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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

For most people, Caribbean cruises are simply about fun in the sun. Wildlife (unless you’re planning to qualify yourself), is not high on the list.

But wildlife is there for the watching—without even leaving the port. Just look up, look down and look around whenever you’re on the ground:

Iguanas—In Aruba, they feed them. In St. Thomas, they goad them. And in Cozumel, they leave them alone. The lizards seem to be just about everywhere.

Plotting strategy on the rocks in St. Thomas
They’ve nearly taken over Charlotte Amalie’s Crown Bay Harbor in St. Thomas. Dozens climb in and out of the rocks at the pier, mugging for photos or begging bemused cruisers for handouts. They’re the pigeons of Paradise.

In Wilhelmina Park in Aruba’s Oranjestad, they also act like they own the place. They bask in the sun, watch the kids play and fight over the lettuce the park staff throws them.

They’re harder to spot in Cozumel, where they roam the waterfront, blending into the terrain. If you look closely, you can spot them on the walk from the pier into town.


Peering from a palm on
 L.G. Smith Blvd. 
If you don’t get enough of them in the wild, you can always pick up a likeness; they’re on flip flops, ashtrays and many other tchotchkes from China. 

Caribbean parakeets—We spotted the brilliant green birds on Oranjestad’s main drag, picking at the palm trees.

Hummingbirds—While hardly unique to the Caribbean, these little whirlwinds can often be found around vibrant tropical foliage. My spouse captured one mid-air as it headed from one flower to another in Princess Cays.

Pelicans—We’ve seen these on several islands, but where I remember them most is in Grand Cayman. One had planted itself firmly at the edge of a little rickety row boat, perhaps to get first dibs when a new catch came in.

Vervet monkeys—I’d heard about the little green monkeys indigenous to St. Kitts, but was unprepared to see one on the arm of a local as soon as I’d gotten off the ship. Silly me, I quickly learned my photos didn’t come free.

Then there was that day at sea, brilliant and made for sun-bathing, when the cruise director suddenly broke the bonhomie with an urgent address over the PA, “A school of whales was just sighted starboard.” Within seconds, some hundred bathing-suited, sunscreen-slathered cruisers, like a herd of cattle, stormed starboard for a look-see.

Then, a few seconds later, over the PA, “Sorry, just kidding.”

We’d been had. Groans ensued as the scantily clad returned to their loungers and Bahama Mamas.

Wild things do abound, you just need to know where to look. But remember that if all else fails, there’s always Señor Frog!

Musing’s Top Tip: Want quick video snapshots of the ports to help you plan? Check out onboard.com. It’s a travel agency site, but has 50 short and well done videos with highlights of the ports at many Caribbean and other destinations.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Entertaining Thoughts

Think entertainment, and you usually picture a stage. But a lot of cruise ship entertainment takes place off stage and in the most unlikely of places. Here are just a few:
 
Bartender as showman. Juggling, it seems, is a new prerequisite for bartending. Many a cruise lounge features a bartender right out of Cocktail, sending glasses and bottles swirling into the air to a squealing and appreciative crowd. One “Quest” event’s opening act featured bartenders outdoing each other in their alcohol antics.
 
Crew talent night. We’ve seen these on Holland America (HAL), but the listing is buried in the newsletter and the events are late at night. But they’re well worth staying up for and great for the crew, too. They get to show they can do more than clean rooms and deliver food. And it can be a real treat to hear an unassuming room steward from Indonesia suddenly fill the room with a heart-stopping rendition of “O Sole Mia.”
 
Food for fun. I talked about this one in an earlier blog post, how the ships have taken the lead from TV and turned cooking into entertainment. We’ve seen “Iron Chef” knockoffs on HAL, kitchen crew skits on Princess, and been to countless food demos through HAL’s partnership with Food and Wine magazine, and on Celebrity’s ships as well.
 
Towel animals. Alas, towel animals are becoming a dying breed, as the ships try to better manage
room stewards’ workloads. Cruise veterans know the surprise of coming back from dinner to be greeted by a white elephant or swan sitting serenely on the bed, or a cotton monkey dangling from the ceiling. Our last menagerie was recently on Allure of the Seas.
 
Offbeat and memorable. We tend to think of ship captains as a serious lot, but one in particular smashed that misconception forever. He and another senior crew member delighted a loyalty club audience with their mimicry of two bulked-up acrobats.
 
