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12 Amazing Solo Vacations to Take in 2020

Don’t have anyone to travel with in 2020? That’s no reason to stay home. Solo travel is on the rise, and tour operators are expanding their offerings to meet the increasing demand. Below are the 12 best solo vacations for 2020, covering every corner of the globe. Some of these trips made the list because they’re specifically designed for solo travelers; others offer discounted single supplements or roommate matching so you don’t have to pay extra fees for traveling alone.[st_content_ad]

Note that all trips and single supplement discounts were available at the time of publication, but they could sell out at any time. If you’re interested in these solo vacations, it’s best to book early.

Explore Madeira, Portugal, on Foot

Exodus Madeira Portugal Hiking Excursion

Sweeping coastal views, sleepy fishing villages, and sheltered forests await on Exodus Travels’ Walking in Madeira itinerary. The seven-night trip includes leisurely walks of up to nine miles a day along some of Madeira’s most breathtaking hiking trails. The trip ends with free time to explore Funchal, the island’s historic capital. Exodus will match you with a roommate, or you can pay a modest single supplement for your own room. Departures are available every month throughout 2020.

See Morocco from the Mountains to the Desert

Camel Back Ride Sahara Desert Morocco

Overseas Adventure Travel is one of the best tour operators for solo vacations, thanks to free single supplements on most trips. That includes one of its most popular tours, the 14-night Morocco Sahara Odyssey, which takes you through the narrow streets of ancient medinas, over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the dramatic peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. Unique experiences include lunch in a Berber home and a couple of nights under the desert sky in a private tented camp. This trip has available departures between April and December 2020.

Explore Northern India’s Icons

Amber Fort Jaipur India.

See the Taj Mahal and much more on this dedicated solo trip to India from Intrepid Travel. The seven-night itinerary starts and ends in bustling Delhi, where you’ll discover the city’s oldest mosque and have free time to explore on your own. Then you’ll head to Jaipur to visit royal palaces and soar above the city in a hot air balloon before visiting the 14th-century village of Karauli and touring the magnificent Taj Mahal. Intrepid will match you with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid paying a single supplement. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Take a Hiking Vacation in Vermont

hiker on long trail vermont.

Escape to the pristine mountains of Vermont on a wellness getaway, hiking each morning and enjoying spa treatments and fitness classes each afternoon. New Life Hiking Spa is the perfect retreat if you need a little R&R, drawing numerous solo travelers (mostly women) of all ages. Small-group hikes, communal meals, and friendly public spaces offer ample opportunity to get to know fellow travelers. New Life’s 2020 season runs from May 14 through October 5 and is held at Killington Mountain Lodge.

Discover Ireland Your Way

cliffs of moher ireland sunset.

Not big on group tours? Consider Great Value Vacations’ Irish B&B Getaway package, which includes airfare, a rental car, and accommodations at bed and breakfasts around Ireland, allowing you to wend your way through the countryside at your own pace. Highlights include dramatic coastal roads, lively villages, and historic castles. The itinerary can be customized for six to nine nights, and you may depart any month of the year.

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Have an Adventure in Colombia

colombian coffee REI adventures.

REI’s Experience Colombia tour showcases the breadth of the country’s landscapes, from the lush green highlands where world-class coffee is grown to the sandy beaches of the Caribbean coast. This eight-night itinerary starts in Bogota and finishes in Cartagena, with plenty of adventures along the way—like mountain biking through coffee plantations, hiking to a rare tropical glacier, and sea kayaking to a colorful coral reef. If you’d like to avoid a single supplement, REI will pair you with a same-gender roommate. This trip is available between June and December 2020.

Live Like a Local in Nepal

g adventures nepal living like a local.

Get an intimate glimpse of what life is like in rural Nepal on a fascinating six-night journey with G Adventures. After a night in Kathmandu, you’ll travel to the farming village of Panauti to meet your host family. You’ll spend the next few days learning to make dumplings, tasting local wine, hiking to villages and monasteries, and even playing volleyball with the locals. G Adventures will pair solo travelers with a same-gender roommate so you don’t need to pay a single supplement. This trip is available on select dates through December 2020.

Eat Your Way Through Central Mexico

Oaxaca City Street Mexico.

Flash Pack targets solo travelers in their 30s and 40s, matching each person up with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid single supplements. If you love good food and unique culture, give Flash Pack’s Cultural Journey into the Heart of Mexico trip a try. The eight-night itinerary features tequila tasting in Mexico City, a cooking class in Oaxaca, and lunch aboard a vibrantly colored trajinera boat in Xochimilco. You’ll also go swimming in natural thermal pools at the foot of the world’s only petrified waterfall. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Spot Rare Wildlife in Madagascar

black and white ruffled lemur madagascar.

Keep an eye out for lemurs, chameleons, boa constrictors, and numerous rare birds as you travel with Explore! through Madagascar: The Lost Continent.  In addition to wildlife-watching treks through the island’s national parks, this itinerary also features a walk along a spectacular canyon, a visit to Madagascar’s oldest palace, and a stay in a local community guesthouse. Explore! will match you with a same-gender roommate if you don’t wish to pay a single supplement. This trip has departures between April and November 2020.

Go Off the Beaten Path in Nicaragua

granada cathedral Nicaragua,

Less visited than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua has its own magic to discover. Road Scholar puts some of the nation’s most intriguing spots on display in its seven-night Exploring Nicaragua: Colonial Towns to Countryside package, with highlights such as a visit to a rum factory (complete with tastings), a cooking workshop in Leon, a walk through a cloud forest, and an expert talk on Nicaragua’s history by a former guerilla. Road Scholar is currently offering single rooms at no added cost on this itinerary. This trip has several departures between September and December 2020.

Discover the Best of Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

tuscany italy winding road.

There’s a reason Tuscany and neighboring Umbria are two of Italy’s most beloved regions. Discover them for yourself on Insight Vacations’ Country Roads of Umbria & Tuscany tour, an eight-night voyage to destinations such as Florence, Assisi, Siena, and San Gimignano. You’ll dine in the kitchen of a local chef in Orvieto, then learn about traditional textile weaving in Perugia and visit a family-run olive mill in Assisi. Single supplement discounts up to 90 percent are available on select departure dates between May and October 2020.

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Have an Adventure with Fellow Women

woman standing above dubrovnik.

If you, like many female travelers, feel safer and more comfortable in the company of other women, consider booking a trip with Adventure Women, which offers active, women-only tours to destinations around the world. Most of the company’s clients come alone, so you’re sure to find common ground with your fellow travelers. Solo vacations for 2020 with availability at press time include a nine-night Tanzania safari, an eight-night sailing trip around Croatia, a nine-night culture-focused trip to Oman, and more. You can choose to be matched with a roommate or pay a little extra for your own room.

For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Sarah Schlichter wants to take every one of these solo vacations. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Adventure Travel Cities Island

10 Bucket List Cruises for 2020

When it comes to cruises, travelers have a dizzying array of options, from small expedition ships visiting remote islands to big vessels with all the trimmings. Whichever type of ship fits your travel style, there’s a bucket-list cruise out there for you. The list below offers the best cruises for 2020, spanning itineraries around the globe at a variety of price points.

Note that all listed cruises had available cabins at the time of publication, but sailings may sell out at any time. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Go Island Hopping in Indonesia

Satonda Island in Sumbawa, Indonesia

Pink sand beaches, Komodo dragons, and hidden waterfalls you can swim in are just a few of the unforgettable sights you’ll see on an eight-night Indonesian island cruise with Intrepid Travel. You’ll board a 48-passenger motor-yacht in Bali, then set off for some of the archipelago’s less-traveled gems—including Satonda Island, where you’ll swim in a volcanic crater lake; and Banta Island, where deserted beaches are the norm. You’ll also learn about traditional weaving techniques and have lunch in local villages. This trip departs on select dates between May and September.

Discover the Peruvian Amazon

View of a small village in the Amazon rain forest on the shore of the Yanayacu River in Peru

Home to rare and endangered wildlife, the Amazon is the ultimate destination for nature lovers. Explore the Peruvian part of the rainforest with this new 10-night Uniworld itinerary featuring kayaking excursions, jungle walks, tours of remote villages, and nights gazing up at the stars. During your trip you’ll see animals such as monkeys, sloths, exotic birds, and maybe even the elusive pink dolphin. The all-suite Aria Amazon has just 16 cabins, each with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let you watch the jungle slipping by right from your bed. This bucket-list cruise departs on select dates in September, October, and November.

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Find Paradise in the South Pacific

Young couple snorkeling over reef next to resort on a tropical island with over-water villas

Tahiti. Bora Bora. Moorea. Stop daydreaming about these idyllic islands and knock them off your bucket list with a Paul Gauguin cruise in 2020. The one-ship luxury line offers a variety of South Pacific itineraries, but there’s a reason its seven-night Tahiti and the Society Islands cruise is a classic: It includes stops in Moorea, Huahine, and Taha’a, and caps things off with an overnight stay in Bora Bora, giving you plenty of time to snorkel in the lagoon, swim with reef sharks, take an outrigger canoe ride, or simply relax on stunning Matira Beach. The ship holds just 332 passengers and has three dining venues, a spa, and a watersports marina. This itinerary sails on select dates throughout 2020.

Experience the Caribbean’s Quieter Side

People take bath in Emerald Pool near waterfall Central Forest Reserve. Dominica island, Lesser Antilles

Some of the busiest ports in the Caribbean see millions of visitors each year. If that sounds a little busy for you, consider a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, which tends to be less visited than the busier Eastern and Western regions. Princess offers a variety of Southern Caribbean itineraries, ranging from seven nights to nearly three weeks. Ports to look out for include Dominica, with its lush waterfall hikes; Antigua, which has a beach for every day of the year; and stylish Martinique, known for cultural history and a touch of French flair. Cruises depart on select winter, spring, and fall dates.

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Take an Epic Journey from England to South Africa

Aerial view of Praia city in Santiago - Capital of Cape Verde Islands

If a one- or two-week vacation just isn’t long enough, treat yourself to this 28-night Fred.Olsen cruise from Southampton, England to Cape Town, South Africa. In the beginning of the trip you’ll call at various Atlantic islands including Madeira, Tenerife, and the archipelago of Cape Verde. You’ll then have numerous days to relax at sea aboard the 881-passenger Boudicca as you approach the African mainland, where you’ll stop in two different port towns on the coast of Namibia. Excursion options there include bird watching, sandboarding down dunes, and colonial architecture tours. You’ll finish with an overnight in Cape Town. This cruise departs on November 5.

Discover the Mekong River

Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia

Colorful floating markets, quiet fishing villages, and the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat await on a Mekong River cruise with G Adventures. Between the trip’s beginning in Ho Chi Minh City and its final stop in Siem Reap, you’ll visit temples and palaces, taste fresh fruit and honey, learn about Cambodia’s difficult history, and meet welcoming locals. This nine-night cruise has departures throughout the year. (It’s also available in reverse.)

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Savor Food and Wine in the Pacific Northwest

Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon

Taste your way through Oregon and Washington on a seven-night culinary journey along the Columbia River with Uncruise. An onboard sommelier assists with wine pairings on the 86-passenger Legacy, which stops in ports such as Astoria and Walla Walla. Activities include everything from culinary demonstrations and wine tastings to art museum visits and boutique shopping. This trip departs throughout fall 2020.

Get in Shape on a Fitness-Themed Cruise

WOD on the Waves fitness bootcamp

If getting more exercise is one of your 2020 resolutions, pack your sneakers and head to the Bahamas with WOD on the Waves. This four-night fitness cruise aboard Celebrity’s 2,170-passenger Infinity ship is jam-packed with workouts ranging from boot camp to yoga, as well as seminars on fitness and nutrition. You don’t need to be a hardcore athlete to join the cruise, as there are options for all fitness levels. The cruise sails round-trip from Miami on April 16 and includes stops in Nassau and Cococay, a private island in the Bahamas.

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Sample the Best of Northern Europe

People are walking on Viru street at Viru gates in Tallinn, Estonia

From colorful historic capitals to the deep, pristine waters of Norway’s fjords, there’s more to see in Northern Europe than you could ever manage on a single trip—which is why a cruise can offer such an appealing sampler. Italian cruise line MSC offers a variety of Northern Europe itineraries; enticing options include a 14-night round trip from Copenhagen with stops in Finland, Russia, Estonia, Norway, and Germany; and a seven-night voyage from Warnemunde, Germany, stopping in Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Denmark. Trips run throughout the warmer months.

Take an Adults-Only Voyage on a Brand-New Ship

exterior of scarlet lady the new virgin voyages cruise ship

The latest venture from business mogul Richard Branson is a new adults-only cruise line called Virgin Voyages; its first ship, the 2,750-passenger Scarlet Lady, will make its maiden voyage in April 2020. The ship will spend its first year cruising the Caribbean, mostly on four- and five-night sailings calling at ports such as Cozumel, Key West, Costa Maya, and Playa del Carmen. With short itineraries, a sleek ambiance, and plenty of onboard nightlife, Virgin Voyages will likely draw a younger crowd than most traditional cruise lines. Learn more about Virgin Voyages.

What to Pack

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For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Beach Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Island Theme Park

The 10 Best Christmas Vacations for Travelers

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December is a magical time for people around the world, and traveling during this most festive of seasons lets you experience a truly global spin on the holidays. Indeed, Christmas travel not only allows you to take full advantage of school and office closures, but also gives you and your family the opportunity to take in rich traditions from all over the world. The best Christmas vacations are meaningful, multicultural, inclusive, and filled with warmth and cheer.

Going beyond the obvious Christmas destinations like New York City and Paris, here are 10 of the world’s best places to go for Christmas, including those that are holy to Christians—as well as those that are decidedly not.

