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Friday, July 22, 2016

The Bright Side of Rainy Weather

In the spirit of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for this posting, I’m going to borrow a topic from cruisefever.net, a good site for cruise news and tips, pricing out trips, port cams and the like. Their article, “Top 10 Things to Do on a Rainy Day,” has some great suggestions, but I’m going to add some of my own ways to avoid cabin fever on those rainy days at sea:
Make the best of those soggy patches! (Above, "Splish Splash" aqua show on Oasis of the Seas)
Start a journal—I do one each cruise and never regret it. While it’s a bit of work, it’s a way to capture memories, thoughts and observations, and remind you of smaller things you may forget. It’s especially handy when planning your next cruise (or for writing a review of your trip…or a blog like mine!).

The author and spouse release their inner artsy-fartsy and 
have a ball on Oasis of the Seas.
Get a head start on dealing with your photos—If you’ve brought a laptop, download photos from your camera or phone and begin the lovely task of organizing/deleting/editing. You’ll appreciate that you made a dent in this when you get back home.

Roam the ship with your camera—Be goofy and creative. Take photos of you and your companions in the elevator mirror. In the shops holding an “I love cruising” tee-shirt. In front of murals. Do a selfie by photographing your reflection in a glass door. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll notice for the first time once you pull out a camera. See Fun Ship Photography: Releasing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy for some ideas and shots.

Break your routine—Always lunch in the buffet? Try a specialty restaurant—some of them don’t charge for lunch. And Royal Caribbean ships have lunch in the main dining room on sea days, featuring the massive “Tutti” salad bar spread that lets you load up on lettuce—but also meats, veggies, cheeses and great bread (note: the hours are tight; look for them in the ship newsletter).

Book the next one—Visit the sales office to book your next cruise and enjoy a smile when you see the line forming there the last day of the trip.

But the very best way to spend a wet day? Sleep late. Eat late. And just relax. Think of it as saving your energy for when the sun comes back out. And, hey, this is the Caribbean—the sun will come out!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Still Life: Caribbean Love, Humanity and Pride in Marble and Bronze

We certainly didn’t expect to see little Anne Frank in the middle of the Caribbean.
Anne Frank in Aruba: forever the optimist. 

And yet, there she was, in Aruba’s Oranjestad, in Wilhelmina Park, reflecting the island’s Dutch heritage and an enduring symbol of its commitment to tolerance. The peaceful, tropical park is right downtown, and a quick and easy walk from the cruise pier.

The bronze statue by Netherlands artist Joep Coppens shows Anne with hands bound, looking hopefully toward the sky.

Her pedestal is engraved with an inspiring quote from her diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” See more on the statue at Visit Aruba.com.

In fact, there are other great statues on the islands that commemorate love, family, pride of home and the triumph of man’s humanity. Keep your eye out for these:

A call for freedom in St. Croix—A former slave is depicted in bronze by artist Bright Bimpong celebrating emancipation by blowing through a conch shell. Below the bust is a simple inscription on marble: “Freedom.” You can see the statue in the Emancipation Gardens, just off the ship in Frederiksted, in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, a laid-back St. Thomas sibling with a promenade along its glass-like clear waters.

Love in St. Lucia—This startlingly lovely bronze statue in Castries shows a couple in an affectionately warm embrace. The Bank of St. Lucia commissioned island native son Ricky George in 1997 to create this piece named “The Aftermath,” which can be found in front of the Bank of St. Lucia on Bridge Street.
A sweet reminder of what life is all about in St. Lucia.
Celebration of a nation in San Juan. In the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan, five or six blocks from the cruise pier (make a left, then take the promenade along the water), you’ll come across a stirring and powerful fountained monument to the birth of Puerto Rico. The Raices Fountain, constructed in bronze in 1992 by Spanish artist Luis Sanguino, is framed by the bay and on this particular day (see photo below), made even more moving with the help of some dramatic clouds.
Spanish-American pride in San Juan.
Note that the walk along the ancient wall near the fountain has a pretty little garden with other interesting statues—both patriotic and whimsical.

