Monday, June 30, 2014

Cruise Review: Allure of the Seas

Welcome aboard Allure of the Seas, the largest cruise ship on the seas. How long it will retain the title of largest ship, remains to be seen. In case you think it is the same size as the Oasis of the Seas, you are wrong. It is actually about two inches larger. When it comes to amenities, they are equal but the extra two inches gives Allure the title.

We sailed on Allure out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. We stayed at the Embassy Suites which provides shuttle service to the cruise port. When we came back from our cruise, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Plantation and they also offer shuttle service and have a much more reasonable price.

Carrying over 6,000 people, this behemoth is in a class of its own. Surprisingly, you will not feel as if you are traveling with this many other people. The ship is so large that unless you are at the pool areas, you will never feel as if there are any more people than a normal sized cruise ship.  Seven different and distinctive neighborhood are on the ship and one of them will surely be to your tastes. They are the first ship to have a Starbucks on board which will make avid coffee lovers very happy. They also have a cupcake shop which is something you might not be expecting.

What makes these Allure of the Seas so different and exciting?  First, dining options. It is no longer just the Windjammer and the dining room for things like breakfast. On Allure add the Park Cafe, Johnny Rockets and the Solarium.  If you are a donut person, Broadway Donuts is for you. If you want breakfast in your room, just place the notice outside your room by midnight and breakfast or at least coffee can be delivered. Having a cup of coffee on your balcony is a wonderful treat.

The Solarium Café offers healthy choices. If you love papaya, it is served cut up and fresh at the Solarium which by the way is an adult only area  There are two large hot tubs here where you won’t have to fight the kids for a spot. It is quiet and peaceful, lovely really.

The ship has a fantastic selection of specialty restaurants. Italian, steak , Mexican and more are offered. Samba Grill is a Brazilian Steak House where not only will you get to dine on the finest  steaks and lots of other meat choices served in the  churrascaria  style but you will also be entertained by Samba dancers who roam through the restaurant. It is a very interesting evening for a small additional fee. We had the best evening in the restaurant and I would highly recommend booking it if you are sailing on Allure of the Seas.

The Shows

Entertainment is handled a little differently on this ship than on most cruise ships. You need reservations to see the shows. It should be one of the first things that you do as you book your flight. You can book all your shows online before you leave. There is an ice skating show called Ice Games, a water show called Ocean Aria and of course the Broadway show Chicago. All of the shows are offered several different times so you should be able to easily fit everything in.

Allure of the Seas has all the regular entertainment that you expect, a spa, swimming pools, casino, a state of the art gym and great shopping. Additionally, it has miniature golf, basketball , surf on the flow-rider and a zip line You can find as much excitement as you can handle or just find a deck chair and relax between meals. You can stroll and shop in Central Park, ride the carousel  on Boardwalk or visit the library.

I loved walking through Central Park in the evening and listening to the cello player. It was so peaceful and romantic. During the daytime, the Coach Store was a major attraction. 

The ship has a main dining room where you can book early or late dining or you can choose freestyle and dine when you feel like it. The buffet is always available as an option.

Allure is a floating city and even if you are a seasoned cruiser, a trip on this ship is something not quite like any other. A high percentage of balcony suites are offered, both ones that overlook the exterior of the ship and ones that overlook Central Park or The Boardwalk.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cruise Review: Explorer of the Sea

Explorer of the Seas is one of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager Class ships. This is not their biggest ship, they have the Freedom Class and the Oasis Class that are larger but in no way can this be considered a small ship. It can hold over 3100 passengers and has been sailing for ten years.

The design of this ship is different from the class of ships we have previously sailed on. There is no Centrum, instead you have a Royal Promenade which reminded me of a mild version of Bourbon Street. Shops, restaurants, and entertainment happen on this level and it is quite a lot of fun to just stroll down the street. 

This design allows for a different room type that is not found on the smaller ships, the Promenade Room.  These rooms are interior rooms but they overlook the promenade.  This is nice when there is a parade going on but seem to have a privacy issue as far as I am concerned. If you want light you would open your drapes but then the people across the promenade from you can look in as can anyone walking on the promenade.

