Feb 192019
 

When you picture the Bahamas what do you see? Sugary white sand beaches, tropical breezes, a wonderful warm ocean, palm trees, relaxation, a place to leave all your worries behind? Of course you do. Me too!

Playing in the warm waters of a sunny beach is a great day!

 

Each year millions of sun seekers swarm upon the idyllic beaches of the Bahamian Islands in search of a wondrous getaway. The Bahamas is an island chain consisting of 700 islands stretched over 100,000 square nautical miles. That’s a lot of sand and surf! With its proximity to the U.S., ecological diversity, experiences and personality a Bahamas vacation makes sense. The cruise line industry came up with the brilliant idea of having their own private Bahamian Island to offers would-be cruisers something a little more exclusive. And, boy, did that idea pay off! Who doesn’t want to have a beach island all to themselves? Well, you and 4,000 of your closest friends, but still. All the major cruise lines have one, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have two. MSC is going to debut their private Bahamian island in November; it will  be a true Marine Preserve.

Whether  you dock or tender at one of the cruise lines private islands the food is included, sometimes your drink package-not with all cruise lines, so check the fine print, you key card works for purchases, hammocks, beach lounge chairs, local entertainment, waterparks, etc all included in the fare. The kids club extends to the island so you can drop your kids off. It’s a good deal.

So are they all the same? In some ways, yes. Bbq lunches, a myriad of beaches, calm waters, play areas, adult areas, local musicians and vendors, beachy vibe restaurants and bars, shopping and water activities can all be found on any of these islands, but in the same way Nassau is different from Great Exuma each island will offer a few unique things. So, this post is just a basic rundown of what your private island oasis is like.

Disney will be expanding its fleet over the next few years.

Disney: Castaway Cay

  • 225 Nautical Miles from Port Canaveral and close to the Great Abaco Islands.
  • 1,000 acres of land only 55 developed for visitors.
  • On lease from the Bahamian government until 2096.
  • This is the island where Splash and the first Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed.
  • Castaway Cay received a Certificate of Excellence from Tripadvisor.

Let’s start with the big one.  Obviously, the Disney characters and the Disney theme set this gem of an island apart from others. Enjoy a bbq party with Lilo and Stitch, meet Jack Sparrow, shop for Frozen themed souvenirs, get your picture taken Mickey and the gang. The ship docks so cruisers can walk right onto the island and Disney has a tram to take you around the island. The drop off area for younger kids is the first stop. Strollers, wagons, joggers and special wheelchairs are all provided complementary and each of the 3 seperate beaches offers a bbq area. The water is filtered and cups are provided so you don’t need to concern yourself with bottled water either.

With teens, tweens and adults having their own beach area there is something for everyone. Including fishing charters, stingray feeding, parasailing, outdoor massages, cabana rentals and a waterslide that looks like a castle and drops into the ocean. Other than the character meet and greet and one of a kind souvenirs there are few other special things about Castaway Cay.

  1. The 5k run. This is a fun run/walk for all ages and can start anytime between 8:00a.m.-9:00a.m. Runners get to be first off the ship, although not by much according to some recent voyagers.  You can drop your kiddos off at Scuttle’s Cove before the race. Even in the winter it is pretty humid so wear clothes that breath. There are 2 water stations, good photo ops on the trail so bring a camera, cast members will cheer you on along the way, it is free and you get a cool certificate and/or medal at the end of the course.
  2. Snorkeling. Every island will have snorkeling but while at Castaway Cay you get to go on a hunt of sort and try to find the hidden Mickeys and other sunken treasure, like an anchor or Minnie Mouse. They are marked with buoys, making them easier to find. It is a large lagoon-22 acres and has 2 entrances. Life vest are required but you can borrow one free of charge. A few tips from cruisers: Bring your own snorkel mask, go early as the water get murky later in the day.
  3. It has a post office! Buy a postcard while on the island but get the stamp on the ship since the post office does not always remain open the whole time you anchored. These postcards can only be found at Castaway Cay. The same is true for most of the souvenirs found at the gift shops. They will not be sold on the ship or any of the parks. She Sells Seashells is the largest of these shops.
  4. Castaway Cay has full time residents. A small group of cast members live year round on the island, which is good for the Bahamian economy. Disney also uses solar panels to fuel the water heaters and the cruise line recycles 7,000lbs of cooking oil each week to power a fleet of Bahamas Waste Management vehicles in Nassau.
  5. Disney cruise line cast members help protect and monitor the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle. There  are nests on the island. Sometimes you can see one when you snorkel.

 

Other Tips:

  • The bbq lunch is over at 2 at all beaches. The Serenity Bay beach  for adults will offer a few more choices for lunch.
  • The Disney app does not work on the island.
  • A lot of the characters will be done by early afternoon. If you want to see Jack Sparrow try to explore early and on foot.
  • Pelican Plunge is great for kids but you must swim out to it and there is a height requirement and life vests are required-they are free though.
  • If you go to the Family Beach go first thing. It’s the closest beach to the ship and gets crowded quickly!
  • Your key card works for all purchases so there is no need to bring cash.
  • It can get windy on Castaway Cay and it’s not uncommon for excursions to get canceled.

Norwegian: Great Stirrup Cay

  • The island is 268 acres and part of the Berry Islands chain.
  • Visit the southern part of the island to see the remnant of an old U.S. Military base and satellite tracking station
  • Great Stirrup Cay is home to a coconut plantation
  • Norwegian was the first cruise line to have a private Bahamas island.

Norwegian is a fun, easy going cruise line-perfect for a beach getaway.

As far as things to do here it’s not much different from any other island. You can rent cabanas, feed a stingray, rent a kayak, eat to your heart’s content, ride on a jet ski, etc. Great Stirrup Cay has some stand out features though. The island has the most interesting history. Check out this link to read all about the islands past. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Stirrup_Cay

  1. Visit a lighthouse. The lighthouse was originally built in 1863. Today it’s solar powered and is fully automated. The structure is 80ft. tall and it’s light can be seen for 20 miles.
  2. Go bird watching. You can spot gulls, frigates and sanderlings, you might also spot lizards, black iguanas and land crabs just hanging around the beach with you!
  3. Snorkeling is great here because is has an underwater sculpture garden. That sounds very fun!
  4. It has a coconut plantation. Great Stirrup Cay has many a coconut palm so expect to find a lot of recipes using coconut meat or the milk. Sea Grape is another common fruit bearing tree on the island.
  5. Go on an eco boat tour. This narrated tour lasts about an hour and is great for seeing stingrays, sharks and other marine life in their natural habitat. Other highlights are the mangrove estuary, seeing the caves in the area and the 250ft blue hole.

Other Tips:

  • Bring cash. Norwegian’s private island boasts a great straw market but it is manned by local vendors and they take cash.
  • There are plenty of hammocks so don’t worry about missing out.
  • Great Stirrup Cay is designated a marine life sanctuary and you are not allowed to remove anything from the water! They are serious about this!
  • In 2019 the cruise line is spending millions of dollars to upgrade the lagoon, the family beach and the villas. The villas will be 1 and 2 bedrooms and the island will get a ultra modern reception area.

Carnival and Holland: Half Moon Cay

  • This slice of paradise is 2,400 acres but only 50 acres have been developed.
  • Porthole Cruise Magazine has continuously said this island is the Readers Top Choice.
  • Half Moon Cay is 100 miles SE of Nassau and used to be called Little San Salvador.
  • You will tender in as the waters are to shallow to allow the ship to dock.
  • The name Half Moon Cay comes from its 2.5 miles of white sand beach that curves outward on both ends. 

Even among a long line of sugary beaches bathed in sunshine Half Moon Cay is one of the favorites of cruisers. Visitors to this island rave about the crystal clear turquoise waters that one can see through forever, pristine beaches, beautiful flora and fauna that make this a standout amongst its peers. So what are some not to be missed things that make this island special?

