Dealing in Absolutes

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly due to workload and lack of recent trips. We’re rectifying that over the next month and a half, as I’m headed to NYC for work this week (staying at the Doubletree in Lower Manhattan), and we’re going to Disney World in mid-May on vacation. While both should provide me with plenty of blog fodder, I did want to rant about an article I ran across a couple of months ago that really irritated me:

11 Reasons you should never ever take a cruise

It’s an older article that seems to reappear every year during peak cruise season. Headlines like that are obvious click-bait, and I hesitated to click on it for that very reason, but in the end gave in to my curiosities and contributed to the problem. It doesn’t bother me that the author and the referenced sources don’t like cruising, as everyone has different tastes. I just find articles that deal in absolutes annoying, regardless of the topic, especially when posted on a “trusted” site. As expected, it was an aggravating article filled with only one side of the story. Shocker.

Before we get in to the points presented, I want to start out by saying that I’m not sitting here trying to say that everyone should cruise and love it. Everyone’s different, and people have different travel tastes. People are capable of making up their own minds, but anyone on the fence about trying cruising that runs across biased drivel like that could end up swayed by someone else’s failure to present a fair argument. Let’s look at the reasons presented:

Dangerous fellow passengers: I’ve heard the arguments presented in here before, including from the sources quoted and other prominent maritime lawyers. I don’t doubt that the threat is real, but it’s also one that exists just about anywhere you go on vacation, whether it’s a cruise, all-inclusive resort, vacation house in some exotic country, etc.  I do agree with the insinuation that it’s a bad idea to let your kids roam freely on a ship, and it does surprise me every cruise to see how many young kids are allowed to do so. A little common sense goes a long way, especially when it comes to being aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye on your kids, and watching how much you drink. That applies to any vacation.

Unhealthy eating and drinking: I’ve fallen in to this trap on cruises before, as our Thanksgiving cruise in 2011 quickly ended my 2500cal (max) per day diet that helped me drop just over 60lbs, and it was a real struggle to get back on track, but that was solely on me for caving at the first sight of Carnival’s warm chocolate melting cake. The cruise lines have added a number of healthy options over the years, but when you’re surrounded by a lot of delicious (and unhealthy) food, your willpower is tested. We’ve done all-inclusive resorts with the same issues, but on a cruise, it can be argued that it’s harder to avoid the temptation since you can’t just leave to find healthier options elsewhere. Is this a reason to “never ever take a cruise”? No more so than any all-inclusive vacation, just be smart about what and how much you eat. USA Today has some solid tips on how to eat healthy on a cruise.

Food poisoning and norovirus: Yup, it happens, although we’ve been fortunate to never encounter either on a cruise. Norovirus exposures are something the media loves to call out, but only when it happens on a ship, since there’s nothing sexy about reporting outbreaks at more common locations like hospitals and nursing homes. According to CDC stats, there are between 19-21 million reported cases annually in the U.S.. If you count the number of passengers on all U.S.-based sailings who contracted noro last year, again based on CDC stats, you get 1,766 passengers and crew reported to have contracted noro. Comparing against the lower end of 19m cases per year, U.S.-based cruises accounted for less than 1% of reported noro outbreaks in this country. Being smart while on a cruise (or anywhere with food, frankly) can go a long way to staving it off, too. The CDC has tips for that: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/pub/cruisingtips/healthycruising.htm

Mechanical difficulties and their consequences: We’ve all seen the news reports of the various breakdowns ships have had in the past few years, with the most famous probably being the Carnival Triumph. That was easily the worst I’ve heard of in modern cruising, and it’s something Carnival learned from as well, upgrading the backup power on all ships as well as implementing other safety measures to try and avoid that kind of damage again. Cruise lines still encounter issues that cause them to cut trips short which isn’t surprising given the number of moving parts on a ship, but for the most part they seem to handle those situations appropriately and provide some level of compensation to passengers in the event a cruise is cut short or a port has to be skipped. Yes, it’s disappointing to miss ports, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Yet another issue that seems to impact a very small number of cruisers every year.