Rome, Italy

christmas tree in front of st peters basilica rome.

Vatican City, which is ensconced within Rome, is the home of Catholicism, making it one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas. Many practicing Catholics yearn to see the Pope give Christmas mass at the breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica. Tickets to this epic yet solemn annual event are free, but you’ll need to reserve yours at least two months in advance. Instructions about how to do so are here—note that you’ll need access to a fax machine.

If you can’t get tickets to the papal mass, you can watch Pope Francis deliver his urbi et orbi homily live on a big screen from St. Peter’s Square, shop the lively Piazza Navona Christmas Market (or the Christmas market at the Spanish Steps), inspect one of the city’s many detailed nativity scenes, go ice skating near Castel Sant’Angelo, visit the Hanukkah menorah at Piazza Barberini, or simply stroll around to enjoy this sparkling city all dolled up for Natale.

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Quebec City, Canada

holiday decorations in quebec city.

Quebec City is magical any time of year, but winter makes it all the more so. Old Quebec, with its European-style streets and Old World charm, thoroughly transforms into a veritable Christmas village, exuding a very specific type of cozy, snow-covered magic.

The whole city is strung with beautiful lights, the German-style Grand Marche Christmas Market sells one-of-a-kind gifts, and family-friendly offerings abound, including the Quebec Aquarium Light Festival, La Parade des Jouets (“The Toy Parade”), and the chance to meet Santa at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and other spots around the city. You can also attend Christmas concerts, taste distinctive sweets, and stay through New Year’s Eve to experience the midnight fireworks over Quebec City’s Grande Allee, alongside the party-loving locals.

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Israel

fireworks and holiday decorations in jerusalem.

How better to spend Christmas than by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? It’s hard to beat Bethlehem as one of the world’s best Christmas destinations. The ancient town’s Church of the Nativity is where Jesus was born, and the annual celebrations there are meaningful and memorable. There are performances in Manger Square, inclusive Christmas masses with audiences from around the world, twinkling lights and ornaments, a parade and other processions, and Christmas markets and trees.

In nearby Jerusalem, there are biblical places galore, including the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus walked, as well as the Church of the Ascension, where Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem also has one of the Middle East’s most impressive Christmas markets. And Jewish people visiting Jerusalem during this time of year will be deeply moved to see the menorah being lit at the Western Wall each night of Hanukkah.

In northern Israel, Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown in the Galilee, also hosts Christmas celebrations worth experiencing. On Christmas Eve, a colorful parade makes its way through town, with the procession ending at the Church of the Annunciation with fireworks as well as a Christmas mass. Surrounding the event are outdoor Christmas and Hanukkah markets, Santas, religious services, and festive lights.

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North Pole, Alaska

santa's house and sleigh in north pole alaska.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a town called North Pole. And if ever there was a Christmas-themed entire town, this is it. Santa’s always available for visits in the Santa Claus House—where 400,000 letters per year addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” land. (Local volunteers respond to every letter.) And the streets have names like Kris Kringle Drive and Mistletoe Lane.

Even if you can’t arrange a trip here exactly on December 25, no worries: It’s Christmas here all year long, although only December attracts ice sculptors from around the world displaying their prodigious talents.

North Pole is just 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks, but if you want to stay overnight at this ultimate (if only slightly kitschy) Christmas vacation destination, there are several comfy hotels, as well as RV hookups and campsites.

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Southern California

child and lego santa legoland california.

The best Christmas vacations for families are in Southern California. Mix blessedly snow-free weather with mile after mile of coastline—not to mention decked-out theme park after decked-out theme park—and you’ve got yourselves a Christmas vacation to remember.

At the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, there’s post-fireworks “snow” every night, a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree, holiday-themed parades, explosions of decorations, multicultural seasonal music, and holiday overlays to several beloved rides, including It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion. Disneyland makes a heartwarming effort to include traditions besides those that celebrate Christmas—a klezmer band and Jewish food tip a hat to Hanukkah, soul food is offered for Kwanzaa, and Latin favorites get presented for Navidad.

Over in Buena Park, Knott’s Berry Farm transforms into “Knott’s Merry Farm,” with Christmas-themed shows, a Christmas Crafts Village, and nightly snow in Ghost Town. In Studio City, Universal Studios hosts “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” including an impressive projection show centered around Hogwarts Castle, as well as “Grinchmas,” with a huge tree and caroling Whos. Down in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND has the world’s biggest LEGO Christmas tree, limited-edition holiday treats, live holiday shows—and yes, a LEGO Santa. Keep heading south for San Diego Zoo’s “Jungle Bells,” during which the renowned attraction turns into a light-filled wonderland.

When you’ve had enough of theme parks, head to Malibu or La Jolla for a relaxing December afternoon on one of the Pacific Coast’s best beaches. Or head into the heart of Los Angeles for some culture. L.A. is a particularly great place to celebrate Kwanzaa: Pasadena has hosted a notable Kwanzaa celebration for 30 years now, led by Thanayi Karenga, the daughter of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga. And South L.A. puts on the annual Kwanzaa Heritage Festival and Block Parade and candle-lighting ceremony.

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The Canary Islands, Spain

christmas decorations in tenerife.

Although Barcelona’s Día do los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is one of Spain’s most celebrated festivals, certain types of travelers might prefer for their Christmas travels to take them to Spain’s Canary Islands instead—which are actually not on the European continent, but off Africa’s northwestern coast.

Picture this for your December holiday: 900 miles of sun-drenched coastline, nativity scenes sculpted from sea sand, Christmas markets selling traditional pastries called truchas, Christmas feasts at local restaurants, open-air Yuletide concerts, and New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach. Best. Christmas. Vacation. Ever?

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Southern Iceland

northern lights over mountain in iceland.

For true winter lovers, South Iceland is among the world’s best places to travel for Christmas. Faced with all-day nighttime, this remote island knows how to cheer things up during this dark, frigid time of year with lots and lots of twinkling lights. Visitors partake in Arctic adventures in the plentiful snow and ice, including dog sledding, exploring ice caves by snowmobile, skating on frozen lakes, sampling Christmas buffets in restaurants, and strolling Iceland’s charming Christmas markets.

Southern Iceland provides some of the world’s best views of the northern lights—it’s a great place to check “aurora borealis” off your bucket list. And hotels here let travelers experience Iceland’s Christmastime tradition of getting visited by not one but 13 Santa Clauses. The festively decorated Hotel Rangá, for example, lets kids into the folklore by inviting its young guests to leave a shoe in the windowsill to get a holiday treat from the country’s festive elves.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

christmas decorations in san juan puerto rico.

On Christmas Eve—Noche Buena—in San Juan, locals enjoy huge, traditional dinners of pork, rice, and beans. But more importantly, they drink coquito, a creamy, eggnog-like rum cocktail that signifies the occasion. After the feast, roam Old San Juan’s lit-up cobblestone streets and join (or just watch) the parrandas, which are Puerto Rico’s take on carolers, during which groups gather in front of houses late at night with traditional instruments to sing the lively songs of Navidad. In short, the events that happen here every December 24 make Puerto Rico one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas.

Stay on the island for New Year’s Eve and beyond, especially if you’re overnighting at the iconic Caribe Hilton, just as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren used to do. The property is famous for creating the piña colada, and also for hosting epic New Year’s Eve parties. This year’s bash will be bigger than ever, thanks to the hotel’s recent $150 million renovation. If your schedule allows, stay in Puerto Rico until at least January 6, since Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is the island’s biggest annual celebration.

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

lagoa christmas tree rio de janeiro.

Another of the world’s best places to visit for Christmas is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and not just because the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue gets magnificently illuminated with the works of significant artists.

On December 1 every year, Rio debuts Lagoa, the world’s largest floating Christmas tree—more than 170 feet tall—to fireworks and fanfare on Copacabana Beach. The impressive tree stays lit and floats on the water until early January.

Rio is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the weather during Christmas is generally quite warm. There are Christmas Day concerts on Copacabana Beach, holiday pastries called panettone and rabanadas in the city’s bakeries, and plenty of restaurants that serve traditional Brazilian Christmas dinners to travelers. On Christmas Eve, the parties start late, with feasts typically beginning at 11:00 p.m. and the celebration escalating at midnight.

Stay through New Year’s Eve for unforgettable fireworks over Copacabana and the company of some of the world’s most enthusiastic partiers.

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At Sea

holiday decorations on carnival cruise ship.

If the mere idea of all the effort that goes into celebrating Christmas at home—shopping, decorating, wrapping, cooking, hosting—works you into a cold sweat, take a deep breath, call your relatives, and tell them you’re going on a Christmas cruise instead.

Holiday sailings make for the best Christmas vacations for families, and can be a fantastic option for cheap Christmas vacations. Many holiday voyages are reasonably priced and go to beautiful destinations around the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the Christmas markets along European rivers—the Rhone, Seine, Rhine, and Danube.

Onboard, there’s as much holiday theming as you can bear: ugly sweater contests, elaborate holiday shows, massive Christmas trees, Santa appearances, carolers on deck, huge gingerbread houses, mistletoe and wreaths, midnight mass, Hanukkah menorah lightings, and traditional Christmas dinners. Check out the offerings from Royal Caribbean, Carnival (featuring the Grinch!), and Norwegian, as well as Disney‘s Very Merrytime Cruises.

The best part? You’ll be able to kick back and enjoy the celebrations while others are doing the work—kind of like being a kid again.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Avital Andrews on Twitter @avitalb or on Facebook.

Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel

The Best and Cheapest Times to Cruise

The best time to cruise and the cheapest time to cruise are not always the same. The best time to be on the water is often when the weather is nicest or when you have time off. These sailings are often the most popular, but “best” can quickly turn to “worst” when you face high prices and large crowds. The cheapest time to cruise is often when most travelers don’t want to go. You may find less ideal weather or some seasonal closures, but the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise.

As you plan your next cruise, you’ll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here’s a when-to-cruise guide for some popular destinations.

Alaska

alaska cruise ship deck.

Alaska has a very short cruising season; ships traverse its chilly waters only between late April and September. The months of June through August offer the warmest weather and are therefore the best time to cruise Alaska (and the most popular). In other months, you’ll find some closures and a bit more chill in the air, but you’ll also find the best prices. In addition, April and May are the driest months of the Alaska cruise season, so you’re less likely to be rained out of your flightseeing tour or glacier walk.

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Bermuda

bermuda beach and bay.

Bermuda cruises sail from April through mid-November, mostly during Bermuda’s high or “beach” season. Most people travel during the summer months, making those voyages pricier, but you’ll find deals on spring and fall departures (April through early June and September through November). Bermuda has temperate weather year-round, though it does see the occasional autumn hurricane. If it’s too chilly for the beach in the shoulder season, you can always try out the island’s many golf courses and spas.

Caribbean

cruise ship anchored in the caribbean.

You can sail to the region year-round, but the best time to cruise the Caribbean is when it’s coldest in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only is the warm Caribbean climate a welcome respite from bad weather, but December through April is also the driest part of the year in the islands. The cheapest times to cruise are typically in the late summer and fall because of hurricane season. (If you decide to travel then, purchasing cruise insurance is a good idea.) But you can often find other patches of bargain sailings, especially during the early weeks of December and in the spring. The timing of spring discounts isn’t always consistent, so it’s best to keep an eye out and book when you see a low rate.

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Europe

cruise ship in mediterranean.

Europe is so big that you can’t lump all its cruises together. The Mediterranean cruise season runs year-round on select cruise lines, though you’ll have the most options between April and November. Northern Europe and Baltic cruises have a shorter season running from May to early November, while the warmer Greek Islands and Canary Islands see cruise ships between March and December. Small-ship river cruises usually run from spring through fall, with a few sailings in December to see the local Christmas markets.

Most tourists come to Europe in the summer, but the late spring and early fall have more pleasant temperatures and not as many crowds. You’ll find the lowest cruise prices at the beginning and end of each season; prices rise dramatically for the summer months.

Hawaii

waimea canyon waterfall

With two Norwegian Cruise Line ships dedicated to Hawaii cruising, you can explore the islands year-round. The best time to cruise Hawaii for good weather is during the summer and early fall when the islands get the least amount of rain. Summer tends to be the most popular because of school vacation and honeymoon season. Hawaii cruises are often cheapest from November through February, with the exception of holiday cruises.

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Mexico

los cabos arch.

You can cruise to Mexico year-round, either as part of a western Caribbean itinerary or as a dedicated Mexican Riviera voyage. The best time to visit Mexico is during its dry season, November through May. However, it’s a popular destination even during the rainier summer months. You’ll find the best deals in the fall, during hurricane season.

New England and Canada

acadia national park autumn.

New England and Canada sailings depart from May through October. You’ve got a better chance for warm weather if you travel from late June through early September. However, if you’re interested in foliage viewing, you’ll need to go in early to mid-October. May and late October sailings will offer the lowest rates, but don’t expect to be using the onboard swimming pool much.

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 2008. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
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
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.

Categories
Island

Eastern Caribbean on Carnival Liberty

Author: brneyes
Date of Trip: April 2008

This was my first 8 day cruise (2 days at sea)on the Carnival Liberty. The Liberty is a large ship, beautiful in design color, some people may say it is too much. It has some nice lounges/bars/discos that are designed like batteries/cameras/pianos/hands & feet, which are really neat to see. The beds/bedding are very nice, feeling like a baby. Rooms are nice in size, compared to other ships, with small refrigerator and vault inside for valuables. Also nice bath robes to wear. Two dining rooms with food good most of the time. Pizza place was great. Miniature golf and large outdoor screen to see movie at night time with popcorn being served.

