MeetMeOnboard: Connecting, Informing, And Engaging LGBTQ Cruise Travellers

 

I’ve met many people from the LGBTQ community while at sea and as I know of a great online site that is specifically for LGBTQ cruisers, I thought now would be a great time to introduce it to you and the brains behind it…

We’re Mark and Dale and we pilot the site MeetMeOnBoard.com, the only online community dedicated to LGBTQ cruise travel enthusiasts. The site is growing and currently has 15,000 members worldwide.

First of all, Yes, we know that the letters LGBTQ are confusing to some, and they do seem to keep changing! All that comes from our striving to be inclusive. But the operative word in the phrase “LGBTQ community” is indeed “community.

Our people have labored long and hard to gain some of the rights that others enjoy, and that has brought us together. For that reason, our ‘tribe’ always likes to connect with other gay “family members” when we travel.

We began cruising about 30 years ago, when many didn’t feel fully safe being fully “out” onboard. We knew other gay people were on board, but couldn’t always find them! Yes, some cruise lines began having what are now called LGBT cocktail hours, but often they were at inconvenient hours, or we’d get there to find the bar closed, in a terrible location, or surly service from staff.

We gradually began sailing more often and were fortunate enough to build up a wonderful memory bank of travel memories through the years.

Fast forward to 2008 when we found ourselves eagerly anticipating our first Baltic Cruise. We were tired of cruising for a week only to meet a wonderful gay couple at dinner on the very last night of the cruise! Where were those guys all week? We’d have a great evening, neglect to exchange contact information and never see them again.

Furthermore, we thought about getting one or two more gay couples together to hire a vehicle and private guide in St. Petersburg, wanting to maximize our experience and tailor it to our own needs.  Mark searched online, thinking that surely there was a way to contact the other gay people sailing with us. In fact, there was nothing at all. This led to the formation of MeetMeOnBoard.

Our site is an online community of LGBTQ cruise travel enthusiasts, free to our members. We facilitate ways in which our members can connect and make friends before the cruise. Members who register with us and list the cruise they are taking are automatically linked with other members of the same sailing. Lasting friendships have developed from our site and many members make plans not only to meet on board, but to vacation together on subsequent cruises.

One interesting story will illustrate what the site is all about. Our friends Chris and Bill from the neighborhood here in Phoenix, Arizona had booked a European river cruise. Through MeetMeOnBoard.com They were connected with another couple, Darren and Stefan, who happened to live in Phoenix as well. They became online friends and had plans to meet onboard. As it turns out, Bill was taken to the hospital due to an emergency.  Chris had sent out that information, and it turns out that Darren and Stefan were Bill’s first visitors in the hospital.

Luckily, most MeetMeOnBoard friendship are sealed over a cocktail in the ship’s bar rather than a hospital room.

We’ve cruised on ships large and small. We’ve sailed aboard beautifully designed ships and others that didn’t live up to our queer expectations.  We’ve seen the sights, enjoyed amazing meals and had great times singing show tunes at the martini bar. Of all our cruise travel memories, what we value most are the friends made on board.

Posted in LGBT Cruise Info

Norwegian Cruise Line To Add Lifeguards To Fleet

Norwegian Cruise Line today announced that the line will begin employing certified lifeguards at all of the family pools across their fleet. The first responders will be trained and certified by the American Red Cross in lifesaving rescue measures and will monitor the family pools during scheduled pool hours. The lifeguards will begin service this summer on the line’s four largest ships – Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Epic – and on the remainder of the fleet by early 2018.

“Norwegian has stationed pool monitors on our largest ships since 2015 and we are now taking further steps to ensure the safety of our youngest guests with the addition of certified lifeguards across our fleet,” said Andy Stuart, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line. “While parents are always the first line of supervision when it comes to water safety, we felt it was important to provide this added measure across our fleet.”

In addition to uniformed lifeguards, Norwegian will also begin offering complimentary swim vests for both adults and children on the line’s four largest ships. Parents can obtain the safety vests at the towel station on the ship’s pool deck during daytime hours.

Norwegian Cruise Line is the leading innovator in cruise travel with a 50-year history of breaking the boundaries of traditional cruising. Most notably, Norwegian revolutionised the cruise industry by offering guests the freedom and flexibility to design their ideal cruise holiday on their schedule. Today, Norwegian invites guests to “Feel Free” to explore the world on one of 14 purpose-built ships, providing guests the opportunity to enjoy a relaxed, resort style cruise holiday on some of the newest and most contemporary ships at sea.

Recently, the line was named “Europe’s Leading Cruise Line” for the ninth consecutive year, as well as “Caribbean’s Leading Cruise Line” for the fourth time and “World’s Leading Large Ship Cruise Line” for the fifth straight year by the World Travel Awards as well as the World’s Leading Cruise Line for the first time.

The Company took delivery of its most innovative ship to date, the 4.200-passenger Norwegian Escape in October 2015 and has three further 4.200-passenger vessels on order at Meyer Werft with delivery in the spring of 2017, 2018 and autumn of 2019. In addition, the cruise line reached an agreement with Fincantieri S.p.A. for the delivery of four ships of a new generation with delivery in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 and hold an option for two additional ships in the future.

Posted in Cruise News, Norwegian Cruise Line

Finding The Perfect Theme Cruise

MSC Divina is partnering with Weight Watchers International Inc. to host a 7-night themed Caribbean Cruise in early May. The 4300-passenger ship will sail from Miami and take passengers on a wellness-focused cruise. Although it seems an unlikely partnership, particularly since some cruise lines aren’t renowned for their commitment to health and well-being, it’s all part of a strategic plan by Weight Watchers to transform into a complete health and wellness company.

Ryan Nathan, the Vice President of Products, Licensing and E-commerce for Weight Watchers, has explained that according to market research the company’s member base in the US is a typical cruise ship passenger: female, 40 to 60 years old and with an income just above the U.S average. This cruise is not intended to be a “slim-down camp” and won’t be following the usual Weight Watchers’ formula of losing and maintaining weight. Instead the focus will be on all-round health and well-being, incorporating the facilities onboard MSC Divina as well “real-time guidance and support”, customized fitness programmes and seminars from wellness experts.