  1. Horseback riding. This adventure is not uncommon in the Bahamas but the Pegasus Ranch excursion takes its riders to the highest point in the island that affords stunning scenery and then you get to ride into the waves! Sign me up! One note-riders are required to wear long pants and closed toed shoes.
  2. Kayak Bonefish Lagoon. This protected habitat is 1400 square acres and is a great place to see some of the 47 different species of birds as well as red mangrove and silver buttonwood trees.
  3. Dance with the Calypso Band. Music on this island is fun and festive, so enjoy!
  4. Shop for locally made jewelry. Clamshells are farmed there and you can get a locally crafted pearl ring custom made for you right there.
  5. Captain Morgan’s Bar. This bar is in a ruined pirate ship and that is cool!
  6. Get married. This island has an American style church, it must be reserved ahead of time.
  7. The kids love the Lagoon. This kid friendly playground sports plenty of ocean themed toys, pirate water cannons and a large fully equipped playground.

Other Tips:

  • Half Moon Cay does have a convenience store for things like sunscreen, snacks and soda.
  • Although there are plenty of sun loungers there are large stretches of beaches with NO palm trees or shelter. So watch the sun or if you have money to burn rent a cabana. You can get a 2 story one complete with a/c and a butler!
  • Your drink package will not work here.
  • This island has a post office where you can get a Bahamas postcard and stamps.
  • Massages are done by professionals from the crew and the cabana is air conditioned.
  • Due to its altitude rain is not uncommon, neither are thunderstorms and strong breezes.

Princess: Princess Cays

  • This is not a private island, rather, it is 40 acres acres on the island of Eleuthera located on the southern tip.
  • For shopping there is a mix of local vendors and official Princess shops, so bring cash.
  • Your drink package will work on the island.
  • Due to the rocky and shallow shore the cruise line will tender you in.
  • There are adult only cabanas you can rent.

For the most part, it seemed that cruisers took the opportunity to lay about a beautiful and warm, but not too hot beach. Visitors also were happy with the amount of shade provided and the variety of bars and even though lunch is over early there is a fresh fruit bar. Being part of a large island though does give Princess cruisers some advantages.

I LOVE hammocks! Who doesn’t?

  1. Tour the local villages. Book an excursion that takes you through the nearby villages like Tarpum Bay and Rock Sound. This excursion will include an adventure through the Cathedral Cave and the Blue Hole-referred to as a bottomless hole.
  2. Dune Buggy Adventure. See church ruins, trek in the jungle and drive through a secluded beach with a lighthouse! It does seem to be the most popular, but, it is a rough excursion-truly off road.
  3. Leon Levy Plant Preserve. This plant and garden preserve was Eleutheras first national park and is over 20 acres including impressive wetlands.
  4. Go surf fishing. A local expert will take you on this excursion.

Other Tips:

  • Princess is owned by Carnival so expect to see Carnival ships there; I don’t believe they are there at the same time, but I am not positive.
  • Princess Cays is very rocky in places. Both in the water and on land so bring good shoes.
  • This private area is a good spot to find yourself surrounded by pink sand too!
  • The time spent here is short so if you have been to this stop before maybe stay on the ship.

Royal Caribbean/Celebrity: Coco Cay

Royal delivers excitement and variety!

  • Also called Little Stirrup Cay, this is little spot of heaven is only 1 mile long and 200 meters wide and is part of the Berry Island chain.
  • For now cruisers are tendered in but it’s pretty seamless.
  • A lot of construction is still going on with most being completed by May of 2019 but the over the water cabanas and Coco Beach Club are slated to be open in December 2019.
  • Your drink package is good on the island-just don’t forget your seapass card!
  • You have to be scuba certified to go on the scuba excursion the max depth is about 40 ft, so it’s shallow.
  • Royals sister companies Celebrity and Azamara also have access to the island. Although, I am not sure how often Azamara uses the island.

Coco Cay is a big project for Royal, costing $200 million dollars. A representative I spoke with at RCI said by May 2nd 2019 the dock should be open for people to walk off the ship.  Most of the excursion are available such as jet skiing and snorkeling, scuba diving and floating mats,etc. By the time construction is done this tiny island will be packed with a whole lotta WOW’s, including:

  1. A 20,000 square foot aqua park with a floating obstacle course that should be completed by March 2019.
  2. Over water cabanas-no one else has this.
  3. Thrill Water Park will have 13 water slides
  4. The largest freshwater pool in the Bahamas as well as the largest wave pool
  5. You can take a hot air balloon ride
  6. Snorkel by a sunken pirate ship, the children aqua park is also a pirate ship structure and located right next to the welcome center.
  7. The island will have glamping teepees and those little plastic ball things you can roll around the lagoon in.

The list goes on and on and on forever. Despite all the construction people didn’t feel that intruded upon. There was still plenty of activities, great food and quiet beaches. There are some things to keep in mind about Coco Cay like not all the areas are free. Coco Beach and the Thrill Water Park charge a fee, either all day or half day. There will be plenty of places to play and relax for free such as Splashaway Bay or Oasis Lagoon.

By going to Royal Caribbeans site you can see the island map and see all the cool stuff coming your way. It’s an interactive game and it’s fun but it will not tell you what is free, what’s not or how much the extras cost. https://www.royalcaribbean.com/cococay-bahamas-perfect-day-island/overview

MSC:Ocean Cay Marine Preserve

  • MSC is family owned cruise line and has 800% growth over the last nine years. MSC stands for Mediterranean Shipping Company
  • It’s not built yet! So, unfortunately, this purpose built island has had her premiere date pushed back until  November 2019.
  • Ocean Cay will be the closest private island to Miami-65 miles east.
  • It will be huge! The island will be 95 developed acres and over 11,000 feet of beachfront magnificence.
  • The island will provide 140 permanent jobs for locals.

MSC is a very innovative cruise line and I can’t wait to visit its private island.

The aim of MSC to make their private island stand out is to embrace the ecological and marine life factor. There will be a real marine research laboratory that will study climate resistant coral-which you will find on the island and a coral nursery. The cruise line will offer up some educational courses and tours. They will also recreate a Bahamian village with 100 environmentally friendly structures. What else can a visitor expect to experience at this blissful local?

  1. Late night stays. MSC does this right! The biggest complaint from cruisers is that the party doesn’t last long enough. Since this place is so close to Miami cruisers can expect to stay til 11pm or even 1am. So you can catch a show at the cinema, party all night at the lighthouse, eat at the food trucks at the marina late at night.
  2. No tendering, you can walk off the ship.
  3. The cruise line provides an electric cart service to get you around the island.
  4. More than just a buffet. MSC will have a variety of food trucks, ice cream carts and coffee carts around the island.
  5. With 7 different beach areas there is no end of choices for everyone.
  6. Take a boat to one of the smaller deserted cays nearby.

I am really rooting for MSC to hit this out of the park. They are working with the Bahamian government to have a sustainable and ecologically responsible experience.  I love that they stay all night and offer so many choices! Such as a food truck that serves Conch Fritters and that there will be an old shipwreck nearby to snorkel around.

Other Things to Know:

  • Yacht club members get their  own beach, massage center and private bungalows.
  • It will have a 2,000 seat amphitheater, perfect for movies and other entertainment!
  • The same marvelous spa treatments you experience on the ship you can enjoy on the island.
  • Kids will love the floating submarine attraction; thrill seekers will want to try parasailing-that is definitely on my bucket list!
  • By staying late you can enjoy a sunset sail excursion or night time glass bottom boat tour.

Whew! That was a ton information I just threw at you and it’s a lot to think about, but wait, there’s more! That’s right, the Bahamas are not the only place that the cruise lines have conquered.

Royal Caribbean has a private island in Haiti and Norwegian has one in Belize. So, that will be a blog for another day; a shorter one too. I am tired and I am sure your eyes hurt but I have been wanting to do a comparative type of article on the cruise lines private islands for a while now. I feel that even though the basics are the same that each island has a few things that make it special; much like the cruise line itself.

If you are interested in one of these islands as part of your next cruise please visit me at my travel agent site https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver  or email me at rweaver@cruiseshipcenters.com.

Happy Sailing! I hope see you at the beach very soon!

 

 

Sep 032018
 

Cruise destination vacations are one of the most popular ways people choose to spend their off time and for good reasons.

Variety:

There is no end of entertainment, activities and food options. In one place you can watch a broadway show, try Pina Colada soup, go gambling, get a massage, watch a movie under the stars, learn about a culture,shoot down a waterslide, play mini golf and enjoy wine tasting all in one day! Or lay around and do nothing. Everybody loves choices. This is especially true for families or multi generational travelers. My boys like the dance clubs, waterslides, laser tag, etc. I like the water slides but I want to see art, sip champagne and lay in a lounge chair and have a pool boy bring me food. On a cruise you really can have it all.

