Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL

Sail Away on the Norwegian Epic

Let's Sail Away!
Let’s Sail Away!

TRAVEL THERE: SAIL AWAY PARTY ON THE NORWEGIAN EPIC

As Bill helped me find homes for my last few pieces of clothing, we realized it was time for the boat to embark upon it’s journey. Coming out of our room, we ran into Deb and Joe, who had also been unpacking, but with less fervor.  Deb knows how to live out of a suitcase. Since we were only a couple of flights down from the Lido deck, we hit the stairs, like many of our fellow passengers did.

What Happened to Free

By the time we made it to the top, Deb and Joe were nowhere in sight. Assuming they were right behind us, we grabbed four lounge chairs by the pool, but as the minutes passed we realized they’d gone elsewhere and that pool-side lounge chairs weren’t prime real estate for watching the departure, so we ventured further.  Later we discovered Deb and Joe had enjoyed the sail away from the bridge-viewing area.

Now on my first two cruises, both well over a decade ago, the sail away party was actually a party where complimentary hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served.  I probably don’t need to tell you that this wasn’t the case on the Epic.  You could buy all the drinks you wanted, but no waiters were wandering among us with free munchies.  About all we had wandering among us were photographers taking pictures we could purchase later.

Safety over Sights

Something else we missed was an exterior walkway around the pool area.  You had to go up a deck to see out, because the windbreak for the pool area abutted the side of the ship.  We climbed to the upper deck and found our spot watching the traffic along the MacArthur Causeway watch the cruise boats pulling out of Miami.

Here's an old Carnival ship that Bill thinks has the appropriate configuration for a proper sail away party.
Here’s an old Carnival ship that Bill thinks has the appropriate configuration for a proper sail away party.

There Bill found another thing that had changed and not to his liking.  Most likely for the sake of safety, panes of glass had been added above the railing.  I’ll admit it was a little distracting, but Bill was really chapped about it.  That might be because I could comfortably peer out between the panes.  Bill had to bend down to peek between the panes of glass.

Leaving the Harbor

After the MacArthur Causeway, we passed a ferry dock and rounded South Beach.  Then we pulled out into the Atlantic Ocean and looked north up Miami Beach.  What a sight! Too bad we’d left the camera below.  Soon, we passed the last buoy.  That meant we were really at sea.

A Little Exploring

Bill and I explored the boat a little bit.  Three decks up from the lido deck, we found another sundeck.  There’s no public pool up there and signs informed us this was a “Quiet Area” – that’s Norwegian for “Don’t bother The Haven passengers.”  See the front of the ship on decks 16 and 17 is a whole ‘nother world.  That’s where the suites are.  I’m very sorry to say that you will have to look elsewhere for a report on Epic’s Haven.

Now, I’m not one of those folks that resent rich people.  Heck, I wouldn’t mind being a rich person.  However, it beats me why Norwegian allows the general public up on deck 18, at all.  If I had paid for a suite in The Haven and was hanging out at the private pool, having drinks delivered from the Posh Bar, there’s no way I’d like some yokel two floors up doing pull-up to look down into my retreat.  Would you? I didn’t think so.

But it was almost time for dinner.  You want to go to the Manhattan Room?  Then join us next week.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Stateroom 13207 on the Norwegian Epic

The balcony, our favorite part of the ship!
The balcony, our favorite part of the ship!

TRAVEL THERE: OUR STATEROOM ON THE NORWEGIAN EPIC

So after the amazing Embarkation Buffet in the Garden Cafe, I was anxious to reunite with my suitcases.  I’ve heard travelers should pack half as many clothes and twice as much money.  I usually plan my cash very well, but I’m over the moon when it comes to clothes.

My Vacation Wardrobe

Some people are of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you wear on vacation, because no one you know will see you.  That’s not my take on it.  I think you need to be very careful about what you wear, because you’re going to be looking at those photographs for a very long time.  Facebook, blogging and Pinterest have only underlined that viewpoint.

