Tag Archives: cruising

MSC SEASIDE – SHIP REVIEW

Recently we took a western Caribbean cruise on the MSC Seaside. Although we had taken 25 cruises, we’d never been on MSC so we were eager to experience the brand. As always we did considerable research so that we’d have an idea of what to expect. What we found was nothing short of amazing. It was one of the most beautiful ships we’d ever cruised on. MSC is an Italian-owned company that has mostly focused on other areas of the globe, but it’s new to the Caribbean. They plan to move 4 ships to the North American market in the next few years, with a focus on Caribbean itineraries. So the newest ships have been designed with that focus in mind.

MSC Seaside is their newest mega smart ship, and it is truly a sun-lover’s paradise, with a revolutionary industry-first elegant Miami Beach condo design; specifically designed for warmer climates. She is the first of a new class of ships, designed to bring guests closer to the sea and can carry more than 5000 passengers. The ship has a very open feel and is the first ship we’ve sailed on that has an outdoor seafront promenade. It circles the entire ship on Deck 8. We were amazed at all of the things to do on that deck; places to eat, drink, shop, swim and sunbathe.

From the moment we got onboard we were captivated by the beauty of the immense double deck Atrium that is the center of onboard activity, and the heart of the ship. It stretches over two decks, creating an atmospheric venue for live entertainment with spectacular ocean views.

It is also an impromptu, multi-media, multi-level stage that features a variety of entertainment including, dancers, acrobats, flash mobs, light shows, live entertainment and one of the best DJs at sea. The crowning glory of the Atrium is the staircase where the surface is lit up as if inlaid with sparkling gems.

The interior design of the ship rivaled that of a 5 star luxury hotel. The colors, light and design elements were well balanced. Many of the sitting/lounge areas had great views of the ocean and all were extremely comfortable. Although there were more than 5000 passengers onboard, we never felt cramped or crowded. The entire ship was designed for comfortable navigation on the walking surfaces and even the many staircases were easy to climb – not too steep.

The elevators were smaller than those on some of the other new mega ships and were often crowded. So at times it was easier just to take the steps; great way to burn off extra calories.

ENTERTAINMENT – The entertainment was top level some of the best we’ve seen at sea. With 115 different nationalities onboard they did an excellent job of providing entertainment that everyone could enjoy.

There was a different show in the Metropolitan Theater every night, typically a high-h energy production, covering a variety of musical styles, dancing and acrobatics, and only 30 minutes long. There were 3 performances per night. Shows are free but guests are encouraged to make reservations. Our favorite was Starwalker, a tribute to Michael Jackson where the talent was amazing!

The cruise director and his staff did an excellent job of facilitating the activities and kept a high level of energy. They hosted games shows, and theme nights; Gatsby Party, 70s night and a white party that began in the Atrium then moved to an outdoor deck where we partied ALL night long.

BARS – There are 20 large bars in various locations throughout the ship; each with a great staff of bartenders and service was great. Robert and I managed to visit them all but we each had our favorites. His was the Sports Bar, and mine was the Venchi Chocolate Bar where they served not only chocolate but also gelato and crepes. We both were pleased with the quality of the wines, beers and liquors.

DINING – We had heard mixed reviews about the dining on MSC ships so we definitely wanted to do our own review. There are 11 dining venues onboard including the main dining room, 2 buffets and specialty restaurants. We only ate in the buffets and main dining room. The food in the main dining room was not as good as food that we’ve eaten on other cruise lines; there were fewer menu choices and the food was somewhat bland. We chose to eat most of our meals at the buffets, where there were more choices. The quality of the food overall was very high – fresh and well prepared without the additives, preservatives and GMO ingredients that are prevalent on many cruise lines. The desserts were exceptional and so was the pizza (to be expected since MSC is an Italian cruise line).

ONBOARD ACTIVITIES – There are so many activities to choose from that we didn’t have time to do all of them. There are 4 pools, 4 waterslides, and several hot tubs. There are also plenty of deck chairs for sunbathing. The zip line is 350 feet – the longest at sea.