For a large ship, I could see where they had cut down on the midnight buffet in decorating it, compared to other ships not this size. Actually it was embarrassing to see, after seeing much larger buffets on smaller ships.

We stopped in San Juan first, and I was able to see it from afternoon till late evening, walking from 6 – 8 miles. Seeing an old fort high up, then walking all the way down to the beach. The streets are narrow, and building are painted pastel colors.

St. Thomas is beautiful with Megan’s Bay Beach, plus if you want to purchase good jewelry, without paying tax, this is the place to visit.

Antigua, it pour down rain.

Tortola, BVI is a small island that hasn’t been known too long. It has beautiful mountains and valleys., with a nice straw market close by to purchase T-shirts, etc. cheap. Also a Queens staircase of 65 steps, with a beautiful waterfall on the side.

Nassau – Bahamas Beautiful area, drove by and seen where Anna Nicole Smith is buried and where Howard Stern lives. Atlantis is a must see, at least a block or more long. Inside you will find very large pillars, and downstairs is a large aquarium.

Categories
Group Travel

NCL Jewel – Cruising the Mediterranean

Author: M.Cruiser
Date of Trip: August 2005

We were lucky enough to be on the 13 night inaugural voyage of the Norwegian Jewel around the Mediterranean. An easy, swift and orderly embarkation procedure at Dover was soon to be followed by the materialisation of the colourful ribbons and jewels that adorned the Norwegian Jewel herself.

On first inspections we were amazed by the vivid and modern interior throughout the ship that was highlighted with contemporary armchairs in many of the bars and restaurants. On closer scrutiny we started to notice however subtle accents of 50’s and 60’s in some of the furniture choices in the bars. Outside there was an energetic feel around the pool area incorporating the theme of the circus that appealed to the child within. There were also many large colourful palm trees that bejewelled the jewel at night.

The interior theme throughout the stateroom decks incorporated mahogany wood and turquoise that flowed effortlessly into the staterooms. We resided in a category JJ inside stateroom which was designed with storage as top priority. There were seven ample storage shelves, and a roomy wardrobe. Of course other features were a separate dressing table with hairdryer, safe, fridge, a well laid out bathroom and TV (although not flat screen as in the more superior staterooms).

All over the ship there were many strategically placed flat screens displaying information about all of the ten restaurants and their occupancy – rating from busy to full. This proved vital in avoiding the rush at the Garden café (buffet style restaurant) and to generally gauge busy eating times.

As Norwegian Cruise Line prize themselves on their freestyle cruising we attempted to sample some of the ten restaurants – ranging from Cagneys steak house, Mama’s Italian kitchen, Le Bistro French restaurant and the Chin Chin Asian restaurant (including a sushi bar!). The booking of the desired restaurants proved easy at first using the reservation desk at reception, however as word got out amongst fellow guest there were many queues and block booking of meal times over the two weeks. Another point to make here is that many of these speciality restaurants had a cover charge ranging from $10-$15 which would have to be considered with large groups. These cover charges had been reduced by $5 per person from the original printed prices on the menus.

Overall the specialty restaurants provided excellent service, using more experienced and efficient staff. Only on one occasion the booked dining time of 8.00pm was made later due to large numbers and hence we were offered a complimentary bottle of wine which pleased us. The main dining restaurants differed in design from being modern as in the Azura restaurant and grand as in Tsar’s palace. Both were equal in terms of broad taste/themed menus and good service. The chocolate buffet was the best that we have ever experienced on a cruise and we were stunned by the artistry shown in the chocolate “Big Ben clock” and ice sculptures.

The bars and lounges were regularly called upon throughout the two weeks and we were most impressed with the efficient and friendly service throughout. Most drinks were reasonably priced however some of the specialty cocktails and alcoholic smoothies were over $9. “Bar city” on deck 7 compromised of many of the Jewels unique bars – Malting’s beer and whisky bar, Shakers Martini cocktail bar and our favourite -Magnum’s Champagne bar which offered a deluxe range of champagnes to be indulged on formal nights. However the night always ended in the Spinnaker Lounge on deck 13 which had live music and then a DJ.

Overall the entertainment from many of the performers around the bars and lounges was excellent and could not be faulted. The dance company produced two impressive shows with acrobatic expertise. There was a hugely talented comedian on board and some great lectures provided during the day. There were a good range of activities provided during the day and many art auctions to tempt you to part with cash. The assistant cruise director had a jovial personality and created many quiz nights (jeopardy, Mr & Mrs, The weakest link etc.) for guest participation – which were hilarious.

There are very few if any negatives that we can find with the Norwegian Jewel. Given the fact that this was the inaugural voyage and lots of mistakes could happen we and NCL we fortunate. It was clear that there was good management and swift action throughout to prevent any guests from having a good holiday. We would wholeheartedly recommend the Jewel to fellow cruisers and hope you have an enjoyable time as much as we did.

Private shore excursions:

1) Port of Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples

Romeinlimo was terrific! Duman, Carlo and Rino were knowledgeable, courteous and punctual. The fact they also had a great sense of humor made the trip, especially the three stops where we used them, that much more enjoyable and memorable.

2) Monaco, Monte Carlo & Eze

Revelation tours — Highly recommended.

Categories
Holiday Travel

Caribbean Holiday Cruise

Author: arubalisa
Date of Trip: December 2006

We are a family of 10 spanning 4 generations — 3 adults (early 40’s), 2 adults (mid 60’s), 1 great grandmother 90+ and 4 children (girls ages 10, 13, 17 and a boy age 12). Family cruise history: HAL, Renaissance, Cunard, Princess, NCL, NCL America, Carnival, RCI, Celebrity, Costa, Chandris/Fantasy, Majesty, Delta Queen Steamboat, American Hawaii Cruises. My grandmother is in her 90s and has cruised for over 60 years. For obvious reasons, I won’t list all the lines she has been on…

Overview

This being a cruise over Christmas and New Years, there were mostly families aboard. Many of them, like ours, spanned generations. As a matter of fact, we were at late seating dinner at a table for ten. The adjacent table was also a family of ten traveling together and of the same age groups and generations as our own. Overall amongst the families, there was a wide variety of age groups and, I can happily report well-behaved children. On this particular voyage we observed more ill-mannered adults than children.

Just my personal preference, but with 7 ports and 3 days at sea on an 11-night cruise, this was an exhausting trip. Then even the days at sea, you could not sleep late, otherwise you would not be able to obtain a chaise lounge anywhere on deck. The itinerary would have been perfect as a 13 or 14 night sailing with 3 or 4 extra days at sea. The Galaxy is doing a 13-night holiday sailing next year with 8 ports and 4 days at sea so not sure if that is better or worse?

Transportation to San Juan

Due to a sailing right before Christmas and anticipating being unable to obtain affordable airfare, the 10 of us were booked through “Celebrity Air” from our 3 respective home cities. All flights were on the same airline, Delta, and were routed in each direction, through Delta’s hub in Atlanta. This included 3 people who lived in Florida and departed from Fort Lauderdale only to have to fly north to go south. Weather up and down the entire eastern US was terribly rainy on the day we sailed and there were numerous flight delays. Luckily everyone in our party made their connection in Atlanta.

Arrival in San Juan was about 30 to 40 minutes late. Celebrity representatives were waiting for our flight at the baggage claim. After claiming luggage, it was outside to deposit it all at the luggage truck and then across the street to the waiting motor coach. Porters were readily available to assist people out to the awaiting trucks. With families traveling for 11 nights, believe me when I tell you there was tons of luggage EVERYWHERE. My brother with 2 teenage girls opted to pay the excess weight limit charge and limited them to one suitcase each. IMHO, in his case, a porter would have been less expensive.

Embarkation

Upon arrival at the terminal, everyone entered the terminal and was greeted with juice or water and, even if you had completed your paperwork and completed your online check-in, there was yet another form to fill out for Tortola immigrations. So close yet so far and not aboard just yet.

Lines for check-in and security were not long if existent at all. Cruise line agents were efficient, pleasant and plentiful. It was at this time that my brother realized he had left his jacket, brand new and a Christmas present, on Celebrity’s bus which transported us over from the airport. Needless to say, by the time he ran outside, that bus was long gone. Celebrity, to their credit said they would try to track it down and sure enough they did and the jacket was delivered to his cabin 2 days later in St. Martin!

Our daughter was issued an ID bracelet with her lifeboat muster station in the event there was an emergency and she was separated from us. Ship staff could then easily take her to where she was supposed to be. As a parent this was very reassuring.

The ship was due to sail at 8 pm and it was just before 4 pm. Eventually due to the heavy rain up and down the entire east coast of the US, the ship delayed departure as well as the muster drill. First stop was Tortola, being a quick hop from San Juan it was not a big deal. Upon boarding we were greeted by some of the ship’s staff, offered juice or champagne and pointed in the direction of our cabins. Finally! We begin our voyage!

The Ship

The Galaxy has a great layout. Our cabins were on deck 9, the swimming pool and Oasis Cafe are on deck 11 and the dining room for us was on deck 6. With a cabin located closest to the elevator, this was a very easy arrangement for my elderly grandmother to walk around the ship without having to walk a “mile” to get anywhere. Her cruise on the Golden Princess nearly killed her with the mileage she had to walk to get around.

The condition of the Galaxy was fine. Maybe a tad more worn than last year, but I hardly say anything which would “ruin” a cruise. That is, unless as we all know, you are someone who is sailing her for the first time and expecting gleaming, shiny, newness all around you. With the exception of some rust needing paint touch up, the ship is clean. One night I was walking across the pool deck to get to the spa and they were out pressure washing and scrubbing the pool deck which many complain is so old and worn, and thought to myself perhaps that is one reason why it is so worn! And no they have not replaced the windows in the Stratosphere! Yes, they do look like hell from the outside, but for me personally, I never go up there so they do not bother me 🙂

The Crew

As was the case last year, everyone we encountered on the ship was extremely pleasant and helpful. There were plenty of smiles all around and many many familiar faces. There were many times in the Oasis Cafe when someone would offer to carry my tray and I had to politely and with a smile, ask one of the waiters or waitresses to carry the tray of someone else “who REALLY needed the help.”

Our wine steward, waiter and waiter’s assistant and dining room cocktail waiter from last year’s cruise are all still on the Galaxy, along with many, many other familiar faces, so I guess that has to say something in of itself. The Galaxy’s crew has some amazing camaraderie and takes great pride in their ship.

Norovirus

There was none as far as we were aware. No mention of it by anyone we were in contact with. The crew was very diligent in making sure everyone is aware of and takes precautions against norovirus. I was a little nervous pre-cruise about that. I know I wash my hands frequently and at all of the “appropriate” times, but don’t know that about my fellow passengers. At the entrance to the dining room and Oasis Cafe you were always greeted by someone with “the bag” of hand sanitizer who would splash some onto your hands. There was also someone left holding the bag when re-boarding the ship after a day in port. The dispensers are also still in all the usual spots in the buffet lines and entrances to dining venues. Never ever did I encounter one which was empty.

Aquaspa

Last year I had an outrageously priced manicure. This year for $17 I had a very nice “polish change” done by a very pleasant young lady from South Africa. Cannot help but mention, but always try to make your spa appointments as soon as you board the ship. The best spots, like the formal nights, vanish in a heartbeat.

Shows/Entertainment

Having a little one, we did not attend any shows. Family members who did, said they were “pretty good.” During pre-dinner cocktails, we regularly listened to Class Duo in Rendez-Vous Square. They were much better than the duo last year. Strange thing was some nights the place was packed and other nights deserted. Even more noticeable after dinner. The place was either packed or empty, no in-between.

Tammy Rafferty who plays at Michael’s Piano Bar (former Cigar Bar) is supposed to be excellent. Sorry we missed her. The Allegro Quartet was aboard again this year and the ladies are still fabulous. IMHO, the “party band” Changez was not nearly as good as Quintessence last year. Way too loud even at the pool on sea days, and way too heavy on the bass. We’ll leave out the part about playing the same songs for 11 days straight…

According to my brother who is single and a night owl, for the most part, after the last show, the ship grew fairly quiet. He never complained though that there was no one to hang out with. Mostly, you could find people in the casino or the Stratosphere. New Year’s Eve was the latest night and busiest, at the Stratosphere… from what I understand they went until about 4 am.

Cabin Accommodations

Our family had four balcony cabins-Cat. 2A- on deck 9, Vista deck, cabins 9155, 9157 & 9151, 9149.

For two people the cabins would be just fine. For families, a 172 sq. ft. cabin is cramped. It is even smaller than it sounds and I thought I was mentally prepared. With 2 adults and 1 child on an 11 night sailing, we “just” fit our clothes in every available space. Is taking a shower sideways in a stall shower while being attacked by a shower curtain sticking to parts of your body what cruising is all about? We will not even get into the contortions a woman suffers in attempting to shave ones legs in this particular situation.

Last year a sky suite with 246 sq. ft. was much more spacious in regards to living and storage space and the bath with a “real” tub is a luxury worth paying for if you can afford it. If you can live without a balcony and are more than two people, a family oceanview stateroom at 210 sq. ft. would be a better choice than 172 sq. ft. box they call a 2A.

The cabin offered a plain “old” TV with VCR. No flashy flat screens or DVD players. My nieces and nephews picked up a few videos for viewing on the VCR. I do not know if they were obtained through the library or guest relations. The TV is interactive so you can view your bill on screen and such. My husband loved (not) going on to find out how much money he had just wasted trying to get some emails through to his place of work. After the first $75 in internet connection charges, he finally threw in the towel and considered it a lost cause. Fortunately for him there were no work emergencies.

Our 4 cabins had the same cabin steward and assistant. They did just fine in keeping the cabins kept and orderly. No toilet paper shortages or the like and the cabins were always made up in a timely manner. If you want me to nit pick, they could have dusted a bit better, but most people would never have noticed.

