased online before you go or at specific locations when you arrive. Additional info and choices for transportation can be found at sfmuni.com If you have not done it before, the cable cars are an absolute must and utilizing them will allow you to see more of San Francisco. Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are a natural with several small gourmet groceries for anything that you might want to pick up before returning to the ship. Food

San Francisco is a city and has city restaurant prices so budget accordingly. We did not find any $3.99 Grand Slam breakfast deals! Food costs were in line with what we pay in the Chicago Metro area and many of the choices were the same. We did, find coupons on the internet that we used at several locations including Lori’s diner. Local specialties that are must try are crab and sourdough breads.

Budget tricks:

Coupons from the internet and on the local tourist maps were a fun way to save a bit.

Walgreens (found all over the city) saved a considerable amount on water and other quick snack items).

Municipal passports kept transportation costs down.

Summary
Three days was not enough to see San Francisco and we will have to go back for more. It was a fun filled hectic three days and we were a bit disappointed when it was time to pack up for the cab ride to pier 27 but it was time.

San Francisco Cruise Ship Facilities
Pier 35 is the primary cruise ship facility in San Francisco. It would be natural to assume that since we were boarding a cruise ship, we would be going to Pier 35. I am a member of several cruise line forums and was alerted the day before we left that Dawn Princess would be at Pier 27 (which is an overflow pier) and would start at 1 p.m. This was actually closer to our hotel and lowered the cost of the cab ride considerably since most of the cab cost in this area is due to congestion and the slow movement of traffic. We exited the cab in front of the terminal with a bill of $8 plus tip at 12:20. What we did not realize was that the cab could have pulled right into the dock area about a half block down and dropped us off. However, that half block was very slow moving so we did save a couple of dollars and had a short walk. We handed over our checked bags to dock personnel and entered the terminal where we needed to show ID and our cruise tickets. We had filled out immigration on-line so only needed to fill out a statement that said that we were not sick (caused by the re-occurring incidences of Noro viruses on cruise ships). We then proceeded to the registration area to be faced be huge lines winding through the queue.

However, we are Platinum on Princess so we continued to walk and bypass the queue to the Platinum and Elite registration queue and no line. We stood for 30 seconds before we proceeded up to register and were onboard in less than 10 minutes. The entire process from cab drop off to walking on the ship took less than 25 minutes and we were dropping our carry on luggage in our cabin at 12:45. When we booked, the only thing available was a category j inside cabin and we were assigned cabin D735, an aft inside cabin directly down the hall from the casino and La Scala (the Italian Restaurant). I have a standing request on the Princess website for the beds put together and robes in the cabin. Other than those requests not being met, the cabin was in perfect shape including the requested fruit on the desk. A quick call to our cabin steward (Maria) identified that the laundry was in process and she would fix the bed and provide robes as soon as she received them. The only other cabin issue was a trick remote. It was universal and Maria needed to fix it for us twice when DH managed to un-program it.

THE CRUISE

Dawn Princess
Built — 1997 Class — Sun Class Gross Tonnage — 77,441 Tonnes Passenger Capacity — 2,050 Crew — 870

It had been three and a half years since we had been on Dawn Princess. I was amazed at what wonderful condition she is in. Our normal first stop when boarding Dawn is La Scala but it was closed during this boarding so we headed up to Horizon Court (buffet) for lunch. Hand sanitizers were very evident as well as crew politely requesting that they be used if someone attempted to walk past. Food is still self-service which some of the other lines have taken away. There are no trays but the oblong plates are large and rather easy to fit a beverage on to keep things under control. Food was excellent as usual and seating was plentiful. We had beautiful weather and while a bit cool it was still beautiful when we boarded so the next order of business was wandering the outside decks then finding a place to sit in the sun until muster. We returned to our cabin shortly before muster was scheduled and had enough time to unpack our luggage before the drill, which was quick and painless. We returned the life jackets to the cabin and then headed up for sail away and our trip under the Golden Gate Bridge. I grabbed my San Francisco jacket but DH decided his golf shirt was just fine. We headed up to the front of the ship above Horizon Court and DH along with many others froze as we sailed under the bridge. Most toughed it out for the photo opportunity and an experience that is unforgettable. More wandering then pc dining and a show completed our first day on board. We found out at dinner that the cruise was offered up as a special deal to airline personnel and there were many onboard who had taken it. These short repositioning cruises can be somewhat difficult to sell because it is not cost effective to travel to the port of embarkation and back from the port of disembarkation for such a short vacation. Many of the Canadians on the prior Mexican Riviera cruise stayed on and quite a few passengers that only needed one-way air were on board. This still left a rather large ship to fill and it appears that airline personnel filled quite a bit of it. We met UPS, Southwest, Delta and Skyway personnel who said they had met others from virtually every airline.

