Posted by: Tom Baker | June 22, 2016

Alaska Cruises-The Details


I have cruised to Alaska more than 50 times and have put together a nice reference guide for what I think are currently some of the best offerings to the great land for 2016 and some new cruises being offered in 2017.

Ships and Cabins

Best-value ship
The Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, which set sail from downtown Seattle every Saturday and Sunday from May through September, and the Norwegian Sun, which cruises between Vancouver and Seward (a port for Anchorage) on what’s often called the Route of the Glaciers. Fares on these ships can be up to 25 percent less than on Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity. These ships are especially suited to families with young kids: The onboard atmosphere is casual—there’s no dress code—and the ships have well-managed kids’ clubs and a wide variety of entertainment options.

Silver Whisper Medallion Suite

Best ship for a splurge
Silversea’s all-suite Silver Whisper, which carries just 382 passengers. Even the smallest cabins are nearly 300 square feet and come with butler service. The food is sophisticated, thanks to Silversea’s partnership with Relais & Châteaux. Daily rates average $600 per person and include cocktails, wine, and other drinks, as well as gratuities. The ship caters to a largely international crowd.

Best large ship
The 2,800-passenger Celebrity Solstice. It’s a stylish ship, with wide-open spaces and glass skylights that fill the public areas with light. While the food in the main dining room is average, several of the ship’s smaller specialty restaurants turn out great meals for a modest fee. Starting in 2015, travelers in the top-category suites will get access to their own private restaurant, sundeck, and indoor lounge, and all beverages will be included in the cabin fare.

Best small ship
Two 62-passenger expedition vessels—the National Geographic Sea Bird and the National Geographic Sea Lion—sail between Sitka and Juneau, visiting many more ports than most big ships can manage. First-rate naturalists give lectures onboard between ports, and when the ship is docked, passengers board zodiacs, canoes, and kayaks to explore their natural surroundings up close. Neither vessel is plush, and the food is more home-style than gourmet, but the service is good, and you learn a ton. These Alaska cruises are pricey—nearly $1,000 per person per day—because of the unique itinerary and shipboard expertise, but they sell out quickly nonetheless, so book a year in advance. Ponant and Silversea have added their ultra-luxury ships in the Expedition market changing the game for those wanting to splurge on the BEST of the BEST!!!

Best ship for families
Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America often run promotions where kids under 18 sail free or at a fare of $99 to $199 per person. These sales are limited-time and capacity-controlled, but watch for them, because they can be the best-value sailings in Alaska. Keep in mind that Norwegian’s shipboard atmosphere is much more casual than Holland America’s; the latter is more traditional and has a dress code on some nights.

Best ship for a solo traveler
There are no bargains for solo travelers on an Alaska cruise: Fares for singles are based on double occupancy and thus are typically twice the usual price. Sometimes luxury lines such as Regent and Crystal Cruises and Silversea may charge solo travelers just 30 percent to 40 percent more than the usual per-person price.

Best ship for independent travelers
The small-ship expedition vessels operated by Un-Cruise Adventures and by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic offer knowledgeable onboard naturalists, zodiac landings, kayaking in Glacier Bay, guided hikes, and more. They cater to adventure seekers who would never be caught dead on a tour bus. Of course, the smaller the ship, the heftier the price tag. Rates start at $6,290 per person for a seven-day Alaska cruise.

Best ship for foodies
On Silversea’s Silver Whisper, chefs from Relais & Chateaux design menus for the main dining room and for Le Champagne, the smaller restaurant that specializes in gourmet food and wine pairings. Crystal Cruises, the #1 Rated Cruise Line in the World by Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure is also a foodies cruise with a Nobu restaurant onboard among many other grand dining choices!

Best-value cabins
Many people think they want a balconied cabin on an Alaska cruise, but the truth is that with cooler temps and plentiful rain and wind, passengers rarely use those balconies. Among my favorite cabins are Holland America’s large oceanview staterooms. At 200 square feet, with big picture windows, three to four closets, and relatively large bathrooms that come with a tub, these cabins accommodate three to four passengers comfortably and work especially well for families. AquaClass cabins on Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice are about the same size as the ship’s oceanview staterooms (195 square feet) but come with a balcony plus access to the spa’s private steam rooms and lounge, a dedicated concierge, and Blu, an intimate shipboard restaurant. The mini-suites on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl are 285 square feet (compared to 160 for a standard oceanview cabin) and sleep up to four people. They’re priced significantly lower than similar staterooms on competing ships and often cost only an extra $100 per person above the price of a balconied cabin.

Cabin worth the splurge
The 5,750-square-foot Garden Villas on the Norwegian Pearl and the Norwegian Jewel. They each have with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, multi-tiered balconies, and an outdoor hot tub. Oh, and there’s a butler too, on hand to help you unpack, make reservations for restaurants and shore excursions, or plan the party you could easily host on your huge private sundeck. All the Garden Villas are in the VIP Haven section, which has its own pool, gym, and restaurant. While there are more luxurious ships sailing in Alaska, Norwegian has gone all out with its Garden Villas. They’re easily the largest family staterooms at sea—they can comfortably accommodate up to eight—and are outfitted with the same amenities you’d expect to find at a five-star hotel. In fact, these rooms are so private and so luxurious that many Hollywood and music-industry celebrities, and even one royal family, have booked them. Not surprisingly, luxury like this doesn’t come cheap: The suites run about $25,000 per week, but occasionally you can snag them for thousands less.

Best cabins for families
The two-bedroom suites (Category SC Penthouse or Haven S4) on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, both of which sail on seven-day cruises from Seattle. The suites are 540 square feet, which is more than three times the size of a standard oceanview cabin, and have a king-size bed and sea-facing en-suite bathroom in the master bedroom. The second bedroom also has its own private bathroom, and there’s a living area and a dining room too. Both suite types offer concierge, butler, and VIP services. They can sleep up to six passengers (there’s a pullout sofa in the living room). Second best are the standard balcony cabins on the Celebrity Solstice. The ship has 121 connecting cabins in category SD-1A where Mom and Dad can have their own stateroom that connects to another stateroom accommodating up to four kids. Each cabin is at least 195 square feet, not including the balcony space, where the privacy partitions can also be opened.

