The Escape, during sea trials.

The Escape, during sea trials.

Norwegian Cruise Line announced they will add a smoking section into the casino, which will serve as a test, before potentially adding similar to other ships in the fleet. The enclosed smoking section will have a number of table games and slots, and will be fully ventilated.

The Escape will remain smoke-free until Caribbean itineraries begin November 9th, 2015.

The Crown Princess in Grand Turk.

The Crown Princess in Grand Turk.

Princess Cruises is pairing gourmet small dishes inspired by pub favorites with craft beers, cocktails and wines with the debut of The Salty Dog Gastropub aboard Crown Princess. The menu offerings, including a signature burger, were developed in collaboration with former executive chef of Umami Burger and current chef of Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Los Angeles, Ernesto Uchimura, who was recently awarded “Chef of the Year: The Comfort Master,” from Los Angeles Magazine.

Presented within the Wheelhouse Bar nightly, in refreshed surroundings and live entertainment, guests will choose three small plates from The Salty Dog Gastropub menu featuring new twists on classic pub dishes. Plates include Pale Ale Pork Cheeks, Spicy Stout Short Ribs, Wild Mushroom Saute, and Lobster Mac & Cheese, among other delicious options.

The piece de resistance is “The Ernesto” burger from Chef Uchimura – rib eye and short rib beef patty, grilled pork belly, caramelized kimchi, beer battered jalapeno, charred onion aioli, topped with cave aged gruyere cheese.

“The Salty Dog Gastropub is an enticing addition to our onboard culinary offerings and brings yet another unique dining option to our guests,” said Rai Caluori, executive vice president of guest experience for Princess Cruises. “Chef Uchimura’s signature burger is sure to be savored, along with pub favorites reinvented for a more upscale dining experience.”

“A gastropub at sea is an innovative concept and it inspired me to get creative in the galley,” said Chef Uchimura. “The Salty Dog Gastropub’s menu will not only satisfy comfort food cravings but also offer guests new pub food flavors and tastes perfectly paired with a craft beer or fine whiskey.”

Adjacent to The Salty Dog Gastropub, also in the Wheelhouse Bar, is an expansive new, international whiskey bar menu, featuring some of the best Scotch whiskeys, American Bourbons and international whiskeys from areas including Japan, Ireland and Australia. Offerings include Johnny Walker Blue, Bakery Hill Classic (Australia), Connemara Whiskey Irish Cask (Ireland) and Hakushu 12 year (Japan). The menu offers daily specialized whiskey flights, allowing guests the opportunity to taste and compare selections around the world.

The Salty Dog Gastropub and new international whiskey menu, both available in the Wheelhouse Bar, have just launched aboardCrown Princess, and will be onboard Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess in mid-December. A food charge of $19 per guest applies.

The whiskey menu will also be available in the Wheelhouse Bar aboard Dawn Princess, Sea Princess, Sun Princess, Diamond Princess and Golden Princess by the end of 2015, and aboard all ships with the exception of Pacific Princess by the summer of 2016.

About Chef Ernesto Uchimura
Born in Argentina, Chef Ernesto Uchimura is an award-winning chef who stepped into the spotlight as the opening corporate executive chef and partner for the mega brand, Umami Burger. He went on to become founding chef and partner with the opening of Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, where he garnered even more critical acclaim and recognition, including “Chef of the Year: The Comfort Master,” from Los Angeles Magazine and “Best Burger” in Los Angeles by LA Weekly. http://www.plancheck.com/

For more information about The Salty Dog Gastropub, including the full menu, visit http://www.princess.com/gastropub.

We received a question from one of our members, and she wants to know about Fathom Cruises’ ship, the Adonia.

The intimate Adonia.

The intimate Adonia.

The Fathom is currently the smallest of P&O Cruises seven ships, and she is designed to offer a more intimate cruising experience. Adonia accommodates 710 passengers and, because of her smaller size, explores ports the larger ships of today are unable to visit. From P&O’s website:

With wood-style paneling, a grand staircase and traditional artworks, her ambience and décor are in keeping with the traditions of cruising. Yet being a 21st century ship, (she was built in 2001) there is modernity to her detailing, all of which is beautifully crafted.

There is dining overlooking the wake and evenings with after dinner speakers. There is a card room with panoramic ocean views, ample sunbathing space and restaurants which include Sorrento, the Ocean Grill and the elegant Pacific Restaurant. And of course being smaller, everything on our Adonia cruise ship is just a short walk away.

Adonia’s Crow’s Nest offers far reaching views by day and live music by night and Anderson’s bar feels reassuringly British. In her grand lounge, the dance floor plays host to an elegant waltz or cha-cha-cha and its stage presents a wide range of evening entertainment, from shows to classical recitals.

Adonia will be reassigned to Fathom in April 2016, which focuses on Impact travel, and provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact. Carnival, its parent company, was granted permission by the U.S. to include Cuba as part of its offerings. Adonia will also visit the Dominican Republic.

Fathom and Cuba

Fathom and Carnival announced three ports of call for the voyages, which begin May 2016: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The trip will focus on supporting cultural exchange and economic development for the Cuban people, and include a variety of artistic, educational and humanitarian activities,” the company said. Most of the trip will be spent in Havana, and for the first two days cruisers can partake of a walking tour of the city, meetings with Cuban artists and local entrepreneurs, and Q&A sessions with authors from the island.

