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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.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Gaming for Laughs

Love and laughter on the Caribbean Princess
Marriage and mirth. How could they do that, we can’t help but wonder. And yet, they do. Cruise after cruise, there’s always couples who don’t mind—nay, they clamor—to share their inner most secrets with a hundred or so of their fellow travelers.

And, of course, we’re more than willing to listen—and laugh the whole hour through.

The “Newlywed Game”—for those of you old enough to remember—is alive and well on many ships, albeit under a different name and with some questions that would never have made it on prime time.

And what fun it is! Three couples, married for different lengths, volunteer to show us how much (or little) they know about each other. One spouse is asked a question and the other must guess what he or she answered while the rest of us watch them stumble and squirm.
In case you haven’t guessed, this is adult entertainment only. Just witness some of the questions: “What’s your wife’s bra size?” “Who among your wife’s friends or family would you least like to be stuck with on a desert island?” Where’s the most unusual place you’ve ‘done it’”?
As buzz is making this show a legend, get there early as seats go fast. It’s well worth it; guaranteed, you’ll leave with a smile on your face (and swearing to your companion you’d never be caught dead on that stage).
The show before you become the show, Quest on the Allure
On a quest for chaos. Quest is another only-for-the-grownup set. This show on a lot of ships is what can best be described as a scavenger hunt, but what you’re looking for is on the bodies sitting next to you. Which gives you an idea of what this game’s like.
Everyone—including even you, innocent bystander—breaks into teams, picks a captain and then braces for what comes next. Finding someone with a tattoo was one of the tamer ones. (Tattoos must be displayed for proof.)
This can get quite raucous, so it’s not for everyone. And definitely, leave your kids in the cabin.

Truth or consequences. The cleaner of the three game shows, “The Liar’s Club” puts three crew members up on stage to practice their poker faces on the rest of us. The emcee throws up an obscure word not part of most people’s vocabulary and the crew members each proposes a different definition. One of them is right; it’s the audience’s job to guess which one.

And while I say it’s the milder of the three shows, Liar’s Club can have its moments. It makes for great laughs and you’ll even learn some new words to impress your friends when you get back home--if you can pronounce them.

Look for all three of these game shows in your ship’s newsletter.

P.S. In my 18 cruises, the best answer to “Where’s the most unusual place you’ve ‘done it’?” Hands down, “In a casket.”

 Photos by RJ Greenburg

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Is a Smartphone the Smart Choice for Cruise Picture-Taking?

Smartphones seem to be the camera of choice on cruises these days. Well, why not? They’re compact, slip easily into your pocket and double as a phone, TV set, radio and game console. Photo album, calculator, mirror, flashlight…
In fact, smartphone cameras are so easy to use that they turn everyone instantly into a photographer. But is a smartphone the smart choice to capture and safeguard your cruise memories?
Cameras can be easy to use too—and give you much better results. I barely ever take mine out of the “IA” setting and have gotten some really amazing shots. IA stands for “Intelligent Auto,” which means the camera uses the intelligence the photographer clearly lacks and automatically adjusts to the conditions (e.g., a lot of light, not a lot of light). So you don’t have to do a thing but aim and shoot.

Of course, you can keep on using your smartphone as a camera. But know the downsides:
Tiny sensors limit what you can do. Smartphones typically have tiny sensors that let in less light. So you end up with fuzzy photos of the parades on the Oasis Promenade or acrobats in the Caribbean Princess’ piazza.
Wimpy flashes keep you in the dark. Smartphone flashes are minimal, so photos of your friends and family inside the ship can’t be taken from more than a few feet away. 

Hard to hold makes for shaky shots. Smartphones are very light and hard to hold steady, making it tough to get your photos crisp and clear. Throw in a little boat movement and you might as well throw in the towel.
When the sun comes out, the screen goes away. The smartphone’s screen washes away in bright sun. Which means you have no clue what you’re shooting.  
The RX100 is even smaller than the Galaxy III

Small zoom misses opportunities. There’s barely a zoom capability on smartphones, so you miss out on capturing Caribbean parakeets on palms over the streets of Aruba, rainbows melting into the hills of Dominica from your verandah and other in-the-moment photos.

