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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Last Day of Cruise & Travel Tips

Last Day of Cruise: At Sea WWMA’s Cruise Travel Tips
It’s been a great week sailing the Eastern Caribbean but all good things must come to an end. So we decided for today to share some travel tips in case you decide to do this yourself. This is our sixth (6th) cruise and the last five have been with Princess. The first on was on Carnival to the Mexican Riviera which was my introduction to this great way to travel.
This brings us to Tip #1: Find a cruise line you like and stick with them. There are lots of advantages to this. For one thing the ships are decked out similarly and you get to know the layout and how things function. The embarkation, steward services, dining arrangements, entertainment, and a host of other things all combine to make it an enjoyable experience and you don’t spend a whole lot of time with the deck maps figuring out where things are.
We have stuck with Princess because of the high quality of their staff and facilities. They also have the largest selection of cruise destinations in the world. After five cruises there are certain amenities that you acquire on future voyages because of their loyalty program: free internet instead of $75 for 100 minutes, preferred check-in lines, etc. Even after your very first cruise with Princess you get a gold card which has a lot of benefits. So find a cruise line and stick with that one instead of bouncing around.
Tip #2, Pack Light! We took a cruise to South America and the Antarctic two years ago and we dragged four large suitcases packed to the limits, 50 lbs each, checked the luggage with the airline , then get them to the hotel and then on to the ship and then reverse the whole process on the way home.
After that we said “no more” and were determined to “pack light” and we have succeeded. Even after this trip with two smaller rolling suitcases and one carryon I found two shirts that I didn’t need and I don’t know why I even brought them along. This tells me that on our next adventure I’m going to pack even lighter. Our theory is we can always buy what we forgot or find a need for, but so far haven’t had to do that, except the time I forgot our suitcases when we took Jacob to San Antonio. But that’s another story and MA found everything she needed at Target!
We saw the “space bag” commercial on TV, decided they would help a lot with packing and so we ordered some. They really work. You load the bags up with your clothes and vacuum all the air to the point they shrink down to at least half the original size. You can go from two bags to one. For return trip packing the cabin steward’s vacuum works just fine although explaining to them what you’re doing with their vacuum is challenging!
Decide ahead what you are going to wear during the cruise. Try to color coordinate, like for example, blacks and whites, tans and browns, etc. I wear Ex Officio pants and shirts that you can hand wash in the sink, hang up and they’re dry in a couple of hours.
That brings us to ironing. We’ve found a way to take all the wrinkles out once we unpack. You simply hang them up on hangers and put them in the bathroom, turn on the hot water and close the door. The steam from the shower head melts all the wrinkles and your clothes look like they’ve come from the dry cleaners.
One thing I have not purchased yet is a tuxedo for formal nights. On a 7-day cruise there are two such evenings. Getting that tux is on my to-do list. Guys, the ladies really like it when we dress up and they get to do likewise. I’ve found out that you can get a really nice gently used light weight tuxedo coat and pants, shirt and tie at a formal rental company. My good suit is staying home on future trips!
Tip #3: Shore Excursions. There are two schools of thought about shore excursions: Pay for the ship’s versions or wing it on your own. The advantage of ship excursions is that the ship will wait for you if for some reason you’re not back on time. If you go out on your own they do not guarantee that. I can’t imagine anything worse than running down the dock only to see your ship sailing off into the sunset.
Having said that, the ship excursions are usually very well planned from the moment you hook up with your group, continue on to board your bus or catamaran or train, and to the guides who always speak great English. They also tend to remember creature comforts like restrooms and refreshments. This is also a good way to make new friends from the ship.
We particularly like the “photographer’s tours”. The groups are smaller, we share the love of photography, albeit at different skill levels, and the tour leaders are more flexible about the itinerary. By that I mean if you want to stay longer at a certain stop, or skip a stop, of deviate from the schedule, they’re more than willing.
If you’re a brave soul and don’t want to pay ship excursion prices, you’ll usually find a local tourist office somewhere around the pier when you disembark. Their tours often mirror some of the ship’s excursions and they cost a great deal less. Some folks actually hire a taxi and driver and set out on their own. We did that once in South America with great success, but then MA speaks Spanish! That helped.
Tip #4: Food! What can I say! There are three breakfast options: room service, sit-down dining room service and the grand buffet which on Princess is open 24 hours. By the pool you’ll find the hamburger/hot dog grill, the pizza parlor and the ice cream stand. Lunch has the same three options as breakfast although the menu in the dining room is different from the main courses in the buffet.
Then there’s afternoon tea, the international sandwich/salad cafĂ©, the coffee bars, the wine and tapas bar, and then of course dinner! For dinner you can choose 1st seating, same table and dining companions each evening, dinner is at 6:30. Or you can choose 2nd seating, doors open at 8:15, same table, same dining companions. Or you can choose “anytime dining” from 6:30 to 10:00, luck of the draw as to table and companions.
This day was spent packing, turning in library books, relaxing, trivia, and watching the NFL playoffs on a 20 foot screen by the pool. We disembark tomorrow at 7:00 am doing what is called a “walk-off”, you roll your own bags but you get to leave the ship before anyone else.
As for us, well it’s time to get back to reality, normal diets and check out our memories stored in the camera!
For our TLC friends, we’ll see you next Saturday! To all others, thanks for tuning in to “Traveling Wayne’s World.” MA and I have a lot of fun doing these.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Grand Turk

