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.

Posted by: Tom Baker | December 15, 2013

Viking River Christmas Markets-December 2013


P1030399

As European river cruising continues to grow as the undisputed leader of growth in travel, Viking River Cruises leads the way with its largest fleet of 51 river based ships and soon to be launched ocean going ship.
This company owned by Norwegian Torstein Hagen (one of the founders of Royal Viking Line-a venerable luxury line started in the 1970’s and ended in the 1990’s) has introduced a magnificent fleet of LongShips in Europe. These are the most unique vessels sailing on the rivers due to unusual design allowing for a shifted cabin design allowing for a series of full balcony cabins along one side of the ship and a series of one-of-a-kind 1 bedroom suites on the other side of the ship.

These LongShips may be the most successful fleet of ships introduced in many years! This fleet of 28 LongShips are 443 feet long, 190 passengers capacity with a crew of 50, offer the following accommodations: 2 Explorer Suites located aft on the ships at 445 square feet (the largest on the rivers), 7 One-Bedroom suites at 275 square feet, 29 -205 square feet Balcony Staterooms, 22 French Balcony staterooms at 135 square feet, and 25 river level staterooms with very limited view at 150 square feet.

My Viking Magni Pictures:http://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Other/Viking-River-Cruises-Viking/35370850_9qjfDQ#!i=2968152371&k=3WmnM8P

This fleet of 28 LongShips offers three passenger decks of spacious accommodations, public spaces and full length glass windows in the public rooms with superb views of the scenery. All public rooms have floor to ceiling windows and a large lobby with sweeping staircase lit by a huge glass skylight!
Take a look at this short video tour of the Viking LongShips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR4tOomaxoU

The design of these vessels are all done in contemporary Scandinavian Design with blond wood, pale blues, coral, and steel colors giving a warm but understated elegance throughout!
My cruise was a 7-day Christmas Markets Cruise that sailed on the three month old VIKING MAGNI from Budapest to Bratislava; Slovakia, Vienna; Austria, Durnstein and Melk, Austria, a scenic cruise along the Wachau Valley, Linz for Amazing Salzburg, and Passau in Germany. Many of these cities and sites offered UNESCO World Heritage Sites! All the cities are rich in history going back to the Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian empires, the tragic WWI, WWII, post war Soviet Cold War Empire, and NEW Democratic societies. It is most interesting and each city offers a rich cultural and storied history!

Viking offers a complimentary excursion in each port-of-call that gives guests a good half day overview. They also offer additional excursions for a modest fee for those wanting more sightseeing. Viking owns a majority of its sightseeing coaches proudly supporting Viking livery and its worldwide destinations. All guides speak perfect English and the tours are all geared for the North American passenger. The company uses the whisper head set so all guests can hear the guides while on a walking tour without missing out any commentary. One could wander off 50-100 feet from the guide and still hear everything that was going on. The handling of all group excursion tours was efficient to perfection with guests being assigned a coach by a numbered card system. It worked VERY well! While I personally prefer private guides when sightseeing, I thought Viking handled its guided tours with excellent precision. If a guest wanted private guide services, these can be provided for an added but steep fee.
A great part of Viking’s current success comes from a brilliant television campaign where they have supported PBS Masterpiece Theatre and the award winning Downton Abbey television series. This has catapulted the brand to a whole new level of notoriety!

The Viking onboard experience is first class all the way. One my sailing, 95% of the guests were from North America, well-educated and traveled upper middle class to affluent travelers. Many were retired doctors, educators, small business owners, and appreciated the values of more intimate travel. The guests past cruise experiences were likened to sailing on smaller ships like Un-Cruise, the ill-fated Cruise West but many had also sailed on premium class ships like Holland America, Oceania, Azamara, and the like!
Service onboard was provided by an amazing crew of Eastern European staff and Filipino crew that served multiple duties onboard. Kudos went to this affable staff of friendly crew who kept a very upbeat atmosphere. Most had worked for Viking for a number of years and who spoke very highly of Viking management. The service and caretaking was A+ on my Christmas Markets Cruise!