The seas
I had been warned that, (by many before) what we were embarking on was generally one of the roughest stretches of water to sail. The Pacific between San Francisco and Seattle is notorious for providing a wild ride and it did not fail this time. Dh believes the wilder the better and I rarely get seasick but I have been known to so came prepared. I put the patch on prior to sail away and am very grateful that I did. Wednesday was a sea day and we were in rough seas with gale force winds. Temperature made it all the way up to 52 with an overcast sky.

Wednesday — Sea Day
For us, this was laundry day then finding a protected spot on Riviera deck to listen to the band and watch the sea go by. Laundry rooms are located on each deck. The last time we were on Dawn, the machines were free but you paid for soap and fabric softener. Those machines have been changed and it is now $.75 ea to wash and dry. Met and talked to others who were doing laundry and using the iron and ironing board provided in the laundry room. All were having a great time! Finished the laundry and made it out to deck. A few diehards were dancing to the band while wrapped in red/black wool blankets provided by Princess in place of pool towels. The afternoon Bingo game was fun even though we lost. While wandering, we checked the dinner menu for the dining room and decided that we would go to La Scala for dinner since nothing held great appeal to us that evening. This was also formal night and we were going to be dressed semi-formal at best since we did not feel dragging formalwear with on this trip was worth it. La Scala proved to be an excellent choice and our waiter was so good that we gave him a cash tip. I had thought that Sterling Steakhouse (additional charge on Princess ships) had the best Caesar salad only to be proved wrong by the one in La Scala. Entrees were excellent and the Tiramisu for dessert could compete with the best of them. Some casino time and then wandering the different entertainment venues followed.

Thursday — Victoria
The rough seas and head wind that we had been fighting since we left San Francisco changed our 8 am docking to 10:30 in Victoria. We have been to Victoria before and done Bouchard Gardens and the whale watching tour so we were looking forward to a leisurely tour of the inner harbor area. Since we were walking to town, this schedule change had no impact on us but it did mess up timing for some who had scheduled local tours. We had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room while we watched the docking and I had the special of the day, which turned out to be excellent Egg’s Benedict. We finished before disembarkation so went up to Horizon Court to enjoy the coffee at leisure and wait for the disembarkation rush to end. Overcast and cool when we left the ship, we followed the map provided by the ship and the signs to downtown Victoria. This was about a half hour leisurely walk from the ship with lots of stops to snap pictures. It did start to rain about half way through but stopped by the time we made our first stop (Starbucks) on Government Street. We leisurely wandered through shops then stopped at an Irish Pub for a taste of the local beer. A little souvenir shopping and we headed back to the ship reversing our prior route and stopped at a local coffee shop along the harbor for a specialty coffee. Due to our late arrival, sail away was moved an hour to 6:00 PM so we had a leisurely lunch including an excellent burger from the pool grill and watched as others returned.

This was packing night so we headed back to the cabin after sail away and packed the bags that we were putting out in the hall. The first two bags were tagged and placed out for pick up prior to going to the dining room. The last bag was put out shortly after another excellent dinner. We changed shoes and jackets to what we would be wearing for disembarkation and headed out to wander and enjoy the entertainment throughout the ship along with a little leisurely shopping.

Duty Free Shopping note: You can shop for duty free cigarettes and alcohol at any point during the cruise but both will be held and delivered to your cabin on the last night. Princess does offer a limited list of alcohols and mixers for cabin consumption along with beer and wine packages through room service. Cigarettes can be purchased at any bar on the ship throughout the cruise for around $3.50/pack.

Casino note: We received notification in the Wednesday Patter that the casino would not be open on Thursday night after leaving Victoria. Many missed this and were disappointed after waiting for it to open.

General notes:

The art auction is alive and well.
The spa services were really being pushed.

