Let’s face it. A big part of cruising is the food. The joy of eating what you want, when you want. No muss! No fuss! No cooking! No clean up!
But to get this privilege, we have to bend on quality. And settle for quantity instead. Some food for thought when next you dine on the mass market sea:
If you’re feeding an army, how good can it be? If you ever go on a galley tour, you’ll hear how many eggs cruisers consume, how many pounds of potatoes and all the rest. You can’t help but be impressed with the vast quantities of stuff we ingest. In short, when they’re cranking out so many meals, they’re not likely to lovingly and artfully prepare and plate your food.
Ready to load onto your main dining room salad
Forget medium well. Our waiter on Celebrity once told us we have two choices for our Beef Wellington: rare or well done. You can generally get accommodation for special health needs, but want food made to order? Go to a specialty restaurant.
They take shortcuts. Wouldn’t you, with thousands of hungry mouths to feed? On one galley tour, I witnessed a crew member emptying a bag of frozen fries into hot oil.
The galley tour on the Caribbean Princess had some surprises
Some of the best food is at the buffets. Since the main dining room has to cater to average tastes, the food can’t be too seasoned or spicy. What you end up with is bland. But since the buffet offers so many choices, they can include some really different stuff. I’ve had a few dishes that were so terrific on Royal Caribbean, I tried to recreate them (unsuccessfully) at home.
An eye-popping chocolate-lover's dream--in Harmony of the Seas' Windjammer buffet
Want fine dining?You’ll have to pay for it. We resisted the specialty restaurants for years. After all, we reasoned, we’re already paying to be fed in the cost of the cruise. But in the end, our hunger for better food forced us to open our wallets. And what we found is that not only is the food much better, but so is the service.
Melt-in-your-mouth squash soup at Harmony of the Seas' 150 Central Park
The little spot that could—and does. Think Oasis class’ Park Café. Celebrity’s Aqua Spa Café. Princess’ International Café. These alternatives deliver great bang for no extra bucks.
Goodies awaiting your appetite at Regal Princess' International Cafe
In the end, no matter whether we find ourselves served by waiters or serving ourselves, dining dressed up or dressed down, we’re going to be well fed. Few are the folks who can claim they lost weight on a cruise!
Do you like the sea at night? After all, when there’s no view of land, the sky and the sea seem to merge into one vast sheet of darkness. And yet…
It can be the most peaceful time. Or it can be a lively time.
When the party’s inside. With all the hustle and bustle inside, a walk on the deck in the dark can be mellow and romantic. (Remember those moonlit scenes on the “Love Boat”?) With everyone inside, you can feel like the ship belongs to you.
When the party’s outside. That’s a whole different vibe. Princess often does a ‘70s theme party for rockin’ under the stars.
70s theme party outdoors on Regal Princess - YouTube
Lighting up the night. Unobscured by buildings, trees or wires, the dark sky shows off its stars. Then there are the ship’s lights—around the pool and strung overhead. The Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships are ablaze of colored lights when the sun goes down.
Central Park decked out in lights on Harmony of the Seas
Enjoying an empty hot tub, lights and the dark on Oasis of the Seas.
At the drive-in. Princess’ Movies Under the Stars is a way to enjoy the outside at night while cozy under a blanket with a front-row view of the big screen. You’ll even get popcorn or milk and cookies—without ever leaving your seat.
Snuggling up under the big screen on the Caribbean Princess.
Night on the verandah. Lights off, feet up and wine in hand. A room with a view as the ship cuts the water in two. What a soft and soothing way to ready for another full day!
Time waits for no man—and neither does the cruise ship.
If you don't show reverence to Time, here's where the ship could leave you behind:
Flying the same day you cruise. Inevitably, there’s someone in a cruisecritic.com board asking if it’s safe to fly the same day you cruise. (Someone recently wanted to fly in—I kid you not—two hoursbefore the ship was to set sail.)
And just as inevitably, there’s someone else complaining that they missed their cruise because their flight was cancelled or delayed.