Next to you at dinner, in the bar or the lounge chair. In the end, few forms of entertainment can beat watching your fellow passengers. There was the plump, white-bearded elderly man on a December cruise who showed up each day wearing a red stocking hat. The 30-something partyer who grabbed a wild iguana off the rocks in St. Thomas’ Crown Bay. Formal night’s kilts and kimonos. Bow-tied tots and five-inch stilettos.

The formal entertainment, food and ports on a cruise are a given. But it’s the unexpected that you really remember. And in the end, isn’t that what travel’s all about?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Free and Worth Every Penny

Savvy cruisers know that freebies can be had—you just need to know where to look. Here are the two I’ve found to be the best for scoring freebies and extra fun on your next trip: loyalty clubs and cruisecritic.com’s “Meet and Mingle.”
 
Loyalty Clubs
These are the clubs that reward you for taking the same cruise line more than once. And that throw more rewards your way the more you sail with them.
 
When you take your first cruise, you immediately start racking up points with the cruise line’s loyalty club. Each club is structured differently—some award points based on the number of cruises you take, others on the number of cruise days.
 
And there’s huge variation in the benefits. Here’s just a sample of what you can get—all at no cost:
 
Discounts on cruises. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars on trips when we’ve checked the box that asked, “Have you sailed with us before?”
 
Parties with free drinks. These can feature live music and dancing, and drinks or drink tickets.
 
Special entertainment. We’ve been to events that range from an exclusive diving performance on Allure of the Seas to special appearances of the ship's singers.

Behind-the-scenes tours. These allow you to get a peek behind the curtain of the workings of the ship, and can include the galley, theater, engine room or bridge.
 
Meet the senior crew. Loyalty club members often get invited to cocktail parties to hobnob with senior officers.
 
Other free or discounted benefits. Benefits can range from free dry cleaning to price breaks on wi-fi, to special lounges for disembarkation.
 
For specifics on each program, such as Celebrity’s Captain’s Club, Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor, and Princess’ Captain’s Circle, check the cruise line’s website.
 
Meet and Mingle
Sponsored by cruisecritic.com, Meet and Mingles are free get-togethers onboard that are co-organized by cruiser volunteers and the major cruise lines. They’re not available on every trip, so you’ll need to do a tad of research to find out if there’s one on your trip. And the cruise lines each handle sign up differently.
 
Celebrity, for example, requires a minimum advance sign up of 25 people before hosting an event. When you sign up, you’ll get a confirmation email, and once onboard, a special invitation. Princess has Meet and Mingle events on every sailing; simply check the Princess Patter onboard for when and where. See the Meet and Mingles page on cruisecritic.com for info on how to sign up for an event on your ship.
 
The Meet and Mingles are great opportunities to talk cruising with like-minded folks, and always include some light refreshments. The best we’ve been to have featured:
 
Cabin crawl—As a group, you tour a range of cabin types in different locations throughout the ship. This might even include a suite.
 
Crew members up close and personal—Recently on the Allure, in a small and intimate setting, a panel of divers and skaters took our questions about onboard life and work.
 
Giveaways and raffle prize drawings—With some luck, you might go home with more than great memories!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Cruising’s Biggest Secret


You can find plenty of advice on the web on how to get the best price for your cruise. And some of it is on my own blog.

But what I recently uncovered is cruising’s biggest secret. The key to saving bucks—big bucks— is to hold off final payment and keep a watchful eye on the pricing. Here’s my story: 

December 2013: Booked a nine-day trip on Celebrity’s Constellation for December 2014. Put down a deposit (reduced deposit during promotion) and delayed full payment.

September 2014: Brought up same trip in travelocity.com; found there were still a lot of empty cabins. Did as if we were booking a new cruise, selecting the same room type and category. A senior discount (55 and over) is suddenly available where there previously was none.

Celebrity—like other cruise lines—will match the new lower price if it’s not in the penalty period. We call our travel agent, who calls Celebrity.
 
Result? A savings of $500!
 
Now this won’t always work. The Constellation is an older ship, the itinerary is longer than usual (nine days) and the trip sits right smack in the middle of the Christmas season, coming back just shy of the holiday, which is not too desirable for many people.
 
Another caveat: the cruise lines may not allow you to use more than one promotion. So if you booked with promotion, you may have to choose between the new discount or the old one.
 
But here are my suggestions on how to get a really great deal:
 
Book early to get the initial best price and best cabin (middle of the deck always goes first). You can always get your deposit back if you cancel before the penalty phase.
 
Put off final payment until just before the penalty period begins (this varies by cruise line and can sometimes be different over a holiday, so check its website).
 