Coke card for fountain soda was available for $13.63. This entitled the purchaser to unlimited fountain soda for the entire cruise.

The Hagen Daz concession was open for limited hours and was surprisingly popular with it as cold as it was.

Fresh Brewed coffee and specialties coffees were available through bar service.

There was a drink of the day selection each day along with a martini of the day in Crooner’s Club.

Disembarkation
We had scheduled Quick Shuttle for our transfer to SEA where we would pick up our rental car for our stay in Seattle. The time choice for pick up at Canada Place was 9:15 (express service) and 10:50. We decided on the 10:50 (even though it made multiple stops) since we did not want to be rushed to disembark. We stalled after breakfast and finally headed down to disembark at 9:30 with the thought that they probably added something to do in Canada Place since the last time we were there and that we would have to kill an hour before we boarded the shuttle. All was quiet when we left Dawn and then we turned a corner into total mayhem at customs. It took over half an hour to get through and out of customs, which cut our time pre-boarding the shuttle down and then took another 10 minutes to find our scattered luggage and 10 minutes to find the shuttle and sign in. This shuttle was crowded when we left Canada Place and was packed by the time we left downtown Vancouver. We had thought that the shuttle would take less time with the border crossing but found that was not the case. All passengers were required to bring all their belongings with them when they went through. Those passengers that did not disembark from Dawn were also required to collect their luggage and bring that through too. We decided that we would definitely reconsider this option if we were to do this again even though a one-way rental car is rather expensive.

SEATTLE

Rental Car Pickup
We did get to SEA at 3:30 and did the paperwork for our Thrifty rental car then hopped on their shuttle to pick up it up. The shuttle to the Thrifty rental car took 5 minutes and we were within site of our hotel.

Seattle Hotel
Another five minutes and we were checking in to the Doubletree SEATAC. This property has had mixed reviews over time but we got it for an excellent bid, It has been going through renovations for a rather long period of time and those renovations are still being done. Desk personnel gave us the directions to our room which was in building four that would involve winding through a lot of buildings and a rather long walk with luggage so we opted to drive over to building 4 and had no problem finding a parking space. This property consists of a tower and a number of low-rise out buildings. Our room (4112) was a short walk from the secure entryway and was our next surprise. We did not notice as we exited the car that this particular building was different but the difference was apparent as soon as we walked out on the small concrete balcony (all rooms have them including tower room. The outbuildings balconies did not have furniture but not sure about the tower rooms). Our building was built on stilts over a large pond. Spectacular view with the Marriott Airport in the distance. This was more like being at a resort than at an airport hotel. Please note that the odd number rooms, while having identical balconies, had a view of the parking lot. Buildings 4, 5 and 6 have this water view though some of the lower rooms are obstructed with greenery. I was on the balcony and turned around when I heard “Wow!”. We had another pillow top mattress that was unbelievably comfortable. The overall room was one that had gone through renovations and was very attractive. The only detraction that we could find was the lack of a safe but that was not a major issue to us. I cannot say enough good things about the staff at this property. They went out of their way to make us happy! The final and probably best example: We returned to the hotel late on Sunday evening and realized that we had completely forgotten about doing online check in with Southwest. DH grabbed the paperwork and headed down to the lobby. The computer center was closed but one of the desk staff (actually, one of the employees that was helping the desk staff as they were overrun by check ins) did the check in for us and gave him five chocolate chip cookies to take back to the room when she was done.

General Notes:

This became a non-smoking property upon renovation with a small smoking area set up outside of the main lobby and smoking allowed on balconies. This is probably not a problem in good weather but potential issue if the weather is bad.

We unpacked and then wandered around in the general direction of the lobby with our final stop at the Concierge Desk.

Cruise Passenger Note: Princess is using this property as one of their hotels and has a desk on site.

