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Friday, July 21, 2017

Don’t Come Home Without Them—Must-Buy Mementos from the Caribbean

Fodor’s recently did a piece on the nine must-buy souvenirs on a Caribbean cruise. Which made me think—what would be on my list?

So, this is what I came up with:

Woven wares from Dominica. They’re not sold at every stall in Roseau, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled, but the locally woven baskets make great—and useful—souvenirs to bring to those you left behind or keep for yourself.

Handmade, locally made in Dominica
The "Caribbean Gem." Mined in the Dominican Republic but available in many of the Caribbean isles, the lovely milky blue larimar can be found set in all kinds of jewelry and best yet, isn’t too expensive. I picked up earrings in a silver setting at St. Thomas’s Havensight pier for about $45.

Ceramics, onyx from Cozumel. While the silver jewelry is terribly tempting in Cozumel, each time I see the shopkeeper walking around with a calculator, it reminds me I can’t afford it. But what everyone can afford and is certainly worth it is Cozumel’s ceramics. They’re bright, cheerful and everywhere. You can get something as small as a spoon holder or as large as a serving platter. Also special are the onyx pieces, from figurines to chess sets.
 
Ceramics to liven up your home from Cozumel's Los Cinco Soles
Mopa Mopa art in Aruba. These don’t come cheap, but they’re unusual handicrafts native to Aruba. Buds of the mopa mopa tree are processed into resin that’s incorporated into wood and painted. You can find mopa mopa bookmarks, masks, wall hangings, and all sorts of decorative arts. You won’t find them anywhere else.

Anything painted in Labadee. The extensive artisan market in Royal Caribbean’s resort side of Haiti specializes in painted art, and the prices are very reasonable. And since the sellers promote bargaining, the prices get downright cheap. There’s a big variety of artwork—from magnets to mega canvases of beach scenes, with frames or without.

Color in canvas at Labadee, Haiti
St. Maarten guavaberry liqueur. It’s on the sweet side, but an only-in-St. Maarten kind of souvenir. Their colorful painted bottles alone make it worth the cost, even if what’s inside isn’t exactly your cup of—well, beverage of choice. 

Spices in Granada. The “Island of Spice” vendors have ready-to-go spice combo baskets that are tailor-made souvenirs. And if you feel yourself giving in to buying one of the spice necklaces the vendors assemble as you watch, beware that their shelf life is short—very short. By the end of the day, mine was beginning to self-destruct.
 
Necklaces of spice might be nice, but the baskets are much better
Rum from anywhere. I fell deeply in love with Bacardi’s 8 Anõs at its brewery in San Juan. But the Caribbean’s got more choices of rum than we have time to taste. Take some home and relive your cruise experience again and again, one happy shot at a time.


Musing’s Top Tip: If you’re thinking about a specialty dining package on an Oasis class cruise, check out Musing About Cruising’s new video on YouTube, with tips and photos, to help you decide if it’s right for you. And did you know you can now find out about new Musing postings by subscribing to Feedspot, which consolidates the latest from your favorite cruise blogs? 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Of Quick Customs, Champagne and Watching the Waters

Our past trip on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas had a number of firsts—all of them good and
all of them worth sharing:
 
Customs never better. If you’re cruisin’ out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades anytime soon (and you’re a U.S. or Canadian citizen), you’ll absolutely want to use the Mobile Passport, U.S. Customs’ new app.

On disembarkation day, like a king and queen, we bypassed all 5,000+ of Allure’s passengers as they painfully snaked around the terminal, and breezed right through Customs in about five minutes flat. And all because of that app.

Here’s how it works:

Before you leave

1. Download the free app for Android or Apple from Google Play or iTunes App store (you need wi-fi for this, so do it at home or at your hotel)

2. Enter your profile info as it appears on your passport and for everyone traveling with you. You’ll need to take photos of yourself with your phone (or you theoretically can scan your passport, although I couldn’t get this to work)

Disembarkation day

3. When you’ve docked in Port Everglades and you’re waiting to be called to leave, open the app. This is important because you can only do this within four hours of getting to Customs. Fill out the required info and submit

4. You’ll receive a barcode

5. In Port Everglades, follow the signs that say “Mobile Passport.” You’ll go to a Customs agent especially assigned, show your passport and barcode on your phone. And out the door you go!

