First-Time Cruising on NCL

NCL- Norwegian Cruise Line may have just climbed to the top of my favorites in the category of large cruises. This was a pretty new ship–“Joy”–and I was curious to experience this line because it really tries to be different from the rest. There are some good things and bad things with all cruise lines, that is why it’s important to know your personal cruising style. It took a few days to get used to “Free Style”, but once I got the hang of it,  I found it was OK.

What does “Free Style” mean?

Eat whenever and wherever you want, many restaurants and lots of variety. I think this term also includes shows and activities. There is a screen in the hallways with a list of what is going on each evening, but many shows/activities require a reservation.

Lets go over the good, and the not so good, behind “Free Style.”

Good

The variety of restaurants- half are included in the cruise fare and half you pay extra for. Some are a set price, and some are a la carte. The set price restaurants are the steakhouse and seafood; these are $50-$100 per person. With the a la carte you order items off the menu– burgers, BBQ, sushi; these are in the $10-$20 range.

We always got a table for two and we never had to wait for a table, even though we didn’t make reservations. This could be because we were usually eating early, probably not the case if you were eating at 6:30 or 7 pm.

The ship layout was good, elevators are large and plenty. For a large ship it didn’t feel that way. The ship was “Joy,” a newer ship. Layout may be different on other ships in the NCL line.

Half-way through the cruise they ran a laundry special, $20 a bag.

Besides the pool deck lounge chairs, there was another deck with nice outdoor seating . This ship had several gathering areas of fabric-style patio furniture– couches, chairs and coffee tables. Another great sitting area– gigantic, beautiful and quiet– is the Observation Lounge at the front of the ship, an area with bar, chaise lounge chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows all around–a great place for reading and playing card games.

Horizon Lounge on Norwegian Joy
Photo by NCL
American Diner Restaurant

Not So Good

Making reservations for just about everything. I personally don’t care that much about shows and wine-tasting events. But, if these are the things you love about cruising you need to make sure you need to plan ahead and get every thing reserved. I was a little bummed that there was one show I did want to see and it sold out.

Sometimes I felt a little nickle-and-dimed. Besides half the restaurants on board charging a fee, some of the activities did too, like the race car feature. This is not unusual–most ships charge for little things, like Starbucks coffee and specialty pastries. Although, I did think it was a little too much when I was charged a gratuity on a bottle of water from the mini bar in my cabin.

Many ships allow you to carry on 2 bottles of wine at embarkation. NCL has no limit on how many you can carry on, but you need to pay a $15 per bottle corkage fee. They collect this fee and put a sticker on the bottle at embark.

No soda carried on at embark or during the cruise! This was a hard one for me, I usually buy a couple of small bottles of soda at the ports during the week. Nope–not this cruise.

My good by far outweighed the not so good list.  I plan on sailing again soon, because I bought “Cruise Next” certificates–a great way to get a discount on your next cruise.

Waterslide juts out over the side of the ship

Monkeys and More in Spain, 2019

I don’t want to be a travel snob, but of all my collected destinations thus far, Southern Spain’s Costa del Sol seemed to be a little bland to me– and I’ll tell you why. My guess is because it was a cruise. I love a good cruise and Windstar did not disappoint. Visiting the ports of the Costa del Sol was OK, but I think if I were to do this region again I’d rather do it as a land tour. It would have been nice to get outside of the port cities and see more of the countryside.

Seville, Spain

Our ship, the Wind Surf, departed from Lisbon, Portugal, early April 2019. Lisbon is a nice city. I can see myself going back to spend more time there.

Windstar Wind Surf Ship

On our first night onboard heading towards Cadiz, Spain, we experienced some rough seas. I was feeling a little nauseous and not sleeping well as it was… then all of a sudden in the middle of the night 2 pitchers of cold water slid off the nightstand and right on top of me. Yikes! what a way to wake up. In the hallway I could see that housekeeping was furiously running up and down the passageway cleaning rooms of other passengers with the same problem. I put in my request for dry sheets and ended up semi-falling asleep, curled up at the foot of the bed– the only dry spot, while also intermittently running to the bathroom and puking all night from sea sickness. Housekeeping did not come until around 9 am. It was a bad night. The next morning everyone onboard was talking about it, hearing that some people had the glass water pitchers break in their bed! Luckily the next day was a sea day. My husband and I were both seasick and spent most of the day in bed. That was OK, because it was a cold, rainy, windy day anyway. You can’t complain, rough seas are just part of the experience with small ship cruising, and it happens sometime. For the rest of the week the weather was beautiful and the sea was calm.