Picking an excursion not cruise-line sponsored. Now, I know some of you will disagree, because non-sponsored excursions can be cheaper. But if the bus breaks down, or the driver runs out of gas or gets caught in traffic…if the ship didn’t sponsor it, it’s not going to wait for you.
Going by local time. If you’re cruising into a different time zone but the ship doesn’t change with it, going by store clocks in port can trip you up. Some smart phones automatically update to the local time, so using that as your guide is also not a good thing.
So, what happens if you do, indeed, miss the boat? Maybe you can jump onboard at the next port—if there is a next port.
But whether you’re trying to catch up with the ship or just get back to home base, it’ll be on your dime. And it’s likely to be a big dime—and all because you lost track of Time.
Sea days are the best days. Not just for sleeping off a tropical drink around the pool, but also for getting crazy behind the lens.
Here are a few ideas for making your cruise ship your canvas:
That’s a great reflection. Mirrors on the wall, in elevators, encased in a frame—even on the ceiling—create different kinds of selfies.
Almost like being there. Some of the artwork—particularly large murals—lends itself to a great backdrop. It’ll really confuse your buddies when you pull up a photo of yourself in front of changing leaves or a sign of Route 66…when you’ve been in the Caribbean.
Route 66 via Harmony of the Seas
Funky framing. Partitions with holes, translucent glass artwork, windows fringed with “snow”—younever know where you’re going to find a new way to frame a photo.
Peering through the window of Regal Princess' Sabatini's
Find the pattern. Sometimes, all you need is a chandelier or a pile of corks to create something unique.
The Emerald Princess' cork collection
A Chihuly chandelier on Celebrity's Constellation
Be in the moment. A dog washing the floor with his tongue, a bride waltzing around the atrium, two toddlers having an earnest chat, a sky blazing with color—these are just a few of those great-shot moments you can stumble on if you’re lucky. But you can make your own luck by having a camera with you as often as possible.
Enjoying dessert on Allure of the Seas
Being creative with the camera has a bunch of benefits—not only will it sharpen your eye and make you a better observer, but looking and laughing at those photos is a sure-fire time killer when you’re waiting for the curtain to go up in the ship’s theater.
Say you’ve been on a cruise and liked it. Now you’re thinking about another one—on a different ship but the same class. You wonder, will the two ships be the same?
Sister ships, as they call them, are indeed, like siblings. They may look kind of like each other. But they can be very different. Or very similar.
Take the Caribbean Princess and Emerald Princess. Pretty similar ships. Then take Oasis of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas. Very different ships.
Here are some of the ways sea-going siblings can differ:
Spacing out. Shipscan use their space differently. The first in classRoyal Princess debuted without an aft pool and after a fair amount of cruiser griping, her younger sister, Regal Princess, was built with one.
Another example is Celebrity’s Solstice; where the ship had space devoted to glass-making demos, the later ones gave it up to cooking lessons. Harmony has its bionic bartenders where folks sip champagne on sister Allure of the Seas.
Adding activity. Sometimes, a later ship gets more fun stuff. The Harmony added the Ultimate Abyss, as well as two water slides. You won’t find these on its older sibs.
Taunts on Harmony for the Ultimate Abyss
How to chow. Specialty restaurants can vary from ship to ship, even within the same class. For example, Oasis and Allure have the terrific Giovanni’s, but the Harmony went for Jamie’s Italian and added a new one, Wonderland.
Types of chow. The main dining room lunch buffet with the Tutti salad bar is on all the Oasis ships. But the Harmonytook the sweets up a notch, with a grand dessert buffet, complete with chocolate fountain.
Chocolate, cake and much more to sweeten your lunch in the Harmony's MDR
From one stage to another. Each ship has its own shows, featured artists and sidebar entertainers.
Room for change. Harmony’s room configuration is not the same as that on Oasis and Allure—the two closets are far away from each other (which, by the way, is a good thing).
Art work. What graces the walls, sits in public spaces and hangs from the ceilings are all unique and can give the ship a feel of its own. I’m thinking about the big head in the Harmony’s Promenade, which, well, hits you in the face.
Techie talk. The Harmony is much more plugged in and booted up than its sisters—from its free-standing tablets to its modernized elevator buttons.
