All the stuff I loved about Ovation

I had something else I was going to do before this post but it can wait since it is me being a “grumpy git” as my Yorkshire friends would say.

So let’s talk what I loved about our Ovation of the Seas cruise to Alaska with our kids and grandkids. So many of you have commented that every thing seems to have been horrible and now where should they take their kids on a cruise if not Royal. Well I am here to say, go ahead and take them on Royal Caribbean, just have lower expectations and a different mindset of what is important.

As a travel professional it is my job to help my clients have the best travel experience possible and my writing about this cruise is part of that. Hopefully those clients and other readers will learn from my mistakes. So here’s the good stuff.

IMG_2009First, Mason’s viewpoint. On the last night of the cruise, at the dinner table in the main dining room (while he was eating escargot for the fourth time) I asked my 8-year old grandson, “What were the five best things on this cruise?” He was really quick to answer me:

  1. The Flowrider (he had only the day before learned to ride it and he was INCREDIBLY proud of that).
  2. The service in the dining room at dinner. (I pressed him on this because it was kind of an interesting thing for an 8-year old to say but he was adamant.) He loved Res and Putu, who took such good care of all of us.
  3. The food in the dining room at dinner. (I was sure he was going to choose the buffet because of all the choices but he said no, he loved the food in the dining room best. Guess it was the escargot, shrimp and steak.)
  4. The bumper cars. (He’s 8—what did you expect?)
  5. Spending a week with Grandpa and Grandma K. (Of course I wish this had been first but it did place ahead of spending the week with his sister, mom and dad so I was happy!)

I love his list. And he really never mentioned (neither did his sister) anything they didn’t like. Now if you ask me what they really liked, it was having the complete and total attention of their Mom, Dad, Grandpa and Grandma K for an entire week—always trying to keep them entertained.

Now here’s my list of the things I LOVED about our Ovation cruise.

  1. Spending the week with my grandkids and their parents. It was a sheer joy to have my two grandkids knock on our door every day before breakfast and say, “room service,” laughing the entire time. Even standing in line for hours with them was great. We had so many interesting conversations. I have never played so much foosball and loved it. Mason and I have a particular bond (I was lucky enough to get to take care of him when he was really little when his Mom was teaching and his Dad had to work) and we have always just been simpatico. He’s my best buddy and I am his. So spending time with him is a joy for me. And Maylee loves me and adores her Grandma K. All the hassles we had on this cruise from start to finish are overshadowed by the incredible time we had with those two and their parents. It was a vacation we will all remember for a very long time._8106881
  2. Our stateroom. In 28 cruises (barring the one time we had a suite) this was the nicest room we have ever been in. It was the best designed, had the most storage, was the most comfortable as far as just being in it. Sure, the shower could have been a little bigger but at least it was an enclosure and didn’t have a shower curtain. And the bed was one of the worst we have ever slept on (but that didn’t detract from the great stateroom design). We should mention there are entire Cruise Critic threads out there about people bringing air mattresses because the beds are so bad.
  3. _8106906The service team in the dining room. Res and Putu were actually better than pretty much any other serving team we have ever had. After having Richard and his team in Blu (on Reflection in Iceland) I didn’t think it could get any better. But I was wrong. And the fact that I was wrong is what makes RCL the right place to take kids. You see even though the management has scheduling conflicts and the kid’s club people were just ho-hum in their interactions with our kids, the real star of the ship for kids are the adults who “get” how to deal with kids. From our room steward Shetty who talked to the kids every time he saw them to the guy running the Flowrider who took time to work with kids on trying new things (he didn’t have to do that) these people got kids. And above all, these two amazing people who served us each night in the dining room charmed our kids. Especially Res who just knew how to deal with kids so well.
  4. The gym. It was spiffy! That’s the best word I can give it. I went every morning for an hour and as usual it was packed on day one and almost empty on day six. But all the equipment is still like new. Best stationary bike I have ridden that I didn’t own. The place was kept VERY clean.
  5. The ship itself. Ovation is new and beautiful. It has been quite a while since we have been on a ship this new. Everything is still clean and sparkly compared to many other, older ships we have sailed on—even though Ovation is almost three years old. She has been well taken care of and if you are considering a cruise on her you will love the ship itself. I especially loved the artwork in all the stairwells. Of course you have to take the stairs to see it all, but the elevators are so slow, you can take your time on the stairs.

That about does it. Not perfection but not horrible either. And I can say this unequivocally—if I had to do it again, and I could avoid a few of the bigger problems (like having a passport—that we just got back from renewal today) I would. Just avoid the buffet, eat in the dining room and take your grandkids.

Nothing always stays the same. You don’t stay happy forever. You don’t stay sad forever. —Cat Zingano

 

Day 4: Finally livable but still crowded

On the fourth day of our cruise we awoke in Skagway, Alaska, a tiny town that had less people than the ship we were on. Which by the way is part of the problem Ovation has. The ship had too many people on it. Not that other ships can’t handle that number of people, but Ovation really can’t. It just had a hard time handling the number of people we had on board. I think I already mentioned that there were (with all cabins full) almost 5,000 people on board, 1,000 of them kids. I had a thought when we were in Seattle moored next to Celebrity’s Solstice, a ship we have sailed on (or one of her almost identical sister ships) many times. Sitting next to each other, the two ships (Ovation and Solstice) don’t look that much bigger than each other (Ovation has two more decks). In fact when we were onboard I noticed that Ovation was built at the same shipyard as the Solstice class ships. And they are very much alike.