Where to Cruise

Mount McKinley

Best itinerary
One that encompasses both the Inside Passage (an archipelago of 10,000 islands in the Alaska Panhandle near British Columbia) and the Gulf of Alaska (the coastline farther north that gives you access to Alaska’s interior). Sailings that include the gulf enable you to continue inland to Denali National Park, home of the tallest mountain in North America and the Big Five of Alaskan wildlife, including grizzly bears. These sailings are usually one-way between Vancouver and Anchorage—you fly into one city and back from the other—which makes them more expensive than solely Inside Passage cruises, which tend to be round-trip out of Seattle or Vancouver. Round-trip airline tickets to Seattle are most affordable, and thus many people find round-trip Inside Passage cruises out of Seattle to be the most budget-friendly and convenient; just be warned you’re missing Alaska’s backcountry.

Best short cruise
In May 2015 Princess Cruises will begin four- and five-day sailings round-trip out of Vancouver to Ketchikan (the salmon capital) and Juneau (the state capital and home to Mendenhall Glacier). Prices start at only $449 per person. The route is limited to the Inside Passage, but that’s good if you suffer from motion sickness, since the water there is calmer than in the Gulf of Alaska.

Don’t-miss port
Juneau, the state capital. It’s where you can heli-hike to Mendenhall Glacier; visit a salmon hatchery; take a guided rain-forest walk; or go river rafting, whale watching, or even golfing. Or you can sample an Alaskan-made microbrew and a halibut burger at the Red Dog Saloon, then take an aerial tram ride up Mount Roberts for panoramic views.

Port most worth the trek
Again, Skagway. It’s where the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1898, and the city still retains its historic character. One of the more interesting (and fun!) shore excursions is to take the narrow-gauge train along the jaw-dropping cliffs, while local guides spin yarns about the miners living in the area during the height of the Gold Rush.

Hidden-gem port
Sitka. It’s a historically rich and colorful little fishing town that was once the capital of the Russian fur-trading empire. In fact, it was here that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Today the shops, architecture, and even a local dance company hark back to the motherland. Sitka is also a base for water sports such as sea kayaking and diving.

Alaska is more popular than ever and choices abound for those looking for great prices and options…

Happy Cruising!

Posted by: Tom Baker | January 11, 2016

Cuba Cruise 2016-A Real WOW!!!


2016-01-06 18.15.14

Cuba is a land of deep contrast. The effects of a 50 year US embargo are seen in the decay of the cities especially in Havana but the country lives on with a vibrant culture of amazingly strong people that thrive despite its own governments restrictions and the countries lack of employment opportunities. The main cities including Havana seem to be starting a revival of sorts with a modernization of older buildings, burgeoning art scene, opening of new restaurants, and all great things Cuban that  never went away even during the last 50 years where time seems to have stood still.

Today, Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba via the People to People ALLOWED experiences  for travel under 12 US government set categories and one I  highly recommend for travel to CUBA before it really changes with proposed development is a Cuba Cruise. Cruising allows for a comfortable and affordable way to see this unique and VERY special island… Current US government allowances have approved travel programs to about 24 land and sea travel companies for US citizens to travel to Cuba. Currently, land tours average $800-$1000pp a day which is quite pricey for the quality of experiences offered! The quality of hotel offerings are few, quality is pretty low barring a couple of exceptions, and guests who participate in a land tour are hand held by a guided program most of their time ashore… A cruise offers a reliable way to see ports without long land distance coach tours from city to city traversing this large and beautiful island on unreliable roads and provides a comfortable home at sea to go to at the end of a day’s tour while visiting the various ports.

My cruise offered a 7-day Montego Bay itinerary and frankly the BEST of the cruise programs I have seen thus far. The ship sailed from Montego Bay to Santiago de Cuba (birthplace of Castro’s Revolution), a day at Sea, 2 full days and overnight in Havana (Capital and gem of Cuba), a beach day at unspoiled Maria La Gorda, and the artistic town of Cienfuegos with its amazing art galleries and Greek Revival architecture!

Going to Cuba and People To People Requirements

All  American Citizens and US residents (regardless of nationality) must complete a People To People application and make a $95per person donation. The best way to do this is use the link and follow the simple instruction: http://form.jotform.us/form/51693819046160

Additionally, all travelers are required to purchase medical insurance that is valid in Cuba. The cost is affordable  $4.50 per person a day for Special Insurance if under 70 and slightly more if you are over 70, there is a $3 per person a day supplement. The link to do purchase this is: https://cubagrouptour.com/information/cuba/insurance/booking/index.html

Many US insurance companies like MH Ross now sell insurance that covers travel to cub for trip cancellation, interruption, and medical. This is separate from the above medical insurance!

Cuban visas are provided at embarkation. Guests must carry this as well as their passport in all ports of call when going on tour or going on an independent visit.

Montego Bay

Embarkation was smooth after a 2.5 hour flight from Houston. There are abundant flights to Montego Bay from many US gateways. The port is a short 15 minute ride from the airport and costs around $35 for a cab. The pier embarkation process takes just minutes and ones luggage arrives to the guests cabin simultaneously as the guest!

Disembarkation was smooth but Jamaican officials are slow in reviewing forms and this process takes more time. Do not plan a flight out before 1130am… Luggage is taken ashore and the process is completed from around 8:30-10:00am. The return cab costs the same.

The Celestyal Crystal by Cuba Cruise

This 3.5 Star ship has a storied career and was built originally in 1983 as a car ferry but was widely known in the 1990’s as NCL’s Leeward offering 3-4 day Bahamas cruises. She has been recently  partially refurbished by her Greek owners and offers 7-day cruises from both Montego Bay for Americans and Havana for foreign nationals. Crystal is only 25,000 tons, carries on average 800 passengers, 9 decks, and is 532 feet long!

