Tuesday, December 22, 2015

She's Back...Empress of the Seas or should I say Nordic Empress?

I'm going through a bit of nostalgia today as I have learned one of my favorite old-time cruise ships is coming back to the Royal Caribbean fleet.

A bit of background for you: Many moons ago in the late 90's, my family-owned cruise agency focused solely on selling Bermuda cruises seasonally from New York City.  During this time, three cruise ships primarily sailed from New York to Bermuda.  Two of them were Celebrity Cruise ships, which were the Horizon and Zenith.  These Celebrity ships have long been retired.

And, the last ship was the Royal Caribbean Nordic Empress.  We had many great years booking client's dream vacations to Bermuda on the Royal Caribbean Nordic Empress.  A few years later, Royal Caribbean renamed the Nordic Empress to Empress of the Seas.  Eventually as newer Royal Caribbean ships were introduced into the fleet over recent years, the Empress of the Seas was retired in 2008.  My family was always sad to see the Empress of the Seas leave the fleet as so much of our business originated on this great ship.

Well, I was so pleased to hear the recent announcement that Royal Caribbean is bringing the Empress of the Seas back into their fleet.  The Empress of the Seas will go through a significant refurbishment before starting its new cruise schedule from Miami, Florida.  Starting April 2016, the Empress will provide guests the opportunity to enjoy three to five-night Caribbean cruise itineraries round-trip from Miami.

Welcome Back Empress of the Seas (Nordic Empress).  We missed you!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Rainy Day Cruising

When you think of cruising you usually think of abundant sunshine, relaxing by the pool, and fruity, frozen drinks.  However, if you cruise often enough, chances are that one day you may encounter a less than perfect day.  So, what do you do if you wake up to torrential rains? If you choose not to head out in bad weather or it happens to be a sea day, don’t despair… rainy day cruising is not bad at all!

First thing to do is to check out all the onboard ship activities! Aside from all the goings-on that are already scheduled, when bad weather is in the forecast the cruise director and staff rise to the occasion.  Additional events are usually added, from dance lessons to shows to trivia to cooking demonstrations…there’s no way you’ll be bored!

Even if you usually don’t spend time at the spa, you may want to check it out on a rainy day. Many have those heated, tiled loungers in front of floor to ceiling windows…a perfect place to storm watch. Manicures or a foot rub won’t blow your budget and are so relaxing! Or book a series of treatments and make a day of it!

Monday, December 14, 2015

5 Things To Love About Anthem Of The Seas

Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas made her North American debut this November and as expected, “Wowed” everyone that was lucky enough to experience her.  Much was made of the innovative design and pioneering technological advancements of this
4,180-passenger floating city, and rightly so! These are the 5 things about the Anthem that I appreciated the most!

I have to start with the check-in method because with a ship that holds 4,180-passengers, one would naturally expect to be standing in line for quite some time.  Well, that just isn’t so! Prior to sail date be sure to complete your online guest registration inputting info like your passport number, emergency contact, etc. Then upload a photograph that can be used as your security image. Yes, anyone, even I can follow the simple instructions. Upon arrival at the pier you are greeted by roaming Royal Caribbean staff armed with iPads who scan your pre-check in form and wave you on to the ship.  You pick up your Sea Pass card at your cabin. Easy peasy!

I love the new flexible dining that is available on Anthem of the Seas. Last year there was so much dissatisfaction with the Dynamic Dining program aboard Quantum of the Seas (sister ship of Anthem) that it overshadowed an otherwise amazing cruise ship experience. Well, thank goodness they cleared that all up! On the Anthem guests can choose from Dynamic Dining (where you can dine when you want, where you want, among 4 included restaurants) or Dynamic Dining Classic, a more traditional fixed seating option but still with access to the four eateries. Each of the complimentary restaurants, American Icon Grill, Chic, The Grande and Silk offers a different cuisine, from contemporary American to pan-Asian. There's also a wide array of extra-charge restaurants onboard.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Azamara’s Nights in Private Places

It’s hard to come up with a concrete definition of romance…its sort of a vague notion that’s different for everyone. Most people can tell you what they think is or is not romantic but one characterization certainly does not fit every couple. However, spending an evening with that special someone under a starry sky on a small cruise ship in the middle of the ocean is certainly a good place to start!

Azamara Club Cruises’ “Nights in Private Places” is possibly the most romantic experience a couple can have at sea! “How is that possible?”, you ask, on a cruise ship that is shared with a little under 700 fellow guests, not to mention the crew. Well let me tell you about it.

At the bow of the Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest there is a small, secluded spa deck, which is closed off from the rest of the ship. It includes the ship’s thalassotherapy pool and it is this area that is reserved for “Nights in Private Places.” The twinkling stars above and the many glowing candles scattered about (battery operated for safety), softly light the entire space. There is access to a locker room, shower and bathroom facilities just steps away. No worries about privacy. Azamara has made sure of that!

A butler will greet you at the start of the evening with soft frette bathrobes, slippers and chilled champagne with chocolate covered strawberries. Step into the jetted pool to relax while the butler reviews your options for dinner. He will then prepare a sumptuous buffet complete with fresh seafood and meats cooked on a sizzling hot stone grill. Will you drink red or white wine or your favorite cocktail? A lovely table is set for leisurely dining. After dinner, enjoy cordials and petit fours, continue to enjoy the pool, or ask the butler for turndown service on the large, canopy bed specially made for sleeping under the stars. In the morning the butler returns with a continental breakfast.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, this is incredibly romantic! What an extraordinary surprise this would be for your partner! Azamara's “Nights in Private Places” is perfect for engagements, anniversaries, birthdays, or just because. The cost is $495 and this experience can be booked once you are onboard.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cruising to Exotic Asia

There’s no denying it. The more people cruise, the more they search for new and exciting places to cruise to! That’s no surprise considering that cruising is not only a trouble-free, delightful way to explore the world, but it also offers the traveler the best value for their dollar! So what part of our big wide world is suddenly making everyone’s bucket list? It’s cruising to exotic Asia!

Alluring, exciting and unfamiliar, its no wonder cruises to Asia are growing in popularity with every cruise line. Not long ago only luxury cruise lines ventured to this part of the world.   However, taking a look at 2016 and beyond, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, as well as the premium and luxury lines offer a broad selection of Asia itineraries. Wondering why?

The Culture: Many Asian cultures work very hard to maintain their ancient rituals and practices, even as modernity races through the regions. On a cruise to Asia there is a myriad of traditions, languages, lifestyles, fashions, beliefs and customs to immerse oneself in and explore. Colorful dress, opulent architecture, exotic music and art all make for a travel experience like no other.

The History: Boasting scores of World Heritage Sites, Asia isn’t short of impressive historic landmarks. This was the stomping ground of some of the oldest civilizations of the world and a lot of these ancient societies left remarkable structures and relics behind. Imagine seeing The Great Wall of China, the ancient ruins at Angkor built between the 9th and 13th centuries, or the Terracotta Army in Xian? And then there’s the modern history that so many people go to discover. In the twentieth century alone the region experienced the Vietnam War, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the terror of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cities: Some of the worlds most modern and dynamic cities are located in Asia. Metropolises like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok are home to glittering modern skyscrapers starkly juxtaposed with colorful, traditional pagodas and temples. It’s this dichotomy that makes the cities here so intriguing! And I haven’t even hinted at the incredible shopping!

The Food: The thing I love best about cruising to new places is indulging in each port city’s authentic cuisine! Deliciously diverse, Asian cuisine is as varied as the countries on the continent. The clever use of cooking techniques and spices has transformed what were originally humble peasant food dishes into specialties that are now known the world over. Chinese dim sum, Japanese sushi, Vietnamese spring rolls, pad Thai and Malaysian laksa soup…I’m making myself hungry thinking about the possibilities!

Home to some of the world’s oldest cultures, pulsating cities, intriguing history, and delicious foods, Asia ticks all the right boxes for a fascinating, beguiling vacation. And although it may seem like a hugely ambitious adventure, more and more travelers are discovering just how easy and pleasurable it is to cruise to exotic Asia!

