Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.

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Travel for Christmas? You bet!

Big cities are exciting at Christmas! The Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is always dressed for the season and when you can walk through after hours, the Swarovski tree gleams just for you.

It’s that time of year when everyone we know starts turning their attention to home & hearth.  Not these discerning travelers—our excitement is just starting to build as we anticipate the travel season ahead.  And that travel season begins with Christmas away.

This morning’s Globe and Mail greeted us with a travel section headlined “Six Destinations to Get Your Christmas On!” and they weren’t talking about department stores.  So, I guess we’re not alone, but people often ask us how we do it.  When everyone is running around from family obligation to grocery store to the kitchen and back, we might find ourselves in a hot tub at a hotel, basking on a pristine tropical beach or experiencing white-glove service at a wonderful restaurant with a view of the Mediterranean.  All of these are things we’ve done on Christmas Eve over the past years.

It’s been a long time since we spent Christmas at home, and we’re not going to start this year!  It all started back when our now 23-year-old son was eleven.  He was a student at the National Ballet School of Canada, a two-hour trip by plane from where we lived.  It had never occurred to us that when the students performed with the National Ballet of Canada in the annual Nutcracker that it would run over Christmas, and that the students could not go home.  So we adapted.

Ian and a Nutcracker aboard our Holland America Christmas cruise.

That first holiday season away, spending Christmas in a hotel with a child, taught us many things about ourselves and the season.  It taught us that breaking with tradition can be liberating (Christmas Eve celebrations with the family were fine, but year after year after year of the same thing can begin to wear on one).  It taught us that we could be more creative with the Christmas morning ritual under the Christmas tree opening presents (the hotel staff even helped us as we sent Ian on a scavenger hunt all over the hotel to find his Christmas present that first year).  It taught us that having Christmas dinner in a hotel is not without its upside (impeccable service, incredible food and no clean-up: what’s not to like?).  And over the years, it has taught us that experiences are far more important than presents.

After several Christmases in downtown Toronto at a hotel, Ian finally had a year when he didn’t have to perform.  Rather than spending it at home, we took a Christmas cruise (which we’ve talked about before).  The most important lesson from that trip (apart from how utterly amazing it is to spend Christmas eve on a private island in the Caribbean under a palm tree), that the presents are secondary and are only as important as the sentiment behind them.

That Christmas we had a family agreement: one present for each other person, bought after the ship sailed from Fort Lauderdale – and they had to be wrapped.   Streamlining those Christmas presents gave us time to really think about each present and each person.  It was wonderful.

Casino Square in Monte Carlo makes a magical scene dressed for Christmas.

Then there were three recent Christmases in Monte Carlo and the French Riviera.  There were so many wonderful memories that we made together as a little family.  Without the stress of the extended family activities, we have been able to focus on enjoying what the season has to offer – and on the Riviera, there was much to enjoy.  The Christmas market in Nice, the incredible decorations in Casino Square in Monte Carlo, the streets lined with trees highlighted with fake snow, the outdoor champagne bar at Christmas Land on the waterfront in Monaco, the chance to see Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing on their home stage with Princess Caroline in the royal box, Revéillons (Christmas Eve dinner) at the Fairmont in Monte Carlo.

And now we will prepare for our upcoming Christmas in London.  We’ll take in the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, several fabulous dinners; we’ll visit the Christmas windows on Oxford Street and visit the Christmas markets.  And the memories will be our presents.

Art takes in the Christmas ambience in Nice, France.

So, how do you get away from the expectations that your extended family has of you over the holidays (for those of you who have often thought about doing just that)?

  • Start getting them warmed up to the idea many months before.  By the time Christmas comes, they’ll think it’s always been that way.  Okay, there will be a few who will balk – but that’s only because they won’t have you to share their misery.
  • Get your little travel group to set some family ground rules. Activities? Budget?
  • Take our advice, agree to one present each.
  • Set up all the important parts in advance.  If Christmas dinner is important, get on it several months before.  You’d be amazed how many people eat out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not to mention how many restaurants are not open.  Hotels are your best bet.
  • Do something completely different from what you’ve done before on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  One Christmas we went to a movie at a theater in a mall late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.  There were exactly four other people in the theater and when the movie was over, we emerged into a completely quiet mall that had only hours before been pandemonium.  It was like taking a deep cleansing breath.
  • Don’t think that you have to go far away.  Get in the car, drive for a couple of hours, and you’re away for Christmas.
  • Remember to Skype your family at home – and don’t gloat!
Nice dressed for Christmas.

A Merry Christmas Cruise

Unless you live under a rock, you probably get the message that the “Christmas experience” of choice is to go home for the holidays.  “I’ll be home for Christmas.” “Driving home for Christmas.” “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”  It’s kind of hard to miss.  But for these discerning travelers, Christmas beside the hearth at home hasn’t been in the cards for many years – not since our then-eleven-year-old son spent his first Christmas away from home performing in the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker – and Christmas has never been the same since.

Many hotel rooms have played host to us on Christmas morning – and this year will be no different as we head to the French Riviera to spend the season once again with now twenty-two year old Ian who is once again dancing through the holidays.  But—one of the most memorable Christmases we spent as a little family was the year the three of us (almost) skipped Christmas.  We boarded a Holland America cruise ship at Port Everglades in Florida and sailed away to the Caribbean for the festivities.

Christmas Eve on Half Moon Cay

From the beginning of the cruise it was clear that you couldn’t really “skip” Christmas by taking a cruise (despite what the Cranks might suggest!).  We were just taking Christmas with us.  I had a personal, long-standing wish to spend Christmas under a palm tree I used to say.

Well, on Christmas Eve we found ourselves on Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, enjoying the pristine almost unreal beach, palm trees swaying overhead and Santa Claus para-sailing.  Yes, that’s right.  In full Santa regalia, he soared back and forth across the tiny bay.  We even have photos!

The Christmas present issue was one of the most fun.  We had a family agreement: we would each buy one present for the other two.  The catch was that the presents – and the wrapping – had to be procured on the ship. No cheating.

So, Christmas shopping took place on Christmas Eve as we all split up and sneaked around the shelves laden with the inevitable perfume, jewelry (both fine and other), T-shirts, cruise-line emblazoned mugs and all the rest of the bits and pieces that the boutiques sell.  The wrapping was very interesting as we cajoled the shop people into parting with a few Christmas decorations to adorn the boxes.  It was wonderful!  Even sixteen-year-old Ian took his job seriously.

Ian didn't have to miss The Nutcracker after all!

Christmas day was one for the memory books as well.  It started with a lazy breakfast in the specialty restaurant The Pinnacle (we were staying in a suite so this was our breakfast room).  Later in the morning, after opening the presents under our table-top Christmas tree that we had arranged to have in the suite before boarding, we made our way to the grand foyer where passengers arranged themselves on three or four levels to imbibe eggnog and participate in a carol sing.  Now, ordinarily carol sings are not our ‘thing,’ but on this occasion, we all took part happily, and when Santa arrived (via helicopter according to the captain), it was wonderful to see the children on board.  Their excitement was contagious.

Later that day we decided that our Christmas day activity would be to count the Christmas trees on board.  The public spaces were adorned at every corner it seemed with the most wonderful Christmas trees.  So we toured the ship looking for trees and stopping for a drink here and there.

Then it was time to dress up – something we do love to do.  Resplendent in format attire, we repaired to the dining rom and had our Christmas dinner.

The whole cruise was one to remember – and something that all three of us decided we’d do again sometime.  Instead of skipping Christmas, we enriched the experience.  Highly recommended!

The tiniest Christmas tree!