Tag Archives: Cruising

Vasco da Gama – another business trip!

“Vasco! Why is your suitcase out? Where the hell do you think you are going now?” Vasco trudged into the bedroom. He should really have thought about speaking to Catarina first before he decided to go on another long exploration.

“Look, honey ….” he said. “Don’t you “honey” me!” shouted Catarina. “Off you go again leaving me alone for months. You never told me you would have to travel this often for business when you proposed to me.”

“Well darling, I have to earn a living you know” he sighed. He could not wait to get out of the house – 5 kids already and another on the way. The quiet of the ocean was undeniably attractive. Vasco stood and gazed out of the window thinking about the comforting movement of his ship and the sound of the wind in the sails. He was pulled out of his revery by the sound of his wife who continued to rant.

“I don’t know how you can consider going away right now in the middle of this pandemic!” she shouted. “What if you bring it back to me and the kids? What if you go out there and get stuck somewhere because you are sick?”

“Don’t worry, darling. I took out travel insurance and it specifically includes cover for The Black Death and The Plague. You know I am always careful about those things – especially when I am travelling on business.” Vasco carried on with his packing, determined to get out of the house as quickly as possible.

His wife peered over his shoulder to see what he was packing. He always managed to leave something behind. OMG she thought to herself. He always takes that hideous hat.

And he thinks he looks cool in it. I wish he would take a few tips from some of his fellow captains…….

Now THAT’s what I call a Captain.

Before she knew it she heard the front door slam, the suitcase was gone as was Vasco. Hmm, she thought. I bet he didn’t even check if he had his passport or his visa. Well it’s up to him now. But perhaps I should just send a carrier pigeon to his travel agent to check that they have his special requests on file
– no feather pillow in the Captain’s stateroom, he is allergic
– gluten free meals
– plenty of lemons to fight the scurvy

There – my job is done. If anything goes wrong now it will be her fault!

My ship is bigger than your ship

I will be sailing on the inaugural cruise of Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas in November.  This is a MOTHER of a ship.  8000 human beings including guests and crew.  Wow!

It got me thinking about all the choices out there and what the differences are between cruising on a small ship of, say 300 guests, versus a big ship accommodating 5000 guests. I have cruised on big and small – some of the smaller ships like Paul Gauguin and Windstar with just 300 guests.  I have sailed on the in-betweeners like Celebrity, Azamara and Holland America and I have also sailed on the inaugural voyage of the Oasis of the Seas – sister ship to the Harmony.

So what to consider – do you go big or small.  (Go big or go home).

Big ships have more “stuff” – more restaurants, more entertainment, more choices.  For multi-generational families this might be a good thing.  The large ships are big enough to escape Cousin Maude or Uncle Henry on that family reunion.

Big ships have entertainment for all types – whether you want to sit in a quiet area and listen to some classical music or dance the night away.  The shows on the mega ships are world-class Broadway style and the kids’ entertainment is exceptional.   Children’s groups are divided according to age and with all the activities on board, a large cruise ship is especially ideal for those older teenagers as they can zipline, rock climb or learn to surf onboard.

 

So what about the small ships?
Well they don’t have climbing walls, mega Broadway shows or 22 restaurants but those features are not what small ship cruising people want.  Smaller ships are often more about the destination – so think of it as a floating boutique hotel taking you into hard to get to places and small ports.  Small ships will often have facilities such as a small marina at the back of the ship where you can go swimming or kayaking.  Oh the thrill of jumping off the back of the ship off the coast of Split, Croatia!  Fabulous!  I loved that!

Because small ships don’t have a host of singers, dancers, musicians and jugglers on board they will often bring on local entertainers and guest lecturers so the evenings are different and somewhat quieter.

For those who want a little bit of each, such as a wider choice of restaurants and some nightlife but still a touch of intimacy with smaller numbers, there are lots of choices.  New kid on the block Viking Ocean Cruises have launched their new ocean ship Viking Star hosting just 900 people.   As on their river cruises the Viking Star will offer complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner as well as speciality teas and coffees any time during the day.  I am looking forward to sailing with them next month.

So you see – there is a choice for everyone whether you prefer the BIG BIG ships or the eeny weeny ones.

