Friday, April 9, 2010

Where to Go for the Best Cruise Vacation

When folks find out that I have been on more than 30 cruises they always ask, “What’s your favorite cruise?” I always tell them—“My next one!”

Over the years Linda and I have cruised in Tahitian waters, through the Mediterranean, down the coast of South America, and nearly everywhere in the Caribbean and Mexico. We’ve taken a group of friends to the Holy Land, and our extended family to the Western Med. And, oh yes we’ve escorted cruises to Alaska and in the Caribbean. And in almost every instance, each cruise experience had something completely unique and exciting.

Now that more and more folks have cruised on the more “traditional” routes in the Caribbean, Mexico or Alaska, they’re starting to look at expanding their cruising world to nearly every horizon. The expansion of river cruises in Europe and China have created an entirely new group of cruises who enjoy the small ship ambiance and the ability to inter-react with the cultures where they visit. New Mega-ships like the Oasis of the Seas are making the ship the destination, with port calls as only a mild diversion from the enjoyment of the world’s largest floating resort. In short, the world of cruising has undergone an explosion of different options almost everywhere in the world.

Nearly everybody we know agrees that a benefit of a cruise vacation is the anticipation of a great new travel adventure. Some people become scholars and do graduate level research to be armed with knowledge about where they are going on their cruise, and what they want to see. Others are more content with adding just the right resort clothes to their wardrobes so they can “look sharp” in their shipboard attire. Everyone has just a little different take on their own personal approach to a cruise.

The key to maximizing that next great cruise adventure is to take advantage of the resources available through companies like Cruise Holidays of Woodinville. Certainly, it’s possible to book a cruise online—but is that the best way? Often if a consumer is booking directly with a cruise line, that cruise line is only interested in selling their own products and the best interest of the consumer is often secondary. Our cruise and vacation counselors offer much more in the way of choice and options, looking for the perfect fit and best value for our valued customers. I’ve always said, “the cheapest cruise price often isn’t the best value, but it takes expert assistance to know the difference.”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Holidays at Sea. Great Family Experiences

The trend of extended families taking cruise vacations over holiday periods continues to gain strength. And the cruise lines are doing their best to make holiday cruise experiences a special time for their guests.

At Christmas time the ships will be decorated in holiday garb, with special concerts, the appearance of Santa Claus (or one of his international versions—like Sinter Claus on Holland America Line) --a special event for children both large and small. Even during minor holidays like Halloween, special candy gathering trick or treating if offered onboard.

What makes a holiday cruise getaway even better is that it often takes away the pressures of holiday entertaining for those families who elect a ship instead of home. Special foods, parties and events are completely taken care of by the cruise line. They do all of the cooking, cleaning, and preparation, and all the guests have to do is show up and enjoy.

This year we even had a couple who decided last minute they wanted to get away for an Easter break on Wednesday the week prior. We found them a nice balcony stateroom on Princess sailing to the deep Caribbean from San Juan—and our couple used frequent flyer miles to get them from Seattle to Puerto Rico and back.

We have one group of family and friends sailing over Christmas on Royal Caribbean’s new mega-ship the Allure of the Seas. They’re planning on having a great cruise on a brand new ship making its first Christmas sailing in the Caribbean. By booking this cruise early, they’ve been able to select the kinds of exact staterooms they want, including several which have interconnecting doors, so the can keep tabs on their older children.

So, no matter what the weather might be at home, it’s certain that during holiday times, fair and warm weather is usually the norm on a cruise. These special cruises are a treat and it’s easy to see why they are becoming ever more popular.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sharing A Vacation

Anyone who has been following this blog is aware that Linda and I recently returned from a great cruise on the Azamara Journey. We spent 12 days cruising to St. John, St. Martin, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Guadalupe, St. Barth’s and Virgin Gorda.

Whenever someone returns from a great vacation, they enjoy sharing their experiences with friends and co-workers. It’s a lot of fun to reminisce about experiences that others might enjoy. Things like the humpback whale we saw while walking the deck while the ship was cruising off Puerto Rico; and the sea turtle that Linda saw from our balcony while reading a book at St. Martin.

People are curious to hear about the boulders at the Baths in Virgin Gorda and our intrepid conquering of the Devil’s Path to reach the most spectacular part of this attraction which is a highlight of the Caribbean. They also like to hear about the mega-yachts docking in the picturesque harbor in St. Barth’s—including one owned by Jimmy Buffett. These are some of the dividends of travel that add to the inventory of life’s great experiences.

Because we have enjoyed many cruises, we have become a little jaded in our expectations. Our cruise onboard the Azamara Journey was a wonderful delight that ranked near or at the top of all of the cruises we’ve enjoyed together. The ship’s crew was efficient, friendly and proud to be part of a “happy ship.” The food onboard was uniformly good and the choices were often unbelievable. I have never seen a 25 pound Mahi Mahi displayed as part of a fresh fish display for a deck barbecue before.

