Cork, Ireland in a Day

Norwegian Prima’s next stop after crossing the Atlantic was Cobh (Cork) Ireland.  Since we had to get back to the states for a destination wedding, we cut our cruise short and disembarked in Cobh.  We had a full day to explore the area, because our flight back to Detroit didn’t depart Cork, Ireland until 6 am the next day.  So, we decided to cram as much “luck of the Irish” as we could into a few hours.  I have been to Ireland before, but it was my husbands first visit. 

We hired a private car and driver to pick us up at the ship and take us sightseeing for the day.  We booked our tour with “Tours by Locals” and our driver, Paul, was a real character.  He was an aggressive driver with a passion for the sport of hurling (which is kind of like lacrosse, but full contact).  Because of Paul’s heavy accent I could only understand about half of what he was saying, but the half I understood was laced with F bombs and “friendly banter”.   Paul decided that our day in Ireland should start with Whiskey tasting at Jameson’s for breakfast.  Frankly, I was a little scared of Paul so I wasn’t going to put up much of a fight.  “When in Ireland…”

Jameson Distillery Tour

We left the quant little seaside town of Cobh (where the Titanic sailed it’s first and last voyage from) and drove for 20 minutes to the original Jameson Distillery in Midleton, Ireland.  We paid for a tour of the facility followed by a whiskey tasting.  It was a very interesting and informative tour. For the tasting we did a blind taste test of Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker Red and the Jameson Irish Whiskey, which is triple distilled.  There was no comparison…The Jameson was much smoother. 

My husband Tommy added a deluxe tasting, so he was able to try 4 different premium Jameson pours.  His favorite was the Black Barrel, which had a smoky flavor. It is only available to purchase there at the original distillery. 

Premium Jameson Tasting

There is another Jameson location in Dublin available for tourists to visit, but the Midleton location is the original distillery.  Our tour lasted approximately 1 hour and cost around 20 Euro per person.  It included the tasting at the end plus a Jameson beverage of your choice from the bar.  I opted for Jameson and Ginger Ale.  They also have a nice gift shop and a food truck available for snacks.  It was an interesting and very Irish way to start the day for sure!

Blarney Castle

From there, we headed West to visit Blarney Castle.  Most of the cruise ship tours start the day at Blarney Castle, so we lucked out with our timing and the crowds were manageable.  Paul dropped us at the front gates and showed us where to meet when we were done.  We walked around the grounds a bit and then headed to the castle.  Paul had warned us to expect at least an hour wait, but we were done within a half hour.  Pro Tip: You must be able to walk up and down a steep, uneven stone spiral staircase to get to the roof of the castle where the Blarney Stone is. 

Kissing the Blarney Stone is said to give you the gift of gab, so if this blog post is a little long and rambley you will know why!  Lol!  They do clean the stone with disinfectant in between kisses.  They also take a photo that you can purchase but allow you to take your own pictures as well. 

When we came down from the castle there was a bag piper playing which just completed the whole experience perfectly.

From Blarney Castle we headed into downtown Cork to see the sights. We visited an old fort with an amazing rooftop view of the city. We strolled around the English Market which was filled with traditional Irish food stalls, so we sampled some local delicacies for lunch. Paul’s friend owns a handmade confectionary shop where we picked up some candy treats. Paul suggest a quick drink at the Mutton Lane Inn, the oldest pub in Cork, but I was still burping Jameson from breakfast.

Cork International Hotel in Cork, Ireland

At that point I was wiped out (which is what happens when you start your day with Irish Whiskey for breakfast). I was ready for a nap, so Paul dropped us (and our luggage) off at the Cork International Hotel.  It was within walking distance of the airport, but they do offer a complimentary shuttle service as well.  They had a restaurant on site for dinner called The New Yorker Bar, which was just ok.  It was an early bedtime since we had to get up at 3 am to catch our 6 am flight to Amsterdam. We connected from there to Detroit.  We arrived home on time and exhausted from all our adventures.  😊

Norwegian Prima

The Norwegian Prima is the first ship in it’s class and is taking Norwegian Cruise Line to a whole new level of cruising.  I recently set sail on a pre-inaugural adventure from Iceland to Ireland and was able to enjoy many of the exciting new enhancements offered by NCL.  There is tons of information out about the Prima, so I will just focus on sharing my own thoughts and opinions based on 35 years of cruising experience.

First, the facts.  Norwegian Prima is enjoying a few introductory sailings around Europe before crossing over to the states to explore the Caribbean this winter.  She is 142,500 tons and holds 3099 guests based on double occupancy plus 1506 crew.  She is similar in size to the Breakaway class of ships, which are 145,655 gross tons. As a comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class ships are 226,963 gross tons and carry 5479 passengers. Norwegian Prima’s sister ship, Norwegian Viva, will begin sailing next spring.    