 

Comforting sounds while “on hold”

You know what I mean about being on hold.  Anyone who has tried to redeem aeroplan points will know that you can pretty much put your phone on speaker and clean every cupboard in your kitchen while you wait.  Sometimes I think the on hold music – or lack of it – shows what the company actually thinks of the person on hold.

Westjet for example will have music playing and then jokes.  It’s amusing and very human and can be entertaining.  Except if you are a travel agent and have to phone quite often then the jokes can get old.

Some airlines I have phoned don’t even have on hold music – just a strange crackling silence interrupted every so often by an announcement that “an agent will be with you shortly”.  And then there is the biggest on hold lie OF ALL TIME…..

“Your call is important to us”

…. so therefore we will keep you on hold for 2 hours.  NOT.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I phoned Regent Seven Seas Cruises Air Deviation department.  Let me first explain.  Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a small luxury cruise line which is totally all inclusive and that means the airfare too.  The flight itinerary is assigned by the cruise line based on their contracts and usually is advised between 90 – 120 days prior to departure.  However if you have a specific airline you like you can do an air deviation for a fee ($175 pp) and for this you phone through to that specific department.  Which I did….

First of all although I did have a bit of a hold I got a living, breathing travel agent who understood about code shared airlines and all that other secret industry stuff.

Secondly when I gave her my request she started working on it right away.  WOW.  How did I know?  I heard her keyboard clacking away while she looked up the flights.  I can’t tell you how comforting it was to hear that sound…. and I was on hold for a long time while she clattered away at her keyboard – occasionally punctuated by mutterings signalling frustration and success while she worked her way through the various airlines’ archaic booking systems.

I thought about it for a while after I put down the phone.  What was the difference between being on hold and listening to breezy bright music and being on hold listening to breathing and keyboard clacking.  The difference was that I knew something was being done – someone was working on my request.  That gave me more comfort that anything else.

 

Tipping me over the edge

Tipping – how much is too much and how much is too little.  Is a tip expected?  In countries like Australia and New Zealand hardly anyone tips – it is just not expected.  Same thing in the Cook Islands.  So what’s a poor traveller to do and how much should you tip if at all?

According to the website http://www.thisismoney.co.uk a survey of British travellers showed that 70% of them didn’t research tipping customs for the destinations they were visiting.  This leads to over-tipping – which I guess is not a bad thing from the recipient’s point of view.  My philosophy has always been rather over-tip than under-tip.

The whole tipping thing though does sometimes get out of hand and a good example of this is the cruise line industry.

“There are exceptions, but most mainstream cruise lines pay the men and women who serve their passengers a low base wage (by Western standards). As such, on nearly all big-ship lines, crew members are dependent upon the generosity of travellers for a good portion of their income.” (except from Cruise Critic website).

Now that’s a shame.  But it is also frustrating for guests on these cruises.  For a whole week you have your waiter and bus boy all over you – BFF’s – and then on the last farewell dinner you give them The Envelope!  Next morning at breakfast it’s every man for himself as waiters are getting ready for the next wave of cruisers.  And I understand why they act like that – it is survival.

That’s why it is always surprising and charming when you try to tip someone and they refuse to take it saying that it is their pleasure to assist.  True story – happened to me on a Uniworld River Cruise.  Now they did tell us beforehand that tips are included but this girl had gone out of the way and I just wanted to show my appreciation.  As a traveller there is something really good about being on a trip where you are not taking advantage of other people and that everyone receives a living wage.

I have to admit -I am not very good at this whole tipping thing – probably because my dear husband takes care of all that side of things but I can be a bit of a dope sometimes.  In India last year we were at a fabric warehouse and had watched a demonstration of weaving just in the courtyard.  As everyone was choosing fabrics and shirts I needed the ladies and as this was a pretty smart facility I figured I should take advantage – after all in India you never know!  As I passed through the courtyard the weaving man was still there sitting in front of the loom.