Let’s face it, although we say we go on vacation to get away from it all, this is the world in which we live! Here is the press release from Carnival:

The Carnival Dream!

The Carnival Dream!

MIAMI, Sept. 29, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Carnival Corporation & plc (NYSE/LSE: CCL; NYSE: CUK), the world’s largest travel and leisure company, today announced that it has expanded its innovative hybrid connectivity system to create the cruise industry’s largest Wi-Fi network — and one of the world’s largest satellite mobility networks.

With over 31 advanced satellite systems, the company’s expanded WiFi@Sea connectivity network features the broadest high-bandwidth internet coverage in the industry currently deployed on 30 of its 100 ships — far more than any other cruise line company — with further deployment planned over the next several months. In addition, several of its cruise line brands have introduced new plans and pricing packages that make staying connected on a cruise more convenient and affordable — and are improving the guest experience and increasing the number of guests using Wi-Fi while cruising.

Expected to be extended to nearly 40 percent of the company’s industry-leading fleet across several of its global brands by the end of 2015, the expanded WiFi@Sea service has led to increased guest satisfaction, higher usage rates and greater number of devices connected during voyages. Carnival Corporation’s brands currently using the new features include AIDA Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line. Building on existing broadband Wi-Fi capabilities already available throughout its fleet of 100 ships, Carnival Corporation is continuing the deployment of its technology solution with plans to expand the new system on the majority of its fleet across its 10 global brands through 2016.

The company’s system represents a first in the cruise industry on this scale — providing the broadest high-speed global coverage across dozens of ships coupled with onboard intelligence to enhance the guest experience — a breakthrough technology innovation for overcoming the challenging circumstances of sailing in the middle of the ocean and still providing fast, reliable and affordable wireless internet access for guests.

Expanding the System

The system is a first-of-its kind solution that integrates a combination of advanced satellite systems, onboard software, networking equipment, land-based antennas and Wi-Fi from port connections. The technology is expected to change how millions of travelers stay in touch during their cruise and generate even greater interest in cruise vacations, especially among tech-savvy millennials and people of all ages who want to stay in touch, research destinations or share their vacation experiences via social media.

With the continued rollout of the enhanced connectivity system across the fleet, guests will be able to access the websites, social networks and apps most important to them at speeds up to 10 times faster than those previously available on the company’s ships.

“As we continue to enhance our WiFi@Sea system, we implement technologies, packages and overall approaches that will create the best experience and value for our guests wherever their cruise vacation takes them,” said Reza Rasoulian, vice president of global connectivity and shipboard technology operations at Carnival Corporation. “We optimize all of our service layers continuously to ensure a great connectivity experience. With this approach, we are giving our guests faster internet speeds without constraining the time they can be online through our packages, which has led to more people than ever using their devices to connect while on our ships and a steady improvement in guest satisfaction ratings as the new plans and pricing are rolled out.”

New Packages and Pricing Structure

With the new pricing models, Wi-Fi packages are based on the types of services guests will be using throughout their trip versus the previous system of charging for the amount of time they will be online. For example, guests who are only interested in using Wi-Fi to post to their social networks can purchase a basic package for a lower fee.

This change gives guests the freedom they prefer for unlimited use of the specific internet services and applications they are interested in without the worry of time constraints — an important offering for a good number of guests who are looking to stay connected, especially as the industry works to increase interest in and demand for cruising across all demographics, especially among younger guests.

Specific package offerings and pricing structures vary by brand, but in all cases the company is working to create more value and a better overall connectivity experience.

System Enhancements Focus on the Guest Experience

Carnival Cruise Line, the company’s largest brand with 24 ships and its 25(th) ship, Carnival Vista, coming in spring of 2016, announced in August it has enhanced internet access including new social media packages. The packages are now available on 19 of its 24 ships with plans for fleet-wide implementation by the first quarter of 2016. In June, the company’s AIDA Cruises brand announced new flat-rate social media and internet packages, along with bandwidth upgrades that have been installed on seven ships, and will be fully deployed on each of the brand’s 10 ships by November 2015.

Added Rasoulian: “We know that each of our guests is looking for something different when they cruise, whether that is being completely or partially unplugged from the internet or staying plugged in. For those who want to stay connected with their life back home or research the next destination on their trip, we are offering faster, more reliable and more affordable options to give our guests what they are looking for.”

The improved onboard connectivity experience will also help crew members across Carnival Corporation’s 10 brands keep in touch with their family and friends at home during the extended amounts of time they spend at sea. This is an important component of each crew member’s quality of life and has a positive impact on helping them maintain their passion for consistently providing exceptional service for guests during the voyage.

About Carnival Corporation & plc

Carnival Corporation & plc is the largest cruise company in the world, with a portfolio of 10 cruise brands in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, comprised of Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, AIDA Cruises, Costa Cruises, Cunard, P&O Cruises (Australia), P&O Cruises (UK) and Fathom.

