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 http://www.restaurant-dresden.de/ .  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 http://www.intercontinental.com/ 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 http://www.schoenbrunn.at/ 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 http://www.gloriette-cafe.at/) and Privy Garden.  Overall a wonderful albeit too brief experience.

That afternoon we checked into the Hotel Capricorno Wien http://www.schick-hotels.com/, 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 http://www.hinterholz.co.at/ 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 http://www.stephansdom.at/, arguably Austria’s most magnificent Gothic cathedral.

That evening we took the subway to Kursalon Wien http://www.soundofvienna.at/ 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: 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Royal Caribbean ~ Allure of the Seas ~ October 2011

First let us say, “YES, the ship is huge!”…but it never really felt that way.  Royal Caribbean has done an excellent job with the design of this ship utilizing their neighborhood concept to break up the massive size of the ship.  We spent one week sailing on this beautiful ship from October 9-16, 2011 for our Cruises Inc. National Conference.  While much of our time was spent in seminars and workshops learning more about new products and meeting with our preferred suppliers, we did find time to experience most of what the ship had to offer.
Overall Ship’s Appearance:  Very modern and clean designs throughout.  We were impressed with the choices of colors and finishes used in the public areas and within the staterooms.  The ship had a very classy feel overall.  The thematic elements in the Boardwalk were well done to provide a whimsical area.  Central Park is a calming stretch of greenery with chirping birds and crickets.  The various lounges and venues all had appropriate furnishings for their themes, and the dining rooms were spacious and elegant with comfortable seats. 
Cabin:  We took an inside cabin for this cruise and found it very spacious.  We had a full size couch seating area, a large flat screen TV that was adjustable for viewing from anywhere in the cabin, lots of storage, and a roomy bathroom with a nice shower (including a foot rail for ladies to shave their legs and a wonderful showerhead with good pressure!).  Beds were comfortable with the white on white linens and duvet.  They set the bed with four pillows which is awesome!!  Towels were all 100% Egyptian cotton and very fluffy.  The only issue was that the bed was placed within 12” of the closet making it difficult to get in and out of there.  We learned that our cabin had a different layout than most of the inside cabins that eliminated this issue for others.  However it may be a concern in alternating balcony cabins were the bed is closer to the closet vs. the ones that have the bed closer to the balcony.   It didn’t ruin our week by any means…just one minor inconvenience.
Entertainment:  So many choices including Chicago: The Musical, the main show Blue Planet, AquaTheatre performances, two different ice shows, parades in the promenade, piano man in the Schooner Bar,  the jazz club, comedy club, live music in Viking Crown and even the Blaze Disco to get your cardio workout!  We found it interesting that the singers were in multiple productions – such different styles of shows, but they performed wonderfully.   Wow, you need to stay on two weeks in a row to really take advantage of all of these options.
Activities: Zip-lining, ice-skating, rock-climbing, surfing, swimming, dancing, running, working out, or just lounging…anything you could really want…it’s here on this ship.  If you are bored…well, I don’t know what to say.
Dining:  We dined in the main dining room most evenings and found the food to be very good to excellent.  Especially delicious were some of the vegetarian and curry dishes.  The buffet always seemed too crowded.  The food was good, but lots of fried foods and foods with gravies and sauces.  Six months ago we would have been in heaven, but we recently started making healthier dining choices so many of these items didn’t appeal to us.  Thankfully we discovered the Solarium for dining and had breakfast and lunch here most days.  They offered healthier options here including a nice salad bar with low-fat and fat-free dressings to choose from and my favorite was the Gazpacho soup with condiments that you add yourself!!  They offered fish, shrimp, tofu, and daily miso soup.  Fresh fruits and lighter salads as well.   We were very impressed with the overall food quality on this ship.
Alternative Dining:  Sorrento’s offered hot, freshly made to order pizzas or a slice on the go.  The Hot Dog place on the boardwalk was a fun treat with international sausages and hot dogs.  We dined in Central Park Café a few times for the yummy roast beef sandwiches.  One evening we shared dinner with friends at Giovanni’s, the Italian Specialty Restaurant.  The food was excellent – the highlights were the mushroom risotto and the Limoncello after dinner shot “to aid digestion” as the server said.  Other choices that we didn’t partake in due to our time constraints were the Cupcake Cupboard, Rita’s Cantina, 150 Central Park, Chops, and more!
Service:  Overall very friendly and attentive.  We encountered probably the BEST cabin steward we ever had on 43 cruises!  The only area we saw service issues was in the Central Park café – crew was reading magazines, setting silverware on tables that still had dirty dishes, walking over a spill instead of cleaning it up.  It was interesting to observe how different the team was in this particular area vs. the rest of the ship. 
Itinerary:  Does it really matter? This ship is a destination in itself!  We barely got off the ship in Cozumel (it was raining) and in Falmouth we just walked around the port and surrounding area for a bit.  However, a local resident told us that maybe we shouldn’t have been walking where we were…so it’s probably best to take a tour in Falmouth in the future.  We really enjoyed Labadee!  This was our first visit to this port; what a beautiful slice of paradise with so much to offer!!  It’s definitely more than just a beach day.  They have a breathtaking zipline and a gravity-driven roller coaster down the mountainside.  The Artisan’s Village offered many beautiful choices for art and souvenirs.  Plenty of beach chairs in both the sun and shade.  The BBQ was very good as well.  We definitely recommend having Labadee on your next Royal Caribbean itinerary!
Summary:  While this may not be the ship for everyone, it definitely is a ship for anyone who wants to experience lots of great entertainment, activities and dining. This is a perfect ship for family reunions, multi-generational groups, couples/friends and active people.  Also, it really is a fantastic option for first-timers because being on the Allure of the Seas is much like being at a resort on land.  The ship movement is rarely felt and for those leery of seeing the ocean, they can have a balcony overlooking Central Park.   Plus, to anyone of those, ”I’ll be bored at sea so many days” people…We say, “Not on this ship!”  So who wants to sail on the Allure of the Seas (or her sister ship the Oasis of the Seas)???