Unqualified doctors: I can’t really speak to this one, as we’ve only had to deal with medical on one cruise after my daughter was hurt during a cruise-sponsored shore excursion in Jamaica during our trip on the Norwegian Jewel several years ago. The doc took good care of her (which is more than I can say for the rest of the staff we dealt with about it), and I don’t recall having any complaints in that regard. The author was sure to select a scary looking picture to try and play on people’s fears of non-American doctors, so be afraid!

Too much fun in the sun: This is one of the most ridiculous arguments in the list. No one every has too much fun in the sun on a non-cruise vacation, right? That really bad sunburn I got skiing in college or the one I got at the resort in Mexico when I fell asleep in a lounge chair must have been all in my head. The author’s grasping for straws here.

Cruises rock – and roll: Another one that’s got some truth to it, as storms do happen at sea. If you cruise during hurricane season to an area they tend to hit, the risk is increased as well. Ship propulsion systems have gotten pretty good over the past few years, with stabilizing systems that can dampen the effect of smaller storms, and we’ve seen course changes made to avoid larger ones. My wife gets motion sick very easily, but in all the cruises we’ve done she has only had an issue once, when we were buried on a low deck with a porthole in a storm, and only when she was looking out the window. She wears motion sickness patches that she gets a prescription for prior to departure, and outside of that one incident has been fine. One of these days I need to get her to do a guest post with tips on how to avoid motion sickness on a cruise.

Your bed might bug you: I honestly have no idea what the stats are here, but in 9 cruises spanning 4 lines, we’ve never had this issue or known of anyone that has. Hotels seemed to get more press on this a few years ago when there were larger outbreaks, which just goes to show that it can happen anywhere.

Nothing to sneeze at: I’m not really sure what they’re getting at here, as the author gives nothing in the way of cruise-centric statistics showing that you’re more likely to suffer from allergies on a ship other than to say some allergens prefer moist environments (duh). I have significant allergy issues. I was tested a few years ago, you know the one where they put a tray of needles on your back and stab you with 50 different allergens? Yea, I had very noticeable allergic reactions to 48 of them, yet I’ve never had allergy issues on a ship. I have issues in hotels with 100% down pillows, when we’re out on excursions in the jungle, and even when I mow, but that’s why I carry stuff like Claratin D.

Mental health challenges: This was the final argument against it, one that I feel was a reach yet again. I completely understand that the environment might not suit someone who’s on the edge, but quoting statistics that include what one of the quoted sources calls “alleged” suicides is reckless in my opinion. Unless you’ve got the evidence to back it up, you leave that alone. The most that I’ll say to this one is that anyone feeling depressed should consult a doctor prior to *any* vacation, regardless of where it is.

The last slide is the only part of this that’s actually somewhat objective in my opinion, with even the sources stating that the majority of people who cruise have a good time, just like any other type of vacation. Shame it was buried at the end of a bunch of obviously biased arguments.

As I said before, cruising isn’t for everyone, but a headline that deals in scary absolutes is nothing more than a cheap attempt at click-baiting. If you never cruised before and are interested, research it. Read reviews, talk to friends who have, look at actual statistics for things you’re concerned about. Use all that info to make up your own mind. If it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to do, spend your hard-earned money on a vacation you will enjoy! Just don’t base your opinion of anything you haven’t tried on such an obviously biased article.

 

Our Favorite Port: Bermuda

Here we are at the end of my five part series, and we’re ending it with the trip that I started this blog with, Bermuda. We all agree this is our favorite to date, and it was a pretty easy choice. Since I’ve already talked about this port in-depth in my Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 posts back in June, I’ll do my best to bring new material to this entry.