The Queens’ reign over Charlotte Amalie. The trek up the 99 steps to Blackbeard’s Castle in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie is well worth it—whether or not you actually go inside. Outside the castle walls are gorgeous gardens of colorful tropical foliage, its center crowned by The Three Queens, a bronze sculpture commemorating three former female slaves who led a revolt against the Danish government in 1878 on nearby St. Croix. Richard Hallier created the statue in 2005.
The fight against slavery, a panorama of the sea in Charlotte Amalie.

While you’re there, you’ll enjoy a sweeping view of the Charlotte Amalie harbor, and you might just also see your cruise ship.

Then, wander the gardens to see other almost-hidden surprises, like Hallier’s Disneyesque statue of the girl and her birds.

In bronze, as in nature--the beauty of the Virgin Islands.
Musing’s Top Tip: For other fun things to watch for at the ports, see the posting, Watch for the Signs—How the Ports Tease and Tempt You.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then

Someone on a cruisecritic.com forum recently asked readers what they wish they knew about cruising when they first started. What would I answer? How much fun it is!


We started late—our first was in ’05—and it was only because we had the same misconceptions that many people still do. 

Today, 19 cruises later, we can’t help but bemoan all the wasted time—the places we could have gone to, the ships we could have been on. (But not all the calories I would’ve consumed!)

Today, with the lines pumping out so many ships each year, spreading their hulls throughout the world, and their ubiquitous advertising, cruising is ballooning like the ships themselves. Some 24 million people are expected to walk up a gangway somewhere in the world this year, up a whopping 68 percent from just a decade ago.

And chances are, they’ll do it again. In a survey, 85 percent of cruisers planned to take another within the next three years. Which says something you and I already know—once you’ve taken a cruise, you’re hooked.

Why? For some, it’s the chance to port hop. For others, it’s the ultimate in relaxation. For all of us, it’s a great value.

Yet, still only one in four people in the U.S. has taken a cruise.

What’s hot and what’s ahead
Another part of cruising that keeps us coming back is that it’s always changing. Here’s what’s hot today:

Cut off, but connected too. Cruise line investment continues to make it easier for us to reach out and touch someone from the sea to the shore.

Pampered in high style. Demand for the finer liners is on the rise.

Branded a cruise shopper. From Ben and Jerry’s, Starbucks and Tiffany on Royal Caribbean to Norman Love on Princess, the lines are bringing on big brands to sell you more onboard.

Just waiting for your order on Navigator of the Seas.
The sea as secondary. The ships are now the destination, with thrills, chills and spills; Broadway shows; and designer shops.

The gift of time. The short port stops are increasing being supplemented by overnight stays.

Bring the whole family. With DreamWorks parades and carousels, spas and casinos, the ships appeal to every age, and whole families are cruising together like never before.

A final word or two
Here are some truisms: 1. Cruising is not for everyone; 2. There’s not much I can do to make up for my lost time.

But what I can do, and what you can do, is spread the word. Champion cruising. Confront those misconceptions. It’s the best way to keep the industry healthy and strong. And that’s good for all of us.

Sources: Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) 2016 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook; 2014 CLIA North America Market Cruise Profile Report, January 2015; Cruisemarketwatch.com

Friday, June 10, 2016

Some of the Best in Cruising Part 2: The Ports

When I’ve been asked for my favorite Caribbean island, I struggle to find an answer. Because I like so many, each for a different reason. But what they all have in common is plenty to see and do close to where the ship pulls in (no excursion required!). Here, then, is my “best of” list for the Caribbean cruiser:

Shopping: Cozumel. There’s great shopping right at the pier, or you can grab a cab into town for a mind-numbing selection of more of the same. Colorful ceramics; onyx chess sets and figurines; silver jewelry with gems and without; and inexpensive knickknacks from maracas to magnets makes shopping a blast. You’ll find consumables there, too. Read more at Chocolate, Rum and Spice: Food Souvenirs of the Caribbean.  

