Tag Archives: Norwegian Epic

Chasing Castle Intell

cesky-krumlov-69TRAVEL THERE:  RESEARCHING CESKY KRUMLOV CASTLE

Our day in Cesky Krumlov was one I will long cherish, but Museum Girl was mad at me.  My faithful followers know me and they know that as much as I love to eat, I’m willing to miss a meal in order to visit a good museum (or castle or palace or abbey etc.)  I live for museums.  I have this ever-growing collection of historical and artistic items in my head and one of my main goals in life is to expand it.  On this particular day, I abandoned my prime directive and I’m glad I did, but Museum Girl is still a little miffed.

An Absence of Good Intell

Last week I complimented Viking on their ground game, but I was a little challenged by them on the planning end of things.  Because they know what they’re doing, they don’t spell everything out.  They know things happen when you’re traveling and they don’t want to spend their days making apologies to disgruntled passengers.

This lack of information is probably a blessing to most passengers.  My husband was completely content with the absence of logistical information, but I was a crazy person.  I’m driven by that museum in my head and I carefully curate what I’m going to see.  On this trip, to a certain extent, I had to just let go and follow the guy with red Viking sign.

So in Budapest, I had no clue what spa I’d be visiting until I got on the bus with my fluffy towel.  I’m convinced I was stuck on the castle AND walking tour in Bratislava because the walking-only tour was full.  (Yes, I should have spoken up, but didn’t.)  As I planned for my day in Vienna, discovering where we would dock was like searching for the Holy Grail and even when I got someone to tell me where they usually docked, they were careful to warn me things could change.

Finding out what we’d see of the castle in Krumlov was pretty much the same sort of thing.  The UNESCO website was great, but how Viking plugged into that opportunity was like diving down a black hole.

Bravo Senor Frog!

Bravo Senor Frog!

Kudos to Norwegian

Since I pretty much hated everything about my cruise on Norwegian Epic (except going with my bestie and the day we spent with Sunny Liston, which is still one of my best days EVER) I’m loathe to admit it, but I loved their website.  Well I didn’t love everything about it, because I had some navigation issues, but they did have a section of the site devoted to passengers sharing travel tips.  (Yes, I read them all.)

Norwegian disclaims in large letters these are experiences of past cruisers and things change on every cruise, but I gained great comfort from knowing what usually happened.  I’m well aware things can change (did I hear someone say Josay?), but I like to be ready for what is probably going to happen.  The internet allowed me to research everything about a destination, but Viking kept the details, of exactly what they’re going to show you, pretty close to their vest.

Come back next week and we’ll stroll through the castle grounds.

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The Question of Food When Cruising

Our Taste of Austria Dinner

Our Taste of Austria Dinner

TRAVEL THERE: WHAT I LIKE AND DISLIKE ABOUT DINING AT SEA

Food is one of the biggies on a cruise and Viking has it down pat.  You’d have a hard time feeling hungry at anytime on board, yet it’s not the obscene food orgy of ocean cruising.

Cruise Food I Have Loved

My favorite food I’ve ever had on any boat was a dessert on the Carnival Ecstasy.  I ordered it the first night, because it was chocolate.  I ordered it the rest of the nights, because it was the best thing I had ever put in my mouth.  The name of the chocolate creation, which I cannot for the life of me remember, did it no justice.  I have no picture of it, but will never forget it.  The rest of the food on the boat was good, sometimes really good, but it wasn’t the best overall I ever had.

The best dining experience on any ship was on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas.  I was traveling with all the people I loved best, so that may have enhanced the enjoyment.  This was old fashioned cruising where you really dressed up for dinner and had assigned seating at a specific time in a single venue.  Every meal, every night was a unique and wonderful experience.  We also had the best waiter I have ever had aboard any ship any where.

What You Won’t Suffer on a Viking River Cruise

I am not a fan of multiple restaurants on a cruise.  I don’t want to make reservations.  I don’t even want to have to make a decision about which restaurant I’m going to choose.  I don’t want to pay a premium.  I like it the way Viking had it.  They just fed me.