There are two unique glass-floored catwalks and a 131 ft. high ‘Bridge of Sighs’ where we had a view of the ocean like never before. A waterfront boardwalk, the widest on any ship ever built, wraps around the ship, while panoramic elevators connect everything together.

Other activities include trivia, dance classes, Ping-Pong tournaments, scavenger hunts, and art auctions. Extra-fee activities include a self-leveling pool table, an arcade with a Formula One simulator, a 4-D cinema, dual bowling lanes and an air hockey table.

Of course there is a well-equipped casino where we spent quite a bit of time.

The Seaside is designated as non-smoking, except for certain areas, but we never came into contact with any smoke – even in the casino.

AUREA SPA – The Aurea Spa offers a large menu of services; massages, body treatments, facials, manicures/pedicures, haircuts, color and styling, waxing and men’s grooming. One of the highlights is the thermal suite (available for an extra fee), featuring sensory steam rooms, sauna, aromatherapy, a Thalassotherapy pool and a cold room with real snow. Outside of the spa there is a private sundeck for use exclusively by passengers who have booked spa treatments.

FITNESS – There is a large, well-equipped fitness center with state of the art equipment, heavy bags, free weights, cardio machines and rings. They offer classes like yoga, stretching, spin and Thai boxing as well as personal training (available for an extra fee). There are women’s and men’s locker rooms with showers, changing areas and saunas. Although we work out regularly at home, we didn’t spend much time in the fitness area – but we burned plenty of calories climbing stairs and just walking around that huge ship.

STATEROOMS – We had a mid-ship balcony cabin on Deck 15 and were pleased with the location. The cabin size was good, although there wasn’t much storage/drawer space. However, it did have a bathtub. The linens were high quality and the mattress was particularly comfortable. There were no miniature toiletries, but the soap, shampoo and shower gel dispensers were refilled daily.

Since the Seaside is a smart ship, it offers the latest in onboard technology.

The MSC for Me app is the digital innovation program that uses the latest cutting-edge technology to connect travelers seamlessly with the experiences that matter to them, whether at sea or on land. We downloaded the app onto our smartphones and found that it made it easy to navigate the ship, connect to WI-FI, and book shows. There are several WI-FI packages to choose from, but you’ll get the best pricing by booking online before you sail.

FAMILY FRIENDLY – It is a family-friendly ship and there were lots of children onboard. They were able to enjoy the full-sized bowling alley, a dedicated kids only restaurant, and the most interactive, multi-story water park at sea featuring four different water slides, an AquaPlay™ area designed for tots and an adventure trail. In addition, MSC Seaside boasts colorful kids’ play areas created in partnership with LEGO® and Chicco®. So it’s a great option for a multi-generational vacation.

One of the aspects that we enjoyed most was the international vibe. With 115 different nationalities onboard, there were guests and staff from all over the globe. All of the announcements were given in several languages including Italian, Spanish, English, German, and French. All of the staff that we met was multi-lingual and communicated with guests easily. We were invited to a cocktail party with the captain and his officers and he gave his remarks in 4 different languages. Even passengers who looked like us didn’t necessarily speak English. Some spoke Spanish, others spoke French or Portuguese.

EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION – We found the embarkation process to be smooth and seamless. We decided to arrive at 1:00pm and there were no lines. We got through the process in less than 10 minutes. So we recommend arriving around that time. People who arrived earlier got caught up in the mix of departing and arriving guests. Our staterooms were ready by 2pm and our luggage was delivered before 4pm. The debarkation process was just as smooth.

One of my least- favorite first day activities has always been the safety/muster drill. As a long-time cruiser I have memories of having to don a lifejacket and stand on the deck until the drill was completed. But it was not like that on the Seaside. Our muster station was actually at the Champagne Bar – how good is that? The drill took less than 30 minutes.

CUSTOMER SERVICE – Customer service was excellent; from our cabin steward, to the dining staff, guest relation’s staff – everyone we met was pleasant and efficient.

