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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Monkeys and Chickens and Lizards, Oh My! A Walk on the Caribbean’s Wild Side

Your idea of a wild time in the Caribbean might be endless buckets of beer by the sea.

But there’s another wild side to the Caribbean—and you’ll want to take your camera for this one. 

Look out for this fauna and flora to fawn over when you get back home:

The fauna for ya

Iguanas—They’re everywhere. All over the rocks at Crown Bay pier in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. In Aruba’s Oranjestad, wandering around Wilhelmina Park. In fact, they’re so common in Aruba, their likeness shows up everywhere—even on flip-flops.
Bring some iguanas home from Aruba's Oranjestad

And now, the real thing--posing for the camera in Charlotte Amalie's Crown Bay pier
Chickens—Unless you grew up on a farm, the sight of roosters roaming around may be a bit startling. But you’ll see them in downtown Charlotte Amalie; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Frederiksted, St. Croix.

Monkeys—You don’t have to venture far into St. Kitts to see the little local vervet monkeys. Just a stroll down the pier in Basseterre will do. There are several on the arms (or heads) of the locals, picture-ready for a fee. 
All dressed up and ready to go--into your arms for the camera and a fee in Basseterre, St. Kitts
Cats—San Juan has a cat problem. They’re on top of cars, under cars, roaming the streets, lying on sidewalks. But, like most animals, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. And some of them are so pretty and robust, you’d swear they were pets.
Checking out the tourists from the sidewalks of San Juan

Caribbean parakeet—I once had a parakeet in a cage. Imagine my surprise to find several pecking away high up on a palm tree on the busy L.G. Smith Boulevard in Oranjestad. It’s yet one more reminder when you travel: look up.
Parakeets pecking at the palms in Oranjestad, Aruba
Don't forget to look up when you're in Aruba's Oranjestad--you don't want to miss the parakeets
Fish—With water so clear—particularly off the pier in Kralendijk, Bonaire and to some extent, Princess’ private Bahamian island of Princess Cays—fish become entertainment. It’s yet one more reminder when you travel: look down.

In Grand Cayman, take a left from the pier, and walk a few blocks along the water. You’ll come up to a small fish market on the beach. After they’ve cleaned the fish, the vendors toss the remains into the water and you can watch the live stuff—some of them several feet long—zooming in for an easy meal, like pigeons descending on a hunk of bread.

Stop and smell the flora

Bougainvillea—These paper-thin flowers come in some 300 varieties and many bright colors, and you’ll find them all over the Caribbean, climbing the walls and hanging down planters.

Palms—They’re on the beaches, in the streets, in the yards, in the gardens. They’re tall and top-heavy. They’re useless when you’re in search of shade, and they break easily in storms. But what would the Caribbean be without its palms?

Cacti—The ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are super dry, despite being in the middle of the ocean. So, it’s not unusual to see cacti and palms sharing the same front yard.
Palms and cacti share this yard in the cruise port in Bonaire
Unlikely neighbors in this yard in KralendijkBonaire
Hibiscus—Big, bold and colorful, the hibiscus is common in the tropics, and is the national flower of Haiti. But its petals are not just for admiring—they also find their way into tea in Mexico, and are even dried and garnish desserts.
Cozumel is just one of the cruise ports you'll find hibiscus
Cozumel has its own share of the showy hibiscus
Plumeria obtuse—White and yellow clumps of loveliness, these West Indies natives can be found in the Bahamas, Mexico, Barbados, Belize and other warm places.
These were blooming along the waterfront of Barbados' Bridgetown
Frangipani—This multi-colored beauty is known for its fragrance and is sometimes an ingredient in perfume. It’s been said that its smell becomes most intense at night—to lure moths for pollination. Don’t let their heady smell tempt you to touch them, though, the sap is an irritant.
These frangipani caught our eye while shopping in the Pelican Village Craft Centre in
Bridgetown, Barbados
Mango—A staple of the Caribbean diet, when they’re in season, you’ll see them hanging from trees at ports like Roseau, Dominica and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Bananas and plantains are plentiful too, as are coconuts, throughout the Caribbean islands.
Not quite ripe, but appealing just the same, hanging off a tree in St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie
Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice—These are all grown in Grenada. The island is the world’s second-largest producer of nutmeg—the spice is even on the Grenadian flag. Baskets of pre-packaged spices are sold in the port city of St. George’s and make great holiday gifts for the cooks on your list.

