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Friday, June 24, 2016

What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then

Someone on a cruisecritic.com forum recently asked readers what they wish they knew about cruising when they first started. What would I answer? How much fun it is!

We started late—our first was in ’05—and it was only because we had the same misconceptions that many people still do. 

Today, 19 cruises later, we can’t help but bemoan all the wasted time—the places we could have gone to, the ships we could have been on. (But not all the calories I would’ve consumed!)

Today, with the lines pumping out so many ships each year, spreading their hulls throughout the world, and their ubiquitous advertising, cruising is ballooning like the ships themselves. Some 24 million people are expected to walk up a gangway somewhere in the world this year, up a whopping 68 percent from just a decade ago.

And chances are, they’ll do it again. In a survey, 85 percent of cruisers planned to take another within the next three years. Which says something you and I already know—once you’ve taken a cruise, you’re hooked.

Why? For some, it’s the chance to port hop. For others, it’s the ultimate in relaxation. For all of us, it’s a great value.

Yet, still only one in four people in the U.S. has taken a cruise.

What’s hot and what’s ahead
Another part of cruising that keeps us coming back is that it’s always changing. Here’s what’s hot today:

Cut off, but connected too. Cruise line investment continues to make it easier for us to reach out and touch someone from the sea to the shore.

Pampered in high style. Demand for the finer liners is on the rise.

Branded a cruise shopper. From Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks and Tiffany on Royal Caribbean to Norman Love on Princess, the lines are bringing on big brands to sell you more onboard.

Just waiting for your order on Navigator of the Seas.
The sea as secondary. The ships are now the destination, with thrills, chills and spills; Broadway shows; and designer shops.

The gift of time. The short port stops are increasing being supplemented by overnight stays.

Bring the whole family. With DreamWorks parades and carousels, spas and casinos, the ships appeal to every age, and whole families are cruising together like never before.

A final word or two
Here are some truisms: 1. Cruising is not for everyone; 2. There’s not much I can do to make up for my lost time.

But what I can do, and what you can do, is spread the word. Champion cruising. Confront those misconceptions. It’s the best way to keep the industry healthy and strong. And that’s good for all of us.

Sources: Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) 2016 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook; 2014 CLIA North America Market Cruise Profile Report, January 2015; Cruisemarketwatch.com

Friday, June 10, 2016

Some of the Best in Cruising Part 2: The Ports

When I’ve been asked for my favorite Caribbean island, I struggle to find an answer. Because I like so many, each for a different reason. But what they all have in common is plenty to see and do close to where the ship pulls in (no excursion required!). Here, then, is my “best of” list for the Caribbean cruiser:

Shopping: Cozumel. There’s great shopping right at the pier, or you can grab a cab into town for a mind-numbing selection of more of the same. Colorful ceramics; onyx chess sets and figurines; silver jewelry with gems and without; and inexpensive knickknacks from maracas to magnets makes shopping a blast. You’ll find consumables there, too. Read more at Chocolate, Rum and Spice: Food Souvenirs of the Caribbean.  

Cozumel in color.
Best beach: private islands. These are, simply put, paradise. Carnival’s Mahogany Bay in Roatan, Honduras; Princess Cays in the Bahamas; and Royal Caribbean’s Labadee on Haiti offer the quintessential Caribbean beach day. They’ve got powdery sands and calm blue waters perfect for swimming and water sports; palms and hibiscus and bougainvillea to feast the eyes; and lounge chairs everywhere, along with plenty of shops and ways to soothe a parched throat.

The private islands are surely the best way to relax on a cruise.
Lined up and ready to go at Princess Cays.
Biggest variety: St. Maarten. A beach right in town, cheap chair-umbrella-beer packages, surfside seafood shacks, water sports, great shopping, gambling and even a blast from the past—an automat—selling local foods like the Dutch kroket. This lively place of merriment is constantly changing—for the better. There’s more at “How to Spend Your Cruise Day in St. Maarten.”

Prettiest harbor: Dominica, Bonaire. This one’s a tie. Dominica has perhaps the most compact port, with its location at the foot of surrounding velvety green hills. Be prepared to invest some leg muscle if you walk around town, where you can visit a farmers market or grab some free wi-fi at the local library. Or, shop the stalls at the pier, where you can get locally woven baskets and other souvenirs.

