I have taken over 50 cruises during the past 18 years. The shortest was 3 days (my first), and the longest was 26 days. Most were chosen for the itenerary, but some for the ship. Some ships I have cruised on more than once, and I have visited many cruise ports more than once (especially in the Caribbean). I created this blog to share my impressions of various ships and ports of call. I hope people find the information useful!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Celebrity Eclipse

The Celebrity Eclipse is a large ship which accommodates 2850 passengers.  It joined the Celebrity fleet in 2010, and is a sister ship to the Celebrity Solstice.  Our cruise was 14 days long, beginning on November 30, 2013, and ports of call included Aruba, Curacao, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua, Barbados, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten.

We had a balcony cabin, which was very small and had inadequate room for storage.  The twin beds seemed to occupy most of the cabin, which also had a large flat-screen Samsung television.  Among other features, we liked the Oceanview Cafe on the lido deck.  It was an open buffet venue designed with a number of islands, each presenting a different type of food.  We always had breakfast and lunch in the Oceanview.

We chose early fixed seating dining for dinner in the Moonlight Sonata Restaurant, but service was very slow and after the third night we always ate dinner in an open-seating arrangement in the upper level of the dining room.  The food was excellent, which seems to be a consistent feature of Celebrity cruise ships.

Some of the bars featured "social hour" from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., with reduced price on beverages.  In fact, a glass of wine that usually cost $7.50 was available for $4.00 during these times.

The ship did not have a lounge featuring ballroom dancing.  Instead different combos played music, only some of which was danceable, for various 45-minute peroids beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Grand Foyer.  There was not much room to dance, and we only danced on one occasion.  We always had dinner at 5:45 p.m., so there was only 15 minutes of dancing before then, and after dinner we usually had eaten too much to feel comfortable dancing.

Three musical production shows were featured in the ship's auditorium during the cruise.  Otherwise the evening performances included the typical assortment of magicians, acrobats, comedians, etc.

We had been to all the ports of call several times before, but we did disembark at each one.  We took no shore excursions, but did shop pierside and sometimes walked to the downtown area to shop there.  Mostly we bought small gifts to take to friends back home, but on St. Maarten we bought a diamond pendant in which the stones had exceptional clarity and color.

The weather was excellent during the entire cruise, with calm seas and no rain except for some that fell occasionally, and very lightly, on only one day.

Smoking in staterooms or on balconies is not allowed on the Eclipse, and electronic cigarettes are likewise banned there.  Only a few areas on the entire ship are set aside for smoking.  Sometimes these areas were very crowded, as there seemed to be a number of smokers on thise cruise.

We had not cruised on a Celebrity ship for three years, and although Celebrity advertises itself as a premium cruise line, we found that since our last cruise many additional small charges for specifics had been added.  For example, freshly squeezed orange juice at breakfast had been available at no extra charge on our last Celebrity cruise, but on the Eclipse there was a charge of $3.00 for a glass.  

Overall we were disappointed with this cruise, and do not plan to take another Celebrity cruise in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Celebrity Solstice

The Celebrity Solstice, a large ship which accommodates almost 3000 passengers, first entered service in November 2008. It was operating at capacity on our recent 7-day cruise to the Western Caribbean.

As is typical on Celebrity ships, we were greeted with a glass of champagne as we boarded. Our first real surprise onboard was the lifeboat drill. Passengers were not required to bring their life jackets to the drill! This is a first, in our experience.

We had a balcony cabin, which was spacious but with minimal room for storage. It featured a king-sized bed and a large flat-screen Samsung television. The ship generally is well appointed, with many attractive attributes. We especially liked the Oceanview Cafe on the lido deck. It was an open buffet venue designed with a number of islands, each presenting a different type of food. Some were unusual; for example, there was a curry bar. Also there was an ice cream bar from which a variety of flavors were served, and it was open from noon until late at night. We always had breakfast and lunch in the Oceanview.

We chose early fixed seating dining for dinner in the Grand Epernay Restaurant, and had a table for two beside a window. The food was generally good, but the fish tended to be undercooked (I thought). In fact, I had a stomach ache throughout one night after having eaten some undercooked sea bass. Although we heard no rumors of Norwalk virus on board, we did hear other passengers complain of stomach upsets.

One unusual offering on board was in a room called Cellar Masters. Here there were wine dispensers, and one could swipe one's cabin keycard and by pressing a button receive 1, 3.5, or 5 ounces of any of a number of premium wines in a glass held under a spigot. The prices varied from about $1.50 to $20.00 per ounce. This allowed one to sample upscale wines that one might otherwise not try, and although we didn't take advantage of this we think it is a novel and clever idea.

The ship did not have a ballroom dance band or a lounge featuring ballroom dancing. Instead a DJ played ballroom dance music from 5:00 - 6:00 p.m. in the Grand Foyer. There was not much room to dance there, however, especially on formal evenings when the photography crew would take family photographs in that same area. We were disappointed.

We had been to all the ports of call several times before, and in fact we did not even disembark on Grand Cayman. The ship did not dock at the downtown pier in Cozumel, but instead docked at a pier about three miles away. However, there were a number of shops pierside there, and they sold mostly the same type of souvenirs and trinkets that can be found at any port in Mexico. The same was true at Costa Maya, although because that port is remote the prices were more expensive. In fact, a diet coke cost $2.50 pierside, and change for $3.00 was given in pesos so 50 cents could be added to the cost. The vendors claimed not to have change in U.S. coins.

Tropical storm Alex was catching up to the ship in Roatan, Honduras, yet we and most other passengers disembarked there to browse the shops along the pier. The weather was not windy, but drizzle fell sporadically throughout the day.