Together, these brands will operate 100 ships in 2015 totaling 219,000 lower berths with 17 new ships scheduled to be delivered between 2016 and 2022. Carnival Corporation & plc also operates Holland America Princess Alaska Tours, the leading tour companies in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Traded on both the New York and London Stock Exchanges, Carnival Corporation & plc is the only group in the world to be included in both the S&P 500 and the FTSE 100 indices.

Additional information can be found on www.carnival.com, www.hollandamerica.com, www.princess.com, www.seabourn.com, www.aida.de, www.costacruise.com, www.cunard.com, www.pocruises.com.au, www.pocruises.com and www.fathom.org.

Avid traveler, and travel writer, Stephanie Bonilla returns to share her experiences from a recent Chicago visit. Many of our cruisers are from the Windy City, so we are delighted to share this contribution!

I finally booked my trip to Chicago after catching myself constantly looking up airfares from Miami to O’hare. It seemed I was on a subliminal mission to check the ‘windy city’ off my wanderlist. On a celestial Wednesday night, the stars aligned and I was able to find an extremely cheap flight just in time for Labor Day weekend.

Something about Chicago has always fascinated me. There’s something to say about a city whose endured so much (the Great Chicago Fire, every single winter ever) yet prevails year after year, never falling short of any “best cities to live in” list. Every Chicagoan I’ve ever talked with describes how miserable and brutal the weather can be, yet follows up his/her complaint with numerous ways the city blossoms during summer. For only three fleeting months of awesomeness, locals willfully withstand six months of snow storms and insanely cold temperatures. The only other city that comes to mind that houses such a loyal fanbase is NYC, where every winter becomes an obstacle of the spirit for its inhabitants. But why? What makes Chicago the outlier of the Midwest? I was determined to find out.

Friday

After taking the earliest flight out of Miami possible, we were checked in and ready to sight-see by noon. Chi-town is an extremely walkable city, allowing visitors to embark on their respective journeys via foot (or by purchasing a Ventra Card). We quickly made our way to Wild Berry, conveniently located on the outskirts of Millennium Park. The restaurant’s ‘Creamy Nutella’ crepe, which comes sprinkled and stuffed with chocolate drizzled banana goodness, is one of the many delectable dishes diners can choose from. Fall where you will on the brunch debate, this place won’t disappoint. We used our sugar buzz to take on Millennium Park, making it in and out of the park in about an hour and checking out its impressive amphitheatre and infamous Cloud Gate sculpture along the way. It seemed like everyone was out enjoying the summer’s heat, with herds of joggers and cyclists invading the park’s grounds. I started to see why Chicago’s residents are so bewitched by their city.

After wandering around the park’s surrounding area, we hopped on a train and headed to Goose Island Brewing Co., the masterminds behind one of my all-time favorite beers, 312. Although we didn’t make it to the walking tour, we sat in the brewery’s tap room for quite some time. Pint after pint, our buds were awakened with a mix of tasty ales. Already in the beer spirit, we took a train to Rock Bottom Brewery, a brewpub designed with beer enthusiasts in mind. Every craft-beer served at this pub is truly a labor of love. After trying a couple of brewskies and wallowing in the pub’s pungent hoppy aroma, we somehow stumbled back to our hotel to change in preparation for our evening plans. Volare was what was for dinner and marked the perfect ending to our eventful day. This gem should be on every restaurant list published about Chicago.  In fact, any lists printed prior to the opening of this restaurant should be required to be republished. If you like authentic Italian cuisine intertwined with a romantic ambiance, make sure you add this to your itinerary. Reservations are a must, unless you’re cool with waiting an hour or two for a table.

 

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Saturday

After having such a great first day in Chicago, Saturday had big shoes to fill. We started our morning by visiting the Willis Tower. There is so much to see here, particularly the sky deck that offers spectacular views of the city. If you’re brave enough, you can stand on one of the glass boxes that extend 4 feet from the deck, leaving you floating 1,353 feet up in the air. It’s truly a gnarly experience. After experiencing such an adrenaline rush we decided to indulge in some emotional eating. Fortunately, Giordano’s, Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza eatery, was just a few steps away. It takes around 45 minutes for the restaurant’s pizza artisans to work their magic, but the final masterpiece is worth the wait.

We embarked on a 75-minute Wendella Architecture Tour later that afternoon, learning about Chicago’s glittery skyscrapers and the history behind the city’s remarkable transformation. This tour is a must for design and architecture buffs, allowing passengers to see Chicago in a truly unique way. Once the tour was over, we treated ourselves to more food and drinks at a near-by gastropub called Public House. With a mixed crowd of yuppies and hipsters, this place has an awesome, laid back feel and some really good nachos.

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Sunday

Sunday started as quickly as it ended. Inspired by the city’s abundant energy, we decided to run to Lincoln Park, through the  Lincoln Park Zoo, over to Lake Michigan, stopping to gaze at beautiful brick houses along the way. We were famished by 11:30 a.m., making it back just in time for our brunch reservation at Hutch. From their pulled bacon Benedict to their jalapeno and garlic infused cocktails, this place knows how to fusion. Named on many of Chicago’s “boozy brunch” lists, seating at this restaurant comes much slower than it goes.