Here’s some more info on using the app in Port Everglades.

Swim with no fear. Wherever there’s water now on the Allure, there’s a lifeguard. They’re at all the pools, the ship’s water park and by the hot tubs. A very visible presence that should reassure parents who cruise. A very good move, Royal Caribbean.


You just never know. Heading down that long hallway to our room one day, suddenly a door opens and a 30-something fellow steps out. “Do you guys drink?” he asked.

“Moderately,” I said, figuring that was a safe answer.

Apparently that was the right answer, because he thrust a bottle of champagne at us. Turns out he'd been given the champagne—and the whole cruise—by his company, a reward for being a top salesman. But he didn’t drink.

So after many expressions of gratitude, we continued to our stateroom, bottle and champagne glasses in hand, and bemused smiles on our faces.

Now I can’t say that your cruises will bring offers of champagne from strangers. But what I do know is that cruising is filled with surprises. That—and the sea—keep luring us back again and again.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why Leave the Pier?

After all, it can be so enticing to stay. Stores galore. Cheap and fun places to eat and drink. Maybe even a swimming pool.

So, it begs the question: why bother to venture beyond those figurative—and sometimes literal—guarded walls?

Because this is what you’d miss:

That’s entertainment. A few blocks from the pier in a gazebo in Falmouth, Jamaica, women swirl and twirl their colorful skirts and kick up their feet to a drum’s beat.

Downtown Falmouth brings dancing and music to venturesome visitors
Hang a right outside the terminal in Cozumel to visit a new shopping plaza and watch costumed men swinging upside down from a high pole, to the melancholy sounds of a pipe. Keep an eye out for the man wandering around with a huge snake wrapped around him like a poncho. 

What awaits wanderers from the Cozumel pier
The street scene. At ports like Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas and Roseau, Dominica, the lunch hours fill the streets with giddy groups of kids in their school uniforms. In Coxen Hole, Roatan, local workers grab grub from steaming grills fashioned out of barrels. All manner of wares is sold along the sidewalk from pickup trucks in Castries, St. Lucia—including women’s lingerie. And in any of these ports, you might see mothers straddling their babes in one arm while shielding them with an umbrella against the blazing Caribbean sun with the other.

Bougainvillea and breadfruit. The Caribbean isles are awash in flowers and fruit, and it can be fun to get to know them. Bougainvillea in pink and fuchsia is everywhere. You might spy the bright Golden Trumpet, the showy hibiscus, a red bottlebrush or two and oh, so many kinds of palms! 

There's no mistaking the Golden Trumpet all over the Caribbean
Check out the mangos hanging like Christmas ornaments off the sidewalk on the trek from Crown Bay to St. Amalie. Or the breadfruit towering above the hair salon in downtown Falmouth. Bananas clumped and climbing from a tree in Amber Cove, Dominican Republic.

Breadfruit towers above the street in  Falmouth
Then there are the fruit and veggie markets—in downtown Roseau, and the floating market in Willemstad, Curaçao, across the pontoon bridge in the old part of town. And the markets where the fruits of the sea are cleaned in the open air—destined for a plate near you. There’s a big one on the walk from the pier to Bridgetown, Barbados, where hair-netted women and hatchet-wielding men silently set about their work.

There’s a much smaller market right on the beach in George Town, Grand Cayman, a few blocks from your ship, where the array of the day’s catch is spread out on a table like souvenirs.
 
Can't get any fresher than this in George Town, Grand Cayman
What matters cast in bronze. History and culture come together in the statues that commemorate key events for the islands, like the conch blower of Freedom in Frederiksted, St. Croix and The Three Queens outside Blackbeard’s Castle in Charlotte Amalie. Then there’s Anne Frank on her pedestal in Oranjestad’s Wilhelmina Park, reminding us of Aruba’s Dutch heritage and of values that resonate around the world.

Shop like a local. Hit a busy side street and browse the shops the locals do—the supermarkets, clothing and hardware stores, for a feel for the real island life.

