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Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Overhyped and the Overlooked

I agree with cruisecritic.com: art auctions, professional photos and candy stores on cruise ships are overrated.

And there are others I’d like to add to the list. I know this is a wholly subjective subject. You might not agree. But, here, for your consideration, are some things I think we can easily live without—as well as those that are often overlooked: 

Overhyped

Drink packages. While the idea of drinking what you want, when you want—no designated driver needed—can be pretty tempting, when we’ve done the math, we’ve found we’d have to consume a humongous amount just to break even.

Here’s an example: Royal Caribbean’s alcohol package is now $55 a day per person (or roughly $400 a week). With the average drink price at about $8, you’d have to down seven a day to get your money’s worth.*

I have no proof, but given how much these drink packages are hyped, I have to assume the cruise lines make out better than we do.

Celebrity’s Concierge Class. You’d think we’d learn after the first time. But it took three times on Celebrity’s Concierge Class—and three times complaining—before we finally owned up that it’s just not worth it. The flowers in your room are actually one lonely bud in a vase that opens up just in time for you to go home. The appetizers, which you now have to ask for, are decidedly unappetizing. Oh, you do get a bottle of sparkling wine the first day. And the towels are big. That’s about it.

Port shopping talks. There’s little substance in these. Unless you’re in the market for high-end jewelry, don’t waste your precious vacation time. And if your curiosity gets the best of you, you can always find them on the stateroom TV, playing over and over and over again.

Formal nights. It pains me to say this, but formal nights are simply not worth trying to cram a suit and tie or dress/shoes/shawl/evening bag into your luggage.Yeah, sometimes the food is better than other nights, as filet mignon and lobster tails still make a once-a-cruise appearance. But, it’s just not the big event it used to be.

Overlooked

Princess’ mini-suites. If you choose your cruise right (e.g., off season), you can get one of these for not much more than a balcony room. Yet the size is significantly larger; in fact, you’ll swear you’re in a hotel. Throw in two TV sets, more counter space and the like, and you’ll be downright comfortable.
Hotel-like comfort in a Princess mini-suite
Room service. For many of us, room service in a hotel is a rarely-if-ever-used luxury. It not only costs extra, but what you get costs extra, too. While some exceptions apply, room service on a cruise ship is free. That means delivery right to your door, and you don’t even need to get out of your PJs for it.

Buffet at night. I’ve often raved about the buffet at dinner, appreciating the vast array of choices (often including what the MDR is serving up), the appearance of international cuisine--including some spicy dishes--and the marvelous mellowness. And did I mention that you don’t have to dress up?

Lunch in the main dining room. This probably sounds perverse—buffet at night and lunch in the dining room. But, like the buffet at night, lunch in the MDR is a peaceful affair. It’s under-utilized, unhurried and completely relaxing. But you’ll only find it at limited hours on sea days.
The "Tutti" salad bar on Allure of the Seas--you'll only find it at lunch, in the MDR on sea days
Loyalty clubs. Now I recognize that not everyone can cruise repeatedly, but if you can and do, going with one line has its benefits. Particularly on Royal Caribbean. We made Diamond Club a few cruises back and now enjoy unlimited alcoholic drinks during happy hour, which has made us quite happy, indeed.

The view. What’s outside the ship is becoming less and less important than what’s on the inside. With bumper cars, casinos and ice skating rinks, it’s getting harder to remember what cruising is all about: the sea. 




* This package also includes non-alcoholic drinks.


Musing’s Top Tip: On a totally different topic, check out Musing’s piece on ways to stay safe while you’re wandering around port on the website www.cruiseportadvisor.com.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Great Weight Debate: Will Cruising Tip the Scales?

I have a friend who refuses to cruise because she’s terrified of all that food. That she’ll weaken in the face of a cake, crumble at the sight of a cookie and come home with mounds of pounds.

Fact or fiction?

Over a 10-day cruise, reports avidcruiser.com, the average person packs on four pounds. And some put on even more.