We rolled on over to Wrigley Field after brunch, the legendary home of the Chicago Cubs. If you’re visiting during baseball season, I encourage you to buy tickets to a game. Chicago fans are no joke, wearing their royal blue and red jerseys with pride.  Following a big win against the Arizona Diamondbacks, we made our way through the rowdy crowds, seeking shelter at Emporium Arcade Bar, an adult playground come to life.  If you could get your hands on any of the 400 machines found in this ‘barcade’, you can play Ms. Pac-Man while sippin’ on your PBR(s) and jammin’ to awesome tunes. The rest of the night is a little hazy, but I vaguely remember bar hopping and fireball shots being involved.

Monday

We attempted to cure our hangover with sunshine and the consumption of a lot of comfort food. Yolk offers a great food selection with more than just eggs on their menu. They’re known for pushing the envelope with creative breakfast and lunch items which include: scooped out pineapples filled with housemade Greek yogurt and fresh fruits or tasty Red Velvet FrenchToast.  Soon after eating and sipping on some much-needed coffee, we took Uber to Chicago’s landmark, Navy Pier. After taking a ride on the pier’s iconic Ferris wheel, our time left in Chicago was quickly approaching its end.

Our last stop on our trip was Lagunitas Brewing Company. Because why not get over a hangover at a brewery, right? Although the location is a bit rough around the edges, the facility’s size and interior more than make up for the sketchy locality. Be prepared to walk through many trippy hallways blasting Alice and Wonderland tunes.  Afterall, this is the headquarter of a beer-maker that believes the golden hued liquid they discharge out of a tap is the answer to social intercourse. My favorite part of Lagunitas, or any brewery for that matter, was their tap room. We sent our amazing long weekend off with lots of clinks of our Hop Stoopids and Sucks, a reference only true beer fans will understand.

‘Til next time, Chicago.

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

If someone told IMG_4108me a year ago that I’d be sitting in my tiny apartment writing about my recent adventure in Thailand, I’d giggle. Since college, I joked with close friends about going to Asia. At that time, taking a trip to the other side of the world was unimaginable. Sure some of us had already gotten a taste for international travel. But for some reason, the Orient always felt so foreign, so distant. In our minds, taking a trip to Asia meant we had made it. Not only in the financial/successful sense since any ticket over $300 at that time would have over drafted our bank accounts, but also in the transformative sense. We knew then that a trip like that would be life-changing. So naturally, when I venturesomely embarked on my Thailand adventure, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. I had made it and I would never be the same.

Thailand was truly everything I had dreamed of and more. This trip will forever hold the number one spot in my heart. Most of you must be thinking I’m speaking too soon. I haven’t been to every single place in the world (yet), so how could I make such an uninformed decision? Well, you don’t have to be coupled with every person in the world to choose your soul mate, right? Sometimes, “you just know”. So when you get your chance at speed dating with Thailand, here’s how you can fall in love:

Cycle – Bangkok Style

Bangkok is a vibrant city, offering a wide range of cultural activities and historical attractions to choose from. Although this colorful metropolis is mostly known for its lively nightlife, there are plenty of places to explore during daylight. My favorite experience while in Bangkok was the most unexpected: “Follow Me” Bike Tour. I must admit that I was extremely apprehensive about participating when the idea initially presented itself. I am not keen on bike riding, especially not in a city that houses over 10 million people and has the busiest rush hour I have ever experienced. But when in Bangkok…right?

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There are various tours to choose from. My friends and I selected the “Siam Boran” tour, the company’s most popular route. This excursion allows you to experience Bangkok like a true local.  Our ridiculously awesome tour guide, Matthew, took us up, down and across the ancient Chao Phraya River, allowing us to explore Bangkok’s lively Chinatown district, vegetable and flower markets, local temples and surrounding slums. For just 1200 baht (approximately $34), riders get a bike, ferry transfers, pictures, drinks, Thai snacks AND get to dip their feet in a fish foot spa—the Thai are just awesome like that. Group sizes depend on how many people sign-up, but we were lucky enough to be the only ones on our tour.

We took this tour on our very first day in Thailand, and I can’t think of a better way to start a trip with a bang! We learned the correct way to enter and sit in a temple, how to fold a real lotus flower; we ate fried grasshoppers, were able to make an offering to Buddha and even left with an irreplaceable keepsake: a piece of the Buddha’s robe. I have never felt so at peace in my life—even when I was sweating my life out, literally IN bumper to bumper traffic with thousands of cars and scooters during Bangkok’s infamous Friday rush hour. Most importantly, I met some of the friendliest locals ever (our tour guide included) who welcomed us to their country with open arms and infectious smiles.

Dine In The Sky

Although it’s very Hangover 2, you should definitely experience one of Bangkok’s sky-high restaurants. Besides serving delicious dishes incorporating juicy steaks, lamb and seafood, these restaurants offer guests a bird’s-eye-view of this magical city.  Teetering on the expensive side, this was the most money we spent on a meal during our stay. However, the amazing views and ambiance were worth every penny (or baht). We dined in style on the 61st floor of Vertigo and Moon Bar under the glimmering stars above and million sparkling lights below. If you’re afraid of heights, mentally prepare yourself. This skyscraper was built to allow the restaurant to be completely exposed, with no walls or structures blocking any views. You really feel like you’re dining on top of the world here.

