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.

Cruise ships and their photographers: It can be fun to use them!

The “boarding portrait”: More than a bit on the tacky side, but as you can see, on that occasion we did buy it!

If you have ever been on a cruise then you know what we’re talking about: cruise lines hire photographers to take photos of practically everything and everybody.  Opinions on these photographers seem to fall into one of two camps:

  • Those who love them and step into camera range at every opportunity;
  • Those who loathe them and wish they would just go away.

But even within these two groups, the extent to which cruisers buy the photos varies considerably.  Some of those who love to have their picture taken never actually buy them; at the same time there are those who complain but who do buy the pictures.

We can still remember our very first encounter with a cruise-line photographer.  We had just checked into our cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph with our then ten-year-old son.  We had our key cards in hand and were about to walk across the gangway to board, but before we were ‘permitted’ to do so, we (and everyone else in the line) had to stop  behind a life preserver emblazoned with the ship’s name and the Carnival logos to have our picture taken.  We had just flown from Toronto and looked a bit dazed – as did everyone else getting their boarding photo taken.  At that point we had no idea where, or if, we would ever see that photo.  It wasn’t long, however, before we learned about the photo gallery on board cruise ships.  No, these are not galleries of professional, artistic photographs for our viewing pleasure.  These galleries have portable, foldable walls that come out every evening to display all of the photos that the onboard photographers have taken that day – and some of them are a sight to see!

Oh so tacky: the roving dining room photographer provides us with a reminder of our Christmas dinner on Holland America’s Zuiderdam. But we bought again!

As that first cruise progressed we found ourselves accosted by photographers in all manner of locations.  Over the years we’ve learned that cruise ship photographers will inevitably take your picture in the following places and at the following times:

  • When you are boarding on the first day.
  • At the end of the gangway every single solitary time you disembark at a port (this happens much less in Europe we might add, all the time in the Caribbean).
  • Sometimes at the end of the pier with the ship in the background when you arrive in a port (this is a newer incarnation).
  • On your way to and/or from dinner on formal nights.  They will offer atrium and/or grand staircase backgrounds or those weird phony ones like in front of the Titanic staircase. On these nights the photographers will inevitably tell you how to stand, where to put your arms etc. and some of this looks very odd.  We often argue with them;  we usually win, but it isn’t easy and they have told us that they are instructed to do this.
  • During dinner with or without your dining companions in the shot.
A prime example of a fake background on semi-formal night aboard the Celebrity Century where we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary a few years ago.

Some time the next day, these will all appear on the walls of the ship’s photo gallery.  You can buy them or ditch them – it’s up to you.  Ten cruises later, and we’re here to tell you that you need to take control of your photo experience on board – and we’re delighted to be able to tell you that as you become more discerning in your travel choices and graduate to the high-end cruise lines, there will no longer be any photographers.  That being said, it can be a lot of fun if you take control of the experience.

Based on our personal experiences on a variety of cruise lines (Carnival, thankfully only once, Holland American we believe three times, several times on Celebrity – all of that before Regent and Silversea who have wisely ditched their photographers), we have some advice for making the best use of the service.

  • Think of this as an opportunity for that really nice, formal family or individual portrait.  Put yourself in front of every photographer whose backdrop you like on formal nights.  You don’t have to pay a sitting fee as you would if you did this with a photographer at home.  Then when you see the ones you like the next day, you simply buy them.  We recommend waiting until the end of the cruise before making a final decision, unless you are convinced that you want the one from the first night.  These are usually 8 X 10’s and cost around $20.00 each.
  • Buy only the photos you really love or think are very fun!
  • Especially if you have children or it’s a special occasion, take advantage of the opportunity for a group photo somewhere fun – like at the end of the gangway in the Bahamas or Jamaica.  Work the cost into your on-board budget in advance if you need to.
  • Just say no – and be firm – if you do not want your photo taken, especially at the end of the gangway at every port.  This is the place where it becomes tired fastest in our view.  Do you really want your photo with a very large, stuffed lobster?  Last winter as we walked along the pier from the Silver Spirit (which wisely does not employ these photographers) in St. Martin we were accosted by a ship’s photographer – from an NCL ship that was on the other side of the pier.  We demurred, he insisted.  We said no, he cajoled.  We then pointed to the Silversea ship and he let us go.  Be very firm.
  • When you are really sick of the whole idea, switch to an ultra-luxury line.  No one will ever accost you again!
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.

