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Friday, September 15, 2017

This Too Shall Pass

In trying to come to grips with what’s befallen the Eastern Caribbean islands many of us have come to know and love, I’ve found comfort in the phrase “this too shall pass.”

My mother used it a lot, when anything went wrong. It’s actually quite old—medieval, in fact, according to Wikipedia. But it’s been used countless times since then, in many different ways. Abe Lincoln once said about the phrase, “How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

Hurricane Irma did, indeed, send parts of the Caribbean into the depths of affliction. But ever the optimist, Abe knew that human determination, compassion, energy and optimism make us what we are and will get us through all kinds of tough times.

The storm may have left in its wake damage and destruction. But, this too shall pass. The islands will rebuild. Their people will recover their spirits. We’ll once again bask in their blue waters. Better days are ahead.

The cruise lines are showing their compassion by providing supplies and funds to help in the recovery. If you want to play a part, Royal Caribbean will match your donation, making your dollar go that much further. And the rebuilding that much faster. Find details on donating on their website.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Location, Location, Location—Pick Your Stateroom as You Would Your Home

What’s the perfect location for a stateroom on a cruise ship?

Well, that depends.

What would you look for in a home? How far it is from work? Is it near good schools? Where’s the closest supermarket? Is the neighborhood quiet?

On a cruise ship, it’s not too different. Maybe you want to know how close your room is to the dining room, buffet or pool. And how far are you willing to trek down that long lonesome hallway to get
somewhere? Does quiet matter?

How far are you willing to walk down this long lonesome hallway on Allure of the Seas?
One thing for sure—like with a home, where your bed is on a cruise ship can impact how happy you’re going to be. 

Decorations won't help if you pick the wrong place
So, you want to give some thought into what you want and time into planning. Here are a few tips on selecting a room:

Know what you want. Prioritize what you want to be close to, and then select a room that's nearest the elevator that will take you there. You don’t have to worry about elevator noise; I haven’t been on a ship yet where a room near the elevator is a problem. Elevators tend to be set away from staterooms.

If it’s quiet you’re after. To find the quietest rooms, avoid adjoining ones (which can draw families) and those across from inside rooms (slamming doors, folks hanging out in their doorways). Pick decks that don’t have these above or below: pools, buffets, restaurants, gyms, jogging track or discos.
If it's quiet you're after, don't get a room below the pool...

...or under decks like the Promenade on Navigator of the Seas
And when looking at deck plans, be sure to note empty spaces near rooms—they can be the crew’s linen closet or galley, which can mean a lot of activity early in the morning. Be careful too to avoid baggage areas and laundry rooms.

...or near laundry rooms like the ones on the Regal Princess
Steady as she goes. The parts of the ship with the least amount of movement tend to be mid-ship. If you don’t think location is important, check out how the prices vary—you’ll pay a premium for being in the middle of the ship. And these rooms tend to go faster.

Help for planning. Looking at deck plans can be as fun and easy as reading a camera manual. If you can even read the print (which gets smaller all the time!), it’s hard to know what you’re even looking at. Fortunately, the cruise lines generally have decent online versions. Also consider for an easier online experience.

Deciphering deck plans can be as fun as studying for finals

The last step. Say you’ve narrowed it down to an actual room, but you want to make sure it’s what you want. You can:

* Call the cruise line for information, but what you get may be limited

* Throw a question out on the boards; see especially Cruise Discussion Topics/Cabin Selection Tips

* Google the room number (including the ship name)

One last idea is to scout out the rooms and decks on Disembarkation Day. If you can spare a few minutes, note where you’d want to be—or don’t want to be—should you (hopefully) find yourself on the ship or same class of ship at some point in the future. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Watch for the Signs—Back with More

A while back, I did a posting Watch for the Signs—How the Ports Tease and Tempt You featuring comical and whimsical signs in ports. Well, I’ve had a few trips since then, and the Caribbean locals did not disappoint.

So, here, for your amusement is a new set of signs—look for them when you’re in port:

Everything looks better with a brewski--except the suitcases outside your door
on Disembarkation Eve (St. Maarten)

Don't bother slathering, just start slurping (St. Maarten)
Have I imagined this sign? (St. Thomas)
 Don’t stop what? 😏 (St. Thomas)
Where were you when I needed you? (Antigua)
More like warm cruiser needs frozen drinks (St. Thomas)
Port of Indecision—is that like the Ship to Nowhere? (Falmouth)
Do you have any to share? Drop us a line--we'd love to hear from you--and see your signs!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Got Something to Say About a Cruise? Start a Blog!

