Categories
Experiential Travel

Cruise Expert Shares Her Favorite River Cruise Benefits

Sailing along the Mekong River, SmarterTravel’s Christine Sarkis took some time to sit down with Gina Kramer, an editor at our sister-site Cruise Critic to discuss the benefits of river cruises. Aboard the new Avalon Saigon, they talked about what it’s like travel through Vietnam and Cambodia by river cruise and outlined three notable benefits.

For more details about each reason, take a few minutes to watch the video. Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t think they enjoy would enjoy cruising, you just may come away with an urge to set sail.

River Cruise Benefits

River Cruise Ships Are Smaller Ships: Whereas ocean cruise vessels can house thousands, river cruise ships top out at hundreds—and are often significantly smaller. For instance, the Avalon Saigon has room for just 36 guests. A smaller ship means that passengers can explore smaller places where larger ships could never go. And that offers the chance to forge a deeper connections with locals.

There’s a Smaller, More Intimate Feel Onboard: The small-ship environment is ideal for people who want to enjoy a cruise but who are intimidated by larger ships or put off by crowds. This more intimate atmosphere feels relaxed, fosters friendships, and offers a great passenger-to-crew ratio.

River Cruises Tend to Be More Inclusive: Kramer notes that anyone who has gone on a mainstream ocean-going cruise line has likely felt at least a little nickel-and-dimed by the a la carte pricing model of shore excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi, and special meals. Onboard river cruises, in contrast, most of what you do—from shore excursions to most drinks—is included in the cruise fare.

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Christine Sarkis visited Vietnam and Cambodia as a guest of Avalon River Cruises. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

Categories
Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors Sustainable Travel

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

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

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

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

Hurtigruten Has a Long, Adventurous History

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

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

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

hurtigruten ms fram greenland

Hurtigruten Sails to Norway, the Poles, and Beyond

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

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

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

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The Ships Aren’t Large

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

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

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Sailings Can Be Unpredictable

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

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

dinner on ms fram hurtigruten

The Cuisine Reflects Norwegian Heritage

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

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

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Expect a European Crowd and a Laid-Back Vibe

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

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

arctic superior cabin on ms nordnorge

Don’t Expect Fancy Cabins

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

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

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Do Expect a Variety of Excursions

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

lecture aboard hurtigruten ship

You’ll Learn Something New

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

Hurtigruten Is Environmentally Responsible

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

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

Categories
Luxury Travel

Ritz-Carlton Reveals Plans to Upgrade the Cruising Experience

I’ve always thought of cruises as occupying the higher end of the leisure travel space. At least one company apparently feels there’s an opportunity to push cruising even further into the realm of the luxurious (and the pricey).

This week, Ritz-Carlton, the purveyor of luxe resort hotels, announced The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, a “unique combination of yachting and cruising (that) will usher in a new way of luxury travel for guests seeking to discover the world in a relaxed, casually elegant and comfortable atmosphere with the highest level of personalized service.”

Notice the use of the word “yacht,” to emphasize the new service’s smaller scale and exclusivity. In place of the jumbo floating hotels operated by other cruise lines, the three specially designed Ritz craft will be a relatively modest 623 feet long, fitted with just 149 suites, each with a private balcony, and two duplex penthouse suites.

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Because of the ships’ smaller size, itineraries can feature smaller ports inaccessible to traditional cruise vessels, like Capri, Portofino, St. Barths, and Cartagena. Trips will be between seven and 10 days, and cover the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America, depending on the season.

Naturally, given the Ritz link, everything will be high end. According to the press release:

Throughout the journey, guests will indulge in a cruising style that is unparalleled in the ultra-luxury cruise and private yachting sectors. The Ritz-Carlton yachts will feature a restaurant by Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, the three Michelin-starred restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg; a signature Ritz-Carlton Spa; and a Panorama Lounge and wine bar, offering a wide variety of on-board entertainment. Additionally, the yacht will offer one-of-a-kind curated destination journeys through collaborations with local chefs, musicians and artists, allowing guests to experience the locations in unique and experiential ways, both onboard and ashore.

Yes, like a floating Ritz-Carlton.

The first of the three Ritz ships, designed by Tillberg Design of Sweden, is scheduled to begin cruising in the fourth quarter of 2019. The company will begin accepting reservations in May 2018.

That leaves plenty of time to save up for what will undoubtedly be a very pricey cruise experience.

Reader Reality Check

We can dream, right?

More from SmarterTravel:

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

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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
Island

Monarch of the Seas to the Bahamas

Author: VentureForth
Date of Trip: September 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
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
Beach

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas is the best!!!

Author: marlene litwin
Date of Trip: April 2008

Hi there!

To: tripreports@independenttraveler.com Subject: navigator of the seas

hello all found this cruise online then booked it with a local agency. it was my first time cruising so I hope I do not bore you with some details

I went on line and did the internet registration it was simple and fast got my sea pass and printed out all documents that I would need for this trip. Our destination was Cozumel Mexico only one.

Day of departure went smooth from Montreal Canada we took Air Transat to Fort Lauderdale same day departure next time I will book a hotel and leave a day before because we had to leave at 2:30am in the morning in order to make the 6 am flight it was a long day….it was me and my 16 year old son going. Once we landed in Fort Lauderdale I looked for the Royal Caribbean representative I was not able to guarantee transfers because I booked it only 2 weeks in advance so we spoke to this gentleman and he instructed us to wait till 11am than take a taxi to the pier and than we could board than. So we waited for around an hour, we had our suitcases changed into light clothing and we were ready to swim in case our bags were delayed till we got them at our cabin. Once we got to the pier it was very exciting, tons of people coming from all over, we left our bags with the porters than proceeded to the gates and customs and registration it seems complicated but it is very well organized.

Once we got on the ship your photo is taken and than you are herded into an area which is huge where you wait till lunch is ready there are various lines for kids programs etc A message kept on replaying over and over with an apology about the cabins not being ready till 1pm it was ok we headed to the Windjammer cafe which is a very large buffet restaurant and sat down to eat it had many foods to choose from. All dining rooms have FREE ice tea, fruit juice apple juice and lemonade breakfast is orange or apple with free coffee or tea water on tap is ok to drink bring a water bottle if you choose so you do not have to pay $4 for a bottle of water each time. The only drinks you will pay for unless you get the drink card are the following, all soft drinks with gas like coke up etc wine beer fancy drinks fancy coffees Ben an Jerry’s ice cream ..so here are my tips buy the drink card, and if you want to save at dinner time buy a bottle of wine they have many to choose from and it is worth it it goes from 22-up to 100’s the soft drink card for kids is 20, adults is 40 so be warned.

Once we ate we were allowed to check out our rooms we had a balcony room on the sixth deck it was beautiful and very clean our cabin steward Dean was amazing and very helpful. His towel sculptures were fun.

My son joined the teen program I never saw for the 4 days it was tons of fun for him he had a great time!!!

Now to explore this giant vessel is something it is 14 floors and it is ginormous. Just to walk it is something I swear I must of walked miles. WOMEN be aware, to put something on the soles of your high heels it is slippery on all decks inside and outside there is some carpet but the marble floors are treacherous I slipped many times and I witnessed some women falling on their high heels, rubber soles are the best ones for this trip go to your shoe repair man and ask him to put something on your soles to allow you to walk without falling! There is so much to explore on this ship it is exhausting there are many pools most of the activities are on the upper decks like 11 an 12 shows are on the lower floors with the ice rink it is very well placed but it takes time to find, tons of stairs, and it will take a day to remember where everything is. Of course you can wait for an elevator it takes time. There are legends on each floor with everything mapped out.

Dinner in the dining room was where we went all times, you can wear smart casual there was only one formal night so that was a relief otherwise the food is amazing and the service was wonderful it has a Titanic staircase leading you into the lower floors our head waiters and main maître Dee were wonderful they made me feel like a princess. Each night they put away my left over bottle of wine till the next day.

All entertainment was wonderful as the game show The Quest hilarious you are going fall down laughing great time there. Ice show with the Olympic skater was great, the Broadway shows were fun as well Casino dripping with cigarette smoke and lounge lizards waiting for their win, that in itself is amusing to watch unless you have the bucks to play the slots or the big games. yes occasionally people win. Disco younger people getting drunk and dancing So each night I would go to the show and than seek out any other entertainment on board or go to the casino, it was fun and entertaining

Shopping is better on board than at duty free unless you are buying silver or something that they do not have on board it is cheaper to buy on the ship trust me. Jewelry shopping is amazing on board and the girl to go to would Dana Or Kerry they are very knowledgeable and helpful in making decisions very good prices I did well So for the most part the cruise was fantastic the ship is beautiful and team that work on it are great and very helpful. I give the ship 5 stars for their efforts at making everyone feel good.

We arrive in Cozumel Mexico I have pre arranged a tour on ship for the Atlantis submarine. We only have one land day the rest are at sea,we get off early because of this tour we are told we must be on dock for no later than 8:15am…famous last words the tour guide is late to be exact he finally shows up at 9:30am the only trip left is some snorkel trip which we cannot do due to health reasons. We are waiting and waiting finally the tour director says if you do not want to wait any longer we will refund your money. We decide to wait, finally someone comes to collect us and we are again waiting for everyone to go the bathroom another 20 minutes..remember we only have a few hours left we have to go by ship time not Mexican time. So we all have to now walk down the street to this office where they say ok we will pay for your taxis to the shopping area it is only $6. to go there. as a gift for being late. We are than boarded on a ferry to get to the submarine, this trip is supposed to be 2 hours in total. It takes over 20 minutes to get to the submarine, we are boarded in it and do a very small tour for less than 20 minutes underwater, we are looking at dilapidated coral reefs that are severely damaged from the last hurricane 2 years ago.We see some fish a lobster one manta ray that is all it is a very poor tour that we paid $100. each and it was late an the tour guide is not understandable at all it is a waste of my time an dollars. People were upset and we did not feel we got the value for the money on this one. So do not book this tour it is called Atlantis Submarine tour it is a waste of money and time.

We did some shopping with the discount book we bought on the ship, great deals it was fun than we went to a beach called Mr. Sanchez. This beach is very rough with a strong undertow and very murky waters the sand is that sinking sand very hard and coarse brown ugly sand. However the chairs and umbrellas are free there is a bar and kitchen it is worn out from the last hurricane. Be forewarned to pay for a taxi $15 us dollars each way from the port. I was not impressed with the beach at all, the drinks were good though. There are some small stores to buy some silver trinkets etc there. We leave Cozumel an to let you know I have been all over Mexico my favorite places to date are Ixtapa, and Cancun this Cozumel needs an extreme makeover fast.

Another day at sea till we get back in port than I book yet another tour to the Everglades it is amazing with a fantastic tour guide called Robert we get a boat ride right through them, see some gators, and other small animals the tour is fantastic! It is about 4 hours worth every single penny I paid for it and the information is great.

All in all I would go back in a New York Minute, I loved the ship the cruise the people and food. I will say get out there and just do it because when you do you will be glad you did. The best thing about this particular ship is the teamwork an that is what makes any cruise fantastic! I just submitted this on cruise critic Marlenegoesbyebye canada thanks a bunch

Categories
Senior Travel

Eureka! Gold Rush in Alaska

Author: Thomas M
Date of Trip: May 2009

Can a couple in their mid-70s find happiness in a cruise and land tour in Alaska?