Then there’s the transparent waters of Bonaire, where a stroll along the waterside promenade is like a visit to an aquarium. Vibrant-colored fish swish by underfoot, and the sea around you is a painter’s pallet of shades of azure. Read more at Knowing Your ABCs.

A walk along the promenade in Bonaire is like a visit to an aquarium.
Most European-ish: St. Barts. Part Riviera, part Caribbean, totally French, St. Barts is remarkable for many reasons. You won’t find any bargains here, but you’ll marvel at the mega yachts parked in town, the hilly and winding streets that force cars and all manner of local vehicles to part halfway on the sidewalk. You can sip café au lait at a seaside café, nibble on quiche from the local patisserie, marvel at the wines lining the walls at the supermarche´ or browse the fashionable shops. St. Barts is off course and worth it.

Paris? Mais non, the patisserie of St. Barts.
Time travel: San Juan. With two well-preserved, exhibit-laden forts, a dramatic fountain honoring the island’s birth, blue cobblestone streets, mosaic stairwells, and even shops selling Spanish hand fans and the short jackets of the matadors, the old town of Puerto Rico’s capital takes the cruiser back in time. No DeLorean needed here—just a little bit of pedestrian power.

San Juan is one of those ports that are made for walking.

The ancient wall today protects San Juan from sailboats.
Memorable feature: Curaçao. This Southern Caribbean Leeward island off the Venezuelan coast has several oddities—a floating bridge that takes you to the colorful Punda District when it’s not stepping aside to let boats through, and a fruit and veggies market where vendors sell their stuff out of wooden boats tied up to the dock. And if that’s not enough, how about liquor that’s made from oranges but is blue in hue?

Float your way to Curacao's Punda district.

So, that’s my “best of list.” What’s yours?

Musing’s Top Tip: Did you miss Some of the Best in Cruising Part 1? Then check it out here, for ship life highlights—from what’s on your plate to what’s on the stage.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Meal Deal—is the Same Time, Same Place Right for You?

First, I must come clean: I’m a “my time” convert.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. When we first cruised years ago, it was on Celebrity’s Constellation, then under the expert oversight of Michelin-starred Michel Roux. The main dining room food was a true treat and the waiters had time to chat. Every fourth man or so on formal night wore a tux, and the women enjoyed a rare chance to show off their sequins and spikes.

Well, Roux left in ‘07 and Celebrity’s food immediately became indistinguishable from the other mass market cruise lines—merely edible.

Today, on all ships we’ve been on—from Celebrity to Royal Caribbean to Princess to Holland America—we’ve found hardly a tux in sight and the gowns are going too. Waiters are more harried. Few seem to take the trouble any more to get to know their guests, or their preferences.

In short, the MDR experience feels less like Saturday night fine dining, and more like Applebees by the Sea. Given these changes, it does make one wonder, does the same time/same place traditional set seating still make sense? Royal Caribbean certainly has its doubts, evidenced by the debut of “dynamic dining” on its Anthem of the Seas.

However, like most things in life, the set time vs. my time comes down to personal choice. Consider:

The Case for Set Seating

You’re in love with your waiter. There are still a few waiters who manage to squeeze in a bit of chitchat between food order and delivery. And if you’re lucky enough to find one, you may just get rewarded with a glimpse into his home, culture and ship life.

You snagged a great table. Tables for two are, on some ships, treated as an afterthought and can be
shoved in the most unlikely and uncomfortable places. Whether you’re dining just with your
companion or a larger group, if you get a great location, it can make a big difference in how much you feel like coming back.
Getting a great table in a dining room like this one on Navigator of the Seas is worth coming back for.  
The pace is not too fast, not too slow. We’ve had the best and we’ve had the worst; the worst topped two hours for three courses. If you’re with a group, you might not mind a long wait between courses. But if there’s just two of you, the long wait can be painful.

There’s a lot of you. If you’re with a large group and you want to eat together every night, your best bet is probably with set seating. That way, you’ll always know you have a table ready for you.

The Case for My Time

You’re on vacation. Unless you’re retired, your life is essentially dictated by the big hand and the little hand. The flexibility of my time can’t be beat—you show up when you’re ready to eat.

You can avoid the rush. It can be a real challenge sometimes to work set seating around entertainment—particularly on Oasis class ships, where you need to book the shows before you leave home. And you may think you’ve left enough time to chow before the show, only to find that you didn’t.

