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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Shopping for the Cruiser

Help has arrived to find the perfect gift for the cruiser on your list! It’s not hard to find something for the cruising aficionado—deciding from all the choices is the challenge. Just a handful that come immediately to mind:
One if Buy Land

The practical stuff. Tablets and readers are the perfect choice for those who like to laze around the pool. And who can take a trip without a camera (or the smart phone version)?

St. Maarten's guavaberry liqueur dressed
for the holidays
Want to spend less? Walkie-talkies, which you can pick up at Walmart or a sports store, will help cruisers stay connected to their companion. 
Or, help them hide away that smart phone with Home Depot’s neat new travel safe.

Want to spend even less than that? With some colorful luggage tags, they’ll be able to tell their black bag from someone else’s.
Or, go nautical (or “nausical,” as they say in retail) with something for their home or to wear. Like a print of a palm tree or beach scene for their wall.  Blue-and-white striped something or other. Charm bracelet with an anchor, sunfish or sand dollar.
The fun stuff. There are gifts that keep on giving, like Cruise Travel or Porthole magazines. Or Cruise Critic logo stuff like lanyards, bags and bottles.
Keep them in the mood with calypso or steel drum, Jimmy Buffett or Harry Belafonte CDs.
More work but no less appreciated—turn their cruise photos into something else. A photo book or calendar. Mug or mouse pad.

Two if Buy Sea
The best place to get a gift for the cruiser may just be while you’re on the ship. There are chains by the inch, and the clothing and jewelry sales; see Catch ‘Em While You Can. You’ve got a ton of choice in the ship’s logo stuff—from mugs to model ships and teddy bears too.

The ports also have a plethora of possibilities. Food and booze are always welcome; see Of Chocolate, Rum and Spice: Food Souvenirs of the Caribbean

Then there’s the ubiquitous Cariloha and its clothes and such made from bamboo, and the color-changing tchotchkes of Del Sol.

And you can still find some handmade crafts if you know where to look—from mahogany bowls in Roatan to baskets in Dominica to ceramics in Cozumel; see Caribbean Crafts by Way of China.

But that ultimate gift? A new cruise, of course!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Catch ‘Em While You Can

Once you’ve been on a cruise or two or three, you start looking for the little treats you’ve come to expect onboard that you don’t often find on shore. Some are well advertised but for others, you need a keen eye to find. Here are a few that fall in both camps:
The daily drink. The ships usually have one tropical drink a day at a reduced price. You can find it in the ship’s newsletter, or sometimes on display at bars or tables at the buffet. Some recent ones from Allure of the Seas, all $6.75 and you can keep the glass: Bahama Mama; Paradise Punch; Red, White & Blue; Pirate’s Hurricane; and Caribbean Tea.
Dress better, eat better. If you have any meal in the main dining room, let it be on formal night. Because that’s when you’ll find filet mignon, lobster and the MDR’s best meals. On a seven-day trip, they’re typically the second and fifth night. Check the newsletter to make sure.
Dazzle by the inch. The chains-by-the-inch vendor seems to be a staple on many ships. I bought a bracelet on Celebrity’s Constellation and had its clasp changed on the Caribbean Princess. The gold- and silver-plated chains come in many styles, are pretty and durable, the prices are reasonable (starts at $1 an inch) and of course, the best part is you can have them sized exactly the way you want.
Unfortunately, where and when the vendor shows up is not often advertised. He or she will pop up once or twice a cruise for about an hour in a common area, such as a hallway or outside the buffet. You can try asking Guest Relations, but if that fails, you’ll just need to luck out and stumble on it.
The $10 crush. What does $10 buy you these days? A lot, when you catch these floating sales. They tend to be advertised in the ship newsletter, but only last an hour or two, so you’ll need to plan around them. Few warnings: they’re popular and can get crowded. If the ship hosts it in a small area, be prepared to compete with your fellow passengers. (Any Bostonians? Think Filenes’ “Running of the Brides.”)

Also, as you would imagine, you get what you pay for. The jewelry, scarves, purses and such are not the highest quality. But can fill a quick need or serve as a souvenir.
Sidewalk sales. The ship stores have regular sales outside the shops, with the best ones occurring toward the end of the trip. Again, the newsletter will let you know when and where they are. Some examples from the Allure: up to 75 percent off sale of Citizen, Bulova, Gucci, Movado and Fossil watches; 40 percent off Sophia Fiori and Effy  jewelry; Tag Heuer watch sale; and Royal Caribbean logo items.
Hook it and book it now. One of the best deals are the ones for future cruises. Many of the ships let you book the next one while you’re still onboard and entice you to do so with lower deposits and shipboard credits. They also give you the option of applying the low deposit and cruise credits toward some trip you plan in the future. 