Well, why not? We’re on vacation, we want to have fun, get our money’s worth and all that. But there are things we can do to have our cake and eat it too—and save all that guilt for some other day:

Lose before you cruise. Want the ultimate motivation? Go shopping for a bathing suit. There’s nothing like a view of yourself in the fitting room mirror to make you suddenly lust for kale and kiwi. And since misery loves company, check out cruisecritic.com’s Lose Before You Cruise discussion thread.

What gets measured gets done. Consider investing in one of those nifty fitness tracker bracelets. Even if it doesn’t motivate you to work out, everyone else will think you do. 

Court fun and fitness. Shoot some hoops, climb a wall, don a pair of skates—the Royal Caribbean ships in particular give you lots of ways to get fit while having fun. And don't forget about dance classes, to help you boogie before you binge.

Courting fun and fitness on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas
Walk in circles. The ships generally have a walking/jogging track. The best is on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, which has separate lanes for walkers and joggers, and loops around the entire length of the ship. You not only get great views of the ocean, but a few chuckles from the signs overhead.

Walk to port—and then all around it. Taxis may be plentiful and the locals persistent, but ignore them all and walk your way to town. It’s a painless way to exercise while getting to know where you’ve docked. The walk from Crown Bay to St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie even marks the mileage for you.

Just say go. Perhaps not our favorite part of the ship, but those treadmills look out over the water. Stationery bikes let you choose your route. Many machines have their own TV; bring your headset to plug and play. In short, it’s about as pleasant as it will ever be to do time in the gym. And you’ll rarely compete for the equipment.

You won't have to compete for equipment on Celebrity's Equinox
Stay inspired with a little help from your friends. Enroll in a fitness class—all the ships have them. It helps when you're all in the same boat.
 
Keep your weight by skipping the wait. Forget the frustration of long waits for an elevator and take the stairs instead.
  
Make your own rules. You could, for example, decide to eat one big meal and two light ones each day. Or gorge Day 1 and 2, but load up on salad, fruit and veggies Days 3 and 4.

Be a fusspot. I’m from a family of thin people—not naturally thin, but deliberately thin. Our secret? Being really picky about what we consume. There was a great line in the movie Ratatouille; when the food critic was asked how he stayed so thin, he answered,“If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow it.”

Search out the better stuff. There’s healthier fare everywhere—in the main dining room, buffet and even in special (free) venues, like Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café.
Lighter fare in Celebrity's AquaSpa Cafe

Learn to lose. Many of the ships have lectures onboard on nutrition and weight loss. This will give you a head start on the diet just waiting for you to get home.

Most important of all. Whether you do any of the above, or nothing at all, there's one thing you should know. Whatever you put on now will come off later. When the vacation ends, just go back to what you usually do, and then watch the pounds melt away. It's worked for me on 20 cruises and will work, too, for you. 


Friday, August 19, 2016

How Blue is the Ocean, How Gorgeous is the Sky


I fell madly, wildly in love in Willemstad, Curaçao.

With the absolutely stunning, positively magical, spectacularly flamboyant scene in the sky. And I’ve been hooked on sunsets ever since.

There's positively no better place to see a sunset than on your stateroom balcony or a deck of a cruise ship. No powerlines, lampposts or trees to block the view. Just wide open sea and sky. It’s a vast canvas for nature’s most perfect paintbrush.



The launch of my love affair with sunsets
If you’re like me, when you see a magnificent sunset, you remember it always. You not only remember the way the sky looked, but where you were and what you were doing. And photos of those moments bring it all back in living color.

There are so many ways you can take sunset photos—whether your electronic device of choice is a smartphone, tablet or camera. Consider this:

Pink one minute, blue the next. In a very short period, the colors and configurations can change radically—and dramatically. Take lots of shots—don’t be stingy—you’ll be surprised at the variation.

