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Friday, March 16, 2018

Cruising’s Ten Commandments

Okay, so maybe Moses didn’t come down from the mountain with these commandments.

But I bet he’d think they were worthy for you to carry around on your tablet—whether your upcoming cruise is your 1st or 14th:

1. Your passport to your trip. Yes, you need your passport for the Caribbean. And this is not intuitive, but it’s very important: make sure it does not expire within six months of when you get back from your trip.

2. Over-tag your luggage. On our last trip, our suitcase almost ended up in Maryland—but we live in Florida. Someone grabbed our bag by mistake and took it to the airport. You can’t have too many tags with your name and cell, or bright-colored things hanging from it.

3. Muster up! It’s tempting to tune out at the muster drill. But just bring up a YouTube on the Concordia to remember why it’s not a good idea.

4. Do unto know the rest. In other words, be nice to your fellow cruisers—it’s their vacation too. Don’t leave your stuff on the pool lounger and then go to the buffet. And speaking of the buffet, if you see someone’s sweater on a chair, please don’t sit down and pretend it’s not there.

5. The early bird makes the boat. Flying in the same day is very risky. You might just miss the boat. Or you may make it—but you luggage may not.  

6. Insure a safe trip. Getting trip insurance protects the investment you made in your cruise. But not all insurance is the same—ask questions and read the fine print. Check out this posting for more.

7. Load up on motion medicine. If you get car sick, air sick or sea sick, bringing stuff with you is the surest way not to need it. And bring whatever else you think you could need—and hope you don’t.

8. Pack right (or is it pack left?) and carry on! Your carry-on should not be an afterthought. One of our cruises was a nail-bitter—our luggage did eventually show up—after dinner.

9. Know your time wisely. When you go ashore, know if there’s a difference between ship time and port time. Or you’ll be chasing the ship on your own dime.

10. Stay sanitized. Wash hands often to avoid getting sick or making the rest of us sick. Consider carrying hand wipes or little sanitizing sprays to use after reaching for the ladle or salt shaker. And that TV remote? Elevator button? Banister and railing? They, too, can be germy.

Have a Commandment #11? Drop us a line.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Peak Experiences from Sea Level

Every vacation has its peak experiences—those I-will-always-remember moments. But it seems like cruising has more than most.

In a nostalgic mood, I thought about some of my own from the past year:

Exuberance and song. “Mamma Mia” on Allure of the Seas was nothing short of spectacular. How many shows have you seen where the audience jumps out of their seats in joyous appreciation? The wonderful ABBA music, the fabulous Broadway-quality voices and being on vacation converge for a knock-your-socks-off experience. I haven’t been able to get the songs out of my head ever since.

Savory and sweet on Central Park. On both Allure and Harmony of the Seas, the 150 Central Park specialty restaurants both delivered melt-on-the-tongue short ribs, smooth and silky squash soup with pumpkin seeds and an amazing sweet and salty chocolate tart. It once again confirmed that the specialty restaurants are worth the extra cost.

Nature reigned. The December super moon framed by the clouds over the lights of Harmony's Central Park, and the streaks of gold, rust and plum over the high rises of Ft. Lauderdale were vivid reminders that there’s no better way to see the drama of the skies than from the balcony of a cruise ship.

Techie treats. I was skeptical at first, but after watching the robo bartenders on Harmony, I had to admit, well, they’re kinda cute. Especially when they wiggle their upside-down containers to try and get the last drops of adult beverage into your cup. I can’t wait to see what Royal Caribbean comes up with next. Robo room stewards? Bionic baristas? Whizzy wait staff?  

Lapping it up in Labadee. Once again, it was a toss-up on what was the peak-er experience—bargaining for and buying the beach scene paintings that now grace my home office walls or floating on my back in Haiti’s crystal clear calm waters.

Then there was the day the sea was so still…the burst of cool from the gin and tonic in 
Central Park…discovering we could bring our free Diamond Club wine into the restaurant to drink with dinner…napping on the balcony on Harmony in the reclining chair

These were my peak cruising moments last year. What were yours?

Photos by RJGreenburg

Saturday, February 17, 2018

You’re Hungry. It’s Late. Where You Gonna Go?

