Category Archives: Luxury Cruises

The Eggs Benedict Test

Eggs Benedict

The “eggs benedict test” is my ritual go-to quality indicator when onboard a cruise ship. Let me explain: On every cruise I take that’s longer than a few days, I head down to the ship’s main restaurant and order the dish – poached eggs, slightly runny, served with Canadian bacon or ham, and with a dollop of hollandaise. It’s a treat (I only order it once a cruise) that I never make at home because the dish is a bit too fussy to get right.

Which is why eggs benedict is a great way to test a restaurant kitchen. Are chefs paying attention? It only takes a few seconds for the eggs to go from undercooked to overcooked.  Are waiters responsive enough to get the dish from kitchen to table before the hollandaise congeals? And, if the dish is not quite right, if for instance, the egg yolks are cooked too hard, does staff respond quickly and pleasantly?

On Westerdam, my eggs benedict test (the only score is pass or fail) took place yesterday in Vista, its main dining room. The dish was a huge pass (a new inspiration occurred to me: add one triangle of fried hash brown potatoes – hey nobody ever said this was a healthy endeavor —  and mix the potato up with the runny yolk and the hollandaise). Delicious!

The test actually was born out of a disastrous cruise dining experience  and has served me well in the years since. Traveling on Silversea’s Silver Wind, I’d ordered the dish. That it came so badly overcooked on a luxury line was a manageable disappointment, but what turned this into a lasting memory was the fact that the waiter balked when I asked for another try – and later engaged in a rather unpleasant argument, within ear-shot, with his maitre ‘d over who would tell the chef that his dish didn’t please.

I was appalled and embarrassed and the experience reflected the mediocre level of food and service experienced elsewhere on that journey.

Having reviewed some 150-plus cruise ships over the past 13 years, there are certainly other symbolic indicators that tell me more about the quality of that voyage than a particular incident would normally suggest. Do the majority of crew members say hello and look you in the eye when they pass by in corridors or bring you a cocktail? (On Westerdam, so far, check, check, it’s been a pass all around). If so, they’ll be personable all around. Does the cabin steward clean the balcony as well as your stateroom? It shows an attention to detail (so far, so good on Westerdam) as far as cleaning standards are concerned. On another recent cruise, my balcony never felt clean (cigarette ashes from other smokers on other verandahs were omnipresent, and dirty water pooled there every day;  frankly the lack of attention to detail was also reflected in other parts of the stateroom).

Do security officers smile and greet you when you return to the ship from a day in port? Actually this one’s mostly in jest – no one really expects security staffers to offer a smile or a sense of humor but on Azamara Journey a few weeks ago, I was startled when the men and women who man the screening machine would say “welcome home” when I came back aboard. It was a nice touch.

Before I leave for my cruise, I also look at Cruise Critic member reviews, particularly the most recent ones, to see what to expect. Ships do change personalities, often depending on which hotel director, who oversees everything from cuisine and housekeeping to entertainment and services like casinos, art auctions, and photography, is onboard at the time. Hotel directors typically serve four month contracts. Those who deftly manage their huge staffs typically run excellent ships.

What’s your go-to indicator for cruise quality? Share it with us.

CSB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Dining, Luxury Cruises, Opinion, Round-Britain Cruise

3 reasons to take an “exotic” Northern Europe cruise

If in cruise line marketing efforts, Northern Europe is largely defined through itineraries that focus on the great Nordic capitals or that dip into Norway’s fjords, well…that’s not all there is to the region. On a genuinely enticing itinerary this week aboard Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Journey, in which only the homeport of Copenhagen represented any destination even remotely on the trodden track, I discovered three reasons why an exotic ports cruise of northern Europe offers amazing adventures:

Azamara Journey in Orkney

*We’re the only ship in port. Forget the cruise hordes that flock to Nordic cities on summer days – ports on our route, like Reykjavik, the Orkney Islands’ Kirkwall, and the Faroe Islands’ Torshavn were one-ship towns. Locals seemed genuinely welcoming and at  attractions, from the Orkney Islands’ well-known Ring of Brodgar – an early Bronze Age precursor to Stonehenge – to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, the atmosphere was reasonably laid back and crowds were manageable.

