Archive for January 2014

Samana, Dominican Republic   Leave a comment

Samana both met my (low) expectations and exceeded them. We’d read so many disappointing reports by people who didn’t book excursions, that we knew booking an excursion was a must.

After much research we settled on the Cayo Levantado Beach excursion. Generally the reviews were very positive (just some mention that the chairs we kind of ratty)…my only concern was the mention of no umbrellas as I will burn to a crisp!

We dropped anchor at Samana right on schedule (remember the echoing anchor noises awakening us in St. Maarten?). You could tell the lack of interest in visiting this island in that the tenders were open to general boarding within a half hour. (In fact, when we returned to the ship around 12:35, the pool deck was the busiest I’ve witnessed on a port day.)

Our meeting time for our excursion was 9:00 in the Stardust theater. I was nervous for a couple of reasons. First was a Royal Caribbean ship was in port as well (we were told we were the only ship), and the port excursion guy threw fear into our hearts; “Another ship in port”, “limited chairs”, “no umbrellas”, “some shade”, “the next tender” (we weren’t first?!?!)…all of this built to a crescendo in my pasty-white brain.

After boarding the tender to the island, there was a mix-up because two people boarded without tickets. All was straightened out in the end, but my frenzied brain just saw lounge chairs and shade being sucked up as the minutes ticked by!

As we approached the island I could see plenty of vacant spots on the beach and my heart-rate slowed.

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Upon arrival, you are handed a map of the area and sent on your way. There is a small market with stalls selling all of the usual; magnets (yay!), jewelry, knickknacks, etc. Continue down the path to the beach and all of the white beach chairs are yours for the taking. The beach chairs with colored nylon are strategically placed in the shade (of which there is plenty) and are $5 each (the chairs are fairly ratty as reported). You can either pay the $ or drag the free chairs to the shade. Your choice.

We walked to the shadiest spot at the end of the beach. There is a roped-off area in the water. Unbeknownst to us, this is where they trotted their resident sea lion out for the sea lion encounter. So we were able to enjoy the show without the high sticker price (I do have to confess I do not support any of these enterprises over concern of how the animals are treated…even observing from afar I felt guilt…)

Waiters approached occasionally offering libations (everything seemed to be $5) gentleman renting snorkel gear, and women offering massages, but the sales pitches were not too intrusive.

I was happy in our shady spot, but DH was disappointed in the snorkeling, only seeing kelp, jelly fish and trash. 😦

The first tender back to the Gem was or be at noon. Being used to “island time” we weren’t surprised that the tender didn’t show up until 12:15 nor leave until 12:25. But for the guests hoping to go from the beach to the tender to the mainland, this delay was supremely distressing.

Our departure was delayed by another medical emergency. DH spotted a lady with a sling on her arm and her entire family being placed on a tender. Of our four stops, this is the one that I really wouldn’t want to be dropped off at! I just hope she (and her family) has medical evacuation insurance!

Dinner was at Orchid Garden tonight. The food was very good, but the service utterly disjointed. Our first course (soup) arrived before our wine. My second course was dropped off minutes after my soup. DH’s second course didn’t arrive until we pointed out that it had never been delivered and that my appetizer was now cold because it had been brought out far too early. At least the waiter had the sense to ask if I wanted a new appetizer (yes), but then would you believe it? He brought out the main course while we were still eating the appetizer! Sheesh! It wasn’t just our waiter that was dropping food at inappropriate times, it was other servers as well. I don’t quite understand how this basic training is missing?

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Posted January 20, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

St. Thomas at Last!   Leave a comment

So, onward to St. Thomas. Like St. Maarten, we’ve been to this port three times before. Previously we’ve taken a snorkel excursion to Trunk Bay in St John (great tour), taken a local island tour (also very good) and attempted a snorkel excursion that was cancelled. This time we just planned to walk to downtown Havensight and check out the shops that were there.

There are numerous taxis waiting at the pier that are more than happy to take you downtown, but as it’s about a mile walk, we decided to hoof it. Like our previous day in St. Maarten, we had 80 degree weather and a nice breeze off of the water. The walk was pretty good excepting a long stretch along the waterline without any shade.

On the way to downtown, you will reach a nice shopping area with your high-end purveyors of handbags…Coach, Louie Vuitton, Gucci. Just before you reach the center, you’ll see a straw market with all of the typical items you’d expect; knock-off purses, t-shirts, cheap jewelry, table runners (I don’t understand the fascination with table runners and table cloths in these places).

Once downtown there are DOZENS of jewelry stores. I seriously don’t know how you’d begin to compare them all and their pricing. DH and I like the idea of purchasing things from stores that you can easily contact for returns, so we ignored the barrage of street front pitchmen attempting to lure you into their establishments.