Cozumel in color.
Best beach: private islands. These are, simply put, paradise. Carnival’s Mahogany Bay in Roatan, Honduras; Princess Cays in the Bahamas; and Royal Caribbean’s Labadee on Haiti offer the quintessential Caribbean beach day. They’ve got powdery sands and calm blue waters perfect for swimming and water sports; palms and hibiscus and bougainvillea to feast the eyes; and lounge chairs everywhere, along with plenty of shops and ways to soothe a parched throat.

The private islands are surely the best way to relax on a cruise.
Lined up and ready to go at Princess Cays.
Biggest variety: St. Maarten. A beach right in town, cheap chair-umbrella-beer packages, surfside seafood shacks, water sports, great shopping, gambling and even a blast from the past—an automat—selling local foods like the Dutch kroket. This lively place of merriment is constantly changing—for the better. There’s more at “How to Spend Your Cruise Day in St. Maarten.”

Prettiest harbor: Dominica, Bonaire. This one’s a tie. Dominica has perhaps the most compact port, with its location at the foot of surrounding velvety green hills. Be prepared to invest some leg muscle if you walk around town, where you can visit a farmers market or grab some free wi-fi at the local library. Or, shop the stalls at the pier, where you can get locally woven baskets and other souvenirs.

Then there’s the transparent waters of Bonaire, where a stroll along the waterside promenade is like a visit to an aquarium. Vibrant-colored fish swish by underfoot, and the sea around you is a painter’s pallet of shades of azure. Read more at Knowing Your ABCs.

A walk along the promenade in Bonaire is like a visit to an aquarium.
Most European-ish: St. Barts. Part Riviera, part Caribbean, totally French, St. Barts is remarkable for many reasons. You won’t find any bargains here, but you’ll marvel at the mega yachts parked in town, the hilly and winding streets that force cars and all manner of local vehicles to part halfway on the sidewalk. You can sip café au lait at a seaside café, nibble on quiche from the local patisserie, marvel at the wines lining the walls at the supermarche´ or browse the fashionable shops. St. Barts is off course and worth it.

Paris? Mais non, the patisserie of St. Barts.
Time travel: San Juan. With two well-preserved, exhibit-laden forts, a dramatic fountain honoring the island’s birth, blue cobblestone streets, mosaic stairwells, and even shops selling Spanish hand fans and the short jackets of the matadors, the old town of Puerto Rico’s capital takes the cruiser back in time. No DeLorean needed here—just a little bit of pedestrian power.

San Juan is one of those ports that are made for walking.

The ancient wall today protects San Juan from sailboats.
Memorable feature: Curaçao. This Southern Caribbean Leeward island off the Venezuelan coast has several oddities—a floating bridge that takes you to the colorful Punda District when it’s not stepping aside to let boats through, and a fruit and veggies market where vendors sell their stuff out of wooden boats tied up to the dock. And if that’s not enough, how about liquor that’s made from oranges but is blue in hue?

Float your way to Curacao's Punda district.

So, that’s my “best of list.” What’s yours?

Musing’s Top Tip: Did you miss Some of the Best in Cruising Part 1? Then check it out here, for ship life highlights—from what’s on your plate to what’s on the stage.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Meal Deal—is the Same Time, Same Place Right for You?

First, I must come clean: I’m a “my time” convert.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. When we first cruised years ago, it was on Celebrity’s Constellation, then under the expert oversight of Michelin-starred Michel Roux. The main dining room food was a true treat and the waiters had time to chat. Every fourth man or so on formal night wore a tux, and the women enjoyed a rare chance to show off their sequins and spikes.

Well, Roux left in ‘07 and Celebrity’s food immediately became indistinguishable from the other mass market cruise lines—merely edible.

Today, on all ships we’ve been on—from Celebrity to Royal Caribbean to Princess to Holland America—we’ve found hardly a tux in sight and the gowns are going too. Waiters are more harried. Few seem to take the trouble any more to get to know their guests, or their preferences.

In short, the MDR experience feels less like Saturday night fine dining, and more like Applebees by the Sea. Given these changes, it does make one wonder, does the same time/same place traditional set seating still make sense? Royal Caribbean certainly has its doubts, evidenced by the debut of “dynamic dining” on its Anthem of the Seas.