Culture, cuisine and wi-fi at the library. In Roseau, the library is just a few blocks from the pier and a window to the world of Dominica—with the added treat of free wi-fi. On a recent visit, there were posters displaying local birds and recipes of traditional Christmas foods.

Then, when you’ve drunk all this in, top off your Caribbean cultural immersion with one, two—or a bucketful—of made-right-here brewski.  

End your day by drinking like a local

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Shopping in the Western Caribbean

For some of us Caribbean cruisers, the pleasures of sand and surf are rivaled only by the lure of duty free and souvenir shopping.

For the first, you only need beach and sun. For the second, you need smarts, savvy and some common sense. 

Alas, on my 21st cruise, I managed to leave that last crop behind. Here’s my excuse: something bewitches me when I’m on vacation. My antenna comes down and my wallet comes out. And buyer’s remorse sets in long after the ship sets sail and it's the point of no return.

To help you shop the Western Caribbean and not get burned, here are a few thoughts:

Plain vanilla? Entranced by signs of cheap hecho en Mexico vanilla at the pier in Cozumel, this
should-have-known-better foodie picked up two bottles in a tourist shop, spurred on by a fellow cruiser who swore she returned to the same shop regularly for the “best vanilla” in town.

Vanilla the price of souvenir dolls--this foodie should have known better

Back at home, once the vacation was a fuzzy memory, my antenna made a reappearance. I began to wonder about the vanilla’s uber low price, the “final sale” signs everywhere and the disconcerting fact that the shopkeeper wouldn’t let us take photos after my purchase. The test was over but I was only now doing my homework. When I found what I was looking for, of course, it was too late.

Nearly all of what’s sold in Mexico—99 percent, according to one website—is in fact, not vanilla at all. It can be a mixture of too little alcohol (a lot is actually part of the real vanilla production process), too many chemicals, coloring and sweetener. And some of it—this is truly frightening—contains a toxic chemical called coumarin, which is banned in the U.S. (See this piece on where real vanilla comes from.)

Was the vanilla I bought the real thing? Only that store owner knows for sure.

Bottom line: know what you’re getting and get what you know.

A portrait of a smart shopper. Okay, I made a $12 mistake in Cozumel. But, I did do things right in Labadee. Royal Caribbean’s Haitian resort has a robust artisan market. The locals were anxious to sell and I was anxious to buy. Colorful metal wall hangings, wooden sculptures, costumed dolls, painted magnets and so on—much of it made locally and best yet, very inexpensive.

Happy haggling in Haiti

And the vendors are raring for haggling. I walked away no fewer than six times from a seller—each time I was called back with a lower price. I finally left with the price I wanted to pay and a huge beach scene painting that now hangs in my home office and engulfs me in the Caribbean's clear blue waters each time I sit at the PC.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to bargain and hold out for what you want. You'll not only come away with a treasure to remind you of your vacation, but also the satisfaction of a dollar well spent.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Three’s Still a Charm: New Review of Allure of the Seas

It’s a compliment to Allure of the Seas that after our third trip on this massive and fascinating ship, we complained that we didn’t get to everything we planned.

We didn’t ride the carousel (yeah, even us overgrown kids still like riding up and down). We didn’t play miniature golf. And we only had the Tutti salad bar twice for lunch in the main dining room.

But we did a whole lot of stuff and like our other Allure cruises, had a whole lot of fun.

So, what did we do to make the third trip as good as the first? For one, we did the specialty dining package for the first time. That upped the food experience big time. It actually made the dining exciting, as we played the “Where should we eat today” game.

Then there was the show. And oh, what a show it was! Mamma Mia blew us away. Of the three shows we’d seen on Oasis class ships (others were Cats and Chicago), this one was far and away the best. The quality of the voices, the energy and exuberance of the production brought the whole audience to their feet, and made for a truly memorable experience that I didn’t think a show could ever do.

Which proves, once again, that no cruise line puts on a show like Royal Caribbean. And even though we’d seen the dives, flips, twirls and whirls of the aqua and ice shows before, we still couldn’t get enough of them.