Put more spice in your life with these souvenirs from St. George's, Grenada
When I look at this list I’ve just created—and it’s only a sliver of the Caribbean’s charms—it’s easy to see why the islands were seized, battled over and settled on. And are so much fun to visit!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Keeping the Cruise Going After It’s Gone: Part II

Ugh, it’s over. You’ve been so excited for so long. You had a great time. Now, it’s a fast-fading memory.

I’ve been there. 19 times, to be exact. Alas, it doesn't get any easier. But I'll share some of my new ways to hold onto that vacation buzz and keep your Caribbean cruise going after it’s gone:

Start a collection. It doesn’t have to be expensive stuff—you can pick up some interesting and different magnets from the ports, usually for just a few bucks. Or, it can be postcards, salt-and-pepper shakers, dolls, figurines—or rums.

A small slice of my collection

Becalmed. Check out the lovely beach scene—complete with wave sounds—at (select “Sunset Beach” from the right menu). There’s a slew of other choices on YouTube, like this one. Or, consider making your own the next time you cruise.

Build a shrine to the seashore. Front and center on mine, is a big sign that says “Relax.” It’s surrounded by palm trees made of glass and metal, bottles of sand and other knickknacks I picked up from the Caribbean.

Deck the walls. Many of the ports—Labadee in particular, have a huge variety of very colorful and inexpensive original artwork for sale (bargaining welcome and productive). You can get pieces of all sizes and with themes ranging from the beach, of course, to music, in frames or without them.
A handful of the vast choices in Labadee's artisan market
Dish it out. Lusting after some dish you had onboard? Try to recreate it. You can even get the actual recipes from Celebrity on their website, by ordering their Excite the Senses cookbook.

Party hardy. Throw a Caribbean-theme party with rum drinks and some Jimmy Buffett. Carve up a watermelon boat. Add some tropical fruit like mango, papaya and pineapple. Decorate with hibiscus and bird of paradise (uh, I guess they'll have to be plastic—unless you live in Florida, like I do).

Time for gifting. With Christmas coming, you have many choices for your cruise companion. You can easily create your own from trip photos, such as a calendar, mug or mousepad. For ideas, see the posting What to Do With Those Cruise Trip Photos.

Or, buy something from the cruise lines. From Princess’ website, you can get a host of stuff, from logo-bearing bathrobes to ship-specific mugs. You can even get the adorable Princess Cruises Plush Bear.

Had a great sleep on your cruise? Wish you could have that same sweet slumber at home? Well you could try--you can buy the same bedding (well, not exactly the same bedding) you had on the ship from Royal Caribbean’s website. Sorry, your room steward won’t be coming along.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Overhyped and the Overlooked

I agree with art auctions, professional photos and candy stores on cruise ships are overrated.

And there are others I’d like to add to the list. I know this is a wholly subjective subject. You might not agree. But, here, for your consideration, are some things I think we can easily live without—as well as those that are often overlooked: 


Drink packages. While the idea of drinking what you want, when you want—no designated driver needed—can be pretty tempting, when we’ve done the math, we’ve found we’d have to consume a humongous amount just to break even.

Here’s an example: Royal Caribbean’s alcohol package is now $55 a day per person (or roughly $400 a week). With the average drink price at about $8, you’d have to down seven a day to get your money’s worth.*

I have no proof, but given how much these drink packages are hyped, I have to assume the cruise lines make out better than we do.

Celebrity’s Concierge Class. You’d think we’d learn after the first time. But it took three times on Celebrity’s Concierge Class—and three times complaining—before we finally owned up that it’s just not worth it. The flowers in your room are actually one lonely bud in a vase that opens up just in time for you to go home. The appetizers, which you now have to ask for, are decidedly unappetizing. Oh, you do get a bottle of sparkling wine the first day. And the towels are big. That’s about it.

Port shopping talks. There’s little substance in these. Unless you’re in the market for high-end jewelry, don’t waste your precious vacation time. And if your curiosity gets the best of you, you can always find them on the stateroom TV, playing over and over and over again.

