Get Away With Fran

March 28, 2010

Island paradise on Norwegian Pearl cruise

Filed under: Cruise — admin @ 7:32 am

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At our final port of call on our Norwegian Pearl cruise, guy pal continued his torture-by-snorkeling (just kidding, I actually really like it).

The stop was at Great Stirrup Cay, a lovely private Bahamas island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, where the sand is white and the seas blue and clear and containing lots and lots of marine life.

Our ship arrived near the island and anchored offshore around 10 a.m., but the weather was cloudy and rainy and didn’t look too promising. Guy and I got out our snorkel gear but carefully watched the skies, trying to figure out whether to go to shore or not (the ship was running tenders, but passengers in them looked wet and cold). By around 12:30 pm, the clouds seemed to be dispersing, so we decided to go for it. We were glad we did.

NPI_00_PrivateIslandSnorkel After grabbing delicious burgers at the beachside BBQ, we headed to the largest of the white sand beaches and immediately on entering the slightly chily water, I spotted a fish nearly 10 inches long. And then another. And soon so many my mind clicked to “Oh, another fish.”

I was enjoying swimming with the fishies and the quiet, peaceful space that snorkeling provides – the sounds are your own breathing and you are pleasantly buoyant. In the zone, you really start to feel like you’re in another world.

And then guy pal waved me out of my reverie by finding buried treasure. Really. A traditional Irish  Claddagh ring in silver, poking up from the sand.

However, it was heading further from shore, and towards a couple of little rocky islets, that guy found the treasure he was really looking for, a whole school of cuttle fish (which in his enthusiasm I gathered is something like snorkeling pay dirt).

Me, by this time I was laid out in a lounge chair onshore, my feet in the sand, soaking in the sun that had now managed to take over the sky. Ah, relaxation.

If you don’t bring your own snorkeling gear to the island, you can rent everything you need for $29. An island rule is everyone needs to wear a vest (if you have your own equipment, you can rent snorkeling vests separately for $5.99).

Norwegian Cruise Line announced earlier this month, at Cruise Shipping Miami, that it is renovating Great Stirrup to the tune of $20 million. And improvements include a new pier, so that ships can dock rather than tender. Other new features, to be completed this year, include an Aqua Park and stingray encounter experience.

Back on the ship, an experience we thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend is dinner in the Teppanyaki restaurant, where the chefs prepared a yummy flash grilled meal with a lot of flair – dinner comes with a show of spatula skills (well worth the $25 service charge).

And we got a big giggle watching a couple of nighttime events, a dance contest (that included a striptease of sorts from one of the male contestants), and Quest, a scavenger hunt where, well, anything can happen.

One of the wonderful things about a cruise is you will always finding something entertaining happening. At the same time, if you want to veg out, you are free to do that free.

Speaking of freedom, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle Cruising is still, in my opinion, one of the best inventions in cruising ever. Guy and I ate when we wanted (and always got a table for two easily). And played when we wanted (including watching very enthusiastic wagers in the ship’s large and active casino). And getting off the ship on disembarkation day was a breeze too (if you take your own bags you can disembark whenever you want).

March 25, 2010

Snorkeling and Tattoos: Cruising the Caribbean on Norwegian Pearl

Filed under: Cruise — admin @ 7:49 am

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This Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Pearl will be remembered by me as the one where I really got into snorkeling, I suspect (well, also the first cruise with new guy pal).

He is very into snorkeling, and to make sure we could take advantage of clear waters at any opportunity we picked up our own snorkeling gear before leaving Florida (masks and snorkels purchased at a dive shop in the Keys).

With our second port of call Road Town in lovely Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, we knew we would be able to explore some of the finest clear blue seas and underwater sights anywhere.

I had heard that Smuggler’s Cove was the place on Tortola to go, but the ship’s crew seemed perplexed when we asked how to get there (you can take a taxi but some of the way is off-road). So we decided to take the easy route and book a shore excursion to Norman Island ($70.99), that assured stops at two known snorkeling sites.

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It turned out to be an excellent choice – as the day before, the excursion operator more than delivered what was promised. Norwegian Cruise Line has impressed us in this regard; they obviously know how to pick tours and don’t overprice them either.

