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Friday, May 26, 2017

Three’s Still a Charm: New Review of Allure of the Seas

It’s a compliment to Allure of the Seas that after our third trip on this massive and fascinating ship, we complained that we didn’t get to everything we planned.

We didn’t ride the carousel (yeah, even us overgrown kids still like riding up and down). We didn’t play miniature golf. And we only had the Tutti salad bar twice for lunch in the main dining room.

But we did a whole lot of stuff and like our other Allure cruises, had a whole lot of fun.

So, what did we do to make the third trip as good as the first? For one, we did the specialty dining package for the first time. That upped the food experience big time. It actually made the dining exciting, as we played the “Where should we eat today” game.

Then there was the show. And oh, what a show it was! Mamma Mia blew us away. Of the three shows we’d seen on Oasis class ships (others were Cats and Chicago), this one was far and away the best. The quality of the voices, the energy and exuberance of the production brought the whole audience to their feet, and made for a truly memorable experience that I didn’t think a show could ever do.

Which proves, once again, that no cruise line puts on a show like Royal Caribbean. And even though we’d seen the dives, flips, twirls and whirls of the aqua and ice shows before, we still couldn’t get enough of them.

Perhaps we didn’t go to some of the other events we had in the past, like the ‘70s dance party or marriage game show. But instead, took time to enjoy wine in the Trellis Bar in Central Park and take pictures of the pretty little yellow-and-black bird who mistook the ship’s neighborhood for a garden in Cozumel.

A cafe in Manhattan? No, in the Allure's Central Park
We also explored new areas for us, like the serene Solarium, which by day is a favorite of Kindle readers and hot tub bathers but by night literally sizzles as a Brazilian steakhouse.

The Solarium is an "oasis" on Allure of the Seas
Another first for us on this voyage was investing in the ship’s Voom wi-fi. The package rate for a seven-day cruise ($12.99/per day, per device) is cheaper than the day rate (19.99/per day, per device). And the streaming version (package rate of $17.99/per day, per device; day rate of $27.99/per day, per device) is faster than the basic one. But either is fine if your goal is just to keep your e-mailbox from spilling over.

So, while we didn’t ride the horses or hit the links—or even stare at the ocean as much as I’d like—we still managed to make it, once again, our “wow” kind of vacation.

Musing’s Top Tip: See the movie version of Mamma Mia before you go. It will help you with the story line and get familiar with the music, so you’ll enjoy the ship’s production even more. And once you see it, I guarantee you’ll be singing the songs all cruise long. See a trailer of the worldwide production of the musical on the official site’s YouTube channel.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Menu Driven: Doing the Specialty Dining Package on Allure of the Seas

After 20 Caribbean cruises, including three on Oasis class, we felt we’d done it all—and eaten it all.

So on our recent Allure of the Seas trip, we set out to find something new to do, driven by our longing for appealing food. The answer came in a package—a specialty dining package.
Why go specialty? For desserts like this from 150 Central Park

You might ask:

Why go specialty at all? In short, the food’s better than the main dining room (MDR). Way better. So is the service. And the ambience.

Is it right for me? Specialty dining is especially great for:
  •          Veteran cruisers hungry to spice up their next trip
  •          Foodies in search of better quality
  •          Romantics looking for more intimate dining
  •          Celebrants who want to commemorate an event

Why package it up? If you dine out one time, you pay top dollar. Chops Grille is now $49 a person. A dining package brings the price per meal down a lot. On Oasis class, you can get a three-, four- or five-night package. We did the five night at $115 a person, which brought the per meal price to $23.

How the package works:

Signing up
You can do it with your travel agent, or with Royal Caribbean on the phone or online before you leave or once you’re on the ship. Note: You’ll set a time for each meal, but you’re not locked in to it.

Plan your shows first. The cruise line won’t let you select a dining time that’s within two hours of your show. (Fyi, several of our meals went a full two hours.)

