Sunday, December 25, 2011

AmaDolce ~ December 2011

AMA Waterways
AmaDolce ~ Christmas Time Cruise ~ 12/12-12/19/2011
Nurnberg to Budapest

Embarkation:  We flew directly to Nurnberg for the cruise-only portion of the trip while most of the other 85 guests participated in the two day pre-cruise tour in Prague.  Our flight arrived at 10:30am and we were met by our transportation provider booked independently.  The trip was less than 30 minutes to the dock, but the dock is in a hidden area, so we were glad we booked with a company who services the river cruise lines and knew the area – even though we probably paid too much for this service versus a taxi.

We arrived at the ship shortly after 11:00am and were greeted by one of the sailors who came out to take our bags from the van.  At reception, we were greeted warmly and told that our rooms weren’t quite ready, but we could have a light lunch with finger sandwiches and hot soup in the lounge – along with ice tea, water, coffee and tea available for self-service. 

After a short while, we were told that our rooms were ready and our luggage was already there waiting for us.  It was a very easy and pleasant experience.

Ship:  While the AmaDolce holds 148 guests we only had about 85 people on this sailing.  The ship is laid out very conveniently with the lounge on the same deck as the lobby and the dining room one deck down.  Cabins on Deck 2 are a convenient ½ deck away from either!  Deck 3 cabins have direct access to the aft lounge where several functions were held for the onboard groups.  The ship was decorated tastefully in reds and oranges with dark woods throughout.  In the spirit of the season, they had a large Christmas tree with garland and other décor festooning the ship.  It was very nice!  The small gift shop spilled out into the lobby, sometimes making it seem a little like a flea market, but they have very little space to work with.

Chairs and loveseats in the lounge were comfortable, but sometimes the use of lots of chairs caused visibility issues.  There were many chairs facing away from where the speaker or entertainment would be.  Only for one night did they actually rearrange the furniture to be more “theater-style” for the entertainment.  The dining room layout consisted mostly of tables for four or two.  Only a few tables held six guests and possibly only two could accommodate eight guests.  There were a couple of sections with an oval six-top that created major pinch points making it very difficult for the servers to get by.   

The Sun Deck was closed for the first couple of days due to low bridges, but when they opened it the chairs were plentiful and the small hot tub looked inviting.  The cold, rainy weather was a big deterrent to hanging out on the Sun Deck, but we bundled up, got our umbrellas (provided for us in our cabins!) and went up to brave the weather while cruising the Danube bend and the Wachau Valley.   This is why you river cruise – to experience these beautiful sites up close and personal!

Cabin:  At first glance, the 170 square foot cabin appeared smaller than those on our previous river cruises, but we realized that it was just the particular layout and the use of different flooring and two plush chairs by the French balcony.  The overall space was the same, but worked out a little differently.  The bathrooms are adequate with good storage but very little counter space.  The towels were plush and LONG.  The amenities of lotion, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel were adequate, but not fantastic, and were replenished as needed throughout the week.

The highlight of the cabin has got to be the shower with strong water pressure from your choice of a large overhead showerhead or a handheld unit, and an additional “middle” height shower head that feels really nice on your back after a long day of excursions.  Hot water was very hot and plentiful.  The shower stall itself was a little awkward, but we could live with that.  Beds had firm mattresses on pedestal frames with high quality cotton sheets/cases and a nice cozy duvet.  Extra blankets were available for the chilly nights when we opened the balcony door. 

Desk/counter space is almost non-existent.  We moved things around to make the one accessible plug available for charging the electronics.  A nice feature is the complimentary included internet that can be used from your cabin’s TV complete with keyboard and mouse (or free Wi-Fi shipwide if you brought your own laptop/tablet/smartphone).  The closet and cabinets with shelves offered plenty of storage.  There were four small drawers at the desk that held very little, but came in handy.  The surprise was a large rolling storage bin that was UNDER one of the beds.  You could easily roll it out for access.  One thing we found odd was that the closet doors were a white wood when all the other wood was this beautiful rich dark brown.  In our opinion, the cabin would feel warmer with wooden doors, but I’m sure AMA did studies on why the doors need to be white.

The French balcony is really the way to go on river cruises.  We enjoy being on Deck 2 versus Deck 3 as we like to be right there with the water so close by, watching the ducks or swans as we sail down the rivers.  Even with the cold weather we opened our door regularly to experience the sites, take pictures and just enjoy the river flowing by.

