Karen's Blog

  • Allure of the Seas by Royal Caribbean

    2/17/2011 6:41:27 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Cruise Reviews

    This ship definately has the "wow" factor. Upon entering the promenade area, I was immediately gazing upone a fountain and huge street-like area that beckoned me to explore. This is where the shops are located, plus several venues for quenching one's thirst, the Schooler Bar and Champagne bar, Globe and Atlas Pub, Boleros Latin Bar, and even Starbucks, for those caffeine "emergencies". You can get to the Casino from here and the comdey and other specialty clubs, the main showroom, and the ice rink.

    Shopping is plentiful with several kiosks and daily shopping specials, plus a variety of shops with the name brands one would expect to find in a trendy upscale street. And don’t forget to stop off at the cupcake shop before heading straight to the gym to work it off! The most popular daytime stop on the street had to be Sorrentos, where the Pizza was disappearing as fast as they could make it!

    My stateroom was an ocean view balcony with plenty of storage, a comfy bed, done in muted blues and white, with a flat screen TV, and my favorite feature, a USB charging station! The balcony was quite adequate in size and the clear glass sides provided an uninterrupted view of the sea!

    The stateroom was located about eight cabins from the aft elevators on Deck 9 and proved to be the most convenient place they could have chosen for me. At first I thought it might be too far aft in the ship, but it wasn’t at all! Dazzles Night Club was one floor down on deck s 8 and 7, the Boardwalk was another 2 floors on deck 6, Central Park was on deck 7, dining was on deck 5, the Marketplace buffet was on deck 16, and they were all straight down or up in “my” elevator! Nothing seemed far away except the showroom, internet café, gym and spa. Quite frankly, if you are on your way to the gym you should not mind the walk, and you need to walk off some of that dinner getting to the showroom anyway!

    Actually I thought that I loved my stateroom, until I ventured into the Crown Loft Suite, two stories, floor to ceiling uninterrupted view, a living and dining room and bath and shower on the main level, a balcony, bedroom and master bath with a shower for two in the loft; you need one of these!

    Food was typical Royal Caribbean fare, something that is personal to everyone, so you might think it to be absolutely wonderful. I find it to be good, but nothing to write home about. The dining room food though was generally delicious and beautifully presented, and I can’t think of one thing that I did not thoroughly enjoy.  The Marketplace buffet is well designed with round stations that allow one to graze without forming lines. I’ve been told by other passengers that there is not enough seating, but frankly, I never found that to be the case.

    I loved the myriad of whirlpools all over the solarium area and outdoors. I especially enjoyed the ones that jutted out over the sides of the ship. There was plenty of opportunity to relax without fighting for space. The same was true of the deck chairs, and plenty were located in shady areas for those so inclined to stay out of the sun.

    Both Ice Shows were must see events, but I confess that my favorite was “How to Train a Dragon”. There are no bad seats in the show except behind poles, but if you can get there early and get a seat on the end, I think you will find those slightly superior.

    There must be a venue for every taste in music, from Jazz to Piano favorites to red hot Latin dance music and disco fever. Don’t miss the Aqua theater shows, and for sports fans head out there for live games on the double jumbo screens.

    The Boardwalk is its own little world, with a Carousel, family circus games, sweets, hot dog stand, Johnny Rockets and Tex-Mex food.  Being from Texas, I won’t comment on the Tex-Mex except to say that it wasn’t terrible, but you probably will love it if you are from some other part of the country. I’m a bit of a snob about my salsa and stuff and they just don’t spice it up enough for my taste. Not even the  habanero salsa was hot, but the Margueritas were cold, if not a bit too sweet. The sopapillas were tasty, but not authentic.  On the other hand, be sure to try the hot dogs on baguettes and head out for hamburgers at Johnny Rockets I don’t think you’ll be in danger of running into healthy food on the Boardwalk, perfect for those days when bad is good!

    The gym has plenty of the latest and greatest machines. But I was surprised by the lack of showers, sauna, locker rooms that I was used to on the other ships. So just be forewarned, wear your workout gear, and go back to the room to shower and change (in my case to change into swimwear to head for the whirlpools).

    Got kids? The kid’s splash zone and pool was amazing. I was ready to “rent a kid” just to go there. It was colorful and close to the adult area. The kids will also love the Dreamworks characters aboard the ship and the 3D Dreamworks film. I saw Megamind in 3D the same time it was opening in theaters.  You might not see the kids all week, with the largest youth zone afloat and professional counselors that will keep them busy from morning to night! There are even activities for the whole family to enjoy. You could even find yourself being cast as an extra in a movie, if Dreamworks comes aboard to film.

    The sports zone was a hit, although I had no intention of ziplining over a multi story expanse at the top of the ship – I could barely look down from the side, but there were those brave souls who loved it! This was also the area you could find the mini golf, basketball, shuffleboard, table tennis, rock wall, and surfing.  Need I say more?

    You will have to explore the pools areas yourself since we only sailed a short distance from Ft Lauderdale, and being from Texas, it has to be about 85 degrees before I think it’s hot enough. But I saw the pool area with the water slides, H2O zone, sports pool, main pool, beach pool, kids pool. Get the idea?