According to MSC North America chairman Rick Sasso, this partnership is  “just an enhancement” since the line’s cruises “already have this wellness aspect.” It’s certainly one that has worked in their favour as the Weight Watchers’ 500-cabin bloc on the Divina has sold out, despite prices starting at $945. The week has been so popular that a second 2017 Weight Watchers cruise for November is in the planning stages and future sailings are likely.

The larger cruise companies including MSC, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have worked hard to transform the public’s perception of cruising from the gluttony-focused sails of the 80’s to the exciting and energetic holidays that we know it to be. Themed cruises are part of an industry-wide tactic to appeal to different demographics, and with an estimated 25.3 million people cruising this year (increasing from 15.8 million in 2007), it’s safe to say things are working.  There is a proliferation of themed cruises on offer across the globe, ranging from Star Trek getaways to Holland America’s Alaska cruise in partnership with Oprah Winfrey’s monthly lifestyle magazine O. In 2004, a cruise ship that glided through the Gulf of Mexico was transformed into a floating casino. PokerStars held its first tournament in the Caribbean on a cruise ship, before opting for dry land to host its ‘Caribbean Adventure’ poker tournaments.

One look at the Theme Cruise Finder website will reveal over 500 different cruises set to sail in 2017. These trips are defined as private (cruises developed by an organisation and administered with a travel agents), charter (where an organisation charters the full ship for an occasion) and cruise line (themed cruises developed in-house by a cruise line). Trips are as diverse as Ponant Cruises’ Astronomy week taking in Canada and Greenland, Cunard Line’s Festival of Flowers and a range of Smithsonian Collection charters to Greece, Italy and Western Europe.

Although more traditional than a sci-fi cruise, cruises featuring celebrity entertainers are still run by many leading cruise lines. Baywatch star David Hasslehoff is partnering with GEO Reisen in November to sail a 9-day Official World Fan Cruise’ aboard the luxurious Costa Favolosa. In February, the successful Walking Dead themed ‘Walker Stalker’ cruise aboard NCL’s Norwegian Pearl returned for its second outing. Whilst a Weight Watchers cruise may make the headlines in the wider press, it’s simply the next step forward in the world of themed cruises.

Posted in General Cruise Articles

Norwegian Jade Is Ready For Southampton

Norwegian Jade sailed into her seasonal homeport of Tampa as an essentially new vessel yesterday morning, following a three-week dry dock where she received enhancements to every part of the on board experience, from two brand new restaurants and two new bars and lounges, updated design and décor in many public spaces, and a refurbishment of all staterooms. Norwegian Jade’s extensive renovation is a part of The Norwegian Edge™, an investment programme that sets a high standard of excellence encompassing the entire guest experience across Norwegian’s fleet. Norwegian Jade’s extensive enhancements come just in time for her highly anticipated summer season, the brand’s first ever complete season sailing from Southampton in to the Norwegian Fjords, with embarkation also available from Hamburg, Germany.

Every stateroom on the ship was enhanced during the renovation, while guests sailing in The Haven®, Norwegian’s ship-within-a-ship luxury suite concept, will now enjoy a more modern chic atmosphere in all suites and villas. Luxury has been taken to the next level aboard Norwegian Jade with a complete refurbishment of the ship’s Haven Courtyard. Guests of the ship’s top villas and suites can soak up the sun in style one of the Haven’s four new plush cabanas nestled at the top of the ship or take a dip in the newly refinished pool surrounded by modern furnishings and new artwork.

Norwegian Jade guests can now also enjoy two new restaurants, O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill and The Pit Stop, as well as redesigned spaces in many of the ship’s existing restaurants. The Pit Stop, a newly installed concept for Norwegian Jade, will serve up poolside fun and fare in a 1950s-style American diner atmosphere.

Moderno Churrascaria has received an upgrade and a new home on deck 13 allowing for stunning panoramic views of the ocean enhanced by new flooring, wall coverings and upgraded furniture. Popular Cagney’s Steakhouse, La Cucina, Norwegian’s signature Italian specialty restaurant, and Teppanyaki – Norwegian’s Japanese hibachi grill restaurant – have also been modernised and upgraded as well as the complimentary favourites Jasmine Garden and the Garden Café.

Those looking to dance the night away aboard Norwegian Jade can now do so in the chic new Bliss Ultra Lounge on deck seven, which has the feel of an upscale Miami nightclub. Guests who wish to indulge in an exotic cocktail can enjoy their favourite mojito, or opt for a flight and try them all, at the new Sugarcane Mojito Bar on deck 13 adjacent to Moderno Churrascaria, a Norwegian fan favourite since the concept debuted on Norwegian Getaway in 2014.  Norwegian Jade’s Spinnaker Lounge also received a complete redesign.

The Atrium, the heart of the action on Norwegian Jade, has been enhanced with a refreshed look and décor brought to life with an eye-catching, custom-designed marquee chandelier, as well as new modern so guests can relax in a contemporary lounge atmosphere while enjoying all the ship’s excitement. Norwegian Jade will also now offer guests easier ways to view and purchase mementos of their cruise holiday with an upgraded Photo Gallery featuring new individual digital monitors and larger photo display panels. The ship’s main pool deck was also touched by this extensive refurbishment, with the addition of glistening new lighting fixtures as well as new flooring and tiling around the pool and whirlpools.

Norwegian Jade now offers fitness enthusiasts the opportunity to work up a sweat with all-new TechnoGym fitness equipment and new rubber flooring, ideal for weightlifting and plyometric workouts. Junior cruisers aboard Norwegian Jade can now enjoy playtime with new floorings in Splash Academy that include new noise reducing mats so kids are free to play into the evening hours.

Norwegian Jade is currently sailing the final part of her winter season, cruising from Tampa to the Western Caribbean. On April 30, she will journey across the Atlantic to her summer homeports of Southampton and Hamburg, where she’ll sail the Norwegian Fjords as well as Norway & North Cape itineraries.

