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Friday, January 29, 2016

Some of the Best in Cruising

On the surface, it may seem that one mass market cruise ship is pretty much like another. But there are differences. One cruise line puts its money on entertainment. Another builds better itineraries. Yet another forks out more on food.

Of course, any “best of” is going to be subjective and you might not agree. But, here for your consideration, are some musings on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Princess, and who does what best:
Pre-cruise prep: Princess. Princess wins in sharing info and spurring excitement before the trip. The other lines send only a few emails, which are designed solely to get you to lay out more for drink packages, restaurants, excursions and the spa. Princess does this too, but also provides messages from senior officers, videos of the ship, and other useful info like the specific entertainment you can expect on your trip. See “Pre-Cruise Prep: Who Does it Better?”

Keeping you entertained: Royal Caribbean. Hands down, the winner is Royal Caribbean on its Oasis class ships. Full-run musicals Cats on Oasis of the Seas and Chicago on Allure of the Seas were outstanding, Broadway-quality shows. Get to the theater early for seats that would cost nearly $300 in New York City.
Splish Splash is just one of the aqua shows on board the Oasis. Just don't sit in the front row.
Then there are the aqua shows with high diving; ice skating shows with jumps, leaps and colorful costumes; not to mention superior production shows, comedians, and DreamWorks parades with character photo ops for the kiddies.

Working off that weight: Royal Caribbean. The Oasis class ships win again with the longest jogging track at sea—2.4 laps around equals a mile. There’s a lane for joggers and another for walkers, and the signs overhead will make you smile.

Dining in French Caribbean style on St. Barts.
Seeing the Caribbean: Celebrity. The best itineraries belong to Celebrity. A recent trip on the Constellation took us to the sleepy, not-often-visited St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and ultra-chic French St. Barts.

Loyalty and its rewards: Royal Caribbean. All the lines make efforts to thank cruisers for their repeat business, but some programs are better than others. Once you make it to Royal Caribbean’s Diamond level (80 points), you get the benefit of an elongated happy hour in the Diamond Club lounge* with all the free drinks you could want (from a select menu), as well as three more loaded onto your sea card to use just about anywhere on the ship during that time. A generous program that’s bound to build loyalty.

Basking in the Buffet: Princess. The theme dinners on Princess are great, with specialty foods periodically making an appearance. German night saw all manner of sausages, Black Forest ham, pretzel-style rolls, and linzer and sacher tortes, served alongside an oversized lighted beer stein ice sculpture.

On Italian night, the gondolier-costumed waiters served beverages, while we chowed down on a pasta array, prosciutto, hunks of parmesan and fennel au gratin.

And the breads were a real standout—they varied from sunflower-seed covered to cheese-studded to onion-infused.

What’s more, full dinner is available in the Horizon Court until 11 p.m.; that’s a full two hours beyond Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer and Celebrity’s Oceanview.
 
Cool comfort from Celebrity after a day at port.
A few more at best. Then there’s Celebrity’s welcome glass of champagne on embarkation day and cold towels after a hot day at port…Princess’ decadent chocolate truffle pops at the Captain’s Welcome…its best-at-sea pizza, and salmon every-which-way buffet in Alaska…Royal Caribbean’s pull-out-all-the-stops “tutti” salad bar in the main dining room on sea days… 

Do you have a “best of” to share? Drop us a line!

* Not all Royal Caribbean ships have a Diamond Club lounge; check with the cruise line to see if there’s one on your ship.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Making the Most of Your First Cruise

If you’ve booked your first cruise, you’re probably not quite sure what to expect. But you’ve got a lot invested in this trip and expect a great time. Here are a handful of tips to help ensure you make the most of it:
 
Read, read and read some more. About everything—the ship, the cruising experience, the ports. The more you know, the more you’ll get out of the trip. Be sure to read the forums in cruisecritic.com and other sites (see the posting “Cruising the Web”).
 