When we were initially looking for a graduation cruise to take our daughter on, we were looking at Alaska. Jen and Bayley had never been there, and everyone who’s been on an Alaskan cruise seems to love them. After a bit of deceptive questioning to avoid letting Bayley in on the surprise, we came to realize that she’d prefer something tropical. My wife and I started the search over, quickly coming to the realization that we wanted to do something different from the normal Caribbean itineraries we’d been doing. We did consider cruises out of San Juan, since those go further south to ports we haven’t been, but most of those were out of our budget when adding airfare. That was when my wife brought up Bermuda. We’d talked about this in the past, but weren’t sure how we’d like a cruise where you basically park in one spot for three days. In researching it, she found it to be a favorite of a large percentage of those who posted reviews on Cruise Critic. Many people talked about how they’d been to Bermuda multiple times on cruises, which is something we really hadn’t seen with any other U.S. based itinerary. We were sold.

This itinerary started with two days at sea. On the morning of day 3, I got up early to watch the sunrise as we arrived in port. If you cruise to Bermuda, I highly recommend being up early and getting out on deck or a balcony to watch the sun come up as you pass around the island. The arrival provided some of the best views of the trip in my opinion, and as you can see, the Norwegian Breakaway beat us in to port:

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Getting back to the point of this post, this island is our favorite port of all time for a few reasons:

  1. The people were all incredibly warm and friendly, and you never felt unsafe. Wherever we went, people were always smiling, and willing to help you out with information or directions.
  2. The transportation system is second to none among ports we’ve stopped at. I talked about this in my previous posts, but when you first get off, there are transportation stands just off the ship where you can buy bus/ferry passes. If they can’t get you where you want to go, you probably don’t need to go there. We made use of the bus and ferry every day we were there. These are the same buses the rest of the island uses to get around, and the same ones kids take to and from school.
  3. A friend of mine at work is from Bermuda, and always talks fondly about the island (except maybe the cost of living 🙂 ). I’d heard about a few of the different landmarks on the island, like Somerset Bridge, so we made time to stop and see a couple of things most visitors aren’t aware of on his recommendation.
  4. There’s a ton of stuff to do. Even with 3 days in port, we still didn’t see everything we’d planned to. We definitely want to visit again and work on that list some more.

Number 2 above is a huge deal in my opinion. Going in, we had zero guided excursions planned, private or cruise sponsored, due to all we’d read about how good the transportation system was. When it was all said and done, we only took one guided tour, a last minute choice to take a jetski tour on our final morning there. As I mentioned in the Day 3 post in July, that tour was excellent and worth the extra money that was spent on it. Outside of that, everything else we did was on our own, utilizing the transportation system and our feet to get us where we wanted to go. It was nice to not be on a set schedule, not having to hurry to meet tour operators. We basically got off the ship whenever we want and headed out, and returned whenever we wanted.

This cruise also represented the first time we’d been parked in the same port for more than a few hours, which we all found pretty cool. On the first and second day in port, there was no stress about getting back to the ship before it left, since it wasn’t going anywhere. It was an awesome way to see Bermuda.

I think that about covers it. I highly recommend reading my three posts about our days on the island (linked in the first paragraph in this post) to get an idea of what we did. It’s been fun going over these five ports and reliving our time on these islands. My next posts will come some time next week and cover our upcoming trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24, a 24-hour sports car endurance race. In the meantime, here are a few more shots from Bermuda!

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Our 4th Favorite Port: Roatan

It’s hard for me to rate this as low as 4th, as Roatan is one of my absolute favorite places. If I had my way, we’d be living down there by now :). I know there are various challenges in the area from time to time due to the political and economic climate in Honduras, but I fell in love with the place the first time we visited. For purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing on the first of two stops we’ve made in Roatan. On that trip in March of 2006, we came in on the Norwegian Jewel and docked at an older location near Coxen Hole, a dock that I don’t think is in use anymore. This was one of the first cruise stops where we didn’t use a cruise sponsored excursion, and as far as I’m concerned, it was one of the best stops to date.

