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Friday, October 19, 2018

Cruise Directors: A Job as Big as the Ship They Sail In

Some play it straight. Some steal the show. Some are even in the show.

They’re all front and center. It’s tough to ignore your cruise director.

Ever since Julie’s voice penetrated the PA on the “Love Boat,” the cruise director has become a pivotal presence on ships. Part customer service rep, part salesman, part cheerleader, part actor—and even sometimes, part comedian—the cruise director is, undoubtedly, the most visible crew member onboard.

The cruise director tells us what’s going on every day, and what we should spend more money on. “He”—because in 20 cruises+, we’ve only had one “she”—hobnobs with cruise loyalists, and is quick with a handshake and small talk.

He emcees events—indeed, can make or break them. There’s been more than one “Love and Marriage” game show where the CD came to the rescue with a nudge, a tease, an innuendo—anything to liven up the contestants.

Kicking off the aqua show on Allure of the Seas
Yet this is only the part we see. Behind the scenes, they’re organizing, managing and keeping the entertainment running smoothly. This piece from Travel Weekly gives a glimpse into what it’s really like. In short, it’s exhausting!

While some cruise directors are laid back, more often they’re not. They’ve got their own TV shows. They hold the mike and grab the attention.

But when the urge comes to try something different, CDs shift to a corporate job, only to find themselves longing again for the shipboard spotlight. That’s where they’re a celebrity—second only to the captain.

Sometimes they even overshadow the entertainers they’re introducing. Some CDs are so beloved by passengers that they become the attraction themselves. forums praise some of them by name. Some threads even track what ship each CD is sailing on. John Heald’s blog charts the CDs on Carnival ships. Disney too posts a schedule not only for CDs, but captains too.

Whether you like your CD in the foreground or background, making you laugh or just giving directions, you have to admire them for the efforts they put into making sure you—and thousands of your cruise companions—are having a great time.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Cruising and the Unexpected

I’ve been asked—more than a few times—why do I keep cruising? Aside from the obvious reasons—love of the sea, great value, the ultimate in relaxation—cruising is full of surprises.

These can be on the ship, in a port or with the sea. If you’ve gone on a number of cruises, no doubt you’ve had a few surprises of your own. Here are a few of mine:

The piano and the elevator. While waiting for the elevator on Harmony of the Seas, our eyes opened wide as the doors parted to show a man inside playing a full upright piano.
Only moments earlier, he was playing this piano inside an elevator on the Harmony
Princess and the pops. The year Princess celebrated its 50th anniversary, at the Caribbean Princess’ Captain’s Welcome, along with champagne, the crew handed out Norman Love chocolate truffle pops.

The cruise director and the joke. On a sunny sea day, when a whole lot of people were around the pool, the CD got on the PA and said, “There’s a dolphin starboard.” Everyone dashed to the railing only to then hear him say, “Uh…I was only fooling.”

The lizard and the lettuce. Strolling through Wilhelmina Park in Oranjestad, Aruba, we happened on feeding time. The park keeper tossed out the makings of a salad to the slew of wandering iguanas.

The gold and the silver. It pops up for an hour or two at a time, and you never know where or when. The Inches of Gold concession has a treasure chest of affordable jewelry you can order by the inch, which means you get just the size you want.

The galley and the village. Toward the end of our pre-Christmas cruise on Harmony, as we meandered into the Promenade, we were as enchanted as children to see a whole gingerbread village laid out for view and cameras.

The holiday and the flower. One cruise happened to be on Mother’s Day and the crew handed every woman a single red rose.

The couple and the champagne. Heading back to our stateroom one night on Allure of the Seas, a cabin door opened and a guy stepped out. “Do you drink?” “Moderately,” I answered, cautiously. He thrust into my hand a bottle of champagne. It appears that he did not, and he got it as a gift.

While each cruise may not always be champagne and roses, there’s bound to be surprises somewhere. Maybe it’s part of a port we haven’t explored, a sunset kaleidoscope of colors, a shower that spawns a rainbow or a chocolate array in the dinner buffet. 

When we stop being delighted by these slices of the unexpected, it’s truly time to stop cruising.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

The Truth About the Food

Let’s face it. A big part of cruising is the food. The joy of eating what you want, when you want. No muss! No fuss! No cooking! No clean up!

But to get this privilege, we have to bend on quality. And settle for quantity instead. Some food for thought when next you dine on the mass market sea:

If you’re feeding an army, how good can it be? If you ever go on a galley tour, you’ll hear how many eggs cruisers consume, how many pounds of potatoes and all the rest. You can’t help but be impressed with the vast quantities of stuff we ingest. In short, when they’re cranking out so many meals, they’re not likely to lovingly and artfully prepare and plate your food.

Ready to load onto your main dining room salad

Forget medium well. Our waiter on Celebrity once told us we have two choices for our Beef Wellington: rare or well done. You can generally get accommodation for special health needs, but want food made to order? Go to a specialty restaurant.

They take shortcuts. Wouldn’t you, with thousands of hungry mouths to feed? On one galley tour, I witnessed a crew member emptying a bag of frozen fries into hot oil.