Inside or out. Consider an inside or outside room your first trip. Avoiding a balcony room your first cruise is the best way to ensure you get the whole ship experience. We love having a balcony, but it’s so tempting to stay on it at sail-away, on a sunny sea day, coming into port—nearly all the time! Our first trip, we had an outside room and never regretted it. Check out “The Cure for Deck Plan Distress” to help you navigate deck plans and find the right room for your needs.
 
Plan, but don’t plan. You may want to do some planning; for example, if you’re taking the Oasis or Allure of the Seas, you’ll need to schedule your shows before your trip. But you don’t want to plan every minute of your cruise; you may miss out on great spur-of-the-moment experiences.
 
Ice show on the Oasis: worth making plans for
Don’t feel compelled to excursion. For our first visit to San Juan, we booked an excursion. Mistake! The bus trip and Bacardi tour took forever and by the time we got back to town, everything was closing. When the ship sailed away, we knew we were in San Juan, but hadn’t a clue what it looked like.
 
Open for fun. If you got pushed into going, go with an open mind. One of the great things about cruising is that you can have any type of trip you want. Relax or be active. Be social or recluse. Eat to your heart’s content or sweat it out at the gym and spa.
 
Oh-oh. If something goes wrong, know it can happen on any vacation. Try not to judge the whole experience by your one trip.
 
Join in the fun. Some of it may feel silly and may not be to your taste. But getting into the games,
Joining in on the fun at Mardi Gras, Caribbean Princess-style
dancing the disco, singing the karaoke and showing up at the shows will guarantee you a good time. And no worries—you’ll never see your fellow passengers again!

 
Tap the wealth of info around you. Share a table. Seize the moment in a bar. Go to a Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle. You can learn a lot by talking to others on the ship, who may be experienced cruisers.  They can tell you where to go in port, what not to miss and what on the ship is worth seeing or doing.
 
Digital pictures are free. Whether your memory-capturing tool of choice is a smart phone or camera, don’t be stingy with taking photos. You’ll really appreciate it when you get home. I filled a digital frame with tropical pictures and it does wonders on those days of stress and strain.
 
Don’t leave the ship without it. Book your next cruise while you’re still onboard. You may get some great deals, like a super low deposit and shipboard credit. It’s a no-lose because you can get a refund at any time. I share this because I know once you get a taste of cruising, you’ll be lusting after more!

Photos by RJ Greenburg

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

When Bigger is Best: a Review of the Oasis

You notice it most when you’re in port. Oasis is big. It commands attention. And it dwarfs every other ship.

But what does big do for the cruiser?
 
Oasis commands attention
Big means better entertainment. Like its sibling, Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas has top-flight entertainment, starting with the full version of the musical Cats (see tip below). It has a colorful and lively ice show with former championship skaters. An extensive DreamWorks parade.

In short, it has shows and events you just won’t see on any other ship. And some productions, like the aqua show with its mesmerizing high divers, you won’t see on land, either.
 

A dive from above in the Oasis of Dreams aqua show
Big means more activities. Only a ship that’s 1,800 feet long (five football fields!) can have a full-sized carousel (rides are free), wave-making machine for surfing and boogie-boarding, 82-foot long zip line, and two rock-climbing walls with multiple levels of difficulty.
 
Big means more places to call your own. Of the three “neighborhoods” (Promenade, Boardwalk and Central Park), Central Park was the most underutilized and thus, became our favorite. Nighttime, you pretty much have the place to yourself. A glass of wine at the Trellis Bar, surrounded by the (real) tropical foliage and sparkling restaurant lights, is a great way to get away from the bustle.
 
Central Park at night: cushy chairs with your name on them
Big means more food choices. There are 25 restaurants—some will cost you, but others will not. The complimentary venues begin with three main dining rooms, where the entrees are adequate (thankfully, lobster tails still grace the menu on the second formal night), desserts are good and the rolls are superb (try the pumpkin seed ones). Along with the usual fare, the Windjammer buffet at night has some interesting Asian dishes, such tandoori chicken and curry specialties; brie; and an occasional surprise or two.
 
