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

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!

euro2Hello everybody, and Happy Holidays to all!  We’re back again today to address a little bit about one’s attitude, and how we handle difficult, or unpopular situations.

The key to this is doing the best you can to remember that any event that does not go as you envision does not make you upset, angry…or disturbed.  This, we do to ourselves.  It is how we CHOOSE to react to a difficult person, or the food coming out cold, or finding that first scratch on your car (the car…the scratch is my most difficult one!).

The same applies to how we answer the question…did you enjoy your cruise?  We are human, and we tend to remember the few items that did not go our way.  We are programmed this way.  Take the news on television.  Would ratings do well if the majority of news reported was good news, with lots of human interest stories?  Do we get some kind of pleasure from watching bad things happen to other people, and sitting there, thinking that we are glad it wasn’t us?  There is no right or wrong answer here, just something to think about.

About four years ago, we were booked on the NCL Pearl. A couple of months after booking, with full payment already in, we received the call.  The call was to tell us that the ship would be taken out of service for the week of our cruise!  Talk about scrambling.  I got on the phone right away, trying to find a cruise that leaves the same week, for the same duration of time.  And, I had to do this for eight other people, which included two couples flying in from other states.  it was disappointing, as we are NCL fans, and, I wanted to bowl at sea!  But, we push on.

The Eurodam!

The Eurodam!

Later that day, we chose to sail with Holland America.  Cathy and I were cautiously excited.  I heard many wonderful things about HAL, but remember, I work in an active-adult retirement community.  And, this was the crowd that raved about HAL!  I was kind of concerned we would be cruising “where I work!”  But back to HAL, just heard many good things about their service.  So, we were ready to experience a line we would normally NOT book…at least not without our grandparents coming with us!

We all boarded, and the first impression was a good one.  We rented a private cabana for the week, and enjoyed having this anytime we wanted. I liked the food, the entertainment was fine and the ship never seemed overly crowded.  But, this is what puzzled us.  No overcrowded feeling, yet we were not receiving the type of HAL service everybody raved about.

Relaxing in the private cabana.

Relaxing in the private cabana.

Were the chocolate covered strawberries and bottled Evian in our cabanas everyday as was advertised…no.  Was the private attendant accessible all of the time…no.  In the buffet, was it slow and did they run out of milk, forcing us to wait and slow the lines?  Yes.  Dinner service was abnormally slow, when compared to our several (31) past experiences.

Although our expectations of an HAL Cruise were high, and we were surprised at the lack of attention to detail at times, we still had a heck of a time.  The positives outweighed the negatives, and this is how you have to think if you go into anything with any sort of expectations.  The HAL cruise wasn’t a perfect Cruise Customer Experience, but it was still an excellent experience, and a nice trip.  About three days in we learned that the ship was sent out some 90 crew members short.  Should the crew member have told us that…I don’t know.  But if this was true, all the more reason to feel that under the circumstances, the crew and staff did an admirable job.

Remember, only we have the power to control how we react to things.  Events do not make us angry or happy…we do!  If you can grasp this, you can always enhance your Cruise Experience!

Not using the elevators is a good thing, but I mean, do you pay good money to vacation on one of these behemoths AND workout while you are cruise vacationing?  If you answered yes, maybe I’ll see you in the gym!

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Going to the gym…then, the buffet. Took the stairs, of course!

Fitness Centers on cruise ships have come a long way.  In 1992, I remember my first trek into the gym on a ship; it was the Sovereign of the Seas (RCCI).  The room they called the gym was pretty small.  Dumbells were limited.  I expected to find stack machines (machine with weight plate, with intensity changed by moving a pin, but instead found machines that used air as resistance.  Furthermore, the selection of the machines didn’t cover all of the basic movements.  But, I’m a positive thinker, so I improvised and had a nice workout.

Today, the gyms are very large, fully equipped (still not many free weights, but understandable on a moving ship) and usually situated very close to a full service spa.  They now have everything you need to get a full body workout.  My favorite thus far, the gym on the NCL Epic.  It was epic…and larger than the retail gym I frequent.  Can’t wait to see, and use, the gym on the Breakaway.  If you go to a gym, please put equipment in its place and stack the weights and plates, when you are finished!!

Does It Influence You With Regards to The Ship You Book?

Enjoying a cupcake on the Allure.  Loved it...doesn't mean everyone will!!

Enjoying a cupcake on the Allure. Loved it…doesn’t mean everyone will!!

As a Senior Ops Exec for a large-scale community, I’ve learned that 10,000 people = 10,000 opinions. With this logic, some will love the local, chain, buffet restaurant…some will dislike it immensely. I, for one, will not even attempt to be a food critic. Nor will I allow a reviewer to influence my food choices…UNLESS that reviewer knows me (well) and my picky eating habits. Everyone has different tastes, taste buds…etc. I’m not speaking of the Cruise Experience…you can have a nice experience and not be nuts about the food.

What do you all think?