Who should sail Norwegian Prima?

Prima is taking NCL into the premium cruise market.  From the moment we walked onboard, she felt beautiful, contemporary, and elegant…with a whole lot of fun on top.  She is an excellent choice for multigenerational families, offering elegant dining and Broadway shows for the grandparents, Instagramable small plate options with classic rock bars and comedy clubs for the parents and fun fast food with go karts, wet or dry slides and virtual reality for the kids.  This would also be a great option for higher end spring break groups looking for an alternative to all inclusive resorts.  She is truly trying to be all things to all people and offer something for everyone.  

Norwegian Prima Cabins

Our cabin was a standard balcony and it seemed much more spacious than other lines.  For example, the standard balcony cabin on Norwegian Prima is 231 square feet, on Celebrity Apex it is 202 square feet and on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas it is 182 square feet.  You can really feel that extra space, especially in the bathroom.  We were not able to tour the other cabin types onboard.  They do offer the Haven for a luxurious ship within a ship option similar to Celebrities Retreat. We were not able to tour the Haven because it was full of NCL Executives, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom (and their entourage).

Norwegian Prima Onboard Fun

There are so many activities onboard you may never want to get off in port.  This is one of the areas that really sets Prima apart from their competition. 

First, Prima offers many sun and hot tub areas around the ship, not just one main pool area.  This should help spread the crowd out and hopefully eliminate the chair hogs fighting to find space on sea days.  There are multiple dry and wet slides to enjoy. 

They have a super cool interactive putt putt course called Tee Time.  An entire area, called the Galaxy Pavilion, is filled with virtual reality rides and games.  The Bull’s Eye is pub style electronic darts with cozy little sitting areas.  The Stadium houses a variety of activities to try, including ping pong on round tables, pickle ball, foosball, under table soccer courts and more.  The kids have their own aqua waterpark.  There will be charges onboard to participate in many of the activities.  When I asked the crew members what the fees would be, they simply answered “free for now”.  They also have a casino, of course.

Viva Speedway

The Viva Speedway go kart track is the icing on the cake, offering three levels of racing fun.  The executive panel explained that when designing the go kart area, they did it with the whole family in mind. 

There is a viewing area for non racers to watch all the action. They have a laser gun area where kids can shoot at the karts as they go by to give them a power boost.  Both single and double karts are available to race during different times so that everyone can participate.  When you leave the track, there is a photo spot with 1st, 2nd and 3rd place podiums where you can commemorate your victory.  Lap times are displayed on monitors throughout the area. 

And finally, you can meet up at the Viva Speedway Bar to celebrate the thrill of victory or drown your sorrows after the agony of defeat. 

The fee for go karts is rumored to be around $20 per ride. 

Shows

The main showroom is a state-of-the-art theater that features tiered seating that can retract (like bleachers) to transform the space into a Vegas style nightclub for dancing the night away.  While we were onboard, one of the evenings they hosted “The Price is Right” gameshow which was a ton of fun.  They also had a full Broadway production of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.  We saw a comedian in the comedy club and enjoyed an awesome classic rock cover band in “Syd Norman’s Pour House”.

Dining

There are so many dining options, I am sure I will forget to mention a few!

The main dining rooms are located aft and named Hudson’s and The Commodore. Both will offer a fixed menu at a set dining time.

The casual buffet is called the Surfside Cafe and Grill and is located on deck 17.

Alternate dining options available for an additional fee include several of their signature eateries, like Cagney’s Steakhouse, Le Bistro French and Food Republic Asian-fusion. New choices are the Mediterranean seafood restaurant Palomar, Hibachi- style at Hasuki, and Nama sushi. The Local Bar and Grill serves classic bar food. The Indulge Food Hall features 11 different eatery options. Orders can be placed from tabletop tablets and delivered to you within minutes.

You will not go hungry on the Norwegian Prima!

Norwegian Prima Pros/Cons

Norwegian Prima is an amazing option in the premium cruise market, particularly for families.  There are lots of positives about the ship. Having said that, there are a few kinks they need to work out.  The main buffet, Surfside Café, is much too small for this size of ship.  We were sailing at about half capacity and there was no place to sit.  They had to open the alternate restaurant next door, Food Republic, for additional seating at both breakfast and lunch. 

