Caribbean

The Towel Animals

The Towel Animals

Not long ago, we were on a Caribbean cruise aboard the Carnival Breeze. One morning, we awoke to a sight that we’ve never seen before on a ship.

If you’ve been on a cruise, you’ve most likely seen the Towel Animals. They appear in your cabin, either in the evening as you enjoy your evening meal, or in the mornings as your cabin steward cleans. But have you ever seen the entire ship completely inundated by these critters?

That’s what we found on this particular morning as we passed the main pool on Deck 10 on our way to breakfast. And admittedly, it wasn’t the entire ship, but instead a good portion of Deck 10 around the main pool, but it was still impressive.

Towel Animals were everywhere on Deck 10 near the pool as we made our way to breakfast aboard the Carnival Breeze.
Posted by Donald Fink in blog, Cruising, Video, 0 comments
First Impressions of the Celebrity Silhouette

First Impressions of the Celebrity Silhouette

It’s always fun to cruise on a new ship, and in a lot of ways, even more fun to cruise on a new cruise line. This time we boarded the Celebrity Silhouette in Miami for a seven night trip around the eastern Caribbean. Silhouette is owned by Royal Caribbean, so were we Wowed? Was it better, the same, or a disappointment from our former experiences? Take a look at what we found:

The Boarding Process

One of the things that instantly impressed us was the fact that, since we have a certain status aboard Royal Caribbean, and since Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity, our status was transferred over to Celebrity. For us, we didn’t get much out of the deal, but then again, our status isn’t all that impressive to begin with. But it was fun to be able to board a little early. For some of our cruising friends out there, this could be important since the higher you go, the more you’re recognized. Unfortunately, our stay aboard the Celebrity ship did not increase our status with Royal Caribbean, but did count toward Celebrity. Confusing right?

What We Found

The Hideaway aboard the Celebrity Silhouette

The Hideaway is a quiet spot to relax. If you need a book, there’s a wide selection to choose from. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

We’re used to big ships. If you’ve read any of our other posts, you might remember that we go in for the Wow factor of the Royal Caribbean Oasis, Anthem, and Freedom class ships. We like the big interior promenade.

The Celebrity Silhouette is much smaller. Instead of up to 6,000 guests like some of the monster sized boats, Silhouette carries something closer to 2700. Not small by any reasonable standard, but still much smaller than the huge new ships from Royal Caribbean.

We found the Silhouette to be a classy, well maintained and modern ship with all the amenities we needed. Our room was as big and comfortable as most ships we’ve been on, and even better than some. There were adequate power plugs in the room and we were able to spread out and get things put away the way we like with ample stowage and storage. We were not able to score a kettle for heating water like we usually do on Royal Caribbean, but we were able to use the TV to watch our shows that we brought along on our hard drive.

The ship is reasonably new too. First cruise was in 2012 and she continues to be in good repair and modern in design. We especially liked the design of the buffet restaurant, the Oceanview Café, but more on that later.

Dining

The Grand Cuvee Dining Room

The two deck Grand Cuvee Dining Room. Photo by Donald Fink.

Celebrity uses a dining plan similar to most other cruise ships. You can elect to have an assigned dining table at a specific time each night, or you can reserve a time, even different each night if you want. You can also just walk in to the dining room and get the first available table. You set these options up when you lock in your cruise reservations.

In the classic dining plan, you are assigned a table, along with other cruisers. You may or may not know these folks, depending on your circumstance. 

Excursions

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro

As you enter the harbor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, you’ll see the famous fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro on your left. If you’re on a cruise and happen to stop in Puerto Rico, this is a must-see shore excursion. Photo by Donald Fink.

At the risk of sounding a bit jaded, we usually don’t go on shore excursions when we’re in the Caribbean. It’s not that we have anything against the Caribbean, it’s just that we’ve been travelling in the region for literally decades. There aren’t many things we haven’t seen.

The exception is that when there’s an excuse to scuba dive, we’re there. On this trip we made a shore excursion in St. Thomas to dive a local spot, and while the area has recently been through a major hurricane, we found it to be a good choice. The dive operators were professional and attentive and provided a good diving experience.

This cruise stopped in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of the classic day tours for this stop is the fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This is an interesting stop, and it’s also a National Park under the US Park Service, so things are a bit familiar in terms of signage, rules, and so forth. It’s also rumored that this fort served as an inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. 


In this video you can enjoy a few minutes of our impression of the Celebrity Silhouette. Video and Stills by Don and Bonnie Fink.