Among the other free options are Park Café for breakfast and lunch (paninis and salads assembled to order); Sorrento’s, where pizzas can also be made to your taste; and the 24-hour Café Promenade with sandwiches and desserts (try the wonderful cheesecake pops).
 
Big means more space to walk off your meals. The covered jogging track on Deck 5 spans the length of the ship and has one lane dedicated to runners and another to walkers. Be sure to check out the cute sayings overhead. One mile is just 2.4 laps. And aside from the occasional crew member using the track as a short cut, you won’t have much competition for foot space.
 
Ironically, even with its vast size, Oasis still runs out of room. Comedy is relegated to a small theater, forcing the comedians to do show, after show, after show on a seven-day cruise—a fact they never fail to mention. Our Crown and Anchor event was held on the helipad, in the sun, on a hot day.
 
When big is not the best. Big doesn’t necessarily mean better food. While the food on Oasis is okay, it doesn’t get the same emphasis that you’ll see on some other cruise lines. Royal Caribbean focuses on activities and entertainment and for that reason, perhaps, the crowd on Oasis was decidedly younger than on other cruise line ships.
 
And big means more people and longer lines. For the most part, Oasis has crowd control down to a science. Getting back onboard after a port visit always involved some kind of line, but it moved swiftly. Amazingly, disembarkation took significantly less time than it did when we sailed on Celebrity’s Constellation, a ship half of Oasis’ size.
 
Despite the occasional inconveniences and unremarkable food, what you can count on is that Oasis of the Seas is big on fun.

Musing’s Top Tip: The Oasis production of Cats is fabulous and shouldn’t be missed. However, it’s not as easy to follow as traditional musicals like Oklahoma or West Side Story. To ensure you enjoy the show, consider doing some homework before you leave home. We did and it made all the difference:

Courtesy of Wikipedia
See the movie version. We rented the 1998 version of Cats with Elaine Paige and John Mills for free at our library. You can also check out movie clips on YouTube. Once you get familiar with the music, you’ll really be looking forward to seeing it on the ship.

Read the plot summary. You can find it on catsthemusical.com or read the story line in Wikipedia.
 
Download the lyrics. Some of the lyrics are quite clever but it can be hard to make them out at times during the singing. You can download the lyrics for free at metrolyrics.com or songlyrics.com.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Have Yourself a Cruise Christmas

If your ideal Christmas is on a liner bound for the Caribbean, this posting’s for you. Here are 10 ways to make yours a Cruise Christmas—whether or not you’re actually going to be on a ship:
 
Take a cruise over Christmas! Bask in the lights when you’re not in the sun. The ships do it up with trees and lights, poinsettias and more. Get in the mood by doing up your door.
Oasis of the Seas at Christmas
Book one today for tomorrow. Got some time off this holiday season? Use it for planning. The best way to start the New Year is with a cruise already lined up! See the posting, Cruising the Web, for the best sites for research.

Owl ornament from Bonaire
Buy a gift for the cruiser on your list. See Christmas Shopping for the Cruiser for a slew of ideas for your favorite mariner.

Don the port ornaments. Time to take out those ceramics bells and baubles from Cozumel and painted gourds from Bonaire.

Conjure up the Caribbean with eggnog. Make up a batch of chaudo (eggnog) with a splash of island rum. 
 
Speaking of booze...Is there St. Maarten guavaberry, blue curacao or Jamaican rum gathering dust in your closet? Time for a toast!

Pull out the popcorn. Those cruise videos will look great on your big screen TV.

Do above, but invite that you’ll-never-get-me-to-cruise friend or family member.  Who knows—when they see how much fun you had, you might just get him/her to try one.

