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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ahhhhh Budapest… the city that positively glows! (part 2)

I left off on my previous post having just visited Buda Castle we took a walk around the cobblestone streets of Castle Hill, here is another place we could have spent so much more time and only skimmed the surface by not actually buying admission or taking tours of the various things to see here.  Next time…

A few of the things to see here aside from the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias church are the Castle Labyrinth, a museum dedicated to Harry Houdini, the Hospital in the Rock and more.  I know the Matthias church and Fisherman’s Bastion is the big attractions here and what you always see in photos and you will be wondering why I don’t have photos.  This tour was to see things that would not be covered with our AmaWaterways tour and their tour covers these things so this part of Budapest will be revisited.

 

 

Our next stop was Gellert Hill and the Liberty Statue that can be seen prominently up on top.  According to Gabriella the locals call it the bottle opener and generally find it a tacky remainder from the communist era…I searched all over for a liberty statue bottle opener, after learning this bit of trivia but was unsuccessful, I think someone could make a nice profit on those!  More stunning panoramas were to be found up here and in one of them we got our first glimpse of the AmaSonata, the ship we would be boarding tomorrow.

 

 

While at Gellert Hill we visited the Cave Church followed by the Gallert Baths, for a quick peek and to have a light lunch in their cafe.  The Baths are just beautiful and as I mentioned before I want to try one of them when we visit again.  The views of the Danube and Pest are beautiful here even at the base of Gellert Hill.

 

 

So it’s winter and the days are short, it probably looks like it is getting late but there are still a few hours left in the tour and a few more things to see.  We headed to see parliament,  there we saw the bullet holes from the 1956 uprising and witnessed a spectacular sunset.  Nearby, we also saw the  very beautiful monument to Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister during the 1956 revolution against the Soviet Union that ended with him being executed for treason.  We also saw the US embassy (which is surrounded by ugly fences these days) and the Weeping Willow holocaust monument at the Dohany Street Synagogue.  I even got to get my photo with President Ronald Reagan, well sadly, just a bronze statue erected in his honor.

 

 

We also got to see the very controversial new memorial to the 1944 Nazi occupation of Hungary, many people (including our guide Gabriella) see it as falsely portraying Hungary as an innocent party to the holocaust, when they were allied with Germany during the war.

 

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On a more lighthearted note,  by now it is almost completely dark so we are heading back to the Pest side of the Danube to visit the Opera House, the Christmas Market at the Basilica and then a visit to a less touristy place, Gabriella’s favorite bookstore and a place she goes when she is not showing off her beautiful city.  The Opera House is just beautiful, ornate but with tile mosaic floors patterned after those found at the Roman ruins of Aquincum.

 

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Almost to the end of the day!  We parted ways with Gabriella until tomorrow, it was time for dinner at Rezkakas Bistro and some rest….well rest after a second visit to the Christmas markets, both at the basilica  and Vorosmarty Square and a walk along the Danube back to the Intercontinental.

Rezkakas Bistro is a short walk from the Intercontinental and had good food but it was pricey.

 

 

Budapest at night is breathtaking, the Christmas markets sparkle and the buildings along the Danube glow.

 

 

I will try to wrap up Budapest with one more post, we will see how that goes….

 

 

 

Ahhhhh Budapest… the city that positively glows! (part 1)

e20161204_071911Photo taken on our first morning in Budapest from our room at the Intercontinental.

We had arranged well in advance for two tours with Gabriella of Private tours Budapest, the first was a full day in Budapest with a van, the second (which I will elaborate on in another post) was a half day to the lovely town of Szentendre the morning of our embarkation on the AmaSonata.  The Budapest tour with Gabriella was to cover mainly things we would not see with Ama’s tour, that I will discuss in a later post.

I feel that I was too ambitious with my list of sites to visit, Budapest offers so much that you either need to spend a few days there or just pick a handful, of what you feel are the most important things, to see.  Gabriella was a terrific guide and did her best to accommodate our wishes but we ended up really seeing only the surface of things with not much detail, again this was my fault for being too ambitious…oh well, I guess this just means I will have to make another visit!

e20161204_083708You cannot beat this view!

