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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Packing It In

I love to cruise. But boy, do I hate to pack.              
Fighting the urge to take too much. Afraid to take too little. What if it’s really hot? Or we get rain? Did we decide on a beach? Are we doing formal night? And on and on.
After 16 cruises, I’m sorry to report that it’s only gotten a tad easier. If you’re like me and look forward to packing as much as a root canal, you may appreciate a few tips, accumulated from many trips of taking the right—and wrong—things along:
List your to-dos. It works at work and it works at home. Simple but invaluable. My cruise to-do list has on it things like: book a hotel for the night before, online check-in, print up luggage tags, turn off the water, stop the newspaper and mail, tell the neighbor we’ll be gone, forward the landline to the cell.
Digitally document. If you do a lot of cruising like we do, it really helps to put your packing list on the computer. You can easily add and subtract over time. We print up the lists and cross off each item as it makes it into the suitcase. This just about guarantees you won’t forget anything.
Pack early and often. The next best way to make sure you don’t forget anything is to start early. Pull things aside that you’re taking and either load them into the suitcase or put them in a box or crate for packing later.
Forget cotton. Alas, I don’t follow my own advice. Warmth and cotton were made for each other. But I pay for it; I spend weeks ironing my stuff. Only to pull it out of the suitcase wrinkled as a prune. And do the whole thing again the next trip.
Don’t leave home without it. Some little extras we always take are top of the list—a big portable digital clock so we can see the time from everywhere in the stateroom, walkie-talkies, stainless steel coffee mugs, little reading light and water tumblers.

Stashing Your Stuff
Not as much of a torture but a challenge just the same is finding a place to put all this stuff once you get on board:
Do like Russian nesting dolls. When you put your suitcases under the bed, put the small one inside the big one. That frees up space under the bed.
Dealing with dirty wear. Once the laundry gets to a certain point, I take the small suitcase out of the big one and store the laundry in the big suitcase. That frees up closet space. All this moving around can feel like a shell game, but how else to pack it all into the little hovel they call a stateroom?
Closet help. We bring a shoe organizer—the kind that hangs from the bar in the closet. It provides handy storage for those small things—batteries, charging cables, sunglasses—oh, and shoes, too.
Have any great packing/unpacking tips of your own? Let us know!


Friday, February 6, 2015

Sizing Up The Ships

Big truck or small car, mansion or cottage, sub or tea sandwich—size matters. And so it is with a cruise ship. Whether you choose a smaller one—like the Celebrity’s Constellation at 90,000 tons—or the world’s biggest, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas at 225,282—it will shape your vacation.

The biggest ship in the world
has 16 decks
Why should this be, you might wonder? After all, both ships have dining choices (free and otherwise), pools, theaters, shops, a library and casino. They both have a mind-numbing number of stateroom categories, room stewards to meet your needs, and plenty of public rooms and outside decks to hang out in. 

But there are differences and it helps to know about them when planning a trip. Consider these pros and cons:

Big Ship, The Pros

Wide variety of facilities and activities. Nothing beats the Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship, Allure of the Seas, in places to be in and things to do. There are the three “neighborhoods” of the Promenade, Boardwalk and Central Park, with their eating places, shops and entertainment. The ship’s got onboard surfing, zip-lining, miniature golf, ice skating and rock-climbing.

Myriad food choices. More space means more room for restaurants, from fine dining to buffets, cafes and pubs. Some free restaurants on the Allure are so underutilized the ship actually promotes them.
Lots of exercise opportunities. If you don’t get enough exercise just walking to your room on a ship the size of the Allure, you’ve got other options. There’s a gym with plenty of machines and exercise classes. And a jogging/walking track that runs the length of the ship. Just do 2.4 laps and you’ve conquered a mile.  

Big Ship, The Cons

Lots of exercise opportunities. On a ship like the Allure, you’re going to get walking in—whether you like it or not. Even if your room is as close to the elevator as you can get. As on most ships, the theater’s on one end and the main dining room’s on the other.

After the parade on Allure's Promenade
Forget learning how to navigate the ship. Trying to find the same bar twice on the Allure is truly a challenge. At least there are lifelines—digital maps in the lobbies.   
Sometimes, crowds. Though the big ships have many more passengers, there’s also more room for them to spread out. But there will be times you’re woefully aware you’re not the only one on the ship. Like the muster drill. Parades on the Promenade. Disembarkation. Peak meal hours in the buffet. The Allure even has a crew member doing crowd control in the buffet at times.

Small Ship, The Pros

Mastering the ship is a short learning curve. Perhaps the best part of a smaller ship is that fumbling is at a minimum. You can have that baby mastered in a day.
Everything’s easier. Because there are few crowds, everything’s easier, from finding a parking space at your embarkation port to getting a seat in the buffet to getting off the ship.
You’ll know thy neighbor. There’s a more intimate feel on a smaller ship. Because there’s less room 
Cozy table for two in the Constellation's
Ocean Liners specialty restaurant
to spread out, you keep seeing the same people. Eventually, you start talking to them. Before long, you’re friends.

