Big Ship, HUGE Ship! Part 1: Harmony of the Seas

It has been a few years since I have set foot on an (ocean) cruise ship but 2017 brought the opportunity to cruise twice, on two very different ships and experiences.  My first cruise was on the current holder of the largest cruise ship in the world title, Harmony of the Seas, it was a seven night Western Caribbean itinerary during the peak family cruise season in the Caribbean and there were over 2,000 kids onboard.  The second was an exotic Eastern Caribbean cruise on one of our favorite ships, the Celebrity Equinox, an upscale mass market ship.  The Celebrity cruise was nearly twice as long and it was also in the autumn when families with children do not tend to travel, so the demographics skewed much older.

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Harmony of the Seas and Celebrity Equinox docked in Cozumel

So, my first cruise after a 3 year drought,  was on a ship that was completely different from anything I had sailed on before, the Harmony of the Seas.  It was shiny and new and packed with entertainment options.  We booked an ocean view balcony, received only a modest $25 on board credit and did not purchase the very expensive drink package.  We received no other perks or inclusions, towards the end of the cruise, we did break down and purchase some wifi.

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The cabins were a new design for Harmony and they looked beautiful in the photos online as well as in person, it was supposed to feel roomier and I suppose it did but I did not like some aspects of the layout.  The way the bathroom was oriented, you lost that small hallway you typically have upon entering the cabin.  I know this sounds silly but this allowed for more noticeable noise and light to transmit from the hallways and I just did not like the bathroom door facing inward toward the cabin.  Royal Caribbean has also cut back on toiletries in the cabin and this just looks cheap, it is also inconvenient for those who do not want the hassle of having to drag their own.  All you are provided with is bar soap and a dispenser in the shower that I guess is body wash and shampoo in one.

The ship was so large that there was always something new to see and while we are not traditional theater show people, a few of the shows drew us in due to their uniqueness, with one being performed on the ship’s ice rink and the other at the aqua theater located on the stern of the ship.  We were glad we took the time to see the shows, they were spectacular.

Harmony also had an escape room, flow rider, rock climbing wall, mini golf, slides both wet and dry as well as zip lining.  The biggest issue that made most of these features less enjoyable than they could be is the sheer number of kids onboard, which made for terribly long lines.  Many kids were allowed to run around unsupervised so that some of these activities, like the mini golf, became exercises in frustration.  Loud music blaring from neighboring balconies, packs of teenagers running through hallways, etc. were also some things we encountered.  While it did not ruin our experience, we think we would prefer to try this ship again at a time when the demographics are a bit older, it has a lot to offer.

Not having an included drink package limited our desire to sit at the many lounges but I can see where if you had it or are willing to pony up for very expensive drinks, this ship would offer such great evening hangout possibilities.  There are bars and cafes tucked into beautiful garden settings for a more quiet and relaxed vibe or on the more bustling boardwalk and promenade which makes for great people watching and a lively atmosphere.  The food and service onboard was very good and we thought the champagne at dinner and mimosas at breakfast, that were often provided in the dining room, were a really nice touch.  The windjammer buffet was a complete zoo at peak times so we only had one lunch there and snacks one afternoon, what we did have was good though.

The major shortcoming with the Oasis class ships, including the Harmony, is the lack of diversity in the itineraries, 8 day or shorter Eastern and Western Caribbean runs  from the East coast of Florida.  For me the ship is the destination when choosing one of the Oasis class vessels and I wish Royal Caribbean would adopt the Celebrity pricing scheme with included amenities like drink packages and a fair amount of on board credit, at least in the winter season when a more mature crowd like to cruise.  I realize that these ships mainly cater to families with children but they offer a lot for cruisers like myself and could be so much more with more inclusions or a more varied itinerary.

Where it outshines the Celebrity Equinox:  Entertainment and variety of dining and bar venues.  It was actually easier to make reservations and request the same seating area with the My Time dining on Harmony than it was with Celebrity Select dining on Equinox .

Where it falls short of the Equinox:  Somewhat boring itineraries, less inclusive, too many children in the summer months with many unsupervised and behaving badly, skimping on the toiletries in the cabin, new cabin layout is not that desirable.  Buffet was complete chaos and there really is not enough seating for peak times.

 

 

 

 

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St. Augustine Day Tripping

Living in Central Florida provides the perfect opportunity to explore most of the state even if you only have the time and money for a day trip.

This past week, my husband had taken a day off of work for plans that fell through, so we made a last minute decision to make a day trip to St. Augustine in Northeast Florida.  St. Augustine has the distinction of being the US’s oldest continuously inhabited European settlement, having been founded in 1565. It had previously been under both Spanish and British rule, before the foundation of the United States and as you wander the charming, colonial era streets you will notice that much of the old town has beautiful Spanish inspired architecture.