Month-by-month memories. It’s fast and easy to make a calendar with your cruise photos on many of the sites out there. Our favorite is Costco’s—you get a really nice one for $10 and can even pick it up at your local store.

Kick off the New Year with a blog. It’s easy and fun. And did I mention, it’s also free? Check out Blogger to begin sharing your stories in the Google world.

For this final posting of 2015, Musing wishes you for the coming year the brightest sunshine, the bluest skies, the calmest seas and an endless horizon of possibilities.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Weird, the Cute and the Funny of Holidaying at Sea

There’s no doubt about it: the holidays bring out our fun and funky side. Cashiers in fuzzy antlers. Blown-up lawn Santas bobbing in the breeze. Mistletoe hung where you can see.
 
This playful side comes along for the ride when we cruise, too. Here, for your amusement, are some of the weird, cute and funny things we’ve seen on past trips:
 
Just Plain Weird

Pilgrims on parade. On the Celebrity Constellation, some of the crew dressed as pilgrims and aimlessly wandered around the pool deck, doling out “Happy Thanksgivings” to oblivious lotion-lathered sun bathers.

A turkey of a greeting. Holland America’s Noordam apparently thought if a turkey was good enough to eat, it was good enough to greet. The ship mounted a fully cooked turkey—in all its winged and legged glory—on a pedestal at the MDR entrance, beneath a “Happy Thanksgiving” banner.
 
Cute and Made for the Camera

The girl and the manger. Mostly, Christmas decorations in the islands have a surreal look, with garlands and ornaments competing with hibiscus and bougainville. But one scene in Oranjestad, Auba took us completely by surprise as the little one (photo, right) posed for her mother’s tablet and we snuck out a camera of our own.
 
Even the cactus got dressed. With evergreens scarce along the Caribbean shore, one Bonaire family improvised—with eye-catching results. We use this photo (below) for December each year in our homemade calendars (see What to do With Those Cruise Trip Photos).
 

Funny Then and Still Funny Now

Santa yesterday, today and tomorrow. This one falls in the there’s-always-one-in-every-crowd category. On one pre-Christmas trip on Allure of the Seas, an elderly, white-bearded, pot-bellied man used his looks ad nauseam. He showed up every day of that seven-day trip in a red stocking hat. Wonder how many times he was asked, “Where did you leave Rudolf?”
 
Sparkle and Sizzle
 
Pretty. Festive. During the holidays, the ships sparkle like never before. There are massive Christmas trees brimming with colored balls on the Allure’s Promenade, lighted garlands lining the Caribbean Princess’ piazza, poinsettias climbing the Grand Staircase on the Constellation. The Constellation fills a common area with a huge gingerbread village. Stateroom doors brim with bows and baubles. And best of all, everyone’s in the mood for a party!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Shopping for the Cruiser

Help has arrived to find the perfect gift for the cruiser on your list! It’s not hard to find something for the cruising aficionado—deciding from all the choices is the challenge. Just a handful that come immediately to mind:
 
One if Buy Land

The practical stuff. Tablets and readers are the perfect choice for those who like to laze around the pool. And who can take a trip without a camera (or the smart phone version)?


St. Maarten's guavaberry liqueur dressed
for the holidays
Want to spend less? Walkie-talkies, which you can pick up at Walmart or a sports store, will help cruisers stay connected to their companion. 
Or, help them hide away that smart phone with Home Depot’s neat new travel safe.

Want to spend even less than that? With some colorful luggage tags, they’ll be able to tell their black bag from someone else’s.
 
Or, go nautical (or “nausical,” as they say in retail) with something for their home or to wear. Like a print of a palm tree or beach scene for their wall.  Blue-and-white striped something or other. Charm bracelet with an anchor, sunfish or sand dollar.
 
The fun stuff. There are gifts that keep on giving, like Cruise Travel or Porthole magazines. Or Cruise Critic logo stuff like lanyards, bags and bottles.
 