From Road Town, about 20 of us headed out in a small boat with a three-person crew. It was a slightly bumpy ride (those prone to seasickness should pop a Dramamine) but things calmed down considerably about a half hour later as we anchored near the shores of tiny Norman Island. Off the boat and into the water we could see fish, big ones and coral and sponges. Blue chromis, black bar soldierfish, and blue-striped grunt fish among them, according to guy pal. (“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish,” for sure.)

Guy pal headed off to explore underwater caves, but I was quite content to float and let the fishes come to me. Beautiful.

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Our second stop was at a beach. By this point I was a little woozy (I did take a Dramamine and it knocked me out). So instead of getting in the water again, I parked myself on a nice lounge chair on the sandy beach for a nice sunny snooze.

It was a wonderful experience altogether.

Yesterday the port call was St. Thomas. And I should note here the ship did a little switcheroo in schedule without much explanation – we had a full day in Tortola and a shortened day (but still 8 hours) in St. Thomas, which was fine with us though there was some grumbling from other passengers. It is the cruise line’s prerogative to do this (and no, they don’t need to compensate you in any way if they do).

We decided to see if we could walk to a beach. Turns out we couldn’t (there are two main piers and we were at one far from a beach; if you dock at Crown Bay you can walk). But we did do the half-hour walk into town and a bit beyond, getting a little exercise before we broke down and took a cab the rest of the way to Crown Bay.

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The beach at Crown Bay was lovely. It’s near the airport but the occasional plane overhead just gave us something else to look at. Guy knows his fish, so we headed to the cliff-side of the beach where as soon as you go in the clear blue seas with snorkel you could see little white fish and little blue ones too. I was content to hang near shore, but again guy went exploring and even saw a barracuda and a big blow fish.

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On the open-air jitney back to the pier, some passengers off another ship were asking us about the Norwegian Pearl. Yes, we said, the food was quite good (even in the main dining rooms). We bragged that there are 14 restaurants and the service spectacular.

But when the several ships in the main harbor came into view, one woman made us feel particularly proud in commenting on the exterior paint job on our ship (which includes many pearls). “Your ship has nice tattoos,” she said.

March 23, 2010

Lovely day in Samana on Norwegian Pearl cruise

Filed under: Cruise — admin @ 9:25 am

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When you carefully plan out your cruise you should always research the ports so you know what there is to do and whether you should book a shore excursion with the cruise line or not.

That said, if you’re like me and have a generally crazy schedule you may not always take the time to do that.

And so guy pal and I found ourselves scratching our heads over what to do in our first port of call on the Norwegian Pearl this week, Samana, Dominican Republic.

I had never been to this port before. So we decided to seek the advice of the ship’s shore excursion crew.

A lovely gal informed us there was “nothing” to see or do in Samana, and made the place where our tenders were pulling in (the ship anchored offshore) sound like a place so rustic it lacked electricity. (In fact, we would later discover while there was not much at the pier, there was what looked like a thriving town nearby complete with big cell phone tower.)

Guy pal and I decided to book a ship tour. We like to keep active, and since we have been eating like pigs (see yesterday’s blog), we liked the sound of the Bike, Hike and Kayak tour – a biathlon of sorts for the cruise ship crowd (marked as “moderate” in Norwegian Cruise Line lexicon). Cost – $59.99 per person.

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It turned out to be a bargain, a wonderful tour for 22 guests, that was supposed to be 4/12 hours but lasted nearly 6 thanks to a wonderfully enthusiastic guide, who among other things gave us extra time at a blissful beach.

We biked enough to at least feel like we were exercising, hiked past cliffs that included stunning sheer marble walls and to blow holes high above the ocean, and between activities bounced around (in a good way!) in an open air truck on paved and unpaved roads past rustic villages, and verdant hills, and the occasional horse, donkey, chicken, pig and cow. In other words, we got to see some of the Dominican Republic and not just the port area.

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The beach our guide, who calls himself “Achoo” took us to served up such clear blue seas, guy and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to snorkel (we had brought along our gear), and followed little fishes through grassy surfaces and white sand. We never did get in the kayak (though that was an option).

Yes, we know we got lucky, and we’ll try to plan more next time. But if you do find yourself in the same boat (OK, sorry about that one), this tour comes highly recommended.