There is an eclectic mix of tourist trap shops, artisans and dining options as well as museums, in the Historic Old Town area and it really is the perfect place to get out and stroll.  We always have to have a popsicle or two from the Hyppo, who makes their pops using fresh fruit, so tasty and refreshing on a hot summer (technically fall) day. This trip we also tried a relatively new restaurant, Prohibition Kitchen, it was pricey for lunch but had really good burgers and we loved the atmosphere.

 

After walking around the Old Town, we decided to stop at San Sebastian Winery for a free tour and wine tasting, before heading home.  San Sebastian winery is only a short distance from the historic Old Town area of St. Augustine and they have some really delicious, sweet muscadine grape wines.  If you have time you could also stop at the nearby St. Augustine Distillery for a complimentary tour and tasting and stick around for cocktails and dinner at the adjacent Ice Plant bar, which from previous experience is very good.

I have only scratched the surface of St. Augustine as this was a rushed trip, if you have more time, you can visit the beach, the lighthouse, take a tour of Castillo de San Marcos (the oldest masonry fort in the continental US,) stay the night and take a ghost tour, shop till you drop at the outlet malls or visit one of the nearby state parks.  Because we had to get back we chose to have dinner on the road, which turned out to be a great idea!

We usually stick to I-4 and I-95 when visiting St. Augustine from our home and the traffic coming through Orlando can be a nightmare….  For this trip home we decided to stay off the interstate as much as possible, this led to us passing through Deland on Highway 44. Using my trusty friend Yelp, I found a great little restaurant offering German food that was only slightly out of our way, Emmy’s Time Out Tavern.  It was a good indication when we pulled up to a full parking lot, the food was great and plentiful, the atmosphere somewhat kitschy in that charming way small town restaurants can be.   The proprietor, Emmy was the icing in the cake, such a nice lady!  It pays to get off the interstate, see more of small town Florida and find great little places like this. We find ourselves doing this type of traveling more often.  It was a great ending to a wonderful day trip.

*Links to a few of the places I have mentioned in this post.
http://www.thehyppo.com/find-us
https://www.prohibitionkitchenstaugustine.com
http://sansebastianwinery.com
http://iceplantbar.com
http://staugustinedistillery.com/tours-rfp/
https://www.facebook.com/emmysrestaurant/

 

 

 

 

2017 WDW EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival Menus and Photos.

We are fortunate to live close to Walt Disney World and the annual EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival is one of my favorite events at the parks, so we visit as often as we can.  Because I find it easier to post the information on my corresponding Facebook travel page, I am including a link.

Here is a link to my Wednesday’s Travels Facebook travel page where I post updates with photos and descriptions of the food that I have tried so far as well as photos of the booth menus.

2017 EPCOT Food & Wine Photos

 

AmaWaterways’ AmaSonata & AmaPrima

I have had the good fortune to (so far) sail onboard two of AmaWaterways’ newer twin balcony ships with another, the AmaStella slated for 2018.  Initially, I decided to try Ama because of the twin balcony cabins but I have since learned, that there are many other reasons to give them a try.  They are top rated by travel and cruise experts such as Berlitz, Cruise Critic, Travel Weekly and many others.  In our experience they have a consistently outstanding crew, with everyone from the Captain and Cruise Director to the dining staff and cabin stewards, always providing professional and friendly service. Another area where they shine is onboard dining.  Ama is a member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious culinary society that is by invitation only,  it shows in the quality of the onboard dining.  I am still missing their eggs benedict for breakfast!  One other great thing I should mention, is that the Ama ships have a shallow draft and sleek profile. This may not seem so great, but it allows them to continue sailing much longer than some of the other river cruise lines, when there are issues with river water levels.  That can be a very big deal if you want to lessen the chance of your dream river cruise becoming a bus trip.

The overall feel of the ships is clean and elegant, both I have sailed have been very well kept, they sparkled like new inside and out.

When you step aboard, you enter on deck three, otherwise known as the Violin deck.  Upon entering you will be in the airy and bright reception lobby, that in addition to the reception desk, boasts an elevator to  take you down to the two decks below.  The elevator is flanked by a spiral staircase for you to use if you would prefer to burn some of your overindulgences off.

Continuing our tour we will walk towards the front of the ship and to the starboard side of the reception desk.  We pass between the gift shop and the beverage center, which includes a few cafe tables to sit and enjoy your coffee or tea.

From here we see the bar on our left and the main lounge ahead of us, this is where you will spend a lot of your time onboard.  The lounge has a buffet area in the center of the room, where snacks and beverages are provided throughout the day, it is also the staging area for continental breakfast items for the early risers as well as more substantial offerings around lunch and dinner.  Comfortable groups of sofas and chairs are positioned around the perimeter of the lounge as well as along the front.  There are floor to ceiling windows along both sides and looking out over an outdoor dining area and the bow of the ship.

