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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 cruiseportinsider.com.

Photos by RJ Greenburg

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pre-Cruise Prep—What Line Does it Best?


Not that you need any help getting pumped up for your upcoming trip, but the cruise lines do vary quite a bit in what they tell you once you’ve put that deposit down.
 
And of the lines we’ve sailed with most recently—Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity—my first prize for pre-cruise promo goes to Princess.
 
Communication from Celebrity and Royal Caribbean was spotty and all about driving revenue with drink packages and excursions. Celebrity, however, gets kudos for being the only one of the three lines to still offer to send you color adhesive luggage tags. (For RCI and Princess, you have to print up your own and staple or tape them to your bags.)
 
While Princess does its share of tempting you with ways to spend extra dough, it also works hard to inform and excite. Here’s a brief summary of what you can expect before you sail:
 
Princess’ patter begins early. The cruise line begins its email chats with you even before you’ve paid for the whole trip. The captain welcomes you onboard, tells you a bit about himself, and a column appearing in every email going forward gives an update of what you’ve left to do before the trip. Like submit final payment. Make sure your passport is up to date. And check in online.
 
Read, see and hear. About once a month and then sooner as you get closer to the trip, you get a message from a different senior officer. There are links to videos of your ship and the bridge web cam. Overviews of available excursions, which you can filter by price range and activity level. Descriptions of dining options with links to videos about the restaurants.
 
Let them entertain you. One especially useful email spotlights the entertainment—including what movie is actually being shown on your trip for Movies Under the Stars, the featured entertainers and song-and-dance production shows. There’s even a sample issue of Princess Patter, the onboard newsletter.
 
With all the hours we spend these days our eyes glued to a screen, I have to hand it to Princess for making what we spend online with the cruise line more than worth our time. And for giving us yet another reason to feel our vacation dollars are well spent.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Family or friends curious about cruising but afraid to take the plunge? Consider Princess’ “Bon Voyage Experience.” You can bring your guests onboard on embarkation day and for $30 a person, they’ll get four hours of lunch plus wine, guided tour of the ship and souvenir photo. It might be a great way to get them to “yes” if you want to bring them along the next time you cruise. Reservations for this program are required, so see Princess’ website for more.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Is a Balcony Worth the Extra Cost?

If you’re planning your first cruise, no doubt you’ve pondered this question. The truth is, once you get your first balcony, you’ll never turn back.
 
Your budget may be tight and a balcony may not be an option. But if it is, consider springing for one.
Here’s why:
 
No better way to nap. The slap of the water against the ship is a built-in noise machine. Add a glass of wine and you’ve got napping nirvana.

Voilà, a two-room stateroom. Spouse still sleeping? Slip out onto the balcony. He can keep sleeping. And you’ve got your personal space.



Ft. Lauderdale sail-away from the balcony of Celebrity's Constellation
Breakfast and the balcony are made for each other. Slide open the doors, step outside in your robe and breakfast by the sea. A great way to begin the day!

The quiet! Many people get balconies, but hardly anyone uses them. Oh, you’ll see lots of folks on the verandahs on sail-away day. But after that, they’re too busy in the casino, shops and around the pool to hang out on their balconies.
 
The smoke’s all gone. With most of the cruise lines banning smoking on the balcony, you can now breathe deeply with no ciggie smoke blowing by.

You’ll see things others won’t. The balcony allows you to be at the right place at the right time, camera in hand, fired up and ready to go.

We’ve captured some amazing shots, like stupendous sunsets. A rainbow over the Dominica mountains. A schooner checking out St. Lucia’s Petons just as the sky explodes with color. And we didn’t need to jockey for position on a crowded deck to capture it all. 


St. Lucia and the schooner from the balcony of HAL's Noordam
Soak up the sun away from view. While your balcony may not always be on the sunny side of the ship, when it is, you get to bathe in the warmth without being shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow cruisers.

Get out of the cold. We debated whether to get a balcony on our Alaskan cruise, but were glad we did. In late May, Glacier Bay was a toasty 49 degrees. We took in the glaciers from our verandah, and then bopped back into the room to feel our fingers again.


On the balcony of the Caribbean Princess.
Stargazer’s delight. The night sky, unbroken by trees or power lines, presents a planetarium-worthy view of what’s above you. There is, however, a definite downside to a balcony. Once you start to use it, you may become so mesmerized with the view that you won’t want to get out and see the ship.

But then, again, a cruise is all about the sea. Isn’t it?

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

These Ports are Made for Walking Part 2: Western Caribbean

Here’s good news for budget-minded cruisers who don’t want to shell out extra money for excursions at the Caribbean ports: there’s plenty to do just on foot. In an earlier posting, I covered some walkable highlights of the Eastern Caribbean, featuring San Juan and St. Maarten.
 
