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Friday, February 17, 2017

Squeezing an SUV into a VW Beetle or How to Get What You Pack into Your Stateroom

How small is a cruise ship stateroom?

Well, the average U.S. hotel room is 300 square feet.¹

College dorm room? Around 180.²

And the ship stateroom? Sadly, about 175.¹

Smaller than a dorm room.
When you consider how much you’re going to pack into that room—play clothes, formal clothes, travel clothes, electronics, and so on—you can’t help but wonder, how is that going to work?

Luckily, the cruise lines have managed to work a fair amount of storage space into that bite-sized room that’s going to be your floating home for a week. Some ships have more than others, but here are some tips for finding a spot for all that you’ve got:

Off the door and into the closet. Carnival recently made waves with some restrictions on over-the-door shoe organizers. You can get around this by bringing the kind that fit inside the closet (it has hooks on the top that hang from the bar). Yeah, it eats into your space for hanging clothes, but you’d be surprised how much extra storage this adds. Three of these (one for clothing and two for shoes/knickknacks) fit very comfortably in Princess’ large closets and even (though snugly) in the smaller Royal Caribbean ones.

This organizer is perfect for shirts and
underwear and folds into a compact package
for your suitcase. Get it at
Target or Walmart.
Look under the bed. There’s a lot of space down there. When closet and drawer space is tight, consider keeping half of your clothes in your suitcases stored under the bed. About midway through the trip, I do a swap—take the clean clothes out of the suitcase and onto the shelves, and store the dirty ones back under the bed.

Climbing the walls. You don’t need to take up space on your night table—your walls function as a note-holding device. Just throw a few magnets in your suitcase before leaving home.

Bare the frig. On embarkation day, ask your room steward to take all those high-priced drinks and snacks that you won’t touch out of the frig, and use it for the wine or water you bring, or snacks from the buffet. Some cruise lines are now just providing an empty frig.

Safe and sound. Don’t forget about the safe—in addition to wallets, keys and jewelry, it’s also a great place to store smartphones, smaller tablets and anything else you’re not likely to use as you cruise.

Pack your smarts. If you’re flying to the cruise, you’ve got built-in over-packing protection—it’s called baggage cost. But if you’re driving to the port, there’s nothing stopping you from stuffing your bags—except self-control. What’s worked for me—uh, sort of—is to pack, and then repack, saying over and over in my head, “am I really going to wear this?” I pull out a few things…and then still take too much.

²WSJ, 8/12

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Getting to 100 and How Cruising Keeps Surprising

Welcome to a milestone. This is post number 100, born from 20 cruises, 14 ships over 10 years on 4 different lines. Number of Caribbean islands? Too many to count

Musing About Cruising started the day the old Pacific Princess—otherwise known as the “Love
Boat”—in August 2013, made its final voyage—to that dry dock in the sky.

While my old Saturday night companion didn’t do much to get me cruising, once I started many decades later, I looked back at the show through different eyes.

And what’s kept me embarkation-bound over the last decade is cruising’s ability to keep surprising:

In the beginning
The magnificent midnight buffet. Alas, it’s been gone quite a while now, but what a show! Celebrity’s Constellation filled the main dining room with rows and rows of eye candy. Ice sculptures and vegetable carvings everywhere! Breads made into villages! Candy made into chess sets! Elaborate cakes and pastries by the many dozens! It was so spectacular that they let us in early just to take photos.

Feast for the eyes at midnight--gone but not forgotten
Black tie waiters and stellar stewards. On our first cruise, the room steward ran down the hallway just to open the stateroom door for us. The formally dressed waiters did napkin tricks and told us stories of their native lands.

Then later on
Chicago, Cats, the ice and aqua shows. When our infatuation with Celebrity wore off and we itched
to try other lines, we gave our nightlife to Royal Caribbean. Broadway shows, ice dancing and high diving—all for no cost and with the best seats in the house.