So with a waggle of his head in true Indian fashion he signals me to come over and sit next to me.  Oh that’s sweet I think.  He starts showing me how to weave the wool and I did a couple of lines (or whatever you would call them).  I gave him and nice smile and said thank you and then of course he signalled that you wanted some money.  At the same time he put his finger to his lips to indicate that it would be a secret because clearly he wasn’t allowed to do that.  So of course I gave him some money – I was so embarrassed at being caught in this old trick that I didn’t even check how much.  So much for me – the seasoned traveller!  On the plus side however I hope it made his day and he could go home that night to his modest little hut and show his wife – “Hey look what I got from this stupid English lady today!” and his wife will clap her hands and jump up and down and tell him what a smart and clever husband she has.  Wish I could have been a fly on the wall!

 

Family vacations and herding cats

So hubby says to you “Honey I think we should plan a vacation to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary”.  What a great idea.  Maybe a Caribbean cruise?  You happen to mention it to your sister who says “Fantastic – we’ll join you”.  ….  OK.  Well now that your sister is coming you should maybe invite your brother and sister-in-law.  Then you have to invite your parents and …… his parents.

Now your parents and his parents get along just fine – in small doses – and you can usually get through the Thanksgivings and Christmasses without any hassles but a whole week together?  They are very different.  Your parents like bingo, stand up comedy and a few glasses of wine.  His parents prefer a small glass of sherry and a string quartet.  But hey!  They say cruises these days cater to all types and with 2000 people on board then it should be easy to get lost in the crowd.

But then Great Aunt Ethel pops up on the radar. Of course she wants to come – how can we leave Great Aunt Ethel out of the picture?  Only problem is Great Aunt Ethel is 75 and is travelling as a single as Great Uncle Ernest shuffled off his mortal coil a few years back.  This provokes a family debate about how unfair the cruise lines are to charge double just because Great Uncle Ernest is not around any more and after all you are a travel agent – isn’t there someone you can speak to?  Tell you what – let’s put Tamara in with Great Aunt Ethel.  Then Tamara’s mom and dad only have to share their cabin with two kids intead of three and Great Aunt Ethel doesn’t have to pay the single supplement.  

No-one refers this to Tamara – after all she is only 14.  However Tamara finds out about this scheme via her younger sister Chloe (aged 6) who has radar ears and picks up everything.

“Hahahaha – you’re going to have to share a cabin with Great Stinky Aunt Ethel”….

Tamara – “My life is ruined!  MOM…. you can’t do this to me.  Then I am not coming.  That’s it.  I am going to run away.”

No amount of reasoning or bribes can convince Tamara to share a cabin with Great Aunt Ethel.  However your mother in law has already phoned the cruise line directly despite the fact that you are the travel agent on file.  Naturally the cruise line can do ANYTHING for a member of the public and immediately offers a reduced single supplement for Great Aunt Ethel.  Wonderful, now you look like a complete idiot but at least Great Aunt Ethel is off your hands.

In the meantime your father in law has been reading online reviews about the cruise ship and is starting to question your choice of ship, cruise line, itinerary, pre cruise hotel and flights.

***DEEP BREATH***

You reassure him about the cruise line, gently advise him that he has been looking up the wrong ship and reassure him regarding the itinerary which you have done before and absolutely loved.

After getting everyone’s deposits on file your get a phone call from your brother-in-law.  He needs to tell you confidentially that he is considering leaving your sister and therefore the timing of this cruise is totally out for him.  He hasn’t told your sister any of this and now he has dumped this in your lap.  Do you say anything or not?  How can you not?  And of course the deposit is non-refundable.

***WAIT A MINUTE****

Isn’t this supposed to be about your wedding anniversary?  Phone the cruise line rep, call in a favour, get all the deposits fully refundable, cancel all the bookings and get the refunds to everyone’s cards.  Quickly get the last two seats on that flight to Tahiti, book the overwater bungalow, tell your husband…..

***DON’T TELL ANYONE ELSE***

 

 

Breaking the code

Different cruises have different dress codes and planning what to pack can be a challenge sometimes.  The wording is oh so subtle…. Let’s take Celebrity’s dress code.  One of the descriptions – “Smart Casual & Above”.  That’s perplexing for sure.  So you can be smart casual both below and above?

Azamara Cruises goes for “resort casual” whereas Carnival calls it “cruise casual” while Norwegian Cruise Lines has no formal dress code.  In fact they are very laid back.  Jeans in the main dining room and speciality restaurants are acceptable as long as they aren’t overly faded, with holes or tears or worn below the hips.
baggy jeans

No dinner for you buddy!

