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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.”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hung Where You Can See—Ornaments for a Cruisin’ Christmas Tree

After 20+ cruises, my Christmas tree is a travel log.

When I pull out the ornaments every year, carefully unwrapping them from the odd assortment of envelopes, ripped bags and misshapen boxes, I’m immediately cruising to the day and place where I bought them.

Find this one at Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
Christmas ornaments make the perfect souvenir—small, cheap and fun to shop for. And in all the ports, there’s plenty of choice. 

The next time you’re tripping around the Caribbean, look out for these particular gems:

Bonaire – painted gourds. There’s a store on the main shopping street that sells the local whimsical craft. Cute little ornaments will only set you back a few bucks.
 
This cutie can be found in Bonaire (hat not included)
Aruba – faux Delft windmills and whatnots. The cruise terminal has a number of shops with a slew of the blue ceramics—from magnets to figurines to ashtrays. They may not be the real thing, but when you get them home, you won’t care.

Put some blue on your green Christmas tree

Cozumel – painted ceramic balls and bells. In the cruise terminal as well as in town, you’ll have quite a pick of colorful ceramic ornaments of all shapes and sizes. My favorite store—you’ll find one at the cruise terminal as well as in town—is Los Cincos Soles. You may pay a tad more here, but the quality’s worth it.

A colorful Cozumel reminder

Barbados – mini dolls and more. Pelican Village—on the left hand side of the street, just a few blocks from the cruise pier towards town—is a small complex of craft shops. You’ll find handmade ornaments and other locally made art and knickknacks.

Onboard stores – tiny ships. You won’t have to look hard to find these—they’ve been on every big ship I’ve been on.

Deck your tree with some Harmony
In fact, anything that remotely looks like it could hang can be turned into an ornament, like bookmarks or keychains. Because one little thing that everyone knows, when it comes to a Christmas tree, anything goes!

Got a favorite for your cruisin' Christmas tree?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ah, Shipboard Credit!

That wad of money burning a hole in our cargo shorts’ pocket! How do you get some? And what do you do with it once you get it? Oh, the possibilities!

Let’s start with:

How can you get some
Watch the cruise line promotions. These come via email if you sign up on their websites. Don’t feel like filling up your inbox? Stop by their site from time to time—the sales are often blazoned across their homepage (Princess) or can be found under a menu category such as Deals (Royal Caribbean).

Be a member of the military. Princess will thank you by giving you credit for current or past service. You’ll need to send proof of eligibility, such as a military verification certificate. (Retired military requirement is a minimum of 20 years of service.)

Become an owner. Royal Caribbean (RCI) will give you credit for being a shareholder (you need at least 100 shares). Note there’s a form you need to send along with proof of ownership (proxy card or broker statement).

Ask your travel agent. They’re often willing to give you onboard credit, but you usually have to ask. My line goes like this: “Is there any shipboard credit available with this cruise?”

Booking onboard. If you book a cruise while you’re already on one, its’ more than likely shipboard credit will be thrown in as an extra inducement for your commitment.

Get credit two ways. Sign up for a RCI Visa® credit card and they throw in onboard credit of $100.

Refer a friend. Royal Caribbean will give Crown & Anchor loyalty club members $25 onboard credit for each stateroom your friends book on your cruise. They have to be first-time cruisers to qualify. Register for the credit by logging into Crown & Anchor on RCI’s website and selecting Bring a Friend.

How much is it?
The amounts usually vary by the length of your trip; generally $25-75 per person during promotions for a seven-day cruise.

The fun part
How are you going to spend it? Practically any way you choose! Consider:

Getting slathered and soothed in the ship’s spa…

Dining à la deux with a specialty meal…



Keeping up with the scores with Internet service…



Having someone else do your laundry (boring!)…

Getting Labadoozied at RCI’s Haitian Labadee…

Enjoying your java with something a bit stronger…



Posing in your finest and having it framed… 



Getting the DVD that’s way better than what you did with your smartphone…

Learning to shake not stir or steer the ship…

Parasailing over the sea or scuba diving underneath it…



Drinking when the sun comes up and when it goes down…


Ordering a celebration package to do up your stateroom in style…

Buying some trinkets in the ship store for the folks you left behind…




Or bringing some home just for you!

The best part

You have to use it—or you lose it!

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Good Ship Lollipop


"It's a sweet trip to a candy shop"...
at Candy Beach on Allure of the Seas
“On the Good Ship Lollipop 
It’s a night trip into bed you hop 
And dream away 
On the Good Ship Lollipop.” 

– “The Good Ship Lollipop” by R. Whiting and S. Clare

When chocolates started disappearing from our pillows, was that the end of our candy on cruises?

Nah! Those little silver-coated bedtime treats may be gone, but there’s still “good & plenty” of sweets on your next Good Ship Lollipop.

Why, you many wonder, with all the food onboard, do we really need candy too?

Well, the kids want it. And sometimes, we do too. So, while our pillows no longer come sugar-coated, the cruise lines still find ways to deliver the goods:

Onboard shops
Princess: The Celebration shop on Regal and Royal Princess – Visibly planted in the atrium, the store’s shelves are lined with boxes of creamy Norman Love chocolates and Godiva. Some are in just-for-cruisers packaging and make great gifts.

"Happy landing on a chocolate bar"...on the Regal Princess
Royal Caribbean (RCI): Candy Beach Sweets – The Boardwalk neighborhood shop on Oasis class ships is chock-full of penny-candy-ish and carnival-style colorful sweets.
 
"On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay"...on Allure of the Seas
Disney: Vanellope’s Sweets and Treats – The Disney Dream features a dessert shop with gelato, baked treats, chocolate lollipops and other confections.