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As I’ve stated before, I am not a shopper, but I have never once poked my head into any of the jewelry places on the islands (or on the ship) and felt like the “deal” I was getting exceeded what I would get with Amazon. Granted I’m not looking for high-end goods, so maybe being budget-minded keeps me from taking advantage of killer deals?

Anyway, we didn’t last down there for long and made our way back to the ship. Our side balcony was in the shade and very comfortable and afforded a great view of the port traffic and the dozens of yachts parked there. DH could have (and did) spend hours just watching all of the comings and goings. Finally, we left the ship again to have some lunch. Yes, lunch is included on the ship, but I do like eating locally where possible. We ended up at the Havensight Cafe (literally a stone’s through from where we were docked) where DH had a very passable curry chicken and I happily sampled a Virgin Islands Summer Ale brewed in St. John. Oh! Free WiFi too!

Coming back to the ship the second time, they had the DJ stationed at the gangway, pumping music into the air. Many of the ship’s officers were lined up to greet returning guests…this is on top of the cold facecloths, ice pops, ice water etc. Once on board we overheard conversation about how much people loved this and they couldn’t understand why other lines don’t. (I know I’ve mentioned before, but in cold climates it’s hot cocoa and warm facecloths greeting you.). If NCL put half the attention to detail into the rest of the ships operations that they do into this, they’d be the premier line in the industry.

There were two Royal Caribbean ships in port with us (Explorer of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas). I overheard someone state that there had been six ships in port the day before. Considering that there were seven of us in St. Maarten that day really makes you wonder just how many cruise ships are clogging up the Caribbean?

DH and I continue to have low-key evenings. The show that night wasn’t to our liking (an acrobat/Cirque type performance) so we settled in at the martini bar. Okay. There’s this guy who plays the piano there who’s probably one of the worst single entertainers we’ve ever seen on a ship. Sure there are people that just don’t match my taste, but I can think, “They’re talented,” even if I don’t want to listen to them. This guy plays average piano, does your cruise ship standards (Sweet Caroling anyone?) but fancies himself a comedian as well and just makes the lamest jokes over and over again. Literally repeating the same jokes within minutes. Just awful. And he’s always calling out to people in the audience and passers by just making me want to avoid the whole area. Blech. To be fair he does seem to draw a crowd…but why?!?!

Tomorrow, Samana…probably one of my least anticipate stops ever (both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are dropping this as a port of call next year).

Posted January 17, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

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St. Maarten!   Leave a comment

I don’t know why, but I dearly love St. Maarten. I can spend hours wandering around Philipsburg. Which makes no sense whatsoever as I am not a shopper. But I love the colorful storefronts, the outrageously blue Caribbean Sea, and the fun people.

Unfortunately for us, our day in St. Maarten was what the Captain referred to as “Black Wednesday”. It was the one Wednesday out of the month when seven ships converge on the small island. That meant we were two of 23,000 passengers and that we were the only ship that had to tender. 😦

We awakened to the dulcet tones of the anchor being dropped. ClangClangClangClang! The ship arrived early and they started tender operations immediately (taking more than a few people off guard I am certain!). By 8:45 tendering was open to everyone.

DH and I grabbed a quick breakfast at the buffet (he wanted corned beef hash, which is not on the Cagney’s menu), then proceeded ashore.

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As I stated above, I can walk around Philipsburg for hours, and that is what we did. It was probably the nicest weather we’ve ever had in St. Maarten. 80F with a cooling breeze. It was lunch time before we knew it, and we made our way to Taloula Mangos. We had planned on eating lunch here during our last visit to the island, but a power outage killed that idea. This time our luck was in and we found a table for two on the second floor balcony overlooking the street. By this time of day they have a musician playing on the street in front of the restaurant to draw in customers, so we enjoyed good music while having a beverage or two and our lunch. Unfortunately, DH wasn’t too thrilled with his mahi-mahi sandwich (dry) but I enjoyed my pulled pork quesadilla.

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At this point we decided the air-conditioned ship sounded pretty good. At the tender pier NCL staff greeted us hot and sweaty passengers with ice-cold washcloths, fruit punch, ice water and popsicles. I have yet to hear of another cruise line taking care of their passengers like this. Once on board they had more goodies in the form of frozen grapes dipped in chocolate. Great touch NCL!

Five ships sailed away before we finally got our turn. This made no sense to me as we were at anchor and just had to pull it in and leave. But maybe because our next stop (St. Thomas) was so close we could afford to leave late? We watched the P&O ship leave blasting music from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to “Henry the Eighth I Am”. Okay….