Often people ask me which cruise has been my favorite. I think the statement, “my next one,” is an appropriate response. Every time we venture out on the high seas we build new memories that are a joy to resurrect. I highly recommend the re-charging which a cruise can deliver as a great plus in life. Oh, Linda and I are looking forward to the “next one,” we just don’t know what, when or where it will be yet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wrap-up 12-Night Azamara Journey Caribbean Cruise

Our 12-night Azamara Caribbean cruise ended in Miami on March 20th. Both Linda and I felt that this was one of the best cruise vacation experiences we’ve ever taken. The itinerary was excellent and the ship performed beyond our expectations.

Once again, we were astounded when the disembarkation process was the smoothest and quickest we’ve ever experienced—a mirror image of the slick embarkation experience from 12-days earlier. Because we had requested the independent travel option, we were given a 9:00 AM departure time. In fact, we left the ship at 8:50 AM with no waiting whatsoever. It was a breeze to leave the ship, collect our luggage and catch a rental car shuttle all within about 200 yards, and taking only a few short minutes.

The departure breakfast on the Journey was nearly the same as every other morning, a stark contrast to most other cruise lines who give you a significantly reduced choice in the buffet on the last morning. The only shortcoming was a lack of coffee cups. The service staff was its usual friendly and efficient self. We even had a chance for a final meal with the Reinagal’s from the Williamsburg, Virginia Cruise Holidays store.

The guest relations folks had advised us that we could take a peek at the Sky Suites and Penthouse suites after 8:30 AM on our last morning on the ship. The Sky Suites were substantially larger than our balcony stateroom, and they had bigger bathrooms with a tub—unlike our postage stamp sized shower. The real wow was in the Penthouse Suite which has a nice living room, bath and a half and a huge balcony. I think these categories will do very well as Azamara moves up to the Super-Premium category in cruising (just below Luxury).

Azamara is to be commended for putting together a product which shines in comparison to the premium level of cruising (Holland America Line and Celebrity). The service level and the dining was consistently better than the two aforementioned large ship lines. It’s evident that Azamara has a happy and motivated crew.

Things like the two on-deck evening barbecues with fresh fish from the local island; the great sushi chef every night in the buffet; the barbecue lunch served by the ship’s officers to the guests, and the sociable Cova Milano Café are superior examples of where Azamara shines. We even had a three hour soft rock concert on the afternoon of the last sea day, and an ice cream social as a nice exclamation point. The officers, both hotel staff and ship staff were highly visible and readily approachable, which was appreciated by the guests.

Only criticism was the bathroom size, and marginal wine choices by the glass with an 18% tip added to the tab. But, if that’s the biggest concern, then Azamara is definitely on the right track. As the female Hotel Manager said, “if we make a profit, we will definitely be getting newbuilds in the near future—and well they should.

I would recommend Azamara Club Cruises to couples and adults who appreciate good service and cuisine. It’s not a great cruise for children, but there are lots of other cruise lines who are. Experienced cruisers should find Azamara to be just their cup of tea—Earl Grey of course.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Azamara Cruise - Day 12- At Sea

The farther north the Journey travelled it became obvious the temperature was becoming slightly cooler and less humid. But there was enough sun for the sun worshippers to get their final fix on tanning. The last day of a cruise is always a little happy/sad. Another cruise is coming to an end and luggage is dragged out from underneath the bed where it had remained for nearly two weeks. It was also the time for those last-minute purchases from the ship’s boutique.
A nice touch was the Journey’s rock combo, Mirage and the guitarist soloist performed on the pool deck from noon to nearly 4:00 PM. Kind of a going away concert.
Linda and I went to the final enrichment lecture, which was conducted by Doctor Denny Whitford, a professor from the University of Maryland and a retired navy sea captain. He talked about legends and lore of the sea. In his 50 minute lecture he covered a wide range of historical and current sea stories—everything from sea monsters of mythology to historical terms that have survived until modern times. He even included the audience at times and had a lot of fun with his subject material.
At dinner time we had our final meal in the main dining room with the Reinagals, Bill and Teresa who own the Williamsburg, Virginia Cruise Holidays store. We had one of those great dinner conversations covering everything from burglars to marketing—maybe a little closer in content than one might expect.
Linda finally used up the last few internet minutes to find that Becca and Ben had been accepted at Princeton’s theological graduate school—way to go guys! Linda had written one of the recommendation letters so she felt she had a little impact on their success.
Back to the cruise, we had a little laugh when in the morning as we went to breakfast we noticed that a couple of staterooms already had their luggage in the hallway waiting for pick up. We figured they read 11:00 PM to be 11:00 AM and we ahead of everybody else in getting their bags ready for departure. The rest of us waited until after dinner to pack our bags.
We have to give Azamara Club Cruises high marks for their cruise product. While not perfect, nobody is, the crew, the content, and their management of the cruise was outstanding. And the new touches they will be adding will put them in the premium plus category—only the ten year old ship architecture will limit them as the aim at the top end luxury category. Linda and I were highly impressed with this cruise, and that’s hard to do for veteran cruisers like us.
Tomorrow is disembarkation the final farewell to the Azamara Journey. And then, it’s back to the real world—so sad!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Azamara Cruise - Day 11 - At Sea