One of the things I have always felt I didn’t like about the Solstice class was that they only had two banks of elevators—one at the front of the ship and one in the middle of the ship. On Solstice (with slightly more than 3,000 people when it is full) it just means you have to walk further to get to an elevator. On Ovation with almost 5,000 people, it means that people wait and wait and wait for an elevator on a 16 deck ship. An example: I almost always take the stairs on a cruise. I do that to fight any weight gain from all the food and drink. Kathleen with her hip replaced can’t do that (one day I climbed 58 flights–yes I am nuts) so she takes the elevator. Normally I arrive after a four or five flight climb to find her waiting for me at the top of the stairs. But on this cruise, most of the time, I could climb 10 or 12 flights of stairs and then have to wait another four or five minutes for her elevator to arrive. That’s nuts and just a symptom of the problems Ovation has. I heard so many complaints about the elevators, it just got old. And this is the same reason that we were hearing announcements about eating quick in the buffet. The buffet is the same physical size as Solstice (or not much larger) and feeding 2,000 more people.

But no matter what the crowds, today we took the White Pass Railroad up to the top of White Pass and followed the same trail as miners did in the mid 1800s. It’s a great excursion and one you have to do at least once when you go to Alaska. We (Kathleen and I ) did it back on our first Alaska cruise in 1999 and we wanted the kids to experience it. They seemed to like it although I think they got a little bored with the historical stuff. I do need to say that never once did they complain. Yes, I am a proud grandpa.

When we returned from the train trip, we took a short walk around the town and headed back to the ship. Because Ovation was moored at the very end of the pier, it was a really long walk in windy conditions. When we got back on the kids really wanted to go to the buffet and grandpa got outvoted so off we went. Surprise, there was an improvement in find a a place to sit. Because so many people were still in Skagway, we easily found a table but sadly, the food was just as bad as it had been before. Cold burgers, cold hot dogs, lukewarm pizza and warm plates for salads. It was just sad. How could a food program that produces pretty good food in the dining room be so bad in the buffet.

After lunch the kids and grandkids wanted to try rock climbing and we hoped that there would be less of a crowd than there had been a few days before and we were right. Only trouble was that the first time they had done rock climbing a few days earlier, Maylee (who was well over the 42 inches they require to rock climb) was denied because she is only five (she turns six in three weeks). But why deny her now and not on the second night of the cruise? I don’t understand. Consistency Ovation!

Dinner was in the dining room and we had a really good time. The kids were tired (and so were we) so we met Bob and Judy for an after dinner drink and the kids went back to their stateroom to watch a movie on TV. It was a much better day.

 

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. —John Muir

Day 3: Things kept getting (a little bit) better

On Monday morning, we had another half day at sea as we didn’t get into Juneau until 12:30 pm. During that time we had our Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle. I made the words Cruise Critic a link to my previous explanation of what Cruise Critic is so if you aren’t sure, you can pop back over and check and then close that window and come back here. 

The Meet and Mingle was both interesting and eye-opening. The crew member hosting the event was the Groups Coordinator. Kathleen and I were two of the first people to arrive and she made the mistake of asking me how our cruise was going…I told her. Now, not in a nasty way, just the unvarnished truth of why I felt this was one of the worst cruises we have been on. She handled it well but offered me no solutions. She was SHOCKED about the announcements in the buffet (to please eat quickly and leave) and not surprised by my other complaints about scheduling and reservations. The Meet and Mingle itself was very nice. The Activities Director came by with a bunch of freebie stuff to give away in a door prize raffle. There were about 15 parties there and about 30 people and I think someone in every group got something. I won the first drawing and grabbed a bottle of wine that we drank at dinner the next night. 

We got to meet a lot of nice people that we had been conversing with online pre-cruise and I was thanked a number of times for my Seattle expertise and recommendations. (If you are ever coming to Seattle or cruising from here to Alaska, check out my “My Seattle” website.)

Someone finally explains how “to do” RCL

One of the people we got to meet had posted a lot on the Roll Call and since I had helped her with her pre-cruise Seattle activities, she helped me understand Royal Caribbean and this cruise a little bit better. She is a long time RCL cruiser and asked me how our cruise was going. When I told her how disappointed we were, she was surprised. She said her party of more than 20 was having a great time and she asked me for specifics. When I told her about the buffet she said she wouldn’t know since they never went to the buffet…or the dining rooms. They were Diamond Plus on Royal (the second highest level in their loyalty club) and so they ate many meals in the Concierge Club (only open to those people at that level and to those sailing in suites). She also said that she had purchased the “Ultimate Dining Package” for everyone in their group. That means that they could eat breakfast in the Concierge Club and lunch and dinner, every day in specialty restaurants.