Another low-key buffet dinner. We did stop by the pool deck and check out the Bob Marley tribute. I was surprised that the singer was female, but she did a pretty good job. πŸ™‚

(Ship internet is being super slow…will have to load pictures later!!!)

Posted January 16, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

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Old San Juan   Leave a comment

Day four aboard the beautiful Gem would bring us to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

We weren’t to arrive until the afternoon, so we enjoyed another leisurely breakfast at Cagney’s. For the first time ever on a cruise ship, my scrambled eggs were honest-to-goodness real eggs, a fact the waiter proudly pointed out. Usually, scrambled eggs on a ship are egg product poured from a carton, so this was a pleasant surprise (it’s the little things, right?).

Another gorgeous day meant some time spent on our balcony, getting some sun.

Around noon, the captain announced that due to a medical emergency, we would arrive in San Juan about an hour before our scheduled arrival time. We ordered a pizza for lunch (although we do like the pizza at the buffet better than the $5 pizza you can have delivered) so we could enjoy our meal and watch our sail into port at the same time. As well approached the dock, we could see the ambulance at the ready. I hope that whatever it was wasn’t too serious!

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Having no plans, we weren’t in a hurry to leave the ship, so we didn’t take advantage of the concierge’s offer for a speedy escort off of the ship.

We didn’t do anything very exciting. We walked around for awhile before coming across Castillo Cristobal. On our last visit to Old San Juan, we had gone to El Morro. Now we could state that we’d been to both of OSJ’s forts.

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After a quick bite at the buffet, we went black out to SeΓ±or Frogs. Easy enough to do as we could see it from the ship. The security guard warned us as we left that we had an hour to get back to the ship. No problem! We ordered a couple of margaritas, but I accidentally ended up with a large after requesting a “regular”. Attempting to speed drink 20 ounces of frozen margarita is really unpleasant! After about the fifth
ice-headache I had to give in.

Sailaway was scheduled for 9:00 pm. DH and I took glasses of port to the front balcony to watch as we slowly departed Old San Juan. DH and I usually take staterooms at the aft of the ship so leaving the port is a visual of the ship stirring up the water and the engines producing a wake. The view from the front is decidedly different and we appeared to glide effortlessly into the night.

Got Ship?   Leave a comment

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Posted January 15, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

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Sea Days on the Gem   1 comment

15-foot seas greeted us in the morning and the booming of the bow slapping the ocean surface. The ship pitched as the wind pummeled it from the side. I glanced at the time. I seriously doubted the Captain’s prediction from the day before would hold. If the seas were to calm in 18-20 hours as stated, we should see some relief in 2 hours.

I do believe the ship’s motion was getting to people. Cagney’s was nearly deserted for breakfast. Well that gave us some speedy service! A quick stop to see Carlos, the concierge, and make dinner reservations and we attempted to go outside. I say attempted as all of the exits were roped off. We did manage to sneak out through the buffet. Despite the wind and some rain, the temperature was around 60F. Not bad for January!

We stopped by Progressive Trivia to kill some time before the Cruise Critic meet and greet. I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating! If you haven’t been to a meet and greet on an NCL ship, you should go. They put out a nice spread of pastries, cookies, coffee and tea, and normally all of senior management attends. This time was no exception, and the Captain assured us the seas would calm as the day progressed and should be quite tolerable by evening. They also give you a card with everyone’s (excepting the Captain’s) phone numbers on it so you can contact them with any concerns.

The afternoon was spent watching football and reading. Boring for some, but not for us. πŸ™‚ Oh, the bow slaps caused some trim pieces around the button for the toilet to fall off of the wall. Our room steward let us know he’d placed a call to maintenance. A couple of hours later the first guy showed up to fix the toilet. We let him know it wasn’t a plumbing issue, but cosmetic. He checked it out and agreed that we needed a “wood guy”. An hour later, another knock. This time the worker who showed up came to fix the toilet door. Nope, we told him we weren’t aware of a problem with the door. He checked and agreed to send the right person. Third time was the charm and right guy showed up to repair the trim.

That was our big excitement for the day, LOL.

As promised by the Captain, the seas calm during the afternoon and I only have to grab the handle in the shower a couple of times to keep myself from plunging through the door! The VIP cocktail party was at 7:00 in the Haven. A smart move by NCL to show off the Haven to those suite and VIP passengers that don’t have access. You can tell there’s no Noro on the ship as all officers shook hands. :-). The Captain stayed for the duration of the party, chatting with everyone. It was, as always, a nice experience.

Down one floor to dinner at Cagney’s we went. I wish I had brought my camera just to show that even at prime dining time Cagney’s was maybe a third full?

