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Saturday, December 10, 2016

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas…On Your Favorite Ship

Cruise ships are eye candy every day. But add boughs to the bow and Santas to the stern, and you get a whole new and joyous level of wonderful.

Here are just a few of the ways the ships get decked out for the holidays:

Oh, Christmas tree, how lovely are thy ornaments. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship, Allure, certainly wow with towering trees and snowflakes dangling along the Promenade.
 
Leave it to the Oasis of the Seas to do up Christmas in a big way
Suddenly seeing red. When we boarded the Caribbean Princess one early December, lighted garlands lined the piazza. Then, one day, live poinsettias popped up out of nowhere. And were everywhere.

Hung where you can see. We started our Regal Princess cruise this November 27, but December 1 turned on all the lights. While we lunched in Horizon Court, wreaths were literally getting hung over our heads.

The guests join in. From dolled-up doors to Santa hats, some cruisers have their own special ways of getting into the mood.

The most marvelous decor of all. Nothing beats the magic when it takes a village to make  gingerbread. The display on the Oasis is great, but it's Celebrity’s Constellation that takes the cake.

A fantasy wonderland in gingerbread aboard the Constellation

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Kinda Kooky Cruiser Christmas Gifts

Looking for something a bit different for the hard-to-please cruiser on your list? You’ve come to the right place. Check out these kinda kooky, kinda wacky and even a few practical gifts that will stand out. Maybe you’ll even want them for yourself.

What’s outside is almost as good as what’s inside. No bottle of guavaberry should be without a Santa hat. Find these cuties in the Sint Maarten shop in Philipsburg. Or buy the liquor online.


Send your family on a cruise all year long. If only through the pages of Porthole.

Float their boat and beer. Know someone who likes to take their brew to the beach? They won’t lose it to the sea with this little beer saver. Find it in the Navigator of the Seas’ gift shop.


Bring the bedding to your buddy. You and partner slept like babies on your Royal Caribbean cruise? Must have been the bedding. Do it again, this time in your own home, with linens from the cruise line. Rocking motion’s extra.

When monopoly is a good thing. Yes, there’s still such a thing as board games, but this one you won’t find anywhere but Philipsburg. You might say St. Maarten has a monopoly on it.


They can wear it on their sleeve. Someone passionate about cruising? Deck them out with a Cruise Critic tee shirt from their online store.

Bring on the bling. This is the perfect jewelry travel case—it’s got separate zipped sleeves and the whole thing folds into a tight compact case. It’s only 10 bucks, but you’ll need to fight the crowds at the onboard $10 sale to buy one. Get there early; they go fast.



Captain Mickey on your tree. Hang Captain Mickey Mouse by his ear with an ornament for your holiday tree. Find it at Disney’s online store.

Book it. This will take some work, but send your best cruise photos to Costco, Shutterfly or online others that will make a coffee table book out of it. It’s great for bringing back memories and working on that you’ll-never-catch-me-cruising person you happen to know.

Missed out on the photos? Disney will let you order photos from your trip even after you’ve walked down that gangway—but you’ve got to act fast. In six weeks, deleted!

Get those pictures out of your smart phone. And into something your cruiser will like. Think calendar, mug or mouse pad.

For the kid or kid at heart. I mentioned this one in the posting, “Keeping the Cruise Going After It’s Gone: Part II”: Princess’ adorably smiling stuffed captain teddy bear. Best yet, if you don’t have a Princess cruise on the horizon, you can pick one up from the cruise line’s website.

Clip ‘em. Walk by the pool on any ship and your eye will be caught by bright clips some folks use to keep their towel from shimmying down their chair. Amazon has a bunch of choices—they’re cute, functional and cheap. Some of them look like flip-flops or sea shells. Great for stuffing those stockings--or keeping them up.



Tag ‘em. Another Amazon cheapie but goodie are plastic holders for the cruise luggage tags you print up when you do online check in. We just bought some and they’re a perfect fit for the tags, and come with metal loops for slipping around your suitcase handles. Beats stapling any day.

