It wasn’t my shining moment. In San Juan on our recent cruise, we were the last ones back on the ship.
We weren’t the ones who come running down the pier just as the gangway is pulled in, to the hoots of onlookers hanging over their balcony railing.
But pretty darn close. One of the crew came running over to usher us in.
I do have an excuse, if a lame one. I can’t tear myself away from Old San Juan.
When we were last there, it was right after Hurricane Maria. Most of the places were shuttered. The few that were open were dark and hot, without power or customers.
This time, however, Old San Juan was restored to its usual, fascinating self. And though I’ve been there many times, I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time. Never did the buildings look more colorful, more ornate or more majestic. The Golden Trumpets and bougainvillea seemed to burst with color and joy.
We wandered down side streets and found places we’d never seen before. Like the splendid little pastry shop shown below, a Spanish Parisian-style patisserie. We took pictures and moped away, tortured that we were in port too short a time to go in.
Another street found us facing a sprawling ceiling of upside-down umbrellas—a commemoration of Puerto Ricans who served in U.S. wars.
At every turn seemed to be a beguiling boutique and bohemian café. Lapis-toned cobblestones, mosaic tile stairways and storefronts. Tropical flora-laden parks. The forts. The fountains. And on and on.
How can you not love Old San Juan? It’s old world Europe meets trendy urban chic, and truly one of the best destinations for the Caribbean cruiser.
We were intrigued. Royal Caribbean’s new Unlimited Dining Package certainly brought savings over dining in specialty restaurants at their regular price.
And at the specialty restaurants, the food is better, the service is better. And there’s lots of choice.
Intimate and gracious 150 Central Park
What’s not to like?
So we sprung for it. Should you? Consider this:
The broader your food taste, the better. You’re going to be in these restaurants every night of your trip. It helps if you want to eat in many of them. Or if you only like a few, that there’s enough variety on the menu for you.
You need to make reservations. But. Sometimes, we couldn’t get the time we wanted. So we chanced it, and showed up at the restaurant without a reservation, and almost each time, we got in.
Lunch may be wishful thinking. The Unlimited Dining Package allows you to eat lunch in the specialty restaurants on sea days for no extra cost. But after the big meal the night before, and a big meal on the evening ahead, somehow, we didn’t feel much like doing a specialty lunch. And never did.
Good for the adventurous. Since you can order multiple dishes, you can afford to experiment. I tried something at Giovanni’s that I would never have tried otherwise—Tonno Crudo, or raw Ahi tuna with garlic chips and a sweet-ish citrusy flavor. I fell so deeply in love that I did the unthinkable (for me)—I had two.
Ahhhhh...i Tuna Crudo, a Giovanni's appetizer
Better bring an appetite. But the biggest challenge? It was a lot of food. The specialty meals are big. And you’re going to be doing it every night. After a few days, I started cutting down on the courses. And I never thought I’d say this: I got tired of filet mignon.
Filet mignon at Chops Grille
If you’re a big eater, and really enjoy the specialty restaurant food and service, the Unlimited Dining Package may be perfect to you.
For my part, I wish doggie bags were an option. I could sure use some of that filet mignon now…
Musing’s Top Tip: The price for the Unlimited Dining Package went down by $20 a few weeks before our trip. Watch the promotional emails from Royal Caribbean as your cruise gets closer.
The French woman kept her shop. But the two vendors next to her weren’t so lucky.
The owner of the Amsterdam Cheese & Liquor Store said Irma blew out his windows, shut off his power and wreaked havoc in his shop. His vast inventory of expensive cheese was gone. Without insurance, it set him back two years. “It’s the price you pay for living in Paradise,” he said with a shrug.
Today, two years after the category 5 hurricane rammed through St. Maarten, Philipsburg is alive and kicking, with rebuilding and rising spirits.
For the cruiser, the heart of Philipsburg doesn’t look a whole lot different than before the storm. The water is just as blue. The shoreline is still lined with bustling bars and cafes, colorful umbrellas and beachy funkiness.
