Economy…Plus…Plus

Editor’s note: After I mistakenly pushed Publish on my last post before I had added photos, I am going to no longer have the entire post go out in an e-mail. You will get the headline and the first paragraph followed by a link to click to see the entire post online. Thanks for looking at it that way. 

Typical Domestic Economy Class

Winding up our discussion of flying classes/categories, let’s finish with the Premium Economy, international Economy and Economy. But first, let’s talk about domestic economy class because we all know that hell hole that we have all flown a lot of the time. We still fly it when we travel along the West Coast but we do our best to make the situation better with plane and airport choices. Here are some of the things we recommend for those flying domestic economy.

If you fly domestic economy and want to have as good an experience as possible here are some things we do to make it better.

  • Choose a better airplane if you can. When we book a flight I will often look (if multiple flights are going to that city) for a particular airplane to fly on. We have grown to love flying on Embraer jets. If you have never flown one, they are smaller planes (not too small—you can still stand up in them) and if you pick the correct economy row (the first one behind First Class) you have more legroom than those in FC. Also, the seat configuration is 2-2 so there is no chance you will ever get a middle seat. One drawback to these planes is that you can’t take a standard carry-on onboard the plane. There is just no room in the overhead compartments so I usually gate-check my carry-on bag.
  • Choose a better airport if you can. We have been blessed for the last few years that Alaska Air has started flying to most destinations on the West Coast from Paine Field in Everett (PAE). For us, it is about the same distance from our house to Everett as it is to Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA). PAE is much smaller (like about 5% the size of SEA) and the smaller the airport, the smaller the planes (Alaska only flies Embraer jets out of Everett). Small airports also mean that you don’t wait in security, boarding, or food lines at concessions for as long. The airport is one of the most stressful parts of flying and small airports make it better. When we fly from SEA, from the time we walk into the airport until we check our luggage, get through security, and take about 30-45 minutes to our gate. At PAE we can do all that in less than five minutes.
  • Choose the right seat. NEVER fly in a middle seat. Even when flying together in a jet with 3-3 seats we sit across the aisle from each other. I have never been a fan of window seats. I hate being closed in and having to get across two people to use the restroom. And the older I get the more that happens 😜. On a wide-body jet, you have another choice to make but that depends on the seating configuration. If you have never been there, allow me to introduce you to Seat Guru. You don’t need to check it for every flight but you do need to go there before you fly on a wide-body jet. That will show you the configuration of the seats. For instance, in this seating chart from a British Air 777, you can see that the top section (that starts with the green seats) is Premium Economy with 2-3-2 seating. The bottom section (they call it World Traveler) is their economy and it is 3-3-3. The best seats on this plane (outside of Business class) are the green bulkhead seats on either side of the plane. The 2 seats in the 2-3-2 configuration.
  • Another Seat Guru note is that as you can see, some seats are red, some green and some yellow. When you’re on the Seat Guru website and mouse over those, you get a pop-up that tells you that the reds are seats to stay away from and why the yellows are cautionary. The greens are considered very good for some reason. When you mouse over them, it tells you why or why not you should pick them. I do this with every flight we take unless I know the airplane well. All you will need to look up your plane is your airline, date of flight and flight number.
  • Choose your seats as early as you can. People who wind up in middle seats usually buy their tickets at the last minute. I can tell you that the last time I flew in a middle seat was when my Dad was sick and I bought a ticket using miles to get down to help my brother deal with a bad situation.

The differences between international and domestic economy

Typical International Economy cabin on an international flight. Note the 2-4-2 configuration.

When you fly international for the first time you will find that it is decidedly not like flying economy domestically. To start there is about a 90% chance you will get a meal. Especially on foreign carriers. And on the foreign carriers, it will be a warm meal. You also have some kind of entertainment system. There may be some other little perks you can get but this will vary by airline. Some include seat assignments for free, some include one checked bag. Pay attention when booking. Watch for anything that says, “info” and click it. The more you know about your flight the better. I am going to do another post (I just decided this one is too long) on how I book our airfare.

What do you get with Premium Economy and is it worth it?

Delta’s Premium Economy Seat

When you decide to pay the additional $$$ and move up to Premium Economy (PE) you get a few nice extras. One is the seat. Your PE seat will look much like the ones you walk by in First Class of a domestic flight. A little wider and a little more legroom. Unlike most domestic First Class, the seat may recline a little further and you may have a leg rest that pops out when you do. Kind of like your La-Z-Boy recliner at home. So it should be easier to fall asleep.

If you are flying with a partner or a spouse, do your best to get one of those two seats on the side of the plane in a 2-3-2 configuration that I mentioned above. That way if you have the window seat, the only person you need to bother when you need a restroom break is your partner.

Flying in PE may also get you expedited check-in, earlier boarding, a better meal, a free checked bag or an amenity kit. The area of the cabin you are sitting in will be smaller than the economy section. Usually a LOT smaller. And there will be one or two dedicated flight attendants for this section so you should get better service. It should also make the flight a little quieter. Since PE costs more than Economy, many families with kids won’t be flying in that section which will further help you get some sleep on the flight.

Is it worth the extra dollars?

The price difference between economy and premium economy will depend on the flight you are taking. For instance, here’s the price on our next flight to Europe, a non-stop going from Seattle to Amsterdam on Delta.

  • Business Class (Delta One) $2,680 per person
  • Premium Economy (Premium Select) $1842 per person
  • Economy (International Main Cabin) $1,135 per person

We are flying Business Class using a voucher we had from a canceled flight in December. If we were going to fly this flight and we weren’t going to be in Business, it would be worth it to us to pay the additional $707 to move up. Especially if I could snag one of those two seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. It would be worth it to me to get rid of the middle seat. Especially during COVID. I should add that some airlines (including Delta) now charge more for “Comfort Seats” with a little extra legroom. That might just be an exit row or a fully dedicated section. All of that will depend on the route and plane you will be flying. Again, check Seat Guru…and hope they don’t change your plane the day of the flight.

Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo. – Al Gore

 

Airplane classes: Today let’s look at Business

This is the Delta One Business Class seat I just booked for Kathleen and I to Amsterdam in August.

Now let’s get back to our original question (in the previous post); is it worth it to spend the extra money to fly Business Class when going overseas?

The biggest difference between flying coach and Business Class (BC) is this: if you are the kind of person who can sleep on an airplane and you are in BC on a plane with lie-down seats then it is truly worth it. You can arrive awake and already on the way to beating jet lag because you have kept to your current sleep schedule.

We live in a perfect place for that. Most of the flights to Europe from Seattle leave in the late afternoon or early evening. That means we have the entire day to get ready to go, we head to the airport before rush hour, spend a couple of hours in the Business Class lounge and then as soon as we are in the air, they serve dinner, it gets dark and we watch a movie and go to sleep. The flight attendants wake us up six hours later, serve us breakfast and we land in London or Amsterdam around lunch. It’s almost perfect.

For us that works most of the time. The older we get the less it works. Unlike the seats on our First Class flight mentioned yesterday, even though most BC seats lay flat, they are thin. Not a lot of padding. The older we get, the more padding we need but we still appreciate all the amenities you get when flying BC. Some people base their vacations by how much they spend per day. Flying in coach (at least for us on an international flight) means we lose either a half or whole day recovering from our flight. Sometimes the jet lag can slow us down for a few more days. So for us, the extra $$$ we pay for business are worth it. 

There are some caveats to flying Business Class. First, DO NOT BE FOOLED—all business class flights and seats are not alike. For instance, on most European and Asian carriers and many US carriers, international business class always has lie down seats. But some (like Icelandic Air) only have seats that are equivalent to US domestic first class seats. Those would be Premium Economy on an international flight with most airlines. 

Also, when booking with points or miles, beware of “Mixed Class” itineraries. For instance if I fly from Seattle to Athens and it says mixed class on the flight. That probably means that I will be flying at least one leg of the flight in coach. Usually the longest and most expensive leg. This happens a lot when you are paying with points or miles. Be careful of this when you book the flight.

If you have been in Business before but have not flown it within Europe, business class on flights between European cities is not what you expect. We flew “Business Class” from SEA to Edinburgh on British Air. The SEA/LHR part of the flight was in real (lie down seats, better meals, upstairs on a 747) business class and the LHR/Edinburgh flight was was listed as business as well. But business class once inside Europe usually means that you have a coach seat with the middle seat blocked off. No extra leg room, no better seat, no amenities and maybe a little better food (if you get food at all). On our last trips to Europe we have avoided this situation by flying nonstop to a city in Europe, staying a couple of days and then flying coach to where we are actually going on a much shorter flight. This saves money as you are only paying Business class rates on a shorter flight.

When people are considering flying in Business for the first time I get a lot of questions. They want to know what you get for the extra $$$. Here’s what you get extra when you fly International Business Class on a “good” airline :

  • A business class lounge where you get free food, free drinks (including specialty coffees and alcoholic beverages). Some of the lounges in Europe have showers and sleeping pods. As one person on Facebook said, “The vacation starts when you hit the Business Class Lounge!” We agree.
  • A much better seat. Usually a lot more leg room, it will be wider, the seat will lie flat, it will have a really nice built-in entertainment system and room/storage to spread out.
  • Great food. Most of the time you will have a choice of menu items, wine, beer, cocktails and more. Almost always three separate courses. It’s the equivalent of a very nice restaurant. It’s served with real utensils, real plates, placemats and the works. And you have a tray table big enough to hold it off. On some flight there will be an open snack bar where you can grab crackers, nuts, yogurt, soft drinks whenever you want.
  • An amenities kit. Nothing incredible but you will have a toothbrush, tooth paste, a eye mask so you can sleep, ear plugs, comb, hand lotion and more. Sometimes you get slippers so you can walk to the bathroom in the middle of the flight.
  • Less people. Since Business classes are smaller that coach there will be dedicated restrooms for BC and that means you will not have to wait as long to use them and they will be cleaner when you do. In many cases there will be a galley between business and economy so it is almost impossible for those in Economy to come to the front of the plane. There will usually be two or three flight attendants for less than 30 Business class seats.
  • Early boarding and early disembarking. You will get on first and get off first, sometimes by a separate door than coach (depends on the plane).
  • A separate check in line when you first arrive at the airport. You wait in a much shorter line. On some foreign airlines you are greeted by name from time you check in until you get off. We have actually had check-in personnel see us approach, come around from behind the counter and take our luggage to be checked. In some airport there may also be a First and Business class security line. It is usually faster than even TSA Pre-check because there are a lot less people in it.
  • Expedited luggage. On many airlines, your luggage will be the first off the plane (it is specially tagged) and that means it will the first on the carousel.

One last thing about Business class I just want to warn you about one last thing. Once you have flown Business class you will NOT want to go back to coach/economy. For us that happened the first time we flew in Business internationally to Auckland, NZ. For us it means that the vacation starts when we get to the airport. We know people who hate to fly. Not because they are afraid to fly but because airports and airplanes are a hassle. Business class (First Class domestically) take a lot of that hassle away. Enjoy Business class at your peril 😜.

In my next post I will conclude this treatise (WOW! I’m writing a treatise!) on air class by looking at Premium Economy and Economy classes and comparing some typical pricing.

What’s important is that a customer should get off the airplane feeling, ‘I didn’t just get from A to B. I had one of the most pleasant experiences I ever had, and I’ll be back for that reason.
Herb Kelleher, founder Southwest Airlines

First, Business, Premium Economy or Economy—How will you fly?

Editor’s note: I started this post off as a quick and short note on Business Class but as I usually do, I wandered out to other stuff. So let’s do all the classes—First class to Economy over a couple of posts. Today, just a vanishing breed—actual First Class. 

