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Friday, July 18, 2014

Cruising the Web

Looking for reviews on a ship? Help on picking a cabin? There’s a website for that. How about tracking your ship’s whereabouts? Finding out who else is sailing with you? There’s a website for that too.
 
There’s so much stuff on the web for cruise planning that it can be hard to know where to start. So I’ve spent time sifting through a lot of it so you can spend less. Here’s my take on the best online resources for ship reviews, cruise advice and getting excited about your upcoming trip:
 
Cruisecritic.com—The most robust and well known of the sites, it gets more visitors than all of its competitors combined. It has detailed reviews of ships and ports by its authors, a huge database of member reviews, industry news, feature stories and cruise deals, as well as active roll calls (connect with fellow cruisers before your trip). Musing’s Top Feature: It has the most vibrant forum, with readers writing in all day long on a wide variety of topics. The site’s members also work with many of the ships to host free “Meet and Mingle” events during cruises that can feature “cabin crawls” (peek into different cabin categories), presentations by the crew, raffle drawings, food and gifts.

Cruiseline.com—Search for trips on this site, view ship reviews and photos by members, and get overall ratings of ships based on member reviews. There are also feature stories, cruise planning advice, roll calls and a forum. Musing’s Top Feature: This site verifies members actually took the cruises they’ve evaluated, designating the reviews with a green “Verified Review” ribbon. You can also access the free smart phone Ship Mate app to track your ship’s whereabouts at any given moment, connect with others on your trip and more.

Cruisemates.com—Provides reviews by the editors of ships and ports, and a forum with reviews by members. Member reviewers are asked to rate ships on various criteria, and each ship is given an overall rating based on this input. There’s also advice on cruising and cruise deals. Musing’s Top Feature: Lively feature stories are submitted by columnists such as Janice Wald Henderson, a food editor and writer for epicurious.com.

Cruise-addicts.com—Includes industry news, cruise deals, ship reviews, photos submitted by members and forums. Musing’s Top Feature: This site is a winner for audio/visual features, with its array of videos on the ports, ships and the industry, as well as podcasts. It also has a variety of webcams on the ports and an interactive, real-time cruise ship tracker.
 
Cruisedeckplans.com—Sick of straining to see the tiny stateroom numbers in deck plans on websites or in catalogs? This is a site for sore eyes! Deck plans are interactive and enable magnification. Hover over a room number and you get cabin descriptions and occasionally, insider info that you’ll never get from the cruise lines. Like when a cabin could be noisy because it’s near a crew work room.

There are also deck plans with on-the-spot photos of public rooms that have been submitted by readers. The site is actively recruiting member photos and will even pay (though you’ll have to submit a lot just to cover the price of a cup a coffee). Most of the site’s info is available for free, but a modest membership fee gets you even more. Musing’s Top Feature: The whole site is unique and offers something no other one does—the ability to find a stateroom on a deck plan without getting a headache.

Porteverglades.net—This is the official website of Port Everglades, Florida, one of the busiest ports in the U.S. It includes a port map and two weeks before you sail, you can find out from which pier by viewing the Ship Schedule on the homepage. It also alerts you to construction that may slow down traffic into the port.
Know of any other great sites? Do share!

 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The S.S. Sedentary?

My spouse is one of cruising’s most ardent supporters. When someone comes back from a vacation—any vacation—as soon as they begin to tell him about their trip, he says, “Have you tried cruising?” When he did this last, our neighbor’s response was, “I’m too active for cruising. I run five miles a day.”

And therein lies one of the most pervasive misconceptions about cruising. That we spend seven 
Working off those calories in the
gym of Celebrity's Equinox
days flat on our backs around the pool or eating around the clock until we bust out of our bathing suits.


Now this may be an accurate depiction of some cruisers, but many of us still manage to fit in laps around the jogging track, working out in the gym, scaling the rock-climbing walls, zip-lining, windsurfing, swimming, ice skating, hiking, dancing, walks into town…

A recent article in the Miami Herald noted that when Richard Fain had joined the board of Royal Caribbean, he had never been on a cruise. A full year later, egged on by his colleagues, he went through the motions by choosing the shortest, cheapest cruise: a three-day in the Bahamas.

Today, of course, as the cruise line’s CEO, he spends quite a bit of time extoling the virtues of the cruise vacation.

