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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Cruise Deprivation and What to Do About It


We’re all reduced to arm chair travelers these days.

I don’t know about you, but I took comfort from the Sky Princess blazing “We will be back” in lights across the ship.



But in the meanwhile, how can we satisfy our insatiable appetite for cruising?

Well, here are a few suggestions:

Book it. Not the trip, your photos. Do something awfully old-fashioned—create a photo album. Yeah, having them on your cell phone is great. But seeing them in print, laid out in a slick coffee table book is even better. It’s cheap to put together and it will keep your mind off the vacation you didn’t have.

Stack the deck. Put your favorite photos onto a deck of cards, a mouse pad or luggage tag. Do what you never had time for. We had Shutterstock make up luggage tags with our faces on them. It would be hard for someone to take the wrong suitcase now.

See a disaster. Watch “Titanic” or “Poseidon Adventure.” Not something you’d want to do while you’re cruising. But now, while we’re all in dry dock, why not? Heck, you might even check out the YouTube videos on the sinking of the Concordia.

Root for Royal. And Carnival. They’ve been heroes, letting us off the hook while facing large losses.

Plan your next one. You know there will be a next one. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but at some point, your ship will sail again. And you want to make sure you’re on it.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

You Gotta Love it: Highlights from Harmony and the Western Caribbean


No matter how many cruises I take, there are always a few things that stand out from each one. Here’s a batch from our recent Harmony of the Seas to the Western Caribbean:

Port Canaveral’s easy on, easy off. Never has getting on and off the ship been better or faster. The baggage drop-off wasn’t crowded, there were no lines into the terminal and because we did online check-in with our phone and Royal Caribbean app, we showed our SetSail Pass and were climbing the gangplank in minutes.

On disembarkation day, we walked off with our luggage, smiled at Customs, which is now using facial recognition instead of asking to see passports, and were out of the terminal and on the road in a flash. (Note: passports are still needed for the cruise.)

Coco Cay, a fun way to spend the day. The beaches were pretty, there was a lot to see and do, and the food was better than expected. It was very spread out and never felt crowded. (Note: our ship was the only one there.) The tropical foliage was photograph-worthy, there were whimsical sand dunes and people-watching galore. A huge pool with swim-up bar (although there were more drinkers than swimmers). Then there’s the water park.

One side of Coco Cay...
...another side of Coco Cay
Hand-made in Mexico. There were many ships in Costa Maya when we got there, with thousands of passengers descending on the small pier area. But somehow, through the throng, I stumbled on a very special shop, d.origen. Prices were in pesos, so I was initially scared off. But the unique clothing, ceramics and knickknacks—and the helpful and friendly staff (who were happy to convert prices to dollars)—drew me back again. It’s an artisan cooperative, and all items were made by Mexicans, using traditional techniques.

From the “You Won’t Believe This” category. Walking along the busy main road outside the cruise pier in Cozumel, we stopped in our tracks to see an extremely tall man with a tiny woman sitting on his shoulders, reaching up to pick a coconut.



Filet mignon at Chops. I polished off a terrific 9 ounce filet mignon, shrimp cocktail, salad with breaded goat cheese and warm chocolate cake with ice cream. Worth every penny. And beats the main dining room any day.



Dinner with wine. If you’re Diamond Club or higher (Royal Caribbean’s loyalty club), you’ll like this: you can now order drinks off the free Diamond Club menu from restaurants throughout the ship, including specialty dining. Wine with dinner. Sweet!

His and hers. One of the great features of the Harmony balcony stateroom is the two separate closets. It helps having your own space—especially when there’s not much to spare.

A balcony for napping. And here’s another: reclining chairs and hassocks on the verandah, which you won’t find on the Allure of the Seas. You gotta love it—furniture tailor-made for napping!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Surviving the Wait with a Cruise on the Way


Cruise on the way? You hardly need help getting excited, but here, anyway, are a few ideas for surviving the wait:

It’s a while away
Weight not guilt. Losing a few pounds now will go a long way toward guilt-free eating on your upcoming seven-day orgy.
 
These are calling your name.
Calling all rolls. Join an online roll call to virtually meet your fellow cruisers. You can join one on cruisecritic.com: Boards.

