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.

Choosing a cruise: A discerning guide to getting it right!

The "fun ships" were on the agenda in the early days. Art & Ian going ashore in the Caribbean from the Carnival Triumph (back in the day).

We’re about to embark on cruise number eleven.  Eleven! In the winter of 1999 when we made a decision that our family vacation would be on a cruise ship, little did we know that we’d be hooked.  And little did we know that we’d become (if you’ll pardon the expression) cruise whores.  You see, over the years we have not been happily loyal; rather we’ve been happily jumping from one cruise line to another, every once in a while returning to an earlier favorite – but moving ever up the cruise food chain so to speak.

But, what exactly motivates a discerning traveler in making a decision about which cruise to choose?  There are lots of different reasons to choose one cruise over another, and the truth is that the priority you place on one over the other can and will change as you become more discerning in your travel planning.  The most important factors are the following:

  • Amenities
  • Itinerary
  • Price
  • Overall experience

…come along with us as we share a few stories of how these factors played into our decisions over the years.

Let’s start with amenities.  Back in 1999 we were traveling with a 10-year old.  We began our search for the perfect cruise by chatting with our travel agent.  Rule number one for cruising: Always, always, always use a travel agent.  We’ve extolled the virtue of our travel agent before, but it’s so important when you’re planning a cruise.  They have access to information that you don’t have and can be your go-between through the planning process.  They can also hold a booking for you while you decide on flights, hotels etc.  Back to the plan for the first cruise.

A young Ian poses in the (little) verandah stateroom aboard the Carnival Triumph.

“Well,” Alan our travel agent said to us at the time,” I’m going to recommend Carnival.  Now, if it were just the two of you, I would never recommend them to you.  But with a kid…”  So, Carnival it was.  A week-long Caribbean voyage on a sparkly, new ship with a recommended children’s program seemed like a good way to get our feet wet (!).  Sparkly it certainly was!  The glitz, glitter and all that neon were a bit jarring, but fun.  Ian loved the children’s program and we immensely enjoyed our verandah stateroom with the third berth.  It was tight, but we didn’t know that it could be any bigger.  Oh, how times change.

Alan was right – as he always was.  It was not a cruise that we would have gone on just the two of us.  Drunken spring breakers spent the full week on the deck, never once making it to the dining room.  Oh well, it meant that dining was a relaxing event with lots of staff to cater to our every whim.  But, would we ever go back on a Carnival cruise?  You couldn’t pay us!  All that neon, glitz and partiers are not our style.  So, amenities in the form of a great children’s program led us to begin our cruising life, but amenities as a priority decision-factor has changed over the years.

So, then there’s itinerary.  Where is the ship going?  Probably the time that this issue was most important to us was when we decided to spend our 20th wedding anniversary on a Mediterranean cruise.  So, we began by searching for a great Mediterranean itinerary.

Art & Ian celebrate our sail-away in our Queen's Grill suite aboard the Queen Mary 2.

We’d been on Holland America in the intervening years, but Celebrity was offering really interesting cruises starting in Barcelona.  So, in the end, the itinerary that would take us from Barcelona to Marseille, Monte Carlo, several stops in Italy, Corsica and Northern Africa entranced us sufficiently that we booked our celebration aboard the Celebrity Century. And we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite.   As we’ve mentioned before – once you go up to a suite, there’s no going back! And so to the discussion of price…

Discerning travelers are always looking for value.  That means that we’re judicious about how we spend our money.  This means that price is not the guiding principle for us in choosing a cruise.  And perhaps you might consider putting it a bit further down your priority list as well.  Hear us out.

Your enjoyment of a cruise will never be based on its price.  Obviously, we all have to stay within our budgets, but we assure you that you’re playing Russian roulette with your holiday money if all you go on is price (that is of course unless you plan to eat and drink yourself into a stupor  so that you don’t notice anything else– in which case you could do that on your own couch in our view).  We’ve been listening and observing through the years, and we have concluded that it is safe to say that not every cruise line is for everyone.

Recently, a colleague of Art’s returned from a family cruise aboard a line that we have always avoided.  Knowing ourselves the way we do, it seems that we were right to do so.  The colleague complained that it was so laid back and casual that people even dined (in the main dining room) wearing T-shirts and ball caps.  If that’s your style, go for it – but we would not enjoy that, and neither did she.  So, you really do need to do some research – and travel agents are the best place to start.