Chops Grille for steak on the Allure's Central Park
Making your dining choices
Once onboard, it’s like on land. There's actually quite a lot of flexibility. You choose where you want to eat on what day, in any of the restaurants and as many times as you want. You can even change the time if they have openings. (We were able to get just about any time, any place on any day.)  

You can make reservations on the same day you’re dining or in advance. They can be made at any restaurant in person, by phone or your stateroom TV. Note: One of your meals must be on night 1 or 2 of the trip.

A little bit of Italy at Giovanni's Table

There's even some flexibility with the menu. At Chops, diners next to us loaded up on multiple appetizers. At 150 Central Park, though there was no ice cream on the menu, the waiter brought us some from Chops.

Few more tidbits
  •          Tips – They’re included in your overall trip gratuities
  •          Drinks – What cost extra in the MDR cost extra in the restaurant
  •          Dress – “Smart casual” (although diners tend to get more dressed up)

What’s the food really like?
Note first that taste is a subjective thing, and that quality can vary by who’s doing the cooking and by what you choose. That being said, here was my experience:

Chops Grille – The onion soup was very good. The 9 oz. filet mignon was cooked just right, and we were offered a choice of three flavorful sauces, as well as a number of potato and veggie side dish options. The “liquid center chocolate cake” was a small satisfying delicate cake, sort of like a sponge cake, but with deep chocolate flavor, and a mellow chocolate sauce poured over it with a scoop of ice cream and caramelized bananas on the side.
 
The filet mignon was hearty and tasty at Chops Grille
Giovanni’s Table – The osso buco was wonderful with a great taste and fork-tender. The filet mignon rivaled the one at Chops, and the meaty lasagna was also quite good. Desserts are typical Italian restaurant fare—tiramisu, cannelloni—as well as a few others. (If you’re a chocoholic, you’ll need to get dessert somewhere else.)
 
150 Central Park: intimate, romantic with stellar service too
150 Central Park – The food is continental-meets-nouvelle cuisine, but more continental than nouvelle. The squash soup was so velvety and sweet that I wanted to lick the bowl. The lobster gnocchi and short rib were also great, but the pièce de résistance was the chocolate bourbon tart. The fudgy inside was topped with spiced pecans, cranberry chutney and whipped cream, creating a bittersweet/sweet/spicy explosion of flavors. The place was also library-quiet and uber romantic, with its plush high back chairs and couches.
 
Smooth as silk, sweet as squash at 150 Central Park
Other specialty restaurants on Allure: Samba Grill (Brazilian steak house) Izumi (hibachi and sushi) and Sabor (Mexican).

The bottom line
If you want an overall better dining experience at the cost of—say, one excursion—consider a specialty dining package. It “beefed” up our cruise and will most likely do the same for you.

Musing’s Top Tips: On the stateroom TV, you can find specialty restaurant menus, seat availability, and a schedule of your reservations and shows. If you want to see sample menus before your trip, you can find them on Royal Caribbean's website.

Here’s another: For more easy planning and keeping track of your busy schedule, before leaving home, make a chart with separate columns for the shows, and where you’re dining and when. Also factor in the days in port and the hours you'll be there.

Note: All restaurant menus and prices are subject to change.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Romance on the High Seas

Romance with chocolate: the Love Boat Dream
Dessert on the Regal Princess
It’s no wonder the infamous TV show was called The Love Boat. Cruising and romance go together like, well, love and marriage.

In fact, more than 85 percent of cruisers take along their significant other.*

There’s something about cruising that brings out the romantic in us. Maybe it’s the way the sea shimmers in the moonlight. Or the unbroken horizon suggests anything is possible. Or maybe it’s just that we’re on vacation.

Whatever the reason, the cruise lines want to help you along when you’re in the mood for love. Here’s just a sampling of what you can do with your one-and-only:

Tie the knot or announce you’re glad you did. Royal Caribbean, Princess and Carnival all have packages for doing weddings onboard. Princess also has some for engagements, honeymoons, vow renewals and anniversaries. Carnival will even help you get married on the beach.
 