As we mentioned before, this was our first time cruising aboard a ship from the Celebrity fleet. We have seen the ships many times before as they docked in ports next to other cruises we were on, but we’d never been aboard one.

In a lot of ways, the experience was what we expected because, while cruise lines differ, they are really more alike than they are different. The room was the high quality we expect for a cruise line of this type, the food was better than most, and the amenities aboard the ship seems to be comparable to any modern ship of this size. If this one ship is any judge of the total Celebrity line, they are staying relevant in the 21st century of cruising.

The final question is, will we cruise on Celebrity again? The simple answer is, of course we will. When we find a cruise that goes where we want, when we want, and it happens to be a Celebrity line ship, we won’t hesitate.

 

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, Cruising, 2 comments
Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa

Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa

What’s the difference between a cruise and an all-inclusive resort? That could be a question that has a great deal of importance for some of us, so we checked out an all-inclusive Sandals Resort and Spa on the island of Antigua.

Sandals, as you may know, is a relatively well known and popular destination resort that owns and manages resorts all over the Caribbean and even into the Mediterranean. They feature all-inclusive destination stays in a luxury style that can only be approached by luxury cruise ships. Let’s see what they have to offer:

What are the Rooms Like?

Caribbean Premium Honeymoon Room at Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa

The rooms are comfortable at Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa. Photo by Donald Fink.

There are several kinds of rooms at the Sandals Grande Antigua. Our room was called a Caribbean Honeymoon Premium, but you could get others with a variety of features. There was a tower that provided more hotel-like rooms, but there were also beach front rooms called Mediterranean one bedroom butler villas that featured their own private plunge pools and butlers. Pretty much any level of comfort was available. 

Our room was a single room with a patio overlooking a garden view. It included a king size bed, a fridge stocked with drinks, and a coffee maker as well as a kettle for heating water. There was an air conditioner and a fan, so controlling the temperature was not a problem.

It was central to the amenities, about a minute’s walk to the lobby and even closer to the beach. There was a covered porch too. Overall it was roomy and comfortable.

If absolute luxury is on your mind, there are rooms available that include a bedroom, living area, private plunge pool, private spa, and a butler. The butler seems to do all kinds of things, including serve drinks and meals, and making reservations at restaurants, or securing lounge chairs at the beach. The experience is of course more expensive, but the treatment appears to be world class. And if you don’t mind being pampered, why not?

What’s Included?

Bayside Restaurant, Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa

Guests enjoy breakfast in the open air Bayside Restaurant; a comfortable covered setting with the waves lapping at the beach as you enjoy your meal. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

Pretty much everything is included. At Sandals Grand Antigua, there are over 10 restaurants, and all of them are included in the price. Actually, they mention 11 restaurants, but one of them is a hot dog stand near the main pool. But if you like hot dogs, that should count too, right?

All drinks at the resort are included. Yes. All of them, and that’s where Sandals seems to get really competitive with cruising in terms of price. An average drink package on a cruise ship can cost $55.00 US per day per person. At Sandals, that’s part of the experience. And while we don’t have firsthand experience with the quality of the alcohol, the people in our group didn’t appear to be complaining. Beer was mostly local, but many of the wines were from the Napa Valley in California, and the hard liquor seemed to be labels we recognized. Coffee and tea was available too.

Our room had both a coffee pot and a kettle for heating water, as well as a completely stocked fridge with water, soft drinks, and juices. Some of the rooms had a mini bar included too.

Are There Beaches?

Beach view at Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa

At Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and spa, the white sand beaches stretched the length of the resort. Beaches here are public, but Sandals provides chairs and umbrellas exclusively for Sandals guests. Photo by Donald Fink.

There are indeed beaches. The Grande Antigua Resort is situated on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea. As you sit on the beach in the included Sandals lounge chairs, you’re either in the sun or under a grass shade. The choice is yours.

Off shore, there’s a small barrier reef that seems to help keep the beach quiet most of the time. We noticed the reef as we were headed out for some diving. You can see the waves breaking on the reef, making the waters calm closer to shore.

How’s  the Food?

When we travel, we judge the food we encounter based on the food we see on cruise ships, and the food at Sandals is very similar to some of the better offerings we see. If we had to name a brand, we might say that the meals at Sandals was in line with the quality we expect on Royal Caribbean, maybe a little better.

Our main, go-to restaurant for this visit was called Bayside Restaurant. It is a buffet style offering for breakfast and lunch, but converts over to table service for dinner.