I thought our cabin steward spoke English just fine. Well at least I thought so. That was until I ordered a bottle of wine, 3 bottles of beer and 6 cans of sodas to be delivered to our cabin along with a cheese and fruit platter for Christmas Eve about 10:30 pm. When I approached the steward when he came on duty late afternoon, he asked me to put in writing whatever we wished to order. A few minutes later I handed him the list along with a $10 tip which I thought would insure a smooth delivery. The steward knew we would be at dinner, to deliver the order I told him he could just let himself into the specified cabin where our family would be later opening our Christmas presents before he went off duty.

When we arrived back at the cabin, there was everything placed on the desk. One warm bottle of wine – no ice bucket, 3 warm bottles of beer and 6 cans of warm soda. I had forgotten that the gratuity was still added onto the bill automatically. If I had known we would receive warm beverages after specifically explaining we would be drinking them when we returned to the cabin after dinner, I would not have wasted the $10. I could not have been more specific in explaining that this was all for our consumption later on that night. Not wanting to have to wait for the bottles to be switched out, we drank our Pouilly Fuisse with ice in it. It doesn’t take more than that to ruin a great wine. None of us were impressed by this less than outstanding service. The worst service experience of the cruise and it did not come close to ruining it.

Out of the four cabins our family had, the only maintenance problems were with our cabin. The air conditioning even when turned down all the way to 60 degrees was non-existent. The first night we got into bed and said there was no way we could live like that for 11 nights. Guest relations has an extremely bad habit of not answering their telephone. This was at 11:30 pm so my husband had to get dressed all over again and trod down to guest relations to explain the problem. To their credit, there was someone at our cabin within 5 minutes.

The gentleman came in, politely inquired whether it was okay to step on our bed — picture me in night clothes under the sheets 🙂 The cabin is small enough but with the couch opened up into a sleeper for our daughter, the only place for me to go would have been in to the bathroom. I preferred the bed. So he removed the panel plate from the vent above our bed, twisted something or other and within a half hour things had cooled off nicely. The cabin was never an ice box, but as long as we kept the drapes closed when the sun was on our side of the ship there were no further problems with temperatures inside our cabin.

The toilet flushing took a little more persistence. It was never clogged or stuck, it just did absolutely nothing, zero, and zilch. First time, my husband phoned guest relations and again no one answered the phone so he trudged on down to pay them a visit. Maintenance came by and waved their magic wand and we were back in business. The next morning we were back to the same situation. As my husband left the cabin he bumped into our cabin steward who said he would take care of it. A couple of minutes later we were in our cabin and from the bathroom we hear that oh so lovely “whoosh”!!! Later on in the week it happened one more. This time maintenance came up and outside in the hallway removed a panel and reset some sort of button. We were back in business once more with no further issues. My parents were in the cabin right next door to ours and had no such problems ever with their toilet.

The only other maintenance problem with our cabin was the inexplicable “cut wires”. All of a sudden, our 2 key cards were not working. We got a hold of our daughter to open the cabin door before going down to have new cards made. Her key was around her neck on a lanyard, so unlikely it could have been demagnetized. Her key card did not work either.

Maintenance sent our friendly toilet repair man to check things out. “Jack of all trades”, he tried a couple of things none of which worked. The result was that he had to take the entire lock apart. In doing so he found the wires inside the lock were “cut” and the part which contained the wires would have to be replaced. So he goes off to wherever on the ship such parts are stored and returns promptly with a new part. Everything was quickly put back together and all the key cards were working again. No one ever explained to us how the wires got they way they were. The maintenance man would only say it was extremely rare. Had someone tried to get into our cabin? We will never know.

Oasis Cafe

Hours were generally as follows: Breakfast Buffet 6:30 a.m. — 9:30 a.m. (Port days) Breakfast Buffet 7:30 a.m. — 10:00 a.m. (Sea days) Waffles & Pancakes 6:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. (Port days) Waffles & Pancakes 7:30 a.m. — 10:00 a.m. (Sea days) Late Breakfast 9:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. (Port days) Late Breakfast 10:00 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. (Sea days) Lunch Buffet 12 Noon – 2:30 p.m. Soup, Sandwiches & Salad 12 Noon – 3 p.m. Ice Cream 12 Noon – 10:00 p.m. Pizza & Pasta Corner 12 Noon – 1 a.m. Casual Afternoon Tea 4:00 p.m. – 5 p.m. Ocean Grill 12 Noon – 7 pm Hamburgers and hot dogs Tastings (Cova) 8:30 a.m.- 11 a.m. Croissant & Danish Tastings (Cova) 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Pastries Late Night Gourmet Bites 11:30 p.m. – 12:30 a.m. Sushi Cafe 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. Casual Dining in the Oasis Cafe 6:00 p.m. – 10 p.m. by reservation with suggested gratuity of $2 per person

Quality of the food at the Oasis Cafe was good and the selection was for the most part pretty good. Mornings in the Oasis, coffee service was spotty. They start out fine with the rolling cart, but seems the later into breakfast they get and the busier they are just keeping up with clearing and cleaning tables. For people who requested a waiter to go get a cup of coffee for you there was never a problem. You just might not get it quick enough as when you went and got it yourself.

In the morning at breakfast in the Oasis Cafe, I never had a problem finding someone from who I could request a glass of tomato juice and purchase two cups of cappuccino. Trying to get someone to serve you a soda with a soda card at lunch was a whole ‘nother story. We just found it easier to order our sodas at the Oasis pool bar and carry them in ourselves on our way in for lunch. At least it was convenient in finding out what the pizza and pastas of the day were. I personally found some days the pizza was the pits and then on other days it was fabulous.

The ice cream bar with hand dipped flavors rotated daily and soft serve ice cream, was extremely popular the children in our family. There were always an assortment of toppings which they seemed to rotate but these were rarely refilled. If you were not there for say the sprinkles, chocolate sauce or chocolate chips before they ran out, your loss. Maybe the ice cream server needs an assistant to refill the toppings?

Though we did not have dinner in the Oasis, tables at night were set with linen tablecloths. A condensed version of the evening’s menu is offered. The one night formal night I viewed the casual dining dinner menu, it was missing the top two items from the dining room’s menu, one of which was Beef Wellington. The message here I suppose is if you would like to eat the really “good” stuff, you needed to get dressed up and head to the dining room in order to eat it.

Orion Dining Room — Food and Service

Orion dining room hours for the most part followed the schedule below, on days in port, sometimes there was an open seating for lunch and other times the dining room was closed for lunch Days in port open seating breakfast 7 a.m. – 9 a.m. Days at sea open seating breakfast 8:00 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. Days in port open seating lunch 12 Noon – 2 p.m. Days at sea open seating lunch 12 Noon – 2 p.m.

Our family booked this cruise in April and the only seating available was the early seating at 6 p.m. Upon booking, we were waitlisted for the late seating at 8:30 p.m. Sometime during the summer, individuals in our family group were gradually been switched over to late seating. My brother and his son in one cabin seemed to be the two who were never switched. A couple of phone calls back and forth between our travel agent and Celebrity and things were finally straightened out.

Overall, our entire family’s experience with the dining room on the Galaxy both last year and this year, was excellent. The food was terrific, maybe even a little better than last year. We were a family of 10 so there were usually some extra orders of appetizers and entrees of pasta to be shared as side orders. The first night we requested a plate of cheese and crackers to nibble on while we were waiting for our appetizers and wine to be served. The request was very quickly filled and every night there after, when we arrived for dinner there was cheese, fruit and crackers already placed on the table. There were never any issues with undercooked meat being returned and special requests were always greeted by a smile. My husband and I were especially surprised by the size of the portions of all of the entrees. They were huge!

Beef was the same quality as last year. It could have been a little more tender but was certainly edible. The desserts are still “hit or miss”, but no one starved for lack of something that was appealing to them. One night our waiter urged us NOT to order a particular item. Those who had ordered it during first seating dinner, has said it was “tough”. At her age, my grandmother, does not have the best of hearing and did not hear his warning. Everyone was busy chatting when she placed her order, so none of us caught it. Well the waiter was correct, it was tough. By far the worst meal she had on the ship. Lesson learned, always listen to your waiter’s recommendations.

My only real complaint about the food, and believe me, I can survive just fine without it, was the bread. Some nights it was delicious and other nights it seemed to have been recycled or previously frozen and stale. Who knows, perhaps it was recycled from the earlier dinner seating.

To their credit, this year aboard the Galaxy, they did NOT run out of ANY food as they did last year at the end of our sailing.

My Mom taught me to be polite, and “wait for everyone to be served” before beginning to eat the course which was being served. My husband and I are attempting to do the same with our daughter. This trip made it difficult though. Our waiter had us – a table of ten, a table of two and then a table of eight. Our waiter Sergiu and his assistant Agus were excellent but they are under such pressure to push out the food that once you finish a course, you are served the next one regardless of whether or not the rest of the table is at the same place in the dinner as you are. No way at all do I blame this on the waiter. I would bet they are just doing what they are told. To their credit though, ladies were always served first and plates were served from the left and cleared from the right as is proper etiquette. Now THAT is attention to detail.

It was wonderful to have finally convinced my husband that breakfast in the dining room was not something to be feared. The breakfast buffet in the Oasis is fine, but I hate standing in line for an omelet and then being facing with the other choice of runny scrambled eggs. Omelets in the dining room were always delicious and the service was fast. My husband never wavered from eggs Benedict. We could get in and out of the dining room for breakfast about as fast as we could get in and out of the Oasis Cafe without having to serve ourselves.

Room Service

Did not use it with the exception of our debacle late Christmas Eve.

Christmas

Christmas aboard the ship was almost exactly like last year. Admittedly there were a few minor additions in the Christmas atmosphere – 3 trees instead of one in the Grand Foyer and Christmas Muzak in the Oasis Cafe. Other than that, pretty much like last year, it was sparse. If you plan on this sailing next year, arrive with Christmas in “your heart” and you will not be disappointed. In cabin music featured one channel with Country Christmas music, fine if that is to your liking.

Christmas Eve, the Cinema had 3 showings of the Miracle on 34th Street. This was the re-make with Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott, not the original with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. The Celebrity Singers and Dancers that night presented their show “Broadway Express”. We did not attend, but by the title hardly sounds like it was “Christmassy”. At Midnight there were 3 separate services for Catholics, Protestants and the Jewish faith. This evening they also offered their picturesque “Tree Trimmer Buffet”.

Christmas Day, there was a “special visitor” who was supposed to have arrived at 9:15 a.m. but evidently the sleigh was caught in some head winds so there was a lot of standing around waiting. By the time he finally did make his grand appearance high up on deck somewhere near the funnel, with his entourage of Elves and Trumpeters, there was a huge crowd gathered. Our daughter lost interest and knew there would still be a parade throughout the ship to get down to the Celebrity Theater, so opted to go to the pool instead.

Later I did find out that as the kids sat on Santa’s lap in the theater, they received the same gift as he handed out last year, which was a nice “ClubX” polar fleece throw blanket. Elsewhere, the Cinema had 3 showings of “A Christmas Story” and 2 showings of “White Christmas”. There was an afternoon Christmas concert performed by the Allegro String Quartet and the “Celebrity Family Holiday Show”. There was definitely something to appeal to everyone.

New Year’s Eve

In one word, New Year’s Eve on a cruise ship was “awesome”. I wish everyone is able to have such an experience at least once in your lifetime. This had been a long time dream for me. Not having purchased a long gown, well with the exception of my wedding dress of course, and more than a few bridesmaid dresses (you know THAT is not the same) since my high school prom, I decided I was going to go “all out” for this festive occasion.

Needless to say, I was not overdressed. Many many men wore tuxedos and the women were “dressed to the nines”. For Husband, daughter and myself, New Year’s Eve is usually a quiet celebration spent at home starting with a gourmet dinner prepared from scratch by my husband. This night started out the same with the exception of someone else was doing the cooking AND the dishes!!!

As we were seated in the dining room our waiter and his assistant handed us our noisemakers and party hats. Ironically, Beef Wellington which Husband more than likely would have cooked at home if had not been cruising for the New Year, was on the Galaxy’s menu that evening. We had just enough time after our delicious dinner to “freshen up” before heading up to the pool deck for the countdown celebration.

There was a huge ice carving, or should I say carvings, one each of the numbers “2” “0” “0” “6”. The party band played, people danced, but it was windy up on that deck. Part of the entertainment was waiting and watching to see which number would blow over first. Admittedly they were melting pretty darn quick also. In the end, every worked out perfectly, none of the numbers melted down or blew over.

About 20 minutes before Midnight waiters began coming around with glasses of complimentary champagne. There were stations set up offering a variety of bottles of champagne for sale as well. If you were hungry there were waiters circulating with “gourmet bites” as well as tables off to the side with a chef serving what appeared to be a steamship roast.

In the end, how did we now what time it was to count down? Well, the captain controls the ship and evidently he controls the time also! He kept us updated over the public address system and lead the countdown. “Baby New Year” and “Father Time” saw to the destruction of the “6” and the raising of the number “7” to complete our entry into the New Year. Husband and I retired to our cabin with our 10 year old, but my brother told me that the Stratosphere Lounge was going until 4 a.m.

Weather

In 12+ Caribbean cruises during this very time of the year, late December or early January, this was by far the rainiest Caribbean cruise I have ever taken. But, on the bright side, this is liquid sunshine and we still had sunshine every single day. The other bonus was being able to see rainbows over 3 separate islands. Never have I seen so many rainbows in such a short period of time, but then again, that is what liquid sunshine does.