Other lines that we’ve cruised on connect your credit card to your reservation during the online check-in or embarkation process. However on the Seaside it’s different; there are ATM machines located in various locations throughout the ship where you do it yourself. So if you plan to pay your onboard expenses with a credit card, be sure to do that as soon as you board. It was easy.

In summary, we would definitely sail MSC again, but only on one of their newer ships. As an overall grade, we would give our Seaside experience a B+.

Travel Now, and Then

Our love of travel began more than 30 years ago, in 1988 we booked our very first cruise, and we’ve been globetrotting ever since.

 

Over the course of those 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes in the travel industry. Here are just a few:

PRE-CRUISE HOTEL STAY – Cruise lines used to include a one night pre-cruise hotel stay and transportation to the cruise port in the price of the cruise fare. In 1988 we flew from San Francisco to Miami, stayed at a lovely hotel and were transported to the cruise dock the next morning to board the ship for our Caribbean cruise.

AIRLINE TICKETS – Airline tickets were paper (not e-docs) and could only be purchased at an airport or travel agency.

AIRLINE BAGGAGE FEES – There were none. The price of the airline ticket included transporting you….and your luggage. Imagine that!

AIRLINE SCHEDULES – Airlines attempted to stick to published schedules. Now when you make a reservation, all bets are off. If you happen to make a reservation that’s a few months away it’s very likely that your flight time, seat choice and even aircraft type will be changed. Or sometimes they just cancel a flight altogether and re-route you. Their right to do that is spelled out in the fine print of their terms and conditions…which few passengers actually read. A few months ago we purposely booked nonstop flights between San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale. When I re-checked the reservation a few weeks later, I found that they had cancelled those nonstop flights and put us on flights with one stop each way that were routed through Chicago….in the dead of winter (high likelihood for weather delay). I called the airline and was able to get them to re-route us through a different city. – for no charge. It’s a good thing I checked. Always remember to check….and re-check.

AIRLINE CHANGE FEES – What can I say about those that hasn’t already been said? It is understandable that they can’t allow people to book reservations and make changes at a whim. But you can pay exorbitant fees to make even the smallest change…like one letter in the spelling of a name. It now costs $200 to change or cancel a non-refundable airfare on the remaining “legacy” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United), and a bit less on some other carriers. Changing or canceling an international ticket can cost much more. Why do they do it? Change fees are a healthy source of revenue for the U.S. airline industry. During the first half of 2010, the 19 largest domestic airlines collected $1.1 billion in cancellation and change fees, according to the Transportation Department. Delta made the most ($347 million) followed by American Airlines ($235 million), and United Airlines $158 million). So why do they do it? Because they can.

TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (TSA) – The TSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks. TSA employs screening officers in airports, armed Federal Air Marshals on planes, and mobile teams of dog handlers and explosives specialists, to protect air travel. When we flew in 1988 we could not have imagined that air travel would one day require disrobing in front of strangers, removing our shoes and walking through a metal detector or even having a “secondary screening”. If you’ve ever gotten the “SSSS” on your boarding pass you know what I mean. There are a variety of reasons that can cause you to be selected for this type of screening:

  • Sometimes it’s because the specific itinerary you’re on is unusual; this could include flights booked last minute, international one-way tickets, travel originating in “high-risk” countries, etc. Perhaps that’s why it happened to me last year when we were returning from Istanbul, Turkey. Let me tell you, they were quite thorough. I managed to grin and bear it, while my beloved travel partner/husband sat at the gate idly reading a newspaper, seemingly oblivious to my plight.
  • Sometimes it’s because you’re on some sort of a list; I have no clue what causes people to get on lists, though I suspect for some people it’s because of their travel patterns, for others it’s because of their names, and for others it’s because they’re being watched more carefully for whatever reason.
  • Sometimes it’s completely random.

Purchasing the TSA Pre Check allows for a lesser screening experience (you can keep your shoes on and don’t have to take out your computer). The cost is $85 and it is good for 5 years.