As you near the penalty period, check out the pricing. Go to a website like travelocity.com or the cruise line’s site. Simulate booking a new cruise, pick a room with the same category and deck location as your current booking and check out the pricing.

If the prices have gone down, call your travel agent to have her/him match the price.

Consider checking other room categories as well. The prices might go down in some categories and not others. And you might even be able to upgrade for the same price or even less than your original booking.
 
Important note: you must do all this before the penalty period begins. If you try it during the penalty period, your travel agent will have to cancel your trip and rebook it, which means you may lose the cabin you selected. You’ll also have to pay a penalty, but you may still come out ahead.
 
So, with a bit of luck and a little extra work on your part, you may see some steep savings. And in the process, dig up the deposit for your next trip!
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Herein lies one of the values of a travel agent: someone who knows how to make these cost savings happen for you. But you must be proactive; most travel agents won’t be watching the ups and downs of your cruise pricing once you’ve laid down the deposit.

 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cruising and the Sweet Anticipation

Ah, anticipation. “That sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.” Jane Austen might as well have been talking about cruising.
 
I know it’s not just me who finds the planning of a cruise nearly as satisfying as the cruise itself. That explains the variety of cruise countdowns, roll calls and other tools designed precisely to fuel our excitement.
 
And now, here, I’m going to share some of what’s out there to feed your sweet anticipation:
 
Cruise countdowns—There’s a cute (free!) cruise clock widget at Cruisingtalk for your blog or website. You select your cruise destination, the ship icon with the right logo and trip date. If you want to see what it looks like, scroll down to the very bottom of my blog screen for my upcoming trip on the Constellation. Here are some other countdowns (all of which are free):

Ucruiser—wide variety of tickers you can tailor to the particular ship
Shipmate—designed for your Facebook page
Shipmate app—this cell phone app has a countdown, as well as trip itineraries, photos, deck plans and more

Weather forecasts for ports of call—If your trip is coming up within a month, cruiseoutlook.com will give you the weather forecast at all your ports of call. It will also show you where your ship is right now and where it will be over the next month.
 
Webcams—Watch the port ship comings and goings, get a sneak peek of what your port looks like and check out what’s happening on your ship right from your desk with a webcam. Here are a few places to find them:

larrysvacationwebcams.com—ships, ports, resorts and destinations
cruise-addicts.com—ship and port cams
cruiseoutlook.com—ship cams
cruisedeckplans.com—port cams

Roll calls—These are ways for people who are taking the same cruise to meet virtually. Many of the forums have them, including:

cruisecritic.com
cruise-addicts.com
cruiseline.com
cruisemates.com
 
Advice from those who really know—us
There are many websites with tips on planning excursions, packing and the like. But to get the details—and answers to your most specific questions from those who really know—your best bet is the forums. For a list of them, see my posting from July 18, Cruising the Web.

Musing’s Top Tip: If you sail on Princess, check out the “Downloads” section of their website for screensavers and wallpapers, slide shows and shipboard webcams you put on your desktop.

#cruise

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cruise Food Hideaways

Sometimes, the best place to eat on a cruise ship is where no one else goes. It’s that little gem—the small café tucked away in a nook or cranny where the food is better—and free. But you could go through an entire seven-day trip and never find it.
 
If you follow the forums on your ship (see my July 18 posting, “Cruising the Web,” for a list), you’ll often find that oyster’s pearl. Here are some of the ones I’ve uncovered:
 
Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café—Like Royal Caribbean’s Solarium Bistro (see below), this fabulous little spot probably suffers from the mere suggestion that it serves health food. But it’s Celebrity’s best-
Salmon can be had already plated or
made to order at the AquaSpa Café
 
kept secret: it’s the only place onboard where you can get salmon, tuna or chicken made to order (you need to ask for it). It’s often hard to find—it’s usually in the Solarium (check the location on your ship), has just a few tables and is only open for breakfast and lunch. But it’s worth searching for.

 
Oasis Class’ Solarium Bistro—RCI’s Solarium Bistro, like the Solarium itself, was minimally used when we’ve been there. Like Celebrity’s café, it’s set up cafeteria-style, with the always-interesting food already plated. And the quality is excellent.
 
Oasis Class’ Park Café —This little place on RCI’s serene Central Park “neighborhood” serves breakfast and lunch. At lunch, you can get you-choose-it salads or hot paninis and while I’ve not tried it myself, the forums are filled with praise for the café’s roast beef sandwich.   
 
