Category Archives: Opinion

Laundry dilemma

Laundry dilemma

Planning on using the self-service laundry during your cruise? Well, as I’ve discovered on Ruby Princess, you’d better have some American quarters with you.

The logic behind getting coins to use the passenger laundry room is bizarre. We’ve trekked up Vesuvius, slogged around Pompeii, sweltered on a public bus in Livorno, hiked up and down the zig-zag cliff path on Santorini and got sand in everything on the beach in Mykonos. So it’s not unreasonable to expect I might need to do a batch of washing by now.

The washing machines only take American 25c coins, as does the machine that dispenses powder. So I asked at reception if I could change a couple of Euros to dollars as I’m not in the habit of taking American coins on a cruise around the Med. The answer is no. They will convert dollar notes to dollar coins, but not Euros. So can I change some Euros for dollars to get my dollar coins? No, they don’t offer currency exchange at all, as there is a machine on board that does that.

I need $4 for powder, one wash and one dry. So the smallest Euro note, a five, should do. But no; the machine charges $3.50 commission, regardless of the amount of the transaction. So I need a 10 Euro note and in any case, the machine is broken. At which point I get annoyed and go back to reception. The kind assistant purser patiently explains that even if the machine is broken and they do have to change money for the laundry, they still have to charge $3.50 commission.

So essentially, if you don’t have US dollars on you, notes or coins, you will pay $7.50 for one batch of laundry instead of $4. I know it’s petty of me to raise the issue, and Princess Cruises is by no means the only line to offer washing machines operated by US coins, and there is more to life than this, but still.

Eventually, I got my 25c coins and noticed that one was a Princess token, the kind you get in the casino. It struck me then how stupid I’d been; I should have nipped in there and played the fruit machines for a bit. I could have won my laundry money!

SJB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Mediterranean Cruise, Opinion

This is one young cruise!

Two things have really surprised me so far about my cruise on Ruby Princess, both of which make me realise that the cruising ‘trends’ we journalists talk about are often too glib or generalised.

First, the age group on board. Yes, it’s summer in the Mediterranean so there are bound to be a lot of families travelling. But this is a really young cruise. If a first-time cruiser were ever to worry about being in the company of the over-seventies, I’d show them this voyage as a snapshot that would dispel the cruising age myth in a flash. There are more than 250 teenagers registered for the teen club alone; there are masses of couples in their twenties and thirties; young honeymooners; forty- and fifty-somethings without kids and a large number of big multigenerational groups (that’s one trend we have got right!). If anything, the archetypal cruiser – sixties, retired, empty nesters – is the minority here.

Of course, a cruise out of peak season would have a completely different demographic but looking around the bronzing bodies on the Lido Deck makes me wonder why I spend so much time trying to convince non-cruisers that the average age really is dropping.

The second big surprise was formal night last night, the first of two. I spend plenty of time nowadays writing about how formal dress is more relaxed than it used to be and how cruising is so deconstructed now that you really don’t need to bother much, especially in the Med in summer – and how wrong I was about Ruby Princess. It was like a posh school prom crossed with the Oscars. Small boys in tuxedos and shiny shoes. Teenage girls in lavish, sequinned prom gowns and impossible heels. Long dresses everywhere, glitter galore.

I expect there were a fair few skulking up in the casual Horizon Café in their tracky pants but I take back everything I’ve said about dressing down in the heat of summer. If I’ve realised anything this week, it’s that cruising is so diverse nowadays that there is no place any more for sweeping generalisations.

SJB

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Filed under Family Cruises, Mediterranean Cruise, Opinion

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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Filed under Advice, Cruise Lines, Opinion

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

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

Why Cruise on Cunard?

On a visit to Fincantieri’s shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy (near Trieste) on Friday, I got a chance to visit with Queen Elizabeth (see our coverage, via photos and commentary, here!) . The line’s newest ship, it’s still under construction at the yard (and has a mere 11 weeks to go before its “release date” of September 30).

In the lobby, a-hammer with all kinds of builders pounding nails into concrete, cutting wood on buzz saws, and dabbing paint onto ceiling murals, a painting of the ship caught my eye.  Incongruously elegant, it was an oil of Queen Elizabeth-the-new, clearly done from renderings as the ship appeared fully operational (it was clearly cruising around Southampton).

Now the painting, by Dorset’s Harley Crossley, hasn’t been moldering amidst the dust and debris for long; it was purposely hung for the three-hour visit by a handful of cruise journalists (and promptly taken down and properly stored the minute we left the room). Ultimately of course it will be surrounded by a much more glorious – and of course completed – atrium when it’s mounted again, permanently.