Monday, September 21, 2015

DreamWorks Aboard Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas

Looking to mingle with movie stars on your next cruise?  How about  Po from ""Kung Fu Panda"" Shrek, Fiona and Puss In Boots from ""Shrek"" and Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, King Julien and the Penguins from ""Madagascar?""  You can find them all aboard the soon- to- sail Anthem of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas will feature the DreamWorks Experience already found on select ships within the fleet. From trivia, to scavenger hunts, to photo ops, to 3D movie screenings in the ship's Royal Theater and dining with the characters, it will be a boatload of fun!

Anthem of the Seas will home port at Cape Liberty, New Jersey starting in November 2015.  Late fall and winter itineraries include 7- and 8-night Bahamas cruises, as well as voyages to the Caribbean.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Top Reasons to Cruise to Bermuda in the Fall

In a few weeks I will be cruising to Bermuda, and I can't wait! The fall is a great time to visit this lovely island!
  • Bermuda benefits from a semi-tropical climate and only two seasons. In the fall, temperatures are still beautiful, averaging in the mid-to-low 70’s during the day and the mid-to-low 60’s at night. Water temperatures are also reasonably warm, typically staying in the 70s.
  • Hurricane season lasts officially from June to November, but fewer tropical storms pound Bermuda than the U.S. mainland. Bermuda is also less frequently hit than islands in the Caribbean. In fact, Bermuda has been lucky that except in rare occasions, severe hurricanes have mostly got diverted away from the island.
  • Cooler temperatures are better for enjoying delicious Bermuda fish chowder. Legend has it that fish chowder was invented on the beaches of St. George's, in cauldrons placed above bonfires. Today, just ask a local to recommend his favorite restaurant for a bowl of this national dish. Try this wonderful blend of seafood and spices with a loaf of warm, crusty bread!  Yum!
  • September and October is perfect golfing weather and Bermuda offers more golf courses per square mile than anywhere else in the world. The island boasts eight spectacular courses (sea views complimentary!) with something for everyone from novices to pros.
  • You can’t afford not to go! While cruise prices and crowds peak in July and August, thankfully, both wane significantly in the fall! So if you like far less crowded beaches and better opportunity to enjoy Bermudian hospitality, then Bermuda during the fall may just be the right time for you.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Importance of Choosing the Correct Cruise Line

If you’re a first time cruiser you may think that all cruise lines are alike.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth!  Prospective cruisers need to find a cruise line that matches their personality.  That’s where an experienced cruise consultant (like those at Direct Line Cruises) can really help. If the cruiser / cruise line match is a good one, it will turn into a life-long relationship.  Pick the wrong cruise line and you may never cruise again!  

There are different “tiers” of cruise lines.  Luxury cruise lines can be quite expensive, but generally offer an all-inclusive experience, including alcoholic beverages and maybe even shore excursions. You can expect personalized service, upscale cabins and suites and stimulating enrichment programs.  The well- to- do clientele is often a bit older.  Although some of the luxury lines welcome families, I’d have to say that children would have more fun elsewhere.  Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn, Regent and Cunard come to mind.

There is a blurred line between some luxury and some premium cruise lines. Oceania and Azamara Club Cruises offer a country club, easy elegance.  They’re itinerary driven, offering longer and overnight stays in ports. For those looking for longer cruises, the many back-to-back cruise options let you decide how long you want to be away.  You can equate these cruise lines as well as the more purely defined premium cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Cruises, and Princess Cruises with sumptuous cuisine and extraordinary service. They are all definitely family friendly and offer many of the activities of a mainstream line but without the same over-the-top bells and whistles.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Cruising During Hurricane Season

Is Caribbean cruising during hurricane season a bad idea?  In all honesty, I don’t think so! The Atlantic Hurricane season is officially June 1st through November 30th, with peak storm activity from August through October. That’s an awful long span to disregard cruising due to a somewhat irrational fear!  Besides, the cruise lines do everything they possibly can to ensure that a hurricane has little to no impact on your vacation.

Cruise lines have the best, up-to-the-minute weather forecasts at their disposal 24/7. Sophisticated radar, modern satellite equipment…no worries!  They’re on top of their game and would never put passengers, their crew and even their ship in harm’s way.

When a hurricane directly threatens a ship's itinerary or a Caribbean port of call, the cruise line will simply change their itinerary to avoid a storm. These deviations may be focused on avoiding the path of the storm or avoiding the aftermath of the storm for example.  It is not uncommon for a ship to skip a particular port of call or extend its time at sea to avoid a storm passing through the area.

The ship’s captain may accelerate or delay a cruise ship's itinerary to work around the storm. And isn’t it comforting to know that ship's move faster than hurricanes. A typical hurricane will mosey along at a speed of about ten knots, but cruise ships can move at twice this pace.  That means that even the largest cruise ships are able to move quickly away from the path of any hurricane.

Worried about a bit of rockin’ and rollin’?  It’s definitely a possibility but keep in mind, you’re not cruising on the SS Minnow (remember...Gilligan’s Island)! Today's cruise ships all handle rough seas quite well thanks to stabilizers, those large, underwater “wings” on the sides of the ship. The newer the ship, the more advanced the stabilizers, which will keep the vessel steady in stormy weather.  Nevertheless, it’s always smart to have some bonine or sea bands with you.

Booking a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season may even work out to your advantage, but not for the reason you may think! Travel deals often abound during September through November. Reason being that kids are back to school so families put the brakes on family cruise vacations leaving the cruise lines with lots of empty cabins to fill.

So tell me, are you going to let a little weather get in the way of your Caribbean cruise?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Celebrity Chef Curtis Stone Brings a Restaurant to Princess Cruises

It seems like every cruise line wants to be affiliated with a celebrity chef these days so it certainly wasn’t surprising to see Princess Cruises jumping on the bandwagon. The cruise line has launched an exclusive partnership with Australian celebrity chef, restaurateur, New York Times best-selling author and television personality Curtis Stone. Chef Stone is probably best known as the co-host of Bravo's Top Chef Masters and Around the World in 80 Plates.

The effects of the partnership will be noticed across several dining venues: “Crafted by Curtis” menu items in the main dining room; a new specialty restaurant concept and menu; and a Chef's Table by Curtis Stone.

“Crafted by Curtis” menu items offered in the main dining rooms will debut in October 2015. Guests sailing onboard any of Princess Cruises’ 18 ships will have the opportunity to savor fresh new cuisine designed by Chef Stone every day in the Main Dining Room. Personal reflections by Chef Stone will also accent each “Crafted” selection.

 A new restaurant, “Share,” will be available on select Princess  ships. Chef Stone's exquisite menu offers various courses including gourmet salads, handmade pastas, premium quality meat and seafood fresh off the grill, an array of decadent desserts and more! The new eatery will offer family-style dining and feature a communal table as well as decorative curios from Stone's personal collection including photographs and travel souvenirs. A surcharge will apply in the new restaurant, but the price hasn't been determined as of yet.

I’m a big fan of a Chef Table dining so I was glad to see Curtis Stone overseeing this type of experience. Chef's Table by Curtis Stone will be introduced on select Princess ships beginning in January of 2016. This unique and intimate experience designed by Chef Stone, will include an enriching galley tour featuring Champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Guests will then be lead through the dining room to a special multi-course meal prepared by the Executive Chef onboard.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Experience Authentic Culture With Azamara Club Cruises

Cruising the world is always an amazing experience. Exploring exotic cities and towns, visiting museums, cathedrals or other worthy sites, and snapping lots photos to share with friends and family! But what if you want more? What if you want to delve deeper?

Azamara Club Cruises has the answer. The first program worth mentioning is called “Insider Access”. These are land excursions that travel to private homes, farms, villas, and more giving guests the opportunity to meet new people, experience authentic culture, and learning about a place’s history, and traditions.These excursions are designed to take a group of 8 to 10 people and   give them a glimpse into the lives of the local people in that destination. For example, for those interested in seeing the inside of a private historical home in the Netherlands, Insider Access invites guests to share coffee and fresh baked apple pie with a local family in its 16th-century house. Imagine chatting with the owner about the homes distinctive decorative elements, such as a painted ceiling and rare delft-blue tiles! Afterwards stretch your legs with a guided walking tour of Edam, a charming small town famous for the cheese that bears its name.