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Hang With Monks

There are more than 400 wats (or temples) in Bangkok alone. Fortunately, many of the temples are located near each other, making them easy to find. I mean, who can really miss a towering building topped with shiny gold?

No temple in Thailand lacks majesty, making it difficult to choose which ones to visit. We were fortunate enough to see a lot of them during our stay; most of the famous ones, a few off the beaten path, each one with its own charm. The temple I favored was Wat Kanlayanamit, also known as the “best friends” temple. Unlike the more well-known temples, this house of worship had no crowds and no designated number on one of those “10 must-see temples in Thailand” lists. In fact, you will rarely find this sanctuary on any list. Visited mainly by locals, this is where I got to experience Buddhist rituals and practices. Clusters of bright orange robes surrounded me, as we all kneeled in front of the “awakened one”. I can still hear their penetrating chants today. It’s an indescribable event and one you truly have to experience to understand its greatness.

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Become a Budding Cook

I hear friends talk about how much they love Thai food all the time. I apologize in advance for sounding “braggy”, but you’ve never truly experienced Thai food unless you’ve been to Thailand. Specifically, until you’ve taken a cooking class there. We took ours during our stay in Chiang Mai, and let me tell you, I had THE BEST massaman chicken curry and pad thai there! During this jaunt, we got to shop for our food at a local market, cook 6 different meals–which included Thailand’s yummy mango sticky rice– and got to take swigs of our Chang beers as we devoured it all.  You will never eat Thai food anywhere that is not in Thailand or in your kitchen again.

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Hug a Tiger

You know how they say you can never feel more like a Disney princess than paying a visit to Magic Kingdom? Well, that was true until I visited Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. I have never felt more like Princess Jasmine than laying face to fur with a real tiger. Although there are a ton of allegations on handlers drugging tigers to keep them tranquil, I myself never saw any mistreatment or foul play. Since I don’t want to make this a controversial piece, I will stick to my visit.

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There’s no experience more exhilarating than hanging out in a cage with 5-6 carnivorous killing machines—let alone laying with them, touching them and even playing with them (only the baby tigers are allowed to play with humans).  This is one you have to answer for yourself. If you’re incredibly concerned about animal abuse and this just doesn’t feel right, then it probably shouldn’t be on your list. If you’re skeptical and want to see for yourself, then go give a tiger a high five.

Walk With Gentle Giants

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 presetElephant Nature Park was my all-time favorite experience in Thailand. This park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused and orphaned elephants. Their mission is not only to provide a sanctuary for these gentle giants, but to educate visitors on the plight of this endangered species. There is a dark side to elephant tourism that most of us are unaware of. If you’re ever interested in learning why you shouldn’t ride an elephant or have them doodle a picture for you, do your research.

We were lucky enough to have done ours before the trip, which led us to this wonderful pachyderm haven. At Elephant Nature Park, you get to be a trainer for a day. Meaning you get to feed, bathe and play with these magical creatures! As an elephant lover, this was a dream come true. It was an incredible and humbling experience to roam freely alongside these magnificent creatures. I can’t encourage you enough to add this one to your bucket list.

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Indulge in a Rubdown

Go to any spa anywhere in the world and you will most likely see “Thai Massage” on the menu. I am still unsure as to why Thai massages became so popular, but I can vouch that the Thai have perfected their craft. There are almost as many spas in Thailand as there are 7-eleven’s, so choose carefully. We waited until we arrived in Phuket to treat ourselves. From the minute we entered the spa, a sense of serenity could be felt. We were immediately handed cool towels and a list of spa treatments to choose from.  Not only did we indulge in massages, we all took deliciously warm milk baths in our own private rooms to help hydrate our skin. After sweating so much, your skin will love you for it.

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Island Hop

Processed with VSCOcam with k1 presetEver watch Leo DiCaprio’s movie The Beach and imagine yourself sitting on the sand, looking out into the distance at dramatic limestone cliffs peaking their heads out of glimmering turquoise waters? Yeah, we all have.

If you find yourself in Phuket, you MUST hop on one of those rustic long tail boats and explore the surrounding islands. We opted for a snorkeling trip (shout out to Nudi Tours), allowing us not only to explore the different islands, but the exotic marine life too. I have never felt like I was living in a postcard until I embarked on this journey. We had died and gone to beach heaven.

Processed with VSCOcam with k2 presetThe trip consisted of alternating between snorkeling and basking in the sun –each time on a new island. We were able to see an array of beautifully colored fish and explore islands such as: Phi Phi Don, Maya Bay and Monkey Island. If you ever want to check “Utopia” off your list, make this tour a priority.
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Something happened to me on this trip—it’s almost as if the lens on my glasses changed to a brighter, rosier tone. Thailand helped me build my confidence enough to believe that I can do anything. Therefore, I can do everything.

Hopefully now you get a better understanding of my love for the land of smiles!

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The Celebrity Equinox, docked in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Celebrity Equinox, docked in Istanbul, Turkey.

