Category: Cruises

Alaskan cruise: do you go for the cruise or for the destination?

I still owe you days 6 and 7 from Tallinn, but as I pack for the ferry back to Helsinki there’s something else I have in mind. How often does the mode of transportation become an attraction and can it rival the place you’re visiting?

I don’t think road trips count here because the car you’re in isn’t the attraction. I think trains sometimes might but only rarely – like when you travel to a place for a ride on an old steam engine. I’d say that cruises are the most common in this category though – the ship is often the reason people go on the holiday, especially with Caribbean cruises; I think many people don’t worry too much about the ports of call.

With something like cruises to Hawaii or Alaska it’s probably closer to 50/50. You go for the cruise but also to see the destination. When I went on my NCL cruise from Seattle to Alaska I felt it was a good way to see a few spots in Alaska (Ketchikan, Skagway, and Juneau) plus you pretty much have to see the Inside Passage and Glacier bay by boat. See the full itinerary for an Alaskan cruise here. It wasn’t that I really needed to visit one place in Alaska – I didn’t know what I wanted but the cruise gave me a kind of sampling so that I know what I want to do there when I go back.

Here are some of the shore excursions we tried:

Juneau – the Mendenhall river glacier float. It started off with nice views of the Mendenhall glacier but then it took us downriver, away from the glacier. So for the first 30 minutes it was nice. The other 90 minutes was uncomfortable and while the scenery was peaceful it wasn’t what we came to Alaska for – houses on the river, rusted cars on the bank that the government decided would help stop land erosion a few decades ago, a beaver dam. The river was mostly calm but there was one spot where they had class 2 and 3 rapids so we got wet and it was about 40 degrees fahrenheit (in August).

We talked to some people over dinner who did a helicopter tour and hike. They were much happier with their choice than we were with our choice. My wife was actually pretty mad at me during the cruise for picking out something uncomfortable but now (3 years later) I think she would tell you it’s a god memory.

Skagway – White Pass Railroad and gold dredge. At the time we liked this much better than the rafting trip but now it’s the rafting I remember better. I do remember some nice views from outside the train (where it was cold of course) and panning for gold was worth a try even though it’s just rock and they put in some flakes for you to find.

And, of course, the time spent in between ports of call on the ship was pretty good too. We learned that next time we’re in Alaska we should stay longer to do more wildlife viewing.

My First Time Cruiser Experience

This article was submitted to http://www.co-operativetravel.co.uk/ as part of a writing contest they ran a while back.

I’d always seen adverts on television about cruises and was always intrigued to try one. Getting to visit lots of warm and sunny countries on one trip was something that was very appealing to me. However, something had always drawn me back in the past, and I always ended up booking the usual ‘safe’ option of flying from my nearest airport to our eventual destination.

This year though, my girlfriend and I decided we were going to go for it and book ourselves on a cruise. After searching on the web we found some great deals for Mediterranean cruises. We’d only been to Ibiza and The Algarve before, so we were excited about the prospect of seeing other places including Italy, Corsica and Sicily.

Day 1

We got to the airport and had a surprisingly uneventful time getting through to our departure lounge, considering the time of year! We were to fly to Palma in Majorca and then board our ship, P&O’s Oceana when we got there.

After a relatively smooth flight we got on a coach to take us into Palma City itself. The first thing I noticed was how breathtaking some of the architecture was here, in particular the Cathedral, which towers above the rest of the surrounding buildings.

We had a few hours to kill here so we made our way through the narrow cobbled streets, browsing in the shops and having some lunch in one of the local Spanish restaurants. The food here was amazing, and the atmosphere very laid back in the warmth of the summer, which set us at ease before it was time to board our ship.

I didn’t realise how large cruise ships are before we got on ours. Inside was so spacious, which I wasn’t expecting. After we found our room, we relaxed for a bit, went through an emergency drill and it felt like no time before our luggage had arrived and we had set sail.