Another wonderfully immersive experience is Azamara’s “Cruise Global, Eat Local” program. Guests have a chance to dine in some of the most authentic local restaurants while in ports of call across the globe. These are the places where the locals go to eat, so isn’t that the kind of place where you want to go? I know when I eat out in a foreign city I don’t want to be handed the tourist menu!

There are three ways to enjoy this dining experience. Guests can pair lunch with a half-day excursion and travel with a small group thereby enjoying the camaraderie of fellow passengers.   For guests that don’t want to dine with fellow cruisers but are concerned about transportation to the restaurant, Azamara will arrange private transportation to and from the restaurant. Or lastly, for the independent traveler, Azamara will help the guest choose an authentic local restaurant.

If this is the way you want to cruise, to experience what few travelers do, then Azamara Club Cruises may be the cruise line for you. Each and every itinerary offers distinct destination-immersive experiences for the discerning traveler.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Cruising And Overnight Port Stays

Cruise itineraries that stay overnight in port are not all that common. Generally that sort of itinerary is more commonly found on European itineraries and among luxury cruise lines.

A Bermuda cruise has always been an exception with most itineraries giving guests a minimum of one overnight, but more often two and sometimes three! For Caribbean ports of call, overnight stays on mainstream cruise lines are almost unheard of! However, last week Celebrity Cruises announced that many of their 2016 Caribbean cruises will include an overnight stay, more than any cruise line in the industry.

Personally, I love the idea of staying overnight in port. I enjoyed it in Bermuda and the multiple overnight stays were the reason I chose the Celebrity Silhouette’s Baltic itinerary, which I recently returned from. I like knowing that at least on one day, I don’t have to be mindful of boarding time. I can take all-day tours, wander museums or city streets at a relaxed pace, and meander into shop after shop. Cities and towns can have a very different feel after the sun goes down and the day-trippers disappear and I love being a part of that!

Monday, August 03, 2015

Cruising to Copenhagen and Christiania, Denmark

Copenhagen was a port of call on my recent Baltic cruise aboard the Celebrity Silhouette. Of course I had a list of things to do and places to see.  The Little Mermaid statue, Tivoli Gardens, Amalienborg Palace, a stroll through Nyhavn, some window shopping along the Strøget, and of course a castle or two were all a part of my 2-day itinerary. Then someone suggest we explore Christiania, and I said huh?

Christiania, as I discovered, is an autonomous “free town” within Copenhagen.  Sort of what I would describe as a hippie commune! In 1971 an abandoned military area in the Christianshavn district of the city was taken over by squatters. They claimed the area as a free city, free of taxes and run by their own laws. Christiania is actually governed by consensus democracy, which means that decisions are made based on the common agreement of all residents.  A wall covered in graffiti acts as a barrier between the rest of Denmark and Christiana. To enter it you pass under a sign that reads, “You Are Now Leaving the European Union.”  

Today, some 40 something years after its inception, Christiania is a lively, yet gritty community with about 1000 residents, some of them third generation.  “Pusher Street,” the main street of Christiania, is the biggest hash market in the world! Some 40 shops, most just tent-like structures, are open 24/7, selling 30 to 40 different brands of hashish (cocaine and heroin are banned in the town). And although cannabis is officially illegal in Denmark it has been tolerated and sold openly in Christiania.

I walked down Pusher Street (feeling a bit uncomfortable, but with no fear for my safety) and through the residential areas observing the odd looking dwellings made of recycled materials, bars, cafés, grocery shops, schools, art galleries, a recycling center and a lovely park. Bright, colorful murals were painted everywhere and on anything. Plenty of resident kids were doing what kids do everywhere…running, laughing, playing, and biking, oblivious to the commerce just blocks away.

Christiania is a strange, but very interesting place, and definitely worth a visit.  It was actually embarrassing for me to discover that it is the second most popular tourist site in Copenhagen, after Tivoli Gardens, yet I never even heard of it! Sometimes I feel I live in my own bubble…which is why I love to travel...to see, to experience and to learn.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cruising to St. Petersburg

There are so many places in this big, beautiful world that I want visit. For the longest time St. Petersburg, Russia has been sitting on the top of that list. Historical romance novels along with an excellent biography of Peter the Great written by Robert K. Massie is what finally compelled me to book a Scandinavia / Russia cruise aboard the Celebrity Silhouette. It was an astounding ship, an incredible itinerary, and cruising to St. Petersburg was every bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be!

Once a desolate swamp, today St. Petersburg is a glorious city of splendid palaces, architectural gems, and cultural treasures. We were docked in the city overnight giving me a good amount of time to explore the city. To make the most of that time I chose a very comprehensive 2-day excursion with a local tour company, gladly letting them handle the logistics as well as necessary visa. Some of the highlights of our days included visits to the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, Peterhof, the State Hermitage Museum, Catherine Palace, the Faberge Museum, a Metro ride, and a canal cruise.

The canal cruise was a nice way to begin the day (despite it being a cool and dreary morning weather-wise), as it gave a nice overview of the downtown city. It was a lovely ride passing alongside tree-lined avenues with pastel colored palaces and under numerous beautiful bridges. I never knew that St. Petersburg was often referred to as the Venice of the North (along with seven other cities, two of which were on this same itinerary!), built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva River and connected by over 300 bridges!

We passed by the State Hermitage Museum on our canal cruise, a huge six building compound mainly set in the magnificent Winter Palace (a former residence of Russian emperors), and extending into adjoining buildings. Later in the day we returned for a tour. The classical Small Hermitage was built for Catherine the Great as a retreat that would also house the art collection started by Peter the Great. To say the collection significantly expanded (there are over 350 rooms of exhibits) is a gross understatement! We moved through the buildings rather quickly hitting the highlights but you can literally spend weeks and weeks here!

My favorite stop was the visit to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built to honor Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was assassinated at the site where the church now sits.   It is absolutely dazzling… St. Petersburg’s most elaborate church with a classic Russian Orthodox exterior (think colorful onion domes) and an interior decorated with thousands and thousands of mosaics. Whenever I visualize St. Petersburg, it is this church that I see in my mind!

I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Catherine Palace, named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband's death. Originally a modest two-story building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose it as her chief summer residence and wanted it to rival Versaille! The Catherine Palace is probably best known for the Amber Room, a room decorated in gold encrusted amber panels and mirrors. It was the most exquisite palace room I have ever seen anywhere! You may remember that the Amber room was dismantled and stolen by the Nazis during the war. In 1982 Russian officials approved its restoration, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million! The fact that they did so is a gift to anyone that has the chance to see it!

It was sunny and warm when we pulled up to Peterhof, St Petersburg's most famous and spectacular Imperial estate. However, we weren’t here to tour the palace. All our time was to be spent meandering through the extravagant gardens and admiring the 173 fountains inspired by Versailles. Peter the Great showed he had a sense of humor by installing ""trick fountains"", hidden water sprays, built into trees and tiny plazas. The fountains come to life when staff press hidden mechanisms, much to the surprise of the unsuspecting visitor! I think I got just as big a kick out of it as the children that were visiting that day!

The Fabergé Museum was truly a gem! No pun intended! It is a privately owned museum founded in order to repatriate lost cultural valuables to Russia. To give you a brief background of the history, the first Fabergé Egg was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as an Easter / anniversary gift to his wife.  The empress was so delighted that a new and unique egg was commissioned every year! The museum is home to 9 of 50 Imperial eggs. Beyond those there are snuffboxes, figurines and objects d'art from the House of Fabergé and other noted Russian jewelers, plus a gallery of classical Russian paintings and a roomful of religious icons.