Alcazaba Fortress in Almeria

Back to why I found the port cities a little bland: they all seemed to look the same. This is a cruise itinerary where you might want to book excursions if you want to see more than cute towns with mostly tourist shops and restaurants. In Cadiz we took a excursion to Seville. Our other port stops were Malaga, Gibraltar, Almeria, Cartagena, Palma Mallorca, and disembarking in Barcelona.

My two favorite port stops were Gibraltar and Almeria. In Gibraltar we took a cable car to the top of the rock. There is a cave called St Michael’s with an amphitheater inside. In WWII it was used as a military hospital and for “girly exotic dancing” shows. Now it’s used more for weddings and concerts. The best part of Gibraltar was the monkeys. Monkeys everywhere, and we were warned not to feed them or even act like we had food or they’d be all over us. Gibraltar kind of reminded me of Monte Carlo–casinos and high-end resorts– a summer place. To top it off, there were dolphins jumping in the water as we sailed away.

Gibraltar Monkey
St Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar

The day in Almeria, Spain, was nice because is was so quiet. There were next to no tourists. We were the only ship in port and maybe it was quiet because it was a Sunday. Almeria had a real small-town feel to it–people walking dogs and families pushing babies in strollers. Apparently several spaghetti Westerns were filmed in this area in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Finally, I love cruising–dinner and drinks on the deck, the water at sunrise/sunset, and of course the food.

What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

I am always excited each time I try a new or different cruise line.
In November 2017 my husband and I took a 10-day cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Panama and back. We have sailed on several different lines, but this was our first with Holland America (HAL). As far as ships go, it’s extremely similar to other large ships of its class. I will give my list of the good and not so good from this particular voyage. And I will also list a couple of ship tips I have learned.

Bird in Curacao

Good:
This is the first time we have tried open seating as opposed to a set dining time. We like having a table for 2 and this worked for the most part, but we also timed it right and kept our fingers crossed. Open seating is like walking up to a busy restaurant and asking for a table for 2. This all depends on table availability and you may have to wait. If you don’t mind sitting with others being seated without a wait is usually never a problem.

Holland America has a private Caribbean island called Half Moon Caye, and I really enjoyed this. It’s nice to get off ship and have a private uncrowded beach for swimming. On a cruise you forget that just because you are at sea for a week, you never get to swim in the ocean unless you take an excursion or can find a public beach on your own while at port. The private beach included beach towels, lounge chairs, and a wonderful gigantic lunch buffet.

There was a great selection of on-board activities. Since the Holland America demographic is more of a mature crowd, the activities are more geared towards classes, presentations, and demonstrations. Yes, I can live without Belly Flop and Hairy Chest contests. Many of the classes on board are health and fitness presentations, America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations, and my favorite -Microsoft computer classes.
Every afternoon, 4-5 pm, was happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks

Holland America Zuiderdam Pool

The not so good…. because nothing was bad this trip:
Air conditioning…. Yikes! The a/c in public areas seemed to be turned up higher than I ever remember on a cruise. I tried to look for a cozy quiet lounge area to read, but I always had to have on some pants and a heavy sweater. I remember sitting in a computer class with a sweater on and still shivering.

The buffet was always crowded, especially breakfast. It was such a chore hunting for a table. One thing I noticed that seemed to be different from other ship buffets was how much of the food needed to be served from behind glass. If I wanted a bowl of oatmeal I’d have to stand in line behind people ordering eggs and pancakes. Why can’t I scoop out my own bowl of oatmeal? Same with the salad bar–you had to instruct someone how to make your salad… am I wrong?  But most people like to build their own salad on a salad bar!