Day 2

We weren’t going to be coming into any ports today so it was all at sea. This meant that we really got to explore the boat a bit more and get our bearings. We chose P&O as they are a famous name and we knew that people must sail with them for a reason. I have to say that we weren’t disappointed, and there were some fantastic places to eat and take in some entertainment. The Marco Pierre White restaurant looked particularly good, and I knew that we would have to come back there at least once during our stay.

There were four swimming pools and six whirlpools on board, which as soon as we saw we were back in our room to grab our swimsuits. The day was incredibly relaxing, but we were definitely getting excited about arriving in our next destination.

Day 3

We arrived at Trapani in Sicily early and we were off the boat straight away to go and explore. We were told that the food in this part of the world was amazing, and they weren’t wrong. Fish is caught fresh every morning and prepared on demand to create some absolutely delicious meals.

After filling ourselves up and seeing the sights we were able to take a boat over to the small Egadi Islands which are very quiet and have fantastic beaches and lovely warm water. We were able to sunbathe for a few hours and go for a nice quiet swim before it was time to head back to the ship again.

Day 4

We arrived in Naples on the mainland of Italy and we decided that we should be a bit more active today. We signed ourselves up to an excursion which climbed Mount Vesuvius; an active volcano! Apparently it’s the only one in Europe that you can climb so we thought it was something not to be missed, and the view from the top of the city of Naples was incredible.

When we get down we suitably refreshed ourselves in the city. It’s not the most beautiful place in the world, but it has a great, buzzing atmosphere and you really felt part of it wandering around and taking in the Italian way of life.

Day 5

One of the places we were most looking forward to is Rome and this was our destination for day five. The girlfriend was very excited about looking around the shops, and there are hundreds to choose from here – many of them with designer labels. Via Condotti is one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world, and the price tags certainly reflected it!

We knew a trip to Rome wouldn’t be complete without taking in some of the sights and we made sure we went to see The Colosseum, The Vatican and The Sistine Chapel. As expected, these areas are very touristy, but we managed to get some excellent pictures.

Day 6

The only French destination on our trip was next – Ajaccio in Corsica. This was a truly stunning, picturesque place and the amazing weather just added to its charm. It is very sleepy and seems to be untouched from tourism of any kind, which felt very different compared to our experience in Rome the day before!

We were told that we should go and check out the Fesch Museum, which holds some important paintings. This wouldn’t normally be my kind of thing, but I have to say I was very impressed and you do start to feel absorbed by the artwork when you really study it.

We left port earlier than normal today as the ship was heading back to Palma in Majorca. We were disappointed about this as the time had flown by!

Day 7

We got off the ship in Palma and had an hour or so spare before our coach left to take us back to the airport.

We were sad to be leaving the Oceana; it’s a great ship and the P&O staff really make an effort to make you feel special. Although we didn’t want to leave, we knew we had caught the ‘cruise bug’ and that it wouldn’t be long until we were planning our next trip and deciding what we wanted to see next.

River cruise options: China’s Yangtze?

So we’ve talked about a couple of river cruises in years past. One was the Mekong River cruise and I thought I had more but I can’t find them right now. Anyhow, my wife has been talking about a cruise for our 10th anniversary and I like the idea but might be looking for something different from the regular US mass market cruises (we’ve been to bermuda and Alaska on NCL).

Today we look at a Yangtze River cruise, which I’ve taken off of Holidays in China.

One of the things I noticed is that the tours seem to focus on other attractions besides the river cruise. For example this one says you get 4 nights on the cruise. It’s a 28 day tour. I’m not actually sure if this site sells just the river cruise.

One of the highlights is supposed to be visiting the “Three Gorges Hydroelectric River Dam, which spans the Yangtze River and is the largest dam in the world, more than 5 times the size of Hoover Dam.” I had never considered visiting the Hoover Dam or any other before but I can see how the biggest of pretty much anything might be neat to see.

Which river do you recommend cruising for a 10th anniversary?

When booking a cruise, where do you buy?

I figure there are three main choices: travel agent, website, or direct from the cruise line.

Representing travel agents will be yours truly. I am not a travel agent but I have booked 2 cruises through travel agents.

Representing the websites we have, MSC Cruises.