It’s midnight—a whole three, four, five or more hours since you’ve last eaten. You’re itching to nosh again. So, where you gonna go?

One thing the ships know is food and you can count on them to keep you fed, no matter when you want to consume. Here’s a sample of what’s around way after the sun’s gone down*:

International Café. You can’t beat the International Café in the piazza, the hub of the Princess ships. It’s all it’s rumored to be—good variety, good quality, always open and ready to serve you. There are great sandwiches, quiches, salads and desserts. And did I mention, they’re all free?

The sandwiches are always changing in the International Cafe
Horizon Court. I’m adding Princess’ buffet to the list because it stays open long after the ones on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival close. Horizon Court serves full dinner up to 11 p.m. Which means you can eat in the main dining room at 6 and have a second dinner in Horizon Court at 10. Or a cookie or two.
A Regal spread

Room service: You can get free ‘round the clock chow delivered to your door, but note there’s a fee for some menu items.

Royal Caribbean
Promenade Café. Royal Caribbean’s café in the Promenade neighborhood is the place to go for free sandwiches and sweets when the restaurants have shuttered. The quality isn’t as good as the International Café, but what it loses in cuisine it gains in entertainment. Sit at a “sidewalk” table in the front and watch the cruise crowd go by. And it’s open 24/7.
Some of the free offerings at the Promenade Cafe 
Pizza for your pleasure.  Also along the Promenade is Sorrento’s, where you can get pizza by the slice—cheese, pepperoni, the style of the day or one custom made. That beer, though, will cost you extra. It’s open until 3 a.m., so you can grab a slice—and then breakfast just three and a half hours later at Windjammer.

Pizza and people watching on the Allure of the Seas

Room service:  There’s a service charge of $7.95 (and 18 percent tip) for any room service other than continental breakfast. RCI has upgraded their menu selections and it now includes items like hamburger, Philly cheesesteak and salmon. Available 24 hours.

The only free choice on Celebrity after the dinner hours is the Oceanview buffet, which has pizza, pasta and salad until midnight, and Café al Bacio with pastries and cookies, also to midnight.

Room service: Late night munchies off the menu will cost you a $4.95 fee. Any other time, it’s free.

Pizza, pizza, who wants pizza? You can always be sure to find pizza on a Carni ship, as both Pizzeria Del Capitano and Pizza Pirate do them all day and night. You can finish off your off-hours meal with soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt on Lido deck, which runs as long as you do.

Room service: Room service from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. will cost on Carnival, with prices for menu items ranging from $2 to $6. Choices include grilled cheese, turkey wrap and brownies.

Musing’s Top Tip: Don’t like any of the late night options? Take back nibbles from the buffet and you can have just what you want, when you want it. The crew doesn’t mind—they even give you a frig to make it easier.

* Restaurants and hours vary by ship; verify with your onboard newsletter.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

How Could a Cruiser Get in the Mood for Love?

The “holiday with the hearts,” as someone I know called it, is upon us with full force. It’s made me wonder, how could a cruiser get in the mood for love? Or, how could a lover get in the mood for a cruise?

I did have a few ideas of how cruise lovers could embrace their passion—onboard and on shore:

A romantic meal by the sea. If you’re between cruises, you could book a dinner in a room with a view—by the ocean, lake or river. (Or if you live in Florida, you can eat at your own table and stare out at the pool.)

Something nautical for her neck. Show her (or him) your love—and love of cruising—with nautical bling. Put an anchor around her neck or pin her to a palm.

Snorkel and stay dry. Miss being up close and personal with the fish? Visit your local aquarium.

See Sea World. A trip to Florida won’t cost you as much as a cruise. And you can see Sea World while you’re there. You can even check out the beaches. The water won’t be blue, but you can pretend.

Buy her a book on cruising. If you still have something to learn, you’ve got a bunch of choices—from traditional travel tones of Frommer’s and Fodor’s to funky ones like The Essential Little Cruise Book with a quantity of quick tips on the ship experience.

Book a cruise on the Love Boat. Sorry, the Pacific Princess has been put out to pasture. But Princess has a gleaming newer fleet to choose from. They’ll even fog horn the TV show theme song for you.

Miss the show? You don’t have to try hard to find the reruns. You’ll enjoy comparing the TV cruise ship experience with the real one.