When I mentioned the fact that we couldn’t get the kids or the grandkids reservations to do many of the activities they wanted to do or had to stand in line for an hour to do something, she replied that they didn’t have to do that since they had pre-purchased what RCL calls “The Key.” “The Key” is like a Disney Fast Pass. It lets you jump the line numerous times on just about any activity or in making reservations for any activity. It costs approximately $30 per person, per day. So that just showed me that to really enjoy this cruise, Grandpa (me) screwed up. I should have sucked it up and spent another $3,000 to get both the Ultimate Dining Package and The Key for all of us. Excuse my French again, that’s bullshit! Cruising is becoming (or has become) a caste system with haves and have-nots increasingly separated more and more every day but that’s a subject for a whole other column.

Note added later: Since I originally wrote this my good friend Bob (who was on this cruise with his grandkids) added something I hadn’t thought of when it comes to “The Key.” How do you explain to a child under eight when they wait patiently in line for 30-45 minutes to ride a bumper car or go roller skating and then are told they have to wait another 15 minutes because these kids with “The Key” get to cut the line and ride multiple times before others get to ride once. Later in the week, while watching my grandson on the FlowRider, I overheard some folks with “The Key” saying how they had done the iFly experience three times on that cruise…while my kids could not get a reservation to use it even once. Sorry but this is just wrong.

We were arriving in Juneau at 12:30 so after the Cruise Critic event, we went to get ready and to meet the kids for lunch before we got off the ship. And here is another example of RCL just not getting it.

The majority of people on board have families. We were told that we needed to meet for our shore excursion at 11:45 in the Royal Theater. The only trouble was that not a single (insert my favorite expletive here) food venue was open before 11:30. Has anyone reading this ever tried to get a five year old and an eight year old to sit down and eat in less than 15 minutes? It’s NOT possible. Especially when you can’t even get into a venue to eat until 11:30. Luckily for us, the pizza place opened at 11:20 so we were able to grab a couple of slices and find someplace to sit and eat it. We then proceeded to the theater, got checked in for our excursion and were told to sit and wait for 45 minutes (we didn’t even dock until noon) in a section of the theater. I think the funniest thing we saw while waiting was a dad come in from the pizza place (quite a walk away from the theater) carrying six plates of pizza to feed his kids. Great scheduling RCL. BTW: I didn’t want RCL to schedule the shore excursion later, I wanted them to open the food venues earlier. If they have more than 1000 people (that’s how many were in the theater) that need to eat before they leave, then open the restaurants and the buffet at 11:00. I just don’t get it.

For our day in Juneau I had pre-purchased a package of two trips (one for Juneau and one for Skagway). The Juneau trip was a combo of whale watching and a quick stop at the Mendenhall Glacier. Both of these were great. Once we were out of the theater, we were off the ship in minutes and found our bus and got on board. One of the most comfortable large buses I have been on and our driver was hilarious. One bad (grandpa-type) joke a minute. Mason loved him. He is still talking about his jokes. We drove to a nice size boat, boarded and headed out to find whales. I think all-in-all we saw about 10. I never thought I could be blasé about seeing whales but we have seen so many on this cruise. We also got to see sea lions, an otter and a few bald eagles. I think the kids got tired of it after a while but they did enjoy it. Did I mention I have the best grandkids in the world? They are so patient. I don’t think I heard them even once complain about waiting in line.

Ovation Cruise Day 2-004
This is the Northstar.

And speaking of waiting in line, we saw in the schedule that the Northstar had a non-reservation session after dinner so we went up and stood in line for about 40 minutes to take a 10 minute trip straight up into the sky and see from a higher vantage point what we could already see from the deck. The kids seemed to like it so that made it worth the wait. We thought it was just OK. Especially since all we could see was Juneau but it did give us something to do after dinner.

That brought an end to our day so I will finish with some quick post-cruise thoughts. Day three was the best so far and I started warming up to Ovation. It’s still too crowded and I still hate the buffet but things got better today.

Nature did not put whales on this earth to splash kids while stuck in a pen. —Jane Velez-Mitchell

Ovation Schedules

Sorry for the quick second post but I wanted to put up the schedules for our second day on Ovation of the Seas so I could point out the total disfunction in their scheduling and systems. You can see my full report on Day 2 here. 

Here are the two sides of the day 2 schedule. This was a sea day so there was nothing else to do than what you see on this sheet. If you click it twice it will zoom in so you can read it. The sections highlighted in yellow are the dining times. The pink highlight are things kids can do but remember, there were more than 1,000 kids on board and they show Table Tennis open play for instance. Ever play ping-pong with a five year old? That doesn’t last long not to mention that there are only four tables for 1,000 plus kids. There are also age and height restrictions which were enforced randomly (our 5 year old granddaughter was allowed to do rock climbing on Day 1 but not on Day 2 or after that. Try explaining that to her). Roller skating was limited to no more than 25 people on the floor at any one time. I get that but to schedule that for so few hours is nuts.