Smoking in staterooms or on balconies is not allowed on the Solstice. There are only five small areas on the entire ship set aside for smoking. Some of these had comfortable seating and we noticed nonsmokers sometimes hiding the ashtrays in these areas so they could sit without being exposed to smoke. Of course, the same comfortable seating was available in many nonsmoking areas, but some people seemed unwilling to walk a few extra steps to enjoy those nonsmoking environments.

Because it is summertime, there were many children on board the Solstice, and bawling, brawling, and general whining often could be heard coming from the youngsters.

We had not cruised on a Celebrity ship for seven years, and although Celebrity advertises itself as a premium cruise line, we didn't find it to be any better than mainstream lines such as Princess. We believe that Holland America would be a better choice for a premium cruise experience.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Island Princess

On October 1, 2009, we embarked on a 10-day cruise to the Panama Canal area aboard the Island Princess. The ship was launched in 2003 and its capacity is 1970 passengers.

We had an outside cabin near the center of the ship, but the cabin seemed cramped to us, and storage space was minimal. The sheets on each of our twin beds contained some small holes or tears. The cabin steward was not very attentive; often we would put the "Make Up Room" sign on the door only to return hours later to find that the cabin still hadn't received any attention.

The main show lounge is the Princess Theater in the bow of the ship, but the Universe Lounge is in the rear and has a balcony. The numerous balcony supports and railings in the latter made it difficult to see the stage from many of the seats. There were three musical production shows in the Princess Theater, but two of those were each repeated on a different night. We saw a talented ventriloquist there also. In the Universe Lounge we saw a performance by Adrian Zmed, who starred in a number of Broadway productions of Grease and also co-starred with William Shatner in the TV show, T.J. Hooker. Zmed sang a number of older tunes, accompanied by the Island Princess singers and dancers. Two different comedians performed their routines, each of which was repeated on a different night, but we didn't attend any of these shows.

The Wheelhouse Lounge was the primary dance venue, and featured the Rosie Quartet, composed of a pianist, a drummer, and a bass guitar player as well as Rosie, who sang but played no instrument except the tambourine. Their music was danceable but they spent a great deal of time clowning around and trying to be funny, although usually they failed. Also the pianist tended to speed the music up in the middle of a number, dragging the drummer and bass guitar player along. Sometimes a rumba rhythm would change to a swing rhythm and back again to a rumba, which we dancers did not appreciate. The music did not begin until 7:30 p.m. (there was no pre-dinner dance music), and the group played for only 30 minutes and then took an hour break for dinner, which we found strange. We only danced during the initial 30-minute "cocktail set", as they called it, and did not return after the long break. We were glad that there were no children on the dance floor, although one did appear the last night of the cruise. However, one evening while stepping back I managed to step on a woman whose partner apparently did not know dance etiquette and thus they were moving against the line of dance. The woman made a big to-do about being stepped on, and the couple did not appear on any subsequent evening.

Poolside music was provided by a group called Constellation. The instrumental portion of their music was fairly good, and even included a steel drum on some selections, but none of the group could sing well. The female lead singer was especially loud and usually off key. The Island Princess features Anytime Dining, as well as the traditional fixed seating. We opted for the former, yet on the second evening found a table for two by a window, and reserved it for the remainder of the cruise when the restaurant (the Bordeaux) opened at 5:30 p.m. The food was decent, but some of the entrees were repeated. Only one soup and one salad were available on any given evening (except for the always-available Caesar salad), so there was no "choice". The desserts were passable but not remarkable. However, we liked our waiter and assistant waiter very much; the waiter tended to bring us an extra dessert or entree just for us to "try", even though we hadn't ordered it! We ate breakfast and lunch on the Lido Deck buffet, and food there was generally good for a buffet. Our cabin was on Deck 5 and we always walked the stairs to the Lido on Deck 14, giving us needed exercise to keep from gaining weight. We also walked a mile around the Promenade deck every day that we were not in port.

The weather was perfect during the entire cruise, with sunny skies, no rain, calm water, and not even a rumor of rhinovirus or flu on the ship.

On the first day of the cruise, on our initial walk to our cabin, the veneer tread on the rear half of my left sneaker came loose and flopped as I walked. The only other pair of shoes I had brought were dance shoes, which are not suitable for everyday wear. We took the ailing sneaker to the front desk and asked if anything could be done, and were told to leave it and it would be given to the ship's upholsterer, who would glue the tread back into place. Within a couple of hours the shoe was delivered to our cabin, as good as new. In fact, these sneakers were almost new, and had hardly been worn before. I suppose the workmanship was shoddy. The quick attention of the cruise front desk staff prevented this cruise from becoming a disaster for me!

Our first port of call was Oranjestad, Aruba, and we arrived on Sunday. Many of the shops were not open at all that day, and about half of all the shops were closed permanently due to economic hardships from the recession. Probably the fairly recent Natalie Holloway disappearance did not help the tourist trade either, and we noticed that Carlos and Charlie's, the club where Natalie Holloway was last seen, is now SeƱor Frog's.

The next day we stopped in Cartagena, Colombia, and found a taxi driver who took us and three others (the cab was small, crowded, and not air conditioned) to Old Town for only five dollars each. We wandered around for a couple of hours, and then found another cab driver (actually, he found us) who took us back to the ship, again for five dollars each.

The next day we went into and out of the Panama Canal, and made a brief stop late in the afternoon at Colon, Panama. The following day we spent at Limon, Costa Rica. After a day at sea we stopped at Ocho Rios, Jamaica, our favorite port of the cruise. We had a drink at a pub called The Twisted Kilt, which had opened only two months before; the staff were very attentive, and the prices were quite reasonable. We had been to all these ports before.

