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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cruise Food Hideaways

Sometimes, the best place to eat on a cruise ship is where no one else goes. It’s that little gem—the small café tucked away in a nook or cranny where the food is better—and free. But you could go through an entire seven-day trip and never find it.
 
If you follow the forums on your ship (see my July 18 posting, “Cruising the Web,” for a list), you’ll often find that oyster’s pearl. Here are some of the ones I’ve uncovered:
 
Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café—Like Royal Caribbean’s Solarium Bistro (see below), this fabulous little spot probably suffers from the mere suggestion that it serves health food. But it’s Celebrity’s best-
Salmon can be had already plated or
made to order at the AquaSpa Café
 
kept secret: it’s the only place onboard where you can get salmon, tuna or chicken made to order (you need to ask for it). It’s often hard to find—it’s usually in the Solarium (check the location on your ship), has just a few tables and is only open for breakfast and lunch. But it’s worth searching for.

 
Oasis Class’ Solarium Bistro—RCI’s Solarium Bistro, like the Solarium itself, was minimally used when we’ve been there. Like Celebrity’s café, it’s set up cafeteria-style, with the always-interesting food already plated. And the quality is excellent.
 
Oasis Class’ Park Café —This little place on RCI’s serene Central Park “neighborhood” serves breakfast and lunch. At lunch, you can get you-choose-it salads or hot paninis and while I’ve not tried it myself, the forums are filled with praise for the café’s roast beef sandwich.   
 
Princess’ International Café—While its location disqualifies the International Café as a hideaway (it’s in the piazza, the hub of the ship), it’s surprising how few people actually eat there. There’s a lot to like about the 24-hour café—while the drinks are not free (bar and specialty coffees), the food is. The salad combos, quiches and desserts vary every day, and they’re wonderful. And if you hit it just right, you’ll have live music to nosh by.
 
Making pizza on Princess
Pizza on Princess—While many cruisers already know that Princess has the best pizza on the sea, I’ve classified it as a hideaway because we have a devil of a time finding it on every ship. The last time on the Emerald, we must have circled Deck 15 three times before we found it. If you do take Princess, give it a try (if you can find it). Make it worth the while of the poor crew member sweating in the Caribbean heat who has to open that blazing-hot pizza oven all day long.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Cruiseline.com, a website I highlighted in a posting a few weeks ago, has just made some improvements, including new ship pages, price drop notifications, itinerary maps and a search by the ship with the highest member reviews. A neat feature: once you bring up all the reviews on a particular ship, you can select “View all tips” to get a list of tips reviewers have submitted.

 

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best and Worst of the Buffets

I have to admit, I love cruise ship buffets. But, I also hate them.
 
Or rather, I hate what they do to my self-control. But my spouse reassures me that anything I gain will come off in no time when we get home. So, we both leave the buffet full and happy, and I always know he’s right.

Horizon Court
Whether you love or hate the buffets, they come in handy when you don’t want to dedicate up to two hours to the main dining room, get out of your shorts or rush back from port. So, here’s my take on the best and worst of some of them and why:
 
Food. Maybe not always the hottest and maybe not always the most appealing, but you can’t beat the variety. Overall, the buffet food isn’t hugely different from one cruise line to another. But there are the occasional surprises.
 
Often at dinner, you’ll see the same dishes as what’s in the main dining room. And while the presentation leaves much to be desired (think stainless steel steam tables vs. parsley garnishes and sauce swirls), you do get to see what the food looks like before getting it. Which is something you can’t do in the dining room.  

Windjammer's shrimp crackers
There are also many additional choices, and some of these can be damn good. In the Emerald and Caribbean Princess’ Horizon Court, for example, on Bavarian night, we feasted on Black Forest ham and landjaeger sausage, which is hard to find even on land. And other treats kept cropping up, like dried apricots and pine nuts. Or fresh papaya and smoked mackerel. One night, a crew member manned a table with an array of wonderful cheeses.

