Like a Virgin (Voyage, that is)

AHOY!  I kicked off 2022 with a 5 night sailing on Virgin Voyages beautiful Scarlet Lady.  This brand-new cruise line is unlike anything else currently sailing the high seas. That could be a good or a bad thing depending on what your expectations are.  Virgin Voyages is not for everyone, and I don’t think they are trying to be.  My husband would have enjoyed the food, but not the overall experience, which was why I was smart and brought my 22-year-old daughter instead.    

Who is the perfect Virgin Voyages sailor?  They are tired of or not interested in the traditional cruise experience and are looking for something funky and different.  They don’t need a cruise director or list of scheduled activities to find their fun.  They are a foody and not afraid to try new things.  They are tech savvy. They are looking for an “adults only spring break” type of vibe.  They are open minded, non-judgmental and just want to have a crazy good time.

Honestly, Virgin Voyages is brand new to the cruise market, so if you want to find things to complain about onboard you absolutely can.  A perfect example would be the lady we overheard at Sailor Services who was going off about how her suite was completely unacceptable, the service was terrible and none of the crew could answer even the most basic of her questions.  She had come to these conclusions less than 2 hours after boarding, so she was really committed to having a horrible cruise experience.  I hope they encouraged her to quickly disembark before we set sail so we could leave all of her negativity at the port and get the party started. 

Let me break down the good, the bad and the fun of our Virgin Voyage cruise experience:

Embarkation/Debarkation

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…Virgin Voyages calls their passengers sailors, so I will too.  We departed from the port of Miami. Virgin Voyages does their pre cruise Covid testing right at the pier, which was free, easy and super convenient.  If you are concerned about testing positive and being denied boarding, you can always pretest at home prior to your cruise. Virgin Voyages doesn’t allow sailors onboard until 2 pm, so there is no need to get to the pier early, even if you are in a suite. 

While you are waiting for your test results, you can log onto the ships WIFI and book your dining, exercise classes, and show reservations through the app.  Pro Tip:  The app is a little finicky.  To get the best results, make sure that all other apps are closed, and your phone is on the ships WIFI in airplane mode.  If you still get the white loading screen, you may have to delete the app and reinstall it.  We arrived at 2 pm and were checked in, tested, ressies booked and onboard within 30 minutes.

They mailed our bracelets/bands and bag tags to us in advance, but many people just picked them up at the pier.  The bands are activated at check in, and all purchases onboard are made with a tap of the band.  You also use it to tap and unlock your cabin.  So super convenient and worked flawlessly. 

Sailor Bracelet

On the other end, disembarkation was also so super easy and convenient.  Virgin Voyages allows their sailors to have a relaxing morning on-board and leave the ship at their leisure any time before 10:30 am.  You can put your bags out the night before and pick them up in customs or just roll them off yourself when you leave.  They offer full breakfast service and no announcements so you really can sleep in after enjoying the last night of your cruise.  We left our cabin at 10:15 and were in an Uber on our way to the Miami airport by 10:30. Virgin Voyages does not offer transfer service, but there were more than enough cabs/Ubers/Lyfts waiting to take us.  When we ordered our car we waited 1 minute for him to pull up.

Cabs and Ubers/Lyfts lined up waiting for disembarkation – No need to worry about a ride back to the airport!

Included

Virgin Voyages includes “Basic Bevvies” like coffee, tea, water, juice and soft drinks in your cruise fare.  They offer all the fancy coffees for an extra change.   Pro Tip:  Bring a refillable water bottle onboard because there are filling stations throughout the ship.  Virgin is super eco-friendly and does not use any single use plastics onboard, so no plastic water bottles. 

Basic Wi-Fi is included, but to stream or video conference you will need to upgrade to their deluxe Wi-Fi which is an additional $10 per device per day. 

Tips are also included, which I initially thought was a good thing, but I now have mixed feelings about.  Virgin claims that all their employees are paid good salaries so additional tipping is not required or expected.  But we did notice some of the normal levels of service were lacking.  For example, I was out by the pool for several hours on both sea days and was never asked if I wanted to order a drink.  You had to get up and go to the bar for service.  There also was no drink service on the beach or at the pool at the Bimini Beach Club.  When we visited sailor services to ask a question about our account, there were only 2 people working and always sailors waiting.  There were more crew than passengers on our sailing, so service should have been top notch.  I am wondering how things will run when they are sailing at full capacity. 

Accommodations

We stayed in a Seaview Terrace, which is a standard ocean view balcony by other cruise lines definitions.  It was simple but totally fine for our needs.  Virgin Voyages doesn’t have the normal cabin steward service twice a day like on other cruise lines.  You use the tablet on the desk to turn the lights on and off, open and close the blinds, change the temperature, order room service and request towels, ice, and cabin cleaning from your cabin steward.  We never even saw him/her.  The best feature was the awesome hammock on the balcony. We are on a mission to try and buy one just like it to enjoy at home. Pro Tip:  Avoid cabins on deck 14 since they stack all the chairs on the pool deck (15) wash it down and put them back out during the late night/early morning hours.  Very noisy! 

VID

Food

This is where Virgin Voyages really stands out from their cruise competition.  All their dining locations are included in your basic price, so there is no main dining room and alternate dining options available at an upcharge.  Honestly, everything we ate onboard was amazing. 

I am a big dessert lover and usually cruise line offerings are mass produced and bland.  Virgin ROCKED their desserts.  Pro Tip:  Don’t miss the lemon cheesecake in The Wake, the Chocolate Tacos in Pink Agave, the Razzle Dazzle Cake or Cookies and Milk in Razzle Dazzle and the Macaroons, Smores Jar and Scarlet Lady dessert in The Galley. 

They offer tons of healthy dining choices and options, too.  We split lots of dishes so that we could try a little of this and a little of that and loved everything.  The Test Kitchen is an extremely unique dining experience. If you have an open mind and aren’t a picky eater give it a try. Another Pro Tip:  Make reservations at Razzle Dazzle or The Wake for breakfast a few mornings instead of always eating in The Galley.  Last Food Pro Tip:  Go to the back of the ship on deck 7 at sunset and order some skewers and cocktails at the Dock.  Seriously. It’s a don’t miss.  Also try the Poke Bowls by Richards Rooftop. I could honestly write pages about the food, but just know that you won’t be disappointed.  I’ll let some of the pictures that we took speak for themselves. 