A vision-impaired male passenger had a beautiful golden lab guide dog, and they and a female stopped in Crooner's Lounge on Deck 7 late every afternoon for a glass of wine. The dog received a lot of attention from everyone, and was extremely calm and friendly even after it was stepped on a time or two by careless passengers!

Smoking is no longer allowed anywhere on the ship except inside one's cabin, on the outer decks, and in a smoking lounge called Churchill's, which featured cigars and cognac. However, anyone who wanted to smoke could do so in this lounge.

The Captain's Cocktail Party has become a cocktail toast in the atrium, and the complementary drinks were limited to champagne that tasted like warm carbonated vinegar. A cocktail party for return passengers with a variety of complementary drinks was held in the Universal Lounge late in the cruise, and the Princess orchestra provided music. There was some limited space for dancing, which we and one other couple took advantage of.

As has increasingly been the case over the past couple of years, the cruise line is taking obvious measures to economize. Thus the cruise lacked elegance. Most of the passengers dressed well, however, and only a few people refused to dress appropriately for the two formal nights. We think we would enjoy a cruise on a luxury cruise line more, but Princess regularly offers reduced fares and generous onboard credit, which make their cruises difficult to pass up. Nevertheless, we hope to cruise aboard a luxury line sometime in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Crown Princess

On March 8, 2009, we departed from Fort Lauderdale, FL, on a 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Crown Princess. This is a sister ship to the Grand Princess, the Golden Princess, the Caribbean Princess, and some others in the Princess fleet, but it holds 500 more passengers than those ships do. The ship was full with around 3000 passengers.

We had a balcony cabin, and the balcony was about 10' X 12', which is larger than any balcony we have had on any other ship. On the balcony were four chairs and a large round table, and there still was plenty of room to walk around. The cabin steward kept our stateroom perfectly, and we really enjoyed our balcony!

The food on board was excellent, with a great variety and the preparation was almost perfect. We chose Anytime Dining for dinner, but this did not work out the way we had hoped. Although the advertisement is that one can dine with anyone at any time, in fact one is subjected to a kind of forced family-style dining, with many tables for 10. If one demands a table for two, one is often given a pager and must wait. Moreover, the tables for two actually are five tables for two in a row, and are treated as one big table for 10. In other words, service is extremely slow because every table is served the same course at the same time, and thus everyone must wait for the slowest diner to finish a course before being served the next one. On our first evening dinner lasted 2-1/2 hours, and the second evening it lasted 2 hours. We never were finished in less than 1-1/2 hours on any evening. The buffets on the Lido deck were quite good; we always ate breakfast there, and lunch also. We even had one or two evening meals there as a break from the slow service in the Anytime Dining venues (in fact, there are two Anytime Dining rooms, but the one on Deck 5 is less crowded than the one on Deck 6 because the lounges are on Deck 7, and apparently most passengers do not wish to go down an additional deck!).

The entertainment was mediocre. This is the first cruise we have ever taken upon which the same show was performed in the main show lounge on two consecutive nights (for purposes of economy, we assume). This happened with two musical production shows, and one involving a comedian. We attended one of the production shows, and it seemed to us that the dancers' maneuvers were not well synchronized. Further, the selection of tunes seemed to be a hodgepodge that did not fit together or make much sense.

On past Princess cruises we always could count on dance music both before and after dinner in the Wheelhouse Bar. However, on this cruise the dance combos that usually are in the Wheelhouse were replaced with a solo acoustic guitarist or a solo pianist, neither of whom played danceable music. The ship's calypso band played in the Wheelhouse after 9 p.m. on some evenings, but their music rarely was danceable. No-host recorded dance music was played in Club Fusion most evenings from 5:30 - 7:30 (the bar did not open until 7 p.m.), but whoever recorded the music did not do so with dancers in mind because there might be four cha-cha numbers in a row, then two pasa dobles, etc. We attended our first no-host Club Fusion dance on the second evening of the cruise, and only four couples were dancing. Moreover, on that evening after the fourth number the recorded music suddenly stopped, and there was no attendant present to start it again and so all four couples left. The next evening only one couple besides us showed up, and on subsequent evenings we always were the only couple present. On the last evening of the cruise the calypso band played in Club Fusion instead of recorded music, and they began at 6 p.m. However, they played almost everything much too fast for dancing. We think they were showing off their musical skills because they put jazz riffs into almost every song - which also is not conducive to dancing.

The Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party on the first formal evening was replaced by a Captain's toast in the atrium. However, two nights later a formal cocktail party for returning cruisers was held in Club Fusion, with some members of the ship's orchestra providing music. But a very large table holding flower sprays had been placed in the middle of the dance floor, making dancing difficult. We were able to get in one spot dance, and were the only couple to dance at that party.

Alcohol on board the ship was very expensive. A glass of house wine that tasted much the way varnish remover smells was almost $6. Better wine, and cocktails generally, were even more expensive.

The ports of call were Princess Cay, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Grand Turk. We had been to all of these before. It might be worth mentioning that, due to the downturn in the economy, there were some very good sales on jewelry in St. Thomas. Instead of docking at Havensight, though, we docked at Crown Pointe, where there are only a handful of shops. It is not possible to walk to the downtown area from Crown Pointe, yet it is an easy walk from Havensight. Nevertheless, Milano Jewelers in Crown Pointe had a going-out-of-business sale, with all jewelry priced at 80% off the regular full retail price. Consequently, we got a real bargain on a very nice diamond and fire opal bracelet. We assume that port charges are more at Havensight than they are at Crown Pointe, and that is why we docked at the latter.