The one or two sales folks on the ship have scheduled hours and as you might guess, as the cruise winds down, they get that much busier, so plan accordingly. It’ll be worth your while—what better way to end a cruise than knowing you’ve got another already lined up?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Creature Feature: When the Animals Steal the Show

What could possibly rival people-watching on a cruise? Checking out our other fellow creatures—the animals. And there are creatures from north to south, just waiting to perform for our cameras.

The Alaska ports have their kayaking, glacier-viewing and craft crawling. Down in the Caribbean, there’s parasailing, snorkeling and jewelry shopping. But sometimes, it’s the wildlife that steals the show. 

Here, for your amusement, are some featured creatures from our past cruises:

How much is that doggie in the window? (Old San Juan)

You’re not getting my catch! (George Town, Grand Cayman)

Hey, where’s my dressing? (Wilhelmina Park, Oranjestad, Aruba)

The sea was too salty for these gulls (Princess Cays)

Getting the eagle eye (Ketchikan, Alaska)

Friday, October 9, 2015

What to Do While You’re Waiting

You’re dreaming of lying on the beach or by the pool, drink in your hand, Kindle by your side, basking in the sun to the sounds of a steel drum. And waiting for your cruise is sheer torture.

Picturing yourself here, in Roatan's Mahogany Bay?
Is there anything you can do to pass the time? Sure! Here are some things you could do—and should do—to get pumped up and ready to go:

Do now
Passport valid? Check! You’ll need it even for the Caribbean—or the cruise lines will make you show a certified birth certificate. Important note: your passport cannot be expiring within six months of your trip. For more, see the posting, “The One Thing You Absolutely Must Know Before You Cruise.”
Make your list and check it twice. Now’s a great time to make your packing list if you don’t have one. You’ll want plenty of time to add to it.
Extra! Extra! Sign up for the extras—beverage packages, excursions, specialty restaurants and shows now so you don’t have to think about it later. (For Oasis and Allure of the Seas, you need to
Sign up for  the ice show on the Oasis or Allure before you go
book shows online before you go, unless you want to stand on a wait-list line before the performance.)

Lose it. You might consider dropping a few pounds to make room for some new ones. And once you do, you’ll need new clothing for the new, svelte you, so…
Shop for less. Time to get shopping! All you’ll need is a bathing suit, cover up, shorts, tops, flip flops and a few nice things for dinner.
Don’t forget the to-do. You don’t want to get halfway to the airport or port and get that punched-in-the-stomach feeling when you realize you left something behind. Make that to-do list now. Some tasks to put on it: pay bills, stop mail, turn off water, gas up car, give contact info to family.
The right dose. Check your medicine supplies to make sure you’ll have enough. You don’t want to run out while you’re in the Caribbean.
Travel ahead. Book your flight and/or hotel sooner rather than later to get a good deal and make sure you can get the place and time of your choice.
Watch for a drop. Keep your eye on the price of your trip. If it goes down, you could qualify for a discount.
Plan to socialize. Sign up for a Cruise Critic “Meet and Greet” if there’s one on your trip. Check out to find out and/or join the roll call and virtually meet some of your upcoming travel peers. See posting “Free and Worth Every Penny.”
Get in the groove. Add a count-down graphic to your Cruise Critic signature and blog, and change the wallpaper on your PC to a beach scene.
Cruise the web. There’s so much info out there to give you tips on your ports and ship. For some great sites, see the posting “Cruising the Web.”

A week before
Follow that ship. Use the (free) Ship Mate app, which you can get from, to track where your ship is at any given moment.
Weather watch. Check out the upcoming weather at your ports of call with
Get Harry to sing. Few sounds evoke the Caribbean more than Harry Belafonte’s Calypso. Spring for one of his CDs or hop on YouTube for some “Day O.”
If Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” or Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot” is more your style, they’re on YouTube, too. Guaranteed you’ll hear both at least once on your cruise.

Start the party now. Now that you’ve got your Harry Belafonte CD, throw yourself a Bon Voyage party. Brew up a batch of rum punch, carve a watermelon boat, make some jerk chicken and limbo the night away!

A few days before
Get ‘em clean and full. Juice up your tablet and phone, make sure your camera batteries are full and your SD card is clean and ready.
Pack it in. The earlier you start, the more time you’ve got to swap things out. And add in what you almost forgot.
Now you’re ready to cast away!