When the clouds roll in. Sunsets get even more interesting when the clouds get in your way. And as the photo sites say, don’t forget to turn around—it may be even more eye-popping behind you.

Spotlight through the clouds


Sunshine on the water. Another neat shot is focusing on the ocean as a blazing setting sun reflects on the water, changing it to a most unreal kind of color.

Ft. Lauderdale in a blaze of color
Picture this. Shooting a sunset with buildings in the distance can add an interesting element to your photo. So, too, can capturing a bird in flight against a color-streaked sky.

A third of something else. The pros talk about the “rule of thirds,” where the most interesting subject is not in the center of the shot, but rather to one side, above or below. So, your best shot might be with the setting sun off to the left or right of your frame.

Little bit of this, a lot of that. One decision you’ll need to make is how much ocean and how much sky you put in your picture. Try more of one and less of the other, than reverse it, to see what you like best.



Best in silhouette. Getting your cruise companion in silhouette or from behind as he/she gazes into the distance can make a different shot.
The sunset, sea and me


Being at the ready. A camera-worthy sunset can come up when you least expect it. Have your camera ready to go. You’ll need to be able to grab it when you need it, because sunsets are quickie events.

Getting in front of them
Being there when it happens is the biggest challenge. It’s not like there’s an announcement on the PA, “There’s a great sunset, guys. Stop what you’re doing and take a look.” I’m sure we’ve missed countless beauties ‘cause we’ve eaten early.

But here’s something I wish I had known earlier: this great website lets you look up—even long before your trip has even started—the time of sunrise and sunset at the ports you’re visiting when you’re going to be there.

In the field “Sun,” Sunrise and Sunset Times,” enter the city and island. Then on the next screen, pick the menu “Sunrise and Sunset,” scroll all the way to the bottom and it will allow you to pick a month.

You’ve got the photos. Now what?
So, what do you do with those photos? You can frame them for your wall, add them to your digital frame or turn one into a mousepad. See the posting “What to Do with Those Cruise Trip Photos” for some ideas.

Musing’s Top Tip: Didn’t get enough of the sky at sundown? There’s a great (free!) smart phone app you can use to identify the stars in that dark wide open night sky. It’s called SkyView® and you can get it from Google Play.




Friday, August 5, 2016

Sweet Solitude: Finding a Spot Where the Crowd is Not

To those new to cruising, it may seem implausible that you can find solitude on a ship. After all, you are sharing a pretty limited space with 2,000, 4,000—or even 6,000—other folks. 

Yet, those of us veteran cruisers know how to find a spot where the crowds are not. And now we’re going to let you in on some of our secrets:

Stay onboard when everyone gets off. When we first started cruising, this seemed a shocking concept. Isn’t cruising all about the ports? Sort of. But there’s something very appealing about having the ship (more or less) to yourself.

Decked out at night. As long as you don’t get spooked by the sight of dark nothingness, the outside decks are great places to hear yourself think because hardly anyone steps out there at night. You might even get rewarded by an unbroken sky of stars, its equal hard to find on land.
Dark, colorful and quiet--the outside decks at night on Celebrity's Constellation
Check out the library without checking out a book. The library is perhaps the ship’s most unappreciated area (second only, perhaps, to the gym). Except for an occasional card game or a few who choose to invest a chunk of change on an Internet connection, it’s mostly empty.

Head up the ship. Ships often turn an upper deck space into a disco or entertainment venue at night, leaving it alone during the day. Which makes it a cushy, comfy and abandoned place for you to find your space. Some examples: Viking Crown Lounge on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas on deck 14, Celebrity Constellation’s Reflections Lounge on deck 11 and Holland America’s Zuiderdam’s Crow’s Nest Lounge on deck 10.

Java it up in the ship buffet. I’ve often extolled the virtues of Windjamming it (Royal Caribbean), Horizon Courting it (Princess) or Oceanviewing it (Celebrity) at dinner. The ship’s buffets are mostly ghostly at dinner time, so if you want a place to read, write or game your smartphone, with a mug of coffee by your side, they’re a great place to hide. And who knows, there may just be a dessert there, too, with your name written all over it.