*In summer don’t you want to be outside? “If there is such a thing as fun, this is it!” shrieked fellow passenger Justin Hilliard, a teenager from Nashville. He was talking about the “fjord and sea safari by RIB” excursion in Torshavn and he was right. The first boat ride I’ve ever taken wearing a helmet, the 12-seater can go as fast as 55 knots (trust me, the meek do not want to sit in the front seat) while you sit on a pommel-horse contraption and hold on for dear life.

Speed boat

The speed boat takes time as well to meander in and out of seriously gorge-beautiful fjords, weaving in and out of caves so narrow and low-slung (hence the need for helmets) that you can see where the rock formations were burned when they were hurtled out of a volcano eons ago to form the islands that make up the Faroes.  You also get up-close views of the myriad rock platforms where puffins have made their homes.

Faroe Islands boat tour

Just to make the experience a little bit different, the captain plays 1980s’ rock tunes; in the caves the audio reverberates against the rocks. And for cruise ship fans, the neatest moment was when he nudged the inflatable boat right up against Journey’s hull.

Iceland's landscape

*Do something daring! Azamara’s recently revamped its shore excursion menu to add numerous options not just for recreation but also for adventure. Iceland’s Reykjavik, famed for its “white nights” summer bacchanals, is a delightful urban capital, easy to explore independently. But less easy and more challenging is a visit to the rugged interior. While quite far from the troublesome volcanic duo of Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla (the former of course disrupted international travel this spring after a s eries of eruptions and the latter is reputedly on the cusp of a major eruption), our trip, via a Ford Club Wagon “Super Jeep” (used to cross Antarctica and also the deserts of the Middle East) wasn’t pretty but sure did capture an aspect of Iceland.

Roughly equitable to traveling down a farm lane studded with post-winter potholes, we crossed through lava fields, ascended steep off-road mini mountains, and splashed through a mighty river.

On a jeep in Iceland

Other ports visited on this cruise on Azamara Journey included Norway’s Geiranger, Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands, and Iceland’s Akeyuri.

Exotic spin-offs of mainstream cruises aren’t limited by any means to Northern Europe. For you, which offbeat ports in the Mediterranean do you think would make a memorable cruise more memorable?

CSB

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A valentine to cruise — for virgins

On the Times’ newly revamped website, Cruise Critic Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown writes an ode to cruising — with a dose of reality. Take a look and forward it on to the pals in your life who haven’t quite yet figured out the appeal of cruising.

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Southhampton Needs to Spruce Up

What does it say to you about Southampton’s appeal as a pre- or post-cruise destination that the top ranking hotel on TripAdvisor is not a place down on the city’s quite lovely waterfront – but the Premier Inn Southampton Airport?

Clearly Southampton wins, hands down, when it comes to be the U.K.’s busiest home port. So a lot of us have little choice if we’re cruising from England (Dover’s way behind). Southampton has a lot of quiet charms – and quite a bit of potential — but after my most recent stay here it seems that its hotels, in particular (which are a key aspect of a pre- or post-cruise visit) have gotten smug and lazy. Let’s put it this way: It’s no Barcelona.

The hotels that are located in cruise-centric places are primarily a utilitarian Novotel and Ibis (nothing wrong with cheap and cheerful but it’s not exciting). Numerous friends have grumbled about the Holiday Inn on the Solent. At the DeVere Grand Harbour Hotel, which is considered the city’s top-rated hostelry, it would appear that there have been few if any upgrades since the place opened in 1994. Beds are lumpy, rooms are tired, there aren’t many contemporary amenities (slow Ethernet, no Internet, lousy selection of television channels, fans in rooms in place of better air system). One caveat here is its balcony rooms; snag one that overlooks the Solent and you won’t care about the limitations!). Speaking of which – this photo of Celebrity Eclipse was snapped this morning from just one such balcony as the sun began to creep over the horizon at 4:15 a.m.!