However, like most things in life, the set time vs. my time comes down to personal choice. Consider:

The Case for Set Seating

You’re in love with your waiter. There are still a few waiters who manage to squeeze in a bit of chitchat between food order and delivery. And if you’re lucky enough to find one, you may just get rewarded with a glimpse into his home, culture and ship life.

You snagged a great table. Tables for two are, on some ships, treated as an afterthought and can be
shoved in the most unlikely and uncomfortable places. Whether you’re dining just with your
companion or a larger group, if you get a great location, it can make a big difference in how much you feel like coming back.
Getting a great table in a dining room like this one on Navigator of the Seas is worth coming back for.  
The pace is not too fast, not too slow. We’ve had the best and we’ve had the worst; the worst topped two hours for three courses. If you’re with a group, you might not mind a long wait between courses. But if there’s just two of you, the long wait can be painful.

There’s a lot of you. If you’re with a large group and you want to eat together every night, your best bet is probably with set seating. That way, you’ll always know you have a table ready for you.

The Case for My Time

You’re on vacation. Unless you’re retired, your life is essentially dictated by the big hand and the little hand. The flexibility of my time can’t be beat—you show up when you’re ready to eat.

You can avoid the rush. It can be a real challenge sometimes to work set seating around entertainment—particularly on Oasis class ships, where you need to book the shows before you leave home. And you may think you’ve left enough time to chow before the show, only to find that you didn’t.

Have your meal and port stay too. If your seating’s at 6 and you’re still nursing your drink at 8 in
an Old San Juan café, you can forget your MDR dinner. Do my time and show up any time.
Linger too long in Old San Juan and you can forget your set seating.

My Time Misconceptions

Misconception #1: If you show up when you feel like it, you’ll be waiting a long time. Since I’m a recent convert, I can’t speak for the other lines, but on two different Royal Caribbean ships, we waited not more than about 10 minutes for a table.

Misconception #2: You won’t get the table you want. Every time we’ve asked for a table for two, we’ve gotten it.

Misconception #3: If we find a waiter we love, we’ll never have him again. If you find a waiter you want again, simply ask. You may wait longer, but the ships will generally accommodate you.

The Final Word

Whether you opt for my time or set time, it’s always best to do it at booking because if you wait, you may not have a choice.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Oasis Lite: Review of Navigator of the Seas

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the SeasOasis Lite.” But, particularly after the 2014 refurb, this Voyager class ship does share some of the same features that make it an alternative to its can-be-overwhelming Oasis of the Seas sibling. 

Here’s a bit of the similarities and differences:

On the spot. Oasis has three “neighborhoods” to Navigator’s one. What they both have in common is the Promenade, the ship’s hub and site for parades, the '70s theme party and other events. It’s also is the home of the only 24-hour nosh spot, the Promenade Café, with its free sandwiches and sweets.


On our Navigator trip, we admit to missing Oasis’ greeny oasis, Central Park. Also absent was the kids-friendly Boardwalk, with its full-size carousel, fun-house mirrors and candy shop.

On the move. Navigator emerged from its month-long dry dock with a FlowRider, the popular surf-making machine on Oasis. And like the bigger ship, Navigator has a rock-climbing wall, ice skating rink and miniature golf.

On your plate. The main dining room and Windjammer buffet fare is pretty much the same on both ships, and both have the Brasserie 30 and “Tutti” salad bar in the MDR on sea days. The bread stuffs on both ships were great—from the pumpkin seed-studded rolls to the breakfast breads with dried fruit and sugar sprinkles.

Navigator’s Windjammer had some surprises, such as a featured dish served up (somewhat oddly) front and center in the buffet’s entrance. One day it was bagels with flavored cream cheeses. Another, it was a massive fruit cobbler in just about the biggest pan you’ll ever see. The last night—I suppose to make parting less painful—the buffet sprouted fresh raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Oasis has some extra specialty restaurants. The for-a-fee eateries they share: Chops Grille (steak), Giovanni’s Table (Italian), Sabor (Mexican) and Izumi (Japanese). Both have a Ben and Jerry’s, and Starbucks, but on Navigator, they’re so small that you’ll miss them if you blink.