Jet skis keep kicking up their spray as they fly across the harbor. Front Street still sports chic jewelry and clothing shops. And uniformed kids forever fill the streets with their lunchtime laughter.
Yet, signs of Irma remain. There are a few boarded windows here and there. The landmark Belgian chocolate shop with its iconic replica of Brussels’ Manneken Pis is gone from Old Street. In fact, not much retail remains on Old Street. Many small businesses with insurance took their money and ran, says the cheese shop owner. Noticeably missing from the side streets is the once plethora of small vendors and stalls.
But the optimism and openness to tourism that has long been the hallmark of this Eastern Caribbean island staunchly remains.
It’s what led to quick rebuilding, the launch of vibrant new shops, restaurants and bars, and is what continues to make St. Maarten a wonderful port to visit.
Musing’s Top Tip: There are two ways to get into Philipsburg from the ship—inexpensive water taxi (about 5 minutes) or walk (about 10 minutes). If you’re walking, look for the sign for the sidewalk, which is behind the pier shopping. The reward for walking is passing by the wonderful Amsterdam Cheese Shop, with its Gouda, Edam and other international treats, and colorful Dutch-themed souvenirs.
After the muster drill on Allure of the Seas, I had that catchy “Wash Your Hands” tune stuck in my head for hours. And that’s a good thing. The ship wants to remind us early and often that washing our hands is a key way to stay safe at sea.
It’s also a reminder that staying safe during our cruise is everyone’s job—theirs and ours.
What they do
Guide and abide. The cruise industry is heavily regulated. Just a few of the agencies that set and enforce safety rules are the U.S. Coast Guard, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the International Maritime Organization.
Big on little boats. Cruise ships today have ample lifeboats; in fact, every ship must have enough life boats and rafts for at least 125 percent of the number of folks onboard.*
Teach and train. You can’t have missed the drills—they boom over the PA. That’s the crew going through yet more training on handling emergencies.
Poolside protection. Lifeguards are a visible presence today on Royal Caribbean ships at the pools and even the hot tubs.
Keeping watch over us in the Solarium on Allure of the Seas
Looking out for us. The ships have security personnel onboard who can step in when needed. There are also video cameras throughout to help spot and solve any issues.
What we can do
Master the muster. Every cruise kicks off with a lecture. Where to go in an emergency. Onboard do’s and don’ts. That sort of thing. Important stuff. It pays to listen.
Learning the drill on the Westerdam
Watch the signs. Many ships have alert and reminder signs posted—from slippery when wet to watch your children.
Advice from Allure of the Seas
Eat smart, drink smart. With all the tempting consumables onboard, it can be easy to overdo. Pace yourself. Know your limits. You’ll feel better for it.
Tastes great, but packed with punch, on Allure of the Seas
The banister is your barrier. Deck railing is for grabbing if you’re unsteady. Keeping you from going overboard. What it’s not is a balance beam.
Regal Princess reminder
Any other tips to help you stay healthy and enjoy your next cruise? Oh yeah—wash your hands!
For more on cruise ship safety, visit the website of the Cruise Lines International Association, the trade association for the cruise industry.
In my last blog post, I looked wistfully—as well as gratefully—at what’s changed in 13 years of cruising. So it’s only fitting that now I look at what hasn’t.
Two times a day. It’s wonderful enough having someone give us clean towels each day. But twice a day? Nirvana!
Free food. Well, sort of free. There’s still a slew of food for the cost of the cruise—from the main dining rooms to the buffets to the little cafes. And that you can have as much as you want is only sweeter.
Bread a-plenty on Allure of the Seas
We feel like royalty. Crew who carry our bags. Clean our rooms, hand-deliver drinks and food. And smile at us.
Service with a big smile in the International Cafe on Regal Princess
Wet and wild. You’ll still find pools, casinos, spas, and game shows. Continuous ways to help us spend our time, whether we want to hang out at the pool or in the hot tub, blow all our money at the tables, sweat out our calories or compete for the best belly flop.
Once and done. How many vacations can you unpack once and don’t look at your suitcase for a week? (At Mom’s, maybe.)