It might be worth mentioning that Grand Turk is not yet well developed. There is a pier (thus tendering is not required), but the only real attraction on the island is Margaritaville. The shopping area is not large, and the island is British so prices are very high (the same scarf that costs $5 in St. Maarten is $23 in Grand Turk!). Thousands of passengers from multiple cruise ships docked at the pier come ashore and stand around with nothing to do; the wait to get into Margaritaville is almost prohibitively long.

Overall, we did not enjoy this cruise very much, and in fact we are hesitant to book another cruise on Princess. Money-saving measures were obvious on the Crown Princess, and they became annoying. Perhaps we will book only on Premium or Luxury Lines in the future. At least they likely will have danceable music, and we will not experience the aggravation attendant to an overcrowded ship. In closing, we certainly do not recommend the 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Crown Princess.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Holland America Statendam

On November 10, 2008 we left aboard the Holland America Statendam from Fort Lauderdale, Florida for 26-day cruise to Lima, Peru and return.

The Statendam is an older ship. We cruised on it to Hawaii over New Year's 1999-2000. Accordingly, the ship is beginning to show its age. Our cabin was spacious and comfortable, but we heard many complaints about cabins being too cold (one couple said that their cabin was 59 degrees for the entire trip). Also at times there was the distinct smell of sewage in various parts of the ship. The Statendam seems due for refurbishing soon.

The cabin steward was very attentive; however, cabins are now cleaned only once per day, despite the fact that the hotel charge has increased from $10/person/day last year to $11/person/day. We chose open seating in the Rotterdam Dining Room for dinner, but sat at the same table (for two) every evening except for the very first night, when we sat at a table for six. The next evening we were able to get our table for two, and requested it for the remainder of the trip. However, the maitre'd said "other people would like a table for two, you know? So we can only reserve it for two evenings." Some people who sat behind us that evening, also at a table for two, had an ethnic last name and demanded their table every evening also. Since their request was granted, so was ours! Our waiter was wonderful, very attentive and friendly. In fact, the entire staff and crew was quite friendly for the entire voyage (with one exception, below).

On most evenings a show was held in the Van Gogh Lounge. There were four musical production numbers, and the overall costuming costs were said to be $250,000! The costumes were magnificent. We also enjoyed the shows a great deal, although the final one wasn't quite as good as the others. On other evenings the performers were singers, musicians, comedians, magicians, or just a movie was shown. We attended a few of these, and they didn't seem as entertaining as the production shows.

Every evening a pre-dinner dance was held in the Ocean Bar from 4-5 p.m., and the dance continued from 7-11 p.m. A trio called The Neptunes played, and they were comprised of a pianist, an upright bassist, and a drummer. The music was very danceable, and the dance floor was not crowded, at least not on the pre-dinner dances which we attended every day. Another group, The HALcats, played in the Crow's Nest and on deck some afternoons, although their music wasn't as danceable. They were sort of a raggae band, with a keyboard, steel drum, guitar, drum, and vocalist who didn't play an instrument. These performers seemed also to be members of the ship's orchestra.

This may not have been the most auspicious time to take a cruise because the stock market has taken a dramatic downturn recently, and most of the passengers seemed to be senior citizens who are retirees. They had seen the values of their investments decline precipitously, and didn't seem to be very cheerful or in the mood to spend much money. Accordingly, some of the wait staff in bars and ship stores seemed to have become frustrated. One evening we requested a glass of water in the Ocean Bar, as we usually did because we became thirsty from dancing. This was after dinner, and having just left the dining room we didn't want anything else to drink. However, our waitperson admonished us that we should order bottled water or wine or a cocktail or a beer rather than free water. That night we turned in a complaint about this individual, and he didn't do this again. The day following this incident in the Ocean Bar Holland America delivered a complimentary bottle of Merlot to our cabin in apology for the waitperson's actions. On another occasion we were in one of the shops trying to purchase something, and a young man was lounging lazily against a cart used for hauling merchandise. We stood around for at least five minutes, wondering where the clerk was, and it tuned out that the young man lounging against the cart was the clerk. He should have been able to see that we wanted to make a purchase, but seemed to be deliberately unresponsive. We did not complain about this, however.

We last took a cruise on Holland America at the end of 2007 when we found the quality of the food, especially, to be lower than before. Now the line has cheapened its meals down even more than a year ago. Most nights the dinner menu contained four appetizers, three soups, one salad, and about five entree choices, one of them vegetarian. Many entrees were comprised of tuna, chicken, turkey, or pork. Many dishes involved pasta or rice. Often the vegetables in an entree were described to appear exotic, but turned out to be pedestrian.

However, on the Statendam there is now happy hour at each of three venues: Ocean Bar, Piano Bar, and Crow's Nest, at different times of the evening. All wines and cocktails are 2-for-1. Many passengers seemed to have taken advantage of these lower prices, as the bars offering them were full at these times. On the last afternoon of the cruise a deck party was held, and consequently there was no happy hour at the Ocean Bar. Many of those who came to happy hour there regularly were unhappy about this. It is true that it was planned by management, and the daily program omitted its usual happy hour announcement for the Ocean Bar on that day.

Dining options now include not only fixed seating but also open seating, PLUS casual dinner dining every night on the Lido deck. This means that many passengers brought no dress clothes at all. Part of the fun of a cruise for us lies in elegance, especially on formal nights (of which there were six). However, one saw few formal clothes on formal nights, and on "smart casual" nights most people dressed shabbily. They looked as though they should be working in their gardens or shopping at WalMart. If one wants this atmosphere one would save money by cruising on some budget line such as Norwegian.