Now, I’m no expert. But if you’re reading this, I’m doing something right.

And if I can do it, you can do it.

Why would you want to start a blog? Maybe you want to spread the word about how great cruising is. Or, you had a fabulous experience on a ship or at a port, and you’re bursting to talk about it. Perhaps you love taking photos and need an excuse to get them out of your smartphone camera.

Whatever the reason, there’s no reason not to do it. It’s fun. And you can be as creative as you want to be.

So, how do you get started? I use Blogger—it’s simple and free. You just pick a template and go. Another big benefit is that it’s part of Google Plus. More on this later. See this article on some of the top blog hosting platforms.

What do you write? The quick answer: what others want to read. In other words, if you want to get folks to come to your blog, you need to pick topics that will be popular and write in a way that’s engaging.

And keep it short—use no more words than you need. Use bullet points and bold text for those who prefer to scan.

I saved the most important for last: use a captivating title. Think of yourself—would you read something if the title doesn’t grab you?

What about photos? Definitely. And the bigger, the better. They draw the reader. Think Pinterest. And Instagram. You get the picture. The web has made us more visual than ever. It pains the writer in me to say this, but do more photos and less text.

And other media? Sure! Upload one of your videos to YouTube and link it from your blog. Link to other blogs or websites.

Then what? Just because you post it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. You need to aggressively promote your blog. In fact, getting people to read your blog is more work than creating the blog itself.

If you use Google’s Blogger, once you publish a posting, it automatically posts to Google Plus.

Happily, Cruise Critic, the place for the most robust cruise conversations, allows bloggers to link their postings in their Boards section (see tab on top menu of their website), under Cruise Conversations/Cruise Blogs and Websites.

Travel websites and social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are also good places to promote your blog. Also consider sites like Feedspot, which consolidates readers’ favorite blog feeds so they can get them all from one place.

Anything else? Join in conversations—not to promote, but to share your knowledge and ask questions. Develop online relationships and readership will follow.

Also, post often. If you want to develop a following, you need to keep writing. If readers don’t see new stuff, you’ll lose them and they might not come back.

A few last words
Think before you post. Posting is public. Anyone can see it, Google it and save it. Be smart about what you say and what you show.

There’s a lot out there. Try searching for “cruise” in a site such as Pinterest. The postings go on and on. If you can find a new and different way to help your blog stand out, you’re more likely to get attention.

See what others do. Study the blogs that you follow; see if you can identify what makes them successful.

If you do launch a blog, let us know how it goes. And if you discover something that works, please share! It's a new world for all of us and there’s something new to learn every day.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Don’t Come Home Without Them—Must-Buy Mementos from the Caribbean

Fodor’s recently did a piece on the nine must-buy souvenirs on a Caribbean cruise. Which made me think—what would be on my list?

So, this is what I came up with:

Woven wares from Dominica. They’re not sold at every stall in Roseau, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled, but the locally woven baskets make great—and useful—souvenirs to bring to those you left behind or keep for yourself.

Handmade, locally made in Dominica
The "Caribbean Gem." Mined in the Dominican Republic but available in many of the Caribbean isles, the lovely milky blue larimar can be found set in all kinds of jewelry and best yet, isn’t too expensive. I picked up earrings in a silver setting at St. Thomas’s Havensight pier for about $45.

Ceramics, onyx from Cozumel. While the silver jewelry is terribly tempting in Cozumel, each time I see the shopkeeper walking around with a calculator, it reminds me I can’t afford it. But what everyone can afford and is certainly worth it is Cozumel’s ceramics. They’re bright, cheerful and everywhere. You can get something as small as a spoon holder or as large as a serving platter. Also special are the onyx pieces, from figurines to chess sets.
Ceramics to liven up your home from Cozumel's Los Cinco Soles
Mopa Mopa art in Aruba. These don’t come cheap, but they’re unusual handicrafts native to Aruba. Buds of the mopa mopa tree are processed into resin that’s incorporated into wood and painted. You can find mopa mopa bookmarks, masks, wall hangings, and all sorts of decorative arts. You won’t find them anywhere else.

Anything painted in Labadee. The extensive artisan market in Royal Caribbean’s resort side of Haiti specializes in painted art, and the prices are very reasonable. And since the sellers promote bargaining, the prices get downright cheap. There’s a big variety of artwork—from magnets to mega canvases of beach scenes, with frames or without.

Color in canvas at Labadee, Haiti
St. Maarten guavaberry liqueur. It’s on the sweet side, but an only-in-St. Maarten kind of souvenir. Their colorful painted bottles alone make it worth the cost, even if what’s inside isn’t exactly your cup of—well, beverage of choice. 