Grand Turk of the Turks & Caicos Islands
The Emerald Princess sailed northwest from St. Thomas to Grand Turk arriving around 1:00pm. The morning started with the usual room service coffee and orange juice at 7:30, breakfast at 9:00 (notice the priorities!!) and three to four laps around the Promenade Deck which is equivalent to about a mile.
MA went off to play trivial pursuit and I got into a Dale Brown novel, Shadow Command. We were signed up for a snorkeling adventure after lunch so off we went in swimming gear, with towels, water and sunscreen. This was the typical cruise ship shore excursion beginning with zero organization, lots of confusion and waiting, waiting, and waiting. Finally the captain of excursion led our group of 80 to his catamaran which had a crew of five plus a video camera diver.
We sailed past the Emerald Princess anchoring about two miles down the shoreline. After a brief explanation of how to snorkel and figuring out the fins, mask and snorkel, the captain turned us loose on the fish. The water was too cool for MA not to mention she wasn’t about to just “jump into the ocean” but I was able to adapt rather quickly to the temperature.
I had purchased a cheap waterproof camera and took the entire roll of film underwater, mostly of yellow-fin snapper. The first five minutes I had to teach myself how to snorkel all over again swallowing several mouthfuls of salt water in the process, but I have to say it was really fun.
We then cruised over to a beach where the catamaran was anchored to the shore. Finally got MA into the water and we swam around the white sand beach for about an hour and then it was time to go back to the ship. Back to the dock, managed to skip all the shops and get back onboard the Emerald Princess.
We went to dinner later and ate with a really fun couple from Long Island, New York: Peter and Ada. Peter is in a distribution business run by his family. He’s also a hunter, has a concealed weapon permit in case of need there in Long Island and is definitely a staunch conservative so we got along very well. All in all it was another great day at sea spent with my very best friend in the world even if she wouldn’t jump off the side of that catamaran! God bless.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
The island of St. Thomas is part of the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. The US purchased the islands for $27 million in gold during WWII to use as a naval base. I have to say it’s one beautiful place. St. Thomas is the capital of an island group. It has everything: mountain scenery, crystal blue waters and white sand beaches, a real paradise. It’s also another one of those “Caribbean Shopping Mecca’s”!
We signed up for a photographer’s tour which is a small group lead by a local professional photographer. We were not disappointed. Our tour guide Carey is a young woman who works for a local professional photographer. She has been doing these cruise ship tours for a couple of years and she knew where to take us for the best views. We were a group of 13 and our mode of transportation was an open air type bus. We left the harbor, drove through town and up a mountain side to “Paradise Point”. You can also get up there by tram. The over look is breathtaking as you can see by the photo.
We went to another city overlook and then on to a botanical garden. It started to rain pretty seriously so we were limited to what we could see under a canopy. The tour then stopped by a local beach after which we were back to the ship and MA and I treated each other to lunch.
Later we got off the ship again, walked into the port shopping area to see what was offered. There’s no denying there are bargains to be had if you’re into collecting and jewelry. The weather turned sunshiny and the ship departed St. Thomas around 4pm. We are at sea now and our next port of call is Grand Turk where we will try our hand at sailing on a catamaran and snorkeling. Grand Turk is only 10 square miles in size. Guess we won’t get lost as the ship will be the biggest thing there!
Captain’s hors d'ourve party tonight and lobster’s on the menu later in the dining room. Guess we won’t miss either one! Later! WW