Wonder what they’re doing now? Check out this video on the “crew” as they reunite for the show’s 40th anniversary.

Playing games. Throw a cruise-themed party with your own takeoff of the “Newlywed Game.” But remember that you will see these people again.

Need more ideas? See my sidebar posting “Romance on the High Seas.”

Don’t like these ideas? Have a heart. Happy V-day!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Against the Tide: The Case for Off-season Cruising

Years ago, while on a Celebrity Constellation cruise, we decided to visit the sales office to book the next one. As our appointment neared, I got a brilliant idea. Why not cruise the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and leverage my days off from work?

Then we met with the sales agent. Just so you know, he said, there’ll be about 500 children that week. Wow.

If you’re traveling with kids, this most likely wouldn’t be an issue. But if you’re not, you’d probably prefer to avoid this scenario.

So, after the sales guy burst my balloon, we began to discover the benefits of off-season Caribbean cruising.

What’s defined as “off-season”? The “in-season” is typically the winter months—December through March—when folks want to get away from the cold.

There are also other times, though, that can mirror the in-season, such as school vacations.

Thanks to the popularity of Caribbean cruising, you can now find trips year round and if you time it right, get just the experience that’s right for you.

Benefits of being a bit off
If you’re able to be flexible in when and where you go, you can:

Save moola. The difference between one month and the next—or even one week or the next—can mean a huge difference in cost. For example, booking a trip in the week between Christmas and New Year’s can be $1,000 per person more than that same trip another time of the year. Watch for cruise line promotions, which offer lower rates for harder-to-fill dates.

Get your pick of the litter. If you pick a downtime of year, you can be choosy when choosing your cabin. Want a bump-out balcony? The big one at the stern? The closest room to the elevator? You’re more likely to get it. Note that even off-season and off-weeks can sell out, so the earlier you book, the better your chances.

Snag an upgrade. The cruise lines get more generous when the ship’s not filled. We recently booked a balcony room on Princess for April and were upgraded to a mini-suite—for free.
You may just get an upgrade to a mini-suite for free on Princess
When to avoid
Hurricane season! This past year showed us in neon lights the risk of booking a cruise from June 1 through Nov. 30. It may be cheaper, but is the risk really worth it?

When school’s out. This is when a lot of parents need to cruise, so the rates tend to be higher. The tough part is figuring out when school is out, because spring and winter breaks vary. We’ve found, as a general rule of thumb, when you price compare trips, the cheaper the cruise, the less likely it will be school vacation time.

You might want to be conscious of college breaks too, as there are occasionally complaints on the boards from cruisers who had to contend with unruly college kids.

When to go
So, when’s the best time to cruise? Well, whenever you can, of course. But if you’re flexible, we’ve found these to be great times in general for more room choices and better prices: late November, the first half of December, April (not during Easter week) and May.

But whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall, here’s the best part of all: you’re on a vacation and the vacation is on a cruise.

Musing’s Top Tip: Got a minute? Check out the new video series, “Musing’s In One Minute,” the best in Caribbean cruising in just 60-ish seconds. The first in the series features “Royal Caribbean’s Sea Day Secret.” Watch it here:

Friday, January 12, 2018

Modern Music: A Review of Harmony of the Seas

This is a ship that’s uber up to date—from the tablets stem to stern to the robotic bartenders who shook and served to the WOWbands that ordered drinks to the sea cards that turned on lights. I expected Scotty to beam me from one deck to another.

The robots taking a rest in between drinks

Yet many of the familiar Oasis class ship features are reassuringly still there—the quaint Boardwalk carousel, the serenity of Central Park at night, the “sidewalk café” on the Promenade.

Here, in brief, is my take on what Harmony brought us that’s new, and what it’s kept to ensure it pleases us all:

Better balcony with a “but”
The layout of our balcony stateroom facing the ocean was much improved over its sister ships. The his-and-her closets, set far apart from each other, were a great innovation—no more bobbing and weaving around each other to get dressed.

There’s also much more storage space, with several deep drawers under one closet, and ample shelf space in the other.

The porch furniture was also way better—reclining chairs! Hassocks! At last, naps outside! Thank you, Royal Caribbean!

Reclining chairs and footstools on the balcony--who could ask for anything more?