Our vacation started out with a pre-cruise stay in Vancouver. Holland America (“HA”) did the selection of air from Honolulu to Vancouver. While we can understand HA buying bulk airline tickets, I wish that they would consider a relative straight line or non-stop flight. As it was, we flew to San Francisco, had a layover of a couple of hours and flew from there to Vancouver. Flying back was from Anchorage to Seattle and from there to Honolulu. Air Canada could have flown us directly to Vancouver and Alaska Air directly from Anchorage.

Vancouver has a terrific airport – unbelievable in its architecture and its various displays. I was not able to fully appreciate it as my wife had a mishap and fell injuring her hand. But Frances, HA’s representative, came to the rescue, got the airport’s paramedics (Ivano and Paul) to assist with ice packs and ace bandages and eventually we were on our way to the Fairmount Waterfront hotel, which was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal.

We were impressed by Vancouver and our stay there. We had been on two previous Alaskan cruises with the usual couple of hours stop in that city but this time we had time to explore the city. Incidentally, Hawaii usually has a reputation for great buffets, but the Heron in the Fairmount easily tops Hawaii’s best.

The Volendam is a sistership to the Maasdam which we took last year from Fort Launderdale to Montreal. The crew on the Volendam was efficient and polite and service was good. My wife and I usually eat at the buffet (Lido deck) at lunch and in the main dining room in the evening. Unlike the Maasdam, for whatever reason, there were no trays or even silverware available in the buffet line. I don’t know whether this was some sort of attempt to prevent people from piling on food on a tray but it was bothersome and rather irritating to only take one dish (fruit), grab a table, get up to get coffee and juice and return and get up again to get your main course.

The shows were entertaining but certainly not the cast of thousands found in the bigger ships. In the main shows, there were only six or eight performers that could fit on the stage. But the Volendam is not one of those mega-ships but its small size makes it more comfortable.

The ship sailed through the inland passage and tried to get up to the end of the Tracy Arms/Sawyer Fjord but was prevented by the large amounts of ice in the waters. It was a cold, wet day but it did not prevent the cruisers from crowding the decks watching our passage through the fjord. Landing in Juneau also was wet and cold but that did not prevent many of the women passengers from hitting the shops! Incidentally, you really can’t see Russia from there!

Skagway was our second and last stop. The bus that picked us up at the ship took us on a tour which included the Old Cemetery. We did go over to the U.S. Park Service where a very knowledgable Ranger took us on a walking tour of the old city.

Skagway was the usual stop for the intrepid gold-rush miners before they started over the White Pass to the Klondike. It is estimated that of the 100,000 or so brave souls who tried to cross over the Pass, over 70,000 perished. And when they reached the goldfields, most of the claims were already taken!

A previous Cruise Critic writing about Princess’ cruise/and tour is that the best way to handle a trip to Denali is to go to Fairbanks/Anchorage FIRST and cruise last so that you can relax at the end. The HA tour we took was much more of a trek than that for Princess – as far as I know – but if we had to do it over again, we would take the land tour first and the cruise last and besides, it would be a slightly longer cruise!

Taking us from Skagway all the way to our final stop at Anchorage was HA’s Gabriel Prestella who was absolutely super taking care of all the needs of his wards.

Alaska is called “The Great Land” for a good reason. It is 2.5 times larger than Texas. The trip by motor coach and train covered 175-200 miles each day!

The trip from Skagway to the Canadian border was by train up the steep incline which the miners had to climb with one-ton of supplies which was mandated by the Canadians who did not have food or mining supplies on their side of the border. That was during one of the bitterest and coldest winters in history. There are many pictures of those miners struggling through the snow with their supplies climbing a 45 degree incline. Over 70,000 of the estimated 100,000 (gold) stampeders perished climbing up the White Pass.

At the top, we were greeted by Tom, who tucked us into his huge motor coach, and took us to our first stop at Whitehorse with a few stops for photo-ops and coffee. In total, this was 8-9 hours. From Whitehorse, we went to Dawson City, again about 8 hours travel by motor coach – some 340 miles.

Dawson City is a town of perhaps 1800 people during the spring/summer and if you seen enough Westerns, you will recognize Dawson City with its wooden boardwalks, false fronts, and it is hard to believe that over 30,000 people inhabited this City during the gold rush. Dawson City has two museums that are worthwhile visiting – one municipal and one run by the First Nation Cultural Center. Great places to eat.

Two of the disappointment of this visit to the Yukon Territory was the inability to go on a river boat cruise – the city of Eagle was hard hit by ice and floods which destroyed a great part of the town and damaged the boar and the absence of the famous Northwest Mounted Police with their distinctive red uniforms.

To “make up” for the river boat ride, HA decided we should travel on the highway on top of the world which was really a dusty road built on the crest of the hills and obviously a road less traveled – During the roughly 200 miles to Tok, we were passed by only 16-17 cars. One of our stops was in the town of Chicken which consisted of 4-5 outhouses and 3 stores but it did have WiFi for those who had to check their e-mail!

Tok is 1300 strong and (I believe) exists only for the reason that distances in Alaska are long and that this town is at the junction of two major roadways.

Our next stop was Fairbanks – about 200 miles from Tok and home of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It has a great museum there and the campus is absolutely beautiful. The museum is a “must”.

Denali – the major reason for this trip (though the history of the gold rush, Jack London, Robert Service notwithstanding). We boarded a observation type train for the park – about two hours or so from Fairbanks. We arrived in somewhat foggy and mildly wet weather and Mount McKinley was not visible. So our plans to take a flight tour was going down the tubes. However, we were assured that the weather in Denali is one of those “wait 30-minutes and it will change”. We took the flight and it was perfect!!! On cue, Mount McKinley made its appearance. It is the highest mountain in North America and arguable the highest in the world if you measure it from the base to the top. (Under that criteria, local pride must point out that Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the largest, its base being the bottom of the ocean).

HA gave a 7-hour wildlife tour the next day. We spotted grizzly bears and cubs, goats, moose, caribou, and a wolf who casually walked across a bridge near the bus, and then started rolling in the dirt for a while not more than 3-4 feet from the bus!

The next day before we left Denali, we visited Husky Homestead and Jeff King, three-time winner of the Iditarod (he came in second last year), got a chance to hold puppies, see their training and he talked about the race and is a tour that I sort of dismissed but found it absolutely fascinating. Recommend it highly!

I hate to put down Anchorage but after our trip to Denali, everything is anticlimatical!

Aloha from Hawaii.

Categories
Luxury Travel

Panama Birthday Special

Author: nadge
Date of Trip: January 2008

Cruise 8203 Crystal Symphony, “Golden Passage”, Caldera – Miami, 31/1/08 – 11/2/08. (First ever cruise.)

Background

Nearly 2 years ago at a family wedding in Israel my Mum suddenly said that she’d been thinking of a way to celebrate her 75th birthday which would be coming up soonish, and what did we think about it, “we” being myself and my two sisters and our respective spouses. Well, we obviously said “yeh, great, wow, brilliant” etc etc, and then my Mum said what did we think of New York? (She’d been on the QE2 a number of times with my late father and had very fond memories of transatlantics.) Well, we obviously said “yeh, great, wow, brilliant” etc etc.

That was the easy bit, agreeing to go!! As all you experienced cruisers well know, deciding exactly how, where, when, how much, where from, what size, which line, which ship, traditional, casual, formal, anytime dining, rock climbing wall, 15 alternative restaurants etc etc is the hardest part – especially with a group of 7.

My Mum decided she’d always wanted to traverse the Panama Canal, so itinerary was settled upon, which “only” left the rest of the questions outlined above. Now, as I and Mrs nadge only eat kosher food I started to look into cruise lines that could provide this. Nearly all lines can provide airline-type sealed kosher meals which can be reheated, but who wants to eat airline meals on a cruise?? I came across an article about Crystal’s kosher-style dining, and it took off from there. I made some enquiries with the On-board Guest Services at Crystal, and that was that!

(I’ll touch on the food later on, but I won’t go into huge detail about what is and isn’t kosher. For those wishing to know more about kosher food, and exactly what Crystal can do, I’d be only too happy to either open another thread, or e-mail. Just ask.)

Travel to New York

Since New York was on the wish list from the start, and it’s sort of “on the way” to Costa Rica from Israel, we decided to take advantage of the fact by doing a 3 night pre pre-cruise in Manhattan. Now, so that Mum wouldn’t have to travel all the way to NY by herself (she lives in Manchester, England whilst the 6 of us live in Israel) we decided that we’d fly to NY via London, and pick her up in Heathrow in the departure lounge. So, after a very pleasant 5 hour flight on BA to London we have to transfer to the next flight. In Heathrow this entails a further (rather pointless) security check – x-ray all hand luggage, and coats, and shoes, and belts, and phones, and wallets, then through the metal detector. Bear in mind that we have walked straight off a plane, our checked in luggage will only be collected in NY if we’re lucky enough to win the BA lottery and not have to report missing bags, and gone nowhere other than walk straight to the security point. Anyway, then the fun starts.

After passing our bags and belongings through the x-ray machine we were delayed in walking through the metal detector whilst the female security officer searched/checked an old lady’s wheelchair which had set off an alarm when she went through in front of us. So what, I hear you ask. Well, in the absence of another female security officer we all had to wait. Eventually, we went through ourselves and collected our belongings. Well, I did, but Mrs nadge’s small black leather handbag with ALL of her travel documents in it (passport, tickets etc) and money and cards, had gone. In its place was a similar bag, but not hers. We hoped that someone had made a genuine mistake. Considering the severity of the situation with our next flight due to take off in a couple of hours I was surprised at how calm Mrs nadge was. With a fair bit of persuasion we finally managed to convince the security people to look in the other black bag for some information as to its owner, and although there were no official documents in it there were some prescription tablets in a box with a lady’s name on written in Hebrew! Someone had obviously just come off the same plane as us. Luckily, we can read Hebrew. The name was fed in to the system by the friendly BA staff and it turned out to be that very same lady in the wheelchair. What had obviously happened was that the attendant had been told to take a black leather bag, which he/she did, but didn’t ask the lady if it was actually hers.

This wheelchair lady was nowhere to be seen and an APB was put out for her. After receiving conflicting information that her connecting flight didn’t leave for another 4 hours, correct info was passed on that not only was she scheduled for a plane in the next hour she was already on it. Mrs nadge started to get a tad worried. By this time the police had appeared, very interested in the possible theft of a British passport, not to mention that there was an Israeli passport as well. The police literally ran off to the other plane, boarded the aircraft and retrieved the bag which had already been put in the overhead locker and when the old lady saw it she said “but that’s not my bag”.

Crisis over, we managed to fit in 20 minutes of retail therapy before our next flight. Joking apart, if you ever have a wheelchair or know someone who does, ALWAYS check that the bags the attendant retrieves for you are really yours.

We arrived in JFK on time, all our bags had amazingly arrived as well and in one piece, and immigration couldn’t have been easier. I had been a bit concerned about this because I’ve heard many stories about extremely unfriendly (even antagonistic) US immigration officials. I’d arranged for my Mum to have a wheelchair to save her all the walking and hand-luggage schlepping, so we all just trooped behind her straight to the front of the immigration queue. Once through we went to a desk in the arrivals hall where the assistant phoned through to Supershuttle for us through whom I’d booked transfers.

Thanks again to those who answered my thread about transfer advice in New York. As there were 7 of us with tons of luggage (14 very large bags, 7 large hand-luggage wheelie thingies and another 7 small bags) normal taxis would have been very expensive, and Supershuttle was recommended. It cost $133 including the tip. The woman at the desk said that the van would arrive in 20 mins. A minute and a half later as we were settling down to wait a guy came in and called our name to say our van was here. Excellent service. He loaded everything in to the van with no fuss, and was very courteous.