Posted in Cruise News, Norwegian Cruise Line

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Central America And The Mardi Gras Part 6

Bermuda was very picturesque, but it was far colder than we had expected it to be. My eyes were telling me I was looking at the Caribbean, but my skin was telling me that I was already back in England! It was a shock to the system.

Shortly after Balmoral was given clearance by the local authorities, we left the ship and began our ‘Quintessential Bermuda’ tour. Neither my friend nor I had been to the island before, so we thought it would be the ideal way to introduce ourselves to Bermuda. We drove from Hamilton to Georgetown and then across to the Dockyard on the other side of the island. We had arrived on a Sunday, so virtually everything in Georgetown was closed – which turned out to be good given the prices of some things! Bermuda is certainly not a cheap place to shop.

During the drive, we passed some wonderful beaches and small harbours. We even drove right through the middle of a golf course at one point – can’t say I’d ever done that before. The tour was good, I’d recommend it as an option if you prefer less walking on your days ashore, and although nothing really stopped me in my tracks, it gave me some ideas on where to go during my next visit to the island. I would have liked more time at the Dockyard as it was too big to explore in only 30-minutes, which is how much time we were given. We arrived back at the ship an hour later than expected but still 2 hours before our back onboard time, so we decided to have a walk around the port area. It was very pleasant and we managed to find a few shops that were open and selling souvenirs that we could afford!

Five sea days followed Bermuda and surprisingly, the weather was quite nice. It wasn’t hot, as such, but the sun was certainly warm enough to allow us to remain outside during the day, instead of retreating indoors with a book and a jumper. We would have lunch at around noon every day and by the time we were finished, the sun would be blessing a small corner on Deck 8 that allowed the wind to blow around us instead of right through us – perfect!  We just had to make sure we got there first! 😉

Ponta Delgada was our final port of call and as we only had a few hours to spend there, we decided to get a taxi to the local mall, with our adopted grandma, and do a bit of shopping. I always find the Azores bittersweet. They mark the end of a fabulous western adventure and I never really want to go ashore there. I’d like to do a cruise one day that stops at the Azores at the beginning and then maybe I’d be a bit more enthusiastic about being on the island. I sound like such a grump, but I bet a few people can relate.

We were supposed to sail from Ponta Delgada at 14:00 but the winch for lifeboat 1 failed, which meant the boat couldn’t be brought back onboard using Balmoral’s machinery. In order to get our little yellow friend back where she belonged (sort of), we had to move across to a berth on the other side of the harbour, so that a dockside crane could lift it onto the bow – she sat there keeping look out all the way back to Southampton.

Balmoral’s ‘Central America and Mardi Gras’ cruise was a sailing that I will certainly never forget. I’ve never missed so many ports in 1 cruise, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, the destinations we did visit and the hospitality of Balmoral’s wonderful crew. This was my longest cruise to date, but I could have happily stayed onboard for another 46-nights. I’m never quite ready to get off – there’s just no pleasing some people. 😉

I’d sailed on Balmoral just 4 months prior to this cruise and 5 months prior to that, so I knew what to expect. Nothing had really changed during that time, it felt like I had gone back home and I felt incredibly comfortable and safe. I know her layout like the back of my hand and almost every crew member’s face is familiar.

Some of the food offered during this cruise wasn’t quite as good as I’ve had on previous sailings with Fred. Olsen and I got tired of seeing veal and pangasius on the menu, however, I did have some superb dishes during the 46-nights. I can’t list them all, but I wanted to share just a few to wet your appetite. I ordered the Chateaubriand on one formal evening and it was perfection on a plate, both the surf and turf and tournedo of beef black and white I had near the end of the cruise were also very nice, and one thing you can never complain about on a Fred. Olsen cruise is the soup. As always, the soup offerings were excellent and I was never disappointed with what I had ordered. My absolute favourite even made an appearance in The Palms: fried chicken and buttered spaghetti. I know, it really is so simple, but the fried chicken is so incredibly good! Best fried chicken I’ve had at sea.

Another thing that Fred. Olsen do exceptionally well is Indian night. The food is delicious and it is always the busiest of all themed buffet evenings. Our Indian night was near the end of the cruise and we had all been patiently waiting for it, although I have to admit that I had already eaten my fair share of Indian food throughout the cruise. When things like chicken tikka and tarka dhal had been on the menu, I would always be drawn towards them, and when we returned to ship following our day in Miami, there was a chicken biryani on the menu. It was exactly what we needed and it was good, it was really good! I asked for mine without the extra chilli, so the chef gave me extra cashews instead – I wasn’t complaining! OK, back to Indian night – on offer during the themed night was: pork vindaloo, lamb jalfrezi, chicken shahjahani, masala machi and tangdi chicken. These were the hot options and there were at least 10 salad options, too! I couldn’t breathe by the end of my meal. I didn’t go wild, but I was nicely stuffed. As I said, Indian night is the most popular of all the themed evenings in the buffet and it gets VERY busy. I’ve experienced Indian themed food evenings on many ships and Fred. Olsen’s offering is by far the best. You won’t be disappointed.

Our allocated restaurant during the cruise was the Spey, much to my delight! I love to watch the world go by through those giant portholes on Deck 10. It’s a small and intimate option and it will always be my first choice when sailing on Balmoral. We had a table for 2, right at the far end (where the sun is gleaming through the doors in the picture), and we became good friends with those on the tables surrounding us – we said to each other one evening that we should try and make a table of 6, but I think it would have restricted the space too much. Instead, we chatted between tables.

A few days before the end of the cruise we enjoyed Traditional Afternoon Tea in the Observatory Lounge, it has become my end of cruise Fred. Olsen tradition and as always, it was very satisfying. Tasty sandwiches and even tastier cakes! They really do make good cakes on Fred. Olsen. Do you see the chocolate cake right at the front on the below picture? Well, I devoured that in around 6 seconds, it was DELICIOUS!!! I also made short work of an egg mayonnaise sandwich and a prawn sandwich, and my rose tea. Traditional Afternoon Tea is offered across the Fred. Olsen fleet at a cost of £7.95 per person. It is only available on selected sea days, so be sure to make your reservation at reception before it fills up. You can also notify them of any food allergies or restrictions and they will do their best to accommodate you and offer suitable, alternative options.