Which goes to show that some misconceptions can even be cured by three days at sea.

Musings’ Top Tip: 2.4 laps around the jogging track of the massive Allure of the Seas equals one mile. The track has a designated path for joggers and another for walkers, and can be found on Promenade Deck 5.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What’s Alluring About the World’s Largest Cruise Ship

What’s the allure of the world’s largest ship? In a word, entertainment. Of the four cruise lines I’ve sailed with, no one does it better than Royal Caribbean.
 
The fare served up on the stages of Allure of the Seas is a refreshing departure from the usual shipboard shows and are worth the effort of scheduling your trip around them.
 
Allure’s full production of the musical “Chicago” was great fun, and the voices were strong and

Broadway on the seas.
clear. How neat is that—a Broadway-quality show for free! And if you get to the theater super early, you can even get the best seats in the house.
 

Then there was “Ocean Aria,” a diving and acrobatic show that’s so compelling you won’t want to take your eyes away for a second.

Adonis-like acrobat brothers wrap their bodies around each other in poses where you can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins. Divers from 90 ft. high fly into the air and amazingly, land gracefully and securely into the Allure’s tiny theater pool.
 
Inside the ship, on the ice rink, professional skaters—one a veteran of “Disney on Ice”—twirl, jump, spin and lift, while on a moving vessel, no less. The “Monopoly” theme lent itself well to playful and colorful sets and costumes.
 
Soaring from 90 ft. up.
The singers from “Chicago” re-emerged in “Blue Planet,” which had everything thrown in—acrobatics, singing and dancing—all in a celebration of nature. I won’t give it all away, but it included a trampoline, large rings and a human tree.
 
This comes on top of onboard surfing, ice skating, zip-lining, rock climbing and miniature golf. And then there are the three “neighborhoods;” their personalities ebbing and flowing by the hour. There’s the Promenade, the hub of the ship and venue for parades, dance classes and the best people-watching; Boardwalk, where you can ride a full-size carousel over and over again for free or eat foot-high pink cotton candy for a cost; and Central Park, an oasis of real foliage (but fake bird sounds).
 
Exciting, yes. But it does steal the show from the real leading lady—the mysterious, fascinating and ever-changing sea.
 
Not as Alluring
The Allure’s weak spot is the food. Some dinner dishes in the Main Dining Room were good (memorable was the shrimp on Italian-theme night), others were disappointing (Chicken Marsala was rendered as fried chicken with a nearly invisible sauce).
 
But what we most noticed—and missed—was the absence of beef choices, particularly compared to competing cruise lines.
 
We found that among the free dining options, the Windjammer buffet was often the best choice. Not only did it have a wider variety (shrimp crackers, anyone?), but some standout spicy Asian choices. It was a nice break from the usually bland and unimaginative dining room dishes.
 
Aside from the food, the other area where the ship doesn’t compare well to, say, the Caribbean Princess, is the staterooms. While okay on size, the Allure’s cabins offered less in the way of storage space. The closets are tight and night tables have open slots, which make them minimally useful.

Another downside is that the balcony chairs don’t recline, which makes seaside napping a challenge (but nothing that a glass of wine can’t cure!).
 
The Bottom Line
But, hey, you can’t be good at everything.


This may seem heretical, given all that the Allure and Oasis have going for them, but Musing wouldn’t recommend these ships for first-time cruisers. Because you’ll be permanently spoiled, and forever searching for the carousel and ice skating rink on every other ship.

Musing’s Top Tip: to really appreciate “Chicago,” stream or rent the movie version before your trip. And don’t forget to reserve all your shows online well in advance of your cruise. You can try to get in once on board, but be forewarned—the lines for standby outside the shows were substantial.

 
Photos by R. Greenburg
 


 


 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Terrifies the Cruise Director and Scares the Pants Off the Rest of Us

I think most of us would agree that people-watching is a pleasure of the highest order on a cruise. It provides endless amusement and fodder for conversation. The antics of The Quest, the shockers of Love and Marriage, the laughs of the Sexiest Man, and on and on.

But sometimes, watching what people do is positively bewildering. Please, please, please, don’t do this on a cruise:

Ask if you can do a backflip on the ice with the ice show’s star skater for the camera. Unless you want to see the cruise director grow pale with visions of lawsuits dancing in his head.
Pick up a wild iguana at the Crown Bay pier in Charlotte Amalie to show off for your friends.
Cute and cuddly?
Unless you want your fellow cruisers to spend the rest of their trip fighting off salmonella.