We ate a small breakfast every day at the buffet on the Lido deck, and an abbreviated lunch at the same place. We always took dinner in the dining room, even when a dinner barbecue was held on deck. On the evening of our 33rd wedding anniversary we ate at the Pinnacle Grill (which specializes in steaks and dinner costs $20/person). We had a great window table from which we viewed a fantastic sunset and birds flying, sometimes in formation, over the water. Also, the service at the Pinnacle was excellent and they surprised us with an anniversary cake and two large parfait glasses of vanilla ice cream.

This cruise was our 55th, and with the 26 days it made over 100 days of cruising aboard a Holland America ship. Early in the cruise we went to a brunch one day for returning passengers, and expected to receive a bronze medallion for having cruised over 100 days with Holland America, but we didn't receive one. Late in the cruise there was another brunch for returning passengers, but we hadn't much liked the food at the first brunch so we did not attend this one. Of course, had we been there we would have been awarded our medallions! These were delivered to our cabin later that day, however.

Our first port of call was Half Moon Cay, Holland America's private island. We did not go ashore for the barbecue because we had been to them many times before and preferred the food on the ship.

Next we stopped at Grand Turk, where we had never been. The island is British, and souvenirs and other items are expensive. Nevertheless, there is a pierside shopping area and we enjoyed browsing the shops.

After a day at sea we stopped at Santa Marta, Colombia. Here we wandered from the pier to the downtown area, where there were some souvenir venders who were very aggressive in their sales approaches. We bought a charm of Colombia for a charm bracelet and some other small souvenirs.

The next day we stopped at San Blas Islands, and were tendered ashore. Here we bought some mola embroidery work from the native Kuna Indians. We had been to these islands before more than once; however, for fist-time visitors, they are very unique and fascinating.

The following day we traversed the Panama Canal, which we had done several times before, and the next day we stopped in Amador, Panama. We also had been there, but revisited the pierside shops that sold souvenirs and other goods. They skyline of Panama City is visible in the distance, although a taxi to the city costs $45/hour/person, so we have never gone there.

After a day at sea we stopped at Manta, Ecuador. Here we took our most interesting paid excursion of the entire cruise (it was called "Manta and Montecristi"). We were bussed to a factory where Panama hats were made, to a factory where "ivory nuts" were processed to make buttons, jewelry, and small statues, to a factory where burlap bags were made, and finally to a museum depicting the history of local cultures. These factories were very primitive, with workers using hand looms and making most items by hand. Manta is a fishing port of 200,000 inhabitants, and its population is not generally wealthy. As in our other stops in Ecuador and Peru, we found that many were housed in what appeared to be sheds with corrugated tin roofs held down by big rocks. Nevertheless, we bought several items, and these were a real bargain.

After another day at sea we stopped at Salaverry, Peru. Here we took a tour, "El Brujo, Mysteries of the Mochican Culture". Here we took a bus through a very poor and cluttered city called Trujillo, then down a very bumpy highway for almost two hours to end up at some pyramids built by primitives that once inhabited the area. After spending about an hour there, and taking a narrated tour of the pyramid, we were bussed back over the same road to the ship. Travel time to and from the pyramid was over three times the amount of time spent at the pyramid, which we did not think was a good trade-off.

The next day we arrived at Callao, Peru, the port city for Lima (population between 8 and 9 million). That afternoon we took a complimentary bus sponsored by H. Stern jewelers to an area of Lima known as Miraflores. This is supposed to be one of the nicest shopping and dining areas of the city, and we did enjoy the trip. Security was very heavy because the APEC conference, attended by President Bush, was being held in Lima that day. The city seemed quite clean, with green-suited people everywhere sweeping streets. There were armed personnel throughout Miraflores, although we paid little attention to them and they to us. We did buy a Peru charm, and a word of caution is in order. The price of the charm was quoted in dollars, but when we paid with Visa the amount was written in soles, the local currency. We did not know the exchange rate, but were promised it was equivalent to the price quoted to us in dollars. However, it seems to have been quite high, and this may be typical. One should take enough cash in U.S. currency to pay for any such purchases or risk the possibility of paying 20-50% more because of discrepancies between the quoted exchange rate and the actual one.

The next day we remained in Callao, but could not leave the pierside area because heavy security did not even allow shuttle busses to go into or from the area. The next day we left late in the afternoon, so we did not leave the ship that day either. Spending three days in port was boring, and this was compounded by the fact that the port is very industrial and noisy. The smog was so heavy that we could not even go outside on the Promenade Deck to exercise. It is interesting to note that we saw more seagulls here than we have seen anywhere else in the world, and there was no discernable odor of anything to draw them.

Temperatures in Ecuador and Peru were very mild. Overnight lows were in the low 60s with daytime highs around 70 degrees, even though this area is very near the equator. Temperatures are kept down by cold ocean currents that being in Antarctica and move northward beside Chili, Peru, and Ecuador. Sea temperatures were in the 60s, even near the equator! Supposedly these are typical conditions year-round.