Cunard at least holds tradition near and dear with either formal or semi formal and when they say formal – they mean it.  Evening gowns for the ladies and tux or dark suit with collar and tie for the men.  Even Cunard have decided however that they are going to cut down on the number of formal nights.  Most men are delighted but we women do love to dress up.
ugly dresses

But ladies – try not to get carried away.  Evening gown or cocktail dress does not necessarily mean sequins and when in doubt – wear black.  You really don’t want to stand out like this.
dress disaster

And guys – quit moaning about wearing a suit.  It makes you look handsome.  Look!
From this…..
hangover%20--3

to this….
galif

Now that wasn’t that hard, was it?

 

 

 

 

Sharks on a ship

azislandThey just keep getting bigger and bigger – the cruise ships (and the passengers – but that’s another story) and as they get bigger they have to put more stuff on them to keep the passengers entertained. Competition is fierce between the cruise lines and there are oh so many berths to fill. More giant ships are coming on stream and with the capacity to carry over 4000 passengers they need a LOT of people. So how to attract them?

One way is to keep adding unique features and entertainment options. So now we have extravagant shows, movies under the stars – even real grass. What the heck happened to cruising? Does anybody care about miles and miles of open sea, flying fish skipping over the waves, whales spouting and amazing sunsets?
Blue-Sea-Sunset-HD

 

 

 

Try these for size –

A batting cage
A laser shooting range
Weekly firework displays Live TV game shows
An over-water seawalk
A magic show inspired by Houdini….. (Did you hear the one about the magician on board a cruise ship who did his act with a parrot?  The parrot kept messing up the magicians’s act with “It’s in his pocket.  It’s up his sleeve.”  When the ship sank in a storm the magician managed to save himself by clinging to a floating piece of wreckage.  The parrot found him and perched there next to him – for days.  Not a word.  Eventually he squawked – “OK, I give up.  What have you done with the ship?”)

Ideas that didn’t work –

An on board shark tank!

My Big Fat Greek Holiday

Food glorious food!  That’s what I think of when I think of Athens. 

Just another cute Plaka restaurant

We had calamari to die for, Greek salad naturally, the best coffee, lovely Ouzo and sin of all sins – a big slice of Baklava.  Well my rationale was that there could be no better place in the world to eat Baklava than in the Plaka in Athens.  It was worth it – so there Jenny Craig!

Don’t be put off by reports that the Plaka is too noisy, too dirty or too crowded.  Many of the streets have been turned into pedestrian walkways and great little restaurants abound.  Eating out is reasonably priced. If you want to splash out go to one of the rooftop restaurants with great views of the Acropolis which is lit up at night. 

A lovely way to spend an afternoon in Athens ... at the pool

Talking about the Acropolis – now there is a place that is always crowded – no matter what month you visit.  Get a good guide – a private one is very worthwhile – and get out there early in the morning while it is at least a bit cooler. 

Athens has tons of hotels – big and small.  We stayed at the Herodion, a small family run hotel which had a cute little roof garden with lovely views of the Acropolis.  Location is important in Athens because outside of the pedestrian streets of the Plaka the traffic is pretty heavy so you really don’t want to be on one of the main streets.  If you are visiting Athens at the end of your cruise be sure to arrange private transfers from the pier to your hotel.  The pier was a crush of shouting taxi drivers, piles of luggage and bewildered cruise passengers.  We were consequently very pleased to see my local rep there to meet us.  With no trouble at all we were ushered into our waiting air conditioned Mercedes Benz complete with bottles of iced-water.  Nice touch!  Pity the trunk was a bit small for our luggage but that didn’t worry the driver who piled it in nonetheless and lo and behold – when we got to the other end we hadn’t lost one piece.

Hey - hang on to my bag!

Athens has been in the news a lot these days.  The demonstrations were in full swing while we were there so we had to take a walk down to Constitution Square to see what it was all about.  It was actually fairly peaceful and a bit Woodstock in feel.  Lots of tents, hammocks and guitar strumming protesters just “hanging out”.  Things did turn a bit ugly for a while and I did notice quite a bit of graffiti but I truly hope that they are able to resolve matters there.  I would definitely love to return and try just one more slice of that gorgeous baklava.