Friday, September 25, 2015

When Cruising is Unforgettable

A big reason I think most of us travel is for that element of surprise. Let’s face it; our lives can become pretty routine. Leaving home brings out the explorer in us and brings the promise of the unforgettable.
As we’ve cruised over the years, we’ve had a number of moments that will stay with us always.
Many have been in the ports we’ve visited, and some have been onboard. Here are just a few:

Curaçao in color
Sunset over Curaçao. With no trees or power lines in the way, you can get some amazing sunsets over the sea. Rushing back to the ship in Curaçao after putzing around in town, we were treated to an amazing blaze of color that changed by the minute. Cameras came out and we captured memories that bring us back to that day again and again.
The schooner, the sunset and the Pitons. During a slow turn around St. Lucia’s Pitons on Holland America’s Noordam, a schooner in full sail passed between us and the iconic peaks, just as the sky was putting on its own show. The confluence of the elements made for some spectacular shots.

Some twists and turns, and then a peek into paradise, on the lovely isle of St. John
St. John the Divine. Tired of shopping in St. Thomas, we ventured out on an excursion to its sibling  isle of St. John. The bus took us up and down the steep slopes, and round and round tight turns. But nothing could have prepared us for the overlooks—pure paradise. It’s no wonder the island’s remote and untouched beaches show up again and again in cruising brochures and websites (and Musing’s blog wallpaper).
Alone on the bay. We couldn’t tear ourselves away from Mahogany Bay—even when nearly everyone else was back on the ship. The prize was the chance to float in the calm clear water—completely alone with a relaxation seldom known.
Sugar cane and an ocean view. The quality of excursions varies wildly, but the best we took was a bus tour around Barbados. The driver was knowledgeable and chatty, happily doling out Barbados 101 as we passed banana trees, poinsettias in the wild and windmills. A lookout stop over the wild Atlantic side brought incredible ocean views for great photo-taking and a vendor who shared his sugar cane with me for my first taste of raw sweetness.
Juiced up and iced up in Glacier Bay. The cold gray mist that chilled our bones was quickly forgotten as the Golden Princess slid gingerly through the narrow mountain-framed channel and icy silent waters of Glacier Bay, eventually revealing a massive baby-blue glacier, its frozen spires piercing the cloudy skies. While not a postcard-perfect Alaska day, most definitely one we’ll not forget.
Midnight at the buffet. Our first cruise on Celebrity’s Constellation started it all for us, now 10 years in the past. The eye-popping midnight buffets may be long gone, but cruising’s still making us marvelous memories…

The Constellation's Grand Buffet is a thing of the past, but the memory lives on
…like a stunning sunset at a Ft. Lauderdale sailaway….water show high dives on Allure of the Seas…the Constellation room steward rushing to open our cabin door for us…Michael Love truffle pops at the Welcome toast on the Caribbean Princess…Christmas music with a reggae beat on the ferry into Philipsburg…

What are some of yours?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Blue Ice vs. Blue Water—is an Alaskan Cruise for You?

Say after a slew of cruises to the Caribbean, you’ve done and seen it all. When you pull into port, you hardly ever leave the ship any more. Little by little, the prospect of Alaska is creeping up on you. But you can’t quite get yourself to book one.
We know. We were there.

Then we took the plunge. It was a singular experience. Do it. You won’t regret it.
There were a number of surprises, however, that you might want to know about, so if you do take the plunge, you’ll know what to expect:
Same but different. Is there anything the same about a Caribbean cruise and an Alaskan one? Well, for starters, of course, they’re both cruises. And often the same ships, since the cruise lines scramble their vessels. While both vacations revolve around the water, though, one of them you won’t be swimming in.

The show is outdoors. Alaska is all about the scenery, and what scenery it is! Glaciers in blue hue, floating ice, wildlife, snow-topped mountains, misty fjords, along with a spooky, unworldly silence. You’ll fill your suitcases with binoculars and cameras, instead of sunscreen and sun hats. In fact, with all there is to see outdoors, you’ll find yourself using a lot less of the ship.
Blue spires of ice in Glacier Bay

The remote and ghostly Inside Passage

The short story. Unless you go in the summer and luck out with a warm spell, you can forget about shorts and flip-flops. We went over Memorial Day and the temps in the towns peaked in the 60s. Glacier Bay was a toasty 48. And what they tell you about the weather? Be wary and be ready for anything. Particularly rain.