Itinerary

The itinerary was terrific and our reason for sailing aboard the Galaxy for a second Christmas in a row. 3 of the 4 kids had been to some of the islands already. Those were the islands we chose to spend the day at the beach. Grenada and St. Lucia were the 2 islands that 7 of the 10 of us had never visited so those were both places to tour and explore rather than lounge.

Tortola

My husband and brother took the four kids via ferry over to the Baths for a few hours. This was the second time for my brother and his family and they loved it just as much as the first time. The rest of the family played “make believe it is a day at sea” and lazily stayed aboard the ship to enjoy our first day of vacation.

St. Martin

My husband and I decided to relax poolside. Nice and quiet and no trouble finding a lounge chair as there were on most other days. My parents celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary this year and my Mom had lost a stone in her wedding ring. What better way to spend Christmas Eve than for my parents, along with my grandmother and their 3 grandchildren in tow, to head off to their favorite jeweler, Ballerina, for a replacement stone as well as a gemstone ring for each of the girls. My grandmother would never leave without a little trinket for herself, so just for the “heck of it” purchased for herself a diamond circle pendant. The store invited them to stay for lunch but they opted to venture back to the ship and spend the rest of the day at pool.

St. Lucia

I had never been to St. Lucia and was not sure what to expect. Everyone beforehand kept “warning” me that the people here were very very poor. Well, aren’t just about all the Caribbean islands like that? So I went with an open mind, it could not be poorer than the Dominican Republic and as a matter of fact, I thought it was better.

For this day, for our family of 10, we had booked a private tour with Cosol Tours. Excellent value for the money and a tour delivering everything which was promised. Cosol is young and lively and showed us all the highlights: a drive through the capital Castries, a view of the Governor’s House and stop for pictures of the harbor, a Banana Plantation, Marigot Bay, and the fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries. We also drove through the rain forest and on to Soufrière and a view of the Pitons, as well as a stop at Toraille Water Fall and Botanical Garden.

Cosol stopped for sample of local island favorites: fish cakes, Johnny cakes, bananas direct from the tree in front of you, and cassava bread. He was also generous in stopping for photo opportunities and they are many. The island was not entirely great mountain peaks as I had pictured in my mind. Spots such as the Pitons and Anse La Raye are some of the most picturesque I have seen in the entire Caribbean.

None of us “kids” have ever been to Hawaii nor seen an active volcano before so taking a tour of the “drive in” Volcano, Soufrière, was quite impressive for us novices. There are hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The only thing missing is lava and pyroclastic flows. This was fine by me. The kids of course whined about the ever present smell of sulphur. Gee, guess that is why this area is also considered a “sulphur spring”.

Oh and did I mention that Cosol also keeps a cooler in the back of the bus/mini-van filled with refreshments?

Grenada

The kids I think were a little grouchy to start out on this tour. Yes, a day at the beach might have been nicer. This was just the same old being driven around in a mini-bus with someone talking at you. Wow though, Sunsation Tours definitely delivered what they promised on their website, “we choose driver / guides who are communicative”. You could not help BUT be interested. This was one of the most thorough tours I have ever taken.

Our driver gave us a running commentary on the economy, geography, history, flora and fauna, politics …you name it we most likely talked about it. St. Lucia was nice and picturesque, but Grenada somehow had more allure for me. First off you can not but sympathize with these people who survive mainly on agriculture and tourism. Both came to a screeching halt when Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004 as a category four hurricane with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. The island suffered destruction of 90 percent of her agricultural crops as well as the same percentage of loss of roofs to structures. Considering the tiny island nation of Grenada, pre-hurricane Ivan, produced 20% of the world’s supply of nutmeg and it will take the new nutmeg trees 7 – 12 years to begin reproducing, things on the island are very tough for her people. BUT the attitudes of everyone is unbelievable. The Grenadians were proud, upbeat, friendly, enthusiastic and gracious.

The Nutmeg Processing Stations are cooperatives and the majority are still closed. We took a guided tour of the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station. The guide has worked there since 1965, he is one of only 6 employees still working at the station. Pre-hurricane Ivan there were 150 employees working here. While we were at the station an older woman came in with her nutmeg to sell to the cooperative. She offered a plastic shopping bag such as the ones we acquire at the grocery stores here in the states. The growers were selling their nutmeg (these are actually the seed off the trees) to the cooperative at about $4 for the best quality grade. At that rate she is going to need a lot more nutmeg to make a living.

The tour showed the processing steps of sorting by grade/quality, cleaning and aging. After aging, 3 months I believe, the seeds are then packed whole into 50 pound sacks and sold to companies (some in the US) who take the whole product and break it down for the mace, oil, etc. and spice itself.

We stopped on the roadside on many occasions, if only for our driver to call out to someone walking by to pick something off a nearby tree so 9 people did not have to go tumbling out of the van to view it. His requests were always fulfilled with a smile. We saw besides bananas, plantain, cocoa, citrus, fruits of all varieties, avocados, root crops, sugarcane, corn, flowers and more flowers and of course nutmeg trees.

Our driver stopped at a small roadside store where we were given a demonstration on nutmeg and all of its parts and end products and then we were free to make purchases of our spices. Very very low key and no pressure to buy whatsoever. Other highlights of the day included: Annandale Waterfall and Garden, the view of Carib’s Leap, Grand Etang National Park & Crater Lake, plantations, a few fishing villages, the coastline, the rainforest and a short stop at the beach.

There were some Grenadians at most of our stops along the way selling whatever they could offer up. Two women outside the Annandale Waterfall offered to pose for a photo with their mighty baskets of fruit perched a top their heads. Once we reached the waterfall there were two men who said that in order to “make a living”, for a small donation of an amount of your choosing, they would climb up and jump from the top of the waterfall. For a couple of bucks the guy was probably going to be able to eat that night, the kids got a kick out of seeing it and it was a good photo opportunity for yours truly. Were we suckers? Maybe, but the way I look at it, putting myself in their shoes and with such limited opportunities you gotta do what you gotta do to support yourself and your family. It beats picking my pockets or slashing my bag to get to my wallet, any day.

In the course of our day, there was a man who allowed you to pose with his monkey, there was more than one musician…you get the picture. Our driver had advised us of all of this beforehand and we were under no obligation at all.

One of our last stops was a short guided tour of Fort Frederick given by a young fellow who gave a very detailed history of the US invasion of the island in 1983 and made us all very aware of the fact that, though not all Grenadians necessarily felt that way, he for one was extremely happy with the outcome. You even have a perfect view of the prison below where those who incited the coup and survived the invasion are now being held in prison for life.

The tour started at 8:30 a.m. and was about 5 hours. Afterwards there was still time in the afternoon to take a taxi from the pier to Grand Anse Beach for some swimming before the ship departed.

Curacao

With 7 out of the 10 of us having previously been to Curacao and spending the day touring, it was easy to decide that this day would be spent at the beach. We really wanted to try one of the fabulous looking beaches which were furthest from the cruise terminal and thus “less touristy”.

Furthest north on the west side of the island are beaches Grote and Kleine Knip and Playa Kalki. It would be very expensive to get there via taxi so we attempted to rent a vehicle for the day. A 10 passenger van would have been perfect. Well, turns out that because it was Christmas week, there were no agencies on the island who would rent a vehicle for less than 3 nights (more were 7 nights). So we had to come up with “plan b”.

We spent the day at Playa Porto Mari. Walked off the ship to the waiting taxis found two drivers who were willing to split us between the two of them and drive us to Porto Mari. They said it would be a 45 minute ride, but it ended up being only about a half hour tops. Not a cheap ride at about $30 each way, but without a car, we had no choice.

The money was well spent. It was nearly perfect. Our entire family can highly recommend it. The only thing it is lacking is clean soft white sand. The sand contains coral fragments, some of which are large chunks, and walking can be painful. Once you reached the water, the sandy bottom here was much much better. IF you are prepared beforehand, you will have a pair of water shoes with you.

There are facilities: umbrellas, chaise lounges, restrooms, open air restaurant and even a dive shop. Beware that prices at the restaurant and bar are posted in guilders (also called, as in Aruba, the florin), abbreviated NAFl. or ANG. It is pegged to the US dollar at a stable rate of US$ 1 = NAFl. 1.77. So as you can see, the prices when converted to US dollars are going to be much less. At the bar, when in the ABC islands, I always highly recommend an Amstel Bright!

We were a little confused when we arrived because their website states they charge Naf. 3.50 p.p. (Naf. 4.00 on Sundays/Public Holidays). When we arrived I guess we kind of expected someone at the entrance collecting the fee. A man appeared at least an hour after we had arrived and just walked from chaise to chaise down the beach collecting the money. We arrived at the beach just about a short while after they opened and were glad we got there when we did. If you require shade I would imagine ESPECIALLY on a weekend since there were many locals there, arrive when they open. According to their website they open at 9:30 am.

Three of us had two chaise lounges and an umbrella for the bargain price of $8 USD. My brother rented snorkel gear for himself and his son and paid about $6 or $8 each. Once they had their masks and snorkel they were off exploring. They finally came out of the water raving on and on about how fabulous the reef was, they had never seen so many “cool fish”…My husband and I are both divers, and though we knew there was great snorkeling AND a dive shop on the premises, had never even considered diving. It did seem thought that no matter where you looked there were people walking around with tanks on their backs.

Hmm…were we missing something here? We decided to take a little stroll down to the dive shop. I figured if the price was right, I could at least convince my husband into taking a dive. He had his wallet with his certification card on him, I did not. It was uselessly sitting in my wallet, in the mini-safe on the ship. Gee, maybe a lesson to be learned here?

We asked the nice man behind the counter how much to rent gear for a shore dive and it was ONLY $23 for all equipment including weights and the tank. Now THAT was a bargain. I don’t know if my husband’s eyes lit up, but mine surely did. My husband then explained to the gentleman that I did not have my C-card, by any chance would he be able to look up my certification on the computer? “Surely” he replied. Wow how cool was that?

Oh no, I suddenly remembered I did not have my prescription dive mask with me! Again, another item left back on the ship, this one inside the luggage underneath our bed. I am blind without my glasses so there was no considering diving for me, no way would I be able to see anything- zero, zilch, nada. In saying this out loud, the gentleman asked if I knew what my prescription was. I did not, but my husband did. Well the chances are probably one in a million, but he had a mask with my prescription in it! Wow, I would never have dreamed of being that lucky in my life.

In talking some more we found out that in a couple of hours they were offering a guided dive of the reef. Instead of going off on our own in a relatively safe place, but one we were unfamiliar with nonetheless, why not spend the extra money for a guide. So for $36 per person 2 hours later we had one of the best and longest dives in my life. My husband has over 100+ dives (I have a little over half that) and admittedly, was not quite as impressed as I was, but I was in heaven. I will always remember not only the abundance of fish, but the gorgeous Stove-Pipe Sponges. We have dove Aruba many many times, but Curacao really put it to shame in everyway. For our next dive vacation I would not hesitate to consider Curacao, but thinking about that makes me REALLY curious about the diving in Bonaire…

Barbados

I said it the last time and I will say it again, “WOW, what a way to spend the day”! This was the second time our family has sailed aboard the Silver Moon II and believe me when I say that life does not get much better than this.

Our family made up 10, out of a total of 18 people aboard. There was plenty of space for everyone to spread out. Never did we feel crowded. There was shade, and cover from the passing shower, for my Grandmother and anyone else who wanted it and plenty of spots for sunning and relaxing. Captain and crew treated us terrific and spoiled us from the first moment we stepped on board.

Our excursion had a bit of a late start due to waiting for folks who simply never showed up. Our five hour excursion remained the full five hours though, there was no skimping on the time we were allotted. Our group was transported via mini-bus the 2 minute ride to the marina. The boat is kept clean as a whistle, so prepare to remove and leave your shoes at the dock before you step aboard. We were a little concerned about my grandmother being able to get on board, but the crew very very carefully and skillfully cajoled and assisted her. Once we were all aboard drink orders were taken: soda, beer, water, rum punch and we began our 5 hours of bliss…and the glasses were always replenished!

Our only disappointment the last time we had sailed the Silver Moon II, and certainly no fault of theirs, we were unable to swim with the turtles because there were some large swells in the area that the turtles are know to frequent. Well, this year, it was all go!

First stop though was a shallow snorkel just off shore. The crew passed out high quality and well kept, snorkel gear. At each stop one of the crew members snorkeled with the group and acted as guide. Everyone in the water was required to wear a snorkel vest.

Following this snorkel, everyone re-boarded, rinsed off with the fresh water hose and off we went to our next stop to swim with the turtles! When we arrived the simple instructions were no swim fins, and only “pet” or rub our hand across the turtle’s shell- no grabbing, no riding, and no nonsense. Easy enough, so we all got into the water and it seemed that like magic, the turtles just appeared. The crew member who was in the water with us was floating bait about in the water. My husband and I have dove with dolphins and felt that experience would be hard to beat, but these turtles were no less stunning in their grace.

When the turtles finally took their leave, it was time for lunch! There was a bountiful spread of chicken, fried flying fish, 2 kinds of salad and garlic bread. While the crew cleaned up we were free to swim or relax. Once they completed their housekeeping chores it was time to serve some banana bread and a choice of pina colada or strawberry daiquiri.

Seeing some of the other passing catamaran excursions packed to the gills, we knew no matter how much others had paid for their excursions, we had the best value for our money and it was the absolute best decision to go with Silver Moon. I would not hesitate to recommend this day to anyone.

Aruba

We spent the day on Palm Beach New Year’s Eve day. My husband, daughter and I took a taxi from the cruise terminal and had the rest our family meet us at the beach at their leisure. We knew we were going to Palm Beach and aimed for the area of De Palm Pier specifically. We asked the taxi driver to take us to De Palm Pier and he said, “okay De Palm Island” (totally opposite direction from where we were headed), so once we had him headed towards the direction of Palm Beach everything was fine.