Drinks

This was another Virgin Voyages unique option.  Instead of a “Drink Package”, Virgin offers a “Bar Tab”.  In our case, we pre purchased a $300 bar credit and Virgin added a $100 bonus to our tab.  The nice thing about the bar tab is it can be shared between sailors. You can use it to buy drinks for other people, too.  Technically, it is supposed to be used for drinks only, but in our case all our shipboard expenses (like gift shop purchases and laundry) were posted against our bar tab.  YMMV.

Entertainment/Activities

This is the area where I have mixed feelings about our experience.  Virgin Voyages doesn’t have a cruise director onboard, but they have 12 people who are like “camp counselors” that run the various activities.  They also are free to “hang out” with the guests and in all public areas on the ship. 

To be honest, there were not many activity options during the day.  My daughter did the sunrise yoga and meditation sessions each morning, then worked out in the gym.  The bungee exercise class was one of the highlights of her cruise. It fills up quickly, so if you are interested be sure to book it early. I walked the outside track or treadmill.  Throughout the week they did have a few other exercise classes offered, a couple of seminars to promote their products (spa, skincare, shopping) and some drinking activities (shot for shot and mixology classes), plus bingo one day.  That’s honestly all I can remember as far as things to do during the day on sea days besides lay by the pool or gamble in the small casino.  Pro Tip:  Don’t miss the 80’s VHS workout class.  So much fun!

In the evening, they had a “grog walk” which was a bar hopping tour that we missed but heard was quite fun and a great way to meet people.  They offered a show each evening.  The first night was a fun “Untitled Dance Party Thingy” that was interactive with the audience and very unique.  The other two shows we saw, “Ships in the Night” and “Dueling Realities” were just ok for me.  They were interpretive dance/music/acrobatic performances that I really didn’t get, but maybe they just weren’t my thing.  The other show we attended was “Never Sleep Alone”, which is a risqué fun and funny interactive group session with a singing sex therapist.  That’s the only way I can describe it and if you are not easily offended it is a don’t miss. Pro Tip:  Attend the late-night session, not the 6 pm.  And don’t sit near the stage if you don’t want to be part of the show. 

Late night is when the parties really started onboard.  The Manor was where the club/dance party was most nights.  Some of the DJ’s really got the dance floor hopping and some were just ok. 

We had mixed feelings about the highly promoted “Scarlet Night” also.  Most sailors did make an effort to dress in red.  Around 9 pm, things started happening, first at “The Roundabout” and then spreading throughout the ship.  What we saw was not anything to get excited about.  A few performers would break into dance at one bar, then someone would juggle at another lounge, then a game of charades started at another bar.  You had to wander aimlessly around the ship to try and find the “pop up performances”.  There was no official schedule or plan, so we were just following people around trying to find the fun.  At that point, I called it a night.  My daughter stayed out with a group of friends that had formed onboard and she assured me that once they got up to the Scarlet Night pool party at 10:30 things got crazy fun.  She said the DJ was great and everyone was dancing and then people started jumping into the pool fully clothed.  At midnight, they moved the party back down to the Manor and kept dancing until the wee hours of the morning.  There were a lot of sailors getting a slow start or trying to recover by sleeping in the sun at the Bimini Beach Club the next day. Lol!

Bimini Beach Club

Speaking of the Bimini Beach Club, it was a beautiful relaxing beach/pool day.  The club itself is part of Resort World and leased out to Virgin Voyages when they are in port.  You take a 5-minute ride in a tram from the dock to the club.  Virgin Voyages initially promoted this as being an all-day beach club that would turn into a late-night party with guest DJ’s and bonfires where you could dance under the stars.  They have really toned that down.  There was a DJ by the pool in the afternoon and they blew up some fun floaties for about an hour, but besides that there was not much going on at all.  They had offered SUP yoga (which is yoga on a stand up board), but that was cancelled due to rough water.  The weather was perfect, and we had a wonderful relaxing day walking the beach and enjoying the pool.  We headed back to the ship around 4 pm and the beach club had really cleared out by that point.  They did do a 15-minute fire ball lighting ceremony around 7:00 pm before we sailed out at 7:30, but we missed it because we had dinner reservations. 

Wrap Up

We had a wonderful time sailing on Scarlet Lady with Virgin Voyages.  I personally felt like they over promised and under delivered in some areas, but it certainly wasn’t enough of an issue to ruin our time onboard.  I am confident they will work out the kinks with more experience.  If you are open minded and looking for a fun and funky vacation, give it a try.  Plan to relax, let loose and don’t worry about making a fool of yourself.  Try a new exercise class you haven’t ever done.  Volunteer to go on stage during one of the shows.  Eat and drink things you have never tried before.  Dance all night like no one is watching.  Virgin offers a judgement free, open accepting environment for everyone.  You don’t even have to be a virgin.  Lol! Just contact one of our cruise specialists here and we will wish you a Bon Voyage with some extra perks to enjoy onboard!

Here’s a last little look at just how much fun you can squeeze into 5 days…

Rhine Christmas Markets Cruise

On AmaWaterways AmaStella

We are a little Christmas Crazy in our house and decided to make a last-minute trip to explore Europe on an AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise along the Rhine.  With Covid restrictions changing daily, we knew that we would need to be flexible and that our itinerary was subject to change without notice.  There was lots of Covid related paperwork that had to be completed prior to our departure and it honestly was a little overwhelming.  You really do need a travel agent to help you through the process and keep you informed of the changing rules and restrictions.  We also purchased travel insurance just in case. 

On Wednesday, December 1st 2021 we packed our bags and set off on our AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise adventure!

Getting There

Our flights were from Detroit to Basel with a connection through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Delta/Air France/Hop! Airlines (codeshare).  You know how on social media people only show you the good stuff and everything looks perfect and wonderful?  The truth is our flight experience was a hot mess. 