DAY2-1A

Day 2-2A

Also, please note the purple highlights. These are things happening (some only once on the cruise) during the early (which was full of kids) dinner seating. This was a VERY common occurrence. During this time only two of the pools on board were open. The indoor pool and the Solarium (adults only) pool.

 

Day 2: Not a lot of improvement

The first part of this was written on the afternoon of our second day on Ovation of the Seas. As you can see, things did not improve on day 2.

Breakfast and lunch this morning were in the buffet and the place is a freaking zoo. Seriously. We actually heard three announcements asking people to eat quickly and leave so others could sit down. (I HAVE NEVER HEARD THAT BEFORE IN 28 CRUISES) The food is some of the worst buffet food I have seen. Really bad. Even the lemonade is beyond watery. It’s yellow colored water. So sad. The burgers were cold, the pizza lukewarm, the salads mediocre to say the least.

It’s not just the food. It’s the crowds. They are oppressive. And because of the poor systems for handling them on the ship, it makes it worse. We later learned that there were at least 1,000 children under age 12 on this cruise. That means that the ship was almost at full capacity. You could really tell on sea days and when you tried to get an elevator or in the buffet. And their systems and scheduling were ludicrous.

_8104992
A pretty awesome area for kids that was almost IMPOSSIBLE to get into. It took our grandkids six days to find the area on the left open and available. RIDICULOUS!

What I mean by that is that everything is controlled and scheduled in a really poor way. Let me give you an example. After lunch on our first day on board we took the kids to the outdoor pool. It was a beautiful day and the pool wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be. There are three parts to the outdoor pool area. There is a large pool that is about 5 feet deep, a small round pool for younger kids. They can get in it and go around and around. And there is a bunch of water slides and sprinklers for kids as well. When we first went out and went to the pool, it was about 1:00 pm. The two parts for little kids were closed. When I asked a lifeguard when it was open and he said 2:00 pm. Great, we nursed the kids through an hour of swimming and ice cream cones and then went to see them open the kids area. Guess what, they only opened the little round pool that would hold only about 20 kids so a line quickly formed. We never did see the water slide area open—The one thing the kids really wanted to do. RCL—open your damn facilities. We found this to be true so often. For instance, the bumper cars which you have to strand in line for, are only open between 4:30 and 6:30 pm. And if you have early seating as we did, that’s when you need to get ready for dinner and eat it. Get it together people! We can’t count the number of times we have seen people wandering around empty venues with no one to open them. The activity staff on this ship must either have very few people or they get a lot of time off. Or it is POORLY SCHEDULED which I believe to be the case.

We have had a really hard time finding things for the kids to do these first two days. We took them to the “Ocean Adventures” Royal’s highly regarded children’s program and my daughter and son-in-law were met by some of the most bored and uninterested-in-children people on the ship. Their answer to what the kids would be doing, is a gesture and them saying, “playing in here.” Nothing was going on except some unruly kids running around while others were trying to play. No real supervision at that point. Add to that, that our granddaughter who will turn 6 next month was put in the 3-5 year old group while our grandson is in the 6-8 year old group. Our granddaughter is quite mature for her age, so she did NOT want be left in a room full of three years olds while her brother had a good time with kids more her maturity level. So that program was out the window for us. 

Then we have a daily schedule for a ship where almost a quarter of the people onboard are under the age of 12 and practically nothing for them to do. I am going to put a copy of today’s schedule online when I get home and point out all the things that are available for kids (next to nothing). We ended up spending the entire morning in the arcade, spending grandpa’s money playing skeeball and air hockey and some free foosball. Even if the Kid’s Club had been viable for our kids, they have a limit of how many kids can participate at one time and they exceeded that regularly as many parents just want to dump their kids for as much time as possible. 

Then this afternoon at lunch, the cherry on the top of all this. I asked Joel (my awesome son-in-law) to make sure it showed on his daily schedule that they had reservations for the evening show that night—Pixels. It was the only thing I had been able to reserve before the cruise. Nothing else had been available for reservation (even thought now that we are onboard we keep hearing crew ask us if we made reservations) other than shore excursions. I tried on a regular basis for at least 12 weeks prior to the cruise to reserve things like the iFly, the Northstar and other attractions and not been able to do so. The only thing I could reserve were things that cost money. If they couldn’t charge you for it, it wasn’t available to reserve online. I even went so far as to call Royal’s travel agent line and discuss with them why we weren’t able to make reservations. We were told not to worry, that we would be able to make reservations once on board. Excuse my language but that was BULLSHIT! At no time could we make a reservation for any of those activities but the only thing we could make reservations for was this show, Pixels. So I did. I made the reservations for us, my kids and my grandkids. And they showed up on our reservation cruise planner right up until we came aboard. Then all of a sudden when I checked at lunch time today, my kids and grandkids no longer had reservations. I went to Customer Relations and they couldn’t figure it out and all they could do for us was offer us the show tomorrow night, immediately after we get back from a day-long excursion. The show starts at 7:00 and we don’t get back in time to eat dinner before the show. The woman who arranged it for me suggested we drop by the buffet for dinner after the show. She obviously has never had hungry 5 and 8 year olds traveling with her. Just another screw up. It’s funny how the only things they have not screwed up is things we pay money for. All the shore excursions I paid money for are there just fine but the “complimentary” reservations I made at exactly the same time, disappear. 