The Central Park that’s safe at night. Our all-time favorite space is Central Park. This Royal
Central Park after hours on Allure of the Seas
Caribbean Oasis class “neighborhood” can be all abuzz by day—especially when the lunchtime crowds converge at Park Café—but it’s a lovely site at night. It’s empty and serene, small lights twinkle among the greenery and cushioned chairs tucked here and there make it a really calming way to end your day.

Then, there are always nooks and crannies on every ship, but you need to round a corner, venture a hallway or do a different deck sometimes to find them. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Bright Side of Rainy Weather

In the spirit of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for this posting, I’m going to borrow a topic from cruisefever.net, a good site for cruise news and tips, pricing out trips, port cams and the like. Their article, “Top 10 Things to Do on a Rainy Day,” has some great suggestions, but I’m going to add some of my own ways to avoid cabin fever on those rainy days at sea:
Make the best of those soggy patches! (Above, "Splish Splash" aqua show on Oasis of the Seas)
Start a journal—I do one each cruise and never regret it. While it’s a bit of work, it’s a way to capture memories, thoughts and observations, and remind you of smaller things you may forget. It’s especially handy when planning your next cruise (or for writing a review of your trip…or a blog like mine!).

The author and spouse release their inner artsy-fartsy and 
have a ball on Oasis of the Seas.
Get a head start on dealing with your photos—If you’ve brought a laptop, download photos from your camera or phone and begin the lovely task of organizing/deleting/editing. You’ll appreciate that you made a dent in this when you get back home.

Roam the ship with your camera—Be goofy and creative. Take photos of you and your companions in the elevator mirror. In the shops holding an “I love cruising” tee-shirt. In front of murals. Do a selfie by photographing your reflection in a glass door. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll notice for the first time once you pull out a camera. See Fun Ship Photography: Releasing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy for some ideas and shots.

Break your routine—Always lunch in the buffet? Try a specialty restaurant—some of them don’t charge for lunch. And Royal Caribbean ships have lunch in the main dining room on sea days, featuring the massive “Tutti” salad bar spread that lets you load up on lettuce—but also meats, veggies, cheeses and great bread (note: the hours are tight; look for them in the ship newsletter).

Book the next one—Visit the sales office to book your next cruise and enjoy a smile when you see the line forming there the last day of the trip.

But the very best way to spend a wet day? Sleep late. Eat late. And just relax. Think of it as saving your energy for when the sun comes back out. And, hey, this is the Caribbean—the sun will come out!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Still Life: Caribbean Love, Humanity and Pride in Marble and Bronze

We certainly didn’t expect to see little Anne Frank in the middle of the Caribbean.
Anne Frank in Aruba: forever the optimist. 

And yet, there she was, in Aruba’s Oranjestad, in Wilhelmina Park, reflecting the island’s Dutch heritage and an enduring symbol of its commitment to tolerance. The peaceful, tropical park is right downtown, and a quick and easy walk from the cruise pier.

The bronze statue by Netherlands artist Joep Coppens shows Anne with hands bound, looking hopefully toward the sky.

Her pedestal is engraved with an inspiring quote from her diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” See more on the statue at Visit Aruba.com.

In fact, there are other great statues on the islands that commemorate love, family, pride of home and the triumph of man’s humanity. Keep your eye out for these:

A call for freedom in St. Croix—A former slave is depicted in bronze by artist Bright Bimpong celebrating emancipation by blowing through a conch shell. Below the bust is a simple inscription on marble: “Freedom.” You can see the statue in the Emancipation Gardens, just off the ship in Frederiksted, in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, a laid-back St. Thomas sibling with a promenade along its glass-like clear waters.

