Michael & Amy Madson ~ WeCruiseToo ~ We went on our first cruise in September 1996 sailing aboard Carnival’s Jubilee – and we were instantly hooked! As of today we've been on 81 cruises so far, plus we have the next six planned – we’re definitely addicted! ~ 19 Carnival - 13 Celebrity - 1 Holland America - 1 MSC Cruises - 13 Norwegian - 7 Princess - 16 Royal Caribbean - 1 AmaWaterways - 5 Avalon Waterways - 1 CroisiEurope - 1 Uniworld - 3 Viking River
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Celebrity Silhouette ~ August 2014
Celebrity Silhouette 8/17/2014 ~ 7-night Greece and Turkey (Eastern Med) with 2 nights pre-cruise in Venice, Italy
We arrived in Venice mid-morning on 8/15 and proceeded to the water taxi counter in the airport where our name was posted as our hotel had pre-arranged the transfer with Venezia Taxi service. They were friendly and we were able to pay with credit card for the 120€ trip. The water taxi pier/station is reached via a fairly easy 10 minute walk from the terminal (easy if your luggage is manageable anyway). The walkway is mostly covered but in bad weather it could be cumbersome. A beautiful wooden boat was our means of transport across the lagoon and into the canals including the Grand Canal directly to our hotel located on one of the smaller canals. This was the perfect welcome to Venice! Absolutely worth the money. The ride was about 40 minutes and the sights were amazing – it was like getting a sightseeing tour as well!
Upon arrival at our hotel Locanda Orseolo we entered through an opening from the canal into the sitting room of the hotel – talk about making an entrance! Our luggage was handed up to Igor, one of the hotel team members who was always “at your service”, so we didn’t have to lift a finger! The hotel is a charming, boutique, family-owned property. The team introduced themselves and graciously welcomed us to their hotel. This was just the start of the amazing personal service we were treated to our entire stay! From always being greeted by name, given advice about concerts, selecting wines for us to enjoy in the afternoon, to serving a delicious buffet and made to order eggs and crepes at the included daily breakfast!
Since our room wasn’t ready yet we checked in and left our luggage with the desk before we ventured out to explore the alleys and canals of Venice. Igor provided us a map and gave us a few tips about how to get around and we were off!
Our hotel was tucked in a private courtyard behind an iron gate just a few short blocks from the famous St. Mark’s Square. The location was perfect!! We wandered the alleys and bridges and were amazed at the architecture and beauty of Venice. After a couple of hours we found a great little wine-bar, Vineria all’Amarone for cichetti (small bite appetizers) and wine, of course!
After lunch we headed back to the hotel and our room was ready with our bags waiting inside. One unique thing is that they use REAL keys at the hotel, and you leave it at the desk when you go out. The room was decorated in old-style Italian with red and gold drapes and had a king size bed, an old-fashioned desk and chair, a small closet with a safe. Modern amenities included a flat screen TV, free Wi-Fi, a coffee maker and fully stocked mini-bar fridge. The bathroom was large and modern with a bathtub with shower, toilet, bidet and even a towel warmer. Plush bathrobes and slippers were available for our use as well!
After unpacking, we went back out to explore some more. We couldn’t get enough of this unique and fascinating city.
Saturday morning, we were scheduled for a tour of Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica with Walks of Italy. We had pre-arranged the tour directly with them before leaving home. Our guide Mosé was friendly and knowledgeable and had a true passion for the history of Venice! Our tour included the famous Bridge of Sighs and even a perfectly timed visit to the terrace of the basilica to see the clock tower movements at noon where the figures are striking the bell. We are so thankful we booked this tour as we would never have appreciated these sites or Venice as much!
We elected to attend a Vivaldi concert performed by Interpreti Veneziani at Chiesa SanVidal, a former church turned concert hall that was about a 15 minute walk from the hotel. Igor suggested getting there about 8:30pm for the 9:00pm show, so we decided to have a snack just across the Grand Canal at Beccafico Café. We shared a delicious veggie pizza and wine and made it to the church at 8:35pm where we found ourselves sitting in last row! So if you decide to go to this concert, arrive at 8:15pm for better seating. Even being in the last row, the venue isn’t large and the acoustics were fine. We still had a decent view of the performance which consisted of about 90 minutes of music from talented musicians including one short intermission.
In the morning, we enjoyed the hotel’s buffet for breakfast, and headed out one more time to see what more we could see. Our tickets from the earlier tour included admission into a couple other museums including the Correr museum. We spent a couple of hours admiring the art and the historical items before getting back to our hotel just in time to catch our water taxi transfer to the cruise port. Again this was with Venezia Taxi and well worth every penny (100€ including tip)! This was like getting another “tour” of the canals including the Grand Canal all the way to the cruise ship pier! We would pay for this again!
The beautiful Celebrity Silhouette awaited us for boarding at the pier! It was about 12:30pm when we checked in and went aboard. The ship is beautiful with classy décor and plenty of open spaces. We were booked in an Aqua Class stateroom (1591) on deck 11 midship. The room had the bed near the closet and a couch and desk near the balcony windows. The balcony was spacious with a round table and two chairs that could recline back along with two foot rests. Overall it was very comfortable for both relaxing and dining!
The cabin had plenty of closet space, but limited drawer space. Fortunately we remembered the overhead storage areas above the bed and made good use of that space. The bed was made up with a plush duvet and several pillows. The bathroom had lots of storage and real shower doors! A special feature for the ladies – a foot rest in the shower to make it easier to shave your legs!
Aqua Class staterooms are assigned open-seating dining in Blu Restaurant. The food here is prepared a bit healthier and the portion sizes are perfect to help keep you from eating too much but don’t leave you hungry. Service was very good most nights, except one. Food was excellent. The open-seating concept worked well for us as we never had more than a few moments wait to be seated for breakfast or dinner.
We did dine in both Murano and Tuscan Grille specialty restaurants. The service was great in both. Our favorite dish in Tuscan Grille was a perfectly grilled Filet Mignon. The table-side prepared lobster tail and the venison were the winners in Murano followed by a delicious soufflé with Grand Mariner vanilla sauce.
For breakfast, we dined in Blu, the Elite Captain’s Club lounge, the buffet and even ordered room service to get a variety. The breakfast buffet had plenty of choices and the food quality was good. Blu was delicious with excellent choices. Room service was prompt and the croissants and fruit were fresh.
Lunch brought us to the main dining room and the buffet after enjoying the deliciously refreshing daily-changing Gazpacho soups at the AquaSpa cafe. The buffet has made to order pasta and stir fry stations that served up tasty dishes. Pizza was as good as always, but they had a hard time keeping up with the demand. The Mexican station with fixings for fajitas and nachos always had a long line. There were plenty of sandwich and salad choices and lots of fresh fruit. The main dining room offered some nicely presented and appetizing dishes in generous portions.
Entertainment throughout the ship was fantastic. The solo guitarist, the duo, the house band – all were great. The main production shows Velocity and Broadway Nights were top notch as well. Every time we passed one of the acts throughout the ship, we made a comment on how great the music was!
The crew and officers were friendly and ever-present. Our stateroom steward Raymond and his assistant Nelson were efficient and always there with a smile!
One of our cruise highlights was being invited to the Captain’s Table hosted by the Hotel Director and Onboard Marketing Manager. The experience was very special with a great menu and nice wine choices. Conversation with our fellow guests was fun and the food was excellent as expected.
Ports of call:
Dubrovnik – We took a taxi for 10€ to the Old Town area where we joined the Discover Dubrovnik Walk, offered several times a day by Dubrovnik Walking Tours for 12€ per person. The tour lasted about 90 minutes, but it was more of a stand and hear history, walk a few steps, stand and hear history, etc. Our guide Vesnay wasn’t the most engaging, but she was nice. It was a little disappointing to hear that the town had been rebuilt as recently as 1990 (to the historical specifications). Once our tour was over we walked 2/3 of the way around the city walls giving us spectacular views of the city and the bay. After walking the walls, we climbed up, down and across the alleys until we found a great little restaurant – Rozario. Ivan our waiter served us local wine and delicious gorgonzola stuffed mushrooms. It was the perfect way to end our day in Dubrovnik before heading back to the ship.
Kusadasi – We booked a private excursion with Curio Travel/Ephesus Shuttle for our stop in Turkey. Our guide met us at the pier and we walked a short distance to our private decked-out SUV with plush leather seats facing each other in the back. Our guide Taylan shared history and stories along the drive to the ruins at Ephesus. He took us through the ruins including the amazing Terrace Houses. His knowledge and passion for the history and culture of the ancient times was admirable. After the ruins, we headed towards the little village of Sirince. Just outside of town, we stopped for lunch at Bizim Ev a restaurant whose owner Hatice prepares a variety of local dishes served buffet style. With so many choices, we got to try lots of different dishes – our favorite had to be the stuffed grape leaves! Sirince was a charming hillside village with cobblestone streets, cute cafes, nice shops and fascinating little hotels. We definitely would come back for more than a few hours! On the way back to the ship, we stopped at a local carpet co-op where they showed us the techniques for making those beautiful rugs and then they showed several rugs in different styles and colors. Awesome experience without high pressure sales! A full day tour showed us just a touch of what this beautiful country has to offer.