There also did not seem to be a good traffic flow throughout the ship.  The layout was confusing, with dead ends and narrow walkways, that caused some areas to become congested with people.  Many of the alternate restaurants appeared to be too small to handle the number of passengers the ship was built to accommodate.  The Improv Comedy Club and Syd Normans were way too small.  Syd Normans was packed skin to skin when we were there, with people lined up in the hallway trying to get in. 

Since this was a cold weather sailing, I hope that the crowds will be better dispersed when they can be outside and on deck. 

Norwegian Prima Pricing

I just did a quick pricing comparison.  I picked each lines newest ship, double occupancy in a balcony cabin sailing for 7 nights to the Caribbean departing January 14 or 15 of 2023 including port charges and taxes.  Here’s how they compared:

Norwegian Prima  $2647.90 per cabin including Free at Sea (open bar, specialty dining credit, wifi and $50 excursion credit)

Celebrity Beyond  $3708.40 per cabin including Always Included (wifi, drinks and tips)

Royal Caribbean Wonder of the Seas  $3886.78 per cabin Cruise only

That’s a lot of fun for a pretty bargain price.  Norwegian Prima is a great option for families looking to have a great cruise experience together on the high seas. Contact our NCL cruise specialists at 248-203-0022 to book your Norwegian Prima cruise today!

Iceland in a Day

We just returned for an amazing adventure sailing from Iceland to Ireland on NCL’s newest ship, the Norwegian Prima!  Our itinerary gave us an overnight in Reykjavik for the first night of the cruise and we were determined to see as much of the Icelandic scenery as we could.

We landed at Iceland’s Keflavik airport in the morning after a red eye flight and enjoyed a mini tour while enroute to the ship, which was docked in the heart of Reykjavik, approximately 45 minutes away.  We passed the Fagradalsfjall volcano on Reykjanes peninsula, which had recently erupted followed by several minor earthquakes in the region.  It was dormant while we were there.

Fagradalsfjall volcano

Sky Lagoon

After getting checked in at our ship, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed over to Sky Lagoon to experience the healing warm waters of their geothermal lagoon.  There were taxis waiting right outside our ship, but taxi’s in general are very difficult to use in Iceland  and normally must be ordered by phone in advance.  You can’t flag them down on the street.  We were lucky on the way back from Sky Lagoon because two other people waiting in front of us were returning to the ship, so we shared a taxi.  It had been almost half an hour since the staff at Sky Lagoon said they had called for their taxi, so plan your time accordingly. 

Sky Lagoon is much closer to where our ship docked than the famous Blue Lagoon. We were also told it is newer and less crowded.  We had a limited amount of time, so we just purchased the Pure Lite Pass upon arrival which allowed access to the public changing rooms and lagoon.  They also offer a Pure Pass which includes the 7 step ritual. It features the lagoon, cold plunge, sauna, cold mist, salt scrub, steam room and then finishes in the lagoon.  You do not need to make reservations in advance, but can do so via their website.

Once we paid for our package, we received rubber bracelets that could be used for charging drinks to our credit card and for locking the lockers.  We used the public men’s and women’s changing rooms and you are required to shower before entering the lagoon.  They had a variety of Icelandic beers and wines (including champagne) available for purchase at the lagoon bar.  They advised us that there was a maximum limit of 3 drinks per person.  Towels to use were also included in all of the packages. They provide plastic bags to put your bathing suit in after your experience.  They also rent bathing suits if you did not bring yours along.  There is a gift shop and café in the main building that you can enjoy before or after your lagoon experience. 

The water temps were around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and air temps were in the upper 50’s, but with a biting wind. 

It was a wonderful relaxing introduction to this Icelandic ritual that we thoroughly enjoyed.  For more information, visit their website at https://www.skylagoon.com/

Golden Circle Tour from Reykjavik, Iceland

We took off early the next morning on a 6 ½ hour tour called The Golden Circle. It featured some of the most popular natural attractions in Iceland. 

Thingvellir National Park

Our first stop was at Thingvellir National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is the only place in the world where you can actually stand in between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  The ground is full of cracks from the surrounding volcanic activity.  It is what I would imagine walking on the moon would look like. 

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland
American and Eurasian tectonic plates

Geysir

The next stop was Geysir, where we were able to view the steaming explosions every 4-5 minutes.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Geysir

Gullfoss

Our last stop was at Gullfoss, which is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  Our guide told us the story about the family that owned the land.  They were a farming family that were approached about harnessing the power of the falls to generate electricity.  The farmer refused, saying “I will not sell my friend!” . They continued to pressure the family to allow the river to be dammed, but the farmer’s daughter fought relentlessly to keep the falls intact.  In 1975, the government of Iceland bought the land and made the falls a national monument.  There is a plaque honoring the farmer’s daughter as the first “environmentalist” in Iceland at the base of the falls. 