Dining:  The breakfast buffet had lots of fresh fruit choices, muesli, cereals, yogurt, and fresh meats and cheeses.  Hot dishes included scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and one item that changed daily such as sautéed mushrooms or French toast.  Made to order eggs and omelets were available and a huge selection of freshly baked breads and pastries were displayed beautifully (and tasted delicious).  Make your own Mimosas were available with complimentary sparkling wine.  Lunch is usually served buffet style with a nice selection for the salad bar and a couple of hot entrees to select from.  Cut to order meat (beef, turkey, pork) was also available.  However, on the third day of our cruise it was reported that a few guests had become ill, so as a precaution we went to table/waiter service for lunch every day.  This was a very nice treat and the crew of the AmaDolce handled the change very well.  We were given menus to select from including appetizers, salads and entrees for lunch – very similar to dinner. 

The dining room is set up for open seating, but we found most people gravitated to the same place/section each night.  This was a bit different from our previous river cruises where people sought out new tablemates to eat with at every meal.  It could be due to the fact that there were two large groups of about 30 people each, so they tended to stick together.  We found a waiter, Peter from Bulgaria, who we clicked with from the start.  We tried to sit in his section most meals; he was efficient and friendly and genuinely a nice guy. 

Dinner meal selections were good with a meat, fish and vegetarian choice available every night.  We had our choice of appetizers and salads and desserts with every meal.  A couple of meals had a set pre-appetizer, but overall it was up to us to make our selections.  There was an always available section including a steak, salmon and chicken entrée just in case one of the featured items did not appeal to us.   Presentations and food quality were above average to excellent in most cases.  Some of the fish dishes didn’t impress, but the meats were always delicious!  We appreciated that they
featured “local” regional dishes on the menu as well.  Frequently, after the main course was served, the waiters would bring out additional vegetables and serve them to you if you’d like.

To complete your dinner experience AMA serves free-flowing complimentary regional wines with a different red and white available each night.  Our wine server Nadia was sure to keep our glassed filled at all times.   The red wines won out this week, but all of them were very nice wines.

Entertainment/Onboard Activities:  AMA offered a few lectures/informational sessions on the region including one about how the European Union came about.  In addition, they brought on some regional entertainment including La Strada (chamber music), Hungarian Folklore performers, and singer Valerie May who performs her act in many different languages.  What makes this so unique over ocean cruising is that the entertainment is literally right there with you, not up on stage and you’re in the balcony squinting to see what’s going on.  Everything is so personal – they are there just for you!

Excursions:  All ports offered an excursion of some kind.  Many were walking tours with local guides, some combined bus tours with walking tours – all included a visit to a Christmas market.  AMA offered only three optional tours:  an all day tour to Salzburg (from Passau, rejoining the ship in Linz), a Strauss and Mozart concert in Vienna, and a visit to Schonbrunn palace (which didn’t have enough interest, so had to be cancelled).  The walking tours are led by local guides, who were very good and some were excellent.  Upon returning from each excursion you were greeted at the ship with warm towels and hot drinks.

AMA includes audio systems where you get your personal earpiece for the week and the tour guides broadcast through their microphone.  Most river cruise companies are doing this now, but it’s worth a mention.  It is very nice to not have to stand in a small cluster to hear the stories and history of the buildings and the area.  You can actually stop to take a picture or look in a window or watch the people around you, without having to worry about losing the group. 

One impressive note on tours:  According to Elke, our Cruise Manager, this was only the second cruise where they included an extension on the walking tour in Regensburg to the Thorn und Taxis Palace for the wonderful Christmas market there (our personal favorite!).   Elke stood at the gates and paid in cash the admission fee of those who made the extra walk with the guides.  The return walk to the ship was about 30 minutes; based on the previous week’s feedback Elke got permission to pay for taxi cabs back to the ship for those that needed it.  It was a rainy day, and many took her up on that offer.   We enjoyed the walk back as the rain let up right when we were leaving the market.  This says a lot about how AMA responds to guest comments.  Kudos, to Team AMA!

Service:  Overall exceptional service!  From Tonya and Angela at the front desk who knew our cabin numbers and who we were traveling with from day one to the bar team of Victor, Daniel and Nadia to the sailors who help with luggage and tie up the boat when docking.  They seemed to be a very happy and cohesive team.  Our cruise manager Elke was out of this world.  Her passion and commitment to everyone’s happiness was ever-present.  Her workload was added to with the on-board adjustments due to a few guests’ illnesses.  Elke was personally going into town, filling prescriptions and bringing doctors on board in the ports, all while dealing with a 30-person Japanese group who needed everything translated including the newly adapted lunch menus.  She worked tirelessly on making this cruise perfect for all. 