While I am on the subject of food, I’d like to take the opportunity to say a big thank you to Manny and the crew in The Palms. My friend whom with I was travelling is Muslim and must refrain from eating pork, however, one of her favourite dishes is Paella. It was offered on the dinner menu in The Palms at the beginning of the cruise but was made with chorizo. We asked at lunchtime if it would be possible for her to have a small plate of Paella that had been cooked without pork and were told it would be no problem. When we arrived for dinner that evening there was a plate of pork-free Paella waiting for her – she was absolutely thrilled and it was packed with seafood.

There were issues with missed ports on the cruise and a lot of people were complaining. Yes, it is disappointing, but there’s not a lot anyone can do about the weather – it’s a risk you take when you book a cruise. Had the Captain carried on and something gone wrong, then people would have complained about that too. Sometimes, you just can’t win. I huffed and puffed every time we were told we were missing a destination, but I didn’t let it spoil the overall trip. Regardless of anything else, we were all aboard a wonderful ship and enjoying ourselves, some people will never have that opportunity, so I always try to make the best of what comes my way, even if it is not quite what I had signed up for.

To Balmoral, I love you, and to her wonderful crew, I MISS you! Big thanks to everyone onboard, but especially to Kook Kai, Supoj, Christian, Mr. Wilson, Manny, Chawalphat, Robert, Erwin, Mr. Bobby, Narinder, Conrad, Rupendra, Dante, Jittra, Pam, Polly Ploy, Nahta, Reika, Apple (and the rest of the reception staff), all three girls on the tours desk and the chefs in The Palms. You all enhanced my experience aboard Balmoral in one way or another and I thank you for that!

Before I reach the end, I’d like to introduce you to my lovely friend, Sara – the friend I have been referring too throughout my blogs from this cruise. She is in the process of starting her own travel related blog and would be thrilled if you could drop by her page and give her a like – you can find her under Modern Day Bedouins.

I leave you with this, a very funny poem by a wonderful lady named Shirley. We met Shirley during our cruise on Balmoral and we adopted her as our nanna. She kindly gave me permission to share this with you and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I thought I’d book a Christmas cruise

the idea seemed quite nice

to get away from England

and escape the snow and ice.

*

I just arrived at Tilbury

with my hope of Christmas charms

when a woman rushed towards me

and thrust a lifebelt in my arms.

*

No, the ship was not in danger

(the thought made me feel ill)

It was, as she explained to me

the pre-sail lifeboat drill.

*

My cabin seemed quite cosy

which stopped me feeling glum.

but little did I know just then

that worse was yet to come.

*

The food was unappealing

(was the reason poor cooks?)

the menus were a riddle

they should have written mystery books.

*

My lucky streak departed

this was a major flaw

Was it all a plot to kill me

for my coq-au vin was raw!

*

I worried some about this cruise

but after all I’ve said

I should have known much better

and booked again with Fred.

The moral of Nanna Shirley’s poem: stick to what you know best. She will now only cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. Lots of love Nanna Shirley, I know you will be reading this at some point! 🙂

So where will my next Fred. Olsen adventure take me? Well, not far, actually, as the next time I step aboard a Fred. Olsen ship, I’ll have to leave before she sets sail! 😉 Where will Fred. take me after that? You’ll have to wait and see, but I can tell you that I can’t wait – I’m having serious Fred. withdrawal!

 

Posted in Fred Olsen Cruise Line

Central America And The Mardi Gras With Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Part 5

We awoke early the following morning and enjoyed a small breakfast in The Palms before heading ashore in a taxi. We shared a cab with 3 people we had met onboard during the cruise and within 20 minutes we were in the Art Deco capital of Miami. It was very windy, so our visit to the beach lasted around 4 minutes – enough time to be sand blasted and take a few photographs. We walked around South Beach for hours, popping our heads in various little shops, admiring the architecture and even grabbing a few pictures outside of Miami Ink (a famous tattoo studio on Washington Avenue) and the Miami Police Headquarters building, which you will probably have seen in many movies and TV shows, including CSI Miami. We also took pictures outside of the Versace mansion. On my visit to Miami last year, the excursion only included a panoramic tour of South Beach, so it was nice to walk around this time and visit the places that I had spotted from the coach last year.

Before we knew it, it was lunchtime, so we made our way to Wet Willies on Ocean Drive. It wasn’t the most impressive looking bar and restaurant on the strip, but it suited us and it soon filled up. Both the drinks and food at Wet Willies were really good. We each ordered the BBQ Chicken pizza and some shrimp and fries to share. The pizza was the perfect size and absolutely loaded with toppings. BBQ flavours are never my first choice, but something in my mind told me to order it and I’m glad I did because it was GOOD! In fact, I had a similar pizza a day or two later from the California Pizza Kitchen and honestly, the version at Wet Willies was much better. My drink was called Triple Play and it was a mixture of Call a Cab, Attitude Improvement and Sex on the Beach – one of those was enough for me, it was too early in the day to stagger back to the ship! As I said earlier, it was incredibly windy during our visit to Miami, but I think had the weather been better, Wet Willies would have been packed and we could have enjoyed dining al-fresco on the balcony.

We sailed from Miami and made our way overnight to Port Canaveral. There are many tour options available from Port Canaveral, but for me, it had to be a day at KSC (Kennedy Space Center). I visited last year and absolutely loved it. I HAD to go back. I enjoyed my second visit just as much as my first (I’ve turned into a bit of a Space geek), but I left feeling like we didn’t quite get to see everything. When I was at KSC last year, we stopped at the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building for photographs and to see some of the small exhibits there, we also drove around some of the launch pads, but we didn’t do any of that this time. It could be because it’s no longer allowed or maybe it just wasn’t an option on that day, but for me, that was the VIP aspect (our tour was called The Kennedy Space Center VIP Experience), which is not what I had this year. Missed places aside, the visitor complex is awesome, it really is! If you visit Port Canaveral then please consider KSC, even the drive out there is pleasant and as an added bonus you can look for alligators!