On our “Free-styling” Norwegian cruise a few years ago, my husband felt like the only style unavailable was the one we wanted – particularly when it came to breakfast.  Breakfast is his favorite meal.  He loves to linger over the menu and the meal.  The only sit-down breakfast service on that cruise was quite early in the morning and on a cruise, Bill doesn’t do anything early in the morning.  On top of that he had to navigate the huge buffet, when all he really wanted was for someone to bring him exactly what he wanted for breakfast and he wanted it piping hot.  Was it a lovely breakfast buffet?  Yes, but he didn’t want a breakfast buffet.  Viking solves all of this.

Another of our pet peeves with Ocean Cruising has been the battle of the bottle.  We like wine with dinner.  While we love a particularly good wine, we’re perfectly happy with a decent wine.  On-board various ships we’ve ordered by the glass, ordered by the bottle and pre-ordered a selection of wines.  Either way we’ve done it we’ve felt the ouch of the price, because we know we can get a perfectly good wine at Trader Joe’s for around $10 a bottle and it bothers us to pay more for less.  To make things more interesting Bill loves red and thanks to my sinuses I prefer to drink white.  Viking made wine with dinner a breeze for the same price of a breeze.

And speaking of bottles, even getting a glass of water on your average cruise ship is a hassle.  They’ll sell you a soft drink package, they’ll tempt you with fancy cocktails and they’ll charge you for a bottle of anything – even water, but try whetting your thirst for free.  It’s not easy.  Viking completely abandoned that business model.  There were bottles of free water all over the place and a dispenser for bubbly and still water at the coffee station.

On most cruises I sort of feel like the emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLAble, as my mother used to say.  There’s entirely too much attention paid to shoving food down your mouth.  It takes a page or two of the daily newspaper to explain all the food choices and then if all else fails, they will deliver food to your stateroom 24 hours a day.  I had all I could eat and more on Viking, but I didn’t have to make a career of managing my food choices.

So now that we have discussed cruise food in general, next week I’ll introduce you to the way Viking does food.

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Lessons Learned Aboard the Norwegian Epic

Where shall we go next?

Where shall we go next?

TRAVEL THERE: THINGS I LEARNED WHILE CRUISING ON THE NORWEGIAN EPIC

The most important thing I learned on this cruise was that I’m not into free-styling, but then that’s me. I’m sure free-style is well suited to many cruisers.

Not My Cup of Tea

As I dragged my fifty pound suitcase, carry-on and personal item off the ship, the couple ahead of me strolled along each burdened only by a backpack and a small carry-on.  I bet they’d tell you they loved it.  Groups with multiple kids had to love it.  If quantity of food available is one of your hot buttons, you will certainly love the Epic.  Gamblers seemed to be quite happy, too.  So just because it wasn’t my cup a tea, that doesn’t mean you won’t love it.

Missed Assigned Seating in a Formal Dining Room

The thing I missed most was the camaraderie around the dinner tables I enjoyed on more traditional ships.  I like getting dressed up and meeting new people.  I like getting to know my new acquaintances over several pleasant evenings.  I like the idea of having one set of waiters, rather than having a new waitstaff every night.  Traditional cruises made me feel more pampered and appreciated at dinner time.  However, getting dressed up and putting up with a bunch of strangers is exactly what some people hate.  You know which category you fall into.

Cruise Director only a Voice on the PA

I also missed getting to know the cruise director.  On other ships it seemed he was every where, leading silly games and contests around the pool, in the bars and various and sundry other locales.  The only place I even saw ours was port side in Nassau.  Norwegians free activities seemed to be directed at informing me of opportunities to spend money on the ship, like spa services and exercise classes.  To me, that’s not very entertaining.

Too Much of Too Much

My biggest complaint about the ship was that there was just too much of EVERYTHING.  For many people that would translate into excitement, variety and convenience, but I wished for a few more wide open spaces.  I longed for a nice quiet library or game room to play a few hands of cards or just read my Kindle.  Thankfully , I did have a balcony, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

My husband called it the boat without a soul.   The entertainment on the boat was always a franchise of something else and didn’t feel related to the destinations we visited or the ship itself.  We were lucky to have some of our best friends on the cruise with us, and it was certainly good that they’d come along or we would have been very lonely.