We were on this cruise with the staff of the dental office where my wife worked. Over the years, we did a few cruises with that group, and always had a blast with them. For this trip, my wife was doing research on the ports, and came across a post on one of the cruise boards where someone who had recently visited was mentioning an orphanage they’d stopped to visit (Greenfield Children’s Home), and how they could use some athletic equipment if anyone was headed that way. She brought that up with my daughter and I as an option for our visit to the island, and we were sold. The post mentioned a local we could hire to drive us around, show us the island, and take us to the orphanage. My wife went ahead and set that up, including contacting the orphanage to set up the visit, and ensure that athletic equipment was really what they needed the most. In addition to the items we bought, my daughter organized a donation drive at her school to help get even more equipment to deliver to the kids. It’s been a while, but if I recall we had at least 4 over sized duffel bags full of various sports gear to haul with us on the flight down and on the boat, but it all worked out fine and we got it all on board the ship without issue. When we got off the ship in Roatan, we simply put the bags through the scanner for an additional security check, and once that was done, we were on our way. NCL had definitely seen cruisers do this before, and never questioned the purpose of the gear.

Our guide/driver met us at the port and loaded up all of the stuff we’d brought into her van. She also had a surprise for us, a hand carved jewelry box for my daughter, as that stop fell on her 10th birthday. After getting everything loaded, she took us on a driving tour of the area, through the local town, and driving around the countryside, giving us the rundown on the area along the way. The local kids were in school that day, as we saw several of them walking around in their school uniforms with smiles on their faces. The area was a mix of poorer sections interspersed with a few large waterfront homes outside of town, and even a couple of resort/condo communities under development at the time.

After the tour our guide drove us to the orphanage, where we were greeted by the staff on hand that day. Upon arrival, we took all of the gear inside and gave it to the kids, and they immediately dug in to see what we’d brought. Everyone, the kids included, were very warm and welcoming. While we hung out with the kids, the staff gave us a tour of the facilities and the history of the organization, which is headquartered only a couple of hours from where we live. Here are a few shots from our time with them:

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I don’t recall how long we were at the orphanage, but it was easily the best part of my day and the highlight of the cruise. I rarely talk about where I donate my time/money, and this is probably the first time I’ve talked about this stop outside of discussions among our family, but those kids and that group left a lasting impact on me, and I’ll never forget our time with them. Huge thank you to the staff for making time to let us come by for a visit that day.

Even with everything we’d already done that day we did have some extra time after visiting the orphanage, so our guide took us to Paradise beach for a couple of hours so we could spend a little time relaxing before we headed back to the boat. There weren’t many people there, and when you combine that with the crystal clear water, it made the stop that much better.

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After a little food, swimming and relaxation, our guide took us back to the ship. This is definitely one of the most memorable stops in my eyes, and shows that you can still give back to a local community, even if you’re only in town for a day.

Touring the Getaway

As mentioned, the Florida trip I’ve been writing about wasn’t for pleasure, we were down there in training for our CruiseOne franchise. I’ll cover that more in my next post, but back to the trip, the week ended with a tour of the Norwegian Getaway. We’d never done a ship tour like this before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but I have to say that we really enjoyed it.

First, a ship tour gives you the high of getting on a cruise ship and the low of getting off all in the span of about 3 hours. It was surreal standing in the passenger boarding area waiting for our guide to come get us, and I admit to being jealous of all those who were about to get on and get out of town for a week. Here I was, standing there dressed in business casual, watching a whole bunch of people walking by in shorts and sandals. Made me want to book something right then and there.

