I was going through some old photographs of past trips, ones from my early years in the travel business, and thought that some of our experiences from those trips would be of interest. This blog is going to be dedicated to what I have learned and loved for over 25 years.
1) ROYAL CARIBBEAN, NORDIC EMPRESS, 3-NIGHT CRUISE – My first 2 cruises were on the then, brand new Nordic Empress (later renamed the Empress of the Seas). We were excited as our transfer bus brought us closer to the big, bright cruise ship, still in her inaugural year. It was love at first sight. From the enormous welcome aboard cafe, to the smooth ride, to the harbor of Nassau in the Bahamas and finally the cruise line’s private island of Coco Cay, we enjoyed every minute. The food and service were excellent as was the entertainment. We visited the Queen’s Staircase, Fort Charlotte and Ardastra Gardens with its famous trained, marching flamingos before returning to Miami. From that day, we knew that cruising was the best vacation and also, that 3-nights is not enough!
2) CROWN CRUISE LINE, CROWN JEWEL, 7-NIGHT CRUISE – We were so excited to be going on the inaugural cruise of the newest ship of a new cruise line. We were the second two people in line to board, between two couples traveling together. (We struck up on conversation while waiting to board and ended up being “pen pals” for several years.) Ths ship was beautiful and each woman was presented with a long stemmed rose and everyone was given a glass of champagne. The cruise was to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, with a cruise-by of the island of San Salvadore, where her first landed, and then San Juan, St. Thomas and Nassau. The trip was a far cry short of what we had expected. The weather was beautiful and we were lucky to be sitting at the next table from the people we met in line. We enjoyed the ports of call. The food was awful, the service was bad and most of the passengers were not much fun. The entertainment was excellent however and the captain was a serious yet cordial. Our first visit to San Juan was a highlight. We enjoyed walking through Old San Juan and visiting El Morro, the famous fort that welcomes visitors to the island. In the evening we went to El San Juan Hotel and Casino and the atmosphere was almost magical. Our excursion was to enjoy the flamenco show performed by the National Ballet of Spain, a special treat for the anniversary of the island’s discovery and it was a fantastic show with colorful costumes and a lot of energy. The hotel complex is also a destination in itself, from the tiki birds in the gardens leading to the beach, the shops, and the many themed show and dining rooms. Our next stop was Charlotte Amalie on the US Virgin Island of St. Thomas. Being our first time there, we opted to take a shore excursion that we booked on board the ship. We visited the peak of a high mountain overlooking the harbor and then “Mountain Top”, which is reputed to be the birthplace of the daquiri and which overlooks the the beautiful Megan’s Bay. Then we had time to visit the shopping area. Of course, shopping is the main reason most people go to St. Thomas. Jewelry, cameras, cosmetics are the best bargains there. Finally we sailed off towards the Bahamas, where we just strolled the main street along the water. A couple of days at sea were included along the way which we used to just relax and enjoy the sun and the music out on deck. This cruise line went out of business about a year later. It was not a surprise, although, in spite of the service and the food, we still enjoyed the cruise and, of course, kept on cruising. In fact, after this cruise, I made my decision to pursue the travel business and here I am still today, doing what I love!
3) REGENT HOLIDAYS, EPIROTIKI CRUISE LINE, TRITON, 7-NIGHT CRUISE – This tour company offered a charter flight and cruise on the ship that they chartered for the winter season. It was an older “classic” cruise ship that was more of a budget trip, and focused on the ports rather than the onboard experience. Having said that, the food was more homestyle than gourmet – filling and good, just not fancy. The service was adequate and the entertainment was good. We got to visit so many wonderful places in the Caribbean. We woke up in a new place every morning. We flew into Barbados, but didn’t get to tour there due to weather delays in Toronto, where our flight originated. It was so cold the day we left that the fuel pipes beneath the tarmac froze and the planes couldn’t get refueled quickly enough. We visited Trinidad where we saw a fantastic, spirited folkloric show, the ABC islands of Aruba, where we visited the beach and desert areas and the well-known natural archway and divi-divi trees, Bonaire and Curacao. We also visited the Dominican Republic and Caracas, Venezuela, where we took tours to see the historic districts and cities. We had a lot to talk about on the flight back to Toronto and we were happy to have had that week-long vacation in the Southern Caribbean to escape the sub-zero weather back home. Note: Epirotiki Cruise Line merged with Sun Line and then became Royal Olympia, all now out of business. Regent Holidays, a tour company out of Canada merged into Transat Holidays.