Meals are served in the main dining room and more casual Aquavit Terrace at the front of the ship. Breakfast and lunch offer buffet style and menu order items wherein dinners are served by menu’s which change daily. The food quality for breakfast and lunches was absolutely excellent but dinners sometimes lacked (my personal opinion). All food is prepared onboard, fresh, and cooked to order. Viking did provision the vessel daily with fresh foods and always of the highest quality food items. Lunch and inners provide complimentary soft drinks and house wines. Most were Hungarian or Austrian and were of modest quality. Guests can purchase higher quality wines, beers, and mixed cocktails for modest fees and all onboard charges for these are in Euro. My only criticism for meals was that dinner was served promptly at 7pm and the ships management makes it clear that guests must arrive at that time. The alternative was to have a light meal in Aquavit Terrace or at the Lounge Bar with a modest menu provided. Viking offers two complimentary cocktail parties for its guests, an Austrian/German buffet with tap beer, and always met guests arriving back onboard with hot chocolate or mulled-wine to warm up after a day of sightseeing. There are two large 24-hour coffee corners with self-service machines, cookies, muffins, and delicious raison bread throughout the day! Room service is not offered.

The ship is kept spotlessly clean by a staff that cleans virtually non-stop including guest staterooms. I was fortunate to stay in a Category A Verandah Cabin at 205 square feet including the balcony. The room had a large entry with small double sided closet with sliding doors. There was limited hanging space but enough for 7-days. The other side of the closet had shelves and a perfectly placed safe. The bathroom was compact but completely tiled with a double door opening shower stall, toilet, sink, and plenty of storage space. It had a heated tile floor and was quite attractive. L’Occitane bath and soap amenities and are generously replenished.
The bedroom has a Queen sized bed which was comfortable but pillows were a bit flat and hard. A comforter kept one warm at night! There was a 42 inch Sony television with multi-channel programming with TV movies, information videos on the ports, and Viking destinations. It was superb but broke down mid-cruise and worked intermittently after some electrical outages… News when offered comes via multiple US news media channels including MSNBC, FOX, CNN, and BBC!

There was a long cabinet at the end of the bed that offered six large drawers for added storage, a large mini-fridge, vanity with stool, and at the side of the bed nearest the sliding balcony door was a chair (used for added storage and hanging of coats! The balcony was of adequate size and had two chairs and a small table but not really usable on this Christmas Markets cruise where the weather ranged from cold to snowy! All in all, the 205 square foot space was appreciated although I really liked the 1 bedroom suites at 275 square feet with separate living room, larger bathroom, private balcony in the living room, and a French Balcony in the bedroom. I thought these 7 suites are the BEST on the rivers!!!!

Viking offers entertainment in the lounge nightly via a pianist (not very good at all on my sailing), or brings on musical acts that ranged from a brilliant classical Slovakian orchestra, Austrian singing show including Sound of Music sing a long, Christmas Carols, lectures about Europe by professional lectures, and the chief Cruise Director providing a nightly update on the following days ports, excursions, and even provided an excellent update on life in Slovakia during the Soviet occupation. My only complaint about the LongShips is the lack of seating in the main lounge which was very crowded during shows and lectures and required Viking to set up folding chairs on the dance floor to accommodate all guests.

Viking has a full time Concierge to make gym, massage, spa, private dining, sightseeing (for those who do not want larger group tours), and any special arrangements a guest may want!
The Lounge is large and offers the alternative indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace at the front of the vessel which I would recommend as an amazing place to sit inside or out during the warmer months of travel along Europe’s rivers. I suspect that when this area is widely used, the guests are less crowded when the lounge is in use.

The top deck offers plenty of table settings and lounge chairs for viewing the rivers scenery but again is not really used in the winter months but would be a smash during the scenic areas with castles, small towns, and valleys along Europe’s rivers!

I enjoyed virtually every aspect of this fine river cruise company and cannot say enough nice things about Viking Cruises. Is river cruising for everyone? I would say no if you want al private services or are willing to pay for these, or perhaps not for those who cannot deal with regimented evening dining. Somehow, I found the experience quite compelling and would do it again-in a heartbeat!