Ease Of Travel:

Unpack once and done. Also, if you are going to go on excursions someone picks you up and drops you off (mostly) and one of my favorite things about cruising is that I can see multiple countries without having to deal with the logistics of getting there. If I find a place I love I can plan a vacation to go back there for a longer visit.

Escapism:

Being on vacation is largely about getting away from it all and it’s hard to feel more away from everyday life than being on a cruise! Limited WiFi (although that is changing) the open sea, no cars or interstates, no fast food chains. A cruise becomes a community seperate from the rest of the world; whether you are on river or ocean cruise,  whether the ship is big or small.

Being Out To Sea For Days On End! 

Well, duh! Enough said.

On the other hand, most new cruise ships are HUGE! Giant floating resorts that hold 5,000 people, 20 decks, tiny cabins, looonnng waits for the elevators and almost too much going on at any one time. It can be intimidating. I have been lucky enough to sail on many types of vessels; sightseeing sail boats, ferries, old fashioned  pirate ships, whale watching ships, catamarans, canoes; you get the idea but I still love ocean cruising the most and have learned some things through trial and error (mostly error) that I have jotted down and I hope they help you get the most from your next cruise. If you prefer a more intimate sea faring experience there are still plenty of options for you to get the vacation you want and I believe these tips still hold value.

  1. Be Organized. This will help you from the planning stages all the way through to disembarkation. Being organized will help you be efficient as well. Start with must haves. Documentation is the single most thing you need. Passports, Visas, your boarding pass, id etc. Have a safe and easy to reach place for these things. Call the bank to let them know you are traveling, making sure you have enough medications for the entire trip, have a hard copy of all your shore excursion and/or reservations.  I make a checklist and put reminders on my phone for things I know need to do. Like the online check in. Doing the online check in helps you get through the line faster. You will have your boarding pass, you will know your boarding time, you can alert the ship to any food allergies, special occasions. You can reserve shore excursions, specialty dining and spa packages. The site will let you know any luggage restrictions as well as information about drink packages. For Carnival if you pre-buy your drink packages and wifi you get a discount. You can also find deck plans and a list of what amenities the ship has.
  2. How to pack smarter. This is a hard one for me, and a lot people probably. I have learned how to roll my clothes tight, to put my necklaces through a straw, put my socks and belts in my shoes and the value of ziploc bags and most important, not to overpack. When you travel you know you are going to buy things anyway; so don’t pack half of what you own. It’s another of those checklist things. Am I going hiking? So I need good shoes and bug spray and sunscreen; do I need a cute new hat and a special “hiking shirt”? No, I do not. Shop early for travel size toiletries too. Those can be pre packed. Anti bacterial wipes and air freshener for that tiny bathroom are must haves. Don’t forget that your bags get taken to your room and you don’t go to your room for a while sometimes for better than an hour. We always have a small backpack with our bathing suits and sunscreen because the pools are open. The only things that aren’t open right away is the Casino and the shopping. So keep a easy to carry bag with you while you wait to go to your room, esp. if you have medications you have to take. I also keep a water thermos with me so I can refill up water whenever I want. Bottled water on a cruise ship is not free on most major lines. The last night of your cruise you are required to leave your luggage outside the door so it can be prepped for disembarkation.  Keep things you need with you in the morning in a small bag, just like when you first board the ship.
  3. Shop around for Shore Excursions. I love saving money! Who doesn’t right? For this reason I start shopping around for shore excursions  early. First, go on the cruise lines website and see what they sell and how much it costs then do your own research and see if you can get the same thing for less. There are a few things to keep in mind and the most important one is to make sure the vendor you are booking with is reputable! Get customer reviews, call them if your can, find real pictures not the ones on the website. Make sure the excursion includes all costs and if they will pick you up and take you back to port and how long it is. For the most part we book our own, there are times booking with the ship is a good idea.  If the excursion is far from port, lasts a long time or is in a truly exotic port. Also, if the cruise line specializes in that particular city or if the excursion comes with risks, i.e. helicopter tours, parasailing or float planes. Cruise lines will put your safety above all else and they vet the vendor so you don’t have too. While we were in Cabo we had to tender to port and I booked the excursion with the cruise line because I got to be on one of the 1st tender boats off the ship, it saved me a ton of time. Other than that I book my own especially if I am staying close to port or just hitting the beach or shopping.

    Port Cities offer Traditional Performances.

  4. Know yourself. Being on vacation can be liberating! A chance to unwind and try new things and you absolutely should! But, you are still you at the end of the day. If you can’t walk 3 miles at home don’t plan a 8 mile hike; you won’t have any fun. If you don’t like musicals don’t go to the theater for a 45 minute musical show. Prone to seasickness? Maybe don’t book a cabin on the very front on a high deck, and don’t book a guaranteed cabin if you are picky about where you sleep! You will most likely be disappointed. Not a gambler? No problem, go to the spa. I didn’t book a Mayan Ruins tour because it was going to be 98 degrees that day and I am not into a group tour listening to a guide, I went to the beach came back early and hit the pool. The ship was not crowded and it was great. I do try new foods and new activities but I know my limits. Well, sort of. I did try to hit the party deck on NCL’s Getaway every night, which I am not really cut out for and the last day slept until 11am. Oh well, it was probably worth it.
  5. Watch the upsell. There are things on a cruise line that are not free, such as drinks, spa treatments, specialty dining. There is always someone trying to get you to buy more things.  So you have to know what is free and what isn’t before you go. The ship planner will let you know what food is included and what isn’t. A lot of cruise lines will offer discounts on specialty dining if you book the 1st night or will offer a lunch menu for a reduced rate versus the regular night time fare. Drink specials abound as well; again check the planner for drink coupons, happy hours, go to the art auction for free champagne, listen for what shop offers free mimosas, look for the bartender shows and events you can score free or reduced drinks. Same thing for Captains Dinner. For the spa book treatments on port days because the cost for the same thing is reduced on days the ship is docked.  If you are big drinker or want to book a week at the spa pre buy at your online check in or the 1st day on the ship. Again, check out the package specials on the website first and make sure you read up on what is included in your package and what is not. Departing out of TX? Your drink package does not apply til the next day. You can still buy alcohol but it is limited and must be in compliance with TX state law, New York has similar laws. If you are booked in a suite or are lucky enough to have booked a special fare that includes drinks, or even better, are able to afford a luxury cruise line or a river cruise this would not apply to you. Good job and drink on!
  6. The Ship Planner is your best friend:  It is always in your cabin and you get a new one each day. In it you will find all the activities, when they start, what they are, what deck they are on and a brief description. It will give you schedules for shows, guest lectures, and any drink specials. Basically, anything you need to know not only about the ship but the ports of call. Times you will be in port, some points of interest and what time you need to be back on board. The planner makes a great souvenir.
  7. Maximize your time. Be early, but know that you will board by sections. If you have a suite you will board earlier or if have a certain loyalty status; or for Carnival you can pay for a “Faster to the Fun” pass. Book those early, spaces are limited and they sell out fast. When you first board you can go to the pool, eat and drink and check out the specialty dining and get a good feel for the ship.; but you can’t shop or gamble. If you can book a later flight off the ship I would highly recommend it! The cruise line will assign you a disembarkation time but if you are asking to leave later I have never been turned down for changing time to later. I sleep in and have leisurely breakfast, and walk the promenade one last time. It’s pretty nice, and it makes disembarkation a little less hectic because the people in a hurry have already left.