4) MAJESTY CRUISE LINE, ROYAL MAJESTY, 7-NIGHT BERMUDA CRUISE – This was yet another inaugural season cruise and it was our favorite so far. The ship sailed round-trip from Boston, which is an easy port from which to sail. She was a beautiful vessel – all gleaming white with a lot of brass and glass and beautiful teak decks. The officers and the crew were gracious towards the passengers and very serious seamen. The food was second to none and the experienced dining staff attentive and efficient. The entertainment was also excellent. We enjoyed a full day at sea before arriving in St. George’s Bermuda the following afternoon. St. George’s is a favorite as it is quaint and quiet. It is where you get to see the “trial” of the gossiping, nagging housewife and her ultimate punishment, a few dips into the water on the ducking stool. The streets are nice to stroll and there are horse and carriage rides if you like. Then we had a full day in Bermuda which we used to tour by taxi. All taxi drivers in Bermuda are also certified tour guides. We saw the perfumery and its adjoining gardens, we saw the country club with its lavish homes, home to the rich and famous, we saw amazing views of the water and coral formations. That evening, we were fortunate to be in port during “harbor night” when a steel drum band was playing in the square, just across from our ship and people were dancing in the square. It was like a tropical paradise in the warm Bermuda night air. The next day we went to the beach, not one of the renowned pink sand beaches, but a small beach protected by a semi-circle of coral where no sharks could enter. The last day was another half day in St. George’s, where the ship remained docked for the duration of our stay there. We just walked around the town. Back on board, we had our lunch and then sailed away from our new favorite destination. We had another full day at sea before returning to Boston and our flight home. The day started out with a bridge tour and while we were there, the 2nd officer was watching the radar screen and spotted a group of dolphins just off the port side of the bow and we all ran to look out of the windows. He explained that they like to frolic in the foam the ship’s prow creates. Later, while lounging on the deck, I got up to look for whales. I could see their spouts off in the distance but as I looked closer to the ship, a saw a small wake in the glass-like ocean and realized that it was the fin of a shark. Afterwards, we dressed for our last dinner and said our good-byes. It was the perfect vacation and it was coming to an end. But we took comfort in knowing that it would not be our last and in fact, we took one more on this ship the following year as it was being transitioned to become part of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet. We enjoyed that equally as well.
5) HOLLAND AMERICA LINE, WESTERDAM, 7-NIGHT CARIBBEAN CRUISE – We sailed on the original Westerdam from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean. Our cruise took us to San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau. For all but St. Maarten, we opted to just walk around on our own since we had already visited these places before. In St. Maarten, we took a taxi tour around the island, which gave us time on the French side in the charming seaside town of Marigot. It has the feel of the French Riviera and a nice outdoor market selling the usual t-shirts and trinkets to some more fashionable merchandise. The market was just across the street from the water. A little further along the coast we passed a plain where salt was being extracted. On the Dutch side of the island you find casinos, a variety of souvenir shops and other tourist attractions. St. Martin/St. Maarten also is famous for its beaches. Be forewarned, that several beaches are clothing optional including the famous Orient Bay Beach. In San Juan, we just strolled along the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city, browsed some of the shops and galleries of local artists and enjoyed the ambiance. In St. Thomas, we took the complimentary shuttle into the shopping district where we found some great deals on quality jewelry. (Our favorite is Cardow). Nassau is another place we just browsed the street along the water and visited the famous Straw Market where you can find t-shirts and trinkets and of course, all kinds of things made of straw and even see some of the vendors busily created straw goods. The Westerdam that we sailed is no longer in service and has now been replaced with a new Westerdam.
6) MSC OPERA – 7-NIGHT CARIBBEAN – This was yet another inaugural season and it was when MSC was new to the North American market. The ship has a very tasteful decor with a bit of Italian flare. The food was excellent and for the most part, the service was, too. We were onboard as part of a travel agent group meant to introduce us to the product which was still pretty much unknown here. As a result, our input was requested as to how to make the ship more desirable to Americans. We did offer a few suggestions and guests that we booked later reported back to us that those items were incorporated into the experience. The highlight was a day at a private island complete with watersports, beach games such as volleyball, a barbecue lunch, bar service, walking and swimming. We visited Georgetown, Grand Cayman, known for its many beaches and sea turtle experience, but most of all as a town that caters to the more affluent travelers. We did some window shopping at the upscale boutiques. Another port we visted was Cozumel, Mexico, where we took an excursion on a submarine to see the coral reefs and aquatic life below the surface and then browsed the streets filled with shops, cafes and bars. Next we arrived at Roatan, Honduras, an island off the coast of its nation, known for its superb diving. We took a brief tour of the area around getting views of its magnificent topography – green mountains and valley surrounded by the sea and then we went to a beach surrounded by beautiful resorts. Another port we called on was Key West with its laid back charm. We went to Eisenhower’s Little White House, the Southernmost Point and the charming area near the pier. We also visited Nassau, Bahamas on this cruise.