The ship is vintage 1990’s, intimate, comfortable, and immaculately clean. Her cabins are spacious in most categories and while a bit dated in style, they are kept clean by a delightful cabin crew. Cabin bathrooms vary based on the cabin type and the higher the cabin type, the larger the shower stall. Celestyal Cruises just rebuilt the ship in November of 2015 and added some 53 balcony cabins to the vessel increasing overall comfort.  The public areas offer a large show lounge, main bar, some smaller meeting rooms, outdoor aft bar with Jacuzzi (very popular, 2 dining rooms, a buffet restaurant, a small pool with sliding glass dome and is air conditioned, a spa, hair salon, large gift shop for the size of the ship, and a tiny casino with slots and 3 gaming tables.

Onboard Service & Crew

The ship has a multi-national crew with 20% Cuban staffing for the Cuba Cruises. The staff  are quite friendly and work incredibly hard. The bar and dining service seem to be slower than most ships and this creates longer than usual waits for guests. Peak hours at dinner time 7-8pm create longer waits and the ship offers only open seating in the two main dining rooms along with a buffet up by the pool nightly to help offset waiting time but dinners usually lasted 2 hours or more due to lengthy waits between courses. Bar staff were taxed as the company now offers all-inclusive beverage programs and guests tend to drink more than on other ships!

The front office staff were always helpful and friendly but questions abounded frequently due to the newness of the ship (my sailing was only the third). Cabin staff were most helpful and kept cabins quite clean with two daily cabin and bathroom cleanings. One had to request hand towels which was odd. Bathrobes are provided for higher grade cabins. The gift shop staff were very friendly and always very helpful.

The ships officers were aloof and not nearly as friendly as I have experienced on other Greek ships. This was a bit of a disappointment but did not ruin the experience.

 Entertainment

The affable Cruise Director Danny was one of the nicest I have encountered, her attended to a long list of activities including one-of-kind nightly 1 hour review shows (some featuring Cuban history like a show called Revolution). The singers were very good and the amount of offerings was more than most lines provide during a week. The ship also offered extensive Cuban dance, cooking lessons and activities around the People To People Immersion program, and a fantastic Cuban lecture series during the week which was quite detailed and interesting. There were usual vegetable carving classes by the cooking staff, and other normal shipboard activities during the time at sea.

Onboard Dining

Breakfast and lunch were mostly buffet style in the restaurant with some special order items and the offerings were fairly extensive but the quality was mostly average at best. All dining is open seating onboard so you most arrive with your party if you are traveling as a group of family. The food ranged from good to poor based on what you ordered and this was the downfall. I had some delicious and poor offerings all in the same meal selection so quality of preparation and delivery varied. The fish offerings were the best (not the Shrimp though). The deck BBQ was also quite good. I ended up ordering excellent Asian noodles with chicken several times which came on a steaming hot grill… Menu choices were the same as most ships but quality did vary. I heard the steaks were very thin and tough. The ship did offer a paid for upgrade for better quality steaks, shrimp, and lobster for a fee from $14.95 to $25.95 per person depending on the upgrade. Room service also came with a charge that was $6.95pp for continental breakfast and then a full varied menu that ranged from $4.45pp for sweet to$7.45pp for Pizza’s. The dining experience was pretty basic as I find on most mass market 3-4 star rated ships, but I certainly did not starve.

Excursions and People To People Tours

All tours for the P2P program are offered daily and guests  can actually upgrade tours in some ports and include nighttime show like the famous and historic Tropicana nightclub show in Havana… The offerings were mostly interesting and executed in a fairly timely manner in each port of call . The coaches were very comfortable fairly new, and had excellent A/C under the government owned Transtur. The guides are also provided by the government and varied in quality. I had very good Cuban guides except for the first day in Cuba wherein the guide barely spoke English and had a hard time communicating. When ashore, groups were 50 plus in size and it was nearly impossible to hear the guide speak in any noisy outdoor environment. The cruise line needs to invest is the whisper system for these type of tours to allow guests to get more out of their experience. All-in-all, I enjoyed the tours and learned quite a bit about Cuba and its people.

My Last  Impression

Celestyal Cruises offers the most affordable way currently to see Cuba. Other cruise lines charge significantly more and offer less time in ports as they sail from Miami or offer fewer port visits. Celestyal Cruises does not demand participation in the People To People program which allows guests to go ashore on their own if they like and not have to attend all lectures and Cuban based programming if they are not wanting to do so. I felt this made the overall program open to guests desire to learn as they wished and participate in the amazing destination that Cuba offers with its lack of US restaurants, shops, business, and influence. The Cuban people are kind, warm, willing to talk to you and have a strength that is amazing given their strict communist government implications. The restaurants are becoming abundant and some are downright amazing and incredibly affordable, there are exceptional art & ceramic galleries with superb unheard of prices. One can procure masterful paintings at a fraction of the price than nearly anywhere else in the world. There are incredible museums, well-kept antique American cars fill the streets, and beautiful song and dance are abundant everywhere. American’s can bring home Cuban Cigars and Rum now but all purchases for art works, gifts, and the aforementioned must be made in cash. Some vendors took US cash but most took only the Convertible CUC (Cuban Peso). There were change kiosk’s in every port allowing guest to convert the currency of their choice. I loved my Cuba experience, enjoyed going now before things radically change, and encourage anyone who wants to experience a vacation that is like stepping back some 50 years to do it now before things really do change!

My Pictures

https://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/CUBA-2016/

Posted by: Tom Baker | November 15, 2015

Escape to Norwegian Escape!


Norwegian Escape

The New 162,000 ton, 1069 foot long, 4200 passenger Norwegian ESCAPE  is the latest entrance into the modern Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and is perhaps the best ship introduced into the fleet thus far.

Main Lobby

Norwegian Cruise line Holdings which also includes high premium class cruise brands Oceania Cruises and ultra-luxury Regent Seven Seas Cruises is managed under the venerable Frank Del Rio, a man of great style and panache and carries a unique motto- “Family first”. Del Rio has brought over many attributes from his own successful Oceania Cruises to the new style and décor of ESCAPE as well as improved the dining experience for all guests in all venues claiming that the NEW Norwegian Cruise Line is soon to be the “foodies cruise line” in the contemporary market brand shared with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, and MSC Cruises.