I now need say that when I went back to our stateroom later that afternoon, just before dinner, there was a phone message from the woman in Guest Services telling us that she had found four cancellations and that we now had our reservations back. While I appreciated her help, this never should have happened in the first place. The show, by the way, was excellent. The kids loved it. A really great multi-media show. And a great way to finish our second day which was a mild improvement over the first one.

There’s always room for improvement no matter what. —Ali Krieger

 

This did not start well

A note before I post this—We had little or no internet access onboard our Ovation of the Seas cruise we have been on since July 26. Certainly not enough to post anything but I kept writing it, day by day. Now my intent is to post it day by day as if we were leaving today. So here’s what you would have read last Friday if I had been able to post.

I am starting this first post on the afternoon of the second day of what I so far consider the WORST cruise I have ever been on and to be honest, that includes our Carnival cruise from hell back in 1998. This one is worse because I had such high expectations for it. One thing after another have turned this into our new cruise from hell. The worst part for me is that I am constantly disappointing my kids and grandkids. So many things we had planned to do that I had been trying to arrange for months are “not available.” Reservations I have had for months are suddenly gone. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. 

I guess I should begin at the beginning—getting onboard. The worst boarding experience ever. When we had filled out our boarding pass information on Royal Caribbean’s website before the cruise, we were asked what form of identification we wished to provide for boarding. Because our passports needed renewing, we chose the Royal Caribbean listed choice of using our Nexus cards. If you are unfamiliar with the Nexus card it gives us easy entry into Canada by land, TSA Precheck at all airports, Global entry and more. We had to go through all the interviews, fingerprinting and background check to get them that you do for any Global Entry type card. We were thrilled it was a choice on the RCL website that we could use to check in with so we could send our passports in for renewal without having to pay for expedited service (quite expensive). I even called RCL pre-cruise to make ABSOLUTELY sure that we could use them before I sent our passports in for renewal. I actually have an e-mail stating that it will be no problem.

Guess what? RCL forgot to tell the people at the Port of Seattle that they would accept Nexus, so our friends with passports and our kids with just birth certificates were allowed to board. But we were held outside the security area until someone came all the way down from the ship to tell them that it was OK to take Nexus cards. Are you kidding me? Were we really the first people the entire Alaska season to walk up with Nexus cards? Give me a break. Our friends from Canada had also tried boarding with their Nexus cards and the same thing happened to them but luckily they had brought their passports as well. Ours were (and are) someplace in the State Department being renewed.

Once we got that screw-up fixed (took about 25 minutes), we were told we could go through security and that the young man (who looked to be 12) would scan our cards and our boarding passes. Of course he messed that up because he scanned Kathleen’s boarding pass and paired it with my Nexus card and then could not figure out how to undo what he had done. So we had to wait while someone could escort us up through the security line, get us cleared through the X-ray machines and then take us to someone who could fix the young man’s screw up. All this time, our family and friends were getting further and further ahead of us. I know that may not seem like a big deal for you but I paid for the kids to go so I could see their faces when they first boarded a cruise ship. Thankfully we did get almost everything cleared up in time for us to do that, but… 

One of the other things the woman fixing the mistake told us was that we were now on a completely cash account. She said the credit card we had registered when we did our boarding passes had been compromised and somehow been linked to another stateroom with a family named Anderson in it and NOT Bellomo. She apologized but said that meant that we could not use that card. I told her that the Andersons were my daughter, her husband and my two grandkids and that my card was supposed to be covering the charges to their room as I was treating to this cruise as their Christmas presents. The woman could not fathom that? Seriously? It took her about 15 minutes to figure out what I was trying to do and to fix the problem. 

At this point they started boarding the ship in the absolute worst way I have ever experienced in 28 cruises. Even Carnival never did that back in 2001. No numbers, no lines, no priority, just everyone going for the door. Mass chaos. Total anarchy. Thankfully most of the people waiting were nice about it but I still can’t believe there was next to no supervision. From time to time someone would make a totally unintelligible announcement on the public address system but after hearing at least six of them, I have NO IDEA WHAT WAS SAID ON ANY OF THEM. Sounded like the Muppets Swedish Chef speaking Korean. I was told later that he was announcing that Crown and Anchor Diamond members (their loyalty club) which we are could board first. Even if we had heard the announcement, how were we supposed to get to the front of the massive crowd of people??? And they were also making announcements for Celebrity Solstice at the same time.

So now we are with our kids going out of the terminal and up the gangplank. We get to the top to get on the ship and we get on! Yeah! But wait, the kids and grandkids who have been cleared and even have giant RCL stickers on their boarding passes that says
“CHECKED IN” are told, “You haven’t checked in yet.” Please excuse my French but WHAT THE HELL! How did they get through to that point and how did they those big CHECKED IN stickers on their boarding passes. Luckily a very nice lady from the ship got them taken care of in about 10 minutes but once again, a Royal screw-up.