We’ve talked about the differences, but what’s the same? Nearly everything else.
So, really, you get the best of both worlds when you jump ship within a class. The ship is familiar. You (more or less) know your way around. Yet, it’s different enough to make it feel like a new experience. How neat is that for your vacation?
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Formal nights, baked Alaska and towel animals—are they a thing of the past?
Those of us who have been cruising for a while have seen our share of changes. Out with the midnight buffets, tuxedoed waiters and pillow chocolates. In with the bumper cars, zip-lining and skydiving.
But over the years, some endearing cruise traditions have endured. They may not be what lures us onboard but are fun just the same:
Welcome onboard, this is your captain speaking. We may have stopped going a while ago, but for many folks, the captain’s welcome is the “official” start to the cruise. And probably the only time you’ll see the face of the captain. (But you’ll sure hear his voice over the PA often enough.)
The captain's welcome on the Caribbean Princess features a champagne fountain--and a glass for you too.
Getting formal. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, formal nights are still part of the cruising experience. You can ignore the whole thing and eat in the buffet, but you can’t beat the treat of seeing everyone else dress up. From toddlers in bow ties, men in kilts and women in stilettos—people-watching is never better.
Photo posing. Even though today so many people have a camera in their back pocket, there are still plenty of cruisers who like to pose for the professionals. With backdrops real and pretend, in their gowns or in port, they’re happy to make the ship photographers feel useful.
What the crew does with those towels. We never tire of the monkey swinging from a hanger, the swan about to glide across our bed or the puppy poised for petting. How do they find the time to do it?
The bed with open arms. While I still pine for the postcards and pillow candy once routine on Celebrity, there’s still nothing like an inviting bed, fresh towels and a clean bathroom to end your day.
Baked Alaska. Having been to Alaska in late May, this seems like a contradiction in terms. No matter, baked Alaska the dessert does still make an appearance. Princess serves it. And Carnival made the news recently when the cruise line pulled it out of storage. The meringue/cake/ice cream dessert may not make you scream for seconds, but it’s so very cruising.
The napkin wave/waiter parade. Just as the captain welcomes you on board, your waiters see you off. One of the last nights of the cruise, the staff makes noise of some sort, prompting guests to wave their napkins in thanks for their satisfied palates.
On this Holland America cruise, the waiters drummed on salad bowls.
Custom cards as blue as your mood. This is one cruise tradition that has recently disappeared. You will no longer see these on your bed as your trip comes to a close. Which is a good thing, because who needs yet another reminder of the lurking trip back to reality?
An exec from a certain up-and-coming cruise line—which shall remain nameless—recently said something to the effect of “If they want to see a Broadway show, they’ll go Broadway.”
Guess he hasn’t been on a cruise lately.
From the heart-racing, exuberance of “Mamma Mia” to the mysterious, enigmatic “Cats,” we’re getting the best of both worlds—cruising and Broadway. And enjoying every minute.
Consider this: can you get into a show in NYC without paying for it? Get front row seats just by showing up early? Order a cocktail right before the curtain goes up without moving from your seat?
Thankfully, Broadway is alive and well on a cruise ship near you. Here’s what’s playing at this writing:
“After Midnight” (Norwegian Escape) – Features the big-band songs of Duke Ellington and all that jazz. NCL says on its website, “Witness The Cotton Club come to life in a never-before-seen phenomenon at sea. Experience Broadway at its finest…!”
“Rock of Ages” (Norwegian Breakaway) – If you like the music of the 1980s, this musical is for you, complete with boy-meets-girl love story.
“Hairspray” (Symphony of the Seas) – It debuted on Oasis of the Seas, but now it’s the featured show on RCI’s newest and biggest ship. RCI’s website says, “Mix big hair, big dreams and all the right moves and you’ve got one of the biggest Broadway hits of our time.”
“Grease” (Harmony of the Seas) – We all know the movie – heck, we know all the words of all the songs too. Poodle skirts, drive-in movies, malt shops and romance. With a happy ending to boot.
“Mamma Mia” (Allure of the Seas) – The movie might have had big stars, but the big voices are on the ship. A joyous celebration of ABBA songs and platform shoes, with a cute little story thrown in. You won’t even miss the Greek scenery.
