My Personal Favorites

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

I'm often asked about "my favorites." People assume that because I write about cruising, perhaps I have some special insights that they don't.

Other than the fact I may cruise more than most people, I'm really just the same "average Joe" as you -- an avid lover of cruising. I'm not a ship historian, or someone who examines the minutiae of a ship's passenger-to-space ratio; nor do I study the engineering involved in keeping these floating resorts afloat.

I don't even cruise to view the experience through the eyes of a "critic." Like you, I'm just out to enjoy myself. Of course, we all have different preferences, and what makes me a happy cruiser may leave you longing for land. With that in mind, here's a list of my personal "favorites" on cruise lines that I have experienced.

Favorite Cruise Line I don't find any cruise line consistent enough throughout its fleet to have a favorite line. However, there are certain aspects of each line that establish them as my favorite things about that line.

For example, when I step onto a Carnival ship, there's a relaxed and lively atmosphere -- a promise of fun to follow. By the time I get to the sail-away party and see the conga line forming, I know I'm sailing Carnival. And this makes me understand that if I'm going to take advantage of all Carnival has to offer, I need to dial up the more energetic elements of my personality.

When boarding a Celebrity ship, I notice an elegant ambience, letting me know that I'm in for a more reserved experience -- in both decor and activities. With a taste of luxury in terms of service, like the white-gloved attendants presenting me a welcome-aboard glass of champagne, I ready myself for a more "adult" experience. This is not to say that I haven't been involved in some "Kuki behavior" on Celebrity ships, but I also know that part of the Celebrity experience is pleasant social conversation over drinks in the Martini Bar.

The memorable aspect of my first day on a Holland America ship is when crew members engage me in conversation, and make a point of asking my name; they impress me immensely when the next time they see me, they address me by name. There's rarely a poolside band pumping out the rhythms of the Caribbean. Instead, you'll often find a quartet playing easy listening, jazz, or dance tunes of the 40s. This makes me expect a relaxed, somewhat quiet cruise experience where I should lay back a little, and enjoy conversations with my fellow passengers, and perhaps take a turn on the dance floor together with some pretty experienced ballroom dancers.

The "Freestyle" concept is what sets NCL apart, and it's obvious from the moment you see the artwork adorning the ship's hull. Color and whimsy are the first things to grab me when I cross the gangway of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. The vibrant color theme is continued throughout the ship, from décor to crew clothing -- and personalities. Upbeat, energetic surroundings and people -- and relaxed dress codes -- are the key to NCL. The clear message to me is to relax, take advantage and enjoy the closest thing to land-based resorts at sea.

I must admit the first couple of times I sailed Princess, I felt there was something about the line that wasn't for me. Since the line has a rabidly loyal fan base of repeat passengers, I asked myself what I was missing. On my fourth Princess cruise, aboard the Diamond Princess, I finally felt the "Princess presence."

It was on this ship, and later versions, that Princess had altered the design and layout (and fixed what I thought were shortcomings on previous versions) of their "Grand Class Ships." On earlier versions - Grand and Golden - so much effort went into giving them a small ship feel that there wasn't a central "heart" to the ship. Also, on my earlier Princess cruises, they had just initiated "Any Time Dining" and the system hadn't yet been fine tuned.

On our Diamond Princess sailing, and later Princess cruises, I began to appreciate the flexibility that Princess offered with regard to dining times, show times and other entertainment.

I've only sailed three times on luxury lines, and when I stepped onboard Regent Seven Seas' Voyager of the Seas, I had no doubt I was about to experience something quite distinct.

The ship didn't knock me over with any particular aesthetic "wow factor," but there was certainly a prevailing attitude that the ship and crew would make every attempt to please me and satisfy practically any reasonable request.

I was also a bit concerned about fitting in with my fellow passengers, thinking that because it had to be a somewhat "moneyed crowd," I might find other guests to be a bit aloof towards an obvious newcomer. But instead I found fellow passengers eager to share in conversation, and to share the experience of interesting lives and travels.

The bottom line for my enjoyment of Regent: Aside from enjoying the "please me" attitude of the crew, I also loved being in the company of travelers, not mere vacationers.

My first cruise was on a Royal Caribbean ship, and thus I have a soft spot for them. Since that fateful day in December 1994, I've watched their fleet change and evolve to the point where today they are sailing the largest ship in the world.