Here, I’ll do a quick take on the Western ports of Grand Cayman and Cozumel:
 
Slice of the Grand Cayman waterfront

Fish and other fun in Grand Cayman. Most ships dock in the center of George Town. The harbor
horseshoes around the blue waters, and provides plenty of shops—both high and low end—and a Margaritaville, as well as a bit of history in the form of (very few) remains of Fort George, originally built to protect the island from Cuban invaders.
 
Along the waterfront’s Harbor Drive, merely steps from the cruise pier, is a small fish market on the sand, where you’ll be as likely to find a snoozing local in the shade of the market tent as an array of snapper, grouper and other fruits of the sea laid out like handicrafts.

Take your pick among these fruits of the sea
The fishmongers throw chum into the water a few yards away, drawing two-feet long tarpon and other species, delivering an aquarium-like experience literally at your feet.
 
And if watching all this gives you a craving for fresh seafood, you only need to venture a bit further down Harbor Drive to find a restaurant sign beckoning with “You hook it, we cook it.”

Mexican mementos in Cozumel. The docking for most ships is Puerta Maya pier, two miles and about an $8 taxi ride into town. We did the walk a few times, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially under the scorching Caribbean sun. Perhaps the only benefit of doing so (along with walking off those newly accumulated calories) is the chance to spy an iguana scurrying in and out of the brush or check out the large modern supermarket (with public bathrooms upstairs) along the way. 

Fortunately, a plethora of shops have sprung up at the cruise terminal and during a recent trip, we found ourselves so immersed in the shopping, we never left it. 
Tchotchke shopping at the pier in Cozumel
While mass produced, there are plenty of inexpensive and different trinkets to bring home as mementos—from costumed dolls (actually made in Mexico!), colorful ceramics and onyx chess sets to the local specialties of vanilla and tequila.


If you want to spend a bit more, the jewelry store owners would be only too happy to show you their silver and stone. The shopkeepers can be quite aggressive, but it does work to your advantage. The price of a silver-and-lapis piece I was eying had dropped in half by the time I exited the store door. Needless to say, bargaining is strongly recommended.

Try to make it to the far end of the shopping village, where you’ll find Los Cinco Soles, the best of the shops. It’s an outpost of the bigger store in town, but has same higher quality of ceramics, jewelry, onyx, folk art, clothing and more. 
Fill your fruit bowl at Los Cinco Soles

One unique offering at Los Cinco Soles is a huge variety of watermelons, mangos, red peppers and other brightly colored papier-mâché fruits and veggies. Filling a lovely wooden bowl from the Western Caribbean port of Roatan (watch for a future posting) with these makes a great centerpiece (and conversation starter) for your table back home.

And if shopping’s not your thing, the pier’s got several places to eat and drink. Or, get your photo taken with a modern Mayan, submerge yourself for an underwater oxygen infusion or turn yourself into mush with a massage by the sea.

 


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Princess Preferred: A Review of the Caribbean Princess

A mouthful of luscious Love
from the Caribbean Princess
From the Norman Love truffle pops at the Welcome Toast to the restaurant-like beverage service in the buffet, Princess is filled with surprises that make it my favorite among the mass market cruise lines.
 
It won’t blow you away with bumper cars or carousels, but what it does deliver is consistently solid service, attention to detail and an eagerness to please.
 
The recent trip on the Caribbean Princess, our fourth on the line, proved to be as good as the first. With many of the lines noticeably scaling back, Princess is an exception. Here’s some of what made it special:
 
Ship shape. Princess’ mini-suite is ideal for those who want more space but not at a suite price. It’s essentially the size of a hotel room with two flat screen TVs, a full-sized couch, large counter, and porch furniture featuring reclining
A mini-suite is a perfect size but
doesn't come at a steep price
chairs, foot stools and a large table. The closets in the mini-suites—as well as the balcony rooms—are the largest we’ve had on any cruise line, and can accommodate three hanging shoe bags, along with a whole lot of clothes.

 
The staterooms—as well as the public rooms—were immaculate. You’d really have to look hard to find any evidence that the ship was built 11 years ago.
 
The piazza, the hub of ship activity, this trip featured a pianist, a we-can-play-just-about-anything band and singer, steel drums and a former circus performer who twirled lighted hoops in a blaze of 
A performance in the piazza
color and grace.

The only downside to the handsome piazza is that it can’t always accommodate everyone who wants to be there. Getting a good enough view to take photos of the Mardi Gras party or a seat to eat your International Café quiche can sometimes be all but impossible.
 
Food; themed and otherwise. Speaking of food, it ranged from fair to good, in both the Main Dining Room and Horizon Court buffet. One innovation in the MDR was Caribbean cuisine, a welcome reminder of where we were. And it was nice to see lobster tail still on the formal night menu.
 
Horizon Court themed nights were a lot of fun and we found ourselves there more than the MDR. German night was alight with a color-changing, larger-than-life beer stein (in ice, not on ice), landjagger bites and German hams, pretzel rolls, red cabbage, sausages, and linzer and sacher tortes. Italian night, with its gondolier-costumed waiters, served up prosciutto and hunks of parmesan, fennel au gratin and pasta many ways.
 