Love in St. Lucia—This startlingly lovely bronze statue in Castries shows a couple in an affectionately warm embrace. The Bank of St. Lucia commissioned island native son Ricky George in 1997 to create this piece named “The Aftermath,” which can be found in front of the Bank of St. Lucia on Bridge Street.
A sweet reminder of what life is all about in St. Lucia.
Celebration of a nation in San Juan. In the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan, five or six blocks from the cruise pier (make a left, then take the promenade along the water), you’ll come across a stirring and powerful fountained monument to the birth of Puerto Rico. The Raices Fountain, constructed in bronze in 1992 by Spanish artist Luis Sanguino, is framed by the bay and on this particular day (see photo below), made even more moving with the help of some dramatic clouds.
Spanish-American pride in San Juan.
Note that the walk along the ancient wall near the fountain has a pretty little garden with other interesting statues—both patriotic and whimsical.

The Queens’ reign over Charlotte Amalie. The trek up the 99 steps to Blackbeard’s Castle in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie is well worth it—whether or not you actually go inside. Outside the castle walls are gorgeous gardens of colorful tropical foliage, its center crowned by The Three Queens, a bronze sculpture commemorating three former female slaves who led a revolt against the Danish government in 1878 on nearby St. Croix. Richard Hallier created the statue in 2005.
The fight against slavery, a panorama of the sea in Charlotte Amalie.

While you’re there, you’ll enjoy a sweeping view of the Charlotte Amalie harbor, and you might just also see your cruise ship.

Then, wander the gardens to see other almost-hidden surprises, like Hallier’s Disneyesque statue of the girl and her birds.

In bronze, as in nature--the beauty of the Virgin Islands.
Musing’s Top Tip: For other fun things to watch for at the ports, see the posting, Watch for the Signs—How the Ports Tease and Tempt You.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then

Someone on a cruisecritic.com forum recently asked readers what they wish they knew about cruising when they first started. What would I answer? How much fun it is!


We started late—our first was in ’05—and it was only because we had the same misconceptions that many people still do. 

Today, 19 cruises later, we can’t help but bemoan all the wasted time—the places we could have gone to, the ships we could have been on. (But not all the calories I would’ve consumed!)

Today, with the lines pumping out so many ships each year, spreading their hulls throughout the world, and their ubiquitous advertising, cruising is ballooning like the ships themselves. Some 24 million people are expected to walk up a gangway somewhere in the world this year, up a whopping 68 percent from just a decade ago.

And chances are, they’ll do it again. In a survey, 85 percent of cruisers planned to take another within the next three years. Which says something you and I already know—once you’ve taken a cruise, you’re hooked.

Why? For some, it’s the chance to port hop. For others, it’s the ultimate in relaxation. For all of us, it’s a great value.

Yet, still only one in four people in the U.S. has taken a cruise.

What’s hot and what’s ahead
Another part of cruising that keeps us coming back is that it’s always changing. Here’s what’s hot today:

Cut off, but connected too. Cruise line investment continues to make it easier for us to reach out and touch someone from the sea to the shore.

Pampered in high style. Demand for the finer liners is on the rise.

Branded a cruise shopper. From Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks and Tiffany on Royal Caribbean to Norman Love on Princess, the lines are bringing on big brands to sell you more onboard.

Just waiting for your order on Navigator of the Seas.
The sea as secondary. The ships are now the destination, with thrills, chills and spills; Broadway shows; and designer shops.

The gift of time. The short port stops are increasing being supplemented by overnight stays.

Bring the whole family. With DreamWorks parades and carousels, spas and casinos, the ships appeal to every age, and whole families are cruising together like never before.

A final word or two
Here are some truisms: 1. Cruising is not for everyone; 2. There’s not much I can do to make up for my lost time.

But what I can do, and what you can do, is spread the word. Champion cruising. Confront those misconceptions. It’s the best way to keep the industry healthy and strong. And that’s good for all of us.

Sources: Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) 2016 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook; 2014 CLIA North America Market Cruise Profile Report, January 2015; Cruisemarketwatch.com