Doors are open at more ports. Some ports can’t accommodate ships the size of Oasis class. Smaller ships can get into more places.
There’s less to do, so you'll do more. Unlike a larger ship, you’re not likely to leave saying, “Oh, we forgot to try…” You take advantage of more of the ship.

Small Ship, The Cons

See Big Ship, The Pros above.
The bottom line? You’ll have a great time no matter what size ship you choose. And if you go with a small one, you’ve got a built-in excuse for booking your next cruise, and try a big one the next time around.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Off Course and Worth It

They’re not on many cruise itineraries. But if you find St. Croix, Bonaire or St. Barts on one—grab it. It’ll be worth it. Here, in brief, is why:
St. Croix
Unlike St. Thomas, its overbearing sibling, St. Croix is reassuringly laidback. The cruise terminal is at Frederiksted, known as “Freedom City,” founded in 1751 and the island’s second-largest town (the capital is Christiansted, a short drive from the port).
Frederiksted’s lovely Strand Street promenade is perfect for enjoying the crystal-clear waters and rocky shore without getting your feet wet. Birds and crabs do their thing among the craggy shoreline, and unbroken conch shells lay untouched amid other natural debris washed up by the sea. Alas, it’s a crime—literally—to take any of these as souvenirs.

There’s a veterans park along the waterfront, honoring the various branches and those who have served, as well as a number of 18th century homes.
Just outside the pier is a plaza, where you’ll find vendors selling mostly craft jewelry and art objects. The plaza is remarkable for its large clock and statue of slave rebellion leader Buddhoe blowing a conch shell in a dramatic gesture of freedom).
There’s also a small beach just a short walk from the pier, but the water is rocky underfoot and more suited for sunbathing than swimming.

Bonny Bonaire is one of the ABC islands where the water is so clear and fish so plentiful that you can enjoy aquarium-worthy gazing right from the pier. As we stood looking down, vivid blue and green fish meandered by. The promenade along the shore offers spectacular views of the water’s palate of blue hues. Pass homes and hotels fronted with palms and cactus, and adornments to remind you of the island’s Dutch past.
If you head toward the vendors, you’ll think the ship took a wrong turn and landed in Scarsdale. Vendors’ wares are more made-at-home than made in China. Think painted soaps and needlework vs. t-shirts and ashtrays. The main shopping street has some tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.
And like St. Croix, you’ll enjoy the rare experience of being the only ship in port.  

St. Barts
With no pier large enough to support a cruise ship, tendering is the only way to get to St. Barthélemy, a territory of France (officially an “overseas collectivity”). But when your tender sidles up to the pier in Gustavia, you’ll find yourself in the French Riviera cum Caribbean.
French is the language, Euro’s the currency, locals chat over wine and burgers at outdoor cafes, and there’s even a patisserie hidden away on a back street.
But this place is all about the water. The harbor is compact and crammed with sailboats. But what you notice first is the volume of colossal yachts, each bigger the next. It’s no wonder that the gourmet shop in town’s business card reads “Yacht Provisioning.”
St. Barts—or St. Barths—its nickname is spelled both ways—is clearly an affluent place. Its people are thin, tanned and well groomed. They pull into town on their dinghies from their yacht moorings or navigate the island’s steep and narrow streets on mopeds or golf cart/car hybrids. The streets are so tight that most cars park half on/half off the sidewalk. 

With the bustling traffic, narrow streets, cruise passengers and locals clogging the sidewalks, getting around is a bit of a challenge, but the ambience is unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. And after dipping into some boutiques you need a pick-me-up, you can choose from many restaurants and cafes, as well as an ice cream shop.
For a foodie like me, the supermarket on the centrally located Quai de la République was a wonderland. Rabbit and choucroute in a can, cleaned-out baguette bins and hundreds of wines lovingly displayed in their own metal encasements reminded me we weren’t in the U.S. anymore.
But be forewarned: the shops in St. Barts are chic and dear. A simple refrigerator magnet to remind you of your visit will cost about $11.
Shell Beach is walkable, which means in this one stop, you can shop, swim, eat and drink—my definition of a really great port stop.                                                         
Musing’s Top Tip: Celebrity offers itineraries that include all three of these islands and Azamara sails to St. Barts. Holland America offers cruises that include Bonaire and St. Croix.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Do You Like Your Captain?

Old or young? Visible or invisible? Charming or all business?
On a recent cruise, our captain seemed to be everywhere—except, perhaps, the bridge. He was in port with us. Guest speaker. Game show panelist. Party host.

During the Q&A after his lecture, a guest commended him for being “the most approachable” of the captains he’d experienced.