Taxi fare from Oranjestad to the Radisson/De Palm Pier will run you $10 each way. ($13 on Sundays and holidays). That is per taxi not per person. Taxis will take up to 5 persons. Taxis will require you to have dry swim suits on your return to the ship. I made sure that I specifically told all my families members to have the taxi driver agree on a price before they got into the taxi. One driver actually wanted to charge my Mom $15 instead of the $13 (we were there on a Sunday). She and my Dad just moved along to the next driver in line. Fares are set by destination/route by the government- period- non-negotiable- period. You can also take the bus from the bus station a short walk across from the cruise terminal. The bus is much less expensive than a taxi. The fare I think is $2. So bus cheaper, taxi is quicker!

We had the taxi drop us off at the entrance to De Palm Pier. You actually walk from the street side down an alley which runs between the Radisson and Riu Resort. There are two vendors who rent chaise lounges, floats, umbrellas and such at the south end of the beach at the Radisson. They also offer banana boat, parasail, tube rides, waterskiing etc.

If you choose an umbrella on the Radisson side you should be able to receive food and beverage service right at your chaise lounge. The day that we were there the resort was packed to the limit so instead chose a shade palapa on the other side of the pier in front of the Riu Resort. The resort is closed for renovations and it being a Sunday, the worksite was quiet, so I am not sure how that would affect a visit on any other ordinary day.

My brother and his kids walked out on to the pier for lunch at Bugaloe Bar and Grill. Lunch for 4 kids and 2 beers was about $40. Considerably better bargain than the $12 I paid for my takeout Caesar Salad at the Radisson. They just renovated their beachfront restaurant so raised the menu prices to pay for it? But then again, I was able to eat my salad on the beach lounging on my chaise gazing at the ocean. For affordable soft drinks and water there is also a Dunkin Donuts on the pier.

At the end of the afternoon we walked up through the Radisson property and out through the end of the lobby. There are always taxis waiting here. Again, make sure your swim suits are dry.

Disembarkation

Disembarkation on January 2 was painless. Luggage tags handed out the previous night and there were about 12 colors total. Once off the ship you claimed the luggage by color. Some colors were assigned numbers and the number denoted what time you were getting off the ship and which lounge to proceed to wait for your color and number to be called. Times listed in the “Celebrity Today” ranged from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

Were there long lines? Yes of course, but these were not the fault of Celebrity. Everyone has to stand on line to go through US Immigrations and then US Customs.

The luggage valet was offered along with onboard check-in for passengers flying American, Continental, United and Delta. This, at least for our family, did not go quite as smoothly. Beware that you will not automatically be eligible for this program. Even if you are willing to pay the $20 per person it is at the discretion of the TSA and Homeland Security. My parents both applied and my Mom was approved and my Dad was “randomly” denied. Guest relations would only say that Homeland security randomly disallows people. Celebrity states “due to Homeland Security Regulations and Airport procedures”, we [Celebrity] cannot guarantee that all guests will be able to check-in by our remote system.” Now the biggest inconvenience with that they were not informed of this fact until they returned to their cabin at 10:30 pm following dinner. To find out only then when the luggage was due out in the hallway was a problem. Does my Mom use her “new” color tags she was issued and use the old color for my Dad? He went down to guest relations and you guessed it. They were no help at all. All of this, not to mention that my Mom paid the $20 for her valet and check-in all for nothing. She still had to wait while my Dad checked in and received a boarding pass at the airport. So no time saved for sure.

My husband, daughter and myself used the luggage valet without a problem. Do beware that you must still go through the stacks of luggage once you get off the ship. You, yourself, must “hand off” your luggage to airline personnel, after you have cleared US Customs.

Word of warning though, is that you cannot put your luggage out in the hallway until you return from dinner. The three of us were issued an entirely different color of luggage tag, so old ones had to come off and new ones went on. Boarding passes were in an envelope with the new luggage tags and we were also issued a new time for disembarkation. I believe it was earlier than what we previously had. My brother chose not to use the luggage valet for he and his 3 kids. Not certain exactly what the procedure was but he did mention at the cruise terminal, before getting on the bus to the airport, they handed off the luggage to be put on a truck. Once at the airport they had to claim their luggage from the truck. He made it sound fairly easy and stress free.

Kids Club

There is not much for me to write about in this area. The crew does a superb job at keeping these kids BUSY! This was our daughter’s third cruise in as many years and if you asked her, her reason for cruising? Very simply she loves and adores the kid’s club. Their staff is friendly and they offer a wide variety of activities. We insist that our daughter eat dinner with the family, but during the day you can usually find her in the kid’s club.

Stuff

Celebrity, you should really do something about the rust streaks on the hull of the ship. There were some around the pool also. White is white and rust is rust and rust sticks out like a sore thumb. Come on Celebrity and have a little bit of pride! Give me a paint brush and some paint and for some free board and a room, I’ll paint it for you. Fogged windows are one thing, major overhaul to remove and replace, but here we are talking about some scaffold, paint and a brush. That is a big difference which goes a long way in making an old ship look “fresh”. Believe me it in no way detracted from my trip. As a matter of fact I did not even notice it until going through some of my 4000 pictures.

Liked A Lot

1. NO announcements, still wins hands down for me on any cruise! 2. We all loved the Caesar salads at lunch and dinner and the kids especially, the all afternoon long ice cream. 3. Cappuccino on the ship is excellent whether it be in the Oasis Cafe, dining room or from Cova. 4. My husband and I enjoy sailing on Celebrity for the sushi. Not as good as the sushi restaurant near our home, but better than what we are able to conveniently purchase at the supermarket on the way home from work. 5. Soda card at about $65 a person sounds like a lot of money but at a little less than $6 is a bargain for me. Spending a lot of time at the pool as we do and drinking soda at night with dinner, we felt it is a good value for ourselves. 6. Thumbs up to our waiter Sergiu and his assistant Agus for always making sure we were well taken care of. Our cocktail waiter also took excellent care of us and quickly remembered who of the 10 of us at our table had soda cards and made sure our glasses were always filled! 7. If you have never been at sea for New Year’s Eve, do try it at least once. Very exciting and very memorable way to begin the start of a new year.

Disliked

1. Being deceived into thinking that by paying $20 our luggage would go directly to the airport, our plane and ultimately our destination when in actuality we would have to rummage through the stacks to find it to drag it through US Customs before dropping it off with the airline personnel. 2. Having to walk down to Guest Relations when there was a problem because they never answered their telephone. 3. Having to wait until after our appetizers were already served before receiving our bottle of wine not due to any fault of the wine steward, but her just having way too many tables to serve. 4. Being lied to be the assistant dining room manager regarding our table assignment. After he realized he was caught in the lie, he avoided our table for the entire cruise. We had the same assistant dining room manager last year and he visited our table incessantly to the point of being annoying. We did not like him last year and we did not like him this year.

Hated

1. Probably the same as on any other cruise ship, but days at sea were horrendous if you intended to obtain a chaise lounge anywhere on the ship. 2. I don’t drink it, but have to listen to my husband, “Coffee tasted lousy no matter where or when on the entire ship”. 3. The lack of Christmas atmosphere on a cruise ship during the holidays. 4. Each and everyone of the 4 items our family members purchased through Celebrity’s Bon Voyage department was screwed up in one way or another. My grandmother even received a note saying she received a shipboard credit from her mother who has been dead over 50 years. It was supposed to go to her granddaughter with whom she was sharing a cabin. The credit was to that child from “her” Mom.

Categories
Island

Cruisin’ with Friends — Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten

Author: Jacqueline Didier
Date of Trip: March 2006

As a background, our group (which averages 18-20) has been cruising together for several years. For me personally, this was my seventh cruise–my fifth with Royal Caribbean. We usually book our trips with All Aboard Cruises out of Miami; we have had good luck with them and recommend them highly. This cruise was aboard RCCL’s Adventure of the Seas out of San Juan on March 26, 2006 with stops in Aruba, Curacao, St.Maartin and St. Thomas. Without question, eveyone in our group agreed it was the best one yet.

This was the first time we did not book our flights through the cruiseline. In the past we would arrive on the sailing date and were usually frazzled and exhausted by the time we finally got on board. For this trip we booked our own flights and hotel, coming into San Jan the day before sailing, with www.hotels.com and were very pleased with the price and the flights. The hotel (Best Western Pierre) was just okay — the location wasn’t that good and the beds were too firm to be comfortable. It was clean though, the continental breakfast in the morning by the pool was very good. The staff at the desk was very helpful when my husband and I were given a smoking room when we had requested non-smoking. They moved us immediately and gave us an upgraded room. We found a couple of pretty good restaurants within walking distance, but as I said, the location was not in a good area of San Juan.

Before boarding the ship, our group booked a small bus on our own and took a tour of the Bacardi factory. The cost was pretty reasonable and they took us directly to the pier after the tour. The factory tour was fun and interesting, and after a couple of free drinks we boarded ship in a very happy mood. If you can make the time, this tour is a must-do in San Juan.

As I said, this was our seventh cruise, but arriving at the dock we were awestruck at the size of this ship. Boarding was very easy with Royal Caribbean’s Sea Pass which you can complete on line. We were on board within an hour. A word to the wise — they have a duty-free shop in the terminal where you can buy liquor at a reasonable price. Do not carry your purchase in plain sight when boarding the ship. We did and it was confiscated. Others who put it in their carry-ons had no problem at all. My husband went down later with the intention of returning it since we didn’t want to carry it home, but the store put it in a bag and he was able to bring it on board that way.

The best word I can think of to describe the Adventure of the Seas would be magnificent. This is without a doubt, the most beautiful ship I’ve ever seen and spotless from top to bottom. It is huge (over 3,000 passengers and crew), but not once did we feel crowded. Even the days at sea there was not much problem with the usual “chair hogs” at the pool. Even though there were a few as there is on every cruise, we never had a problem finding a place to sit. At the center of the ship is the “Main Street” with shops, bars, pubs, customer service areas, and everything kinds of feeds off it. All areas are well-marked and easy to find. I never had a problem finding our room which says a lot for me! Everyone in our group had a balcony cabin and I’ll never cruise any other way again. We enjoyed the openess, the views, the fresh air, and having room-service coffee there every morning. A word about room service – it was wonderful. They bring your order on time and even call before coming to your room. We also sat outside long into the night enjoying the ocean and if you’ve never seen the night sky from the middle of the Caribbean, you’ve missed a gorgeous sight.

Aruba was our first stop. I’m glad to have finally seen the island but even though the resort areas were very pretty, I don’t know if I’d want to dedicate a whole trip to going there. The downtown shopping area was a little disappointing, but we went to Carlos and Charlies for lunch and had a great time. Since we were a large group we were fair game for the antics of the staff with hillarious results. The place is mobbed at night, but at lunctime they had the staff available and the time to keep us royally entertained. Don’t miss this place. We took the sunset cattamaran cruise which was one of the ship’s excursions and would highly recommend this. They served REAL drinks – not the usual awful rum punch and they kept them coming. I don’t remember actually seeing much of the sunset because we were on the opposite side of the boat watching the “moon-rise” courtesy of some kids on the beach who followed us along the shore for quite a while providing entertainment. We had a blast!

Next stop Curacao, a truly pretty little island. There’s not much to do there, but the beaches are okay and the shopping is better than on Aruba. You have to take a ferry to get to the town from where the ship is docked, and it’s a nice walk along the shoreline (long but nice)to get to it. The houses and shops there are all painted in pastel colors with a real European feel to the place. We weren’t expecting much from this stop but were pleasantly surprised.

We had another day at sea (there were 2 on this trip) and then stopped at St. Maarten. They’ve made a lot of improvements to the dock and downtown area there and the shopping is the best in the Caribbean in our opinion. We got great deals on watches and jewelry and they were very willing to bargain at Diamonds International and Kays. We enjoyed our day there very much.

Last stop (insert heavy sigh here) was St. Thomas. Some of us took the ferry to St. John and we’re so glad we did. We took the island tour and if you want to spend a few hours just gazing at beautiful, undeveloped national parkland you’ll love this tour. The mountain views contrasting green wooded hills, white beaches and sapphire water with other islands in the distance was just breathtaking and we got some awesome pictures. Others in our group went shopping, snorkeling, or hit the beaches and felt that St. Maartin offered more than St. Thomas in these areas.

Disembarking in San Juan was very easy this time. Our flights were with American Airlines and for $10 a person, they picked up our bags at the terminal and took them directly to the airport for us. While there was some confustion with RCL staff on how this works, it was well worth it I think. San Juan airport, or at least the terminal where American Airlines is located, has vastly improved since our last visit there two years ago. Security was quick and efficient, and there were shops and plenty of places to eat.

All in all, this was just a great trip. We were disappointed with the service and other aspects of the cruise with RCL two years ago, but felt this one was more up to RCL standards and what we’ve come to expect from this cruiseline. We’re looking forward to our next trip with them next year.

Categories
Island

St. Thomas, San Juan & St. Maarten

Author: Alyce
Email: Alymark@aol.com
Date of Trip: November 2004

We went on a cruise was for our 20 year anniversary so we really wanted to splurge and not cut too many corners like we’ve had to do on previous vacations.

Unfortunately, our splurge did NOT start with the hotel we booked for the night before in Ft Lauderdale. We stayed at the Ramada Inn Cruise port. I DO NOT recommend this hotel at all. It was old, under renovation and room was extremely musty. I can’t think of anything positive except that their shuttle service to the port was prompt and efficient. My hubby forgot something in the room and they had no problem turning around to get it. That was probably the only nice thing they did. Once we got to the port and the line started moving, it was less than an hour to get to our cabin. The cruise was most enjoyable, and if you’d like to read more about cruising, check out cruisecritic.com. It’s a really awesome site!