Mykonos – We had high hopes for Greece as it has been on our must-visit list for years. We had the Mykonos Old and New tour planned that was booked with Shore Excursions Group. We took an early tender in and had 30-45 minutes to wander the streets/alleys of Old Town Mykonos before the tour started, so we got some very nice photos before the shops opened and the streets were crowded with people. The 3.5 hour tour first took us to a 30 minute stop at Kalafati Beach where we discovered that the sand in Mykonos is really just gravel. Next, we visited a working Greek Orthodox Monastery followed by a local pastry and beverage at a small café before heading back to Old Town for our walking tour. This part was very disappointing as our guide showed us the photo store, the bookshop and the banks instead of concentrating on local history and stories. A brief visit to a small folk history museum gave us some of that, but it’s not the same as when you’re standing at the actual site. By this time, the streets were crowded with people and small vehicles trying to wind their way through the alleys, so we just headed back to the ship.
Corfu – Celebrity offered just a few tour choices for Corfu. We took one including the beautiful Achilleion Palace, the Virgin Mary Monastery in Paleokastritsa, and some time in Corfu’s old town (most of which didn’t seem too old to us). Our guide was very good, and we saw a lot of the island. Again, we expected more but we’re glad we got to see what we did.
Overall the ship, crew, food, entertainment and itinerary were excellent! We had a great cruise and can’t wait for our next one!
Radiance of the Seas – 7-day Northbound Alaska with Hubbard Glacier
Radiance of the Seas 5/30/2014 – 7-day Northbound Alaska with Hubbard Glacier
We sailed this ship several years ago, so we were looking forward to seeing how Royal Caribbean added some of the Oasis class features in the recent remodel.
Ship – Overall the public areas of the ship are in good shape, and it is a beautiful ship. This class of ship is perfect for cruising Alaska with windows everywhere, including exterior glass elevators to enjoy the view! Exterior of the ship’s hull definitely needed some Rustoleum and a new paint job. The ship never felt crowded and wait times for elevators seemed less than on other cruises lately.
Cabin Appearance – We had cabin 7530 which is one of the “Sweet 16” (making it 1 of the 16 cabins that have an extended balcony) which was perfect for this itinerary. The cabin had plenty of storage space and was well laid out. The hidden storage areas above the desk/behind the mirrors are a nice surprise if you find them! The cabin had a small refrigerator and a safe. However, when you get to the details, we did notice some areas that needed work. For instance, on the balcony the dividers were painted sloppily to cover areas that had worn off (allowing you to see to the next balcony) and the backside of the drapes were worn out and falling apart. We were surprised to find that they removed the sliding doors of the shower “tube” and replaced it with a flimsy curtain that did absolutely nothing to keep the water in. Our floor was flooded with every shower. The curtain was too short and hung with basic wire hooks connected together.
Entertainment – We elected not to attend most shows, but we did attend two. One was a featured performer named Finis Henderson who was a combination singer/impersonator. He was extremely talented and entertaining. We cannot say the same about the production show – City of Dreams. The singers and dancers were talented, but the selection of material and the choice of musical arrangement was bizarre. Others in our group enjoyed the other production show, Piano Man, and the show featuring John Joseph & Johnny B.
Activities – They offered plenty of trivia and other activities including Glacier Ice Carving from a piece of glacier ice that we watched crew members retrieve from the waters by Hubbard Glacier. Bingo was popular as well as the gift shop Sale of the Day. We appreciated that there were several onboard lectures pertinent to the itinerary but, for some reason, we missed them all. They sounded really interesting though! The Cinema of deck 6 is a real movie theater and showed some great movies throughout the week.
Food, Dining Room – We always ate in the main dining room for dinner and had late seating. Unlike other cruises, we never felt that we had to miss the entertainment due to late seating. Some days our shows were before dinner and sometimes after. Overall we would give the food a solid “B”. Nothing fabulous, but nothing terrible. Some of the best entrées were the Chicken Marsala and Carved Filet of Beef Tenderloin. Lunch in the dining room was great with the Brasserie 30 concept. The select-your-own Tutti Salad station was excellent and the best dessert was at lunch: Warm Cherry Custard Crepes! Delicious! Honestly, it beats Carnival’s Warm Chocolate Melting Cake – hands down!
Food, Buffet/Other – The standard buffet was nothing special and Royal Caribbean has not changed its breakfast buffet fare in 20 years! Fortunately, the Boardwalk Dog House offered delicious sausages and Park Café offered a great made-to-order salad bar and Roast Beef Sandwiches. Breakfast was a good choice in Park Café as well, better than the main buffet.
Room Service – Excellent service and quality. We held a happy hour in our cabin and ordered fruit & cheese plates and cookies that were delivered promptly. On Hubbard Glacier day, we ordered hot tea and pastries and were surprised to get Hot Cocoa as well.
Bars/Lounges – Overall the bars and lounges were completely under-utilized and rarely staffed throughout the week. The Quill & Compass pub was an awesome venue that had a guitar player some evenings, but the staffed hours were limited. As always, the Schooner Bar was the main hangout along with the Centrum where they held many activities and musical acts. The Champagne bar got some action before dinnertime, but mainly there were people sitting there throughout the day to enjoy the beautiful views. The dark-wooded Colony Club was rarely used except for Bingo and the Art Auctions along with the past guest party. It is such a nice room; they should do more in there. The self-leveling pool tables are awesome and were in play often.
Solarium/Spa/Gym/Pool – The Solarium was busy on sea days and in the afternoons after port. It is a very nice, warm and relaxing area, so we understand the appeal. The Spa offered the typical spa services and had a sauna and steam room in the locker rooms. The Gym was well-equipped and pools and hot tubs were in use even though the weather was chilly on deck.
Service – We had exceptional service in the Diamond Lounge and very good service at the other bars throughout the ship. Our dining team was efficient and friendly, but they did not go above and beyond. Our cabin steward was above average, but we noticed that we only got 3 towel animals in the week – which seemed to be less than on previous Royal Caribbean cruises. There were no chocolates on our pillows at night but we didn’t miss them and if it helps keep the prices down, then we’re okay with that.
Officers – The Captain was very charismatic and the Cruise Director, Amy, did a very good job (don’t miss their cake building competition – very fun!). Overall, we did not see much officer interaction except at the past guest parties and during occasional pre-programmed activities.
We departed from Vancouver and visited the ports of Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau and Skagway before ending in Seward/Anchorage. We were fortunate to have beautiful weather in most ports and only light rain in Juneau. This was our third visit to Alaska, so we have done a lot of the “big” excursions like Helicopter Glacier landings and Whale Watching on past trips. This time we did things differently.
Vancouver – We had one night pre-cruise hotel at the Best Western Plus Downtown Vancouver on Drake Street. The hotel was in excellent shape and overall the staff was fantastic! We only had one evening to enjoy the city, so we took a taxi to the Gastown area to explore. We ended up dining at SteamWorks right near the pier. After exploring the area for a while, we decided to walk back to the hotel which took us about 15-20 minutes. The hotel has a complimentary shuttle to the pier, but you had to reserve same day starting at 7am. We were in the lobby at 6:45am to ensure we got the coveted 10:30am pier shuttle! Even though the hotel had a White Spot restaurant in the lobby, we walked to Tim Horton’s for breakfast just a few blocks away for some yummy steeped hot tea and breakfast sandwiches.
Ketchikan – Here we did the Ketchikan City Tour with Saxman Native Village. The information was good and the totems were cool, but we had a really boring guide, so it wasn’t the best tour overall. The tour ended at Creek Street which is always a fun place to walk around, and it included a visit to Dolly’s Museum. We walked around town after that and found a local’s hangout called the Asylum to enjoy a beverage before heading back to the ship.
Icy Strait Point – We elected to walk to the town of Hoonah instead of taking a tour in Icy Strait. There is a wonderful path along the water almost all the way to town or you can take a shuttle for $5 roundtrip. At the recommendation of other guests on board, we found ourselves at a local establishment called The Office where we met the Town of Hoonah’s Vice Mayor and owner of The Office. The view was awesome, and we saw lots of whales and eagles from here. Plus we got to meet some of the locals who are very interesting people! The local halibut fish and chips was excellent, too!