As you can see, our days in St. Petersburg were very busy, and I only gave you a small sampling of what we actually did! I would like to return one day on another Baltic cruise since there were still many places I did not get to visit. Do you have a place you have been wishing to visit? What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Specialty Dining Aboard the Celebrity Silhouette

The dining experience aboard my recent 12-night Baltic cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette was as every bit as extraordinary as the itinerary was! My traveling party chose to add a 4-night Specialty Dining package that further elevated the entire dining experience. The meals we had in these restaurants were delicious, with blends of spices and flavors that made my selections uncommonly scrumptious! In addition, the beautiful presentation of the dishes that were served as well as the special atmosphere of each restaurant was a feast for the eyes!

Shame on me for not doing my homework! I walked into Murano expecting Italian cuisine. It’s actually more of a French inspired Continental. Murano was the most sophisticated and elegant restaurant we dined in. Service was attentive and they clearly wanted to be sure we were enjoying everything we ordered. I couldn’t resist the Murano Lobster, a cognac flambéed lobster tail prepared tableside.   Both presentation and taste were remarkable! Although Murano is the perfect restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, I would dine here to make any evening special!

My Italian dinner came a few nights later at the Tuscan Grille. Celebrity describes this restaurant as ""Napa-meets-Old-World-Italy,"" and I think I’d agree! I loved the décor here, especially the wine cave-like archway you walk through to enter. Tough decisions here as to what to order…pasta, beef, seafood? There were so many great selections on the menu but ultimately I chose the Seafood Risotto and ended my meal with the dark chocolate fondue. My only regret is that I did not return to the Tuscan Grille for an encore.

The evening we had reservations at the Lawn Club Grille was cold and dreary and to be honest, because of that I wasn’t looking forward to our dinner and I’m sure my trepidation showed on my face! Yet we were greeted warmly, translucent shades were pulled to keep out the elements, patio heaters kept things toasty, and blankets were made available if needed. I’m so glad I didn’t cancel this reservation! The Lawn Club Grille starts you off with a trip to their salad bar that could be a meal in itself. The next course is the made to order flatbread. There are choices like Margherita, sausage & peppers, Mediterranean vegetable and a few others, or you can create your own from selections from the salad bar. You can even make your flatbread alongside the chef, learning how to work and toss the dough! I opted for filet mignon for dinner, which was melt in my mouth delicious!

The most fun we had during dinner was at the very unique restaurant Qsine! Celebrity describes the menu (which is displayed on an Ipad) as a playful offering of familiar and memorable dishes from around the world. All are small dish samplings (yet there’s enough for everyone at the table to share) and are presented in a distinctive, artsy way. Some memorable choices were the sushi lollipops, crunchy munchies, disco shrimp and the lava crab. Since courses come out as they are ready its like a continuous smorgasbord!

I love to cruise…and I love to eat! Needless to say I was blissfully happy aboard the Celebrity Silhouette! The 4-night Specialty Dining package I booked pre-cruise cost $137 per person (a savings of 26%) and included one dinner in Murano, one dinner in Qsine, one dinner in Tuscan Grille, and one dinner in Lawn Club Grill.   I highly recommend you try it!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Saying "I DO" Once More

Have you ever considered renewing your wedding vows? A vow renewal is a romantic opportunity for a couple to reaffirm their love for each other and there are some very good reasons for doing so. Maybe you want to commemorate a “big” anniversary...25, 40, 50 or more years! Those are milestones worth celebrating in a very special way! Or maybe your wedding day was not as perfect as you had hoped. A vow renewal lets you have that do-over with everything just the way you want it! And some see a vow renewal as a way to celebrate a marriage that has survived some serious test or strain. I say absolutely go for it! Love should always be celebrated, and Norwegian Cruise Line agrees!

For couples that wish to re-confirm their love while at sea, and frankly, what could be more romantic, Norwegian Cruise Line now offers a ""Vow Renewal"" package. The package includes a private vow renewal ceremony performed by one of the ship’s officers, ceremony music, a romantic single red rose, champagne toast, a celebration cake for two, a commemorative vow renewal certificate, an 8x10 professional portrait in an engraved frame, sparkling wine, as well as canapes and chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to their stateroom the evening of the ceremony.

So close your eyes and just imagine how lovely it could be to renew your wedding vows aboard a beautiful Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Enjoy the ships intimate restaurants, world-class entertainment, dancing under the stars, maybe even a couples massage in the spa….all while celebrating one of the most important days of your life!

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Cruises to Nowhere…Going Nowhere

A cruise to nowhere, a 1 or 2-night cruise out into the ocean and back, has always been  a great little getaway. With no ports of call, the only thing on the itinerary is relaxation in luxury accommodations while enjoying the ship’s many amenities. Delicious meals in lovely restaurants, soothing spa treatments, world-class entertainment, exciting casino action, duty free shopping… What a great way to sample all that a cruise has to offer!

Well, it was! It is all coming to an end very shortly. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal agency that controls the entry and exit of foreign nationals to the U.S., it is simply enforcing longstanding rules. Under an act passed more than a century ago, foreign flagged ships cannot operate roundtrip voyages from a United States port without at least one stop in a foreign port.

The entire explanation is wordy and hard to understand but in the end it means the termination of those wonderful cruises to nowhere! I for one, will be sad to see them go!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Free Tours For Your European Cruise

A European cruise is a wonderful vacation; in fact, it’s my favorite type of vacation! I have been taking a European cruise every spring for the past few years and recently returned from a Scandinavia / Russia cruise. I’m often asked the best way to see a city in the limited number of hours that a ship spends in port. Here’s what I do, which incidentally, also saves me some money!

While I’m planning my itinerary I always do an online search for “Free Walking Tour Put In City Name”. Something always comes up. The websites for these tours promise young, energetic, knowledgeable guides that love sharing their city with tourists. And that is exactly what I have experienced! In the past I have done some really amazing “free” walking tours of London, Madrid, and Barcelona. If you’re happy with the tour, and I always have been, I tip the guide. And although I feel I tip quite generously, the price is still less than what I would pay with a touring company.

If you’re only interested in snapping a bunch of “selfies” in a foreign city to prove you were there, a guide is not necessary Of course the results can lead to tons of meaningless pictures! To truly understand and appreciate the significance of the sites, memorials, buildings, statues and other visited places, there is nothing quite like having a local guide. They provide historic context, interpret the architecture, share stories of events and persons associated with each site, as well as throw in trivia and humor.

On my most recent European cruise I enjoyed “free” walking tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Amsterdam.   Each one was wonderful. Those same companies offered additional tours for a small cost and I took of few of those also. So if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to tour a city on your next European cruise search for “free” walking tours. Reservations are not necessary.   Just print out the meeting point and time before leaving home. Have a great cruise!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Books that Influenced the Booking of a Scandinavia / Russia Cruise

I am a voracious reader and it is literature that will often sway me to a particular travel destination. It might be an article in Sunday’s New York Times travel section or a piece written in one of my favorite travel magazines. Though more than likely it’s a novel that I read which temporarily transported me from my comfy armchair to some wonderful foreign land. That was certainly my reason for booking the Scandinavia / Russia cruise that leaves this month!

I first read “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” while in middle school. If you haven’t read it, the diary chronicles the two years young Anne and her family live hidden away from the Nazis in a little section of Anne's father's office building that is walled off and hidden behind a swinging bookcase during the time of German-occupied Amsterdam. I reread it again a few years ago, finding a copy amongst my son’s school books and was so moved by it, I knew I had to one day climb the steps to that tiny historic secret annex (pre-booked my ticket online).

I felt another pull towards Amsterdam after my book club read “Girl With a Pearl Earring”, by Tracy Chevalier. This is a novel that merges history and fiction. It is the story of a 16-year old girl who becomes a maid in the house of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Her life is transformed by her brief encounter with the artist as she is immortalized in canvas and oil. The actual painting by the same name is housed at the Mauritshuis gallery located in The Hague, an easy day trip from Amsterdam. I’d love to fit this in my upcoming travel itinerary!

