MSC Seaside: The Naming Ceremony!

It’s 4 am on the morning of day 2 here aboard the Seaside, and with a little insomnia setting in, it seemed like a good time for a look at the Seaside’s naming ceremony we were fortunate to be able to attended last night.

First, I have to say, I’m loving this so far. It’s our first inaugural sailing, and things have gone pretty well in my opinion. Boarding was a little slow, but that’s to be expected, as everyone (media and travel industry) pretty much showed up at the same time, so check in took a little longer than it would for a normal sailing. The crew have been outstanding, the ship is beautiful, and we’re having a blast! I think my only true complaint was the gala dinner. Being that everyone had the same seating time, they served a set menu, one that really didn’t fit my eating habits. Very seafood heavy, with veal as the only non-fishy option for the entree:

(click the little arrow on the right side to move to the menu pic)

With it not really fitting our tastes, we ended up skipping out a little early and hitting the buffet, which gave me a second opportunity to have a slice of that awesome MSC pizza :).

Aside from the tiny dinner menu hiccup, things have been awesome so far. The naming ceremony itself was fun, with a number of speakers from MSC and the local community. Mario Lopez hosted:

Throughout the night he brought out a number of people, including Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino:

The night also included performances by Andrea Bocelli with Voices of Haiti, and was capped off with a short concert by Ricky Martin! I haven’t had a chance to upload any of Andrea Bocelli’s performance yet, so keep an eye on our social media pages. Here’s a portion of Ricky Martin’s performance, with another short clip also available on our Instagram:

Following the speakers, the music, and all the fun, it was time to get down to business. One last thing needed to happen to make this all official, the ribbon cutting!

All in all it was a great ceremony, and we were happy to have been a part of it. I know I’m not doing it justice, and I’m going to blame the early morning hour/lack of sleep for that, but if you want to see the entire thing, head on over to MSC’s Youtube channel and check out the whole show!

The evening was capped off with some fun in the atrium with the entertainment team. Definitely saw some familiar faces out there, and can’t wait for the normal event schedule to start Saturday!

Well, that’s all for now, I’m going to try and get a little more sleep before we get up and explore the ship some more today. Maybe I’ll dream of that amazing gelato we had so much of yesterday :). They make some delicious flavors, and I have to say, the gelato bars are incredible. I could eat those as a meal. We’d never had one on the Divina (do they even have them?), but I grabbed a dark chocolate one after dinner and WOW. I can’t wait to try some of the other flavors!

Be sure to follow up on social media to see more of the ship over the next 9 days! This thing is awesome!

Instagram / Facebook / Twitter

 

Good Times on Harmony of the Seas!

Another year, another national conference in the books! As I’ve mentioned in the past, our parent company holds our national conference at sea each year, and we were fortunate to attend for the 3rd year in a row, with this one being the Halloween sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. Being that we were busy with sessions and other business-related events most of the week, we didn’t get to enjoy everything the ship has to offer, but it was still an awesome cruise nonetheless! If you happened to catch my Oasis of the Seas series last year, you might have noticed that I was a little disappointed in aspects of that sailing. Going in to this trip, that experience was forefront in my mind, but I’m happy to say that this trip exceeded my expectations in just about every area.

I’m still not a fan of the layout of the port itself, as we decided to park right at the ship and had to wait in a rather long line of cars to get in to the lot due to some pretty poor traffic management, but once we were in, everything else was cake. Embarkation went even faster than last time! Once we got past security, we headed up to the desk to check in. With no line, we got up there immediately and were checked in pretty quickly. Walking up to the waiting area, we found that they were already boarding, and had no wait here either. We basically walked in to the building, checked in, and headed right on to the ship. Start to finish, everything took maybe 15 minutes after we parked. It always amazes me how fast they are able to board a ship of this size!

Royal Caribbean set the bar really high all week in how they treated our group, and day 1 was no exception. They blocked off the Silk dining room for us to grab food after boarding, knowing that we needed to eat pretty quickly so we could drop our stuff in our rooms and head to our first general session. Frankly, they took good care of us all week, especially at the parties they hosted for us. Take the first night, for example. We were in the skating rink, Studio B, and they laid out an amazing spread of food, drink and ice sculptures!

They went all out on our Halloween party, too. I feel kinda bad for the rest of the passengers, as Royal closed the boardwalk that night for a few hours to host our party, and once again, it was well catered and an absolute blast. Oh, and yes, we brought our costumes! Frankly, I was surprised at how many people on the ship brought theirs, too. We walked through the promenade a few times after our party, and there were a lot of people dressed for the occasion! It was fun walking through in costume, too, we had a number of people stop us for pictures and selfies, which was really fun!