Meet and Mingle. Meet your roll call buddies in the flesh by signing up through cruisecritic.com for a Meet and Mingle event onboard. They can take the form of a party or “Cabin Crawl” (checking out the different staterooms) and can sometimes include drawings for logo prizes.

That’s app. Download Cruiseline.com’s free ShipMate mobile app for a trip countdown, cruise ship and port reviews, photos, roll calls and more.

Do your homework. Be sure to find out if you need to sign up for shows in advance (for example, on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships. Also, watch for sales on dining and beverage packages, and read the forums for ideas on excursions.

You need a reservation to see Ocean Aria on Allure of the Seas.

Throw yourself a party. Give yourself a bon voyage with a Caribbean-themed party to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s “Day O,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” or Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot.” Do up a batch of rum punch and practice your moves.

It’s getting closer
Almost like being there. Get a sneak peek in real time of the ports right from your device of choice with webcams. Here are a few sites:

Ft. Lauderdale in your future? Find your pier at Porteverglades.net, the official website of Port Everglades. 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’s 2 a.m. Do you know where your ship is? Check out where your ship is at any given moment, how fast it’s moving and toward where. This can be particularly helpful if you know there’s a delay. The best site is www.marinetraffic.com.

Weather or not. For last minute packing, check out the weather reports for your ports of call at cruiseoutlook.com. Then ignore it, because we know you can trust the weather reports anyway!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Future Cruise Deposits—What’s Not to Like?


Worst part of a cruise? Hands down, Disembarkation Day. If you’ve cruised before, you know that feeling—the pit-in-your stomach recognition that your long-awaited vacation is over.

And the only antidote is to plan another one—fast. That’s what makes future cruise deposits so delicious. For the uninitiated, that’s where you put a deposit down on your next cruise while you’re still on one.


The way it works differs by cruise line. For Royal Caribbean, you actually book your next cruise onboard and put down a deposit. With Princess, you put down some money and then choose a cruise later.

There are a number of benefits to the future cruise deposits (FCD):

Low deposit – Deposits are often much lower than what you’d put down if you booked back on land.

Sometimes a great rate – Booking onboard (and early) can often get you a better rate for your next cruise.


Refundable deposit – Find out later that you can’t go after all? You’ll get your deposit back—all of it. (That is, of course, unless you’ve paid for the whole trip and you’re in the penalty period.) Note that the period of time this applies varies by cruise ship.

Onboard credit – FCD promotions often come with onboard credit, which you can use for specialty dining, excursions, drink packages, internet access, onboard shopping and more.

You can keep your TA in the loop – You can still work with your travel agent. When you put down the deposit, simply give the sales rep. your travel agent’s name. Your agent can continue to help you on the rest of the trip arrangements, and he/she can get commission from the cruise line. Just be sure to let your travel agent know that you’ve booked a cruise or put down a FCD.

You’ll get it in writing – Once you put down a FCD or booked a cruise onboard, you usually get a confirmation in writing—either in your stateroom before the end of the trip or via email.

To get a FCD, simply visit the ship’s onboard future cruise sales office. Note that it’s the busiest toward the end of the trip.


There’s no limit to how many FCDs you can have—one cruisecritic.com poster said he was sitting on six of them!

Which speaks volumes. With a low deposit—refundable, no less—what’s not to like? You can end your trip the same way it began—by looking forward to your upcoming cruise!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Allure of the Seas Secrets


After you’ve sailed on the Allure a few times, you begin to uncover its secrets. You know—those places hardly anyone knows or those things hardly anyone does. Here are a few of what I’ve discovered:

Want something? Ask your room steward. We don’t like the liquid soap in the shower, so we asked our steward for soaps. But the very first thing we ask for is a thin blanket. Really, a duvet for the Caribbean?

Quiet on the breakfast menu. One too many loud and crowded breakfasts in Windjammer sent us looking for something better, and we found it in the Solarium. It’s the same food as the buffet, but scaled back. That’s a small price to pay for a nicer way to wake up in the morning. And, surprisingly, it serves until 11 am.

Leisurely lunch at sea. Sea days always find me in the main dining room for lunch. There’s an impressive “tutti” salad bar, where the crew assemble your greenery as you select from dozens of ingredients.

