Karen's Blog

  • 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you are welcome to do that at the Buffet (I mean, “Action Station Restaurant”), but I also don’t mean dragging out your outdated, too-small suit and white shirt and tie!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

  • 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.