And this brings us to the all-encompassing decision-making factor: the overall experience.  Lately, this has been our guiding principle.  What kind of ‘experience’ do we want?  We clearly chose last summer’s trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 because we wanted to experience the traditional voyage on a ship purpose-built for these kinds of crossings – we didn’t want to be on a re-positioning cruise.  Several years earlier, we chose a Holland America holiday cruise when we wanted to spend Christmas at sea en famille.  At that time, the overall experience we were seeking was Christmas at sea some place warm.  They did not disappoint!

Clearly, we do enjoy a bit of dress-up. We pose on the Queen Mary 2.

It’s hard to categorize the kinds of experiences that you want, but here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you spend your hard-earned money on the cruise of a lifetime:

  • Do you like to get dressed up once in a while, or do you prefer to wear your baseball cap to dinner?
  • Is the ship the destination for you, or are the ports more important?
  • Do you like to be surrounded by (other people’s) children, or  do you prefer the company of adults?
  • Do you need to have a place to retreat to (like your own verandah), or do you always prefer to be around other people?
  • Do you like quiet evening entertainment, or must you have a full-on, Broadway-type show?
  • Do you like glitzy extravagance, or does your personal style run more to the elegant?

Once you have answered these questions for yourself, you can take your answers to your travel agent and you’ve begun a discerning journey to a memorable (in a good way, we hope) cruise vacation.

Our own answers to these questions led us to our upcoming Puerto Rico to New York via Bermuda cruise with a revisit to a Royal suite.  We’ll let you know how that goes!

Two grand ladies of the sea: The original Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2

A poster for the combined Cunard White Star brand aboard the original Queen Mary.

When we crossed a trans-Atlantic voyage on a grand ocean liner off our bucket list last summer, we were hooked by the nostalgia of the grand ocean voyages of yesteryear. On board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 with us on that voyage was a lecturer named William H. Miller (aka “Mr. Ocean Liner”) whose standing-room-only presentations that week were so mesmerizing that we bought one of his books.[1] When we read his description of the original Queen Mary as the most “beloved” of the ocean liners, we wondered whether her “daughter” the new Queen Mary 2 might in some ways resemble her earlier incarnation. Then, several synchronicities happened.

First, our son said, “I’m going to be in Los Angeles in February. Why don’t you two come and meet me before you go to Hawaii?”

Second, we started to explore activities in the LA area and discovered that the original Queen Mary is docked in Long Beach, California, a 20-minute drive from where we’d be staying in Costa Mesa.

Finally, Patty’s 89-year-old mother said, “You know, I’m sure your father came home from Europe [after fighting in WW II] on the Queen Mary.”

…so we knew we’d have to visit her…and we did.

When the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, she was considered to be the grandest liner ever built, and over her long and storied career, she not only carried passengers back and forth across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City, but was also refitted as a troop carrier during the second World War, ferrying some 800,000 troops from the UK, through Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Patty’s father disembarked), to NYC. Today, she’s a hotel and a point of interest if you’re ever in the Long Beach area.

The Queen Mary as she sits alongside today in Long Beach, California.

Stepping aboard the ship is like taking a walk back in time. Our visit was timed perfectly it seemed since the crowds were thin and our pre-arranged tour consisted only of three of us (Art, Patty and daughter Amanda who accompanied us to LA to see her brother dance) and two others who dropped out after the first five minutes lacking sufficient English skills to understand the guide (who was quite an actor). So we had a private tour.

Our guide explained the way the three classes of passengers were divided – a notion that has (almost) entirely gone the way of the dodo on modern cruise ships. (We explained how Cunard still maintains this partially in an earlier post). The classes were not segregated by level, such as one deck for first class, another for second etc. Rather the first-class passengers’ accommodations and public spaces were in the center of the ship – where a ship is most stable. The second-class passengers populated the stern (rear) and the poor third-class passengers were all the way forward, a portion of the ship that, as the guide explained, often took a nose-dive under the waves in bad weather. Those were the days before modern stabilization. There must have been a lot of nausea in the bow!

The QM's atrium as it is today, restored to its earlier grandeur.