Representing the cruise lines we have the NCL webiste and all the emails they send me (which is starting to get annoying).

So what got me thinking about this was a recent email from NCL promising a free upgrade if you book now. I remember getting free upgrades through my credit card rewards when I went to Alaska, but the upgardes were silly like 6th floor to 7th floor (a $10 or $20 difference).

So I followed the email to their website and there it said “Balcony for the price of oceanview.” Huh. So taking NCLs biggest newest ship, the Norwegian Epic, and stopping in Miami, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Nassau would run you (per person dual occupancy in February, 2011 over Valentine’s Day):

$839 – Inside

$1139 – Balcony

$1179 – Mini Suite

$2059 – Suite

$1019 – Studio

$1439 – Spa

They say you get a mini-suite for the price of a balcony but I’m already confused since the email said get a blacony for the price of a plain old outside room. I don’t even see outside room listed here.

Now we get tot he point where I show off why I’m an amateur travel blogger instead of a professional travel writer. The whole point of this was to compare but the website says to call for prices. If anyone wants to call them, I guess it’s 0845 458 8909. Or I might remember to do it after Christmas.

I guess I’d also need to call a travel agent now that I think about it to compare what they have to offer. Can they get the same deal on the same cruise. In my experience, they can often get you the same deal and some onboard credit or something to sweeten any deal they can offer. When I went to Alaska our travel agent mentioned this blog and got NCL to give my wife and I VIP treatment, which included dinner with the captain of the ship and was very cool. When we went to Bermuda we got a few restaurant vouchers since we booked as a small group (6 people in 3 rooms).

But then the website has exclusive offers on things like Fred Olsen cruises.

I’m not sure how the website would get access to things a normal travel agent cannot but perhaps that’s one nice advantage of going with a website. Assuming travel agents and websites can offer the same deal as NCL, I don’t see much reason to book through the cruise line itself. Has anyone tried that?

Popular Caribbean cruise ports of call

Part three in our three part series of Caribbean cruise destinations I;ve never been to. We’ve got stunning tropical beaches, colourful towns, and places of great natural beauty. Some more of the best stop off points on Caribbean cruises:

Cozumel

Cozumel has plenty to offer the visitor, whether you want to explore the wonderful Mayan ruins at Tulum on a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, take a walk down the narrow streets to pick up some hand painted Talavera pottery, go snorkelling in the famous Palancar Reef, or swim with the dolphins at Chankanaab National Marine Park. Some of you may remember the story of the clock from Cozumel that I inherited.

Curacao

Whether you want to relax on the secluded, palm-lined beach of Playa Kalki, go looking for petroglyphs at Hato Caves, or experience the hustle and bustle of the capital of the Netherlands Antilles, Willemstad, you are guaranteed to have a good time when you visit Curacao.

Ocho Rios

At Ocho Rios, you can frolic on the popular Turtle Beach or head inland to Fern Gully. Also nearby is Jamaica’s most famous attraction, Dunn’s River Falls, which can lay claim to over six hundred feet of refreshing waterfalls and limestone tiers.

Half Moon Cay

Set in fifty five acres of Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, this private tropical retreat is largely untouched by human hand, due to the fact that it is a protected bird sanctuary with a wide variety of rare and exotic birds. A must for bird watchers!

San Juan

This former fortress in Puerto Rico is the second oldest city in the Americas, and features plenty of sites of historical interest, including a wide variety of two hundred year old houses and wonderfully restored sixteenth century buildings.

St Kitts

If you’re looking to take it easy, then St. Kitts could be just the place for you, with stunning deserted beaches, historic ruins, and lush rain forests. Marvel at the Victorian architecture of the capital city of Basseterre, take a tour of the island’s recently restored eighteenth century plantation inns, or take a ride on the brand new ‘Sugar Train’, which circles most of the island.

If a week or two spent soaking up the suns rays in the tropical beauty of the Caribbean sounds like it might be just what you need, you might be interested in some of the cruise holidays from Thomas Cook, that are available online.

It’s worth noting that not all travel insurance companies cover cruise holidays as standard, however we found that cheaptravelinsurance.com does include cruise holidays as standard on all their policies. They don’t have any age limits either.