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

1st Port of Call: Sint Maarten, Dutch Antilles

1st Port of Call: St. Maarten, Dutch Antilles
The Emerald Princess arrived here in St. Maarten at 8:30 this morning and at last we had great weather, warm and sunshiny with a few clouds here and there. After breakfast we decided to go ashore and check out the place on our own because our “official” tour was not until after lunch.
Most of these ports in the Caribbean are really alike and they truly depend on the cruise ship business. They are Mecca’s of “shopping” if you’re in the market for fancy watches, diamonds, any kind of jewelry, and of course t-shirts and swimwear.
MA and I are not shoppers so we ignored the hawkers and made our way to a “water taxi”, a 100- passenger boat that takes you across the bay to town for $6 round trip. After getting our yellow wrist bands so we could get back to our ship, we jumped aboard one of those taxis and soon arrived in Phillipsburg.
This island of 27 square miles is divided into two halves: one Dutch and the other French. They seem to get along just fine after 300 years sharing the place. We strolled down the boardwalk again ignoring all the offers of tour guides and jewelry sales although I did splurge on a $4 cap because I lost the one I brought with me!
After checking everything out, we took the water taxi back, had a quick lunch and got ready for the “Natural Wonders” tour. About 40 of us boarded a bus and they took us to a sad little zoo that needed lots of TLC. There were none of the big exhibits one expects in a zoo, mostly tropical birds and iguanas, their version of natural wonders. The tour then took us on a bus ride all around the island, both French and Dutch sides and we saw some beautiful views of the ocean, hillsides, and cresting waves. All in all it was a fine day with the one I love and we both are looking forward to tomorrow in St. Thomas.
One last thing: Anchored on the next berth was that huge new ship, the Royal Caribbean: Oasis of the Seas. The Oasis is everything you might have read about, the biggest ship we’ve ever seen! It has room for 6000 passengers. It even has “inside balconies” overlooking the pool areas along with seven decks of outside balconies, on both sides. Would have loved to tour that one!
We’ve been waiting two hours to “sail away” but the Captain just announced we are waiting for passengers who missed the ship in Fort Lauderdale and were just now catching up with us. Didn’t know they did that, hold the ship for late arrivals! What a “Princess!”
More tomorrow!

A Fruity Looking Owl

2nd Day at Sea: Fun aboard Emerald Princess
Today started out windy and cloudy again! Our activities were therefore confined to what was going on aboard ship but we found plenty to do starting with morning coffee room service! Princess has great room service (comes with the price of the trip!) as we learned last time and we have quickly gotten spoiled with coffee and juice brought to us to start out our days with.
Keeping our priorities uppermost in mind, we headed up to the buffet breakfast and afterward decided a nice walk around the deck would be a good idea. The minute we stepped out on the Promenade Deck I knew that this walk would be a short one. The winds were blowing, the waves were crashing and splashing and getting the deck soaking wet. So one trip around was all we could do. In fact, the deck crew finally closed the bow section of the ship because of high winds.
The photos at the top are of a fun program we watched at 10am, Demonstration Nation; fruit and vegetable carving, towel folding and flower arranging. Right after that a talented juggler performed juggling balls, pins and then even he juggled ping pong balls from his mouth while maneuvering around on a unicycle. What a way to make a living!
Lunch was something different today: English Pub lunch, fish, chips and bread pudding! (Priorities!)
We went to a Veterans get-together at 4PM where I met other veterans of military service. One of them was a WWII and Korean War bomber crew chief named “Whitey”. You would have loved to listen to some of the stories he told about his service in the Pacific during WW II. MA had gone on to afternoon “Trivial Pursuit” so I caught up with her there and guess what? We won! The grand prize was two decks of Princess playing cards. That’ll make grandson Jacob happy! He and MA play cards a lot!
Tonight was “Formal Night” and most everyone got all dressed up in tux and suits and the ladies all shiny in sequins and long dresses. The sequined wrap I got MA for Christmas was a big hit. She got more compliments on that shiny thing that I could ever have imagined. We decided to do the professional portrait photography stuff and while we were “posing” a nice group of folks walked up with sort of an “Ah Gee! Look at them!” friendly-type comment. Then one of them said to us: “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” M.A. burst out laughing and they did too saying: “They must be Baptists too!” Thumbs up all around!
Tomorrow we dock at Saint Maarten, Dutch Antilles and have a full day ashore. By the way, we heard about the earthquake and tsunami watch nearby in Haiti. The captain came on over the loud speaker to assure us we would not be affected. Good thing! That life vest doesn’t do me justice!
Hope everyone is doing well!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2nd Day at Sea: Strong Wind Blowing