Think salad is for rabbits? There’s an extensive hot and cold buffet, and a mega dessert array. Or order from the menu. It’s not crowded or noisy and is a peaceful way to do a sea day. But note that it’s only in one dining room and only from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Check your Cruise Compass for details.


Walk it off. A few hours later, we’ll be trying desperately to work it off on the walking/jogging track on Deck 5. It extends the full length of the ship; 2.4 laps make a mile. This has to be one of the least used areas of the ship—mostly you see the crew using it as a quick way to get from point A to B. An extra bonus of the track is that it takes you past the ship’s wake at the stern.



Look now, buy later. Don’t rush to buy gifts and souvenirs when you first get on the ship. If you wait a few days, much of it will go on sale. And speaking of sale…

Ten bucks buys a heck of a lot. Keep your eye out for the $10 sale. You won’t find Ming Dynasty vases or Cartier jewelry, but it’s fun picking through the junky jewelry, and colorful shawls and scarves just the same.

Looking for what $10 will get them
Then there’s Inches of Gold. This one is hard to spot—it’s a pop-up stall that shows up from time to time in the Promenade. You can buy gold and silver veneer (it’s over jeweler’s metal) necklaces and bracelets by the inch in a wide variety of designs. I have six or seven of them—they’re very durable. And if something does happen to one when you’re at home, bring it to the stand on your next cruise and they’ll fix it for you.



My time dining works. We never waited more than 15 minutes for a table—even on formal nights. And one secret we learned from a thread in the cruisecritic.com forums—we pick up a glass of wine during our Diamond happy hour (Crown and Anchor loyalty club) and bring it into the dining room or specialty restaurant. Wine with dinner without paying a cent!

What Allure secrets have you found? Drop us a line!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

What I Learned by 25


Our last cruise was a milestone of sorts—it was #25. It’s made me think of how much I’ve learned since that first one back in 2005, such as:

Gumby guarantees a good time. The weather's bad. Ports are missed. Someone gets sick. Luggage comes late. Luggage goes missing. We’ve had it all. Bending with the wind can rescue a precious vacation.

Homework pays off. Like knowing you need to sign up for Royal Caribbean’s shows before you go if you want to make sure you see them. Finding out if there’s a laundry onboard. The cost for a massage. The ship’s pros and cons. Perusing the cruise line’s website, reading cruisecritic.com’s boards and checking out YouTube videos are some ways to go about it.
 
To make sure you see "Blue Planet" on Allure of the Seas, be sure to sign up online before you board
A passport to the Caribbean. While you may be able to get by without a passport on a Caribbean cruise, you won’t easily get by government authorities without one if you’re stranded on an island. And the passport can’t expire within six months of your return to your home port. (If you skip the passport, you’ll need a driver’s license and birth certificate.)

Walking off means sleeping easier. There’s a lot to be said for taking your own bags off the ship. While it may be more convenient to let the ship take your luggage, it comes with risk. Our suitcase almost ended up 700 miles from our home because someone grabbed it in the terminal by mistake.

Specialty dining is worth the money. We fought off paying for specialty dining for the longest time. When we finally took the plunge, we never looked back. Better food. Attentive service. More intimate setting. Yeah, you’re paying for food twice. But it’s worth it.
 
150 Central Park on Oasis class ships comes with an extra cost, but it's worth it
Whatever comes on, goes back off. Two weeks at home, and your extra pounds will be gone. So eat and enjoy!

Changing it up keeps it fresh. If you’re a frequent Caribbean cruiser, working in something different each trip can add some new excitement. During one cruise stop in St. Thomas, we took an excursion to the stupendous island of St. John. Another time, we got the Unlimited Dining Package on Allure of the Seas. Yet another, we got a mini suite on a Princess ship.
 
Just one of the spectacular sides to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
It’s all in the fine print. We’ve missed so many great events because I’ve forgotten to study the daily newsletter. Increasingly, you only need to look at your phone to find out what’s going on.



Sanitizing is key—even when they don’t tell you to. We’re fanatical about staying healthy onboard. We load up on wet wipes before leaving home and use them before meals—and during them. The ladles in the buffet, menus in the main dining room, the salt and pepper shakers—these all can harbor germs. We clean everything in the stateroom, too.