Cruise Tips:
Having dinner in the specialty restaurants costs about $20-$35 per person. We found that you can have lunch in the same restaurants for $10 pp.
Avoid the crowded buffet at lunch and have an elegant, non-hurried, sit-down lunch by eating in the big dining room. Just know that the menu is limited to about 10 items, and the dining room hours are 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm.

Cruisers watch as we pass through the locks, Panama Canal

Below are some street scene photos of Panama City

Ice cream shop in Panama City

Street Scene in Panama City

Painted Bus, Panama City

The Great Wall of …..Croatia (and also Touring Italy on a Windstar Cruise)

I have decided that early May is the best time to cruise in Europe–that’s my opinion anyway. The weather can still be a little cool and rainy, flowers are blooming, most other cruise lines have not yet arrived, and the crowds are minimal. This was our second cruise with Windstar and again it was superb.
Here are some of the highlights and my favorite photos.

Quiet deck early morning on Windstar

 

Amalfi Coast

 

Syrenbus, pleasure on wheels!


The old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia– you can walk around the top of the walled city. It costs about $25 per person and was worth it. Not good if you don’t like the heights and it can be a pretty strenuous walk with lots of stairs.

View from the wall walkway in Dubrovnik

 

Parade in Dubrovnik

 

Waterfront walkway in Split, Croatia

 

Restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia

Venice was busy, hot, and humid. I didn’t like it as much as I liked the other ports in Croata, Sicily, and Amalfi.  When I look at the picture below I realize this is not very crowded, it could be worse.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

 

Wonder how your luggage gets to your hotel?

 

Restaurant window, Venice, Italy

 

Norway and the Arctic Circle in Winter

The primary reason for this winter trip up north was to see the northern lights. In the 8 days we were there, we only saw the lights one time. Yes, I am disappointed, but it is the way nature works. On the other hand, I was curious to experience the extremely long days of darkness. This did not disappoint.
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The Hurtigruten cruise started in Bergen, where we spent one night prior to embarkation. Their version of daylight (dusk) started about 10 am and ended around 3 pm. When we crossed over the Arctic Circle the days grew really short, the sun never rose above the horizon.
Hurtigruten is a different type of cruise experience. It is a passenger/ferry ship. Accommodations were simple, but comfortable. Our ship Trollfjord sleeps about 600 passengers, and for our cruise week we had about 250 people on board. The ship stops at approximately 30 ports in the 6-night voyage to Kirkenes before it turns around and goes back to Bergen. A lot of the stops are for 30 mins to an hour and passengers are able to get off and walk around, or pick up snacks from the small convenience stores at most ports. The ship also picks up day passengers going from one port to the next.
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Arctic Superior Cabin, couch folds down to another bed

City tour excursions where a little disappointing since it was usually dark as night and hard to see anything. The mid-day trip to Nord Kapp (North Cape), the northernmost point of Europe, was very cold and windy, and the dark pictures I took were taken around 12 noon!

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North Cape, above the Arctic Circle

71°10′21″N 25°47′04″E     Nord Kapp coordinates 
 I spent a good amount of time in the front lounge reading and looking at whatever scenery was visible. They keep the lights dim so there is not a lot of glare for looking out of the large floor to ceiling windows. The lounge has small twinkling lights above like a nights sky and it was warm and cozy.
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And the most wonderful thing of all is the food! Fish, seafood, fish, and more seafood, delicious! I never saw anything made with chicken and ground beef the whole week. So many varieties of fish, salmon, coalfish, smoked dogfish, pickled halibut, etc. I did try some reindeer meat: to me –not that good. Piles of seafood–king crab is considered everyday food to them so it was always on the buffet, a staple. As always in Europe the bread and butter was heavenly. And I really need to figure out how to make those sweet Norwegian pancakes.
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I would go back in a minute. I’d like to try this same cruise in a different season next time. In summer it would be a completely different cruise with more daylight and opportunity to actually see the great fjords.
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Highlights of Greece 2015

May 2015 trip to Greece and Turkey. Below are my top 5 personal highlights of Greece. I will follow soon with my list of high points of Turkey.
Food
For some reason food always seems to find its way in my “best of” blogs. I made a list of “must try foods” before leaving on my journey and I wasn’t disappointed: calamari (fresh), real Greek yogurt, baklava, fried sardines, and olives. I even found that I enjoyed eggplant and stuffed grape leaves, items I don’t normally care for.