From the introduction of"Legend Class ships in the 90s to their newest and largest Freedom Class ships, I think RCI builds the most beautiful ship interiors in the mass market category. Lately, their design teams have turned their attention to the outside deck spaces as well, with some of the most creative and innovative ideas at sea.

But, what hasn't changed in this massive growth process, and is still the most appealing factor in my mind, is the feeling of upscale friendliness that abounds on Royal Caribbean, and that is created by the staff and crew, not the talented design teams.

Seabourn Cruise Line, at least in my experience, is a breed of its own, in that you're on a ship with a maximum of 208 other passengers.

I had some unique experiences on my Seabourn cruises, like playing blackjack in the ship's tiny, glassed-in casino while a harpist entertained in the lounge on the other side of the glass. Or finding my fellow players at the blackjack table were members of the Thai Royal Family.

It quickly became clear that a Seabourn cruise wasn't going to be about spectacular floor shows or lively nightlife, but about passengers becoming a tight knit, socially interactive group sharing their experiences…that, plus the exemplary service provided by the cruise line.

Favorite Ship I may not have a favorite cruise line, but I do have a favorite ship -- or at least a favorite cruise. Understandably, that favorite has changed, and no doubt will continue to change, as time goes on and I sail different ships.

At this moment my favorite is the Celebrity Millennium. I've sailed this ship twice. And while I've sailed other sister ships in the Millennium Class, she's my favorite.

At 90,000 tons, she is also my favorite-sized ship: large enough to offer all the amenities one needs to enjoy their vacation, but small enough and designed well enough that you see faces you recognize throughout the cruise, so it's not really necessary to organize meeting places with people you want to see again.

Favorite Itinerary Without question, of those I've experienced to date, the Baltic is my favorite itinerary. Each port is deep in history and culture, and each has its own unique identity. The differences among the people in countries geographically so close together stand out.

The fascination of St Petersburg, Russia, is my personal highlight.

I've sailed this area of the world twice, and I recommend it to everyone to visit at least once… a true trip of a lifetime!

Favorite Ports of Call Though I have thousands of cities still on my wish list, and a long list of places I love, my favorite to date is Florence, Italy. This is a city with a combination of history, art, culture, vibrancy, and people; just breathing the air here makes you a small part of it all.

Because the Caribbean so popular among cruisers, I should also share my favorite Caribbean port: St. Maarten.

I find St. Maarten interesting because of the two cultures (Dutch and French) that share such a small island. And it's an easy place to get out and explore on your own, visiting beaches, shopping, etc. It's a "rent a vehicle and go" island that I always enjoy!

Favorite Excursions I don't normally enjoy organized excursions purchased from the cruise line. Most port visits are very short, and taking organized excursions generally eats away at the little time you have (because of the time needed to gather tour groups to move on, etc., so you move only as quickly as the slowest person).

However, in some stops due to safety issues or ease of access to a particular activity, a cruise line excursion is the best bet.

My favorite organized ship excursion is the white water rafting in Costa Rica. Perhaps I remember it so fondly because I had to be talked into going. I thought there was no way a mid-50s, overweight, non-athletic specimen such as myself -- who hasn't been in a canoe since his teens -- could run a Category 3 rapids. Even on the bus ride from the ship, I assumed I would back out and spend my day with the bus driver waiting for the rafters to return.

As it turned out, it was precisely because I was "mid-50s, overweight, etc...." that the excursion was such an exhilarating adventure. Surprisingly, I never felt in danger for a moment. The laughter shared among the group in our raft, and with other rafters on the river, was raucous and joyous, and a bonus to a surprising adventure.

Honorable mention in this category has to go to the helicopter/glacier dog-sledding tour in Alaska. Although it was expensive, I had to think where else in the world I could take a tour riding at treetop levels above centuries-old glaciers, and then mush my own dog sled team on said glaciers. It was worth every dollar.

Favorite Shipboard Activity Those who know me will realize that I just have to take a peek at the blackjack tables in the casino. But that's really a land activity that I can do on ships as well.

The most fun thing we did on a ship was on a group cruise, when we got special permission in advance to fly kites from the stern. It was a beautiful sight to see so many colorful kites in the skies behind the ship.

