Category Archives: Advice

Bienvenue a Monaco!

Monaco

We’re alongside in Monte Carlo today and it’s unbelievably hot and humid; the kind of heat that leaves you lethargic and drained. Flat sea and no wind, and it’s only now, in the late afternoon, that a few yachts are pottering out of the harbour in search of a bit of evening breeze.

Because of the heat, we’re all too floppy and apathetic to do much and besides, have been here before and ‘done’ the sights. And in Monaco, what better activity is there than people, car and yacht-spotting anyway?

There’s a vessel just across the yacht basin from Ruby Princess that’s bigger than some small cruise ships: Al Mirqab. I was so blown away by its enormity that I Googled it and found that at 436 feet and displacing 5,000 tons, it’s one of the largest private yachts ever built and belongs to the prime minister of Qatar. A mere 10 guests are accommodated and cared for by a crew of 60! Six crewmembers each!

Meanwhile, up in Casino Square, the scene was as insane as it ever is and we played a game of spotting locals and yachties (men in loose shorts, baggy shirts and loafers, the women in huge, stacked heels, glittery sun dresses, immaculate hair, improbable tan, carrying Louis Vuitton bags), who stand out among the throng of tourists. A round of one milkshake, one Evian and one iced coffee came to 23 Euros.

I photographed a Rolls Royce with the numberplate ‘1 ME’. A crowd suddenly materialised from nowhere like bees around honey and started snapping shots of a young man cruising past in an open-top white Merc.

I’ve no idea who he was but a woman rushed up to the car and threw a bottle of water over him as he drove away. This place is barmy. OK to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here!

But for all its conspicuous consumerism and unimaginable wealth, Monte Carlo provides a fine and surprisingly unsnooty welcome to cruise passengers, whose vessels, after all, change the entire look of this tiny place.

Singer Dame Shirley Bassey once complained that billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Le Grand Bleu, ruined the view from her Monaco apartment. But the Russian’s boat wasn’t a patch on Ruby Princess, which effectively creates an 18 deck-high wall along one side of the harbour.

Our handy welcome pack

Yet we’re greeted by a cool, air-conditioned cruise terminal with an information desk staffed by helpful locals. Little welcome packs are given to everybody, including a map, postcards, a leaflet detailing all the attractions and their opening times and a handy discount book worth 26 Euros off entrance to museums. There are details of restaurants offering a cheaper ‘plat du jour’ menu and discount vouchers for shops.

The boat man on the Taxi-Bateau that crosses the harbour for one euro each was chatty and even the waiter in the Café de Paris had a certain brusque charm.

Although Shirley Bassey might not approve, you get the feeling that Monaco makes a real effort to host cruise passengers. Even if we do stand out somewhat.

SJB

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What’s Your Favourite Travel Blog?

I stumbled across a lovely story about cruising on Jetcruise.com’s blog this morning (thanks for the shout out!) and it occurred to me that there are probably lots of new blogs about travel (cruise or otherwise) that we haven’t yet discovered. Ours is new — going on two months now — and the blog on Jetcruise.com, which I’d never seen before, made me wonder: What else is out there that we should be reading every day, whether its really good honest critique on cruise ports — or other cruise blogs?

We already do know, and have paid much kudos to cruise line blogs, such as Cunard’s weekly missives and John Heald’s Carnival blog. Check out our story on the best cruise line blogs.

Other favorites include blogs written by fellow journalists, such as Captain Greybeard’s on the Daily Mirror’s website and Jane Archer’s tales on Travel Weekly.

CSB

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I Am So Sorry

As I bounced up to a motorcoach yesterday on the pier at Greenock that would take us on a tour where we’d spend the day riding bicycles and paddling in canoes at Scotland’s Loch Lomond, my proffered shore excursion ticket was met by Westerdam’s shore manager with a stern “where’s your sticker?” I don’t have a sticker, I said, puzzled. I have a ticket.

What followed was a mini lecture in which, not having followed the rules (indeed the ticket did instruct me to check in to my tour by going to the Queens Lounge but I had missed that bit of detail), I would now delay our group while I returned to the ship to pick up that dratted sticker. The sticker is important, she said, because it’s is the only way we’ll know you’re here (though my name was actually on the ticket). I eyed the walkie talkie that the shore excursion manager wore on her hip and asked: You can’t just call them and let them know?

Ultimately, she capitulated to reason and allowed me to board the bus. And let’s be clear here: I was absolutely at fault for not following directions. But the exchange, and the staffer’s manner, which I’d charitably describe as rather too abrupt, reminded me for the first time in a week that I was part of a mass travel experience, a cog in a wheel of more than 2,000 passengers.