Along with 60 million others, I read the wildly popular Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy. There are now walking tours in Stockholm based ""The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"", ""The Girl Who Played with Fire"", and ""The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest"". You start the 2 hour tour on the island of Södermalm, at Bellmansgatan 1, the home of the main character, Mikael Blomqvist and you walk your way through key locations in the books; bars, cafés, and of course, past Lisbeth Salander’s apartment. The tour ends at the Stockholm City Museum where you can check out a Millennium exhibition. Definitely on my “to-do” list!

Its no wonder I feel so strongly compelled to visit St. Petersburg, Russia. I have read countless stories that take place in the city.   I loved the soap operaish plot of Tolstoy’s ""Anna Karenina""…lust, love, betrayal heartache, and forgiveness all set in Russia during the late nineteenth century. Along those same lines, I thoroughly enjoyed ""Dr. Zhivago"" by Boris Pasternak. The novel tells the story of a man torn between his love for two women while caught in the tumultuous course of twentieth century Russian history.  Another book worth mentioning is by one of my favorite authors, Ken Follett. ""Fall of Giants"" is an epic novel spanning Russia throughout the entire 20th century.

After I booked my Scandinavia / Russia cruise (which leaves in just a few weeks) I wanted to learn a bit more about Russian architecture, history, the Czars that once ruled so I read three Robert Massie biographies; ""Peter the Great"", ""Catherine the Great"" and ""Nicholas and Alexandra"". These books were detailed, interesting and easy to read, leaving me better prepared for the things I will see during my 2-day St. Petersburg stay.

Do the books you read influence where you travel?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Holland America’s Latest Dancing Star…Florence Henderson

Here’s a quick update regarding Holland America’s incredibly popular ""Dancing with the Stars: At Sea"" theme cruises. Florence Henderson, aka Carol Brady of Brady Bunch fame, will join the “Dancing with the Stars: At Sea” voyages it has scheduled for June 6 and June 13 on the Veendam.

During the cruise, Henderson (now 81 years young) will perform on stage while interacting with passengers in meet-and-greets, photo ops and other themed activities. The Dancing with the Stars sailings also will feature television personality Carson Kressley and professional show dancers Tristan MacManus and Kym Johnson.

Additional events on these theme cruises include dance lessons with the ship’s professional dancers, a special fashion show featuring glamorous show costumes, and a chance to meet the dance pros and celebrities.

Both of the Holland America voyages depart from Boston. The June 6 trip is a seven-night, roundtrip sailing to Bermuda. The June 13 trip is a one-way sailing from Boston to Montreal, Canada.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Norwegian Cruise Line Takes Freestyle Cruising to the Next Level

Starting in January, Norwegian Cruise Line will include wine, beer, spirits and soda up to $11 in the cost of the cruise fare on Norwegian Sky. Cruisers also will be able to get unlimited beverages when visiting the line's private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. This is quite the unprecedented move for a contemporary cruise line! Usually the inclusion of free liquor is reserved for luxury cruise lines.

Andy Stuart, president and chief operating officer for Norwegian Cruise Line states, ""Norwegian Sky guests will have the freedom to enjoy a cruise vacation the way they desire -- whether it's lounging by the pool with a margarita, having a laugh at a comedy show, catching up on their favorite book on their balcony, or indulging in fine dining -- all included in their cruise fare.""

Is this new policy just a means of attracting new cruise passengers or could this possibly be a way of testing the waters for a fleet-wide change in the future? This year many cruise lines have offered a free beverage package as a limited time booking incentive and it seems to be a very successful strategy for driving up bookings.

The new policy takes effect starting in January 2016, only on Sky three- and four-day sailings from Miami to the Bahamas.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Updated Schedule for Carnival Live! Concert Series

Here it is…the list of upcoming performers for the wildly popular Carnival Live! concert series:

The Band Perry: July 28 (Carnival Sensation), July 29 (Carnival Fascination), July 30 (Carnival Magic)

Boston: August 19 (Carnival Sunshine); August 20 (Carnival Fantasy); August 21 (Carnival Sensation); August 22 (Carnival Ecstasy).

Lionel Richie: October 14 (Carnival Freedom), October 15 (Carnival Pride)

Heart: October 20 (Carnival Paradise); October 21 (Carnival Ecstasy), October 22 (Carnival Breeze).

These concerts, which are held on the ships' main theaters, are performed while the ships are docked in one of three ports of call:  Cozumel, Nassau and St. Thomas.

Tickets for the Carnival concerts range from $35 to $75 for general admission. Purchasing a VIP package gives guests seating in the first four rows, a photo op with the musicians and a commemorative concert pass; tickets for this range $125 to $250.

Tickets for the Carnival concerts sell out quickly and it’s no wonder! Where else can you see an all-time favorite band up close and personal at such a great price?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Best Of The Best Shore Excursions From Celebrity Cruises

A really good shore excursion can take an already amazing cruise to a new level. Shore excursions can take us to unknown places, help us understand foreign cultures, offer a unique way of bonding with friends and family or provide us the means of a once-in-a- lifetime experience! Celebrity Cruises’ newly launched shore excursion program, which includes 75 new excursions, was designed to fulfill all of these desires.

Celebrity Cruises offers shore excursions for every budget.   Short tours, day-long adventures, walking tours, bus tours, and bike tours. There are unique culinary experiences that introduce you to the authentic cuisine of a destination, tours designed to promote wellness, and exciting outdoor activities and sports. But here is a look at a few of their new programs, the best of the best, for the discerning traveler.

“Celebrity Exclusives” offer unique experiences that very few have the chance to do. These are up-scale adventures with a price tag to match, but if its one-of-a-kind adventures you’re looking for, these are for you. How about spending your time in Istanbul being a “Sultan for the Day?” You will spend the morning cruising down the Bosphorus on your Royal Yacht, headed for a traditional Turkish breakfast at the Sait Halim Pasha Mansion. Then it’s back onboard, sailing to Old Town, for a showing of Turkish Art, followed by the exploration of the Underground Cistern. You end the day shopping amongst the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar. This is certainly a day fit for a king!

“Celebrity Family Tour Challenge” is the most exciting programs ever developed to give families a way to discover the world together through entertaining, competitive and enriching experiences! Each option sounds like such fun, but my favorite is the “Venetian Gondoliering Challenge” in Venice, Italy. The participants first receives expert schooling at a real Venetian Rowing Club in the age-old art of gondoliering. Then it’s off to a waterway where everyone breaks into teams and engages in some friendly competition with other teams to see who will be named ""Best Gondolier for a Day"". I can imagine the good time and laughs and I know that if this was available when my family cruised to Venice, we would have been the first to sign up! There are “Celebrity Family Tour Challenges” in other European cities as well as Bermuda and Alaska.

If you want to explore a destination individually or in a small group, “Private Journeys” is the excursion for you! Guests may customize their own shore excursions by choosing an itinerary geared toward convenience, flexibility, and their own personal interests. From a behind-the-scenes tour of iconic landmarks, a reservation at a top restaurant, tee times, help planning a special occasion, or tickets to a local event, a Celebrity Cruises Destination Concierge can create that memorable experience. These excursions, which can include a private car and guide, are designed to immerse guests in the sights, sounds, and flavors of the destinations they’ll be visiting.

Monday, April 06, 2015

5 Reasons To Cruise Aboard Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas

Beginning next month, Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas sails from Cape Liberty, New Jersey. If you still haven’t confirmed plans for this year’s summer vacation you must consider Liberty of the Seas! This Freedom-class ship is loaded from bow to stern with amenities the whole family will enjoy. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Looking for action? The Liberty of the Seas has the FlowRider® surf simulator, a rock-climbing wall, an ice-skating rink, a mini-golf course, a full-sized basketball court and even a full-sized boxing ring.
  • Traveling with little ones? The H2O Zone kids’ water park is loaded with interactive geysers shooting out from colorful, climbable creations, plus water guns, pools, and waterfalls.
  • The outdoor movie screen lets you relax in the pool or lounge beside the water and catch a movie or live sporting event.
  • “Saturday Night Fever: The Musical” is the complimentary Broadway hit currently featured onboard. This show has great music and talented performers. Don’t miss it!
  • Kids will look forward to dining, shows, 3D movies, photo opportunities and surprise appearances by their favorite characters from Dream Works Animation Films. Those are the “guys” from Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar!