    Water taxis will take you around Cabo for some great photo opportunities

  8. Ships have personalities. Not all ships nor cruise line are created equal. If you are looking for longer times in port or more authentic experiences? Azamara, Windstar and Regent are among some of the top ones and usually are very inclusive-and extremely expensive! Princess and Oceania are a good mid price option. The reason is simple. The more time they are in port the less money off the guest, but with the higher end cruise lines the client expects more. If you are looking for jam packed itinerary and endless entertainment and food options, try Royal Caribbean and Norwegian and the newer MSC ships. These ships are floating cities. Are you a culinary explorer? Celebrity cruises sweeps accolades from cruise critic. Viking gets top marks in the small ship category. Check out this link from an earlier post I wrote about cruise ship personalities. https://roamingredfeather.com/2018/04/17/how-to-find-the-right-cruise-vacation-fit/
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask for more. At the dining room you will get a menu offering a 3 to 4 course meal. Don’t be afraid to be ask for 2nds, or 2 appetizers or desserts. When we were on Carnival the ship was sold out and my boys (teenagers at the time) got 3 servings of lobster and we each got 2 desserts. On NCL my husband couldn’t decide between 2 appetizers so she brought both.  We have even had a waiter go to a different bar to get a drink I really wanted. Remember, this is a courtesy and not normally allowed. The staff will generally do whatever they can do to make you happy, but please, ask, don’t demand and understand if they can’t. For most ships room service is free but some cruise lines charge a  delivery fee. The daily planner will include any charges. The staff work very hard with almost no days off for way less than we would ever be paid; so don’t hesitate to ask for what you want but be always be nice and tip generously or give good reviews or both.

Fun Facts:

  • Your cabin is magnetic. Carry on some magnets and you can stick your cruise planner, coupons, notes, etc to the wall.
  • Some cruise lines offer extended stays that include hotels, sometimes meals, day trips and transfers to the ship. For example, Princess offers many opportunities to extend your Alaska vacation.
  • Set dining times are a thing of the past. While most cruise lines still have the set dining times almost all offer a flexible dining time where you can go to dinner wherever and whenever you want. This is one of my favorite things. If I wanted a schedule set for me I would have stayed at work.
  • You can get married on board. Cruises are romantic and cruise lines offer a fair variety of options and budgets. Some of the most popular ones are Princess and P&O Cruises.
  • Cruise ships have a jail. Okay, so maybe this one isn’t fun, but it is important to know. Security and safety on a cruise ship is very important. So behave or get sent to the brig until you get to the next port or to the home port where you will be handed over to the port authority.
  • Your ship may leave without.  Yes, I know, not fun either. I am really off track now, sorry; but still important. If you are late coming back after the ship schedule says you need to be back be prepared to be stranded. Especially if you didn’t book with the ship. If you booked a tour with the ship and something happens-i.e. the tour bus breaks down the ship will wait for you, but that is about the only reason.
  • Look under the bed. Ship cabins are not very spacious but you can usually find extra storage under the bed.
  • The water is filtered. I love ice cold water but I don’t want to pay for bottle water; I don’t see the point. I pack a stainless steel water bottle and there are water stations all over the ship. The water is filtered under the regulations of America and Europe.

Disney is premium product that is worth the cost. Book early and don’t expect a casino or alcohol packages. Do expect outstanding service and attention to detail.

Cruise Critic is one of my favorite sites for reviews of ships, destinations, ports, excursions and whole array of useful tips. Plus, you can find a page called Roll Call it lets you talk to other passengers on your specific cruise. You just have join and enroll it’s easy and free and very useful. You will have friends before you even start. https://www.cruisecritic.com/

You can also click on my travel agent Expedia Website to see some cruise options out there. You can search by date, destination, cruise line etc. https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver

Happy Sailing and as always another insights or tips or stories you have learned the hard way are always welcome.

Jun 242018
 

Seattle is home to the Puget Sound; a picturesque waterway that is crowned with the breathtaking Olympic Mountains and trimmed with an outstanding waterfront. I have been up and down the piers in Seattle a hundred times and I still love it every time! It’s fun, lively and beautiful. It is a cruise ship mecca for cruises to Alaska and for other sailing excursions, such as the Victoria Clipper Ferry that goes to Canada. Surprisingly, it also seems easy for cruise ship passengers to end up at the wrong pier or even the wrong address altogether. So let’s review. If you have done your pre cruise check in and have the address written down you can still read on to see what is close to your pier.

Norwegian Cruises offer fun and free style cruises.

Pier 66 Bell Street Pier: Address: 2225 Alaskan Way. This pier is  centrally located and very close to some great restaurants; like Anthony’s Pier 66 and one of my faves, the Crab Pot! This vibrant waterfront is a great place to rent a bike, watch the ships and ferries come in and out, experience the amazing street artists; whose creativity I envy. On the boardwalk is the best place for these street performers and pop up vendors. Sometimes you can spot Darth Vader or  Spider Man. You can get your picture taken with them, just be nice and tip. The Aquarium and Olympic Sculpture Park are within walking distance. The Washington State Ferries go out every 30 minutes to Bainbridge or Bremerton from Pier 52, Colman Dock.  The Great Wheel is also right on the waterfront and although it’s okay I don’t know if it’s worth price; maybe at night. If you get a chance check out Magic Mouse Toys(601 1st Ave S) it seems like a tiny little corner store-and it is, on the first level. But it has hidden levels and secret sections and actually goes on forever!   Lego rooms, Puzzle rooms, walls of stuffed animals and  some really cool books. The waterfront is where you will find Wings Over Washington,  a state of the art “flying theatre” http://www.wingsoverwa.com/ and 2018 Distillery of the Year winner Copperworks on Alaskan Way https://copperworksdistilling.com/  Other cool spots are the Seattle Pinball Museum and Paramount Theatre.

The International Fountain will always be one of my favorite spots.

 

If you have a little bit of time travel up to Pike Place Market where there is a smorgasbord of fresh farm vendors, fish, flowers and all sorts of eclectic stores. There is always someone playing music. Don’t miss Beechers Homemade Cheese(1600 Pike Pl). Not only can you see the cheese being made you can get free samples of all the product; major yummy! The market is very busy and packed; full of shopping-and people and fish smells but it’s a great and authentic Seattle experience. I love to come here and get samples from the vendors and buy fresh bouquets of flowers.

FYI, Seattle is built on a fairly steep hill. If walking up hill isn’t for you you can bus it or get a cart pulled by a bike to drive you. Beware-they drive like crazy people nevertheless, they are friendly and fast Just try it once.

Even Darth Vader hangs out here!

That being said, only 4 ships depart from Pier 66. Oceania’s Regatta and NCL’s Pearl, Sun and her newest vessel the megaship Bliss.  Most cruise ships depart from Pier 91. The piers are only 3 miles apart, but traffic in Seattle can be a travesty. The map says 8 minutes,  I wouldn’t count on it. One Saturday night it took us over 30 minutes to go 5 miles. Keep traffic conditions in mind. Also, because of all the highway traffic and the hilly terrain I wouldn’t recommend walking either. Seattle does have a pretty decent transit system though. Personally, I prefer Lyft.

Pier 91 Smith Cove Terminal:Address: 2001 W Garfield Way. The busiest cruise port in Seattle-and the largest is located further north from the Airport than Pier 66 and the starting point for the vast majority of Alaska cruises.  Unlike it’s sister port once you walk outside the warehouse structure of the loading terminal there is nothing right outside the door. Smith Cove is reached by Magnolia Bridge and crossing it back to the city is the only way to reach all the attractions. The Space Needle, Pacific Science Center, the International Fountain and Seattle City Center are all packed together and is a mere 2.2 miles away. The City Center has a indoor stage that will have concerts and performances that are always free. The food is expensive and most of them are chain restaurants but tucked in the corner you can find Seattle’s Fudge which should definitely be tried! The Children’s Museum is also in the complex. If it’s nice though go outside the kids have free playground and the International Water Fountain is always entertaining and cool-figuratively and literally. The Space Needle recently had a glass floor put in, which is bold but it would be jarring if you are afraid of heights.

Chihuly Glass Garden is a Favorite Spot in the Emerald City

The Chihuly Glass Garden is better than I thought it was going to be. I was just bitter because they tore down the outdoor carnival like area I use to take my kids to when they were young. It had a carousel, putt-putt golf, laser tag and bumper cars! My boys loved it, but it’s now gone to show off glass art! But, I have to say, it is quite impressive! I have been twice and I would highly recommend it.  Bring a good camera! It’s both an indoor and outdoor exhibit with demonstrations. If you are a Washington resident you get discount.

The Monorail is a quick train from the Space Needle to Westlake Shopping Center and the heart of Seattle and brings you to the transit tunnels which run all through the city. If time affords, take the light rail to the University of Washington. The campus is absolutely beautiful! The very old world architecture, stunning grounds and expansive areas are inspiring.  Discovery Park is another not to be missed outdoor area and is 3.4 miles from the ship terminal. Most of the places to explore in Seattle should really be done the day before or after the cruise so that you have more time to really get to make the most of your time in the Emerald City.

