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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Power in Your Pocket: Smartphone Apps for Cruisers

Let’s face it; wi-fi on a ship is not cheap. So if you’re going to spring for it, you might as well make the most of it. Below are some ways you can use your smartphone before you go, and after you cast off and the meter starts ticking.

Note: These are all available for free (unless indicated otherwise) from Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Before you go
Find your shipmate. The Ship Mate app can tap into your pre-trip excitement. Sign up for roll calls, see photos of where you’re going, get the lay of the ship and track where it is at any given moment.

Get port info, track your ship
and more with Ship Mate.

See the sites. Use Google Street View for a sneak peek at your ports. There are some street views, but where there aren’t, you can often see photos folks have uploaded.

Make it a new custom. The new free Mobile Passport app available for Florida’s Port Everglades (and a number of airports), is designed to speed you through Customs by having you do some work ahead of time, submitting your info in the port and then going through an express line.

Read and reap. The granddaddy cruise site of them all——has an app, Cruise Critic Forums, which you can use to join roll calls and talk ship. If you like reading tips on the website, you’ll love thumbing through them with your phone.
Let the SkyView app help you
see the stars.

Once you’re onboard
Look to the stars. With SkyView®, you can identify the stars in that dark wide open night sky. Simply hold the phone up to the stars and the app tells you what constellation you’re seeing.

Plan your day, connect with your companion. Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, as well as Disney, Celebrity and NCL all have apps—but they’re not all created equal. The best of them do a whole lot, but also allow you to text your cruise companions, so you can ditch the walkie-talkies. Here’s a bit of detail:

Princess@Sea—There’s nothing to download to use this app. Once you’re onboard, put your phone in “Airplane Mode” and bring up the browser to connect to the free shipboard wi-fi. You can get events and activities, info on the ports and your account balance. And text your traveling companions. Available fleet-wide.

Who needs walkie-talkies with this app
from Princess?
Carnival HUB—Unlike with Princess, you do need to download this from Google Play or the App Store. Put it on “Airplane Mode” and use it for free, but the texting feature costs $5 for the voyage (this function is limited to ages 13 and over unless the parents consent). It has searchable deck plans, daily event calendar, account balance and more. It’s not available on all ships, so check the online app stores for details.

Reservations, excursions and texting at
your fingertips with the Royal IQ.
Royal IQ—This also requires downloading from the app stores. You can use it to check out the day’s events; book dinner and show reservations and shore excursions; and see your account balance. Calling/texting onboard comes with a small fee. Currently only available on Quantum, Anthem, Ovation and Harmony of the Seas. 

Staying a bit fit. If you’ve got a Fitbit®, you can track how many steps it takes each day to walk to the buffet and then find out how many calories you’ve burned on your phone app. But then, maybe you’d rather not…

Passing time. Want great seats at the theater, but hate the wait? While the time away reliving the day by looking at your photo gallery, or bringing up the many games at your fingertips.

Drowning out your neighbors. Next door’s party-hardies making you count sheep? If calling guest relations doesn’t work, turn your phone into a noise machine with free apps like Google Play’s Relax and Sleep, with its more than 50 sounds from driving rain to a rhythmic train. And here’s a novel thought: use the app’s ocean sounds to lull you to sleep. No salt spray included.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

15 Shades of Blue

Think of the Caribbean and you think blue, right? In fact, there are many “shades” of blue when you cruise the Caribbean Sea. 

Blue is the color of:
  1. Your passport—Don’t leave home without it! And be sure it doesn’t expire within six months of your trip.
  2. The sky above your balcony—With no powerlines to obstruct your view, the sky seems bluer, bigger, bolder. And if you’re headed for the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), you’ll see more of that blue sky than anywhere else. Aruba gets only 16 inches a year of rain; compare that to 46 for New York.
    The sky seems bluer, bigger and bolder from your balcony
  3. The water below your boat—If you’ve never cruised the Caribbean, know this: those photos you’ve seen are real. The waters of Bonaire, St. Maarten, and the U.S. Virgin Island gems of St. Croix and St. John are just that blue, just that clear, just that calm.
    Blue as far as you can "sea" in Bonaire 
  4. The resorts the lines call their own—Carnival’s private resorts of Princess Cays (Bahamas) and Mahogany Bay (Roatan), and Royal Caribbean’s Labadee (Haiti) boast blue hue water that’s tranquil and see-through, perfect for swimming, sunning and snorkeling. And when your ship comes in, you (and your 2,000-6,000 fellow travelers) get the resort all to yourself.
    Calm and comfortably cool is the blue water at Princess Cays
  5. The pools of port—Three neat port pools that come immediately to mind are at Grand Turk, Costa Maya and Carnival’s newest resort in the Dominican Republic, Amber Cove. These three pools are big, with plenty of room for making a splash.
    A part of the vast winding pool of Amber Cove
  6.  The flags of Barbados and Curaçao—Barbados in the Eastern Caribbean and Curaçao in the South—both great ports to visit—use blue as the primary color of their national flags, to reflect the sea and the sky.
  7.  The iguana of Grand Cayman—This blue lizard, according to Wikipedia, is a special variety found in Grand Cayman and is on the endangered list. In fact, the only one we saw on our visit was this guy below:
  8. The cobblestones of old San Juan—Pull into port in San Juan and you’re just a few steps away from cobblestones made from adoquine, a blue stone cast originally brought over on Spanish ships.
  9. The logos of the lines—Not surprisingly, the mermaid, ship, anchor and X logos of Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are all blue.
  10. Curaçao’s namesake liquid—Made from local oranges, with a little help from food coloring, curaçao liqueur is unmistakable in its color and squat round bottles.

  11. The delft and faux delft trinkets of the ABCs—Browse the tourist shops of the Dutch isles of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to find some of the real hand-painted stuff, but more of the mass-produced kind. These are inexpensive, and make great Christmas tree ornaments, magnets and collectibles.
    Mass-produced delft, but that everyone can afford
  12. LarimarThe lovely baby blue stone is from the Dominican Republic, but sold on many of the islands at a very reasonable price (note that they vary in quality). We picked up good quality earrings in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie for about $40.
  13. The female cruiserWhat cruising woman can resist a shirt with blue-and-white stripes in classic nautical style (or “nausical” as one retailer calls it). Navy blue, says Wikipedia, got its name from the dark blue uniforms traditionally worn by many navies around the world.
  14. That sign that it will come to an end—Alas, blue is also the color of the Customs card that appears on your bed—sometimes as early as the second day of the trip.
  15. My mood…when it’s all over.

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