Can’t end without this one. The best gift of all is the one they want the most—another trip on the wide open sea. And while you’re at it, give one to me!

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Must-Do Excursion in St. Thomas

The must-do excursion in St. Thomas? Going to St. John.

St. John, sister island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is probably one of the most-photographed places in the Caribbean. For good reason. It’s flat-out gorgeous.

Yet, it’s surprisingly under the radar, though the Mamas and the Papas found themselves there. During their very early (and broke) days, they camped on the island until they wore out their welcome and ended up back in St. Thomas.

Kicking up some spray
The cruise lines run excursions to the island, ferrying you over in a 20ish-minute ride along the St. Thomas coastline, past massive mansions peering down from their hillside perch.

Ours was an invigorating ride, as we sat on benches on the narrow ferry deck, hovering over our cameras as the boat kicked up some spray.

There was narration, but we would’ve got more out of the PA system in a Manhattan subway station.

The road up and around
In Cruz Bay, St. John’s compact little harbor, the blue water sparkled in the sun. A few shops and cafes lined the street along the water, but they’d have to wait. Our open air van was ready for us.

From there, we climbed and climbed, winding round and round, along an impossibly narrow road, white-knuckled from our vise-like grip on the handle bars.

And then paradise
The van pulled over four or five times, each overlook more stupendous than the next. Like a theater curtain going up, the tropical brush would open up to nearly empty pristine beaches, un-built up, unspoiled, nature in the raw. 

Paradise along the road.
But Trunk Bay is where I gasped. 

The horseshoe-shaped beach, with its unblemished sand and gently flowing water, fringed by foliage—all against a panorama of ocean dotted by islands and small sailboats—was just too much beauty to absorb. See what we saw in this brief video clip.

The magnificent Trunk Bay.
Chic shopping to end the day
Our tour of the island ended all too soon and we found ourselves back in Cruz Bay with just enough time for a quick peek into a few of the cutesy boutiques at Mongoose Junction Shopping Center on North Shore Road. The shopping is predictably dear—you’ll find no bargains here. But it’s fun to browse just the same.
 
Bring lots of dollars to shop at Mongoose.
The last word
Laurance Rockefeller, conservationist and philanthropist, and son of John D., appreciated the uniqueness of St. John enough to buy up most of it. Then in the ‘50s, he gave it away—to the U.S. government, with the caveat that the land never be developed.

Today, it’s a National Park, which guarantees that when you finally make it there, you’ll find it just as I’ve described it.


Musing’s Top Tip: If nature calls when you get off your bus ride, behind the shops at Mongoose Junction Shopping Center is a separate building with clean bathrooms. If you can’t find it, one of the shop folks can direct you.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Muster Up! The Drill and What Else Will Keep You Safe Onboard

Sometimes, it’s in the casino. Sometimes, on the ice rink. And sometimes, it’s under the sun.

Wherever it is, you need to be there.

Here’s the drill and why it’s important. And what else will keep you safe in your new home on the sea.

If you’ve never been through one, know that the muster drill starts with a PA announcement that it’s coming. Then another one that it’s coming soon. And probably yet another that it’s really on its way.

Then, ear-splitting sounds. If you’re in your stateroom, you won’t be there for long. The crew will come banging on your door.

The good news? On many ships, you no longer need to drag along those massive orange vests, their cords dangling behind you like Linus’ dust.

You’ll come as you are, crew will be everywhere holding signs, and you’ll assemble someplace. It will be the first time—and maybe the last—that you’ll ever feel overwhelmed by the vast numbers of people on your ship.



Like the “seat-cushion-can-be-used-as-a-floatation-device” speech you tune out on the plane, you might feel like tuning out this one too. But don’t. Just in case.

Cruising is uber safe. In fact, more people are cruising than ever, but issues like fires and breakdowns are quite rare and have been declining.*

But they still can happen. And you want to be prepared in case they do.