We now head back along the port side of the ship toward the stern which brings us by the bar and the library before returning us to the reception lobby.  From there we take the stairs to the Violin deck cabins (they are offset from the public areas of the deck.)

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*Library photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Once we make our way up to the Violin deck cabin area we find ourselves at the Cruise Director and Hotel Manager’s desks.  On our two cruises the Cruise Director was the awesome Rachel!

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From here we continue heading towards the rear of the ship passing through the hallway of the deck three cabin area.  There are five cabin types on this deck, including our AA twin balcony cabin 305.  You will first pass the one AA+ twin balcony and three suites, followed by the AA twin balconies and then the BA twin balconies, with the Category C French balconies at the end of the hallway.

AA Cabin 305

For information and photos on the other AmaSonata cabins (AmaPrima would be the same save colors)

From here we proceed to the aft of the ship on deck three, where the Chef’s Table restaurant is located.  You may have dinner here one night of the cruise and it is complimentary.  I do recommend on itineraries including Budapest, to choose your night there, the views are spectacular!

Leaving the Chef’s Table, just forward of it’s entrance,  you will see the entrances to the Gym on one side and the massage room/hair salon on the other.

*Salon Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

From here we will take the aft staircase down to deck two, the Cello deck.  The section of deck two aft of the elevator and main staircase is only made up of cabins, starting with Category C French balconies farthest aft, followed by BB twin balconies, category AB twin balconies and finally finishing with a few more BB’s at the farthest position forward.  I am including a photo of our BB cabin from the AmaPrima, you can see the link above for photos of the other cabin types.

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So we find ourselves now back at the elevator and main staircase,on the deck two cabin area landing.  From here we take the stairs down to the deck two forward area, where the main restaurant is located, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here daily, have I mentioned their eggs benedict??

If we leave and return to the elevator and stairs we can either go down to level one, the Piano deck, here we will only find a cabin corridor, this corridor is first occupied by Category D fixed window cabins, with Category E fixed window cabins farther aft.  Instead, we will go up to deck three reception lobby, from here we can step outside through large sliding glass doors on either side of the ship.  Here we will find stairs leading to the Sun deck, which is the large outdoor deck on the top of the ship.  The sun deck is home to a decently sized, heated outdoor pool with swim up bar.  There are also comfortable seating areas, a walking track, large outdoor chess game and the wheelhouse.  I imagine this will be a great place to hang out in the warmer months, like my July 2018 cruise!  So far I have only sailed the Christmas market itineraries, which are just magical but brrrrrrrrrrr……….

*Pool photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Cruising on  one of the AmaWaterways’ twin balcony ships is a great way to see Europe.   I cannot wait for my next cruise, right now it seems so far away!  Oh, and did I mention how much I love their eggs benedict?  Stay tuned and I will do a writeup on AmaWaterways’ dining.

 

 

If Vienna during the Christmas holidays is not on your bucket list, it should be.

It is HOT, HOT, HOT here in Florida so I’m thinking, how about some Christmas in July?  Let’s make it one of my favorite cities at Christmastime, Vienna!  I just can’t even describe how incredibly beautiful the Christmas lights in Vienna are, how awe inspiring it is to walk along the Graben towards Stephansplatz under the giant, sparkling chandeliers while gazing around to all the varying light displays adorning the other streets we pass.  It is the most beautiful and festive display I believe I have ever witnessed.  A great way to visit Vienna and other cities along the Danube with festive markets, is on a river cruise, we visited with AmaWaterways, our favorite river cruise line.

 

 

In addition to the gorgeous Christmas lights on display there are multiple unique Christmas markets to visit.  I have not visited them all but I have visited several, each having it’s own distinctive feel, unique crafts and charm.

I’ll start with the largest, the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt, located in front of Vienna town hall, it is a large and at night a very crowded market with row upon row of booths selling everything from gluhwein and authentic handicrafts to Chinese made, mass market trinkets  (although they have cut down on the amount of stands hocking these wares.)  This market has quite a presence with the town hall lit in the background and the large Christmas light displays adorning the entrance.

 

 

A new market for me visiting this past Christmas and perhaps my favorite so far in Vienna, was the Karlsplatz Art Advent Christmas market.  It is a smaller and less crowded market with the beautiful Karlskirche as a backdrop. They had a stage set up for live music and many vendors selling delicious treats including raclette, which is a personal favorite of mine.  The quality of the items for sale here is very good overall, a lot of really nice and unique handicrafts.

 

 

The last two markets that I have visited are the market at Schonbrunn palace and the market at Maria Theresien-Platz, these are both smaller markets again with beautiful landmarks as the backdrop.  The Maria Theresien-Platz market also had a cool projection light show to add to the festive feel.