Jacksonville in Florida was our next port and we had a shopping day planned at St John’s Mall, which is about a 25-minute taxi ride from the ship. We were picked up by Ed from Ztrip at 08:30 and were soon on the highway. St John’s is an outside mall and it wasn’t exactly what we had expected, but somehow we still managed to leave with empty pockets! There were various designer stores, such as Coach, Tory Burch and Louis Vuitton, but we also managed to find a Target, Dollar Store and a few others. Basically, we looked everywhere!

When it was time to leave, Ed from Ztrip was waiting for us right where he said he would be, outside Target. He helped load our bags into the boot of the car (that would be the trunk for my American readers), made sure the air was the right temperature and that we were comfortable, and then he started the drive back to Jaxport. Ed was lovely and if he happens to be your driver when you’re in Jacksonville, then you hit the Ztrip jackpot!

Ztrip is available on apps for Android and iPhone and it’s a great alternative to a regular taxi. It’s not available in all areas in the U.S., yet, but I’m sure it won’t be long before it is country wide. At present, you can use the service in Jacksonville, Austin, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Orlando, Denver, San Antonio, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Minneapolis. My favourite thing about Ztrip is that you can pre-book your ride, you don’t have to request a car there and then. Ideal, if like me, you are travelling in and out of Wi-Fi zones. The pre-book option means you can have peace of mind knowing that your cab will be waiting for you when you need it. Visit the Ztrip website to read more on how the app works.

Our run of port days ended with a stop in Charleston and we were blessed with warm air temperatures and clear skies. Some of us were also lucky enough to spot some dolphins swimming just a few feet away from the ship as we enjoyed our breakfast. My friend and I wandered around the city and made the obligatory visit to the famous Charleston City Market before I returned to Balmoral to meet in the Neptune Lounge for my trip to the Boone Hall Plantation.

The journey to the plantation didn’t take long and it was surprisingly quite nice. We passed over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which gave us great views across the city and of Balmoral and USS Yorktown down below. Once we crossed the bridge and were driving through Mount Pleasant, I could see exactly how it got its name, it was typical southern America. Our first stop was at the Boone Hall Plantation farm shop, which sounded ideal, until our guide said we would be there for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Everyone on the tour started huffing and puffing, and finally our guide gave in and said that we would only stay for 20-minutes before making our way to Boone Hall. We arrived at the plantation entrance and the sun was bleating down, casting incredible shadows through the branches of the Oak trees that line the main drive to the Hall – it took 200 years for the trees to grow to the size they are today.

My main reason for booking the tour was to watch the Gullah presentation at the Gullah Theatre, but because we had stopped at the farm shop first, I missed the last showing! To say I wasn’t happy was an understatement and I tripped over my bottom lip at least 5 times. Although I missed the presentation, I certainly wasn’t disappointed with the beauty of the plantation. The grounds were simply stunning and you couldn’t help but fall in love, until I reached what is referred to as ‘Slave Street’. I found everything about this section of the grounds incredibly hard to swallow: a row of several, small brick buildings which were home to the plantations slaves. At one time, Boone Hall was home to almost 300 slaves, it was one of the wealthiest plantations in the south, producing cotton, red bricks and pecans. There were many artefacts throughout the grounds, but the one that stood out to me most was a shopping list in the main house. It read like most shopping lists do, if you glanced at it, but it wasn’t until you looked a little closer and realised what the first and clearly most important ‘item’ on the list was: 1 negro girl. My heart sank. To think that these people were thought of as nothing more than a possession, like a cup or a pair of trousers, it makes my heart ache, terribly.

Our tour inside Boone Hall itself only lasted for 30 minutes, but in that time our guide, Ed, really brought history alive for us – he was full of enthusiasm and clearly enjoyed his role. He told us all about the plantation and that the house we were stood inside wasn’t actually the original plantation house. The original property was demolished in 1936 and replaced with what we now see today. This was because the owners at the time – Thomas Stone and his wife, Alexandra – wanted a grander property. Ed continued to tell us that in the 1850’s, Boone Hall used to produce 4,000,000 red bricks per year, using 85 slaves! I can’t even begin to imagine what that kind of work must have been like.

As our stay in Charleston was until 22:00, my friend and I made the most of the evening and had dinner at Fleet Landing – which is a 2-minute walk from the ship. In fact, it’s almost on the dock! The food at Fleet Landing is superb and it’s also a great place to grab a drink. There’s an outdoor terrace – where we sat that evening and watched dolphins playing in the water as we enjoyed our meal – or if you’d prefer, you can enjoy the atmosphere inside the restaurant, it’s entirely up to you. I ordered the Seared Blackened Shrimp to start (pimento cheese grits & sweet corn cream – my third attempt at finding a style and texture of grits that I liked) and the Low Country Boil as an entrée. WOW! The shrimp and grits were amazing, I was hooked from the first mouthful and Fleet Landing restored my faith in that staple southern dish. When I go back to Fleet Landing (because I will), I’ll be ordering it again. The Low Country Boil was also delicious! It’s filled with shrimp, onion, corn on the cob, smoked sausage and red bliss potatoes all of which are then simmered in a lager broth. This also satisfied my taste buds and my tummy, but I couldn’t finish it, I was so full! Please consider visiting Fleet Landing during your time in Charleston. I’ve yet to visit another restaurant specialising in seafood that does it as well as they do! I promise you will NOT be disappointed. You can even view the menu online.

We ended our evening with a few drinks in a pub called The Griffon, which is just a short walk from Fleet Landing. It turned out to be the perfect place to relax and have a drink. The walls are covered in $1 bills and the place has a really friendly vibe to it. The bar staff were welcoming and the drinks were good. The Griffon turned out to be the ideal end to what had been a great day in South Carolina.

We sailed from Charleston a little later than planned and would have 2 days at sea before arriving in Bermuda….