With one exception – the delightful boutique hotel Ennios, which lies at the foot of the Red Funnel ferry and is a six-room place atop its own delightful Italian restaurant – the best way to sleep well in Southampton is to get out of town. Otherwise, New Forest-area places like Hotel Terravina and Lime Wood are superb spots for splurge stays.

Do you have a favorite Southampton (area) hotel? Tell us about it.

CSB

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Filed under Advice, Destinations, Luxury Cruises, Uncategorized

Celebrities Who Cruise

On which cruise line’s ships are you most likely to bump into Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, stars from “Strictly Come Dancing” or John Travolta? Let’s be frank – there aren’t a whole lot of celebrities who cruise (and mostly those who do are participating in some sort of guest star role) but these three were definitely spotted onboard (Gallagher hopped on a Silversea Cruises Atlantic crossing when ash madness grounded planes, “Strictly Come Dancing” performers have been spotted on several Princess cruises, and John Travolta was on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas a few years back.

Oprah, the U.S. reigning queen of daytime chat, has taken a cruise; she chartered NCL’s Norwegian Gem for a staff trip – and presided over the events from the plush garden villa. Even Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist Slash has been known to tweet about his love for — ready for this? — Disney cruises.

In a new story today on Cruise Critic UK, check out other celebrities who you might spot at sea. http://bit.ly/9eC0TE.

The reason that most inspired Norwegian Cruise Line executives to name American country music and sitcom star Reba McEntire as godmother of its new Norwegian Epic (christening’s July 2 in New York) is because – she actually cruises for pleasure! NCL president Kevin Sheehan told us that on a Mediterranean cruise a few years back he ran into her so often (around the ship and on shore excursions) that he was afraid she’d think he was stalking her. Seriously though, she really loves cruising and so is the rare godmother who regards the christening as more than just a publicity stunt.

CSB

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Guilty Cruising Secret

Today’s confession: we’re anchored off the Irish coast near Waterford, it’s a glorious sunny day, and I have Not Got Off The Ship.

What makes that a guilty secret? Well, I cruise a fair bit and I’ve always felt compelled to explore every port. To me, it’s unthinkable not to have a natural curiosity about the places I visit, to travel somewhere and not actually see it.

On the other hand… I’ve been to Waterford before. I’m not in the market for Waterford Crystal. So although it felt slightly decadent, I did not head down to deck four to board the tender.

And I have had such a good day on board. There’s something highly appealing about being on the ship when everybody else has gone ashore. It’s much better than a crowded sea day – actually like having your own private yacht.

I’ve lounged around drinking cappuccino, been to the gym, had lunch on deck, read my book on the sunlounger of my choice, had a fantastic massage, detoxed a bit in the steam room, enjoyed liberal amounts of all the lovely Elemis products thoughtfully provided in the spa and am now looking forward to whatever tonight brings. It’s been the kind of day most average working people rarely get at home, and surely that’s what a cruise is all about, pampering yourself?

Whether you’re an experienced cruiser or a first-timer, I would encourage anybody who feels like it to take a day ‘off’ from their itinerary. No guilty feelings required! SJB

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Fishy Business

Ever since watching a brilliant but alarming TV documentary about sustainable fishing, called The End of the Line, I’ve been very careful about what fish I buy, or order on a cruise. I no longer buy tiger prawns, cod or wild Scottish salmon, all of which are seriously endangered, and I’m concerned about the origins of any tuna I eat, too.

The trouble is, when you’re travelling, it’s difficult to discover the provenance of what’s on your plate at dinner. So I’m thrilled that luxury line Crystal Cruises has just announced a policy of sustainable seafood purchasing.

Thomas Mazloum, the company’s senior vice president, operations, said at a conference today that Crystal was, in any case, the first cruise line to stop serving caviar from endangered sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, and boycotted endangered Chilean sea bass back in the 1990s. Now, though, it is making the whole sustainability issue more formal.

From now on, Crystal will support sustainable fishing and fair trade initiatives and will work with organisations like the Marine Conservation Society in the UK to audit and enforce its new policy. And you and I will be able to tuck into our fish courses in the Crystal Dining Room with clearer consciences.

Let’s hope other cruise lines follow Crystal’s example, or make more noise about their own ethical purchasing policies.

SJB

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