New York Hotel

We were finally off to Manhattan. Neither I nor Mrs nadge had been to America before so we were very excited about the whole thing. There wasn’t very much traffic so it only took about 25 mins to get to our hotel, Radio City Apartments on W 42nd St. I’d done quite a bit of research on Tripadvisor about NY hotels and I’d been very surprised at the price of a room. I mean, I know NY is expensive, but so is London, but I never realized how expensive hotels are in NY. Anyway this hotel is in a great location a block and a half from Times Square, right next to the theatre district. I’d booked well in advance and got a very good rate for one 1 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, and a sitting room with sofa bed, plus kitchenette with stove, fridge microwave – all spotless) and one 2 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, 1 bedroom with twin beds, and a larger sitting room with sofa bed, plus larger kitchenette.) As before, if anyone wants any more information then please ask.

New York was definitely an experience. Up till then my New York had been the movies plus anything else I might have heard. There is definitely a hustle and bustle about the city; everyone seems to be walking around with great purpose. The buildings are really really tall, and the taxis really are yellow. I also saw a real life yellow old-fashioned looking school bus, just like in the movies. We only had two full days and my Mum can’t walk either fast or far, but we managed a number of really touristy things. We went on a hop-on hop-off guided tour bus and we visited Ground Zero.

We caught the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but unfortunately it was quite late so we had to choose only one island to get off at. We chose Ellis Island but because of the late hour didn’t really spend enough time there. We’d definitely go again. We walked around Times Square and 5th Avenue, and wandered around Macy’s. Due to lack of time we had to pick between the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock. The Rock won and we weren’t disappointed. The whole Rockefeller Centre is amazing, and the Rock exhibition is very good. The views from the top go without saying although it was a bit misty. We saw the famous skating rink that’s always used as the closing scene in the movies. The Empire State will have to wait till next time. We discovered a breakfast place where the locals go, in the back of this jewelry shop in the diamond district. We also found time for a bit of shopping – my new camera came in very useful on the cruise. Oh yes, we managed to figure out the subway system and what a metrocard is, and apart from traffic police directing the traffic at an intersection I don’t think I saw a single cop anywhere.

Overall, it was quite strange being on a mini holiday in the middle of a big holiday. I’d love to go again. Contrary to popular belief, everyone we spoke to was really friendly and made our stay very pleasant. My main impression of New York is standing in the street wondering whether there are more tall buildings in Manhattan or more Starbucks. I mean, about every 100 yards there’s a Starbucks. What is it with Americans and coffee? Can’t anyone go for more than 2 minutes without access to a cup of coffee?

A great place.

Travel to Costa Rica

We’d originally planned to go on this same cruise in November 2007 disembarking in Costa Rica. That would have meant an even longer journey home as it’s another 5 ½ hour flight. Taking the advice of many CC members I’d arranged to arrive in Costa Rica the night before embarkation, just in case. We again Supershuttled from Manhattan to the airport, Newark this time, definitely even more of a bargain this time as the price was the same $133 including tip. No problems with the journey on Continental, arriving about 9:40pm. Costa Rica airport is very quiet and organized, immigration very quick with about 8 lines open at once to process everyone. Once outside however it’s pandemonium. Lots of people scurrying around and shouting. I hadn’t been worried about being met because I’d ordered two taxis through the hotel ($20 each) we were staying at (making sure that there’d be enough room) but with all the commotion outside I was glad when we saw a little fellow jumping up and down and waving a sheet of paper with my name on.

In the end one van sufficed, with lots of luggage on the roof rack. We drove off into the night and after about 5 minutes turned off the main highway onto dark, twisting, narrow, bumpy roads. We hadn’t a clue where we were but the driver seemed to know what he was doing, and after about 25 minutes we arrived at the Hotel Casa Alegre in Santa Ana which is a small suburb about 10 minutes from San Jose. It’s a hacienda type hotel with about 7 rooms ranged around a central swimming pool, and a very cosy lounge with a super-comfy couch. It’s very reasonable at about $300 for 4 very nice double rooms including breakfast.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t expect ex-pat Brits living in Israel to know anybody in Costa Rica! Well, at about 12 midnight there’s non-stop ringing at the gate of the hotel, and it’s our cousin come to visit us. He’d just moved to Costa Rica for work about a month and a half previously from England, and his wife and kids had just come out 2 weeks ago. If we’d have known when we made the arrangements we’d have arranged for a longer stay in Costa Rica. It was surreal meeting him there like that. We chatted till about 2 in the morning. They all joined us for breakfast the next day before we left for the ship so that was a really nice way to start off embarkation day. For them it was quite sad because they don’t know when they’ll see anyone from the family next.

Like a child who has been waiting all year round for his birthday to come round again, I’ve been involved in this trip – planning, organizing, logistics, but mostly waiting impatiently for over a year and a half. Cruise Critic has kept me going during that time, with everyone’s advice and experience, and cruising vicariously with you all. My turn had finally arrived. Has anyone ever been Crystallized before sailing on Crystal? I expect I’m the first!

Our taxi came back for us bang on the dot at 9:30 and by 10:00 we were all packed up and ready to go, our van bursting at the seams with the never-ending mound of luggage that we apparently need for 2 and a half weeks of travel.

The trip is very scenic and uses the Pan American Highway which officially stretches all the way from Monterrey all the way down to Buenos Aires. The road is very busy, full of cars and buses and an even larger quantity of huge trucks that haul Costa Rica’s goods all over a country with no railroad. This means that we never make it over 80 kph the whole way with an average of about 60kph. (This is torture for someone who fancies himself as the new Nigel Mansell.) After what seems like an age we eventually see a sign pointing the way to Caldera. We’re nearly there!

Check In

Suddenly we get our first glimpse of the ocean, and then the Symphony comes into view sitting proudly in port. Seeing the ship for the first time as we rounded a bend in the road was amazing. My camera is now working overtime of course. It was like when we were kids driving to Blackpool and the first to see the Tower would get sixpence (you Brits out there will understand). So much excitement after so much anticipation.

10 minutes later we’re out of the van being handed yet more immigration forms to fill in by grumpy Costa Rican officials, who are flanked by helpful, smiling Crystal employees. Check in consisted of presenting your passport to another grumpy immigration man for stamping, on one side of a low hangar type building, whilst set up on the other side were stands with computers all emblazoned with the Crystal logo, staffed by smiling crew in sparkling white uniforms. Formalities took just 5 minutes, credit card details were passed over, passports were given in (quite a strange feeling but I had read that this is what happens), pictures taken for the room key, signatures signed and room key-card received, and the seven of us are having our picture taken for posterity in front of the Crystal Symphony posters.

From reading these boards for so long I was expecting the warm and genuine welcome we received, help with our bags, would we like to check in hand luggage whilst luncheon is served? But to be truthful, I was also wary of expecting too much. Perhaps everyone was exaggerating as to the completeness of the Crystal experience? Thankfully no. More than once over the cruise one of our little group would suddenly murmur “how did he remember that?” when a crew member would suddenly appear with a favorite treat.

We headed off to the dining room for lunch, with champagne of course. Just after we’d been seated a young lady comes up and asks which one of us is Nigel, so yours truly duly owns up. It turns out to be EitherOar who very graciously introduced herself and welcomed us on board. We got together later on in the cruise but I really appreciated that welcome. Thank you. Everyone else in our party was looking on in curious admiration – only 5 minutes on board and already being greeted!!

Anyway, this conveniently brings me on to a subject very dear to my heart – food.

Kosher Food and Crystal

N.B. I won’t go into the ins and outs and definitions of kosher food here, but if anyone is interested feel free to reply or e-mail me and I’ll go into it with pleasure.

A long while back, when researching this whole trip, I sent off a whole load of questions about cruises with kosher food. This is how I found out about Crystal’s kosher-style dining. After a series of clarification e-mails with On Board Guest Services I was satisfied that this met with our requirements. I assumed that this definition of kosher-style was standard. When we arrived however, the ship had not been informed of the things we were expecting, but I am happy to report that after outlining our requirements they did their utmost to fulfill them. I would suggest to anyone wanting this option to be in touch with your TA to make sure that your requirements have been transmitted to the ship.

We had been expecting some sort of kosher menu – obviously much more limited than the normal one, but we just basically chose something suitable off the regular menu and had it done kosher. To make things easier we were shown the next day’s menus during dinner and we made our choices then. That way the chef knew what was expected and what needed to be taken out of the freezer. Once things had been clarified our head waiter Miguel and senior waiter Alan took great care of us. We could only have kosher food in the main dining room, which is a shame because the other venues looked wonderful too, especially the breakfast buffet up on the Lido deck. My sisters said that Jade Garden was very good, but Prego was probably about the best meal they’d ever had.

The food itself was amazing. The presentation was wonderful with special care taken over even the most insignificant dish like a simple salad or some fruit. You don’t just get some smoked salmon on a plate, you get a work of art that you don’t like to spoil by eating it. I didn’t realize that breakfast could also be a command performance. The choice was huge and the eggs benedict with smoked salmon wonderful. My mum spoiled herself with hot porridge and brown sugar and cream whilst Mrs nadge made large inroads into the fresh croissants every day. Lunch and dinner weren’t too bad either. The meat was to die for and done to perfection – huge rib-eye steaks, beefburgers, lamb chops, enormous racks of lamb and a wonderfully thick juicy tender veal chop. I’m starting to salivate again!! They even made us chopped liver on Friday night. We were a bit limited in deserts because we cannot eat dairy dishes after meat, but the non-dairy sherbets were delicious and the hot cherries and bananas that our head waiter made for us were superb.

The Ship

The ship is absolutely spotless. There is always someone cleaning or painting or polishing or varnishing. One can tell that the ship isn’t new. There are many signs of age, but it doesn’t detract an iota from how beautiful the ship looks. I was most impressed with the public toilets. I was also very impressed with all the arrangements – a welcome envelope, TA credits in a gift envelope and an appointment with the bar manager to discuss a cocktail party I wanted to organize. Very professional.

Stewardess – We did have some problems with our stewardess. She was brand new. Embarkation day was our first day on a Crystal ship, and our stewardess had been on board exactly 3 days longer. She did not have much of a clue. She was very willing and pleasant, but it is not a good idea to put a new stewardess with new cruisers. We don’t know what to ask for and she doesn’t know what to suggest or the right questions to ask us. It’s all so new that she kept forgetting things even though we would leave notes for her. Crystal definitely needs to make sure that new staff in this department receives proper training and proper real-time instruction.

We were in cabin 7046 and I can recommend it. There is a slightly limited view from the beam of a lifeboat crane but it is negligible. Plenty of room to put everything, and even our hugest suitcase managed to fit under the bed as well. The bathroom is big enough with instant hot water and good water pressure, and the twin bowls look very nice and didn’t really splash. Never having experienced the loveseat we didn’t miss it, and we just left the chair by the dressing table as it was. Mrs nadge just sat on the bed to watch telly. The linen laid out on the floor at turn-down service is a nice touch.