Ice and delight on the Navigator of the Seas
Off course, but oh, so worth it. We dabbled in some new ports not found on many itineraries and discovered some real gems. The “B” in the ABCs—the pristine Bonaire with its blue glass-like waters; the sleepy and lovely St. Croix; the chic hilly yacht and beautiful-people mecca of St. Barts—all held new wonder.
Laid back and lovely is the Virgin Island of St. Croix
A Northerly course. While we cringed at the idea of a cruise where we couldn’t wear shorts, the otherworldly landscape and quaint frontier towns of Alaska more than made up for it. The eerie silence, ice chunk-filled waters and frozen walls of Glacier Bay; the heavy fog looming over the mountain tops; the crisp and piercing clean air that penetrated our down coats—these memories will remain with us always.
The icy waters of Glacier Bay from the balcony of the Golden Princess 
And then there’s now
Making Diamond Club. Getting to Royal Caribbean’s Diamond Club was quite a thrill. The best loyalty club of the mass market lines gives us unlimited free drinks during their extended happy hour. White wine under the white lights in Allure’s nearly deserted Central Park at night has become a cruise highlight.
Central Park under the lights
Surging wave of technology—From the robotic bars of Anthem and Harmony of the Seas, to the touch screen room finders on Royal Caribbean ships, to Princess’ shipboard smart phone app that makes walkie-talkies obsolete, the ships are, thankfully, at last, wholeheartedly embracing the digital age. Even the customs folks are getting into the act with the newly launched passport app.

Just a bit more
Then there’s finding a new port that was better than you expected, like the gorgeous calm beaches and spectacular foliage of Carnival’s own Mahogany Bay in Roatan…or doing something new at ports you’ve been to, like picking up paintings for a song in Royal Caribbean’s Labadee…or watching ports grow and change, like the ever-lively Philipsburg, St. Maarten, with its new modern waterfront area with a nostalgic Dutch-style automat.
Mahogany Bay--Carnival's paradise for day
What’s coming next
In the past 10 years, I’ve not run out of things to share, guide and amuse on the world of Caribbean cruising…and the topics just seem to keep floating to the surface.

So, if you promise to keep on reading, you can be sure I’ll keep on writing.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Princess Plus: a Review of the Regal Princess

The Regal Princess—the newest in the Princess fleet—takes what we love about its ships and betters it:

More pizzazz in the piazza. The Regal’s stunning atrium is way bigger, giving a spacious and open feel to the hub of the ship. It’s all done up in marble and glass, with lounges that jut towards the center and tables positioned to eye all the action.

And action there is. In turns, there was a steel drum, varying bands and juggler, as well as the Captain’s Welcome champagne waterfall, a balloon drop—and on our trip, even a groom whisking his bride across the dance floor.

The International Café is as good as always, with its 24-hour array of terrific quiches, sandwiches, salads and desserts.

A robust buffet with better navigation. Princess has always had the best buffet at sea, with quality unmatched by the other mass market lines. This new Horizon Court stretches out on both sides of the ship, with a Pastry Shop in between—think “H” shaped.

Part of the buffet, “Horizon Court Bistro,” has lighter fare (Note: you can tell the difference because the furniture is white while in the regular buffet, it’s brown. This is important because my first time there, I got seriously lost.)

There’s never congestion or seating issues, and the options are seemingly endless—from American fare to Asian, some even with a bit of spice.

To this foodie’s delight, there were was papaya and smoked fish such as mackerel, Mahi-Mahi and trout at breakfast (there was even an “everything chocolate” section the last morning). There were good choices at lunch, but dinner is where the really special stuff made an appearance: poached salmon; shrimp; cheeses such as Stilton, Port Salut, Havarti and camembert; and dried figs, dates and apricots.

Desserts at lunch and dinner—such as opera cake, peach cobbler, various mousse-y-cakes, pineapple

upside down—were nearly always of good quality. And you could always rely on fabulous rolls at every meal, which varied from sunflower seed-studded to focaccia.

Love that Norman. The Norman Love desserts are knockouts—as yummy to eat as to look at. The main dining room had several—a kind of tiered chocolate, merengue thing, and a chocolate and pistachio dome. The Crown Grill featured a milk chocolate peanut butter bar.

