Get Away With Fran

January 28, 2010

Warm in the Caribbea on MSC Poesia

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Today is a lazy day at sea for passengers on the MSC Poesia on this Caribbean cruise. But yesterday’s port of call was Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, with most passengers hitting the beach. Mom and I took advantage of the $6 p.p. shared taxis to Cane Bay, up and over a mountain on narrow roads (I was glad I wasn’t driving) to one of those gorgeous beaches that really make a visit to the Caribbean – soft white sand, clear water, verdant mountain views.

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I’ve been reading a book about the Irish mob in Boston, but took time out for a dip in the water and a nice walk along the beach. Then my book and a beach chair ($5) and I was one happy gal.

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Back on the ship, I continued my dance education – this week’s cruise is themed Latin Dance – with an afternoon bolero class and evening salsa (me with guest instructor Minas, in photo). I borrowed a new pal’s husband for a few dances, but when the moves got sexy – instruction for the women to do a particularly provocative leg move – I gave the husband back and practiced with a female member of the ship’s entertainment team instead (I know, kind of a waste of a good move, but…).

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In fact, a note about the classes, they are best if you bring a partner. Mom has joined me for some – we got cooking in the bolero class for instance – and a Swedish woman was my partner another day (with me in the lead!). One day a man with strong arms made a beeline across the room to practice a few steps with me and there have occasionally been staffers on hand. But if you are serious about learning some steps, bringing a regular partner is a good idea.

January 26, 2010

Carbbean treats – MSC Poesia cruise

Filed under: Cruise — admin @ 5:42 pm

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The thing about cruise ships is they take you places. In the case of the weeklong cruise on the MSC Poesia this week, our first two ports of call were San Juan (yesterday evening) and St. Maarten (today).

In San Juan, Mom and I grabbed one of the free open-air trolleys around town (stops right near the pier) and took it to the Castillo San Cristobal National Historic Site where despite a little drizzle the sea views were lovely.

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But it was on San Francisco Street (#268) that we made the kind of find I really enjoy. An art shop with a friendly and enthusiastic shopkeeper. Arte & Mascaras carries Puerto Rican masks, both traditional (for Carnivale and other festivals) and as interpreted by local artists. We learned a little about the history of some of the masks and the local artists who created them (the small mask above is a modern interpretation). And the items were affordable too (Note to my brother: Mom bought the above for you).

In St. Maarten, we docked on the Dutch side of the two-nation island, near Philipsburg, but we made a beeline to the taxis for a ride to Marigot, on the French side – with new pricing cabs to Marigot are now only $6 each way if you can find people to share the van with, which we did. It’s only about a half hour between the two cities.

We explored the waterfront and window shopped past various fancy French brands. And then had a hankering for some local cuisine.

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In the marekt (marche) area near the water, there are a bunch of little open-air restaurants. We took our time examining menus and deciding which one to try before settling on Chez Coco, La Maison Creole. Turned out to be the right choice.

Mom tried the conch Creole (marinated and flavorful) while I settled down with a whole fish, both accompanied by rice and beans and plantains and potato salad and green salad. Huge plates.

With fewer tourists this year, the vendors are willing to do an even exchange of euros to dollars (much in our favor!). So $21.50 bought us lunch for two including a shared Caribe beer.

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The food was so seriously good – real Caribbean family-style cooking – that I asked to meet the owner, who it turns out goes by the name Coco (though his real name is Roderick Lake). His daughter, Natasha, was our waitress. We chatted and when I told him I’m a writer he said someone else had come by recently and written up the place, for The New York Times. Drats, I thought I had made the discovery.

Anyway, get there before the crowds arrive.

January 25, 2010

Aboard the MSC Poesia

Filed under: Cruise — Tags: , , , — admin @ 8:22 pm

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This week I am onboard the MSC Poesia (Italian for poetry) cruising the Caribbean, accompanied by my mom. This ship is part of the Italian line MSC Cruises, known more to Europeans than Americans. And this is actually the first time I have cruised on one of the MSC ships (though I’ve done nearly 100 cruises).

Sophia Loren is the godmother of this vessel, which is wintering in the Caribbean with prices that have attracted a very international crowd, some sailings going for under $500 a week for inside cabins. Several Americans I talked to came onboard driven by price (there’s even a program where families can bring kids for free).

The cruise line has been criticized before in the area of service. And though I came on with an open attitude, it’s hard to hide stuff from a journalist, and service in general has been uneven.