Posted in Fred Olsen Cruise Line

Cruising Essentials

There are many great things about cruising, but interestingly, one thing not mentioned very often in a cruise brochure is the fact you can usually take as much luggage as you like – if your cruise does not include flights. I’m a big over-packer, I admit it, but when there’s no limit in place, it doesn’t hurt to take an extra pair of shoes…or 5. I would class them as essentials, whether I wear them or not! 😉

So, what else is essential when cruising? Well, let’s have a look…

Swimwear

It’s probably obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to pack a swimsuit – I met 2 people on my last cruise that forgot. Packing fashionable swimwear for your cruise is important. All cruise ships have a pool area, and many of them offer water sports or snorkelling as part of daytrips in regions such as the Caribbean and South Pacific. Therefore, it really is a good idea to pack a swimming costume of some sort. They can easily be poked into a small space in your suitcase, or if you’re travelling with kids, pack their swimwear in your hand luggage – as soon as you board, they can jump in the swimming pool and you can relax with a cocktail.

Travel adapter and extension lead

A lot of people forget this one, but not all ships have the same electrical outlets as what you’re used to at home. I always pack an adaptor, unless I am travelling with P&O Cruises or Saga – they have U.K. outlets in their cabins. You can usually buy them onboard, or rent them, but it’s always best to have your own.

Most cabins still only have one or two power outlets, so it’s also wise to pack a short extension cable – my friend and I always pack one when we travel because we have so many electrical items to charge. This way, we can both charge our phones, iPods or e-readers at the same time.

Medication

All cruise ships have a medical centre onboard, but it is still wise to take the basics with you. The last thing you want is to feel a little under the weather with flu and then spend time and money seeing the onboard doctor for simple things you could have packed, such as paracetamol and decongestants.

Remember to take seasickness pills too. Even if you have never been seasick before, it is still wise to take them. Changes in your body, or bad weather could mean you end up needing to take them. I have been on 47 cruises and been seasick once, but I still always take a packet with me on every cruise.

Sun Cream AND After Sun

Sun cream and after sun are vital. The sun is much stronger at sea, but you often don’t realise it until it is too late and you’re burned to a crisp. Always pack sun cream and a bottle of after sun. I don’t specifically use after sun myself, but I do use an aloe based moisturiser, which works in the same way. Even if you are not visiting a destination that is hot and sunny, you could still pack sun cream as it will also protect your skin in cold weather.

I could go on and on with a wide variety of other essential items, but if you’re a cruise-a-holic like me, you probably already know about them!

Posted in Cruise Shopping

World’s First Ski Resort At Sea Aboard Piste Of The Seas

Sail the high skis with Royal Caribbean’s first ski resort at sea

Royal Caribbean International has announced plans to push the boundaries of extraordinary even further with its fifth Oasis Class ship, Piste of the Seas – the world’s first ski resort at sea.  The ship, set to launch in 2021, will offer a truly unique way for holidaymakers to hit the slopes and is ideal for anyone torn between a ski or cruise break.

A first of its kind, the ship will accommodate a full-size ski resort complete with five real snow runs, a lift and après-ski restaurants, bars and spa.  The announcement comes hot off the heels of the fourth Oasis Class ship, Symphony of the Seas, announced last week.

Onboard, guests access the slopes with the help of a state of the art sea lift that glides seamlessly to the top of Mount Mast, where they can admire the beautiful ocean view before tackling the piste. Whether a seasoned skier or taking to the slopes for the first time, a range of ski runs from green to black will accommodate all experience levels.  What’s more, the onboard sports team will be taking an intense training course at Courchevel ahead of the maiden voyage to qualify as Level 2 ski instructors.

And the snow facilities are just the peak of experience.  Wood panelled, family sized chalet-styled rooms will be adorned with faux fur throws to snuggle up after a day on the slopes, each one coming with a dedicated Chalet Host to ensure all needs are catered for.  There will be an option to upgrade to a hot tub chalet for those looking to unwind after a long day on the piste.

For those looking for some off-piste enjoyment, the ship will not be short of après-ski entertainment.  Guests will be able to enjoy a drink in the main bar, Après Sail, or a visit to the log cabin Alpine Spa, which will offer a range of Nordic therapies straight from the Swiss Alps.  Whether it’s a sauna session after hitting the slopes or a deep-tissue massage following a hard day’s sunbathing, the Alpine Spa will cater for all climates.

Ben Bouldin, Royal Caribbean Managing Director UK & Ireland commented “At Royal Caribbean we always lead the way when it comes to offering our guests the most extraordinary experiences and our next ship launch is no exception.  Our ships push the boundaries of innovation and Piste of the Seas provides a best of both worlds solution for customers who love their annual ski break but dream of a cruise to sunnier climes.”

It hasn’t, however, all been plain sailing. The logistics of calculating the snow levels for the piste has been paramount according Bouldin.  “We worked closely with a leading Environmental Landscaper, to ensure the calculations were accurate. We weren’t worried about this so much when sailing around the UK, but in particular our sunny Med destinations the calculations were crucial. A total of 25 snow cannons will be required to keep the temperature of the piste below 2 Degrees Celsius and the snow level deep enough to ski on.”

Billy Morgan, Team GB snowboarder and 2016 X Games medallist, has already expressed enthusiasm to tackle the slopes, “As soon as I heard about the extraordinary Piste of the Seas I knew I have to give it a go!  I have been lucky enough to experience some of the best slopes in the world, but this will be a seriously cool first for me.”

Posted in Cruise News, Royal Caribbean International

Princess Cruises Takes Delivery Of Majestic Princess

Princess Cruises took delivery of Majestic Princess yesterday, from shipbuilder Fincantieri at an official handover ceremony at the shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy. The cruise line’s first international luxury ship tailored for the China market, will start her inaugural season in Europe until May and then embark on a repositioning cruise themed the Silk Road Sea Route journey to her new homeport in Shanghai where she will begin her first homeport season in July.

The ceremony was attended by the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni; executives from Carnival Corporation & plc including Micky Arison, Chairman; Arnold Donald, Chief Executive Officer; Stein Kruse, Chief Executive Officer of Holland America Group; Jan Swartz, Group President of Princess Cruises and Carnival Australia; Anthony Kaufman, Executive Vice President International Operations of Princess Cruises, and Cherry Wang, Vice President and General Manager of the Princess Cruises’ brand offices in China. Fincantieri was represented by Giuseppe Bono, Chief Executive Officer, and Giampiero Massolo, Chairman.