    And then there is Central Park! This is my favorite place on the entire ship. What an incredible experience to sit in a sanctuary surrounded by trees and foliage, look up at the sky and the rows of balconies and sit and read or people watch. This is where the specialty restaurants are located. I was not able to experience them, but I’m told that they are well worth the slight up charge.  My favorite time in Central Park was early in the morning, I stopped by the café and grabbed some coffee and a bagel and sat in the quiet, waking up at a leisurely pace. This is also the place to board the Rising Tide Bar for a drink and a quick trip back to deck 5.

    So there you have it, the Allure of the Seas. Call me and set up a family reunion, or a corporate group, or meeting, or just take the two of you, or take the kids, and find out for yourself what the future of cruising looks like. I can’t wait to see what they think of next!

  • My Review of the Norwegian Gem

    12/17/2007 2:38:19 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Cruise Reviews, Hotel

    Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest “It Girl” the Norwegian Gem.

    She’s hot, she’s funky, and she’s hip; and, with the launch of this newest Jewel Class ship, NCL officially has the youngest fleet on the planet! This ship and her slightly older sisters have a contemporary flair that is bringing Freestyle Cruising to a whole new level!

    We were one of the lucky few to sail a couple of days out of Boston this week, and, other than dodging the snow, ‘the experience was fabulous, Darling!’
    Every time I board an NCL ship, I see more improvements, more attention to detail, more luxury, more customer service, more upgrades, and more fun!
    Take your family aboard, and there are accommodations for everyone. You might need an owner’s suite or courtyard villa. Or perhaps you will be lucky enough to snag one the two Garden Villas, the most luxurious accommodations you’ll ever experience afloat. With the Garden Villa you will have access to a private deck area and pool reserved just for certain Villa and suite passengers, truly a ship-within-a-ship. Your villa will have 3 bedrooms with private balconies, 3 baths, up to 5750 sq feet of private space, your own private Jacuzzi, baby grand piano, magnificent living room, dining room, bar, and butler service. Someone else might only need a balcony, and an inside cabin for the kids. Lucky for you, everyone can sail together, because this ship has it all!
    We just don’t like to dress up very much. Okay, a jacket and NO tie for hubby, nice pants or skirt for me, but, we like it casual! Well, on NCL, the dress code is “Wear Something”! Now I don’t mean grungy shorts and tanks, although you are welcome to do that at the Buffet (I mean, “Action Station Restaurant”), but I also don’t mean dragging out your outdated, too-small suit and white shirt and tie! Like jeans? Well, you can finally wear them to dinner in all restaurants except one.

    Gone are the days of regimented dining, eating with strangers, 70’s style pool games and tired entertainment. How about a little pool-side blackjack? Or wireless connections everywhere? Need some acupuncture? Love a spinning class? Have you ever played Wii on a two-story screen? Maybe even a bit of slot action in the nightclub!
    On NCL, you can eat in a different restaurant with totally different food every night of the week. Fancy some sushi, or Asian fare? No Problem. What about a 48 oz porterhouse? Stay tuned for that! There are 10 entirely different restaurants (most of which are free), from Steak, to Tex-Mex, Italian, Asian, Continental, fast food, and more. Hate cafeterias? What about “action station” dining – no long lines, just roam about the dining area and pick and choose. Start with your appetizer. Go back for the entrée. Help yourself to dessert and don’t forget to stop at the cappuccino machine. Gone are the days of boring food, with great new selections at every turn.
    After dinner enjoy totally new shows, modern casino games, bar central, complete with a champagne-piano bar. Dance the night away at Bliss Ultra Nightclub with 4 lanes of bowling, lounge beds, noise, action, and the newest, hippest new music. Of course, don’t forget the quieter venues when you need a change of pace.
    Hate Clocks? Well, you’ll see them on the ship, but note the label – for crew use only! 
    Hate disembarkation day? Gone are the days of vacating your cabin by 8am to disembark. Keep your stuff in your room until you are ready to leave, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and then disembark at will. Need to get off early? Just take off your own luggage and you can be first off.
    If you haven’t sailed NCL lately, you haven’t sailed her at all! Best of all, with Freestyle 2.0 it’s only going to get better and better!
    By Karen Layman
    Oh Say Can You Sea Cruises

  • Are you a Group?

    7/2/2007 1:55:01 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Travel Tips

    Do you have a few friends or family members you like to travel with? Are you planning a family reunion? Do you have a company and would like to reward your employees? Would you like to raise funds for your favorite organization?

    Are you a member of a club with a common interest, such as gardening, travel, dancing, religion, singles, architecture, art, music, photography, and any other interest you can think of.

     Why do I ask?

    When you book group travel, you can have as few as 5 couples to receive extra amenities.

    This may be in the form of discounts, or value added selections, such as wine, or credit to spend on your trip, or coupon books. You can have preferred dining together, and fly together. As a group, you are our VIPs.

     When you reach a certain minimum (varies with tour and cruise product), you also will qualify for a discount in the amount of one free person (excluding taxes and insurance). This will enable your organizer to travel for free, or you can spread the fund among the whole group for a discount for everyone.

     How do I book group travel?