This size of a ship has more balcony rooms than the smaller ships as well. This is the room type we had and they are spacious and well appointed. There is a lot of storage and the couch is full sized making seating easy and relaxing. The balcony is small but has two chairs and a small table.

Service on Explorer was alright but we found it not to be up to the standards that we are used to. This was right after the Oasis was launched and we were told that a lot of experienced staff was pulled from other ships and sent to Oasis. The ethnicity of our staff was a little different than the mix we usually had and was heavy on Central American and Southeast Asian workers. There were very few Eastern Europeans. There also seemed to be fewer workers. This was especially evident in the restaurant. 

The Windjammer Café suffered the most with dishes sitting longer on tables. But it was more than that, it was a general attitude, these workers were not the happy friendly ones we are used to and it was quite obvious. We really wondered if it was a result of the economy or maybe they were just short of help.

The entertainment was quite good; there were some very amusing comedians. There didn’t seem to be as many offering in the Compass as usual. It was a short cruise, only five days, maybe all the shortcomings we witnessed were indicative of that. We had problems with the spa, there was a major error in our booking and it was never resolved to our satisfaction. Overall there were issues in almost every aspect of this cruise except the cabin which was always kept spotless.

This class of ship is great, however. They have a skating rink and they offered two shows that you had to request tickets for and there was also open skating. On the fourteenth level, they have a nice game room which we used to play dominos. It had a lot of space in two rooms. The Internet was screeching slow and kept dropping the connection. The desk staff was great about giving a credit for this.

This ship goes to Bermuda, Canada, and the Caribbean out of Port Liberty New Jersey. All in all, I really liked the ship itself and the room in particular. The shortcomings that we experienced are not what I am used to from Royal Caribbean and I would need to take this particular ship, Explorer of the Seas at least one more time before I formed a firm opinion that they have staffing issues.

One thing worth noting, April is a very rough time to sail to Bermuda and the pool had to be drained and closed twice. Also, the Solarium does not have a retractable roof and in April it was a bit chilly to use the adult only hot tub. The one time we did use it, the water was so hot everyone was turning red.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines

In 1968, three Norwegian companies joined together to create what is now known as Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The first ship hit the seas in 1970 and they have never looked  back. From one ship to 22 in six different classes,  it has been a story of growth and expansion and even acquisition, in the case of Celebrity Cruises. RC offers cruisers a wide selection when it comes to ship size, from the more intimate to the huge mega-ships. No matter what your cruising style, there is a ship that will provide exactly what you are looking for.

Royal Caribbean is one of the most popular of the mid-price cruise lines. It is no wonder. They have an excellent loyalty program that rewards repeat cruisers with perks from the second cruise on. They offer great customer service on all aspects of your cruise from booking through debarkation.  Your level of service from Royal Caribbean will not be diminished even if you book through a discount site. Their aim is to make you happy and they go above and beyond to accomplish just that.

If you have ever hesitated to cruise because you believed one of the many myths that are circulating about cruising, you really need to give it a try for yourself.  You will be happily surprised , especially if you choose Royal Caribbean.

Dining on Royal Caribbean has many choices. For the evening meal, you do pick the early or the later seating, but you always have the option of dining in one of the other restaurants. On the largest ships, The Oasis and the Allure freestyle dining is also available. The more formal dining room has very good food. The benefit of the set seating is that you have an assigned table, and you can choose the number of people at your table from 2 to 10. You have the same wait staff at every dinner. Your wait staff knows your preferences after the first night and will provide your tea or coffee the way you like it etc, they are quite amazing.

If you just don’t ever want to dress up you can eat at the casual buffet every meal and wear shorts and flip-flops 24/7, you have the choice. Specialty restaurants are available as well at an additional charge.

There are always lots of entertainment options. The shows are great; you won’t want to miss any. There are activities going on just about every minute of every day. You can make new friends if you want to or you can be a hermit, you are in charge.  There are trivia games, ping pong, shuffleboard, exercise classes and tons of other things to  do. You can just veg by the pool if you prefer, you are the boss. 