One port at a time. You get on once, and are transported to different lands, cultures, architecture, languages—all without getting on a bus, plane or train.
The Dutch island of Curacao is a stop in the Southern Caribbean
That’s entertainment. Music for all tastes, dancing, shows, comedians, magicians, karaoke—all manner of ways to keep us entertained.
Blue Planet production show on Allure of the Seas
The view. In the end, that’s why I cruise. A water view 24/7. Spectacular sunsets you can’t find on land. The gentle rocking to the sound of the surf.
We’ve been cruising for 13 years. If you’ve cruised as long as we have—or even longer—you’ve seen quite a bit of change.
Like most changes over time, some are for the better and some, well, aren’t. Here are a few changes that come immediately to mind:
Formal farewell. Nearly gone are tuxes and gowns. Some folks don’t bother to dress up at all. And the waiters have ditched their formal wear too.
Different MDR. Our first cruise was on Celebrity’s Constellationand we felt like hillbillies, befuddled at the elaborate place settings. Dinners were five courses, wait times were shorter and waiters even had time to talk to us.
Main dining room on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
More dollars for dining. Specialty restaurants have become all the rage. It may come at a cost, but there are so many more alternatives to the food-for-all-tastes main dining room, and some of them are really exciting.
Izumi on Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas
Loyal cruisers exploding. On any given Royal Caribbean ship these days, it’s typical to find hundreds of Diamond Club members. Proof that once you cruise, you’re hooked.
Tech follows us onboard—and off. It’s not just Internet cafes anymore. Technology is everywhere and doing everything—from turning on lights to helping us track our travel companions to serving us drinks. Our faces will even speed the dreaded Disembarkation with Royal Caribbean and U.S. Customs’ new facial recognition.
A taste of technology on Harmony of the Seas
Room service perk pooping out. Nearly every mass market line is charging for something delivered by room service.
Extravaganzas extinct. We still swoon over our videos of Celebrity’s unparalleled, off-the-charts Midnight Buffet. Its luau under the stars with parading waiters carrying fruit carvings and doling out samples of guava, mango and papaya. Holland America’s amazing chocolate dessert display.
Waiters paraded with fruit carvings, then let you sample tropical fruits of the Caribbean-- on Celebrity, 13 years ago
Cruise ship as amusement park. The cruise lines are outdoing each other with thrill rides, from giant slides to bumper cars to roller coasters. What’s next, a ferris wheel?
The Ultimate Abyss on the Amusement Park of the Seas (aka Harmony)
The great cruise smoke out. Smokers have been relegated to one or two areas per ship. One trend with many, many supporters.
All this in 13 years. Wonder what the upcoming years will bring. Any predictions?
If you want to get the most out of your upcoming cruise, there’s just no substitute for doing some homework. Here’s where it can count:
To go to the show
Booking a show on Royal Caribbean online before your cruise can make the difference between seeing it or missing it. If you don’t reserve in advance, your only hope is going to the theater before it starts, standing on line and crossing your fingers that there are some no-shows.
Sign up online in advance to make sure you see this fabulous show on Allure of the Seas
For your dinner dining
When you book your trip, on many ships, you have to commit to same-place/same-time dining or “my time” dining. Noting how late the ship is in each port and when the shows run will help you decide what’s best for you.
On Royal Caribbean, if you’re doing specialty dining, you’ll need to plan carefully—the restaurants won’t give you a reservation less than two hours from one of your shows.
You won't get your meal at Wonderland on Harmony of the Seas less than two hours before your show
The ports you’ll visit
So you don’t have any surprises, you may want to do two levels of planning—study the itinerary and research the islands. Particularly:
Is it an island holiday? One trip, we found ourselves on an island during its national holiday and half the stores were closed. Another time, another island, it was Sunday and everything was closed but the supermarket. Here’s one site that can help your research on island holidays.
Short or long stay? The hours of arrival and departure vary quite a bit from one port to the other. We’re late risers and port stays of 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. mean we have enough time to get off the ship and back on—and that’s about it.