Be so “photoblivious” that you step in the middle of the street to take a photo and ignore the cars trying to pass around you. Unless you want to try out the Caribbean medical system.

Play dodge-the-hand sanitizer man. Unless you want to spend two days of your cruise throwing up and quarantined.

As the comedians say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” It all happened on my Allure of the Seas cruise just a few weeks ago.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cruise Reviews: The Good, The Bad and The Head-Scratcher

Somewhere along the line, this has probably happened to you. You go to a cruise review site to check out how people liked a ship you’re thinking of taking. The first review says it’s the best ever. The second review trashes it.

What a minute, you wonder, weren’t you guys on the same ship?

Ship reviews from cruisers certainly vary in terms of their usefulness. But that two reviews of the
same trip, the same ship at the same time can diverge so much is a down right head-scratcher.
 
I’ve found that for reviews of just about anything, whether they’re helpful comes down to how much you trust the reviewer, and how much the reviewer is just like you.

Know Thy Reviewer
It helps to know the following about the reviewer before acting on what you read:
 
Age—If you’re in your 20s, a review from someone in their 70s will most likely not be very relevant for you, as interests and energy level will not be the same.
 
Veteran or newbie—Because they’ve seen many changes to the industry over the years, veteran cruisers can become jaded. A review from someone after their first trip is likely to be quite different than someone just back from their 30th.

Time of year—You’ll often see negative reviews from a cruiser who unknowingly went during school vacation season. Sharing confined space with 600 children for seven days can tax even the sunniest disposition.

Stateroom selection—Not surprisingly, those who spring for a suite tend to be in a better mood then those who don’t, and their reviews reflect it. Even the inside, outside and balcony rooms vary so much on every ship that a smaller-than-average room can color the cruiser’s experience.
 
Ship location also matters—a lot. If a cruiser was up every night with disco music pounding over his head, you can bet he’s not going to be kind in his review.
 
So, What’s a Good Review?
For me, a useful review is one that is:

Specific—Don’t just tell me the food is good or bad, tell me why. Does the buffet serve the same cold salads every day? Is there a wide variety of hot entrees? Which ones are the best?

The right length—Be too long and you lose the reader. Be too short and you don’t add value. Stick to what most made an impression.

Break up text—This one’s from a professional writer’s playbook. Use subheads (like my “Know Thy Reader” and “So, What’s a Good Review?” above), bullet points and boldface. It makes for easy skimming.

Share tips—Give readers inside info that will improve their cruise. Like how they should reserve show tickets online before their Oasis trip. Or that they can get made-to-order salmon for lunch at the AquaSpa CafĂ© on the Solstice.

Balanced—Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, but when a review is too good, I get suspicious. And when it’s too negative, I get irritated. I’ve seen too many reviews where people let one small bad experience on a seven-day trip mar how they feel about the entire experience. It’s not fair to the cruise line or to readers. Things happen onboard as in life. See the bigger picture. Be fair. And be helpful.

Cruise Review Sites
Here are my favorite cruise review sites and why:

Cruisecritic.com—There are two types of reviews of the ships and ports; by the website’s authors and by members, organized by cruise line and ship. There’s also a great search tool to get to info quickly. And a robust forum on a wide variety of topics with updates every day, all day long.
 
Cruiseline.com—This has fewer member reviews and they’re shorter, but the site verifies that the authors actually went on the trips they’re reviewing. And Amazon-like, it enables readers to comment on reviews.
 
The Final Word—Yours
I’d love to know—do you review? Why or why not? What do you think makes a great review?

Musing’s Top Tip, An Update: A few weeks ago, I mentioned that shipmate.com had a neat free app for Android and Apple phones and tablets for cruisers. They just announced an update to the app for Android with more features and an improved design. You can download it from Google Play.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cruise Foodie Favorites

Let’s face it—one of the top pleasures of cruising is eating. While the food may not be the best, the ships certainly make up for it in quantity.
 