Our second day at sea started with strong and gusty northwest winds and white caps on the ocean. Our plan was to have a quick breakfast (remember those priorities!) and then go ashore to Princess Cays, a private island resort run by the Princess. However, the captain came on the loud speaker and announced that we would not be anchoring there after all due to the rough seas. The ship has small ferry boats called tenders for taking passengers to shore and he determined it was too dangerous to try and use the tenders in high seas.
So while the ship redirected course toward St. Maartens we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with a tablemate from Montreal, Canada and MA got to speak some of her newest language endeavor (French) with him.
We both got our exercise doing laps around the ship. MA’s a “water person” and I’m a birder/observer/reader/TV viewer so we went our separate ways until lunch. There we met some new tablemates, two elderly ladies from Texas, one of whom had strong tastes in perfume and the other dramatic circular eyebrow makeup. But of course they were “Texas charmers”.
It was a quiet day at sea overall which makes for some great relaxation and reflection.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Departure of Ft. Lauderdale and 1st Day at Sea

Departure of Ft. Lauderdale and 1st Day at Sea
Sunday morning early MA and I stepped out onto our hotel room balcony only long enough to count five new cruise ships including our Emerald Princess getting ready for their new passengers. I say only long enough because it was freezing out there!
Based on yesterday’s lunch experience and the long lines for the expensive breakfast buffet we braved the cold wind and set off for Blimpie’s again where we ordered “Mc-Blimpie” breakfast sandwiches, stocked up on more water and went back to the hotel.
At last it was high noon, time to check out and get to the ship. Between the pleasant surprise of a hotel van service over the bridge to the dock and the smoothest embarkation we’ve ever experienced we found ourselves in Cabin P329 within 45 minutes!
P329 is located on the 5th deck, amidships, starboard (right) side. We couldn’t get a balcony cabin so we’re adjusting to a slightly smaller but still comfortable space. Of course the flat screen TV with the football games on made up for any cabin shortcomings. Our only complaint is the noise. It seems we are right above a mechanical room and we hear all kinds of shifting and sliding and grinding of gears.
If you’ve ever been on a cruise you know there is a mandatory emergency drill for everyone and so off we went to our “Muster Station”. Our “Muster Station” turned out to be in the casino and we found ourselves sitting on high back chairs in front of a row of slot machines. I was trying to figure out how you won on this one arm bandit, when we met another couple, John and Mary Ann from Florida. We soon discovered that like us, their lives revolved around church and family and life vest drills are the only time we all found ourselves in casinos!
John and MA discovered they were both CPAs getting mentally ready for tax season and they took over with a lively discussion of the IRS as only “bean counters” can do! After the drill we cleared up a little mix-up with our assigned dinner hour and table number straight. You have to keep your priorities straight around here! M.A. went to the library while I walked to the top deck and found the NFL game on a huge big screen TV. Again! Priorities!
The Emerald Princess departed Ft. Lauderdale at 5:00pm with three US Coast Guard escort boats and we were quickly rocking and rolling in the Atlantic Ocean. It was rough most of the evening but we are fortunate in that it doesn’t seem to bother us. At dinner later we met one of our table-mates, Stan and Susan from Highland Park, near Chicago, Illinois. Stan’s a Periodontist and Susan works out and spoils her new Maltese puppy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

MA (Mary Alice) and I are off on another cruise, this time to the Eastern Caribbean. Our day began at 4:00 AM so we could get to the airport, clear security and stop at the Continental Club for a bagel before going to the gate. We flew to Fort Lauderdale looking forward to some Florida sunshine and warm weather to replace Houston's 19 degrees we left behind. It was not to be! Cold rainy skies greeted us as our flight landed.

We had some Hyatt points to use up so we decided on the Hyatt Regency near the cruise terminal port. MA was joking with the room clerk about suites and lo and behold he clicked around on the computer, gave her a nice smile and the keys to a top floor suite overlooking a view of six cruise ships loading up for their next trips. That doesn't happen to us often!

You're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned lunch! Well we sat down in the lobby restaurant which had 4 waiters and about 100 customers. Once glance at all that and a menu which told us a glob of pasta and an individual size pizza was going to cost about $40 changed our mind about dining at the Hyatt!

We decided to brave the cold and rain and race across the street to Blimpies, get a couple of sandwiches, water, pop, chips, for less than $20. We carried our gourmet "finds" back to the room and dined in style in the suite while we revisited the itinerary ahead.

We sail at 5pm tomorrow and the first port of call is Princess Cays, Bahamas. This is a private resort owned by Princess Cruise Lines. After a day at sea next, we dock on the third day in St. Maarten, Netherland Antilles; then on to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands and finally Grand Turk. I'll try and keep you filled in on the day's happenings, interesting places and people, and of course a photo here and there.

This first one was taken from our hotel balcony and it is of the cruise ship port. You can count the 6 (six) cruise ships waiting to depart. This place is cruise happy which explains why 100 people are willing to spend $40 for lunch, Wendel's excepted!