Standard Balcony Cabin

I think Norwegian has a greater chance to be the winner as it seems so focused on experience and has always been the most innovative of cruise lines that all other brands have implemented and copied NCL innovations from full Broadway shows to Freestyle Dining and so on…

 

Escape offers a wide variety of cabins and suites to meet the needs of today’s diverse traveler. She has the largest array of complimentary and reservation (fee based) dining venues that make this more like a large world class resort than a traditional cruise experience. This ship has something for everyone and for all ages.

Margaritaville

I found the dining experience excellent throughout and sampled a wide variety of venues during my recent 2-day Christening Cruise with Cuban born singer Pitbull. You can see Frank Del Rio’s touches everywhere and under NCL’s NEW president and longtime NCL veteran, Andy Stuart, the future of this company has never looked better! The seafood buffet offered abundant fresh Alaskan King Crab, full lobster tails, and fresh fish of wide-variety including sushi… There are two Margaritaville Venues by Jimmy Buffet, top brand gourmet dining venues with Bayamo by Jose Garces and Food Republic by the Pubbelly Group. These are just a few of some 28 dining venues onboard.

Food Republic

Entertainment was lively and exciting throughout this huge vessel with two full Broadway shows including After Midnight and spectacular Million Dollar Quartet as well as a fee based supper club with its dinner show and 1980’s theme Brat Pack Show which is a throwback to The 80’s Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day off…

Million Dollar Quartet

My balcony cabin was very comfortable with plenty of storage for a week or so and had a very nice well planned bathroom with shower stall. The balcony was larger than slightly smaller Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway.

The Luxurious Haven

Families will go crazy with amazing pools, slides, sporting activities, gym’s Mandara Spa, and huge dedicated kids clubs for all age groups…

NCL is already making some improvements to the Casino which will have enclosed smoking areas to improve overall guest health experience and note that the remainder of the ship remains strictly non-smoking per Safety Of Life At Sea maritime rules.

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The Haven (private access high end suites) complex remains the largest in the fleet with nearly 3 decks dedicated to the space with its own ship within a ship experience and couture decorated suites, private pool, lounges, sun deck, spa, bar, restaurant (indoor and outdoor), and concierge desk…

Who is the Norwegian Escape for? Just about everyone. It meets the needs of travelers who may be more budget conscience to the high end luxury traveler wanting the private Haven enclave. This ship really competes with Las Vegas but is so much better as it floats, sails the Caribbean year-round, and offers multiple ports-of-call. It also offers an affordable vacation offer.

See my full photo show here: https://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Norwegian-ESCAPE-November-2015/

 Happy Sailing!!!

 

Posted by: Tom Baker | September 21, 2015

Crystal Symphony-The Art of Luxury Cruising…


Crystal's 25th Anniversary

Crystal Cruises has just celebrated its 25th Anniversary with its small 2 ship fleet, Crystal Symphony built in 1995 and Crystal Serenity built in 2005. No other travel company in the history of awards has been so lauded as these two ships. Both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure readers vote these two ships #1 and #2 repeatedly and have for 20 years! As a matter of fact these two ships rate higher than any other airline, hotel, resort, or cruise company-period! That is a real WOW…

Crystal Court

Having just sailed on Crystal Symphony, a 20 year old vessel, it is hard to find any evidence of this being a vintage class ship although her only downfall to other luxury competitors is the size of here standard and balcony cabins being relatively smaller than other ships in class. Nonetheless, this does not keep this ship or her newer sister from garnering top awards year after year.

Elegant Accommodations

To me personally, Crystal earns its strength from its elegant surroundings, superb food, service, and lifestyle program which consists of excellent enrichment and entertainment. I am never bored on a Crystal ship and love the civility and lack of hassle, not having to deal with lines, constant push to sell on-board programming and activities that seem to plague the rest of the cruise industry. The Symphony is impeccably maintained and spotlessly clean. The food is as good as any luxury hotel or resort anywhere in the world, and it is just darn right lovely… I am including a detailed link for you to see for yourself why Crystal Symphony is still considered a six star luxury cruise experience: https://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/SmugPreview/Crystal-Symphony-August-2015/52034155_nZrXp2#!i=4360444566&k=8sxjbZ2. I think you will agree…

Happy Cruising!

Posted by: Tom Baker | January 22, 2015

BIG SHIP-Independence of the Seas!


 

Bi Ship Independence

Spending a week in the warm climes of the Caribbean in January is music to many ears as winter has set in deeply and I must confess, it is a great time to escape for a week’s getaway or so!  I was fortunate to sail on Royal Caribbean International’s Independence of the Seas for 8-days January 3-11, 2015 and visited St. Maarten, St. Kitts, San Juan, and Labadee, RCI’s sacred  pristine peninsula paradise on the island of Haiti.

 Independence is a big ship at 1112 feet long, carrying nearly 4000 guests at full capacity, and introduced in 2008. While she is a larger version of the Voyager Class, she is extremely well maintained even though her décor seems outdated (not tired) in some areas. This due to the ship being designed in the early 2000 era and with many identical features going back to the Voyager Class of the 1990’s. Nonetheless, she is maintained with TLC, extremely clean, and a happy ship from a crews and hotel perspective… The ship received a multi-million dollar update in 2013 adding some alternative dining venues like Chops Grill, Giovanni’s Table, The Cupcake Cupboard, and a few others. A Flow Rider surf machine was added among many other notable features and a refreshing of the vessel.

Royal Promenade

 I was pleasantly surprised at the spaciousness of the ship with very few crowds-ever! The Royal Promenade down the middle of the ship is always busy but again never obscenely crowded. The pool deck works well as do all of the public spaces. The ship has many open atrium areas with high ceilings and lots of stunning maritime architecture features including a multi-million dollar art collection.

 This class of ship works better than some of Norwegian and Carnival’s newer class of ships which can be crowded and tight during peak guest movements. Kudos to RCI for creating a ship that flows well, has a wide array of entertainment, live music, and exciting venues to keep guests of all ages happy.

Spacious Cabin

My cabin was a standard D3 balcony cabin on Deck 6 aft quoted as being 199 square feet in the brochure with a balcony of some 40 square feet. I did my own measuring and believed the space to be 220 square feet and a balcony of 40+ square feet. The bed was comfortable with crisp linens and a memory foam pad (a bit too warm for my taste) but comfortable to the body, a full sized sofa, plenty of drawers, storage, closet space, a large flat screen interactive television with multi-channel (more than adequate) programming. The cabin was kept immaculate throughout except for a little dust behind the TV but my steward kept the room always looking spotless to the naked eye. The bathroom had a glass cylinder shower stall and adequate space for 2.