Spices in Granada. The “Island of Spice” vendors have ready-to-go spice combo baskets that are tailor-made souvenirs. And if you feel yourself giving in to buying one of the spice necklaces the vendors assemble as you watch, beware that their shelf life is short—very short. By the end of the day, mine was beginning to self-destruct.
Necklaces of spice might be nice, but the baskets are much better
Rum from anywhere. I fell deeply in love with Bacardi’s 8 Anõs at its brewery in San Juan. But the Caribbean’s got more choices of rum than we have time to taste. Take some home and relive your cruise experience again and again, one happy shot at a time.

Musing’s Top Tip: If you’re thinking about a specialty dining package on an Oasis class cruise, check out Musing About Cruising’s new video on YouTube, with tips and photos, to help you decide if it’s right for you. And did you know you can now find out about new Musing postings by subscribing to Feedspot, which consolidates the latest from your favorite cruise blogs? 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Of Quick Customs, Champagne and Watching the Waters

Our past trip on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas had a number of firsts—all of them good and
all of them worth sharing:
Customs never better. If you’re cruisin’ out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades anytime soon (and you’re a U.S. or Canadian citizen), you’ll absolutely want to use the Mobile Passport, U.S. Customs’ new app.

On disembarkation day, like a king and queen, we bypassed all 5,000+ of Allure’s passengers as they painfully snaked around the terminal, and breezed right through Customs in about five minutes flat. And all because of that app.

Here’s how it works:

Before you leave

1. Download the free app for Android or Apple from Google Play or iTunes App store (you need wi-fi for this, so do it at home or at your hotel)

2. Enter your profile info as it appears on your passport and for everyone traveling with you. You’ll need to take photos of yourself with your phone (or you theoretically can scan your passport, although I couldn’t get this to work)

Disembarkation day

3. When you’ve docked in Port Everglades and you’re waiting to be called to leave, open the app. This is important because you can only do this within four hours of getting to Customs. Fill out the required info and submit

4. You’ll receive a barcode

5. In Port Everglades, follow the signs that say “Mobile Passport.” You’ll go to a Customs agent especially assigned, show your passport and barcode on your phone. And out the door you go!

Here’s some more info on using the app in Port Everglades.

Swim with no fear. Wherever there’s water now on the Allure, there’s a lifeguard. They’re at all the pools, the ship’s water park and by the hot tubs. A very visible presence that should reassure parents who cruise. A very good move, Royal Caribbean.

You just never know. Heading down that long hallway to our room one day, suddenly a door opens and a 30-something fellow steps out. “Do you guys drink?” he asked.

“Moderately,” I said, figuring that was a safe answer.

Apparently that was the right answer, because he thrust a bottle of champagne at us. Turns out he'd been given the champagne—and the whole cruise—by his company, a reward for being a top salesman. But he didn’t drink.

So after many expressions of gratitude, we continued to our stateroom, bottle and champagne glasses in hand, and bemused smiles on our faces.

Now I can’t say that your cruises will bring offers of champagne from strangers. But what I do know is that cruising is filled with surprises. That—and the sea—keep luring us back again and again.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why Leave the Pier?

After all, it can be so enticing to stay. Stores galore. Cheap and fun places to eat and drink. Maybe even a swimming pool.

So, it begs the question: why bother to venture beyond those figurative—and sometimes literal—guarded walls?

Because this is what you’d miss:

That’s entertainment. A few blocks from the pier in a gazebo in Falmouth, Jamaica, women swirl and twirl their colorful skirts and kick up their feet to a drum’s beat.

Downtown Falmouth brings dancing and music to venturesome visitors
Hang a right outside the terminal in Cozumel to visit a new shopping plaza and watch costumed men swinging upside down from a high pole, to the melancholy sounds of a pipe. Keep an eye out for the man wandering around with a huge snake wrapped around him like a poncho. 

What awaits wanderers from the Cozumel pier
The street scene. At ports like Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas and Roseau, Dominica, the lunch hours fill the streets with giddy groups of kids in their school uniforms. In Coxen Hole, Roatan, local workers grab grub from steaming grills fashioned out of barrels. All manner of wares is sold along the sidewalk from pickup trucks in Castries, St. Lucia—including women’s lingerie. And in any of these ports, you might see mothers straddling their babes in one arm while shielding them with an umbrella against the blazing Caribbean sun with the other.