Bliss and blue skies on the Regal Princess' SeaWalk
Two for dinner. When you sign up for your cruise, you can ask for a table for two in the main dining room and can usually get one. There’s a limited number of them, though, and while most are okay, you can get one in a weird spot. If this happens, you can always ask for a change.

Dine al fresco. Do a leisurely breakfast, pre-dinner cocktail or quiet dinner for two with room service and a view.

Or make it extra special. The specialty restaurants will cost you more, but you get better service and better food than the main dining room. Some of the settings are more fitting for flirting too. Like the plush high back chairs of Oasis of the Seas’ Central Park 150 or the dark moody lighting in the Regal Princess’ Crown Grill.
 
Making it special at Sabatini's on the Regal Princess
Be formal. Formal nights were made for romance—with both of you in your best digs, find your ship photographer of choice and pose for posterity.

Room for wine and roses. From Royal Caribbean’s room décor packages to Carnival’s goodie baskets to Princess’ Norman Love’s chocolate gifts to Norwegian’s flower deliveries, you’ve got a number of choices for building a stateroom love nest.

Massage à deux. For the ultimate in peer pampering, consider a couples massage in Royal Caribbean’s Vitality Spa. In Princess’ Sanctuary, you can be massaged side-by-side each other and the sea in your own onboard cabana.

Kiss on camera. On the Regal Princess’ disco night, you might get your romance up on the big screen. Cameras scan the crowd and if lands on you, your fellow cruisers will egg you on to indulge the Love Boat Kiss Cam and see your smooch on the more than 300-square-foot poolside screen.

Together, alone at the ports. Take a carriage ride in San Juan, a floating raft for two in Carnival’s Mahogany Bay or Amber Cove, or spring for seclusion in a cabana by the sea in Royal Caribbean’s Labadee.
Find some seclusion by the sea in a cabana for two at Amber Cove

A final thought (or warning). Whether you find yourself stoking the fires of your passion on a raft, at a table or in the spa, no matter how tempting, just say “no” to being on the marriage game show—if you still want to be in love on the morning after.

Note: Facilities and amenities vary by ship.
* Cruise Lines International Association website, www.cruising.org


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cruising on $10 a Day

Well, now that I’ve gotten your attention, I’ll own up. This posting is not about how you can cruise for $10 a day. Sorry, that will run you somewhat more.

What it is about is what you can still get for $10—more or less—once you get onboard.

Though we spend thousands to climb that plank to paradise, we still count our pennies, do we not?

So, take comfort in knowing there are still some things that $10 will buy:

Malt shop on the sea. For $6.95 at Johnny Rockets, which is on 13 or so of Royal Caribbean’s ships, you can get burgers, shakes and fries, as well as the oh-so-lovely nostalgic experience of peeling your thighs off vinyl seats.

Some nostalgia with your fries on Oasis of the Seas
Bottoms up. Thankfully, drinks on a ship are still under that magic number. But they are getting awfully close. They ran, on average, about $8.95 for a tropical drink recently on the Regal Princess. The drink of the day will run you less, and so will beer.

That’s a novelty. The gift shop has goodies galore. Mind you, not much can be had for $10 or less, but you can still pick up magnets, a deck of cards or a tee shirt. If you’re really lucky, while you’re on your Caribbean cruise, you might even get something on Alaska, since the ships love to tempt you with low prices on stuff from places you haven’t been.


The bargain bazaar. Otherwise known as the $10 Sale. There’s at least one a cruise and sometimes more. You’ll get what you pay for, but it’s fun just the same. Hats and wraps, watches and chains, piles of stuff for picking through. But be prepared for a crunch of cruisers. Look for the sale in the ship newsletter or ask the shop sales folks.
 
