There's so much to love about a cruise -- just being on the sea, plus cabin balconies, exciting ports, doting service, buzzing nightlife, lots of food, great children's programming and so on and so on. But there is room for improvement, too.
In the spirit of offering both praise and constructive criticism, here's my ten cents about nine great and not-so-great cruise moments on six Asia, Europe, and North America sailings I did in the past year.
Five Top Cruise Moments of 2008
1. The wind in my hair. If there's a heaven on earth, it's actually aboard a 170-passenger tall ship called the Star Flyer (www.starclippers.com) sailing in French Polynesia. Every day of the cruise it's the same thing: palm-fringed islets, amazing teal water, stunning snorkeling and moody sunsets melting behind the ship's rigging.
2. Happy kids. There's nothing more comforting to a parent than knowing your child is having a good, safe, fairly wholesome time nearby while you do some adult stuff, ala spa treatments, work-out classes, and relaxing drinks. My six-year-old boys loved going to the playroom aboard the Splendor of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com) and were greeted with cheerful counselors and fun activities each day of our Europe cruise.
3. Great service. The main dining-room staff aboard the Carnival Victory (www.carnival.com) on an eastern Canada cruise was top notch. Sharp and efficient, they not only served our food and drink promptly and as ordered, they doted on our sons and always made sure they had kiddy menus to draw on, crayons and second helpings.
4. A day in Santorini. Though we had to share the magical island with a few thousand other cruise passengers, my husband, two sons and I had a wonderful day exploring on our own. First we did the donkey schlep up the zigzagging hill from the ship to the town of Fira at the top of the cliff, which my boys just loved. Up at the top, we wondered along cobblestone streets until we came up a quiet cafÃ© that clung to the cliffside and opened up to amazing views of the island and harbor. We had an amazing lunch of local specialties, including a tomato salad, lamb kebabs and fava (mashed beans and olive oil).
5. Excellent guides. On a recent Pandaw river cruise aboard the 60-passenger Orient Pandaw (www.pandaw.com) on the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, the two local guides that sailed on board with us were excellent and their presence really ratcheted up the quality of our trip. They shared their own experiences as natives of these two fascinating countries and also taught us reams about the history and culture of both. They chatted with passengers on board and also accompanied us on all shore excursions, which were included in the fare.
Four Worst Cruise Moments of 2008
1. The hard sell Not only are spa treatments prices sky high (a company called Steiner operates almost all ship spas and their 50-minute standard massages run $109 to$145, not including the expected 15% tip!), but typically on most ships the therapists are absolutely shameless in pushing products at the end of the treatments, sometimes rambling on for 10 to 15 minutes. Obviously they make commissions, but faux pas on greatly cheapening the cruise experience with the hard sell spiel. Another rant, in the so-called relaxation waiting areas attached to many ship spas for the use of passengers waiting to have a treatment; instead of peace and quiet, on a recent Legend of the Seas cruise out of Singapore, it was the venue for seminars about cellulite treatments.
2. The lines. On the Carnival Victory eastern Canada cruise, a 20- to 30-minute slow shuffle through the breakfast buffet line was par for the course, so was a 15-minute wait for a decaf coffee at the coffee bar. On the Legend of the Seas sailing, we waited more than an hour to get off the boat in Penang, Malaysia. There's no beating around the bush, big ships equal big lines. If you're cruising with more than 2,000 shipmates, expect to wait.
3. The Rude behavior. I might expect it from a passenger or two, but not from the ship's staff. On a Legend of the Seas cruise out of Singapore in December, I was taken aback when a gaggle of crew members (mostly officers and crew from spa, casino, entertainment and shops departments) continued to talk loudly during a production show, even after I asked them to keep it down. They were standing at the back of the lounge, within a foot or two of dozens of audience members.
4. The Food. There are inherent challenges in feeding thousands of passengers at a time, but that's still no excuse for luke-warm pasta and cold pork chops, not to mention forgotten drinks orders. On our recent Legend of the Seas cruise in Asia, we felt like we were in a Laurel and Hardy sketch. Sweaty waiters sprinted between tables scrambling to keep up.
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