Once the entire family was onboard (our Canadian friends were way ahead of us), I was sure that everything was going to finally get better but I was wrong. 

We decided to go get lunch (we had planned to do some other reservations before lunch but we were held up for so long, the kids were really hungry and you don’t mess with a five year old’s lunchtime) at the 270 Cafe, a little bistro type place that Kathleen and I had scouted out on our travel agent visit two weeks before. They served (from the looks of it when we went by on our visit) sandwiches, salads, soups and desserts. They did but it was our first introduction to Ovation food and it has proven to be true through lunch today—their food sucks. Only dinner last night was remotely passable. And we lucked into that one. Will explain what I mean by that later. 

The paninis were sad little things that remotely resembled a panini sandwich, a tiny slice of meat with some melted cheese that they microwaved, not pressed. Awful. After trying the sandwich I decided to try one of the salads so I ordered the “chopped salad.” The guy at the counter scooped me up a bunch of lettuce mixed with a few other ingredients, tossed it in a bowl and said, “Here you go.” I said, isn’t a “chopped salad” supposed to be chopped? He shrugged. I said, “Could I at least get some dressing on this?” His answer was that It was already dressed. Well you could have fooled me. And this was one of the better things I have eaten. 

For dinner we have early seating (which on this ship is TOO early at 5:00 pm), which means we have two tables of six for us and our Canadian friends, right next to each other in the dining room. Early seating on this ship is 5:00 pm (our Brit friends Paul and Gail call that lunch) and at 5:15 they close the doors. We had not planned on eating in the dining room on our first night. 

For the first night we had decided that the one thing the kids really wanted to do was drive the bumper cars. And the only time they do bumper cars is 4:00 to 6:00 pm. WTF? The only time? OMG. Talk about ridiculous. And there are more ridiculous scheduling things to talk about later. But let’s get back to dinner. We went ahead and did the bumper cars (which were tons of fun—pics below) but then thought we would head to the buffet to eat dinner. But this time it is 5:10 and the kids are getting hungry. We get to the door of the buffet and it is closed. It doesn’t open until 6:00. Again, WTF? We have NEVER seen a buffet with locked doors on any cruise before. And why would you start dinner in the dining room at 5:00 but not open the only free alternative until 6:00??? SO we rush down to the 3rd floor and barely slide into the dining room (I think they were letting people in late because it was the first night.) We get seated and have a wonderful time service-wise. Our waiter and our assistant waiter are awesome. But the food was just OK. Had I had any of it on a Celebrity ship, I would have sent it back. The prime rib was fatty, I ordered escargot to gross out my grandson and to dare him to try some and amazingly he did and liked them. Who would have guessed. But it was sad. Four tiny escargot swimming on a flat plate of melted butter. We did have a nice key lime pie for dessert. 

And that’s how our first day ended. Totally disappointing and it only got worse before it got better. More tomorrow. 

Get used to disappointment—Inigo Montoya

Another Friday. Another ship visit.

Resized_20190719_111832Yesterday I (along with my friends above) did my last ship visitation of the summer. Kathleen was supposed to come along with me but after a week of having the grandkids here, I think she was just plain worn out (or we hope not…catching something). Besides the fact that the ship I was touring was one we know VERY well—Celebrity Solstice. We had just finished our recent Ireland/Iceland cruise on Celebrity’s Reflection which is pretty close to a carbon copy of Solstice. My guess is that we have probably spent 3 weeks total on Solstice since we sailed on one of her first voyages back in early 2009 and at least twice since then.

I would have skipped this visit myself (those grandkids wore me out too) but I had both travel agent friends I was driving and more importantly, I had clients that were coming for the visit as well. Celebrity allows us to invite people who might want to try their ships in the future along with us, which is a great idea and something I wish all the cruise lines would do.

We were at the pier and waiting to board by 9:15 (not sure why so early, but we were there). We have a brand new BDM (Business Development Manager) for Celebrity in Washington, who is just starting, so two sales managers (including the person who is in charge of all sales and marketing for the entire western USA) were doing the tour. They split us into two groups and our group was lucky enough to wind up with Elena, one of the Future Cruise salespeople on board. She was great and very receptive to having me show the group some of my favorite parts of the ship as well. I apologized later for “taking over her tour.” and she said it was great to get the viewpoint of a guest and see what was important to someone who had sailed as a passenger.

Since so many of my readers have already been on Solstice or one of her sister ships I am not going to say much more and just add some pics but I do want to add one thing. There was/is a little drama for Solstice as after we left the ship at 3:00, she sailed at 4:00, got halfway up the Puget Sound and lost all power. Got it back within the hour but had to turn around and come back to Seattle to be inspected by the Coast Guard. She was still here last night when we went to bed around 9:00 pm and I just checked on the Marine Traffic Global Ship Finder and she is just now clearing the Straits of Juan de Fuca which puts her about 10 hours behind. That means she left Seattle about 4:00 am.

One thing I forgot to mention, this was the best food of the entire summer for lunch. Got one of my favorite Celebrity dishes for lunch—Moroccan braised short ribs with couscous and apple pie. Just delish. And we got an excellent Malbec to go along with it.

