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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Luscious, Loquacious Labadee: the Jewel in Royal Caribbean’s Crown

When your ship nears Labadee, you’re immediately struck by its sheer loveliness. Lush, dark green mountains pull you in, the water blues and as you sidle up to the dock, you get the feeling paradise is just a few sand grains away.

 And you’re right. Royal Caribbean’s secluded and sprawling piece of Haiti, which it has leased until 2050 as its private itinerary port stop, is resplendent with calm coves perfect for swimming, water sports, food, drink, entertainment, and a large and exotic artisan market. You’re sure to find something to, well, float your boat:
Can’t sit still? You’ve got a lot of choices here—zip-lining nearly 50 mph over the surf, jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling and kayaking. There are tucked-away spots for swimming in the gentle, clear water. And for the little ones, a water park with a 300-ft. slide.
Sun worship’s more your thing? The resort has lounge chairs ‘a plenty—crammed arm-to-arm facing the sea—as well as dotted throughout the resort in two-sies and three-sies under the sun or in the shade of the palms just tailor-made for napping.
Want to feel the rhythm?  Singers and bands—many in native dress—can be found in a number of spots to keep your toes tapping through your flip-flops.
Drink and be merry. Like all the cruise lines’ private islands, bars abound. And your sea card will be happy to pay the way.
Itching to spend? The artisan market is where a bit of the real Haiti shows up. A vast array of crafts, local and otherwise, can be bought at super reasonable prices. Some samples: doll in native dress: $11; painted magnet: $1; necklace beaded with coffee beans: $2. Note that you’ll need cash here; your ship card won’t get you anywhere.

Bargaining is not only welcome, but expected and encouraged. And what better way to keep your cruise going after it’s gone than to buy a bright and colorful, Caribbean-style original painting for your wall at home? A painting that started out at $40, after some haggling, was had for $16.
But be forewarned: shopping here is not for the faint-hearted. The shopkeepers are very aggressive and to be successful, you’ll need a coat of armor. Repeat after me: “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.”
What else do you need to know?

Cabana for the day—You can rent cabanas at Nellie’s Beach for $395 or one over the water for $495, both work for up to six guests.

Stroll on, stroll off—Ships dock (vs. tender), so you can get on and off as many times as you want.

Bathrooms abound—Never fear, there’s always a restroom near.

Walk or ride—A free tram runs continuously with stations throughout the port.

It’ll make you feel all right—Skip the beer and get it here—the one and only Labadoozie

Friday, April 15, 2016

Finding the Freebies, Cruising to Save

Just because we’re giving up thousands to cruise doesn’t mean we still don’t want to save a buck or two when we can. In fact, there are some ways to snag freebies—particularly booze—if you just know where to look.
Book mark. Your best freebies are before you book. While you’re exploring cruises, ask your travel agent, “Are you offering cruise credits or benefits with this trip?” If the travel agent wants your business, you’ll most likely be offered cruise credits that you can use for just about anything on board. Or, your travel agent may offer you a meal in a specialty restaurant, drink package or to pay for your insurance. For more, see this earlier posting.
If you’re booking directly with a cruise line, keep your eye on their promos. They often throw in freebies like a drink package or restaurant meal.
Booze your way. The mass market ships all allow you to bring some wine on board, but not a lot. Royal Caribbean allows two per stateroom and Princess is okay with one per person. While you can’t bring it out of your room without paying a fee, it’s still nice to have for sipping on the balcony under a brilliantly setting sun.