What the ports offer: So, this was actually the hardest part to find out. The sites for the ports are generally vague on details and when I called I got different answers so I emailed the CTO OPS and they were very helpful. So here is the exact answer on luggage storage: Both terminals offer luggage storage on cruise days only from 7:30a.m. to 3:30p.m. on cruise days only. Luggage storage is found at the concierge area in both terminals and is $3.00  a bag. Bags are not checked through to the ships for embarking passengers. Check with your cruise line when your check in time begins-sometimes it’s on your boarding pass.  Generally, it’s 10:00a.m.  A great service that is offered by the Port of Seattle is a luggage valet service post cruise. It’s a complimentary service that you sign up for on your ship and get your luggage straight to the airport when the cruise is over. It’s so convenient, seamless and helps de-stress post vacation. Click on the link for specifics: https://www.portseattle.org/page/port-valet-enjoy-seattle-luggage-free

Pier 91’s services include: Complimentary shuttle from parking to terminal, RV and trailer parking, a rental car kiosk, cell phone waiting area, wheelchair, scooter and oxygen rentals. The equipment can be delivered directly to the state room. The drop off/pick up area is pretty smooth compared to some other places I have seen.  https://www.portseattle.org/places/smith-cove-cruise-terminal-pier-91

Pier’s 66’s services are pretty much the same. Special needs equipment works the same, the parking is a garage, not a lot and a shuttle is not needed. Drop off and pick up is also the garage. Recreation and restaurants are much more accessible here, but there is no rental car kiosk and no rv or trailer parking.  https://www.portseattle.org/places/bell-street-cruise-terminal-pier-66

Explore Pike Place for unique shops

Another popular pier to catch a ship is Pier 69. Home of the Victoria Clipper, a high speed ferry from Seattle to Victoria BC. However, Victoria Clipper also offers some great vacation packages that include hotel stays, whale watching, food and wine tours, golf and nature packages. The Clipper Vacations can include jaunts to San Juan and Vancouver. The pier address is:2701 Alaskan Way. Parking is at the Bell Street Pier Garage and they do validate. Next to the luggage check in is a small cafe that offers beverages, coffees, snacks and meals. The Clipper Ferry itself is seasonal, as are the packages so book early.  This pier is really close to the Bell Street Pier so is also close to many things. FYI, I absolutely LOVE the Victoria Ferry area! It is so charming! The Empress Hotel is majestic and lights up at night that reflect in the Harbor. The whole area is pristine and beautiful and worth checking out.  If you take a cruise to Alaska the ships dock at Ogden Point terminal in Victoria and you can walk to the Inner Harbour/downtown area, or you can take a bus in. We walked and found a fun park where wild peacocks were roaming freely and the tall trees were begging to be climbed.

Back to the reason that the address for these pier is so important. Both Princess and Holland have corporate offices in Seattle. So if you are Google searching for Princess or Holland make sure you go to Smith Cove Terminal NOT the offices!

If you have any comments, questions or want to add any info please add a comment or you can leave your email and I will respond.

May the wind always be at your back!

The Ferris Wheel of Seattle is on Pier 57

Note: I am a licensed travel agent with Expedia and have included a link to my site to help you get quotes for Alaska cruises. Another great port for Alaska cruises is Vancouver, CA. The Disney Wonder sails out of Vancouver for 5, 7 and 9 night sailings.

https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-CA/RhondaWeaver

May 142018
 

Alaska in one of the best cruise destination for a good reason. Amazing  scenery; more specifically, extraordinary glaciers!  Alaska has many stunning glaciers and most of them can only be seen from a ship. Other reasons go to Alaska are wildlife and vast mountain peaks. Good news, you can see all of that in one area! But, there are some differences between the glaciers themselves, so it’s important to know what to expect before you drop the huge expense of an Alaskan vacation.

 

Alaska cruises are available seasonally:Some start as early as April and end as late as September, but high season is late June through August.  Alaska is considered exotic because of the unique glaciers, fjords, mountains and a great mix of wildlife, but it is part of the U.S. and that gives people a sense of safety. Which is in important when you travel.  And, yes, the glaciers are melting, or retreating as it is also called.  Scientist estimate that collectively the states glaciers lose 75 billion tons of ice annually.

Many years ago I lived in Alaska, but it wasn’t until I took my family on an Alaskan cruise that I truly appreciated what all Alaska has to offer. The big thing was indeed glacier viewing. Memories of sailing into a tight fjord coming close to giant ice bergs, dozens of waterfalls, majestic mountains, harbor seals lounging around and bluer than blue ice silt will never leave me.

There are some things that you need to keep in mind when picking which glacier you want to visit. Most people will only go to Alaska once; I plan on going again! For a lot of travellers Alaska is a bucket list item. So, this post will break down the main glaciers a cruiser can expect to see. Most cruise lines will only go to one of these places, especially the main line ones.  So below is a quick guide of the main features of the most visited glaciers.

Glacier Bay: Not only is this spot the most popular glacier destination it is also a national park and a biosphere reserve it is also a World Heritage Site. What makes Glacier Bay great is that you spend the day transiting the national park through inlets that have been carved by the glaciers themselves.  The ship draws impressively close to these giant walls of sheer ice. These are tidewater glaciers that calve often, which is one of the biggest draws. Glacier Bay is also a great place to see wildlife. Humpback whales spend their summers here. Brown bears, harbor seals, mountain goats and sometimes even puffins are spotted here. Keep in mind, you will need binoculars to really see most of the wildlife-especially on land as the area is so big.  Glacier Bay tends to be colder and rainier than other areas. Ships are required to have a Ranger on board; which is good if you have questions or just want to know all you can about the history and the area. What  you won’t see are  the tight fjords here like you will in other areas of Alaska. For those of you who aren’t sure what fjords are:A long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs created by a glacier.

Hubbard Glacier: This is the largest tidewater glacier in North America, 76 miles wide and 1,200 feet deep. The face is up to 400 ft. tall. A truly impressive thing to behold! It is another great spot to see some spectacular calving and great for wildlife, even bald eagles and orcas! Hubbard is in Disenchantment Bay and offers great vistas and views of Mt. Elias (18,008 ft! Wow!) However, it is one glacier, no travelling up a fjord and ice debris and fog can keep your ship from getting close at all; which is the whole point.

Tracy Arm Fjord: Cruising up the 27mile narrow inlet to the twin Sawyer Glaciers  in almost magical in its sheer beauty.  Cliffs rise up to 3,000 ft on both sides, chunks of ice float upon the water that are so blue they look like glass, and I couldn’t count all the waterfalls that were everywhere. Sawyer Glacier is an active tidewater glacier that is also prone to calving. While we were there the calving was active underwater so we didn’t see any breaking but you can hear it; like thunder reverberating all around. There some wildlife here; arctic birds as well as mountain goats. If your ship sails into Stephens Pass or Holkham Bay you can spot whales, bears and eagles.  Tracy Arm lacks the multiple glaciers that you see on videos and doesn’t have the same sheer massive face of Hubbard but it’s surreal; and cold, bring a jacket!  One of the best thing about Tracy Arm is that smaller skiffs and boats can take you closer to the face of the glacier.  You can not do that in Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier.

College Fjord: This other worldly spot is home to 5 tidewater glaciers and 5 valley glaciers. The waters are calm, the fjords are majestic, snow capped mountains and lush green forests battle for attention, but what is really breathtaking besides the overwhelming presence of the glaciers themselves is the large swaths of ice/glacier  waterfalls that cut between the mountains. Expects to see several chunks of broken ice floating all around. but don’t expect to see as much wildlife as you find in Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm Fjord, although several people write about being able to spot whales off in the distance. The other drawback is that not as many ships will traverse here. If you can find a small ship to take you there it’s a great choice because you can get really close! Similar to Glacier Bay, it allows for viewing multiple glaciers at once, similar to Tracy Arm it has tight fjords and many mountains. The cruises that sail here are one way Gulf of Alaska trips between Alaska and Seattle or Vancouver; meaning the port you start in will not be the same one you return to.  These tend to go further up the coast such as to Prince William Sound which is where this magnificence of  nature can be enjoyed. 