Juneau – We walked downtown to the State Capital Building and took a free tour which was very interesting. Then we visited a few of the many souvenir shops in town. In the afternoon, we took the Mendenhall Glacier Express Shuttle $20pp roundtrip to Mendenhall Glacier. Because we were on our own timetable, we walked several trails and hiked out to the waterfall. This was a lot better than a rushed tour stop with 50 other people!!
Skagway – Probably our favorite day of the trip. We hiked a trail (a bit difficult uphill at first) out to Little Dewey Lake and were treated to some of the most beautiful views imaginable. After the hike, we walked around town visiting the Moore Homestead and caught up with friends in the Bonzana Bar and the Red Onion before returning to the ship just in time!
Seward/Anchorage – We arranged a custom tour/transfer for our group from the ship to Anchorage that included a 90 minute stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Most of the tour/transfers stop here, but only for about 45 minutes. The AWCC is so spread out, that you need more time than that to see all the animals. Even with 90 minutes, it still wasn’t enough in our opinion.
Anchorage – We stayed at the gorgeous Historic Anchorage Hotel on E Street (right next to the Hilton). The hotel was one of the least expensive properties available in downtown, but it was wonderful. They staff was extremely courteous and helpful, the rooms were well appointed with wonderful beds. One of the coolest things about the hotel is that it is said to be haunted! The City of Anchorage is easy to navigate with many restaurants and parks within a few blocks of this hotel. Some of our top picks – SnowGoose for outside patio views of the water and mountains, Glacier Brewhouse for good food (a little pricey), Humpy’s for halibut tacos and their Bloody Mary bar, and Nene’s if you want to try some Russian dumplings! Our visit to Anchorage included a taking a free shuttle the Alaska Native Heritage Center where we learned more about the history, people and culture of this great state. In addition, we enjoyed a free concert in the park along with the locals, and were fascinated by the Land of the Midnight Sun! When it was time to head home, taxis to the airport are only about $20, and it takes about 15-20 minutes.
For some, Alaska is a once in a lifetime experience, but for us it’s “When are we going back?” This was truly a great cruise overall, on a beautiful ship perfect for this itinerary.
Carnival Sunshine ~ April 2014
Carnival Sunshine – 4/17-4/19/2014 ~ Bahamas
We’ve been on many Carnival cruises over the years but we’d never experienced the full range of their “Fun Ship 2.0” renovations, so when this 2-night cruise aboard Carnival Sunshine came along we just couldn’t pass it up! We’d sailed Carnival Destiny back in 2011 but after her $155 million refurbishment in 2013 she was renamed Carnival Sunshine and we could barely recognize the previous ship under all the improvements and additions.
We were in oceanview stateroom 2204 and, as usual, we continue to find that Carnival has the most spacious standard rooms at sea. The bed and pillows were comfortable and storage space was plentiful. The bathroom was fine. We were a little surprised they hadn’t replaced the shower curtains with sliding doors as part of the refurbishment but there was always plenty of hot water with decent pressure.
We were intrigued by the main showroom, Liquid Lounge, with its changeable seating arrangement but we found the chairs on the floor to be more comfortable than many showrooms and the flexibility was definitely used to enhance the shows. The first night was a typical Welcome Aboard variety show so the seats were arranged with a center aisle. The show was fine; nothing special. The second night the seats were arranged to accommodate two small stages in the middle of the audience for the show Epic Rock. We enjoyed the show very much. The small cast (4 male, 4 female) all sang and all danced showing more versatility than some of the larger casts we’ve seen on other ships. We didn’t get a chance to check it out, but we understand they remove all the seats and turn it into a dance floor with a DJ at night to give guests yet another entertainment option – seems like a great way to use the space!
The shows in the Punchliner Comedy Club were great but the layout of the room hurt the overall experience. There were two good comedians each doing family friendly and adult oriented shows and it was packed every time with many people left standing. This meant you had to get there at least 30 minutes early and many people still didn’t have a view of the stage (there were video monitors to watch though). After the too-short 25-minute shows everyone in the room was forced out the back because there was already a line in front for the next show. It was very slow-going to return to the public areas of the ship from this back entrance end you could also see some of the old ship showing through here. Carnival Destiny had many mirrored ceilings – cool in the day – that have been painted white to look like normal ceiling tiles. Unfortunately the paint was badly peeling here showing the mirrors underneath.
Other entertainment included the sing-along Piano Bar 88, karaoke in RedFrog Pub, music and dancing in Havana Bar and more. Plus the innovative new venues EA Sports Bar, Library Bar and, best of all, Alchemy Bar with creative and exotic drinks.
The 3-deck adults only Serenity area was very nice with its hot tub, waterfall and large pool, but it wasn’t nearly as serene as the area is on other Carnival ships. You really had to get off to the sides or front on deck 14 to escape the noise of the main pool area.
The outdoor activity areas of Carnival WaterWorks, SportSquare and SkyCourse were all very cool and very popular with guests of all ages.
While we always enjoy the atmosphere of the main dining room on Carnival and we’ve never been disappointed by the quality or variety of the food, the menu was the same as we’d experienced on the last several cruises so we took the opportunity to try as many of the new dining venues as we could.
Guy’s Burger Joint is located by the pool but just outside the buffet so you can eat in air conditioning if you like. The burgers are very good so the crew works hard to keep up with the long lines – unfortunately this seems to leave them with attitudes somewhere between disinterested and surly. Don’t miss the toppings bar to personalize your burger.
Across from this is BlueIguana Cantina for made to order tacos and burritos plus an extensive salsa bar. Best kept secret: it’s also open in the morning with breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros! Everything we had from here was delicious!
The buffet itself was fine with all the expected options. The deli and pizza stations are always good. They’ve added a pour your own beer station where you swipe your card and it lets you pour 14oz from the tap for about $4.00. This got mixed reactions from the guests we saw using; those who knew how to use a tap were happy but a few just ended up with a glass of foam.
Aft of the main buffet is an area we found ourselves at often. It consists of three areas all providing additional seating and dining options for buffet patrons during the day while transforming into specialty dining venues in the evening.
The centerpiece is the Havana Bar serving specialty coffees and cocktails plus a small selection of yummy snacks and pastries that change throughout the day. At night this is the spot for live Latin music and dancing.
To one side of Havana Bar is Cucina del Capitano; omelet stations at breakfast and made-to-order pasta at lunch. For dinner, the $12 per person charge was well worth it. From amazing appetizers to “the best chicken parmigiana I’ve ever had” to delectable desserts, everything was delicious. And be sure to try Il Capitano’s Signature Dish – based on recipes from the family of the ship’s captain!
On the other side of Havana Bar is Ji Ji Asian Kitchen; omelet stations at breakfast and Mongolian Wok stir-fry at lunch. Also a $12 per person charge for dinner we were less impressed here. Everything we ordered tasted pretty good but it all seemed greasy. Our server was not attentive at all and our table got a lot of smoke from the open kitchen.
Maybe the biggest surprise was the amazing quality and value of Bonsai Sushi! We’re used to having sushi available for free on many ships and thought Carnival was just being cheap by charging a la carte for it – we couldn’t have been more wrong. We found the quality to be infinitely better than the free stuff and full rolls (eight large pieces) at $4 were a bargain. This full service venue was very popular but had limited seating. If you walk past and there’s no line you should stop in – once word gets out about this hidden gem the lines are long!
Service on the ship was polite and efficient overall but was never really extraordinary. I think longer itineraries will be better as crew members get a chance to connect with guests.
Our only port stop was Freeport, Bahamas, but we elected to stay on the ship to experience as many of her new features as we could. Those who ventured into port reported that many things were closed due to it being Good Friday.
We loved all of the renovations and upgrades we found aboard Carnival Sunshine and will definitely recommend her to those who are the right fit. We’re looking forward to a longer cruise aboard this wonderful ship sometime in the near future!
Ruby Princess ~ February 2014
Ruby Princess – 2/20-2/24/2014 ~ 4-night sailing to Grand Cayman
Ship – Ruby Princess is a typical Princess ship – similar décor, same layout which made it comfortable to get around. The atrium was beautifully appointed and was the center of activity throughout the cruise. We felt there was never enough seating in this area as it has become so popular.
Cabin – We had originally booked a Category MB mini-suite, but the night before sailing Princess contacted us to see if we would downgrade to Category B2 on Caribe Deck with the perk of $200 shipboard credit. This was a great move! The cabin was the standard size, but the balcony was double length – half-covered and half-open. We had a large round table and two chairs which made it wonderful for enjoying our room service breakfast several days! We highly recommend this category cabin! We didn’t need the extra cabin space and to gain it in the balcony was awesome!
Room Service – We really like Princess’ breakfast options for room service, especially the breakfast egg sandwiches! The delivery always came within our window of time ordered, and the servers were friendly and helpful bringing it out to the balcony for us.