By the same token, I do not live well out of a suitcase.  Unless it’s just an overnight stay, the first thing I do when I arrive at my accommodation is unpack.  My dear friend Deb pointed out a plaque to me on this vacation.  It said, “I’m not OCD, I just like things to be organized.”  Do you think there was a message for me in there?

The travel gods were still with us, because our luggage, in its totality, was sitting on our bed when we returned to the room.  Bill escaped to the balcony and I started unpacking.  The first thing I noticed was the large closet with a generous cabinet next to it and a little curtained alcove on the other side.  I gleefully whipped open my suitcase and started hanging up clothes.  For a while I was a happy little camper.  There were plenty of hangers for the normal person and with the ones I’d brought from home, I got all our outfits hung up.

In the cabinet, I tucked away electrical appliances, accessories and other odds and ends.  I took the life vests out of the bottom of the closet and put them in the alcove, creating plenty of room for my many pairs of shoes.  My toiletry bags fit nicely next to the vanity.  Soon, I was getting down to the nitty gritty and that’s when I hit the brick wall.

Bill, there are no drawers in this room!”  The desperation in my voice pulled him into the room.  We discovered a large drawer under the sink.  I think it was supposed to be a dirty clothes hamper, but I used it for Bill’s toiletries and some of his odds and ends.  Then we discovered a pair of doors along the counter under the TV, but the doors had baskets attached to them.  After a little head scratching, I put Bill’s under-articles, t-shirts and swimwear there.

Then I looked at my watch and freaked out. “Where am I going to put my lingerie?” I figured that Norwegian had cleverly disguised some storage areas, but I was tired and frustrated and time was passing quickly.  I started jerking on anything that might hide a cabinet.  Lo and behold there was a generous space in the back cushions of the sofa. (The sofa was attached to the wall.)  I was going to live.

The suitcases went under the bed.  All the totes, backpacks and other bulky stuff joined the life vests in the alcove.  Soon I would need to get dressed.

Norwegian had cleverly disguised some other storage opportunities which I missed in that initial inspection.  Under the sofa, I found a couple of drawers.  One became the dirty clothes bin and the other I never had to use.  I also did not store anything in the small cabinets I found up above the sofa.  Truth be told, there was a lot more room for stuff under the bed and in that curtained alcove.  The closet could be reconfigured to have double rods, one above and one below.  In other words, a normal family of four could find plenty of room to stash away their belongings, if they fully utilized all the space available.

However, that same family of four would probably kill each other if they all tried to stay together in the stateroom, especially if they all tried to get dressed at the same time.

After nineteen years of marriage, Bill and I are not shy around each other.  Good thing.  The room’s twin towers are not designed for modesty.  There is a curtain you can pull, but let’s face it, when either of us used the toilet, there was no question whether we did number one or number two.  You could close the toilet door and pull the curtain, but you could not hide your purpose.  As to showering in privacy, you may be able to stay safely behind the curtain, but every time I stripped down for a good dousing, I remembered something I’d left on the other side of the curtain.

Then there was the counter opposite the bed.  Along the counter was the miniature sink, the TV and a vanity with a stool.  Bill and I are taller than the average American, but we’re also of minimal girth.  Neither of us could make it between the bed and counter without bumping something.  When I pulled out the vanity stool and sat down to get ready,  if Bill needed to get by, I had to stand up and let him pass.  If you’re sharing that room and you’re trying to get ready, you’re going to be standing up a lot.  See, the shower and toilet are right there as you walk in the room, but the closet and the sofa are on the other side of the bed, with the vanity stool somewhere in the middle.  I’ll just leave the dressing dance to your imagination.

And here’s one more little piece of frustration.  The bed skirt was attached to the bed by velcro.  On several of the evenings, with my more dressy ensembles, I wore hosiery.  Invariably, sometime during the dressing dance, the velcro would reach out and grab the hose. Some of you young things don’t realize why this would be so frustrating, because you don’t wear pantyhose, but the rest of you will realize just how maddening this was.