Mendenhall Glacier: This 13 mile glacier is not a scenic viewing from the ship it is in the capital city of Juneau and ends at Mendenhall lake. The Forest Service Center affords spectacular views of the glacier and icebergs in the lake.  There are walkable trails, don’t miss Nugget Falls near the glacier. Wildlife here is abundant and in spawning season you can salmon-which brings out the bears. Speaking of bears, take this rule VERY seriously:no food or drink other than water from May to September due to the bear activity. Even though you can see the glacier and it seems close you can not access the glacier directly through the visitor center. You have to book an excursion. From what I know you have to book a helicopter tour, which are fiercely expensive! If you do grab a spot for exploring the glacier be aware of loose debris. It’s easy to turn an ankle. Have the right boots on and have a guide.

 

Glacier viewing is an amazing journey that cannot be compared to other vacations, but not all glaciers, as you now know, will give you the same experience. No matter what you choose, it will be great! Don’t forget a really good camera. Bring jacket, NOT a parka! So many people pack for -40 degrees! Not going to happen! Unless you actually do book an activity on a glacier you will not need snow goggles, arctic parkas and heavy gloves. When we went it was 80 degrees-not so in the glacial areas, just throw on a coat or heavy sweatshirt you’re good to go.

Seeing orcas or huge chunks of ice falling into the ocean are not guaranteed; it’s nature, not an amusement park  but the sites and sheer overwhelming expanse will delight you.

If you want to know some cruise options here is a link to my booking website:https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver/

 

 

 

Another Alaska must see sled dog puppies. Absolutely adorable.

Apr 172018
 

Every vacationer(s) have their own wants, interests and needs (WINs) but not every cruise line is the same so you can’t just pick a random one and ta-da, cruise vacation mastered! It doesn’t work like that.

Cruise lines, like people, have personalities. One person described it like trying to be matched up for a date, and they were correct. You need to find the right fit.

Port cities sometimes have great amenities

Start with the needs. When is your vacation? How long? How many people? What is your budget? Do you need handicap accessible?  Once you have that, you have parameters.

Interests: What does everybody like? Beaches? History, culture, food, relaxing, adventure. You get the idea. If you are travelling in a large group this can be trickier. This is exactly why I love cruising. Cruises give a person multiple options on any given day; in port or at sea. One day I can zipline in Juneau then I can lay in hammock for the next 4 hours on the ship, it’s great, because you don’t have to choose one path. Plus, with multiple people everyone will find something. I like to go see the shows, my boys like the dance clubs and nature tours, my husband is a gambler. In port, I can pick up souvenirs and other people in my party and go to a museum and others can go on a rum factory tour and we all end up back at the same place with no fuss.

So, let’s discuss wants: It’s like the interests. Not everyone’s will be the same. I want a balcony cabin, my husband wants as cheap as possible. Some people want cabins that come with perks like a butler, free specialty dining, or complimentary wine. Some want a truly authentic experience or more time at port. I have had clients who just want to go on a specific ship or 1 specific location that special meaning. So what I am going to do is give a brief and basic outline of some of the more popular cruise lines. If you want more detailed information leave your email in the comment section and I can assist with your needs.

Carnival has a huge fleet with plans to add a roller coaster to a future build.

Main line cruise lines: For families or those looking to pack as many things on one ship I recommend Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC and Carnival. The newer ships are  bigger, feature cutting edge technology-including GPS trackers for your family and feel more like resorts than ships. Huge water parks, outside movie screens, Aqua theaters, zip lines, race car tracks, surf simulators, the list goes on and on. Kids clubs for 3 and older are free, they have different character partnerships. RCI  partners with DreamWorks, although not on every ship. Carnival-Dr. Suess, NCL is ending its partnership with Nickelodeon, MSC features Lego brand.

Kids clubs for ages 3+ are free as are the activities, not shore excursions though. Most cruise lines have 4 categories and cater to that specific age group. Sometimes you can purchase a late night babysitter but book in advance as it sells out and space is limited. Don’t be surprised if you barely see you kid.

Ships go to places you can’t drive or fly to.

Keep in mind, not all ships in these lines will have the same features. Visit the site to get specifics or Cruise Critic before you book. If you need a handicap accessible you may need to call directly or get your travel agent to call for you. These cruise lines have connecting cabins but they are limited so book early. For people prone to sea sickness avoid cabins in the front of the ship. If you have a group of 8 cabins or more you may qualify for a group rate or perk. Speaking of rates and perks, these also vary widely. Booking suites can get you free drink packages and specialty dining, look for dates when kids or 3rd and 4th guest sail free, or free tips or excursion credits. RCI and NCL will have these more often. MSC usually has free kids offers in the summer and have different perks based on cabin you choose year round. Carnival is usually the lowest price so you won’t all those extra perks, plus they most restrictive as far as refunds or changing dates.  Royal Caribbean does have the highest amount of  loyal guests, but all ships offer perks for loyalty. For Princess I am Elite and I get free pre dinner appetizers, laundry service(1 time) priority everything-which comes in handy when tendering and an invite to the Captains Cocktail party. Keep it mind that these lines are not all inclusive. You pay for specialty dining, drinks, spa and sometimes room service; so don’t assume about what is included. If you booke suites and sometimes balconies you do get more inclusions. Each cruise line is different so research the specific cruise line. Norwegian’s Sky has a free open bar and MSC ships offer drink packages and spa options, wellness options and upgrades based on your cabin type.

What about Disney? They are an entity unto themselves. Disney is a premium product. Service and food and attention to detail is superb. It doesn’t feel like a Disney Resort at sea and you aren’t over run with Disney characters. Soda is included-not included on other main line cruises. No alcohol packages-only wine and the adults only areas feel very sophisticated, you must check out the spa! There are not many Disney ships, they are expensive, space is limited. You must plan a year out and do not expect price drops or any add-ons. More things are included, wi-fi for instance.  They still mail items- a thing of the past. Personalized luggage tags and a cool dvd. All of these cruise lines will offer military discounts-not on all sailings or sometimes senior or resident discounts. Disney consistently wins awards for service, shows and food.

For a more adult experience I will talk about Princess, Holland America and Celebrity. For smaller and intimate ships Princess and Azamara offer a good balance and value. FYI, Amazara and Celebrity are on the higher end of the price spectrum but offer an amazing vacation experience.

Ships have beautiful features.

Holland America caters strongly to an older crowd. No late night parties here. What they do have is great food, beautiful ships, a very fair rate, a focus on live music and they offer around the world sailings. Holland also goes to some less traveled ports and focus on destination enrichment. Princess cruise line is very similar.  You can experience local traditions and entertainment when you visit port. Princess has top of the line entertainment and food. No waterparks but the Movies Under the Stars runs newer movies and their newer ships have a skywalk-a glass floor bridge that extends over the side and a cool water/light show at night. Both Princess and Holland have great add on tours for before or after your cruise. MSC fits this list because of the refined an beautiful decor of its ships and elegant restaurants. MSC hangs on to some traditions like the formal Officer and Gentleman dance party. The shows are Broadway style and the White Party and the Brazilian Carnival Party are not to be missed. Meravilglia features Cirque du Soleil.  Celebrity Cruises are more swanky-you can really see the class divide in it’s service perks and restaurants. But, it serves some unique culinary experiences and the ships are beyond beautiful. Celebrity sails everywhere, including yachts that travel to the Galapagos! The cruise line is noted for being LGBTQ friendly. This cruise line is another big winner for Cruise Critic awards year after year, including Best Overall, Best Dining, Best Public Rooms, Service and overall value.

If you can drop some serious coin and want a more inclusive experience then look into such luxury brands as Crystal, Regent of the Seven Seas, Cunard, Seabourn, Azamara and Windstar among others. These cruise lines( for the most part) include drinks, shore excursions, tips, all dining, transfers to the ship and back to the airport. The name of the game of these cruise lines is pampering and an authentic experience. Bigger cabins, smaller ships, stunning decor, personalised service and strict adherence to maritime tradition all make luxury cruise liners are vacation apart.  You will find longer cruises to more exotic ports and more overnights and excursions tailored to your needs. A much more intimate experience and not the myraid of entertainment and no hairy let contest by the pool.

The bottom line is that there is a cruise ship out there that is right for you, no matter what your needs might be; but it does take research and thought. The cruise industry has a overall satisfaction rate of 94% and all cruise lines are adding on ships, many are  adding several ships and now Viking River Cruise line has ventured into ocean cruises and Virgin is launching a line of adult only cruise ships. So, the choices will grow even more, so if it seems like a lot find yourself a good travel agent and roam fearlessly to that horizon!