7) CRUISES – Since many of the ports are already mentioned above, I will only say that we have experienced several other ships and cruise lines, either by cruise or by touring them. Some like Premier and it’s Big Red Boats, are no longer in existence, others are still around. Rest assured that we have a vast amount of experience not only in selling travel, but actual hands-on experience. We’ve learned the ins and outs of cruising and cruise ships so that we can offer you advice based on those experiences and help you to pick the right vacation.
8) ALL-INCLUSIVE, MAYAN RIVIERA – Nestled behind the jungle of of the Yucatan Peninsula, lies the area of Playacar, a gated resort area encompassing several resorts and golf venues. It is just outside the town of Playa del Carmen and across the water from Cozumel, serviced by the Cancun airport. While Cancun is more of a hotel strip, this is a more intimate and private area. The beaches are pristine and the weather tropical. House liquors and Mexican been are served freely and there is nightly entertainment, which, in many cases is to European taste rather than American, but still a good way to relax in the evening. The main activity is on the beach or in the large pools. Swimming and volleyball are the daily fare. The major attractions nearby generally relate to ancient Mayan ruins. We visited Xcaret, an eco-archiological site. Our excursion took us there in the evening where we were taken to various little coves to see ancient rituals – a bird dance and a fire dance which were enhanced by the cover of dusk under the thick foliage. We then saw an old ball game which you just have to see for yourself. It was very entertaining. Our evening ended with a folkloric show packed full of traditional dancing, music and skills. The following day brought us back to Xcaret for a day to explore the park on our own. We saw a butterfly sanctuary, some small Mayan ruins, a swim with dolphins area, a winding river for inner-tubing, and an underground river that you can swim through with snorkel gear. It was a relaxing and enjoyable experience. My feelings on the all-inclusive is that it is for beach lovers mostly and that sunshine is very important. To get from one place to the next requires walking outside so rain can put a damper on things, but with food and drinks included in the price, I know people will still be able to enjoy their time there, and perhaps get in on some of the spa services.
9) FRANCE – SELF-DRIVING TOUR – We are not ones to like to drive on vacation, but I have to say, that in France, for the most part, driving is not stressful. The roads are well-marked and the drivers courteous. We flew into Paris and stayed one night near the Eiffel Tower. We walked the area near the tower that evening. The highlight was the glittering tower as, every hour on the hour, the lights twinkle for a few minutes. The next day, we only had half a day to spend since our trip was actually to tour the Loire Valley and Normandy so we took a hop-on, hop-off bus and got off at Notre Dame Cathedral. We stood in a long line to visit the tower and its amazing view of the city. The inside of the Cathedral was one of the most impressive of the many houses of worship we have seen during our travels. We strolled a little along the banks of the Seine, rode the bus down the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe, and many other sights of Paris. Then we got into our rental car and drove to Bloise. The next morning we toured the enormous Chateau and in the afternoon we drove to our next destination, which actually was along a bicycle route. We visited little inns and castles along the river, including Cheverney, Chenonceux, Chambord, to name a few. Each was unique and beautiful. We ended our tour of the Loire in Nantes where we took a boat ride along the Cher River to see the “Follies” or the summer homes of nobility. We toured the wonderful castle with its famous Apocolypse Tapestry which stretched across several wall surfaces and was incredible to view. Finally, we headed north towards the English Channel and Normandy. Our drive took us through beautiful green countryside as we made our way towards the historical beaches and towns. Upon arrival in Caen, we visited the Peace Museum which, although inspired by the war that took place on the grounds where it now stands, is dedicated to peace. It has artifacts from World War II and the Cold War and behind the museum you will find beautiful gardens donated and maintained by some of the nations that participated in the D-Day invasion. The next day we spent on a tour of the D-Day landing sites along the Normandy beaches. The most moving experience was standing in the US Cemetery among the seemingly endless rows of crosses and stars of David marking the final resting places of the brave souls who lost their lives during the invasion. Afterwards, we headed to our final stop before heading back to the Paris airport – Deauville. The seaside towns along the way were lovely as was Deauville itself. Beautiful and well maintained buildings, docks with sailboats anchored for the fall and flowers were visible everywhere. Our accomodations were at a golf resort overlooking the channel. On the walls of the public rooms were photos of all the famous guests that had stayed there. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that we had some fantastic food and wine during our stay from breakfasts at the inns, to street food, market fare and sit-down meals and always included local specialties and local wines. All said, it was a vacation that gave us two kinds of experiences – the royal and the emotional. Yes, see Paris, but also, we highly recommend a tour of the Loire Valley and Normandy when you visit France.