We’ve also had some dynamite Asian dishes in the Windjammer on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas that rival any neighborhood Chinese or Indian restaurant. Some of the desserts are terrific (and even better enhanced with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream), and brie makes a nightly appearance.

Celebrity’s Oceanview Café has a treat no one else has—hard ice cream in several flavors that change every day, complete with a choice of candy toppings.
Windjammer's carrot cake--before
the whipped cream
 
If with all the choices you still can’t find something to eat, there’s always the bread. From Princess’ chocolate croissants to RCI’s pumpkin seed rolls and sugar-sprinkled breakfast loaf to Celebrity’s multigrains, the breads on the mass market ships are more than adequate—they’re outstanding.  

Layout. While some of you might not agree, I think Celebrity’s Solstice Class ships have the best layout. Their food station kiosks are nicely spaced, reducing the gridlock you see on other ships, say, around the bacon. RCI’s Windjammer in the Oasis Class ships has a similar layout. 

Oceanview's ice cream bar
Probably the worst I’ve seen is on the Caribbean and Emerald Princess. The food is dished out from one very small area, and there’s only one way in and one way out, with a crew member monitoring the flow at both ends.
 
Recently on the Allure, during the peak lunchtime, we experienced a new concept in buffet crowd control. A line had formed just to get into the Windjammer. A crew member stood in front of the line and seated people as tables became available. This actually worked quite well. Few things are likely to spark spats between cruisers more than vying for a seat in the buffet.
 
Service. Princess is best when it comes to buffet service. It’s well staffed and the crew regularly brings drinks to the tables, as well as coffee refills. Contrast this with RCI’s Windjammer, where drinks are pre-filled and laid out cafeteria-style at the beverage counter. Want one without ice? You’ll have to ask for it.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Like to late-night nosh? Princess keeps the buffet going on the Emerald and Caribbean until midnight. To know what theme night it is, check the Princess Patter.

Your Chance to Weigh In
Celebrity’s experimenting with some already-plated options in the buffet on one of its ships. Good idea or not—what do you think?
 
And, what’s the best food you’ve found in a buffet?

 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Knowing Your ABCs

"Arizona by the Sea," otherwise known as Bonaire
Cactus in the Caribbean? I couldn’t believe it either. But, sure enough, the arid climate creates desert-like conditions right alongside the dazzling blue waters of the ABCs, short for Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. It’s enough to have earned Bonaire the nickname “Arizona by the Sea.”

If you haven’t yet made it to the Leeward ABCs in the Southern Caribbean, off the Venezuelan coast, get onboard quick. They’re a confluence of Dutch, Caribbean and Spanish vibes, desert and ocean landscapes, and each is colorful and interesting in its own way. And best of all for those of us who like to cruise on the cheap—there’s a ton to do just a stone’s throw from the pier.

Here, in brief, are some of the walkable highlights of the ABCs:

Aruba: Shopping, Iguanas and Anne Frank
What you notice most about Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba and port city, is color. Buildings in pink and yellow, trimmed in white. Green parakeets perched on palm trees. Hues of blue sea. Princess calls it “Holland meets Disney’s Fantasia.”
 
But no backwater is this; Aruba is vibrant and bustling. And a lot of fun to explore. Pose for the tablet camera while you drape yourself over the giant “I love [heart] Aruba.” And if you haven’t already lost enough money on the ship, there are some casinos that, to quote a cruise director, “would welcome your donation.”

Some of the colors of Aruba
Greenery. If you walk straight up L.G. Smith Boulevard, the city’s main drag, you’ll come to Wilhelmina Park. Queen Wilhelmina herself reigns from the center of this city oasis, and don’t miss the sweet tribute to Anne Frank. Sometimes, there will be picnickers and teens with guitars, but you can always count on dozens of wild iguanas because the park staff keeps them coming by doling out handfuls of greens.