As we moved through the large public spaces on the Queen Mary, we tried to imagine what those grand balls must have been like and couldn’t help but make comparisons to the Queen’s Room (the ballroom), the champagne bar and the theater on the Queen Mary 2.

Perhaps, though, it was in the engine room below decks in the stern that harbored the most ghosts. As we walked through the darkened passages, just the three of us (we did this part without a guide), we could almost hear the crew as they toiled away. Then as we walked into the cubicle that had been created through a cut-out area on the ship’s super-structure, we were confronted by the eerie underwater sight of one of the original propellers, still in place under the water. That sent us flying toward the light!

The ship is also used as a floating hotel these days, although, according to the guide, the walls are so thin you can hear everything going on in your neighbor’s stateroom. When we reached the end of the tour, since there were only three of us, we asked if it would be possible to see a first-class suite. They are usually not part of the tour since they are part of the hotel. The guide humored us and went to procure permission. Success! Taking our time in the suite, our guide invited us to sit in the sitting room to try to conjure images of who might have spent time in this room in the 1930’s, ‘40’s & ‘50’s.

The bedroom of the first-class suite.

The suite consisted of a master bedroom, two bathrooms with hot and cold running fresh and salt water choices, a sitting room and a maid’s room that was outfitted with its own sink but she would have gone down the hall for the toilet and a bath. The burled wood built-ins (vanity table, desk, dressers, and bedside tables) are all original to the suite – although the flat-screen TV’s are not! There is no doubt they’ve done a remarkable job of restoration to provide an experience that takes you into another era.

After the tour we repaired to one of the dining rooms for fish and chips for lunch while we overlooked a marina filled to overflowing with modern sailboats. All in all, one of the great tourist experiences for people who love the ocean. The Queen Mary’s web site says: “The ship no longer sails, but she can still take you away.” Amen!

The corridor evokes a sense of history.

[FYI: They offer a variety of tours from self-guided audio tours, through WW II tours to a Ghosts & Legends Tour. You should take at least one of the guided tours, and try to go when the crowds are thinnest for the best experience.]

Come with us on our tour…

[1] Miller, William. 2010. Floating palaces: The great Atlantic liners. Chalford, UK: Amberley Publishing.

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Stonehenge on a dull morning in July

It had always been on Art’s list of places to see before you die.  It was on mine as well, I’ll admit, but it wasn’t as high up on the priority list. Always the opportunist, though, when I noticed that it was possible to take a side trip to Stonehenge on the way from London to board the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, I decided that it was now or never.  And so we made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge.

As we drove through the countryside from London, our driver waxed rapturously about the “feeling” of standing there near the stones of unknown origin (make no mistake, despite what you’ve read, no one really knows why they were placed there.  Indeed, the Druid connection has actually been disproven, information that came as a surprise to me and that alien theory – the scholars don’t believe it!).  The fact that the stones were brought somehow from far afield is, however, impressive.  The driver called it eerie, unusual and unique; so we were ready to be wowed.

We parked in the designated parking lot across the road from the stone circle which is widely enclosed by a chain-link fence.  We then walked to the entrance which led to an underground pedestrian walkway (actually under the road) so that no cars came close to the site.  After picking up our audio-self-tour headsets (a necessity if you really want to learn anything at all), we made our way to the first stop on the audio-tour.  It was early in the day  (highly recommended) so that there were few others around.  This is the best way to experience these places in my opinion.  By the time we were leaving about an hour later, the place was really filling up (that was 11 am).

So we did the tour around the circle.  And we waited for the “feeling.”  I’m sorry to say that the tour was very interesting, but to tell you the truth, we were all (wife, husband, 22-year-old son) underwhelmed by the experience.  We never really did feel the mysticism and we were very surprised at how small the stones really are.  I’m not sure what we expected, but this wasn’t it.  That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience.

Discerning travelers that we are, we booked this private tour/transfer through the online service London Tool-Kit which I used twice on this trip.  It’s an aggregator for a wide variety of service providers.  Paid for in advance, the private tour began at our hotel in London and took the detour to Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain on the way to Southampton.  The drive to Stonehenge (almost 90 miles west of London) takes just under 2 hours.  The drive from Stonehenge to the cruise terminal in Southampton was an hour.

With the tourists milling about, you can get a better sense of the size.