One example of many: At lunch yesterday my mother spilled her ice tea. We were at the Lido buffet and there were several crew members nearby. One came over and placed a sign on the floor to warn people it was wet. It was a good five minutes, however, before someone brought a rag to sop up the mess on the table. Still, our dining room team (at dinner) and cabin stewards have been great.

Food I would categorize as just OK, again good at times and not great at others, though I do agree with the president of the line, Rick Sasso (formerly of Celebrity Cruises) who has bragged the pizza is the best at sea (it’s delish!).

Entertainment is an area where MSC shines. There’s an excellent singer who does everything from Barbara Streisand to opera. There’s a juggler who whirls things so fast you can hardly keep track. And the acrobats are top notch (including a pair of women contortionists). A can can number by the dancers in the first night’s show had Mom complaining, “Enough with the bottoms already.” But really it was all well (and tastefully) done to please the international crowd.

January 24, 2010

Dance Fever on MSC Poesia

Filed under: Cruise — Tags: , , , — admin @ 3:05 pm

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One two, cha cha cha. On the 90,000-ton MSC Poeisa people are dancing up a storm. The Italian cruise line MSC is fond of theme cruises and on this ship, this week, the theme is Latin Dance. Hence, in addition to classes onboard taught by the activities crew there are also nighttime classes taught by pros, and sexy pros at that – the kind of dancers who seem to put meaning in every wiggle.

“The dance floor is our place where guys can feel strong,” proclaimed last night’s instructor as he worked guys and gals alike through a little salsa and a little cha cha cha, teaching us the steps and moves. I did my best to follow directions which included “make the guy go ‘Oh my god, that’s exciting, what’s happening.”

Except my partner last night was my mom. So moving my hips provocatively proved a little awkward. Still, I did learn a decent butt out, wiggle move.

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About 60 people crowded the dance floor in the ship’s Zebra Bar last night, which is a very cool lounge all done up in black and white stripes. It’s one of several wonderful spaces on this surprisingly fancy ship, where the designers are not afraid of color – several of the rooms are red or burgundy, the theater a lovely shade of purple (don’t read sarcasm here, it’s really quite pretty).

The 2,550-passenger ship gets its name from the Italian word for poetry – it’s pronounced Po-ee-zee-a. But today people onboard seemed to be thinking more about sun and dancing (well, also bingo and art auctions and eating and the usual shipboard activities).

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The pool deck was full of sun worshippers, but at 11 a.m., many got up to learn the bachata, a four-step dance with origins in the Dominican Republic. A crew member on stage offered instruction in English, Italian and Spanish – the crowd onboard is diverse in age and nationality, with many Europeans onboard as well as Americans, South Americans, etc. Mom had as a bridge partner an archeologist from Sweden, and I spotted one fellow pushing his walker wearing a “Life’s too short not to be Italian” t-shirt.

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At the afternoon tango class, more languages were added, the crew instructor going back and forth between languages with ease, but occasionally going overboard in English, like when he told the men and women to separate to learn more steps, advising the ladies, “Say goodbye, honey, sweetheart, baby, later.”

But he also kept bringing us back to reality with what may become a catch phrase for those of us hoping to bring home a few steps, “Concentration on vacation.” I tried to concentrate, only stepping on someone’s foot once.

Again, the afternoon class had about 60 participants and it was clear if these classes/theme cruises catch on MSC will need to get a larger dance floor.

January 23, 2010

Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

Filed under: Cruise — Tags: , , , — admin @ 4:41 pm

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My mom is accompanying me this week as I head off on a Caribbean cruise on the MSC Poesia. And thanks to her flight getting into Fort Lauderdale nice and early we had an extra treat yesterday, a chance to run over to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, where we snagged last-minute $29 tickets to see the Miami City Ballet. Well, snag is kind of exaggeration as it turns out the theater was, sadly, pretty darn empty, which means people missed an amazing performance of “The Golden Section” by Twyla Tharp and several well-performed Balanchine numbers too.

Today we decided with a few hours to kill before the cruise, we’d take one of the water taxis around Fort Lauderdale to see the canals that have gained the city status as “Venice of America.” The tour included a whole bunch of millionaire’s homes and corny commentary, but was a nice diversion.

Getting off at Los Olas Blvd., to check out the gallery scene we got another little surprise: Actress Jane Seymour was doing a show of her works at the Wentworth Gallery. And she was there. I chatted a tad with her about her status as one of seven godmother’s of the world’s largest ship, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. She said she had just done a New Year’s cruise and had a great time onboard with her family.