Tipping for pleasure. Those extra dollars we give the crew when we leave is so important to them and their families. It makes us feel good too—even when we’re miserable that our trip is over.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Memories of the Caribbean for $5 or Less


Let’s face it; you can’t get much for $5 anymore. Or can you?

In looking over souvenirs I’ve collected from Caribbean cruises over the years, some of my most used, most prized, cost just a few bucks.

Once, I thought these kind of souvenirs were too touristy. But when I got older and wiser, it occurred to me they only look touristy while you’re there. Once you get home, no one else has them. They suddenly don’t seem touristy at all.

And I love them because they remind me of my good times at sea. So, if you’re looking for a memory or two from your next cruise without shelling out a lot, consider these:

Mini sacks for storing. We’ve picked them up in Aruba, Cozumel and Grand Cayman, but you’ll find them just about anywhere. They’re colorful, functional and fun. We use them for storing ear buds, extra batteries and loose change.



Ornaments for hanging. Christmas ornaments make great souvenirs. Some of them are so unique you may want them around all year round. Like the ceramic ones in all different shapes in Cozumel. The replica ruins from Costa Maya. The painted gourds in Bonaire. You can get ornaments for $5 or under, but if they’re more elaborate, they’re also more expensive.

Marking your spot. If you’re like me and still read a book made out of paper, check out the bookmarks. I’ve picked up great handmade ones from Labadee (in the artisan market in the building—they’re at the cashier counter), Bonaire and the Panama cruise terminal.



Encasing your glasses. One of my favorite souvenirs is a colorful heavy fabric eyeglass case that I bought in the Panama cruise terminal. You’ll never misplace your glasses with this one.

Magnets for clinging. Turn your fridge into a scrapbook. You can get a magnet for $1—or for $15. They come in all sizes and shapes—many are amazingly different. I have handmade doll magnets from Nassau and Barbados, mini magnetic paintings from Labadee, faux mini delft “wooden” shoes from Aruba, a ceramic magnet of the Puerto Rican flag from San Juan and many more.



Caps for keeping the sun out. Show off when you get home with a baseball cap like these from Aruba. (For more on baseball caps as status symbols—see the July 27 Wall Street Journal!)



Lots in Labadee. Five bucks go pretty far in the artisan market in Royal Caribbean’s private part of Haiti—especially if you’re willing to haggle. There are painted boxes and other wooden objects, carved stones, macramĂ© bracelets, magnets, small paintings, among others.

Maracas and more. Cozumel is a great place to cheap-souvenir shop. Besides maracas, there are sombreros, ceramics and a ton of other trinkets to remind you of your cruise South of the Border.



One of the great things about this kind of shopping is you can really load up—and still have something left over for a deposit on your next cruise.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Seeing Old San Juan with New Eyes


It wasn’t my shining moment. In San Juan on our recent cruise, we were the last ones back on the ship.

We weren’t the ones who come running down the pier just as the gangway is pulled in, to the hoots of onlookers hanging over their balcony railing.

But pretty darn close. One of the crew came running over to usher us in.

I do have an excuse, if a lame one. I can’t tear myself away from Old San Juan.

When we were last there, it was right after Hurricane Maria. Most of the places were shuttered. The few that were open were dark and hot, without power or customers.

This time, however, Old San Juan was restored to its usual, fascinating self. And though I’ve been there many times, I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time. Never did the buildings look more colorful, more ornate or more majestic. The Golden Trumpets and bougainvillea seemed to burst with color and joy.


We wandered down side streets and found places we’d never seen before. Like the splendid little pastry shop shown below, a Spanish Parisian-style patisserie. We took pictures and moped away, tortured that we were in port too short a time to go in.



Another street found us facing a sprawling ceiling of umbrellas—a commemoration of Puerto Ricans who served in U.S. wars.



At every turn seemed to be a beguiling boutique and bohemian café. Lapis-toned cobblestones, mosaic tile stairways and storefronts. Tropical flora-laden parks. The forts. The fountains. And on and on.




How can you not love Old San Juan? It’s old world Europe meets trendy urban chic, and truly one of the best destinations for the Caribbean cruiser.