Welcoming you onboard Princess with Love.
The rewards of loyalty. The cruise lines all have loyalty clubs where the more you sail with them, the greater the benefits. These can range from a reception with free drinks to free wine tasting events to free dry cleaning to a free logo gift. Royal Caribbean's Diamond level, perhaps the most generous of the cruise lines' loyalty programs, offers unlimited drinks during happy hour in their lounge (note: not all ships have one), as well as three drinks a day loaded on your sea card to redeem during these hours.
They also often offer tours of the theater backstage, galley and engine room—rare treats that give you both a peek behind-the-scenes, as well as some small talk starters. (Did you know that some production show dancers look at empty hangers dangling in their closets to see how rough the seas are?)
A toast and some Love. Don’t be tempted to skip the Captain’s Welcome event, because it usually comes with a free glass of wine or champagne and on Princess these days, also melt-in-your-mouth Michael Love chocolate truffles.
Go Concierge on Celebrity and champagne awaits.
And while a lot has changed on Celebrity over the years, the crew still greets you at the gangway on embarkation day with a glass of champagne. And if you go Concierge class, there’s a bottle of champagne waiting to greet you in your stateroom.
Share your secrets or bare your legs. The game shows and contests on the ship often give prizes to those who bare their souls in the Newlywed Game takeoffs or their lower limbs in the hairy leg contests. Gifts can range from bottles of champagne to logo items.
And while they cost to play, the Bingo games sometimes offer great prizes, like a huge room upgrade to the ship's best suite for the rest of the cruise.
Play for prizes or watch for laughs.
Talk about shopping.  If you can stand them, the port shopping talks, which are essentially infomercials for the cruise line partner stores, do offer some useful info about what to look for, particularly if jewelry is your goal. You can get discount coupons for many shops, and there’s usually a prize or two given away during the show. The art auctions also serve champagne to whet your appetite for bidding.
Meet and Mingle to munch and more. The Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle events vary greatly, from morning gatherings in a lounge to “cabin crawls,” where you can see a sampling of the different stateroom categories. Sometimes, they provide a small gift to everyone and there can be random drawings for bigger ones.
So, despite the cruise lines’ frequent pitches and enticements to get you to spend more than you’ve already paid out to get on the ship, you can still score a few treats while keeping your money in your wallet, safely reserved for your next cruise.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Watch for the Signs—How the Ports Tease and Tempt You

In San Juan, they’re in Spanish. In St. Barts, they’re in French. And everywhere else in the Caribbean, they’re colorful, often kooky, design to tempt, taunt and tease. I am, of course, talking about the signs.

We take restaurant and shop signs for granted. But they can stop you in your flip-flops. Bring a smile to your face. Some of them are even memorable. Like the one at the St. Thomas Crown Bay pier greeting cruisers with “Free Beer Tomorrow.”
Below are some of our favorites for your viewing pleasure. And don’t forget, the next time you’re tripping the Caribbean, watch for the signs!

Glad we settled that. (Dominica)

Sure beats chicken noodle! (St. Maarten)
Any funnier and you’d have to feed us. (Grand Cayman)
Leave your fishing rod at the door. (Grand Cayman)
Anything else come with that? (St. Maarten)
Taking a sip? Leave your partner on the ship! (St. Maarten)
Wahoo! It’s ladies' day! (St. Maarten)

Their clothes or their grammar?  (St. John)
Amen to that! (St. Maarten)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Having Fun From Day 1

The day’s finally come. Your cruise is about to start. How do you make sure you have fun from Day 1?