Friday evening in Seattle
It was 5:30 at this point and we decided that it was too late to head into downtown Seattle, so we asked about a local casino. It appears that there are two types, so we opted for information on the full casino. We were given directions to Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, which was about a 25-minute drive. We have generally found (in our travels) that large casinos have excellent buffets, and this is where we were heading with a little side trip to a grocery store for a bottle of wine and a quick stop to check out a mall (ATM). Since it was Friday night, the casino was quite lively. We wandered about for a bit losing $20 in the nickel slots (also had penny’s along with a full range of slots and a full complement of table games) then wandered into the line for the Pisces Seafood Buffet which was priced at $19.50 a person (more details can be found at Muckleshootcasino.com). This buffet was well worth the money, and I hit gold with Dungeness crab and huge cocktail shrimp. DH also felt he got is money’s worth even though he does not eat seafood and went back twice for the prime rib. This is not an extremely elaborate buffet or a fancy dining room but everything we tried was excellent. We headed back to the hotel after dinner so we could get plenty of rest in preparation for a busy Saturday in Seattle.

Saturday in Seattle
Another sunny day in Seattle and a relatively late start. We drove into Seattle Downtown proper. We started off looking for Pikes Market but managed to miss it so decided to take our planned tour first. We were very fortunate to find a parking lot with a weekend special rate of $3.50/day about a half block from our ultimate destination of the start of the Underground Tour located at First and Yesler Way. We did not realize quite how lucky until we looked around at rates at other lots. Tours are $11/person and run every hour (more information at undergroundtour.com). With tickets in hand, we headed across the street for our first Starbucks in Seattle. The reviews of this tour were great and it lived up to expectations. As the tour completed, we found out that we could get on a free bus on the corner and take it to Pike’s Market. Several stops down and we were now at the entrance to the market. Blocks long, catering to tourists and locals alike, the sights and sounds were fascinating. Wine shops next to fish mongers putting on a show of throwing whole fish back and forth. Full shops and small booths intermixed. This is not a place that you run through under normal circumstances and the Saturday crowds means a very leisurely stroll. We wandered to the end and back. Made it past the donut vendor on the way in but could not manage to pass it up on the way back out. It suddenly dawned on us that we had somehow managed to skip breakfast and it was well past lunchtime so a little snack was well deserved. We shared a dozen hot mini donuts and it was the perfect snack.

Decision time and what to do next. We had gone past the Space Needle four times already but weren’t sure whether we really wanted to do that (I fully admit that I hate heights and spent the entire time at the top of Sears Tower in Chicago in the gift shop). As we are wandering about, conversations just seem to crop up with other wanderers and locals and someone has mentioned the Ferries that run to the islands in Puget Sound. This sounds like a much better option for us but we are not sure where to catch it. We do know the general direction so back on the bus and strike up a conversation with a local who is heading home from work on the Ferry so just follow him off. The person who suggested the Ferry originally mentioned that Bainbridge was a rather quaint island and a short tip along with being inexpensive, $6.50 per person roundtrip, so off we went. Added bonus on the trip over was the chance to watch Dawn Princess and a HAL ship pull out of port and an NCL ship pull in. Short ride later and we were on Bainbridge for a leisurely walk in the area around the Ferry Pier. We were late enough that shops were starting to close but wandered through the grocer (lots of gourmet foods) and the drugstore before returning to the dock to cross back to Seattle on the 6:30 ferry. A short walk to the car and off to our next destination. We talked to one of the security guards at Muckleshoot the night before and he mentioned that the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma was as nice as or nicer than Muckleshoot so that was our goal for dinner. It did not take long to get there but parking was a nightmare and we finally gave up and took valet parking since the place was absolutely packed. The line for the buffet was longer than the one the night before with lots of locals waiting. Nicer dining room and we hit the surf and turf buffet, which added a lot more items than the night before including King Crab Legs, which were by far the most popular item and were continually replenished. Price was just slightly higher than the Friday night buffet and well worth the difference. A bit of wandering and it was time to head back to the hotel.

Sunday in Seattle
The sun shines brightly yet again! We called prior to the trip and made reservations for the Spirit of Washington dinner train out of Renton so we will stick to the suburbs this day. We finally decide on the Museum of Flight thinking that we will be able to kill an hour or two. Bad move! We could have easily spent and entire day and were both disappointed when it was time to go back and change for dinner. A note on directions, when getting off I5 and going to this museum, it is one road past Airport Way (The airport access road). The museum is actually in three parts with one part an easy walk across the street to walk through a Concord and a retired Air Force 1. This is definitely another winning activity and if you have the least interest in planes and air travel then plan on a whole day.