Travel & Dining: Inseparable for discerning travelers

Come into Qusine aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Summit with us.

It would be hard to imagine traveling without considering the pleasures of dining on the road.  For us, travel means time away from our own kitchen and dining room, and invites us to sample more than just the sights and the sounds – we can taste our travels as well.  And when you seek information about dining while away, you usually think about finding restaurant reviews in the cities and countryside where you‘ll be traveling.  We’ve had many memorable experiences in wonderful city restaurants as well as some in more off-the-beaten track locales, but one of the most memorable dining experiences we had recently was on board a cruise ship.

The fun begins with the innovative decor in orange, black & white. See those light fixtures?

As difficult as it may be for some of the more jaded among us to comprehend, cruise ships today are truly entering the competition for dining experiences.  Of course we’re not talking about the main dining room where hordes of wait staff flutter about taking hundreds of orders and serving mountains of meals all within an hour and a half time frame – although that experience does have its merits.  We’re talking about the continuing move in the cruise industry toward offering more and more inventive ways to entice you away from that main dining room for an experience that you might not be able to have anywhere else.  As we’ve discussed previously, the notion of specialty dining spaces on board cruise ships is not without its challenges, but it is also not without its rewards.

Dinner for your group or just the two of you.

Earlier this year we traveled from Puerto Rico through Bermuda and landed in New York aboard the Celebrity Summit.  While on board, we had dinner in several of their specialty restaurants, but the one that rewarded us with the most original experience was Qsine.

From the moment we walked into the space we felt a bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Surrounded by orange, white and black, we sat beneath a light fixture composed of multiple table lamps – all hung upside down.  Then the server brought the menu.

What fun!  An iPad menu.  This wasn’t the first time we’d ever been handed an iPad at a restaurant (it seems to be a bit of a fad for those that can afford it), but it was the first time that the menu had such interactive capabilities.  We were charmed from the start.

A bit like a tasting menu, the selections sounded interesting and different – just what you want when dining is more than simply eating, as it is for us.  Then we had a bit of fun with the mixed drinks menu.  The iPad allowed us to ‘mix’ the drinks by moving the offered ingredients into the glass on the screen, finishing with ice and then shaking!  A great way to get to know your drinks!

After a very entertaining run-down of the menu by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff you could encounter anywhere (they seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us), we chose a variety of their items all designed for sharing.  Then the parade began.

Chefs will always tell you that the presentation is as important as the dish itself, and it is true that we experience our food not only through taste and smell, but also through our visual sense.  The staff at Qsine seems to have this down to a true art.  We’ll leave some of the presentation as a mystery so that you too might experience this some time, but for those of you who might not, we‘ll highlight one particular presentation.

Have you ever had a dish served to you vertically rather than horizontally?  Didn’t think so – neither had we until we dined at Qsine.

The vertical serving dish as Patty peeks through from the other side.

When the waiter brought the course to the table, he placed something that resembled Patty’s Victorian dollhouse in between us on the table – but with the front wall missing.  In each little cubby-hole resided a different tasting dish from the part of the world we’d chosen for that particular course.  What fun it was to look, consider and sample the food.

Oh, and about the food?  It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences we’ve ever had.  It occurred to us that if Celebrity wanted to franchise this concept on land, hip Torontonians and maybe even New Yorkers would flock to just such a spot.  Maybe we’ll invest!

The cruise ship dining experience: The mains and the specialties

The view from our table in the man dining room of the Celebrity Millennium.

There was a time in cruise ship history when the only dining option aboard was the main dining room.  We were mulling this over while on our most recent cruise as we were again puzzled by the inner workings of booking reservations in alternative (specialty) dining rooms; and it’s been a puzzle on almost every ship we’ve ever traveled on.  But before we get to that…let’s take a bit of a trip through the regular dining choices on cruise ships these days – and in the past.

The ‘main dining’ experience

Patty’s very first cruise experience was a down-market ship (from a cruise line that can now not be remembered), that picked her up in Halifax, of all places to board, and deposited her and a girlfriend in New York City – many years ago.  The single most vivid dining memory of that cruise was her introduction to the parade of the Baked Alaska and all the napkin waving that induced.  And what about those low ceilings? (Although to be fair, some of the dining rooms on the smaller, luxury cruise ships are quite low these days — but much more elaborate!)

The low-ceilinged dining room in the old Mercator One which was the Regina Maris when this photo was taken.