Dining Room – Let’s just say, we were impressed! We couldn’t remember the last time a server or assistant offered us freshly ground pepper on every course and grated the parmesan cheese tableside. We had an extremely efficient wait-team in the Botticelli Dining Room who went out of their way to accommodate our party. The pastas were amazing as always with Princess, but several other dishes were exceptional as well. The Soufflé for dessert was perfect!
Buffet – We never have liked the crowded buffet access on most Princess ships with the one direction in and one out. The Horizon Court on Ruby Princess was no different. The choices were fine and you could find plenty to eat, but they did not blow you away. The back buffet featured a Mexican theme one day and that was fun with some good choices!
Alternative Dining – While the ship had a Crown Grill and Sabatini’s, we elected not to dine in any specialty restaurants because the dining room was exceptional. We did enjoy sampling wine flights in the Vines wine bar and consumed the variety of tapas they offered there. We found it strange that it seemed like they only had one or two Flight menus and got the idea that they really didn’t like selling those. The servers had no idea what wines were which, so you needed the menu to figure it out – but they needed the menu to give to the next table. We definitely got a laugh out of this.
Crew – Very friendly and outgoing throughout the ship. The officers were available during the past guest party for photos and chit-chat.
Entertainment – Princess is putting a lot of effort in providing fresh entertainment in the Piazza (aka Atrium) that includes a classical string group, a guitarist Tyrone Babb, and even a juggler/balance duo called Duo Push that drew a huge crowd with every performance. Broadway Ballroom was the production show that was very well done. Featured performers included a comedian, Rollin Jay Moore, and Landon Swank who was on America’s Got Talent. Once again we didn’t make it to Movies Under The Stars. One of my favorite things on Princess ships is when they do the balloon drop in the Piazza/Atrium!
Itinerary – This 4-day itinerary had only one stop which was at Grand Cayman. We were actually planning to enjoy the ship that day, but we had a request to pick up a new Margaritaville Grand Cayman T-shirt for someone special. (We ended up buying two shirts!) We were back on the ship in no time, and relaxed by pool that afternoon.
Summary – The last couple of times we sailed with Princess they really didn’t live up to the expectations we had developed on the first few cruises we had with them. Service, food quality and entertainment all seemed to have dropped substantially (that’s probably why we went almost five years without sailing them). This cruise aboard Ruby Princess really redeemed them on all counts! Now we’re looking forward to our next Princess cruise even more!
Carnival Freedom ~ January 2012
Embarkation: Loyalty pays off – this was our 10th Carnival cruise and we were treated to the VIP boarding experience as Platinum level past guests. The separate line whisked us right to the counter after a short delay at the security screening area (due to a medical situation in the waiting area). Without that delay, we probably would have been on the ship within 15 minutes from the time we entered the door. Other guests that were traveling with us were not able to join us in the VIP line, so it took them a little longer. They met us in the buffet about 30-35 minutes later, so still not too bad for a boarding time.
Ship Overall: Carnival Freedom is in excellent condition. Public areas do not show signs of wear that we noticed. Almost no burnt out light bulbs throughout the ship – which is an impressive accomplishment! The Atrium’s wood floor was beautiful and a perfect dance floor for the music played throughout the week. The Serenity adult area could be double the size as chairs were very difficult to find at any time. The rest of the deck got very full on the sea days as we watched many people turn into lobsters.
Cabin: We elected to take an ocean view Category 6C (Cabin #2279) for this sailing and we were very pleasantly reminded why we recommend so many first-timers sail Carnival. The ocean view cabin was so spacious with tons of storage! A family of 3 or 4 would be very comfortable in these cabins. Compared to our ocean view cabin on a Norwegian Pearl sailing six weeks prior, this felt like a mini-suite! There was plenty of counter and shelf storage in the bathroom. Four decent size drawers in the desk along with 2 shelves and a shallow cabinet allowed plenty of hiding places for our stuff. Even under the couch were two large drawers. Three closets – one with convertible shelves so you could hang more if you’d like – provided more than enough space. Beds were a little firm, and the duvet was getting a little flat, but still decent bedding. Towels were thick and in good condition. Bathrooms come with the standard shampoo and shower gel on the wall along with bar soap. A little treat is the complimentary amenity basket that includes sample size goodies (razors, aspirins, toothpaste, etc) from various sponsors who probably pay a lot of money to have Carnival distribute their products for them.
Dining: We had a group of 18 dining together, so we chose fixed dining with late seating. They assigned us two large tables side by side on the upper level of the Posh dining room. We were tucked in the back corner by the window, so it was difficult to see/participate in all the dining room entertainment/activities, but we still had fun.
Dining Room Food: The food quality was very good with many excellent dishes. With all of the buzz on the comment boards we were worried about what the menu would have; well, rest assured, there are PLENTY of choices each night in addition to the “always available” fare. The person who complained that all they have is “meatloaf every night” must have been on a different cruise line. We had fish dishes, lobster (nice lobster, too), prime rib, and the available everyday steak is very good – if you order medium or medium rare. Order medium well or more and you might not be able to cut it. They offered “comfort food” including fried chicken that my table mates said was delicious! Pasta dishes were surprisingly good and dessert choices were yummy including the warm melting chocolate cake.
Dining Room Service: This is where we noticed some changes. The servers are definitely there to move you through, not to “serve” you. There was actually less silverware for each course than in the past, and the waiters would actually take your “used” silver off the plate and put it back on the table for your next course instead of just bringing you new silverware. A couple of times they didn’t even bring our soup spoons. At one point I had to ask for a knife as mine was removed with an appetizer course. Also, they didn’t offer fresh ground pepper or parmesan cheese, but if we asked they would bring it out for us. While these things are noticeable to a long time cruiser, the first-timers in our group loved the dining experience! Admittedly, some of the confusion came from having our assistant waiter out due to illness after the second night. They tried to replace him with others, but the replacements did not support the waiter very effectively.
Buffet: Carnival does offer a lot of options on their buffets with the various stations including the Mongolian wok, Pizza, Indian, Deli, Grill, and the Taste of Nations which changes in theme daily. Food quality was very good, but really the healthier options (besides salad and fruit) were not plentiful. People tended to wait in long lines to move through the buffet stations. We realized how nice Norwegian’s “freestyle” buffet is where they have fewer “line” buffets and more “stations” and encourage you to go directly to whatever you are after.
Breakfast selections were okay as expected, nothing special, with scrambled eggs, potatoes and sausages that changed varieties daily, waffles, pancakes, and various toasted breads. They did have some cold cuts and cheese and several fruit and pastry choices as well. Made to order omelets were available and prepared quickly. This is what we ate most mornings just to avoid the longer lines for everything else.
Onboard Activities: Lots to choose from including a murder mystery that lasted throughout the cruise. Clues were found in cryptogram puzzles in the newsletter and by asking the “suspects” (the Cruise Director and his staff) for additional clues. This was something new for us and we had fun participating! They did have ice carving by the pool, hairy chest contest and several trivia options, too. One of our favorites was the cooking demonstration in the Sun King Steakhouse, Carnival Freedom’s specialty dining restaurant ($30pp cover charge). The demonstration was free and they prepared a four course meal in front of us; plus they served us sampler portions of each fantastic dish! We didn’t expect them to feed the entire audience, but they kept bringing out more food and every item was beautifully presented and tasted delicious. We realize this was a nice sales pitch to get people to book the specialty dining, but it was well done and we recommend watching your daily Fun Times for this event!
Entertainment: We were offered three full production shows on this sailing. “Ticket To Ride” a very energetic and entertaining Beatles Tribute; “The Big Easy” a New Orleans themed show that ended with a Mardi Gras Parade into the Atrium; and “Jump, Jive & Wail” featuring music of the 40’s/Big Band era. All were enjoyable with songs that you can sing along to. The live orchestra is a very nice feature, but we heard rumors that Carnival may be downsizing their on-board bands and phasing out any “featured” performers, sticking with their own onboard entertainers in lieu of other one-night features.
The comedy shows were scheduled at awkward times making it difficult to see both the production show and the comedians. On our previous Carnival cruises this was scheduled where you could really get it all in, but not so on this particular ship and sailing. They scheduled five comedy shows in one night instead of moving them around on different nights and times. We speculate it was because they use the same lounge for the Superstar Live – karaoke with the live band – which was very popular.
Another interesting thing we noticed regarding entertainment was that they had no one scheduled in the Piano Bar until the second-to-last night of the cruise. This lounge was empty and unused for the first four nights. In addition, the Swingtime Lounge was rarely used and only occasionally was any entertainment scheduled there.
Other onboard entertainers included the “rock band”, a duo singing light hits, and a salsa group that kept many guests dancing in the Atrium on a few nights.