Royal also hosted a beach party on Labadee’s Adrenaline Beach for us too, which was awesome. Free Labadoozies, fun competitions, and beach time, what could be better? Oh, right, a trip down Dragons’ Breath Flight Line! That last one we paid for, but having done it on our Oasis trip, Jen and I both were excited to try it again! Last time we did this I had my GoPro with me and got some decent (but shaky) video, but this time around I had my new toy, a Garmin Virb 360. I like this footage a lot more than the GoPro, as you can use a VR headset or something simple like Google Cardboard to watch it in a VR-like mode and fully immerse yourself in it. Don’t have those? Well not to worry, you can still watch it on YouTube in a normal way and drag around the video to see it from every angle! It’s also now a featured video on one of the major VR platforms, Veer VR! Check it out, and be sure to move around and see all of the action around me, not just the forward view!

Moving on, let’s talk about our room. We again had a boardwalk balcony, which I wasn’t a huge fan of last time, as I found the balcony fairly useless outside of aqua shows, due to the boardwalk acting as a trap for the heat and humidity during the time of our sailing (mid-May). This time around we did find it more useful, as it wasn’t quite as hot outside on this sailing. I used it a few times, including once where I hung out there in my wolf mask for a little bit just to mess with people :). The room itself had plenty of space for us and was very comfortable, and this time around came with a couple of really nice boardwalk balcony amenities: The Royal Refreshment soda package, and a 4-person credit to Johnny Rockets. Those are definitely nice additions to the room category!

Moving on to the internet speed, I was pleasantly surprised. On last year’s sailing, I was pretty disappointed in the overall speed and reliability of the Voom offering, and wasn’t sure what to expect this time around, since they had given all conference attendees the fastest package, which meant that in addition to the regular passengers that would be using the internet, there were 1,000 for sure that had would be on it constantly too. Outside of a couple of small outages (WiFi hotspots totally disappeared from device view), it was pretty reliable and fairly quick. I also really like the unlimited packages, as I hate having to worry about the amount of time I use. It’s not so bad when uploading pictures, but when attempting to upload video, you have to hope things are moving quickly, otherwise you burn a bunch of time off your plan. Not on Voom, however! I ran a couple of speed tests during the week just to see how it looked, so here’s one taken around noon on a sea day, which should have represented a peak time:

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One of the other cool things we got to take advantage of on this sailing is their huge dry slide, the Ultimate Abyss. This was new to us, as Oasis doesn’t have it, and is exactly what it sounds like, a long dry slide at the back of the ship that starts on deck 16 and takes you down to the boardwalk on deck 6. We did this pretty early in the sailing, and while we enjoyed it, didn’t really feel the need to do it again. Note that you really do need to pay attention to their instructions, as you can easily turn the wrong way, lift a leg wrong, etc, and end up rubbing some skin off on the way down. I chatted with another agent that took some skin off one leg that way, and he’d seen a kid on the ship who had taken some skin off an arm by hitting the side on the way down. It’s fun, just follow their instructions and you’ll be fine! Since you’re not allowed to take GoPros on this (or the water slides, both of which were pretty disappointing) I don’t have any video, but here are a couple of pics of the Abyss instead. In the second one, you can see the two slides spiral down near the back of the ship:

Even though we were there for work, we did catch as many shows as possible. Frankly, Royal’s really stepped up their entertainment game over the years, and have some of the best shows available at sea in my opinion. We caught 1887, Columbus, The Fine Line, and Jen caught Grease, and every one of them were amazing. I really enjoyed Columbus and The Fine Line. The latter is one of the shows held in the Aqua Theater, and incorporates a lot more in the way of artsy visual elements than the traditional aqua show we’d seen on Oasis. I can’t recommend it enough!

Let’s end this by covering a few of the negatives I called out last year in my final Oasis post, as well as one or two other things called out in various posts from that sailing:

Windjammer: Maybe I’m completely mis-remembering the Oasis, but I swear that Harmony’s buffet area is bigger. We ate there a few times and it never felt as crowded as it did on Oasis. I do really like their buffet food too, some of the best of the lines we’ve sailed.

Coke Freestyle machines: I think we had an issue once all week. Last time they were constantly down/being repaired, but this time around we had no major issues with them.

Lack of water slides: We were a little disappointed last year that Oasis had none, but happy to see that had been rectified on Harmony. We both tried them after getting back on the ship in port one day and had a blast. They’ve got two slides dedicated to racing each other, which are pretty standard (but fast) waterslides, and then next to those is The Perfect Storm, a slide with several clear sections that ends up dumping you into a large bowl near the end. Fun stuff, I just wish they allowed you to take a GoPro to film it!