Popular Caribbean Cruise Stop Offs

Following yesterday’s blog on stops and activities for Caribbean cruises, here is a guide to some of the more common ports of call on Caribbean cruises. Sadly, like yesterday’s list, these are all places I’ve not yet seen.

Dominica

The beautiful, largely unspoiled rural paradise of Dominica is a feast for the senses, with dense jungles, dramatic waterfalls, rugged mountain scenery, and lush rain forests. Here, you can take a walk round the winding streets of Roseau, hike on some of the highest peaks in the Eastern Caribbean, or go snorkelling in the famous Champagne Reef.

Fort Lauderdale

This is the Port of Embarkation for many Caribbean cruises, and is well worth a visit in its own right. Here, you can enjoy a whole host of watersports along seven miles of sandy beaches during the day, and at night you can descend on the village-esque Las Olas Boulevard, where you can find many of the best shops, jazz clubs, and restaurants in the city.

Galveston

Immortalised in song by country legend Glen Campbell, Galveston is about 50 miles to the southeast of Houston, and can boast some of the best beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. Here you can while the day away relaxing on the beach, or head into town to explore its many cultural and historical attractions.

Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman can boast seemingly endless stretches of white sand on its famous Seven Mile Beach. This beach is a mecca for snorkellers, and both its ‘West Wall’ and ‘Stingray Sandbar’ are abundant with exotic marine life.

Roatan, Bay Islands

This banana shaped island just off the coast of Honduras is the epitome of the Caribbean idyll, with cooling trade winds, palm trees, white sands, and brilliant blue water. The locals are as friendly and welcoming as they come, and the pristine Belizean Reef is widely regarded as one of the best diving destinations in the world, teeming as it is with exotic marine life and some of the best pillar coral in the Caribbean.

If you’re thinking about cruising the Caribbean any time soon, why not take a look at some of the great value cruises from Thomas Cook that are currently available online.

Caribbean cruise destinations

The Caribbean is synonymous with cruises, and has been one of the most popular cruise destinations for as long as there have been cruise ships. With tropical beaches galore, spectacular scenery, exotic plant and wildlife, and a laid-back atmosphere, it is no surprise that tourists still flock to the Caribbean when they want to unwind in the sun. Here are a few celebrated ports of call on Caribbean cruises that have not yet been mentioned on this blog:

Barbados

Featuring a stunning landscape of endless white sandy beaches and picturesque rolling hills, Barbados epitomises all that is good about the Caribbean experience. While you are there, be sure to sample some of the local rum at the famous Mount Gay Rum Factory, and pay a visit to Harrison’s Cave, with its stalactites and stalagmites, bubbling streams, and cascading waterfalls.

Belize City

If you enjoy a bit of snorkelling, you absolutely must pay a visit to Belize City. This sparsely populated area, set among dense rain forest and ancient Mayan ruins, is best known for its barrier reef, which is a giant wall of coral that stretches along the length of the coast. Beyond the reef are three coral atolls and a hundred and seventy five cays.

Bonaire

This protected marine park, with its multi coloured reefs and colourful marine life, is a diver’s paradise. On the island itself, you can take a nature tour through the kunuku outback, witness cacti, iguanas, and divi-divi trees at Washington/Slagbaai National Park, or take a walking tour through the historic town of Kralendijk.

Caracas

Caracas is the energetic and vibrant capital city of Venezuela, which blends modern architecture and great works of art with a strong tropical influence drawn from the surrounding natural environment.

Costa Maya

Set amongst mangroves and dense jungle, Costa Maya is home to a cornucopia of interesting Mayan ruins and pristine coral reefs. For those who don’t want to head underwater, you can take a relaxing kayak tour along its still blue waters to witness the beauty of the coast without getting your feet wet.

If you fancy luxuriating for a week or heading in to the heat of the Caribbean sun, cruise deals from Thomas Cook are worth considering. Also if anyone here has been to one of these ports and can share their experience / advice, please do leave a comment.