They have very nice spas and health clubs so you never have to give up your normal exercise routine. From early morning to late at night you can find things to do, you just need to check your Compass” every evening to see what the next day has to offer.

The staff is wonderful, your rooms will be kept immaculate. If you came in and use towels when you return later they will have been replaced. You will fell so pampered even in the cheapest rooms. You will love your daily animals left on your bed made from the towels and even using your sunglasses and sandals, it is  hilarious. You never knew what you will find when you get back from dinner.

You don’t need to pre-book your excursions, you can book them after you arrived on the ship and they had a vast selection from which to choose. You will be very happy with every one that you take, they were exactly as described.

You will find like many others before you that Royal Caribbean knows how to pamper its guests and you will want to make cruising with them part of your yearly vacation routine.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What is Not Included in the Price of a Cruise

Cruising is sold as an all-inclusive vacation. Before you set foot on the ship, you have already paid for that cruise. The upfront price includes your room, the taxes, port fees, most dining and some drinks and entertainment. While this is indeed all-inclusive, it is not everything that will be available to you and the opportunities to spend additional money will be abundant and varied.

Specialty dining

If you want to dine in one of the specialty restaurants on your cruise ship, you will need to pay an additional fee and have a reservation. Depending on the restaurant, the fees can be minimal or quite high.

Alcoholic drinks

It is hard to escape from the bars on every cruise ship. There is a bar at the pool, drinks are offered in the theater, the restaurants and just about anywhere you are on the ship. There are daily specials but no matter what form your drinks take, it is going to cost you and it is shocking how fast that can add up. Many people have been stunned by the total of their bills just from a drink here and a drink there.

Spa treatments

Most cruises include a spa and a beauty salon. You can have just about any beauty treatment that you would like to have. On days when the ship is in port, there are often specials offered for the cruisers who chose to stay on the ship and get pampered. Prices are similar to prices for services offered on land.

Some exercise classes

Using the exercise equipment in the gym is free but there are classes offered just about every day and many of them come with a fee. However, if you have ever wanted to try Pilates or Yoga, it is well worth it to give it a try.

Internet access

Some of the newer ships are offering wireless in your cabin, for a price of course. It may be that you will have to use the Internet Café. Prices are very high on most cruise lines but if you want to stay in touch, it is a necessary expense.

Soda

If you are a soda drinker, the best thing that you can do is to purchase a soda pass. This will allow you to drink as much as you would like for a set fee. Ice tea is free as is tap water.

Excursions

Any time that you are in port you have the option to take a variety of excursions. You can have a great cruise without excursions but most people don’t take that option. Excursions can be anything from a boat tour to an encounter with dolphins. The prices vary accordingly. If you are like most cruisers, you will take several excursions and if there are two of you, double the price.

Casino games

If you are a repeat cruiser,  you may get some token money to get your gambling juices flowing but you will need to have a line of credit to gamble.

Bingo

One of the most popular games on the cruise circuit is bingo and it can cost you a pretty penny to take a chance at winning the big jackpot.

Specialty coffee

Most cruise ships have a coffee bar. You can get your daily fix of latte, espresso or macchiato but you will have to flash your card to get these special treats. When you are dining in the main dining room or at the buffet, you will be able to drink coffee or tea for free but not special coffee drinks.

Tips

These days, many cruise lines are adding the tip automatically onto your bill when you leave the cruise. This can add up to several hundred dollars. When you consider the level of service that you receive on a cruise, it is well worth treating your cabin steward, waiters and just about everyone on the ship to a tip.

Most of the additional costs that are not included in the price of your cruise are optional. You could have a very nice cruise without spending an additional dime, except on the tips. Chances are however, that you won’t.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dining on a Cruise Ship

We have all heard them, the jokes about dining on a cruise ship. The endless buffets, the midnight extravaganzas, the formal dining, alternative dining and freestyle dining. How much is truth and how much is myth and legend? Here are a few of the facts about dining on a cruise ship from an experienced cruiser.