Things We Did Enjoy

We did love our balcony.  We will never sail without one again.  In fact, we might just opt for a suite next time if we can figure out how to afford one.  The food was good.  We have no complaints about that, beyond the short time the sit-down meals at breakfast and lunch are available.

As far as itinerary  is concerned we enjoyed it, but we won’t repeat it.  It was our second time to the destinations and we feel no burning desire to go back.  The only exception would be St. Thomas and Sunny Liston Tours.  I wouldn’t mind another dose of that someday.  For us, three days at sea was too many.  We anticipated we’d like the at-sea days the best, but with free-style not being our style, that’s not how it turned out.

Would I book a shore excursion with someone besides my cruise lines again?  That’s iffy.  I booked two with Cruising Expeditions.com.  One was the best of the best and the other was a waste of time and money.  If the ship did not offer any excursions I was interested in, I might look elsewhere, but I’d do a lot more research than I did this time.  I depended too heavily on an experts recommendation.  Also through trial and error, I’m getting more confidant of my ability to entertain myself on shore.

Cruise with the Pros

I’ll tell you one thing I will do next time I cruise.  I’m not going to depend on my own research.  I’m going to go to a professional travel agent that specializes in cruises, like Cruise and Tour Center, which just happens to be close to my home.  Travel gets more do-it-yourself everyday, but for some things, there’s not anything like being able to trust a pro.

Come back next week and see where we’re headed next!

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Happy Birthday to Me & Then Farewell

Norwegian Cruise Line,

 

TRAVEL THERE: CELEBRATING MY BIRTHDAY ON THE LAST NIGHT OF THE CRUISE

Our last night at sea was my birthday and we hoped we’d saved the best for last, but after a week of over-eating, I don’t think I did the churrascaria much justice. I love the concept, because I’m unashamed of my status as a carnivore, but it’s hard for me to eat enough meat to justify the cost of the meal in restaurants like Fogo de Chao.

The Epic’s Moderno

We knew Moderno was located above The Manhattan Room.  There are windows in the Manhattan Room that let you see into the space, but Moderno shares the space with Cagney’s Steakhouse.   We could only see the Cagney diners, not the guys with the spears of meat.  We did not eat at Cagney’s, but we heard that it was quite nice.

Moderno was every bit as good as any churrascarrio that I’ve visited on land – and I’ve been to several.  The salad bar/buffet had plenty of delicious choices.  With the main course, you get beans, potatoes and another side.  Along with the spears of meat, the waiters occasionally drop by with grilled pineapple to clean your palate.  The quality of the meats suggest that this meal may be the best value on board.

I’ve got to be honest with you though, I was just fooded out.  Now this was not Moderno’s fault.  If you sail on the Epic, I recommend you try this restaurant early on in the cruise, so you can enjoy it heartily.  If you wait until the last day the way we did, you may not have the stomach for it (tee hee).

Debarkation Details

Not much more to tell.  After dinner I was too full to enjoy anything else.  Bill and I went on to our stateroom and I finished packing.  We chose to carry our own luggage off the boat, so we wouldn’t have to set it out the night before and find it once we were off.  There are several choices for debarkation now, at least on the Epic.

If you do chose to let Norwegian handle the luggage, you have to have it in the hall by eleven.  That’s just too much juggling for me.  First you have to pack so that your carry on luggage is available for your last minute stuff, but if you’re flying and you can’t get all your 3 ounce toiletries into a ziplock bag, then you’ll have to re-pack somewhere between the dock and airport security.  Nope, I liked carrying mine off.

They did have another choice that I should have checked into, but I never got around to it.  NCL will forward your luggage from the ship to your final destination.  That sounds like a good idea to me, but I didn’t get any of the details.  It would be great if you could just leave the bags on your bed and head home, but something tells me that it’s a little more complicated than that.

The return home was a long day for us.  We had to be off the ship by 9:30 for our transfer, but our flight didn’t leave until 1:30.  Then there was a LONG layover in Houston.  We dragged in home before midnight but barely.  I don’t have to tell you how glad my puppy was to see me.

One more post for my cruise and we’ll move on to other places.  Come back next week for a summary of my lessons learned.

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La Cucina and other Epic places

On my way to a great meal at La Cucina

TRAVEL THERE: MAGICAL PLACES ON THE NORWEGIAN EPIC

It’s almost humorous that I’d get all wrapped up in explaining the island shopping and our tour of Atlantis, and then almost forget to mention our meal at La Cucina. For some in our group it was their very favorite specialty restaurant on the Norwegian Epic, but it’s one that would be very easy to overlook.

Bad Location for a Great Restaurant

The first problem is the location.  It’s at the front of the ship beneath the Garden Cafe.  All the other restaurants are sprinkled between decks five, six and seven where all the other entertainment stuff is.  Not only is La Cucina in an odd place, it’s not all that easy to get to.  You have to go through the Garden Cafe and then go down a staircase.  Not exactly user friendly, but once you arrive, you’ll be glad you came.

In addition to the location, it would be easy to assume that this was just another Italian Restaurant – sort of a floating Olive Garden.  In fact, the cruise line suggests it is great for kids and I noticed that they have more reservations early in the evening than they do later.  What a shame!  We were there at 7:30 and it was lovely.

Seeing these signs while you’re at the buffet give you no idea what a treat it is to dine at La Cucina.

As you go down the stairs, you’ll notice a huge tree that dominates the restaurant, we were fortunate enough to be seated beneath its limbs.  The alfresco feel of the meal, without the alfresco distractions made for a pleasant experience.  It just so happens we’d also saved a very good wine to have with our pasta and it was a very nice complement to the meal.

Our service in La Cucina was by far the very best we got on the ship.  If for some reason I was ever booked on The Epic again, I’d forgo the rest of the dining venues and have all my dinners in La Cucina – it was that good.  I can’t recall exactly which starters, appetizers and desserts we chose, but it doesn’t really matter, because everyone was grinning ear to ear.  They were all delicious.

A Magic Show

I could rave on, but you get the idea, but the surprises weren’t over!  After dinner we decided to go to something else that was completely underrated, the magician, Jeff Hobson.  We were quite fortunate to see Jeff.  The Epic was losing him to Las Vegas after my cruise and then according to his website, he was headed to the Norwegian Pearl.  Wherever you have to go to catch him, just do it!

Norwegian EpicNow, Jeff is never going to unseat the likes of David Copperfield, but he’s really not trying to.  Calling what he does magic, is a bit of an misstatement.  He’s more a performer of sleights of hand than a magician, but magic is only the vehicle he uses to entertain the heck out of you.  He’s a very funny guy!

It’s ironic that the evening we enjoyed the least-touted of the Epic’s attractions was one of the best evenings for us.  The moral of the story is that you should try a little bit of everything when you’re traveling.  You never know what you’re going to like best.  If I’d depended on the Atlantis Resort, St. Maarten’s shore excusrion or the art auction  to be the highlight of my cruise, I would have been sorely disappointed and come home very unhappy.  Because I kept an open mind and tried to enjoy everything I did, we came home with smiles on our faces.

One more night on the Norwegian Epic and we’ll be headed home.  Please join us at Moderno Churriscaria next week.

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Shop Local on Cruises

DSC_0654

Buy it whenever or wherever you find it. don’t be disappointed later.

TRAVEL THERE:  HAVE MORE FUN CRUISING WHEN YOU SHOP LOCAL

So I’ve told you all about our be-jeweled shopping experiences, but when you’re in the islands, don’t forget the local markets.  We didn’t shop in any jewelry stores in St. Maarten.  Perhaps if we did, my Diamonds International bracelet would have another charm.  In Marigot, St. Martin, on the French side, we enjoyed a local arts and crafts market.