After a somewhat expensive (but delicious!) breakfast at the hotel, we were met by Gabriella in the lobby of the Intercontinental and shown to the  van that would escort us around the city today.  From there we proceeded to our first stop, a visit one of the thermal baths that Budapest is so famous for, the Szechenyi thermal baths.  The drive through the Pest side of the city to reach Szechenyi took us past many beautiful buildings and structures such as Heroes Square.  We only took a look inside the baths and did not actually buy admission and go for a swim. We had initially planned to do this on our own but our time was so limited due to the flight delay and missing a half day that it just didn’t happen.  I also wanted to do the outdoor baths and maybe fear of going out in that kind of cold in a swimsuit played a part in the decision to save the baths for the next trip.

After visiting the thermal bath (next time I will get in!) we walked to Castle Vajdahunyad, a 19th century castle built for the Millennial exhibition to showcase Hungarian architecture of different historical periods, the grounds are very beautiful and it is here that you can find the statue Anonymous.  An added bonus was seeing the large outdoor skating rink that is it’s neighbor.

It was still morning and we had a very long list so once we were back onboard the van, we headed next to the House of Terror museum, which showcases the plight of the Hungarian people while under communist leadership and the atrocities that were bestowed upon them.  This is another of the stops where we merely scratched the surface as we did not have time to do the full admission tour of the museum. One thing I did learn at the House of Terror museum, besides the fact that people regularly disappeared in the middle of the night sometimes never to be seen again,  is that my birthday is a national holiday in Hungary (National Day) commemorating an uprising against the communists in 1956 and Hungary becoming a free republic in 1989.

Onward to our next stop,  did I mention that we had a lot of ground to cover?  We headed over the Danube to Buda (Budapest is actually one city formed from two, Buda and Pest) to visit Buda castle, try some Hungarian strudel (one of our group was brave enough to try the poppy seed strudel which, to be honest,  looked like mud) and watch the changing of the guards.  As with most of the landmarks on the Buda side, it came with stunning panoramic views over the Danube and Pest.

This seems like a good stopping point, I will pick up on the remainder of our day with Gabriella with my next blog post.  Stay Tuned!

Danube Christmas Markets with AmaWaterways December 2016. The adventure getting there!

After many long months of planning….

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I decided to set up a group for this cruise after doing a similar cruise on AmaWaterways’ AmaPrima in 2014, more than a year out I held space for the December 5th sailing onboard the AmaSonata, requested the cruise director  (and new friend) from the 2014 cruise, Rachel and began looking for fellow travelers.  I eventually ended up with five additional travelers in addition to my husband and myself, a small group I know,  but this was my first time undertaking such an endeavor.  Little did we know just how much fun we would have, well maybe we had an idea!

When your best laid plans are derailed by yet another strike…..   

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Yes, this is us just departing MCO and just late enough that we will miss our connection in FRA.  

I should have learned my lesson in 2014 when we nearly had our trip interrupted by a Lufthansa strike.  The thing is, Lufthansa has the best schedules from our home airport to that part of Europe and they had a great rate when booked with Ama for their premium economy so we decided to give them another chance, we would not be so lucky this time.  Fast forward to December 2nd A.K.A departure day, Lufthansa’s pilots have been on strike for over a week now but has just ended, oh good I think, we will be fine!  Not so fast, lingering delays as a result of the strike pushed the incoming flight from Germany out several hours or just long enough that we would not make our connection.  At least the flight in Premium economy was relatively comfortable.

 

Despite there being multiple flights from FRA to BUD we could only get seats on the last departure of the night. What this meant, was nine long hours sitting in FRA and arriving into BUD at nearly midnight instead of the midday arrival we had planned, but at least FRA is a really nice airport for being stranded in and we were given enough vouchers to have a nice German dinner at one of the best airport restaurants I have eaten at.

So, we did our nine hours in purgatory and finally departed for our destination, Budapest!  We made it to our hotel sometime after midnight, this long anticipated trip could finally begin in earnest.