On the stage. No comparison here, sad to say. The one spectacular show they do both offer is the ice 
show, and what a show it is! (Though the actual production is different.) Continuously changing sets, elaborate costumes, and with many of the same jumps, twirls and whirls you’d see on land. On Oasis, you sign up online before the trip. On Navigator, you’re assigned a show by your muster station.

Beyond the ice show, only Oasis class ships have the eye-popping aqua shows and Broadway-quality musicals. Navigator has the typical cruise ship entertainment—comedian, singers and two production shows. As with most, the production shows were entertaining, but not memorable.

In the Plus Column
What else can you look forward to on Navigator? In the Windjammer, the wait staff roam, offering water/juice/ice tea at lunch and dinner, and sometimes, cookies, too…Because it’s smaller, finding a table in the buffet is easier, so is getting on and off the ship…its size allows it to go to more ports…it’s faster to learn your way around…balcony chairs recline, the night table has a closed drawer and the closet has a few shelves (you’ll find none of these on Oasis).

So, in short, if you’re not ready, willing or able for a trip on an Oasis ship, Navigator of the Seas is a good choice.

Musing’s Top Tip for Crown and Anchor Diamond Club members: Since the refurb, Royal has added a nice lounge to deck 14, behind a sea pass-required door to the right of the Cosmopolitan Club. During happy hours (4:30-8 p.m.), the lounge has hot and cold munchies, and many complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic offerings. A particularly nice feature is that part of the lounge is outdoors with view of the sea (but, alas, also of the basketball course that’s in non-stop use).

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Luscious, Loquacious Labadee: the Jewel in Royal Caribbean’s Crown

When your ship nears Labadee, you’re immediately struck by its sheer loveliness. Lush, dark green mountains pull you in, the water blues and as you sidle up to the dock, you get the feeling paradise is just a few sand grains away.

 And you’re right. Royal Caribbean’s secluded and sprawling piece of Haiti, which it has leased until 2050 as its private itinerary port stop, is resplendent with calm coves perfect for swimming, water sports, food, drink, entertainment, and a large and exotic artisan market. You’re sure to find something to, well, float your boat:
 
Can’t sit still? You’ve got a lot of choices here—zip-lining nearly 50 mph over the surf, jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling and kayaking. There are tucked-away spots for swimming in the gentle, clear water. And for the little ones, a water park with a 300-ft. slide.
 
Sun worship’s more your thing? The resort has lounge chairs ‘a plenty—crammed arm-to-arm facing the sea—as well as dotted throughout the resort in two-sies and three-sies under the sun or in the shade of the palms just tailor-made for napping.
 
Want to feel the rhythm?  Singers and bands—many in native dress—can be found in a number of spots to keep your toes tapping through your flip-flops.
 
Drink and be merry. Like all the cruise lines’ private islands, bars abound. And your sea card will be happy to pay the way.
 
Itching to spend? The artisan market is where a bit of the real Haiti shows up. A vast array of crafts, local and otherwise, can be bought at super reasonable prices. Some samples: doll in native dress: $11; painted magnet: $1; necklace beaded with coffee beans: $2. Note that you’ll need cash here; your ship card won’t get you anywhere.
 

Bargaining is not only welcome, but expected and encouraged. And what better way to keep your cruise going after it’s gone than to buy a bright and colorful, Caribbean-style original painting for your wall at home? A painting that started out at $40, after some haggling, was had for $16.
 
But be forewarned: shopping here is not for the faint-hearted. The shopkeepers are very aggressive and to be successful, you’ll need a coat of armor. Repeat after me: “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.”
 
What else do you need to know?

Cabana for the day—You can rent cabanas at Nellie’s Beach for $395 or one over the water for $495, both work for up to six guests.

Stroll on, stroll off—Ships dock (vs. tender), so you can get on and off as many times as you want.

Bathrooms abound—Never fear, there’s always a restroom near.

Walk or ride—A free tram runs continuously with stations throughout the port.

It’ll make you feel all right—Skip the beer and get it here—the one and only Labadoozie