Perhaps we didn’t go to some of the other events we had in the past, like the ‘70s dance party or marriage game show. But instead, took time to enjoy wine in the Trellis Bar in Central Park and take pictures of the pretty little yellow-and-black bird who mistook the ship’s neighborhood for a garden in Cozumel.

A cafe in Manhattan? No, in the Allure's Central Park
We also explored new areas for us, like the serene Solarium, which by day is a favorite of Kindle readers and hot tub bathers but by night literally sizzles as a Brazilian steakhouse.

The Solarium is an "oasis" on Allure of the Seas
Another first for us on this voyage was investing in the ship’s Voom wi-fi. The package rate for a seven-day cruise ($12.99/per day, per device) is cheaper than the day rate (19.99/per day, per device). And the streaming version (package rate of $17.99/per day, per device; day rate of $27.99/per day, per device) is faster than the basic one. But either is fine if your goal is just to keep your e-mailbox from spilling over.

So, while we didn’t ride the horses or hit the links—or even stare at the ocean as much as I’d like—we still managed to make it, once again, our “wow” kind of vacation.

Musing’s Top Tip: See the movie version of Mamma Mia before you go. It will help you with the story line and get familiar with the music, so you’ll enjoy the ship’s production even more. And once you see it, I guarantee you’ll be singing the songs all cruise long. See a trailer of the worldwide production of the musical on the official site’s YouTube channel.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Menu Driven: Doing the Specialty Dining Package on Allure of the Seas

After 20 Caribbean cruises, including three on Oasis class, we felt we’d done it all—and eaten it all.

So on our recent Allure of the Seas trip, we set out to find something new to do, driven by our longing for appealing food. The answer came in a package—a specialty dining package.
Why go specialty? For desserts like this from 150 Central Park

You might ask:

Why go specialty at all? In short, the food’s better than the main dining room (MDR). Way better. So is the service. And the ambience.

Is it right for me? Specialty dining is especially great for:
  •          Veteran cruisers hungry to spice up their next trip
  •          Foodies in search of better quality
  •          Romantics looking for more intimate dining
  •          Celebrants who want to commemorate an event

Why package it up? If you dine out one time, you pay top dollar. Chops Grille is now $49 a person. A dining package brings the price per meal down a lot. On Oasis class, you can get a three-, four- or five-night package. We did the five night at $115 a person, which brought the per meal price to $23.

How the package works:

Signing up
You can do it with your travel agent, or with Royal Caribbean on the phone or online before you leave or once you’re on the ship. Note: You’ll set a time for each meal, but you’re not locked in to it.

Plan your shows first. The cruise line won’t let you select a dining time that’s within two hours of your show. (Fyi, several of our meals went a full two hours.)

Chops Grille for steak on the Allure's Central Park
Making your dining choices
Once onboard, it’s like on land. There's actually quite a lot of flexibility. You choose where you want to eat on what day, in any of the restaurants and as many times as you want. You can even change the time if they have openings. (We were able to get just about any time, any place on any day.)  

You can make reservations on the same day you’re dining or in advance. They can be made at any restaurant in person, by phone or your stateroom TV. Note: One of your meals must be on night 1 or 2 of the trip.

A little bit of Italy at Giovanni's Table

There's even some flexibility with the menu. At Chops, diners next to us loaded up on multiple appetizers. At 150 Central Park, though there was no ice cream on the menu, the waiter brought us some from Chops.

Few more tidbits
  •          Tips – They’re included in your overall trip gratuities
  •          Drinks – What cost extra in the MDR cost extra in the restaurant
  •          Dress – “Smart casual” (although diners tend to get more dressed up)

What’s the food really like?
Note first that taste is a subjective thing, and that quality can vary by who’s doing the cooking and by what you choose. That being said, here was my experience:

Chops Grille – The onion soup was very good. The 9 oz. filet mignon was cooked just right, and we were offered a choice of three flavorful sauces, as well as a number of potato and veggie side dish options. The “liquid center chocolate cake” was a small satisfying delicate cake, sort of like a sponge cake, but with deep chocolate flavor, and a mellow chocolate sauce poured over it with a scoop of ice cream and caramelized bananas on the side.
 