Keep them in the mood with calypso or steel drum, Jimmy Buffett or Harry Belafonte CDs.
 
More work but no less appreciated—turn their cruise photos into something else. A photo book or calendar. Mug or mouse pad.

Two if Buy Sea
 
The best place to get a gift for the cruiser may just be while you’re on the ship. There are chains by the inch, and the clothing and jewelry sales; see Catch ‘Em While You Can. You’ve got a ton of choice in the ship’s logo stuff—from mugs to model ships and teddy bears too.

The ports also have a plethora of possibilities. Food and booze are always welcome; see Of Chocolate, Rum and Spice: Food Souvenirs of the Caribbean

Then there’s the ubiquitous Cariloha and its clothes and such made from bamboo, and the color-changing tchotchkes of Del Sol.

And you can still find some handmade crafts if you know where to look—from mahogany bowls in Roatan to baskets in Dominica to ceramics in Cozumel; see Caribbean Crafts by Way of China.

But that ultimate gift? A new cruise, of course!
 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Catch ‘Em While You Can

Once you’ve been on a cruise or two or three, you start looking for the little treats you’ve come to expect onboard that you don’t often find on shore. Some are well advertised but for others, you need a keen eye to find. Here are a few that fall in both camps:
 
The daily drink. The ships usually have one tropical drink a day at a reduced price. You can find it in the ship’s newsletter, or sometimes on display at bars or tables at the buffet. Some recent ones from Allure of the Seas, all $6.75 and you can keep the glass: Bahama Mama; Paradise Punch; Red, White & Blue; Pirate’s Hurricane; and Caribbean Tea.
 
Dress better, eat better. If you have any meal in the main dining room, let it be on formal night. Because that’s when you’ll find filet mignon, lobster and the MDR’s best meals. On a seven-day trip, they’re typically the second and fifth night. Check the newsletter to make sure.
 
Dazzle by the inch. The chains-by-the-inch vendor seems to be a staple on many ships. I bought a bracelet on Celebrity’s Constellation and had its clasp changed on the Caribbean Princess. The gold- and silver-plated chains come in many styles, are pretty and durable, the prices are reasonable (starts at $1 an inch) and of course, the best part is you can have them sized exactly the way you want.
 
Unfortunately, where and when the vendor shows up is not often advertised. He or she will pop up once or twice a cruise for about an hour in a common area, such as a hallway or outside the buffet. You can try asking Guest Relations, but if that fails, you’ll just need to luck out and stumble on it.
 
The $10 crush. What does $10 buy you these days? A lot, when you catch these floating sales. They tend to be advertised in the ship newsletter, but only last an hour or two, so you’ll need to plan around them. Few warnings: they’re popular and can get crowded. If the ship hosts it in a small area, be prepared to compete with your fellow passengers. (Any Bostonians? Think Filenes’ “Running of the Brides.”)

Also, as you would imagine, you get what you pay for. The jewelry, scarves, purses and such are not the highest quality. But can fill a quick need or serve as a souvenir.
 
Sidewalk sales. The ship stores have regular sales outside the shops, with the best ones occurring toward the end of the trip. Again, the newsletter will let you know when and where they are. Some examples from the Allure: up to 75 percent off sale of Citizen, Bulova, Gucci, Movado and Fossil watches; 40 percent off Sophia Fiori and Effy  jewelry; Tag Heuer watch sale; and Royal Caribbean logo items.
 
Hook it and book it now. One of the best deals are the ones for future cruises. Many of the ships let you book the next one while you’re still onboard and entice you to do so with lower deposits and shipboard credits. They also give you the option of applying the low deposit and cruise credits toward some trip you plan in the future. 

The one or two sales folks on the ship have scheduled hours and as you might guess, as the cruise winds down, they get that much busier, so plan accordingly. It’ll be worth your while—what better way to end a cruise than knowing you’ve got another already lined up?