Shopping.  Aruba gets an “A” for shopping. The prices are among the best in the Caribbean for knickknacks. And while most of it comes to the Caribbean by way of China, you can also get the delicate mopa mopa crafts that are made locally from tree resin, Dutch edam and any manner of faux Delft souvenirs. There are several shopping centers and vendors along L.G. Smith, as well as vendors clustered near the port.

Bonaire: No Snorkeling Needed
This lovely island is not often visited by the mass market ships and it’s really a shame. It’s by far my favorite. The ship docks in the capital city of Kralendijk (pronounced Crah-len-deyk) and the port area is positively pristine.
The pristine waters of Bonaire
Ocean walk. Just off the pier is the Promenade, a walkway along the stunning sea. No snorkeling needed here; the show can be seen right from where you stroll, while you stay nice and dry. The water is so unbelievably clear that we watched, mouths hanging open, as schools of green-and-blue fish swam past us. It was as if we were at the zoo and the fish had been put there for our amusement. Shells, crabs and coral litter the beach below the walkway, across from homes adorned with cactus and hibiscus.

Shopping. You will 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 interesting tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.

Bon Bini* to Curaçao
Bridging to the Punda in Curacao
Your ship will dock in the capital city of Willemstad. Take the Waterfront Promenade past modern shops and into a small mall bordered by the 19th century Rif Fort. There are a few boutiques and cafes, but the real excitement is just a short walk through the courtyard—the Punda District, or old part of Curaçao. Its colorful fairy-tale buildings line up to greet you as you cross the channel via the Queen Emma Pontoon, a floating bridge that opens and closes to boats and pedestrians.

Strolling. The Punda has some European-style cafes along the water and many shops both for tourists and locals. There’s also the Mikve Israel Emanual Synagogue, circa 1732 and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

Shopping. Unique to Willemstad, in the old town, is the floating market, where vendors from Venezuela sell their papayas and pineapples from their small wooden boats. If you’re not inspired to try some, at least pull out your cell phone for some great photo-taking. And before you leave Curaçao, consider taking home some of the local spirit; you can’t miss it in the liquor store—it’s just about the only thing that’s blue.

Click here for more photos of the ABCs by the pier.

* Means “welcome” in the local Papiamento dialect.

 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Keeping the Cruise Going After It's Gone


You looked forward to your cruise for weeks, months, maybe even years. You spent gobs of hours
shopping for it, probably dieting for it and packing for it. Now, it’s over. And all you’re left with is a de-activated sea card and those extra pounds.
But there are some things you can do to keep the cruise going after it’s gone:

Reach out to your new friends. Remember those phone numbers and email addresses you exchanged? Follow up, reminisce and exchange photos.

Do a review. Let others benefit from your new wisdom. But do it while it’s still fresh. There are a number of sites you can post it; see my recent posting for a list. And here are some tips on writing reviews.

Join a cruise forum. This is a great way to get tips and talk ship. See my posting referenced above for sites with forums.

Use all those photos. Came back with some great photos? Here are just a few suggestions on what you can do with them: make a calendar, load them on a digital picture frame, make a picture book or print for your walls. Here are some other ideas.

Share your photos with others. Send photos and video clips to friends and family. Many people are reluctant to try cruising because they can’t envision what it’s like. Enlighten them with visuals. And consider submitting your best ones to cruise websites or enter them in contests.

Start a blog. Writing about your trip will bring back many sweet memories. This is where keeping a journal on your cruise comes in handy; it helps you remember the little details you forget once you get home.

Tell anyone who’ll listen about your trip. We veteran cruisers often have an uphill climb to get skeptics to try it. But if we want a healthy industry that keeps pumping out ships and delighting us with new surprises, we need to convert more people. So, be an industry champion.

The very best way to relive your cruise, of course, is to plan the next one. So, what are you waiting for?

 

 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cruising the Web

Looking for reviews on a ship? Help on picking a cabin? There’s a website for that. How about tracking your ship’s whereabouts? Finding out who else is sailing with you? There’s a website for that too.
 