“Cats” (Oasis of the Seas) – It was one of Broadway’s longest-running shows and has some of the coolest costumes. Brings fun, frolic and “Memories.”
“We will Rock You” (Anthem of the Seas) – This show played for a record-breaking 12 years in London, according to RCI’s website and features Queen tunes, including the popular title song.
“Saturday Night Fever” (Liberty of the Seas) – It’s the ‘70s once more when this show hits the stage. Think polyester. Dance moves. And the Beegees.
Not to be left waiting in the wings, the other lines are beefing up their shows as well. Touted as “Broadway style,” Princess is featuring “The Secret Silk” and “Born to Dance,” produced with Stephen Schwartz, the Oscar®, Grammy® and Tony® award-winning composer of “Wicked.” Check out Princess’ website for trailers.
Can we live without these shows? Sure. There’s plenty to see and do onboard without them. But for me, bring on the bright lights of Broadway on the Sea!
One of the great things about cruising is that once you unpack, you don’t need to look at your luggage again for the rest of the trip.
But that doesn’t make getting it on and off any less painful.
There are a few things we’ve discovered along the way, though, that have eased the burden a bit:
Plasticize your cruise tags. Printing the paper cruise luggage tags and stapling them to the handles is a hassle. And it’s way too easy for them to come off. Some folks laminate them. But investing just a few dollars in Amazon will get you plastic cruise tag holders with a secure wire clasp. Beats paper and staples anytime.
Shower your suitcase with color. Regular readers of this blog may remember our recent horror story of how our suitcase was taken by mistake in the cruise terminal and almost ended up 700 miles away from home. Tie a yellow ribbon—or a fuchsia one, for that matter—and whatever else will identify your case as your own. Be sure to add your name and contact info. A lock on it won’t hurt either.
Ensure your bags are ship shape. You don’t want to get to sea and discover you can only get at your clothing with a knife. Or that you need duct tape to keep it all in your suitcase when you leave. We’ve come uncomfortably close to getting in a jam—literally.
Watch your pockets. Be careful what you store in the outside pockets of your suitcase. There was a sad story in a Cruise Critic forum of a couple who put their passports in their suitcase outside pocket. With the chaos at drop-off, their suitcases were swiftly hauled away—before the couple could take out their passports. So their luggage went on the cruise without them.
Tip the bag handler. I don’t know about other ports, but in Port Everglades, if you want to ever see your bags again, be ready to tip the guy who takes them. Seriously.
What to carry on in your carryon. Aside from the usual stuff—medicines, valuables, etc.—bring anything breakable with you. If you ever saw how the bag handlers handled the bags, you’d cringe. If you ever saw the bags piled high on the carts and knew yours was on the bottom, you’d cringe. If you ever saw the way the crew dragged them through the ship hallways, you’d cringe. You get the picture.
Go door to door. If your stuff doesn’t show up by evening, wander the halls. More than once, we’ve found ours in front of someone else’s door.
Give ‘em up or keep ‘em with you? For the first time in 20+ cruises, we decided to do a walk off with our bags when we left. It was an experiment. The upside? We didn’t have to rush to meet that 11 p.m. deadline the night before to get our bags outside the door, sit around the next day for our number to be called and then hope our luggage was still there in the terminal. We could stroll out of the ship—albeit laden with luggage—whenever we felt like it.
There was a downside, though. The walk from room to pavement is a long and crowded one.
Alas, I’m sorry to say, on Disembarkation Day, there’s no easy way!
You’ve got a cruise coming. Do you have visions of daiquiris dancing in your head? Dreams of basking in the Caribbean sun? Fantasies of unlimited burgers and fries?
Your seven-day piece of heaven, though, could turn into a seven-day piece of you-know-where if you let your excitement get the best of you. Here are some tips to help you stay healthy before and during your trip—so you have nothing but great stories to tell when you get home:
Before the trip
Sleep well, stay well, play well. Do whatever you need to do to get enough sleep. People who get less than seven hours of sleep a night are three times more likely to get a cold than those who get eight hours or more.¹
Stuff your suitcase. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, bring stuff. Motion sickness remedies. Band-aids, aspirin, cold medicine. Nose spray and ear spray. Anti-acid pills. Yeah, the ship may have some or all of these, but you won’t get a choice and it’ll cost you a pretty penny.