March 22, 2010

My 100th on Norwegian Pearl

Filed under: Cruise — admin @ 3:40 pm

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I am declaring this my 100th cruise. I am on the Norwegian Pearl cruising in the Caribbean this week. And honestly I have no idea if this really is my 100th cruise or not. It may be my 101st or even 110th. I don’t keep an exact list. So I might as well call this cruise a celebration.

As a writer specializing in cruises I have been on a lot of ships. And attending the Cruise Shipping Miami conference last week one number stuck in my head and that is 118. That’s the number of new cruise ships built in the last 10 years. It’s a big number.

I’ve seen a good number of those ships. Which brings me to the 93,000-ton, 2,380-passenger Norwegian Pearl. One of the things that really makes a cruise for me is service.

And from the moment my guy pal and I arrived at the pier in Miami on Saturday for this NCL cruise we’ve experienced nothing but extraordinary service. Now, to be fair I should reveal that there are perks of the trade and one is that you sometimes get VIP treatment. Such was the case at check in (our concierge, Ryan, escorted us on to the ship). But even so, there was no big huge line for anyone to get on in the mid afternoon. That’s a very good thing.

So too is crew in the buffet restaurant working so hard to keep dishes bused and tables clean that one woman asked us if we were finished eating even before we started to eat – seriously, we’d just sat down and our plates were full of Indian food and other goodies from the buffet. Now that’s efficient service!

NCL is different than other cruise lines in that it serves up Freestyle Cruising, which includes the option of eating when you want, where you want and with whom you want. No set schedules. Eat when you’re hungry. And if like me and my guy you want a table for two you can get one easily. This ship has 14 dining options including main restaurants and buffets and eight specialty restaurants that carry a fee (of $10 to $25 per person).

So far we’ve sampled the $15 all-you-can-eat sushi (excellent!) and the $10 TexMex at Mambo’s (the lobster tacos were particularly yummy). Tonight in celebration, we will do Le Bistro ($20). Perhaps at some point we will remember to go to the regular dining room too.

March 16, 2010

Norovirus means no go for Celebrity Mercury

Filed under: Cruise — Tags: , , , — admin @ 5:18 am

Among the issues cruise line executives will no doubt discuss at the Cruise Shipping Miami conference today is the dreaded norovirus, the fast moving stomach bug, that can quickly infect a ship, or for that matter, a hotel, or a shopping mall or, gulp a conference, or any other gathering of people.

Norovirus has been much in the news in the past few weeks with one ship, the beautiful, 1,749-passenger Celebrity Mercury out of Charleston, South Carolina, so hit with the illness on multiple sailings (including 22% of passengers on one cruise in February) that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “no sail” recommendation yesterday.

In response, the ship will be volunarily “grounded” for a cleaning and sanitizing Thursday to Sunday, I confirmed with Celebrity President Dan Hanrahan, who I had dinner with last night at a party at the W Hotel, hosted by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. Though he added, a lot of cleaning efforts have already been underway – including a complete sanitizing before the last cruise and, newly, use of a new machine that cleans with technology that didn’t make a lot of sense to this technaphobe but apparently uses electric currents of some sort.

And Hanrahan also made the clear, all this despite the fact, according to him, that the issue is not that the ship isn’t clean. It’s that norovirus is spreading all over South Carolina and sick passengers keep getting on. All passengers are required to fill at a form saying they are in good health, but not everyone tells the truth, Hanrahan added.

You can get norovirus by touching surfaces a sick person touches, like chair arms, and stair banisters. It’s spread through the air too, and is particularly hard to contain. Why do cruise ships seem to get it so often? They really don’t, any more than other contained spaces. But unlike others they are required by law to report outbreaks to the CDC.

Meanwhile, Hanrahan also indicated because of this and other issues, Celebrity is none too pleased with Charleston and unlikely to base a ship in that city in the future.

March 15, 2010

Take me to Miami

Filed under: Travel Advice,U.S. — Tags: , , — admin @ 1:27 pm

16th Floor Pool Deck

OK, I know I am the envy of my East Coast pals today, as I have landed in Miami where it is warm and sunny (and not rainy and dreary as it’s been for days now in Boston).

There is something wonderful about coming out of the airport and feeling, well, kind of sweaty, but in that good, “I am in Miami” sort of way.

I am staying at the much-lauded, 411-room Epic Hotel in downtown, a Kimpton property. And my first impressions are this cool design hotel deserves all the praise.