Recently I saw a question on a Facebook group that was asking if booking Business Class (BC) airfare to Europe from the USA was a good idea. It was quite a discussion with lots of differing opinions. Of course I chimed in on that discussion so I thought this would make a decent post. I know that some of you fly Business or First Class (FC), although many airlines are eliminating FC entirely.

Alaska Air First Class

Speaking of First Class, let’s discuss the difference between domestic and international FC. For instance, when we fly Alaska Airlines FC to the East Coast that’s a great example of domestic FC. The seats are like a La-Z-Boy recliner that doesn’t go all the way back or have a footrest. You do get better meals (pre-pandemic it was hot on almost all airlines—some switched to cold during the pandemic) as well as pre-boarding but that is about it. You might get access to a pre-boarding or layover lounge but maybe not—depends on the airline and the airport. That’s about it.

When you fly FC on an international carrier like British, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, etc. you get more…a lot more. You usually get a “suite.” For instance, when we flew First Class on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong a few years back we were sitting in seats that Kathleen was able to stretch out her arms in both direction and not touch another seat. If you scroll through the slide show you will also see the most luxurious First Class suites in the world—Emirate Airlines.

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Seriously, that seat my wonderful bride is sitting in, is just one seat. And not only that, it lays down flat. And in FC they actually come and make up a bed after you have a very nice dinner and drinks. I mean the menu is excellent. Lots of choices. Some airlines even have a snack bar area where you can grab between meal snacks. High end wines and high end liquor. First class restrooms also are huge! On the plane Kathleen is on in that photo, they were so big they had their own window. But check out the bathroom on the Emirates plane. Seriously? They also give you toiletries and more in a little amenity kit. It is something special. And the Emirates suites just blow me away. Price to fly in that suite from Seattle to Dubai is only $21,000. Don’t think we will be flying those any time soon.

I should mention that we paid for that First Class we took completely with miles/points. And it cost a bunch of them. And I kept checking the price we would have had to pay for that flight. When we finally flew, those seats were selling for more than $12,000 each. We always save up those points by not flying FC within the USA. We will fly FC if we are going all the way to Florida. Pretty much anything more than six hours but then it’s just Alaska-style FC.

In the next post I will take a deep dive in Business Class, what we fly internationally.

When you fly, you should fly Business or First Class…or your kids will.    —unknown poster on the Viking Cruises Facebook Group

 

Nieuw Statendam—some final thoughts

We have just about covered everything I wanted to from our 10 night cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam to the Southern Caribbean, so this will be my last post on this trip. Just want to sum it up and give you some final thoughts on the best and the worst parts of the cruise.

Before I get deeper into the overall review it is VERY important to note that this cruise was deeply affected by COVID. In all I think it came down to two things, one good and one bad, that affected us and everyone else on the ship.

First, COVID gave us the dreaded masks. We had never sailed fully masked before. Even though we took a cruise in July 2021, it was on a very small ship (Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos) where everyone on board was fully vaccinated and we would be getting off on only one inhabited island (where we did wear masks). So for that cruise, no one masked up onboard except the crew. I should also say it was pre-Omicron. Wearing a mask everywhere on the ship meant that we probably spent more time in our stateroom than we have ever done before simply because we could be there without our masks on.

The good part of COVID was that there were less than 925 guest on board a ship that has a full capacity of more than 3,500 passengers. That meant no waiting anywhere, from embarkation to shore excursions. You could find a seat in any show. And with almost 900 crew members on board (a full complement), service was amazing.

The Best

So many things to name. We pretty much loved it all but these are some of the stand outs. I lifted some of these directly from the evaluation I sent to Holland America (HAL).

  • Pre-cruise: HAL was VERY specific about exactly what we needed to do to board the ship whether it was about check in times (they mean it), COVID protocols (they mean those too) and COVID testing.
  • Embarkation: Being in a Neptune Suite we were given “Priority Check-in” which means that we got to arrive at noon, the earliest check in. In our case I dropped off the rest of our foursome (my bride and my brother and his bride) and I took the car back to the airport rental car center. Then I grabbed a taxi back to the port (total time from drop-off to return was less than 20 minutes) and we walked in the door. From there we saw a very nice lady to show her our vax card, negative COVID test and signed our health questionnaire. We were then given a tiny receipt and had to show that to get on the ship. Start to finish 20 minutes. Our room keys were on our door.
  • Stateroom availability: Our suite was available as soon as we were on board. So we dropped and unpacked our carry-ons and headed to lunch at the Dive-In. No lines anyplace and lots of service. I think we were asked by at least four servers what we wanted to drink. While we were at lunch I went down to the stateroom to grab something and found…our luggage, already in our stateroom on the bed. Amazing.
  • Stateroom: You can read all about it by clicking here. And since I did that page with photos, I processed a video tour you can see by clicking here.
  • Muster Drill: YEAH! This is all virtual now. Well almost. As soon as you turn on the TV in your stateroom, the muster talk comes on. You watch it and then sometime after 1:30 you head to your lifeboat station (ours was the Main Dining Room) and check-in and get your key card scanned. That’s it! This is another benefit of COVID. Hopefully masks will go away soon and the NEW muster drill will stay. Actually I kind of like being served at the buffet too.
  • Food: I did an entire post on food. You can see it by clicking here. A quick summary is this: It was AWESOME! DELICIOUS! FANTASTIC!
  • Ports: We missed one (Half Moon Cay, HAL’s private island) due to weather. The sea and wind were too rough to tender in–this turned into a sea day. Then we visited Grand Turk, Puerta Plata in the Dominican Republic, Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba. Loved Grand Turk and Bonaire. Thought Puerta Plata and Curacao were “fine” and sad that Aruba has turned into just another commercialized cruise port. Links are to my posts about each of these ports.
  • Shore excursions: We did Holland America Shore excursions in all ports except Aruba (Kathleen stayed on the ship, I walked around for a short time) where my brother and his bride did one. All the excursions we went on were all “fine.” In the case of two of the shore excursions, when they were a late or had to deviate from what we had been told they would be, they refunded our money even though we had still been able to go. Classy.We got two of them for free with the Have It All program.
  • Entertainment: In the evenings you could usually find us at BB Kings Blues Club or one of the other venues on the Music Walk. Sometimes we would go for the music and sometime for the comedians. There were three on board whose names I cannot remember but I do know they were HILARIOUS! We did not go to any of the “big shows.” One of the reasons was because they were so few people on board there was only one show a night and they alway seem to coincide with dinner (7:30 most nights). Also we aren’t much into these shows as we have seen so many of them so many times. We do want to add that the one show that is not to be missed in the big theater is the BBC Planet Earth presentation with live music by the Lincoln Center quartet. The video parts of the presentation are on the big circular screen and just amazing.
  • Sail With Seth: As you may remember, we were “Sailing with Seth” who is Holland America’s Brand Ambassador and an old friend. Here’s what we told HAL on the evaluation we sent:”We were part of the Sail With Seth group. I can’t tell you how incredibly awesome your Brand Ambassador Seth Wayne is. He has kept cruising alive for these last two horrible years. We felt like we were taking a virtual cruise each and every time he posted or was live on Facebook or Instagram. What an amazing person to have as the spokesperson for your company. On this cruise he was the epitome of what a host should be taking great care of us and just being Seth. He is the ONLY reason we decided to take this cruise. We are long-time Celebrity cruisers and had planned to restart after the pandemic with another Celebrity cruise, but Seth has kept us going for two years so when we heard he was taking a group on Nieuw Statendam, we jumped on it. When we sail with HAL again, we will always try to be part of a Sail with Seth group. You are so lucky to have him.” If you ever get a chance to Sail With Seth, do it!
  • Disembarkation: Was about as smooth as it gets. It was a little late while the ship was cleared by the port. But once we were cleared, I was able to walk off with my carry-ons, take a taxi to the airport, pick up a rental car and get back to pick up Kathleen, Steve and Jamie. We always end up having to get a car when returning to Fort Lauderdale because the nonstop Alaska Air flight we take home doesn’t leave until 6:05 pm. It works well for us because two of our favorite people live about an hour north of FLL so we drive up and see them, have lunch and head back. Great way to spend the day.