Dock or tender? Tendering means you spend more time traveling back and forth, and less on the island. It also means you’ll need to do some careful planning if you’re taking a non-sponsored excursion.
The way you’ll spend your sea day
Note that there are some restrictions on what can be worn for some of the activities. For example, closed-toed shoes are required for the sports court, Rip Cord and Laser Tag. Two-piece bathing suits are a no-no for FlowRider. And you’ll also need to sign a waiver to do some of the ship’s activities.
You'll need to sign a waiver before you surf on Allure of the Seas
The bottom line
Of course, there are many other things you may want to know before you go, and I’ve only covered a few. The best sources for info on your ship are the cruise line’s websites in the section for booked guests and cruisecritic.com (particularly the Boards, where you can ask questions). The more you read, the more you learn, the more likely you’ll get the great vacation you paid for.
"Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.” – George Lang
If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of the stuff. Even when there’s so much other stuff to be had.
Luckily, the cruise ships oblige. The main dining room, specialty restaurants, buffets and cafés—they’re chock full of chocolate.
Some of the ships even go overboard. There was the chocolatebuffet in Harmony of the Seas’ Windjammer at dinner. And the same ship had a chocolate fountain and dessert bar in the main dining room for lunch on sea days. The Regal Princess had the biggest surprise—a chocolate buffet at breakfast in Horizon Court on the last full day.
Going overboard? Chocolate buffet on Harmony of the Seas' Windjammer
Then there are the sheet cakes, the layer cakes, the puddings and cookies. Some are so-so, others are good and a few are positively memorable. Among the standouts:
The Bittersweet Chocolate Bourbon Tart at 150 Central Park outshines the Liquid Center ChocolateCake at Chops Grille—both specialty restaurants on Oasis class ships. The chocolate tart with flaky crust, and cranberries and spiced pecans on top create an explosion of complex flavors.
It's bittersweet when you eat it and bittersweet when you finish it
Of the Norman Love desserts we had on the Regal and Royal Princess, the crème de la crème was the Chocolate Pistachio Dome—as wonderful to eat as it is to look at. Chocolate on the outside, chocolate, pistachio and cookie in the inside. Pure Heaven. Brings to mind Jane Seabrook’s quote:
“If there’s no chocolate in Heaven, I’m not going.”
While the dome is served in the main dining room, Love’s sweet masterpieces are sprinkled throughout Princess’ specialty restaurants, such as the Crown Grill and Sabatini’s.
A dome like any other, only on Princess
And while you’re on Princess, in case you haven’t had enough after the sheet cakes, layer cakes, pudding, cookies, breakfast buffet and Norman Love treats, there’s always the chocolate on your pillow.
With the explosion of cruising has come an explosion of websites, blogs, books, videos and social media postings—it can really be overwhelming.
I’ve pulled out a few of what I consider among the best resources to read, hear and learn what you need to get the very best out of your cruise vacation:
Cruisecritic.com – This is the “Oasis class” of cruise planning sites, with tons of ship and port reviews, industry news and roll calls. Its forum is so robust that cruisers are posting just about every minute of every day.
There are specialty forums too, where like-minded folks congregate on topics ranging from “Lose Before You Cruise” (weight, not money) and “Cruise Foodies” to “Family Cruises” and “Solo Cruises.”
Cruise Radio – Not only does this site and its newsletter have useful and interesting articles, but it also features podcasts and YouTube videos.
Don’s Family Vacations – Don does video quite a lot on YouTube, giving it to you straight, from cruise tips to cruise trip-ups—and all done in a rather endearing way. He’s both informative and entertaining.
Cruise Control– Bill Panoff also does great videos—from ship reviews to special topics such as the newest technology on the high seas.
versatile functionality allows you to see several decks on one page, convert to PDF and print, bump up the size, and drag decks over each other to see what’s above and below.
If you hover over a room, you get a diagram and general square footage for a category. There are some actual photos of particular rooms and even a few comments of areas to steer clear of because of noise and other issues.
What’s your favorite cruise planning site? Share it here!