Typical choices at inflated prices
Keep your distance. If someone close to you gets sick, follow him/her around with a sanitizer. (Do you think a face mask is going too far?) Use soap and water on any common things he or she may touch—phones, remote controls and door handles.
Ensure you’re insured. Trip insurance is your assurance you can get something back if you do have to cancel because you’re sick.
Sanitize the stateroom. As soon as you settle in, soap down the door handles, TV remote, telephone and light switches.
Pace thyself. Resist temptation—don’t try to eat it all, drink it all, on the first day. Or the second. Because a stomach problem or hangover will put a serious pall on your cruise.
The sun will come out tomorrow. Spend too much time by the pool the first day and on the second day, you’ll surely pay. Take the tanning slowly.
Wash your hands. Or use handi-wipes. A lot. After using the remote control. The elevator button. Soup ladle. Salt shaker. When you grab the banister. Shake hands with a guest. Or the crew.
In the port
Know your right from your left. At many of the ports, they drive on the left. Make sure you know which way to look when you cross the street.
Keep the buggers away. Where there’s foliage, there’s sure to be mosquitos. Dousing yourself with Deet may not be neat, but it will help prevent you from becoming a meal for the native pests.
Careful consumption. If you do eat or drink in port, do so in places that draw crowds. You don’t want to end your port stay with a visit to the ship’s doctor.
If you get sick. Take it easy for a few days. Yeah, it can be a bummer. But it will rescue your trip and you’re sure to appreciate it—once you start feeling better.
It’s been years since we were at these ports. And we were in for quite a surprise. They’ve changed.
Which goes to show that you can keep coming back to the same ports again and again, and get a new experience.
Roatan began as a mystery. We knew who’d done it—the MSC Armonia whacked the Coxen Hole dock just weeks before. So, we weren’t sure our Allure of the Sea’s maiden voyage to the port was going to happen.
And we had nothing to go on. Royal Caribbean stayed silent. No emails came, no press release issued. Only rumors that the port stop was canceled “for the season.”
Once onboard, though, the crew confirmed we’d stop there. And stop there we did.
A big chunk of the pier lay eerily submerged, but there was enough still standing for the Allure to shimmy up and tie down.
A pier built up. It’s attractive, with native dancers to greet you, a cigar roller to show you how it’s done, local coffee and chocolate vendors to show off their wares, and water so spectacularly clear that you’re tempted to bend down and pet the fish.
Coconut drinks, local coffee, chocolate and cigars are at the pier for the buying
Photographed from the pier, straight down into the sea
There’s also the usual Diamonds International, boutiques, music--and even zip-lining.
All in all, it’s good for an hour or so.
The town of Coxen Hole is a short walk, but a few things you should know, should you decide to venture out:
* The sidewalks are amazingly narrow—they barely fit two trim people walking side by side.
* The island may not be affluent, but its people are among the most friendly we’ve seen on the Caribbean isles. We were met with many, many smiles.
* There’s a supermarket in town that’s air-conditioned, with a good supply of first aid and health products, and they take U.S. dollars.
Note: Coxen Hole is one of two cruise ports in Roatan. The other is Mahogany Bay, a private beach resort developed by Carnival—and a lovely one at that. To get there, you’ll need to take a Carnival or Princess ship.
Costa Maya, the biggest improvement. This port was only recently expanded and we hardly recognized the place. You can swim the dolphins, swim with fellow cruisers or swim with the boozers (there’s a swim-up bar).
Swim with the dolphins...
...or swim with cruisers and boozers
You can get a massage by the sea. Buy a trinket for $1 or spend hundreds on silver.
Trinkets and clothing and silver abounds; bargaining is encouraged
And while perhaps not quite an authentic Mexican experience, with some cerveza and tequilla, tacos and fajitas, and swimming and shopping, you could happily spend hours here and still want to come back.