The filet mignon was hearty and tasty at Chops Grille
Giovanni’s Table – The osso buco was wonderful with a great taste and fork-tender. The filet mignon rivaled the one at Chops, and the meaty lasagna was also quite good. Desserts are typical Italian restaurant fare—tiramisu, cannelloni—as well as a few others. (If you’re a chocoholic, you’ll need to get dessert somewhere else.)
 
150 Central Park: intimate, romantic with stellar service too
150 Central Park – The food is continental-meets-nouvelle cuisine, but more continental than nouvelle. The squash soup was so velvety and sweet that I wanted to lick the bowl. The lobster gnocchi and short rib were also great, but the pièce de résistance was the chocolate bourbon tart. The fudgy inside was topped with spiced pecans, cranberry chutney and whipped cream, creating a bittersweet/sweet/spicy explosion of flavors. The place was also library-quiet and uber romantic, with its plush high back chairs and couches.
 
Smooth as silk, sweet as squash at 150 Central Park
Other specialty restaurants on Allure: Samba Grill (Brazilian steak house) Izumi (hibachi and sushi) and Sabor (Mexican).

The bottom line
If you want an overall better dining experience at the cost of—say, one excursion—consider a specialty dining package. It “beefed” up our cruise and will most likely do the same for you.

Musing’s Top Tips: On the stateroom TV, you can find specialty restaurant menus, seat availability, and a schedule of your reservations and shows. If you want to see sample menus before your trip, you can find them on Royal Caribbean's website.

Here’s another: For more easy planning and keeping track of your busy schedule, before leaving home, make a chart with separate columns for the shows, and where you’re dining and when. Also factor in the days in port and the hours you'll be there.

Note: All restaurant menus and prices are subject to change.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Romance on the High Seas

Romance with chocolate: the Love Boat Dream
Dessert on the Regal Princess
It’s no wonder the infamous TV show was called The Love Boat. Cruising and romance go together like, well, love and marriage.

In fact, more than 85 percent of cruisers take along their significant other.*

There’s something about cruising that brings out the romantic in us. Maybe it’s the way the sea shimmers in the moonlight. Or the unbroken horizon suggests anything is possible. Or maybe it’s just that we’re on vacation.

Whatever the reason, the cruise lines want to help you along when you’re in the mood for love. Here’s just a sampling of what you can do with your one-and-only:

Tie the knot or announce you’re glad you did. Royal Caribbean, Princess and Carnival all have packages for doing weddings onboard. Princess also has some for engagements, honeymoons, vow renewals and anniversaries. Carnival will even help you get married on the beach.
 
Bliss and blue skies on the Regal Princess' SeaWalk
Two for dinner. When you sign up for your cruise, you can ask for a table for two in the main dining room and can usually get one. There’s a limited number of them, though, and while most are okay, you can get one in a weird spot. If this happens, you can always ask for a change.

Dine al fresco. Do a leisurely breakfast, pre-dinner cocktail or quiet dinner for two with room service and a view.

Or make it extra special. The specialty restaurants will cost you more, but you get better service and better food than the main dining room. Some of the settings are more fitting for flirting too. Like the plush high back chairs of Oasis of the Seas’ Central Park 150 or the dark moody lighting in the Regal Princess’ Crown Grill.
 
Making it special at Sabatini's on the Regal Princess
Be formal. Formal nights were made for romance—with both of you in your best digs, find your ship photographer of choice and pose for posterity.

Room for wine and roses. From Royal Caribbean’s room décor packages to Carnival’s goodie baskets to Princess’ Norman Love’s chocolate gifts to Norwegian’s flower deliveries, you’ve got a number of choices for building a stateroom love nest.

Massage à deux. For the ultimate in peer pampering, consider a couples massage in Royal Caribbean’s Vitality Spa. In Princess’ Sanctuary, you can be massaged side-by-side each other and the sea in your own onboard cabana.

Kiss on camera. On the Regal Princess’ disco night, you might get your romance up on the big screen. Cameras scan the crowd and if lands on you, your fellow cruisers will egg you on to indulge the Love Boat Kiss Cam and see your smooch on the more than 300-square-foot poolside screen.