This is the next to the last day of our 12-day cruise on the Azamara Journey. The weather is a little cooler, but still in the low 80s, but with much lower humidity. Many of the passengers seemed to be hurrying to get the last minute addition to their tan base. As a result, all of the deck chairs were busy and reserved all day long—so late comers were kind of out of luck.
Once again, Azamara did something I have never seen before on a cruise ship. At lunch time they offered a pool deck barbecue with the senior officers doing the serving for the passengers (carefully supported by the regular deck and restaurant staff.) It was a nice touch for the passengers to be served barbecued chicken from the Staff Captain. This lunch was well received by the passengers.
In the early afternoon, Linda and I and the Reinagal’s from the Williamsburg, Virginia store, played a little pinochle in the Looking Glass lounge. They played by East Coast rules and we got them to also play by west coast rules. No time to go into the details, but a fun way to get to know someone better.
Our end of cruise surveys and luggage tags arrived in our stateroom. That’s always kind of a sad time because it means our time is running out on what has been a great cruise vacation.
The crew has done an excellent job and it’s obvious this is a happy ship. Azamara has invested a great deal in training and supervision. The best service is unobtrusive, but always on the spot.
Linda and I decided to have our dinner on the outside deck outside the buffet for the final time. The sushi chef is excellent and his special of the day was a soft shell crab sushi which was tasty. The stir fry is also always available on the evening buffet and Linda selected a nice plate of stir-fried fresh veggies and chicken.
After dinner Linda and I ventured to the Cova Café for a cappuccino and an Earl Grey tea. We were joined by some ship acquaintances and had a nice discussion about the world of cruising—they’re looking at doing a Europe river cruise.
We caught the show with Craig Dahn, the pianist who had worked with Liberace when he was 14 year old. He is a gifted performer and his show was excellent.
The evening was capped off by watching the end of the Washington/Marquette game on the high definition plasma screen in the Casino—a nice last second win!
Tomorrow -- our last day at sea as we head for Miami.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Azamara Cruise - Day 10 - Virgin Gorda

This was our first port call in the British Virgin Islands at Virgin Gorda. We started our port call itinerary at St. John which is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. With only 4,000 inhabitants, Virgin Gorda is a small island which is very green with tropical desert vegetation, including many cacti and bougainvillea flowers.
We opted for the Journey’s Baths and Spring Bay shore excursion. Which departed as 8:30 AM—a very smart decision with the hot and humid day reaching about 86 degrees and the same humidity. Unfortunately the Caribbean was a little rough and the surf was quite heavy. This meant that snorkeling was impossible due to the waves and sand which was stirred up in the water.
The Baths are one of the unique features of the Caribbean. Enormous granite boulders are the remainders of ancient volcanic activity and they are everywhere on around this unique area. Linda and I took the Devils trail and headed through the narrow trail through, and sometimes under and between the big rocks to get to Devils Bay. Sometimes it was required to crawl on and hands and knees but we made the trek in good order. Several beautiful sailboats had anchored off the bay and their owners came ashore in zodiacs, taking the easy way into the bay. The surf was high, but the water was clear and warm and most everyone took a dip in the bobbing seas.
The Reinagals joined us, but they took a Shore Trips shore excursion which was much better than ours. They got an entire island tour and lunch for only a little more cost than our ship shore ex. This reinforced our opinion that Shore Trips offers good value and a nice option apart from what the cruise lines offer. They also advised the Reinagals about the alternate trail back to the parking lot, while Linda and I had to be salmon going upstream when we retraced the boulder trail while dozens and dozens of big ship tours were coming in while we were going out.
Not much in the way of shopping in Virgin Gorda, but that’s really no big deal.
Back on the ship we opted to eat at the alternative restaurant Aquilina’s for the second time. It’s definitely one of the best alternative restaurants at sea, which is a highlight for Azamara cruises.
For the entire voyage we have yet to see clear Caribbean skies full of stars, but there’s still a couple of days left. Tomorrow is one of the last two sea days left before we arrive in Miami.