If, at this point, I’ve succeeded at convincing you that a real camera is the way to go, how do you choose one? You’ll need to do some research, but below are a few thoughts. And note that these cameras are no bigger than a smartphone:

For inside the ship You’ll want something with a larger sensor, which lets in a lot of light and allows for photographing inside and up close. So, you can get great shots of family and friends, ship food, artwork and just about anything your imagination can conjure up. An example is the Sony RX100.

The RX100 captured this yummy shot on Celebrity's Constellation.
For the ports
A camera with a substantial zoom (up to 30x) is great for outdoor faraway shots, like seagulls in flight or the blue ice steeples of Alaska’s Glacier Bay from the deck. With a camera like this, you’ll find in your photos what your eyes can’t even see. You’ll want one with a viewfinder, so you know what you’re shooting, even in bright sun. And it will help you hold the camera steadier. An example is the Panasonic ZS50.  

This seagull at Princess Cays didn't know the ZS50 was pointing right at him.
A jack-of-all-trades, but not pocket-size
You can even get a camera that has it all, a “superzoom,” with a wide angle for close up, good zoom (e.g., 24x) for far away, and a viewfinder to boot. This will be bigger than a smartphone, though, but is easier to hold and much more versatile. An example is Panasonic FZ200.

To get shots like this one on Princess Cays, you'll need a bigger camera, like the FZ200.
All digital cameras today not only come with bigger sensors than a smartphone, but also image stabilization, to keep your shots steady even when your hand isn’t; and high definition video.

The right camera will open up a whole new world of exciting photo possibilities onboard and on shore. For some ideas on the cruising creativity that can be yours, see the posting Fun Ship Photography: Unleashing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy.
And just what do you do with all your terrific new shots? Check out What to Do with Those Cruise Ship Photos.
Musing’s Top Tip: Some great sites for doing research on what camera to buy are and

Photos by RJ Greenburg

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why Your Best Dinner Could be at the Buffet

Dinner on our first cruise was an affair to remember. All that silverware glinting in the chandelier’s light. A five-course spread, dished out by chatty waiters in tuxes. Our plates, the picture of food magazines. It was a blast.
Over the years, as budgets tightened and crew sizes shrunk, the dinner hour has become the dinner hour and a half—or more. Waiters are so harried; they no longer feel like chewing the fat. Courses have gone from five to four. Diners dress down more than ever.
Satisfy your sweet tooth in the Windjammer...
With these changes, along with some of the upsides of the buffet experience, we’re finding ourselves there quite a lot. Here are a few reasons why your best dinner could be at the buffet and not in the main dining room (MDR):         
Go when you want, come as you are. Working around your assigned MDR time can be a pain, particularly after a long day at port. Or, maybe you were up late the night before and then had your lunch at 3. How do you have dinner at 6? With the buffet, you eat when you feel like it.
And you don’t have to rush back to your stateroom and change for dinner. You can come as you are and keep that relaxed vibe right into the night.

...or have shrimp crackers there for the first time.
Pace yourself. Some of our MDR meals have taken close to two hours. That’s a long time to give up on a cruise evening, especially when there are shows to make, slot machines waiting for your money and a piano player anxious to sing to you. The buffet allows you to linger as long as you like—or wolf it down to go on to whatever’s next. 

 You can be choosy. In the old days, when MDR meals didn’t take so long, if you didn’t like your dish, you could ask for another. Today, the prospect of waiting for that other dish isn’t so appealing. What the buffets offer is choice. Your plate can become a virtual tourist with an Italian breadstick here, German sausage there and American fried chicken in the middle. And if you don’t like any of it, you can go back for something else.

Be a virtual tourist with landjager in Horizon Court...
Food for thought, tasting and testing. The buffet is where you’ll find some of the more interesting and pricey foods, like spicy Asian dishes and shrimp crackers in Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer, blue cheese in Celebrity’s Oceanview Café, and landjäger and Black Forest ham in Princess’ Horizon Court. It’s a great chance to try something you’ve never had before.

MDR chow without the MDR. Sometimes, the same entrees from the main dining room show up in the buffet. Granted, they’re not sitting as pretty in a warming tray as sprinkled with parsley on a porcelain plate. But at least you know what it looks like before you choose it .

Make it your way. It may be counter-intuitive, but some buffets will do it your way. In Celebrity’s Oceanview Café, you can point to a steak, salmon or chicken and someone will grill it for you. A stir-fry guy will put in what veggies, meat and level of heat you desire. And the pasta person will toss some up just the way you like it.