My Complete Photo Album of December 2013 Christmas Markets Cruise from Budapest to Passau and a visit to Istanbul at the NEW Shangri-La Hotel:http://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Travel/Viking-Danube-Christmas/35339295_6XnSq2#!i=2965272035&k=SCnDSBD

Happy Cruising!


href=”https://tombakercruises.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/viking-long-ship-exterior.jpg”>Viking long-Ship Exterior
As the river cruise movement continues to pick up momentum and become a major force for business in the cruise industry, 2013 was not a year that many will remember as stellar. The 100-year floods along Europe’s main rivers in June created havoc for all river cruise operators as boats could not navigate the rivers, visit their usual or planned ports, and created long bus trips for sightseeing for those who ventured out on these jaunts during this natural catastrophe. Luckily, this event lasted only a few short weeks and most business is quite back to normal.

Nonetheless, with this major hiccup in 2013, the business remains as strong as ever and most lines post SOLD OUT signs nearly a year in advance of departure. The reason for this is that the entire river cruise boat capacity is less than a handful of large ocean going ships! The well-traveled have caught on to this great travel niche and want to explore the interior of old-Europe on a smaller boutique hotel, that offers lots of old world Europe and charm. Only a river cruise can provide this!

The most popular runs are 7-day cruises along the Rhine (Castles of the Rhine) for cruises that run between Amsterdam and Basel in Switzerland. Also, the Blue Danube 7-day cruises on the Danube from Budapest to Passau or Nuremburg in Germany. There are many other river runs, combinations, and countries but the mentioned two are most popular!

River cruises have a price tag that starts around $2500 per person cruise only for a peak season departure and this is for a river view cabin at the river level-not the balcony or French balcony cabins you see in the advertisements. Those cost quite a bit more. Many ocean going travelers ask me WHY are river cruises more expensive? First, they really are not… You are paying for a smaller, intimate, boutique, experience. One that includes daily sightseeing (at least 6 guided tours during a week), they include all meals, most beverages including wine with lunch and dinner, coffee drinks, and soft drinks with meals. Some lines include everything-we will go into that shortly…
Viking-Longships-French Balcony Cabin at 135 square feetTauck River French Balcony cabin at 183 square feet<a

So, who do I think does river cruising BEST? I will categorize by Luxury, premium, and contemporary. Yes! These river boats are like larger ships and offer varying experiences…

LUXURY RIVER CRUISE COMPANIES
1) Tauck River Cruises- simply the BEST. Truly all inclusive-all the time, lower boat capacity (only 116 guests), superb and unique sightseeing, gourmet food. Caters to luxury guest.
2) Scenic Cruises- geared mostly to the Aussie market is also all inclusive-all the time, these boats carry more passengers though at (167 guests). Caters to luxury guest.
3) Uniworld Boutique River Cruises- elegantly over decorated vessels with varying capacity of 116-160 guests, is going all-inclusive in 2014, and operated by award winning Red Carnation Hotels. Caters to luxury guest.

PREMIUM RIVER CRUISE COMPANIES
1) AMA Waterways- offers a more unique experience with elegant boats, higher end dining, and superb wines included. Boats average 148 guests, some have a swimming pool. Well-traveled guests.
2) Amadeus Cruises by Luftner-one the founding river companies operated by a lovely Swiss family- this line offers high quality affordable a-la-carte cruises and boats carry of to 160 guests. Well-traveled guests.
3) Viking River Cruises-THE LEADER. The long-ships are among the BEST ever but carry 198 passengers in the same space others offer 116-160… They are high density onboard but still offer a great experience, high quality food, nice wines, and tours. Well-traveled guests.

CONTEMPORARY RIVER CRUISE COMPANIES
1) Avalon Waterways-owned by Globus and while they have unique boats offer pretty standard fare for 166 guests. Food is average, clientele is a bit lower end overall.
2) Grand circle Travel- boats are high density 160 passengers+, decorated very functionally, and not high end. Geared for cerebral minded travelers looking for an educational experience vs. frill and elegance.

While there are other niche players and some fine companies, these are the really BIG players and listed by quality… I love Tauck Tours because it is a true luxury experience and you will not have to spend any add ons as drinks, tips, all tours, and everything one can think of other than a spa treatment are included. I also love Viking River Cruises due to its investment in the unique long-ships as they are stunning with their sleek Scandic décor, and they have led the way to success for this fast-growing business…

If you would like to navigate the rivers of Europe in Style, make sure you book early to get the BEST PRICE and space. They do sell out earlier (far earlier) than ocean going vessels and offer a unique experience where prices are built on the supply and demand model. Prices for these products do not go down, they keep going up!