 The cuisine on the ship varied from extensive buffet options in the Windjammer to lovely lunch and dinner menus in the 3 level main dining room.  The menus were quite ambitious and food often failed to live up to expectation but it wasn’t of poor quality. I think the larger ships have issues with putting out the high level quantities of quality food in short order. Often, my food was warm-not hot. Some items had sat too long.

The ship excels in its two main paid for venues Chops Grill and Giovanni’s Table where I opted to take 4 of my 8 dinners onboard. The menus, quality, dining, and service were truly outstanding here and worth the prices of $35pp for Chops and $25pp for Giovanni’s. I never made it to Johnny Rockets as there was just too much going on to do it all…

 The Independence and her two twin sisters have the largest spa, gym, and workout facilities of large ships. I am duly impressed with RCI’s dedication to the amount of space offered to its guests. This is, however, consistent with all the incredible design features of this large and impressive 4-star rated contemporary brand!

Cupcake Class

 Entertainment was varied with high energy and campy street parades on the Royal Promenade. The most popular being a 70’s disco party, lively Broadway style musicals, entertaining comedians who did not cross over into too dark of comic realm, great kids programs for all ages. BTW, there were at least 500 kid of varying ages on this January post New Year’s cruise. There were outdoor dances, a Journey Tribute band, Latin music, disco, ice-skating rink with amazing ice shows in the incredible Studio B, and oh-so much more. One of my favorite things to do was to take a cupcake making class at the Cupcake Cupboard. I learned how to make a cupcake puppy do and a cupcake cheeseburger with fries!

2015-01-09 09.51.42

 The itinerary was exciting with lovely ports offering a wide array of shore excursions, shopping, and drop dead gorgeous weather. My two favorite excursions and port visits were St. Kitts taking a boat to the gem island of Nevis and a visit to the star studded Four Season Resort. Nevis is so isolated that celebrities go there to decompress and can walk for miles on gorgeous beaches without many tourists, no vendors, and no paparazzi… It is just as lovely as one could imagine. The second was Labadee, RCI’s private peninsula on Haiti. This masterpiece is isolated from the chaos of the rest of the island and accessible by boat. Royal Caribbean has built a dock for up to 2 ships-for easy guest access to the beach, has several absolutely lovely beaches, water sports, activities, a spa, several barbeque and dining areas, a large Haitian art center, entertainment, water slides, a roller coaster, zip-lining, and glorious over the water private bungalows-coveted and rented far in advance by guests in the know!

 The experience was a great getaway and impressive in its offering. RCI has a masterpiece in Independence and I believe this is one of the best family cruise or vacation options anywhere.

 Review my complete photo album here: http://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Other/Independence-of-the-Seas/47013767_xW5rRj#!i=3829270432&k=NjCWPLB

 Happy Cruising!!!

 

Posted by: Tom Baker | December 20, 2014

Best of the Best in European Port Christmas Markets


Christmas Markets 2014

The lights, the music, the crowds, the holiday atmosphere—wherever they’re held, Christmas markets are absolutely magical. The only way to top the experience of attending a Christmas market in your own home city is to travel abroad to visit one of the famous European markets in cities like Zeebrugge and Amsterdam.

As cold winter weather takes hold, it’s natural that we start to think of spending cosy evenings indoors—by the fire with a mug of steaming hot chocolate, perhaps—but there’s definitely something to be said for time spent outdoors too, especially when it involves a trip to one of the incredible Christmas markets of Europe. Whether you’re traveling in more prosaic fashion or arriving in style on a majestic ocean liner, there’s no question that the bustling market stalls, bright lights, and spectacular seasonal displays are truly breath-taking. And there are so many to choose from, in countries all over Europe. In Strasbourg, France there are no fewer than eleven different markets held every year—not for nothing is this city nicknamed the “capital of Christmas,” and the combined total of over 300 stalls receive more than two million annual visitors. Dortmund, Germany is home to the world’s biggest Christmas tree—its Christmas market’s central feature is a tree that tops 148 feet and is decorated with nearly 50,000 ornaments and lights.

With so many incredible markets it’s difficult to choose the best, but still, in terms of markets held in port cities there are some unique experiences to be enjoyed in countries all over Europe.

Belgium: Home to not one but two incredible Christmas markets, in Antwerp and Zeebrugge, Belgium is easily one of the best places in which to spend the holiday period. In Antwerp—otherwise known as home of the world’s best chocolate and chocolatiers—the advent of the holiday season transforms the city into a wonderland of lights that perfectly set off the city’s gorgeous cathedral. In the smaller city of Zeebrugge, the Christmas markets are perhaps not as spectacular, but this charming port and its village-like atmosphere will capture your heart nonetheless.

Estonia: The medieval buildings and narrow winding streets of Tallinn are the perfect backdrop for Christmas splendor, and this Eastern European city spares no effort in preparing for the season. Streets are brightly lit and festooned with decorations, and each market stall is an absolute delight. Performances from local choirs at to the festive atmosphere, ensuring every moment spent in Tallinn gladdens the heart and the spirit.

Ireland: The city of Dublin may seem an incongruous addition to the list, but the history of the city and its buildings are a wonderful backdrop to the excitement and bustle of the Christmas season. And thanks to the city’s plethora of bars and its incredible local ales, there’s always a cosy place to enjoy a quiet drink after an evening spent perusing the markets.

The Netherlands: Already a hugely popular place for short trips, Amsterdam is the perfect Christmas market location, with its unique Dutch charm and picturesque architecture. Gorgeous trees, twinkling lights, and an array of pretty market stalls only add to the charm already created by its quaint streets and canals.

Posted by: Tom Baker | May 27, 2014

MSC Divina- Diva or Divine?