Part of the bread spread on German night
The bakery stuff is where Princess really excels. The breads are great—from the sunflower-studded rolls to the cheese-topped croissants to the onion-infused focaccia. The chocolate desserts were excellent, rivaling some of the best bakeries on land.

The ship was as generous with its buffet hours as it was with the food offerings. You can get breakfast until 11:30, lunch until 3:30 (if you miss this, there’s “afternoon snack” from 3:30-5:30, which is a scaled down lunch), and full dinner is available until 11. Late dining was an especially mellow meal, just us, a few other night owls and the crew.
 
Fun and games. While standard fare, the entertainment was generally good; highlights were a juggler/comedian whose not-G-rated shtick brought on belly laughs, and a magician/comedian with same-but-different sleight-of-hand tricks and fast wit.
 
In fact, everyone seemed to be a comedian on this trip—including the cruise director, Paul Chandler-Burns. The Brit’s quips shot out like sparks—in an understated, under-the-breath sort of way—and made him the ideal emcee. His banter during the “The Marriage Match Game Show” made it easily one of the best we’ve seen on any ship.
 
Love Boat disco
There were several themed parties, the most memorable was the “Love Boat Disco Deck Party” held by the pool. The ship’s singers and dancers, dressed officer-like in white pants suits and captain hats, did the hustle and other moves, while the Movie Under the Stars screen revived scenes from the TV show, interspersing its octogenarian cast members somewhat disconcertedly jiving to a disco beat.
 
Well served. Service onboard was attentive from the room steward to the well-orchestrated disembarkation. Ironically, some of the best service we had was in the buffet. One night, I was asked by three different waiters within 10 minutes if I wanted any water or coffee.
 
With the generous room space, great service, varied entertainment with plenty of laughs, satisfying food sprinkled with surprises, and four good Western Caribbean ports (seven days of sun didn’t hurt either), we felt gloriously pampered from ship to shore. And felt that Princess did its best—and succeeded—in helping us “come back new.”
 
Small talk: Princess Patter, the onboard newsletter, was named after the very first Princess cruise ship, the Princess Patricia.

 Photos by RJ Greenburg

 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cruising with a Travel Agent

The cruise industry wants you to use a travel agent. In fact, some cruise lines turn finding their phone numbers into a treasure hunt.
 
But don’t despair, there are really many good reasons for using a travel agent when you cruise. I recapped these in an earlier blog post.
 
Finding an agent is like finding a doctor or hair stylist—you might have to go through a few before you find the right one. Here’s my take on the right one:
 
Cruise-wise. Cruising is a special kind of travel and unless a travel agent has done a fair amount, it’s going to be hard to give advice. You’ll want one who’s cruised, books a lot and knows the lines.
 
Willing to share. When a travel agent won’t tell you what’s right or wrong about a ship, find someone else. While the agent gets paid by the cruise line, it won’t do you any good if you get steered to a ship or trip that’s wrong for you.
 
Shows they care. You want the agent to care if you had a good time, be interested about your experience so he or she can learn from it and be more useful to others. One travel agent called us after every trip to find out how it went.
 
Available when you are. Work during the week? It’s not too useful when the agent has no weekend hours. Trip planning takes time and if you’re like me, the only time that works is the weekend.
 
Doesn’t procrastinate. After all the planning and you’ve finally booked, it can be pretty frustrating to then have to wait weeks for the confirmation/booking number. The best agents will turnaround the paperwork quickly.

Tells you what you need to know. Like you’re going to need a passport, even if you’re just going to the Caribbean. When you need to be at the pier. That you’ll give up your luggage way before you get on board.

Doesn’t make a cancellation worse. It’s painful enough when a trip has to be cancelled. You don’t need that pain deepened when the travel agent socks you with a fee. Some agents do, indeed, charge for cancellations, and this fact can be hidden in small print on their documents. Be sure to ask upfront to prevent unpleasant surprises.
 
Find out how you benefit. With the competition for business, most travel agents will offer bennies to book with them. Don’t be shy—ask. We’ve received a wide range of extras—from free drink packages to free travel insurance to shipboard credits.
 
Where to look. So, how do you find a travel agent? The usual ways, like asking friends and family. If your community hosts a cruise travel show, that’s a good way to way to hook up with an agent—that’s how we found ours.
 
Or, visit the website of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise lines’ trade association, to find an agent near you who specializes in cruising. Their agents have the designation “Certified Cruise Counselor,” which they earn both through coursework and putting in time at sea. CLIA offers agents levels of certification—up to a “PhD” in cruising. To use the search tool on CLIA’s website, on the homepage, select “Vacations” and from “CLIA’s Cruise Tools” in the middle of the screen and select “Cruise Expert Finder.”
 
Do take the time to find a good agent—it will pay off by making sure you get the vacation you want and your hard-earned dollars go the furthest.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: For more on the benefits of using a CLIA-certified travel agent, see this brief video put together by the association.