Shopping Local in Marigot

You’re always at a disadvantage at your first port of call.  Though we weren’t in jewelry stores, there was some lovely jewelry in Marigot.  The difference was that it was all handmade from natural materials, like shells, wood and natural beads.  Had I really known then what I know now, I would have picked out a trinket for my mother there, but I wasn’t as well educated then.  The prices were great.  We got a cap for Bill that said, “Bad to the bone,” for $5.  Debbie bought the first part of my birthday present, a sundress for $20 dollars.  The jewelry that I liked ran from $40 up to a whole lot.  We saw some beautiful wood carving, but we weren’t in the market for it.  All in all a pleasant and affordable shopping experience.

We didn’t get a chance to shop with the locals in St. Thomas, because we were too busy getting free jewelry, but there was what appeared to be a very active market near the main shopping district in Charlotte Amalie.  If we’d had more time there, I think we would have enjoyed it.

Nassau’s Straw Market

If you’re looking for something made out of straw, though, I’d say Nassau’s Straw Market is the place to go. We passed through it on our way to find a taxi to take us to Atlantis and were overwhelmed by the experience. That’s not my favorite kind of shopping.  The first thing that assails you as you enter the market is the sheer number of items for sale. The aisles are narrow and there is no degree of separation between the booths. What’s more, the goods are stacked up almost to the high roof. This is not a place for the claustrophobic.

After Atlantis, I came back to the Straw Market, because I was desperate.   I remembered fondly the natural handmade jewelry in Marigot, but that’s not what they have at the Straw Market.  They have straw.

My mom is not the sort that you can just give the first thing you happen upon. She has very discerning taste, and it’s complicated by her arthritis, her un-pierced ears and her indifference to scarves and shawls. She doesn’t wear hats either and purses have to be of just the right size.

The Bahamian natives are not bashful. If you so much as glance their way, they start trying to bargain with you for whatever they think might have caught your eye. If you don’t glance their way, then they’re going to say or do whatever they need to do to get it. Well, anything is a bit of an exaggeration. I have been places where they are more aggressive No one grabbed my arm to stop me or cursed me out for not shopping with them.

Local Bargaining

Still, I was was happy when I saw an attractive straw clutch offered by someone who seemed more interested in their phone call than my American dollars. Deb and I considered the pros and cons of her offerings and she eventually got off the phone.

“Twenty dollars,” she said.

“American?” I was getting good at this.

For you, yes.” I considered her offer while Deb and I compared similar clutches at her booth. People nearby started waving handbags of all sorts at us. “Seventeen fifty,” the lady said.

“Fifteen,” I countered. It was well worth the twenty, but I wasn’t about to pay the first price. I had the feeling I could have gotten her down even further by playing the walk-away game, but I felt sorry for her stuck in the loud crowded market all day and pulled out my money.

Success!  I’d found something for Mom.  It wasn’t really enough, but I corrected that problem with some costume clip earring that I found a few door down from the Straw Market.

When it comes to shopping local, first be sure to know what currency you’re bargaining in.  Then be sure to bargain.  Some prices are set, but usually you can get a little off, even if it’s just to get Euro prices for American dollars.  If you see something you like, buy it when you find it.  That goes for local shopping and jewelry shopping.  The boat was not going back to St. Maarten, so I couldn’t get Mom one of the cool bracelets I saw there.

There’s not much of the cruise left, but come back next week and hear about dinner at La Cucina.

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Jewelry Shopping – St. Thomas vs. Nassau

Nassau Bahamas

Shopping in crowded Nassau. Faces of innocent bystanders hidden. Perhaps their husbands didn’t realize they were shopping!

TRAVEL THERE: IS JEWELRY SHOPPING BETTER ON ST THOMAS OR NASSAU

I’ve already told you what a good time we had shopping in St. Thomas. Our tour dropped us off right at Charlotte Amalie’s Main Street and we had about an hour of blissful shopping. There were few shoppers and most of the stores we entered were absolutely gorgeous.  With just enough exceptions to prove the rule, all the clerks and shopkeepers were marvelously polite and eager to please.  It was like being in shopping heaven.  Too bad we really didn’t appreciate how lucky we were.

The Shopping Seminar

Having enjoyed our shopping in St. Thomas so much, we were eager to attend the shopping seminar on our third at-sea day on the Norwegian Epic.  We hadn’t planned on shopping at all in Nassau, but we’d caught the island shopping bug.  The seminar was interesting, not grippingly so, but a pleasant way to spend the morning.  I was hoping for more in the way of drawings and give-aways, but the idea was to get us to spend our money, not to give us anything.  I learned a little about a new diamond cut and the new vein of tanzanite.  The new tanzanite returned to the lighter colors of the first discovery, rather than retaining the dark colors that have been available most recently.

Our favorite discovery was Del Sol.  Everything in their shop changes color in the sun, including the fingernail polish.  Deb loved it so much she added it to her shopping list.  The most important information was a reminder the shops  close at five, a couple of hours before our departure time. We needed to shop in the morning.  Over lunch  we informed our husband what they should expect.

We arrived in port at noon on the fourth day of the cruise.  After our shopping, we planned to head over to Atlantis Resort for a peek and it’s skyline loomed large on the horizon.  As soon as the boat docked we dragged our husbands towards Bay Street.

Shopping in Nassau

Shopping Nassau was a whole ‘nother thing and it wasn’t a better thing.  The first thing we noticed was how crowded it was.  Nassau serves a lot more ships than St. Thomas.  Many of the cruises are just three day jaunts out of Miami, devoted primarily to the art of shopping. We’d been told that this larger audience meant a larger stock of merchandise to enjoy.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I enjoyed the quieter streets of Charlotte Amalie.

There weren’t as many freebies in Nassau either.  We anxiously looked forward to getting our shopping packet when we got off the boat, but all we found was an offer from Diamonds International and another from Effy.  We’d gotten a coupon in the seminar to complement the Effy coupon in the shopping packet.  In St. Thomas we’d had to pay a minimal amount for the earrings to match our necklace, but in Nassau, because of the shopping seminar we got earrings for free.

Perhaps because of the larger crowds, the salespeople aren’t as happy to distribute their free goodies as they had been in St. Thomas.  There was the same begrudging hesitancy I’d remembered from Cozumel, one that led to my happy surprise at the alacrity of the St. Thomas jewelers.  The good news was that for each island the big stores offer a different freebie.  In St. Thomas we’d gotten garnets at Effy, but in Nassau it was amethysts.  I was particularly happy about that, because I had an amethyst ring begging for some companions.  Diamonds International offers you a charm bracelet at your first port and then other charms at your other stops.  The fun of it for frequent cruisers is that you’re not getting the same old thing all the time.  You could start a collection of sorts.

We hoped to do some additional shopping in Nassau, but were stymied.  We looked for a Milano Jewelers, because Deb was beginning to regret that she hadn’t clued into what a great deal the sterling silver necklaces were.  We found the Milano stores, but when we asked about the necklaces all we got was a look that suggested we were crazy and some mumbled assurance the cheap sliver necklaces weren’t available on this island.

We also searched out a Little Switzerland store, because I still hadn’t found a gift for my mom and the bracelets I’d seen on St. Thomas seemed like the best bet.  Lest you think I was unwilling to share all the free goodies I’d gotten so far, my mom’s ears are not pierced and her advanced arthritis prohibited her from operating the clasps on necklaces.  So I had lots of goodies to share with folks at home, they just weren’t going to work for my mom.  Unfortunately, the Little Switzerland store we found had a very limited selection in their very tiny Impulse department.  I didn’t see anything that looked like Mom.

We took a break from shopping to visit the Atlantis Resort, but I’ll tell you about that in a couple of weeks.  I also shopped at the Nassau Straw Market on the way back to the ship, but I’ll compare that to the locals market in Marigot, St. Martin next week.  Until then, happy shopping.

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