Dressing down. The dress overall on an Alaskan cruise is more informal. After seeing jeans in the Main Dining Room at dinner, I did it too.
Learning instead of lounging. Caribbean cruises are big on party vibe, calypso around the pool and soaking in the sun. Alaskan cruises are about learning—the environment, wildlife and culture—so expect talks and presentations. Our Princess trip featured a fabulous naturalist, who narrated our journey through Glacier Bay, and a female winner of the famously grueling Iditarod dog-sled race.
Wild thing. While the iguanas on the rocks in St. Thomas’ Crown Bay or Aruba’s Wilhelmina Park will entertain you in the Caribbean, in Alaska, your eyes will be glued to the sea and sky, scanning for breaching whales and eagles in flight. Be forewarned—you might see them—and then you might not. We saw several whales, but from very far away and then only a glimpse of tail.
The cruise ships come to town; downtown Skagway in May

Frontier facades dwarfed by Juneau's backdrop
Part frontier, part Russia, always gorgeous. You’ll want to get off the ship in these stops—Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. These frontier-style towns with their Russian influence, surrounded by snowy mountains, are a scene right out of Disney. Each has its own interesting history and personality. Take Ketchikan—the city that always rains. There are totem poles everywhere, salmon is sold in nearly every shop—from smoked and sliced, to frozen and jerked—and souvenirs are cheap and fun.
Fishing for salmon in Ketchikan
Crafts not by way of China. Unlike the Caribbean, Alaska is where you’ll find real crafts, but the cost can be dear. Stores are filled with all types of Eskimo and local art, from small scrimshaw items to take-home totems that can cost up to the thousands. But if you just want some trinkets to remind you of your trip, you can load up on them for almost nothing in Ketchikan’s Tongass Trading Co. Think dolls in Eskimo clothing, moose magnets and totem ornaments for your Christmas tree.
Moose and more...
...and take-home totems from the Ketchikan shops
If after all this, you’re still missing the Caribbean, believe it or not, you don’t have to look far for a Diamonds International. Try Juneau. Or Skagway. Or Ketchikan.
Still on the fence? Here’s a thought: if you’ve been shunning the blue water during hurricane season, hurricane season is actually the in-season for seeing the blue ice. Go. Enjoy. 

For more postings on Alaska, see Cruising Alaska 101 and Quaint and Quirky: Alaska’s Cruise Ports.
Musing’s Top Tip: For obvious reasons, the cruising season is short in Alaska—late spring to early fall. What part of this timeframe you choose has its upsides and downsides, so do plenty of research to make sure you get the trip you’ve always wanted.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Of Chocolate, Rum and Spice: Food Souvenirs of the Caribbean

It’s truly hard these days to find any real handicrafts. From Basseterre to Bridgetown, most of what we see is all the same—made in China, but stamped with a different port name.
What you can still get that’s unique and local is of the edible (and drinkable) kind. Food stuffs make great gifts for those you left behind—if you can bear to part with them once you get home. And if you pick up a few for yourself, it’s one way to keep the cruise going after it’s gone (for other ideas, see the posting Keeping the Cruise Going After its Gone).
Here’s a sampling of what you can pick up and take back from your next cruise:
Curaçao: You won’t have to look far to find the island’s namesake liquor; there’s a vendor right at the pier. It’s actually made from oranges and you certainly wouldn’t guess that from its iconic blue color.

Cozumel: Vanilla, Kahlua and tequila is all locally made and excellently priced. You can get all three at the shopping plaza at the pier or in town.  
Granada: Known ‘cause it’s grown there—nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and cocoa. In the outdoor market (a short walk from the pier), you can buy inexpensive baskets of spices, packaged to go. There’s also fun spice necklaces you can pick up from the vendors, but be forewarned—the necklace deteriorates within 24 hours.
St. Maarten: Guavaberry liqueur is this island’s special concoction and national drink made from wild guavaberries (not guava). You can buy the brand name, Sint Maarten Guavaberry, or get a version of the liqueur in an attractive hand-painted bottle from many Philipsburg liquor stores.
Grand Cayman: The ubiquitous Tortuga rum cake made on this island makes a good gift; it’s well packaged and compact so it won’t take up much room in your luggage. It comes also in flavors like coconut and key lime. You can even sample it before you buy in a number of George Town shops.

Roatan: Honduras produces a high-end cacao bean and a husband-and-wife team have become the first on the island to make chocolate bars from the local stuff. You can buy this special chocolate with a variety of different flavors in the craft market at Mahogany Bay, Roatan’s pier used by Carnival, Princess, NCL and a few other cruise lines.
San Juan—and everywhere else in the Caribbean: Rum. Need I say more? So many choices, so little time! Just about every island has its own—from Jamaica (Appleton) to Barbados (Mount Gay) to Grand Cayman (Tortuga). But for me, San Juan is where it’s at—the home of Bacardi. You’ll find versions of its rum you won’t find anywhere else. A visit to the distillery is an excursion on many trips; it’s fun, but it is a bus trip away and when we went, a lengthy wait for the tour was in store.
A few more morsels...If you’re lucky enough to make it to St. Barts, you can pick up French products in the supermarket right on the main street—from chocolate to confiture. And Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee in, of course, Jamaica. But it won’t come cheap.