After the successful handover from Fincantieri, Majestic Princess sets sail on a preview cruise (March 31 to April 4) that will include loyal Princess guests, international media, travel agent partners and brand partners from around the world, including many guests from China.

Departing April 4, 2017, the 143,000-ton Majestic Princess will sail on her inaugural voyage, a five-day Adriatic Sea cruise roundtrip from Rome with stops in Kotor and Corfu. Following her maiden cruise, Majestic Princess will tour Europe, offering guests a chance to experience the ship on 7-, 14-, 21- and 28-day cruises departing from Rome, Barcelona or Athens.

On May 21, Majestic Princess will embark on the “Silk Road Sea Route” a 49-day journey from Rome to Shanghai. During the voyage, she will visit a total of 22 ports including Athens, Dubai, Cochin, Singapore, Port Klang and Xiamen before arriving in Shanghai, her new homeport in China. Majestic Princess will begin her first cruise from China on July 11 carrying 3,560 guests to a variety of cruise destinations.

Posted in Cruise News, Princess Cruises

Central America And The Mardi Gras With Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Part 4

We spent most of the day sailing along the Mississippi River, which was delightful. When I visited New Orleans last year, our transit of the Mississippi was at night for arrival and departure, but this time we got to experience it in daylight. Granted, there’s not a lot to see until you start getting closer to the city, but it’s still a pleasant way to spend the day. Finally, the city skyline began to creep into view and it wasn’t long before we were sailing past the Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront, and towards our berth.

Balmoral was alongside in NOLA (New Orleans) at 16:30 and we were soon off the ship, through immigration and walking towards Canal Street. There were thousands of people out enjoying the parades of Lundi Gras and some of the floats were spectacular. I think we had arrived just at the right time to catch some of the best ones! The city was electric, but we didn’t stay ashore long. We had big plans for the following day and wanted to be up early to catch the Rex and Zulu parades – 2 of the biggest parades of Mardi Gras – so we retreated to the ship for some refreshments and sleep.

Finally, the day we had been waiting for arrived: Fat Tuesday as it’s known. We left the ship before 08:00 and walked up Julia Street until we came to St Charles. We turned right and walked a few more blocks before settling in place for the parades. The section of street where we decided to pitch was also where Balmoral’s passengers would sit on the organised excursion (across the street), but they had stands and toilet access, unlike us – I guess sometimes an excursion ticket really does come in useful! The atmosphere was incredible and everyone was having a good time. There were a few locals that thought they owned the sidewalk, one woman in particular was bossing people around as if she held the key to the city, but my friend and I managed to remain in place. We had travelled half way around the world for Mardi Gras, we were not moving!

After several hours of standing in the same place, we decided to walk towards Canal Street – we needed a change of backdrop and to get the blood flowing in our legs and feet again. We squeezed our way through thousands of people and finally slipped into a gap in the crowd on Canal Street which was as close to the parade route as we would get. Before long, more floats were passing us and the beads were being thrown in every direction. Mardi Gras is serious business and there were people with several bags filled to bursting with all kinds of beads, soft toys and other wonderful goodies. I lost count of how many sets of beads my friend and I caught (and how many had been slammed into the boot of the Police car in front of us), but they kept coming and we kept throwing them around our necks – by the end of the day my neck ached! The beads collectively are heavy and several times we had to take them off and put them in bags just to give our muscles a break and to allow our skin to breathe.

The weather in New Orleans was perfect for Mardi Gras – warm and sunny – and by 15:00 we were both tired, hot, hungry and thirsty. I’d made a reservation at a restaurant called Royal House before we left for the cruise, so off we went to cool down and fill up. Royal House is on Royal Street, which is just a short walk from Canal Street and a stone throw away from Bourbon Street. The restaurant was busy, but it wasn’t long before we were seated and browsing through the menu. I ordered the shrimp and deep fried grits stuffed with mozzarella. The food was nice, there was a lot of flavour, but my grits were a little overdone on one side and the presentation of the food wasn’t good. We also ordered some hush puppies to share and they were very tasty, I’d have those again. There were lots of people enjoying oysters while we were there – the restaurant has a rather impressive oyster bar – and one couple also ordered crab legs, which looked amazing! I did have food envy for a while. Although I didn’t have the best experience at Royal House, I would like to go back when it is not Mardi Gras and try some other dishes on the menu as the restaurant usually gets such good reviews. Royal House also has a sister restaurant on Canal Street called Creole Cuisine and the menu there looks great!

Fed and watered, it was time to enjoy the evening, so we made our way to Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is certainly not for the lighthearted and it was even more crowded during Mardi Gras. We stopped in a few bars – Tropical Isle and Jester being the only ones I can remember – before heading back to the ship at around 23:00. Everything shuts down at midnight on Fat Tuesday to allow the city to clean the streets etc. before normality resumes the following day. We had such a great time there! It’s not for everyone – even without Mardi Gras New Orleans is always busy, day and night – but we spotted several passengers from the ship that were also out enjoying the city and everything it has to offer.

Balmoral wouldn’t sail from New Orleans until 18:00, so we made the most of our last day in the city and took the St Charles line streetcar the following morning to the Lafayette Cemetery. The cemetery was built-in 1833 and was filled to capacity within just a few decades of it opening. One thing my friend and I both noticed were the names on many of the above-ground graves: they were German and Irish. Immigrants were truly devastated by the yellow-fever epidemics of the 19th-century and one tomb contains an entire family that had all died from it. I know a cemetery isn’t usually the first thing on a ‘must-do’ list when exploring, but Lafayette is certainly worth visiting if you are ever in New Orleans.

We left the Cemetery and made our way along the riverfront towards the market. It was crowded, but nothing like it had been the day before. I bought a few pieces of African art and then we jumped on the Riverfront streetcar and stopped in the RiverWalk shopping outlet. We had lunch, browsed some stores and then made the short walk back to the ship.