How disappointing would it be to fly overseas to catch your cruise ship, only to be denied entry into the country? Foreign Visa requirements are just one of the many items covered within the first few pages of your Cruise Passenger Ticket/Booklet. And, whether you book yourself, book online or use a travel agent (our recommendation), it’s always a good idea to look through your Cruise Docs. Often, we (especially veteran cruisers who have been to the same location) overlook reviewing the cruise docs, except for the correct spelling of our names and other pertinent “official ID info.”

A great example is our most recent cruise, a one way trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy. I booked it myself, and, as a veteran cruiser with family who visited Istanbul a couple of years ago, I did not immediately skim through the Cruise Docs. Thankfully, I viewed them with over a month to go before our flight and discovered that an E-Visa was necessary for entry into Turkey. That stipulation was NOT in effect when my family members visited Istanbul. Celebrity Cruises made it very easy to obtain the E-Visas, with links via their own website.

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

pic001Florida is a clever little sucker. Let me tell you why. As a self-proclaimed “weekender,” I regularly study maps of Florida in search of my next mini getaway. My eyes tend to gravitate towards the peninsula’s coasts, hoping to lay themselves on our next beach-town adventure. I have never seen Anna Maria Island (AMI) marked on any of the maps I’ve carefully analyzed, which is why I was caught off guard when my boyfriend gifted me with a weekend stay on the island for my birthday. Had my eyes failed me? Was this a premature sign of ageing hitting me in the wake of my 28th birthday? I quickly grabbed my laptop for validation. Although AMI was not listed on any map, I soon learned a lot about this hidden paradise and the state it resides in: they are both really good at keeping secrets.

Another Day In Paradise

Approximately 40 miles south of Tampa, tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, sits this subtropical nirvana. The teeny island houses less than 15,000 residents and 3 tiny communities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (middle) and Bradenton Beach (south). With only one main road running north to south of this 7-by-2 mile island, AMI is the epitome of a small town. It proves, however, that big things really do come in small packages.

Our journey to paradise began very early. I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Before allowing my mind to go to a really dark place, I quickly reminded it that in just a few hours, we (my mind and I) would be laid back on a beach adding color to that wonderful tan we work 104 days a year for.

Since we were extremely excited about exploring the island, it wasn’t long before we arrived. We didn’t even stop for coffee, a common occurrence in all of our road trips. Catching sight of the Cortez Bridge, we knew we had arrived. The bridge is the only thing that connects the real world to this magical oasis. An old, historical fishing village is sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if it was left there to remind incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain. We drove directly to our hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge, our eyes slowly adjusting to the colorful beach cottages that served as a backdrop.

Our place wasn’t ready when we arrived– apparently even housekeeping live on island time. It didn’t faze us. We were in no rush to take refuge in our hotel room anyway. The property manager and his buddy were taking a break from the island’s heat in the inn’s office. After finding out it was our first time visiting AMI, they excitedly advised us of local eateries, bars and shops to check out. For the remainder of our stay, we used their informal itinerary as a guide for our exploration of the island. I’ll be forever indebted to them for leading us to some of the most perfect places I’ve ever visited. I hope this article does the same for you. Here’s what you should do:

Ditch Your Cottage, Explore The Landscape

A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate the island’s landscape. The most challenging part of your day will be deciding on your transportation. You can hop on the island’s FREE trolley, rent a bike or scooter from one of the local rental shops, or use your very own two feet. Whatever your choice is, you will find plenty to look at.  One thing you won’t see on the island is high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its true old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s as if time was paused here 30 years ago and never started up again.

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But don’t let my description confuse you. Not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although they are no higher than 3 stories tall, jaw dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Though beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo. Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.

Overload On Island Grub

Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. You will not find any golden arches here. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp, fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.

But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular gem known by every local can be found just off the main road on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment, a tiny boutique donut shop, allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based dunker. From key lime glazes to maple bacon or Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this island shop.

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Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Drink Like A Local

Bars can be found all over the island, ranging from rustic beachside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops displaying tropical motifs. Best way to describe AMI’s nightlife:  A Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” In a land where flip-flops and shorts are standard and overloading on piña coladas is expected, packing should never be a cause of panic. Always choose comfort.   

The main thing to look for when bar hopping is live music. Be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to a live rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl or a funky version of Rapper’s Delight. Unlike Key West, the local musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a buck–they truly get to know their audience. We went from nervously calling out requests, to taking shot after shot with our entertainers and fellow escapees. Definitely check out AMI’s popular Bridgewalk area. Some of our favorite bars were located there:  Bridge Tender Inn and Waterfront Bar.

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Experience A Golden Hour – West Coast-Style

Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. As long as you’re on the west side of the island, you can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the island. Establishments like Sandbar crowd up just as the sun is about to set, prizing lucky guessers with a complimentary drink should they predict the correct sunset time. If there were ever a photo opp on the island, it would be during sunset. After all, sunset lighting is the best lighting, right? I’ll let the pictures work their magic.

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Soak Up The Rays

The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. You won’t find many beach goers catching rays earlier than 10 a.m. There is plenty of space on the sugary white sand, so don’t worry too much about reserving a spot. The translucent turquoise water is just the right temperature to refresh those in need of a cool down. Swooping pelicans plunge into the pristine water in hopes of catching their next meal, while bottlenose dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen and yummy drinks to get you by, but be sure you leave all alcohol behind in your cottage. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on AMI’s beaches, unless you’re sipping it while sitting at one of those cute oceanfront tiki bars.