A dome of Love in the main dining room.
MUTS is now a must. The Movie Under the Stars big screen is not just bigger than previous ships, but the picture is much sharper. We were really taken aback by the difference. It’s now actually worth watching a movie you’ve been wanting to see on that screen. And you get a blanket and popcorn to boot.

What could be improved
Like all the cruise lines and all their ships, not everything is perfect:

MDR a mixed bag. The main dining room food was fair, with a few decent dishes amid a sea of mediocrity and sometimes, dishes that just weren’t quite right. A mixed seafood skewer early on and lobster tail on formal night were well prepared and flavorful. But the red snapper and beef Wellington were neither.

Design flaws. The Regal has some of the same weirdness in layout of other Princess ships, with challenges getting to a few of the dining rooms. 

And the jogging track on Deck 18 was clearly an afterthought. While it has wide separate lanes for joggers and runners, it’s a small track (seven laps=a mile) and when we tried to use it one day, we were shooed away, as the crew was doing maintenance there—at 6 p.m.

A small room with a view. The standard balcony staterooms are smaller on the Regal than the Caribbean Princess. If you can afford it, it’s a good ship to spring for a mini-suite, a Princess specialty. If you pick the right ship, itinerary and time of year, you’ll not pay much more for a mini-suite, yet the difference is enormous. Think full-sized couch vs. two chairs. More storage space than we could even fill.
The mini-suite feels like a hotel room. Pick your trip right
and you won't pay much more than for just a balcony
The bottom line
Princess still deserves the crown for the best all-around cruise experience and the Regal delivers it best. Even the “Love Boat” “crew” thinks so.

Find this shrine to the TV show on the Regal Princess, Deck 5, outside Guest Services; the six
original cast members are the ship's godparents. 
Musing’s Top Tip: Princess now has an app you can use with the ship’s wi-fi at no cost to access your account balance, daily activities and more. No downloading is needed; simply put your phone on “Airplane mode” while you’re on board and bring up the cruise line’s website.

You can also text your cruise companions while you're on the ship, but this part of the app has to be downloaded with real wi-fi from Android or Apple online stores. You can do this for free if you download the app before the trip. See Princess' website for details.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What is Amber Cove Great For?

Carnival’s newest cruise-line-made resort in the Dominican Republic is all about the pool. It’s huge, curvy and appealing, with loungers built right into the water, a swim-up bar, waiters roaming with trays of coconut-shelled drinks and non-stop piped-in music.

There are two long and winding tubular water slides—one open and the other closed—and a slew of water sports to choose from, as well as a water park kiddie area. You can rent a cabana that sits over the ocean. Or, zip-line across the resort.

What it’s good for
In grand Carnival style, the place is nicely foliaged, with lots of tropical flowers and palms—we even saw a bunch of bananas hanging from one. And all this is quite scenic against the island’s lush green mountains, making for some good picture-taking.

You can get up close to flowers like plumeria and Golden Trumpet for macro shots, or do a panorama of the surrounding ocean from the Sky Bar atop the resort’s highest point. Steps or a gravel ramp will take you there.

What it’s okay for
The shopping, at this writing, has a feel of not-quite-there yet. The gateway to the resort brings you into the usual perfumes-and-liquor shop, but it does have some local rums, coffee, candy and other food stuffs.

It opens to a huge plaza that’s screaming for vendor stalls—but there aren’t any. There are a few colorful masks for decoration, a faux rock waterfall and museum-ish panel display of “Republica Dominicana” highlights, like the details on the resort’s namesake gemstone. The plaza is rimmed with about a dozen or so stores—jewelry and souvenir shops, and a small artisan market.

What it’s not good for
The beach. Because there is none.

Alas, this alone makes it pale in comparison to Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s own resort on the other side of the island, where the beach is positively luscious in its beauty and cove-conducing calm waters.

While you can get to a beach from Amber Cove through an excursion, there’s nothing like being able to saunter off your ship and find paradise at your feet.

Bottom line
With its pretty setting and modern facility, Amber Cove has a lot of potential and over time, will most likely grow. In the meanwhile, if you’re into the pool experience, you’ll find a lot to like there.