Gullfoss Waterfall Iceland

There is a lovely restaurant at Gullfoss with Icelandic beer and wine for purchase along with a very nice gift shop.  One of the don’t miss purchases in Iceland is the flavored salts and this is an excellent place to pick up a variety pack. Note that cash is rarely used in Iceland.

We covered a lot of terrain during our 6 ½ hour sightseeing excursion. We felt like the Golden Circle Tour gave us an excellent overview of the diversity and beauty of Iceland. 

Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas Alaska Cruise

Alaska or Bust…Third Time’s a Charm!

We just returned from an amazing adventure onboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas Alaska cruise sailing northbound from Vancouver to Seward.  This trip was almost 4 years in the making, having been cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid.  We sailed with a group of 70 friends, including some first-time cruisers.  For many in the group, this chance to explore Alaska was the trip of a lifetime.

Here’s an overview of our itinerary and suggestions for things to see and do at each port of call.  For the most part, I will let the pictures tell the story of our Alaskan Adventure better than I ever could with words:

Vancouver

The Vancouver Tour Group

We arrived late in the evening the night before our cruise set sail. We overnighted at the Vancouver Airport Marriott.  Hotels in Vancouver are outrageously expensive.  If money is no object, I recommend the Pan Pacific which is located right at the pier in downtown Vancouver.  You can take the elevator to the bottom floor and walk right onto your ship!

Most of our group did a private morning bus tour of Vancouver that we booked with Maple Fun Tours Ltd. It included stops at Stanley Park to learn about the totem poles, QE Park and at the steam clock.  We had some free time to enjoy an adult beverage at the Steamworks Brew Pub (where I had the best coconut mojito EVER). We also purchased wine at BC Liquor Harbour Center, which was right across the street from the pub.  Pro tip: Royal Caribbean allows you to bring 2 bottles of wine per cabin onboard, so we took full advantage of that option.  At the end of the 3 hour tour, they dropped us and our luggage off at the pier to check in for our cruise.  It was a great way to get a taste of all that Vancouver has to offer. 

Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas

We originally planned this Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas Alaska Cruise in 2019 for 2020 and included 2 extra days in Anchorage to visit Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park and view the salmon spawning and the bears feeding.  If you don’t know what I am talking about, check out the live camera here. By the time we finally got around to taking this cruise in 2022, we couldn’t book that part of the trip as a group.  If you aren’t planning to extend your cruise with a land package in Northern Alaska to visit Denali or Talkeetna, I would recommend sailing round trip from Seattle.  Your airfare will be a fraction of the cost and your flights will be much more convenient. Royal also offers much newer ships featuring more onboard amenities (like the Quantum or Ovation of the Seas) out of Seattle.

Having said that, Radiance of the Seas is still a beautiful ship.  She is older and smaller than many ships sailing in Alaska, but features lots of glass for viewing. We enjoyed many of the traditional Royal touches, like the Champagne bar, Schooner lounge, Viking Crown Lounge, formal dining room and covered solarium pool.  It was a nice size for this type of cruise and easy to get around.  We sailed from Rome to Greece on her sister ship, the Jewel of the Seas, so we were very familiar with the layout. 

The food was good and we ate all of our dinners as a group in the main dining room.  Pro tip: Order a couple of the featured pasta dish for the table to try each evening in addition to your entrees. The Windjammer served a decent variety of options for breakfast and lunch.  Note that in the Windjammer the crew no longer serves you (as they did during the pandemic).  It has returned to a self-serve buffet, so “Wash your hands, it’s the right thing to do. It’s easy ’cause you only have two”.

Juneau

After a day at sea, we arrived in Juneau at 1 pm.  Our group enjoyed a private whale watching excursion followed by a brief visit to Mendenhall glacier booked with Juneau Tours and Whale Watch.  After the tour, our bus dropped us off at the Red Dog Saloon for a round of “Duck Fart Shots” and shopping.  We walked back to the ship which was docked at the AJ Pier, which was a very long walk.  Royal Caribbean said it was a 10 minute walk.  Royal Caribbean lied.  Lol!  We all loved Juneau, but the short time in port and inconvenient docking location limited our touring options.  When booking an Alaskan cruise, look for an itinerary that gives you a full day (8 am – 8 pm) in Juneau so that you have time to really see more of what this area has to offer. 