Long story short…we had an hour to make our connection in France and didn’t make it.  We thought we missed our flight, but later received a notification through the Delta app that they had cancelled it.  Air France, Delta’s code share partner, sent us off on a wild goose chase trying to get rebooked.  We actually went through customs 4 times in 2 hours in 3 different terminals, so our passports are filled with “Welcome to France!” stamps.  Air Frances “customer service” agents were just plain rude.  We were finally rebooked on an 8 pm flight, but no one could tell us where our luggage was and we were now arriving in Basel after our ship was scheduled to sail.  I was honestly close to tears and ready to just turn around and head back to Detroit.   

We decided to pay $60 Euro per person to relax and regroup in the Air France Lounge for the 12 hour delay.  I emailed emergency@amawaterways.com and their customer service team could not have been more helpful and reassuring.  They rescheduled our arrival transfer, starting the process of tracking our luggage and advised the ship of our delayed arrival.  After a few glasses of champagne and a quick nap in the quiet room, we regrouped.  Our 8 pm flight was delayed until 8:45 pm and then again until 9:30 pm, but we did eventually make it to Basel. 

Y’all, I can’t tell you how happy we were to see our luggage waiting for us in baggage claim and the lovely lady that greeted us outside of customs from AmaWaterways.  She whisked us away in a beautiful Mercedes to our ship which had delayed sailing by over an hour to wait for us.  The Captain and Cruise Manager met us at the door to welcome us onboard, gave us a personal safety briefing and we set sail within minutes of our arrival.  They even had dinner waiting for us. 

Delta Airlines and AmaWaterways get an A+ for customer service…Air France and the Charles de Gaulle airport get an F.  This is the second time we have had a horrible experience connecting in Charles de Gaulle and I will honestly double connect elsewhere to avoid ever having to go there again.  You’ve been warned!

I have since learned that in Europe if your flight is delayed by more than 4 hours or cancelled the airlines must pay you 250 Euro per person, so I will be investigating that claim.  But, enough about the flight nonsense and on to the amazing adventure!

AmaWaterways AmaStella

We were originally scheduled to sail on the AmaMora, but due to some technically difficulties they changed ships to the AmaStella.  The layout was identical. 

Accommodations

We reserved a French Balcony Cabin and it was perfect for this cruise because we would not be spending any time sitting outside in December.  As you can see in the picture, we had a floor to ceiling sliding glass door and the “balcony” part was an extra sitting area inside of our stateroom.  It was  small but very functional.  The only negative was that our empty luggage would not fit under the bed.  The shower was a nice size, there was plenty of closet space and they had USB ports near the bed for charging our phones.  The current was 220 volt, which is fine for apple Iphones, but we did need an adaptor for my curling iron.  I did some research in advance and purchased a cheap dual voltage one, so I did not need a converter.  Hair dryers are provided in the room and were excellent.

Food and Service

Everyone that we interacted with onboard was excellent.  The ship holds 158 passengers and we had around 120 on our sailing, so the crew really gets to know everyone.  We had an assigned dining table for our meals and really enjoyed getting to know our tablemates along with the family seated next to us.  We all became fast friends and spent the week touring together.  The waitstaff was excellent and made recommendations for dishes each meal.   The food was good and featured many regional specialties.  We dined at the Chef’s Table one evening which offered a set menu of multiple courses with wine pairings and was delicious.  The bartenders were fun and friendly.  Our cabin steward tidied up our cabin twice daily.  Marcus, our Cruise Manager, gave an overview of the next day’s plans each evening during the cocktail hour which was called “sip and sail”.    We could not have been more pleased with the food and service onboard AmaWaterways.

The AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise Experience – Random thoughts and observations

Direction – We sailed downstream from Basel to Amsterdam, but all of the river cruise lines offer the opposite itinerary also.  I liked the way we did it because the beauty of the scenery seemed to build as we progressed through the week.  It’s similar to Alaska sailings.  If you sail north the beauty of Alaska builds and the wildlife increases.  There was no motion while sailing, so you should not be concerned if you are prone to seasickness. 

Locks – Sailing through the locks was a very interesting experience.  We have pictures and video to give you an idea of what it was like and you can see that the ships are designed to just fit in the locks with inches to spare!

Mobility and Included Tours  – AmaWaterways is one of the few river cruise lines that offer an elevator onboard, but you really will have a difficult time touring if you have mobility issues.  The cities have cobblestone streets and lots of hills and stairs to climb.  We had several guests onboard with scooters, canes and walkers and they were restricted to  what they could do on the tours.  All of the included tours involved walking and they did always offer a gentle paced option.  AmaWaterways also offers wellness activities and tours, like hiking and bike tours plus morning exercise classes onboard. 

Included – Almost everything is included in the price of your AmaWaterways River Cruise.  Accommodations, all meals onboard, beer/wine/softdrinks during lunch and dinner, cocktails during the sip and sail hour each evening, several tour options to choose from in each port, and wifi (which was good when docked but intermittent when sailing).  Airfare, transfers and tips are not included.  Suggested tip amount for our one week cruise was 100 Euro per person for the crew and 25 Euro per person for the Cruise Manager.  We also tipped our bus drivers 1 euro per person and our tour guides 2-5 euro each.

Cash/Currency – We did convert $500 USD to Euro prior to sailing because I had heard that many of the Christmas markets did not accept credit cards.  This was true in the smaller towns but almost everyplace else did take charges.  We used most of our Euro on small purchases and tips for guides and bus drivers.  You can convert USD to Euro onboard if you run short, but the conversion rate was better for us doing it prior to the cruise.  You can add your onboard gratuities and purchases to your shipboard account and settle by credit card. 

Onboard Atmosphere – The ship was all decked out for the holidays inside and they included some extra holiday entertainment and activities, like Christmas tree decorating and caroling in the evenings.  They did have local entertainment several evenings also.  It is a quiet slow pace onboard and almost everyone is in bed asleep by 10 am, because tours start at 9 am each morning.  The average age on our sailing was around 60. 

AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise Itinerary

We were so excited to explore the Christmas Markets along the Rhine.  Due to the rising Covid numbers worldwide, markets were being cancelled and restrictions were being updated daily and varied by country.  There were some minor changes to our touring plans, but overall we felt very lucky to be able to have enjoyed such a wonderful unique experience. 

AmaWaterways requires that all passengers be fully vaccinated to sail.  Covid restrictions and enforcement is much stricter in Europe than it is in the U. S.  Cloth masks are not accepted in public.  You must wear a paper surgical or N95 or KN95 mask everywhere over your nose and mouth, indoors and outside.  Police are everywhere in crowded areas enforcing that masks are being worn properly. 

Switzerland and France require that you complete an online certification (including uploading a copy of your passport and covid vaccine card) confirming that you are fully vaccinated and they then provide a QR code that must be scanned to enter any indoor public building, including gift shops and restaurants. 

In Germany, we had to show both our passport and vaccination card to enter any of the markets or buildings.  Cologne did offer the option to provide this information once daily and get your hand stamped with G2 status, which allows access to public areas.  Masks are still required indoors and outside, even if you are fully vaccinated.  If you are unvaccinated you are not permitted to enter any public buildings in Switzerland, France or Germany.  I can’t even imagine what would happen if the US tried to implement similar policies here in the States. 

Here’s a quick overview of the places we ended up visiting during our AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise:

Basel, Switzerland

Due to our cancelled flight, we enjoyed our 5 minutes in Basel on the way to our ship.  I guess that gives us a reason to return!

Breisach, Germany/Riquewihr, France

We docked in Breisach and took a 45 minute bus tour over to the enchanting small village of Riquewihr.  This was our first Christmas Market and the town was just exactly what you would expect for a beautiful 16th century charming medieval hamlet surrounded by vineyards.  Our Cruise Manager said it is the actual village that they based Belle’s hometown on in Beaty and the Beast.  We did a 45-minute walking tour and then had free time to explore the Christmas Markets.  Our plan was to purchase a Christmas ornament and a mug of Gluhwein (mulled wine) from each market that we visited and we started our collection here.  We loved every minute of our visit.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg is an amazing city rich with history.  We took a bus to the city center and then did a walking tour from there, including a visit to the famous Cathedrale de Notre Dame (Strasbourg Cathedral).   The city was beautiful, and the Christmas markets were large and festive.  Unfortunately, it started to rain and was very cold, so I returned to the ship early.  My husband headed back out in the evening to take pictures of the market at night.  We would love to return and explore Strasbourg more during the warmer summer months.

Our afternoon visit to Gengenbach, Germany was cancelled due to Covid restrictions. 

Speyer, Germany

We stopped at the small German town of Speyer on a Sunday morning, and unfortunately, they cancelled their Christmas markets the evening before we were due to arrive.  Because it was a Sunday, everything was closed, and the townspeople were all at Church.  We did a brief walking tour but did not get to see much. 

Interesting to note that is this was the first stop that we made where we could walk right from the ship into town.  My image of river cruising was that the little villages would be right where we docked, but the first few stops that we made required a bus transfer to the city center. 

Rudesheim, Germany (Heidelberg cancelled due to Covid restrictions)

After our quick morning visit to Speyer, we sailed to Rudesheim, Germany which we really enjoyed.  After dinner, we travelled by choo choo train up the hill to a local winery (Bassenheimer Hoff) for a Riesling tasting.  It’s one of my favorite wines, so I was in heaven.  We remained docked overnight, so the next morning we ventured out on our own to explore the shops and we enjoyed a traditional Rudesheimer coffee at a café overlooking the river. 

Castles along the Rhine Afternoon Cruising with Lahneck Castle Visit

We spent a wonderful afternoon relaxing in the ships lounge sipping champagne as we sailed through the picturesque UNESCO-designated Rhine Gorge.  This is what you imagine when you think about river cruising through Europe.  There were beautiful vineyards and castles lining both sides of the river.  Later in the afternoon, we were taken by motorcoach to tour a 13th century medieval fortress by candlelight. 

Cologne, Germany

We loved Cologne.  We had a great docking location and could walk right into the city center.  We did a walking tour around the city’s majestic cathedral and then headed to Gaffel am Don, a historic brewhouse-pub to enjoy a Kolsch beer tasting accompanied by Reibekuchen (potato pancakes with apple sauce).  Afterward, we visited the inside of the Cologne Cathedral (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) and explored the wonderful Christmas Markets that surrounded the cathedral on our own.  They had crafts and music and ice skating and curling and every kind of traditional German food you could imagine.  We enjoyed some more Gluhwein, bought some Christmas ornaments, and found a local pub along the river where my husband was able to enjoy a Hefeweizen (his favorite beer from when he was stationed in Germany in the Army). 

Amsterdam, Netherlands

We spent the morning sailing into Amsterdam, which was actually not very picturesque at all.  Once we arrived in Amsterdam, we took a one-hour canal cruise which was very interesting and gave us a great overview of the city.  I loved seeing all of the houseboats that line the canal and we sailed passed the Anne Frank House.  I imagined Amsterdam to be filled with windmills and girls with blond braids wearing wooden shoes.  The reality is that Amsterdam is like New York but with canals like Venice and instead of cabs everywhere there are thousands of stoned people on bikes.  Lol!

The US changed the covid testing requirements to return while we were on our cruise, so we needed to have a test done in Amsterdam within one day of our return flight.  AmaWaterways gave us the contact information for a pharmacy in Amsterdam where we were able to schedule an appointment and our tour guide actually took us there to make sure we didn’t have any problems finding it.  Without him we would have been lost, as it was located down a long alleyway and not well marked.  If we had been on the amazing race, this would have been the leg where we were eliminated if we didn’t have his help. 

We overnighted in Amsterdam, but their government instituted a 5 pm curfew due to rising covid numbers, so we did not explore the city in the evening.  I would love to return and do a tour into the countryside and also visit the famous Ice Bar. 