Gym/Spa: The gym is not one of the largest at sea but it had several options including exercise bikes, elliptical machines, stair climbers and free weights. It was a little awkward to access the gym as you had to go through the locker rooms to get there. They had a “shared” hot tub (that wasn’t very hot) behind glass in the middle of the gym, while the individual locker rooms each included a nice sauna and steam room with windows overlooking the ocean. Lockers were available by asking at the spa desk for a key. Spa prices were typical, but they offered many discounts and special deals throughout the sailing.
Service: In general, the crew was very pleasant saying “hello” and “have a good day” in most instances. The reception staff was one of the friendliest we’ve encountered in several cruises. We rarely saw our stateroom attendant but our room was cleaned promptly and thoroughly. The sushi and buffet staff were polite and efficient. One particular cook at the pizza station was justifiably proud of his calzones and recommended them to guests who took the time to chat with him.
Itinerary: Western Caribbean from Ft. Lauderdale with stops at Key West, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios. While these ports are “old hat” to many, we actually found an EXCELLENT guide in Ocho Rios and had a tour to many places we’d never seen – like Wassi Arts where we watched pottery being made and painted – and heard some great new information. The guide’s name is Michelle and she can arrange a private, personalized tour for you. She was fantastic – she even sang us some songs. We will definitely be working with Michelle for our return visits to Ocho Rios!
Summary: We found this to be a very enjoyable six-day itinerary. We still believe that Carnival offers some of the best values available for cruising and continue to recommend them to our friends and family who are the right fit. Carnival Freedom is a nice ship with a great crew offering a solid vacation value. We would sail on this ship again without question.
AmaDolce ~ Christmas Time Cruise
AmaDolce ~ Christmas Time Cruise ~ 12/12-12/19/2011
Nurnberg to Budapest
Embarkation: We flew directly to Nurnberg for the cruise-only portion of the trip while most of the other 85 guests participated in the two day pre-cruise tour in Prague. Our flight arrived at 10:30am and we were met by our transportation provider booked independently. The trip was less than 30 minutes to the dock, but the dock is in a hidden area, so we were glad we booked with a company who services the river cruise lines and knew the area – even though we probably paid too much for this service versus a taxi.
We arrived at the ship shortly after 11:00am and were greeted by one of the sailors who came out to take our bags from the van. At reception, we were greeted warmly and told that our rooms weren’t quite ready, but we could have a light lunch with finger sandwiches and hot soup in the lounge – along with ice tea, water, coffee and tea available for self-service.
After a short while, we were told that our rooms were ready and our luggage was already there waiting for us. It was a very easy and pleasant experience.
Ship: While the AmaDolceholds 148 guests we only had about 85 people on this sailing. The ship is laid out very conveniently with the lounge on the same deck as the lobby and the dining room one deck down. Cabins on Deck 2 are a convenient ½ deck away from either! Deck 3 cabins have direct access to the aft lounge where several functions were held for the onboard groups. The ship was decorated tastefully in reds and oranges with dark woods throughout. In the spirit of the season, they had a large Christmas tree with garland and other décor festooning the ship. It was very nice! The small gift shop spilled out into the lobby, sometimes making it seem a little like a flea market, but they have very little space to work with.
Chairs and loveseats in the lounge were comfortable, but sometimes the use of lots of chairs caused visibility issues. There were many chairs facing away from where the speaker or entertainment would be. Only for one night did they actually rearrange the furniture to be more “theater-style” for the entertainment. The dining room layout consisted mostly of tables for four or two. Only a few tables held six guests and possibly only two could accommodate eight guests. There were a couple of sections with an oval six-top that created major pinch points making it very difficult for the servers to get by.
The Sun Deck was closed for the first couple of days due to low bridges, but when they opened it the chairs were plentiful and the small hot tub looked inviting. The cold, rainy weather was a big deterrent to hanging out on the Sun Deck, but we bundled up, got our umbrellas (provided for us in our cabins!) and went up to brave the weather while cruising the Danube bend and the Wachau Valley. This is why you river cruise – to experience these beautiful sites up close and personal!
Cabin: At first glance, the 170 square foot cabin appeared smaller than those on our previous river cruises, but we realized that it was just the particular layout and the use of different flooring and two plush chairs by the French balcony. The overall space was the same, but worked out a little differently. The bathrooms are adequate with good storage but very little counter space. The towels were plush and LONG. The amenities of lotion, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel were adequate, but not fantastic, and were replenished as needed throughout the week.
The highlight of the cabin has got to be the shower with strong water pressure from your choice of a large overhead showerhead or a handheld unit, and an additional “middle” height shower head that feels really nice on your back after a long day of excursions. Hot water was very hot and plentiful. The shower stall itself was a little awkward, but we could live with that. Beds had firm mattresses on pedestal frames with high quality cotton sheets/cases and a nice cozy duvet. Extra blankets were available for the chilly nights when we opened the balcony door.
Desk/counter space is almost non-existent. We moved things around to make the one accessible plug available for charging the electronics. A nice feature is the complimentary included internet that can be used from your cabin’s TV complete with keyboard and mouse (or free Wi-Fi shipwide if you brought your own laptop/tablet/smartphone). The closet and cabinets with shelves offered plenty of storage. There were four small drawers at the desk that held very little, but came in handy. The surprise was a large rolling storage bin that was UNDER one of the beds. You could easily roll it out for access. One thing we found odd was that the closet doors were a white wood when all the other wood was this beautiful rich dark brown. In our opinion, the cabin would feel warmer with wooden doors, but I’m sure AMA did studies on why the doors need to be white.
The French balcony is really the way to go on river cruises. We enjoy being on Deck 2 versus Deck 3 as we like to be right there with the water so close by, watching the ducks or swans as we sail down the rivers. Even with the cold weather we opened our door regularly to experience the sites, take pictures and just enjoy the river flowing by.
Dining: The breakfast buffet had lots of fresh fruit choices, muesli, cereals, yogurt, and fresh meats and cheeses. Hot dishes included scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and one item that changed daily such as sautéed mushrooms or French toast. Made to order eggs and omelets were available and a huge selection of freshly baked breads and pastries were displayed beautifully (and tasted delicious). Make your own Mimosas were available with complimentary sparkling wine. Lunch is usually served buffet style with a nice selection for the salad bar and a couple of hot entrees to select from. Cut to order meat (beef, turkey, pork) was also available. However, on the third day of our cruise it was reported that a few guests had become ill, so as a precaution we went to table/waiter service for lunch every day. This was a very nice treat and the crew of the AmaDolce handled the change very well. We were given menus to select from including appetizers, salads and entrees for lunch – very similar to dinner.
The dining room is set up for open seating, but we found most people gravitated to the same place/section each night. This was a bit different from our previous river cruises where people sought out new tablemates to eat with at every meal. It could be due to the fact that there were two large groups of about 30 people each, so they tended to stick together. We found a waiter, Peter from Bulgaria, who we clicked with from the start. We tried to sit in his section most meals; he was efficient and friendly and genuinely a nice guy.
Dinner meal selections were good with a meat, fish and vegetarian choice available every night. We had our choice of appetizers and salads and desserts with every meal. A couple of meals had a set pre-appetizer, but overall it was up to us to make our selections. There was an always available section including a steak, salmon and chicken entrée just in case one of the featured items did not appeal to us. Presentations and food quality were above average to excellent in most cases. Some of the fish dishes didn’t impress, but the meats were always delicious! We appreciated that they featured “local” regional dishes on the menu as well. Frequently, after the main course was served, the waiters would bring out additional vegetables and serve them to you if you’d like.
To complete your dinner experience AMA serves free-flowing complimentary regional wines with a different red and white available each night. Our wine server Nadia was sure to keep our glassed filled at all times. The red wines won out this week, but all of them were very nice wines.
Entertainment/Onboard Activities: AMA offered a few lectures/informational sessions on the region including one about how the European Union came about. In addition, they brought on some regional entertainment including La Strada (chamber music), Hungarian Folklore performers, and singer Valerie May who performs her act in many different languages. What makes this so unique over ocean cruising is that the entertainment is literally right there with you, not up on stage and you’re in the balcony squinting to see what’s going on. Everything is so personal – they are there just for you!
Excursions: All ports offered an excursion of some kind. Many were walking tours with local guides, some combined bus tours with walking tours – all included a visit to a Christmas market. AMA offered only three optional tours: an all day tour to Salzburg (from Passau, rejoining the ship in Linz), a Strauss and Mozart concert in Vienna, and a visit to Schonbrunn palace (which didn’t have enough interest, so had to be cancelled). The walking tours are led by local guides, who were very good and some were excellent. Upon returning from each excursion you were greeted at the ship with warm towels and hot drinks.
AMA includes audio systems where you get your personal earpiece for the week and the tour guides broadcast through their microphone. Most river cruise companies are doing this now, but it’s worth a mention. It is very nice to not have to stand in a small cluster to hear the stories and history of the buildings and the area. You can actually stop to take a picture or look in a window or watch the people around you, without having to worry about losing the group.