And as an unabashed foodie, I love the growing emphasis of cuisine on cruises. Here, for your culinary consideration, are some food experiences you can have onboard beyond the usual MDR/buffet/specialty restaurant dining:

Food as entertainment—While most of the mass market ships have these now, Holland America really takes the cake when it comes to cooking demos. Through their partnership with Food and Wine magazine, HAL’s got a great Culinary Arts program, which boasts an-easy-to-view kitchen setup for demos. And for an extra charge, you can sign up for a small-group cooking class, complete with a chance to get your hands and apron dirty.
 
There are also celebrity chefs and “Iron Chef” knockoffs. We went to one years ago, where senior crew members competed and their food was judged by a panel of cruisers. It was terrific fun and memorable.


Indonesian pastries on HAL's Noordam
Tea ceremony—HAL also hosts a “tea ceremony” on its ships. In reality, it’s not so much of a ceremony as a chance to savor high quality tea and coffee, and sample Indonesian pastries--all at no extra charge. 

Galley tours—When we started cruising, these were only available through word of mouth. Now, everyone’s doing them. I never tire of the opportunity to sneak a peek behind the curtain. (So, those French fries are frozen after all…) Some of the tours are slick, complete with pitches to buy their cookbook, food carving demos, chef meets-and-greets, and often offer some sampling along the way. 

Salmon spread in Alaska's Inside Passage
The big spread—Then there are the special events that feature the special foods. Alas, the days of midnight buffets are long gone (anyone remember Celebrity’s spectacular presentation?), but there are a few events still around. Some Celebrity ships put on a not-very-publicized but elaborate brunch, Princess does a very nice seafood buffet in Alaska where salmon is king, and Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas features sidewalk sampling on its Promenade.
 
While the food is the thing at these events, they also usually have photo-worthy ice sculptures, food carvings and such.
 
Room service—While we rarely use this service, it’s great that it exists. Knowing what room service costs at hotels, there’s just something neat about having food delivered to your doorstep—without the exorbitant fee that usually comes with it. One word of caution, however: some cruise lines are adding a fee for late-night room service. For example, Allure of the Seas charges $3.95 for orders between midnight and 5 a.m.

Dine with a chef—We haven’t done it, but the newest thing is the “Chef’s Table” experience. Royal Caribbean has it on a number of ships and so too does Princess and Carnival. For an additional fee, you can enjoy a freshly made dinner, usually with a lot of courses, which showcases the chef’s skills, in an intimate, small group setting. Sample cost: $85/person on Allure of the Seas for a meal paired with wine.

Know of any other foodie fests on the seas? Let us know!

 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Be a Cruise Champion

When I read about a new ship launching, it makes me nervous. While the prospect of a new ship generally makes us veterans positively tingle with excitement, these days it just gives me heartburn.

And it’s because of articles like the one recently posted on cruisecritic.com. It was a recap of a panel discussion at an industry trade show with the major cruise line CEOs where they talked about the state of the industry. What came through the discussion loud and clear, said cruisecritic.com, was “the industry’s continuing need to attract newcomers to cruising.”
Consider this: three new mass market ships have launched/are launching this year—the Norwegian
The Regal Princess on its sea trials. Passenger capacity: 3,600.
Getaway (January), Princess’ Regal Princess (May) and Quantum (November). Their passenger capacity combined is 11,709. That’s a lot of new staterooms to fill.


The result of this state of affairs is that Royal Caribbean is shipping its newest, brightest stars on the sea outside the U.S. Because that’s where the growth is, the industry says.
So, Quantum of the Seas’ home port will be Shanghai. Anthem of the Seas will be based in England.
What can we do about it? How do we ensure cruising stays a vibrant, growing market right here in the U.S. over the long term?

Be a cruise champion. A myth-buster. Tell your friends, family and work colleagues what a great, cost-effective vacation it is. How it can bring scattered families together. And how it’s a chance to get away from the cell phones, tablets and PCs that are invading our lives. To really, truly unwind, the old-fashioned way. And not feel the slightest bit guilty while doing it.

But before you put away that cell phone or tablet...check out Musing’s Top Tip!
Musing’s Top Tip
Reminding us that anticipation is half the fun, cruiseline.com has given us a tool to feed our cruise fever. It’s a nice little free app for your cell phone or tab that gives you a countdown to your next trip, deck plans, itinerary, quick summaries of your ports, excursions and more. (And did I mention it was free?) You can get the app from this link, Ship Mate App, or visit cruiseline.com and select “More” from the top menu.