There’s so much stuff on the web for cruise planning that it can be hard to know where to start. So I’ve spent time sifting through a lot of it so you can spend less. Here’s my take on the best online resources for ship reviews, cruise advice and getting excited about your upcoming trip:
 
Cruisecritic.com—The most robust and well known of the sites, it gets more visitors than all of its competitors combined. It has detailed reviews of ships and ports by its authors, a huge database of member reviews, industry news, feature stories and cruise deals, as well as active roll calls (connect with fellow cruisers before your trip). Musing’s Top Feature: It has the most vibrant forum, with readers writing in all day long on a wide variety of topics. The site’s members also work with many of the ships to host free “Meet and Mingle” events during cruises that can feature “cabin crawls” (peek into different cabin categories), presentations by the crew, raffle drawings, food and gifts.

Cruiseline.com—Search for trips on this site, view ship reviews and photos by members, and get overall ratings of ships based on member reviews. There are also feature stories, cruise planning advice, roll calls and a forum. Musing’s Top Feature: This site verifies members actually took the cruises they’ve evaluated, designating the reviews with a green “Verified Review” ribbon. You can also access the free smart phone Ship Mate app to track your ship’s whereabouts at any given moment, connect with others on your trip and more.

Cruisemates.com—Provides reviews by the editors of ships and ports, and a forum with reviews by members. Member reviewers are asked to rate ships on various criteria, and each ship is given an overall rating based on this input. There’s also advice on cruising and cruise deals. Musing’s Top Feature: Lively feature stories are submitted by columnists such as Janice Wald Henderson, a food editor and writer for epicurious.com.

Cruise-addicts.com—Includes industry news, cruise deals, ship reviews, photos submitted by members and forums. Musing’s Top Feature: This site is a winner for audio/visual features, with its array of videos on the ports, ships and the industry, as well as podcasts. It also has a variety of webcams on the ports and an interactive, real-time cruise ship tracker.
 
Cruisedeckplans.com—Sick of straining to see the tiny stateroom numbers in deck plans on websites or in catalogs? This is a site for sore eyes! Deck plans are interactive and enable magnification. Hover over a room number and you get cabin descriptions and occasionally, insider info that you’ll never get from the cruise lines. Like when a cabin could be noisy because it’s near a crew work room.

There are also deck plans with on-the-spot photos of public rooms that have been submitted by readers. The site is actively recruiting member photos and will even pay (though you’ll have to submit a lot just to cover the price of a cup a coffee). Most of the site’s info is available for free, but a modest membership fee gets you even more. Musing’s Top Feature: The whole site is unique and offers something no other one does—the ability to find a stateroom on a deck plan without getting a headache.

Porteverglades.net—This is the official website of Port Everglades, Florida, one of the busiest ports in the U.S. It includes a port map and two weeks before you sail, you can find out from which pier by viewing the Ship Schedule on the homepage. It also alerts you to construction that may slow down traffic into the port.
Know of any other great sites? Do share!

 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The S.S. Sedentary?

My spouse is one of cruising’s most ardent supporters. When someone comes back from a vacation—any vacation—as soon as they begin to tell him about their trip, he says, “Have you tried cruising?” When he did this last, our neighbor’s response was, “I’m too active for cruising. I run five miles a day.”

And therein lies one of the most pervasive misconceptions about cruising. That we spend seven 
Working off those calories in the
gym of Celebrity's Equinox
days flat on our backs around the pool or eating around the clock until we bust out of our bathing suits.


Now this may be an accurate depiction of some cruisers, but many of us still manage to fit in laps around the jogging track, working out in the gym, scaling the rock-climbing walls, zip-lining, windsurfing, swimming, ice skating, hiking, dancing, walks into town…

A recent article in the Miami Herald noted that when Richard Fain had joined the board of Royal Caribbean, he had never been on a cruise. A full year later, egged on by his colleagues, he went through the motions by choosing the shortest, cheapest cruise: a three-day in the Bahamas.