TRAVEL FASHION – Remember when people used to dress up to travel? Whether you were traveling by airplane or train, you put on your Sunday best. These days that’s not usually the case. Traveling economy has become such a contact sport that you need to “suit up”. No more Stacy Adams, stetsons,  pumps or pearls. Honey, now it’s all about Nike shoes and sweats.

LAS VEGAS – We fell in love with Las Vegas in 1989 when we went to the Sugar Ray Leonard/Thomas Hearns fight (The War) at Caesars Palace. Boy has the Strip changed since then. Gone are the days of cheap eats, free drinks and statuesque show girls. Las Vegas has gone through several metamorphoses in the last 30 years. In the 1990s there was even an attempt to make it more family-friendly with an amusement park at MGM. There are still some thrill rides at New York, New York and Stratosphere. But much of the emphasis these days is on high-end shopping and designer boutiques including Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. The Strip has also become a mecca for gourmet dining with restaurants by a veritable who’s-who of top chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Huber Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay – some even have more than one restaurant on the Strip. If you’re looking for an exceptional dining experience, visit Joël Robuchon’s unparalleled French restaurant. This unforgettable Three Michelin Star restaurant caters to a sophisticated palate and was designed to resemble a luxurious Art Deco townhouse complete with a lush garden terrace and marble floors. Whether enjoying the 16-course degustation menu on the picturesque Parisian Terrace or relaxing in the elegant Aperitif Lounge, Joël Robuchon Restaurant provides an unparalleled dining experience.

Yes, the Las Vegas Strip has come a long way from the $5.99 steak dinner and the shrimp cocktail. But more affordable taste treats can still be found at off-Strip restaurants and diners. It’s still possible to find a really good hamburger, even on the Strip. One of our favorites is Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION – Landing in a new city meant catching a taxi to your hotel – and hoping that the driver didn’t take the long way so that he’d get a higher fare. I dreaded watching the meter that seemed to keep climbing higher…and higher…even at stop lights. With the increasing number of ride share services, travelers have other choices like Uber and Lyft. Despite opposition they operate in an increasing number of cities in the Unites States and around the world. It’s a convenient, cashless way to get around a city. It’s also helpful when you don’t speak the local language. Last fall we used Uber in Mexico City quite successfully, even though our Spanish language skills are sketchy, at best.

LODGING – Besides hotels and vacation rental homes, the shared economy has encouraged the development of companies like Airbnb where travelers can rent homes, villas, condominiums, rooms and even campers. I saw a listing for an Airstream trailer on a beach that would accommodate 3 people, for $650 per night. And then there’s Couchsurfing, which Wikipedia describes as “a hospitality and social networking service accessible via a website and mobile app. Members can use the service to arrange homestays, offer lodging and hospitality, and join events such as “Couch Crashes”. So whatever your lodging choice, there’s an app for that.

TRAVEL BOOKING – Planning a trip used to begin with a visit to the local travel agent’s office to thumb through brochures. Now it’s just a matter of logging onto your computer or mobile device and looking at websites or taking virtual tours of hotels and resorts. YouTube is an excellent way to get destination information. If you know where you want to go, you can purchase an airline ticket, book a hotel room or rent a car with just a click of a mouse. Online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Travelocity work well for simple itineraries. But for more complicated trips, perhaps with large groups or multiple stops, many people still turn to their travel agents.

Today’s travel agents still provide valuable services to busy travelers who don’t have time to book their travel or affluent travelers who simply want to take advantage of the customer service offered by expert travel advisors.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS– It pays to be loyal….Airlines, hotels, cruise lines  and even credit cards provide travel perks to their loyal customers. As Honors members we’ve gotten upgrades and free Wi-FI at Hilton hotels in many cities.  As Diamond Level members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society, we enjoy great benefits every time we cruise….like backstage theater tours, ship bridge tours and  nightly private cocktail parties with unlimited drinks.