The Liberty of the Seas cruises out of Cape Liberty, New Jersey from May through October 2015.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Enhancements To The Norwegian Star

The Norwegian Star recently returned from a two-week dry dock where she received a number of enhancements including new dining and entertainment venues. If you’ll be onboard for one of her summer European sailings, there’s a lot for you to look forward to!

A while back when I was writing about the Norwegian Escape I mentioned the Norwegian Cruise Line and Jimmy Buffet partnership. Well, the fleets first Five 0’Clock Somewhere Bar will actually debut aboard the Norwegian Star. I can’t think of a better place to be sipping margaritas!

The Star has also been retrofitted with one of my favorite places, O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill. O’Sheehan’s is a 24-hour complimentary restaurant that serves up local traditional pub fare. I don’t know what I enjoy more; the pot pie or the fish and chips.

Moderno Churrascaria, the Brazilian-style steakhouse, was relocated and Sugarcane Mojito Bar, first introduced on Norwegian Getaway, was added next door. The cover charge was removed from Ginza, the Asian fusion restaurant. There will be some items that will have a nominal charge, but that’s usually the case with sushi. Japanese Hot Rock Ishiyak is a new addition to the menu and will also have a small charge.

Digital signage, first introduced on Norwegian Breakaway, has also been added to the Star. I love this technology! The interactive touch screen signs allow guests to get directions and reserve dining and shore excursions simply with a scan of their stateroom key.

Norwegian Star will spend her summer season sailing from Copenhagen with a number of 7 to 14-day itineraries through the Baltic Capitals and Norwegian fjords.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Alaska Cruise or Cruise Tour?

Considering a cruise vacation to Alaska this year? If so, will a cruise cover all you’ve dreamed about seeing, or might you be better off looking into an Alaska cruise tour? Not sure of the difference? Let me explain.

Alaska cruises that are round trip to/from the same port (Seattle or Vancouver) are referred to as Inside Passage Cruises. For a U.S. resident it is often found that it is cheaper to fly to Seattle than it is to Vancouver, and that is one  reason why many of the Alaska cruises now originate from there. However scenic transfers from Seattle to Vancouver are available via rail, bus, shuttle transfer or rental car. All Inside Passage cruises tend to explore the same southeastern ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka. They are a great way to see Alaska’s coastal mountains, glaciers, marine wildlife, and towns.

The cruise tour is a fully escorted tour of interior destinations before or after the cruise. The cruise portion is one-way between Vancouver and either Whittier or Seward, near Anchorage. It is set up this way in order to give the cruiser multiple options for adding days before or after the cruise portion in order to explore interior Alaska. Cruise tours are available in any number of different lengths, but the most common range from 10-14 nights, all including the 7 nights aboard the cruise ship. If you want to experience the Northern Lights at Fairbanks or see the towering heights of Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park, the cruise tour option is for you.

A cruise that takes you into the United States' ""Last Frontier"" is a must-do cruise! Whether it be a 7-night Inside Passage cruise or a 14-night cruise tour, there is no right or wrong way to cruise to Alaska. Tailor your Alaska cruise vacation to make it the perfect trip for you.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cruise Line Entertainment Takes a Bow

Living within an hour drive of New York City, I’m lucky enough to be able to enjoy some of the world’s finest entertainment at venues like Carnegie Hall, Radio City and Lincoln Center. Then of course, there’s the Great White Way; who would dispute that Broadway theatrical productions are the best in the world? So, is it possible for a person who’s experienced the top echelon of music and theater to be roused by cruise ship entertainment?   Absolutely!

Cruise ship entertainment has come a long way from the glitzy and glamorous musical reviews of the past! Lavish set design, special effects, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems and talented casts add up to professional performances that are as good as those found in New York and Las Vegas. Here are just a few examples:

Royal Caribbean’s Broadway at Sea features performances of some of the world's most famous musicals. Cats (Oasis of the Seas), Chicago: The Musical (Allure of the Seas) and Saturday Night Fever (Liberty of the Seas) are available to passengers at no extra charge. I recently saw Mama Mia on Quantum of the Seas and felt it was every bit as good as the version I saw on Broadway! During the finale there wasn’t a guest in the theater that wasn’t out of their seat singing and dancing!

Norwegian Cruise Line does Broadway productions too. On Norwegian Breakaway, you can see Rock of Ages, a five-time Tony® Award-nominated musical that relives the music of the 1980s. Legally Blonde the Musical, a shortened version of the off-Broadway production, can be seen on the Norwegian Getaway. And if you have never seen the totally outrageous antics of Blue Man Group in Las Vegas or N.Y.C., you can catch them on the Norwegian Epic.

The Walt Disney Company is a master of entertainment so it shouldn't be a surprise that Disney Cruise Line stages amazing shows appropriate for the entire family! Onboard the Disney Fantasy, Disney's Aladdin—A Musical Spectacular will thrill adults and children alike with its flying carpets, magic lamps, wise-cracking genies, princesses and evil wizards. Disney Dreams - An Enchanted Classic is still running on the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder and it is one of my all- time favorites!

Princess Cruises has just announced a partnership with composer Stephen Schwartz, of Wicked and Pippin fame. He will oversee four musical shows that are scheduled to make their debut on Princess cruise ships in coming years. The first musical to be produced will be called Magic to Do, scheduled to debut aboard the Crown Princess next fall.

Carnival Cruise Line teamed up with renowned comedian and TV personality George Lopez to help select talent for their fleetwide Punchliner Comedy Clubs. Early evening shows are family-friendly but the late night, age 18 and up shows are completely uncensored! And imagine having the unique opportunity to see a band you love rock the ship in a theater venue! That’s what Carnival Live Concert Series is all about! 2015 acts include Styx, Journey, Rascal Flatts, Smokey Robinson and critically acclaimed country group, Little Big Town.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Farewell Splendour of the Seas

Royal Caribbean has recently announced that Splendour of the Seas, which debuted in 1996, will leave the fleet in April 2016. Despite my love for the Royal Promenade on Voyager-class ships, the distinct neighborhoods of the Oasis-class ships, and the glamour and technology of the Quantum of the Seas, Splendour will always and forever be my favorite! It is with great sadness, but warmhearted memories, that I will bid her farewell.

I have cruised aboard the Splendour of the Seas three times. The first time was in 2003; our first family trip to the Mediterranean.   My son was 10 and I planned family-friendly excursions that I hoped would be fun for both adult and child. We enjoyed biking along the 16th century wall that surrounds the city of Lucca, climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, rode the cable car above Barcelona to Montjuïc Castle, and all agreed that visiting the catacombs in Rome was cool but a bit creepy.

Just as memorable was returning to the ship each afternoon for a round of family mini golf, and munching on the chocolate chip cookies and soft serve ice cream at the Windjammer, even if it might spoil our appetite for dinner. Every evening my husband and I watched our son head off to meet his new friends at Adventure Ocean (what a great group of counselors) leaving us on our own to sip wine while watching those beautiful Mediterranean sunsets!

My family returned to the Mediterranean and the Splendour of the Seas in the summer of 2oo6. This time we visited the Acropolis of Athens, wandered along the cobblestone streets of Mykonos, criss-crossed Venice via gondolas and water taxis and rented a car to tour the island of Rhodes.

Back onboard Royal Caribbean's Splendour we were pleasantly surprised that two crew members remembered us from our previous cruise. Maybe it’s the more intimate size of the ship, or maybe just a particularly warm and friendly staff, but for that week the Splendour felt very much like a home away from home! I remember one afternoon sitting at the pool deck when over the loud speaker an officer (or maybe it was the cruise director) called our attention to some smaller Greek islands we were passing, then read a short excerpt from Homer’s Odyssey. It was quite magical! That was the same cruise that my son won Jackpot Bingo…with a prize large enough to book our next cruise!