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After our celebrity sighting, mom and I headed off to the Poesia, where my first impression is what a pretty ship. I’m liking the cabin, all done up in red. And the public areas have a nice contemporary appeal.

It always cracks me up when you embark from Fort Lauderdale, the largest cruise port in America (I know I said this in an earlier blog but they’re real proud of that here) and people in the apartments and condos near the harbor stand onshore to wave and blow horns and ring bells – for every ship that comes by. You’d think it would get old after awhile with three or four or eight or whatever ships a day. But nope, there they were as usual this evening as we passed by and just as enthusiastic as ever.

More of course as we spend a week onboard cruising the Caribbean.

January 22, 2010

Pre-cruise in Fort Lauderdale

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Sitting on my deck at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, watching yachts navigate the Intracoastal Waterway, I am reminded why it makes a lot of sense, if you are cruising from Fort Lauderdale, to come in a day or two early.

For one thing, you can enjoy what this week (and typically, though with exceptions) is spectacular, warm weather, a big bonus for those coming from winter climates of the cold variety. For another, you can start your vacation unwinding early. And there’s also not having to worry about missing the ship due to weather back home – you’re already here.

I am off tomorrow on a weeklong voyage on the MSC Poesia. But right now I’m getting in the mood.

The new Hilton benefits from location, location, location. Formerly the Fort Lauderdale Grande, the hotel – which recently underwent a $70 million, top to bottom redo – is on 17th Street, all of 5 minutes from Port Everglades, the busiest cruise port in America (and only 9 minutes from the airport, and less than that to the beach).

FLLGRHH_Fort_Lauderdale_Marina_Hotel_accom_standard The façade may be a 1960s-ish tower, but don’t let that throw you. The restyled hotel is very much a chic waterfront retreat.

Factors of note:

Price: The hotel has pre- and post-cruise packages starting at $149 per night (through August), and even throws in a couple of drinks and water taxi tickets so you can explore the surrounds (Fort Lauderdale, with the beach and “Venice of America” status).

Service: From the moment I arrived at the 589-room Hilton yesterday every staff person I have encountered has gone out of their way to be friendly and accommodating and even, well, smiley. The hotel feels like an intimate boutique property, at least service-wise. So kudos to the staff.

Features: You gotta love a resort with its own marina, which adds to the views – you can take a walk and get close with the yachts. And the pool area and surrounding deck are downright lovely. There’s also a state-of-the-art fitness center.

FLLGRHH_Fort_Lauderdale_Marina_Hotel_dining_theg Food: While the pizza I ordered from room service was tiny and overpriced (though tasted good), the other dining venues I’ve tried have been impressive. Antea is a lobby spot, and social gathering place and the vegetarian egg white breakfast sandwich I had today was delicious (much better than it sounds) and only $10 with coffee, plus free newspapers. Lunch outdoors near the pool at The G, was also a nice respite – big Greek salad and ice tea hit the spot. For fancier tastes, the China Grill offers Asian fusion and has a sushi bar.

Guestrooms: I am working on a real desk and have high-speed Internet access (reasonably priced). OK, I know typical vacationers may not care about those features, but I do. The furniture is all contemporary, the colors nicely muted and soothing, there’s a big mosaic-tiled stall shower, the sheets are 300-thread count, the flatscreen is 32”, and there’s a Keurig coffeemaker. I’m a happy gal.

Views: As mentioned at the top, there are views. Every guestroom has them from a balcony or patio and out floor-to-ceiling windows. The Intracoastal Waterway is the focus, and it’s a pretty focus too.

January 21, 2010

Silver Spirit is officially launched

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The fancy new Silver Spirit was officially christened today in Fort Lauderdale. The pier was done up to reflect the art deco decor of the ship, classical musicians played and opera singers sang. All very classy, of course, as you would expect from ultraluxury cruise line Silversea, launching its first new ship in nine years.

The Spirit is the line’s largest ship by far, carrying 540 passengers, but still small by today’s ship standards. Line officials made big hints another new ship would follow. Silversea Chairman Manfredi Lefebvre said it’s fun to see the vision of a new ship become a reality and added, “You will see more of these.”

Lefebvre’s sister, Silvia Lefebvre, did the honors of christening the ship as its Godmother, but oops, the champagne bottle attached to a tether did a big thud, and then another, and then another, until a staff member grabbed the line and made sure the bottle smashed.

Officials later blamed the wind, because while the skies were sunny and temps in the 70s, there was a breeze.