Book tours to see the best of each port.

For some ideas of cruise deals going on now please visit my Expedia Travel Agent site for update information or leave your email and inquiry below and I will try to get in touch you. https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver

Mar 092018
 

For many years, Cuba was a no go zone for Americans. Happily, now it is not! Cuba is steeped in history, culture, charm and pristine beaches. The absolute best way to get the most bang for you buck in Cuba is to cruise. 

First of all, Cuba is having a hard time keeping up with the demand of people flocking to their country. Hotels are not abundant and tend to be expensive. Even the best ones (some, not all) have electrical and plumbing issues.  After a long day at the port it’s nice to have a hot shower, comfortable bed and a sprawling buffet or restaurant 24/7. Of course, you should try the local fare; there is much debate on whether Cuban food is good, but you should still try it. However, the cruise ship has an array of different restaurants and is usually 24/7. Also, you won’t find any fast food staples-not a bad thing, but it makes it hard to grab a quick bite.  You can bring packaged snack food and drinks off the ship.  Here is some really great news. Now, you can bring back Cuban cigars and rum! These items are subject to custom regulations, of course, and there is a value cap for both. So, know before you buy.


Cuba is a clean place, but because they don’t emissions regulations like in the U.S. and most European countries smog from car exhaust is a common complaint. It’s great to get back on your ship with the nice clear sea air!

Visas are required as well as affidavits stating that you are meeting 1 of the 12 categories to travel to Cuba. The cruise line will take care of your Visa paperwork-the cost is $75.00 and they can help you fill out the self proclamation paperwork, as well any excursions booked by the cruise line already meet the requirements set by the government. The cruise offers decent tour options instead of just one or two that are by land tour operators. They also helps with the conversion rate, less headache for you. The exchange rate in Cuba to U.S. dollars is brutal. Change USD for Euros or pounds or even Canadian dollars before changing it to the local CUC.

You only have to unpack once. Cuba has 3 main ports: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.  With a longer cruise you could hit 2 or all 3 ports, many lines offer overnights in Havana. The more exclusive ones offer longer stays, more overnights and more port options, but are more expensive. Plus, it is easier (and more enjoyable) to cover more ground. The infrastructure in Cuba is not idyllic. For example, a drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba can take up to 22 hours. A cruise ship view of Cuba is relaxing and beautiful.

Morro Castle in Havana is an old fort.

It’s cheaper. Cuba cruises are more expensive that other Caribbean cruises, but overall, less expensive than a land vacation comparing apples to apples: Hotel, transportation, food, entertainment, etc. Currently, availability for a cruise is actually better than a hotel; that’s partially because of the lack of hotels and places for guests to stay.

Some of the best things about Cuba are it’s people, food, culture and history. Cuba has very low crime and not a lot of litter and pollution. It is truly a great place to fee like you are away and can unplug.  Lack of commerce means lack of Starbucks, fast food chains, shopping malls, and tons of vendor booths. Lack of WiFi and cell phone reception add the feeling of being off the grid, which is not a bad thing. Unlike most of the Caribbean, Cuba lacks pushy vendors and touristy traps, but they are there. They are very polite and usually take a polite “No, thank you” for an answer. You will street artists and performers who will want money. If you tip-and you should, again do not use U.S. dollars, the locals can not get any real value due to the fees. Local currency is best. The beaches tend not to be as crowded as other countries in the Caribbean and are quite pristine.

Keep in mind, our ties with Cuba may change at any time. The threat of travel being restricted or cut off entirely is there. President Trump has declared U.S. Citizens are not allowed to dine at State sponsored restaurants; don’t know how you would know if a restaurant is or isn’t.  As of now, the cruise industry to Cuba is growing. Keep in mind, Cuba is more expensive than Caribbean cruises and does not have as many travel dates either.

A few last tips. Bring tissue, water, snacks, hand sanitizer and, surprisingly, toilet paper. This is still a communist country and such things even in restaurants are not always in supply. Some people said that met locals who, they thought were asking for money, instead wanted soap and common toiletries. Brush up on your Spanish, at least the basics. Since being a fun seeking tourist is not among the list of 12 approved reasons to visit Cuba, you are advised to keep you travel papers for 5 years.

That being said, Cuba is unique and wonderful, and you should go, especially now, while you still can and while it is still a relaxed, a call to past, not an over run Caribbean destination. Roam forth and have fun!

Oct 132017
 

Last April I was able to snag a great price for a 5-night cruise to Cabo San Lucas out of Los Angeles on the Ruby Princess.  We booked a transfer from the airport to the ship; which I would recommend, LAX is a disaster of an airport. It saved us so much hassle. The check-in process at the cruise terminal was a breeze, we were on the ship in less than 10 minutes.

The cruise was only 5 days; and since it was less than 7 days Princess did not do the champagne waterfall or the balloon drop, which was disappointing. However, the ship itself was so beautiful! The Ruby Princess has 4 pools, a great sanctuary at the front, the piazza was classy with a 24-hour cafe, and an outdoor movie screen.  The promenade deck is nice and wide, the pools are large and not usually very crowded. Movies Under the Stars played newer movies.

The food was VERY good! I am not a big meat eater, but I became very carnivorous on my vacation. The gelato was outstanding and was totally worth the $1.50 for 3 scoops.  The 24-hour cafe is on deck 5 and has a decent variety. The weak point was definitely the buffet. The food was decent but it was the smallest I have ever seen, leading to major congestion. Plus, they bring you your drinks, no drinks on tap. One of our tablemates waited over ten minutes for a glass of milk. Everyone is nice and they try; there just isn’t enough staff to meet the demand.

The shows and comedians were just outstanding. Magic to Do was very fun and best of all, Princess used locals from Cabo for performances, both in the showroom and in the Piazza.  We both enjoyed the Festivals of the World featuring the local songs of Mexico. They also had very colorful skull banners in the Lobby. 

Of course, it being a Princess cruise, we had to celebrate the whole “Love Boat” theme, with a really cool deck party and videos of the cast and crew on the big movie screen on the pool deck.

The aft pool was my favorite, it is a terraced area which is great for viewing and close to an extended part of the buffet. The Schooner Bar has great replicas of tall sail ships and Princess partners with Norman Love for some amazing chocolates.

Cabo itself is really beautiful. The beach goes on forever, the rock formations are interesting. The vendors are beyond pushy!  We were supposed to go snorkeling but they canceled the excursion due to choppy waters. So we hung around the beach, found a great place to eat; Senor Sweets, and a cool surprise. The Avengers! Next to the shopping mall is a comic book store with life-size replicas of my favorite superheroes! We saw Spider-Man and the Joker too. 

Since we had no excursion, we ended up taking a glass bottom boat out to the arches and to see colorful schools of fish. The sea was rough which made the waves coming through rock formation even better. There was a large colony of sea lions enjoying the sun, barking up a storm.

Even though I never did get to go snorkeling and I was bummed there was no champagne waterfall, and Princess should spend more money on adding staff; overall I loved the Ruby Princess, the whole experience struck the right balance between having plenty to do and enough downtime to relax and unwind-the Sanctuary is a great place to spend an afternoon chilling, being pampered and enjoying the sea. It’s also the best place to have the afternoon tea!

One last thing, Princess will close off access to 5, 6 and 7 which is where many public venues are. So you have to walk outside around and come back in, but if go to the photo gallery on deck 7 it traverses the whole length of the ship.  There are no water slides or rope courses on this ship and the miniature golf is a joke, but the Ruby Princess is a great, entertaining and beautiful ship and I hope to sail on her again soon.

 

Sep 162017
 

 I love cruising! I love everything about it, the entertainment, the food, the ease of getting from one place to another, the variety of activities, most of all I love being out to sea! For our anniversary David and I took a week-long cruise to the Western Caribbean on the Norwegian Getaway. We had a great time and would do it again.