Carnival Cruise question: formal night attire and Ocho Rios

Reader question: I’m going on a 5 day cruise for the first time with the wifey. For those experienced cruisers what can I expect from “formal” night? With your experience what is the typical attire? Would like to avoid bringing a suit if possible. Also have any of you been to Ochoa Rios? Any suggestions on what to do? I’ve heard mixed reviews.

Answer (feel free to add by commenting):

There are several ways to look at the formal night situation, and on your cruise you’re certain to encounter people with every possible view.

On the one hand, it is formal which could mean at least a suit if not a tux. Why don’t you take this opportunity to get dressed up with your wife and make it special? Do the show enjoy a cocktail and maybe dancing afterwards.

On the other hand, on Carnival formal night is pretty much “no shorts”. On higher priced lines, formal night is real suits or tuxes. Some people have reported that on a Carnival cruise they felt awkward in a tux since not that many people wore one and it seemed out of place.

Many men say they wouldn’t wear a suit, but nice Khaki’s with a nice collar shirt and tie would be perfect.

In the end, it ranges from sport jackets khakis and a tie to suits and tuxedos. Some passengers will stay very informal – and just ignore any dirty looks.

Finally, some people would suggest you skip the formal dinner and eat at the buffet. Packing a bunch of extra clothes, shoes etc. for one night just doesn’t seem worth it to some. Plus you won’t feel as tempted to stand in line to have (overpriced) pictures taken. Then again, the Carnival food is often very good! So, I wouldn’t skip any sit down dinners.

As for Ocho Rios

1. A boat tour to Dunn River Falls. Boat picks you up right at the same dock as the cruise ship, and serves alcohol on the way back.

2. Ochio Rios is a strange port – when you walk to the end of the wharf where the cruise ship property ends and the public property begins cruisers report being beseiged by drug dealers. At least one person said they reached the end of the wharf, got disgusted, went back to the ship, and made it a pool day.

3. One cruiser hired a driver from the throng just outside the port area. In his words:

I picked an older guy – figuring I could take him if need be 😉 Also asked to see his license, and made a show of calling someone on my cell phone to leave his name with them just in case (you can always fake this if necessary). I always ask to see the car first, to get a general impression and verify it has air conditioning. These islands do get frequent cloudbursts, and riding in a car w/ no AC, rolled up windows and 3-4 people in it when it’s 90 degrees isn’t much fun.

We were happy with this choice as we got to see a lot of the island, and a very local flavor of things. Jamaica is one of the prettiest islands in the Caribbean, it really is a shame about the crime situation.

Keep in mind this was 10 years ago, and I would guess the situation has only gotten worse. Do some careful research ahead of time. You can bet some bad things happen that the cruise lines do everything in their power not to have publicized.

Things that go wrong on cruises

This article was on Yahoo’s front page a few days ago. It talks about things that go wrong on cruises like engines breaking down, bad weather, service and food designed to save the cruise line money, and so on.

When I did my Alaska cruise review, I mentioned that we got lucky and that sometimes people don’t. For example, the captain told us that one time they had to skip the inside passage, surely one of the highlights. We also heard that when we were doing the inside passage visibility was not usually as good as what we had. We also saw an NCL ship coming back to port and we later learned that they turned around because of a sick passenger. No doubt they had to shave a few hours off of their next destination…

Have you ever missed a port of call or something like that on a cruise?

Should Royal Caribbean ships dock in Haiti?

Interesting article here. Some people think it’s wrong to dock in Haiti in light of the recent disaster. Yet Haiti needs all the help it can get and the cruise ships do carry food aid and give Haiti money.

The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened”.

“I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

I’m not sure proximity really matters. Would you feel better about your decision to spend money on a cruise (rather than donating it to earthquake relief or something) if the cruise ship skipped Haiti?

This reminds me of an old blog entry, where I linked to an article on false advertising in the cruise industry:

What’s in a name? Royal Caribbean ships leave from Cape Liberty (a fancy name for Bayonne, N.J.) and the company’s private resort is on the island of Hispaniola, which sounds better than being on the north coast of Haiti.