Itinerary:  Christmas Markets – Nurnberg to Budapest.  Ports included Regensberg where we visited the Thorn and Taxis Palace Romantic Christmas Market, Passau, Melk to visit the Abbey, Linz to pick up the passengers who elected to the take the all-day excursion to Salzburg, Vienna (where we attended a Mozart/Strauss concert in a palace!), and ending in Budapest including a nighttime illuminations cruise past all the amazing buildings lit up at night while listening to the Blue Danube over the speakers and enjoying a complimentary shot of Peach schnapps.  The markets are all beautiful, but at night they become spectacular.  Gluhwein (hot mulled wine) is plentiful and tasty, gingerbread, sausages and other delights tease you at every stand.  It’s hard not to be in the Christmas spirit when you visit these magical places.  One of our highlights, and a main reason we like river cruising, is when we sailed from Passau to Linz along the Wachau Valley past the charming towns like Durnstein (which is visited on many Danube itineraries). 

Summary:  This was our 3rd river cruise and our 45th cruise overall but our 1st cruise on AMA.  AMA offers an exceptional product that our clients will be extremely satisfied with.  We found many of our fellow guests to be first time river cruisers and only three people had been on an AMA cruise previously (besides the group leader and staff with one of the groups).   The Christmas Time Market cruise is a good choice to get people interested in river cruising, and they will want to go back and see these cities in the summer when it’s warm!   We have our 4th river cruise booked for April 2012 – Paris to Normandy Beaches on Avalon Creativity.  Want to join us??

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Norwegian Pearl ~ November 2011

Norwegian Pearl  ~  11/27 – 12/4/2011
Western Caribbean

Embarkation – When we arrived at the Port of Miami about 12:10 pm we saw several different check-in lines – Latitudes, Casino at Sea, Regular Check-in, etc.  As we were ready to head to the Latitudes line the check-in clerk said, “It doesn’t matter, they’re all the same,” which we found to be strange since it was still so early in the check-in process.  The lines were very long and slow-moving.  Once we made it to the “staging” area, the guys working there were not very organized and we waited an additional 20 minutes to get on the ship.  Overall the process was close to 70 minutes.

General Ship Appearance – Norwegian Pearl is in great shape!  The public areas still look fresh and clean.  We noticed a little wear and tear on the chairs in the Summer Palace dining room, but they are too big for the room/tables, so it’s no surprise that they get beat up.  The showroom on the Pearl offers great visibility from nearly any seat – no big pillars to block the view, excellent stadium seating.   One side note - we had some big ocean waves during this sailing, but the ship remained very stable.  

Pool Area – They had some of the most comfortable deck chairs and there were plenty of them.  You could check out extra towels by the pool which was convenient.  During the day they kept the music light and happy and not too loud.  David played the steel drums most days by the pool which was nice.  It seemed that you could always find a deck chair somewhere, even on sea days.

Overall Crew/Service – Extremely friendly crew!!  Always saying “Hello” with a smile.  The officers were very visible on this ship – more so than most cruises/ships.  The Executive Chef was present at most functions and mingled with guests in the dining rooms.  The Cruise Director, Julie, was in the buffet every morning greeting people and answering their questions. 

Cabin – We had ocean view cabin #5058 located midship between the front and middle elevator cores, which was very convenient.  This particular cabin is configured to be a quad occupancy cabin.  There was one upper bunk and one trundle bed under the regular bed that could be pulled out.  With the two lower beds configured as one queen, it was difficult to get in and out of bed.  On one side, there was only a six inch gap between the edge of the bed and the edge of the desk.  On the other side, the upper bunk stuck out of the wall about eight inches leaving only about six inches of clearance between the bed and the upper bunk.  Luckily, I only banged my shoulder once before learning the proper technique for getting out of bed.  There was plenty of storage with six large drawers, plenty of shelves, medium sized closet and a safe large enough to hold a laptop.  Bathrooms had separate doors for the shower and the toilet areas.  Showers had strong water pressure and were roomy.  Towels were thick and plush, but not very soft.  Beds were reasonably comfortable with duvets and oversize decorative pillows in addition to the regular pillows.  The balcony cabins are definitely more spacious with a separate loveseat sitting area, but had fewer drawers and less shelf storage.