Balmoral sailed from New Orleans and my heart felt heavy, my feet also ached terribly, so I didn’t stand on deck feeling sad for too long. The next day was spent at sea (thank you God, I thought to myself) and I spent most of it out on deck, reading and sunning myself. I don’t know how far we walked over the course of our 2.5 days in NOLA, but we had certainly earned the right to be bone idle for the day.

Tampa marked the beginning of our Floridian ports and as we had never been before, I’d arranged for a tour of Ybor City with the Tampa Tourism Board before we left on the cruise. We were picked up from the port and within a few minutes we had arrived in historic Ybor City; in some parts it felt like we had stepped back in time. We stopped for a quick drink at The Bunker before meeting Wally at the Ybor City State Museum for a guided tour of the museum and then Ybor City itself. Wally was brilliant, such a lovely man and very good at what he does. Before we went inside the museum, he introduced us to Ybor City’s chicken population. The chickens are protected in Ybor and are direct descendants of the chickens that lived in the backyards of the neighbourhoods earliest residents over 100 years ago – they’ve earned the right to be there, but not everyone is thrilled by their presence.

We said our goodbyes to the chickens and crossed the road (see what I did there) to begin our tour of the museum. Wally told us all about the city’s history and also proudly mentioned that he is an expert cigar roller. He and his wife currently hold the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest cigar rolled by hand. It was 59.82 metres in length and was made during the Cigar Heritage Festival in November 2009.

Wally at his original cigar rolling table with a section of the cigar beside him.

The museum was once the Ferlita Bakery, known for producing Cuban bread, and the history of the bakery is also showcased inside the museum. From the museum, we walked down the street to La Casita (which means small house): an example of how workers in Ybor would have lived 100 years ago. It was incredibly interesting and even more so when Wally reminisced about his time as a child growing up in a house just like the one we were standing in. If I remember correctly, he’d lived just around the block with his family.

Wally took us to other areas of the city, including Jose Marti Park. Jose Marti was a Cuban national hero and his campaigning in Florida was a huge contributor to the success of the Cuban War of Independence.The park is only 0.14 acres, but holds great significance. It is has been owned by the Cuban government since 1956 and is classed as Cuban territory. Technically, we walked from Florida to Cuba and back again in just a few minutes!

Once our tour was complete, Wally walked us to the Columbia Restaurant, where we had arranged to have lunch. The oldest Spanish restaurant in the world, the Columbia has been owned and operated by 5 generations of the same family for over 100 years. It takes up an entire block and although beautiful tiles adorn the exterior, it doesn’t look as exciting outside as it is on the inside. One moment, I felt like I was in the grand hall of an old manor house, then I walked through an archway and was suddenly in what resembled an old Spanish courtyard – it was beautiful. We were promptly seated and our waiter brought us fresh, warm Cuban bread and some glasses of water. I ordered the Mojo Chicken sandwich and it was not only delicious, but incredibly fresh. I ordered churros for dessert and they too were tasty. The food and service were both exceptional – prices are also quite reasonable, given the portion sizes!

We left the Columbia and walked around Ybor for a few more hours before getting the street car back to the port. We’d bought soda and water in the city, so we left those heavy bottles onboard Balmoral and then made our way back ashore and around to ChannelSide Bay Plaza for some drinks. There are various bars and restaurants there and we decided to sit at Hooter’s – which, surprisingly was playing host to at least 30 other passengers from the ship! We watched the sun set, with a rum and coke, and before long we were both feeling hungry. We ordered a chicken strips appetizer to share and they were gone in minutes – the food is really good at Hooter’s! We decided to only order something small as there was a pizza restaurant around the corner that we had our eyes on, and as an added bonus, we had to pass it on the walk back to the ship – talk about good luck! The time came for us to make our way back, so we grabbed our pizza and walked back home to Balmoral.

We had a great day in Tampa and Ybor City was fantastic. I can’t cover every individual detail from our visit (this blog is already stretching its way to Australia), but if you get a moment, please look at this link as it shows you step by step where we went during our walking tour and you can do the same thing – Visit Ybor City.

The next day (which we spent at sea) was warm and sunny, but quite windy. Throughout the cruise, my friend and I had sat by the pool on Deck 7 most days without issue, but on this particular day, we had to contend with salt splashes – it was very relaxing watching the water do this for several hours. It had taken on a life of its own.

Everyone was looking forward to our early morning arrival in Key West the following day, but then, it came. Captain Stoica made his noon announcement and broke the news that because of strong winds, Balmoral – along with several other cruise ships – had cancelled her call to the port. My heart sank. I didn’t get to see much of Key West last year because I was unwell, so to be told we wouldn’t be going was very disappointing. This was the 4th port that had been cancelled and the natives onboard were starting to get restless.  I’m sure at one point some people were even discussing taking bets on where our next port would be. We had to make light of a bad situation, we’d been plagued with bad luck – where the weather was concerned – since we left Southampton. The Captain continued with his info update and advised that we would instead sail straight for Miami and spend the evening and following day alongside. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go ashore on the Sunday evening because there were no security services available to allow us to disembark. Fred. Olsen offered to cover the costs to hire another company (which I thought was very good as it certainly wouldn’t have been cheap), but authorities in the U.S. said no. On a happier note, Captain Stoica finished his announcement with the news that a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks would be free for the rest of the day. This softened the blow somewhat and the entire ship came to life. I’d never seen the Morning Lights Pub on Deck 7 so busy! People were dancing and singing, and having a great time. The singer in there even continued his show for over an hour longer than he was supposed to, simply because he too was enjoying the atmosphere.

We arrived in Miami to the glow of the city skyline and it was a beautiful sight! Miami was a bucket list port for me and I was quite pleased that we arrived later than planned (we were originally told around 19:00 but it was after 21:00 when we docked) as the sun had set and all the buildings were lit up with dancing lights – some quite literally. It was frustrating that we couldn’t go ashore that evening, but we were looking forward to exploring South Beach the following day…

Posted in Fred Olsen Cruise Line
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