More about this in a future post—the ways the media covers the cruise industry. Something that really ticks me off.

Our experiences of the Solstice depends entirely upon where we are when it occurs. Neither Solstice encompasses everyone. Neither can. The Solstices stand forever opposed, literally at the two poles of our Earth and experiences. —Gary Zukav

 

This ship is and deserves an Ovation!

Yesterday we got a chance to see a new ship and it was really special for us because two weeks from yesterday, we will be sailing on her…with our grandkids and…their parents. Because of that we were totally into this tour. So far in our travel agent lifetime we have only toured two ships that we hadn’t been on before…or been on their sister ships. But we had never toured or sailed on this class of ship and we were worried that we might not like it. But all is AOK as we were totally impressed with Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas.

We boarded around 10:30 and I had an entire list of questions from the folks on our Cruise Critic roll call that needed to be answered. To start with, I want to state that Ovation is in awesome shape. The ship (which is only three years old) looked super, lunch was great and the food was excellent. 

Some general observations:

  • People were boarding at 10:30. That’s pretty early and it also means they got everyone off fairly quickly.
  • The buffet was SLAMMED every time we went by from 11:30 (when it opened) on. If you are cruising on this ship, try and find someplace else to eat when you first get on board. Pizza at Sorrento on Deck 4, Hot dogs at the Seaplex Doghouse on Deck 15, lunch at the Solarium Bistro on Deck 14 (if it isn’t reserved for a private party as it was when we were touring), sandwiches and salads at Cafe 270 on deck 5. One place that was completely empty was the Fish and Ships, a very cool Fish and Chips place on Deck 14. It doesn’t show on the deck plans they were passing out so that may be why it was empty.
  • We were really impressed that all the pools were open, with lifeguards at 11:00 am. Also, we were impressed that for those that have kids, they have life jackets/water wings for kids at both family pools.
  • The staterooms were really, really nice (so nice that I actually used “really, really.”) Lots of storage…much more than on any ship we have sailed on before including our favorite S-Class.
  • The ship was recently converted from serving the Asian market. The changes were fairly minor. They removed a high roller’s casino and turned it into a very nice music venue, they flipped a ramen restaurant and turned it into the aforementioned fish and chips restaurant. There were a few other changes we heard about but you certainly could not tell that they had been made.

If you would like to find out more, I have added captions to the pics below. And I will have a full report on Ovation after we finish our Alaska cruise on August 2.

Photos are below and are best viewed as a slide show. Just click on the first photo and then hit your right or left arrows.

I’ve had all that you could ask for. The fat lady has sung, and there’s a standing Ovation. —Flip Wilson

Traveling with your cell phone

Beautiful young business woman talking on mobile phone while staNote: this post is primarily for my readers who live in the USA. To the others, I hope it applies to you someday.

About two weeks ago (June 26), the New York Times ran an article about traveling with your cell phone called “A Comprehensive Guide to Taking Your Smartphone Abroad for Cheap.” In case you don’t have a subscription to the online NY Times, the basic conclusion of this article was:To cut to the chase: There is a cheap way, which involves a lot of work. Or there is an easier method that will most likely cost you a pretty penny.” And then less than one paragraph later, they said, “There’s an exception to this. If you are a T-Mobile subscriber, you get free international roaming in more than 200 countries without having to make changes to your account. And to that I said, “DUH!” 

I have been preaching to my friends, family and clients about the benefits of having T-Mobile as your cell phone provider if you travel internationally for quite some time. We have been T-Mobile subscribers since we left evil AT&T (why they are EVIL is an entirely other story but I don’t feel like crying right now, so it will have to wait for another time) in the autumn of 2014.  And I have to say that I am as happy with T-Mobile as I used to be with Apple (before Steve Jobs died).

I don’t want to make this a commercial for T-Mobile but if you haven’t heard me go on and on about T-Mobile, then we haven’t talked before, LOL! First, they have some great programs for people like us…seniors (They also have special programs for military, veterans and government workers). When it comes to their senior program, I am not sure what the current cost is, but when we signed up for it we got two lines with UNLIMITED fast data and phone service anywhere in the US for $60 a month (TOTAL) FOREVER! Yup, forever. Each and every month our cell phone bill is $60 (for both of us, not each). It never changes. And that includes taxes, fees, etc. Has been that way every month since we signed up. (If you buy a phone on installments, your bill will be higher and you can add to it in certain situations which I will mention below.)

Besides having a great and permanent price, there is another benefit to T-Mobile that applies to us because we travel. Free 2-G data pretty much everywhere in the world. And free calls and 4G LTE data in Canada and Mexico which we use a bunch when we go to Chilliwack. On our October trip to Québec, we had 4G LTE fast coverage on almost the entire trip. I will tell you that they will limit the 4G fast coverage in Canada to 5GB of data but that’s a ton. I did run out on the Québec trip, but that’s because I tried to stream a Seattle Seahawks game. But when I went over the 5GB, they just throttled me back to 3G which was fine for everything but streaming video.