Included Dining – We enjoyed several meals in Indigo and a few in Summer Palace, the main dining rooms.  The food quality was above average which was a pleasant surprise for us.  The buffet was our choice for breakfast and lunch most days.  The breakfast items did not change, but the made-to-order omelets were available in many stations throughout the buffet so there was never much of a wait.  The remaining choices were the standards.  Lunch items included made to order pastas and burger stations offering veggie and turkey burgers upon request.  Fruit and salad options were plentiful but the items didn’t have much variety from day to day.  That being said, there were plenty of choices available so as not to duplicate if you chose not to.  Buffet food quality was very good.  Servers were quick to clean tables and they provided assistance at the beverage stations.  For a very special feature, on the last day they offered an Austrian/Bavarian lunch buffet on the back buffet (the Executive Chef is from Bavaria) where they served spaetzle, schnitzel, and few kinds of wursts in addition to several regional specialty dishes.  It was a real treat!

Specialty Dining – We only went to Mambo’s ($10pp) and La Cucina ($10pp) for specialty dining.  Mambo’s food quality was excellent and the surcharge included a complimentary (but small) margarita.  We really enjoyed the Il Popo which was a plate of grilled meats and veggies.  La Cucina was a bit of a disappointment.  We had fond memories from the same restaurant aboard Norwegian Epic, but this experience did not live up to those.  We received the wrong salads and the tomato/mozzarella/basil salad was served without the balsamic drizzle.  We saw other salads going out correctly to specifications, but not ours.  The entrees were very tasty, but the entire meal was lacking in some way and after dinner coffee was ordered but never served.  Overall, the specialty dining options had plenty of availability every night.   In addition to the regular options, they offered an Indian Food Buffet in Mambo’s on the last sea day ($15pp).  It smelled delicious but they also featured Indian dishes on the regular buffet every day.  We didn’t see the value, and we enjoyed the Bavarian/Austrian food instead (with no cover charge).

Entertainment – Lots of choices for entertainment.  The first production show, “That’s Entertainment,” was nothing to write home about, but the specialty acts of “Oh What a Night”  (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons tribute group) and Sharkbait (comedy, juggling) were very entertaining.  The Second City troupe seemed a little “off” during their first night and they used many of the same sketches that we’ve seen on previous Norwegian cruises but with much less laughter from the crowd.  Throughout the ship the entertainers were “fine” – nothing “wow” about Tino the one man show or the others.  Roots Link (reggae band) and David (steel drums) were both good when they were playing. 

Activities – Plenty of things to choose from if you wanted to participate!  Lots of trivia, dance lessons, Botox seminars and shopping and port info.  They no longer give out silly prizes for the games on this ship.  Instead you get a card where you have to earn points for participation. You then redeem the points for various Norwegian logo items at the end of the cruise.

In Summary - This was our forth Norwegian cruise on four different ships in the last two years and, overall, we believe that Norwegian is showing improvement in all areas – especially in food and beverage quality and selections.  The crew seemed genuinely happy to be serving guests and the Officers were very involved in the daily events.  While the cabin was a bit small to our liking, we survived just fine and could recommend it for two or maybe three guests, but four could be pretty cramped unless there were small children.  But where else can you see an alligator carrying a mouse in its jaws?   We can confidently recommend the Norwegian Pearl and her crew due to this very solid overall performance.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Avalon Tapestry ~ April 2010

Budapest - Parliment
Budapest - Parliment Building
We recently returned from Avalon Waterways “A Taste of the Danube” four-night river cruise aboard the Avalon Tapestry visiting Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.  Passengers booking this short voyage are encouraged to add a pre-cruise stay in Budapest and a post-cruise stay in Vienna.  This was our thirty-seventh cruise but our first ever river cruise.

Our flight to Europe was in the midst of the disruptions caused by the volcanic ash cloud – making the flight from Orlando to Frankfurt over ten hours long.  Once we landed there were no outbound flights at all, so we had to find another way to get to Hungary.  The train ride across Germany was comfortable and the scenery was beautiful.  We enjoyed a few hours exploring Dresden, Germany, and had a great meal at Borowski .  The overnight train to Budapest wasn’t nearly as nice as the previous leg; the train seemed old and rickety but we managed to get some uncomfortable sleep during the long ride.  All part of the adventure!