Today, of course, as the cruise line’s CEO, he spends quite a bit of time extoling the virtues of the cruise vacation.

Which goes to show that some misconceptions can even be cured by three days at sea.

Musings’ Top Tip: 2.4 laps around the jogging track of the massive Allure of the Seas equals one mile. The track has a designated path for joggers and another for walkers, and can be found on Promenade Deck 5.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What’s Alluring About the World’s Largest Cruise Ship

What’s the allure of the world’s largest ship? In a word, entertainment. Of the four cruise lines I’ve sailed with, no one does it better than Royal Caribbean.
 
The fare served up on the stages of Allure of the Seas is a refreshing departure from the usual shipboard shows and are worth the effort of scheduling your trip around them.
 
Allure’s full production of the musical “Chicago” was great fun, and the voices were strong and

Broadway on the seas.
clear. How neat is that—a Broadway-quality show for free! And if you get to the theater super early, you can even get the best seats in the house.
 

Then there was “Ocean Aria,” a diving and acrobatic show that’s so compelling you won’t want to take your eyes away for a second.

Adonis-like acrobat brothers wrap their bodies around each other in poses where you can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins. Divers from 90 ft. high fly into the air and amazingly, land gracefully and securely into the Allure’s tiny theater pool.
 
Inside the ship, on the ice rink, professional skaters—one a veteran of “Disney on Ice”—twirl, jump, spin and lift, while on a moving vessel, no less. The “Monopoly” theme lent itself well to playful and colorful sets and costumes.
 
Soaring from 90 ft. up.
The singers from “Chicago” re-emerged in “Blue Planet,” which had everything thrown in—acrobatics, singing and dancing—all in a celebration of nature. I won’t give it all away, but it included a trampoline, large rings and a human tree.
 
This comes on top of onboard surfing, ice skating, zip-lining, rock climbing and miniature golf. And then there are the three “neighborhoods;” their personalities ebbing and flowing by the hour. There’s the Promenade, the hub of the ship and venue for parades, dance classes and the best people-watching; Boardwalk, where you can ride a full-size carousel over and over again for free or eat foot-high pink cotton candy for a cost; and Central Park, an oasis of real foliage (but fake bird sounds).
 
Exciting, yes. But it does steal the show from the real leading lady—the mysterious, fascinating and ever-changing sea.
 
Not as Alluring
The Allure’s weak spot is the food. Some dinner dishes in the Main Dining Room were good (memorable was the shrimp on Italian-theme night), others were disappointing (Chicken Marsala was rendered as fried chicken with a nearly invisible sauce).
 
But what we most noticed—and missed—was the absence of beef choices, particularly compared to competing cruise lines.
 
We found that among the free dining options, the Windjammer buffet was often the best choice. Not only did it have a wider variety (shrimp crackers, anyone?), but some standout spicy Asian choices. It was a nice break from the usually bland and unimaginative dining room dishes.
 
Aside from the food, the other area where the ship doesn’t compare well to, say, the Caribbean Princess, is the staterooms. While okay on size, the Allure’s cabins offered less in the way of storage space. The closets are tight and night tables have open slots, which make them minimally useful.

Another downside is that the balcony chairs don’t recline, which makes seaside napping a challenge (but nothing that a glass of wine can’t cure!).
 
The Bottom Line
But, hey, you can’t be good at everything.


This may seem heretical, given all that the Allure and Oasis have going for them, but Musing wouldn’t recommend these ships for first-time cruisers. Because you’ll be permanently spoiled, and forever searching for the carousel and ice skating rink on every other ship.

Musing’s Top Tip: to really appreciate “Chicago,” stream or rent the movie version before your trip. And don’t forget to reserve all your shows online well in advance of your cruise. You can try to get in once on board, but be forewarned—the lines for standby outside the shows were substantial.

 
Photos by R. Greenburg