Getting Home

We had a 10 am nonstop flight on Delta Airlines from Amsterdam to Detroit, so we were up and on our way for an early departure from the ship.  We booked our airport transfers with AmaWaterways and they provided a spotless Mercedes SUV and driver for our private transfer.  An AmaWaterways hostess met us at the airport and directed us to the Delta counter to check our bags.  Our return flight was on time and uneventful. 

Side Note:  Because we always have to have a little excitement in our lives…Tommy could not find his wallet when we were packing up to leave the ship.  Since we were on a tight schedule, we had to go or risk missing our flight home.  This is not the first time he has lost his wallet when travelling, so he actually has the tile tracking devise in his wallet and the app showed that it was in Paris.  Once we landed back in Michigan, he checked the app again and it had updated showing that it was on the ship.  I emailed the emergency@amawaterways.com  email address again and they were able to locate it and they are express mailing it back to us.  My guess is that it somehow wound up under the bed, because we looked everywhere else in our cabin.  Ama provided truly first class service every step of the way, but I am pretty confident that we are on the “annoying high maintenance passengers that should never sail with AmaWaterways again” list.  😉

Would we river cruise again?  Absolutely.  I would even do this itinerary again with warmer weather so that we could enjoy the biking tours and hiking through the vineyards. 

Now on to enjoying a frohe Weihnachten!

Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas

Two new ships in 2 weeks? Why not!?!

I was so excited to explore Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, on a 2-night preview cruise last week.  This ship is loaded with “WOW” and I was so impressed that I booked an 8 night sailing on her for March of 2022 to give me more time to explore all she has to offer.  She is the 5th ship in Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class and is considered an “Ultra Quantum Class” because she is packed with unique experiences not found on the other ships in this class.  She’s great choice for experienced cruisers looking for something new.

Beautiful Bon Voyage!
Royal Esplanade onboard Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas

I like the size and feel of Odyssey.  It holds 25% less passengers than the Oasis class ships, so it’s not overrun with people and long lines. The Royal Promenade has been replaced by the Royal Esplanade. Odyssey of the Seas has a great variety of things to see and do onboard, including:

  • Northstar, the glass viewing pod that offers 360 degree views from 300 feet above sea level
  • ifly, the skydiving simulator
  • The Sea Plex, which offers bumper cars, indoor basketball and pickleball courts, a roller-skating rink and trapeze classes, plus tons of video games to keep the gamers happy
Seaplex and Playmakers onboard Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas
  • The Skypad virtual reality trampoline on deck along with the Flowrider and rock climbing walls
Odyssey of the Seas Skypad
  • An all new 4D virtual reality zone experience at sea
  • Live music nightly in The Pub, The Schooner Bar, Boleros and The Music Hall (where we danced all night to classic rock)
  • Headline entertainment in the main showroom each evening and unique high tech shows in the 270 lounge
270 Lounge – Such a great space with beautiful aft views by day and hi tech entertainment by night
  • A huge variety of alternate dining options, including Wonderland, Izumi, Chops Grille, Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen, Teppanyaki, Chef’s Table and Playmakers
Charcuterie board at Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen
  • A beautiful adults only solarium area with a cascading pool and multiple hot tubs
  • One of my new favorite places, the “Lime & Coconut” tropical themed two level bar area on the pool deck
The Northstar and Lime & Coconut Poolside Bar

It was mentioned during our sailing that some of the onboard features that have been complimentary in the past may now have a charge.  For example, the Northstar will have  a limited number of complimentary time slots available on port days, but I was told it will cost $29 per person on sea days.  The same rule applies to ifly, but the charge I was quoted is $49 per person on seas days.  I would recommend booking early morning or late afternoon port days slots as soon as you get onboard.  I am not sure if these charges will also be implemented on other Quantum class ships.  Stay tuned for updates.

We stopped at Royal Caribbean’s private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay.  This was my third visit to this tropical paradise and it never disappoints.  The island is divided into 2 parts…the chill side and the thrill side. 

View of Perfect Day at Cococay from the Northstar

On the chill side, you’ll find beautiful beaches, ample lounge chairs with umbrellas for shade, hammocks for napping, and over water cabanas to rent at the Beach Club, offering upgraded food, service and privacy.  They have a cool swim out bar in the ocean. They also claim to have the largest free form pool in the Bahamas where the DJ keeps the party going all day around the pool’s swim up bar. 

Swim out Bar at Perfect Day at CocoCay

On the thrill side, a paid admission gives you access to their water park, with multiple waterslides and a wave pool.  There is a balloon ride that offers aerial views of all of the island action that is also available for an extra charge.  Pro tip: I love the crispy chicken sandwiches and funnel cakes at the snack shack. Also, don’t miss ordering a refreshing frozen Coco Loco or two!

Size comparison between Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas and Odyssey of the Seas

It was a wonderful whirlwind two night adventure and I can’t wait to get back onboard in March to enjoy all that Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas has to offer. This would be the perfect cruise for your family with teens/tweens who have outgrown the Disney scene or for multi generation families looking for a destination that offers something for everyone to enjoy. Want to find out more? Contact one of our Royal Caribbean Cruise Specialists here.

Celebrity Apex

Last weekend my husband and I got a taste of what Celebrity Cruises newest ship, Apex, has to offer while sailing on a 2 night preview cruise out of Ft Lauderdale. If you’re not familiar with the Celebrity brand, they are the sister company to Royal Caribbean Cruises. Think of it like this…If you are cruising with the kids or grandkids, Royal Caribbean is your best option. If you are celebrating your 25th wedding anniversary sailing with just the 2 of you…think Celebrity. They are a premium cruise line featuring a “modern luxury” decor, upscale dining and fantastic entertainment options.

Apex is the sister ship to Edge, which was the first ship to set sail on June 26, 2021 from a US port since the pandemic shut down the entire cruise industry. Apex was sailing in Europe this summer and just crossed over to depart from Fort Lauderdale for the winter season. The thing that I love about Celebrity is that their ships are filled with all kinds of unique unexpected touches that add to the overall cruise experience.