Once our guide arrived and all of our people made it through security, we headed for the gangway. We were boarding shortly after the previous guests had disembarked, and right before new passengers started getting on board. With this in mind, they hustled us up pretty fast to The Haven, one of the areas I was interested in the most.  We needed to get through the show cabins and off those floors fast, as those guests board first, and they obviously don’t want us trapsing through guest rooms as those guests are arriving. Now, my interest in seeing this area is because I’m somewhat skeptical of the “ship within a ship” concept that The Haven presents, especially as more lines move to similar models. I can see the pluses (no chair hogs, a quieter pool area) but I’m also not really the kind of guest that this model fits. I like being out and active and participating in the on board activities, so I’m not really sure I’d spend much time in this area, outside of when we’re in our room. I could very well be making poor assumptions about The Haven, so maybe it’s something you have to experience first hand. In any case, I admit to being impressed with the rooms we saw. The one thing that really intrigued me were the forward balconies, which provide an awesome view. It would seem you’d potentially get a ton of wind out there on some days, making the balcony less useful, but that’s only based on my experience on the forward outside areas on some Carnival ships. If anyone’s stayed in one of NCLs forward balconies and can comment, feel free to add your input. Anyway, here are a few shots from the rooms we saw on the Haven floors:

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Moving on, after we finished in The Haven, we moved on to touring regular cabins. For the most part, they were pretty standard fare, with the exception of the spa cabins. Interesting location for the tub 🙂

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Another set of cabins that stood out were the solo cabins, in an area aptly named the Studio. Solo cabins are somewhat rare on contemporary lines, so offering up a cabin where single cruisers only pay a single rate is a plus. Yes, the cabin’s noticeably smaller, but still, you’re not paying up to 200% of a single fare to cruise alone. The Studio also comes with access to a private lounge area, and frankly, the decor of the area is pretty well done, imo. I managed to get a shot of one of the rooms while we were in there:

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After we finished our cabin tour, it was time for lunch. The Getaway has plenty of food options, and the one set up for our group that day was Taste. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we’ve only been on NCL one other time, and were far from impressed with the MDR food. We were part of a large group on that sailing, and no one in the group liked it, especially the foodie. The specialty restaurants were good on that trip, but having to pay for decent food left a bad taste in our mouth (pun intended 😉 ). This was the other part of the tour I was really interested in, as I wanted to see first-hand just how much the food has changed. In short: I was pleasantly surprised. We had a full menu, 3 courses. I had the chicken nachos as my appetizer, meatball sub as my meal, and the peanut butter cup cheesecake for dessert. All delicious, except the fries. They were okay, but tasted like they’d been grabbed off the pool grill.

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After lunch, we had an hour left to tour the ship on our own, all while guests who had boarded were also walking around, which gave us a sense of how crowded a ship this size might be. Things we found:

  • The ship is very family friendly, which didn’t come as much of a surprise. We chatted with the staff in the kids clubs, who all seemed like they were very good at what they did.
  • The spa staff was just as friendly, and not just to us, but to all of the actual guests they were talking to. This was a big departure from the experience we had with the spa staff on our last cruise on Celebrity, who weren’t friendly at all.
  • The ship is lloooonnngggg. We walked one floor of cabins from end to end, and frankly, it felt like we’d never get to the end.
  • Outside of the previous bullet, the ship never felt “too big” like I was afraid a ship that can hold 4000 passengers would. We walked around the buffet after the vast majority of boarding had taken place, but people seemed to be flowing pretty well. This held true in most other areas as well.
  • The decor is well done compared to other ships in class. Didn’t come off as the normal, classic cruise ship gaudy.
  • The staff, including our guide, were all super friendly. Yes, I get that wearing our guest badges gave them indication that we were likely in the travel business, and they may have stepped up their game, but I’d like to think they were being genuine, and seeing the way they interacted with the regular guests, I’m leaning towards that.

Honestly, after touring the Getaway, we’d be interested in trying it on an actual cruise. I realize that 3 hours on-board really isn’t enough to pass true judgement, but it was enough time to get me interested in trying NCL again after swearing them off 8 years ago. It was also enough time to make me miss being on a cruise 🙂

Here are a few more pics from our tour. Sorry some of these are blurry, we were constantly on the move, and I was doing my best not to get in the way of any their actual guests.