We spent the day after we left Callao at sea, and the next day we stopped in Guyaquil, Ecuador. The political regime had changed there only about a week before, and a new constitution had been adopted. Accordingly, local officials were new and did not know how to handle an arriving cruise ship. Ours was the only ship in the port. We were to have docked at 8 a.m., with passenger disembarkation beginning by 9 a.m. However, local officials demanded that every passenger be screened and issued a local document for disembarkation. This took at least an hour. Then local officials demanded that additional paperwork be completed by the ship's officers. Finally we were allowed off the ship, but very much later than scheduled. This city has about 3 million inhabitants, and we went on a tour ("Guayaquil City and Historical Park") that took us through the city to a park downtown that is known as Iguana Park because it is inhabited by hundreds of iguanas, many of them as long as 4 feet. We enjoyed these sights. Then we went to a very large park where many indigenous animals can be seen, as well as local botanical specimens. There also is an area where Guyaquil of the late 19th century is recreated, with people dressed in costumes of the era. This entire excursion was a walking tour, and we were glad to stop for refreshments in a cafe in which the decor supposedly was typical of the era. Unfortunately the prices were not, and for some reason a Coca Cola that was listed on the menu as costing one dollar in fact cost closer to two dollars. Supposedly Ecuador is on the dollar system, but although dollars were accepted change was given in Ecuadorian coins. We suppose we could give these to folks back home as trinket gifts!

The next day we stopped again at Manta, Ecuador. This time we took a complimentary shuttle to an open plaza market near downtown. Here we bought scarves, belts, and other items at amazingly low prices. We very much enjoyed Manta for a second time.

After a day at sea we went through the Panama Canal again. The following day we stopped at Puerto Limon, Cost Rica. We had been there before, and aside from some pierside stalls there is not much of interest in town for tourists.

The following day we stopped at the island of San Andres, Colombia, which is 380 miles from mainland Colombia. The nearest mainland is Nicaragua, and it is quite a distance (our tour book said 150 miles, but a local tour guide said 82 miles). Here it was raining for the first time at any of our stops. We did take the "San Andres Island Tour" that went to a blowhole, a cave, a downtown mall, etc. The island is only about 8 miles by 2 miles, but is inhabited by between 100,000 and 110,000 citizens. The rain made the tour less enjoyable, and in fact some tourists complained so much that everyone who took the tour was refunded half the price. Incidentally, excursions are expensive these days. It is difficult to find a tour as short as 3 hours in length for much less than about $80/person. Part of the reason could be high gasoline costs, but in Ecuador and Peru we found gasoline to be less expensive (about $1.50/gallon for regular unleaded, or $1.00/gallon for diesel) than back in the U.S. Prices are as high as $4/gallon on remote islands such as San Andres where everything must be shipped in from lengthy distances.

After a day at sea we were to have docked at Georgetown, Grand Cayman. However, winds were high and seas were rough (for the first time on the voyage), so tenders could not go ashore. Instead we set out for Key West, where we arrived the next evening rather than the morning following that as scheduled. Passengers were allowed to go ashore that evening, but it took a long time for everyone to go through customs, as was necessary because this was our port of entry back into the U.S.

So we waited until the next day to go into Key West, where we have been many times. We always enjoy wandering through the souvenir shops, etc., however.

The next morning we arrived back in Fort Lauderdale, where we disembarked.

We took this cruise specifically to visit Ecuador and Peru. The countries of Ecuador and Peru look even more impoverished than the poorest islands in the Caribbean. And there is trash and litter everywhere, roadsides, parks, etc. We definitely would rather take more than one shorter cruise for the same money. Peru and Ecuador just aren't that exotic; to us they look like they should be in the Middle East somewhere. However, we did not take the 3-day train tour to Machu Picchu for $3000 per person, and perhaps seeing that would have changed our opinion. It certainly would have adversely affected our finances!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holland America Amsterdam

On November 24, 2007, we boarded the Holland America Amsterdam for a 17-day, 5311 mile cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal and terminating at Ft. Lauderdale. The ship's capacity is 1380 passengers, and it began service in 2000. The Amsterdam is showing signs of wear, with rust here and there; and we experienced problems with plumbing, air conditioning, and the galley's refrigerators during this cruise.

Our outside cabin had a window, twin beds, and plenty of storage space. The cabin steward was quite attentive, and almost every evening when we returned from dinner he had made a towel animal and placed it on one of the beds. These were fun, and we took a photo of each one. Our cabin was near the bow of the ship, but as it was on Deck 2 it didn't bounce much (until the last two days of the cruise, when the sea was rough from time to time, but even then the bouncing wasn't bad).

In addition to the ship's orchestra (which we never actually heard play) there were two dance bands, and both were excellent. One (four pieces) played in the Ocean Bar on Deck 5 every evening beginning at 5:15, and returned at 7:15 after playing for an hour and then taking an hour's break. The dance floor here was bigger than that in most Ocean Bars we have experienced on other Holland America ships; however, there were four dance hosts who sometimes danced with unattached women, and the floor could get crowded. The other dance band (6 pieces) played on the same schedule up in the Crow's Nest on Deck 9. Here the dance floor was much bigger and also much less crowded; the dance hosts rarely appeared here, and few other dancers did either. Because the Crow's Nest is so high the floor is a bit unstable at times, but this was not much of a problem.

We had 8:00 p.m. seating at dinner; we have found that we are too full of food to dance after dinner, and so we like to dance a couple of sets before dinner which requires that we have late seating. However, most of the shows in the main show lounge do not begin for late seating passengers until after dinner (at 10:30), which is a bit late for us. We only attended one show, featuring a singer who we didn't think could carry a tune. We heard complaints from other passengers that the ship's singers and dancers (who performed the productions shows) could dance but could not sing well either.

The Welcome Aboard Captain's Cocktail Party had been replaced with a Captain's toast, which we did not attend. There was no farewell party, nor even a farewell toast near the end of the cruise. We had four formal nights, but for the last three there was no special occasion for dressing formally, and thus some of the passengers didn't. However, most did; Holland America seems to attract seasoned cruisers, and thus we saw only three children on the entire cruise. There probably weren't but about 100 passengers who were younger than 50.