But as I finished my unpacking, the ship cast off from the dock and it was time to sail away.  See you on deck, next week!

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL

Our First Epic Bites

Welcome to the Embarkation Buffet
Welcome to the Embarkation Buffet

TRAVEL THERE: NORWEGIAN EPIC’S GARDEN CAFE, OUR FIRST MEAL ONBOARD

One of the joys of being a casual traveler, rather than a travel professional, is that I’m just like you.  I don’t know all there is to know about every facet of the travel industry.  This was my fifth cruise, but it was the first time I’d heard of an embarkation buffet, even though my friend Debbie assures me that they have them on every cruise.

Good Food Onboard

The Garden Cafe
The Garden Cafe

The Norwegian Epic serves up some good food.  I’m not suggesting they provided the finest meal I’ve ever been served at sea, but there was nothing average about our dining experiences.  The presentation was lovely.  The portions were appropriate.  And pretty much everything I put in my mouth, with a few exceptions to prove the rule, was delicious.

My first visit to the Garden Cafe was overwhelming.  I’ve been to buffets on ships before.  We love those breakfasts we’ve had up on the Lido deck of other ships, but I’d never seen a buffet like the Garden Cafe.  I’d say it was the Energizer Bunny of Buffets.

Belly up to the buffet boys and girls!
Belly up to the buffet boys and girls!

The buffet is set up in an “H” with multiple stations for each kind of food – and there are lots of kinds of foods.  There’s a deli section and an Asian section and a vegetarian section and a salad section and a grill and a pizza section and a sandwich section and a beverage station and a bar  and if all that wasn’t enough, there are traditional entrees and side dishes in the Specialties area. You’ll notice I didn’t mention desserts. That’s because there are as many kinds of desserts as there are kinds of food.  They have a soft ice cream machine and hand-dipped ice cream and all the fixings.  They have fruits and cheeses.  And that’s just the beginning.  I can’t list all the pastries and other delights we had.  I pretty much threw away months of diet and exercise right there at the Embarkation Buffet!

Here's a little sizzle.
Here’s some sizzle.

I’m not usually one for buffets.  The food quality seems to go down and I never feel like I can eat enough to justify the price.  Every single item on this buffet, every time I showed up, on this day and all others, begged for me to eat it and all included in the price of admission.  Bill and I have both been in food service, so we notice how food is handled and service is provided.  The staff behind the steam tables, grills and dessert bars were working their guts out to keep every dish looking delicious and at exactly the right temperature.  At every station someone was taking orders so that passengers could have freshly prepared sandwiches, burgers, soup or whatever to their exact order.  The chefs were personable, polite and quick to please.

A Little Garden Art
A Little Garden Art

Now truth be told, we ate more meals than we wanted to at The Garden Cafe.  The buffet (as well as the Great Outdoors Cafe and the Spice H2O Cafe) are open most of the time.  You can also order from the menu 24 hours a day at O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill, but for breakfast and lunch, the hours for a seated meal are very limited. My husband, who marches to the beat of an alternate food clock, found this quite frustrating.  This was one of his reoccurring complaints.

One thing he did not find frustrating was how early The Garden Cafe opened for dinner.  He managed to squeeze in a dessert every afternoon before our seated dinner.  I had no business eating anything at that time of the day, but they had a crepe station set up and….well, I couldn’t resist it.

So I give high marks to the Garden Cafe and am so glad I’ve been introduced to the Embarkation Buffet.  But we haven’t even left the dock yet!! Come back next week for more about the Norwegian Epic!

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

An Epic Embarkation Norwegian Style

Luggage ready to board the ship
Luggage ready to board the ship

TRAVEL THERE: WELCOME TO MY NORWEGIAN EPIC CRUISE

Welcome to my cruise. The bus Norwegian engaged to transfer us from the Miami Beach Holiday Inn to the Epic showed up right on time. The loading and unloading was training film perfect.  We zipped through check-in.  The obligatory boarding photo was taken.  All of a sudden we were on board Norwegian Epic.