Safe cruising, though, shouldn’t stop at the muster drill. Here are some other ways for you to stay ship-shape from when you walk up that gangway to when you walk back down:

Bring your own. First-aid stuff costs a lot on the ship. And some stuff you won’t find at all. I found out the hard way. Some good things to pack before leaving home are aspirin, cold medication, nose drops, digestion stuff, ear wax removal, first-aid ointment and band-aids.

Sea sickness remedies. While the cruise ships are massive and steady as tanks, you will, from time to time, be reminded that you’re not on land. If you’ve ever been prone to motion sickness, while you most likely won’t need it, just having it with you will give you peace of mind. My spouse has brought it on 19 trips. He has not used it once.

Wipe it clean. The crew, of course, work like crazy to keep the staterooms clean, but it never hurts to do a bit of your own cleaning too. Consider bringing some sanitizing spray or wipes to clean door handles, phone and TV remote—the areas that get a lot of hand holding.

Sanitize your hands. Often. While most of the ships have hand sanitizers near the eating areas, in the buffets, you’re holding the ladle, reaching for the salt shaker—and then handling the hot dog as it makes its way to your mouth. We bring our own wet wipes, and use them constantly.

Sun-bathing sense. We’ve seen it over and over again—folks with skin as pure as the driven snow spend their whole first day at the pool. The next day, they’ve traded that milky complexion with a bright red one. And spend the next several days burning up in pain.

Pool precautions. There are no lifeguards at the pools. When you swim, you’re on your own. And so are your kids.  
It’s wet on deck. With folks and kids coming in and out of the pools, showers and saunas, the decks can get pretty wet. Walk gingerly and watch your step.


Be a defensive diner. The buffet can be a treacherous place. Steaming hot coffee can be coming at you from one direction, and a crew member with a tray piled high with plates can be coming at you from another. Be a defensive diner and you’ll enjoy your food at the table—instead of taking a trip to the infirmary.

See the light. Having a flashlight by your bed will be invaluable for those night-time bathroom runs.

Don’t go overboard. The banisters on the decks and balconies are there for a reason: to keep a safe
distance between us and the water. Enjoy the drink packages. But we don’t want to fish you out of the sea.




* CLIA’s website, cruising.org, “Safety at Sea,” G.P. Wild International Limited  Report on Operational Incidents, 2009 to 2014.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Monkeys and Chickens and Lizards, Oh My! A Walk on the Caribbean’s Wild Side

Your idea of a wild time in the Caribbean might be endless buckets of beer by the sea.

But there’s another wild side to the Caribbean—and you’ll want to take your camera for this one. 

Look out for this fauna and flora to fawn over when you get back home:

The fauna for ya

Iguanas—They’re everywhere. All over the rocks at Crown Bay pier in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. In Aruba’s Oranjestad, wandering around Wilhelmina Park. In fact, they’re so common in Aruba, their likeness shows up everywhere—even on flip-flops.
Bring some iguanas home from Aruba's Oranjestad

And now, the real thing--posing for the camera in Charlotte Amalie's Crown Bay pier
Chickens—Unless you grew up on a farm, the sight of roosters roaming around may be a bit startling. But you’ll see them in downtown Charlotte Amalie; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Frederiksted, St. Croix.

Monkeys—You don’t have to venture far into St. Kitts to see the little local vervet monkeys. Just a stroll down the pier in Basseterre will do. There are several on the arms (or heads) of the locals, picture-ready for a fee. 
All dressed up and ready to go--into your arms for the camera and a fee in Basseterre, St. Kitts
Cats—San Juan has a cat problem. They’re on top of cars, under cars, roaming the streets, lying on sidewalks. But, like most animals, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. And some of them are so pretty and robust, you’d swear they were pets.
Checking out the tourists from the sidewalks of San Juan

Caribbean parakeet—I once had a parakeet in a cage. Imagine my surprise to find several pecking away high up on a palm tree on the busy L.G. Smith Boulevard in Oranjestad. It’s yet one more reminder when you travel: look up.
Parakeets pecking at the palms in Oranjestad, Aruba
Don't forget to look up when you're in Aruba's Oranjestad--you don't want to miss the parakeets
Fish—With water so clear—particularly off the pier in Kralendijk, Bonaire and to some extent, Princess’ private Bahamian island of Princess Cays—fish become entertainment. It’s yet one more reminder when you travel: look down.