The Worst

This one is easy. Of all the things we had going on during this cruise, just about all of it was perfect. About as good as a cruise in the Caribbean can be. But one part of the trip just sucked—the internet. We got HAL’s middle cost Internet/WiFi package as part of the Have It All program. Their basic program is pretty much e-mail and texting. Their middle program is those two things and some additional websites like FaceBook, Instagram and Cruise Critic. I was able to do this blog as well. The speed on this plan was INCREDIBLY SLOW! And of course every time I signed on I would get an advert from HAL to “Move Up” to their top tier of internet. Finally I got totally fed up with the speed so I sucked it up and bought the top plan. Then came the shock.

Nothing got faster. If anything it got slower. And this was with the ship at one third capacity. I can imagine how slow it would have been with a full ship. So after trying for a couple of days and not seeing a single improvement from the $10 per day I had upgraded to, I went to ask the Neptune Suite concierge who I could talk to about it. She said for the suites, she was the person to talk to.

I explained my problem and she said that the top tier internet is NOT faster, it just gives you access to other websites. I am not sure what sites you would get besides what you already had but I know what you can’t do with the speed you have. You can’t watch any kind of video. I did find that I could download a video to watch later. I like to watch videos on my iPad when I ride a stationary bike in the gym so I wanted to download a couple of more episodes of a show I was rewatching. It took 3.5 hours to download a single 43 minute episode. And that didn’t count the number of times it just stopped and I had to start all over again. I finally got the episode to download by doing it overnight when no one else was using the internet. I was also told by the concierge that I could use Skype or FaceTime but with that speed, there is no way. BTW: I wanted to check the speed of my connection with a speed test but she told me that those sites were blocked 🙄.

If you have ever been on a Royal Caribbean ship you know what really fast internet at sea is all about. Their Voom product is as fast as I have here at home if you buy the streaming package. On RCL we were able to watch Netflix, FaceTime with the grandkids and I could upload this blog in seconds instead of the 30 minutes it took to upload my photos.

The bottom line is this: I would NEVER pay for internet on this ship. I don’t remember it being this bad when we were on Westerdam a few years ago so maybe this as an aberration. We can hope so. It was the only thing that drove us nuts during the entire 10 days. I know, first world problems 😜.

The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.  —Oscar Wilde

Let’s look at the art—what a classy ship.

This post will be the second to the last of my posts from our Nieuw Statendam (NS) cruise to the Southern Caribbean from January 23 to February 2. Today I promise to give you some photos of some really great art around the ship. So let’s get started.

Before I retired last June I was a graphic designer for 40+ years. I like to think I understand color and design. Some cruise ships drive me bats. Pretty much it’s the brash, gaudy colors that look like they were furnished by the same people (as my bride says) who designed downtown Las Vegas. Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam (and I am told it’s Pinnacle Class sisters) is one of the classiest ships we have been on.

Another thing I love on a ship is art. Themed art is even better. Somehow along the way of building NS they decided that the theme should be music. It does go along with their Music Walk venues and to be honest, I loved it. Most of this art was located in the stairwells so many cruisers who take elevators never see it. I never take elevators on a ship unless I have luggage with me so I got to see a lot more. Even though I hardly ever take pictures of other people’s art, I wanted to showcase some of the ones I loved. Here’s a quick gallery with some comments of the pieces I really liked. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.       —Aristotle

 

It’s a cruise—it’s always about the food

One of the biggest questions I get when it comes to cruising is…how was the food? And yes, I will fully admit to having consumed three times the number of calories I should have consumed over the last 10 days and probably gaining a good 10lbs but I promise that within two weeks I will have walked it off…because even though I worked out…the food was off the charts and I just could not resist it.

Before I start, just let me state up front that after 30+ cruises, we have had room service a grand total of once (maybe twice 😜). So if you are looking for reviews of room service, this is not the place.