     Contact Karen at klayman@dynamicjourneys.com or call 281-392-7600 or 800-257-2693. We will handle all the details, collect funds, etc; in short we do all the work and you have all the fun. We can even set up an online booking tool for your group!

    What do I have to lose?

    Absolutely Nothing! If your group does not meet the minimum, you won't qualify for the "free" person, but that is it. Your pricing is guaranteed, and usually your amenities.  You do not have to purchase unsold space or feel in any way obligated. We just ask that you try to give us a reasonable estimate of how many you expect to travel, so we can plan accordingly. Not too difficult!

    Do you like planning multiple trips throughout the year?

    If so, you may want to become a group leader for our agency. That is, you might want to organize groups but not necessarily travel with all of them. If so, you would still have the same responsibility, but could earn a bit of part time income.


  • My European Whirl with Trafalgar Tours !

    10/12/2006 9:34:05 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    and Other Travel Reviews

    Wow! Was I ambitious! I didn’t want a nut, I wanted the whole tree! I chose Trafalgar’s European Whirl, a tour not for the faint of heart or one with sore feet! I was convinced that I could handle it, and, afterwards I thought I should get an award. But, I saw a lot of Europe, and I figured out where I would go again, and what cities I would skip. I got over some of my culture shock and next time around I’ll know the ropes, so to speak, and that will take away some frustration.

    Things I forgot: a highlighter, to highlight my route on my Trafalgar journal, an umbrella, not only for the rain but for the sun, a three-pronged adapter for my converter to charge my camera and my computer, another book or two, I read the first one and I need another. I wish I had my binoculars, and my short wave radio would have been nice but not necessary.

    Things I wish I’d forgotten: I wish I had packed lighter. I could have used a couple less pairs of pants, less makeup, less lotions and potions, and skipped my “good” shoes. I’m really glad I brought my 3 blazers and a light jacket, a variety of shirts and enough underwear to get me through. Take my advice; the lighter you pack, the happier you will be, even though someone else is handling your luggage.

    My favorite things: I bought an outrageously expensive dark mustard leather bag in Florence, and I LOVE it! I didn’t buy the ridiculously expensive and beautiful woven gold omega, and I’m okay about that too. On my first night in Rome, I stood in St Peter’s square, illuminated and almost deserted, and I was so moved that tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. The Sistine Chapel was wonderful but I could also put it on my least favorite list because the lines were unbelievable to get in, and the chapel itself got so crowded we could barely get to the door to leave. On the other hand, it’s the most magnificent thing I have ever seen and now that it’s been restored the colors are unimaginable. And last but not my least favorite, London Theater in Covent Gardens, the musical ‘Chicago’.

    London: With all the airline security issues, my husband, Michael was a bit nervous about the flight but it went very smoothly. We arrived at Gatwick, collected our luggage and took the HotelLink Gatwick Express and Shuttle to our hotel, Copethorne Tara, in Kensington. We couldn’t check in, so we left out luggage, and went out to explore. I love London, so I couldn’t wait to get into the city. We looked for something to eat and ended up at McDonalds! So we had Egg McMuffin and Hashed Browns and Coffee, first day in London. Well this was my first culture shock, because they served “raw” bacon instead of Canadian bacon on the Egg McMuffin. When I say raw, (I mean that they put the body heat back in and slapped it on the bun), I did not eat bacon the rest of the trip, and I really can’t figure out why Europeans will eat this stuff.

    We wandered around London, and eventually used our reservations to see the Royal Mews and Buckingham Palace. Don’t ever do something like this your first day in Europe. My husband hated the Mews, although he got a nap on a bench in the courtyard, and then we dragged ourselves through the nineteen state rooms at Buckingham Palace. Although they were amazing and beautiful, we were so jet-lagged that we really could not appreciate the experience, even though it was very interesting.

    Sunday we found an ancient Catholic church at the top of Church Street and then spent the day wandering London, including a visit to Hyde Park for a great Caribbean Festival and concert. We got home early and had bread, cheese, and wine in our room for a quiet romantic dinner. We found the department store, Marks and Spencer to be a handy place, for both food and for money exchange. They had a great rate with no fee to exchange money. As a matter of fact, department stores everywhere were our best bet for money exchange. We went to Leicester Square so that we could get half priced show tickets and we were able to get tickets to “Chicago”, third row orchestra stalls. We loved the show, we loved the price, and we loved our seats. On the way, we ate in a typical London Pub, where I had some kind of meat pie, and Michael had something with a fried egg on top, which is apparently popular at dinner, along with a couple kinds of London beer.

    Monday, we joined our group for the first time for a tour of London. Although I’d been to London a couple of times, I still wanted to take the tour. I can never get enough of London.

    Paris: Tuesday, it was time to meet our tour director and start our motor coach tour. First stop Paris. We had no idea what to expect, but we dutifully arrived for the coach at the appointed time, and began to meet our fellow passengers. This is the when I think a group tour with people you already know would be the best experience, because we were strangers to everyone. But over time we would become to think of our fellow passengers as friends. The American and Australians were tied, with a South African family rounding out the bus. We were an odd lot, but we all got along great. Our tour guide explained the seat rotation system to us, and proceeded to make our trip both informative and entertaining. My next culture shock was the ferry from Dover to mainland Europe. I don’t know why it upset me, perhaps the fear of the unknown, but I did not like the ferry. It took and hour and a half, longer than I thought it would take, and I did not bring anything to do, like read a book. So, be sure to bring something along. I remembered hearing of other ferries that sank because they did not close the door properly, and that made me nervous and then we had to get back on the bus in the hold at a precise time and I was afraid to miss it, so that made me upset. But everything went well, and after many hours we arrived in Paris.