Still, for a few minutes, probably longer than that, I stood in front of it, mesmerized. Among nautical enthusiasts who decry the loss of ships with elegant exteriors in an era in which so many look like 1990s condo blocks (or like NCL’s new Norwegian Epic, with appearances that frankly defy description), the new painting of Queen Elizabeth-the-new took me back in time.

“Let’s put it this way,” said one of the dozen or so Cunard staffers milling around us, “Would you really stop to admire a painting of Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas?”

Look, I’m the first to say that as ugly as Norwegian Epic is, once you’re inside who cares what the ship’s exterior looks like? But that’s not the point with Cunard. Even as the line has made some modern compromises (building out the aft section of the ship to make room for more staterooms, for one, plenty of cabins with balconies for another), what’s important is this: Cunard’s very specialness is the fact that a passenger onboard its ships can cruise with a leg in the illustrious past of golden liners – and the other leg most definitely planted firmly in the present.

That’s why I want to cruise again on Cunard, whether it’s a crossing on Queen Mary 2 or a cruise on Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth.

On all three vessels, Cunard’s homage to its history, and to cruising’s golden era, is not lip service.  If that intrigues you as much as it does me, don’t miss spending time in Queen Elizabeth’s reincarnated Mid Ships bar (a QEII and Queen Mary institution). On a day with many highlights, the most memorable for me was the glimpse of the gallery that will be featured there – full of fantastic historic relics. My favorite was the Cunard White Star International Marine Radio Service Radiogram, dated October 9, 1946, from Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage:

Dear Belinda and Chris, grateful if you would check that our cabin, M45, is not more than five minutes walk from the sea. Stop.

“It’s one of the ways we’re bringing the experience of the old liners to life,” said Peter Shanks, Cunard’s president, a few minutes after he’d been spotted whipping out his own camera to snap shots of some of the pieces featured in display cases.

You’d think that the radiogram and other artifacts, such as newspaper clippings featuring Cunard ships, old teapots, and ship models, would all be culled from the line’s own collection. You’d be wrong! One of the best aspects of overseeing Queen Elizabeth’s art collection for Amy Lucena, an art consultant for the cruise line, is hunting for just the right antiques to display.

She found the telegram from an antique shop in Dania Beach, Florida. Teapots came from the gift shop onboard Queen Mary, which is now a hotel ship in Long Beach, California. And via eBay she unearthed a treasure trove of 25 manila envelopes filled with newspapers with Queen Elizabeth stories.

In its own way, Cunard’s the closest thing we have to connecting cruising’s past with its present. As I never had the chance to cruise on a ship during the golden era, I’m glad that there’s still an opportunity to experience this glamour – without having to compromise on any of contemporary travel’s modern necessities.

CSB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, New Ships, Opinion, Transatlantic Cruises

A whale of a problem

There was moral outrage in the media this week after a ship, Sapphire Princess, arrived in port in Alaska with a dead whale wedged on its bulbous bow.

Sapphire Princess in Alaska

The investigation into how the poor whale died is still going on, although a similar event last year, disturbingly, involving the same ship, ended with the post-mortem concluding that the whale had already been dead when it was scooped up on the bow.

I’m not saying in any way that it’s acceptable for a cruise ship to be involved in the death of a whale. Most of the reporting has been responsible, but Friday’s Evening Standard was plain wrong, screaming “A cruise ship killed a whale after ploughing into it off Alaska”. We don’t know that yet.

The Belfast Telegraph isn’t much better, insisting that “A cruise ship operating in Alaska fatally struck a whale”. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, stirred it up online with the headline “Killer cruise liner strikes again”.

What disturbs me personally is the perspective of the case. One whale killed (or not) by a cruise ship so far this year is one too many. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, nearly 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed every day as by-catch in fishing nets.

And according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society  (WDCS), 30,000 whales have been killed by Japan, Iceland and Norway since a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986. Japan alone has slaughtered 17,000 whales, using a technical loophole of ‘scientific research’ to get round it.

Everybody who goes on cruises can do their bit for whales.

  • You can demand ethically caught fish, for a start – responsibly farmed, or line-caught. Mind you, only Crystal Cruises has so far formalised this with an ethical fish buying policy.
  • Ask your chosen cruise line about their whale-avoidance policy; Costa Cruises this week has announced new technology on one of its ships that will help the vessel to plot whale movements.
  •  If you book a whale-watching excursion, you can ask first whether it complies with WDCS recommendations. 
  • Possibly the most important, you can boycott any attraction involving captive whales and dolphins; marine parks, dolphin ‘encounters’ , performing orcas and so on.  Cruise lines offer these as shore excursions but there’s very little in the whole experience for the orcas and dolphins, as this WDCS report points out.

Small steps, but they all add up. SJB

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Filed under Opinion