My final voyage on the Splendour of the Seas was in 2012, this time a “girlfriend trip”. We shopped till be dropped in Turkey, watched some women getting fish pedicures in Crete (too gross for me, thank you), and tasted the wine made from grapes grown in volcanic soil on the island of Santorini.

Onboard we shared a junior suite situated along the back of the ship that had a huge balcony, perfect for hosting sail away cocktail parties. We dined in the specialty restaurants including the Chef’s Table, which was one of the highlights of our trip! We lingered in the elegant Centrum, listening to music and watching the Ballroom dancers. On sea days we lounged in the lovely solarium, napping, reading and chatting the day away. Another magnificent cruise!

After such wonderful cruise vacations aboard the Splendour of the Sea, how can I not be sad to see her go? And while I know I’ll have other great experiences on other Royal Caribbean ships, the Splendour will always remain near and dear to my heart.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Viking River Cruises Heads Down The Mississippi

Who has not read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and not dreamt of a trip down the Mississippi? What an adventure! You may remember that he traveled on a homemade raft. It even had a wigwam on it, perfect for escaping the blazing sun or rainy weather. Right in the middle of the wigwam was a framed layer of dirt so he could safely build a fire to keep warm on chilly nights or cook his catch of the day. Not your idea of luxury river cruising? No worries! There is a much better option!

Beginning in 2017 Viking River Cruises, known for its luxury European river cruises, will offer its first North American itineraries. Two new specially built luxury riverboats will embark from docks near the French Quarter in New Orleans for a journey along the Mississippi River to itinerary stops in St. James, East Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes, continuing upriver to Memphis, St. Louis; or St. Paul, depending on the season.

Like all Viking cruises, the journey will be enriched by knowledgeable local guides, activities and excursions that will immerse you in the history, culture, and cuisine of all the great cities and towns along the Mississippi River. So sit back, relax, enjoy “Old Man River”, and let the pace of river cruising allow you to take pleasure in the ever-changing scenery.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cruising to the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean

There are many reasons why St. Martin / St. Maarten is a favorite port of call on a Caribbean cruise…pristine beaches, warm crystal clear water, and glorious weather. But did you know that this picturesque island is also considered the culinary capital of the Caribbean? On your next visit, how about heading out for a gourmet lunch?

The most popular types of cuisine in St. Martin are traditional French and spicy West Indian Créole. Traditional French culinary items such as escargot, foie gras and bouillabaisse are as delectable as that served in any served in Parisian restaurant.

Créole cuisine is a mouthwatering medley of European, African and Indian influences. Fresh seafood appears on just about every menu, sometimes prepared in Créole style with spices, sometimes in the classic French manner with herbs. It’s not surprising that Creole spices have infiltrated French dishes, and in many restaurants it’s these creative fusion dishes that guests repeatedly return to devour.

There are over 500 restaurants on this tiny island, though many Caribbean cruise ship passengers looking for an authentic island lunch will hail a cab and head out to Grand Case, on the French side of the island. Its mile-long main street is saturated with more than two dozen delightful eateries. Should you want to stay closer to the port, eateries in Cupecoy, Simpson Bay and Philipsburg are just as good.

So on your next Caribbean cruise, if you need a break from all that fun in that sun consider going out to lunch in St. Martin / St. Maarten. Both the French and Dutch sides offer gastronomic experiences galore and I guarantee the diverse cuisine will delight your taste buds!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Star Wars Invades Disney Cruise Line

Princesses move over…Star Wars is coming to Disney Cruise Line! That’s right! In early 2016, Disney Cruise Line guests can cruise along with the legendary characters of the Star Wars chronicles during a new experience called Stars Wars Day at Sea. What a nice contrast to all the ""Frozen"" madness that's coming to some sailings this summer!

Star Wars Day at Sea features a full day of Star Wars celebrations. The deck party promises to be “out of this world”. Star Wars characters converge on the deck stage for a celebration of the Star Wars saga in a show featuring special effects and guest participation. There will be music, dancing, and games. When the sun sets the deck party concludes in a spectacular display of themed pyrotechnics, lighting, sound effects, lasers, and Star Wars.

Children can take advantage of the shipboard version of the Jedi Training Academy, which offers the opportunity for kids to enlist with the Jedi Order and become a Jedi padawan (that's a Jedi in training). By learning a series of moves with a light saber, the kids are more than capable of defeating any attack led by Darth Vader!

Then of course there are the meet-and-greets and picture ops with Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Stormtroopers and others. The event will also include screenings of the Star Wars films, and screenings of the Disney XD animated series Star Wars Rebels.

What about those adults that grew up with Star Wars? My first date with my husband was dinner and going to see the original movie back in 1977! I know we’d get a kick out of the nightclub that will be transformed into the fictional Mos Eisley cantina and serve ""Star Wars""-themed cocktails!

Star Wars Day at Sea will be available only aboard the Disney Fantasy on select Western Caribbean sailings, January through April in 2016.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Why Travel Insurance is a BIG DEAL

I’m surprised at the amount of people that think travel insurance is not a big deal. I just don’t understand that! They think travel insurance is only important if you’re old or maybe have health issues to be concerned about. We at Direct Line Cruises know that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Gone are the days when cruise lines used to be flexible when it came to allowing passengers to rebook a missed cruise. Although it may not make sense to you, the cruise line will not let you move the money you’ve paid to another cruise the following month or next year. If something unfortunate occurs in your life, not going on a cruise shouldn’t cause you additional financial distress.

Trip-cancellation or interruption insurance is the most usable and worthwhile kind of insurance out there! Age is meaningless if you slip on the ice and break a bone while shopping last minute for one more swimsuit (I’ve got first-hand experience on this one), a close relative dies days before you leave and you have to cancel the trip to attend the funeral, an aging parent cannot be left alone or you’re child comes down with a nasty stomach bug the night before departure. Nobody is invincible to the mayhem that can instantly thwart your cruise vacation plans!

Did you ever think about what 24-hour world-wide travel assistance really means? It’s like having a personal concierge service at your fingertips. It can help you find doctors or contact family members if you encounter an emergency while you’re away, provide language interpretation assistance, or help you replace a stolen passport. It can even aid you in getting from Istanbul to Athens after you missed the ship due to lengthy (but successful) haggling at the Grand Bazaar.

If your regular health insurance doesn’t cover you while abroad, you’ll want to consider a policy that includes medical expenses outside the United States. Did you know that if you’re on Medicare and are traveling internationally Medicare doesn’t typically cover situations outside the country? I have tales to tell of many clients that have taken unplanned “shore excursions” to hospitals in the Caribbean and Europe!

Because travel insurance coverage is a BIG DEAL, Direct Line Cruises includes a standard cruise protection plan in our price quotes for cruises 5 nights and longer. In addition, a more comprehensive travel insurance plan that even includes the protection of a Pre-Existing Conditions Exclusion Waiver can be added for a small additional charge.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cruising to Alaska

If you're thinking about taking a vacation this summer, this is a great time to start planning. Looking for a “bucket list” worthy destination? Here's why you should consider a cruise to Alaska.

For the outdoorsy, adventurous traveler, it doesn’t get any better than a cruise to Alaska. The shore excursions are amazing! And if you’re traveling with teens, there’s so much for them to experience they couldn’t possibly be bored! There’s hiking, kayaking, glacier trekking, dog-sledding, fishing, ice-climbing, white water rafting…

Alaska is rich in Native culture. The Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian live in Southeast Alaska. You can learn about them by visiting museums and cultural centers as well as   taking the time to view the towering totem poles that showcase the artistry of their people. Today, the craftsmen of the region are also known for their handmade dance masks, decorative paddles, button blankets, and finely-woven cedar bark and spruce root baskets.

History buffs can immerse themselves in Alaska's Gold Rush history. Back in 1898, prospectors flocked to the Klondike, hoping to become instant millionaires in one of the biggest gold rushes in history. Remnants from the Klondike Gold Rush remain and make for a fascinating history lesson as you travel the White Pass Railroad or try your hand at gold panning.