MSC Divina
I had taken a several year break from MSC after my last cruise on MSC Splendida three years ago, MSC Fantasia on her maiden voyage 5 years ago, and two longer 10-day cruises on the older and much smaller MSC Lirica… I had personally taken a break as I felt the line had lost touch with its passengers and cared more for the vacuum cleaners than its guests as this spotless fleet of ships is so well maintained, but clearly suffered from service onboard as it was growing and adding ships at a neck-breaking speed… Online reviews had taken a beating and I felt the company was losing steam and passengers for its lack of controlling its training during its exponential growth!

Having said this, I always felt the MSC Yacht Club excelled in its offering and value but the rest of the experience lacked compared to their favorable North American supported brands.

Well, I have taken a new outlook after a two night frantic sampling cruise on MSC Divina on a cruise from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas and back…

MSC Divina Video Tour from Miami TV: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuU57y1t8GU

Introduced in May of 2012 and named after Godmother Diva, Sophia Loren, Divina is a huge ship at 139,400 tons 16 decks high, and carries some 3300 passengers in 1637 cabins and suites with 1325 crew to service its guests. MSC made a clear cut decision to place Divina in the highly competitive Caribbean marketplace where she goes head-to head with venerable giants Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line. Because she is not known widely to the North American market, this lovely gem of a ship is underpriced and often, unappreciated. I have seen her 7-day Caribbean Cruises listed from only $299 per person which is absurd! Before arriving in Miami, the MSC offices in Florida hired some top industry cruise experts to help gentrify the MSC Divina and make her more palatable to the domestic audience. Nearly every part of the cruise experience was touched to make this unique cruise experience work for the US audience. In part, most of these variables work nicely without turning the Divina into just another cruise product….

Divina is a lovely vessel that is meticulously maintained, offers European style (which honestly means slower service than competitors), but does offer a high quality experience is comfortable, large, and well-appointed cabins. Her food is above average, focuses on Italian but staff struggle with slower than usual service, some have issued with understanding basic English, and this creates angst for the North Americans “speedy-service, in and out crowd”…

Divina has improved its service and offering with English being the main language spoken, added North America style entertainment programs, music, and plentiful television programming. As a matter of fact, the two production shows I watched Wonderland (A Cirque De’ Soleil themed fantasy program) and Starwalker-a Michael Jackson tribute, were among the best I have seen on a ship ever with high energy, high quality sound, production, and effects making both shows spectacular! There was classical music played in the massive ships multi story lobby, and Elton John tribute, and more.. This lobby is flanked by massive staircases containing precious Swarovski crystals and each step cost 4000 euro… It is gorgeous and sparkles… There is a host of daily activity, night time parties including a White Party and Flower Glory (70’s and 80’s) party, and this ship bustles with lively fun for all ages including children whom sail FREE on most voyages.. The kids program is varied and dedicated to specific age groups from 3-6, 7-11, 12-14, and 15-17 to make the most for the many children who travel with this line.

While MSC management in Florida insist this is a premium lass product, I would argue that it is not but offers a different European style cruise vs. the very American Carnival, RCI, and NCL… What MSC does deliver is exceptional value, underpriced cruise product for what it delivers, and an absolutely gorgeous ship with sumptuous rich deep burgundy and grey toned décor overall!

There are so many lounges providing music, a sports bar with bowling alley, 4 lovely pools for all guests (1 dedicated for adults), a large jumbotron screen that shows movies throughout the day and night, and many places to find sun including a private area on top of deck 16 called the Top Hat where membership can be purchased for those wanting a totally quiet, elegant area to sun with its own dedicated bar, Jacuzzi and food service, Jacuzzi, sports facilities, magnificent and underused gymnasium, and spectacular MSC Aurea spa-which offered 30% savings on most treatments on my voyage make spa treatments some of the BEST VALUE I have seen-period on a ship.. for example, a 60-minute Bali Massage was only $88!

I purchased a premium beverage package for $72 which allowed me 15 coupons to use towards the beverage of my choice. Just make sure you don’t lose them! MSC also offers beverage packages from $44-$57 a day for unlimited offerings.. There were numerous packages and I loved that a guest could choose from numerous packages based on their consumption, budget, and desire… I found bar service a bit slow and some cocktails seemed a bit weak compared to other ships but it wasn’t terrible… I did prefer the Cantina Di Bacco wine bar where fine wines by the glass or bottle are offered, fine trays of olives, cheese, and gourmet pizzas can be ordered.. It is little used compared to other bars onboard and quite casual and nice!

MSC has a very strict no-smoking policy onboard and limits smoking to a contained smoking room outside the casino, and to one area on the starboard side of the lower pool deck area outdoors. There is no smoking allowed anywhere else on the vessel including guest staterooms or balconies…

My balcony cabin on deck 9 was aft facing and approximately 200 square feet with a nice sized balcony offering another 34 square feet, the bed was comfortable with a nice fluffy comforter but the pillows were flat and hard or tired and lumpy. They needed replacement and I heard this comment frequently for other guests and other reviews. There was a nice sized sofa, three closets with storage and drawers, a safe, mini-fridge, vanity , flat screen TV with multi-channel and very adequate programming and nice sized bathroom with a glass door shower stall with environmentally friendly shampoo and body wash but a bar of soap to wash ones hands was noticeably missing. The cabin was spotlessly clean like the rest of the ship…. MSC charges a small fee for room service which I have no problem with and have a dedicated pizza over to make gourmet pizzas of many varieties from its Eataly kitchen. I will add, these pizzas are the BEST at sea!!!!