Activities

Plenty to do on board. In fact, there’s so much to do it sometimes seems like you’re going to need another holiday when you get home just to get some rest. Up for breakfast in the dining room, a leisurely stroll to collect my book, get to Spanish class for 10:15, go to a lecture, make sure to get to the dining room for 12:00 for lunch so as to finish in time for the trivia quiz at 1.00pm. Need to relax after the quiz with a book and a coffee. Afternoon tea at 3.30pm for an hour, then a stroll along the deck to the ice cream bar to sample the delights. The coffee ice-cream is out of this world (and the butter pecan isn’t bad either) especially with the assorted nuts. 2nd helping of coffee ice-cream and assorted nuts. Work off the 3rd helping of coffee ice-cream with assorted nuts and butterscotch sauce with a game of paddle tennis. Mrs nadge is by the pool most days relaxing and reading, or taking time to do some needlepoint. Early evening is time for some ice-cream, and then a well-earned rest before getting ready for one of the cocktail parties that we were invited to, or cocktails in our cabin, or cheese and wine in the art room. Down to late seating dinner – the food is wonderful, the service top notch. On to the show, or one of the headline entertainers, finishing up either at karaoke or in the Avenue Saloon listening to Jeff Deutsch.

Entertainment

During the cruise we played the “what job would I like to have on this ship?” game. Something not too demanding that enables you to cruise for a salary!! Well, if I could sing I’d like to be part of the acapella group The Castaways. They were brilliant, but over an 11 night cruise they performed for a maximum of 2 hours (1 hour for each sitting) – hardly a strenuous position. Admittedly, they did take charge of the trivia quiz, and they ran the karaoke (3 times). It’s just a shame that we couldn’t enjoy them more.

The shows were very very good, but repetitive. It’s basically more of the same. Very professional, amazing costumes, excellent singing and dancing, but we all found ourselves nodding off at various stages of the performances. (Maybe the effect of too much booze, I hear you asking!!) My favorite was The Envelope Please which I thought was very well done, whilst the Cole Porter effort was boring – probably because I didn’t know the numbers. Cole! however was my mum’s favorite.

The headline entertainers were good. There was a Russian lady pianist who now lives in America, and a violinist who were both okay but they’re not my cup of tea. The singer Brenda Cochrane was excellent but she was only on for about 30 minutes, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the comedian Jimmy Travis. He’s apparently very famous in America though I’d never heard of him. I thought he might be too American for me but I enjoyed his humor very much. The last night illusionist wasn’t too bad, but the lady who was “volunteered” to help him in his first trick stole the show with her total apathy.

Service

Apart from our stewardess, about whom Crystal should take the blame, exemplary.

Ports and Shore Excursions

Apart from traversing the Panama Canal we had four port days consisting of Aruba, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Thomas, none of which we had visited before. We didn’t particularly fancy any of the excursions which were bus sightseeing tours, if only for the reason that I hate travelling in buses and tend to get travel sick. I also feel that some of the tours are very expensive and can very often be found privately much cheaper.

This again brings up the eternal question of ship tours verses private tours. For example, we’d thought about getting the Crystal transfer on embarkation day which included sightseeing, from San Jose to Caldera, which cost $88 a person. Our private taxi (transfer only) for seven of us with ALL of our luggage (bearing in mind that we’d had 2 ½ shopping days in New York before the cruise!) cost $110. Even adding on maybe another $100 if we’d done some sightseeing there’s still no comparison. On the other hand, you know that the ship’s tours are reputable and they do what it says on the packet, and perhaps most importantly the ship will wait for you should anything untoward occur.

So we looked at the tours, dismissed any plain sightseeing ones, and chose to take part in two activities that we wouldn’t normally do. In Aruba we went kayaking and snorkeling (quite expensive at $75 each), and in St. Maarten we chose the beginners scuba diving lesson/dive (fairly reasonable at $66 each). The kayaking was actually very good, with a personable guide/instructor which can make all the difference to any tour. We kayaked along the coast for about half an hour to a little beach where we had a little rest and a drink, then donned some snorkel equipment and life-jackets and swam out to see the coral. The last time I snorkeled was over 25 years ago in Sharm el-Sheikh and Nuweiba and I was looking forward to trying it again. The sea was a bit choppy which made progress difficult and made me feel a bit seasick. I’d been expecting it on the ship and happily I’d been fine, but I wasn’t expecting to feel sick whilst snorkeling. I managed to survive, and what was even more surprising was that we didn’t capsize our double kayak, especially on the way back when the sea got rough again. We were very proud of ourselves.

Scuba diving in St. Maarten was very nerve-racking. As first timers it’s hard to get your head around the fact that you can breathe underwater. You have to make yourself relax. The instructors were excellent and I can heartily recommend this tour for the way it was run and led. After passing our “3 Skills Test” we actually dived to down to around 30 feet which was about three times deeper than I had originally envisaged. I don’t think I’ll particularly go diving again but it certainly is a great way to get an introduction to it.

After our kayaking in Aruba we became quick-change artists back on board, skipped lunch, and out again exploring within 15 minutes. Our kayak guide (originally from Brazil) had told us that the Portuguese parts of the local Papiamento language was brought to Aruba from Brazil when the Jewish community there was expelled (1694) after Portugal had re-conquered Brazil from Holland. He said that the Jewish community in Aruba is now assimilated but that there is still a Jewish cemetery on the island, so we of course were determined to find it. The town was pretty empty as it was the day after carnival week so everyone was “sleeping it off”, but we finally managed to make ourselves understood and we were given directions. The cemeteries are all one after the other, a great big Catholic one, a small Protestant one, and a little Jewish one. It was very interesting to see that the cemetery is still being utilized and kept in very good condition.

Disembarking in Antigua we could hardly fail to notice the 3 other huge cruise ships in port with us. Only about 10,000 people unloading on to the island that morning. We hadn’t booked a ship tour that day, so just took an official taxi tour from the end of the pier. My mum was with us that day whilst my sisters + spouses did their own thing. She can’t walk very far so a taxi seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact it was a brilliant idea and for only $25 each we went on a 3 ½ hour tour of the island in a nice new air-conditioned van, stopping off at the local spots, with time at various look-out points and also the famous Nelson Dockyard. Well worth it. This is in comparison with the official tour which did exactly the same thing (we saw the Crystal bus at points along the way) which cost $53 a person (see earlier discussion). We left the taxi in downtown St. Johns on main street, about 15-20 minutes walk from the ship. We ambled back doing bits of shopping on the way, so in the end we spent about two hours walking around. In case you’re wondering, when it comes to shopping my mum has great stamina!

In St. Maarten we had our scuba diving in the afternoon so we went exploring in the morning by ourselves. We walked into town about 15 minutes away to Philipsburg, then caught a local bus to the French side to see what Marigot had to offer. Driving along the bumpy road all the signs were in English, but as soon we reached the French side the road was a lot better kept and the signs were in French. Shops don’t really open till 10:00 am so we walked around, went to the sea front and then made our way to the open air market. Lots of stalls. Yes, of course we bought some bits and pieces. We’re first time tourists in the Caribbean.

Finally St. Thomas. To tell you the truth, this was the third port day in a row and it’s exhausting. We would have preferred to have these days staggered. I don’t know how people manage the port-intensive itineraries with hardly any sea days. As you all know St. Thomas is part of the United States so we had to go through the US immigration process. This was made very easy for us by Crystal as the immigration officials came on board to process us there, with separate rooms for US and non-US citizens. Two huge advantages were that firstly the whole process took about 45 seconds instead of the “hours” at a port or an airport, and it secondly it meant that we didn’t have to do it in Miami which was the next stop for disembarkation.

Again we explored on foot, walking about 15-20 minutes into town and seeing what was on offer. We had no specific plan other than to wander around and go and find the synagogue which is the second oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the western hemisphere, dating back to 1796. We duly found the synagogue which lives on Synagogue Hill, and spent some time in the little museum reading through the history of the place. We found Britannia House where the old British Consuls lived, with a very friendly curator who gave us background information. Afterwards we went shop crawling in what cruise director Scott Peterson called Shopper’s Disneyland, but we were disappointed. They were all basically the same, over-priced jewelry and over-priced souvenirs. Back at the port there are seven “shop buildings”. Each “building” is really a street of shops but the same outlets are in each street so really there’s hardly any choice at all. Even the single malt whisky that I looked at wasn’t particularly cheap and there was a very poor selection. A much better drinks (liquor) shop is to be found on the pier in Antigua. All in all a pretty place but not one that I’d rush back to.

Disembarkation

This was handled with Crystal’s usual efficiency. Everyone received their color-coded luggage labels and exact departure time from the ship. Unfortunately there was a problem with US customs so everything was held up by about an hour and a quarter. Once the go-ahead was given everything proceeded according to plan. The only problem was that for some unexplained reason (though we did ask) the Bistro did not open at 9:00 like it was meant to. That meant that there was nowhere to get a decent cup of coffee and a piece of cake whilst we were waiting. Maybe they were afraid of being swamped by passengers because everyone was in the Starlight Club waiting to disembark. As soon as disembarkation started the Bistro opened. Mrs nadge likes her coffee and croissant in the morning and we’d elected not to get room service in favor of the Bistro, so we were a tad disgruntled. Our flight out of Miami was only at 17:30 so we knew we had hours to kill beforehand. Taking Judith’s advice we asked the concierge about transfers, who organized us on the Crystal transfer ($33 per person) which included transfer to the Hilton airport hotel for a light lunch, keeping all the luggage under lock and key whilst we waited and relaxed by the hotel pool, then transfer to the airport and escort during check-in. It was well worth it as we would have only had to wait out those hours at the airport with all our luggage.

Reasonable flight from Miami to Heathrow (about 8 hours) then another 5 hours to Tel Aviv. It was a bit foggy in London that morning so we were stuck on the plane for an extra hour and a half till we could take off. Arrived home safely about 36 hours after leaving the ship, and were met at the airport by four of our kids which was really nice.

Summary As many other people have said the two main impressions that one takes away from the cruise is the quality of the service and the friendliness of both the passengers and the crew. The crew’s friendliness is truly genuine and we appreciated it.

Highlights

My Mum’s birthday – the whole reason for the holiday – was really nice. We woke up early and gathered in her cabin for present giving. Her various grandchildren had also made her cards and presents, and there were balloons and decorations in the cabin courtesy of our stewardess. We gathered again for cocktails and more present giving before dinner, during which she was serenaded by all the personnel and we had a birthday cake of course. She was also serenaded by the Castaways at karaoke that evening. All in all a great day.

Mrs nadge looking beautiful all dressed up with plenty of places to go.

Mozart tea and the Amadeus hot chocolate. I was going for Patty’s record (Paws10) as I managed three in 35 minutes. I started feeling a bit sick so I stopped after that! I’ll have to pace myself better next time.

The service. Mum had a maintenance issue with the bath. It took 3 visits to sort it out. The next day she received a box of chocolates as an apology from Crystal because the service hadn’t been up to scratch. She’d never even said a word to anyone about it. That’s service. One day I came in to lunch late just to pick up the others before trivia, as I’d been playing in the paddle tennis competition and I didn’t feel like eating. The head waiter was genuinely disappointed that I wasn’t staying to eat.

The best recommendation I can give is that I’ve been smiling as I’ve been writing this, remembering all the good times on board.

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
Island

Great way to sample Hawaii

Author: Tina Brennan
Date of Trip: June 2008

Took my first trip to HAWAII this month and truly saw paradise! Being raised on Miami Beach, I have traveled world-wide, seen many beautiful places- but seeing HAWAII is at the top of my list and worth every penny spent to do so!

I feel I have some great money-saving tips on how to do this economically. I spent 15 days in Hawaii total. We arrived in Honolulu 3 days prior to a cruise we were taking on NCL’s Pride of America and got a great deal on our room at the Ohana East by bidding on a ebay deal. (Approx. $79 total for 5 days and 4 nights) the deal runs through a calif. charity (sideliner’s club) and is completely legit. Corporations donate rooms to be auctioned off for their charity and if you get a good bid- as I did- you can save alot of money.