Together, alone at the ports. Take a carriage ride in San Juan, a floating raft for two in Carnival’s Mahogany Bay or Amber Cove, or spring for seclusion in a cabana by the sea in Royal Caribbean’s Labadee.
Find some seclusion by the sea in a cabana for two at Amber Cove

A final thought (or warning). Whether you find yourself stoking the fires of your passion on a raft, at a table or in the spa, no matter how tempting, just say “no” to being on the marriage game show—if you still want to be in love on the morning after.

Note: Facilities and amenities vary by ship.
* Cruise Lines International Association website, www.cruising.org


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cruising on $10 a Day

Well, now that I’ve gotten your attention, I’ll own up. This posting is not about how you can cruise for $10 a day. Sorry, that will run you somewhat more.

What it is about is what you can still get for $10—more or less—once you get onboard.

Though we spend thousands to climb that plank to paradise, we still count our pennies, do we not?

So, take comfort in knowing there are still some things that $10 will buy:

Malt shop on the sea. For $6.95 at Johnny Rockets, which is on 13 or so of Royal Caribbean’s ships, you can get burgers, shakes and fries, as well as the oh-so-lovely nostalgic experience of peeling your thighs off vinyl seats.

Some nostalgia with your fries on Oasis of the Seas
Bottoms up. Thankfully, drinks on a ship are still under that magic number. But they are getting awfully close. They ran, on average, about $8.95 for a tropical drink recently on the Regal Princess. The drink of the day will run you less, and so will beer.

That’s a novelty. The gift shop has goodies galore. Mind you, not much can be had for $10 or less, but you can still pick up magnets, a deck of cards or a tee shirt. If you’re really lucky, while you’re on your Caribbean cruise, you might even get something on Alaska, since the ships love to tempt you with low prices on stuff from places you haven’t been.


The bargain bazaar. Otherwise known as the $10 Sale. There’s at least one a cruise and sometimes more. You’ll get what you pay for, but it’s fun just the same. Hats and wraps, watches and chains, piles of stuff for picking through. But be prepared for a crunch of cruisers. Look for the sale in the ship newsletter or ask the shop sales folks.
 
Piles for the picking on the Regal Princess
Sidewalk sales. Just about every day, one of the ship’s shops has something or other out there where you see. And it comes with a big sale sign.  We’ve actually picked up simple glass figures for about $10, which made for inexpensive souvenirs. Mostly, these sales are promoted in the ship’s newsletter, but sometimes you just stumble on them.

Bets on the house. You can quickly blow $10 (alas, as well as substantially more) in the casino, but there’s always that chance…

Ways to blow $10 on the Regal Princess
It may only take just one. Speaking of gambling, you can usually get a single Bingo card for $10. But if you want to improve your chances, you’ll need to shell out more.

Going through Downton Abbey withdrawal? Bring back the memories with the Royal Afternoon Tea on the Royal or Regal Princess, where $10 will get you tea, nibbles and prime viewing for all the action in the piazza. Just don’t forget to sip, not slurp, if you want to impress Lady Mary.
 
Tea in Regal style
Scoop it up. If you’d rather spend your dough on sweets, you’ve got lots of choices. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s on most Royal Caribbean ships, where scoops range from about $2.50 to $4. Then there are the gelato cafes, like the one on the Regal Princess, at about $2.75 for three scoops.
 
Gelato on the Constellation
Wash, pay and wear. Spilled red wine on your jacket? The chocolate cake missed your mouth and ended up in your lap? Celebrity will wipe it clean it for you. To laundry a jacket, it will cost $8 and for pants, $7. Dry cleaning will run you a few bucks more.

Bedside manner. Royal Caribbean’s room service continental breakfast is free, but getting something more substantial will cost you $7.95. Carnival’s room service is free, but there’s a charge for its expanded in-room options. Celebrity’s service is free, but food between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. comes with a $4.95 fee. 

So what will Alexander Hamilton get you? From tee shirts to tea cups, burgers to beers and cones to cleaning—in short, more than you might think.