Budapest, Hungary
We checked in to our hotel at 9:00am (desperately needing to shower and change after over thirty-four hours of traveling) giving us about six hours in Budapest instead of our planned upon full day plus.  We walked across the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and took the funicular up Castle Hill where we explored the grounds of the Royal Palace and wandered through the neighborhoods of the Castle District.  After checking out Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion we had a wonderful lunch of authentic Hungarian food at Onkiszolgalo Vendeglo – a cafeteria-style local’s restaurant where everyone was friendly and helpful despite our language barrier.

That afternoon we returned to the hotel and met our Cruise Director Andrzej, who took care of our luggage and directed us to a brand new deluxe motorcoach for the short ride to the Avalon Tapestry.

Apparently others had even more trouble with their flights than we did – there were only nineteen passengers on this cruise (and two of them had been stranded there from the previous voyage)!

The Ship
Avalon TapestryThe Avalon Tapestry was built in 2006 with a Silent Drive System ship design – in order to reduce vibration and noise level, the engine and all associated parts have been separated from the cabins.  Essentially the engine and bridge are on a separate “boat” that pushes the “barge” with all of the passenger areas.  Indeed, we never heard or felt the engines – more than once we were surprised to notice that the ship was moving.

Stateroom 224She carries 164 passengers in 80 staterooms (172 square feet each) and 2 junior suites (258 square feet each) with 43 crew members.  There are seven staterooms on the lowest deck that each have two large round portholes.  All of the other cabins feature floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and French balconies. 

We were amazed by the amount of storage in the room and the bed was comfortable.  One little feature that we really liked: the bathroom door opened inwards!  It was really niceSun Deck to be in front of the closets and not have to worry about getting hit with the bathroom door when it opened.

Public spaces were limited but were all designed around the most important aspect of the voyage – unobstructed views of the scenery all around.  The top deck is completely open and features plenty of comfortable seating.  Below that, at the front of the ship, is the lounge with a bar and dance floor surrounded on three sides with floor-to-ceiling windows.  Below the lounge is the restaurant, also surrounded by windows.

Other public areas included a small library, a basic fitness center (with a nice shower) and an internet lounge with two computers and a printer.  The internet was reasonably priced for unlimited access and the ship-wide WiFi made updating the folks back home with our iPhone a lot of fun!

Food & Drink
Hot coffee and tea, iced tea and water and a bowl of fresh fruit were always available.

Breakfast BuffetBreakfast was buffet style with eggs and omelets cooked to order and one item (like French toast) that changed daily available to order from the kitchen.  Selections were varied and Champagne and mimosas were included.  There were limited selections for early or late risers in the lounge before and after the scheduled buffet hours.  A room service breakfast was also available via the traditional door-hanger card that you could fill out the night before.

Lunch was also buffet style and included hand carved meats and fresh made pastas.  This was an opportunity to try some local style dishes that we normally wouldn’t – boiled beef in horseradish sauce is surprisingly tasty!  On both the breakfast and lunch buffets we especially loved the cold cuts and cheeses – they all seemed to have a lot more flavor than what we’re used to.

During the late afternoon and early evening most passengers congregated in the lounge.  Instead of Cheese & Olivesthe usual happy hour bowls of pretzels, each table was set with a small platter of cheese and olives – very nice!

Dinner ServiceDinner was open seating but at a scheduled time.  Included with dinner was unlimited wine, beer or soda, and the wine selections, both red and white, changed each night.  You always ordered your choice of main course – fish or meat or vegetarian.  Some nights you got to order your choice each of appetizer, soup and dessert but on other nights these were a fixed menu.  A short time after serving the main course, the waiters would circulate with huge platters of the various entrées and side dishes so you could get more of what you liked or try something that you hadn’t ordered.  The food was always delicious and fresh ingredients were delivered to the ship daily.  The service was unhurried but efficient.

We’re told that there were also late night snacks in the lounge but somehow we never made it to those.

The Staff
David - Bar ServerFrom the Captain who wore giant wooden shoes from his native Holland to the dishwasher who could have been a professional improv comedian, without exception the crew was friendly, energetic and fun.  Many crew members already knew our names and cabin number before we ever met them and they seemed genuinely happy to just chat.  Most impressive though was how well they worked together.  The crew was so small that everyone had to pitch in for many of the duties; the executive chef and ship’s musician were both seen loading luggage, and we were told that everyone has to help off-load trash by hand!