Honolulu has the most efficient public transportation system I have ever seen and it is punctual. We did get free trolly rides while staying at the Ohana along with some really nice deals with coupons they provided. But for $2 you can ride the bus over the whole island of Oahu and get a transfer back included- if you disembark. I dealt primary with Roberts Hawaii for all tours on all islands, they are much cheaper than booking tours through the ship and the same tour.

I did alot of research prior to the trip and it paid off. My # 1 choice in unusual and fun things to do in Honolulu is the Hawaii Food Tours “Hole in the wall” tour. For less than $100, you will be provided personal door to door transportation and two culinary experts to show you places and foods you could never find on your own- and you get recipes for many of the foods you try! Matthew and Kiera will share their vast knowledge of the island, it’s customs and even give you their home phone number if you need something later… truly treat you like “Ohana”. I found the culture of Hawaii to be warm and friendly. People are truly appreciative of your visit- “aloha spirit” abounds. Another must-see is Pearl Harbor and the Circle Island tour- I booked this through VIP along with airport to hotel and back and hotel to pier transports. VIP is professional and knowledgeable and will be waiting with a sign bearing your name in baggage claim when you arrive. No hunting for the spot after a 16 hour flight to get your ride to a hotel!

Upon returning to Honolulu after our 7 day cruise on the “Pride of America”, we snorkeled a Hanauma Bay and visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. The Luau- although alcohol-free was one of the best I attended. The only draw-back is NO CREDIT or ATM cards are accepted there. I would have spent alot more, if this wasn’t the case. But the day long trip (we had transportation through them to and from ) was well worth a long day. The night show after the luau is one of the best I have ever seen. Honolulu has alot of great free things to do – like movies on the beach, hula demos etc if you check the local activities.But go to the Polynesian Cultural Center for a full overview of the islands and Polynesian culture!

The NCL “Pride of America” cruise was wonderful. I am a culinary teacher and was impressed with the attention to food safety and cleaning. The variety of food was good and I feel well-thought out. I did go to some of the specialty restaurants (cover charges up to $20 PP) but used a buy one/get one coupon which made it $10 each and we had everything from Oysters Rockefeller to Creme Brule at the “Lazy J”.

I booked shore excursions with Roberts of Hawaii for 1/2 the cost of NCL’s tours and was very pleased. We did take a rental car in HILO and the Luau on Kauai through NCL and it was without problems.

Embarking and disembarking was a breeze and I like the “Freestyle” dining with no real requirements except to eat when you like. The ship was clean and our stateroom had plenty of storage and the balcony made it great for watching the NAPALI COAST on kauai. Get a portside room! Breakfast on the aft (back) of the ship every morning was wonderful. Go into the Aloha cafe buffet and simply take your food out & get refills, if needed on the aft.

To get an overview of all the islands, the cruise can’t be beat… we saw it all. I biked down Haleakala on Maui and it was wonderful to watch the sun rise within the clouds-(I used Maui Downhill for biking) we traveled the “Road to HANA”, VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK(AND THE SHIP GIVES YOU THE NIGHT TIME LAVA FLOW INTO THE OCEAN ADVANTAGE by cruising past the flow with the lights out- breath taking! Along with all the other major sites on every island.

On the ship, the entertainment was top-knotch. I especially enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Allen as Elton John and enjoyed his talents in “Pinks champagne Bar” almost every night. Another NOT TO BE MISSED thing to do! The ship’s activities(when I was not touring), were great. Something for everyone, from Hula lessons to lei making. I would have enjoyed some quick cooking lessons and more island decor on the ship- but overall, it was a excellent value and a great time.

The crew were all willing to do whatever it took to make guest happy. While this ship does not have the culinary artistry of many with ice sculptures and the like… it is a great value and very nice! People need to have realistic expectations. You don’t expect prices or quality of Saks while shopping at Walmart and NCL’s market isn’t that of Crystal or other pricer cruiselines.

Where else can you unpack once, have your food, transportation and entertainment for less than $170 per day in Hawaii?

I could do this trip “over and over again” and still be happy in doing so! With the dollar being down, now is the time to visit our state of Hawaii and it’s lovely people and experience true “Aloha Spirit”.

PS: Don’t forget to toss your final lei into the water and make a wish to return! I sure did and I hope it works!

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
Group Travel

Romancing the Rhine

Author: Margaret P.
Date of Trip: April 2006

We spent eight romantic days aboard the new Avalon Tapestry as it made it’s second cruise. Boarding at Basel, Switzerland the small 160 passenger ship headed northward with the help of the Rhine River’s strong current, ultimately ending up in Amsterdam, Holland.

Along the way we visited Strasbourg, France with its Medieval La Petite France section. In Germany, we stopped at Speyer, known as the resting place of several Holy Roman Emperors and Kings. It also is home to a thousand-year old underground Jewish Bath, one of the few Jewish structures not destroyed by the Germans in WWII. In Heidelberg, we marveled at the massive castle standing above this picturesque city. In Mainz, we saw a beautiful Romanesque cathedral and Cloister. Rudessheim afforded us a tour of a musical museum and a wine tasting in a local restaurant, including a lively band. Coblenz gave us a lesson in the destruction of war, as many of its structures had to be rebuilt after WWII. Cologne’s Cathedral, the largest in the world, was also one of the most beautiful. And Amsterdam, Holland had its own ambiance with its many canals and quaint streets.

Add to all of this sightseeing, which is included in the price of the cruise, several talks by the cruise director on topics of interest. The morning we sailed through the dramatic Rhine Gorge, home to many castles perched atop hills above small villages, that was perhaps the most romantic of all. That day was overcast and a little misty, which added to the mystique. The cruise director kept pointing the castles out, mile by mile, and told stories about their legends. It was the best sightseeing of the trip.

Sounds Busy? You bet it was. We had local guides waiting for us most mornings about 830 a.m. to tour the cities. We walked, bussed to Heidelberg, cruised around Strasbourg and Amsterdam, rode small trolleys in Cologne and Rudesheim. Some time was allowed for shopping or sightseeing on your own.

To pamper and romance us more, the ship provided beautiful rooms. They are all the same size, except the 2 Junior Suites, which I did not see. The top two floors have floor to ceiling windows which can be opened. The lower level has two large portholes which afford a good view, too, but they cannot be opened. All rooms are individually climate controlled. They have very large fluffy pillows with a high threadcount cover. Instead of a sheet and blanket you have a high threadcount duvet with a light, fluffy quilt inside. It all had a very European, luxurious feel to it when sleeping.

Plenty of closet and drawer space abounded. The glass enclosed shower had a very strong spray and was regular sized. The television played several German speaking stations, but also had English CNN and two movie channels. Everyday one movie selection was geared toward history, such as “Martin Luther,” which we enjoyed.

Adding more romance was the food. It was surprisingly plentiful and excellent. Breakfast was a buffet with an omelet and egg station, fresh fruits, pastries, meats and pancakes. I am not much of an egg eater, but the scrambled eggs they fixed everyday were delicious, made with brown eggs. The best part for us were the cheeses and the breads. We had a great variety of both and tried new ones every day.

Lunch was also a buffet with usually three entrees, one being something local like Goulash, Beef in Wine Sauce, or Sauerbraten. Also included was a salad bar, appetizers, vegetables and again the cheeses. They were great. The dessert table constantly had people lined up to try the great ice cream, cakes and strudels.

Dinner was usually an appetizer, soup, entree and dessert. It was a sit down affair, served by waiters. During the week the next day’s dinner menu would be on your bed in the evening. You were asked to choose what you wanted so the chef knew how much to make. Along with the beautifully prepared foods were local red and white wines, served freely during the meal. They were delicious.

Looking for nightlife? It was not on this ship. There is a lovely lounge with a musician. But most people either spent their evenings on the top of the ship, which is set up as a Observation or Sun Deck, or elected to rest in their room to prepare for the next day.

The trip totally romanced me. Maybe it was the bartender in Heidelberg who explained to us the different ways one needs to prepare beer for drinking and the proper glasses for different ones. Maybe it was the fabulous Apple Strudel we ate in Cologne which was like no other. Maybe it was the candle I lit before the wooden Pieta in the Cologne Cathedral, praying for my father. Thousands of mile away…maybe it was the miles of castles we viewed, wondering what life was like when they were first inhabited. Maybe it was the massive cathedrals which people worked on for 500 years to complete.

We came home in awe of what we had seen, learned and experienced. I can think of no better way to see Europe as it used to be than to travel its rivers. We were totally romanced.

Categories
Group Travel

Alaska Cruise Tour

Author: forte88
Date of Trip: July 2006

This cruise/tour began July 15th and ended July 28th 2006. I hope I can cover some of the highs and lows of this cruise/tour.

One lesson that my wife and I learned from this experience is to never let Holland America (HAL) arrange our flights again. The flight arrangements were just horrible, and we were not the only ones affected by this. Many travelers were disappointed in HAL’s arrangement of their flights. Cruisetour #18 is supposed to be a 14 day vacation. With the arrangements HAL made, it shortened our vacation to 12 days. We did understand that the first and last days included flight time, but we expected to be at least in our hotel at our destination by the first day. It was not. Our flight was booked so late on the first day, we did not arrive to our hotel room in Fairbanks until 1:00AM on the second day of the tour. Not only was our flight booked late, our seats were in separate sections of the airplane, not only on one flight, but for EVERY flight coming and going! Luckily, we were able to make arrangements when we arrived at the airport to make changes so we could sit together. However, we were lucky to be able to do so, and this was a great inconvenience. After arriving at 1:00AM, there was no time to do anything. We were expected to be up in a few hours to start our day of touring. Some travelers in our group did not arrive until 5:00AM and had no sleep whatsoever! They also had their flight arrangements setup by HAL and weren’t happy. HAL also took our last day of vacation away by arranging our flight so early after disembarkation from the ship, that there was no time to enjoy Vancouver or take any excursions there. This whole flight fiasco is probably our biggest complaint so I guess it’s good to get it out of the way early in this review.

Day 1: Now the bright side of HAL’s flight arrangements. When we arrived at the airport in Fairbanks, it was midnight. It was still daylight outside. There was a HAL representative at the airport with a sign asking for people on their tours to gather in one section. They rounded us all up and told us not to worry about our luggage. Our luggage was pulled off of the conveyers for us, and we were asked to identify our luggage and put tags on them, and they were delivered to our hotel rooms from the airport. Many people were grumpy and tired on the bus on the way to the hotel. Most were complaining about their flight arrangements and or trying to get a few winks in before the busy day ahead of us. We arrived at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks after a short drive through town. We received a package at the airport with our room key already in it, so there was no checking in. Things were starting to look up. In the hotel lobby, there was a HAL representative waiting there with a cart full of complimentary boxed lunches which included a turkey sandwich, an apple, some fruit juice, and some wilted lettuce and tomato in saran wrap. My wife and I decided to have it for a quick breakfast instead of eating it so late. This could give us an extra 30 minutes of sleep.

