Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cruise Travel: Fine-Tuning Your Experience

We are winding up our lovely cruise of the Panama Canal and central and South America on Holland America's beautiful Zuiderdam and we've had a wonderful time aboard this magnificent ship and at our various ports of call in Fort Lauderdale, the Bahama's Half Moon Cay, Aruba, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Grand Cayman. 
It's been an extraordinary journey.
Now, if you're thinking about cruise travel, we have some tips for you:

Use a knowledgeable travel agent who specializes in cruises to plan and book your trip. We use Completely Cruises in Haddonfield, NJ. The people at the aptly-named Completely Cruises know everything there is to know about cruise travel and they will take care of all of the details for you. Even if you've been offered a special deal or discount, you can apply the same offer through a cruise specialist and it will save a lot of time and effort on your part. It's well worth it.
Check out all of the reputable cruise lines and go with a well-known and respected brand. We like Holland America because it's a more classic line that caters to our demographic. We've also had good experiences with Royal Caribbean and Viking.
Try not to plan a cruise that stops in a new port every day. Give yourself time between ports to relax and unwind. One of the great joys of cruise travel is sitting on your own veranda or on a comfortable promenade chaise or even in a cocktail lounge and watching the vastness of the ocean glide by. It's an unmatched experience that needs to be savored. Days at sea will provide you with some of your best memories.
Try a bit of everything on the cruise. Sample each of the eating places and try the different shows and activities that are offered. This is a chance to try something new. Be adventurous.
Don't eat or drink everything simply because it's there for the taking. Overindulging on a cruise ship can be a prescription for trouble. You're going to be offered a huge array of food and libations. Pick and choose. Pace yourself. Ease into it.

Now, here are some observations and tips that we posted a few years ago gained from our trip to Alaska:

Are you thinking of going on a cruise?
Please know that if you decide to cruise the glacial waters of Alaska (and cruising is the only way you will gain access to some of the best sights and most remote areas) you need to be prepared to dress warmly -- even in  the summer months.
To begin with travel in Alaska runs from mid-May to mid-September. That's it.
For most of the rest of the year travel is climate prohibitive. 
And if you plan to visit Alaska you will have to plan far in advance as the trains and ships that will take you where you need to go book up and sell out early.
So we recommend you visit a cruise expert who will plan your trip for and with you. This will not necessarily cost you any more and it will save you lots of time and trouble. 
Your cruise expert can take care of all of the details and give you the invaluable tips and pointers that you need; even answering your questions before you ask them.
Here are some things you need to know:
--Weather is unpredictable in Alaska and conditions change frequently. The area is subject to a lot of moisture -- not actual downpours but frequent showers and spritzes. If you're the type of person who wants to see un every day of your vacation (or even every other day) Alaska is not necessarily the place for you.
--Alaska is rustic. Yes, you will have the opportunity to stay in "first class" hotels but don't expect five-star accommodations wherever you go. For example, Westmark is a major hotel chain in Alaska. It handles plenty of tourists and lots of group travel. And the accommodations are fine. But this is an independent chain that is not affiliated with the major operations such as Marriott, Hilton or Hyatt. Your accommodations will be fine, but this is not the Ritz.
--You will not find a lot of color. In the summer things will be green; and brown and gray and white and blue. But you're not gonna find big splashes of vivid color. Even the wildlife that you see will blend in with the browns, tans, blacks and whites. Spring, summer and fall are compressed into one quick season. If you blink, you'll miss it. 
--Natural wonders abound. Vast mountain ranges, towering snowy peaks, breathtaking valleys, winding rivers, patches of inspiring blue skies, lean, hearty pines and fluffy clouds that link the sky and the mountains -- these are everywhere. If you like natural wonders, this is the place for you. If you're looking for man-made wonders, forget about it unless you're into wonders of engineering.
--Since Alaska is paradise for the rugged outdoorsy set expect to see lots of sports, boating, hiking, hunting, camping and fishing enthusiasts. And these people are are thrown together Alaska-style where they are expected to co-exist harmoniously and indeed they do. Of course, that's not so difficult here as there is more than enough room for everyone.
--If you're not prepared to deal with the National Park Service and its vast bureaucracy, don't visit Alaska. Huge portions of the state are either owned by or under the control of the federal government. Denali National Park itself comprises more than six million acres and access is strictly limited and controlled. The park rangers are for the most part pleasant and helpful but there are rules that must be followed and you can and may be removed even for the slightest infractions. Be forewarned.
--If you're looking for fine shopping, you might be surprised to discover that there is a Nordstrom store in Anchorage. But this is not Chicago or Denver or Minneapolis or Kansas City or even Park City or Vail. Cities  and more populated areas (such as they are in Alaska) are hardly cosmopolitan or even bustling. Also, beyond the halibut and the king crab and the salmon, do not come to Alaska for fine dining. No celebrity chefs. No tres chic restaurants. And be prepared to try some of the gamier dishes such as reindeer sausage.
--If you like trains and training, you'll be in heaven. The Alaska Railroad runs a magnificent glass-domed train up and down the state throughout the tourist season. From the upper passenger level the views are magnificent. And on the lower level the white tablecloth dining fulfills a fantasy nurtured by so many old movies. You can enjoy  a full breakfast, lunch or dinner as the world passes by through big, panoramic windows. Your cruise line (Holland America and Princess are the largest and best known in Alaska) will have its own railroad cars that will take you to port. Just for the record, Holland America claims it has the largest and tallest cars.
--Don't visit Alaska (or expect to see it the way you should see it) unless you are prepared to traverse vast expanses. Denali National Park itself is bigger than Massachusetts and Alaska is more than twice as big as Texas. So if you want to see much of what there is to see you'll have to be on the move via train, plane, bus or ship much of the time. For example, some areas are only accessible via train. Some are only accessible via watercraft. And some are only accessible by air. Be adaptable, be ready to live out of a suitcase and plan on a two-week visit (or more) to cover much of it.
--One final note: Internet access is often limited or totally unavailable in many parts of Alaska. Ditto cell phone service. Check with your provider and expect to have to pay more for satellite access (when and where available) and for roaming.Limited cable TV service is available in hotels and on board ship.     

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