Breakfast

On most of our cruises, breakfast would have been in the buffet but because we were in a Neptune Suite we got our own restaurant we could eat in for breakfast and dinner—Club Orange (Holland America’s colors are blue and ORANGE). We went there every day for breakfast except one. We went to the buffet to just get some granola and yogurt after having way too much dinner at a specialty restaurant the night before. The experience in the buffet was a good one but more about that later. (I should note that you don’t have to be in a Neptune or Pinnacle Suite to be able to eat in Club Orange, you can buy just a membership for—as of this cruise in February 2022—$50 per person, per day.)

Club Orange has some of the best breakfast food I have ever eaten. They have a HUGE variety. Three kinds of Eggs Benedict, as many omelets as you can think of, fruit, pastry, donuts, muffins, toast, skillets…you name it…I think they either had it or would make it for you. I fully admit to having any and all of the above mentioned breakfast food during this cruise. The team in Club Orange is the absolute best dining team we have ever been served by. From the second time we came into the restaurant they knew our names, they knew what we wanted to drink (for me it was coffee, a single espresso shot, a mimosa and maybe some extra orange juice to add to it) and how you liked your eggs. My coffee cup was never empty and the food…was spectacular.

Here’s some breakfast pics for you. I wish I had more to show you but darned if we didn’t eat all the food too quickly. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and feel free to look at these on your phone. That’s what I used to take them.

Lunch

While we ate all but one breakfast in Club Orange, we kind of moved around for lunch. There are so many great places to eat on board that it is hard to choose. Which made it a good thing that Club Orange did not serve lunch. Here’s where you can eat lunch on Nieuw Statendam and her sister ships:

  • The Lido Market Buffet. Located midships on Deck 9 (the Lido Deck) the Nieuw Statendam is a superb buffet with stations for just about everything. We went to the buffet when we made our one or two attempts to eat healthy. Grabbed a salad and a roll for lunch…and of course a couple of cookies or gelato/gelato pop. All the buffet was NOT self-service. You walked up to a station and either told them what you wanted to eat or just pointed. They did have some standard items (like Caesar or chopped salad, etc.). All the food we had for lunch in the buffet was fresh and excellent. The service was superb as well.
  • The Dive-In. A great place for a burger, a hot dog and fries. They have a variety of types. Ate there twice and truly enjoyed it. Have the Cannonball, skip the Gainer. Their fries are the second best on the ship and they have good Dive-In fry sauce. You will find the Dive-In on Deck 9, just forward of the buffet on the starboard side of the ship. Right next to it is the Gelato spot where you can get the best value on the ship. You have to pay for gelato (ice cream from the buffet is free), but it is only $2.50 for a cup that is probably half a pound of gelato. We only had it once but man it was good. I had a biscotti gelato with huge pieces of biscotti in it. Delicious. They also have gelato pops for $2 (although we heard these may be discontinued) which are just like ice cream bars on a stick with a coating and gelato inside. Tried one of those and they were awesome. Seth promised us another but we never got around to it.
  • New York Deli and Pizza. Just upstairs from the Dive-In on the port side of the ship is this deli/pizza place. We did not try the pizza but my brother and his bride did and they said it was quite good. We went up and Kathleen had a salad and I had a Rueben. I love Ruebens so this may the only place where the food I got onboard was not as good as a Rueben I could have gotten off the ship. And no fries there. Just chips. But still go try it. Great place to grab a quick bite.
  • The Grand Dutch Cafe. Down on deck three (the Promenade Deck) right at midships is an undiscovered gem of a place for lunch. I say undiscovered because we didn’t discover it until more than halfway through our cruise. Lots of other people did and now we know why. We had heard about it and wanted to go and since we were late getting back from Grand Turk we headed there as soon as we were on board. They serve lots of Dutch delicacies. For instance, I had a veal croquette sandwich. Kathleen had a wonderful melted ham and cheese sandwich. But the real star of the show were the French fries. They were amazing. How good were they? On subsequent visits, we always had them for dessert too. One other big plus is their selection of European beers. If you are a beer aficionado, this is the place for you.

Dinner…ahhhh dinner

When we bought the cruise we were part of a special HAL deal called Have It All. With that deal we got the cruise and some other perks. Two of those perks were dinners on two nights in two of their four Specialty restaurants. Since they had included two we decided to go ahead and purchase dinner in the other two just so we could tell you about them. See what kind of sacrifices I go through for my readers 😜.

I need to let you know that we never had dinner in the buffet nor the MDR (main dining room). If we weren’t having dinner in one of the specialty restaurants (five out of ten nights) we had dinner in Club Orange. But, I should also mention that the only difference between the menu in the Main Dining Room and Club Orange are two menu items (one appetizer and one entrée) that are available in Orange that are not in the dining room. And we only ate one of those during the entire cruise (it was Peruvian Chicken—one of my favorite meals of the entire cruise) so we really had much of the same food as the MDR.

Trying to figure how to handle telling you about the dinners. I think I will rate the restaurants we ate in from great to “just fine.” Also below each restaurant are the photos with captions from that restaurant when I can remember where and what they are. You know how that works—you can either be a photographer or a diner…choose one. I guess I could never be a food critic—too busy eating the food. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and since I took these with my iPhone, feel free to view them on yours.