And it reminded me too of one downside of big ship cruising: When cruise staff treat their systems and procedures as more important than the customers they serve – with the obvious exception of situations related to health and safety – they unnecessarily denigrate the experience.

Come to think of it, a too-rigid passion for rules is not limited to large cruise ships with thousands of passengers. Cruise Critic’s Dan Askin, sailing on a Rhine River cruise on AMAWATERWAY’s Amacello last summer, tells in his review of an incident in which his traveling companion arrived for breakfast five minutes before the dining room was open for business. Instead of graciously offering to fetch her a cup of coffee and make her comfortable until the restaurant was open, they told her to go away and come back later.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget another incident when I unknowingly didn’t follow the rules and never even knew it. On a cruise on Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa from Muscat to Athens, our itinerary featured quite a few “turn your clock forward one hour” and “turn it back!” evenings. It got a little confusing. One morning I showed up for breakfast promptly at 7 a.m. and was a bit surprised to see that the superb buffet crew didn’t have it quite together (also perplexing: where were the other passengers? Perhaps they were sleeping in?). Only half the buffet was laid out, the grill wasn’t staffed. No matter, there was enough on the buffet to suffice, and a waiter promptly took an omelet order and brought me fresh-squeezed orange juice.

It wasn’t until I got back to my cabin that I realized that, due to a time change, I’d arrived at the dining room an hour before it opened. The crew could’ve sent me away. Instead they didn’t even let me know that I posed an inconvenience.  Their gracious attitude was incredibly heartwarming.

For passengers, one of the challenges of cruising is that you’re on vacation. As with any getaway, your brain slows down a bit (that’s a good thing!); as well, cruising is a unique kind of holiday. You are visiting different ports every day, adapting not just to one foreign land but in most cases to numerous countries.  As on this trip on Westerdam, as well, the crew has been so wonderful that you can be excused for feeling as if you were lulled into pampered euphoria. So you let your guard down a little bit. And maybe we’ve all inadvertently caused a bit of chaos or inconvenience at some point because we didn’t follow the rules.

Which made me wonder: Have you ever experienced a situation on a cruise when you’ve “messed up” and the cruise line staffers not only handled the situation but rose above the proverbial call of duty? I’m thinking just now of two different recent incidents (one on Disney Magic in Civitavecchia and one on Westerdam in Holyhead) in which passengers on independent shore tours arrived back at the ship as it was pulling away and the captain reversed course to capture them even though the rules said – be on time or get yourself to the next port.

I’m sure you’ve got others. Please share your story with us.

CSB

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Filed under Advice, Cruise Lines, Dining, Opinion, Round-Britain Cruise

Join us as we cruise around Britain & Ireland

If an around-the-region Great Britain/Ireland cruise may seem a little bit too “in my own back yard” style of holiday – well you might be surprised.  This style of cruise is actually the hottest thing going not just around Ireland and the U.K. but also in Australia. (The U.S. would be a fantastic itinerary as well – can you imagine a trip that goes from Boston round to Miami, over to New Orleans, and then through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles and onward to Alaska? Unfortunately, antiquated American laws make it difficult to try such a itinerary.)

Anyway, I’ll be sharing vignettes from my 10-night cruise onboard Holland America’s Westerdam. We start off today from Rotterdam (photo taken this morning shows the ship heading up Holland’s Nieuwe Maas or New Meuse river, from our balcony in the fantastically retro Hotel New York). Then we head for ports of call that include Portland, Guernsey, Waterford, Dublin, Holyhead, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle, before returning to Rotterdam (the blog ends at Newcastle, however, as we’re hopping off the ship there).

I hope you’ll come along – and feel free to share your insights, opinions and questions.

CSB

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What to pack?

One of the most frequently asked questions on the first time cruisers’ forum on Cruise Critic is ‘What should I pack?’. I’m not talking about clothing, as dress codes are a whole different subject, but all the extra stuff.

Everything but the kitchen sink

My first message to new cruisers is: There is no mystery about cruising. The packing dilemma is really no different to what you’d have if you were staying in an hotel. You can buy things on board in an emergency – and in a real emergency, in my case, when my only pair of good shoes broke on formal night, the crew are very resourceful with glue and bits of string!

The tips from regular cruisers on our forum on what to pack are both impressive and awe-inspiring – can’t say I’ve ever met anybody who would confess to packing duct tape and Brits aren’t inclined to bring their own giant coffee cups for day-long swigging like some of our American cousins. But we’ve no doubt got our own foibles, like snack-pots of baked beans in the suitcase, or jars of Marmite.