The wait staff is good here in that they are friendly and competent, but the service was less formal, even in the specialty settings. In other words, while the food was really good, no one came around and removed the crumbs from your table between courses. And most meals were three courses, with appetizer, main course, and dessert.

It should be mentioned that not all restaurants are open all the time. At Grand Antigua, for example, there’s a restaurant called The OK Corral that features Tex-Mex, but was only open a couple of times in the week we were there. There’s another Italian styled restaurant called Mario’s that was open every night. And another British Pub called the Drunken duck that was open too. We enjoyed a couple of seriously good hamburgers there, by the way.

On Wednesday nights, there’s a beach bar-b-que that probably goes down as one of the included restaurants. It looked like a fun meal.

Another restaurant down by the main pool is called Barefoot by the Sea. This open-air restaurant is nearly on the beach, with rustic tables, comfortable chairs, and sand on your feet. They’re open every day for lunch and most nights for dinner.

There’s a dress code for the restaurants at Sandals. The two designations are Evening Attire, and Resort Casual Attire. As you might guess, Resort Casual Attire means, “come as you are.” And Evening Attire means long pants for men with no T-shirts. Shoes or elegant sandals are required. For the ladies, the expected dress is evening pants, skirts, elegant top, sundress, with sandals or shoes. And to be clear, the above description is not verbatim from the Sandals guide. Be sure to check the dress codes directly with sandals before you pack for the trip.

What Else Is There to Do?

PADI Dive Center at Sandals Grande Antigua

There’s a pool behind the dive shop that’s dedicated to scuba instruction and “check-out” dives. Here, Don is entering the water to prove he still remembers how to dive. Divers are required to demonstrate basic skills if they don’t have signed log books indicating recent dives. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

Aside from the pool time, the walks on the beach, and lazing away the day watching the waves patter on the sand, what else can you do at Sandals?

This particular Sandals had an active scuba dive program with dives nearly every day. There were mostly single tank trips, but a couple of two tank trips were also thrown in, presumably when the dive site was close by. All dive equipment is included. You can see a quick video of one of the dives below, where we went to a site called Billy’s Reef.

Snorkeling was available every day. They discourage snorkeling directly off the beach because of the amount of boat traffic, but dive boats left daily to other destinations where you could get your snorkel fill. All equipment is included.

Sail boats are available on the beach. To take one out, you simply walk over to the dive shop, get a life jacket, and grab a boat. We noticed four or five small catamaran sail boats available. Those things are fast, by the way, but easy to sail.

There are jet skis available too, but at an extra cost. We noticed two jet skis on the beach, but with all the included activities, we didn’t have the time to take one out.

Horseback riding is available at an extra cost too. Not being avid riders, and with so much else to do anyway, we didn’t take a ride.

There’s an area marked out for general swimming in case you felt the need to cool off.

Final Thoughts

We’re mostly cruising people, so we naturally want to compare this new all-inclusive resort idea with our cruising experiences. What we came away with is that the cost versus benefit was very close. The Sandals stay was a bit more expensive than a typical Caribbean cruise for the same period of time, but you need to factor in the free alcohol, free snorkeling and Scuba Diving, and an impressive beach-front.

Would we stay at a Sandals again? Sure, we would definitely return. But more likely, we’d visit one of their many other resorts in the Caribbean or even in the Mediterranean.

The question we asked at the beginning of this post was, is a stay at a Sandals Resort as good as a cruise on a luxury cruise liner? For many people, the answer has to be, “Yes, a stay at a Sandals Resort is as good or even better than a luxury cruise.” The high-quality restaurants, the included drinks, and the many recreational activities that are already included is a powerful draw. Did we mention the included drinks? And yes, we mean the alcoholic drinks, the soft drinks, and coffee and tea. Just to be clear.

Still, for us, we’re drawn to the ship where we wake up in a different place every morning, but we see the advantages of Sandals too. Everyone is different, so we encourage you to take a look for yourself.

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, Hotels, Travel, 0 comments
Seven Day Caribbean Cruise

Seven Day Caribbean Cruise

Last month (November, 2013), we made a quick cruise to the Caribbean on one of the Norwegian Cruise Lines ships, the Norwegian Dawn. It’s one of their older ships, but we had a purpose in mind. First, we have never sailed with NCL before and we’re planning an Atlantic crossing next May with them. Since the Atlantic crossing represents a reasonably big expenditure on our part, we wanted to see if they were up to it. Continue reading →

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, Cruising, Featured, 0 comments