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 7: Victoria, BC–almost home

The last day full day of this cruise we stopped for a full day in Victoria, BC. This stop is facilitated by what I used to call the Jones Act but my friend Bob keeps informing me that  this Act only applies to cargo and that there is a Passenger something-something act that applies to people. Either way, it you haven’t heard of this before, it’s STUPID, ANTIQUATED, OUT OF DATE (can you tell it ticks me off?) law that was created back in the 1800s to protect the U.S. shipping industry. The law says that a foreign-flagged ship can’t sail from one U.S. port to another without first stopping in a foreign country. And since only one cruise ship in the entire world (NCL’s Pride of America that sails the Hawaiian Islands) is registered in the U.S., every other one has to stop in a foreign country (in this case Canada) before they can go back to the U.S. So every single Alaskan cruise out of Seattle must stop in either Victoria or Vancouver. Most stop in Victoria just for the evening. For instance, the day we were there, Celebrity’s Solstice arrived around 5:00 pm and left again around midnight just to satisfy this law.

To prove how really stupid this law is, we sailed from San Diego to Hawaii and back a in 2012 and we had to stop in Ensenada, Mexico for about 15 minutes at 11:45 pm. No one was allowed to get off. We just stopped there to satisfy this crazy law.

So, because Ovation had come to the Alaskan market a year before they were supposed to, my theory is that they could not get a spot in any other Alaskan port (most go to Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan) so they did the two they could get into and then headed for a full day in Victoria. That’s cool. Victoria is a great city and we (Kathleen and I) have been there many times. In fact we went there for our anniversary last August so we really didn’t see a reason to go into town…except my kids and grandkids had never been there so they wanted to go.

So in the morning, we all watched the Masons (M1 and M2) do the Flowrider thing again and then had lunch on board (the buffet was again quiet because so many people were off the ship—but the food was still horrible) and then we took the shuttle bus into town. A quick note about the shuttle bus. On the daily cruise announcement sheet it stated that the shuttle into town (less than 2 miles) was $10 each, either in U.S. funds or Canadian funds. Now that made me laugh because $10 U.S. is $13 Canadian. So the Americans on board were paying a $3 per person premium to ride the Canadian shuttle.

It just so happened that due to our going to Canada as much as we do (when you live this close and your best friends are Canadians, you go a lot) I had about $100 in Canadian money with me. So when we got off (everyone but Kathleen) I paid for the shuttle in Canadian $$$. Then I got a laugh again when the guy taking the money for the shuttle realized I was paying with Canadian funds, thought I was a Canadian. I did nothing to dissuade him because he said, “Oh, Canadian kids are half price,” with a grin. I let him go right on believing we were Canadians and paid half price for the grandkids.

In town we walked around a little, took a horse and carriage ride (35% off due to the exchange rate) and then walked around some more before heading back to the ship for our last dinner on board. It was a nice and easy day. We spent the evening packing our stuff up and putting it out for the attendants to take it off the ship so we could pick it up in the terminal the next morning.

And that’s about it. I have a few more pics to share before I wind this all up tomorrow or Saturday. I don’t have another day to post about but I do want to add some closing comments. You see there are a bunch of people out there who think we had a bad time on this cruise and that nothing was any good. This is just not true and I am so sorry if I have given that impression. The cruise started off really poorly because of problems that RCI and Ovation could have fixed easily but it got better and there were some really standout things I loved about Ovation despite all the problems. So come back next time and find out what they were. I promise, nothing but positives.

 

 

Day 6—At Sea again, headed south

This post will be short and to the point. For some reason I awoke today (August 7, not the day I am writing about August 1) at 12:35 and could not get back to sleep so I am writing this quickly before I fall asleep.

Forgot to mention when I finished last night’s post that last Wednesday, the day of the glacier, July 30 was also my daughter Jenna and her husband Joel’s 14th wedding anniversary. Way back on Christmas when we had surprised the whole family with the cruise, Kathleen had also purchased a special dinner for just the two of them at Jamie’s Italian, one of Ovation’s specialty restaurants. We picked up the kids from their stateroom at 4:45 and they went to the dining room with us. We had an AWESOME time with just kids and Bob, Judy and their family at the next table. Then we took the kids to see the evening show, the comedian/juggler. Even though (thankfully) many of his jokes went over their heads, they loved him and we found him pretty funny as well. He’s a typical cruise ship entertainer and he says so and is proud of it. After the show we took the kids back to our stateroom for a little television before Mom and Dad picked them up. Jenna and Joel loved Jamie’s Italian and we loved having the kids to ourselves.

The next morning was a sea day. The kids slept in and we went to breakfast by ourselves. Joel was coming down with a cold so the morning was pretty quiet. I took the kids up to play another round of foosball and air hockey and do some arcade game. This was the first cruise we have ever taken where we spent more on air hockey and arcade games that on adult beverages for us. That’s a huge first.