Icy Strait Point

Fishing with Hooked Adventures in Icy Strait Point
View from the tram in Icy Strait Point

The husbands chartered several fishing boats (through Hooked Adventures) and set out in search of some Halibut.  They did catch quite a few and had them processed, frozen and shipped back home.  The wives did not have a tour planned, so we wandered around Icy Straight Point and did some shopping.  We took the $5 shuttle over to Hoonah, but it was a tiny little town with really nothing to see or do.  We walked back (about a mile and a half) because it was a beautiful day and we needed to close our Apple watch exercise circles anyway.  Lol!  We really lucked out with our weather and enjoyed sunshine and record temps in the 80’s several days of our cruise. 

By the time we got back to Icy Strait Point, the boys had returned from their fishing trip, so we all enjoyed some Alaskan king and snow crab legs with cocktails at the Crab House for lunch.  After lunch, we snacked on mini donuts from a stand near the pier and then rode the tram to the top of the mountain to check out the views ($50 per person).  Several people in our group did the zipline from the top earlier in the day and really enjoyed it.  Others in the group booked a bear watching trip and didn’t actually see any bear. There is not much to see and do in Icy Strait Point if you don’t book a shore excursion, so consider booking a tour in advance or just plan on it being a quiet relaxing day.  Find out more about Icy Strait Point here

Sitka

Remember the movie the Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds?  That takes place in Sitka. 

We were feeling adventurous and booked a morning kayaking tour through the cruise line.  All the kayaks were doubles.  I have been kayaking a few times here in Michigan, but this was a very different experience.  First, the water was COLD!  Second, I am used to kayaking in a river where the current pushes you along.  This was in an open bay, so we were paddling against the wind half the time and not making much progress.  Third, I thought we would see wildlife, like sea otters and seals and whales and bears and eagles.  We saw none.  Then it started to rain.  So, my fun day of kayaking wasn’t quite as fun as I imagined it would be. Am I glad we did it?  Sure.  Would I do it again?  Nope.

We came back to the ship wet and cold and hungry.  Our original plan was to change, eat and head back out exploring, but since it was still raining we napped instead.  😊

Skagway

Skagway is a fun old gold mining town and the don’t miss thing to do here is to ride the historic Whitepass Railroad, which takes you up into the mountains and away from the touristy part of town. 

During non-covid times, you can take the train one way up into the Yukon, cross over to Canada, and explore even further.  On our last visit to Skagway we rented a car for the day and followed the same Klondike Highway route as the railway, but did it at our own pace.  We visited a wonderful place in the Yukon called “Caribou Crossing” that has a museum, barbecue lunch, panning for gold and dog cart rides with a husky puppy petting area.  We also visited Emerald Lake which was beautiful. 

If you are reading this after Covid restrictions have been lifted, consider doing the train one way and exploring the Yukon with a van ride back.  It will be a day you won’t forget.  Just google Skagway Yukon Tours for a listing of companies that offer something similar.  The only option now is the round trip train because Canada is not allowing Yukon border crossings yet. 

Pictures don’t do the scenery justice.  After the train ride, we explored around town and did a little shopping.  Don’t miss indulging in a “Klondike Doughboy”, which is like an elephant ear (fried dough with cinnamon sugar).  The line was out the door for the Red Onion Saloon, so we missed visiting there, but “the ladies” offer tours of the brothel for $10 and they serve food and drinks in the dining area.    

Hubbard Glacier

My maiden name is Hubbard, so I was excited to finally visit “my glacier”!  The weather was wonderful, but I was surprised and disappointed that the captain stayed so far back from the glacier. 

When we visited Glacier Bay on another cruise line, we sailed slowly right through the blocks of ice floating in the bay. The captain did a 360 degree turn so close to the glacier that we could see and hear it calving.  They had a naturalist onboard pointing out all of the wildlife and explaining global warmings impact on the glaciers.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.

This experience was nothing like that.  If you didn’t know we were sailing by Hubbard glacier you could have missed it completely.  We floated around for about 2 hours and the rest of the day was just a sea day.  I think the captain was nervous because NCL recently hit an iceberg and damaged their ship. For planning purposes, I would book an Alaskan itinerary that offers Glacier Bay over Hubbard Glacier.

Seward to Anchorage

At the end of our Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas Alaska cruise, we planned an all day private sightseeing tour and transfer for our group with a company called Alaska Cruise Transportation.  It was a wonderful way to spend the day before our red eye flights home.  We stopped at Exit glacier, the Wildlife Conservation Center, the Alyeska Tram and Earthquake Park and ended with a private group dinner in Anchorage.  They offer a similar itinerary on an individual basis. 

It really was an amazing Alaskan adventure years in the making, but the memories were worth the wait! I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have or connect you with one of our cruise specialists for assistance in planning your own Alaskan adventure. It should be on everyone’s bucket list!

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.