The Cabins

On this sailing, we enjoyed an Aqua Class infinite veranda stateroom. Aqua Class cabins are the same as regular cabins, but offer unlimited visits to the spa’s thermal suite, priority spa reservations and access to their private dining room, Blu. The infinite veranda that is featured on both Edge and Apex is a game changer. It doubles as both an enclosed sitting area in your cabin and opens up to a balcony at the touch of a button. It brings unobstructed views of the sea into the cabin to enjoy all day, but you can lower a darkening screen with another button to block out the light for sleeping in. I mean, you’re on vacation, right!?! Beds were super comfortable, we had plenty of storage space and the bathroom was larger than on some of the older ships. Here’s a quick video tour:

The Food

Celebrity Apex Blu Surf and Turf

The dining experience on Celebrity Apex is a notch above normal, with unique taste combinations and beautiful presentation. Foodies will not be disappointed. My husband had filet both nights (actually surf and turf the second night) and declared it the best steak he has ever had. Coming from a meat and potatoes guy, that is no small compliment. I have a sweet tooth and sometimes find cruise line desserts to be a bit bland and uninspired. Apex offered amazing options which could have really done a number on my waistline if we had been onboard for more than 2 nights!

The Drinks

Celebrity Apex Rum Punch

The Magic Carpet Lounge featured on Celebrity Apex and Edge hangs off the side of the ship and is a fun place to grab a drink off the pool deck during the day or after dinner when it moves down to deck 5. The Sunset Bar on the aft of the ship offers breathtaking views of the wake and, of course, the sunset. And they of course have Celebrity’s signature Martini Bar featured in the main centrum area of the ship. If you time your visit right you may catch the bartenders on top of the bar doing their classic multi martini show!

The Experience

The artwork throughout the ship is captivating. There are little nooks and crannies to discover and explore throughout the ship, each with their own unique style and theme. The shows were high tech and high energy. Think Cirque Du Soleil meets MTV. The Eden lounge and dining areas on the rear of the ship were interesting. We visited both during the day and night and at one point in the evening while the Alice in Wonderland performers were wandering around the lounge I leaned over to my husband and whispered “I don’t get it” to which he replied “I don’t think we are supposed to get it”, so that made me feel a little less stupid. Lol!

So, to sum things up, there is nothing not to love about Apex. Celebrity is promoting their “Always Included” pricing, which adds their drink package, wifi and gratuities to your cruise fare for an all inclusive experience. Right now their ships are sailing at reduced capacity and they require that all passengers (and crew) be fully vaccinated in order to sail. So, once you step onboard, it is really like a safe bubble vacation experience that is currently at some really great price points. There has never been a better time to sail with Celebrity, so connect with one of our agents here and start packing. You deserve to treat yourself famously. 🙂

Celebrity Apex Pool Deck

At Home Pre Cruise Covid Test

We are so excited to be setting sail tomorrow on Celebrity Cruises brand new ship, Apex. We have 18 months of missed trips to make up for! To make things as simple as possible, we ordered the pre cruise at home Covid Antigen test kits from https://store.optum.com/celebrity-cruises/ . For more information about Celebrity’s pre cruise testing requirements, visit https://www.celebritycruises.com/healthy-at-sea/accepted-covid-tests. Most of the cruises sailing from US ports have similar requirements, but check with your travel agent for the most up to date and accurate information.

I was a little nervous about the whole process (especially shoving that long swab up my nose…eeek!). I thought you might be a little hesitant about it, too. So, your buddy Ellen took one for the team and volunteered to be the covid home test crash test dummy so that I could share with you every step of the process. Overall, the pre cruise at home covid test was quick, painless and relatively easy. Now I can finish packing and get a good nights sleep tonight knowing that I am good to go and will be cruising Covid free. Check back in a week or so for my review of Celebrity Cruise’s Apex and all she has to offer!

Click on the link below to watch me go through the testing step by step so that you’ll know what to expect when it’s your turn to cruise. 🙂

Ellen taking the at home pre cruise Covid test

Covid’s Impact on Cruising

We just completed a 2 night “Simulation Sailing” onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas from Port Canaveral stopping at Perfect Day at CocoCay.  This was a requirement by the CDC as part of their Conditional Sailing Order that must be successfully completed prior to allowing paid passenger sailings to resume.    Here’s what has changed from pre-pandemic cruising and what you can expect once onboard:

Royal Caribbean Port Canaveral Cruise Terminal

Embarkation

When you complete your onboard check-in prior to departure, you will be assigned a designated half hour check in window at the port.  Pre-pandemic, you could just show up at your convenience and boarding would usually begin around 11:30 or Noon.  Expect later check in times and they are strictly enforcing the time, so if you show up early you will be directed to an outdoor waiting area outside of the terminal.  This is to allow for social distancing inside, but it also makes the check in process quick and painless once you do get inside.

The first step is at a wellness station, where you are asked a few health questions and if you would like to present your covid vaccination card.  If you do, you will be presented with a rubber bracelet that says #TheROYALComeback that you must wear throughout the cruise.  This will allow you access to every area of the ship.  You will not need to show your Covid vaccine cards again throughout your cruise. 

If you opt not to show your Covid Vaccine card (in Florida) or have not been vaccinated, you will be escorted to a separate area for testing (at your expense).  More on Royal Caribbean’s policy can be found here:  https://www.royalcaribbean.com/faq/questions/do-i-need-a-covid-vaccine-to-cruise-what-counts-as-proof 

Wellness Check Station

Next is a quick pass through security and a scan of your luggage.

Royal Caribbean Terminal Security Area

The next stop is at the actual cruise check in area, where they will scan your passports and take your embarkation picture.  Royal was using both the traditional check in stations (if you did not complete the pre sailing steps in the Royal Caribbean app and have your set sail pass) and the mobile Ipad stations (if you did complete pre cruise check in and have a set sail pass) at Port Canaveral.  There you will be presented with your second piece of cruise bling, your covid tracking bracelet.  They have a variety of colors and it must be worn at all times both on the ship and in port.  We were advised that they are water resistant but not completely waterproof, which seems strange for a cruise vacation. 

Royal Caribbean Port Canaveral Check In
Royal Caribbean Bling

That’s it! On our sailing our stateroom keys were sealed in a cardboard envelope on our stateroom door.  We were told that unvaccinated guests would have a hole punched in their keycard, but I am unclear as to how that process will work if your keycard is on your door.