Formal nights. It pains me to say this, but formal nights are simply not worth trying to cram a suit and tie or dress/shoes/shawl/evening bag into your luggage.Yeah, sometimes the food is better than other nights, as filet mignon and lobster tails still make a once-a-cruise appearance. But, it’s just not the big event it used to be.


Princess’ mini-suites. If you choose your cruise right (e.g., off season), you can get one of these for not much more than a balcony room. Yet the size is significantly larger; in fact, you’ll swear you’re in a hotel. Throw in two TV sets, more counter space and the like, and you’ll be downright comfortable.
Hotel-like comfort in a Princess mini-suite
Room service. For many of us, room service in a hotel is a rarely-if-ever-used luxury. It not only costs extra, but what you get costs extra, too. While some exceptions apply, room service on a cruise ship is free. That means delivery right to your door, and you don’t even need to get out of your PJs for it.

Buffet at night. I’ve often raved about the buffet at dinner, appreciating the vast array of choices (often including what the MDR is serving up), the appearance of international cuisine--including some spicy dishes--and the marvelous mellowness. And did I mention that you don’t have to dress up?

Lunch in the main dining room. This probably sounds perverse—buffet at night and lunch in the dining room. But, like the buffet at night, lunch in the MDR is a peaceful affair. It’s under-utilized, unhurried and completely relaxing. But you’ll only find it at limited hours on sea days.
The "Tutti" salad bar on Allure of the Seas--you'll only find it at lunch, in the MDR on sea days
Loyalty clubs. Now I recognize that not everyone can cruise repeatedly, but if you can and do, going with one line has its benefits. Particularly on Royal Caribbean. We made Diamond Club a few cruises back and now enjoy unlimited alcoholic drinks during happy hour, which has made us quite happy, indeed.

The view. What’s outside the ship is becoming less and less important than what’s on the inside. With bumper cars, casinos and ice skating rinks, it’s getting harder to remember what cruising is all about: the sea. 

* This package also includes non-alcoholic drinks.

Musing’s Top Tip: On a totally different topic, check out Musing’s piece on ways to stay safe while you’re wandering around port on the website

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Great Weight Debate: Will Cruising Tip the Scales?

I have a friend who refuses to cruise because she’s terrified of all that food. That she’ll weaken in the face of a cake, crumble at the sight of a cookie and come home with mounds of pounds.

Fact or fiction?

Over a 10-day cruise, reports, the average person packs on four pounds. And some put on even more.

Well, why not? We’re on vacation, we want to have fun, get our money’s worth and all that. But there are things we can do to have our cake and eat it too—and save all that guilt for some other day:

Lose before you cruise. Want the ultimate motivation? Go shopping for a bathing suit. There’s nothing like a view of yourself in the fitting room mirror to make you suddenly lust for kale and kiwi. And since misery loves company, check out’s Lose Before You Cruise discussion thread.

What gets measured gets done. Consider investing in one of those nifty fitness tracker bracelets. Even if it doesn’t motivate you to work out, everyone else will think you do. 

Court fun and fitness. Shoot some hoops, climb a wall, don a pair of skates—the Royal Caribbean ships in particular give you lots of ways to get fit while having fun. And don't forget about dance classes, to help you boogie before you binge.

Courting fun and fitness on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas
Walk in circles. The ships generally have a walking/jogging track. The best is on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, which has separate lanes for walkers and joggers, and loops around the entire length of the ship. You not only get great views of the ocean, but a few chuckles from the signs overhead.

Walk to port—and then all around it. Taxis may be plentiful and the locals persistent, but ignore them all and walk your way to town. It’s a painless way to exercise while getting to know where you’ve docked. The walk from Crown Bay to St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie even marks the mileage for you.

Just say go. Perhaps not our favorite part of the ship, but those treadmills look out over the water. Stationery bikes let you choose your route. Many machines have their own TV; bring your headset to plug and play. In short, it’s about as pleasant as it will ever be to do time in the gym. And you’ll rarely compete for the equipment.

You won't have to compete for equipment on Celebrity's Equinox
Stay inspired with a little help from your friends. Enroll in a fitness class—all the ships have them. It helps when you're all in the same boat.
Keep your weight by skipping the wait. Forget the frustration of long waits for an elevator and take the stairs instead.
Make your own rules. You could, for example, decide to eat one big meal and two light ones each day. Or gorge Day 1 and 2, but load up on salad, fruit and veggies Days 3 and 4.