We've created a number of similarly unique activities on various CruiseMates group cruises, but I should mention some of my favorites among regularly scheduled shipboard activities.

In the "strictly for fun" category, we love purchasing "horses" on RCI cruises, to decorate and enter in the Owner's Derby. We always form a partnership within a group, and most of the fun is choosing the name, decorating the "horse" and having the horse attend other shipboard events during the days leading up to the final race.

Another favorite is also an RCI standard: Quest. This is a adult-theme treasure hunt, where you don't leave the room to find each item. Until you play the game, or seen it being played, you have no idea how much fun it can be -- nor how surprised you'll be to see what an otherwise normal-looking fellow passengers might do to win a T-shirt.

Favorite Dining Rooms These days two-deck and even three-deck-high dining rooms are becoming the standard. My favorite is also one of the first, on the Celebrity Century. It's named the Grand Restaurant, and it lives up to its name with a grand staircase, classic foot-thick columns, and a huge decorative sun adorning the two-deck-high glass windows looking over the stern.

When I'm seated at this rear window with the sun setting, the romance of the sea comes alive .

Favorite Alternate Restaurant During the past half dozen years, alternate/surcharge dining rooms have become common. Fees vary from $10 to $30 per person.

My favorite of these venues is the Olympic Restaurant on Celebrity's Millennium. In all similar venues on all the ships that offer this alternative, the food quality is a notch above their price-included dining rooms, and so is the quality of the furnishings, linens, flatware, and service.

To my mind, several things set the Olympic Restaurant apart. The ambiance is established with use of original paneling from the White Star Line's Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, so there's a link to the history and tradition of ship travel. Though the service is the highly polished and elegant "butterfly" style, we found our servers also took time to chat with us, and to enjoy the fun we were making of our dining experience.

The food was good, but no better or worse than in similar venues on other ships or lines. But the total package of our experience in the Olympic will always stand out for me.

Favorite Cabins I've had a lot of variety in the accommodations I've enjoyed (or endured). I've been in everything from inside cabins -- with a single bed built into a bulkhead that couldn't be moved -- to a Royal Suite. Of course, I preferred the luxury of a Royal Suite, with butler service. However, it was our cruise in the first type I mentioned that had me fall in love with cruising.

It's certainly true that any cabin on a ship is better than a grand suite on land.

Cabins at the stern, facing aft, have quickly become very in-demand accommodations. Often these are standard-priced cabins, but with larger balconies. Depending on the design of the ship, this is not always the case. So research carefully if you're booking one of these cabins.

On the minus side, because they are on an extreme end of the ship, guests will likely feel more motion than in cabins more amidships. Also, these stern cabins may be a long walk from the stairways or elevators. So those with mobility issues might want to avoid them.

Aside from the Royal Suite -- which I got once as an anniversary surprise for Mrs. Kuki and couldn't afford on a regular basis -- my favorite cabin was a Category FV on the Celebrity Millennium Class ships. These cabins are on the stern of the ship, but also on the corners. The cabin is about twice as large as a standard balcony cabin, and features a 300 sq. ft. balcony with views to the stern and the side. These cabins and balconies are quite a treat if you like to entertain friends during your cruise.

Honorable mention in this category goes to the Category 11 corner cabins on the Spirit Class Carnival ships. These have a long (though not very deep) wrap-around balcony. But the real treat in these cabins is the small, separate living area and separate bedroom.

Favorite Amenities

  • Any ship featuring complimentary self-serve ice cream and yogurt.
  • Carnival's 24-hour pizzeria. I love grabbing a slice on the way back to the cabin after a late night in the casino.
  • Princess' 24-hour Horizon Court - an excellent place to have coffee and a nosh with friends late at night after enjoying the ship's night life.
  • Holland America's larger-than-normal selection of sugar-free deserts.
  • Ships that have separate island stations rather than single buffet lines in their Lido Deck buffet areas.
  • RCI's Concierge Lounges, for suite passengers or Diamond-level Crown-and-Anchor members.
  • The free laundry service on Princess and Carnival for Elite and Platinum repeat guest program members.
  • Access to online immigration forms and check-in
  • Discounts for booking a future cruise onboard (by RCI and Princess that I know of), which can be transferred to altered sailing dates later if necessary.
  • in-cabin Internet access.

Favorite Time to Cruise

Now, Then, Anytime!!


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