Be an early bird and add hours to your trip. Think about it: a seven day cruise is really six days.
Especially if you get on board on the late side on Embarkation Day. Most ships let you start boarding at 11:30 a.m. You usually can’t get into your room until 1-ish, but you can beeline to the buffet for an early lunch, carry-on in tow, then drop by your stateroom for a quick change and be at the pool by 2.
The way in. As you climb up the gangway and your home for the coming seven days looms closer, if you’re on Celebrity, you’ll get greeted with champagne. On Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, you’ll walk right into the busy Promenade. However you come in…
…Be ready for hectic. E-Day is a swirl of madness. Thousands are boarding at once with their carry-ons, sun hats and smart phones, elevators fill to the brim and no one has a clue where they’re going. You’re searching for your stateroom among hundreds that all look the same, squeezing past crew members in narrow hallways, who are lugging luggage, linen carts and vacuums.
Doing lunch. There aren’t a whole lot of choices on E-Day for lunch. Most head for the buffet, which is why you should expect it to be like Disney during school vacation. Best advice is to find a table first—it’ll take some patience and perseverance—claim it with a sweater, newsletter or other stuff—and then go get your chow.
Go on a treasure hunt…for your room steward. Your steward should introduce himself soon after you settle into your room. If he doesn’t, check the desk or coffee table for his name and give him a call. Don’t be shy about giving him your wish list. Consider:
·         Water and/or ice every day 
·         Thin blanket (really, duvets for the Caribbean?)
·         Wine glasses
·         Empty out frig (to make way for your wine)
·         Mattress pads (Princess ships!)
Get the lay of the land…uh, ship. Wander the decks, study the directories on lobby walls, get your bearing and learn your way around. Some ships have guided tours to speed this process; check your newsletter to see if yours has one. Oasis class ships have fabulous touch-screen finders in the lobbies; with a few flicks of your fingers, you can find out quickly how to get from here to there.
But don’t get too comfy too fast. You haven’t gone through the muster drill yet. It’s usually right before takeoff. You can’t get out of it, so don’t even try. You’ll want to know what to do in an emergency anyway. And they’re typically short and painless. Besides, when else will you get a chance to see quite how many others will be sharing your space in the days to come?
The time to change is now. If you need to change your main dining room seating, this is the time to do it. Ask guest relations when and where the maître d’ is camping out and get in line.
The beginning of the end of the first day as Ft. Lauderdale magnificently floats away
Get organized. With the muster drill out of the way and your dinner seating settled, it’s time to unpack, stow your luggage and go play. Check out the party at sail-away or go out on the balcony to party your way! 

Musing’s Top Tip: Heading for the Bahamas? Check out this great site for what you can expect on the heat, humidity, water temp, number of sun hours and more!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What to Know Before You Go

You’ve done your shopping, planning and packing. But before you sit back and tick off the days, here are some things to know before you go:
First things first. Did you do your online check-in? How far in advance you need to do it varies by cruise line. We do it about six weeks before the trip. While you’re printing up your boarding pass, don’t forget to also do the luggage tags. You’ll need a color printer for these. And to staple them to your bags.

Signing a waiver is a must for climbing the walls
on Royal Caribbean ships

And did you…Sign up for shows (Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships), book the specialty restaurants you wanted to, sign the waivers that you need? (For Royal Caribbean, to use the zip line, FlowRider®, rock climbing and skating; you can sign them online up to three days before you leave.)

Carryon but don’t carry on. Most of the time, your luggage doesn’t show up at your stateroom right away. In fact, sometimes, it doesn’t even show up in time for dinner. So, you might want to slip something nicer than your shorts into your carryon. 

You'll need reservations for the Allure's
150 Central Park
When to bring your own. Even though the ships provide these, you might want to consider bringing your own blow dryer and shampoo. The ship blow dryers are usually substandard and the mass market cruise ships today are all going to shampoo dispensers in the shower.

Speaking of bringing your own, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess all let you bring a limited number of bottles of wine onboard. You can only drink them in your stateroom without incurring extra cost, but there’s nothing like sipping white wine on the balcony. You can get some nice wine bottle carriers with shoulder straps, which make toting them onto the ship a snap.  
All that baggage. When you get to the port, you’ll be surrendering all your suitcases except your carryon. Expect chaos. There are cabs, buses and cars converging in the same small place, trying to avoid creaming cruisers and each other. You’ll be directed to the drop-off, where baggage guys will take your suitcases off your hands and onto the ship.
Some of the cruise lines are offering fly/luggage programs, where they handle your luggage from flight to float, so you don’t even need to deal with it at all. There is a fee for this service.
Important: tip them. The baggage guys expect tips. The online forums are filled with horror stories of when people didn’t give them money or even when the amount fell short. Bottom line: if you want to see your stuff again, tip them and tip them enough.
Your passport to pleasure. Keep your passport handy when you get to the terminal. You’ll need to show it several times as you make your way to check-in. You will also need to present your boarding pass (what you print up during the online process) when you check in at the terminal.
In sickness and in health. A routine part of the check-in process these days is that you sign a form acknowledging that you don’t have any signs of sickness. What they’re really looking for is to keep norovirus from coming onboard with you.
Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Speaking of norovirus, the best way to stay healthy during your trip is not to dodge the lady with the spray, and to also bring your own stuff. The bad germs can be spread via railings and banisters, elevator buttons, ladles in the buffet, salt and pepper shakers, the TV remote control, telephone, door knobs and I’m sure there are some I haven’t thought of. We bring our own wet wipes and sanitizer sprays and use them continuously throughout each day.