  • Rudi’s Sel de Mer. This is HAL’s seafood restaurant created for them by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin. It is the most expensive extra charge on the ship. The voyage we sailed it was $50 per person. I have to say, it was worth just about every single penny. Photos are below but suffice it to say it was a dining experience I would not want to miss. Be aware that it is only available every night on HAL’s three Pinnacle Class ships but is available as a pop-up restaurant for one night on others…sometimes. They also have the coolest plates and you can buy them. WOW! More in the photos (loved them so much we brought one home). Oh and my brother would want me to mention the best side dish on the ship—Rudi’s ratatouille. I agree. Loved it so much we begged for the recipe and they printed it up for us. There is a Rudi’s cookbook that you can buy (but everyone in Sail with Seth got one as a gift from Seth) but the ratatouille recipe isn’t in it. If you want it, you either ask them or e-mail me.
  • Tamarind and Nami Sushi. Choosing between this Asian specialty restaurant and Club Orange as the next best option was really tough but this one wins by a lobster roll. We got to eat in Tamarind twice. Once because it was part of our Have It All package and once because my brother Steve won a drawing to have dinner with Seth from our Sail with Seth cruise. We went the first time with Seth himself and since he had eaten in Tamarind many times on previous trips we followed his recommendations. One thing about Tamarind is that it sits in the same room as Nami Sushi and you can order off either menu. The difference is that you pay one price for your entire meal in Tamarind but Nami Sushi charges à la carte. But you can order from both menus. My brother and I love sushi (as does Seth) but our brides not so much so this worked perfect. The sushi was amazing (my brother and I will agree that the lobster roll from Nami was the best bite on the ship), the dinner divine and the service incredible. Cocktails were not too shabby either. Here’s a great dessert tip: get the sorbet trio but tell them to skip the lychee and give you two scoops of the lemon-basil sorbet—you won’t be sorry. One last thing—this Asian restaurant, sitting above the wake of the ship may be the most visually beautiful restaurants we have seen on the high seas.
  • Club Orange Dining Room. This one was close. Really close. But Tamarind one by a hair (or a lobster roll). Otherwise the 5 nights we ate in Club Orange were AMAZING! Every night superb food, superb service and a pretty unforgettable dining experience. The team in Club Orange led by the amazing Wayan Suadnyana took care of our every need and made us love being in the restaurant. Imagine going to your favorite place to eat every night and they treated you like a local, like a regular. When this happens, it’s one of my favorite parts of cruising.
  • Pinnacle Grille. This is HAL’s signature steakhouse. It is on all their ships. Our dinner there was one of our two included dinners with our Have It All promotion. We (Kathleen and I) have eaten in the Pinnacle Grille on two other HAL cruises but I should state up front that we are not big steak people. We like ethnic food better than steaks but we have always enjoyed the food at Pinnacle. And it is in fourth place not because we didn’t love it this time, just that the other options were so much better. Pinnacle gives you some great steaks (my ribeye was a little fatty) and lots of super sides (don’t forget to order the clothesline of bacon when you first order or you will be adding it as you see others get theirs). One reason this fell to fourth in my rating was the service was really sporadic. We would have five servers all over us for five minutes and then they would disappear and we wouldn’t see anyone for another 10 minutes. A couple of times after they brought an entrée, we didn’t have something we needed that went with it (like a glass of wine or a steak knife) and there was no one to help. The manager of the restaurant was five feet away from us much of the time but with eyes glued to his phone and NEVER even glanced at anyone in the entire place. Lastly, leave room for the key lime pie. Delicious. Sorry only one photo from Pinnacle. My ribeye with onion rings.
  • Canaletto. This Italian restaurant is carved out of the buffet every night. This means they use a part of the buffet table area, put table cloths on those tables and do Italian food that is served to you (not a buffet). Kathleen and I had eaten in Canaletto on another HAL cruise in 2018 and loved it but the food was just not up to par this time. Now, by up to par, I don’t mean it was bad…it was just not as good as every place else we had to choose from onboard. Service was fine. The food was fine. Everything was just “fine,” if you know what I mean.

If and when we sail a Pinnacle Class ship again, we would go back to Rudi’s and Tamarind in a minute, skip Pinnacle and Canaletto and put the cost of those into another night at Rudi’s. And we would hope to win another night with Seth Wayne in Tamarind for sushi.

And I want to make one final food comment that really set the Nieuw Statendam food apart from 90% of other meals we have had on ships—spice. The cooks on NS were not afraid to use it. Most cruise fare is geared to middle American tastes. Steaks, chops, bland sides, etc. As I mentioned we love different and adventurous food. We do get that sometimes when we sail.

One of our all-time favorite onboard restaurants was the old Qsine on Celebrity ships before they corrupted it with that damn “Le Petite Chef” or whatever they call it. Turned if from a culinary experience to a tiny little piece of tripe (sorry for the rant–I truly loved Qsine).

HAL chef’s put spice in their food. My eggplant side in Tamarind was ordered “spicy” (could have ordered mild or medium as well) and it was spicy. Not “burn your mouth” spicy but delicious. They tried new things. They gave us incredible meals with incredible service. For years in the cruising world of so-called “big ships” (over 2500 guests) Celebrity has been the standard for food. Not anymore. You want great food—HAL gets the nod, at least on this ship.

 There is no sincerer love than the love of food
—George Bernard Shaw

Avoiding Aruba and why I still don’t like the Caribbean that much

See—I love those alliterations. Can’t resist them in headlines. Never have been able to 😜.

Let’s talk Aruba. We have been here before…a very long time ago (2004) on our first Panama Canal cruise. It was the stop the day before we went through the canal. I totally get that things are going to change in 18 years but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to go this far south (pun not intended).

When we were here in 2004, we had heard it was really easy to get off the ship and immediately rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and drive all the way around the island so that is what we did. It was (to that point and until this cruise) our favorite Caribbean experience. We had a lot of fun, saw a lot of stuff and generally enjoyed ourselves. The island reminded me of what we found in Curacao on this trip, not overly developed, not overly touristy.

Well that changed. If you saw my post two days ago about the commercialism in cruise ports you know what I am talking about. I have friends who follow this blog  and know that I have never been a big fan of the Caribbean in general. Now they are reading the last few posts and I am being asked if I now have either softened my stance on the Caribbean or changed it all together. I think I figured it out last night when I started writing the post. It’s not that I have changed my mind about the Caribbean, it’s that I have seen a different Caribbean on this cruise than we have seen before.