Day 2: ZOMBIE DAY! Most people were tired and had very little sleep. There was a note in our room from our Tour Director that stated we would meet early in the morning. His name was Mark with a “K”. We soon found out that just about anybody that had HAL arrange their flights arrived really late and had very little sleep. My wife and I finally hit the pillows around 1:30AM and we had a wake up call around 6:00AM to be up in enough time for our first day of touring. We met up with our tour director (Mark) in the lobby. The lobby was packed full of people in the morning and everyone seemed to be trying to orient themselves and find their tour directors. We asked around and found ours without too much difficulty. Mark told us a little about himself and explained that he will be with us until we get on our ship in about 6 days. He gave us a summary of what to expect for the rest of the day. Then it was a wait for nearly an hour before we could get on our bus. My wife took the opportunity to check out the gift shop in the hotel. It was raining outside and a rain jacket with fleece lining would be a good thing to have, but prices seemed steep in the gift shop. We waited. It was a good thing we waited, prices are much cheaper elsewhere, and jackets are sold almost everywhere you go for the next two weeks. We finally got on our bus and was on our way to our first stop: A cruise on a paddle riverboat. When we arrived we had about a half hour before the boat departed, so it was gift shop time. We found some bargains on jackets in the gift shop here. My wife and I both bought nice jackets in this gift shop for 25.00 each whereas they were 60.00 at the gift shop at the hotel. It was rainy and cold, but the boat was enclosed if you wanted to be indoors and heated. Coffee and donuts were furnished on the boat. The cruise only went a couple miles down river, then turned around and came back the way the same way. There were a couple of staged activities. A bush pilot takes off with a float plane on the river for you to watch. You stop by Susan Butcher’s kennel and we watched a demonstration of how the dogs can pull a 4 wheeler around a pond. We learned at that point that Susan Butcher was ill, and was in Washington state trying to recover from Leukemia. By the time I wrote this review, Susan had died. A little further down river they stop again for another local to let his 3 reindeer into an enclosure for another photo opportunity. Then they go a little further down river, and turn around and stop at a replica of an Native Alaskan village where you can get off the boat, see some crafts, huts, and hear some local high school girls of Native Alaskan heritage talk about their culture, and customs. Then its back on the boat and back to the dock. They tell you that you have time for more shopping but, our bus driver was waving us on, signaling that there was in fact, no time for any more shopping.

We got back on the bus and headed for the Gold Dredge #8. It is well into lunch time now. At the gold dredge you get complimentary vegetable beef stew and soda. Beer and wine was available for purchase. This was the first opportunity to try out Alaska Summer Ale. If you are a beer drinker, I suggest you try it. Many people raved about the Alaska Summer Ale most of the trip. We took the tour of the gold dredge and everyone gets to try panning for some gold with some pre-made pulp that you get in a pouch. Strange…if you were to buy a bag on your own, you would pay $6.00 for the bag. The average amount of gold found panning was about $6.00 per person. Coincidence? This will be your opportunity to take the gold you panned and put it into a necklace at the (you guessed it) the gift shop. Well, I have to admit, it does make for a nice souvenir for the wife or daughter. After the gold dredge tour, we got back on the bus where the busdriver drives you around Fairbanks and tells you about everything there is to know about Fairbanks. He drove us by the University and the Alaskan Pipeline. Many people were suffering from sleep deprivation and were sleeping during this portion. Then it was back to the hotel and to tip the bus driver.

We arrived late afternoon and there was about an hour or so to kill before our evening excursion. There were only two to choose from. The salmon bake and show, or the Esther Gold Town Crab bake and show. Most people chose the salmon bake and afterwards it got good reviews by the people who attended. We chose The Esther Gold Town Crab bake and it was a mixed bag. It was advertised as all you can eat Alaskan crab. Well, it was Dungeness crab, not Alaskan king crab. It had a funny look to it. It was muddy looking, not white and pink like I’m used to. But, it did have good flavor. It was only all you can eat in 30 minutes. You had to be out of the restaurant to catch the included Northern Lights panoramic slide show. I could have eaten more crab, but they don’t give you time to really eat all you can eat! The northern lights show is a movie like panoramic format presentation created by one of the locals of his own photography of the Northern Lights. It was nice, but tended to get a bit repetitive toward the end. My wife enjoyed it more than I. I am a computer technician and multimedia instructor and I couldn’t help but to think of ways to make his show much better. After the Northern Lights thingy, it was off to the saloon for a couple of drinks and a comedy musical show. The show was quite humorous and entertaining. We enjoyed it. Then back on a bus back to the hotel for finally a good night’s sleep. On the way back, the bus stopped for the Princess lines tourists at their hotel. I couldn’t help but notice that their hotel seemed to be in a nicer part of town, with views, and a newer looking hotel. Maybe a case of the grass being greener?

Day 3: The plan is to wake up early to get on a bus to go to the train station to head out to Denali. We didn’t need a wake up call this morning. One of the guests woke the whole hotel up by smoking a cigarette in their room. The fire alarm went off early morning. It was less crowded this morning. We found our bus and tour director without a problem. We boarded on the bus for a short trip to the train station. Again the bus driver was full of information about Fairbanks and there were some reruns of information given the day before. We got to the train station and loaded on the McKinley Express. I have to admit, this train was very comfortable. There was plenty of legroom between the seats and the seats were comfortable. The glass domed car was great for viewing the scenery as you traveled. There was breakfast available on the train. The booths in the train restaurant were really small and uncomfortable even for moderately large people. No room between the seat and table for a guy like me. Breakfast was expensive, cold and tasteless. I was pretty disappointed. However, when we boarded the train a few days later, the food for lunch was much improved. More on this later.

We arrived in Denali after only a few hours of travel. When you get into the Alaska mountain range near Denali, the scenery becomes breath taking. After getting off the train (don’t forget to tip your train guide) you arrive at the Chalet hotel. Now for those of you who watched the HAL video and saw the couple enjoying their room overlooking the river and mountains in Denali, I wouldn’t count on it. Very few rooms actually have a view. Most rooms are situated in a wooded area with very little view unless you like looking at tree trunks. The rooms however, were clean. Every room has a small living room and separate bedroom with a rustic atmosphere. There were several excursions to choose from in Denali. We chose to take the McKinley Flight Seeing tour. I highly recommend this excursion. On this excursion they take you up in a small airplane and fly around Mt. McKinley up close and personal. We were very lucky to have great weather with great views of the mountain. The pilot said we were lucky to have such a nice day. Apparently, the mountain is usually shrouded in clouds. Sometimes it’s so bad they have to scrap viewing the mountain altogether and take you to another area with a glacier instead. Many people chose the helicopter flight where you land and hike on a glacier. The reviews I got from people on this tour loved it, but bring your wallet; it runs about $500.00 USD per person. Also, if you weigh over 250 lbs they charge you 150% of the normal charge. That would be 750.00 for a person over 250lbs. Not quite worth it in my book! On the airplane excursion they do ask you what you weigh, which is an embarrassing question for most women. But, there is no additional charge for being overweight or a large person. The Flight seeing tour was over an hour long. There was breathtaking scenery and some great photo ops of the mountain. The pilot makes sure both sides of the airplane get the same amount of viewing time of the mountain. This was a highlight of our trip. When the trip was done, we got back to the Chalet Hotel and it was dinner time. We opted for the Salmon bake restaurant and bar in town. This was within walking distance. The food was very expensive and very skimpy here, but had pretty good flavor. My wife ordered steak and fish, and the steak was about 1.5 cubic inches total and cost about $25.00. We then did a little shopping in the shops nearby and headed back to our room. We had an early day tomorrow for our Tundra Wilderness Tour.

Day 4: We had to get up very early this morning to get on the Tundra Wilderness Tour. If my memory serves me correctly, we had to get up around 4:30AM to have enough time to get ready and get on the bus. We got on the bus and soon realized that the left side of the bus (driver’s side) would have been a better choice for viewing. Most of the scenery on the way in to Denali is on the left side of the bus. Also, the seats are staggered and there is a bar splitting the view between two windows on the right side of the bus for every seat. The left side of the bus has one whole window instead of two windows with a split. For photography, the left side of the bus works better. On the right side of the bus, you get the views on the way back, but the way back is much more rushed. We did pick the right side of the bus unknowingly, but luckily, the closest grizzly bear we saw was on our side, so it worked out ok for us. We had 14 grizzly bear sightings, numerous Dall Sheep, and one of the highlights: A grey wolf. We were told that seeing a wolf is very rare and we should consider ourselves privileged. We had really hoped to see bears. One has to remember that Denali is not a zoo. Seeing wildlife is never guaranteed. The first few hours of the trip was coming up with nothing. The bus driver was actually stopping for us to view rabbits for a while because we weren’t seeing anything. Our bus driver was knowledgeable and had a good eye for spotting the wildlife, but she treated the tourists as we were on an elementary school field trip. She was very condescending.

When you reach the furthest point the tour goes to in Denali, there is a nice view of Mt. McKinley (weather permitting). Again, we got lucky and the clouds cleared up for us for some great shots. There were also 3 grizzly bears sited near that stop. We were only permitted to be there about 10 minutes and many tourists became upset about having to leave so soon. This was especially upsetting because the 3 bears were coming over a ridge for a very close viewing, but the bus driver made everyone load up and leave the area. There was a lot of grumbling about her, but all was forgiven when we saw the grey wolf and one grizzly bear came within a few hundred feet of the bus. If we hadn’t left early, we probably would have missed both. The rest of the ride was uneventful. This is a long tour, and we arrived back at the Chalet hotel around 3:00PM. This is another time to pick another excursion in Denali. We had opted for the self guided Jeep tour. This is basically a car rental for 4 hours. It’s advertised by HAL as having a GPS unit installed with narration of the area as you travel by. They had removed the GPS units from the cars because they say it doesn’t work correctly, but the price hadn’t changed for the rental. Nonetheless, this was a good opportunity to take a car and travel to the non-touristy places. We drove about 15 miles outside of town and went down a dirt road for about 20 miles. This was wonderful, because we got to see some of the Alaska that was off the beaten’ path. Some of our best scenic photographs were taken on this trip. We had the jeep from 4:00PM to 8:00PM. On the way back to the hotel we noticed the hotel for the Princess tourists. Again it seemed as though that the hotel seemed a little nicer with maybe more opportunity to get a room with a view. This again, maybe another grass seems greener scenario. After we returned the jeep we ate a late dinner in the Chalet Hotel restaurant. This was the best food we had had since the trip began. Make no bones about it, bring your wallet, but the food prepared here was worth it. This was probably the best salmon we had all vacation. Then off to bed.

Day 5: Today we spent early morning in Denali and got back on the train to go to Anchorage. This was a much nicer scenic train ride than the one from Fairbanks to Denali. This ride is about 8 hours long. There are some great photo ops on this ride. There is a problem with glare outside the windows from where you sit for photography, but you can hang out outside in the smoking section to get pictures if you want. Viewing in my opinion is better inside and up higher. Below and outside you are often behind the side of the track’s tree line and miss a lot. Food on the train here was much improved, but the booths were still terribly uncomfortable for big people. Today one of the employees on the train wanted to play a trick on our Tour Director (Mark), and had asked the tourists if we would play along. Many of the people in our group started to act as if they were getting ill. Our tour director started to freak out and started to take notes on what people had for lunch and breakfast that morning. He thought there was some kind of epidemic starting. We finally let him off the hook and told him it was a joke. After getting off the train, he very convincingly told everyone that many of us had luggage that was sent to Fairbanks in error. This was his little payback. Many were in a panic until they reached their rooms and found their luggage there. When we arrived in Anchorage our room was in the Hilton. Our room had a nice view of the bay, but the room was pretty dirty. My wife found something on the wall in the bathroom that looked like vomit that was never cleaned. The bed, however was very comfortable. There was no time for excursions in Anchorage.