Traditional dining

Traditional dining is held in a specific dining room at a specific time every day. You can choose between early or late dining. You will have the same table and waitstaff every day. Some cruise lines have themed evening meals, this can be 1950′s or Mexican, check with your cruise line before you leave if you want to get into the spirit of things. There are also some dinners where formal dress is the dress of the evening. You won’t be turned away if you do not wear a sports jacket or suit but you may feel a bit like a fish out of water. You always have the option of eating at the casual dining buffet if you prefer not to dress up.

With traditional dining you can eat in the restaurant for breakfast and lunch but you will not be at your assigned table, which is just for dinner. The commercials showing you assigned to a table with horrible people are a gross exaggeration. You can request a table for two, four or more, you do have choices. If for some reason you have table mates you have a problem with, the head waiter will make every effort possible to move you to another table.

Free style dining

What is never mentioned when they advertise freestyle dining is that you will need to make reservations either daily or weekly for your preferred dining time. Yes you can choose 6:30 instead of 5:45 but you will need to cancel the reservation if you can not make it and reschedule. If you try to eat freestyle without a reservation you will wait in line and waits of over 30 minutes are not uncommon. You will also be seated with other diners who may or may not be your favorite people. You will not get to know your wait staff and they will be more like waiters and waitress’ in any restaurant on land, some good some not so good.


Buffets

Yes there is always a buffet for every meal and on some cruise lines food is available at the buffet 24/7. It is not of the same quality as the dining room food but is plentiful and you don’t need to dress up to enjoy their offerings.

Some cruise lines still offer the midnight buffet or special dessert or chocolate buffets which are extravaganzas of the first order with amazing food and gorgeous ice and fruit carvings.

Alternate dining

Some cruises offer alternate restaurants. These will require a cover charge of $15 or $20 per person. Here you can enjoy the romantic and intimate dining that many people prefer on a cruise. You need to book these as early as possible as they are wildly popular and often sell out. They are a really nice option and I love taking advantage of them.

Coffee bars

Can’t live without your latte or cappuccino? Most cruises will offer them at a price. They are not included in your dining package but what the heck it is worth it to have your favorite cup of java.

Room service

If you “want to be alone” you can choose to have your meals delivered to your room. This is especially nice if you have a balcony. There is no extra charge for this service so feel free to partake of the luxury.

Casual dining

When you are out on the deck you will have access to casual food. It can be pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs and fries or afternoon ice cream. These are all included in your cruise rate.

Beware however of soda, soda is not free. If you drink a lot of Coke or Pepsi you should purchase a beverage card that allows unlimited soda during your cruise. Alcoholic drinks are not includes either so keep that in mind. Many people have received a very big shock when they get their final bill, those $6 drinks can really add up.

Everywhere you look on your cruise there will be food but there will also be plenty of healthy options to order. You can throw caution to the wind and eat everything or you can stick to your good habits, at least some of the time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How to Choose the Right Cruise


Cruising can be a fabulous way to see the world but only if you choose the best cruise for you. There are hundreds of cruises and many cruise lines, it is not a one size fits all kind of vacation. You have to research and do your homework, the same as you would with any other type of vacation. You have to be realistic about your expectation and budget. Here are a few tips to help you choose your perfect cruise.

Where do you want to go?


Deciding the destination of your cruise is probably the most important decision you need to make.  Once you know  where you want to go,  you will be able to determine what your departure port will need to be. There are many destinations for a cruise. In the Caribbean you can choose, eastern, southern and western. There are also cruises to the Bahamas either alone or in combination. The Caribbean is one of the most popular cruise destinations especially if you are not from the west coast. If you are on the west coast, Mexico is a good choice as are Alaska and Hawaii.


If you want to go farther afield there is the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and canals in Europe. There are some rivers that make for a great cruise including The Rhine, the Danube, and the Nile. Cruises can take you to China, Southeast Asia, Australia and even Antarctica. Keep in mind that if you choose a departure port at a distance from your home,  you will need to add the price of the flight into your total budget.

Do you want to have a lot of ports of call?

Do you see yourself getting off the ship often and visiting ports of call? Do you want a relaxing cruise where you just have one stop at the end of the cruise? Take a look at all the excursions that are available for any ports that you are thinking of visiting. Most ships are a destination on their own and it isn’t necessary to get off the ship to have a great cruise.

How active do you want to be?