The galley tour on the Caribbean Princess had some surprises

Some of the best food is at the buffets. Since the main dining room has to cater to average tastes, the food can’t be too seasoned or spicy. What you end up with is bland. But since the buffet offers so many choices, they can include some really different stuff. I’ve had a few dishes that were so terrific on Royal Caribbean, I tried to recreate them (unsuccessfully) at home.

An eye-popping chocolate-lover's dream--in Harmony of the Seas' Windjammer buffet
Want fine dining? You’ll have to pay for it. We resisted the specialty restaurants for years. After all, we reasoned, we’re already paying to be fed in the cost of the cruise. But in the end, our hunger for better food forced us to open our wallets. And what we found is that not only is the food much better, but so is the service.

Melt-in-your-mouth squash soup at Harmony of the Seas' 150 Central Park

The little spot that could—and does. Think Oasis class’ Park Café. Celebrity’s Aqua Spa Café. Princess’ International Café. These alternatives deliver great bang for no extra bucks.
Goodies awaiting your appetite at Regal Princess' International Cafe

In the end, no matter whether we find ourselves served by waiters or serving ourselves, dining dressed up or dressed down, we’re going to be well fed. Few are the folks who can claim they lost weight on a cruise!

Photos by R James Photography

Friday, September 7, 2018

Dark Skies, Bright Lights

Do you like the sea at night? After all, when there’s no view of land, the sky and the sea seem to merge into one vast sheet of darkness. And yet…

It can be the most peaceful time. Or it can be a lively time.

When the party’s inside. With all the hustle and bustle inside, a walk on the deck in the dark can be mellow and romantic. (Remember those moonlit scenes on the “Love Boat”?) With everyone inside, you can feel like the ship belongs to you.

When the party’s outside. That’s a whole different vibe. Princess often does a ‘70s theme party for rockin’ under the stars.

Lighting up the night. Unobscured by buildings, trees or wires, the dark sky shows off its stars. Then there are the ship’s lights—around the pool and strung overhead. The Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships are ablaze of colored lights when the sun goes down.

Central Park decked out in lights on Harmony of the Seas

Enjoying an empty hot tub, lights and the dark on Oasis of the Seas.
At the drive-in. Princess’ Movies Under the Stars is a way to enjoy the outside at night while cozy under a blanket with a front-row view of the big screen. You’ll even get popcorn or milk and cookies—without ever leaving your seat.

Snuggling up under the big screen on the Caribbean Princess.
Night on the verandah. Lights off, feet up and wine in hand. A room with a view as the ship cuts the water in two. What a soft and soothing way to ready for another full day!

Photos by Roger James Photography

Friday, August 24, 2018

Don’t Miss the Boat!

Time waits for no man—and neither does the cruise ship. 

If you don't show reverence to Time, here's where the ship could leave you behind:

Flying the same day you cruise. Inevitably, there’s someone in a board asking if it’s safe to fly the same day you cruise. (Someone recently wanted to fly in—I kid you not—two hours before the ship was to set sail.)

And just as inevitably, there’s someone else complaining that they missed their cruise because their flight was cancelled or delayed.

Picking an excursion not cruise-line sponsored. Now, I know some of you will disagree, because non-sponsored excursions can be cheaper. But if the bus breaks down, or the driver runs out of gas or gets caught in traffic…if the ship didn’t sponsor it, it’s not going to wait for you.

Going by local time. If you’re cruising into a different time zone but the ship doesn’t change with it, going by store clocks in port can trip you up. Some smart phones automatically update to the local time, so using that as your guide is also not a good thing. 

So, what happens if you do, indeed, miss the boat? Maybe you can jump onboard at the next port—if there is a next port.

But whether you’re trying to catch up with the ship or just get back to home base, it’ll be on your dime. And it’s likely to be a big dime—and all because you lost track of Time.

Friday, August 10, 2018

More on Unleashing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy with a Camera and a Cruise Ship

Sea days are the best days. Not just for sleeping off a tropical drink around the pool, but also for getting crazy behind the lens.

Here are a few ideas for making your cruise ship your canvas:

That’s a great reflection. Mirrors on the wall, in elevators, encased in a frame—even on the ceiling—create different kinds of selfies.

Almost like being there. Some of the artwork—particularly large murals—lends itself to a great backdrop. It’ll really confuse your buddies when you pull up a photo of yourself in front of changing leaves or a sign of Route 66…when you’ve been in the Caribbean.

Route 66 via Harmony of the Seas
Funky framing. Partitions with holes, translucent glass artwork, windows fringed with “snow”—you never know where you’re going to find a new way to frame a photo.
Peering through the window of Regal Princess' Sabatini's 
Find the pattern. Sometimes, all you need is a chandelier or a pile of corks to create something unique.
Golden globes of the Regal Princess

A Chihuly chandelier on Celebrity's Constellation

The Emerald Princess' cork collection
Be in the moment. A dog washing the floor with his tongue, a bride waltzing around the atrium, two toddlers having an earnest chat, a sky blazing with color—these are just a few of those great-shot moments you can stumble on if you’re lucky. But you can make your own luck by having a camera with you as often as possible.