Balcony Cabin Door on Arrival

The last step to complete before you can really get the cruise party started is to view the safety briefing on the Royal Caribbean app and then stop by your muster station (ours was in the Champagne Bar! 😊) to get a sticker placed on your Seapass card.  You can also view the video on the tv in your cabin.  No need to stand around in the heat for half an hour wearing an uncomfortable orange lifejacket!  This is one of the best perks of the new safety procedures. 

Masks

The #1 question people ask is “Will we have to wear a mask onboard?” and the answer is Yes, for now.  Royal Caribbean requires that all passengers wear a mask when walking around indoors.  Masks for vaccinated guests are not required outside on deck, in Central Park or on the Boardwalk, or in your stateroom.  Unvaccinated guests are required to wear a mask indoors at all times unless actively eating or drinking. 

Many areas of the ship are designated for vaccinated guests only.  In those venues, your will be asked to sanitize your hands and show your bracelet prior to entering and can then remove your mask and move freely throughout the area. 

Vaccinated Only areas on the Allure include (subject to change):

Fitness:  Vitality Spa and Vitality Fitness Center

Bars and Clubs:  Live Comedy Club, Studio B for any ice shows or other events, Bow and Stern Pub, Schooner Bar, Jazz on 4, Blaze, Rising Tides

Specialty Dining:  Hibachi Teppanyaki and Chefs Table

Other Areas:  The Solarium and Casino

Dining

Dining is one of the areas where we felt the most changes to the cruise experience, but not in a bad way.  Many of the dining options onboard either require or prefer reservations to ensure social distancing.  All the bars and restaurants use QR codes to view their menus.  If you have any issues with the technology the waitstaff will assist you. 

Pool Bar

In the main dining room, one level or area is designated for vaccinated only guests, so guests without a vaccinated bracelet will dine in one area of another deck away from other passengers.  Tables are spaced out and only every other table is in use at a time. 

Reservations are required at most of the restaurants on board, including all of the alternate dining restaurants and the My Time dining room.  Reservations are preferred in the Windjammer.  All dining reservations can be made once onboard via the app.  No reservations are required for the Wipeout Café, Solarium buffet, Park Café Boardwalk Dog House, Café Promenade and Sorrento’s. 

The Windjammer is still a traditional buffet experience, just not self-serve.  You simply point out what you would like and a crew member serves it to you.  Tables were marked as unavailable to ensure social distancing and had place cards to indicate if they had been sanitized. 

Windjammer Cafe

Shows and Entertainment

One major change to the evening shows was that reservations made through your Royal Caribbean app are required to ensure social distancing.  You must present your seapass card to be scanned for admission.  Some rows were blocked off completely and they requested that you keep 2 seats open between your party and other guests.  At the end of the shows, they dismiss the audience by section to reduce crowding.  In the main showroom, one section of the balcony is reserved for unvaccinated guests.

Other Random Facts and Observations

Cruise Transfers in Orlando – Royal Caribbean did not offer transfer services to Port Canaveral for this two night “simulation” cruise. I contacted quite a few local transfer companies and most of them are not currently operating shuttles or have gone out of business in the last 16 months.  My research also indicated that Ubers and Lyfts are in short supply in the Orlando area, particularly returning from Port Canaveral. 

Just when I was starting to panic, we lucked out and found Corey who owns Cruise Control Transportation.  He was wonderful and professional to work with, offered us a private van transfer at our requested times for $80 each way and even accommodated our request to switch our pickup time on the return by an hour without hesitation.  These companies have been devastated by the cruise industry shutdown and I would not hesitate to book with and support Cruise Control Transportation in Port Canaveral. 

Cruise Control Trasnportation

Orlando Airport – The Orlando Airport was a complete zoo.  It was packed inside with no where to sit and long lines to get anything to eat.  It was impossible to social distance.  The entrance to the airport was backed up for about half a mile with cars waiting to get in for pick ups and drop offs.  I have no idea how they are going to handle the crowds once cruising resumes and travel is back to 100%. 

Marriott Orlando Airport Lakeside – We spent one night before the cruise at the Marriott Orlando Lakeside.  It was super close to the airport, offered a free shuttle and had a nice pool area.  When we claimed our bag and went to the shuttle area, we tried calling the hotel repeatedly to let them know we were ready to be picked up.  We must have called 10 times and got no answer.  When they finally did pick up, they said the shuttle would be there in 10 minutes.  It was actually a half an hour before it came.  When we checked in and went up to our room, they gave us a room with people in it already.  Like I opened the door and there were people there.  Super awkward.  Once we finally got settled in a room it was very nice and would be a good location for one-night pre or post cruise stays.  There are lots of other options in the area and this probably would not be our first choice when we return.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, it felt amazing to be back out at sea.  The ship was spotlessly clean and the crew was fantastic.  They cheered as we entered each venue on the first day and everyone was just so happy and helpful.  There are definitely a lot of crew that are new to this ship or to Royal Caribbean, so they were making drinks from recipes or shadowing more experienced staff.  I felt perfectly safe onboard, and it was a wonderful relaxing experience.  If you are fully vaccinated, there has never been a better time to sail.  With reduced capacity, there are no long lines or fights for a chair by the pool. If you are an adult and are not vaccinated, I would suggest waiting to cruise.  The current CDC guidelines and safety protocols would restrict your ability to fully enjoy the cruise experience. 

It’s been a long 16 months, but it is wonderful to see the cruise lines rising to the challenge and adapting to provide a safe and fantastic cruising experience for their guests.  Bon Voyage!

Girls Trip!

We’re Back to Bon Voyage!

After 18 months of waiting, cruising is finally returning to service. I was really starting to think this day would never come! Slowly, but surely, the cruise lines are setting sail, mostly on shorter itineraries at reduced capacity. We were lucky enough to be chosen to be among the first guests to sail from a US port since the pandemic shut down the entire cruise industry in March of 2020.