Some cruises are non-stop activities and others are more about quiet pampering. Knowing  how you see yourself spending every day of your cruise will help you to make an educated choice when it comes to choosing not only the cruise but the cruise line. Some cruise lines specialize in adventure and others are more luxury oriented. Read a lot of reviews about different ships and different cruise lines to find one that will give you the perfect experience.


How long are you comfortable being on a cruise?

Cruises can be several days to several weeks and even more. If you want a cruise that lasts just a week, then don’t even look at the longer ones.  If you have to fly to your departure point, take that into consideration when figuring the time.

What is your budget?

Prices differ greatly between cruises. You may be able to find a discount if you are willing to travel a little off the most popular times or are not afraid of bad weather. Check for any discounts that you may be eligible for.


What is the average age of passengers?

Some cruise lines are geared toward families and others to seniors. There are also cruises that have a reputation as party ships. If you are traveling with your family you want to know what provisions that the ship has for children. Do they offer activities for children and teens? If you are looking for a romantic cruise, you may not want to take one filled with children.

How structured do you want your cruise?

Some cruise lines advertise their policy of letting you dine whenever you want. Others have set dinner times. There are pluses for both options, it is a personal choice. I prefer set time because you have the same waiter every day and in my experience, you get better service.

Will you get seasick?

If you choose to travel on seas that are liable to be rough the chances of you getting seasick will increase. The safest thing to do is to just take an anti-nausea medication every day from the start of your cruise. Why take a chance, especially, if you are not sure if you are prone to seasickness? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and who wants to lose precious days from your cruise being sick in your cabin. I prefer Bonine and have never been seasick or drowsy.

Once you have answered all of these questions you will be better able to pick the right cruise line and finally the perfect cruise for your dream vacation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Best Reasons to Cruise

Cruising is a great way to travel for a variety of reasons. The best reasons are different for everyone who travels but here are a few of the main reasons to choose a cruise for your next vacation.

~Stress-free planning

Planning a cruise is one of the easiest if not the easiest type of vacation to plan. This is one time when it won’t cost you a cent to have a travel agent and your cruise specialist can save you hours of work and stress. All you need to do is to tell them how much you want to spend, how long you would like to cruise for and where you would like to do. They will then give you all the options. A good cruise specialist will ask you lots of questions about what you want from your cruise so that they can match you up with the cruise line that will provide the perfect experience for you.


~Upfront payment

Depending on how far in advance you book your cruise, you will have to make a partial payment as a deposit or if it is within a couple of months, you may have to pay it in full.  Once you have made this payment the only other thing you will absolutely have to pay are your staff tips. Your food is included as are almost all forms of entertainment. Any money you do spend will be a choice that you make once you are on the ship. This is a great way to budget you know before you ever leave exactly what your vacation is going to cost you.

~Something for everyone

On a cruise, there is something for everyone. From young children to seniors there are activities and designated areas that will provide just the kind of experience you are looking for. Are you an adventure type of person, depending on where you are cruising to, you will have the opportunity of snorkeling, iceberg adventures, visiting ancient ruins or swimming with dolphins. These are just a few of the possible options.  If you like a challenge, try trivia, the casino or bingo.

~Relax

Cruising is one of the most relaxing vacations you can imagine.   Head to the spa for a massage or a facial.  Sit in the hot tub under the stars or layout on a lawn chair on the deck or around the pool. Sleep late and order room service or dance the night away under the stars.  
 
~Feel pampered

There is nothing quite like leaving your wet towel on the floor and having your cabin steward take care of it for you. This is any woman’s idea of a dream vacation. No cooking, no cleaning and lots of time to do all the things that you enjoy.

~Good value

Perhaps the best reason is that you get a lot of bang for your buck on a cruise considering it includes food, lodging, and entertainment.

These are just some of the best reasons to cruise. There are many, many, more. Why not book a cruise and find out for yourself?