Piles for the picking on the Regal Princess
Sidewalk sales. Just about every day, one of the ship’s shops has something or other out there where you see. And it comes with a big sale sign.  We’ve actually picked up simple glass figures for about $10, which made for inexpensive souvenirs. Mostly, these sales are promoted in the ship’s newsletter, but sometimes you just stumble on them.

Bets on the house. You can quickly blow $10 (alas, as well as substantially more) in the casino, but there’s always that chance…

Ways to blow $10 on the Regal Princess
It may only take just one. Speaking of gambling, you can usually get a single Bingo card for $10. But if you want to improve your chances, you’ll need to shell out more.

Going through Downton Abbey withdrawal? Bring back the memories with the Royal Afternoon Tea on the Royal or Regal Princess, where $10 will get you tea, nibbles and prime viewing for all the action in the piazza. Just don’t forget to sip, not slurp, if you want to impress Lady Mary.
 
Tea in Regal style
Scoop it up. If you’d rather spend your dough on sweets, you’ve got lots of choices. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s on most Royal Caribbean ships, where scoops range from about $2.50 to $4. Then there are the gelato cafes, like the one on the Regal Princess, at about $2.75 for three scoops.
 
Gelato on the Constellation
Wash, pay and wear. Spilled red wine on your jacket? The chocolate cake missed your mouth and ended up in your lap? Celebrity will wipe it clean it for you. To laundry a jacket, it will cost $8 and for pants, $7. Dry cleaning will run you a few bucks more.

Bedside manner. Royal Caribbean’s room service continental breakfast is free, but getting something more substantial will cost you $7.95. Carnival’s room service is free, but there’s a charge for its expanded in-room options. Celebrity’s service is free, but food between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. comes with a $4.95 fee. 

So what will Alexander Hamilton get you? From tee shirts to tea cups, burgers to beers and cones to cleaning—in short, more than you might think. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Making the Next Time Feel Like the First Time

There’s just nothing like the first time. That thrill, that excitement, that joy at discovering something new.

You may have felt it during your first cruise; I know I did. But I also know there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy your second cruise as much as your first. Or your 5th as much as your 15th.

The secret? Doing something really different the next time around. Here are just a few ideas for rekindling that first-time feeling:

Try another line. While one line can feel much like another (after all, there’s a view of the sea and they feed you), there really are differences. You can ride a carousel on Royal Caribbean. Watch a movie under the stars and a blanket on Princess. Cook along with the chefs on Holland America.
Recapturing childhood joy on the Oasis
Jump ship. Going from small to big or the other way around can change things up if you’re married to one line. While Royal’s Navigator of the Seas at 139,500 tons is no row boat, Oasis of the Seas at 225,200 is a whole other class by itself.

Room for a change. Always get an inside room? Spring for a balcony. Pick off-season (e.g., not January-March) and a less popular itinerary (e.g., Western Caribbean), and you can get one at a great price. We’ve picked some trips on Princess just so we could afford a mini-suite.

Venture out. After many Caribbean cruises, we got out of our comfort zone (and our shorts) and took one to Alaska for an experience unlike any other. Or, look for Caribbean itineraries that go off the beaten path. We took one of Celebrity Constellation’s rare trips to St. Barts and got a sneak peek of the famous French chic, amazingly hilly, yacht-choked island. See the posting “Off Course and Worth It.
 
Tough to find parking for your car--or your yacht--in St. Barts
Don’t or do an excursion. Always sign up for one? Wander around town next time. Always roam the port? Parasail, tour the island or cook up a Caribbean lunch for a change.

Dine differently. After years of set seating, we finally tried my-time style. And never turned back. On an upcoming cruise, we’re doing a five-night specialty package for the first time. Stay tuned for how that goes.

Drink it up. Whether you’re a big drinker or not, will get your money’s worth or not, you should try a drink package at least once. It was a throw-in on our recent Princess trip, and it was a blast trying some new drink each day, getting cappuccinos when we felt like it and ending the night with liqueur—and all without a thought about cost. Or who was going to get us home.