EPIC Main Exterior (lo-res)

Literally I had a fleet of bellmen in crisp tan uniforms snap my bag out of the cab before I could blink an eye.

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In the lobby (above) the equally well-dressed and efficient front desk team got me speedily checked in and within minutes I was in my airy, 18th floor room, checking out my very own deck, which overlooks the property’s hip pool/social area on the 16th floor (top photo, except there are bikini clad bods there at present), tall residential buildings and the ocean beyond.

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Complimentary wine is served poolside during an hour-long daily social hour, starting at 5, so I may just hop down for a swig before I head off to meetings and other social obligations tonight. I’m in town to cover Cruise Shipping Miami (formerly known as Seatrade), the annual gathering of the cruise lines and ports and others affiliated with cruising. In the next few days, I’ll fill you in on the latest and great in the world of cruising.

But meanwhile, I heard the San Antonio Spurs are staying here tonight. Lots of very tall men walking around tonight. That, and free Internet access (every guestroom at the Epic has wireless and a complimentary desktop too). Woo-hoo.

March 12, 2010

Partying like Jennifer Aniston at Borgota

Filed under: Travel Advice,U.S. — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 8:13 am

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OK. I kind of hate Jennifer Aniston. Who doesn’t? She is way too perfect.

And now she may or may not be with hunky Gerard Butler – depending on which of the rags/mags you believe, their “coupling” is either a publicity stunt for their new movie, “The Bounty Hunter, or “true love.” I’m betting the former.

But you can’t deny they had time together at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City. And that’s because the PR folks at the hotel are making the most of their JenBut connection.

In fact, Butler and his leading lady filmed several scenes of their comedy at the Borgata and according to a press release, “got to know each other” off-camera while frequenting the hotel’s restaurants and hot spots.

In celebration of the film’s release, and what the hotel terms “the couple’s budding romance,” The Borgata has created an A-list “Follow the Bounty to Borgata” package, available through April 10.

Included are accommodations in a spectacular Hideaway Suite at The Water Club at the Borgota; a spa treatment from the Immersion Spa (Jen is reportedly a fan of the Ultimate Oxygenerating Facial; no comment); a $200 food and beverage credit you can use at Bobby Flay Steak of Seablue by Michael Mina, where Aniston and crew dined during filming; and a $100 retail credit for use at one of the Borgata boutiques. Plus you get VIP Entry and Complimentary admission to MIXX and mur.mur nightclubs, so like Jen you can glide past the velvet rope.

No guarantee the paparazzi won’t spot you, though. The package is priced at $1,499, and available weekends only.

March 11, 2010

Conveying the Eclipse

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:30 pm

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When a new cruise ship leaves the shipyard and heads into service for the first time, it is always cause for celebration. And no one does it quite like the Germans.

When the Celebrity Eclipse left Meyer Werft in Papenburg today, thousands lined the banks of Germany’s River Ems to witness the event. They were bundled up too due to chilly temperatures, but what’s a little shiver when you can witness a moment in history?

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The Eclipse is the third of five in Celebrity’s $3.7 billion Solstice-class fleet, which also includes the Solstice and Equinox. And you’ve probably heard me rant before about how and why these are some of my favorite ships afloat. A brief synopsis – they are very stylish, affordable, feature the best in cuisine (for premium ships), and have grass – yup, a half-acre of green stuff up on top.

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As you can see by the photos, the official “conveyance” of a ship can be a challenge – there isn’t all that much room to manuveur – only two feet on either side of the river at some points.

But less challenging for this ship, I suspect, will be keeping her full of passengers - the Solstice-class ships have proven to be the most sucesssful in the Celebrity fleet. I am not the only one who likes them.

How does Eclipse differ from her sisters? She adds a “Celebrity iLounge,” featuring Apple products (including for sale); and adds “Qsine,” a new dining venue that promises an interactive experience complete with menus on a personal touchscreen  and dishes like sushi lollipops (it’s one of 10 restaurants on the ship).

And of course, as a third sibling, she’ll be making her own stylish fashion statement.

I plan to report on all that at her official debut party at the end of April in Southampton, U.K. Meanwhile, the Eclipse is off for her sea trials – where the captain will get even more insight into how she handles.

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