We did lunch at Fish and Ships, Ovations fish and chips restaurant where they have a grand total of seven items on the menu. Three (fish and chips, chicken strips and chips and a fish sandwich and chips) are free and three (halibut and chips, popcorn shrimp and chips and lobster and chips) are available for an added cost. The seventh item on the list was a deep-fried candy bar for dessert. We stuck to the free stuff which was good and of course the kids had to try a deep-fried candy bar which only costs $1.

The afternoon was spent watching M1 and M2 surf on the Flowrider. (Explanation here: M1 is Mason, Bob’s grandson. He is 13 and we have known him since he was three. When our grandson was born eight years ago, he became M1 because our grandson is Mason as well, thus he is M2. And the Flowrider is RCI’s surfing simulator at the back of the ship.) M1 had been using it all week. He had started with the boogie board on his knees and by the end of the week he was doing stand-up surfing. We had gone to watch M1 surf a couple of days before as something to do with the kids one afternoon and M2 became convinced he wanted to surf too, if only on the boogie board. I will be totally honest here, I was not sure if he was going to be able to do it. He’s not the athlete M1 is but he blew me away when he just jumped in and kicked butt. By the end of the cruise he had gotten to where he could get up on his knees and surf with his hands up off the board. What an awesome kid. I am sure that Maylee would have been right there with them if she had been four inches taller and a year older.

After surfing, we headed off to formal night (not that formal) but the kids dressed up in what they had worn to one of their Dad’s work banquets and looked great. Mason and I split some escargot and Maylee spent dinner poking Grandma K and talking her ear off. All-in-all, it was one of my favorite days on board.

Here’s some pics with captions that are mostly Mason.

My grandkids are AMAZING! —Me

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.

 

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

A different kind of cruise

Tomorrow we embark on a different kind of cruise for us. After 26 cruises, we are going to take one that is less about us than it is about family. On Friday of this week we are taking my daughter, her husband (who we love very much) but most importantly we are taking our grandson and granddaughter on their very first cruise. We are boarding Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas for a seven-night cruise to Alaska and we can’t wait!

Neither Kathleen nor I cruised until we were almost 50 so the very idea of starting our grandkid’s cruising life at five and eight years old is way cool! I am posting this news because I want you to know that I will be doing a complete set of posts on our cruise but I am not sure when I will be able to upload it. We won’t have (because that isn’t a perk that Royal gives its repeat cruisers…what exactly does Royal give its repeat cruisers that is worth a damn?) internet on board. We will have T-Mobile when we are ports so I should be able to post on those days. We are in Juneau on Sunday so hopefully I will get online there.

On the other hand, we may be having so much fun, you just might have to wait until we get back for a full report. Either way, more content is coming—hope you are ready. By the way, we are also going with two of our best friends, their kids and their grandkids as well so it is bound to be amazing.

AWESOME! I went looking for a closing quote about grandkids and found one by one of my personal heroes, Rita Moreno!

My grandkids are everything to me. For me, family is all! —Rita Moreno

Wensleydale, Ilkley and back to Leeds to meet a special lady

Our last full day in Leeds was all about getting home and getting ready to head to Dublin tomorrow. When I posted last night we were on our way out to dinner at the Wensleydale Heifer. Their food is the main draw to the inn. It makes it a destination and the reputation for food is well deserved. I wish I had taken more photos but you will have to settle for dessert photos.

After a very filling dinner it was off to bed, a good night’s sleep and then I had my encounter with the Wensleydale Heifer shower. Our room came with a spa jacuzzi tub (that if you tried to fill it with hot water, would have taken more than an hour—worst water pressure ever) and a shower in that tub. No matter how I tried, I could not get that shower to turn on. Tried for more than an hour. Of course I did try to call the front desk to ask them what the trick was but that’s when I found out that no one is at the front desk until 8:00 am. Seriously, no night manager.

Finally at 7:30 I went down and found a very nice lady who was cleaning the lobby and she told me to look for a black cord on the opposite side of the bathroom and to pull it. If I did that the shower would come on. Seriously? How were we supposed to know that. At first I thought it was a British thing but Paul and Gail said they had never heard of it. Just crazy. Thankfully we did finally get showers (still worst water pressure ever!) Other than this one thing, the hotel and especially the restaurant were outstanding.

After a large and really great breakfast we were headed off to Leeds by way of some of the narrowest roads we have ever driven on. It was crazy. Paul did an amazing job of getting us back. We had considered a stop in Grassington but when we got there it was POURING rain and we decided to forego a stop.

It was on to Ilkley where we stopped for our last proper Yorkshire tea at the Ilkley Bettys (remember, no apostrophe) and one last Fat Rascal. After that (since the sun had finally started coming out and the rain had stopped) we decided to walk around Ilkley before heading back to Paul and Gail’s.

When we arrived back at their place we got to meet the best (and definitely the cutest) person we met on this trip, their adorable granddaughter, Jemima. We have never met such a smart and creative six year old (in case Maylee reads this, remember you are only five) and she was a true charmer. And Paul and Gail are obviously very proud and loving grandparents (another thing we have in common).