Here comes the “but”: if you use a night table, forget about it. Harmony has the smallest I’ve ever seen. Anywhere. It’s about a foot wide. And mine was totally consumed by the cabin phone until I shoved it under the bed.

MDR efficiency plus
We had the best My Time Dining experience on any of our 20+ cruises. We ate dinner in the main dining room only on the two formal nights—without reservations—and breezed right in, to a table for two, per our request. On every other ship, these nights meant a 15-20 minute wait for seats—at the least.

The pacing of dinner was the same pleasant surprise—we were out of there in under an hour and a half. It wasn’t only efficient, but our wait staff were friendly and eager to please. On the second formal night, our waitress was distressed when she proactively brought a second helping of lobster tail and I turned it down. Meanwhile, her assistant waiter kept entertaining us with magic tricks.

Whatever the Harmony is doing at dinner, it’s working. The dining experience was memorable (even if the food, alas, was not).

We also did the sea day lunch in the main dining room, where we were excited to see a dessert bar, complete with chocolate fountain. Oh yes, there was the large “Tutti” salad bar, large hot food buffet and superb selection of rolls.

Do a lunch in the MDR on a sea day for a sea of surprises.
The hip ship appeals to all   
It pains me to say this, but for us, the featured aqua show, “The Fine Line,” was a disappointment—a lot of pounding music, flashing lights and water spray— theatrics with just a sprinkling of what we like best—diving, water ballet and acrobatics.
Be prepared for loud music, lights and spray--oh, and some diving and acrobatics at the featured show
In fact, we much preferred the add-on afternoon show, “Hideaway Heist” on Day 7, which was much more upbeat and playful, chockful of those aqua events we came for.
Good clean fun in the afternoon show--with plenty of diving, water ballet and more
While hip seemed the primary order of the day, there was still plenty to appeal to everyone. “Grease” was high-spirited fun (note: there are some minor plot differences from the movie) and the ice show was as good as any other Oasis ship, with the usual crowd-pleasing lifts, spins and swirls, and colorful, constantly changing costumes.

Love on ice at the "1887: A Journey in Time"
Night music was all over the map—from the cool jazz in Jazz on 4 to classical guitar under the Central Park lights to the ’90s dance party in the Promenade to the older oldies in Dazzles. And Boleros still served up the salsa.
The December "supermoon" over the lights of Central Park
Tech touches everything
The techie touches were everywhere. Tablets all over the ship offered the chance to check what’s on your calendar or account status, or find out what’s going on at any given moment (no wi-fi cost). You can access it all through your smartphone, too, by downloading the Royal IQ app from Google Play or Apple App Store.
Keep tabs on your tab or plan your day with tablets all over the ship
Sea cards turned on the cabin lights, those who paid a bit extra for a WOWband could use their wrist to pay for drinks or gifts, and some elevator lobbies had experimental screens displaying floor name options instead of up and down buttons. Even Guest Relations was unrecognizable—gone was the opaque barrier between guest and rep. In its place were monitors on a table, so you could watch your rep rebalance from one tired leg to another.

Tap, chill, shake and pour
But the biggest whiz-bang by far were the two robotic bartenders. Clearly recognizing the draw, cushy seats were stationed in front of the gleaming stars in a prominent position on the Promenade. Guests ordered drinks from a tablet, which displayed a menu, complete with drink ingredients, cost (sample price: $14.95) and guest ratings. The orders went into a queue and then the real fun began.

The robotic arm loaded a cup with ice, sucked alcohol from bottles hanging from the ceiling, shook and poured, with each step displayed on a big screen for all to see.

Royal Caribbean does it again
With or without the-future-is-here doodads, the Harmony delivers what RCI is so very good at—a great vacation for everyone. Whether your fancy is climbing the walls, gliding across the ice, hitting the (mini) links, perusing the shops, downing a pint at the pub, surfing the faux waves or staring at the real ones, you’ll find it all and more on this grand new ship.

Musing’s Top Tip: If you have a drink package that covers cocktails, it will also cover the concoctions created by the robotic “bionic” bar. See this link for more info.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Shore Leave: The Conclusion

Once on the street, Nigel raised his arm to flag a taxi, but after a few seconds, brought it back down. “Traffic’s too heavy,” he said. “Would take us forever. Can you run?”