Port experiences
In San Juan we took a tour (found online) that I arranged for my cruise critic friends while still at home. It was a 14 passenger van and we toured Old San Juan and several other areas that I don’t remember the names of. We went to a very nice two story open air restaurant on the beach for a wonderful authentic Puerto Rican style dinner at sunset. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable of the area and gave a good narrative of where we were, etc. It was a lot of fun, very reasonably priced and a nice way to get to know our new friends also.

In St Thomas we booked the Champagne Catamaran Sail to St John. Unfortunately, it rained the entire time, we were not able to even GET to St John and only found mediocre snorkeling (in the pouring rain) at Christmas Reef. The captain and his crew were very nice though, they had a nice spread of food and plenty of free drinks for the trip home. They did their best I suppose under the conditions, but it really felt like we didn’t’ get our money’s worth. Can’t predict the weather I suppose. I was really looking forward to going to St John though.

Oh well. In Saint Maarten, we rented a car (did that online in advance) and toured the island on our own. Price was reasonable, car was clean and comfortable. The views were spectacular and we found several areas to take some beautiful scenic pictures that will soon be on my wall. We found several secluded beaches to hang out on, including Orient Beach which was everything it was supposed to be. We really were not impressed with the beach itself though. We thought the others we found were much nicer. If, however, you are wanting to do (or see) the clothing optional feature, that’s the place to go.

One BIG tip … LISTEN when they say do not leave anything of value in your car or unattended at the beach. We learned this the hard way when my husband’s watch and two traveler’s checks (had them wrapped in towels to dry) were stolen from our locked trunk. This was at Pic Paradise (top top top of a mountain). Of course, the checks were replaced, but not the watch. Kids are there just waiting in the bushes for tourists like us. Someone else who had just driven up had to shoo these kids away from their car. The car also was screaming RENTAL CAR, RENTAL CAR, TOURIST, TOURIST. So listen when they say to be careful in that respect. Otherwise, this was our favorite island. We luckily, did our shopping last after returning the car. Lots of great deals on jewelry, camera equipment, linen and more.

Categories
Entertainment Family Travel Miscellany Theme Park

What to Expect on a Disney Cruise: A First-Timer’s Guide

What’s it like to go on a Disney cruise? I’ll tell you. But first I should disclose that I’m not indifferent about Disney. As you might gather from some of my previous pieces (here, here, and here), I’m kind of a fangirl nerd about most of what Disney produces.

I grew up in Southern California, so my parents took me to Disneyland often. The night before we’d leave, there was always that delicious, uncontainable feeling that made sleep impossible. I suspect I’m not alone in having felt that as a kid. (I might be more alone in still feeling that way now as an adult.)

So when my husband and I decided to burn vacation days by taking our three-year-old daughter on a Disney cruise for four nights, I was kid-on-Christmas-Eve excited. And I thought I had a sense of what to expect on a Disney cruise. Once onboard, though, I realized I wasn’t quite prepared for the full spectrum of what it’s like to travel via Disney Cruise Line.

Before our cruise, I’d scrolled blogs upon blogs devoted to Disney Cruise tips and hacks. But I found that most of these sites assume that their readers are repeat Disney cruisers looking to refine their travel skills. It wasn’t easy to find a primer on the basics for those uninitiated to cruising with Disney. So here you go.

Disney Cruise Ships and Itineraries

We sailed on the Disney Wonder, but if you book a Disney cruise, you may well end up on the Disney Magic, Disney Dream, or Disney Fantasy. (A fifth Disney Cruise Line ship will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023.)

The Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are sister ships, having debuted in 1998 and 1999, respectively—although the Disney Wonder is fresh from an intensive 55-day dry-dock renovation, which transformed many of its spaces and made everything aboard feel brand-new. These 83,000-tonners are Disney Cruise Line’s “classic,” smaller boats, with 10 floors and 875 rooms. Each carries 2,713 passengers, though during our four-nighter in mid-November, there were about 2,600, a third of which were kids. Also onboard: 950 Disney Cruise Line employees seeing to it that everybody gets their money’s worth.

Disney’s newer cruise ships, the Disney Dream (2011) and Disney Fantasy (2012) are 130,000-ton vessels with 1,250 rooms that hold up to 4,000 travelers.

The Disney Cruise fleet’s four ships all offer themed family restaurants, live shows, deck parties, elaborate kids’ spaces, character appearances, at-sea fireworks, and more that feels familiar from Disney cruise ship to Disney cruise ship.

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“However,” says Jennifer Haile-Tinn, a Disney spokesperson, “each ship is like a new adventure for our guests. Only on the Disney Wonder can kids train alongside their favorite superheroes in the Marvel Super Hero Academy. There are also special entertainment offerings that can only be found on certain ships, such as Frozen, A Musical Spectacular, which is exclusive to the Disney Wonder.” Other one-ship Disney Cruise Line exclusives include the Aladdin show on the Disney Fantasy, a villain-themed show on the Disney Dream, and “Tangled: The Musical” on the Disney Magic.

There are also stylistic differences from cruise ship to cruise ship—the Disney Fantasy, for example, incorporates Art Nouveau details throughout, while the Disney Dream is more Art Deco.

When choosing your Disney voyage, though, the port stops will likely be your main variables. As Haile-Tinn points out, “Each ship has unique itineraries that allow guests to explore iconic destinations like Norway and Alaska.” The Disney Wonder traverses the Pacific coast—Mexico, California, and Alaska, as well as the Panama Canal. (Our trip made a single stop in Cozumel).

 

The Disney Magic makes transatlantic crossings and goes into Canada and Europe, including through fjords to see the northern lights. All four Disney cruise ships buzz around the Caribbean, with some itineraries stopping at Castaway Cay, Disney’s Bahamian private island. The Europe and Alaska itineraries have more adults aboard, while the Caribbean jaunts attract more families with kids. Each port stop comes with a big menu of shore excursions (starting around $50 per person), which should be reserved well in advance.

Disney Cruises: Onboard Activities

There’s enough to do aboard a Disney cruise to keep everyone entertained from early in the morning until late at night. So much to do, in fact, that you’ll have to make choices about what to attend and what to give up.

Laid upon your bed each evening, beside the chocolates, is a TV Guide-style sheet called the “Personal Navigator,” which lets you plan the following day in detail. (The same timeline is also available on the Disney Cruise Line official app.)

First up is the “Adventures Away” party—after you check out your stateroom and attend a mandatory assembly drill, you head up to the top deck for a high-energy bon voyage celebration, starring Mickey, Minnie, and friends.  Then, for the remainder of the cruise, you’re constantly choosing from a long list of activities.

There are character greetings around the boat (wait time in line: about 30 minutes). There are free, first-run movie screenings at the theaters. There’s an outdoor splash zone and swimming pool (Disney movies play on the huge screen above), plus a huge waterslide—worth it especially for the exhilarating view from the top—and a top-floor gym, which also affords a wide-ocean view. You can get a spa treatment, play Bingo, or make crafts. You can take your kids to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where they get transformed into princesses and pirates (princess packages start at $65). Or you can send them off to the kids’ clubs while you enjoy the nightlife at After Hours, the stylish and boozy adult district.

You can also, of course, eat.

 

Food on Disney Cruises

All meals are included in your Disney cruise fare, unless you choose to dine at Palo or Remy, adults-only restaurants where a dress code is enforced, reservations are a must, servers are experts, and food is a step up.

At the other Disney cruise restaurants, the attire and cuisine are more casual. There are more than enough menu options for kids, and vegetarians won’t have a hard time either. As is the case throughout this experience, there really is something for everyone on a Disney cruise. You won’t have strangers at your table, just your own party, but you do tend to be seated near the same people each time you dine, so conversation with neighbors becomes inevitable.

Our first restaurant experience on the Disney Wonder was at a new restaurant called Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which Tiana dreams of opening a restaurant in Louisiana. “Tiana’s Place transports guests to New Orleans,” says Ozer Balli, the cruise line’s Vice President of Hotel Operations. “We have a grand tradition of transforming our stories into real life.”

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Indeed. Princess Tiana herself visits each table to greet her guests as they enjoy Cajun and Creole entrees (for dessert: pillowy beignets) while a talented quartet jazzes up familiar tunes. The rollicking finale is a joyful parade during which kids and staff march through the dining room as they clap, don Mardi Gras beads, play toy instruments, spin umbrellas, and belt out Disney songs.

Another impressive restaurant, called Animator’s Palate, is a tech-driven shrine to Disney’s drawn history. Screens all around the dining room bring to life how pencil sketches turned into movie gold. You’re assigned to draw a character on your placemat, then hand it to your server. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a truly magical on-screen mashup.

For breakfast and lunch, there are big buffets available, as well as specialty stands that serve pizza, gyros, ice cream, and whatnot. It’s all you can eat, all day long. And yes, it’s all included.

There are two dinnertime options: 5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.—you pick before you get on the boat. Then it’s the same each night, and you’re expected to be punctual.

If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included, too, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra. This was one of my favorite onboard luxuries.

The Rooms on Disney Cruise Ships

Our accommodations were bigger than expected, with an extraordinarily comfortable platform bed. Seriously, I haven’t slept that well in ages. It may have been the ship’s gentle rocking that lulled me to sleep so quickly, or maybe it was the melty-soft bedding, but whatever the trick, man, I want that at home.

The best part of our room, though, was our glassed-in balcony, where we sat with drinks and watched the ocean go by. We saw dolphins, tugboats, oil rigs, rain, birds, Mexico, clouds, and sunsets. Our hours on the balcony were beautiful—by far the most tranquil part of our Disney cruise.

 

Our room had enough space for all three of us to hang out, sleep, bathe, and store our luggage. Though not huge, we never felt cramped, thanks to the clever layout and a few key features: While you have dinner, your room attendant turns the couch into a comfy kid’s bed and adds a guard rail.

We kind of fell in love with our room attendant, actually. Every night he’d leave little gifts on our bed—Mickey bandannas for the pirate party one night, Ghirardelli squares the next—and every night, he’d fold our towels into amusing figures. But more than the stuff he left and the diligent care he took of our room, he was genuinely kind, sincere, and a very hard worker. My daughter still talks about “Mr. Bhong”—he became as cherished to her as the Disney characters.

(Side note: Bhong is Filipino, and it’s hard not to notice that the onboard staff makes for a real-life version of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. Unless you visit U.N. headquarters, you’ll never meet so many people from so many different countries in one place. All of them wear their country of origin on their name tag, and they’re very likely to talk about where they’re from. When I asked Balli whether it’s intentional that the crew members are so international, he replied, simply: “We have the opportunity to go around the world and find the best talent with the most passion for our product.”)

The onboard Wi-Fi in the room is not free—more on that later—but there is a nice-sized TV that runs a 24-hour Disney movie marathon on nearly every channel.

In the hallway, many of your neighbors will have decorated their doors with their favorite Disney characters. (There are printables online, and a cottage industry that deals in door decorations for Disney cruises.) We didn’t come prepared for this onboard tradition, but it was cute to watch my daughter develop the belief that behind each decorated door lived the characters on it.

Disney Cruise Shows

Twice nightly in the 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, performers on the verge of Broadway put on fantastic stage extravaganzas, and there’s a new show to see each night. You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra—just show up and grab a seat at any of the Disney cruise shows.

In November, “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular” debuted on the Disney Wonder. It really is a spectacular interpretation of the smash-hit movie, with plenty of wow moments and special effects that inspire the audience to break into applause mid-song. The most notable one is during Elsa’s rendition of “Let It Go,” when she transforms, right onstage, from the reined-in princess to the glittery-blue queen while reclaiming her own power. It’s hard not to get swept up while watching—my little one’s mouth was open the entire time.

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We also saw “Disney Dreams,” a heartfelt Disney cruise show that uses special effects—and its singers’ prodigious talents—to whisk us into favorite Disney scenes and songs. At one point, there’s the theater-wide illusion that Tinkerbell has covered the entire boat in pixie dust.

And during “The Golden Mickeys,” the loose plot is that a clumsy stage manager learns to believe in herself to become the star of the show—a positive message packed, again, with Disney friends, plus an on-screen appearance by Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Note that Disney cruise shows aren’t necessarily the same across boats, so if there’s one you have your heart set on seeing, make sure you’re choosing the right ship.

Kids’ Areas on Disney Cruise Ships

Whichever Disney cruise ship you’re on, there will be several places where you can drop your children off to be supervised by attentive camp-counselor types while they (and you) have fun.

Aboard the Disney Wonder, we left our three-year-old at the Oceaneer Club ($9 per hour) while we dined at Palo. I worried about her during our meal but when I picked her up, she was absorbed in an art project and wouldn’t leave until she was finished. After that, she kept asking us to take her back to the kids’ area.

There’s no mystery as to why children love these spaces: Disney Cruise Line’s creative professionals invested many months of thought and work into making each room magical. As Theron Skees, the project’s lead Imagineer, put it, “We created the spaces to immerse kids in stories. The idea that we can add story into everything we do is really exciting.”

This means that popular characters like Elsa, Doc McStuffins, Sofia the First, and Black Widow interact with the kids in settings inspired by those characters’ films and shows. On the Disney Wonder, there’s the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s colorful playroom from Toy Story, a Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, and a “navigation center” where kids can feel like they’re steering the ship. Basically, kids playing on Disney cruises will feel as though they’ve melted into a movie.

 

Disney Cruise Costs

So what about the cost? Well, this isn’t a budget vacation—but it won’t necessarily zap your savings, either. Fares on the Disney Wonder start at $978 per adult and $360 per kid for a three-night Bahamian cruise in a room with no balcony. So for a family of four, the minimum price to get onboard is around $2,700, though that number could go way up depending on the type of stateroom you choose, where your itinerary goes, and for how many nights.

