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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.

Bonaire
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!
 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Setting Off in Calm Seas

It may be counterintuitive, but going on vacation is stressful. There’s so much to remember, so much to do. And if it’s your first cruise, not knowing what to expect can ratchet this up a notch. But here are a few tips to ensure smooth sailing before your ship leaves the pier.
 
See when you need to show up at the port. This will vary by cruise line and port; check your cruise documents or the cruise line’s website. Usually, you have to be at the ship at least 60 minutes before departure.
 
Research the port and pier. You might want to see where in the port your ship will be and if anything’s going on there you should know about. For example, Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades has been undergoing major construction for quite a while, and some of Princess and Celebrity’s ships are at the far end of the port. Which can mean a very slow trip and you’ll need to build in extra time. Here are links to the major Florida ports: PortMiami, Port Tampa Bay, Port Canaveral.
 
Plot out your path. The best way to avoid panic to the port is planning: where to stay the night before, how long you need to get to the port and where you’re going to park. Check out forums like the one on cruisecritic.com for ideas on where to stay. And know the route to the port in advance. Our first trip, we put the port street into the GPS and ended up on a road with the same name in the next town over. By the time we discovered what went wrong and made it to the port, we were one of the last on the ship.
 
Bring seasickness medicine. That’s the surest way to not need it. My spouse has taken it with us on every one of our 15 cruises and hasn’t used it once.

 Pack the right stuff in your carryon. When you get to the port, you’ll have to relinquish your
luggage, except your carryon. So, you should keep anything you’ll need for the next few hours in your carryon (the luggage may not show up in your cabin for hours—sometimes as late as 6 p.m.). Keep in mind, though, that if you’re planning on getting onboard before about 1 p.m. (when the cabins are usually ready to receive you), you’ll be stuck carrying around that carryon while you’re going to lunch or checking out the ship. You might consider one with wheels.
 
Don’t leave home without it. Before you leave your home, make sure you have your passport and driver’s license with you. Then check again. Have both, as well as the boarding passes you printed up after online check-in within easy reach because you’ll need it when you get to the port.
 
Securely fasten luggage tags on each of your bags. For Royal Caribbean and Princess, you need to print these up at home, and staple or tape them closed around luggage handles. (We bring a small stapler with us and do it just before leaving for the port. Or, you can always ask to borrow one from the hotel front desk.)
 
If you’re taking Celebrity and do the online check-in enough in advance, you can order luggage tags on their website. Color-coded stickers will come in the mail, and you can easily fasten them with their own adhesive.
 
Don’t bother eating on your way to the port; lunch is waiting. Enjoy the hunger—it’s the last time you’ll feel it. Then when you get onboard, you can enjoy a leisurely first meal in the buffet. Some ships have the dining room and other restaurants open, too.
 
Set aside some ones for the luggage guys. Tipping the guys at the port who take your luggage is not just customary—it’s essential. If you don’t, you should have a back-up plan for your luggage, like prayer.

Breathe deeply and relax. You’re on vacation!
 
Musing’s Tip: They won’t provide info, but they’re fun just the same—follow these webcam links to live feeds from the ports: Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, PortMiami

 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

For most people, Caribbean cruises are simply about fun in the sun. Wildlife (unless you’re planning to qualify yourself), is not high on the list.

But wildlife is there for the watching—without even leaving the port. Just look up, look down and look around whenever you’re on the ground:

Iguanas—In Aruba, they feed them. In St. Thomas, they goad them. And in Cozumel, they leave them alone. The lizards seem to be just about everywhere.

Plotting strategy on the rocks in St. Thomas
They’ve nearly taken over Charlotte Amalie’s Crown Bay Harbor in St. Thomas. Dozens climb in and out of the rocks at the pier, mugging for photos or begging bemused cruisers for handouts. They’re the pigeons of Paradise.

In Wilhelmina Park in Aruba’s Oranjestad, they also act like they own the place. They bask in the sun, watch the kids play and fight over the lettuce the park staff throws them.

They’re harder to spot in Cozumel, where they roam the waterfront, blending into the terrain. If you look closely, you can spot them on the walk from the pier into town.


Peering from a palm on
 L.G. Smith Blvd. 
If you don’t get enough of them in the wild, you can always pick up a likeness; they’re on flip flops, ashtrays and many other tchotchkes from China. 

Caribbean parakeets—We spotted the brilliant green birds on Oranjestad’s main drag, picking at the palm trees.

Hummingbirds—While hardly unique to the Caribbean, these little whirlwinds can often be found around vibrant tropical foliage. My spouse captured one mid-air as it headed from one flower to another in Princess Cays.

Pelicans—We’ve seen these on several islands, but where I remember them most is in Grand Cayman. One had planted itself firmly at the edge of a little rickety row boat, perhaps to get first dibs when a new catch came in.

Vervet monkeys—I’d heard about the little green monkeys indigenous to St. Kitts, but was unprepared to see one on the arm of a local as soon as I’d gotten off the ship. Silly me, I quickly learned my photos didn’t come free.

Then there was that day at sea, brilliant and made for sun-bathing, when the cruise director suddenly broke the bonhomie with an urgent address over the PA, “A school of whales was just sighted starboard.” Within seconds, some hundred bathing-suited, sunscreen-slathered cruisers, like a herd of cattle, stormed starboard for a look-see.

Then, a few seconds later, over the PA, “Sorry, just kidding.”

We’d been had. Groans ensued as the scantily clad returned to their loungers and Bahama Mamas.

Wild things do abound, you just need to know where to look. But remember that if all else fails, there’s always Señor Frog!

Musing’s Top Tip: Want quick video snapshots of the ports to help you plan? Check out onboard.com. It’s a travel agency site, but has 50 short and well done videos with highlights of the ports at many Caribbean and other destinations.