Cruising

For week five I thought I would talk about one of my favorite methods of traveling, cruising. Not that I am an expert, certainly not on the level of my friends Linda and Harry Perez who have cruised everywhere. But, I have taken six cruises, two to Bermuda, two to the western Caribbean, one to New England and Canada and one to the Eastern Caribbean. All of them were amazing for different reasons and I am happy to share the issues that we have had to deal with, it is going to be the good, the bad and the downright ugly. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dining at Michie Tavern

Michie Tavern is a very historic tavern. Originally located about 17 miles down the road, it has an interesting history. Today you can take a tour, do some shopping and have lunch. Tours begin on the half hour so we decided since it was 1:25 p.m. it made more sense to take the tour first even though we were hungry. By 2:15 p.m. we were really hungry. There is a sign outside that says "wait to be let in", we barely reached the porch before the door was opened for us to enter.


Lunch is served from 11:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., this is the only meal they serve. It is served buffet style and I had no idea what to expect. You grab a pewter style plate, silverware, and a tray, and start serving yourself. Coleslaw was the first offering and it looked as if it had been put together within the minute, it was that fresh. It was followed by mashed potato, green beans, baby beets, black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, pulled pork, fried chicken, baked chicken, biscuits, rolls and corn bread. Drinks other than water are extra. We had water which is served in a metal cup.


So far there was nothing really unusual happening here other than the fact that one of the drink choices was hot mulled cider. You take your tray and try to find a seat. Unfortunately we couldn’t sit in the more historic part we did however find a table on the porch. My only complaint is that the seats are benches. Not great on my back but really it is a very minor complaint.


I am about to rave about the food. The chicken was wonderful, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside and I had a huge breast, Al had two legs. Oh did I forget to mention that if you want seconds your serving wench will bring them to you. Everything we tried was good and some of them were really good. The stewed tomatoes were... I am at a loss, divine. I don’t know what they put in them but they are sweet.


For dessert they offer peach cobbler with or without ice cream, an ice cream sandwich, and other options. We shared a peach cobbler ala mode. It was wonderful, warm and sweet with the cold ice cream melting all over. I added a steaming cup of coffee again in the metal cup. Remember; don’t grab the cup, only the handle.   

I love dining at Michie Tavern and stop here anytime I am in the area. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Highlands and James Monroe

If you are expecting something on the scale of Jefferson’s Monticello or even James Madison’s Montpelier, you will find Highland a severe disappointment. We went in knowing very little about what to expect and were indeed very pleasantly surprised by the simplicity we found.

From the outside Highland looks a great deal more like John Adams home in Quincy Ma. than any other presidential home I have visited. That being said, the grounds are lovely and of course John Adams didn’t have slave cabins.

One of the really interesting things we learned on our tour, and the house must be visited on a tour, is that Eliza Monroe went to school with Hortense Beauharnais, the stepdaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte. Her portrait as well as her brother Eugene’s hangs at Highland. There is also a portrait of their headmistress Madam Campan. The women remained friends for life and Eliza even named one of her daughters Hortensia Monroe Hay.

We arrived just as a tour was forming but the size is controlled so we waited for the next tour, which turned out to be much smaller. While we were waiting we toured a small room with some interesting items, including an 1830 engraving believed to be the last from life likeness done of the president. There are seven ongoing archaeological projects at Highland and these are covered in this room as well.

Tours leave about every ten minutes and last 40 minutes.  Group sizes are usually between 15 and 20 and this can make it seem quite crowed in some of the rooms.

Highland really is two houses that have been basically stuck together. A fire devastated part of the house in 1880 and a new Victorian wing was attached; the wing is quite a bit larger than the original house.

Our guide was very knowledgeable about the Monroes and we learn a lot about his early life in Westmorland County, his time learning law with Thomas Jefferson and his service in the Revolutionary War. He was wounded at the battle of Trenton and the bullet remained in his shoulder for the rest of his life.

We move through the parlor, the drawing room, the study, the master bedroom and the children’s room. Much of the furniture that we see in the rooms has been donated or is on loan. Many of the pieces belonged to the Monroe’s including the cradle and President Monroe’s desk where he wrote the Monroe Doctrine. A mirror in the bedroom is original to the White House.

The tour continues to the kitchens which are entered from outside and then you are free to tour the cabins and grounds on your own. There is a very fine gift store. Allow about 75 minutes to make a thorough visit.