While that might sound like a lot for a short vacation, a Disney cruise doesn’t turn out to be as expensive at it seems at first glance. For all its upfront inclusions—all food, shows, and activities—a four-night Disney cruise can actually end up being less expensive than a four-night Disney World vacation, as this handy comparison chart demonstrates. Plus, you can book early to save money.

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And if you live close enough to drive, instead of fly, to your embarkation port, taking a home port cruise will cut your overall cost, which explains why our sailing out of Galveston was packed with Texans. Onboard, the best way to keep your tab small is to forgo add-ons—especially onboard Wi-Fi and alcohol. Keep in mind that you can bring your own alcohol as long as you comply with Disney Cruise Line’s fairly reasonable rules on the matter.

The Overall Disney Cruise Experience

If you’re trying to figure out what type of trip a Disney cruise ends up being, I’ll be honest: There’s so much to do onboard that it can’t really be called a relaxing vacation, unless you’re absolutely determined to make it that way. With all that goes on—all the time—it’s easy to fall prey to some serious FOMO.

But that’s not a bad thing. You come off the Disney cruise with so many new memories that having made the effort to show up to a majority of activities ends up having been worth it.

One strategy to avoid coming home exhausted: Tack on a couple of relaxing beach days after your cruise. We stayed along Galveston’s seawall for a couple of nights afterward, at the beautiful Hilton in the San Luis Resort. This proved to be a good way to unwind, a worthy quiet counterpoint to the exuberance of the Disney cruise experience.

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From another perspective, though, taking a Disney cruise is an unexpectedly good option if you’re looking for a vacation that offers a detox from mainstream and social media, and the constant rush of emails and texts—the perfect way to kick off a digital cleanse. This is mostly because it’s very expensive to be connected: $20 buys just a few minutes online.

If you purchase enough megabytes to be as plugged in as you are at home, you’ll spend a small fortune. So, unless money is of no concern, you stay disconnected for the vast majority of the cruise, which is sometimes frustrating but mostly serene. No matter what’s going on in the world, a Disney cruise is basically Disneyland on the boat: unapologetically happy, removed from reality, and with no trace of the morose or glum.

As for that signature excitement that Disney is so expert at generating, it’s vividly a Disney cruise from start to finish. A week before we got on the boat, Mickey and Minnie “called” my daughter to tell her how excited they were to see her onboard. I received a beautiful packet in the mail with my itinerary, luggage tags, and instructions about how to get the most out of our Disney cruise experience.

 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BMZ1JcVFPXI/

Our last night aboard, at 10:15 p.m., all the main characters gathered in the lobby atrium to give guests a final chance to interact with them, take photos, and give hugs. The cruise director delivered a farewell speech, and each child was handed a battery-run candle and invited onstage to partake in a moving rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” followed by an avalanche of Mickey-shaped confetti. I let my little one stay up late for this, and it was worth it. In true Disney form, it was the perfect ending.

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Categories
Beach Island Luxury Travel

10 Great American Cruises You Can Take in 2016

Think American cruises and you probably think Alaska or Hawaii. But there are many more ways to explore America via cruise ship: Great rivers lace together many of our states, and both coastlines are spectacular.

The cruise lines know this, so they’ve developed some clever itineraries to showcase the great American scenery. Also great: These trips tend to be much more reasonably priced than cruising overseas, both in terms of airfare and the cost of a stateroom.

Ready to explore our nation’s waterways? Here are 10 of the best overnight cruises that traverse the contiguous United States.

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Avital Andrews also covers travel for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Outside, Frommer’s, and Sierra. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

10 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Cruise

If you’re reluctant to book a cruise because of the price tag, take heart: There are plenty of creative ways to cut costs without sacrificing the best parts of the trip. I asked a handful of cruise experts for their money-saving tips. Their responses make it clear that even if you’re tight on disposable income, you can still enjoy the high seas without busting your budget.

Timing Is Everything

There are several timing elements that’ll help you get the most affordable cruise possible. First, book early—at least four months before your desired sailing date, especially if you’re aiming for high season. “You get your choice of cabin, date, and dining times,” says Lori Sheller, vice president of cruise development for Tourico Holidays. Plus, you can take advantage of “early savings promotions” that toss in extra goodies.

Second, try to book during “wave season,” between January and March, which is when cruise lines showcase their most aggressive offers for the year to come. “Deals promoted during wave season are valid for departures throughout the year but require booking during this three-month period,” notes Gabe Saglie, a senior editor at Travelzoo. “Travelers can save up to 75 percent and can find high-value extras like onboard credits [and] kids sailing for free.”

Third, schedule your cruise for when kids are in school. “Cruise lines raise prices when families can travel, and prices can double if you cruise during a peak time,” says Tanner Callais, who runs GalvestonCruiseTips.com, To get the bargains, plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-December, just after New Year’s, and just after Labor Day, avoiding spring and summer breaks. Weather can be a gamble, but for that you get smaller crowds and a ticket that costs hundreds less.

Fourth, booking last-minute could save you a lot. “Cruise ships, with so many cabins to fill, often push out great last-minute deals,” Saglie says. “If you’re flexible on things like cabin type and itinerary, options abound.” This method works best when you don’t have to fly to your port of call, since you’re not as likely to find affordable last-minute airfare.

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Shop the Discount Sites

Sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, CruiseDirect, VacationsToGo, LastMinuteTravel, and Travelzoostock impressive wholesale rates, limited-time offers, and extreme discounts off brochure prices.

Other sites can help, too: CouponCabin lists promotional codes for cruises and gets you cash back when you book. Similarly, Upromise members earn 5 percent cash back when reserving a Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, or Disney cruise.

After you book, but before you depart, download a price-alert app like Ship Mate, which monitors cruise prices and alerts you to any significant changes. If the price of your cruise drops, you can contact your cruise line or travel agent and try to negotiate a lower price for yourself.

Know What’s Included—and What’s Not

Many passengers assume that once you’ve paid your fare, everything’s included. It’s not. That even goes for so-called all-inclusive voyages. “The devil is in the details,” says Rebecca Brooks, who co-founded Alter Agents, a research firm that represents cruise lines. “Read the fine print and exclusions, then list out all the costs associated with your cruise and divide by the number of days to give you apples-to-apples figures. It takes work but you’ll often find that a more expensive cruise actually balances out with on-board items that truly are inclusive.”

During your cruise-shopping process, take note of each boat’s tipping policy—some lines tack on a mandatory per-day gratuity, an added cost that could weight your budgetary scale in favor of another ship. (Note, however, that if gratuities are added to your bill, you’re not obligated to leave additional tips.)

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Use a Travel Agent

Not surprisingly, this is the prevailing advice I got from travel agents. But they’ve got a point: “Cruise agents will save you time and money,” Sheller says, “and they’ll get you the best discounts and amenities, like gifts, shipboard credits, and so on. After all, they’re professionals.”

Consumer advocate Charles McCool concurs: “Because of volume, agents can offer lower prices, better possibility of upgrades, and better amenities.”

And as Tress Prefontaine, a Virtuoso Travel Advisor who owns Prefontaine Travel, says: “They have your best interest and budget at heart. I watch my client’s cruise bookings to see if there’s a better deal after they’ve been booked and then I advocate for them.” Plus, having an agent costs you nothing.

DIY Shore Excursions

To save money and have more authentic experiences, don’t buy shore excursions through your cruise line. Instead, explore your itinerary’s stops on your own. A day of simple wandering can be more memorable than boarding a crowded bus that makes stops so brief that it’s hard to collect a sense of place.

Also, move quickly away from tourist traps. “Guides and shop owners know they can raise prices near the port traffic,” Callais says. “If you travel just a few blocks out of the way, you can save a lot.”

If you prefer guide-led tours, book through a local company or ask your travel agent to arrange a private tour. Reserve them well before you set sail (“The excursions you’re offered onboard are priced at a premium,” Saglie says) and make sure you’re back on the ship before it pushes off—missing the boat is a very expensive proposition.

You can also do things in the morning that’ll save you cash during a port day. David Bakke, a writer for Money Crashers, offers this tip: “When spending a day in port, hit up a buffet before you get off the boat to save on restaurant expenses. Better yet, visit the sandwich bar and stick one—and maybe an extra snack—in your [day] pack.”

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Decline the Beverage Package

Unless you’re a massive drinker, all-you-can-drink promotions won’t save you money. “They seem like they’d be worth it given how much time you spend on the ship and the price of drinks,” says Callais, “but all-you-can-drink packages are a terrible deal. Take Carnival’s package for example: It’s $49.95 per day but has 15 percent gratuity automatically added. So the total price is $57.44 per day. A 16-ounce Bud Light runs roughly $6.50 after gratuity. That means you have to drink nine 16-ounce beers every day before you get your money’s worth. And you’re charged for every day of the cruise, so even if you’re in port and not drinking on the ship, you still have to pay for unlimited drinks. That makes the math even tougher.”

If you love the idea of a perpetually open bar, consider booking a more expensive cruise whose ticket price includes booze, soda, and bottled water—run the numbers and you may find, depending on your drinking habits, that the more luxurious line might actually constitute the better deal.

Nancy Porter, a travel manager for Global Connections, recommends that travelers who drink wine with dinner should buy a bottle at the main dining room during their first day at sea. “It’s less costly than purchasing it by the glass,” she says, “and if you drink less than the full bottle, they’ll bring it back to you the following evening.”

Also: Before leaving home, check your ship’s alcohol policy—if you’re allowed to bring your own, do that.

Plan Your Parking

Driving—as opposed to flying—to your cruise port is another good way to save, if it’s geographically feasible. Still, you’ll have to find a place to park, and many ports charge $15 per day. “Most people pay for parking at official port lots,” Callais says, “but that’s always the most expensive option. Independent lots are near every port and usually charge 50 percent less. To save even more, look into parking at a hotel. If you stay at a hotel the night before, they will often let you park for free during your cruise. All you have to do is call and ask.”

You can also go to BuyReservations.com, which specializes in airport and cruise port hotels: Any hotel you book through the site comes with free long-term parking, plus free round-trip transfers to your embarkation point.

Consider taking Uber or Lyft if your point of origin isn’t too far—cost estimates for both services are available at UberEstimate and LiftCalculator, respectively.

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Once You’re On, Log Off

Internet and Wi-Fi access are among the worst things you can buy on a cruise, value-wise. Many ships charge $0.55 to $0.75 per minute for connections that are excruciatingly slow. (Plus, breaking out your laptop could make your travel mates resent you.)

Though some companies are trying to improve their middle-of-the-ocean coverage and lower their rates, that won’t be industry standard anytime soon. Until then, save your emailing for Internet cafes in ports of call.

You might be able to use your cell phone during port days. But be careful about roaming charges—or buy a travel SIM card that includes roaming, like WorldSim, which is usable in almost 100 countries and on some cruise ships too.

Stay Loyal

Once you’ve found a cruise line you love, stick with it. “The best cruise deals are actually the ones on offer when your cruise is just about over,” says Sheridan Becker, a travel guidebook writer. “Sure, you’re booking a year in advance, but returning customers get great deals. Holland America alumni, for example, are treated like royalty. During my most recent voyage, I could not believe their price point nor how many people were signing up for their next cruise onboard.”

Doing that could also minimize your deposit and make it refundable, Sheller says. “And you can easily change the itinerary,” she adds. Plus, most cruise lines offer loyalty programs with rewards like shore excursions, drink packages, and onboard credit.

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Look Beyond the Megaships

If you look past the massive ship companies—which is tough to do, given their pervasive marketing campaigns—you’ll see that there are more special cruising experiences to be had, often at comparable or better value.

“Small ships offer an opportunity to get up close and personal with charming, off-the-beaten-path locales that large ocean carriers could never directly reach,” says Saglie. “Though large liners certainly have their perks, small ships offer savings: On many small ships, cabin types start at oceanview, no upgrade necessary. Perks that are typically a la carte on larger vessels are included—think unlimited premium beverages and shore excursions. And travelers can be in a port almost every day, with ships even docking overnight.”

Saglie recommends river boats, too: “There are dozens of new vessels on European rivers, so that intimate, boutique-y, cultural, foodie river cruise you’ve always dreamt about is more affordable now than just a few years ago.”

To save half off regular rates, look for repositioning cruises—those with unconventional itineraries due to the need to get the boat from one part of the world to another. “Sailing between the Caribbean and Alaska, for instance, has a much lower daily rate than cruises within the Caribbean or Alaska,” says McCool.

For frugal travelers who don’t mind a dash of adventure, McCool suggests freighter cruises. The rustic experience aboard cargo ships can be gotten for a sliver of what you’d pay for a mainstream cruise. “Ports of call may not be the popular ones, but might be even more desirable,” he says. “Jaded veteran cruisers crave their relative solitude and appreciate dining with a native crew—say from Turkey—with authentic cuisine served for every meal.”

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s Note: Want more cruise news, tips, and advice? Visit our sister site, CruiseCritic.com. Cruise Critic is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, which also operates SmarterTravel.

Avital Andrews also covers travel for the Los Angeles Times, Sierra, Outside, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.

(Photo: Woman Bikini Shopping Bags Beach Summer Concept via Shutterstock)

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Best Cruise Ships of 2014

This year’s Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards name the top cruise lines in the world in a variety of categories, from Best New Ship and Best Value to top itineraries and most spectacular suites. Chosen by an international team of editors, these awards represent the creme de la creme of the cruise industry in 2014. Here are some highlights. (Editor’s Note: Cruise Critic is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, which also operates SmarterTravel.)

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