Enjoying dessert on Allure of the Seas
Being creative with the camera has a bunch of benefits—not only will it sharpen your eye and make you a better observer, but looking and laughing at those photos is a sure-fire time killer when you’re waiting for the curtain to go up in the ship’s theater.

Friday, July 27, 2018

One Class, Two Ships. Are They the Same?

Say you’ve been on a cruise and liked it. Now you’re thinking about another one—on a different ship but the same class. You wonder, will the two ships be the same?

Sister ships, as they call them, are indeed, like siblings. They may look kind of like each other. But they can be very different. Or very similar.

Take the Caribbean Princess and Emerald Princess. Pretty similar ships. Then take Oasis of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas. Very different ships.

Here are some of the ways sea-going siblings can differ:

Spacing out. Ships can use their space differently. The first in class Royal Princess debuted without an aft pool and after a fair amount of cruiser griping, her younger sister, Regal Princess, was built with one.

Another example is Celebrity’s Solstice; where the ship had space devoted to glass-making demos, the later ones gave it up to cooking lessons. Harmony has its bionic bartenders where folks sip champagne on sister Allure of the Seas.

Adding activity. Sometimes, a later ship gets more fun stuff. The Harmony added the Ultimate Abyss, as well as two water slides. You won’t find these on its older sibs.

Taunts on Harmony for the Ultimate Abyss
How to chow. Specialty restaurants can vary from ship to ship, even within the same class. For example, Oasis and Allure have the terrific Giovanni’s, but the Harmony went for Jamie’s Italian and added a new one, Wonderland.

Types of chow. The main dining room lunch buffet with the Tutti salad bar is on all the Oasis ships. But the Harmony took the sweets up a notch, with a grand dessert buffet, complete with chocolate fountain.
Chocolate, cake and much more to sweeten your lunch in the Harmony's MDR
From one stage to another. Each ship has its own shows, featured artists and sidebar entertainers.

Room for change. Harmony’s room configuration is not the same as that on Oasis and Allure—the two closets are far away from each other (which, by the way, is a good thing).

Art work. What graces the walls, sits in public spaces and hangs from the ceilings are all unique and can give the ship a feel of its own. I’m thinking about the big head in the Harmony’s Promenade, which, well, hits you in the face.

Techie talk. The Harmony is much more plugged in and booted up than its sisters—from its free-standing tablets to its modernized elevator buttons.

We’ve talked about the differences, but what’s the same? Nearly everything else.

So, really, you get the best of both worlds when you jump ship within a class. The ship is familiar. You (more or less) know your way around. Yet, it’s different enough to make it feel like a new experience. How neat is that for your vacation?

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Endearing and Enduring Cruise Traditions

Formal nights, baked Alaska and towel animals—are they a thing of the past?

Those of us who have been cruising for a while have seen our share of changes. Out with the midnight buffets, tuxedoed waiters and pillow chocolates. In with the bumper cars, zip-lining and skydiving.

But over the years, some endearing cruise traditions have endured. They may not be what lures us onboard but are fun just the same:

Welcome onboard, this is your captain speaking. We may have stopped going a while ago, but for many folks, the captain’s welcome is the “official” start to the cruise. And probably the only time you’ll see the face of the captain. (But you’ll sure hear his voice over the PA often enough.)

The captain's welcome on the Caribbean Princess features a champagne
fountain--and a glass for you too.
Getting formal. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, formal nights are still part of the cruising experience. You can ignore the whole thing and eat in the buffet, but you can’t beat the treat of seeing everyone else dress up. From toddlers in bow ties, men in kilts and women in stilettos—people-watching is never better.

Photo posing. Even though today so many people have a camera in their back pocket, there are still plenty of cruisers who like to pose for the professionals. With backdrops real and pretend, in their gowns or in port, they’re happy to make the ship photographers feel useful.

What the crew does with those towels. We never tire of the monkey swinging from a hanger, the swan about to glide across our bed or the puppy poised for petting. How do they find the time to do it?

The bed with open arms. While I still pine for the postcards and pillow candy once routine on Celebrity, there’s still nothing like an inviting bed, fresh towels and a clean bathroom to end your day.

Baked Alaska. Having been to Alaska in late May, this seems like a contradiction in terms. No matter, baked Alaska the dessert does still make an appearance. Princess serves it. And Carnival made the news recently when the cruise line pulled it out of storage. The meringue/cake/ice cream dessert may not make you scream for seconds, but it’s so very cruising.

The napkin wave/waiter parade. Just as the captain welcomes you on board, your waiters see you off. One of the last nights of the cruise, the staff makes noise of some sort, prompting guests to wave their napkins in thanks for their satisfied palates.
On this Holland America cruise, the waiters drummed on salad bowls.
Custom cards as blue as your mood. This is one cruise tradition that has recently disappeared. You will no longer see these on your bed as your trip comes to a close. Which is a good thing, because who needs yet another reminder of the lurking trip back to reality?

Photos by Roger James Photography