Make sure you study the reviews carefully and read brochures for various lines to really know what you are getting. This will make a difference in your onboard and shore side experience… Also, speak to an experienced travel counselor to help you navigate the boats and itineraries to find what is BEST for you!

Happy River Cruising!

Posted by: Tom Baker | July 18, 2013

Beautiful Barcelona!


BarcelonaBarcelona has been a top draw for tourists since the early 1980’s post Franco era. This city of 1.7 million gets better like a fine port-sweeter with age! I
have been visiting this city since 1984 and must tell you that each time I visit, the city seems cleaner, more exciting, and cosmopolitan than ever. It would be hard to see that Spain is in the throes of a recession and upwards of 25% unemployment by visiting Barcelona today.

My late June 2013 arrival on the 27th sent me on a quick cab ride from the elegant Barcelona International airport (aka high end shopping mall-complete with Jean Paul Gauthier models), quick 22 euro ride into the heart of the city where I spent three glorious nights at the 5-Star Hotel Majestic.

Check out my Trip Advisor Review:
I just returned from a 3 day stay in a Junior Suite on the 4th floor of this lovely hotel. The hotel is a traditional European style hotel with old world service and it is GRAND! The staff, food, beverage, and amenities are TOP DRAWER! I recommend this hotel to any guest wanting the BEST location, excellent value, and superb overall experience. The rooftop pool and bar are a fun and happening scene and add a contemporary flair to this GEM in the heart of Barcelona… I will be back and highly recommend Hotel Majestic for a VIP experience…
Room Tip: Pick a room over the Passejo de Gracia

My days were spent walking the streets of this vibrant city and relishing in how well maintained the bell époque architecture remained throughout, visited exciting coffee shops, cafes, and relished in perfect summer weather. I was fortunate to dine in two brilliant restaurants recommended by the Hotel Majestic concierge, one Italian called Da Greco, a few short blocks north of the hotel offered divine Italian food, pampering service, fine wine, and a VERY FAIR price! It was fantastic… I also tried a hip fish house called Boca Grande (BIG MOUTH) that offered an amazing décor experience along with excellent food, hip servers, and a large disco in the basement co-ed bathroom complete with a DJ both-only in Barcelona?

After three days, I headed off on the Norwegian EPIC for a 7-day Mediterranean cruise sailing to Naples, Rome, Florence, Marseilles, and Mallorca-It was a great experience as I hosted a group sailing in the exclusive HAVEN-more on this in a later post…

Upon returning to Barcelona, things had warmed up to around 90 degrees from the prior visit which held upper 60’s to mid 80’s (ideal). I was glad to return to an old favorite, hotel Gran Florida… Well, much to my surprise things have really changed.

Check out my Trip Advisor Review:

I had the fortune of staying at this charming but out of the way hotel when it opened and I thought it was one of Europe’s great Destination Hotels. Well 10 years later, things have changed…
I was appalled at the condition of this hotel as it was absolutely filthy, worn out, scratched, broken, mildewed, unkempt and not suitable for any 5-star Hotel in Europe. Shame on Huse Hotels for allowing this once GEM to become an ugly duckling. The hotel is under staffed, the breakfast buffet is deplorable and the hotel allows locals to use the beautiful stainless steel pool (one of-a-kind) and facilities for a fee. The service was quite friendly but clearly understaffed as waits for drinks or meals by the pool were far too long. The view is still magical but this lady has faded. The hotel no longer offers complimentary shuttle service so if you want to go into town, plan in advance, order a cab 30-minutes before you want to go, and be prepared for a 20 to 30 euro ride each way… My pictures will show why this hotel has faded but I had spent 3 nights at the Hotel Majestic prior to this stay which was brilliant and I was so looking forward to a return at Gran Florida and left with the utmost of true disappointment…BEWARE!
While this was a sad ending to an otherwise brilliant visit to one of my all-time favorite cities on the planet, Barcelona remains the GEM of Spin’s Mediterranean coast and offers something special for the worldly traveler.

Some of my favorite hotels in this grand city are:

Granados 83- small, quiet rooms but very cool décor and fine service!
Hotel Fuster- Luxury
Hotel OMM- high end modern luxury
Hotel Claris- a modern museum with Egyptian artifacts
Hotel Majestic- the old guard Spanish 5-star

Happy TRAVELS!

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories