Matt and I have been cruising for a while now and so we know what we like and what we don't -- 'cause of course all cruises are not created equally. Some offer better value and higher quality service than others, some are geared to social, Vegas types and other quiet bookworms. Some are fancy-schmancy and others are yee-haw casual. Different strokes ...
Last month, we did a piece on our favorite embarkation ports, our own personal dream cruises, and some favorite moments from our decade-and-a-half of covering cruises. This month, we take a look at our fave onboard spaces and itineraries, and kick around a few of our cruise pet peeves.
Favorite Onboard Spaces of All Time
Star Clipper's Star Flyer, Foredeck: For me, it's what being on a ship is all about -- the elements, the waves, the beauty of the ship itself. Standing on the teak decks of this lovely replica of a 19th-century clipper ship, I love the wind in my hair, the ship bucking the surf, and the fading sun melting across the sky. The sails, rigging and lack of glitzy big-ship distractions create a sublime mood that just can't be matched. At night, the inky black sky is dotted with millions of stars, by days it billowing puffs of white clouds and flapping sails above. The triangle of deck at the front of the ship is the perfect place to enjoy all this, to reflect, appreciate and revel in nature (and your good fortune for being there in the first place).
Cunard QM2, Chart Room, Deck 3: A gorgeous throwback to a lost age of ocean travel, the Chart Room lounge evokes 1940s sophistication and glamour with its high ceilings and green-glass Deco wall maps. It's one of my favorite places to just sit and nurse drinks, enjoying quiet conversation and soft music like generations have before aboard the grand liners. I love that the space is wonderfully devoid of neon, bling and other forms of crass artifice, and I'm free to soak up the retro design, airy feel, and elegance of this old-world gem.
Crystal Serenity and Symphony, Connoisseur Club, Deck 6: The setting is appealingly moody and old-world-ish, with dim lighting, dark wood paneling and louvered window shades. It's one of my favorite spots to relax with a glass of wine after a long day of touring. I much prefer the Connoisseur Club's warm, rich atmosphere created by traditional leather furniture and classically framed art than the cold, stark modernism or glitzy brass of many cruise ship public rooms.
Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, Central Park neighborhood: I've written about this so much already, but I'll recap here: The open-air Central Park, a 21,000-square-foot tropical garden that resides in the deep canyon that runs up Oasis's center, is probably the most amazing space I've ever seen on a cruise ship. Planted with about 12,000 individual trees, plants, vines, and flowers, and containing several restaurants, a couple bars, an art gallery, and a couple understated shops, it's a remarkably adult space. When I was aboard in November I had so much to do that I didn't spend as much time as I would have liked here, but when I sail again, I plan to spend hours and hours relaxing at the little Trellis Bar, sipping a beer and reading a book.
Cunard QM2, forward observation area, Deck 11: Perched just below the bridge, facing the bow, this little covered viewing deck is one of the great spots in the cruise world from which to sail into or out of a port -- and preferably a major port, like New York or Southampton. You essentially get the same view the officers on the bridge are getting, looking out over the ship's massive bow as it cuts the sea.
Regal Empress, Commodore Club: The old Regal Empress, late of Imperial Majesty, Regal, and Commodore Cruises, is with us no more, finally scrapped after almost 60 years of service, so I feel double-justified in waxing nostalgic. The whole ship was great, but my favorite spot was the cozy little Commodore Club, a wood-paneled space at midship, hung with nautical prints and comfortably weathered like the face of an old saloon singer. On each side of the room were little sunken seating nooks, with windows out to the sea. Those were my favorite. Last time I was there, a pianist was playing standards and identical twin Chinese bartenders were serving me White Russians. How can you beat that, really? RIP, Regal Empress.
Norwegian Fjords: Ohmygod: the scenery on a Norway cruise is mind-blowing. How often can you really say that? A 7-night cruise round-trip out of Copenhagen is a great way to see Norway's unbelievably gorgeous fjords and landscape. Cruising between ports like Geiranger, Flam, Bergen, Stavanger, and Oslo affords views of the steep-sided granite cliffs, rustic fishing villages and the backdrop of towering and jagged snow-capped peaks. Treks, train rides and amazing bus excursions take you close up into the country's gorgeous natural bounty. I'll never forget an amazing 10-km hike we did from the port of Hellesylt that weaved along a river, though wind-swept fields, down tree-lined cow paths and along wildflower-lined cliffs. Lakes, mountains and waterfalls, it's all there in a most pristine, perfect state.
French Polynesia: Straight out of central casting, the remote islands, atolls and lagoons of gorgeous French Polynesia are set against the backdrop of Bora Bora's iconic mountainous profile. The beaches are powdery and white, the blue-green color of the water out of this world, and the snorkeling practically a religious experience. Seven- to 10-night itineraries typically sail round-trip out of Papeete, Tahiti, and include some combination of ports in two of French Polynesia's five island groups, the Tuamotu and Society islands, such as Fakarava and Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu Islands, and Bora Bora, Tahaa or Raitea, Huahine, and Moorea, in the Society Islands.
Greek Isles: One of my favorite itineraries is a 7-night cruise between Istanbul and Athens, with visits to islands and ports like Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes, Greece, and Turkey's Bodrum and Kusadasi, filling each day with beauty, intrigue and awe. There's history in the ancient ruins of an Acropolis or medieval chapel; simple beauty in the white-washed homes and cobblestone streets; and amazing flavors in the delicious local seafood, fresh vegetables, olives and wines of the Mediterranean diet. Small ships like the Windstar yachts are an ideal way to see this part of the world as so much time can be spent up on deck, wind in your hair, sails over head, and gorgeous Mediterranean culture and landscape all around you.
Matt's FavesSince Heidi already glommed on to some of my picks, I'll have to list some alternates, which are pretty great themselves.
Western Alaska & Siberia: This is a rare itinerary that seems to be getting rarer by the year, which is probably appropriate because it sure isn't for everybody. Where the more typical cruising areas of Alaska offer endless thick forests, skyscraper mountains, and charming little port towns, Alaska's northwestern coast and its near-twin across the Bering Sea are hard, barren, and nearly deserted. Above the polar tree line, where permafrost and other variables make it impossible for trees to take root, the area has a severe, rarified aspect that appeals to me. It's silent, stark, and damn near unlivable -- the exact opposite of places you expect to go on a cruise. Alaska's southwestern coast isn't nearly so severe, and makes for a nice return to normalcy after your trip to the moon. Kodiak, for instance, is so homey that I wanted to just pack up and move there after my first visit. The Kodiak Island Brewing Company cooks up some nice beers and ales, too.
The Iberian Peninsula & Balearic Islands:Eastern Mediterranean itineraries, which typically hit some charming Greek islands and history-drenched Italian and Turkish cities, get all the best press, but don't count out the western Med. A while back I did a cruise that sailed from the historic Moorish city of Malaga in southern Spain and stopped in Majorca (another of my "Yeah, I could live here" islands), Barcelona, and the weird little port of Ceuta in Spanish Morocco -- which I'll bet you didn't even know existed. Another cruise took me around the Iberian coast, stopping in gorgeous, atmosphere-drenched Lisbon (cue the fado music) and the smaller Portuguese city of Porto, home to a certain famous fortified wine.
The Grenadines:The big cruise lines tend to hit the big Western and Eastern Caribbean ports, but for my money the Grenadines in the southeastern Caribbean are the place to be -- assuming you're looking for a quiet, small-scale, laid-back kind of Caribbean vacation. You'll probably have to go on a sailing ship, but that only adds to the wonderfulness. Little Bequia is my favorite Caribbean island of all, with its charming main town, Port Elizabeth; its idyllic beaches, and its hilly but very walkable interior. Union Island, about 30 miles to the south, offers few facilities, few people, and nothing more to do than relax, swim, snorkel, and visit the several small bars around Chatham Bay.
Top Cruise Pet Peeves
Heidi's Least Faves
Turning the lights up in the restaurant: This has happened to me more than once (Carnival and Costa come to mind most recently), when I've been in both the early and late seatings in the main restaurant. In a not-so-subtle hint to get diners to hit the road, the wait staff turns up the lights to dramatically send the message, "hellloooo, get out!!" Sure, if you're in the early seating, the staff has to set up for the second seating, but this has also happened to me on the late seating as the staff is eager to close up the dining room for the night. Tack-keeee! This low-brow way of making a statement certainly does nothing for the overall ambience.
The hard sell: Unfortunately this happens more and more as cruise lines try to increase onboard revenue. Sure, everyone's got to make money, but hotels certainly aren't so shameless and tactless when trying to increase their bottom lines. From spa therapists pushing expensive creams and skin products at the end of relaxing treatments to cruise staff hawking cruise videos (the video of that week's cruise that's for sale) in the aisles of the theater before show time, it really bugs me. Loud art auctioneers commandeering atriums to shout about their fabulous (not always) art is another too-blatant way to get passengers to part with their cash. Couth people, couth.
No seats: It's no secret the lido buffet restaurants on the mega ships do a brisk business, but there's something wrong when they're literally isn't a seat to be had. More than once I've circled enormous food-court like restaurants in search of a free table for my family and to no avail (recent Royal Caribbean cruises and a Disney sailing a few years back come to mind). Standing around with a tray of food waiting for someone to vacate a table isn't my idea of a relaxing "luxury" cruise. Someone in charge needs to make sure there are more tables, fewer passengers, more restaurants or something.
Matt's Least Faves
Onboard art auctions: For my money, the only thing good about the kinds of art auctions held aboard most of the mainstream and luxe lines is the free champagne they offer to try and lull passengers into bidding when they shouldn't. The auctioneers (employees of an outside company that arranges the shows) work hard to give the impression that the hundreds of pieces spread around the room are rare, important, and valuable works of original art, sought by serious collectors. Ha! Generally they're prints, which is a fancy way of saying copies. Nothing wrong with that, and I do have a few prints of my own around the house, but please: Real collectors collect originals, and real collectors also collect art that's good, which most of this stuff isn't. Do yourself and the muses a favor and spend your money instead on an original by some unknown artist or artisan you discover in a little shop or gallery somewhere, either on your trip or after you get home. That artist can probably use the money, and who knows, maybe he'll turn out to be the next Van Gogh. (Note: A few cruise lines seem to be moving away from these cheesy auctions. Royal Caribbean's new Oasis of the Seas, for instance, has a much more interesting art program based around artists whose work is displayed on the ship.)
Lowest-common-denominator entertainment: If I hear yet another version of "Music of the Night" or "Greased Lightning" (from Grease) in a cruise ship production show, I think I'll just sit down and cry. I know the excuses -- I know cruise line entertainment departments need to create shows and programs that appeal to a wide variety of passengers, of different ages and tastes, some of whom don't speak any or much English -- but there's no reason to boil all the music and theater available from the past 3,000 years of human culture down to just a few dozen schmaltzy standards and use them over and over and over and over again, always belted out by a plain-voiced boy singer and a multi-octave Celine-wannabe, backed by a dozen leggy dancers in feather boas. Where's the imagination!? I know better shows are possible because I've seen them, mostly aboard Disney and NCL. C'mon, other cruise lines, show some initiative!
Superlatives that runneth over: Open most cruise line brochures, including shore excursion booklets, and they'll jump out all over you: adjectives. "This unparalleled adventure takes you through this wonderful island's rich, beautiful interior to reach Point Hoogabooga, the most gorgeous spot from which to view the incredible expanse of Island X's enchanting coastline." Yuck. Double-yuck. For me, this kind of thing is like the boy who cried wolf: If every excursion is wonderful and adventurous and unparalleled and sure to delight, how to choose? On the other hand, frustration might drive you into the arms of an experienced travel writer and his guidebooks, keeping somebody like, say, me employed. So maybe I can live with this pet peeve after all . . .
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