The CDC has given the cruise lines two ways that they can return to service. The first option is to require that 95% of all passengers and crew onboard have been fully vaccinated. This is the route that Celebrity Cruises picked and they are back at sea. Because Royal Caribbean caters to families and current vaccination recommendations do not apply to children under 12, they have opted to conduct “simulation sailings” prior to opening up to the public to ensure that they are compliant with all of the CDC’s requirements and guidelines.

My daughter and I are flying to Orlando today to participate in a 2 day “simulation sailing” onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it! This will be a fully operating cruise at a reduced capacity with a stop to enjoy a Perfect Day at CocoCay. Everyone on the simulation cruise must be fully vaccinated, so I think there has never been a safer time to sail!

Have I told you lately how good it is to be me?

Watch for updates and lots of pictures as we mojito our way through the high seas.

Virgin Voyages

(Disclaimer…You do not have to be an actual Virgin to set sail)

I just finished a training program and seminar about Virgin Voyages and I’ll admit it…

I am hooked and can’t wait to cruise with them!

What’s the Virgin Voyages Advantage?

  • Adults only.  Yep!  No kids programs, chicken finger/hot dog meals or kiddie pools.  I remember the days of traveling with kids on their schedule and feeling like I needed a vacation to recover from our vacation.  This is the trip where you leave the little ones at home with the grandparents while you party like a rock star.   This is also a perfect option for all of us “empty nesters”!  We’ve raised our kids and deserve some adult time.
  • They include most of those “extras” that the other cruise lines tack onto their base price, like bottled water and soft drinks, tips, wifi and alternate dining charges.  Most of the mainstream cruise lines feel like my cable bill…they add so many extras to the base price that the actual cost doubles!
  • Speaking of alternate dining, it is all ala carte restaurants onboard with no set dining times or tables.  Imagine that?!?  Eat what you want, when you want, where you want.  No more bellying up to the buffet!
  • There is no dress code.  Wear what you want, when you want.  Feeling fancy?  Go for it!  Still feeling the effects of last night’s party and opting for comfy and casual?  That works, too.  Do you see a common theme here?
  • They don’t offer a drink package.  You can pre purchase drink credit in $300 increments and get a $50 bonus added to your onboard account.  Drink prices are reasonable, with $5 bottled beers, $8 glasses of wine and $10-12 cocktails.  You can even shake your cellphone activating the Virgin App and a bottle of champagne will be delivered to you wherever you are on the ship.  That’s the rockstar lifestyle we love!
  • Virgin Voyages stays later in port so you aren’t rushing to make it back before the ship sails without you.  One of our favorite past times is relaxing on our balcony watching the running of the drunks in Cozumel as they stagger up the pier trying to get back onboard in time for the 5 pm sailaway. With Virgin Voyages, you can sleep in and head out to explore whenever you are ready.  And, they stay late into the evening at their private beach club in Bimini so you can dance the night away in the sand under the stars.
  • All crew and passengers must be fully vaccinated to sail, so you can relax and enjoy your vacation knowing you are covid safe.  Finally.

Come Sail With Me

Pricing is reasonable considering all that is included.  Check out their brochure and email me if you are interested in booking a Virgin Voyage, because they have some great promotions available.  If it’s not in the budget right now, I am planning to kick off 2022 onboard the Scarlet Lady and will take you with me virtually.  😊

March Minimalist Challenge

So, I’ll admit it…I love a good double dog dare.  I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro (I mean…on my treadmill in my family room using the I Fit App). I’ve been known to do a nice 7 day fruit and veggie detox cleanse to debloat and reset.  I am a self-proclaimed goal getter.  Tell me I should drink half my weight in water daily and I’ll have it done by noon.

In the era of Covid, it’s literally been a challenge to stay challenged.  I’ve been watching lots of YouTube videos and listening to self-help podcasts and stumbled upon the minimalist challenge.  I am intrigued.

The premise is pretty simple…you eliminate the non-essential items in your life over a month-long period by throwing them out, selling them or donating them to charity. So, on the first of the month, you eliminate 1 item from your life.  One the 2nd, you reduce by 2 items.   Easy-peasy, right?  The challenge part comes in on the 21st, 22nd, 23rd.  I originally planned to do this in February because it’s the shortest month.  LOL!

So, here I go.  Ready to Marie Kondo my way through my stuff to see what sparks joy.  I have a few big boxes set aside to fill with donations and I am ready to be cutthroat as I cut through the clutter.  Check back to see my progress as I attack Minimalist March!  

Traveling to Cancun and Covid Testing- Follow Up Questions

Y’all had some great questions about traveling to Cancun and Covid testing, so I wanted to do a quick Q and A to get you some answers!

Did you have to get a Covid test done to go to Cancun?

Nope!  The U.S. only requires a negative test result within 72 hours of your return.  Mexico does not require any testing to enter the Country. 

Did you have to convert your U.S. dollars to pesos?

Nope again!  We used US cash for tips without any issues.  You may get Pesos as change, though, if you are paying in shops or restaurants.  I also used my Visa everywhere to take advantage of the exchange rate. Both US dollars and Pesos were accepted at the airport shops and restaurants and they quoted prices in both denominations. My daughter ordered a spicy margarita at Margaritaville at the Cancun Airport. It was served in a plastic cup for $24. So, the good news is you can take your cocktails to go at the airport in Cancun. The bad news is you will pay a crazy price for that privilege. 😉

Did people in Cancun wear masks everywhere?

Yes, inside.  We only had one encounter during our stay where a woman rushed into our elevator at the last minute and wasn’t wearing a mask.  People wore masks in the restaurants until they were seated.  But masks were not worn outside by the beach or pool.  I mean, can you imagine those tan lines?  But seriously, the hotel was not crowded at all and it was very easy to stay socially distanced outside. 

Did you feel safe?  Would you go back?

Yes.  I’d go back tomorrow.  The worst part of the whole experience was quarantining when we got home.  If you feel like you need a tropical vacation and can work from home for a week when you get back, treat yourself to a Cancun vacation.  You may never see pricing and crowd levels this low again.  Need an agent to help you?  Click here and start packing.  😊