Be a fusspot. I’m from a family of thin people—not naturally thin, but deliberately thin. Our secret? Being really picky about what we consume. There was a great line in the movie Ratatouille; when the food critic was asked how he stayed so thin, he answered,“If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow it.”

Search out the better stuff. There’s healthier fare everywhere—in the main dining room, buffet and even in special (free) venues, like Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café.
Lighter fare in Celebrity's AquaSpa Cafe

Learn to lose. Many of the ships have lectures onboard on nutrition and weight loss. This will give you a head start on the diet just waiting for you to get home.

Most important of all. Whether you do any of the above, or nothing at all, there's one thing you should know. Whatever you put on now will come off later. When the vacation ends, just go back to what you usually do, and then watch the pounds melt away. It's worked for me on 20 cruises and will work, too, for you. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

How Blue is the Ocean, How Gorgeous is the Sky

I fell madly, wildly in love in Willemstad, Curaçao.

With the absolutely stunning, positively magical, spectacularly flamboyant scene in the sky. And I’ve been hooked on sunsets ever since.

There's positively no better place to see a sunset than on your stateroom balcony or a deck of a cruise ship. No powerlines, lampposts or trees to block the view. Just wide open sea and sky. It’s a vast canvas for nature’s most perfect paintbrush.

The launch of my love affair with sunsets
If you’re like me, when you see a magnificent sunset, you remember it always. You not only remember the way the sky looked, but where you were and what you were doing. And photos of those moments bring it all back in living color.

There are so many ways you can take sunset photos—whether your electronic device of choice is a smartphone, tablet or camera. Consider this:

Pink one minute, blue the next. In a very short period, the colors and configurations can change radically—and dramatically. Take lots of shots—don’t be stingy—you’ll be surprised at the variation.

When the clouds roll in. Sunsets get even more interesting when the clouds get in your way. And as the photo sites say, don’t forget to turn around—it may be even more eye-popping behind you.

Spotlight through the clouds

Sunshine on the water. Another neat shot is focusing on the ocean as a blazing setting sun reflects on the water, changing it to a most unreal kind of color.

Ft. Lauderdale in a blaze of color
Picture this. Shooting a sunset with buildings in the distance can add an interesting element to your photo. So, too, can capturing a bird in flight against a color-streaked sky.

A third of something else. The pros talk about the “rule of thirds,” where the most interesting subject is not in the center of the shot, but rather to one side, above or below. So, your best shot might be with the setting sun off to the left or right of your frame.

Little bit of this, a lot of that. One decision you’ll need to make is how much ocean and how much sky you put in your picture. Try more of one and less of the other, than reverse it, to see what you like best.

Best in silhouette. Getting your cruise companion in silhouette or from behind as he/she gazes into the distance can make a different shot.
The sunset, sea and me

Being at the ready. A camera-worthy sunset can come up when you least expect it. Have your camera ready to go. You’ll need to be able to grab it when you need it, because sunsets are quickie events.

Getting in front of them
Being there when it happens is the biggest challenge. It’s not like there’s an announcement on the PA, “There’s a great sunset, guys. Stop what you’re doing and take a look.” I’m sure we’ve missed countless beauties ‘cause we’ve eaten early.

But here’s something I wish I had known earlier: this great website lets you look up—even long before your trip has even started—the time of sunrise and sunset at the ports you’re visiting when you’re going to be there.

In the field “Sun,” Sunrise and Sunset Times,” enter the city and island. Then on the next screen, pick the menu “Sunrise and Sunset,” scroll all the way to the bottom and it will allow you to pick a month.

You’ve got the photos. Now what?
So, what do you do with those photos? You can frame them for your wall, add them to your digital frame or turn one into a mousepad. See the posting “What to Do with Those Cruise Trip Photos” for some ideas.

Musing’s Top Tip: Didn’t get enough of the sky at sundown? There’s a great (free!) smart phone app you can use to identify the stars in that dark wide open night sky. It’s called SkyView® and you can get it from Google Play.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sweet Solitude: Finding a Spot Where the Crowd is Not

To those new to cruising, it may seem implausible that you can find solitude on a ship. After all, you are sharing a pretty limited space with 2,000, 4,000—or even 6,000—other folks. 