Some 450 invited guests were in attendance including passengers embarking today on the ship’s 91-day Grand Inaugural Voyage.

January 15, 2010

SpongeBob and singles on NCL

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SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer will be making regular appearances on the Norwegian Jewel, on cruises out of New York beginning in April, and on the soon-to-launch Norwegian Epic, on cruises in the Caribbean beginning in July. And that will no doubt come as great news to family cruisers; those with kids. (Actually, I can name an adult or two who would probably like to pose with the costumed characters as well.)

The appearances are part of a big partnership deal between Norwegian Cruise Line and Nickelodeon, the premier family entertainment brand. Look too for shipboard game shows like Slime Time Live! with, yes, opportunity to get slimed with the green stuff; live Nick performance shows; Nick-themed arts and crafts and games in the Kid’s Crew program, character breakfasts (for a fee) and more.

The announcement was made to press and 300 travel agents onboard the Norwegian Gem for lunch, while the ship was docked in New York, and there were hints the program could be expanded to other NCL ships as well.

But families aren’t the only cruising group NCL is hoping to draw in larger number with new offerings.

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NCL also announced its block of interior cabins on Epic known as The Studios, would be marketed and priced for solo travelers. That means instead of paying double fare to occupy a cabin by yourself, those who “vant to be alone” can book one of The Studios cabins from $799 for a weeklong eastern or western Caribbean cruise. The cabins are tight, at 100 square feet, and all interior (no ocean views), but feature a very hip design that includes padded walls for leaning, a double bed, portholes into the hall and colored lighting that you can adjust to your mood – red for love, for instance.

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The area is only accessible with a private keycard, and those in The Studios also get exclusive access to The Studio Lounge, a two-deck social spot with a bar, coffee service, plasma TVs, cushy seating and what’s expected to be a meet and mingle atmosphere (ie., singles hot spot).

January 8, 2010

Celebrity Cruises Celebrates

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Celebrity Solstice - First Arrival Port Everglades 11/03/2008

Cruise fans who read my columns will know that I have long raved about Celebrity Cruises. To me, it is and has always been the best of the premium lines, based on decor, food and overall experience. And the prices have always been reasonable, adding to the allure.

When the line last year came out with its first Solstice-class ship, Celebrity Solstice, I couldn’t wax poetic enough about the Solstice’s stunning spaces including the all-white dining room with two-deck wine tower (created by the same designer who did Le Cirque in New York, no less).

Other writers did the same, as did customers. The Solstice and sister ship Equinox have been big hits and the cruise line got the message.

So for the New Year – which happens to be Celebrity Cruises’ 20the anniversary – the line last night announced plans to “Solsticize” its entire fleet. That means Celebrity’s four Millennium-class ships will be updated in dry dock, to look more like their newer siblings. The redo begins with the Celebrity Constellation in April.

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At a clever party for media, top-tier travel agents and some members of Celebrity’s Captain’s Club, held at the ultra hip  Museum of Arts & Design in New York, Celebrity President & CEO Dan Hanrahan also announced a very smart new tagline for the line’s advertising, “Designed for You,” which actually pretty much says it all.

The success of the Solstice-class even caught Celebrity executives by surprise – truly the ships are stunning and have been so received – and now they are going to capitalize on that. A third sister ship, Eclipse, debuts later this year, a fourth, Celebrity Silhouette in 2011, and a fifth after that. Hanrahan called the Solstice, “brand-defining.”

In creating the new campaign, Celebrity did a six-month market research study to understand the needs of its guests, and decided, based on 10,000 international cruisers, they want Solstice-class. And the ad campaign will focus on these ships.

That’s a good thing for Celebrity and parent company Royal Caribbean, since the Solstice-class represents a total investment of $3.7 billion.

The ships offer a number of cruise industry firsts including a half-acre of real grass up on top, a Hot Glass Show with master glassblowers, AquaClass spa cabins and the industry’s first application of solar technology.

So how many of that will appear on the redone Millennium-class ships? Uh, none that we heard about last night. But the Millennium ships will get the addition of other popular Solstice-class features including Tuscan Grille, the Napa Valley-meets-Italian-steakhouse; Bistro on Five, the vibrant, popular creperie; an ice-topped Martini Bar; the coo Café al Bacio and Gelateria; an Enomatic wine bar, and more sumptuous suites and restyled staterooms, all with flatscreen TVs.

And new color schemes, carpeting and upholstery throughout the redone ships will be reflective of Solstice Class, officials said.

After Constellation, they’ll be updating one ship a year, Hanrahan said.

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