Back to the hotel early to change, and we head out for the train. This was the most expensive activity on this part of the trip, and we were really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, we brought the map with that had us going for the train from Seattle so managed to get turned around and barely made it though they said they would hold it for us (make sure you bring the phone number). We boarded and it quickly decided that the sport coat was overkill. The company suggestion was to dress as if you were going out to a nice restaurant. Most of the passengers were dress quite casually. Dinner entrée was pre-ordered when making the train reservation. We paid the extra per person and opted for the super dome car (City of Renton originally built in 1952 for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. This also meant that we would be sharing a table for four since tables for two always book very early. Our tablemates were a nicer older couple who had moved from California to Washington a few years ago and were on their first train ride. Introductions completed and drinks ordered (my sour apple martini was quite tasty even served in a water glass), dinner was started shortly after we pulled out of the Renton station. Both the Prime Rib and the Chicken entrée were excellent. The train travels up to Woodinville along the shores of Lake Washington and over historic Wilburton Trestle (102 feet high and 975 feet long) before moving onto a spur to the Columbia Winery. This was a 45-minute stop with the choice of wine tasting, shopping or just wandering the beautiful grounds. Many shopped while we wandered and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Back on the train and back to Woodinville to return to the spur back to Renton with dessert served as we watched the scenery go by. The chocolate cake was excellent and reports were that the Apple dessert was also. We reached Renton just as it started to get dark and returned to our hotel tired but feeling like we had an excellent day.

One day in port
For those who have a limited amount of time as a port stop, Pikes Market (along with the original Starbucks) and the Underground Tour are both an easy distance from the ship and are probably good options. The Space Needle is a bit further but is on many “to do” lists. With additional time, the Museum of Flight is necessary see.

Monday — Start in Washington, End in Wisconsin
Our flight scheduled for 3:30 timed the rental car return and shuttle to the airport at about 1:30-2. We decided to head to Pikes Market since we wanted to actually go in the first Starbucks but finally gave up when we couldn’t find any reasonably close or reasonably priced parking for a brief (two hour) foray into the market. We packed and checked out before we left for downtown Seattle so we headed to Westfield Mall for lunch and a little wandering before we turned the car in and headed to the airport. This is a very nice very standard mall and impossible to tell where you are once you pull in the parking lot. Food court was large with many of the standard mall vendors found all over the country. It provided a nice lunch and a bit of a break then off to return the car and the five-minute ride to the airport. SeaTac is a very easy airport to get around with the normal assortment of shops and food offerings. We again made it to the back of the A line for the flight but again managed the coveted three seats for the two of us and enjoyed an uneventful flight back to Midway airport. The parking lot shuttle was sitting and waiting as we walked out with our luggage and took us directly to our car. The trip home was fast since we were well after rush hour and the following morning was back to work.

Summary
Did we get to do it all? Not a chance! Would we go back to do more? Definitely! With limited time in both cities, we purposely missed many things that we wanted to see and do in favors of others that we considered priorities for us. Would we do this type of trip again? Another definitely! The land portions were a tremendous amount of running to get to do as many things as we could possibly squeeze in so the cruise portion provided a relaxing break and gave us time to recharge.

Final suggestions
Do your research and plan what you would like to do in these cities but leave some time to just go off in a different direction and enjoy. Schedules are for real life and work but should be only advisory on vacation. If you have any questions, email me at donnaw7471@yahoo.com and I will attempt to help when I can.

Categories
Outdoors

Celebrity Alaskan Cruise

Author: Rich C.
Date of Trip: September 2009

Alaskan Cruise via Celebrity Millennium

Having visited New Zealand for our 25th wedding anniversary, our next milestone trip had to be as good or better. After consulting the “boss,” we decided on a cross country trip to Seattle, and then a flight up to Fairbanks where we would join up a land/sea tour of Alaska. I have been flying since 1969, when I was sent on a “vacation tour” of a small Southeast Asian country many of my comrades in arms are familiar with. Many iterations in travel have occurred and sadly, in my opnion, they have not been for the better. One key point that will dissuade me from future travel via that mode is the carpicious nature of the TSA screening. Of particular note is that no notice is given in advance of what is considered “contraband.” In this instance, a 3/4 empty tube of tooth paste was confiscated. Now, if they had taken my dirty underwear I might have thanked them.

