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The 10 Best Christmas Vacations for Travelers

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

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

Rome, Italy

christmas tree in front of st peters basilica rome.

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

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

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Quebec City, Canada

holiday decorations in quebec city.

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

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

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Israel

fireworks and holiday decorations in jerusalem.

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

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

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

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North Pole, Alaska

santa's house and sleigh in north pole alaska.

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

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

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

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Southern California

child and lego santa legoland california.

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

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

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

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

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The Canary Islands, Spain

christmas decorations in tenerife.

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

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

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Southern Iceland

northern lights over mountain in iceland.

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

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

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

christmas decorations in san juan puerto rico.

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

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

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

lagoa christmas tree rio de janeiro.

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

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

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

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

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At Sea

holiday decorations on carnival cruise ship.

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

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

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

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

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Follow Avital Andrews on Twitter @avitalb or on Facebook.

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?

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

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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
Miscellany

By Land & Sea – San Francisco – Dawn Princess

Author: donnaw
Date of Trip: May 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Southwest Airlines

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

SAN FRANCISCO

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

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

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

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

Weather

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

Must Do’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget tricks:

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

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

Municipal passports kept transportation costs down.

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

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

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

THE CRUISE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEATTLE

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

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

General Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
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
Island

Eastern Caribbean on Carnival Liberty

Author: brneyes
Date of Trip: April 2008

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

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

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

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

Antigua, it pour down rain.

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

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

Categories
Group Travel

NCL Jewel – Cruising the Mediterranean

Author: M.Cruiser
Date of Trip: August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private shore excursions:

1) Port of Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples

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

2) Monaco, Monte Carlo & Eze

Revelation tours — Highly recommended.

Categories
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.