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
    281-492-2600
     
     
     
     

  • 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.

  • NCL AMERICA Review of Pride of America

    12/7/2005 12:03:30 AM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Cruise Reviews

    For traditional experienced cruisers: If you are used to scheduled dining and lots of onboard activities throw away everything you know about cruising when you sail in Hawaii on NCL America. Compare this ship to a resort on land. It's really a hybrid between a cruise and a floating hotel.

    You will be in the islands all of the time during the day, and two nights, so the ship will be your hotel with fine dining and nightly entertainment. When you get hungry, you can dine, but, the dining room could be occupied, just like on land. You have to plan ahead and make reservations for the upscale intimate alternate restaurants, just like fine restaurants on land. Once you realize that, you'll be happy with this ship.

    This is absolutely the best way to see the islands in one week. This cruise is all about Hawaii. This is a destination cruise. You do not choose this cruise for the incredibly beautiful ship or the cruise experience, or even the wonderful dining or entertainment aboard the ship. You take this cruise because you want the chance to experience all of the major Hawaiian Islands with as much time in port as possible. Consequently, the ship is secondary, and, with limited activities during the day, you could forget to enjoy the amenities on board. Try to experience what the ship has to offer because it's really wonderful. But everything on the ship is about Hawaii. So, if you are looking for sea days and sunshine, this is not your cruise.

    One night we sailed by Mt. Kiluaua at 1030pm and were awestruck by the river of lava. The captain did a 360 so everyone could view the volcano, and then reluctantly moved on. Another evening we sailed along the Napali coast, up close and personal, from just before sundown until we could see no more. Remember, this cruise is all about Hawaii. There are enough choices for shore excursions that I defy you to choose just one in each port. Whether you just want to sightsee or you crave adventure, you can find something to love.

    The cruise, however, is not without her minor faults. But all of these issues are being resolved, and should not be an issue by the end of 2006. After six months, there were still some issues with personnel. They were short handed in the main restaurants which slowed up the service, and did not encourage passengers to dine together, which would have speeded things up. The cabin stewardess in my area was slow and so the beds were done up late and turned down late.

    The entertainment was sometimes wonderful, and sometimes not. But then, entertainment is a personal taste issue, so you may love it all.

    In short, the beauty of the ship, the friendliness of the crew, the wonderful food, the flexibility, and the extensive time in the islands make this a trip I would do over again. I returned from Hawaii with a smile on my lips, a little Aloha in my heart, and warm memories of gentle breezes across my face, fragrant flowers that tickled my nose, and sunshine that kissed my cheeks.

    One thing I know for sure, I can't wait to sail the islands again on another NCL America ship.

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