Flight aside, our landing and subsequent check in to the Pike’s Landing Hotel was fast and very courteous. Our lodgings were comfortable and very convenient to a very nice restaurant located about 200 meters from the hotel. the restaurant, also called Pike’s Landing, was not haute cuisine but excellent. Those wanting some wild life (i.e., salmon and perhaps venison) would find their appetites satiated. The Sunday buffet was excellent with a wide range of foods on the platters and good service.

The land tour was excellent, with a stop in Denali National Park. We took the tour into the park with the tour bus and it was fascinating to see the wildlife. The best fun was watching the mother grizzly and two cubs play and browse out in the fields in front of us.

Joining the ship at Seward, our cabin aboard the ship a far cry from what I was used to on military vessels. The double bed was comfortable and while not palatial, very nice. We chose an ocean view cabin and I was glad we did as it was not warm enough to enjoy a “sit” on a balcony. To any travelers considering such travel, judge your level of comfort and the weather before booking one of the more expensive cabins with verandas. Meals were normally at the buffets and they were far and away very good. Although the ship had about 2,000 passengers, we never experienced any undue delays in food or service. The formal meals that we had (we attended to only 2 due to our walking late) were sumptious and since I can honestly attest to not used to haute cuisine, a bit overpowering but delicious.

We had several stops and each were very enjoyable. I would have to write a diary on each site we stopped at as there is so much beauty and enjoyment at each stop. I have the additional curse of a lot of curiousity so I could have spent days at each point investigating all the nooks and crannies and the history of each point. Obviously, our 49th anniversary was a great and happy event for us and maybe, just maybe, we might take another cruise, in another clime and place.

Categories
Arts & Culture

Med/Greek Isles Cruise – Carnival Freedom

Author: Carmen C.
Email: timecop5@excite.com
Date of Trip: June 2008

On 6/14/08, our SIL took us to BWI for our 2:30pm flight on Air Canada to Toronto where we had a 4 hour layover before heading to Rome. We saw our DD, who is a Behavior Detection Officer with TSA, at the airport, and she stayed and chatted with us until our flight left. We were 1/2 hour late leaving Toronto, arriving in Rome at 11:33am on 6/15/08. What has not happened in decades of travelling happened on 6/15/08. Air Canada lost one of my “essential” pieces of luggage.

After being sent to three different counters at the airport, we finally found the right one and filed a report. We headed to the Carnival bus and about 11/2 hours later we arrived at the ship.

Embarking was pretty efficient, it took about 1/2 hour to be processed through the lines and get onto the ship. There was water and different types of cake in the waiting area to help tide people over while they waited. They took all of our passports which came as a surprise as they usually just take mine because I am an EU Citizen. It was later explained that you need a visa in Turkey and since Carnival pays for this and from their experience last year, where everyone (2,974 passengers) had to stand in line to get their passports stamped, which took hours, Carnival decided to take everyone passports beforehand, have them stamped and return them to us in Katakolon, I, however, did not see a Turkish stamp in any of our passports.

We had a Cat 11 suite which was very spacious, with lots of storage space, which was great since it was 3 of us. We had the mandatory fire drill at around 7:45 pm, headed to the Lido Deck for dinner, unpacked and then headed to bed.

Regarding the interior decoration style of the ship, I wasn’t sure what was going on with the color scheme, it certainly was a hodgepodge of designs. There was a blue full size Statue of Liberty in the Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck and the lighting sconces were fashioned from the heads of the Statue of Liberty, and all over the ship were banks of pulsating lights that constantly change color. The ceilings and walls in both main restaurants are done in a black and deep red metallic snakeskin pattern. However this is a Carnival ship, you don’t expect subdued tones and boring decor. After 12 days on board, you never pay attention to it anymore. The Seaside Theatre had an impressive 12-foot-high by 22-foot-wide LED screen and there was always a lot of people bundled under their blankets at night watching the Gladiator, Placido Domingo, Barry Manilow, The Bees Gees, India Arie, Casino Royale, Under The Tuscan Sun and a lot of other films and concerts. The public areas were always very clean, there was always someone cleaning something. I didn’t see trash or empty containers lying around, and with over 2,974 passengers that was quite a feat.