Overall, we had a really great week, and were treated very well by the Harmony’s crew. Next year’s conference is aboard the Norwegian Bliss out of Long Beach, and I have to say, Royal set a very high bar as a conference host, so I hope NCL was paying attention!

I do have one more post in this series covering the food we enjoyed aboard the Harmony, which I hope to have up in a few days. Thank you for following along!

Time to reset our vacation…

After an amazing time at the Kirkenes Snowhotel Saturday (which I’ll do a full write-up on later), we’ve come to what I was hoping would be the truly epic part of our journey, 6 days aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge. Well, that hasn’t come to pass, and as a result of a few different things, we’re altering our schedule.

First, the issues: I mentioned in my first post that during our drive to the airport Thursday we got a call from a Hurtigruten agent telling us there had been a schedule change in the sailing due to a “mechanical” issue, and that we were losing a day off the journey, and all stops between Tromso and Bergen (which, incidentally, is most of the stops). They’d offered $100 OBC/pp and a hotel in Bergen for both nights we were there to try and make up for it, so we went in hoping for the best. My attitude was basically; things happen, mechanical issues arise, we’ll roll with it and have fun anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not how things have ended up, and we’re only 22 hours in.

After boarding yesterday, we were in our welcome briefing when we found out what the “mechanical” issue was. Turns out, the Norwegian Maritime Authority wasn’t completely happy with the refurbishment done back in November, and required an additional fire door installed on the car deck. Talking to someone else today, it sounds like Hurtigruten’s just been waiting on a shipyard slot to open up so they can get it done, and one suddenly opened up on the 30th, which is what prompted the last minute change in itinerary. Yea, that changes things. Nothing broke, nothing failed, the ship simply wasn’t up to code and Hurtigruten’s known that they’d have to make a change like this for some time, they just didn’t know when. Unfortunately, the people on board this week are the unlucky recipients of that. I’d say there was considerable anger in the briefing room yesterday when people learned the real reason, and rightfully so.

To make matters worse, it’s been incredibly windy since we left port, with gale force winds hitting last night. As a result, the ship has had to skip a couple of planned ports between Kirkenes and Tromso, including the one that would have allowed us to do the excursion we were really looking forward to, the midnight snowmobile trip in search of the northern lights. Now obviously the weather’s not anyone’s fault. That happens on cruises everywhere from time to time, but the rolling of this small ship is making it a pretty uncomfortable sailing, especially for Jen, so we’ve decided to move on and debark the ship tomorrow in Tromso so we can actually see some towns in coastal Norway. If we had to stay on the ship with zero stops to allow us to get on land for a bit to get away from the motion of the windy seas, it’d end up being a pretty miserable 5 days.

So what are the new plans?

  • Debark tonight in Tromso, and spend Tuesday and half of Wednesday sightseeing
  • Catch a plane to Trondheim Wednesday night, spend all day Thursday sightseeing
  • On Friday morning, catch a flight to Bergen to sightsee and get ready for our currently scheduled train back to Oslo

So there you have it, our Norwegian adventure takes a turn that will hopefully get us on the right track. Hurtigruten’s already offered everyone on board a refund of 4 days, but at this point we’re requesting the entire fare back. Losing most of what we flew all this way to see for a problem that shouldn’t have existed to begin with just doesn’t sit well with me.

From a travel agent point of view, we were both very much looking forward to not only using this trip as a vacation, but also as a way to learn firsthand about a new segment we were excited to sell. At this point, I’m not keen on the way this has been handled, including promises made about OBC that we have yet to see, and hotels we have no confirmation of. Talking to other passengers is yielding some similar stories, including no confirmation on promised flight changes as of yet. Not that it means much, but at this point the only thing left to salvage my opinion of the line is going to be how they end up handling this.

Bottom line: This is a mess of their own doing, and making it right goes a long way with your customers.

Sailing to Cuba – Q & A With Jen the Travel Agent!

With a number of cruise lines about to start Cuban sailings, I figured it’d be about time to do a little Q & A with my wife, Jen. Last June, she sailed the Fathom Adonia on a 7 day cruise that stopped in 3 Cuban ports, so I thought it’d be good to pry some of that knowledge and experience out of her before those other lines set sail!

I’ll also add a shameless plug here: If you’re interested in sailing to Cuba and are looking to work with a travel agent to do it right, contact us, we can help! Now, on to the Q & A!