One impressive note on tours: According to Elke, our Cruise Manager, this was only the second cruise where they included an extension on the walking tour in Regensburg to the Thorn und Taxis Palace for the wonderful Christmas market there (our personal favorite!). Elke stood at the gates and paid in cash the admission fee of those who made the extra walk with the guides. The return walk to the ship was about 30 minutes; based on the previous week’s feedback Elke got permission to pay for taxi cabs back to the ship for those that needed it. It was a rainy day, and many took her up on that offer. We enjoyed the walk back as the rain let up right when we were leaving the market. This says a lot about how AMA responds to guest comments. Kudos, to Team AMA!
Service: Overall exceptional service! From Tonya and Angela at the front desk who knew our cabin numbers and who we were traveling with from day one to the bar team of Victor, Daniel and Nadia to the sailors who help with luggage and tie up the boat when docking. They seemed to be a very happy and cohesive team. Our cruise manager Elke was out of this world. Her passion and commitment to everyone’s happiness was ever-present. Her workload was added to with the on-board adjustments due to a few guests’ illnesses. Elke was personally going into town, filling prescriptions and bringing doctors on board in the ports, all while dealing with a 30-person Japanese group who needed everything translated including the newly adapted lunch menus. She worked tirelessly on making this cruise perfect for all.
Itinerary: Christmas Markets – Nurnberg to Budapest. Ports included Regensberg where we visited the Thorn and Taxis Palace Romantic Christmas Market, Passau, Melk to visit the Abbey, Linz to pick up the passengers who elected to the take the all-day excursion to Salzburg, Vienna (where we attended a Mozart/Strauss concert in a palace!), and ending in Budapest including a nighttime illuminations cruise past all the amazing buildings lit up at night while listening to the Blue Danube over the speakers and enjoying a complimentary shot of Peach schnapps. The markets are all beautiful, but at night they become spectacular. Gluhwein (hot mulled wine) is plentiful and tasty, gingerbread, sausages and other delights tease you at every stand. It’s hard not to be in the Christmas spirit when you visit these magical places. One of our highlights, and a main reason we like river cruising, is when we sailed from Passau to Linz along the Wachau Valley past the charming towns like Durnstein (which is visited on many Danube itineraries).
Summary: This was our 3rdriver cruise and our 45th cruise overall but our 1st cruise on AMA. AMA offers an exceptional product that we were extremely satisfied with. We found many of our fellow guests to be first time river cruisers and only three people had been on an AMA cruise previously (besides the group leader and staff with one of the groups). The Christmas Time Market cruise is a good choice to get people interested in river cruising, and they will want to go back and see these cities in the summer when it’s warm!
Norwegian Pearl ~ November 2011
Norwegian Pearl ~ 11/27-12/4/2011
Embarkation – When we arrived at the Port of Miami about 12:10pm we saw several different check-in lines – Latitudes, Casino at Sea, Regular Check-in, etc. As we were ready to head to the Latitudes line the check-in clerk said, “It doesn’t matter, they’re all the same,” which we found to be strange since it was still so early in the check-in process. The lines were very long and slow-moving. Once we made it to the “staging” area, the guys working there were not very organized and we waited an additional 20 minutes to get on the ship. Overall the process was close to 70 minutes.
General Ship Appearance – Norwegian Pearl is in great shape! The public areas still look fresh and clean. We noticed a little wear and tear on the chairs in the Summer Palace dining room, but they are too big for the room/tables, so it’s no surprise that they get beat up. The showroom on the Pearl offers great visibility from nearly any seat – no big pillars to block the view, excellent stadium seating. One side note: we had some big ocean waves during this sailing, but the ship remained very stable.
Pool Area – They had some of the most comfortable deck chairs and there were plenty of them. You could check out extra towels by the pool which was convenient. During the day they kept the music light and happy and not too loud. David played the steel drums most days by the pool which was nice. It seemed that you could always find a deck chair somewhere, even on sea days.
Overall Crew/Service – Extremely friendly crew!! Always saying “Hello” with a smile. The officers were very visible on this ship – more so than most cruises/ships. The Executive Chef was present at most functions and mingled with guests in the dining rooms. The Cruise Director, Julie, was in the buffet every morning greeting people and answering their questions.
Cabin – We had ocean view cabin #5058 located midship between the front and middle elevator cores, which was very convenient. This particular cabin is configured to be a quad occupancy cabin. There was one upper bunk and one trundle bed under the regular bed that could be pulled out. With the two lower beds configured as one queen, it was difficult to get in and out of bed. On one side, there was only a six inch gap between the edge of the bed and the edge of the desk. On the other side, the upper bunk stuck out of the wall about eight inches leaving only about six inches of clearance between the bed and the upper bunk. Luckily, I only banged my shoulder once before learning the proper technique for getting out of bed. There was plenty of storage with six large drawers, plenty of shelves, medium sized closet and a safe large enough to hold a laptop. Bathrooms had separate doors for the shower and the toilet areas. Showers had strong water pressure and were roomy. Towels were thick and plush, but not very soft. Beds were reasonably comfortable with duvets and oversize decorative pillows in addition to the regular pillows. The balcony cabins are definitely more spacious with a separate loveseat sitting area, but had fewer drawers and less shelf storage.
Included Dining – We enjoyed several meals in Indigo and a few in Summer Palace, the main dining rooms. The food quality was above average which was a pleasant surprise for us. The buffet was our choice for breakfast and lunch most days. The breakfast items did not change, but the made-to-order omelets were available in many stations throughout the buffet so there was never much of a wait. The remaining choices were the standards. Lunch items included made to order pastas and burger stations offering veggie and turkey burgers upon request. Fruit and salad options were plentiful but the items didn’t have much variety from day to day. That being said, there were plenty of choices available so as not to duplicate if you chose not to. Buffet food quality was very good. Servers were quick to clean tables and they provided assistance at the beverage stations. For a very special feature, on the last day they offered an Austrian/Bavarian lunch buffet on the back buffet (the Executive Chef is from Bavaria) where they served spaetzle, schnitzel, and few kinds of wursts in addition to several regional specialty dishes. It was a real treat!
Specialty Dining – We only went to Mambo’s ($10pp) and La Cucina ($10pp) for specialty dining. Mambo’s food quality was excellent and the surcharge included a complimentary (but small) margarita. We really enjoyed the Il Popo which was a plate of grilled meats and veggies. La Cucina was a bit of a disappointment. We had fond memories from the same restaurant aboard Norwegian Epic, but this experience did not live up to those. We received the wrong salads and the tomato/mozzarella/basil salad was served without the balsamic drizzle. We saw other salads going out correctly to specifications, but not ours. The entrees were very tasty, but the entire meal was lacking in some way and after dinner coffee was ordered but never served. Overall, the specialty dining options had plenty of availability every night. In addition to the regular options, they offered an Indian Food Buffet in Mambo’s on the last sea day ($15pp). It smelled delicious but they also featured Indian dishes on the regular buffet every day. We didn’t see the value, and we enjoyed the Bavarian/Austrian food instead (with no cover charge).
Entertainment – Lots of choices for entertainment. The first production show, “That’s Entertainment,” was nothing to write home about, but the specialty acts of “Oh What a Night” (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons tribute group) and Sharkbait (comedy, juggling) were very entertaining. The Second City troupe seemed a little “off” during their first night and they used many of the same sketches that we’ve seen on previous Norwegian cruises but with much less laughter from the crowd. Throughout the ship the entertainers were “fine” – nothing “wow” about Tino the one man show or the others. Roots Link (reggae band) and David (steel drums) were both good when they were playing.
Activities – Plenty of things to choose from if you wanted to participate! Lots of trivia, dance lessons, Botox seminars and shopping and port info. They no longer give out silly prizes for the games on this ship. Instead you get a card where you have to earn points for participation. You then redeem the points for various Norwegian logo items at the end of the cruise.
In Summary - This was our forth Norwegian cruise on four different ships in the last two years and, overall, we believe that Norwegian is showing improvement in all areas – especially in food and beverage quality and selections. The crew seemed genuinely happy to be serving guests and the Officers were very involved in the daily events. While the cabin was a bit small to our liking, we survived just fine and could recommend it for two or maybe three guests, but four would be pretty cramped unless there were small children. But where else can you see an alligator carrying a mouse in its jaws? We can confidently recommend the Norwegian Pearl and her crew due to this very solid overall performance.
Norwegian's Pride of America to the Hawaiian Islands
We sailed aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America departing 6/25/2011 roundtrip from Honolulu to the Hawaiian Islands. This was our 42nd cruise and our 9th trip to Hawaii but it was our first Hawaiian cruise.