Day 6: We had only a few hours to spare in the morning. We went walking around downtown. There are a few gift shops here, and the mall was within walking distance. We had breakfast at a small café nearby and shopped a little. We walked to the mall which was really no different than the malls we have here in the lower 48, just a bit smaller. We then met up with our Tour Director at the Hilton and got ready to load up on a motor coach for our trip to Seward. This again is another scenic trek on land. We started to see more and more bald eagles now. There was one stop at a wildlife refuge where you can see moose, caribou, bears, a bear cub, and an eagle all in captivity. There is also a gift shop and some food available for purchase there. The bus driver was entertaining and full of information. He warned us that he had a dry sense of humor, and it was. I enjoy dry humor so I was entertained by him. Almost every bus trip you take, whether it’s a few minutes to an excursion, or several hours to a destination, the bus driver will try to entertain you and give you information over the microphone. They always greet you as you leave the bus in hopes for a tip too. Have plenty of singles on hand! We arrived in Seward in early evening. Seward is a quaint little port town with a few bars, gift shops, and a few restaurants. The hotel we stayed in was by water and many rooms had views of the bay. This particular day was my wife and I anniversary. We were very disappointed to find out our room had two separate twin size beds and was a room without a view. The rooms are advertised with balconies. Our room had a balcony, but it faced inside of the hotel. Our view was a stunning view of the Front DESK! We complained, but got nowhere. We even would have settled for a room with a king size or queen size bed with no view. The hotel wouldn’t budge on moving us to another room. Determined not to let this damper our vacation, we went into town to eat and have a drink. We had some fried halibut in a small restaurant and went to a bar to have a couple beers. We then headed back to our room.

Day 7: We woke up early knowing that today we will be taking a cruise on the Fjords and will be embarking on our ship: The Statendam. When packing our luggage, we realized we needed one more tag for our luggage to get on ship. We tried to track down our Tour Director. One of the other Tour Directors told us his room number and we went to his room to see if we could get an extra tag. This next part we found very disturbing. After the complaining we did about our room, that we were put in an inside room with a view of the lobby, we arrived at our Tour Director’s room, only to find that his room was a prime room on the corner of the hotel with probably the best view of the harbor and bay. Maybe if I were a tour director I would think differently, but my opinion is that the paying customer should be given the best rooms, not employees of HAL. He certainly deserves a room, but for him to have the best room of all is just wrong when customers like us paid nearly $5000.00 per person! We then boarded the Glacier Cruiser for a trip through the Fjords.

There was concern that the water was too choppy for the small boat to get to the glacier, but our captain thought it was safe enough. This was a great tour! The water was very choppy, but for me it just added to the fun. There were several people that got sea sick on boat, but for us adventurers, we were on the bow enjoying the ride. There were several eagles sited. We saw puffins here, seals, otters, and even a hump back whale. The glacier was very cool. We got to see a big part of it calve off. The weather was cold and rainy, but it didn’t stop us from having a great time on board. If you get too cold outside, just go in, and have some hot chocolate. Don’t forget your camera for this trip. After getting off the boat, we all hopped on our motorcoach to go to our ship. A short 5 minute drive later, we were at the ship. We said our goodbyes to our tour director (tip time again).

Embarkation was very smooth and quick. It wasn’t crowded at all. We only had a short line, and we were on our ship within 30 minutes. The Indonesian staff on board was very helpful and courteous. The ship was small compared to the other Carnival ships we had been on. There was much less glitz. The Statendam didn’t have the spiraling marble staircases with mahogany banisters like on Carnival. The Statendam is mostly brass and glass. There was no fancy glass elevator in the lobby or anything like that. There were only a few stores in the mall section. Nothing like the floating cities we had been on before. The ship was clean. We had read some reviews about the Statendam stating how it was in need of repairs and the carpets were worn and stained. We didn’t really notice this.

We got to our veranda suite room and were pleasantly surprised on how spacious it was. We had cruised a couple other times on Carnival with a balcony but found this room to be the best room we had ever been in on a cruise ship. The room was very clean and large. There was a living room area and our bed was very comfortable. The veranda was very nice with a lounge chair and a regular chair and table. The bathroom was nice although the hair dryer was a bit antiquated. The tub was a deep tub and it had jacuzzi jets. I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall and had no problem taking a shower, but I think that someone that is 6 feet 4 inches or taller may have difficulty showering. You have to step up into the tub, and the ceiling is pretty low after you get into the tub. The TV was a flat panel screen. The one complaint I have about this room is the lack of power plugs. There really was only one outlet at the desk. When you have 3 cameras, a laptop, and 2 cellphones it can become difficult to prioritize. There is also a DVD player. I was able to unplug the DVD player to open up one more circuit for charging batteries.

Our room steward introduced himself within minutes of arriving and told us that he will do his best to serve us. Our room steward was fantastic. He was never intrusive and always seemed to be apologizing in advance just in case things were not to perfection. I can’t say enough about the service we were getting on ship especially from our room steward. We had dinner that night at our formal table and met our waiter. Our waiter didn’t have much personality, but he did try to give good service. He was there with his little scraper to scrape off scraps and crumbs that didn’t land in our mouths and landed on the table. The Maitre d’ made an appearance at our table every night to make sure everything was up to par. We never got that kind of service on Carnival. The food was good. I can’t say it was any better or any worse than the food we received on Carnival, but the extra service made the dining experience that much more enjoyable. Portions seemed small at first, but by the time you got through the appetizer, the salad, the soup, the dinner and the dessert, you left feeling well fed and not feeling bloated. We were signed up for late dinner which was something we had hoped not to be signed up for, but it worked out in the long run because of the late excursions we took at the port of calls. There was some kind of stomach flu going around and they suggested you wash your hands at least 15 times a day. There were hand sanitizer stations all over ship. Anytime you came into the dining hall, they forced you to use hand sanitizer before you entered. Off to bed, tomorrow is Hubbard Glacier

Day 8: Finally, a morning to sleep in. We put the do not disturb sign on the door and slept in. By the time we were showered and ready for the day, it was lunch time. Lunch on the lido deck. You begin to notice the advantages of being on a smaller ship. There were no long lines at the buffet. The only complaint I have about the lido deck lunches and dinners is that the window of time to get food seems shorter than on Carnival. When they close up, your only option is the taco bar or the hamburger bar by the pool. Even the ice-cream service shuts down. On carnival, the ice-cream was self serve 24 hours a day. On the upside, the ice-cream isn’t just soft serve. They have different flavors of scooped ice-cream to choose from with the option of a waffle cone.

Around 2:00 the ship began making it’s approach to Hubbard Glacier. It was rainy and cold again. Everyone was expecting the worst. When we got closer to the glacier, it seemed as tho’ it had it’s own weather. Although it was still cloudy, the rain had gone. It was cold until you buy a hot chocolate with your favorite booze inside. Another advantage of having a small ship, the captain was able to menuever in close to the glacier. Although we were still probably three quarters of a mile away, it seemed like we were pretty close. Lots of pictures to take here. Many people chose to just stay inside the crow’s nest to look at the glacier. I don’t suggest people do this. Get outside. To experience a glacier of this size you really need to hear it, feel it, and see it. The glacier crackles, pops, and thunders. When you hear it calving, it usually already happened on the glacier. The sound comes after the fact, so you have to keep your eyes peeled and be quick on the draw to get that picture or video of the ice falling. I really liked this spot. I wish we could have just dropped anchor there and had our dinner with the glacier in view. However, they only spend about 45 to 50 minutes there and then they pull away ever so slowly through the little icebergs that pepper the waters.

Dinner was a formal night. There were lots of men in tuxedos and many women in long gowns. Our table was next to the stairs and we watched quite a few women fall trying to negotiate the stairs and their gowns. There was a trio consisting of violin, stand up bass, and piano supplying live dinner music. The food was delicious. With a late dinner we just went to bed afterward. My wife and I didn’t attend a single show on board and cannot be any critic of the entertainment. Many guests we spoke with gave good reviews of the entertainment.

Day 9: Port of call is Icy Straight Point. We arrived at Icy Straight point early in the morning. This port of call uses tenders to get to the harbor. This always creates a line on board and some confusion, but it was much less problematic than on the bigger cruise ships. Icy Straight point is probably the least of the commercial ports. They only allow one cruise ship in port per day. Icy Straight Point only recently started tourism. There was a great debate in the village as to whether or not to allow tourism. You do get the impression that they really don’t want us there, but they do want our money so they put up with the tourists. Currently it was said that tourism makes up most of the income on the villiage of Icy Straight Point. Our excursion at this port of call was a bear search adventure. On this excursion they take you by an old school bus to a remote rain forest part of the island where you hike back about 600 yards to a stream to look for bears. The hiking trail is all made from wood. It’s a very easy hike. The rainforest was beautiful and we saw a couple of eagles wrestling in the sky, but no bears. We stood on some overlooks over some salmon streams hoping to see a bear, but none arrived. Eventually we had to leave. We got back on the bus where they gave us some more history of the town and a sales pitch to make sure to pay and see the show where you can watch the natives do a dance. We passed.

After getting off the bus back by the harbor I couldn’t remember how much we paid to do this excursion, but I hardly doubt it was worth what we paid. Maybe I would of thought different if we actually saw some bears. I try to remind myself that we weren’t going to a zoo and wildlife isn’t guaranteed. But even if we did see bears, I’m not sure it was the price of admission on this one.

To get into downtown Icy Straight Point, you need buy a bus pass for $10.00 for an all day pass. The bus stops only in 3 places. They stop at the port, in front of a woman selling some kind of home made arthritis medicine under a tent, and one in front of a small store downtown. They won’t drop you off where you would like. We wanted to get a drink and some lunch at a small pub that was a few blocks down. The driver wouldn’t stop there for us. We walked over there. During our excursion with the bears, the bus driver told us that this particular pub was noted in Enquirer magazine as one of the 10 best bars in the United States. So my wife and I decided to try it. Besides, they had fresh crab being steamed right outside the bar for lunch. I’m not sure why it was voted one of the 10 best bars. There was trash on the floor, and the place was pretty much a just a regular bar that you could find in any small town. The crab for lunch was good. It was 15.00 for one Dungeness crab, and it was enough for lunch for my wife and I. We also had a couple more Alaskan Summer Ales here. If you find yourself in Icy Straight Point on a Sunday, be ready to find just about everything closed except that one pub and the bus doesn’t stop there. We had to walk again a few blocks back to the bus stop, pick up the bus, get back to port, take the tender, get on board and eat dinner. That night right before we went to bed, we ran into hundreds of humpbacks swimming along the ship. The captain announced it over the intercom and we stood on our balcony for about an hour watching the spouts. The captain slowed down the ship so the guests could view. This was special moment. One whale came up right beside the ship under our room.

Day 10: This port of call was Skagway. Again we arrived very early. The ship started letting people on shore around 8:00AM. We slept in to get some more shut eye and miss the onslaught of people trying to get off the ship. Our excursion didn’t begin until 1:00 PM. At Skagway, the town has tried to keep the old west gold rush feel to it. The sidewalks are wooden, and the fronts of all the buildings downtown had that old western town look to it. The stores were mostly jewelry stores. My wife loves her jewelry, but even she admitted that the prices on diamonds were unreasonably high. On board ship, they tried sell you on the idea that jewelry is much cheaper than in the lower 48. We didn’t see it. They also do the same ol’ “tanzanite is an investment because it won’t be mined anymore” spiel. We met up with our excursion person and boarded on a boat that would take us into Haines Alaska. By car this trip would be about 350 miles. By boat it was about 40 minutes ride through a fjord with many waterfalls, seals and eagles. This was pleasant. Then we arrived in Haines Alaska. This place is very non-commercial with only a few hundred residents. One of the residents put us on a bus to take us to our excursion which includes a Jet Boat ride through a fjord that is also to an Eagle Preserve. The bus ride was about a half hour and the lady who drove us was quite entertaining and told us a lot what it is like to be a resident in Haines Alaska. When we arrived at the boat dock for the Jet Boat, we were treated to hot dogs on a stick that you cook yourself over a campfire. This was very nice. They also had vegetarian chili that was very tasty. We then got on the boat and went through the fjords looking for wildlife. We saw 3 moose, several eagles, some eagles nests and a porcupine. The ride was fun and very scenic. Our boat driver was a pretty laid back character and was fun to be with. The boat ride lasted at least an hour or more. We returned to our ship the same way we came into Haines. This was an enjoyable excursion and an enjoyable day.