Princess’ International Café—While its location disqualifies the International Café as a hideaway (it’s in the piazza, the hub of the ship), it’s surprising how few people actually eat there. There’s a lot to like about the 24-hour café—while the drinks are not free (bar and specialty coffees), the food is. The salad combos, quiches and desserts vary every day, and they’re wonderful. And if you hit it just right, you’ll have live music to nosh by.
 
Making pizza on Princess
Pizza on Princess—While many cruisers already know that Princess has the best pizza on the sea, I’ve classified it as a hideaway because we have a devil of a time finding it on every ship. The last time on the Emerald, we must have circled Deck 15 three times before we found it. If you do take Princess, give it a try (if you can find it). Make it worth the while of the poor crew member sweating in the Caribbean heat who has to open that blazing-hot pizza oven all day long.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Cruiseline.com, a website I highlighted in a posting a few weeks ago, has just made some improvements, including new ship pages, price drop notifications, itinerary maps and a search by the ship with the highest member reviews. A neat feature: once you bring up all the reviews on a particular ship, you can select “View all tips” to get a list of tips reviewers have submitted.

 

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best and Worst of the Buffets

I have to admit, I love cruise ship buffets. But, I also hate them.
 
Or rather, I hate what they do to my self-control. But my spouse reassures me that anything I gain will come off in no time when we get home. So, we both leave the buffet stuffed and happy, and I always know he’s right.

Horizon Court
Whether you love or hate the buffets, they come in handy when you don’t want to dedicate up to two hours to the main dining room, get out of your shorts or rush back from port. So, here’s my take on the best and worst of some of them and why:
 
Food. Maybe not always the hottest and maybe not always the most appealing, but you can’t beat the variety. Overall, the buffet food isn’t hugely different from one cruise line to another. But there are the occasional surprises.
 
Often at dinner, you’ll see the same dishes as what’s in the main dining room. And while the presentation leaves much to be desired (think stainless steel steam tables vs. parsley garnishes and sauce swirls), you do get to see what the food looks like before getting it. Which is something you can’t do in the dining room.  

Windjammer's shrimp crackers
There are also many additional choices, and some of these can be damn good. In the Emerald and Caribbean Princess’ Horizon Court, for example, on Bavarian night, we feasted on Black Forest ham and landjaeger sausage, which is hard to find even on land. And other treats kept cropping up, like dried apricots and pine nuts. Or fresh papaya and smoked mackerel. One night, a crew member manned a table with an array of wonderful cheeses.

We’ve also had some dynamite Asian dishes in the Windjammer on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas that rival any neighborhood Chinese or Indian restaurant. Some of the desserts are terrific (and even better enhanced with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream), and brie makes a nightly appearance.

Celebrity’s Oceanview Café has a treat no one else has—hard ice cream in several flavors that change every day, complete with a choice of candy toppings.
Windjammer's carrot cake--before
the whipped cream
 
If with all the choices you still can’t find something to eat, there’s always the bread. From Princess’ chocolate croissants to RCI’s pumpkin seed rolls and sugar-sprinkled breakfast loaf to Celebrity’s multigrains, the breads on the mass market ships are more than adequate—they’re outstanding.  

Layout. While some of you might not agree, I think Celebrity’s Solstice Class ships have the best layout. Their food station kiosks are nicely spaced, reducing the gridlock you see on other ships, say, around the bacon. RCI’s Windjammer in the Oasis Class ships has a similar layout. 

Oceanview's ice cream bar
Probably the worst I’ve seen is on the Caribbean and Emerald Princess. The food is dished out from one very small area, and there’s only one way in and one way out, with a crew member monitoring the flow at both ends.
 
Recently on the Allure, during the peak lunchtime, we experienced a new concept in buffet crowd control. A line had formed just to get into the Windjammer. A crew member stood in front of the line and seated people as tables became available. This actually worked quite well. Few things are likely to spark spats between cruisers more than vying for a seat in the buffet.
 
Service. Princess is best when it comes to buffet service. It’s well staffed and the crew regularly brings drinks to the tables, as well as coffee refills. Contrast this with RCI’s Windjammer, where drinks are pre-filled and laid out cafeteria-style at the beverage counter. Want one without ice? You’ll have to ask for it.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Like to late-night nosh? Princess keeps the buffet going on the Emerald and Caribbean until midnight. To know what theme night it is, check the Princess Patter.

Your Chance to Weigh In
Celebrity’s experimenting with some already-plated options in the buffet on one of its ships. Good idea or not—what do you think?
 
And, what’s the best food you’ve found in a buffet?