Cruise Hydration

Now, if there’s one thing about me that’s consistent  it’s that I’ve got my priorities figured out.  The first order of business was to be sure I was well-hydrated on the cruise. That meant taking advantage of the wine discount program and finding my thermal soda cup, so I could begin justifying the $6.25 it cost me per day.

Wine Discount Program

The easiest part was the wine discount program.  We sidled up to a bar on the 5th deck and they handed us a form.  All you have to do is mark the wines you want and give the nice lady your room card.  This is a very good thing to do, because it gets you a 20% discount on your selections and streamlines your service.  This is one of those things that you have to know about to ask for.  Even if you don’t retain anything else I say in this blog, please remember this, take advantage of the wine discount program if your cruise offers one.

There’s a dissonance between Norwegian’s website and reality at this point though, so if you’re given to planning the way I am (my husband calls it over-planning), you might download the wine list from the website and select your wines.  Don’t bother, because your discount is on specific lists of wines, not the entire list.  There’s two or three categories of wine programs and each has a nice selection of wines to choose from, but selecting the wines from the wider list was just an exercise in futility.

We chose the least expensive program.  We like a nice glass of wine, but we’re no grape snobs.  Our taste buds demand something more exciting than Beringer White Zin, but don’t ask us the best year for grapes in Argentina. (I know people that could, however.)  Even though we chose the most economical route, one of the best parts of the cruise was the wine.  Every single wine, from a white zin we didn’t realize we’d chosen to the magnificent cabernet sauvignon, was a winner.  Kudos to the alcohol and beverage manager.

Soda Program

Yes, they still have life boat drills.
Yes, they still have life boat drills.

Let me tell you another bit of planning you can skip.  I ordered the soda program by phone before the cruise.  According to the lady I talked to, I’d be handed a refillable soda cup upon arrival.  That didn’t happen.  The cup was delivered to my stateroom during the afternoon.  My friends waited until they got on the boat to purchase their soda programs and were immediately handed a cup full of carbonated caffeine. That’s the way to go.  Cans of soda were $2.50 on board the Epic.  My $6.25 a day got me all the Pepsi product I could drink, on ice, from the fountain.  Since I virtually have a soda in my hand all day, every day, I liked being able to get a fresh drink, on ice, whenever I wanted it.  I can never finish an entire can quickly enough to keep it from getting warm and flat.

I’m a Pepper!

I’m going to complain a little bit here.  Cola, any cola, is not my beverage of choice.  I am a Diet Dr. Pepper addict.  There are no Dr. Pepper products anywhere on the boat.  You’re probably not amazed by that and neither am I, but I’m so fond of the concoction that I make it my business to make an official note of its absence whenever it’s unavailable.

The Staterooms

Next we found our staterooms – mid-ship family balconies.  I’ll describe the room at length later on, but my research saved me from being shocked by the twin towers on either side of the entry door which served as our toilet and shower.  The stateroom was small.  Good design keeps it from looking that way when you first walk in, but you’ll be tripping over yourself and your travel companion soon enough.  But this was our first balcony.  It only took us one cruise to figure out we weren’t fond of interior staterooms, but this was the first time we’d splurged on a balcony.  I spent more time out there than I did any other place on the ship, except perhaps the Garden Cafe.

Speaking of the Garden Cafe, it was time for the Embarkation Buffet, so let’s go eat next week.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning, United States

The Reservation Blues

Welcome to Miami!
Welcome to Miami!

TRAVEL THERE: FRUSTRATING RESERVATION EXPERIENCE

I’m usually a do-it-yourself traveler, but on my recent cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, I turned the headaches over to someone else – not without having done my due diligence though. I researched everything from accommodations to transfers and then took a look at what the cruise line,  Norwegian, had to offer pre-cruise-wise.