During the past 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes and racked up lots of travel miles. No doubt, the travel industry will continue to change…..and we’ll continue to travel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family Matters

sierra-lake-view_crop – Waking up at a campsite to the delicious aroma of bacon frying and seeing the morning rays of sunshine filter through the redwood trees

– Being fascinated by the exhibits and immersive experiences at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry

– Taking in the wonders of the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore and Old Faithful during a summer road trip

clark-kids-in-washingtonWith my siblings in Washington, D.C.

All these are fond memories from traveling with my family as a child – and all occurred before I even turned 16. My parents didn’t have much money for travel, but they planned strategically and exposed my siblings and I to some memorable experiences. Dad was an amateur photographer, and this was long before digital photography, so his camera bag, stuffed with film, lenses and several cameras, always laded him down. He took beautiful pictures and we made beautiful memories.

gg-bridgeWe lived in the San Francisco Bay area, so many of our journeys were road trips around northern California. We’d ride up into the redwoods, or drive to the coast and dip our toes into the chilly Pacific Ocean. Anyone who visited San Francisco in the 60’s may remember Playland and Ocean Beach. It was an amusement park located along the Great Highway in what’s now known as the Richmond District. It closed Labor Day weekend in 1972. I can still remember the Funhouse with its mirror maze and it’s Barrel of Laughs (a rotating walk-through wooden barrel).

170px-laffing_salAnd I can still hear Laffing Sal, the automated character whose cackle echoed throughout the park. In those days the attractions were much simpler than those in today’s high-tech amusement parks. I’ll admit that my 7- year -old mind was convinced that Laffing Sal just might be real (scary thought). But we had great family fun there.

Travel provides a perfect way for families to explore, enjoy and make memories that will last a lifetime. However, one primary consideration is always cost. Years ago a trip to an amusement park like Disneyland was fairly affordable, even for a family with several children. Now that same trip to the Magic Kingdom could easily cost a king’s ransom just for entrance to the park – and that doesn’t include any meals or souvenirs.

However, cost doesn’t have to prevent families from traveling together. They just have to be creative about how and when they do it. A family vacation doesn’t have to be a round-the-world trip in a private jet. It can be as simple as a short road trip to a neighboring city. The goal isn’t so much about racking up miles as it is about spending quality family time. That camping trip might be just an overnight campout in the backyard. As long as everyone is there and there are some good eats (and hopefully no cell phones), it can be a memorable experience. Children don’t ask for much – just their parents’ attention.

Not all of my childhood family vacations were cross-country journeys. Some of those “trips” were really only daylong road trips with a picnic lunch. But I have such fond memories of the times that we spent together.

family_minas-kidsIt is important for families to travel together. Not only is it a great way to bond, it’s an opportunity to expose our children to other cultures and ways of life. It also teaches them basic social skills like how to go through security at an airport or how to order in a restaurant. Our son was 11 months old when we took our first family vacation. We stayed at a vacation rental in Nassau, Bahamas. We enjoyed the convenience of having a little kitchen and other home comforts with our toddler. When he was a little older we began to cruise and took several Caribbean, Hawaiian and Mediterranean cruises. lee-family-cruise-pose

It was great since there were always activities onboard for his age group and lots of other children his age; and my husband and I were always able to enjoy some “grown folks” time.

Since dinner in the main dining room is always a fine dining experience, he learned to order from the menu and use the correct silverware for each course of the meal. But there were always foods that he could enjoy during his “I only want burgers & hot dogs” phase. One of the ports of call on our Hawaiian Island cruise was one of the islands of Kiribati. It was a beautiful island that evoked memories of the Swiss Family Robinson. There he observed the simple way that the island children lived with no video games or fancy toys.

lees-on-amalfi-coastHe was in high school when we took our first Mediterranean cruise. Visiting the Acropolis in Athens brought his world history lessons to life.

 

Now he’s all grown up, on his own and a serious globetrotter. But he still loves to travel with us when his schedule allows. Our latest family trip was to China where we climbed the Great Wall of China together. That’s an experience that we’ll never forget.

lee-family-on-great-wallI advise everyone to get out and discover what the world has to offer…as a family. Whether you go near or far, you’ll make lasting memories.

the-greatest-legacy-we-can-leave