In Grand Cayman, take a left from the pier, and walk a few blocks along the water. You’ll come up to a small fish market on the beach. After they’ve cleaned the fish, the vendors toss the remains into the water and you can watch the live stuff—some of them several feet long—zooming in for an easy meal, like pigeons descending on a hunk of bread.

Stop and smell the flora

Bougainvillea—These paper-thin flowers come in some 300 varieties and many bright colors, and you’ll find them all over the Caribbean, climbing the walls and hanging down planters.

Palms—They’re on the beaches, in the streets, in the yards, in the gardens. They’re tall and top-heavy. They’re useless when you’re in search of shade, and they break easily in storms. But what would the Caribbean be without its palms?

Cacti—The ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are super dry, despite being in the middle of the ocean. So, it’s not unusual to see cacti and palms sharing the same front yard.
Palms and cacti share this yard in the cruise port in Bonaire
Unlikely neighbors in this yard in KralendijkBonaire
Hibiscus—Big, bold and colorful, the hibiscus is common in the tropics, and is the national flower of Haiti. But its petals are not just for admiring—they also find their way into tea in Mexico, and are even dried and garnish desserts.
Cozumel is just one of the cruise ports you'll find hibiscus
Cozumel has its own share of the showy hibiscus
Plumeria obtuse—White and yellow clumps of loveliness, these West Indies natives can be found in the Bahamas, Mexico, Barbados, Belize and other warm places.
These were blooming along the waterfront of Barbados' Bridgetown
Frangipani—This multi-colored beauty is known for its fragrance and is sometimes an ingredient in perfume. It’s been said that its smell becomes most intense at night—to lure moths for pollination. Don’t let their heady smell tempt you to touch them, though, the sap is an irritant.
These frangipani caught our eye while shopping in the Pelican Village Craft Centre in
Bridgetown, Barbados
Mango—A staple of the Caribbean diet, when they’re in season, you’ll see them hanging from trees at ports like Roseau, Dominica and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Bananas and plantains are plentiful too, as are coconuts, throughout the Caribbean islands.
Not quite ripe, but appealing just the same, hanging off a tree in St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie
Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice—These are all grown in Grenada. The island is the world’s second-largest producer of nutmeg—the spice is even on the Grenadian flag. Baskets of pre-packaged spices are sold in the port city of St. George’s and make great holiday gifts for the cooks on your list.

Put more spice in your life with these souvenirs from St. George's, Grenada
When I look at this list I’ve just created—and it’s only a sliver of the Caribbean’s charms—it’s easy to see why the islands were seized, battled over and settled on. And are so much fun to visit!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Keeping the Cruise Going After It’s Gone: Part II

Ugh, it’s over. You’ve been so excited for so long. You had a great time. Now, it’s a fast-fading memory.

I’ve been there. 19 times, to be exact. Alas, it doesn't get any easier. But I'll share some of my new ways to hold onto that vacation buzz and keep your Caribbean cruise going after it’s gone:

Start a collection. It doesn’t have to be expensive stuff—you can pick up some interesting and different magnets from the ports, usually for just a few bucks. Or, it can be postcards, salt-and-pepper shakers, dolls, figurines—or rums.

A small slice of my collection

Becalmed. Check out the lovely beach scene—complete with wave sounds—at calm.com (select “Sunset Beach” from the right menu). There’s a slew of other choices on YouTube, like this one. Or, consider making your own the next time you cruise.

Build a shrine to the seashore. Front and center on mine, is a big sign that says “Relax.” It’s surrounded by palm trees made of glass and metal, bottles of sand and other knickknacks I picked up from the Caribbean.

Deck the walls. Many of the ports—Labadee in particular, have a huge variety of very colorful and inexpensive original artwork for sale (bargaining welcome and productive). You can get pieces of all sizes and with themes ranging from the beach, of course, to music, in frames or without them.
 