Doing the Research

During my research, I found amazing bargains on this or that, but with every bargain came a challenge of some sort.  I finally convinced myself that the Norwegian sponsored hotels and transfers were the best deal in town, but when I tried to book them, I ran into a snag … but I can’t blame it all on Norwegian.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of expedia, but I shopped for the cruise on Vacations To Go.  I’ve found their cruises searches to be the most maneuverable and I trusted them, because I’d booked a cruise with them before.   Even though I’m the official researcher for all things vacation, my husband likes to have the last say and he really likes to have it at the last minute.  I’d been trying to get his rubber stamp for quite a while, but he wasn’t very forthcoming.

Buddies
Buddies

Usually, I just wait until he gets around to giving me his OK, but this time, I wasn’t his only traveling companion and my friend Deb was getting antsy.  Over coffee one morning I reminded him that I’d be going over to Deb’s that evening and we’d be booking the cruise.  I got a vague acknowledgement, but knew I still hadn’t received his final seal of approval.  That evening as I walked out the door, I gave his rubber stamp one final opportunity, “You do realize we’ll be booking the cruise while I’m a Deb’s, don’t you.”

“You’re not leaving right this minute are you?” (As if I didn’t leave every Wednesday at 5:30 PM to scrapbook with Deb.)  When I assured him that I was leaving and that we were going to book the cruise, he went into panic mode.  I told him to do his research while I was driving and then he could call me with his findings.

Making the Cruise Reservations

I can’t tell you how happy it makes Bill to find something cheaper than I do, so you can imagine his glee when he called to inform me Priceline had the cruise cheaper than Vacations to Go.  It was not a significant savings in my opinion, but it was worth it to him, so he went ahead and reserved our spots while he was on the phone with the representative.  The rubber stamp had finally arrived.  I called the Priceline rep and finalized the booking, including the flight and insurance.  I must say that the agent was nice and helpful.  I got along with her much better than I do the website.

And speaking of websites, let me tell you about the Norwegian website.  I’d barely gotten the cruise booked, when I started getting emails from Norwegian.  Kudos to them for the way they connect with their passengers.  The initial email led me through the sign-up process and then they kept in touch with me regularly until the day I climbed on board.  Anyone who cruises on Norwegian should take advantage of their digital front door.  There’s a wealth of information available and you can check-in from the comfort of your home.

I only have one complaint.  I have no problem with them requesting me to sign in whenever I went to the site.  My problem was that whenever I clicked on a page outside my personal reservation, they signed me out.  I’d wander around until I found something I wanted to book and then I’d have to sign in again, because something I looked at wasn’t part of my cruise.

Booking the Hotel and Transfers

But let’s get back to Priceline.  I’d gotten all warm and cozy with the Norwegian site and was ready to book our hotel and transfers.  One Friday night Deb and I had both had stinky weeks.  We decided a bottle of wine with some cruise planning was just what we needed, so she dropped by my house on her way home from work.  I called up Norwegian, but because I’d booked the cruise with Priceline, I had to talk to Priceline about land-based arrangements. I felt like the things should have been a little more transparent, but they weren’t.

I called up my friends at Priceline and was immediately assisted by someone who was thrilled to hear from me, but she had a very difficult time doing what I wanted.  To begin with, her computer would only let me book one room at a time, if we were going to use separate credit cards.  Given the chance to do it all over again, I would have begged them to put it all on  one card, but initially, I was assured it would be absolutely no hassle.  Famous last words.

Here’s the thing.  Norwegian made me call up Priceline, so Priceline could communicate with Norwegian to book the Norwegian hotel and transfers.  Unfortunately, they were having a digital lover’s spat and we were left hanging on the phone FOREVER.  Let me explain forever.  Deb and I polished off the bottle of wine, popped a Kashi pizza in the oven and baked it while we waited.

