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Friday, August 19, 2016

How Blue is the Ocean, How Gorgeous is the Sky


I fell madly, wildly in love in Willemstad, Curaçao.

With the absolutely stunning, positively magical, spectacularly flamboyant scene in the sky. And I’ve been hooked on sunsets ever since.

There's positively no better place to see a sunset than on your stateroom balcony or a deck of a cruise ship. No powerlines, lampposts or trees to block the view. Just wide open sea and sky. It’s a vast canvas for nature’s most perfect paintbrush.



The launch of my love affair with sunsets
If you’re like me, when you see a magnificent sunset, you remember it always. You not only remember the way the sky looked, but where you were and what you were doing. And photos of those moments bring it all back in living color.

There are so many ways you can take sunset photos—whether your electronic device of choice is a smartphone, tablet or camera. Consider this:

Pink one minute, blue the next. In a very short period, the colors and configurations can change radically—and dramatically. Take lots of shots—don’t be stingy—you’ll be surprised at the variation.

When the clouds roll in. Sunsets get even more interesting when the clouds get in your way. And as the photo sites say, don’t forget to turn around—it may be even more eye-popping behind you.

Spotlight through the clouds


Sunshine on the water. Another neat shot is focusing on the ocean as a blazing setting sun reflects on the water, changing it to a most unreal kind of color.

Ft. Lauderdale in a blaze of color
Picture this. Shooting a sunset with buildings in the distance can add an interesting element to your photo. So, too, can capturing a bird in flight against a color-streaked sky.

A third of something else. The pros talk about the “rule of thirds,” where the most interesting subject is not in the center of the shot, but rather to one side, above or below. So, your best shot might be with the setting sun off to the left or right of your frame.

Little bit of this, a lot of that. One decision you’ll need to make is how much ocean and how much sky you put in your picture. Try more of one and less of the other, than reverse it, to see what you like best.


Best in silhouette. Getting your cruise companion in silhouette or from behind as he/she gazes into the distance can make a different shot.
The sunset, sea and me

Being at the ready. A camera-worthy sunset come up when you least expect it. Have your camera ready to go. You’ll need to be able to grab it when you need it, because sunsets are quickie events.

Getting in front of them
Being there when it happens is the biggest challenge. It’s not like there’s an announcement on the PA, “There’s a great sunset, guys. Stop what you’re doing and take a look.” I’m sure we’ve missed countless beauties ‘cause we’ve eaten early.

But here’s something I wish I had known earlier: this great website lets you look up—even long before your trip has even started—the time of sunrise and sunset at the ports you’re visiting when you’re going to be there.

In the field “Sun,” Sunrise and Sunset Times,” enter the city and island. Then on the next screen, pick the menu “Sunrise and Sunset,” scroll all the way to the bottom and it will allow you to pick a month.

You’ve got the photos. Now what?
So, what do you do with those photos? You can frame them for your wall, add them to your digital frame or turn one into a mousepad. See the posting “What to Do with Those Cruise Trip Photos” for some ideas.

Musing’s Top Tip: Didn’t get enough of the sky at sundown? There’s a great (free!) smart phone app you can use to identify the stars in that dark wide open night sky. It’s called SkyView® and you can get it from Google Play.




Friday, August 5, 2016

Sweet Solitude: Finding a Spot Where the Crowd is Not

To those new to cruising, it may seem implausible that you can find solitude on a ship. After all, you are sharing a pretty limited space with 2,000, 4,000—or even 6,000—other folks. 

Yet, those of us veteran cruisers know how to find a spot where the crowds are not. And now we’re going to let you in on some of our secrets:

Stay onboard when everyone gets off. When we first started cruising, this seemed a shocking concept. Isn’t cruising all about the ports? Sort of. But there’s something very appealing about having the ship (more or less) to yourself.

Decked out at night. As long as you don’t get spooked by the sight of dark nothingness, the outside decks are great places to hear yourself think because hardly anyone steps out there at night. You might even get rewarded by an unbroken sky of stars, its equal hard to find on land.
Dark, colorful and quiet--the outside decks at night on Celebrity's Constellation
Check out the library without checking out a book. The library is perhaps the ship’s most unappreciated area (second only, perhaps, to the gym). Except for an occasional card game or a few who choose to invest a chunk of change on an Internet connection, it’s mostly empty.

Head up the ship. Ships often turn an upper deck space into a disco or entertainment venue at night, leaving it alone during the day. Which makes it a cushy, comfy and abandoned place for you to find your space. Some examples: Viking Crown Lounge on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas on deck 14, Celebrity Constellation’s Reflections Lounge on deck 11 and Holland America’s Zuiderdam’s Crow’s Nest Lounge on deck 10.

Java it up in the ship buffet. I’ve often extolled the virtues of Windjamming it (Royal Caribbean), Horizon Courting it (Princess) or Oceanviewing it (Celebrity) at dinner. The ship’s buffets are mostly ghostly at dinner time, so if you want a place to read, write or game your smartphone, with a mug of coffee by your side, they’re a great place to hide. And who knows, there may just be a dessert there, too, with your name written all over it.

The Central Park that’s safe at night. Our all-time favorite space is Central Park. This Royal
Central Park after hours on Allure of the Seas
Caribbean Oasis class “neighborhood” can be all abuzz by day—especially when the lunchtime crowds converge at Park Café—but it’s a lovely site at night. It’s empty and serene, small lights twinkle among the greenery and cushioned chairs tucked here and there make it a really calming way to end your day.

Then, there are always nooks and crannies on every ship, but you need to round a corner, venture a hallway or do a different deck sometimes to find them. You’ll be glad you did.

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.