They bolted down one street after another, maneuvering around locals laden with groceries and workers strolling their way home. At one point, the sidewalk narrowed and the cars came so close that Holly could feel their steamy exhaust.

“We will make it, won’t we?” she yelled to Nigel, who was a few feet ahead of her. The trucks drowned out his answer.

Though the sun was going down, the thick air was a sauna, weighing on the couple’s energy.

As they neared a cross street, they were forced to stop to let cars pass. Red-faced, breathing hard and light-headed, Holly wondered if she’d be able to keep up the pace.

“You okay?” Nigel said, as he tugged at the front of his sweat-stained shirt. Drops of moisture trickled down the side of his face.

Holly nodded and managed to say, “What time is—?”

Nigel looked at his watch. “6. Our only hope now is if they’re holding the ship.”

The couple was now running side by side, but as they shifted to avoid a rusty overturned child’s bike, Holly’s sandal caught the edge of the handlebar, and she tripped and landed on her knees. This time, she couldn’t stop the tears.

“Holly, Holly, don’t…we’re almost there.”

She looked up at him from the ground and pushed her matted hair from her mascara-streaked face with the back of her hand.

Nigel reached out to help her up. “Come,” he said firmly.

The couple continued their run, past mango trees, hibiscus and coconut palms, toward their jobs, their friends and their ocean home. As they got closer, Holly said, panting, “We…we should be seeing it any minute now.”

“I know. The smokestacks.”

When they got to the yacht club, Nigel suddenly stretched out his arm in front of Holly to motion her to stop. “It’s not there,” he said flatly.

Holly stared at the spot where the Neptune had been. The pier was empty. She coughed a few times, slowly walked to the grass under a tree and sat down. She pulled off her sandals and rubbed her feet.

Nigel sat down next to her, stretching his legs out in front of him.

Neither said anything and the only sound was Holly’s wheezing and occasional cough. A foot-long scaly green iguana crept closer, but the couple didn’t notice.

“What do you want to do?” Holly said at last. “Find our way to San Juan?”

Nigel was silent. He stared at the sea and squinted, as if looking there for the answer.

When he finally spoke, his voice took on the softness he had used in bed. “We could always stay here and have a honeymoon.”

Holly looked up at him quizzically, unsure she heard him right.

“Yes, yes, that makes sense,” he said, more to himself than to his companion, as he nodded slightly. “Then we can fly back to London…Remember I told you my uncle offered me a job in his company when I came back…”

Holly pushed back all thoughts of the family issues that would inevitably lie ahead to get caught up in Nigel’s growing excitement.

 “Looks like I missed the ship, but I didn’t miss the boat,” Holly said with a small smile, gently falling back against Nigel’s warm, damp body.

A port guard, just coming back from his break, was taken aback to see the strange tourist couple sitting alone on the ground at the darkening deserted pier, on an island that was all their own. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Shore Leave: Two Crew, One Ship and a Race Against Time

In the spirit of the holidays, this posting is something a bit different. What follows is pure fiction. Hope you enjoy it.

Holly was determined to go. No matter what her mother said. Yet, she still dreaded The Conversation. She planned the timing carefully and as her mother darted her eyes from her cookbook to the stove, Holly began, “Ma, I got a job on a cruise ship.”

The rest came out in a breathless rush of rationale. She was picked from 200 applicants to run the children’s program on the Neptune, a new ship sailing the Caribbean…it would bring in some money…look good on her resume…get her out of the Boston winter…

Then she paused ever so briefly—so it wouldn’t look rehearsed—and jumped back in with her strongest argument. “Besides, the school laid me off ‘cause it was broke. The whole district’s got problems, so who’s going to give me another teaching job?”

What she didn’t tell her mother is that working on a ship wouldn’t hurt her social life, either. And right now, at 32 years old, spending her days in her fraying PJs, robotically combing the job boards, her social life could hardly be worse.

There were, of course, objections to counter. And Holly tried, “Family members get a discount.”

Her mother shrugged, but then changed the subject. Holly was so relieved that she didn’t hear another word her mother said for half an hour.

Once onboard the Neptune, Holly knew she made the right decision. Though she worked long hours and never seemed to get enough sleep, she still liked the work better than teaching.