Then, reading our thoughts, a woman asked, “Have you ever accidently fallen into a lifeboat?”

Today marks three years since the Concordia went down, taking 32 lives with it. Still we wait for a verdict in the trial of Captain Schettino. He’s doing a good job of keeping in the public eye, lecturing at college, going to parties and doing what he seems to do best—charming everyone around him.

The critics have been few, and perhaps it’s because more than ever, the captain has become the cruise line’s top PR guy. We’ve turned our man at the helm into a celebrity, and he’s responding in kind.

But they’re not all like that. One cruise, not so long ago, when we were doing a slow scenic circle around St. Lucia’s Pitons, a small local motorboat—really just a rowboat with a motor—pulled alongside our massive vessel and its passengers, a group of young men, began calling up at us. Our captain got on the PA to caution us against engaging them, suggesting that the proximity of their boat to our 80,500-ton behemoth could bring them harm.

And on yet another voyage, our captain was a no-show at the Welcome Toast, because the business of running the ship kept him away.

Clearly, there are some captains out there who take their role as Safety Officer #1 quite seriously. But in this age of celebrity obsession, the more we demand to see of our captain, the more he’s going to feel the need to be seen. And the less he’s going to give to commandeering the ship. Personality shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a captain. Competence should be all that counts.

But that’s my opinion. What’s yours?

Friday, January 9, 2015

These Ports are Made for Walking

If you’re like me, you really appreciate a port with lots to do right around the pier. After all, ease of travel is one of the best parts of cruising.
Fortunately, there are a number of ports that are made for walking. And two that come immediately to mind are the Eastern Caribbean’s San Juan and St. Maarten. Here’s why:
San Juan

The colorful, captivating Old San Juan--just steps away from your ship

Even before you pull into the pier, you know this place will be special. The imposing 16th century San Felipe del Morro fort greets your ship as you enter the harbor and land at old Europe’s doorstep. Walk off the gangway and you’re smack in the middle of Old San Juan, complete with lapis-blue cobblestones, horse-drawn carriages, statue-studded fountains and thriving cafes. Throw in the pastel facades of the Caribbean and you’re in picture-taking paradise.  
El Morro is one of two fascinating forts you can walk to in town; 17th century Fort San Cristobal is the other. They’re well-preserved and each takes hours to explore. And with their positioning on the ocean, the photo ops are perfect.
Then there’s the shopping, the restaurants, the bars and the people watching. With your ship still tied up at the pier when night falls, you can see the place really heat up. Hang out at the plaza near Starbucks on the Calle Tetuan and let a fellow fill your arms with parrots—for a price, of course.

St. Maarten

Philipsburg has it all—shopping selections from high end to tchotchkes priced just right, a beach with cheap umbrella-chair-beer combos, restaurants, bars, casinos, all manner of water sports, Segways on the sidewalk and an overall lively scene. And once you take the water taxi, it’s all as far as you can throw your flip-flop.  

You can pick up the little ferry at the end of the cruise pier and it’s a great bargain: $5 for one way or $7 for an all-day pass (yes, you read that right). The ride is 10 minutes max, and you can even get a brew to go with your view of the turquoise water, beach and town.

Musing’s Top Tip: At the end of a cul-de-sac alley off the Boardwalk, near the courthouse, is a shop that sells inexpensive original paintings by local artists ($10-50 and up). Look for the cluster of paintings leaning against the wall (see photo above, third row) at the alley's entrance. Bargaining is accepted and don’t be surprised to find your artwork wrapped to go in the local newspaper.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Cruise Review: The Connie Anew

You never forget your first cruise. Like your first kiss, the memory sweetly lingers.
It’s those warm fuzzies that drew us back to Celebrity’s Constellation in December—eight years after she introduced us to a whole new way to travel.
But those were the days of midnight buffets and chocolates on our pillow. They’re long gone and the Constellation is a different place, run by the same—but yet a very different—cruise line.

The Ship: Wearing the Years Well
The Constellation has held up very nicely since its 2002 inauguration. Its upgrade and “Solsticization” in 2013 brought new beds to the cabins, refreshed carpeting throughout, new restaurants, bars and more. It’s a handsome ship, with a commanding marble staircase dominating
The marble staircase commands attention
the Grand Foyer on Deck 3.