We ate breakfast and lunch at the Lido deck buffet, and we found those to be quite satisfactory. Dinners in the dining room weren't as good, however. The menu was quite repetitive; prime rib was served at four dinners, and sirloin steak was served at four different dinners. The fish tended to be undercooked, but a complaint to the waiter early in the cruise was successful in that our fish was undercooked only once after that. The desserts were fairly good, but the cakes were sometimes much too dry. Our waiter and his assistant gave impeccable service, however, and the maitre' d stopped by our table almost every evening to be sure that we were enjoying our meal.

Smoking areas on the ship were scarce; probably only about 2% of the public areas allowed smoking. One of these involved only six tables at the rear of the Lido deck, another involved four tables in the Ocean Bar, and another involved about six tables in the rear of the Crow's nest. Even though these areas were difficult to find, non-smokers seemed to find them easily; they stubbornly sat in them, all the while complaining mightily about the smoke!

To begin the cruise we flew from Fort Myers, FL, to San Diego on November 23 on Continental Airlines. The plane stopped in Houston and we had to board a different plane. That plane had mechanical problems, but luckily Continental had another plane available. They switched the luggage and reboarded the passengers onto the new plane in less than an hour, which we found phenomenal given our past experiences in similar situations. We arrived in San Diego only one hour late, and were shuttled to a nearby Sheraton Hotel where we spent the night. This hotel was near the airport but otherwise there was nothing nearer to it than a mile and a half away. To avoid paying taxi fares we ate dinner at the hotel's buffet, which was overpriced and had limited selections.

The next morning we were taken directly from the hotel to the pier, and soon boarded the ship, which left the port at around 5 p.m. Our first full day of cruising we spent at sea, and the next morning we stopped in Cabo San Lucas. We had been there several times before, but a brand new tender terminal opened for the first time the day we arrived. It was far from where we had landed in a tender on past cruises, but we had a map and found malls and other shopping areas quite easily.

Following another day at sea we stopped at Zihuatenejo/Ixtapa, Mexico. Here we walked to a craft's market from the ship and bought some inexpensive souvenirs.

The next day we were in Acapulco, and here we again walked from the ship to a craft's market. However, the vendors here are very aggressive, and we soon became annoyed and returned to the ship. We did buy souvenirs, but only a couple of them (a t-shirt and a dress). The high temperature here on this day was 96, and it had been about as warm the day before. Many passengers were complaining about the heat, but we wondered what they expected this far south. If they hadn't wanted heat they could have stayed in the frozen northland where they live!

The following day we were in Huatulco, Mexico, where we took a tour. On the tour we saw a small store with a farmer's market, a tequila factory, and a folkloric show with children dancing in a small town square. The bus driver also made several stops so that passengers could take photos of bays containing small beaches.

The next day we were in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. Here we took a tour involving a 1-1/2 hour bus ride to a city called Antigua. The tour was called "Antigua on Your Own", and we were indeed on our own, with only a map of the downtown area to guide us. Our tour guide spoke very poor English, and seemed to know little about either Guatemala or Antigua. He said he would be in the town square for our entire 3-1/2 hour stay to answer questions, but when we asked him where a place was he told us to ask one of the locals sitting around the plaza! Right after we left the bus the guide took everyone who wanted to go to a jewelry store featuring jade that was only a couple of blocks from the plaza. However, the jade was expensive, and the restrooms next door (which was the reason many passengers had walked with the guide to the jewelry store) charged a fee equal to about 25 cents to use the restroom. Guatemala's currency is the quetzal, and there are about 7-1/2 to the U.S. dollar. We left the jewelry store and found a McDonald's with free restroom facilities a couple of blocks away. Here we also bought an ice cream cone and a diet coke; we paid in dollars but received our change in quetzals. We visited an artisan's market and also the open public market for local residents. The city was very dirty and beggars were everywhere; drunks slept openly on sidewalks. In the plaza were many Mayan females, dressed in their tribal garb, who were quite aggressive in selling beads, tapestries, etc. While we were waiting for the bus to take our 1-1/2 hour ride back to the ship we were approached by a number of these wandering vendors. One was a child about 6 or 8 years old; she wanted to sell us a tapestry that we had no use for, and we told her that we had only $5 left after we had bought food and other souvenirs in local stores. She wanted more than $5 for the tapestry, and after arguing for about 10 minutes she became miffed and said, regarding our claim to only have $5 left, "You lie like Pinocchio!", and she put her finger to her nose and moved it forward to depict a growing nose. Then she stalked off. We thought this incident was very funny, but also that the child had been quite rude. We heartily dis-recommend this particular tour. The city is very crowded, the sidewalks are quite narrow and broken, and finding one's way even with a map is extremely difficult.

After a day at sea we arrived at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Here we took a tour that was a scenic drive of 3-1/4 hours. We enjoyed the drive, and did not see the grinding poverty that we had seen in Guatemala (there many residences were merely corrugated tin sheds!). The houses were still rather small, and in fact people kept their Christmas trees on their front porches because they took up too much space in their small houses.

The next day we cruised along an area known as Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica. There was no stop here.

The following day we stopped in Amador, near Panama City, Panama. Cab rides into town from the pier cost $45 per person per hour, which we thought was outrageous. So we stayed pierside, and browsed the many shops there. We went to a restaurant that had just opened for the first time the day before, and were treated like royalty even though we only had something to drink there (we were the only ones in the restaurant). We found many interesting things pierside, and didn't regret not having gone into the city (the skyline of which was quite visible from the pier).