I figured this out when I was explaining to my brother and sister-in-law about the Caribbean islands we had seen as opposed to the ones we had seen before. In our past experiences down here we have stopped in…

  1. St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
  2. St. Maarten
  3. Labadee, Haiti
  4. Casa del Campo, Dominican Republic
  5. Cozumel, Mexico
  6. Costa Maya, Mexico
  7. Puerto Rico, USA
  8. St. Kitts & Nevis
  9. Grand Cayman
  10. Nassau, Bahamas

If you know the Caribbean and you see this list you realize that these are all the commercialized ports that ships sail to. These and the cruise line’s private islands are about it. On this trip we stopped in one of those places—Puerta Plata in the Dominican Republic. When we were touring there it reminded me of all the things I really don’t like about the Caribbean. Tours of rum distilleries, tobacco/cigar factories, chocolate stores…anyplace they could sell us something.

In the new Caribbean I found on this trip they took us to Grand Turk, Bonaire and  to some extent Curacao. Places where it is probably much like the Caribbean used to be. No chain stores, beautiful beaches, tours that featured the natural beauty of that island. Sadly, those places are few and far between. But they reminded me of being in Galapagos. The guides in both places were proud of being from those places and they wanted to preserve the things that were important to life on their island.

Which brings us back to Aruba. Since we were here in 2004 I have always said that of all the islands in the Caribbean we had visited, I liked Aruba the best. And now I know why. Back when we visited it was like Bonaire. Oranjestad was a sleepy little town. It’s not anymore. Check out my photos below to see what I mean. There is a pink building that you can see in the center of my Oranjestad photos. When we were here in 2004, you could walk to that building from the port and not really pass any other buildings. And right outside the ship you could rent that Jeep to drive around the island. There were at least six places at the pier you could rent a car. Not so anymore. When I went walking in town, I asked where you could rent a car and was told that Enterprise was about three blocks away. That’s sad.

So what did Kathleen and I do in Aruba? Pretty much nothing. Kathleen stayed aboard and I took about a 45 minute walk to shoot some pics, get some postcards (yes, we still send those) and a magnet (yes, we collect those for the door of our garage freezer), ran into our buddy Seth and that was about it. Came back to the ship and had lunch with him. So the pics below are either from that short walk (not much to take pictures of) and stuff I shot from the ship. Please note the ENORMOUS hotel in the distance. Not here when we were here before but we are told it is incredibly expensive and they are building more.

I do want to add that my brother Steve and and his bride Jamie took an overall bus tour of the island and loved it. They saw a lot of the stuff we saw on our Jeep ride in 2004 and told us they had a great guide who truly loved his island. So maybe some of that spirit is still out there. All I know is that it kind of made me sick to walk through what downtown Oranjestad had become because now it looks a lot like the other ten places we had been before. I hope Bonaire and Grand Turk don’t succumb to this but I don’t have high hopes for Curacao.

Here’s the pics, such as they are. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That’s it for our ports of call. The last two days of the cruise are sea days as we make our way back to Fort Lauderdale. Yesterday was a lot of fun as we spent much of the day doing Sail with Seth stuff including a group photo, a cooking demo and a mixology class. Took up most of the afternoon.

My plan is to do three more posts about this cruise. One on the food, one on the ship and finally an overall review. Watch for those in the next couple of days. I will do them today (our last day onboard 😔) and tomorrow on the flight home and then post when we are home.

I sometimes detect that a type of regional divide is setting in, and there is a lack of real Caribbean connection among the islands, and I am concerned about this.   —Anthony Carmona

Colorful Curacao

Usually my headlines are written just for the alliteration but this one really is true.  We thought things were pretty colorful the day before in Bonaire, but Curacao really takes the colorful cake. It appears that this town loves color. We took a short tour on the town’s trolley and our guide told us the real reason that Curacao’s capital Willemstad has so many colorful buildings is that about 100 years ago, the governor of the island decreed that houses could no longer be white. That they had to be painted one of a set number of colors. After he left office it was found that not only was he the governor but he was also part owner of the only paint supplier on the island 😂.

But it has served Curacao well as you will see from my photos. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Besides all the colorful buildings my photos benefited from one of the bluest skies I have ever seen.

But before I show you the photos I want to tell you what we did to tour. First, when the ship arrived there was quite a bit of discussion between the ship and the port. It went on for a while. So long that many people were waiting for the Captain to announce we were going to have to skip the port. But finally, almost an hour later, the port allowed us to disembark. There was one big change though. We were originally scheduled not to leave the port until 11;00 pm but because Willemstad had a 9:00 pm curfew for everyone in the town they moved up our all-aboard time to match up with the curfew and let us off.

Our included (in our Have It All promotion) shore excursion for this port was the aforementioned Old Town Trolley Tour. We were actually picked up by taxis (vans) and driven across the Queen Juliana Bridge to meet up with the trolley and our guide in downtown. Our tour was in a three car trolley pulled by a gas-powered engine that looked like a train engine (bell included). We saw lots of colorful architecture on our about 90 minute tour which started and ended at the old town fort. Our guide was good, the driver a great guy but I can’t recommend this tour. The fumes from the engine were horrible. By about halfway through we were either nauseous or getting there or we had a horrible headache. This trolley engine needs a tune up or a replacement before anyone should try and take that tour again. But it was interesting (when you could breathe). What we saw is in the photo captions. Funny but it was one of the few times we were thrilled to be wearing masks. Can’t imagine how bad it would have been without them.

After we were done they gave us the option of either walking back to the ship or taking the taxi back. Kathleen had a bad headache from the fumes so she headed back. I wanted to take more pics of downtown so I elected to stay and walk back across the fabulous floating bridge.

So here’s the pics that explain everything else. Remember, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That was about it for downtown Willemstad. From the bridge it was about a ten minute walk back to the ship, back aboard and after a nice evening (more about entertainment and food coming soon) we went to bed and woke up sailing into Oranjestad, Aruba. More about that tomorrow.

What makes things memorable is that they are meaningful, significant, colorful.   —Joshua Foer

Creeping commercialism in the Caribbean

As I am writing this Kathleen and I are sitting on the 9th deck of Nieuw Statendam looking out over downtown Oranjestad, Aruba. From what I can see here I have just figured out the commercialism index of the ABC islands.