Yet, those of us veteran cruisers know how to find a spot where the crowds are not. And now we’re going to let you in on some of our secrets:

Stay onboard when everyone gets off. When we first started cruising, this seemed a shocking concept. Isn’t cruising all about the ports? Sort of. But there’s something very appealing about having the ship (more or less) to yourself.

Decked out at night. As long as you don’t get spooked by the sight of dark nothingness, the outside decks are great places to hear yourself think because hardly anyone steps out there at night. You might even get rewarded by an unbroken sky of stars, its equal hard to find on land.
Dark, colorful and quiet--the outside decks at night on Celebrity's Constellation
Check out the library without checking out a book. The library is perhaps the ship’s most unappreciated area (second only, perhaps, to the gym). Except for an occasional card game or a few who choose to invest a chunk of change on an Internet connection, it’s mostly empty.

Head up the ship. Ships often turn an upper deck space into a disco or entertainment venue at night, leaving it alone during the day. Which makes it a cushy, comfy and abandoned place for you to find your space. Some examples: Viking Crown Lounge on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas on deck 14, Celebrity Constellation’s Reflections Lounge on deck 11 and Holland America’s Zuiderdam’s Crow’s Nest Lounge on deck 10.

Java it up in the ship buffet. I’ve often extolled the virtues of Windjamming it (Royal Caribbean), Horizon Courting it (Princess) or Oceanviewing it (Celebrity) at dinner. The ship’s buffets are mostly ghostly at dinner time, so if you want a place to read, write or game your smartphone, with a mug of coffee by your side, they’re a great place to hide. And who knows, there may just be a dessert there, too, with your name written all over it.

The Central Park that’s safe at night. Our all-time favorite space is Central Park. This Royal
Central Park after hours on Allure of the Seas
Caribbean Oasis class “neighborhood” can be all abuzz by day—especially when the lunchtime crowds converge at Park Café—but it’s a lovely site at night. It’s empty and serene, small lights twinkle among the greenery and cushioned chairs tucked here and there make it a really calming way to end your day.

Then, there are always nooks and crannies on every ship, but you need to round a corner, venture a hallway or do a different deck sometimes to find them. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Bright Side of Rainy Weather

In the spirit of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for this posting, I’m going to borrow a topic from, a good site for cruise news and tips, pricing out trips, port cams and the like. Their article, “Top 10 Things to Do on a Rainy Day,” has some great suggestions, but I’m going to add some of my own ways to avoid cabin fever on those rainy days at sea:
Make the best of those soggy patches! (Above, "Splish Splash" aqua show on Oasis of the Seas)
Start a journal—I do one each cruise and never regret it. While it’s a bit of work, it’s a way to capture memories, thoughts and observations, and remind you of smaller things you may forget. It’s especially handy when planning your next cruise (or for writing a review of your trip…or a blog like mine!).

The author and spouse release their inner artsy-fartsy and 
have a ball on Oasis of the Seas.
Get a head start on dealing with your photos—If you’ve brought a laptop, download photos from your camera or phone and begin the lovely task of organizing/deleting/editing. You’ll appreciate that you made a dent in this when you get back home.

Roam the ship with your camera—Be goofy and creative. Take photos of you and your companions in the elevator mirror. In the shops holding an “I love cruising” tee-shirt. In front of murals. Do a selfie by photographing your reflection in a glass door. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll notice for the first time once you pull out a camera. See Fun Ship Photography: Releasing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy for some ideas and shots.

Break your routine—Always lunch in the buffet? Try a specialty restaurant—some of them don’t charge for lunch. And Royal Caribbean ships have lunch in the main dining room on sea days, featuring the massive “Tutti” salad bar spread that lets you load up on lettuce—but also meats, veggies, cheeses and great bread (note: the hours are tight; look for them in the ship newsletter).

Book the next one—Visit the sales office to book your next cruise and enjoy a smile when you see the line forming there the last day of the trip.

But the very best way to spend a wet day? Sleep late. Eat late. And just relax. Think of it as saving your energy for when the sun comes back out. And, hey, this is the Caribbean—the sun will come out!