Two smiles and says cheese. You’ll have two photos at check in—one you must say yes to, and the other is up to you. The first is for your sea card, which is your ID card and credit card rolled into one. You can’t get on or off the ship without it.

The other photo is for the benefit of the ship’s photographer, who will nab you as you head toward the gangway. You can oblige him. Or duck him. The choice is yours.

Read the fine print. Every day, your room steward will leave you with a newsletter, which is full of info on the activities of the day. Read it closely. There are details on when to be back onboard after port, whether you need to reset your watch and how to dress for dinner. As well as the shows, the sales and the all-important drink of the day. And sometimes, even the best events onboard are buried in the fine print.
Well, now you know it all. What’s left? Check out the weather at your ports of call, use your free Ship Mate app to track your ship and…have a great trip!

Musing’s Top Tip: Check out the great article from Travel & Leisure on the best time to apply for a passport and what you can expect on wait times. For more on passports, see the posting “The One Thing You Absolutely Must Know Before You Cruise.”


Monday, February 15, 2016

How to Spend Your Cruise Day in St. Maarten

Keep your money in your wallet and pass on an excursion in St. Maarten. With a beach and tons of shopping, you can easily fill the whole day in lively Philipsburg—and come back again for more.
The Dutch island at the northern end of the Lesser Antilles is often the last stop on Eastern Caribbean cruises. Sint Maarten, as it’s locally known, is popular and with good reason—with its long calm blue sea harbor, tropical foliage lining the waterfront and streets, beachfront bars and restaurants, steel drum band and coconut stand, it positively screams the Caribbean.

You can do the place in many different ways—nibble on French macaroons (there’s a stand at the pier), and shop in Diamond International and Ralph Lauren. Or go for knickknacks and snacks in your flip-flops. With tourism its main industry, St. Maarten is dedicated to your pleasure, whatever it is.
Here’s just an example of how you could spend your day in port:
9 a.m.-10 a.m. Take your time on the short walk from ship to pier—you’re going to be in St. Maarten all day. Check out the shops in the plaza, but you might want to resist buying anything—the prices are better in downtown Philipsburg. But be sure to grab a free sample of the coconut smoothie from the vendor in the plaza for a mouthful of marvelous.
10 a.m.-noon You’ve done the shops at the pier, had your smoothie sample, and now you’re ready to see Philipsburg, so you head toward the water taxi, on the far left side of the plaza. It’s a bargain—$7 buys you unlimited travel for the day. The ride is about seven minutes or so, and treats you to a sweeping view of the coastline.
 Wander Front Street (parallel to the waterfront) and stop in the high-end boutiques and low-end
Find treasures chic to cheap on hopping Front St.
tourist shops, getting your free bamboo necklace from Cariloha and color-changing mood ring from Del Sol (if you go to your ship’s shopping talk, you’ll get the magic words to use to get your free stuff).

Visit the Guavaberry Emporium at the far right end of Front Street for samples and a bottle for the road, and pick up some rum in the colorful painted bottles you’ll find in many liquor stores in town.