I have to tell you the agent was the epitome of politeness.  She must have been about ready to rip out her hair, but you would have thought her favorite thing to do was hang out on the phone with exasperated customers.  Well, we did our best not to be exasperated, but it WAS taking forever.  Eventually, she confirmed that my reservation at the Courtyard Marriott on Miami Beach had been made, but that I’d gotten the last room.  I confess to being irritated since the call had covered a couple of hours.

Holiday Inn Miami Beach
Holiday Inn Miami Beach

The Priceline rep wanted to keep my reservation in place while she tried to work some magic for Deb, but by the next morning, there was no hope.  So we had to cancel my reservation and start all over.   That wouldn’t have been that big a deal if Bill had not walked into the room during our marathon phone call and heard the per person charge for the room and transfers.  Of course, he thought he could do better.  To make a long story short, it took a few days, but he finally figured out that the Norwegian deal was the best in town.  Then it was up to me to call Priceline again and try to book the Holiday Inn version of the package.

This time things went very smoothly.  We were very happy with our accommodations at the Holiday Inn and even went to the Courtyard for drinks and dinner.  Our transfers were blissfully uneventful.  However, Priceline and Norwegian really need to work on their transparency issues.  I don’t care who gets paid for what, but I shouldn’t have to spend an evening hanging on the phone because their computers aren’t talking to one another.

Has this sort of thing happened to you?  Have you fallen into the crack between the wholesaler and the travel provider?  Is the discount worth it?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Good-bye Oregon; Hello Caribbean!

TRAVEL THERE; GOOD-BYE OREGON; HELLO CARIBBEAN!

It’s a good thing I finally finished my series on Oregon, because I just got back from my cruise and I can’t wait to tell you about it!

Post Trip Blues

When we first came home from Oregon, I feared my husband would never travel with me again. According to him, I’d crammed entirely too much vacation into twelve days and he was none too happy about it.  However, just like mothers forget the severity childbirth pain and have a second child, the trials and tribulations I’d caused us in Oregon soon faded.  Also, I pointed out how on a cruise or a package trip, someone else (besides me) would be in charge.  That got him over his travel phobia. Eventually, he agreed that he might be interested in a cruise – something that docked in Galveston, but didn’t go to Mexico.

Well, that search resulted in zero choices.  All cruises out of Galveston make a stop in Mexico, so it was back to the drawing board. Widening my net, I discovered other places he didn’t want to go: Haiti and Jamaica.  And Alaska was out, because he preferred something tropical.  And Hawaii was out, because he wanted to depart from the continental United States. This also wiped out all the Southern Caribbean cruises which left from San Juan. Eventually Bermuda and the Panama Canal were culled out, too.

That left The Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean.  My next guidelines?  Nothing over seven days, nothing less than a five star ship – oh, and I should really keep an eye on the bottom line. Some folks would have given up, but not me.  If it means I can go somewhere, I’ll go through almost anything.  My partner in crime through all this was my best buddy, Deb Shera.  We’d convinced our husbands to turn the vacation into a super-sized double date and we couldn’t wait.

Finally, we booked a late February sailing on the Norwegian Epic that included three days at sea and three ports of call.  If you’re thinking about your first cruise, let me warn you of something.  The advertised price of this cruise on Priceline was $899 per person based on double occupancy.  So, the first thing most of us have to do is multiply the advertised price by two.  Still affordable right?  You can spend $130 a day at home – right?  But when you go on a cruise, the advertised price is just the beginning.

Then you have to add taxes and insurance and transfers and perhaps a night in a hotel and shore excursions and specialty restaurants and airfare and, and, and… Well, when it was all said and done we were close to doubling the price per person.  It was still a travel bargain, but if you’re looking at your credit card limit and think you just might swing $899, be aware that it’s only the beginning.

All that being said, go on a cruise.  It is just one of those things that every one should do – and they should probably do it as often as they possibly can.  I’ll tell you more about our cruise in the coming days.