The cuisine on MSC changes nightly and is offered in two large main dining rooms. The Black Crab and Villa Rossa… There is also a huge buffet on Deck 14 that offers meals, pizza. While the crowds here likened to mad rush and chaotic at times, the offerings were vast and offered a nice array of food offerings. I personally don’t like buffets but found the pizza and salads very nice! I just don’t like noise and constant traffic milling through. This area too is kept immaculately clean…

During my short 2-day cruise, I did not take my dinners in the MDR but spent my time taking in the 2 main alternative a-la-carte venues Eataly and Galaxy. Eataly is a branch of the famed New York eatery and deli where MSC offers a steakhouse and Italian dining in separate areas onboard. The atmosphere is a bit cold with plastic uncomfortable chairs but superb meals… My dinner had poor service from a friendly but inefficient waitress. There was no official Maître D’hôtel so guests wandering through the ship came pouring in and marched past ones table starring at what you were eating. All-in-all, I thought this venue was poorly executed although the food quality was good-not excellent… I wanted to buy some items from the well-stocked gourmet shop but there was never anyone there to sell items-very odd… The next night dinner took place in the Galaxy Restaurant next to the ships disco on Deck 16. This venue offered a panoramic view of the ship at sea, a gourmet Mediterranean a-la-carte selection, and live music. This fared much better but also suffered from slow but friendly service and I think MSC needs to better tend to these venues if they want to attract guests into paying its higher than normal fees for this type of alternative fee based venue. I was sorely disappointed in both due to the disorganized service… I will say, however, that the Galaxy at sunset is a gorgeous place to dine. MSC also offers a $28pp fee based gourmet brunch here from 10am-2pm and all food is cooked to order. I looked in and it was little used but looked quite lovely.

My favorite thing about MSC is its unique Yacht Club. This is a ship within a ship experience located on top of the vessel and offers guests a suite with key access area that includes lovely accommodations, a private panoramic view lounge, includes all beverages, has a private, pool, 24 hour professional concierge, a private restaurant, and perhaps the BEST Butler service of ANY Caribbean based ship. I would liken this to the HAVEN by Norwegian but a step further in offering a more inclusive and slightly more elegant experience to its guests. The rates for this prime location are affordable starting at $1849pp making it truly one of the best values in cruising…

All –in-all, MSC offers a great product but it still needs a little fine tuning to have a broader appeal to the North American audience. If you are well-traveled, used to European style service, and don’t mind waiting a little longer for meal or beverage service, you will be fine… If you are used to pronto speedy service, this ship is not for you… I would go again though to see what they offer on a longer cruise to get the full experience…

Take a look at my pictures here: http://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Travel/MSC-Divina-May-2014/41035607_6Fck36#!i=3268903009&k=WcJ4hH9

Posted by: Tom Baker | May 14, 2014

The FANTASTIC all-NEW Navigator of the Seas


Grand Suite -Navigator
There are so many cruise ships out there today and keeping up with refurbishments, changes, and ship itinerary changes these days can be daunting… I had the opportunity to sail on one VERY SPECIAL Ship this past week and that was Royal Caribbean’s spectacular 138,00 ton, 3,112 passenger ship sailing year round from Galveston and must confess, I was WOW’D! The ship looks new once again and has been touched at every point from all cabins being completely refurbished to every drop of carpet being replaced throughout this massive vessel…

The service onboard was friendly, affable, and professional at all times. Entrainment was top notch in every venue and the ship is a lively fun vessel with so many places to find one’s own niche. RCI International has a solid 4-4.5 Star ship on their hands with this product!
Navigator of the Seas completed a $66 million major makeover that saw the addition of a FlowRider surf simulator and an expanded lineup of eight dining options. The (February 2014) month-long overhaul of the 3,114-passenger vessel also included the addition of “virtual balconies” in 81 windowless inside cabins, an industry first. Expanding on an idea pioneered three years ago on a Disney ship, the high-tech walls offer real-time views of the sea (see more below). Other additions to the ship include new Panoramic Ocean View cabins that have floor-to-ceiling glass walls. New eateries include Royal Caribbean’s first modern Mexican specialty restaurant, called Sabor ($25 per person); a Japanese restaurant called Izumi (prices a la carte); and Royal Caribbean’s signature Italian restaurant Giovanni’s Table ($15 per person for lunch, $20 for dinner). There is also a revamped version of the line’s signature, $35-per-person Chops Grille. An updated menu includes such new selections as Veal Chop Parmesan, slow broiled with caramelized shallots and topped with parmesan herb butter; and a slow-braised Short Rib of Beef with Bordelaise sauce. Other changes to the ship include the addition of digital signage; bow-to-stern Wi-Fi service; new flat-panel televisions in every cabin; an oversized LCD movie screen overlooking the main pool; a new Diamond Lounge for Diamond-level members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society loyalty program; and a Royal Babies and Tots Nursery for children ages 6 months to 36 months all features that first made their debut on Royal Caribbean’s newer Oasis Class of vessels. Additionally, the ship’s Champagne Bar has been re-conceptualized into Royal Caribbean’s signature, retro-chic R Bar.

Inside virtual-balcony

I stayed in one of the Grand Suites and must confess it was larger than my Penthouse Suite on Crystal Serenity. It was well-appointed, spotless, had a huge dressing area, plenty of storage, large living room, huge balcony, and extra-large bathroom with a tub and shower unit. These suites come equipped with extensive concierge and VIP amenities including an open bar each night from 4pm-8pm! One of the most wonderful features was the virtual balcony which was just a just a really amazing thing to see. One can purchase an inside cabin with a virtual wall that has real-time views to the outside of the ship and equipped with sound! One can turn this feature on and off at will but it certainly adds a new dimension to an inside cabin…
Navigator of the Seas sails year-round from Galveston, Texas to the Western Caribbean. Its seven-night itineraries feature stops in Cozumel, Mexico; Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; Falmouth, Jamaica; and George Town, Grand Cayman. She remains one of the most affordable vacations and BEST experiences in the Caribbean cruise market-period!

Posted by: Tom Baker | February 28, 2014

All Things BREAKAWAY & THE HAVEN Part 1


Norwegian-Breakaway

I was an honest skeptic about cruising from New York in the dead of winter to the Florida and the Bahamas but thought I would give Norwegian Breakaway a try! I sailed roundtrip from New York to Port Canaveral, Great Stirrup Cay, and Nassau during a 7-day cruise on a February 9-16, 2014 sailing in the midst of some of America’s worst winter weather in decades!

Sailing out of NYC is always exciting from central Manhattan down the Hudson past the New York skyline, New World Trade Center Tower, Ellis Island, and Statue of Liberty! Breakaway sails from the mid-Manhattan cruise terminal which ails from severe congestion, parking nightmare, and traffic beyond imagination but embarkation seems to go fairly fast given Norwegian embarks over 4000 passengers in record time. It was a balmy 30 degrees when I checked in on a Sunday morning and moved quickly through the crowds and was whisked to the HAVEN (top suites) check-in desk to be provided my suite key. After this, I was taken into the HAVEN waiting Lounge which was packed to the rafters with guests awaiting embarkation. This was quickly abated as guests started embarking before other passengers and the room cleared within 10-15 minutes.