Meander down alleyways, where you’ll find knickknack heaven and even an art shop where you can get original local paintings for as little as $10. 
These colorful bottles of yum are everywhere.
Noon-2 p.m. Hop on the ferry back to the ship for lunch or enjoy local seafood and Caribbean beer Presidente at a beachside restaurant or quiche at a French café on Old Street. (St. Martin, the other half of the island, is French.) While you’re on Old Street, look for the Manneken Pis in front of The Belgian Chocolate Box and you’d swear you were in Brussels.
2 p.m.-4 p.m. Start your siesta with one of the cheap umbrella-bucket of beer packages touted along the waterfront and plant yourself on the beach. Spend your last hours at this great port dipping in the water or digging your feet in the sand, as you watch the jet skis kick up some spray and the majestic schooners lazily float by.
Musing’s Top Tip: For more on what the island has to offer, an app to download, brochure to order, video and island map, see the island’s official tourism website.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Some of the Best in Cruising

On the surface, it may seem that one mass market cruise ship is pretty much like another. But there are differences. One cruise line puts its money on entertainment. Another builds better itineraries. Yet another forks out more on food.

Of course, any “best of” is going to be subjective and you might not agree. But, here for your consideration, are some musings on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Princess, and who does what best:
Pre-cruise prep: Princess. Princess wins in sharing info and spurring excitement before the trip. The other lines send only a few emails, which are designed solely to get you to lay out more for drink packages, restaurants, excursions and the spa. Princess does this too, but also provides messages from senior officers, videos of the ship, and other useful info like the specific entertainment you can expect on your trip. See “Pre-Cruise Prep: Who Does it Better?”

Keeping you entertained: Royal Caribbean. Hands down, the winner is Royal Caribbean on its Oasis class ships. Full-run musicals Cats on Oasis of the Seas and Chicago on Allure of the Seas were outstanding, Broadway-quality shows. Get to the theater early for seats that would cost nearly $300 in New York City.
Splish Splash is just one of the aqua shows on board the Oasis. Just don't sit in the front row.
Then there are the aqua shows with high diving; ice skating shows with jumps, leaps and colorful costumes; not to mention superior production shows, comedians, and DreamWorks parades with character photo ops for the kiddies.

Working off that weight: Royal Caribbean. The Oasis class ships win again with the longest jogging track at sea—2.4 laps around equals a mile. There’s a lane for joggers and another for walkers, and the signs overhead will make you smile.

Dining in French Caribbean style on St. Barts.
Seeing the Caribbean: Celebrity. The best itineraries belong to Celebrity. A recent trip on the Constellation took us to the sleepy, not-often-visited St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and ultra-chic French St. Barts.

Loyalty and its rewards: Royal Caribbean. All the lines make efforts to thank cruisers for their repeat business, but some programs are better than others. Once you make it to Royal Caribbean’s Diamond level (80 points), you get the benefit of an elongated happy hour in the Diamond Club lounge* with all the free drinks you could want (from a select menu), as well as three more loaded onto your sea card to use just about anywhere on the ship during that time. A generous program that’s bound to build loyalty.

Basking in the Buffet: Princess. The theme dinners on Princess are great, with specialty foods periodically making an appearance. German night saw all manner of sausages, Black Forest ham, pretzel-style rolls, and linzer and sacher tortes, served alongside an oversized lighted beer stein ice sculpture.

On Italian night, the gondolier-costumed waiters served beverages, while we chowed down on a pasta array, prosciutto, hunks of parmesan and fennel au gratin.

And the breads were a real standout—they varied from sunflower-seed covered to cheese-studded to onion-infused.

What’s more, full dinner is available in the Horizon Court until 11 p.m.; that’s a full two hours beyond Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer and Celebrity’s Oceanview.
Cool comfort from Celebrity after a day at port.
A few more at best. Then there’s Celebrity’s welcome glass of champagne on embarkation day and cold towels after a hot day at port…Princess’ decadent chocolate truffle pops at the Captain’s Welcome…its best-at-sea pizza, and salmon every-which-way buffet in Alaska…Royal Caribbean’s pull-out-all-the-stops “tutti” salad bar in the main dining room on sea days… 

Do you have a “best of” to share? Drop us a line!

* Not all Royal Caribbean ships have a Diamond Club lounge; check with the cruise line to see if there’s one on your ship.