The buffet food was excellent. Everything we tried was great – the salads, fruits and bread were fresh. They have at the beginning of each food line, a dispenser with hand sanitizer which is an excellent idea. They have a Mongolian corner which had a great variety of items to choose from. You add your meats, spices, rice, etc. and they will cook it for you, the lines there were usually very long. There was also a Meiji Sushi Bar, which we didn’t try. The Deli had great sandwiches and we ate there twice. One day at sea, they had a “Chocolate Extravaganza” buffet. A very grand display, but my sugar levels went up just looking at all that chocolate. We ate in the dining room once and were not impressed. As some of you know, we rarely eat in the dining room, but I wanted to get some formal pictures, so we got all dressed and headed that way. My DD and I had the steak, horrible, we wanted our steaks well done, and it arrived in about 3 minutes, what is wrong with that picture. We had steaks on the Lido Deck which were outstanding. My DH had the salmon and he was pleased with it.

We also ate at the Sun King restaurant for $30.00pp. The service there was amazing. Your server knew what you wanted before you knew it lol. The food was terrific and there was live music with Dana and Tony.

We went to some of the shows. Andy Leach from Britain was very funny and even had some pretty good magic tricks. The Jump, Jive & Wail show was tolerable, also the Guests Talent Show was mostly good, with a powerful rendering of “New York, New York” by one of the passengers, and she received a standing ovation. The Cruise Director, Todd Wittmer even took part, and he was not bad at all. I enjoyed Todd; he was funny and informative and really wanted everyone to have a great time. My favorite show was a “Ticket to Ride” featuring all Beatles songs, which had everyone on their feet singing and dancing. They even give us those colorful thingamajigs to wave around. It was a lot of fun.

The ship’s Internet was ridiculously slow and cost $55.00 for the first 100 minutes ($0.55 per minute), an activation fee of $3.95, $0.50 to print a page, and once your plan had expired it was $0.75 per minute.

Our Cabin Steward, Neganin, was first-rate and his tip reflected our satisfaction with him.

Ana at the information was also very helpful. When we first arrived and filed a report about our missing luggage, she was very sympathetic and gave us Carnival T-shirts and Carnival leather bags full of toiletries. She also called us every day regarding the status of our luggage, which we received a week later in Athens.

Naples – We were tired and since we visited this port 2 years ago, we just did some shopping downtown for items that were in our lost luggage.

Day at Sea – Slept in late, did nothing but relax.

Marmaris – There were only 3 excursions offered at this port. I didn’t see anything interesting, so we took a taxi to the City Center for 10 Euros. There were hundreds of shops, some on the beach, most under covered awnings, selling everything you can think of. We walked around the town a bit and opted to walk back along the marina to the ship which took about 40 minutes.

Izmir – Booked an excursion to the Archaeological Museum and Ancient Ephesus. We were supposed to leave at 9:45am, but didn’t leave until 10:15am. We go back late due to the bus getting a busted air suspension hose and we had to wait to get on another bus. It was hot, but they gave us cool bottles of water. That of course delayed the ship which was supposed to leave at 4:30pm but didn’t leave until 5:15pm. We however, had an absolutely wonderful time at Ancient Ephesus. The Hadrian Temple was impressive and is the first structure to be made totally of marble. We saw the Greek goddess Nike statue, who represents athletic strength and victory, and which the well-known shoe and sports equipment company is named after. When you see my pictures, you will see how they came up with the Swoosh logo. You have to make sure you get a landing pass before you leave the ship in lieu of a visa, if not you will have to pay 35 Euros for a visa before you are allowed back on the ship.

Istanbul – We took the Palace of the Sultans tour which took us to the Blue Mosque, the Topaki Palace and the Grand Bazaar. I expected to see more of the Blue Mosque, we just saw one big room, although the decorative walls, ceiling and windows were quite striking. Half of the room was cordoned off for prayers. In fact, it was being vacuumed in preparation for prayers while we were there. You have to take off your shoes before you enter (Carnival gave us bags to put our shoes in) and your knees and shoulders had to be covered. There was someone at the door to give you a scarf if you did not meet this criterion.

I used the restroom outside the Mosque, what an experience that was. I was charged .50 Euros to use what was basically a hole in the ground, with a tap and a bucket to flush.