Q: What were the people like, and were they welcoming of American visitors?

A: Most of the people we talked to were excited to see Americans and wanted to talk to us as much as we wanted to talk to them. 

Q: Which port in Cuba was your favorite, and why?

A: Havana.  The people were so nice, the architecture was beautiful and there was much to see and do.  Seeing the old cars driving around was so neat and everyone we encountered was happy to talk to us and answer questions. 

Q: How does Cuba compare to other Caribbean ports?

A: For Americans, there isn’t the opportunity for water sports or adventurous excursions like in other Caribbean ports.  All of the tours were focused around educating us about Cuban history, people, leadership, etc. 

Q: Any negative interactions with anyone while in port?

A: In Santiago de Cuba, there was a lot of aggressive panhandling that became a little overwhelming for some people.  That was the only port that we encountered that in though.

Q: Was any additional documentation required before sailing, things like a Cuban Visa?

A: Yes. Cuba does require a Visa for entry, and in my case Fathom took care of that, with the cost being covered in the cruise fare. Be sure you know how this works with your chosen cruise line, whether they obtain it for you, and if the $75 charge is built in to your fare, or if you have to pay extra. When you start considering a Cuban cruise, this should be on your list of things to ask the cruise line or your travel agent.

Q: In port, how (if at all) did debark and embark differ from other ports? Did they stamp your passport?

A: They only stamped our passports on the first day, but we had to show it and our Visa every time we got on or off the ship.  Each time we got off we had to go through security and have our bags x-rayed.

Q: Did you prepare for this trip by researching Cuba at all?

A: Definitely, if you don’t know what you are in for, you could end up being very disappointed.  Visiting Cuba is not like visiting anywhere else and while you are able to explore on your own now, there are regulations around this and you will want to be prepared for the record keeping you will need to do.  For Americans, it is not a place where you can go to just hang out on the beach and enjoy the sites. 

Q: What tips do you have for each port?

A: Havana is safe to walk around and explore on your own and I encourage you to talk to the locals, most will be thrilled to share.  Cienfuegos is a little more laid back while Santiago de Cuba is much busier and while I never felt unsafe, there was certainly much more panhandling than in either of the other ports.

Q: Did you have to exchange money prior to leaving, or did they take US dollars?

A: You cannot get Cuban currency in the US, so it must be converted when you get there.  There is a 10% fee to convert USD, so I actually got some Euros to exchange.  As it turns out, with the exchange rate, I ended up getting exactly what I would have if I had just exchanged USD.  There are 2 types of Cuban currency, the CUC and the CUP, which is the Cuban peso and only used by locals.  You want to make sure that you get all of your change in CUCs as CUPs are nearly worthless.  You can tip in USD, but the locals have to pay the penalty when converting as well, so better to just plan ahead and get plenty of CUCs.

Q: Any other general tips you’d like to share for those looking to sail to Cuba?

A: There are many more options for cruises going to Cuba now than when I went, so I would definitely do research to figure out which on fits best with what you are looking to accomplish.  And obviously, contact a Travel Advisor, there are still many nuances when traveling to Cuba that makes having a professional in your corner invaluable.

That’s all for now, enjoy a few shots from her trip!

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Carnival Vista – First Impressions

Anyone who’s been following our social media accounts has probably noticed that we spent the last week aboard Carnival’s newest ship, the Vista. This was our national conference for our travel business, hosted by our franchise’s parent company. An 8 day conference aboard a cruise ship? Yea, that’s my kind of conference :).

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you may remember that our conference last year was aboard the Norwegian Escape, and that my primary post-cruise blog post was more of a pros/cons list (well, plus one food post. The yummy, yummy food). My plan here to to do something similar. With multiple sessions happening during sea days, it’s not really fair to do a full review of the cruise in my opinion, since we didn’t get to experience so many of the things we normally do. That’s not to say we didn’t have fun, so let’s get in to the list!