...and enjoy your dinner there in peace.
It’s quieter there. One of the biggest reasons I find myself in the buffet at night is that most people are somewhere else. Imagine that: a meal that’s relaxing. The buffet at dinner may just be the cruise industry’s biggest secret. So let’s keep it between the two of us…
Musing’s Top Tip: Celebrity and Royal Caribbean serve full dinners until 9 p.m. in their buffets; Princess, until 11.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Best Way to Relax on a Cruise?

Find one with a private island on the itinerary.
You’ll find yourself transported to a tropical oasis that you have all to yourself (well, along with a few thousand of your fellow passengers). A whole hassle-free day to savor the sunshine, dig your feet in the sand or float face up, while your cares drift away to sea.
Or jet ski, water slide, zip line or craft shop. Photograph the flowers. Walk the paths. Chow down or booze up.

However you choose to spend it, a day at the cruise line’s private beach offers the ultimate in relaxation and a chance to spend the day your way.
Here are quick takes on some of the cruise lines’ private spots:
Mahogany Bay—When we’ve stopped in Roatan in the past, we’ve docked in Coxen Hole, a poor, but interesting port city. On our recent Caribbean Princess cruise, however, we were surprised to find ourselves instead sidling up to the pier at Mahogany Bay, created by Carnival, Princess’ parent company. Carnival and NCL also make stops here.
Hibiscus, palms, and other tropical flora and foliage frame the path from the pier. Hang a right for a short walk to paradise. The pool-like blue waters are calm and clear. You can laze in padded loungers on the beach or try one out that sits on the water. Rent a paddleboat, kayak or snorkel.

There are restaurants and bars selling seafood and jerk chicken, and from a stand on the sand, a fellow sells coconut water, shell and all.
Or if you’re not in the mood to do the walk, there’s always the chairlift. Yes, you read that right. A seat in the sky but with no snow below. Instead, there are sweeping views of the bay, beach and ship. For $14, adults can do it all day long (for kids, it’s $8).
If you hang a left off the ship, you’ll find shopping, more restaurants and bars. The centerpiece is the craft market, where you can buy reasonably priced wooden bowls and the like in mahogany, watch cigars being rolled and purchase for the road, taste locally made rum and chocolate, or browse fine jewelry or the usual assortment of kitschy knickknacks.

Mahogany Bay and Labadee dock, which is a plus for both. It makes it a snap to bop on and off the ship as many times as you want.
Labadee—When you’re in Labadee, you have no clue you’re on Haiti. Surrounded by lush green mountains, Royal Caribbean’s private hideaway is a sprawling slice of heaven, with nook and crannies so that you never quite feel the crowds.

In fact, it’s so large that signs point out the way to its several beaches, myriad water sports and walkways.
You can get your hair braided, have a massage, play volleyball or do the aqua park. Swing in a hammock, hike the trails.

There are restaurants and bars, and the many souvenir vendors make sure you know they’re there too. Bargaining is both welcome and expected, and there are inexpensive souvenirs made in Haiti as well as China. Bring money, though, because like Mahogany Bay, your sea card won’t get you anywhere with these merchants.
Labadee is used by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships.
Princess Cays—Princess’ special island in the Bahamas has a long, lovely beach, with sections to the right and left of the pier, both with waters that are good for swimming and snorkeling, plenty of sandy stretches and padded lounge chairs in the sun and under the palms.

For your own personal space, you can rent one of the colorful air-conditioned beach bungalows. Six hours for four people will set you back $249.95.
There’s kayaking and sailing, restaurants and bars, a sprinkling of craft vendors along the left beach, as well as a craft market tucked away not from the pier entrance. To get into the market, though, be sure to bring your driver’s license, because just a sea card and smile won’t be enough to get you past the guard.
Also, note that Princess Cays is a tendered port. While only about a 10-minute ride from ship to shore, given the number of people always waiting to board, going back and forth multiple times isn’t really feasible.
No matter which of these three islands you end up at, if you’re lucky with the weather, you’ll no doubt be tearing yourself away at the end of the day to make it in time for sail-away.
Musing’s Top Tip: For a ton of info on what to do, what to see and videos on both, what weather to expect, where there’s wi-fi and much more in Roatan and other port stops, check out

Photos by RJ Greenburg