While cruising during the day, our Cruise Director would routinely provide a running commentary of the sights as we passed them interspersed with stories and detailed answers to whatever questions anyone came up with.  Evening entertainment was provided by Zarko, the ship’s musician.  He was quite talented and mostly played piano, but he also sang and played several other instruments resulting in a nice variety of music.

Synth ViolinBefore the ship set sail in the afternoons, local talent was sometimes brought aboard for an hour or so.  One was a group of professional dancers who put on a waltz performance and then offered to teach whoever was interested.  The other was violinist Giorgio Benedetti who performed unique, energetic interpretations of classical and contemporary songs.Crew Show

By far though, the entertainment highlight was the Crew Show on the last night.  This was just what it sounds like – members of the crew putting on silly little skits in a talent show format.  There was not a professional entertainer in the group (we saw them loading up on liquid courage before the show) but it was great fun seeing the crew get a chance to relax, goof around and wear their own clothes instead of uniforms.  The crew seemed to sincerely be having fun and it was infectious.

BratislavaBratislava, Slovakia
This was the first of several included shore excursions for the cruise.  All passengers were issued wireless receivers before each tour that went with the personal earpieces that were provided in your stateroom.  The tour guide would speak into a microphone and you could hear everything without being right next to the guide.  We loved this feature!  It made the tours much more comfortable and let you wander around, sight-see and take pictures without missing a thing.  All tours were conducted by local guides and they really went out of their way to make sure that you were walking downhill as much as possible.

We had a nice bus tour of Bratislava including a stop at the Mirbach Palace followed by a walking tour of the Old City.  The Baroque and Rococo architecture was lovely and stops included a quaint little marzipan shop/museum and the Gothic Cathedral of St. Martin.

Durnstein, AustriaDurnstein, Austria
Durnstein is a picturesque little fairy tale village which maintains its charm largely because the main road runs through a tunnel under the hill the town is built on, leaving very little traffic in the town itself.  Our included tour took us through cobblestone streets and past the Baroque tower of Stiftskirche with its striking blue façade.  There were numerous little shops, each one cuter than the last, selling apricot based products from schnapps and liquors to jams and mustard.  On the hill high above the town are the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was imprisoned in 1192.  If you’re up to the climb, the view from the ruins is simply breathtaking!

Melk AbbeyMelk, Austria
Our included tour of Stift Melk, the magnificent Benedictine Abby above the town, was wonderful.  We started in rooms filled with artifacts and paintings, moved through the Marble Hall with its beautiful ceiling fresco and the library with its secret panels to culminate in the amazingly ornate Monastery Church.  Unfortunately there wasn’t really any time to explore on your own at this stop.

Linz - Hauptplatz MarketLinz, Austria
An optional excursion was offered for purchase here where you got to make your own Linzer Tort and went on a sightseeing tour while it baked.  We opted to explore on our own.  As Austria’s third largest city, Linz is filled with all of the requisite big chain stores and restaurants.  Nonetheless, we managed to find a few little local shops and browsed through a fascinating flea market set up in the Hauptplatz.

GreinGrein, Austria
Our included walking tour of the town featured stops at the Parish Church and the amazing Stadttheater, Grein’s historic municipal theater.  Built as a granary in 1563 and transformed into a theater in 1791 it has been in operation ever since.  After the tour we had time to stroll along the cobblestone streets and relax beside the river before returning to the ship.

Vienna, Austria
After disembarking the ship we took the provided deluxe motorcoach to the cruise line’s post-cruise hotel but we then parted ways as we had made our arrangements independently.  We quickly Schonnbrunn Palace - Gloriettechecked our luggage and purchased a 24-hour pass to the subway system.  We found the public transportation in Vienna clean, well-signed and easy to navigate.

Our first stop was Schoenbrunn Palace where we only had a few hours but could have easily spent a day or two exploring.  We opted for the 40 room Grand Tour that included a pre-recorded audio guide (in your choice of twelve languages) and individual playback devices so that you could proceed at your own pace.  The lavish opulence of these rooms must simply be seen to be believed!  We then spent time exploring the grounds including the Maze, Gloriette (where we stopped for a quick snack and Privy Garden.  Overall a wonderful albeit too brief experience.

That afternoon we checked into the Hotel Capricorno Wien, which proved to be a nice little hotel in a great location with free WiFi and an included breakfast buffet.