    That evening we toured Paris and were left to our own devices for a light dinner near the Arc De Triumph, and spent about $45 for a sandwich and Guinness each, which was another culture shock. Then we saw the most famous landmarks lit up and stopped for the light show at the Eiffel Tower. The next day, we saw it all again from a different perspective, and then spent the night in our room, exhausted, but sharing some French wine and cheese and bread. The difference in prices between local markets and restaurants is astounding.

    Lucerne: We left Paris and headed toward Rome. Our first stop was Lucerne. We traveled through the open fields of France and the Burgundy country and headed into the Alps. We saw French give way to German and flat land give way to mountains. The air became a bit crisper and the views a bit exhilarating. Lucerne was delightful, with the covered bridge, and Jesuit church, Rolex watches, and the magnificent Lion monument, a moving tribute to the Swiss honor guard.

    Milan: We couldn’t stay long, so we headed toward Italy, and the city of Milan. My impression of Milan was that it’s a dirty town full of residents that have absolutely no respect for the history and beauty of the city. It was dirty and full of graffiti. How anyone can put up with that is beyond my imagination. We spent some time at the Piazza del Duomo, and saw Duomo, the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and the outside of La Scala, but all I felt was disappointment.

    Confusing European things: Toilets with no toilet seats. Now I don’t like sitting on a dirty toilet seat, but I can wipe one off and use tissue to cover it before I do my business. But in many places in Europe, especially Italy, they just don’t bother to put seats on at all! So, now the bathroom is even dirtier, and the cleaning lady sits outside and collects a tip for NOT cleaning the toilets that have no seats anyway! Best advise, restrict you liquids in Europe and praise God for toilet seats. I swear I need to invent a portable throwaway toilet seat for European travel.

    Rome: Finally we arrived into the great city of Rome, and I knew instantly I would someday return. We stopped for a time at the famous Trevi fountain, and I dutifully took my turn, standing with my back to the fountain and tossed a coin over my shoulder. The water at the bottom of the fountain represents the sea and the legend says you will return to Rome if you throw a coin into the water, tossing it as I did. So, you see, I will find my way back to Rome. That evening, we took a short ride to see the sights and had dinner at a wonderful little restaurant across from the Coliseum. The dinner was an extra excursion, but worth it, with unlimited wine and food, and, I can assure you we had our fill, including much laughter. Our hosts welcomed us with live music, a bit of farcical opera, and sent us home with a small bottle of wine to savor later in the trip, and remember the good times. After dinner, we took a walk around the Colosseum when it was almost deserted.

    We stayed at Grand Hotel Palazzo Carpegna, a beautiful, yet simple historic hotel set in the Carpegna Villa gardens. This hotel was once a Convent, but it gave me a little quiet time in the beautiful church within the hotel itself. The furniture was imposing and Art Deco, and the rooms simple yet very adequate. Breakfast was plentiful, and varied, but the eggs had a weird smell, so I passed (along with the raw bacon!). I still always found plenty to eat at breakfast.

    Our second day in Rome was quite busy. It was Sunday, so I wanted to attend mass, but frankly, after a full day of sightseeing, I was too exhausted to wait a couple more hours for mass. We started out at the Colosseum, and it was busy, unlike the night before. I was disappointed that the tour did not allow time to enter, but, I don’t know how long that would have taken, because the lines were long! Our next stop was St. Peter’s. Surprisingly, the security line was short, so we entered without delay, which gave us a lot of time to see the Basilica of St Peter’s. In hindsight, I need to go back and spend an entire day here. The most memorable was Pope John XXIII tomb, and Michelangelo’s Pieta, plus the chapel of the Madonna. I did not get to see the excavations, another whole tour, and a lot of the other tombs of the popes are a blur, but still, it was magnificent.

    Our final evening in Rome, we had a wonderful Mediterranean dinner, with private entertainment, and all the wine we could consume. The food, drink, and company were memorable. It was my husband’s birthday, and everyone sang to him. We had to rise early our final day in Rome so we could get in line for the Sistine Chapel. I was amazed at the long lines of groups at 730am. The doors opened at 815am for groups and we quickly went into the Vatican museums. I had no idea it was so large, with the Sistine Chapel toward the end of the museum. Frankly, by the time we got there, I was thinking, “just show me the darn ceiling, and get me out of here”. Again, I need to go back to Rome and spend the whole day here. The Sistine Chapel was one of the highlights of the whole trip. I’m going back in the winter though next time.

    Florence and Venice: Goodbye Rome, we headed toward Florence and then Venice. The afternoon in Florence was a lot of fun, and I finally did some shopping where I bought my “chipotle mustard” leather handbag. This was my very favorite purchase. I loved the old city, and, so Florence is on my good list. After a night in a modern hotel outside of town, we were off to Venice. Well, Venice was, more than I could have imagined! Our boat ride through the waters to the Isle of Murano where we had a terrific seafood lunch and wandered through the shops of Venetian lace, was definitely a highlight. Then we crossed back to St Mark’s square, and went to a Venetian glass factory; however pretty Venetian glass is, it’s just not my taste. But St Mark’s square and a trip to the Cathedral, was definitely my taste. We endured the gondola ride through the canals, but that’s a story in itself. Apparently, you can get good ones or bad ones, and a couple of us got a bad one; mine crashed a couple of times and rocked the boat and another group’s had a driver with foul language who yelled at them. No more gondola rides for me unless I’m at the Venetian in Vegas; I think the problem with the gondola was that they put 6 passengers in a gondola that should have held four. There’s nothing like a little extra profit. Furthermore, the real experience is for two passengers, because there is only one place that a couple can sit side by side. The other seats on the boat are make-shift at best.

     Innsbruck: When we left Venice the next day and headed for Innsbruck, we passed though fields and fields of sunflowers and artichokes and vineyards. Soon we found ourselves winding into the mountains with the magnificent views and the typical half timbered houses, where we arrived in Innsbruck. I didn’t know it was such a large city, but our hotel was in the old town, a pedestrian and cobble stoned village within the city. It was absolutely charming, complete with a Bavarian dinner at a local restaurant. This was the start of a familiar and comfortable journey through Germany, with the Germanic influence here and to come.

    Germany: As we headed toward Heidelberg we stopped in Munich. Although it was a quick stop, it brought back memories of a previous trip, and reminded me to return. At this point I began craving Germanic food, but Munich seems to have only everything else. Our stop in Heidelberg brought us to another cobble stoned village where we saw the castle ruins hovering above the city. This area of the Rhine is where many castles abound by the river, so a cruise up the river was a must. But the gothic cathedral in Cologne had to be another highlight. It was bigger and fancier than I ever imagined. It’s peculiar that I was so impressed by the gothic cathedral here, when the one in Milan was bigger. Somehow I lost that feeling in Milan. The main train station in a town is always a good place to get a bite to eat and I finally found my real German food at the train station, lean bratwurst, potatoes, sweet red cabbage and Kolsch, typical Cologne beer. Yummy! I was happy.

    Amsterdam: On the way to Amsterdam we caught sight of some of the remnants of World War II, and we arrived in Amsterdam just in time to catch a canal cruise with its historic sights, including the building that housed Ann Frank, the myriad of houseboats, and our final destination, “The Sea Palace” restaurant. This was our farewell dinner and a highlight dinner that cost us about $60 per person. I would definitely skip this one. Not only was it ordinary Chinese food, served family style, (the $5.99 buffet in Katy is better), the hosts were stingy with the so-called unlimited drinks of beer and wine, and would not bring refills. Now I wasn’t out to get drunk, but a half glass of wine every half hour is not my idea of unlimited, nor my idea of hospitable, especially after the generous nature of our Italian hosts who brought bottles to the table. I asked if they could fill the glass a little fuller or bring a carafe for the table, but they refused. They were not good hosts, and the dinner was extremely overpriced. Skip this one. After dinner, we were offered a walk through the red light district. I passed but my husband enjoyed it.

    Our final day with the group, we headed back to London, where we saw a variety of windmills, more World War II fields, and then to our ferry. In the space of one day we were in four countries, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and then England.

    Home: I felt at home as we headed back to London, where we joined our new friends for drinks and fish and chips before we said our goodbyes. We made great new friends that we think of often. It’s a good thing we had a ten hour flight home. It was my first rest.

  • Universal Studios Orlando

    6/9/2006 12:39:46 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    and Other Travel Reviews, Hotel, Resort

    My feet are tired and the rest of me is smiling! I just returned from my first trip with grandchildren to Universal Studios in Florida! We spent two days in each of the two parks went back for more on our fly day, and we did it all! There are three parks at Universal Studios, the original Universal Studios park, with movie-themed attractions, Islands of Adventure, with fast rides, many with height requirements, and Citywalk for movies, restaurants, shopping, and night clubs.

    There are three onsite resorts. Royal Pacific Resort is the most affordable of the three, but still a AAA 4 diamond resort. It has a South Seas theme with a huge free form pool near tower three. The Hard Rock Hotel is the most “hip” with rock memorabilia, and a pool with a sandy beach, an underwater sound system and water slide. Portofino Bay Hotel is the flagship hotel and the most luxurious. It’s designed to be a Mediterranean seaside village with three distinct pools and the world class Mandara Spa. We chose to stay onsite at the Royal Pacific Resort. This was a great choice, both for the quality of the hotel and service and the convenience of staying on site. Try to book into the more convenient tower three, if possible, although crossing the lobby is no big deal. 

    There is continuous transportation to Citywalk from all three resorts by water taxi from about 8am until 2am, and by shuttle bus to Citywalk and between the hotels. With a key from any onsite hotel you have access to all three resorts. From Citywalk you either walk left for Universal Studios or right to Islands of Adventure. 

    Another advantage, and perhaps the most significant is the Express Pass. Your hotel key is your Express Pass to Universal, where you are treated like the honored guest that you are. Basically, there are short to no lines for attractions in the park when you use the Express Pass entrance. For instance, Jurassic Park had an hour wait, but for us it was five to ten minutes! This was the same with every popular ride. My granddaughter experienced her first roller coaster, and the lines for kiddies and their parents were long and hot but not for us! We walked right up and rode the coaster, and when she looked at me and shouted “Again!” we just ran around the corner and got right back on! This is instant gratification at it’s best!! The express pass will also get you priority seating at all the shows, which means seats in the front and entrance prior to the general public. You can have your purchases sent directly to your hotel room from the park, and you can use your room key to charge food and merchandise in many of the Universal Studios venues. Last but not least, you can request priority seating for dining. The popular restaurants don’t take reservations, but you can call and request priority seating, which basically moves you to the front of the line, meaning that you will be taken as soon as there is a table opens that, will accommodate your party. This reduced our wait from thirty to ten minutes at the very popular Mythos Restaurant. You can buy an express pass for about $50 per person per day on weekdays and more on weekends, during the summer, but you can only ride one time per ride with this pass, while  onsite guests have unlimited privileges. Last but not least, you get a Citywalk party pass for the length of your stay. Clubs charge $7 per person cover charge at night. So, stay at one of the onsite hotels! You’ll be glad you did! 

    Whether you book with us or book elsewhere, use the services of a travel agent who is familiar with the Universal Studios packages. There are several choices, and we can suggest the appropriate package for your family. For instance, there’s a “kids free” package or a “family free” package. We booked the “family free” and had unlimited theme park tickets and Citywalk party passes for our length of stay, paying only for the hotel.  The offers change continually, and we will offer you the best available package. 

    How does Universal Studios compare to Disney? While I love Disney, I think Universal Studios really worked for us. We took a 40 inch tall three year old and a 50 inch tall seven year old. Forty inches is the littlest child I would take, but I would say the same for Disney. There’s plenty to do for the little ones at Universal Orland, the parks are not so big and overwhelming, many choices for adults, complete with child swap so both parents can ride. I adored Dr Seuss land and I didn’t miss Disney at all. I think I’ll wait until the youngest is six for Disney. All the characters are available for pictures and autographs very often, and you don’t have to book a character breakfast for access.  There are so many characters available for photos that the lines aren’t too long. Universal Studios is a real working studio, so you might encounter filming and you might get a chance to preview a new show or movie. There are lots of water fountains and things for the kids to splash in, so bring a bathing suit or change of clothes. Stroller rental was reasonable at $10 a day, and free lockers are available outside every ride for your “stuff”. My husband lost his glasses on the Mummy ride so take advantage of the lockers on the wilder attractions. (They have a great lost and found system, and he got them back the next day.)

    Food is typically priced at the hotel for a AAA four diamond resort, expensive to very expensive. You can choose from continental breakfast, to bar and grill to gourmet at  Emeril’s Tchop Chop. Food in the park is almost reasonable and varied. There are fast food counters, sit down venues, and drink and snack stands everywhere. You can purchase a meal deal if you want all-you-can-eat, or just buy ala Carte, which worked for us. You can purchase a souvenir drink glass and get refills for $1.39 instead of $2.99. Food at Citywalk is just as varied, from Nascar Café, with it’s down home huge portions at very reasonable prices, to the very gourmet Emeril’s, where you might need to make reservations six months in advance. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, NBA City, and Hard Rock Café, are fun for families and affordable for a crowd. Because we had little ones, we usually ate dinner by 6pm, before they got very busy. Mythos Restaurant at Islands of Adventures has been rated number one theme park restaurant three years in a row and lives up to it’s hype. It’s a gourmet experience in the midst of fast food, and was a definite treat for all of us. The restaurant is a huge cavern with very Zeus-like décor and great views of the park. I chose the risotto of the day, shrimp and asparagus with a coconut cream sauce. It was a little salty for my taste, but I’m the exception to the rule, and I really couldn’t stop eating. Others had just as satisfying dishes, such as tempura battered sushi, and a great chicken wrap. You can also get sandwiches, kid’s meals, and pizza. Looking around at other tables, all the food looked beautiful and seemed to taste just as good. Sometimes eating fancy when surrounded by ordinary is just the thing to do. 

    I loved the parks, I loved the characters, I loved the royal treatment that the Express Pass gave us, and I loved being pampered at Universal Studios. Whether you have kids or not you should consider this park for your next theme park vacation. 

  • My Melanoma Story - by Karen Layman

    1/21/2006 9:03:15 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Life and other Things

    It’s been over a year since I’ve finished my treatment, and I still have a clean bill of health. Thank you God! It’s time for me to express my appreciation to my long time customers who stuck it out with me through my illness and those of you who have come back. I also need to take this opportunity to let you know my story. Many of you knew of my illness over that 18 month period and some of you only knew that I was hardly ever at work.

    In May 2002 I saw a doctor about a mole on my calf, neither a biopsy was done nor was I referred to a dermatologist. Over the next year the mole remained and nagged at me. In May 2003 I saw a dermatologist and he removed it and sent it off to a pathologist. To my shock it came back as Melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers. I knew nothing of Melanoma, but I self-referred to MD Anderson, and that, saved my life.  