If you’re not a pool person, pack along your camera. Shooting the flora and oversized A-m-b-e-r C-o-v-e letters against the sea is more than worth getting off the ship for.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What's a-Musing About Cruising?

 …When the captain of one of the world’s largest ships imitates the acrobat coming on stage next.

…When the captain of another huge ship drives its little tender into a port to passengers’ applause.

…When water sloshing around a pool one windy day causes someone to say, “I didn’t know this ship had a wave pool.”

…When an elderly woman grips the arm of her son, saying, “I must be getting old; I’m feeling so unsteady.” “Ma,” says her son. “The seas are six feet—everyone’s feeling unsteady.”

…When you can’t understand why your sea card isn’t opening your door—until you discover you’ve got the wrong stateroom.

...When, during the “Newlywed” takeoff, a husband says the most unusual place he and wife “did it” was in a casket at a funeral home.

…When my cruise companion, who shrinks in horror from the spotlight, thinks he’s far enough from the stage to avoid the comedian’s eye…and then finds out he isn’t!

When there’s a bear in my coffee and a monkey in my room

... Drinks are a-blinking in colored lights

...Balloons drop for people to pop

...Kids in bow tie and teens in tie-dye

...A guy in a kilt, women dressed to the hilt

...The crowd going wild for “YMCA,” the Love Boat “crew” dancing disco today, Ft. Lauderdale beachgoers waving us away…

In fact, there’s a lot that’s a-Musing About Cruising. Don’t you think?

Happy holidays, happy cruising and see you in 2017!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas…On Your Favorite Ship

Cruise ships are eye candy every day. But add boughs to the bow and Santas to the stern, and you get a whole new and joyous level of wonderful.

Here are just a few of the ways the ships get decked out for the holidays:

Oh, Christmas tree, how lovely are thy ornaments. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship, Allure, certainly wow with towering trees and snowflakes dangling along the Promenade.
Leave it to the Oasis of the Seas to do up Christmas in a big way
Suddenly seeing red. When we boarded the Caribbean Princess one early December, lighted garlands lined the piazza. Then, one day, live poinsettias popped up out of nowhere. And were everywhere.

Hung where you can see. We started our Regal Princess cruise this November 27, but December 1 turned on all the lights. While we lunched in Horizon Court, wreaths were literally getting hung over our heads.

The guests join in. From dolled-up doors to Santa hats, some cruisers have their own special ways of getting into the mood.

The most marvelous decor of all. Nothing beats the magic when it takes a village to make  gingerbread. The display on the Oasis is great, but it's Celebrity’s Constellation that takes the cake.

A fantasy wonderland in gingerbread aboard the Constellation

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Kinda Kooky Cruiser Christmas Gifts

Looking for something a bit different for the hard-to-please cruiser on your list? You’ve come to the right place. Check out these kinda kooky, kinda wacky and even a few practical gifts that will stand out. Maybe you’ll even want them for yourself.

What’s outside is almost as good as what’s inside. No bottle of guavaberry should be without a Santa hat. Find these cuties in the Sint Maarten shop in Philipsburg. Or buy the liquor online.

Send your family on a cruise all year long. If only through the pages of Porthole.

Float their boat and beer. Know someone who likes to take their brew to the beach? They won’t lose it to the sea with this little beer saver. Find it in the Navigator of the Seas’ gift shop.

Bring the bedding to your buddy. You and partner slept like babies on your Royal Caribbean cruise? Must have been the bedding. Do it again, this time in your own home, with linens from the cruise line. Rocking motion’s extra.

When monopoly is a good thing. Yes, there’s still such a thing as board games, but this one you won’t find anywhere but Philipsburg. You might say St. Maarten has a monopoly on it.

They can wear it on their sleeve. Someone passionate about cruising? Deck them out with a Cruise Critic tee shirt from their online store.

Bring on the bling. This is the perfect jewelry travel case—it’s got separate zipped sleeves and the whole thing folds into a tight compact case. It’s only 10 bucks, but you’ll need to fight the crowds at the onboard $10 sale to buy one. Get there early; they go fast.