Every person who has ever taken a cruise knows about Diamonds International (DI). They are a chain of jewelry stores that you find in about 90% of cruise ports around the US, Alaska, the Caribbean, Mexico and sometimes Europe (go to Gibraltar—you will think you are in the Caribbean). When we were in Bonaire I walked around downtown Kralendijk for about an hour and if there was a DI, I didn’t see it. So they get a four or five star rating on Jim’s Commercialism of Cruise Ports scale. Since five is the best, that’s pretty good for a cruise port. (BTW: All the Alaska ports fail completely except Icy Strait Point–but I haven’t been there in a while so they might fail now.)

Yesterday in Willemstad, Curacao as I was walking back to the ship I passed a DI. It wasn’t someplace I had to go. If I had not walked back from downtown on a particular route I would have missed it…but it was still there. So I give Curacao a 2-3 on Jim’s Commercialism scale. Not great but not bad. I had to look to find it.

Today in Oranjestad, Aruba, as I am sitting on deck nine, I can see the damn DI! FAIL! They get 0 out of 5. You can’t get much more commercial than that.

I was going to make this post about Curacao but I have decided I want to talk about one of the things I totally wish would stop in cruise ports all over the world—the commercialism from outside sources. Diamonds International and its ilk (there are lots of these chains who “feed” the cruise industry—a typical one might be XXX T-Shirt company, put your port name in for the XXX) have run independent local stores out of  business. Take a look at Skagway, Alaska as maybe the worst case. More than half the town has been taken over by these franchises. In many cases they don’t even hire locals to work in them. For instance in Skagway a civic leader told us how they fly in employees and put them up in tent encampments just outside of town. So other than some sales tax money, these businesses don’t give back to the communities that depend on tourism dollars to exist and to employ locals.

For years it has been rumored that cruise companies were heavily invested in these franchise company but no one has proven it so I can’t state it with any accuracy. What I can ask is that if you are cruiser, walk by these stores. Buying something from them is not helping the people in the port you are visiting, it isn’t always the best bargain for you. Sure, the price of that diamond ring might be really low, but when the diamond falls out of the setting or you wash the garment and all the colors run or it rips at the seams, who do you take it back to? Take another cruise and hope that by the time you get there you can still take it back?

Do yourself a HUGE favor and walk by these stores, go downtown and find a local merchant. It is kind of sad to me when I Google “Skagway (or any other commercialized cruise port) I get a list of franchise stores. Before you buy, ask…is this a locally owned business. That should be what you are looking for. Let’s drive these vultures out of business.

Thanks for listening to my rant. I promise to give you the update tomorrow about Curacao. It was pretty nice and I got some decent pictures.

There’s a lot of bad isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.  —George Seaton

Beautiful Bonaire—I’m impressed

Yesterday (Friday January 28th) we were in beautiful Bonaire. One of the three ABC islands, the island is predominately known for its diving—both scuba and snorkeling. I could go on and on about their politics, their industry and the rest of it but if you really want to know—click here—for a link to the Wikipedia page for Bonaire.

What I will tell you about is the two (yes 2) excursions we took and how impressed I am with the island. First let me say that we are NOT divers of any kind. We leave that to our friends Mike and Cathy. They do the snorkel thing and the scuba thing. They live in Florida so they have warm water. We live in Washington where if you go in the water, you freeze to death in less time than you can say, “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

So we started off the morning with a ship’s excursion called “The Best of Bonaire.” There were three groups of about 12 people in three different vans. We had settled into one of the vans when the head of shore excursions asked for volunteers to move to another van because they had miscalculated the numbers on ours. We were in the front so we said we would switch. Best decision of the day. I have nothing against the guide and driver on the original van but the new van had a guide that made our day—Gladys. Now we really doubt Gladys is her real name because she acted like it was a joke all day long but if you are in Bonaire doing this tour, get Gladys. The woman is a HOOT! Not to mention an excellent guide and you could tell how much she loves her adopted island—Bonaire. She is originally from Wisconsin but has been on Bonaire off and on since 1963 so she knows her stuff. Her driver was a guy she called Cheech because of his past life as a cop confiscating marijuana and being in charge of burning it after the perpetrators were caught.

These two took us all over the island and while Gladys regaled us with stories, history, geography, science, nature and local customs, Cheech kept a VERY sharp eye out for the best flora and fauna he could find. And find it he did, time and time again. Check out my pics to see what I mean. He found parrots, parrot fish (he was good at parrot stuff 😜), lizards and all kinds of other stuff. Then he would slow down or stop so that us photographers could get the pics we were after. (BTW: I am so sorry I did not get a photo of Gladys or Cheech—my bad.)

We were out touring with Gladys and Cheech for 3.5 hours and other than my knees giving me problems from sitting for so long we had a great time and saw a bunch of great stuff as you will see in the photos. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

Our second excursion a little later in the day was a short but very nice trip on a glass-bottom boat. Having never been on a glass-bottom boat before I thought maybe I could get some great underwater photos without going underwater. And our guide and skipper Kim took us out to the coral reef around a large island called Little Bonaire that is just off the main port. While we were able to see some very pretty fish, the only photo I could even slightly make work is the one of the turtle you see below. The other pics are from the boat ride but just not the underwater parts.

To sum all this up, I would say the one thing that most impressed me about Bonaire is that they have not succumbed to the usual cruise-type shops. No Diamonds International, etc. Also, both guides we had were so in love with their island and the things their government (which is funded and supervised by Amsterdam—Bonaire being a Dutch protectorate) is doing for their people, their environment and the flora and fauna of the island. It I also impressive that 70% of the island’s power (even powering their desalinization plants) is from wind. And they hope to be 100% renewable within 5 years. Not only that but everyone there has health care, an education, a guaranteed retirement…all things that every human should have a right to.

I sometimes detect that a type of regional divide is setting in, and there is a lack of real Caribbean connection among the islands, and I am concerned about this.  —Anthony Carmona