A handful of the vast choices in Labadee's artisan market
Dish it out. Lusting after some dish you had onboard? Try to recreate it. You can even get the actual recipes from Celebrity on their website, by ordering their Excite the Senses cookbook.

Party hardy. Throw a Caribbean-theme party with rum drinks and some Jimmy Buffett. Carve up a watermelon boat. Add some tropical fruit like mango, papaya and pineapple. Decorate with hibiscus and bird of paradise (uh, I guess they'll have to be plastic—unless you live in Florida, like I do).

Time for gifting. With Christmas coming, you have many choices for your cruise companion. You can easily create your own from trip photos, such as a calendar, mug or mousepad. For ideas, see the posting What to Do With Those Cruise Trip Photos.

Or, buy something from the cruise lines. From Princess’ website, you can get a host of stuff, from logo-bearing bathrobes to ship-specific mugs. You can even get the adorable Princess Cruises Plush Bear.

Had a great sleep on your cruise? Wish you could have that same sweet slumber at home? Well you could try--you can buy the same bedding (well, not exactly the same bedding) you had on the ship from Royal Caribbean’s website. Sorry, your room steward won’t be coming along.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Overhyped and the Overlooked

I agree with cruisecritic.com: art auctions, professional photos and candy stores on cruise ships are overrated.

And there are others I’d like to add to the list. I know this is a wholly subjective subject. You might not agree. But, here, for your consideration, are some things I think we can easily live without—as well as those that are often overlooked: 

Overhyped

Drink packages. While the idea of drinking what you want, when you want—no designated driver needed—can be pretty tempting, when we’ve done the math, we’ve found we’d have to consume a humongous amount just to break even.

Here’s an example: Royal Caribbean’s alcohol package is now $55 a day per person (or roughly $400 a week). With the average drink price at about $8, you’d have to down seven a day to get your money’s worth.*

I have no proof, but given how much these drink packages are hyped, I have to assume the cruise lines make out better than we do.

Celebrity’s Concierge Class. You’d think we’d learn after the first time. But it took three times on Celebrity’s Concierge Class—and three times complaining—before we finally owned up that it’s just not worth it. The flowers in your room are actually one lonely bud in a vase that opens up just in time for you to go home. The appetizers, which you now have to ask for, are decidedly unappetizing. Oh, you do get a bottle of sparkling wine the first day. And the towels are big. That’s about it.

Port shopping talks. There’s little substance in these. Unless you’re in the market for high-end jewelry, don’t waste your precious vacation time. And if your curiosity gets the best of you, you can always find them on the stateroom TV, playing over and over and over again.

Formal nights. It pains me to say this, but formal nights are simply not worth trying to cram a suit and tie or dress/shoes/shawl/evening bag into your luggage.Yeah, sometimes the food is better than other nights, as filet mignon and lobster tails still make a once-a-cruise appearance. But, it’s just not the big event it used to be.

Overlooked

Princess’ mini-suites. If you choose your cruise right (e.g., off season), you can get one of these for not much more than a balcony room. Yet the size is significantly larger; in fact, you’ll swear you’re in a hotel. Throw in two TV sets, more counter space and the like, and you’ll be downright comfortable.
Hotel-like comfort in a Princess mini-suite
Room service. For many of us, room service in a hotel is a rarely-if-ever-used luxury. It not only costs extra, but what you get costs extra, too. While some exceptions apply, room service on a cruise ship is free. That means delivery right to your door, and you don’t even need to get out of your PJs for it.

Buffet at night. I’ve often raved about the buffet at dinner, appreciating the vast array of choices (often including what the MDR is serving up), the appearance of international cuisine--including some spicy dishes--and the marvelous mellowness. And did I mention that you don’t have to dress up?