    You see, my surgeon at MD Anderson recommended something called a sentinel node biopsy; they tested the lymph nodes nearest the melanoma site to see if the melanoma had spread. Unfortunately, in my case, I had one positive micro-metastasis. 


    That meant that I would be scheduled for a subsequent surgery, in which all of my surface lymph nodes and surrounding tissue in the groin area would be removed, I could expect mild to severe lymphodema (swelling) the rest of my life, and I would need to have a year of very high dose Interferon (immunotherapy) or other bio-chemotherapy under a clinical trial. What a shock for someone who had always been healthy! 


    Before surgery they did CT scans to make sure that the Melanoma had not spread to any other part of my body. Well, the Melanoma had not spread, but they found a kidney cancer that was totally unrelated! So, I had a double whammy, and part of my kidney and my lymph nodes were removed the same day!



    I spent the next year on high dose Interferon, which meant 3 days a week in bed and the other 4 days feeling rather puny, but a lot of joy and happiness came out of that experience, too. I took the time to learn (however badly) to play the piano, and I bought a piano, and brought music into my home. I quit working nights and weekends, so, if you can’t find me on Sunday, well, call me at home (218-382-9745), or call me Monday. I found my way back to my beloved Catholic church.  My grandchildren spent the summer, and, even though I was ill, they were nothing but joy. I learned to love grilled cheese and grapes. My husband took me to see Barry Manilow (Row 8 tickets!) 


    I wrote this AS A REMINDER to check your moles. When in doubt, have a dermatologist check it out.  If you feel uncomfortable insist that it is removed and a biopsy performed. 

    ABCDE’s of Melanoma 

    A – Asymmetrical instead of round (although nodular Melanoma may be round)
    B – Border – uneven or notched
    C- Color – Varying shades of brown, black, purple, pink
    D – Diameter – Larger than a pencil eraser
    E – Evolving – Any changing mole, even regression or fading

    When outdoors, always wear Sunscreen, Never get severe Sunburn, Wear UV protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. Most Melamomas are caused from severe sunburns from childhood. Guard your children’s’ skin with high SPF sunscreen, keep them indoors during the heat of the day, and NEVER let them get a severe sunburn.  

  • Review of Royal Caribbean MARINER OF THE SEAS and Voyager Class ships

    12/13/2005 9:21:31 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Cruise Reviews

    I’m convinced! After a week on the Mariner of the Seas, I can say unequivocally that this ship and the others like it are the best ships for family vacations that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sailing on. Not to say that she has a few shortcomings, but in all the ship is close enough to perfect to get my rating of A or a 97 out of 100.

    As soon as I saw it I was struck by the ship’s massive size. I tried to keep an open mind about sharing my vacation with 3400+ passengers, but my first thought was “It’s too big!” I admit, though, that the ship does a good job of splitting up the passengers into so many intimate areas that it almost never feels overwhelming.

    Check-in was a breeze, in spite of the fact that there was only one working scanner at security. We only waited about 20 minutes and there was no line at the check-in desk. The ever-famous photographers held us up a bit (there should be a “no-picture” line to board), but, not for long.

    I was very impressed by the Royal Promenade, an old world tiled street down the center of the ship, rising 4 stories, with overhanging bay-windowed staterooms. This is where the shopping, café, ice cream parlor, wine bar, and pub are located. They have parades and other events in this area, and it’s a location unto itself. It’s just a great place to hang out and relax.

    We checked out our accommodations, an ocean view cabin on deck two, and found it to be very adequate. We met our cabin steward and asked him to please put away the bedspread for the week, believing that they are probably not laundered between sailings. If you are looking for the hairdryer, it’s in the desk drawer and all the rooms have mini refrigerators. The bathroom was fine, still has the half moon shower, but it has glass doors instead of a shower curtain. As far as the ship layout, I don’t understand the logic behind deck two. The movie theater and conference area are forward on this deck, and I was directing people all week to go up to deck 4 or 5 and take the forward elevator to deck two to the movie theater, because of a 10 foot hall in the crew area that separated the aft and forward part of this deck.

    It took two days, but finally we saw hand sanitizers at the buffet. I was surprised that they weren’t there on embarkation, so take your own, just in case. It costs $8.95 in Nassau.

    This brings me to the food. First of all, there are three main dining rooms, all located at different levels aft in the ship. They are magnificent, and this separation makes dining an intimate experience, because they have split the myriad of passengers into six groups with the early and late dining. This is very well done. If the ship falls short in any area it’s the food. True to Royal Caribbean philosophy, the food, although upgraded with new menu items was still average. Some dishes tended to be dry, non-imaginative, and lacking in character. The staff, however, was always willing to trade out and unacceptable choice. In their defense, I realize that food is very subjective, and there were some outstanding menu items during the cruise. RCI offers only one sugar-free dessert choice per day, so I would like to see this expanded. There was always a Caesar salad alternative and grilled chicken nightly. I’m told that one can also get a hamburger any time in the dining room, off menu. They claimed to have spa cuisine, but I don’t recall seeing it on the menu. They offer two alternative intimate reservations-only restaurants, at $20 per person. I wasn’t excited about steaks or Italian fare at an extra charge, but I dutifully made reservations for Portifino restaurant. Wow! They changed my mind with the impeccable service and fabulous food. After appetizers and Ceasar salad prepared at our table, I chose the halibut which was perfectly prepared moist and tasty. Michael chose the filet. His filet was 2 inches think, cooked to perfection, and melted in his mouth. There is a café on the promenade that offers coffee, etc, sweets and little sandwiches all day and there is a soft serve machine at the pool. Ben and Jerry’s charges for ice cream specialties, and Johnny Rockets has a cover charge of $3.95, which is reasonable to eliminate the crowds and worth the fee, I’m told.