In Europe and the rest of the world (more than 210 countries) you will have unlimited data at up to 128kbps, which is great for web browsing, e-mail, social media and occasional use of certain features like GPS/maps. On our Iceland trip, we had plenty of coverage in Scotland, England, Ireland and Iceland. On a previous trip to Europe in 2016, we spent almost a week in the Netherlands before we cruised and there we had 4G LTE the entire time. In fact the coverage in Amsterdam and Rotterdam was better than we have here at home. You should also know that making calls in foreign countries other than Canada and Mexico will cost you something. The cool thing is that as soon as you arrive in a country, you get a text from T-Mobile welcoming you to the new country you have just arrived in and telling you exactly what the rules are for usage in that country. For instance, when we arrived in Iceland, it said, “Welcome to Iceland. All texts and 2G data are free and part of your plan. If you wish to upgrade to faster data, please click here to see the cost. Phone calls are 25¢ per minute.” That was it. In other places, different rules but always a text to let us know. If you want to see how much it is going to cost (or if it is free) before you go, you can click here to go to their Travel Abroad page, put in the country you are going to and it will tell you if there is any cost and if so, how much that is.

By the way, I checked on upgrading my data speed in Iceland and it was $5 for a 24 hour day for 5GB of fast data. Not enough to stream a Netflix movie but I got to upload a few photos to this blog. And I should add that T-Mobile does a great job of letting me create a mobile hot spot to connect my Mac which in many cases (here at home) is faster than our Ethernet connection with Comcast. So if our Comcast internet goes out, we just start a mobile network with our unlimited data and we are good to go. Of course we make sure the phone is plugged into power since that really drains the battery.

Is that enough of a reason to switch? If you ever travel outside of the USA or you are over 55 or military or veterans and can get a lifetime guaranteed price, then yes! When we were with evil AT&T our monthly bill was NEVER the same. It changed every month. They always found something else to charge us for or some other fee or tax to add on to it. One time we uploaded a short (30 second) video from a cruise ship sitting in Victoria, BC’s harbor (we thought we were on the ship’s WiFi) and the bill from AT&T was in excess of $3500. T-Mobile rocks! If you travel, get them.

My cell phone is my best friend. It’s my lifeline to the outside world. —Carrie Underwood

Joy is a Joy

My last post was all about Cunard and I mentioned we were going to be doing our next visitation on  NCL’s (Norwegian Cruise Line) Joy. So last Saturday we joined three of our fellow agency buddies (Deborah, Ruth and Christa) and headed down to Seattle’s Pier 66 (where we met Candy, another of our team) for a tour of Norwegian’s Joy. We were met by NCL’s Business Development Manager (BDM) Angie West, who runs a great tour plus she’s a bunch of fun. I need to mention for comparisons sake, that Joy can hold up to 4,600+ cruisers and is by far (along with NCL’s Bliss) the largest ship we have ever been aboard. Yet at no time did I feel crowded. There were crowds but it was livable. In the next few months (between now and mid-October) we will visit and sail on two larger ships. That should be interesting.

We were escorted onboard almost immediately upon our arrival and started with a look at the high-end section of the ship, The Haven. After the Haven, where we saw suites and spa staterooms, we went on to visit typical verandah staterooms, outsides and insides. We even saw an unusual stateroom you can only find onboard Joy, a “Concierge Interior” which is almost a suite, but an inside. (See my pics for more about that.) Unlike Cunard where we never saw any accommodations, on Joy we got to see them all before getting about a half an hour by ourselves to take pics of public areas before lunch.

Then it was off to the Taste dining room for some lunch. (Joy has three main dining rooms, Taste, Savor and Manhattan) It was not quite as good as the meal we had on the NCL Bliss last year when we mistakenly were given the entire lunch menu to choose from, but we did have a choice of some pretty decent food. I found it far superior to the Cunard lunch from 10 days before. One highlight (and proof that NCL is pretty darn cool) was that at the end of lunch, our lovely server brought Christa a birthday cake. It turns out that Ruth had just mentioned it to them when we came in and they took it from there. That’s my kind of service. Travel agents on board for lunch get a birthday cake to share—well done NCL Joy.

After lunch we were given total freedom to tour the ship and take pics of everything we wanted…so I did. If you are at all interested, please watch these three sets of photos as a slide show and read the captions. We enjoyed our day a whole bunch and we have two more visitations coming up—one on Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas in a week or so and then on Celebrity’s Solstice (a ship we know well) about a week after.

First set of slides are from The Haven, NCL’s ship within a ship. Very high end, very spendy.

The next set of staterooms are a typical verandah, a special Concierge Family Inside stateroom and a handicapped accessible outside. All pretty cool.

The last set is everything I took of the public areas. If you are a ship junkie like we are, you will enjoy them. We have never sailed on NCL but this ship and Bliss have made us want to try them out eventually. They are priced well but if you are going to sail NCL, you need to know up front that much of what they tell you is “free” actually comes with a charge. They are the cruise industry champions of add-on charges. With that said, they do a great job and our many clients who have sailed with them, have had a great time and many have gone back for more cruises.