Experience this. You might try some shipboard activity you’ve never done—from climbing the walls on Royal, doing the pricey but unique Captain’s Dinner or grabbing the mike at karaoke. It will probably be the one thing you remember most about your cruise.

Take a camera. I don’t mean a smartphone; I mean a real camera. One that lets you get in close from really far away. Shoot the jugglers in low light. Take in the lights around the pool at night. With a camera, you can be creative. And there’s so much to capture inside and outside the ship. It’s particularly great for those lazy days at sea. See “Unleashing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy” for ideas and photos.
 
We needed a Panasonic GX7 to get this shot on the Caribbean Princess
An excuse for a cruise. Whether it’s over a national holiday or your personal celebration, it’s a great excuse to splurge while onboard. Buy a box of divine chocolates. Make a reservation at a specialty restaurant. Do a couples massage. Throw a party. Don a tiara. Make it special and make it memorable.
 
Norman Love chocolates and more on the Regal Princess for your personal celebration
Bring along friends or family. Perhaps nothing changes the cruise experience more than changing who you’re with. Maybe you’ll finally get that “I’ll-never-be-caught-dead-on-a-ship” person you know to actually take the plunge. And here’s a new experience to look forward to: telling him (or her) “I told you so.”


Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Power in Your Pocket: Smartphone Apps for Cruisers

Let’s face it; wi-fi on a ship is not cheap. So if you’re going to spring for it, you might as well make the most of it. Below are some ways you can use your smartphone before you go, and after you cast off and the meter starts ticking.

Note: These are all available for free (unless indicated otherwise) from Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Before you go
Find your shipmate. The Ship Mate app can tap into your pre-trip excitement. Sign up for roll calls, see photos of where you’re going, get the lay of the ship and track where it is at any given moment.

Get port info, track your ship
and more with Ship Mate.

See the sites. Use Google Street View for a sneak peek at your ports. There are some street views, but where there aren’t, you can often see photos folks have uploaded.

Make it a new custom. The new free Mobile Passport app available for Florida’s Port Everglades (and a number of airports), is designed to speed you through Customs by having you do some work ahead of time, submitting your info in the port and then going through an express line.

Read and reap. The granddaddy cruise site of them all—cruisecritic.com—has an app, Cruise Critic Forums, which you can use to join roll calls and talk ship. If you like reading tips on the website, you’ll love thumbing through them with your phone.
Let the SkyView app help you
see the stars.

Once you’re onboard
Look to the stars. With SkyView®, you can identify the stars in that dark wide open night sky. Simply hold the phone up to the stars and the app tells you what constellation you’re seeing.

Plan your day, connect with your companion. Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, as well as Disney, Celebrity and NCL all have apps—but they’re not all created equal. The best of them do a whole lot, but also allow you to text your cruise companions, so you can ditch the walkie-talkies. Here’s a bit of detail:

Princess@Sea—There’s nothing to download to use this app. Once you’re onboard, put your phone in “Airplane Mode” and bring up the browser to connect to the free shipboard wi-fi. You can get events and activities, info on the ports and your account balance. And text your traveling companions. Available fleet-wide.

Who needs walkie-talkies with this app
from Princess?
Carnival HUB—Unlike with Princess, you do need to download this from Google Play or the App Store. Put it on “Airplane Mode” and use it for free, but the texting feature costs $5 for the voyage (this function is limited to ages 13 and over unless the parents consent). It has searchable deck plans, daily event calendar, account balance and more. It’s not available on all ships, so check the online app stores for details.

Reservations, excursions and texting at
your fingertips with the Royal IQ.
Royal IQ—This also requires downloading from the app stores. You can use it to check out the day’s events; book dinner and show reservations and shore excursions; and see your account balance. Calling/texting onboard comes with a small fee. Currently only available on Quantum, Anthem, Ovation and Harmony of the Seas. 