    The wine list was extensive and reasonable for a ship, plus Vintages wine bar offers a “wine flight”, which gives you a selection of 2oz of several wines, to do your own private tasting. That was fun and gave us a chance to taste several red wines. Vintages also offered a “shaken not stirred” martini lesson and tasting, and did a great job of entertaining. If you order wine by the glass, be sure to ask for a larger wine glass to pour the wine into. If you don’t give room to breathe, you won’t get your money’s worth. The pub and cigar bar were very comfortable. The Captain’s welcome reception was held in the promenade where there was plenty of room and many waiters circulating among the guests. They only offered champagne as a drink choice, fine for me, but not fine for some. The ship’s store allows purchases of liquor to be taken to the room for an up charge, which is a good thing for my husband who enjoys his rum and coke. The coke cards were a good idea at $6 per day for the cruise length and $4 per day for children. Although we don’t drink that much in soft drinks and passed on that purchase, I saw many guests with the readily identifiable Coke glass in hand.

    The showroom was not particularly well designed, lots of obstructed views and seating wasn’t tiered enough to avoid the head in front of me, but it was okay. The entertainment was generally well done, imaginative, and lively, no complaints here. One night Charo performed and she was absolutely terrific and Kenny James, a Star Search winner was equally as great! I understand that Royal Caribbean offers this type of headliner often.
    The ice rink extravaganza “Ice under the Big Tent”, a circus oriented show, was more than fun, and I don’t even like circus stuff. I’d see it again. You have to get tickets, but there are 4 showings during the week, so anyone who wants to see the ice show should be able to get tickets. All the seats are good to very good so don’t worry about where you are sitting, except behind a pole.

    The children’s program (starting at age three, potty trained) has RCCL partnering with Crayola and offers some products that aren’t on the marketplace yet. The kids get to test market stuff and the whole program looked like it was great fun. The children offered us a circus in the promenade one day! There is a family disco hour, plus the teen disco, and family oriented entertainment. I heard from the sources that the teen disco is great fun! They’ve also partnered with Fisher-Price to offer 45 minute sessions of organized playtime learning twice daily for parents and babies or toddlers for enhancement of the cruise experience.

    There are many bars and musical selections for everyone including a Latin club, Boleros.
    Studio B, where the ice rink is located, converts to a huge dance floor. This is the best nightclub / party venue I’ve ever experienced on a ship. One night was the “Dance through the Ages” starting with the 50’s forward, and it was a blast! There was enough room for anyone who wanted to watch and enough room for anyone who wanted to dance. This was fun! The Crown Viking lounge offers nice mellow dance music, so we adjourned to that venue after wearing ourselves out at Studio B. The Dragon’s Lair is too creepy for me but very popular with the young disco set. In general there is something for everyone.

    The pool and sports area is very good. Sitting out on the pool deck, I couldn’t help but think of some sort of fair or carnival. The music was playing, there was a horserace going on, you could get airbrush tattoos, $1 a minute massage, drink specials, soft serve ice cream, and things going on everywhere.

    On deck 14 there is a rock climbing wall that is open every hour, ping pong, volley ball, miniature golf, in line skating, jogging, and more. For the athlete there are definitely enough choices, even without the ship shape center with all its high tech equipment. For the tamer sports, such as cards or board games there is a nice card room, plus a 24 hour library. There are two pools outside, two very large shaded Jacuzzis and two smaller sunny Jacuzzis. The solarium has two large shaded Jacuzzis and a sunny pool for adults only. The shipshape center offers another large pool with all kinds of jets, plus the steam room and sauna. Some of the pools and Jacuzzis are open 24 hours a day; finally a ship that accommodates guests who would rather hang out poolside at night. I hate it when a ship closes the Jacuzzis at 6pm or 10pm.

    As far as technology, you can sign up for internet at the internet café and use your wireless, but the first three days of the cruise it was unusable. I gave up trying after that. Complaints were heard by all. The cabin TV was fine, with a variety, including pay movies. There were a few movies playing in the screening room at the conference center.

    I hate Homeland security. The cruise ships have done a terrific job of security, with ID cards that have pictures embedded and a system to check guests on and off the ship, and a complete ship’s manifest. If there are any stowaways, they won’t get off the ship unless they jump off. But that’s not good enough for our government. When we got to St Thomas we all had to clear customs and that took two hours with lines that snaked all the way across the ship and back. I waited until everyone got off, did my immigration thing, and decided I would skip St Thomas and spend my money in the tourist friendly port of St. Maarten.