The convenience stores
Craving a Snickers? A bag of Gummy Bears? You might just find one in the convenience store shop. You know which one I mean—where all the shirts have the ship’s logo and the first aid cream is twice what it costs at Walgreens.

The buffets
Celebrity’s Oceanview Café buffet is legendary for its ice cream bar, where you can get several flavor choices, with M&Ms and other goodies to top off your scoop. In fact, according to Cruise Critic, you can hold the ice cream completely and just get a cup ‘o candy.

"See the sugar roll do the tootsie roll"...in Celebrity's Oceanview Cafe
Our last trip on RCI’s Allure of the Seas surprised us with a chocolate breakfast bar in the Windjammer, complete with chocolate fountain and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Sweets in a package
RCI, Princess and Disney all feature celebration packages* you can order online to enjoy onboard to celebrate an event, a romance or add something special to your trip. Here’s just a sampling of what they offer:

Princess
Anniversary package – Dinner for two at a specialty restaurant, champagne, framed photo, roses and a box of Norman Love chocolates.

“Kid’s Party Package” – Stanley the Stowaway Bear, inflatable Princess ship and a pack of Gummy Bears.

Royal Caribbean
Decadent Romance Package – Champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, Belgian truffle collection and a bouquet of roses.

Disney
“Romance for 2” – Two Disney Cruise Line robes, a bottle of sparkling wine, a box of chocolate and a rose.

“Ahoy Matey” – Edible dark chocolate treasure chest filled with candy coins, an edible Mickey pirate head, chocolate bark treasure map and more.

Still not convinced that cruising and candy go together like chocolate and peanut butter? Consider this: the new Symphony of the Seas will not only still feature the Boardwalk candy store, but like the ship itself, it will be bigger than ever.


* Not available on all ships

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Cruising the Web, Part Two

This posting could also have been titled, “So Many Cruise Sites, So Little Time.” With 25 million cruisers today¹, so many cruise sites have sprung up, competing for your attention (including mine!). How do you know where to go to plan your trip?

I’m going to help by sharing some of the more useful ones so you don’t have to wade through them all:

Decking it out. Picking a stateroom can be torture, particularly if you’re trying to do it with those
A website is so much easier!
impossible-to-read deck plans in cruise line catalogs. Luckily, there are some good sites out there that make this much easier, such as:
  • Cruisedeckplans.com not only has deck plans you can actually read, but when you hover over a stateroom, you get a generic description and layout. Click on camera icons for a snapshot of the area a cruiser submitted. Note that camera icons in orange are photos available only if you pay a site registration fee ($8.99 a year).

  • Cruisemapper.com also has large deck plans and is particularly useful, say, if you’re interested in staying on the Central Park deck of a Royal Caribbean Oasis class ship and want to see where the room lines up in relation to the restaurants and elevators. There’s also an easy-to-read legend of which rooms connect, have sofa beds and other features.

Know where you’re going. Cruiseportadvisor.com is a good site for information about the ports and what to do there. Especially helpful are descriptions of where ships dock and how to get into town.

Another is www.tomsportguides.com, which has info and maps on the ports, and more. One neat feature is you can download and print PDF port guides.
 
Aruba is one of  the ports featured in tomsportguides.com

Almost like being there. Probably the best way to get a feel for a ship or port is to view videos on YouTube. Now mind you, some of them are not too useful—indeed, a few will make you downright dizzy. But if you have the patience to sift through them, you’ll be rewarded with some great information and what words or photos can’t do—evoke the ambience and sounds.

There’s also the webcams, which are real-time views of the ports. Alas, there’s generally just one camera focused on just one spot, but they’re fun just the same. One of the largest collections of port cams is at Larrysvacationwebcams.com.

Everything else you need to know. The granddaddy site of them all is cruisecritic.com, with regular news, and extensive cruise ship and port reviews. Another especially worthwhile site is cruiseradio.net, which features a wide range of informative podcasts.

Yet another is cruisefever.net, with news, ports, price drops, webcams and ship reviews. Where it really shines is on its articles, which tackle topics not often addressed in other places, such as “What Happens When You Get Sick or Hurt on a Cruise” and “Five Tips to Keep You Safe While in Port.”

Keep track your ship. Several sites have map trackers, so you can see where your ship is at any given time. Cruiseoutlook.com has a good one; you can search by your ship.

If the sun will shine. Cruiseoutlook.com also has weather forecasts by ship/itinerary, complete with sunrise and sunset (great for planning those sunset photos). You can even switch to metric. Note, however, as with forecasts at home, they can be accurate—or not.
 
Find out when the sun will set and you'll get memorable photos like this one of
Ft. Lauderdale at sail away

Scoping out the scoop. There’s nothing like the forums for the chance to ask any question and get an answer from someone who’s just been there. Or, check out the chats for answers to questions you didn’t think of asking yourself. Cruisecritic.com is the best, with entries every day, all day long, on a wide range of topics—from rooms to drink packages to port excursions to cruise memorabilia.

It’s also a great site for getting information on onboard Meet and Mingle gatherings or joining a roll call for your ship, which connects you with your upcoming cruise fellow travelers.

Then once you join a roll call, you get to see questions like this one recently posted: “Only six months to my cruise. I can’t stand the wait. What do I do?” People actually answer. Maybe you’ll want to too.

Musing's Top Tip: Want to know if your ship is on the refurbishment list? Check out www.cruisehive.com for upcoming dry docks and what you can expect.

¹Cruise Lines International Association, State of the Cruise Industry Outlook 2017