We spent an entire day going through the Panama Canal. However, we had taken three or four cruises before upon which we entered the canal from the Caribbean side, went to Gatun Lake halfway through the canal, and turned around and went back. Therefore we didn't find the canal itself very interesting - we had seen the locks, etc., before.

After a day at sea we made our final pre-debarkation stop in Aruba. We had been here before, so merely wandered around downtown and looked at jewelry, etc. The island is Dutch, and the dollar is not currently valued highly in relation to the euro, so everything seemed quite expensive. We went to a sidewalk cafe and each had a glass of wine, for which we paid a total of over $15! This is even more expensive than wine on the ship!!

The next two days we spent at sea prior to our arrival and debarkation at Fort Lauderdale.

We had a great time on this cruise, but we think that Holland America is cutting expenses on its cruises these days; the food isn't as good as it once was, there aren't as many onboard activities, and there are no cocktail parties with dancing. Some things that once were free on Holland America ships, e.g., espresso, must now be purchased separately. Nevertheless, we have booked another Holland America cruise toward the end of 2008 (on a different ship, the Statendam), which we hope will be better in this respect.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Costa Magica

On April 22, 2007 we left Ft. Lauderdale on a 7-day cruise to Bermuda and Nassau aboard the Costa Magica. The ship was built in 2004 and holds approximately 3000 passengers and over 1000 crew. It seemed to be filled to capacity. The cruise line is Italian, as were many of the passengers. Announcements over the public address system were rare, but they were given in five languages: English, Italian, Spanish, German, and French.

Our outside cabin was large, with plenty of storage. We were on Deck 2, near the rear of the ship. The buffet was on Deck 9, and walking the stairs helped keep us from gaining weight during the cruise!

The weather was quite good, with calm water and sunny skies. Our cabin steward was excellent, and we rarely saw him (although he attended to our cabin in a thorough and punctual manner). At dinner we sat at a table for four in the Smerelda Dining Room. Our table mates were from Sarasota, and were easy to talk to. The gentleman was a retired vice-president and manager at Allis-Chalmers. Our waiter was very attentive. Dinner included separate courses for appetizer, soup, salad, entree, and dessert (rather than a combined soup and salad course that has become common on many ships). The food was generally good, although on one evening the entrees were late and everyone's seemed undercooked. My only complaint about the food at dinner is that lobster was not served on any evening.

We ate breakfast and lunch at the buffet every day; the variety at breakfast was good, although the lunch offerings were more restricted. We did enjoy the soft-serve ice cream which was available at several sites in the buffet dining room (the Bellagio). There were five different buffet lines, one of which was on the rear deck outside; thus food was quick and easy to access. There was also a grill and an omlete station, both on the deck toward mid ship.

Dance music was provided both before and after dinner at several salons. Our early seating dinner was at 5:45, and often the music did not begin until 5:30, so we danced after dinner almost every evening. Different groups played dance music, one of which we had met on our Costa Mediterranea cruise in 2005. These musicians seemed to remember us! We found all the music to be very danceable. A calypso trio played very listenable music on the pool deck all afternoon essentially every day.

Because we danced after dinner almost every evening we only went to one show. It featured a variety of performers: singers, dancers, a solo singer, an acrobat, and a very entertaining performance by some artists on high stilts! There were a couple of musical production shows that we did not attend, but we heard very good things about them. All of the shows were held in the Urbino Theater.

Our first two days were at sea, although we did arrive in Bermuda the evening of the second day. We docked at King's Wharf, which is usually called the Navy Dockyard. Near the pier there was shopping, restaurants, a crafts center, etc. The two main towns on the island are accessible by bus or ferry, and we each bought a 2-day pass (for $20 apiece) that allowed unlimited access to both modes of transportation.

We took a ferry to St. George's (the trip was said to take 50 minutes but actually took about 30 minutes). There we toured a perfume factory (which was very interesting, and the scents were fabulous) and visited several jewelry stores and souvenir shops. We also witnessed a ceremony featuring dignitaries and a British marching band. This yearly event was dubbed "paying the rent", and seemed to involve paying homage to Britain (the "rent" was one peppercorn, and thus was merely symbolic). St. George's is not a very large town, and after a couple of hours we had seen what we wanted to see and returned to the ship via ferry.

The next day we took a bus to Hamilton, a much larger town than St. George's. The duration of the bus ride was a bit over an hour, and it was quite scenic. Flowers were abundant, and the dwellings along the way seemed large and well maintained. The weather was perfect (as it had been the day before), with ample sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s. In Hamilton we browsed a number of shops and stores, and spent quite a bit of time at a city park. The vegetation there was beautiful and well kept. After about 3 hours we returned to the ship via ferry (which took about 20 minutes). The Costa Magica left Bermuda at 6:00 that evening.

After a day at sea we arrived at Nassau in the Bahamas. We did not even leave the ship, partly because the stop was only for a few hours, but mainly because we had visited this port many times before. The next morning we were back in Ft. Lauderdale.

Bermuda is a beautiful island. We saw no poverty there. It is not as tourist-oriented as we had thought it might be, although there were plenty of things of interest to tourists. A number of excursions of various types were offered by the cruise line, but we preferred to set out on our own and to arrange our schedule to suit ourselves.

The Costa Magica was very clean, and is an ornate ship. A number of statues and other types of artwork grace her decks. However, it is possible to walk directly from stem to stern only on Decks 2 and 5 (and on the top pool deck outside, of course). Many people seemed to be confused by this, although it didn't affect us much because our cabin was on Deck 2. There were always things to do aboard the ship, and thus we had a great time!