Packing is a highly personal thing but for what it’s worth, here’s my own list of essentials, carefully honed after years of cruising:

  • Compeed plasters – great for blisters either from walking a lot in port or wearing unfamiliar posh shoes on board
  • Fizzy multi-vitamins – I kid myself that they’re a hangover cure
  • Aftersun, decent conditioner and shampoo – unless you’re on a luxury ship, the stuff in the cabins is too harsh
  • Tiger Balm – perfect multi-tasker for insect bites, sprains, blocked sinuses from the air-conditioning etc
  • Stugeron – my preferred seasickness pills.  On board, they often give you Phenergan, which knocks you out.
  • Currency for port calls, even if it’s just a few coins – it’s a pain, chasing around for an ATM in some of the more remote places
  • Camera cleaning kit – if you use an SLR, the lens can get messy with salt and sand
  • A hat that stays on in the wind
  • Small Swiss army knife – good for anything from peeling fruit at a picnic to opening bottles if there’s no corkscrew

First time cruisers, remember, there’s a whole section of the Cruise Critic site devoted to ‘all you need to know’, so do check it out. Meanwhile, let us know – what’s the single most useful thing you pack to take on a cruise? Or the strangest, while we’re on the subject!

SJB

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Should you dare to bare on board your cruise?

The discussion’s getting steamy today over on the First Time Cruisers section of the Cruise Critic message boards – in more ways than one.

When a new member called Beachbeeotch posted a query about how skimpy was too skimpy around the pool, she probably got more than she bargained for, from slightly angry-sounding ‘save-your-thongs-for-the-beach’ responses to veiled warnings along the lines of ‘Don’t distract the Dads who are meant to be supervising their kids in the pool’. Or the more amusing ‘Pictures would help decide the correct answer’.

How much is too much?

Whether or not this new member is simply having a laugh, the discussion throws up some interesting points.

Nobody is ever going to agree on what is and isn’t a vision of loveliness around the pool as beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

We probably all agree, though, on the etiquette of covering up inside, and having been squished up in the pizza queue on an Italian ship against sweaty men in nothing but tiny Speedos, I would like to reiterate this plea.

Meanwhile, here are a few more thoughts for those of you pondering the issue of how much to bare on board. Feel free to add to the list!

  • As members on the thread correctly point out, NCL has ‘Freestyle’ decks at the highest points on its ships, where you can go topless.
  • Europeans tend to be more comfortable with nudity than Americans and cruisers on both MSC and Costa ships seem pretty relaxed about going topless.
  • Topless sunbathing on beaches in Europe is widely accepted, although it’s not always legal. Maybe the south of France, Paradise Beach in Mykonos or parts of Italy would be a better bet for Beachbeeotch than the relatively conservative Caribbean?
  • For the truly committed, there are clothing-optional cruises; ships of Carnival, Celebrity Cruises and Star Clippers have all been chartered for naturist cruises in 2011.
  • If you must mince around in a thong on board, beware of teens bearing technology. As member Pattakins points out: “I’m afraid that if my 12 year old son saw a good looking girl with a nice body in one [a thong], he would follow them around like a puppy dog and drool. And then all his prepubescent friends would get a picture of it sent to their phones…”
  • Finally, for those who consider the cabin’s balcony a safe spot in which to bare all in privacy: If you can see the bridge wing (the bit that sticks out over the side), they can see you! SJB

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Sailing solo

Single cabins on cruise ships are all the rage now, what with the launches this year of NCL’s Norwegian Epic and P&O’s Azura, both equipped with shiny, new, headline-grabbing cabins for solos.

The trade publication Travel Trade Gazette has done a little price check on these single cabins, comparing similar(ish) cruises on Epic, Azura and Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral, which is also solo-friendly.

The cruises are all slightly different – Epic is nine nights and Azura, 14 nights, for example, and Epic is a fly-cruise while the other two are ex-Southampton. But if you distil it down to a straightforward price-per-night comparison, this is how it comes out:

  • Norwegian Epic £87.66
  • Azura £112.78
  • Balmoral £180.90

Big difference, isn’t it? If you’re buying purely on price, Norwegian Epic is a clear winner.

But do people really care only about the price, just because they’re single? Yes, it’s important and a matter of principle, too, but surely ending up on the right ship for you is a bigger factor?

There's more to solo cruising than the price

Couples and families who cruise for the first time are rarely encouraged to buy purely on price, yet with singles, it seems to be the only way in which cruises are compared, particularly at the moment, with all this focus on single cabins.

So, single cruisers, what’s your checklist when booking? Is it more than the money? A decent bar where you can feel comfortable, propped up alone with your Martini, or big, lively tables at dinner, or classes where you can meet like-minded people? We’ve compiled our own list of single-friendly cruise lines on Cruise Critic but we’d love to know your views!

SJB

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