To her, the ship was a pumping, pulsating organ, shooting adrenalin from the crew’s I-95 at the bottom of the ship to the gleaming guest disco at the top. She awoke each morning with new excitement that still anything was possible.

 And her social life improved. After a few weeks on the ship, she began seeing one of the junior officers, Nigel Woods, a quiet and steady Brit. Like so many others cultivated in the petri dish that was the Neptune, theirs was an improbable romance. His family was listed in Burke’s Peerage. Hers came to the U.S. in steerage. He was Church of England. She was Temple of Sinai.

It didn’t matter that Nigel wasn’t religious. Holly’s mother, the daughter of a cantor, would never speak to her again if she knew.

Yet the couple continued to squeeze bits of time out of their hectic days to meet. But as they both had roommates, they had little chance to be alone. 

At last, the couple was able to get an afternoon off together while the ship was docked in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. To celebrate, Nigel suggested splurging for a room in one of the nicer hotels in town. Holly couldn’t wait.

When the day finally came, she traded her regulation khakis and navy blue top for a red and orange flowing skirt and peasant top, and pulled up her thick brown hair in a ponytail. She met Nigel at the gangway with a light step and big smile, and they took their place on line with guests waiting to get off the ship.

“Remember, crew are due back onboard at 5 p.m.—an hour before sailing and half hour before the guests,” said the security guard sternly, as he checked the couple’s ID cards. Then he met Holly’s eyes, winked and whispered, “Have fun.”

Though she’d never been to St. Thomas, Holly was content to go straight from the ship to the hotel. Now standing at the front desk next to Nigel as he checked them in, she dreamily felt like a wife. She could hardly remember the long, hot walk from the Crown Bay pier. It felt like she had floated there.

In case they fell asleep, Nigel asked the young desk clerk to call them at 3:30 p.m. and they made their way to their room. They ordered food and wine but after a few bites and sips, abandoned their spread to instead savor each other’s company.

Nigel was the first to fall asleep. He lay on his back, breathing softly. Holly smiled tenderly at his unlined face—he looked as if he had not a care in the world. So different than onboard the Neptune, when his face often showed what he didn’t express.

Soon Holly followed Nigel into sleep. It was a heavy, deep, dreamless sleep, unlike any she had since leaving home. And when she finally awoke, she was at first confused, and then the memory of the last few hours came streaming back. She looked over to Nigel, who was now on his stomach. With blond hair and fair skin, tall and lean, Nigel was her Adonis, she thought as she watched him. And what a nice, kind man he was. If her mother would only give him a chance.

When she at last looked away, she noticed the sunlight that had pierced through the blinds and illuminated the room when they first arrived was now gone. In a panic, she reached for her watch from the nightstand and brought it up to her face.

She made a small gasp. “Nigel, Nigel, get up!” Holly said, as she shook his shoulder. “The clerk never called. The ship’s leaving in 20 minutes!”

“Huh?” said Nigel, blinking a few times.

Holly had already jumped out of bed, and was climbing into her skirt. “It’s 5:40—we were supposed to be back more than a half hour ago. Now we may miss it completely! Nigel, hurry!”

Now fully awake, Nigel bolted out of bed and darted around the room like a frightened rabbit, grabbing his strewn clothing.

As the two frantically dressed, a mile and a half away, back on the Neptune, the PA system boomed again and again, “Crew members Holly Baum and Nigel Woods, please call 233.”

Nigel put on his running shoes and looked at his watch. “It’s going to be close, Holly. Are you ready?”

Once out of the building, the couple ran through the parking lot and onto the street. Nigel stopped abruptly, and thrust his hand into the pocket of his shorts.

“What?” Holly said.

“My wallet. I must have left it in the room.”

Without a word, the couple ran back to the hotel. Nigel got the key from the desk clerk while Holly stayed in the lobby. Left alone, her anxiety grew. What if they missed the ship? Even if they could catch up with it at the next port, they would be immediately dismissed. How could she face her mother? She fought back the tears as she saw Nigel approaching. He jerked his head toward the door without pausing and with his long stride, Holly had to run to catch up with him.

Check back next Friday for the conclusion of “Shore Leave.”