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Another Trip to Florida, Part 3

I wanted to be sure to cover the food we had on the trip. Being that we were there for training, we only had to cover dinners for ourselves. Breakfast was covered by hotel vouchers, and lunch was catered at CruiseOne’s facility. One pitfall of travelling for me is that I take full advantage of being able to eat out. I love food, but that’s not to say I’m a foodie. Far from it. I’m very much a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and I don’t stray from that formula often. That combination, when travelling, often ends up in me consuming more calories than I should, which is never a good thing when I’m trying to keep off the 60+lbs I worked hard to drop a couple of years ago. You only live once, though, and I do like to try new places.

So what did we eat that was memorable? I’ll leave Tsunami off, since I covered it in part 1, and just move on to what we had in Ft Lauderdale:

1. Moonlite Diner. Interesting little place, with plenty of choices. This was within walking distance to our hotel, but we ended up driving since we had other errands to run. I had the Ultimate Grilled Cheese with hash browns, and that side lived up to my standards. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s soggy hash browns, and this place served them up crispy, as they should be. The sandwich was good as well. My wife had the veggie burger with hash browns, and she enjoyed her burger quite a bit. The service was fine, and while the guy who initially served us was nice, he seemed like he’d much rather be somewhere else. About half way through the dinner, a friendly waitress took over and took good care of us. It’s somewhere I’d eat again if we were in the area, but it wasn’t my favorite of all the places we went.

2. Carlucci’s Italian Ristorante. This is some of the best lasagna I’ve had in a while. Few places seem to use real ricotta these days, so tasting that in Carlucci’s was a nice change of pace. The garlic bread was pretty good too, but that garlic really had some kick to it. I accidentally dropped a chunk on my salad, and when I ate that bite, wow :). That reminds me, they have a really good  balsamic vinaigrette, which is a dressing I normally don’t enjoy. I decided to give it a shot at our waiter’s recommendation, and was glad I did. My wife had the baked ziti, a dish she freuently judges italian restaurants by, and loved it. A definite winner of a choice in our opinion.

3. Umberto’s. Later in the week (Friday) we were looking for some pizza, and one of the people in our class from Florida recommended this place. My daughter had driven over from St Pete to hang out with us, and joined us for dinner here. She got some alfredo dish, which she really liked, and my wife and I split a pizza. Delicious, and well worth straying from the hotel. Afterwards, we went across the street to Alice’s Ice Cream Emporium for some gelato. Really good stuff, highly recommend stopping if you’re in the mood for a tasty treat.

Our last dinner in Ft Lauderdale was at a place along the water taxi route. We’d been given free tickets to ride it, and held on to them until Saturday night. It was fun to hang out on the boat and ride around the area, seeing some nice houses and yachts along the way.

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When we finally got hungry, we got off at stop 4, 15th Street Fisheries. Having never been there, we weren’t sure what to expect, but looking over the menus, decided to eat upstairs overlooking the water. We ended up with an incredible sunset view to go along with the meal:

Dinner

As far as the meal goes, it was spectacular. Staying true to my roots, I had meat and potatoes, or more specifically, the prime rib. I really wasn’t prepared for just how big that thing was. I wish I’d taken a picture, but it’s safe to say it was a very delicious monster that I wasn’t able to finish. My wife had the Ahi Tuna, and really enjoyed it and the mashed sweet potatoes that came with it. The service was stellar as well, and contributed to our decision to spend a little extra to share a couple of desserts. I chose the Ghirardelli chocolate brownie, which was spectacular. Cooked perfectly, and still gooey on the inside, we really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

I think that about covers it. I did leave a couple of nights out, as one was a trade show night with catered snacks, and the other we just hit the local Longhorn, and I really didn’t feel it was necessary to talk about a national chain. My next post, covering our tour of the Norwegian Getaway, will include a review of the lunch we had on-board. Our one cruise on NCL, back in 2006, left a lot to be desired food-wise, so it was definitely nice to get a sampling of how their food quality has evolved.

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