Hinterholz - ViennaWe set out to find a place for dinner and, as always, we gravitate towards places that are less touristy and more for locals.  A single sign over a doorway directed us down a dark, hundred-yard-long hallway to a wonderful little restaurant nestled in the courtyard between several tall buildings.  Hinterholz was decorated like an old farmhouse and we were served huge orders of hearty, authentic Austrian food by a friendly staff.

After eating we wandered around a little bit and walked out of an ally right into the Stephansdom, arguably Austria’s most magnificent Gothic cathedral.

That evening we took the subway to Kursalon Wien and attended a Strauss & Mozart Concert in the very hall where Johann Strauss himself used to direct his orchestra.  In addition to the instrumental numbers, some of the songs included opera vocalists or ballet dancers.

In Closing
Our fellow passengers (all seventeen of them) were all from English-speaking countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA – and we had time to chat with all of them.  We were surprised to learn that none of them were big ship cruisers.  A couple of them had done one cruise but most of them had traveled previously with land tours like Avalon Waterways’ parent company Globus.  Without exception, they all loved the river cruise experience – and so did we.  While we certainly won’t be giving up our big ship cruises, we’re now hooked on river cruising as well and can’t wait for the next one!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Carnival Dream ~ February 2010

Carnival Dream 2/20 – 2/27/2010 ~ Western Caribbean

We have been on Carnival seven times previously; this was our 36th cruise overall.

Embarkation – Port Canaveral does a fine job, no real delays, everyone keeps moving; on the ship in 20 minutes from the time we parked the car.  Got right on the ship and headed to Lido deck for the buffet lunch.

Buffet – While there are definitely some traffic flow "pinch points" throughout the buffet, there were some very good food choices.  The Tandori and Deli stations on the back deck were excellent; the Burrito Bar (turned into omelet station in the morning) never had much of a line and was a nice option.  The Mongolian BBQ was a big hit, and the lines showed it.  We only did that once, but it was fun to pick your own veggies and sauce, etc.  The food quality was very good, with some items excellent.  Breakfast selections were limited, but that’s pretty normal on a ship buffet.  We never made it up to the Pasta Bar, but the reviews we heard were good.

Stateroom – We selected a COVE balcony – Category 7C.  Amazing!  We loved being so close to the water.  We could hear the waves, feel the spray, etc.  It was really cool.  The only negative was there was a fan blowing over our balcony that created some wind and smelled a little like chicken noodle soup.  We determined that this fan was over four staterooms in a row on our starboard side:  2305, 2309, 2315, and 2317.  Try to avoid those cabins if booking in category 7C.  Amy’s parents were in 2273 and they had no wind or food odor.  Cabin locations are very convenient: only one deck up to showroom, lower restaurant, and atrium bar; two decks up to other public areas.

Ship – Loved it.  Very well done, but a little RED overall.  Both dining rooms have red décor and red lighting.  The Ocean Plaza – a neat area – was used for lots of activities.  Many people playing cards and dominos; they held trivia and other games in this venu.  The bar there switched specialties each night:  margaritas, martinis, wine, etc.  The Adults Only Serenity Deck is very nice, but get out there early because there aren’t many chairs.  We purchased the weeklong pass for the Thermal Suite and enjoyed using the various steam rooms and heated stone beds throughout the week. 

A few areas of concern:

  • The stadium balcony seating in the showroom offers NO leg room - if you are taller or larger make sure to sit on the main floor.
  • The tables in the Ocean Plaza have a weird curving edge that many a knee was getting banged on.
  • They definitely crammed in the tables for extra seating in the buffet.  There were many tight areas where a scooter or a wheelchair or even a larger person may have an issue getting to/from the tables.
  • Avoid booking into balconies on Deck 6.  Deck 5 is a wraparound promenade deck that sticks out with the hot tubs and deck seating.  Those on Deck 5 can look up and very clearly see into the Deck 6 balconies.  That’s one reason why we selected the Cove Balcony.  It was very private with the lifeboats over us and no balconies below us; you had to really lean out to see the neighbors, etc.

Entertainment – overall excellent.

  • Carnival has started a "comedy club" like some of the other cruise lines are doing and they scheduled repeated shows with four different comedians.  It was timed so you could take advantage of these shows without missing the production shows.  There were always lines for this – full house every show.  Comedians do clean family comedy during the earlier shows and offer later adult shows.