Note – To save space I’ll be linking to pics vs inserting them in the post

Pros

  • The Ship: She really is a beautiful ship, and continues the same beachy decor the Breeze has. There are some positive additions as well, including the large DreamScape in the atrium and the smaller one in the casino. I really do like the decor theme in this class of their ships.
  • The Cabins: Overall, nice. We had a standard balcony on deck 7 aft, and aside from a slightly hard mattress were comfortable all week. We had really good cabin service all week as well.
  • Matt the Cruise Director: While we didn’t get to enjoy all the entertainment staff had to offer, we saw Matt around the ship a lot, and he was always smiling and friendly, even in the face of our own stupidity (like when one of our suppliers sent a huge group of us down to the gangway in La Romana well before we were allowed to get off :)). Matt seems like one of the better CDs we’ve encountered on past sailings.
  • The Staff: Everyone was great this week. Granted, they knew there were several hundred travel agents on board, but everyone we encountered was very friendly, and always offering to help with anything you needed.
  • The MDR food: Really good all week. We ate there all but one night and I honestly don’t remember anything I had that was bad. People like to knock Carnival for their food, but the MDR food seemed better than what I remembered from the Breeze, and I liked that too
  • The SkyRide: Super fun, great concept. Jen and I did this on the first sea day and had an absolute blast. If it’s running, it provides an awesome view at sunset, too. Highly recommend doing this. Just note that you’ll see this in my cons list, too.
  • The Internet: I’m sure some will disagree with me, but we had both the mid-range and premium packages, and I felt that it was noticeably better than the Oasis’ Voom internet. Peak times were a little slow, but I didn’t encounter much in the way of downtime, and as Instagram shows, I was constantly posting ;). For satellite-based connectivity on a moving ship, they’ve done a solid job.
  • Lido food: Specifically Guy’s burgers and Blue Iguana’s burritos. Just as good as I remembered on the Breeze, and the lines seemed to move faster than they did on that trip. Mmmmmm
  • The DreamScape: They really are cool. I don’t envy the technical challenges ahead of them (it encountered technical issues a couple of times on our sailing), but it’s a great idea that really makes the atrium look cool.

Cons

  • The Ship: Yes, there is some bad here, too. Namely the main theater, which seems smaller than the Breeze. I assume Carnival was seeing a lot of empty seats in other ships in this class and as a result shrunk the theater, but the resulting design is just horrible. Really bad sight-lines throughout, rows in the back that sit lower than the row in front of them, and an odd center setup that’s totally flat (with non-permanent chairs) result in a place I really couldn’t stand to watch a show. The Divina showed us it is possible to build a large theater without things blocking your view, so what I saw in the Liquid Lounge was just mind boggling. Don’t even get me started on the useless cup tray permanently attached to every other armrest. Too slick to actually hold cups, yet totally uncomfortable for resting your arm on. Another ship design problem was the entrance to the Reflections dining room. Both sides are way too small, so the cattle-call queuing that happens prior to the MDR opening results in everyone standing even closer together. On the plus side, if you come in mid-ship, you can stare at the main DreamScape :).
  • The Pizza: Oh MSC Divina, you’ve ruined cruise ship pizza for me. I only ate this one night, tried 3 different varieties, and finished none. The pizza on Oasis was actually better than this in my opinion.
  • SkyRide: While super fun, it has a serious design flaw that results in it being unreliable later in the day. We were told that moisture/sea air end up making the inside of the track really slick as the day goes on, which can result in people getting stuck around the back of the track. Happened to me, so I got to see it first-hand. You basically end up unable to move forward on the uphill portions, as pedaling gets you nowhere (it can’t grip due to the moisture). In my case, I kept at it for a couple of minutes and finally hit a spot where it caught and propelled me forward, but we saw several cases where the operators had to go fish people off by either towing them from aother bike, or pushing them with one. The second to last sea day we were in line to do it again, and they closed it early due to this issue when we were next up. They took our names and told us we could jump the line the next day (the final sea day), but by the time we got done with sessions at 4pm, it was closed for the day for the same reason, with mechanics working on the bikes. Grrr…. As I said in one of my posts, do it early, or risk not getting to go.
  • The Casino: Small and smoky, to put it bluntly. Much like the Escape last year, this is a brand-new ship and the smell of smoke permeates every inch of the casino already. We didn’t gamble once as a result, and we were really missing the Divina’s smoke-free casino.
  • Temperature variances: They seemed to be having HVAC system issues all week, as it was really hot in parts of the buffet area (for example) while freezing in the theater (according to Jen :)). We did see people working on HVAC a couple of times, and heard that the buffet HVAC was down early on in the cruise.

I’m sure there are a few things I’ve missed here, but these are the big ones I wanted to call out, and frankly the cons really weren’t that big of a deal. We had an amazing week onboard, and the team at Carnival couldn’t have been better hosts. We’re admittedly Carnival fans, and this sailing only solidified our opinion of the brand. It truly was an amazing week on a beautiful new ship. One of these days we’re going to have to sail her again as normal passengers so we can experience everything the ship has to offer!

That’s all for now. After a short stop in St Petersburg to pick our daughter up and do some laundry, we’re off to Disney World for the week!