Lunch in the main dining room. This probably sounds perverse—buffet at night and lunch in the dining room. But, like the buffet at night, lunch in the MDR is a peaceful affair. It’s under-utilized, unhurried and completely relaxing. But you’ll only find it at limited hours on sea days.
The "Tutti" salad bar on Allure of the Seas--you'll only find it at lunch, in the MDR on sea days
Loyalty clubs. Now I recognize that not everyone can cruise repeatedly, but if you can and do, going with one line has its benefits. Particularly on Royal Caribbean. We made Diamond Club a few cruises back and now enjoy unlimited alcoholic drinks during happy hour, which has made us quite happy, indeed.

The view. What’s outside the ship is becoming less and less important than what’s on the inside. With bumper cars, casinos and ice skating rinks, it’s getting harder to remember what cruising is all about: the sea. 




* This package also includes non-alcoholic drinks.


Musing’s Top Tip: On a totally different topic, check out Musing’s piece on ways to stay safe while you’re wandering around port on the website www.cruiseportadvisor.com.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Great Weight Debate: Will Cruising Tip the Scales?

I have a friend who refuses to cruise because she’s terrified of all that food. That she’ll weaken in the face of a cake, crumble at the sight of a cookie and come home with mounds of pounds.

Fact or fiction?

Over a 10-day cruise, reports avidcruiser.com, the average person packs on four pounds. And some put on even more.

Well, why not? We’re on vacation, we want to have fun, get our money’s worth and all that. But there are things we can do to have our cake and eat it too—and save all that guilt for some other day:

Lose before you cruise. Want the ultimate motivation? Go shopping for a bathing suit. There’s nothing like a view of yourself in the fitting room mirror to make you suddenly lust for kale and kiwi. And since misery loves company, check out cruisecritic.com’s Lose Before You Cruise discussion thread.

What gets measured gets done. Consider investing in one of those nifty fitness tracker bracelets. Even if it doesn’t motivate you to work out, everyone else will think you do. 

Court fun and fitness. Shoot some hoops, climb a wall, don a pair of skates—the Royal Caribbean ships in particular give you lots of ways to get fit while having fun. And don't forget about dance classes, to help you boogie before you binge.

Courting fun and fitness on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas
Walk in circles. The ships generally have a walking/jogging track. The best is on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, which has separate lanes for walkers and joggers, and loops around the entire length of the ship. You not only get great views of the ocean, but a few chuckles from the signs overhead.

Walk to port—and then all around it. Taxis may be plentiful and the locals persistent, but ignore them all and walk your way to town. It’s a painless way to exercise while getting to know where you’ve docked. The walk from Crown Bay to St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie even marks the mileage for you.

Just say go. Perhaps not our favorite part of the ship, but those treadmills look out over the water. Stationery bikes let you choose your route. Many machines have their own TV; bring your headset to plug and play. In short, it’s about as pleasant as it will ever be to do time in the gym. And you’ll rarely compete for the equipment.

You won't have to compete for equipment on Celebrity's Equinox
Stay inspired with a little help from your friends. Enroll in a fitness class—all the ships have them. It helps when you're all in the same boat.
 
Keep your weight by skipping the wait. Forget the frustration of long waits for an elevator and take the stairs instead.
  
Make your own rules. You could, for example, decide to eat one big meal and two light ones each day. Or gorge Day 1 and 2, but load up on salad, fruit and veggies Days 3 and 4.

Be a fusspot. I’m from a family of thin people—not naturally thin, but deliberately thin. Our secret? Being really picky about what we consume. There was a great line in the movie Ratatouille; when the food critic was asked how he stayed so thin, he answered,“If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow it.”

Search out the better stuff. There’s healthier fare everywhere—in the main dining room, buffet and even in special (free) venues, like Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café.
Lighter fare in Celebrity's AquaSpa Cafe

Learn to lose. Many of the ships have lectures onboard on nutrition and weight loss. This will give you a head start on the diet just waiting for you to get home.

Most important of all. Whether you do any of the above, or nothing at all, there's one thing you should know. Whatever you put on now will come off later. When the vacation ends, just go back to what you usually do, and then watch the pounds melt away. It's worked for me on 20 cruises and will work, too, for you.