Beautiful Athens.... I shall come back.

Donkey fighting in Santorini

Now back off Mr Donkey

Now I feel sorry for the donkeys, don’t get me wrong.  But I know where the mule part comes from and when you are negotiating a steep rocky path from the top of Santorini down to the ferry station everyone is fighting for territory.  Maybe we should have taken the gondola – we did have the tickets after all – but the line-up was horrendous so we thought we would be clever and walk down.  What we didn’t realise before we started was that the rocks on the path were polished smooth by the thousands of people (and donkeys) who have gone up and down this path.  In addition to this they were well oiled by liberal doses of donkey poo.  I was halfway down the path ahead of my sister when I realised that she was in a confrontation with a donkey.  Unable to move and squashed up against the side of the wall by the donkey she burst into tears so her husband had no option but to punch the donkey in the neck.

Now before you go all PETA on me it hurt him a lot more than it hurt the donkey.  Trust me – his hand was red for days. 

Any idea when these cruise ships go away?

The problem was of course that there were no less than 7 cruise ships in the harbour.  Imagine pouring out all those passengers into the tiny streets of Santorini.  The people pressure was unbelievable and I was told that 11 ships were expected the next day.  What a shame.  It is indeed a beautiful island with stunning little hotels literally hanging onto the side of the cliffs.  My best bet – if you really want to see Santorini go in October, sleep late, eat lunch at the pool of your hotel and then by 4 pm you should be safe to venture out and enjoy the island as it was meant to be enjoyed.

She's shopping - he's sleeping

After seeing Monemvasia I am sure there are many such undiscovered and beautiful places to visit in Greece and I plan to find them.  Stay tuned!  Preferably somewhere without a donkey ride involved!

I must go down to the sea again…..

Norwegian Cruise Lines Epic

I must – I really must.  Even though I just returned from Fort Lauderdale I hardly saw the salty stuff.  I spent most of my time inside unbearably cold air conditioned ballrooms and it was all in a good cause.  Learning more about cruising today – new staterooms, new cruise ships, the entertainment on board and quick-as-a-flash tours of a few of the ships in port.

So in this five day whirlwind what was memorable?  The sheer size of the new Norweigian Cruise Lines Epic.  Wow that is one big sucker.  My personal preference is for smaller ships but if I were travelling with my family then I can see the advantages of being on a larger cruise ship with all the fun new features. 

NCL has adopted some creative designs to maximise space such as curved furniture in the cabins.  It makes sense although I do think some of the taller guests might be a bit challenged by the curved bed.  They have also introduced single cabins in a special solo part of the ship so now singles don’t have to pay the supplement and also have a singles only place to hang out and meet other singles.  It’s all good in theory and actually the cabins are quite nice so it will be interesting to hear how those will sell.  Unfortunately these single cabins are only available on the inside and are rather snug.  I overheard a report that one of the larger guests on board said he felt like a Chilean miner in the shower.

We also toured the Navigator of the Seas – Royal Caribbean’s 3000 passenger ship.  Bit smaller than the Epic of the Seas – but still with all the “attractions” like the ice skating rink.  The shows there are very popular but I have to ask …. Why?  Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada that this doesn’t get me excited so don’t let my opinion sway you.  But hey I did like the real grass lawns on the deck of the Celebrity Solstice.  Celebrity always manages to create great ambience on their cruise ships and the food at lunch was excellent.  Out of all the big ships Celebrity (in my mind) comes out tops – although I would love to do a family cruise on one of the Royal Caribbean Freedom class ships.  I love the promenade and the flo rider provides hours of fun – just watching everyone fall on their butts is entertainment enough. 

I was fortunate to be invited on board the Regent Seven Seas Navigator – lovely little ship.  This line definitely caters to my age group (baby boomer) and what I particularly like is that everything is included in one up front price.  No need to be constantly reminded how much your vacation is costing you every time you order a speciality coffee or a martini – or even go on a shore excursion as it’s included.  The smaller size of the ship creates a very intimate feel and the ability to get into smaller ports of call makes its itineraries unique.

But whatever the size of the ship I do love to cruise and have enjoyed every cruise I have ever been on.  And I am not alone there – 95% of cruisers rate their experience as having met or exceeded their expectations.