The Getaway is a HUGE ship! Eighteen decks high and 4000 people! The ship itself is beautiful, we really enjoyed the Waterfront which spans deck 6,7 and 8. Deck 7 has the promenade deck and was surprisingly quiet at night. We walked it every night after dinner and rarely saw anyone else. The other great thing about the Waterfront was the outdoor seating. Most ships have benches and sun lounger chairs but in keeping with the Miami vibe of the Getaway (The Miami Dolphin Cheerleaders are the Godmothers of this ship), there are outdoor couches and chairs at the bars and restaurants.  There’s nothing quite like having a mojito or gelato outside on a comfy couch watching the world go by. The entertainment was very good. If you only see one show see Burn the Floor! Wow! Is all I can say. Just amazing performance by the dance group. The food was okay, not the best. I really liked O’Sheehans Bar and Grill though. It is one of the better 24/7 venues on a ship.  Norwegian does nickel and dime you to death. There is a $7.95 delivery charge for room service and they push spa treatments a lot. If you go to the spa go on a port day, it’s a much better deal. Norwegian has a really nice spa too. I wish I would have booked on the last day,  though.  Just because between all the walking at the ports and transversing up and down the ship I was so tired at the end of the trip.

We went to Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize and Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico.

I have to say my favorite was Roatan hands down. I loved their coffee. The port itself is a gated area, that is small yet charming. Before we got off a group of men came out in full costume and greeted the ship with a dance/ritual. It was cool.  We booked our own excursion on Little French Key. https://www.littlefrenchkey.com/ 

Little French Key is a stunning island with the friendliest people and good food and drinks which were included. They have a whole menu of experiences you can choose from to really tailor your excursion. The island has 3 distinct beaches so you can choose a family friendly, a quiet one or the party area with a cool swim up bar.  Little French Key is a place I would to over and over. It was luxurious and fun at the same time. Everybody is incredible nice!  Make sure you find your guides by name once you leave the port area and look for their uniforms so you don’t taken by a unsavory character. They use to offer a discount if you paid with cash, I don’t know if that is still true.

Belize was our second stop. You have to tender in, and I have to say if you go to Belize you should plan an excursion. There is not much to the port itself. We shopped for people, drank out of a coconut and not much else. Belize is great for excursions, like cave tubing or the Zoo or the Jaguar Sanctuary. It not as much fun to just hang out in. Unlike Costa Maya, which was our third port. Costa Maya is a protected area too. It has a large pool with a swim-up bar and little waterfall at the end-beware it’s salt water when you swim into the waterfall section.

They have a Dolphin Swim excursion, massages on the beach, expensive restaurants, the locals performed a really impressive cultural ritual dance, lot’s of shopping and plenty of great photo opportunities. The beach itself is very rocky but the weather was nice and there were plenty of sun chairs and covered areas too. It’s a great place to enjoy yourself and not have to go anywhere or book an excursion.

The last port was Cozumel. One my all times dreams was to swim with the dolphins, so we booked Chankanaab National Park. http://www.cozumelparks.com/ I chose them because I have a co-worker who used to live there and said that they treat their animals well. We got there early and made good use of the pool-it was large with different depths inlaid with a pretty mosaic. The beaches felt secluded, the park itself is large, ruins, zip lining, snorkeling. A person could spend all day there.  It’s beautifully maintained and well laid out.  But, of course, I came for the dolphins. It was every bit as amazing as I thought it would be! We had to stand out in the hot sun for longer than I would have liked waiting for them to call our group, and go over instructions and safety. The area for each group is very large and clean, the dolphins are very well trained. We did the kiss, the shake, and 2 rides. One was a belly ride and the other was with a boogie board and they push your foot. Absolutely amazing! At the end they let us go down in the manatee pool and pet them. The big push is to buy the pictures. You can’t take your own and they charge a lot, so we opted out. They fed us a buffet as part of the package, overall it was a great value and I would recommend Chankanaab to anyone.

My overall takeaway is that the Norwegian Getaway is super lively ship with loads of fun. Every night was a deck party, and I loved the interactive maps all over the ship-you can make reservations, get directions, it was very useful. The Caribbean was full of beautiful beaches and great people. I appreciated the exposure to the cultures even if they were only snapshots of each area and not immersive. The Western Caribbean is most cost effective than the Southern or Eastern and was great because we could decide to hang out and do nothing or spend the whole day on an adventure.  That’s what vacation is supposed to be about, and not having housework.

 

Miami is a fun filled city and I would recommend staying a day or two before or after the cruise.

If you are interested in Norwegian cruise, either on the Getaway or a newer ship please see my link https://www.cruiseshipcenters.com/en-US/RhondaWeaver

Or you can email me at roamingredfeather.com for other travel option. FYI, I am licensed travel agent and receive commission for travel booked through Expedia. 

Jun 092017
 

We all want our cruise vacation to be amazing and we want that from the very beginning. So, to start your vacation you want the transfer from the hotel or airport to be seamless and hassle free

Cruise lines do not pick you up from your hotel, unless you buy the land portion from the cruise line. Some hotels will bring you to the pier for a cost.  Other than that cruise lines sell transfers from the airport to the ship and back. You can do one way or round trip.  It can be expensive and a Lyft or Uber is usually cheaper. However, there are times paying for a transfer from the cruise line will be wise.  Also,  a transfer with the cruise line can give you peace of mind. Once you are on that bus it is up to them to get you to your ship on time.  If you take your own transportation and you break down or get lost, then wave goodbye to your ship as it sails off without you. Below are some other times a cruise line transfer is worth the cost.

 

 

  1. The cruise terminal is far from the airport.  If you’re cruising out of Rome, it’s about an hour. Both LAX and SEATAC (Seattle) are about 40 from Long Beach Pier and Smith Cove Pier. However, to hail a cab in both these airports you have to exit baggage claim and cross the street, plus both places have endless construction. Cruising out of Galveston Hobby Airport is 45 miles away, while Bush Intercontinental is 70 miles away. Flights get delayed too.
  2. You don’t get in very early. The ship wants you there 2-4 hours early. Everyone is expected to be on the ship 90 minutes before departure. On our last cruise we were only a 2 1/2 flight, but we got delayed by 45 minute. After landing we taxied around the tarmac for another 20 minutes waiting for  a gate to be ready for us. I’m talking about LAX, it was a zoo. I’m glad we took advice from other cruisers who have been there and paid for the transfer. It saved my butt!  The airport is not easy to get around, you have to go out of the terminal cross under the bridge and head out to the street. We  made the last transfer bus to the ship. It was great though. They took are luggage and brought right to the door; no waiting.
  3. You don’t know what to do with your luggage. A lot of airports like Miami International, LAX and Galveston do not offer storage lockers. If you have a transfer as part of your cruise you will go down to baggage claim and find you rep. there. They will take your checked bags  and you are free to go eat, shop, explore or whatever.  They will give you a time to be back. Most cruise lines require that you book your transfer at least 3 weeks before sailing. However, if there is room on the shuttle bus you can buy your transfer the day of the cruise. Just go down to baggage claim and ask.
  4. You just want the easiest option. You get to pull right up to the front, someone takes your luggage and away you go right into the terminal. Easy, breezy.   Well, there is still Customs, but there is nothing anyone can do about that.
  5. There is a large group of you. When coordinating a large party easier is usually better. A vacation is about relaxing, the logistics of getting everyone to the pier can be a headache.

Returning home: 

  1. There is not a lot of time between your disembarkation and your flight.  First of all, DON’T DO THIS! It put’s a lot of stress on you. Also, if your flight isn’t at LEAST 4 or 5 hours after disembarkation you won’t get your transfer. Remember, it takes  a while to get off your ship,  at least an hour; I would count on longer.
  2. You want to  be off the ship early.  If you don’t want to get off the ship with the masses, this in one option. You will have an earlier departure time and a separate  area to  wait.   Full disclosure, I have never done a transfer off. I want to sleep in and stay on as long as possible.
  3. You want to still feel a little pampered. It’s true. It’s easy and convenient.

Other than those reasons I would opt for your own ride. When got off at the Long Beach pier on our last cruise our Lyft driver was there in 25 minutes, got us to the ariport in about 35 minutes and only cost us $22.00.    We had a late flight, so I asked if we could be in the last group to get off the ship.  We slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, hung out on the aft deck and enjoyed the weather.

Arrive early to see the sites.
Chihuly Glass Garden in Seattle

Another option might be to plan an excursion post cruise. It’s usually early, like 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. but your luggage is taken care of while you do your tour and the return to the airport is included.

Saving money is important, but missing your cruise is a huge waste of money; and heartbreaking. So, choose wisely.