Day 11: This port of call is Juneau. Juneau was probably one of the most commercial areas. There were gift shops a plenty. The excursion we picked for this place was whale watching. We were glad we picked Juneau for this activity. We were able to watch several pods of whales performing “bubble feeding”. This is a system where several whales work together as a team to feed. I won’t go through the whole process, but it was really special to watch not just one or two whales, but 5 or 6 at a time feeding and showing off a bit. This excursion actually had a guarantee of seeing whales or you get 100.00 off the price per person. During the whale watching they had microphones in the water where you could hear the whales singing. This was very delightful and more great photos were taken on this excursion. After the excursion there wasn’t any more time to hit the stores. It was back on ship, eat dinner, and get to bed for our next day in Ketchikan. During the night around 1:30AM the fire alarm went off. The captain came over the PA and announced that there was an alarm coming from the trash room and the alarm had to sound. A few minutes later he said it was a false alarm.

Day 12: My wife enjoyed the town of Ketchikan the most. The scenery was nice here, and the temperature a little more moderate. Although it has rained every day on our entire cruise, the rain didn’t bother us that much. Make sure you buy a fleece rain jacket. We did the last of our souvenir and gifts to bring back home shopping here. Then our excursion was the Float Plane Bear Search Adventure. On this excursion we took a float plane into a remote area on a remote island to look for bears. The airplane flight was scenic and we landed next to an island that had a small harbor. We met our guide on the island. Some other tourists were leaving and mentioned that they didn’t see any bears. We got in a van and drove a few minutes on the island. We had to walk down a path to get to the stream where they hoped to see some bears feeding on salmon. We did run into one small black bear that was right on our path. The bear ran away after just a few seconds. We continued our walk to the stream. This was a beautiful spot. We could see salmon jumping in the stream. Apparently, the salmon had just started to run, and the bears weren’t out in full force yet. So we didn’t see any bears feeding. I did catch one more glimpse at the small bear walking through the woods, but that was the last we saw any bears. That was kind of a let down after all the bears we saw in Denali. But, nonetheless, we enjoyed the scenery and enjoyed the solitude and beauty of the spot we were at. We got back on the float plane to fly back. On the way back, our pilot spotted a bear on the shore while we were flying. He made a quick turn to buzz the plane over the bear. That was fun. We then landed and my wife mentioned that she wanted to live here and was even inquiring about job opportunities in her field in Ketchikan. Our excursion ended just in time to get back on ship before it left. While we were on our excursion we learned that the fire alarm went off again on the ship, except this time there really was a fire in the trash room. The captain said it was contained and was probably set by a cigarette butt. This night was another formal night for dining. This time it was considered a farewell dinner. They brought out the cooks and all the help all holding sparklers. It wasn’t quite as fun as on Carnival when all the waiters danced to the YMCA, but it was nice.

Day 13: Day at Sea. This is definitely a day to sleep in again. This was a day cruising through the narrows of the straights. It was very scenic. We spent the day relaxing for the most part. My wife saw some whales off of our balcony early in the morning. That evening, the captain announced that there is a section where they usually see Orcas (killer whales) and he will slow down and see if we can see any. This is one thing that really impressed me about this ship. On the Carnival ship, the captain never got on the PA to announce wildlife at sea, let alone slow down for it. This was very special and something I commend HAL for doing during this trip. This was our last night of vacation so we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. The cost of eating here is $20.00 per person and is supposed to be a step above the regular dining. The only thing I could find of difference was the steaks. There never was steak in the regular dining room. Here they had very sizable steaks. Both my wife and I ordered the rib eye steak. Mine was very good, however, my wife’s steak had a considerable amount of gristle. The rest of the food seemed just like it was from the lido deck, except dressed up a little nicer. My crème brulee for dessert was probably the best crème brulee I have ever eaten. After dinner we had to do the sad task of packing up and getting ready to go home. My wife nor I was able to sleep all night. It seemed the ship was vibrating underneath us for some reason that night. Perhaps it was the shallow waters. At one point, the ship leaned over to the side very far and some plates we had on our table slid off onto the floor and made a horrible crashing noise in the middle of the night.

Day 14: Disembarkation. More horror stories to tell with the flight arrangements. We got a notice in our room that it was felt that there might not be enough time for us to catch our flight in time to go back home so our flight schedule has been changed. They don’t say anything in the letter as to when the flight times have been changed to. It said in the letter to check at the airport when you arrive. This angered me because I would have liked to spend some time in Vancouver where we disembark. There were some excursions offered in this port but we weren’t going to have time to take any. Now I might end up spending the entire day at the Airport. We also received our final bill. After close investigation we found a charge for 65.00 from the Pinnacle Grill. We ate there the night before but didn’t charge anything like this. So I had to go to the front office and wait in a long line where everyone was trying to straighten one thing or another out with their bill. However, I had early disembarkation because of the flight arrangements and was afraid I might miss my turn to leave early because of the long wait in line. Finally my time came and I found out somebody charged 65.00 on our tab for wine tasting which is billed through the Pinnacle Grill. The billing system on this ship is pretty much on an honor system. On Carnival you had to use a Sail and Sign card. On this ship, you basically just told whoever you are purchasing from a room number. Some turkey used our room number and scribbled on a signature. HAL front office said they would remove the charge. For those of you who might be sailing, make sure you check your bill carefully. After I got that straightened out, we had to sit in the theater until they called our name. I was worried about not getting off the ship on time, turns out that people who didn’t pay extra for early embarkation was getting off earlier. Well, at least we didn’t have to go search for our luggage. It was sent directly to the airport for us. Once we arrived at the airport we showed the letter that we received in our stateroom about the flight changes. The airport officials seemed confused over it. Our original flight that we were scheduled for was delayed about an hour. After asking about 4 or 5 people working for the airport, they finally told us that HAL doesn’t know what they are talking about and that we were still scheduled on the original flight. We got on our jet and headed home.

Summary: On the whole, this was a very good vacation although a bit expensive. The whole adventure cost in the neighborhood of 14 thousand if you include tips, souvenirs, tickets and excursions. I would highly suggest that if you take one of these cruises to make sure to take excursions. It’s the only way to get away from the commercial ports and see some of the real Alaska. I would rate the food on board ship as very good, but not excellent. The service however, was excellent. The stateroom was wonderful. The ship although not glitzy and ornate, was clean and easy to get around in. There was never a wait for elevators or lines for food. I’m glad we did the land portion first. You must take a southbound trip to do this in that order. The cruise was a wonderful way to relax during the second week and be pampered a bit. Highlights of the land portion were in Denali and Seward. I highly suggest that you take a couple of days to see Denali if you visit Alaska. I don’t think you can truly say you saw Alaska if you didn’t see some of the inland areas.

If I had the chance to do some things different, I certainly would not let HAL do my flight arrangements. We ran into some people that did the land portion on their own instead of using HAL. They saved literally thousands of dollars by doing this. This might be a good idea. The only problem for this would be having to lug around all your luggage. The Princess cruise lines seemed to have some better places to stay on land, but I can’t really judge on the experience on Princess lines at all. I didn’t mention anything about the cruise director during all this because we never even saw his face until the last day where he gave us our disembarkation information. We heard him over the PA only a few times. This was completely unlike Carnival where the Cruise Directors were constantly on the PA, cracking jokes, and in the center of most everything. This didn’t really bother me much tho’. We were too busy with other things to bother with the Cruise Director anyway. I know this review was quite lengthy, but I hope it can be of some use for others considering taking this trip or a similar one.

Categories
Booking Strategy Passenger Rights

Cruise Passenger Rights Are (Slowly) Improving

Until recently, the phrase “cruise passenger rights” was a bit of an oxymoron. But that situation is finally getting better, says Judge Thomas Dickerson in the latest issue of his The Cruise Passenger’s Rights and Remedies series of legal papers. Cruise contracts remain among the most one-sided you’ll ever accept, but at least the cruise lines can no longer hide behind all of the fine print.

The most notable recent change has been in the treatment of cruise line liability for malpractice or negligence by shipboard medical personnel. As recently as 2014, courts generally enforced contracts that limited cruise line liability on the basis that shipboard medical personnel are independent contractors. In a more recent case, however, a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision denying the right of a deceased passenger’s estate to sue a cruise line. Instead, the court noted “we must now acknowledge that medical professionals routinely work for corporate masters.” It noted further, “We would no longer consider the nurse and doctor to be independent contractors simply because that is what the cruise line calls them.” In effect, the Court of Appeals applied a simple “duck” test: If it quacks like a duck and if it waddles like a duck…

Recent court decisions have also held cruise lines to tighter standards of control over outfits they use for shore excursions. Although these outfits are certainly contractors to cruise lines, rather than employees, the lines have a responsibility to vet their contractors thoroughly, making sure they follow safe practices and maintain adequate liability insurance coverage. Thus, the estate of a passenger killed as a bystander in a gunfight during a gang shoot-out could sue on the basis that the shore excursion operator scheduled its tour to pass through an area of known gang violence in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Judge Dickerson notes, however, that recent favorable developments still leave cruise passengers on the short end of one-sided contracts. Courts still often enforce contract provisions limiting the venues in which passengers can bring suit to locations that are often extremely inconvenient. They also enforce provisions requiring that disputes be settled by arbitration rather than in courts. Unfortunately, lack of consistency among various court decisions makes it really difficult for travelers to know what their rights actually are.

A few years back, the big cruise lines, through their trade association (Cruise Lines International Association) issued a Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights. The promised rights include:

  • To disembark a docked ship if essential provisions such as food, water, restroom facilities, and access to medical care cannot adequately be provided onboard.
  • A full refund for a trip that is canceled due to mechanical failures, or a partial refund for voyages that are terminated early due to those failures.
  • Full-time, professional emergency medical attention, as needed until shore side medical care becomes available.
  • Timely information updates as to any adjustments in the itinerary of the ship in the event of a mechanical failure or emergency.
  • A properly trained ship crew for emergencies.
  • An emergency power source in the case of a generator failure.
  • Transportation to the ship’s scheduled port of disembarkation or the passenger’s home city in the event a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.
  • Lodging for an overnight stay if the ship cannot accommodate passengers adequately.

But there’s one glaring problem: Unlike the case of airline rights, this “bill” does not specify any specific compensation if a cruise line fails to provide the right. If an airline bumps you, Department of Transportation rules require airlines to compensate you, and it fines airlines that keep you on the tarmac longer than the standard three or four hours. Some cruise lines even incorporate these rights into their contracts, but again with no provisions for “what happens if we don’t.”

So if you’re taking a cruise, enjoy it and have a great time. But if something goes wrong, you’ll still have a tough time getting a satisfactory solution, even if your rights are slowly improving.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.