Once embarked, the HAVEN guests were taken up to the HAVEN Lounge where the affable Adrian Bica, Head Concierge, explained the features of the HAVEN. These include use of the private lounge sunning area, bar, private gourmet restaurant for HAVEN only guests, pool, spa, priority show seating, priority embark and disembark, and so much more… The HAVEN suites have exceptional privileges, exceptionally decorated suites, and offer a Seabourn type of cruise experience atop a massive cruise liner… It is something quite unique to Norwegian and VERY special!

My HAVEN suite was a forward suite on Deck 13 (13706) outside the HAVEN complex located on Decks 15 and 16. It was a one bedroom suite with a large marble clad entry way with dining room, deluxe Illy coffee maching, living room with two elegant arm chairs, large screen TV, small balcony called a “Panasea” balcony that was mostly enclosed (I appreciated it on this cruise as it buffeted and wind or snow encountered sailing in and out of NYC, a large master bedroom with huge slanted window facing the bow of the ship, amazingly comfortable Italian made (the most comfortable of ANY ships bed), Kind sized bed, tons of closet and storage space, a huge master bath with large separate toilet, shower stall, and bathtub, double brown Villeroy and Boch sinks, all accompanied by bottled Elemis Spa bath products. I tried to measure the suite and figured it was near 475 square feet in size (perhaps a bit larger actually). My suite was overseen by a darling Stewardess and Butler-both who made me feel like a superstar! I wanted to take them both home with me.
Norwegian Breakaway has HAVEN suites forward and Aft on a number of decks as well as in the HAVEN key-access complex. There are also a series of Spa HAVEN suites too on Deck 14 near the spa…

The HAVEN complex offers its guests respite from the busy downtown experience found on entertainment decks 6-8 where all the dining and entertainment take place. It is so nice to go downtown for a show and dinner and come back to sublime peace and quiet! I used the bar for cocktails where the staff seemed to know every guest by name and took breakfasts and most lunches in the elegant HAVEN restaurant (no added fee) where gourmet dining and cooked to order food was served by super friendly staff. It is something special to experience. I used the lounge area by the pool with a dome that opens and closes based on the weather only once but it was delightful with residential style furnishings and there was always room to sit or lay out!

I am going to write a longer review about cruising on Breakaway later but wanted to convey the VERY special experience that guests receive in the HAVEN by Norwegian. the most amazing thing after a lovely week onboard was that the Concierge, Adrian, made special arrangements for HAVEN guests who needed to disembark early, take a staff elevator to the gangway to avoid crowds for disembarkation. I had a 10am flight from La Guardia back to Houston and the ship docked at 7:15am… We were off the ship at 7:12am and outside the port meeting our car transfer by 7:30am..It was brilliant! I made it to La Guardia by 8am..

The HAVEN by Norwegian creates a really personal experience for avid cruisers, multi-generational families (there are many 1 and two bedroom suites for up to 6 guests), and gives a luxury experience to guests booked on a contemporary 4+ star rated and branded ship. This is still unique to the North American market and cherished by me and those who have discovered the HAVEN!!!!

Breakaway Pictures: http://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Other/Norwegian-Breakaway-from/29185586_Pqn7TT#!i=2486440239&k=s2wHkTW

Posted by: Tom Baker | February 21, 2014

Six Key Differences between Ocean Cruises and River Cruises


Six Key Differences between Ocean Cruises and River Cruises
The sheer volume of different types of holidays available to us is quite something. From beach holidays to city breaks, adventure trips to ski slopes. There was a time when going on a cruise just meant one type of trip, one type of boat, but not anymore. Now, when it comes to cruising – as with other holidays – we have options and can choose between an ocean cruise and a river cruise. Not sure which of these is most suitable to you? To help you choose here’s a few of the key differences.
Boat Size
You don’t have to be a boat design engineer to realise that an ocean cruise liner will be bigger in size than a river cruise vessel. Many ocean liners these days are more akin to floating towns; thousands of people on board and a world of shops and cafes and entertainment opportunities. As river cruise boats are much smaller you’ll have to save your shopping until you go ashore, although the opportunities to do just that will be greatly increased.
Cabins
The variety of cabins is great on any type of boat, and many river cruise vessels offer a range of several different room sizes from standard through to full-on suites. On ocean cruise liners the variety is usually greater still with rooms offering verandas and great wrap around suites at either end of the vessel. And with a bigger ship you’ll often find a touch more room available too.
The View
Quite simply there is more to look at on a river cruise. As calming as the open sea may be on a beautiful calm day, it can become a bit repetitive after a while, looking out at an endless vista of blue above blue. On a river cruise the view is constantly changing as you wind your way through the continents themselves passing through cities and towns, farmland and forests.
Passenger Numbers
A bigger boat means a greater number of people on an ocean cruise with passenger numbers often close to four figures. Depending on your personality this can either be seen as a greater opportunity to lose yourself in anonymity or a chance to meet more and more people. A river cruise will be a touch more intimate, and offer you a chance to better know your fellow passengers, or if you don’t hit it off, you’ll also have more opportunities to get away from them through onshore excursions.
Getting ashore
Whether you take an ocean or a river cruise there are opportunities to get on land and explore, but those opportunities are increased and more readily accessible through a river cruise, where your boat will moor daily on the river bank. On an ocean cruise you can often be at sea for some time, while some destinations will need you to be ferried to the harbour-side on smaller boats.
Seasickness
There’s no hiding from it; if you suffer seasickness then you are likely to find yourself feeling ill at some point during an ocean cruise as you can never guarantee flat calm seas, despite what the adverts show. If you are likely to feel ill on open water and are still determined to get off land for your holiday then a river cruise may offer a more comfortable experience.

This post was produced in co-operation with Viking River Cruises http://www.vikingrivercruises.com/ one of the leading providers of river cruise holidays and also a provider of ocean cruises too in order to help you choose the cruise that is most suited to you and have the best possible holiday.

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