We were lucky enough to be aboard Pride of America for a one-night pre-inaugural sailing in June of 2005 and, thanks regular maintenance, the ship still looks brand new.
Definitely a fantastic way to enjoy these islands! The port times are long enough to get a feel for each of the ports. We utilized a combination of ship tours, third party excursions and rented a car in Hilo and on Kauai. The ship's excursions seemed expensive, but they offered some unique options. We did a tour with Roberts Hawaii on Maui that was priced less than Shore Excursion Group which was even less expensive than the same tour with Norwegian. It pays to shop around. If you are comfortable striking out on your own and like to do your homework before sailing, renting a car is a great, affordable option. HOWEVER - the overnight parking on Maui was complimentary and right in the port. On Kauai, they had you park at a nearby shopping mall for $20, then either walk or shuttle back to the ship. We found "public" parking closer to the pier and avoided the "extortion fee". They don't tell you about that option.
Excellent condition. The carpets throughout the public areas of the ship were replaced recently without going into dry dock. According to a crew member, they did the work throughout the late nights and early mornings when in port. Very minor wear and tear in a few spots, but overall for a six year old ship, she has held up very well. There was PLENTY of deck space. There are areas of the ship on decks 13, 14, and 15 with literally hundreds of chairs to be had! I think most people didn't even know they were there! There’s an amazing conference room and breakout meeting rooms that didn’t seem to get any use at all. It's a great cruise for those who need to stay "connected". Being so close to shore and in U.S. ports for so many hours using the smart phones, iPads, computers with aircards makes it extremely easy (and affordable if you avoid those internet and cell roaming fees!) to keep doing business.
Balcony stateroom 10648 (category BC). Comfortable for two adults with plenty of storage. The cabin could comfortably accommodate a third passenger if a child; adult would get a bit cramped. Storage included two large drawers under the fridge, several shelves both in and out of the closet, two additional smaller drawers by the closet, and even a three shelf corner storage unit behind the bathroom mirror. Coffee maker and complimentary coffee packets refilled daily. Perfect for those early morning sunrises on your balcony. Bed was comfortable with the new duvet style bedding. Décor is pleasant island colors and art. Bathroom is the typical cruise cabin with a small shower with a curtain. Safe is in the cubby above the TV. There is a small desk with two plugs that was convenient for recharging. A hidden gem is the additional two outlets behind the coffee maker and two more behind the TV. The location of this cabin was excellent in our opinion! Close to the rear elevators, one floor below the buffet and Little Italy, on the preferred side of the ship (more often than not) for sunrises, Napali Coast viewing, etc.
Extremely friendly team members. It's funny to hear the typical jabber among young workers about the last party, whose shift they are covering, how she hurt her finger last night. It makes you wonder if you are actually hearing the same stories from the international crews, but you just don't understand them. There was definitely more camaraderie among employees and more joking around, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - just an observation.
One minor thing is that they tend to concentrate on each other instead of immediately ceasing conversation and addressing a guest. They tend to finish their thought before they greet the guests.
Minor Service Issues:
· Luggage Delivery - We checked three bags and two of them were delivered to our room along with a piece of luggage that belonged to someone else. When bringing that bag to the proper room down the hall, we found our third bag in front of yet a different room.
· VERY Slow cabin service. We must have been at the end of his line of rooms because we could be gone for three hours and our cabin was left untouched. They work very specific hours (8am-noon and 6pm-9pm), so it's not like the typical cabin cleaning ninjas on other ships where you leave for 20 minutes and POOF your cabin is ready to go. He seems to go from one end to the other regardless of when people are in the room. Also, there is little in the way of "turn down" service. Our towel animals arrive in the "morning" room cleaning, so the night time is more a refresher - clean towels and straightening of the bed if needed. Our beach towels weren't refreshed nightly, so we didn't have them to go into the ports as needed. It became a running joke to see if the room would get made after we'd been gone for over three hours - it usually wasn't. When it was cleaned, it was cleaned well. However, we did have to leave a note to refill the shower gel. Our steward was EXTREMELY friendly though, and he made cute towel animals.
Very Good to Excellent in all outlets. Food quality was surprisingly above expectations. No complaints on the items in the Liberty Dining Room. There were plenty of items to choose from. The buffet offers many varieties of food to choose from including some curry dishes for those who like it with a little spice. Omelets at breakfast; pizza, made to order pastas, and the traditional sandwich and salad offerings for lunch. Dinner buffet offered selections from the main dining rooms and even some featured items from the specialty restaurants.
It seemed the main dining rooms were there to push people through and seat the next group. No lingering and chatting. They even offered to take our dessert order at the time of initial order. The service was fast and friendly, but the timing was very quick - our first meal in Liberty was 45 minutes from being seated to out the door.
The Cadillac Diner served comfort food very similar to that served in the O'Sheehan's pub on the Norwegian Epic. The food in the Cadillac diner was prepared MUCH better than the Epic's Pub.
The Key West Grill offered regular and turkey burgers, grilled chicken and hot dogs and other sausages along with some basic side dishes.
The Aloha Café (aka buffet) had several choices each day. We enjoyed all of our onboard breakfasts and lunches here and found enough variety. Food tasted GOOD, too! Breakfast buffet had the same items every day, but there seems to be much more variety than on Royal Caribbean ships and the biscuits and gravy are better than we've had on most ships! At lunch watch for the Pretzel Rolls - YUM! Everything tastes better on a pretzel roll!
We enjoyed a nice steak in the Lazy J (aka Cagney's) steak house. The Truffle Oil/parmesan fries are a don't-miss. Take advantage of the first night $15 price tag at Lazy J. Jefferson's Bistro offers a $15 first night service charge, but the menu is a "taste of all" buffet - not the regular Le Bistro menu.
We enjoyed our dinner so much in Little Italy ($10pp), we decided to go again. Unfortunately, the consistency wasn't there. The first night the Cucina salad was so delicious, we both ordered it again the second night unfortunately the presentation was noticeably different with more arugula and no fresh grated cheese night number two. The pepperoni pizza that was "to die for" night number one, was missing ingredients and came out overcooked. When it was remade, it still came out without the roasted red peppers and it was again a little black and crispy on the edges. The Chicken Parmesan and Cheese Tortellini were excellent! Service was friendly and helpful both nights.
In general, we noticed several dining time openings in the specialty restaurants on most nights, unlike other ships where the specialty restaurants are filled immediately. The only restaurant that was pre-reserved was Teppanyaki, so make those reservations early if you are interested in that.
We have recommended this product to many friends with the typical disclaimers about the difference in crew and service on board. At this time, we can wholeheartedly recommend Pride of America as a great vacation choice for families, couples and business groups!
VIEWS WHEN IN PORT:
Oahu Pier - port side view of docks
Sailing to Maui - sunrise on port side
Maui Pier - industrial docks on both sides view of island/mountains on starboard side, view of ocean on port side
Sailing to Hilo - Sunrise on port side
Hilo Pier - cargo pier, but views of island are better from starboard. Sailing away, port side is better for sunset. No lava viewing on this cruise because volcano is not spewing into the ocean at this time - hasn't for the last five months.
Kona - tender in, but sunrise was very visible from port side once again. If using an aircard for internet, signal is intermittent when on the ocean side of the ship.
Nawiliwili (Kauai) - shore side view is on starboard, but ship still docks at a container port
NAPALI COAST - port side gets the first look and the narration. The ship does turn around and go back the other way, but it's nice to be first!
Avalon Tapestry ~ A Taste of the Danube
We recently returned from Avalon Waterways “A Taste of the Danube” four-night river cruise aboard the Avalon Tapestry visiting Hungary, Slovakia and Austria. Passengers booking this short voyage are encouraged to add a pre-cruise stay in Budapest and a post-cruise stay in Vienna. This was our thirty-seventh cruise but our first ever river cruise.
Our flight to Europe was in the midst of the disruptions caused by the volcanic ash cloud – making the flight from Orlando to Frankfurt over ten hours long. Once we landed there were no outbound flights at all, so we had to find another way to get to Hungary. The train ride across Germany was comfortable and the scenery was beautiful. We enjoyed a few hours exploring Dresden, Germany, and had a great meal at Borowski. The overnight train to Budapest wasn’t nearly as nice as the previous leg; the train seemed old and rickety but we managed to get some uncomfortable sleep during the long ride. All part of the adventure!