The Topkapi Palace, wow, it was a walled city back in the day, housing over 4,000 people, and is a complex made up of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. The palace contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, and armor. The treasury section has breathtaking collections, including the 7th largest diamond in the world. No pictures were allowed, but outside the palace, vendors were selling postcards with the very items that we were not allowed to photograph. I wonder how the vendors got their pictures. The description of the excursion said that there would be a short stop for a carpet weaving demonstration, but it was really a carpet selling pitch. The host was very cordial and not pushy at all. He gave us hot apple cider and a cookie while he showed us his carpets. They were beautiful, but I can’t see myself buying a carpet for $30,000.00. Do you know how many cruises I can go on for that kind of money? lol.

We left there and walked up the street to the Grand Bazaar. What can I say about the Grand Bazaar – overwhelming is one word. With 4,000 shops you can just imagine that you can find anything in here. The vendors are aggressive and will follow you trying to sell you their goods if you show the slightest interest. Of course, you have to haggle, they expect that, my DH is good at that, so I just selected what I wanted and let him do the rest. We bought a lot of souvenirs here and of course the famous Turkish Delight. The vendors will take any kind of currency.

Day at Sea – After 3 ports in row, we were all ready for this day at sea.

Athens – We took the Acropolis and Plaka tour. The Acropolis, the Parthenon, Temple of Athena, The Erechtheum, Odeon of Herodes Atticus (where Yanni held his “Live at the Acropolis” concert in 1993), you can just feel the glory that was ancient Greece, these are historical sites that you should not miss. We had a very knowledgeable guide and she explained everything in detail. Totally breathtaking and we got some great pictures.

It was crowded and very, very windy, after all it is one of the highest points in Athens. You felt like you have just been exfoliated when you got back down to street level. There is a lot of uphill walking on rough and sometimes smooth and slippery terrain. Two people fell, and one lady ended up with bloody knees. Plaka is a picturesque old historical neighborhood of Athens, just under the Acropolis. We did some shopping here and had some very tasty ice cream.

Katakolon – We took the Museum and Ancient Olympia excursion. The excavation of the Temple of Hera, the Hill of Kronos and the Temple of Zeus was astounding and it covered quite a big area. This was also the site of the ancient Olympic Games. The museum, which had a wonderful shaded garden, had marble statues of Zeus and a collection of ancient pieces of amour and bronze figures. We saw where they had the terrible fires last year, it was sad to see all those burnt areas. We had left Athens on the 22nd and on the 25th there was a large forest fire on the outskirts of Athens and arson is suspected.

Day at Sea – The Captain took us pass the Island of Stromboli. As we moved in further we could see the main village of about 500 people of the island sitting at the foot of the volcano. On closer examination, however, it was clear to see that the paths of lava were on the opposite side, thus the village was safe from any potential lava flow.

Florence – We were also here 2 years ago, but DD wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa so we took an excursion there. The Leaning Tower was as imposing 2 years ago as it is today, as was the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Monumental Cemetery.

Rome – We did on our own. We took the free shuttle from the ship to downtown (about 10 minutes), walked for about 15 minutes to the train station. The tickets were 9 Euros each round trip from Civitavecchia to the end of the line, the Roma Termini. You have to remember before you board to get your tickets stamped at one of the machines along the train station and the same thing when you are coming back.

We bought tickets for the Hop on, Hop off bus for 16 Euros per person which will allowed us to ride on the Yellow or Red Roma Christina Tour Bus. Our train tickets were also good for riding the Metro Bus A or B. We saw most of the major sights – The Roman Forum, The Pantheon, The Spanish Steps, which was packed with tourists, The Trevi Fountain, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was a huge and magnificent building. Across the street was a shady park with benches, when we stopped for a while to get our breath back. What can I say about the Coliseum, words can’t describe it. I can see why it is considered an architectural and engineering wonder. It was truly a jaw dropping sight. We left about 9 hours later and caught the train back to the bus which took about 1 hour, back to the ship to finish packing (we had started the day before).

Debarkation was easy. We got up around 5:45am, had breakfast, they called our number at 6:40am, got our luggage and were on board the bus at 7:15am. We arrived at the airport at 8:15am and spent 11/2 hours in line before we were checked in.

We have a superb time and I was happy to be able to share this experience with my DD as this was her first visit to Europe.