I (we) love the new Cagney’s menu. This is the third ship we’ve had it on and the food had been consistently good. Our only quibble with this meal was DH’s steak was underdone. It was not a big deal to him. He was never going to eat all of the 18 oz bone-in rib eye. When asked if everything was okay, he did mention that the steak was under-cooked. Medium rare went to rare (okay) and raw as he delved further into the steak. He insisted that he was just letting them know and that he had eaten all he wanted. The maitre’d gave him a bottle of house wine in apology. Unnecessary, but welcome! Great customer service. πŸ™‚

Another sea day brings wonderful weather. Sea days are kind of boring to write about though. We went for a walk after breakfast, sat out in the sun, read, noticed that they had the roof on the courtyard open for the second time that either of us can recollect. Not very exciting stuff, but oh, so relaxing.

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Had dinner at Le Bistro and for the first time in recent memory it was mediocre. The “cream” of mushroom soup had no discernible cream in it. The escargots were covered in bread crumbs and big chunks of pepper, and my beef tenderloin dry. At least DH’s lamb chops were good. It was also the only time we’ve ever had less than exceptional service in Le Bistro. The waiter was utterly indifferent and I could tell the moment he spoke that he wasn’t going to be very good. We ended up getting up with our dinner plates still on the table as no one ever cleared them. We rarely get dessert and we had used a Platinum certificate to pay for the meal so we thought, “What are we waiting for?”, and left.

After dinner we decided to check out the show that evening. It was a comedian, Michael Somerville. We thought he was okay. Not outstanding, so we left about half way though the show. I love that the reserved seating for Haven guests is off to the side. Makes for easy escape without disturbing others. πŸ™‚

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We wrapped up that evening out on our front balcony bathed in the light of the nearly full moon. The stars were so bright, the sea so calm. Truly, a wonderful end to a relaxing day.

Posted January 14, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

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All Aboard the Norwegian Gem!   Leave a comment

My first comment must be that if you’re looking for an easy place to drive to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal from, Yonkers is it!

At least the Residence Inn in Yonkers is! Seriously. Leave the hotel, bang a left onto Executive Blvd (maybe stop in and say “hi” to the Consumer Reports HQ), bang a right back onto Sawmill Parkway and you’re golden. Sawmill turns into Henry Hudson and all you have to do (after 17 miles or so) is look for the exit to the Cruise Terminal. Awesomely easy! Probably our least painful drive to Manhattan (excepting the car hire…which is cost prohibitive!).

We had thought that maybe the one-night cruise before us might clear the ship early. After all, there is no luggage service or customs to process through. Well we arrived at the port after 10:30 and people were still leaving the ship! We had made it through security and were being checked in and we could see people disembarking! Frankly, the fact that they managed to start boarding by 12:10 is a minor (major?) miracle!

Rooms weren’t quite ready, so we made our way to Cagney’s for lunch (we were fortunate enough to be in a an Owner’s Suite this trip!). We’ve never seen so many people in Cagney’s for embarkation lunch! I seem to recall on past Gem cruises that the opened the smaller, overflow seating area of Cagney’s for lunch. Not this time. The main dining area was open and good thing as they needed nearly every seat.

We had the corn chowder that has been the embarkation soup for several years now (sometimes they go crazy and add a shrimp or two) and steaks with Cagney’s signature truffle oil fries.

While we dined, they announced that rooms were ready, so off to the suite we went. The room is gorgeous. It’s a good thing that purple is my favorite color as that is the dominant color! The only thing we don’t care for is that the forward balcony is completely uncovered leaving it useless in inclement weather (which we had today). The couple of requests I had made through the pre-cruise concierge had been filled and correctly, so that was pleasant!

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Survived the muster drill and came back to the cabin to find our luggage had been delivered. Yay! A quick unpack, pour a little champagne then out to our balconies for sail away. The front balcony was only useable for a brief period due to the rain and wind (but we sailed away in 60 degree weather…in January…so who’s complaining?). The side balcony provided shelter and a wonderful view of the Freedom Tower once it broke free of fog.

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Dinner was a quick grab at the buffet (hello…playoff football is on!!). But in our wanderings we checked out some of the specialty restaurants. NCL has been promoting specialty dining packages that left me concerned about getting dinner reservations. I needn’t have been. The lines at the main dining rooms were long but the three specialty restaurants we checked out (Cagney’s, Orchid Garden, and Teppanyaki) were literally empty. Not good for NCL, but good for us!
The day ends with a New England Patriots victory so all is right with the world! πŸ™‚

Posted January 13, 2014 by cubechick in Cruise Planning...it never stops!

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