Captain Mickey on your tree. Hang Captain Mickey Mouse by his ear with an ornament for your holiday tree. Find it at Disney’s online store.

Book it. This will take some work, but send your best cruise photos to Costco, Shutterfly or online others that will make a coffee table book out of it. It’s great for bringing back memories and working on that you’ll-never-catch-me-cruising person you happen to know.

Missed out on the photos? Disney will let you order photos from your trip even after you’ve walked down that gangway—but you’ve got to act fast. In six weeks, deleted!

Get those pictures out of your smart phone. And into something your cruiser will like. Think calendar, mug or mouse pad.

For the kid or kid at heart. I mentioned this one in the posting, “Keeping the Cruise Going After It’s Gone: Part II”: Princess’ adorably smiling stuffed captain teddy bear. Best yet, if you don’t have a Princess cruise on the horizon, you can pick one up from the cruise line’s website.

Clip ‘em. Walk by the pool on any ship and your eye will be caught by bright clips some folks use to keep their towel from shimmying down their chair. Amazon has a bunch of choices—they’re cute, functional and cheap. Some of them look like flip-flops or sea shells. Great for stuffing those stockings--or keeping them up.

Tag ‘em. Another Amazon cheapie but goodie are plastic holders for the cruise luggage tags you print up when you do online check in. We just bought some and they’re a perfect fit for the tags, and come with metal loops for slipping around your suitcase handles. Beats stapling any day.

Can’t end without this one. The best gift of all is the one they want the most—another trip on the wide open sea. And while you’re at it, give one to me!

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Must-Do Excursion in St. Thomas

The must-do excursion in St. Thomas? Going to St. John.

St. John, sister island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is probably one of the most-photographed places in the Caribbean. For good reason. It’s flat-out gorgeous.

Yet, it’s surprisingly under the radar, though the Mamas and the Papas found themselves there. During their very early (and broke) days, they camped on the island until they wore out their welcome and ended up back in St. Thomas.

Kicking up some spray
The cruise lines run excursions to the island, ferrying you over in a 20ish-minute ride along the St. Thomas coastline, past massive mansions peering down from their hillside perch.

Ours was an invigorating ride, as we sat on benches on the narrow ferry deck, hovering over our cameras as the boat kicked up some spray.

There was narration, but we would’ve got more out of the PA system in a Manhattan subway station.

The road up and around
In Cruz Bay, St. John’s compact little harbor, the blue water sparkled in the sun. A few shops and cafes lined the street along the water, but they’d have to wait. Our open air van was ready for us.

From there, we climbed and climbed, winding round and round, along an impossibly narrow road, white-knuckled from our vise-like grip on the handle bars.

And then paradise
The van pulled over four or five times, each overlook more stupendous than the next. Like a theater curtain going up, the tropical brush would open up to nearly empty pristine beaches, un-built up, unspoiled, nature in the raw. 

Paradise along the road.
But Trunk Bay is where I gasped. 

The horseshoe-shaped beach, with its unblemished sand and gently flowing water, fringed by foliage—all against a panorama of ocean dotted by islands and small sailboats—was just too much beauty to absorb. See what we saw in this brief video clip.

The magnificent Trunk Bay.
Chic shopping to end the day
Our tour of the island ended all too soon and we found ourselves back in Cruz Bay with just enough time for a quick peek into a few of the cutesy boutiques at Mongoose Junction Shopping Center on North Shore Road. The shopping is predictably dear—you’ll find no bargains here. But it’s fun to browse just the same.
Bring lots of dollars to shop at Mongoose.
The last word
Laurance Rockefeller, conservationist and philanthropist, and son of John D., appreciated the uniqueness of St. John enough to buy up most of it. Then in the ‘50s, he gave it away—to the U.S. government, with the caveat that the land never be developed.

Today, it’s a National Park, which guarantees that when you finally make it there, you’ll find it just as I’ve described it.

Musing’s Top Tip: If nature calls when you get off your bus ride, behind the shops at Mongoose Junction Shopping Center is a separate building with clean bathrooms. If you can’t find it, one of the shop folks can direct you.