Bougainvillea and breadfruit. The Caribbean isles are awash in flowers and fruit, and it can be fun to get to know them. Bougainvillea in pink and fuchsia is everywhere. You might spy the bright Golden Trumpet, the showy hibiscus, a red bottlebrush or two and oh, so many kinds of palms! 

There's no mistaking the Golden Trumpet all over the Caribbean
Check out the mangos hanging like Christmas ornaments off the sidewalk on the trek from Crown Bay to St. Amalie. Or the breadfruit towering above the hair salon in downtown Falmouth. Bananas clumped and climbing from a tree in Amber Cove, Dominican Republic.

Breadfruit towers above the street in  Falmouth
Then there are the fruit and veggie markets—in downtown Roseau, and the floating market in Willemstad, Curaçao, across the pontoon bridge in the old part of town. And the markets where the fruits of the sea are cleaned in the open air—destined for a plate near you. There’s a big one on the walk from the pier to Bridgetown, Barbados, where hair-netted women and hatchet-wielding men silently set about their work.

There’s a much smaller market right on the beach in George Town, Grand Cayman, a few blocks from your ship, where the array of the day’s catch is spread out on a table like souvenirs.
Can't get any fresher than this in George Town, Grand Cayman
What matters cast in bronze. History and culture come together in the statues that commemorate key events for the islands, like the conch blower of Freedom in Frederiksted, St. Croix and The Three Queens outside Blackbeard’s Castle in Charlotte Amalie. Then there’s Anne Frank on her pedestal in Oranjestad’s Wilhelmina Park, reminding us of Aruba’s Dutch heritage and of values that resonate around the world.

Shop like a local. Hit a busy side street and browse the shops the locals do—the supermarkets, clothing and hardware stores, for a feel for the real island life.

Culture, cuisine and wi-fi at the library. In Roseau, the library is just a few blocks from the pier and a window to the world of Dominica—with the added treat of free wi-fi. On a recent visit, there were posters displaying local birds and recipes of traditional Christmas foods.

Then, when you’ve drunk all this in, top off your Caribbean cultural immersion with one, two—or a bucketful—of made-right-here brewski.  

End your day by drinking like a local

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Shopping in the Western Caribbean

For some of us Caribbean cruisers, the pleasures of sand and surf are rivaled only by the lure of duty free and souvenir shopping.

For the first, you only need beach and sun. For the second, you need smarts, savvy and some common sense. 

Alas, on my 21st cruise, I managed to leave that last crop behind. Here’s my excuse: something bewitches me when I’m on vacation. My antenna comes down and my wallet comes out. And buyer’s remorse sets in long after the ship sets sail and it's the point of no return.

To help you shop the Western Caribbean and not get burned, here are a few thoughts:

Plain vanilla? Entranced by signs of cheap hecho en Mexico vanilla at the pier in Cozumel, this
should-have-known-better foodie picked up two bottles in a tourist shop, spurred on by a fellow cruiser who swore she returned to the same shop regularly for the “best vanilla” in town.

Vanilla the price of souvenir dolls--this foodie should have known better

Back at home, once the vacation was a fuzzy memory, my antenna made a reappearance. I began to wonder about the vanilla’s uber low price, the “final sale” signs everywhere and the disconcerting fact that the shopkeeper wouldn’t let us take photos after my purchase. The test was over but I was only now doing my homework. When I found what I was looking for, of course, it was too late.

Nearly all of what’s sold in Mexico—99 percent, according to one website—is in fact, not vanilla at all. It can be a mixture of too little alcohol (a lot is actually part of the real vanilla production process), too many chemicals, coloring and sweetener. And some of it—this is truly frightening—contains a toxic chemical called coumarin, which is banned in the U.S. (See this piece on where real vanilla comes from.)

Was the vanilla I bought the real thing? Only that store owner knows for sure.

Bottom line: know what you’re getting and get what you know.

A portrait of a smart shopper. Okay, I made a $12 mistake in Cozumel. But, I did do things right in Labadee. Royal Caribbean’s Haitian resort has a robust artisan market. The locals were anxious to sell and I was anxious to buy. Colorful metal wall hangings, wooden sculptures, costumed dolls, painted magnets and so on—much of it made locally and best yet, very inexpensive.

Happy haggling in Haiti

And the vendors are raring for haggling. I walked away no fewer than six times from a seller—each time I was called back with a lower price. I finally left with the price I wanted to pay and a huge beach scene painting that now hangs in my home office and engulfs me in the Caribbean's clear blue waters each time I sit at the PC.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to bargain and hold out for what you want. You'll not only come away with a treasure to remind you of your vacation, but also the satisfaction of a dollar well spent.