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Anna Maria Island turned out to be a very special place. If you’re looking for a slower, simpler Key West, this is the place for you. Something else I learned from this vacation: I apparently can’t keep a secret.

Today, we are excited to present the first story from our new contributor, Stephanie Bonilla! Her enthusiasm and passions for travel are apparent in her writing and now our fellow cruisers and travelers will benefit, while getting to know her. You can also learn a bit more about Stephanie via our Contributors page!


 

Stephanie Bonilla

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

How many times do cruise takers hop on an aircraft, take a taxi (or Uber), making it just in time to board their ocean greyhound and embark on their next adventure? Countless. How many of those passengers consider exploring the backyard of the ports they originally depart from? Not many.

Port Canaveral, also known as the “turnaround” port, is home to Florida’s second busiest cruise port. With popular cruise lines such as Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian using it to dock their vessels, thousands of passengers pour over gangplanks daily. Although the port’s locality doesn’t have much to offer, there are plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored near-by. Take heed of the following piece of travel wisdom: Disney World will be the top contender when asking the Internet for advice– but there is much more to see in Central Florida than the mouse! Rather than fall victim to the common tourist traps, I challenge you to overcome your Disney itch and travel a little farther north to a place many locals have labeled as Mother Nature’s playground.

Blue Spring State Park

Just under an hour and a half drive from the port and only thirty minutes farther than the greater Orlando-area, wedged between your typical Central Florida neighborhood and more live oak trees than you can count, lies a hidden oasis. Since you can easily obtain all the park’s facts from a simple Internet search, I will refrain from spewing them out at you. All you really need to know is Blue Spring State Park covers over 2,600 acres and serves as a Manatee Refuge to a growing population of buoyant sea cows. The park’s biggest attraction, respectively called Blue Springs, is one of Central Florida’s hidden treasures. For the low fare of $6 per vehicle, visitors can cannon ball into one of nature’s swimming pools, hike miles of unspoiled wilderness, enjoy a barbeque in one of the park’s numerous pavilions, or bait up and cast their fishing line near the river’s shore. No matter what you’re into, this park’s got you covered. Now more on my adventure…

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park entrance

Blue Spring State Park entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springin’ It
3-4 hours

After being greeted by friendly park staff, we quickly stumbled upon a tunnel of trees that lead us to the parking lot. Excited families with multicolored floats in arm caught my eyes as they disappeared behind oak trees, eagerly making their way towards the spring. I quickly got in my two-piece, kicked off my flip-flops and happily lugged my 4-foot hot pink donut float down a windy boardwalk. Arriving at the shore of the awe-inspiring turquoise waters, I could feel the explorer vibes flowing through my body. They were quickly stunned as my skin touched the 73-degree crystalline water. Man, was it cold! It took my body a couple of minutes to adjust to the chilly temperature. Although I’m a Miamian who prefers its lukewarm oceans, the excitement of exploring this swimming hole for the adventurous numbed any feeling of discomfort. You have the option of swimming, tubing, snorkeling or scuba diving down the spring. For those feeling a little more energetic, a thin rope serves as a divider for visitors who prefer to kayak or canoe. Forgot your raft? Equipment rentals for almost all of the water activities mentioned can be rented at the ground’s concession for a small fee—minus the scuba gear. We opted to bring our own floats and goggles in an effort to save a couple of bucks.

As we made our way down the spring, bathers congregated around the spring’s boil, watching jumpers leap off of trees and sandy banks into the clear blue water. This particular area is a magnet for scuba divers, housing an underwater cave and an abundance of marine life. Divers and snorkelers alike delve into the depth of this blue hole, attempting to unlock the cave’s mysteries. After spending a couple of hours soaking up the sun and investigating the spring, we decided to tap out and grab a quick snack.

The springs at Blue Spring Park

The springs at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

Picnicking
1 hour

The park’s grounds have a variety of places visitors can use to kick back and dry off. Pavilions, BBQ pits, and grassy areas can be found just outside the spring’s boardwalk, with families migrating here to get their grub on. For the most part, these areas are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so keep that in mind when making lunch plans. Though the park offers both food and drinks for purchase, we opted to bring our own ham and cheese sandwiches and hung out on the grass. Beer drinkers beware: alcoholic beverages are not allowed on park grounds. As the first one to crave a refreshing IPA to quench my thirst, I must admit I was a little bummed.

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hiking

2-3 hours

As soon as lunch was over, we decided to walk some calories off on one of the park’s nature trails. We began our voyage at Pine Island Trail, a lesser-known, less-used terrain. Immediately upon entering the trailhead, hikers are welcomed by a sign warning them that this is a one-way path. 4.5 miles each way, the trail offers dense forests, shady resting areas, casual scrub-jay sightings, and plenty of photo opps. Nature’s magic is truly felt as you make your way through massive live oaks, leaving the sounds of humans behind. During our hike, we were lucky enough to spot scrub-jays, cardinals, deer, turtles, and a variety of insects. Love bugs are prevalent in this area, so don’t be surprised if a couple of intertwined honeymoon flies land on you. Overall, the long walk was well worth it. Since nearly a mile of the trail is fully exposed to the sun in each direction, I highly recommend that anyone taking this journey apply lots of sunscreen. Also, make sure to bring some H2O with you as well a bug spray. You’ll thank me later.