 

                            Schonbrunn Market

 

                            Maria Theresien-Platz

 

These are only the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit, there are others in this great city that I am sure are very worth the visit if you have time.

There are so many other wonderful things about Vienna, it is such a charming city.  I cannot imagine any better place to spend some time during the Christmas holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Part 1)

I had intended to visit during the passholder preview, that was given before the official opening on May 27th, but I missed the email invitation (thanks to Gmails “helpful” filters) and by the time I saw it, it was much too late to get on the list.  There was no way I was going anywhere near Animal Kingdom on opening day, which happened to fall over the Memorial Day weekend, so we decided to visit a few days later.  It was still crazy busy but not the 4 hour plus lines of opening day.  We planned to visit later in the evening and ride the attraction with the shortest wait time, which happens to consistently be the Na’vi River Journey.

Here are a few photos of the walk into Pandora, which during the day looks much like the rest of Animal Kingdom with it’s lush, tropical landscaping and sculpted concrete hardscape.

 

The stated wait time for the Na’vi River Journey was 105 minutes, this ended up being an excruciating 150 minutes, a reminder to not always trust the wait times…  So, we grabbed a cold beverage and a “Fruits of Mo’ara” Raspberry, lime and strawberry popsicle from a cart by where the loooooong line for the ride was queued, to help cool off.

The theming in the main covered queueing area was quite nice and the occasional fans and water bottle refill station were a nice touch.

At loooooonnnnggggg last we finally made it to the ride!  It was short and there really is no story line like Pirates of the Caribbean but it is very beautiful and the animatronics were absolutely lifelike.

 

And of course, this being Florida in the summer, when we got off of the ride it was FLOODING and STORMING!  I can tell you that there are not enough covered areas in this part of the park when it rains and being shooed out of nearly any available shelter in the middle of an active thunderstorm,  by park employees, made me quite angry.  Anyway the rain eventually dwindled and I was able to get a few shots of Pandora at night which is just beautiful with the black lights and glowing paint.

We spent some time in the very crowded Satu’li Canteen waiting on the rain to diminish, I tried a Pandoran Sunrise while we were there which was pretty good.  The food here looks great and we plan on trying it when we go back on Thursday to ride Avatar Flight of Passage so stay tuned for my next Pandora post!

Szentendre, worth a visit if you have time.

Embarkation day for our cruise had arrived but we had a few plans, with our guide Gabriella, to take care of first.  We planned to make a half day visit to Szentendre with a stop at the Roman ruins of aquincum on the way.

The drive to Szentendre took us over the Danube to the Buda side and through parts of Budapest we otherwise might never have seen,  areas developed under the rule of communism with sprawling utilitarian housing blocks alongside modern department stores and with a spattering of some much, much older construction, the remnants of Roman occupation.  Gabriella explained some of the hardships of living in the sprawling communist structures, such as having very small living quarters and a centralized heating system, that was turned on and off by the government and of which you had no control over whatsoever.

The scattered Roman ruins we passed were once part of Aquincum, the capital of Roman occupied Hungary, which at the time was called Pannonia.  Hungary was under Roman rule from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.  Aquincum was a town of about 15,000 people and the main excavation site can be visited along with a museum, I was disappointed that it was not open the day we were there but we did stop to look at the excavated ruins from the street.

Once we were past Aquincum things started to get a bit more rural, we were leaving Budapest and the remaining drive to Szentendre was short, which makes it a great option for a half day trip.

Szentendre has been settled since Roman times but was destroyed in the Mongol and Ottoman invasions in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was rebuilt in the 17th century so most of the historic buildings are in the Baroque style and it is really very pretty.   When we arrived we were dropped on the outskirts and walked to the main square, it was a leisurely stroll through the winding cobblestone streets with so many photo opportunities.

Once you get closer to the main square there are many interesting shops with local artists and Hungarian made goods.  We would explore this area but first we made the climb up to the Saint Janos church to take in it’s lofty views, on the way back down we met a couple of friendly and furry locals.

We made our way back to the town square for a look around and more importantly shopping and eating!  We hit the small Christmas market first and I decided to try a Hungarian pizza called Langallo, it was so good!  After that we spent the rest of our  limited time shopping and ended up with a pottery sculpture, a Hungarian leather handbag and Christmas ornaments made from handpainted eggs.

It was time to head back to Budapest, we had a ship to catch!  We walked down to the waterfront.  Szentendre lies on the Danube and the promenade along the river reminds you of somewhere in the south of France, which come to think of it a lot of the town reminded me of Southern France.

If you have a couple of days in Budapest and want to see something different, I highly recommend a trip to Szentendre.  I do hear that it gets very crowded in the summer with locals and tourists alike flocking there.