Staying a bit fit. If you’ve got a Fitbit®, you can track how many steps it takes each day to walk to the buffet and then find out how many calories you’ve burned on your phone app. But then, maybe you’d rather not…

Passing time. Want great seats at the theater, but hate the wait? While the time away reliving the day by looking at your photo gallery, or bringing up the many games at your fingertips.

Drowning out your neighbors. Next door’s party-hardies making you count sheep? If calling guest relations doesn’t work, turn your phone into a noise machine with free apps like Google Play’s Relax and Sleep, with its more than 50 sounds from driving rain to a rhythmic train. And here’s a novel thought: use the app’s ocean sounds to lull you to sleep. No salt spray included.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

15 Shades of Blue

Think of the Caribbean and you think blue, right? In fact, there are many “shades” of blue when you cruise the Caribbean Sea. 

Blue is the color of:
  1. Your passport—Don’t leave home without it! And be sure it doesn’t expire within six months of your trip.
  2. The sky above your balcony—With no powerlines to obstruct your view, the sky seems bluer, bigger, bolder. And if you’re headed for the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), you’ll see more of that blue sky than anywhere else. Aruba gets only 16 inches a year of rain; compare that to 46 for New York.
    The sky seems bluer, bigger and bolder from your balcony
  3. The water below your boat—If you’ve never cruised the Caribbean, know this: those photos you’ve seen are real. The waters of Bonaire, St. Maarten, and the U.S. Virgin Island gems of St. Croix and St. John are just that blue, just that clear, just that calm.
    Blue as far as you can "sea" in Bonaire 
  4. The resorts the lines call their own—Carnival’s private resorts of Princess Cays (Bahamas) and Mahogany Bay (Roatan), and Royal Caribbean’s Labadee (Haiti) boast blue hue water that’s tranquil and see-through, perfect for swimming, sunning and snorkeling. And when your ship comes in, you (and your 2,000-6,000 fellow travelers) get the resort all to yourself.
    Calm and comfortably cool is the blue water at Princess Cays
  5. The pools of port—Three neat port pools that come immediately to mind are at Grand Turk, Costa Maya and Carnival’s newest resort in the Dominican Republic, Amber Cove. These three pools are big, with plenty of room for making a splash.
    A part of the vast winding pool of Amber Cove
  6.  The flags of Barbados and Curaçao—Barbados in the Eastern Caribbean and Curaçao in the South—both great ports to visit—use blue as the primary color of their national flags, to reflect the sea and the sky.
  7.  The iguana of Grand Cayman—This blue lizard, according to Wikipedia, is a special variety found in Grand Cayman and is on the endangered list. In fact, the only one we saw on our visit was this guy below:
  8. The cobblestones of old San Juan—Pull into port in San Juan and you’re just a few steps away from cobblestones made from adoquine, a blue stone cast originally brought over on Spanish ships.
  9. The logos of the lines—Not surprisingly, the mermaid, ship, anchor and X logos of Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are all blue.
  10. Curaçao’s namesake liquid—Made from local oranges, with a little help from food coloring, curaçao liqueur is unmistakable in its color and squat round bottles.

  11. The delft and faux delft trinkets of the ABCs—Browse the tourist shops of the Dutch isles of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to find some of the real hand-painted stuff, but more of the mass-produced kind. These are inexpensive, and make great Christmas tree ornaments, magnets and collectibles.
    Mass-produced delft, but that everyone can afford
  12. LarimarThe lovely baby blue stone is from the Dominican Republic, but sold on many of the islands at a very reasonable price (note that they vary in quality). We picked up good quality earrings in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie for about $40.
  13. The female cruiserWhat cruising woman can resist a shirt with blue-and-white stripes in classic nautical style (or “nausical” as one retailer calls it). Navy blue, says Wikipedia, got its name from the dark blue uniforms traditionally worn by many navies around the world.
  14. That sign that it will come to an end—Alas, blue is also the color of the Customs card that appears on your bed—sometimes as early as the second day of the trip.
  15. My mood…when it’s all over.