Have your meal and port stay too. If your seating’s at 6 and you’re still nursing your drink at 8 in
an Old San Juan café, you can forget your MDR dinner. Do my time and show up any time.
Linger too long in Old San Juan and you can forget your set seating.

My Time Misconceptions

Misconception #1: If you show up when you feel like it, you’ll be waiting a long time. Since I’m a recent convert, I can’t speak for the other lines, but on two different Royal Caribbean ships, we waited not more than about 10 minutes for a table.

Misconception #2: You won’t get the table you want. Every time we’ve asked for a table for two, we’ve gotten it.

Misconception #3: If we find a waiter we love, we’ll never have him again. If you find a waiter you want again, simply ask. You may wait longer, but the ships will generally accommodate you.

The Final Word

Whether you opt for my time or set time, it’s always best to do it at booking because if you wait, you may not have a choice.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Oasis Lite: Review of Navigator of the Seas

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the SeasOasis Lite.” But, particularly after the 2014 refurb, this Voyager class ship does share some of the same features that make it an alternative to its can-be-overwhelming Oasis of the Seas sibling. 

Here’s a bit of the similarities and differences:

On the spot. Oasis has three “neighborhoods” to Navigator’s one. What they both have in common is the Promenade, the ship’s hub and site for parades, the '70s theme party and other events. It’s also is the home of the only 24-hour nosh spot, the Promenade Café, with its free sandwiches and sweets.


On our Navigator trip, we admit to missing Oasis’ greeny oasis, Central Park. Also absent was the kids-friendly Boardwalk, with its full-size carousel, fun-house mirrors and candy shop.

On the move. Navigator emerged from its month-long dry dock with a FlowRider, the popular surf-making machine on Oasis. And like the bigger ship, Navigator has a rock-climbing wall, ice skating rink and miniature golf.

On your plate. The main dining room and Windjammer buffet fare is pretty much the same on both ships, and both have the Brasserie 30 and “Tutti” salad bar in the MDR on sea days. The bread stuffs on both ships were great—from the pumpkin seed-studded rolls to the breakfast breads with dried fruit and sugar sprinkles.

Navigator’s Windjammer had some surprises, such as a featured dish served up (somewhat oddly) front and center in the buffet’s entrance. One day it was bagels with flavored cream cheeses. Another, it was a massive fruit cobbler in just about the biggest pan you’ll ever see. The last night—I suppose to make parting less painful—the buffet sprouted fresh raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Oasis has some extra specialty restaurants. The for-a-fee eateries they share: Chops Grille (steak), Giovanni’s Table (Italian), Sabor (Mexican) and Izumi (Japanese). Both have a Ben and Jerry’s, and Starbucks, but on Navigator, they’re so small that you’ll miss them if you blink.

On the stage. No comparison here, sad to say. The one spectacular show they do both offer is the ice 
show, and what a show it is! (Though the actual production is different.) Continuously changing sets, elaborate costumes, and with many of the same jumps, twirls and whirls you’d see on land. On Oasis, you sign up online before the trip. On Navigator, you’re assigned a show by your muster station.

Beyond the ice show, only Oasis class ships have the eye-popping aqua shows and Broadway-quality musicals. Navigator has the typical cruise ship entertainment—comedian, singers and two production shows. As with most, the production shows were entertaining, but not memorable.

In the Plus Column
What else can you look forward to on Navigator? In the Windjammer, the wait staff roam, offering water/juice/ice tea at lunch and dinner, and sometimes, cookies, too…Because it’s smaller, finding a table in the buffet is easier, so is getting on and off the ship…its size allows it to go to more ports…it’s faster to learn your way around…balcony chairs recline, the night table has a closed drawer and the closet has a few shelves (you’ll find none of these on Oasis).

So, in short, if you’re not ready, willing or able for a trip on an Oasis ship, Navigator of the Seas is a good choice.

Musing’s Top Tip for Crown and Anchor Diamond Club members: Since the refurb, Royal has added a nice lounge to deck 14, behind a sea pass-required door to the right of the Cosmopolitan Club. During happy hours (4:30-8 p.m.), the lounge has hot and cold munchies, and many complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic offerings. A particularly nice feature is that part of the lounge is outdoors with view of the sea (but, alas, also of the basketball course that’s in non-stop use).

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)