One of the ship’s highlights is at the very back of Deck 10, what I call the “Teak Deck” for its upgraded picnic furniture (officially, it’s the “Sunset Bar”). The little patio, like most of the ship (including rooms and balconies), is now smoke-free, enabling all of us to enjoy the view of the stern’s wake without wheezing.
The ship is compact and easy to get around; we had the layout down in a day. Its relative smallness at 91,000 tons gave it an intimate feel, which, after many trips on larger vessels, was a nice change of pace.
The Entertainment: Mixing It Up
There’s been a big change in the daytime activities. Where once there were guest speakers, there are now “Life Enhancement” lectures on health and fitness. “Enhance Your Life Through Exercise” and “Happy Feet for Healthy Life” were some of the offerings.
There are also more pool and game show activities, as the cruise line works to appeal to younger cruisers. An officer vs. guest pool volleyball game made its debut on this trip, joining the usual “Newlywed Game” takeoff, “Battle of the Sexes” and “Liar’s Club,” which—a first for us—featured the ship’s captain on the panel.
Evening entertainment was good quality, albeit standard fare—Broadway-style shows, a comedian, violinist, magician and singer. Off-stage entertainment ran the gamut, from folk music to classical to rock and salsa.
The Food: A Turn Toward Ordinary
Alas, from this foodie’s perspective, quality was sacrificed for quantity. When we first took the Connie, the three-star Michelin winner Michel Roux was running the show and each meal in the main dining room was a gastronomical high. Today, the food is plain at best. Entrees ranged from good (there was a nice crispy breaded pork chop and decent tenderloin) to poor (one steak had a very strange consistency). Desserts are merely ordinary. Instead of the rich and decadent “Opera” pastry I enjoyed on Princess, for example, the Constellation serves up chocolate layer cake.
The ship’s buffet, the Oceanview Café, runs until 9:30 p.m. at dinner, but compared to buffets on competing lines, seems an afterthought. There are some nice features, such as made-to-order grilling (choice of steak, salmon, chicken and pork), stir-fry and pasta, good pizza and an ice cream bar with syrup and candy toppings. But the desserts seldom varied from puddings or cupcakes.
On the other hand, the breakfast and lunch buffets offered a huge variety. (Although sorely missing was the array of fabulous rolls we once looked forward to.)
The Extras: A Few Still Remain
Some of what earned Celebrity the reputation of a premier cruise line is still there—the welcome
Cool comfort for a hot day
champagne at embarkation, iced towels greeting you after a hot day at port, but we find it a changed cruise line, and the Constellation, a changed ship.

Those sailing on the Constellation for the first time will enjoy a smaller ship experience, quality entertainment and a crew eager to please. In short, a good cruise, but not a spectacular one.
Musing’s Tidbits: Ever wonder what’s in the ship’s lifeboats? Connie’s has 10,000 calories per person, water, signals, fishing tackle and seasickness pills, among other necessities. Except, alas, a bathroom.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Getting into the Holidays—or Not

Going on a cruise may to some feel like an odd thing to do over the holidays, but actually, it’s quite ideal, for these five reasons:
Family time…or not. It’s a fabulous way to be with your family. Think about it: no one has to cook. No one has to clean. And no one has to drive. Everyone’s in a good mood. And you can see each other as often (or as little) as you want. Or, if you can’t be with family, a cruise is a great way to leave the holidays behind.
Do up your door…or don’t. Some folks like doing up their cabin doors during the holidays. It’s not only festive, but the only way to pick out your room from hundreds that look just like it (especially after a few hours at the bar). On the other hand, unlike your neighborhood back home, no one’s going to notice if you don’t hang a wreathe on your stateroom door.
Enjoy the festivities…or laze by the pool. The ships do their best to bring the holidays to you while you’re at sea. They get all sparkly, dressing banisters with lights and garlands, adding decked out
The Emerald Princess glistens at the holidays
trees in lobbies and such. There are services and ceremonies for those who want to go. On one Celebrity trip, “Pilgrims” roamed the ship, doling out “Happy Thanksgivings” to anyone who’d listen.
But aside from the holiday décor, it’s still a cruise ship and you’re in the Caribbean. Cuddle up on a cushy couch with a book. Hang out at the pool bar in your flip-flops. Grab a slice of pizza at the buffet. Oh, did you say it was the holidays?
Christmas in the Caribbean—You get a different glimpse of Caribbean culture at holiday time. Sorrel, which blooms this time of year, crops up in the farmers’ markets. While somewhat surreal at times, trees, lights and plastic figures call attention to themselves there among the tropical plumes
Christmas Bonaire-style
and plantings. My all-time favorite is the Santa-hat cactus tree in a front yard in Bonaire. But you can easily escape it all with a trip to the nearest beach. Or on a catamaran sail. Zip-line though the forest, tram up a mountain…
Then there are your fellow cruisers. You can count on them to amuse you. In a recent post, I talked about the white-bearded, big-bellied fellow who walked around in a red stocking cap our whole December trip. Then there are the women with the reindeer headbands and Santa earrings down to their shoulders. Don’t feel like being with your fellow cruisers? There’s always TV and room service (free).

This is one of the neat things about cruising: we may be all together on one boat, but we can each have our own personally designed, get-into-the-holidays—or not—kind of trip.
Have you enjoyed a holiday at sea? Tell us about it!