And low ceilings were the hallmark of the main dining room on the Mercator One, Art’s first cruise experience in the late 1970’s – and one on which he was actually one of the ship’s officers: he was the doctor on board.  Although he, too, had the Baked Alaska experience which is still a highlight (for lack of a better word) of cruise dining these days, oh how dining rooms themselves have changed since then!

Many cruise lines these days still adhere to the ‘traditional’ fixed-seating dining.  That means that if you request and are assigned the late seating (which is our personal preference) you’ll dine every evening at 8 pm or 8:30 pm depending on the line.  And you have to request the size of table you prefer.  We prefer to eat at a table for two and have no problem with this kind of fixed dining time – then we can get to know our serving staff and they can get to know us.  And we can bow out to an alternative dining space whenever we choose to do so (see below).

These days, however, there are more permutations and combinations of this kind of dining than we can even keep  up with as cruise lines try desperately to please everyone (an impossible feat).  Some lines have some kind of “freestyle” experience which sound to us like a bit of a free-for-all, to be avoided at all costs.

The exquisite Queen’s Grill dining room on the Queen Mary 2 as we did the trans-Atlantic voyage last summer.

Several of the six-star luxury lines have a variation on that, allowing you to dine at any time you like within the dining room hours. We had this experience on both Regent and Silversea, although Cunard does it best.  When traveling in a Queen’s Grill suite, you dine in the exclusive Queen’s Grill dining room where you have your reserved table awaiting you at any time you choose to appear for each meal.    It is your table for the duration of the cruise – no one else will sit there at all.  Bliss!

But, of course, you can dine in other places…

The ‘specialty dining experience’

Just as cruises offer more and more diversions to keep everyone happy, they have moved to offer more and more alternatives for dining.  Bearing an additional charge that varies from the nominal to the pricey ($25 to $75 per person for dinner), these specialty experiences can certainly add to your enjoyment of a cruise.  But we’ve always wondered: Since reservations are necessary (and often hard to get), why is it that there are so many empty tables at these venues.  Our case in point…

In February we boarded the Celebrity Summit in Puerto Rico and were immediately asked if we’d like to dine in one of the alternative dining venues that evening (see our post on the suite experiment).

After much wrangling about times and locations, we finally had our reservation and arrived at the beautiful Qsine restaurant at 7 pm. We had been told initially that there were reservations available only at 6 pm and 9 pm.  When we arrived the place was half empty and stayed that way for the duration of our evening.  This is not the first time we noticed that specialty dining spaces are usually half empty, and yet at the same time there are no tables available when you call.The first time we noticed this was aboard a Holland America ship in their Pinnacle Grill some years ago.  We could not get a reservation at all one evening, yet when we walked by, the place was more than half empty.  So annoyed, we finally had to find out what the problem was.

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit where we dined in April, 2012.

We thought that they must keep empty tables for their highest-paying guests.  Well, that couldn’t be right since we are now among that group.  So, what was it?

We took our questions to the Summit’s Hotel Manager, Ugo Vaccalluzzo and his Guest Relations Manager, Simona Stumberger, both of whom graciously welcomed us into their inner sanctum..

We asked them simply what were the protocols for assigning reservations, and why were there always empty seats in these venues despite the unavailability of reservations on any given evening? They were both mystified that this should be the situation.  They did, however, promise to look into why this occurred.  And they did.

Several days later we sat down with the delightfully guest-oriented Simona who, along with Ugo, had approached the maître d’ of one of the specialty restaurants to find out what was happening.  It seems that there is a deep-seated desire to ensure that the wait staff and kitchen on any given evening in these restaurants are able to more than fully satisfy the guests, so much so that they will not run the risk of being over-crowded.  We asked the maître d’ in the Normandie restaurant ourselves and he indicated that they plan to serve only 20-30 guests despite the fact that there are two or three times that number of seats in the dining room.

All of this is understandable, but the optics are off-putting.  Perhaps it’s time that the mainstream cruise lines do what lines like Silversea do: have only four tables in that specialty dining room!

By the way, the food and service at these restaurants are by and large divine – some of the best dining experiences around.  The very inventive Qsine aboard the Celebrity Summit was a very special experience – we’ll tell you about it in detail later.

Photo credit:

Mercator One dining room (as the Regina Maris) http://www.cruiseshipodyssey.com/Regina%20Maris%20ship.htm