I am finishing up early tonight because we are going to dinner in a few minutes and then we will come back, watch a little more Britain’s Got Talent and then off to bed as we have to leave for the airport at 6:00 am to fly from Leeds to Dublin. See you there.

You have to accept the storms and the rainy days and the things in life that you sometimes don’t want to face. — Bai Ling

It’s never too early—NEVER!

TravelPlanning.jpgSorry I haven’t posted in a week. Shame on me. It’s been a busy week with my grandson’s birthday in snowy Wenatchee and our traveling buddy Holly coming north to visit. But I was back in the office again today trying to figure out how to help out an old friend who was looking to take his family of five on a cruise this summer. Here’s their story.

About a week ago this old friend (who is also a client of mine in my other life) sent me an e-mail that said, “My wife and I are thinking of taking an Alaskan cruise all by ourselves and we thought that maybe you have cruised to Alaska and could give us some recommendations.” Immediately after slapping myself on the side of the head for not having told him that we were now in the travel business and that we had cruised to Alaska six times, I offered to help him set it up. So armed with three possible cruises for him out of two different ports, I sent him some numbers. He got back to me right away. Forget Alaska.

He and his wonderful wife had decided that maybe they would take their three teenage kids along after all and not to Alaska but to the Mediterranean. Someplace he had seen an ad for Norwegian (NCL) Cruiseline’s Epic and wondered if I could check on prices for that ship. Of course I could. In fact, I came back to him later that day with pricing on a suite that would fit all five of them or two adjoining/connecting staterooms on the sailing of the NCL Epic he was interested in. After some questioning and answering back and forth they reserved the two side-by-side verandahs that connected. They would take one the the kids the other. We booked their flights through the cruise line and we were good to go…until my friend asked, “Have you been on the Epic?” I replied that I had not but I had been other NCL ships. He was worried about what a friend had mentioned to him about the stateroom bathrooms being “different” on the Epic. I assured him they were the same as every other cruise ship stateroom bathroom. They had to be… didn’t they? Of course as it turns out, they weren’t.

Early the next morning I was lying in bed at about 3:30 wondering, “What if he was right? What if there is some problem with the bathrooms.” I decided to post on the NCL boards on Cruise Critic and see if I could find anything about the Epic bathrooms. When I got to the NCL boards the first thread I see is, “Why does everyone hate the Epic so much?” Yikes! All of a sudden I knew I was in trouble. So I did some more searching (the Internet is a wonderful thing) and found this video that will show you the problem. Or this video which I like even better. Aren’t those bathrooms the stupidest thing you have ever seen? And they definitely would not work for three teenagers when two of them are  17 and 16 year old boys and the other is a 14 year old girl. Not a chance. BTW: I also texted my personal cruise expert, Seth Wayne who told me he and Jason had cruised on the Epic. They had a great cruise but the staterooms were HORRID! (The capitalization was his.)

So we cancelled that cruise. And I went off looking for others that fit my friend’s time frame (June 22-July 15) and the destination they wanted (the Western Mediterranean). I first tried Royal Caribbean (RCL) and they have one of their bigger ships, Oasis of the Seas sailing that route. That ship would be PERFECT for his teens. Lots to do.

The only problem was that there are currently only around 70 staterooms (out of 2742) that are still available. That’s almost five months before the cruise. And none of those fit what we needed—two adjoining staterooms that connected. You see we needed connecting because if parents traveling with kids don’t have connected staterooms, then they are required to have an adult in each stateroom and that wasn’t going to happen. I was able to find them a Star Class suite but the difference in price between the two staterooms on Epic (bad bathroom or not) and the Star class suite on Oasis of the Seas was a little more than $10,000. But it did come with a Royal Genie (I promise to explain this in a future post) and a whole bunch of other cool stuff. But it was still way outside their budget.

Today I booked them in two connecting staterooms on Allure of the Seas for June…2020. And that my friends is the point of this tale of woe. Book early. Book with a refundable deposit if you are worried that you can’t plan that far ahead. But BOOK EARLY! Many of the big cruise ships going to Alaska this summer are already filling up. We (Kathleen and I) have cruises this summer (one to Ireland/Iceland and one to Alaska with the grandkids) that we booked more than 18 months ago. We also have one booked for February 2020 from Fort Lauderdale to New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well as a Christmas market cruise with Viking River Cruises in December of 2020. And I am sure that we will book another on the day it becomes available for the fall of 2021 as well.

Can you still sail on a cruise ship this summer? Of course you can, but you will need to be flexible with your dates and the kind of staterooms you want. If my friend and his wife had been traveling with just the two of them, I could have easily found them something but when you threw in the short time until the sail date, the particular staterooms they needed and trying to book them on a teen-friendly ship, the pickings got really slim. You may find some staterooms open after final payment is due when those staterooms that aren’t paid for or are part of a group being held by a travel agent are released. But if you absolutely want to take a vacation at a particular time, to a particular place, with a particular bunch of people, BOOK EARLY! 

I think three-to-five years ahead minimum. I have a short-term plan, a five-year plan and a decade plan. —Steve Garvey