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Lagniappe
1-2 hours

If you’re all park’d out and still have time to spare, I highly suggest taking a drive 7 miles west to the near-by city, Deland. Located smack in the middle of Deland’s downtown strip is Santorini Greek Cuisine, a yelper’s dream come true. This little hole-in-the-wall offers great service, an array of Greek food options, and a relaxing vibe. For some of the best Greek food that will ever grace your palette, order the restaurant’s Athenian Chicken with a side of their lemon roasted potatoes. It’s enough for two and probably the best $13 you’ll ever spend.

Sweet tooth nudging you? Walk on over to Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things for your choice of creamy ice cream and chocolate-covered-anything. If chocolate covered bacon doesn’t entice you, try one of their dark mint truffles or imported licorice. It won’t disappoint.

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine's Athenian Chicken

The Athenian Chicken!

Pat & Toni's Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those with time to kill after getting off a ship at Port Canaveral should not think twice about making it out to this magnificent, pristine land. In less than 10 hours, visitors can enjoy a day full of activities, unforgettable adventures, and great food. Although at first glance this area doesn’t seem like it has much to offer, it proves that venturing away from your typical tourist stomping grounds can pay off. Remember, true adventure seekers don’t have to stand in 3-hour lines wearing Mickey ears!

Earlier this week, Royal Caribbean revealed its Caribbean plans for 2016-17. What better way to escape (mentally anyway!) the cold weather for a few moments and begin to think about future escapes?! Here we go:

Caribbean, Bermuda, and Canada & New England Adventures from Northeast U.S.

  • Quantum-class Anthem of the Seas will continue year-round sailings from Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, N.J., and make its maiden season at Bermuda. Vacationers have a choice of five-night Bermuda or nine-night Bermuda and Caribbean itineraries throughout the summer, and eight- to 12-night Bahamas, Eastern, Western or Southern Caribbean cruises during the winter.
  • Throughout September and October, Anthem of the Seas will sail nine-night Canada and New England cruises from Cape Liberty, and Serenade of the Seas will offer seven-night Canada and New England cruises from Boston, Mass.
  • Grandeur of the Seas will sail five-night Bermuda, nine-night Bermuda and Bahamas, and nine-night Canada and New England cruises throughout the summer. In the winter, the ship will sail nine-night Southeast Coast & Bahamas and 12-night Southern Caribbean cruises.
Artist's rendering of Slides on Harmony of the Sea

Artist’s rendering of Slides on Harmony of the Sea

Everywhere in the Caribbean, from South Florida

  • From Miami, Enchantment of the Seas will sail three- and four-night short Bahamas getaways year-round, while Navigator of the Seas will alternate five-night Bahamas and Mexico with nine-night Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Labadee cruises in the winter.
  • Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas will sail a Western Caribbean and two new Eastern Caribbean itineraries in summer 2016, all seven nights in length and departing from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Allure of the Seas will then be joined by the next groundbreaking, Oasis-class cruise ship Harmony of the Seas to offer a seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itinerary for winter 2016-17. Oasis of the Seas, meanwhile, will reposition to its new winter home of Port Canaveral along Florida’s Coast.
  • In the winter, Independence of the Seas will follow a sequence of four- and five-night short Western Caribbean itineraries from Port Everglades, while sister-ship Freedom of the Seas will alternate a six-night Western Caribbean with an eight-night Eastern Caribbean itinerary. For a longer vacation, Serenade of the Seas alternates a 10- and 11-night Southern Caribbean itinerary.

‘Out-of-this-world’ Caribbean Vacations from Florida’s Space Coast

  • Freedom of the Seas will continue alternating seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries during the summer 2016, and then reposition to Port Everglades for its new winter season.
  • For the winter 2016-17, Oasis of the Seas will inaugurate Oasis-class adventures from Port Canaveral, alternating a seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itinerary. Rhapsody of the Seas will take over three- and four-night Bahamas cruises from Enchantment of the Seas.
  • Vacationers also can choose quick four- and five-night Western Caribbean cruises throughout winter aboard Brilliance of the Seas from Tampa, Fla.
The Liberty of the Seas

The Liberty of the Seas

Mexico and Southern Caribbean from Galveston and Puerto Rico

  • Liberty of the Seas will continue its year-round deployment sailing from Galveston, Texas, offering vacationers a wide selection of seven-night Mexico and Western Caribbean cruises.
  • Vacationers also can choose seven-night, Southern Caribbean itineraries, sailing year-round from San Juan, Puerto Rico, aboard Adventure of the Seas. In the winter, Jewel of the Seas also will home port at San Juan and sail to the Southern Caribbean.

That’s it for now! Remember, we can help you booking your next cruise, including groups, with our partner, Cruises With A Personal Touch, where you’re guaranteed what the name relays! We also assist agents with their marketing, both print and digital, including group cruise websites! Cheers!