Fresh Squid (Calamari)
Fresh Squid (Calamari)

Lunch in Santorini
Lunch in Santorini

No ships!

Unbelievable, but yes, there were no other cruise ships in the ports until the last day arriving in Istanbul. Timing and pre-season was on our side. Normally, there could be 3-4 large passenger ships sharing the island ports of calls. Yay for shoulder season! The craziest thing of all was at embarkation. When the 4 of us were dropped off at the Piraeus port terminal, we were greeted at the van by two welcoming Windstar representatives pointing us in the right direction. We were relieved because we thought we were at the wrong place since there was absolutely no crowd of other cars or buses around. Inside the terminal not a single soul besides the people working there! I kept looking around in disbelief that we were the only passengers checking-in to board the ship (or yacht, as they call it).

Santorini
Of all our island visits this one was the most surreal and indescribably beautiful–the color of the water contrasting with the white patchwork of buildings clinging on the hillside, the views from the cliff tops, and the meandering scenic walkways in the town of Oia. We had a private guide who drove us around the island to the quieter, non-touristy spots, like the Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah) monastery at 1800 feet above sea level.

Santorini Hillside
Santorini Hillside

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No other ships in port

Stray Cats
I had read before traveling that are lots of stray cats in Greece/Turkey, so I packed kitty treats for my little friends along the way.

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Let sleeping cats lie
Let sleeping cats lie

Swimming-

I can now say that I have swum in the Aegean Sea, well sort of. The water was way too cold, so we floated on blue mats tied to the back of the “yacht”.

Floating in the Aegean Sea
Floating in the Aegean Sea

Pickwick’s cruising tips

Since I have cruising on the brain these days (3 days and counting until my next cruise), I have decided to compile my list of cruise tips. These are things I’ve either tried, read about, learned in seminars, or have heard fellow cruisers suggest.
Booking a cruise
Transatlantic/Re-positioning cruises sell fast.  Book these many months ahead for best cabin selection.
Prices during holidays and spring break are sky-high, and, yes, people cruise over Christmas.
Check the air prices before booking the cruise. So often people find really good cruise prices and later, while looking at airfare, they have a heart attack when the airfare is higher than the cruise. I’ve seen this often with Ft Lauderdale.
Be careful choosing a cabin. As a travel agent, I always look at the deck plans to make sure you’re not above or below the disco.
Dining
“Anytime Dining” (or the equivalent) is a good option if the early dining is full and you don’t want to eat at 8:30pm. As part of the “Anytime Dining,” did you know you can usually make reservations online for each night you sail before you board? Some cruise lines require that you pre-pay gratuities with the cruise deposit if you choose the “Anytime Dining” option.
Have an early morning excursion? Use room service for breakfast instead of tackling the crowded buffet. It doesn’t cost anything extra.
Sometimes you can choose your dining table size. My suggestion is that you choose either a 2-top if you like eating by yourselves (although there’s no guarantee one will be available) or at least a 6 or 8-top. If you end up at a table for 4 with another couple with whom you have absolutely nothing in common, it’s going to be a really long week. At least with a large table of people there is more variety in personalities.
Life on-board
Finding each other, ugh! I have seen families use walkie-talkie’s. With groups, I suggest  having a designated hang-out location.
Most cruise lines allow you to bring on a bottle or two (wine/champagne) at embarkation.  However, while on the cruise, you are not usually allowed to bring liquor/wine on board to your cabin. When visiting ports you can buy and bring it on, but the cruise line holds it until final day at disembarkation. The same thing happens if you buy it in the ship’s liquor store.  Sometimes in the ship souvenir shop they sell variety packs with 6 little bottles of flavored vodka and they will  allow you to take them to your cabin.
***The points mentioned above are generally true.  Please remember that all cruise lines are different and have different policies and regulations.
And the No. 1 tip — Use a travel agent!
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Happy Sailing!