Budapest, Hungary We checked in to our hotel at 9:00am (desperately needing to shower and change after over thirty-four hours of traveling) giving us about six hours in Budapest instead of our planned upon full day plus. We walked across the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and took the funicular up Castle Hill where we explored the grounds of the Royal Palace and wandered through the neighborhoods of the Castle District. After checking out Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion we had a wonderful lunch of authentic Hungarian food at Onkiszolgalo Vendeglo – a cafeteria-style local’s restaurant where everyone was friendly and helpful despite our language barrier. That afternoon we returned to the hotel and met our Cruise Director Andrzej, who took care of our luggage and directed us to a brand new deluxe motorcoach for the short ride to the Avalon Tapestry. Apparently others had even more trouble with their flights than we did – there were only nineteen passengers on this cruise (and two of them had been stranded there from the previous voyage)! The Ship The Avalon Tapestry was built in 2006 with a Silent Drive System ship design – in order to reduce vibration and noise level, the engine and all associated parts have been separated from the cabins. Essentially the engine and bridge are on a separate “boat” that pushes the “barge” with all of the passenger areas. Indeed, we never heard or felt the engines – more than once we were surprised to notice that the ship was moving. She carries 164 passengers in 80 staterooms (172 square feet each) and 2 junior suites (258 square feet each) with 43 crew members. There are seven staterooms on the lowest deck that each have two large round portholes. All of the other cabins feature floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and French balconies. We were amazed by the amount of storage in the room and the bed was comfortable. One little feature that we really liked: the bathroom door opened inwards! It was really nice to be in front of the closets and not have to worry about getting hit with the bathroom door when it opened. Public spaces were limited but were all designed around the most important aspect of the voyage – unobstructed views of the scenery all around. The top deck is completely open and features plenty of comfortable seating. Below that, at the front of the ship, is the lounge with a bar and dance floor surrounded on three sides with floor-to-ceiling windows. Below the lounge is the restaurant, also surrounded by windows.
Other public areas included a small library, a basic fitness center (with a nice shower) and an internet lounge with two computers and a printer. The internet was reasonably priced for unlimited access (now it’s included at no charge) and the ship-wide WiFi made updating the folks back home with our iPhone a lot of fun!
Food & Drink Hot coffee and tea, iced tea and water and a bowl of fresh fruit were always available. Breakfast was buffet style with eggs and omelets cooked to order and one item (like French toast) that changed daily available to order from the kitchen. Selections were varied and Champagne and mimosas were included. There were limited selections for early or late risers in the lounge before and after the scheduled buffet hours. A room service breakfast was also available via the traditional door-hanger card that you could fill out the night before. Lunch was also buffet style and included hand carved meats and fresh made pastas. This was an opportunity to try some local style dishes that we normally wouldn’t – boiled beef in horseradish sauce is surprisingly tasty! On both the breakfast and lunch buffets we especially loved the cold cuts and cheeses – they all seemed to have a lot more flavor than what we’re used to. During the late afternoon and early evening most passengers congregated in the lounge. Instead of the usual happy hour bowls of pretzels, each table was set with a small platter of cheese and olives – very nice! Dinner was open seating but at a scheduled time. Included with dinner was unlimited wine, beer or soda, and the wine selections, both red and white, changed each night. You always ordered your choice of main course – fish or meat or vegetarian. Some nights you got to order your choice each of appetizer, soup and dessert but on other nights these were a fixed menu. A short time after serving the main course, the waiters would circulate with huge platters of the various entrées and side dishes so you could get more of what you liked or try something that you hadn’t ordered. The food was always delicious and fresh ingredients were delivered to the ship daily. The service was unhurried but efficient. We’re told that there were also late night snacks in the lounge but somehow we never made it to those. The Staff From the Captain who wore giant wooden shoes from his native Holland to the dishwasher who could have been a professional improv comedian, without exception the crew was friendly, energetic and fun. Many crew members already knew our names and cabin number before we ever met them and they seemed genuinely happy to just chat. Most impressive though was how well they worked together. The crew was so small that everyone had to pitch in for many of the duties; the executive chef and ship’s musician were both seen loading luggage, and we were told that everyone has to help off-load trash by hand! Entertainment While cruising during the day, our Cruise Director would routinely provide a running commentary of the sights as we passed them interspersed with stories and detailed answers to whatever questions anyone came up with. Evening entertainment was provided by Zarko, the ship’s musician. He was quite talented and mostly played piano, but he also sang and played several other instruments resulting in a nice variety of music. Before the ship set sail in the afternoons, local talent was sometimes brought aboard for an hour or so. One was a group of professional dancers who put on a waltz performance and then offered to teach whoever was interested. The other was violinist Giorgio Benedetti who performed unique, energetic interpretations of classical and contemporary songs. By far though, the entertainment highlight was the Crew Show on the last night. This was just what it sounds like – members of the crew putting on silly little skits in a talent show format. There was not a professional entertainer in the group (we saw them loading up on liquid courage before the show) but it was great fun seeing the crew get a chance to relax, goof around and wear their own clothes instead of uniforms. The crew seemed to sincerely be having fun and it was infectious. Bratislava, Slovakia This was the first of several included shore excursions for the cruise. All passengers were issued wireless receivers before each tour that went with the personal earpieces that were provided in your stateroom. The tour guide would speak into a microphone and you could hear everything without being right next to the guide. We loved this feature! It made the tours much more comfortable and let you wander around, sight-see and take pictures without missing a thing. All tours were conducted by local guides and they really went out of their way to make sure that you were walking downhill as much as possible. We had a nice bus tour of Bratislava including a stop at the Mirbach Palace followed by a walking tour of the Old City. The Baroque and Rococo architecture was lovely and stops included a quaint little marzipan shop/museum and the Gothic Cathedral of St. Martin. Durnstein, Austria Durnstein is a picturesque little fairy tale village which maintains its charm largely because the main road runs through a tunnel under the hill the town is built on, leaving very little traffic in the town itself. Our included tour took us through cobblestone streets and past the Baroque tower of Stiftskirche with its striking blue façade. There were numerous little shops, each one cuter than the last, selling apricot based products from schnapps and liquors to jams and mustard. On the hill high above the town are the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was imprisoned in 1192. If you’re up to the climb, the view from the ruins is simply breathtaking! Melk, Austria Our included tour of Stift Melk, the magnificent Benedictine Abby above the town, was wonderful. We started in rooms filled with artifacts and paintings, moved through the Marble Hall with its beautiful ceiling fresco and the library with its secret panels to culminate in the amazingly ornate Monastery Church. Unfortunately there wasn’t really any time to explore on your own at this stop. Linz, Austria An optional excursion was offered for purchase here where you got to make your own Linzer Tort and went on a sightseeing tour while it baked. We opted to explore on our own. As Austria’s third largest city, Linz is filled with all of the requisite big chain stores and restaurants. Nonetheless, we managed to find a few little local shops and browsed through a fascinating flea market set up in the Hauptplatz. Grein, Austria Our included walking tour of the town featured stops at the Parish Church and the amazing Stadttheater, Grein’s historic municipal theater. Built as a granary in 1563 and transformed into a theater in 1791 it has been in operation ever since. After the tour we had time to stroll along the cobblestone streets and relax beside the river before returning to the ship. Vienna, Austria After disembarking the ship we took the provided deluxe motorcoach to the cruise line’s post-cruise hotel but we then parted ways as we had made our arrangements independently. We quickly checked our luggage and purchased a 24-hour pass to the subway system. We found the public transportation in Vienna clean, well-signed and easy to navigate. Our first stop was Schoenbrunn Palace where we only had a few hours but could have easily spent a day or two exploring. We opted for the 40 room Grand Tour that included a pre-recorded audio guide (in your choice of twelve languages) and individual playback devices so that you could proceed at your own pace. The lavish opulence of these rooms must simply be seen to be believed! We then spent time exploring the grounds including the Maze, Gloriette (where we stopped for a quick snack) and Privy Garden. Overall a wonderful albeit too brief experience. That afternoon we checked into the Hotel Capricorno Wien, which proved to be a nice little hotel in a great location with free WiFi and an included breakfast buffet. We set out to find a place for dinner and, as always, we gravitate towards places that are less touristy and more for locals. A single sign over a doorway directed us down a dark, hundred-yard-long hallway to a wonderful little restaurant nestled in the courtyard between several tall buildings. Hinterholz was decorated like an old farmhouse and we were served huge orders of hearty, authentic Austrian food by a friendly staff. After eating we wandered around a little bit and walked out of an ally right into the Stephansdom, arguably Austria’s most magnificent Gothic cathedral. That evening we took the subway to Kursalon Wien and attended a Strauss & Mozart Concert in the very hall where Johann Strauss himself used to direct his orchestra. In addition to the instrumental numbers, some of the songs included opera vocalists or ballet dancers. In Closing Our fellow passengers (all seventeen of them) were all from English-speaking countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA – and we had time to chat with all of them. We were surprised to learn that none of them were big ship cruisers. A couple of them had done one cruise but most of them had traveled previously with land tours like Avalon Waterways’ parent company Globus. Without exception, they all loved the river cruise experience – and so did we. While we certainly won’t be giving up our big ship cruises, we’re now hooked on river cruising as well and can’t wait for the next one!
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