People come to Alaska to view the diverse and abundant wildlife in its natural habitat.   Whether its eagles soaring above your head or seals sunning on the rocks, the wildlife is everywhere. With humpbacked whales, orcas, otters, gray wolves, moose, dall sheep, mountain goats, and brown bears, no state is as “wild” as Alaska!

Have I mentioned the majestic landscape? Whether walking, flight seeing, or viewing it from the deck of your ship, words cannot adequately describe the sheer drama of Alaska’s scenery. Lofty mountain peaks covered in snow, ice-sculptured craggily fjords, crystal blue glaciers, and the lush green forests will take your breath away. Need I remind you to pack a camera?

The cruising season for Alaska is quite short. Now is the time to book your cruise for the May to September season, while the cruise lines are running great booking promotions and a good choice of cabins are still available.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Snorkeling On Your Caribbean Cruise

Snorkeling is a fun and relaxing way to view the colorful and fascinating world just beneath the ocean's surface! If you can float you can snorkel! All you need is a plastic mask and a short tube to breathe while floating facedown on the surface of the water. Here are some of the best-rated snorkeling spots to check out on your next Caribbean cruise.

Belize / Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Western Caribbean cruise itineraries are known for excellent snorkeling opportunities! This 4,448-acre aquatic wonderland is near San Pedro, Caye Ambergris. Due to the protected status of the area, the fish populations have exploded. In waters as shallow as 5 feet, large schools of jacks, groupers, snappers and barracuda abound. Don’t miss Shark Ray Alley, where in just eight feet of water, you’ll get up close and personal with dozens of its namesake creatures.

Curacao / Playa Kalki

Limestone cliffs surround this small cove and the beach on Curacao’s northwest coast. The water is crystal clear, but the beach is very rocky. An entry point is marked with a buoy. With visibility of at least 100 feet you will have lots of opportunity to see green moray eels, lobsters, reef fish and beautiful star coral formations. There’s a beach bar and restaurant with simple menu and diving center where you can rent gear. Curacao is a port of call on a Southern Caribbean cruise.

Grand Cayman / Smiths Cove

Okay, everybody heads out to Stingray City and yes, it’s amazing to experience the tame, gentle stingrays that swim around you! Need a change? Smiths Cove is great for beginners because of the gentle slope leading into the water, and along the limestone edges of the 15-yard-wide cove, the water's only about 10 feet deep. This natural pool is filled with parrotfish, peacock flounder, juvenile angelfish and surgeonfish. Advanced snorkelers can head straight out of the cove to the edge of the coral reef in about 35 feet of water.

Roatan / West Bay Beach

This Caribbean beach has simply incredible, with fine white sand and clear turquoise water. The snorkeling is close to shore and the reef is teeming with life. Some of the more popular species include eagle rays, stingrays, black, gray and queen angels, various butterflies, eels, various groupers and huge parrots. Lots of beach amenities.

St. John, USVI / Trunk Bay

Taking an Eastern Caribbean cruise? Just a ferry ride away from St. Thomas, Trunk Bay is calm and clear, and there's a marked snorkel trail that follows a zigzag course in 3 to 18 feet of water. The park installed 15 underwater plaques along the trail that explain the ecosystem and identify marine life. Shallow rocky areas around the bay are home to octopuses and crustaceans, while the deeper water holds swarms of blue tang, yellowtail snapper, parrotfish and butterfly fish. Plus, the beach has showers, changing rooms, equipment rentals, and a lifeguard.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Norwegian Cruise Line says "Let it Snow"

Some people cruise to the Caribbean to feel the sun slowly bake them to a shade of golden brown. But if you cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Norwegian Escape, you can experience snow all year long! Yes, you read that right! Welcome to the Snow Room of the Mandera Spa, where the temperature ranges from 21 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow gently falls several times a day. Is this crazy?   Not at all!

What’s old is new! The Romans and Ottomans used cooling rooms after hot baths two thousand years ago. Traditional Chinese medicine has used cold water in healing therapies for even longer. Scandinavian countries are famous for their dry-hot-sauna-roll-in-the-snow routine. That’s because they all know that the rapid cooling down of the body after a hot soak has proven health benefits!

Cold water is a stimulus and going from hot to cold is a shock to the nervous system. Cold showers, immersions, or in this case, a Snow Room, causes blood vessels to constrict and then expand once the body reaches its normal temperature. The process helps to increase circulation, rid the body of toxins, and boost the immune system. Really! Cold applied to any part of the body causes an initial chilling effect, but the after effect is a reddish, warming, and healthy glow. Best news yet, it only takes 30-45 seconds of exposure to benefit from the effects of the cold!

However, if you’re having a hard time warming up to this trendy treatment, don’t worry. Norwegian Cruise Line says the snow room will be just one element of the largest thermal suite at sea. The sprawling relaxation zone will offer 17 heated loungers, a hydro-therapy pool, whirlpools, steam room, dry sauna, and salt room. The spa also will have 24 treatment rooms offering more than 50 treatments.

The Norwegian Escape will sail out of Miami beginning November 2015.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

My New Year’s Travel Resolution

What would the New Year be without those well-intentioned resolutions we sincerely vow to maintain? I, like many, had several slated for 2014. However, since I doubt there is much interest in the failed diet and exercise promises I made myself, as well as my oath of personal growth and self-enrichment, I’ll instead share one related to cruising that worked out fairly well…my resolution to revise my packing style!

My old adage of “be prepared for anything so pack everything” was no longer working for me. It had reached the point where I was adding an extra $200 to my travel budget to cover the airline’s excess baggage fees! In addition, as I started taking long European “girlfriend cruises” (the nature of such a trip required that hubby, chief luggage manager, not come along), it became necessary for me to be able to manage my own luggage through airports, cruise terminals, and cobblestone streets. I was determined to make a change!

I began by retiring my fifteen year-old 31”suitcase for a bright red 25” light weight spinner. First of all, that change immediately saved me six pounds! If it’s been a while since you purchased new luggage, I strongly recommend looking at the bags on the market today. Innovations in fabric and design have resulted in great looking pieces that weigh a lot less and are much easier to maneuver! Secondly, I believe that it is a law of nature (or is it the law of a fashion conscious woman?) that compels one to pack whatever size bag they have in front of them to the point of explosion. My new smaller bag requires I pack smarter.

The next items I purchased were coordinating compression packing cubes. Any TSA agent that opens my bag is sure to be impressed by my organization and sense of style! After several trips using packing cubes, I have to wonder why I waited so long to try them! Roll, pack and squeeze out the air and you’ll be shocked at what a space saver they are! I would not use this method for cotton or linen due to excess wrinkling but another change I’ve made is to pack only wrinkle-free synthetic fabrics. I don’t use the cubes for everything but they’re perfect for lingerie, socks, t-shirts, shorts, sweaters, bathing suits, toiletries, chargers and cables.

Early last year I sat down at my computer and typed out a packing list. Actually, I have several, each one geared to a specific type of vacation (cruising, road trip, etc.). There are plenty online to use as a guide.   Just add and delete items to personalize it, save it and print out a copy before each trip. Print out your list at least a week before departure so you can look it over and see if you need to purchase anything. I keep my list handy until I’m ready to walk out the door, then I tuck it in the side zipper of my luggage so I have it handy when I’m re-packing to return home. Referring to a packing list and checking it twice ensures you’ll never walk out the door without something important (like a passport!).

As to the items I choose to pack, this gets tricky! I’ve taken the advice of the experts and try to stick to a specific color palette when selecting my clothes. Black and white has become the backbone of my travel wardrobe accessorized with colorful scarves, t-shirts and costume jewelry. I can make many more outfits but pack less items altogether. Also, before I pack any item I stop and ask myself if it is versatile and necessary. I no longer pack for the worst case scenario.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I must say that I’m pretty pleased with the way my 2014 resolution to revise my packing style worked out. In 2014 I did not pay a dollar in excess luggage fees, yet traveled to Europe for 14 days with everything I needed in my new 25” bag…plus the matching boarding bag that was filled with 10 pairs of shoes! My 2015 resolution is a bit more challenging…cut back on the shoes!!!