  • Big screen by the pool – concerts, movies, Canada vs. USA hockey (Olympics) and the Laser Light Extravaganza.  Overall very fun!
  • Production Shows – They put on three full production shows during the week.  One was Country themed – not too bad, but there are only so many line dancing country moves for the dancers to do.  The next was FANTASTIC – “Dancing in the Streets”.  They bring a group of break dance type dancers on the ship and incorporate trampolines, and so much more, along with fun music.  This is a “don’t miss” show.  The third show was the weakest of the three.  We watched it, but really don’t remember it – maybe something Motown (which we usually enjoy).
  • Atrium Duet – this girl was beyond belief - she sang everything!  And she sang it well!!  She was always there.
  • Piano Bar – sounded nice, but was always way too smoky for us.
  • Casino – they have a strict no-smoking policy – except for players at specifically signed tables and machines.  We never really smelled the smoke when walking through.  It is a main walkway to get around, so it was nice not being overwhelmed by smoke just to walk through.  People were saying the machines were very tight.  We didn’t make any deposits ourselves.

Dining – the big one that everyone wants to know.  Well, we found the quality to be very good and many items excellent!  Presentations were very nice, too.  Amy’s dad had shrimp cocktail every night and said it tasted just as fresh at the end as it did in the beginning.  Lobster was good. The "everyday" steak was one of the better meals we tried – we were surprised!  Pasta dishes were excellent, mom enjoyed the Salmon twice, the stuffed mushrooms were delicious, and we could go on!!  Not to forget the warm chocolate melting cake and the Bitter & Blanc bread pudding – YUM!!   We ate very well! 

Bar Drinks – Found the bar drink prices to be high for specialty drinks, and they really didn’t taste that great.  If you like rum and Coke or something simple like that, then you are fine, but if you are looking for a GOOD margarita – don’t bother on the ship.  We found some nice margaritas at Mr. Sancho’s in Cozumel!


  • Stateroom Service – friendly, efficient and mysterious – we never saw him, but he and his assistant always got the room done within minutes of us leaving our room (using the Cruisin’ or Snoozin’ card on the door handle to notify when we were out). 
  • Bar Service – plentiful and friendly, we just really didn’t use them much.
  • Dining Service – we were confirmed for late dining, but upon arrival we were assigned anytime dining.  The first night, we waited for ten minutes and were sat at a table for ten, waited for seats to be filled, and finally got a server to take our order.  Interestingly, we found out that all ten of us had been confirmed for late dining and assigned anytime.  The anytime dining timing seemed off, food arrived cold, took a long time between courses, etc.  After dinner, we went to the maître d and confirmed our switch to late dining.  Our second night, we reported to Stanislavia (Tania) at table 157 and had one of the best dining experiences out of all of our cruises.  Tania’s service was amazing with a personality to match.  She and her assistant really turned around the whole experience from the first night.  We know people think they like anytime dining,  but really, there’s nothing like building that relationship throughout the week – the lemons were on the table every night, timing was good, we never thought we’d miss the show, we laughed, we danced, we sang, we hugged.  5 stars!!
  • Breakfast Dining Service – after not being overwhelmed by the breakfast buffet (except the omelets), we tried the dining room and had a great experience – quick, friendly,  large juice glasses kept full of fresh OJ – WOW!  Unfortunately, that wasn’t consistent.  We went another day and had what we call typical breakfast dining room service of trying to flag someone down for some bread and/or juice, waiting forever for the food, not even really knowing who the server was so you could get their attention.  So, I guess that’s hit or miss in the dining room for breakfast.
  • Buffet Service – always had people bussing tables right away, they were friendly and efficient.  The cooks behind the service lines were fine, not outstanding, but fine.
  • Spa Service – the spa receptionists were always welcoming and friendly when we went to get our wristbands for the thermal suite.  They never pushed other services on us or made us feel pressured.  It was a nice staff.
  • Overall Service – throughout the ship, all staff was smiling and friendly, saying "Hello" and "Have a good day" wherever we went.  A very pleasant team overall.

In conclusion, we are very confident in recommending the Carnival Dream (and many other Carnival ships).  In fact, once you sail in that cove balcony, you’ll be torn by wanting to keep the secret for yourself so the prices don’t increase and or by telling everyone because they are so cool!

On our Western Caribbean sailing, we visited Cozumel, Roatan, Belize and Costa Maya.  Here are a few pictures: