Something Different

by Bill Edwards

So it’s not unusual to have our clients ask if we know of or have done anything different lately. ….Well, I can say YES! Having just returned in August from a Croatia-intensive cruise on CroisiEurope.  Chances are you’ve not heard of CroisiEurope.  It is a France-based company which is actually Europe’s largest river cruise operator.  (Yes, Viking is larger but we consider them US-based).

La Belle de l’Adriatique in Split

La Belle de l’Adriatique in Split (see more photos below)

If you’re familiar with river-cruising then take that concept, put it on a slightly larger version of a river cruise ship, and cruise along the beautiful ports and islands of the Dalmatian coast.  The ship “La Belle de l’Adriatique” sails a regular series of 7-night roundtrip cruises from Dubrovnik going to Mljet, Korcula, Sibenik, Trogir, Split, Hvar and Vis (all in Croatia) and ending with one last stop in Kotor, Montenegro before returning to Dubrovnik.  I’m sure we have quite a few clients that have taken a Mediterranean cruise that might have included a stop in either Dubrovnik or Split, but this was Dalmatian coast immersion….and I LOVED it.  Croatia is a cross between Italy and Greece…. Beautiful water and beaches (though largely pebble beaches; not sand beaches)…medieval history…friendly English-speaking locals….good food and local Croatian wines.  Getting to Dubrovnik is really quite easy.  There are schedules with one change of planes via Philadelphia (on AA) or via London or Madrid by flying American and British Airways.  We added extra time in Dubrovnik and rather than staying right in town, we stayed in a quieter area about 5 miles outside of town at a lovely Sheraton resort on the coast.  From the Sheraton there is a local ferry that takes you right back into Old Town Dubrovnik so it was the best of both worlds.  I would highly recommend staying at the Sheraton!

So back to CroisiEurope.  Is it for everyone?  Perhaps not…but it’s probably for a lot more people than it isn’t.  The ship, built in 2007 carries a little less than 200 guests, has the feel and design of a river cruise ship (4 decks rather than the usual 3 found on river cruises)  with similar attributes to river-cruising:

  • Single seating dining
  • An included excursion at each port
  • Soft drinks, beer, wine AND standard spirits INCLUDED throughout the cruise, not just at mealtime, (the only extra expense would really be gratuities).

There were some differences, though:

The ship has a definite, pervasive French flair.  I was told the cruise my wife and I were on was typical of what one could expect on any of these Dalmatian coast cruises….meaning a little more than half the ship was French and the remainder being mostly from other European countries.   There was a group of about 35 Norwegians and a smaller group from Spain.  We were seated with the other US guests onboard at a table of 6.    Yes, a total of 6 Americans.  Did we feel out of place? Absolutely not!  ….everyone was friendly (staff AND guests alike).  Announcements were made in French and English and we were on English-speaking tours (which meant small groups as the Norwegians joined in with some of us other English-speakers on tours).

The other big difference, which I grew to like, was with regards to lunch and dinner.  At both of these meals there is a pre-set menu served to everyone….meaning everyone is served the same starter, entrée and dessert.  I think not having choices on the menu actually resulted in the galley being able to put their best efforts into quality and presentation…and resulted in streamlined service.  Dietary needs are certainly accommodated as well as any particular dislikes.  In our cabin by noon each day we had the FOLLOWING day’s lunch and dinner menus so that it was possible to addresses those concerns with the dining room manager in advance for accommodation.  We did have lunch buffet twice during the cruise along with an elaborate buffet dinner on deck one evening while in Split.  There was a selection of 4 red wines; 4 white wines and 2 rose wines each day…mostly Croatian wines, with some from France, of course.  Wines were poured and then bottles were left at the table for self-pouring….so there was no excuse for an empty wine glass!  Breakfast was always buffet with eggs/pancakes cooked to order.  Some of you have sailed into Kotor and would appreciate this, but the morning we sailed into the bay of Kotor our breakfast was served on the top deck…so we had the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular approach to Kotor while enjoying breakfast.  This was one of the highlights of the trip.

Entertainment felt similar to what you would find on river cruises.  One night some local entertainment was brought onboard.  On another night, the Filipino crew put on a show of native dances and song.  The cruise director and a trio of Filipinos put on a wonderful concert one night.  But, like river cruising it’s an early to rise and early to bed routine for the most part.

These cruises, just like river cruises in general, tend to fill early so if you’re interested in 2020 don’t delay in making plans.  Europeans book most of their vacations earlier than Americans, too.  Prices for this 7-night cruise start at about $3000 per person for a cabin with portholes (which I had).  Cabins with 2 big windows start at about $3400 per person….but again that’s EVERYTHING included except gratuities (and airfare).

Please contact me for more information about cruising the Dalmatian coast on CroisiEurope

Pork filet with olives and sweet & sour sauce

Pork filet with olives and sweet & sour sauce

Delicious pasta dish

Delicious pasta dish

Creative, wonderful dessert

Creative, wonderful dessert

One of many featured Croatian white wines

One of many featured Croatian white wines

La Belle de l’Adriatique docked in Trogir

La Belle de l’Adriatique docked in Trogir

La Belle de l’Adriatique standard cabin

La Belle de l’Adriatique standard cabin

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

 The island of Mljet

The island of Mljet

Different & Fun Shore Excursion

The island of Korcula

The island of Korcula

The island of Sibenik with an excursion to Krka Falls

The island of Sibenik with an excursion to Krka Falls

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel

Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel

Bill at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel

Bill at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel

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Filed under adventure cruising, Croatia Cruise, CroisiEurope, Cruise Escapes, Cruise News, Dubrovnik, European Cruises, European River Cruises, Kotor, Montenegro, Mediterranean & Europe Cruises, Mediterranean Cruises, Our Cruise Stories, Our Cruises

Cuba Update

Cuba classic photo

Cuba.  The very sound of the name always seems to make one’s ears perk up a bit.  The mystique of being off-limits for Americans for so many years has caused it to gain more instant recognition than any of it’s fellow Caribbean islands.  So now when you hear of a cruise which includes Cuba (or Havana), many might say “well aren’t there some new restrictions on our travel there that makes it less attractive?”  or “are we still allowed to visit there at all?”

The truth is that, while there were some revisions to the U.S. policy on travel to Cuba in late 2017, we Americans can easily travel there and the best way is by cruise.  The aforementioned ‘restrictions’ primarily relate to restricted hotel stays, meaning some are indeed not permitted by our government for Americans to stay as guests there. However, when visiting by cruise ship, this is obviously not an issue.  There’s also the added benefit that Cuba cruises to Havana dock directly in the heart of town and you can easily walk to many great local sights. Cuba offers the most diverse cultural experience of any of the Caribbean islands; the architecture, the food, the people, the history – it’s all fascinating!

Many of the cruises to Cuba call at Havana only and are 4 or 5-day itineraries from Florida, but there are also others which call at multiple Cuban ports by circumnavigation of the whole island nation.  For some examples, click the following, or give us a call:

Royal Caribbean
Norwegian logo 2016

Azamara logo 2016

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Filed under Azamara Club Cruises, Cruise Escapes, Cuba Cruise, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean

Caribbean Update

With the recent hurricane events, Irma and now Marie, some Caribbean islands have suffered significant damage and recovery will take some time.  However, not ALL of the Caribbean has been effected.  USA Today just posted a very good ‘Port-by-Port’ update on the status of the entire region.  It’s informative and well done, to read more click here

CCL Caribbean map

Conditions are evolving and itinerary changes will be made available as situations become more clear.  Contact us for details on any upcoming itinerary of interest.

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Cuba: Havana Day 2

 

by Don McCann

Because we were a group of three couples (six people) we needed two cars for our touring.  I’d found someone online with nice photos and very good ratings from TripAdvisor (yes, even Cuban companies have TripAdvisor ratings!).  Our guides & cars were exactly where they had said that they’d be and we were greeted to two stunning vehicles: a 1955 Oldsmobile 98 and a 1957 Mercury Monterey.  Both cars were convertibles, so our next three hours were spent in open air as we tooled around in grand style, in Havana, in these classic time machines (could this really be happening?!). These cars are well cared for and it shows.  In fact, we were told that the ’57 Mercury is named “Lola”, because of the song “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets“!

Fabio & the '55 Olds

Fabio & the ’55 Olds

One driver, Fabio, was 35 and of Spanish heritage.  The other driver guide was Michelle; he was black, a bit younger and had been a Mechanical Engineer.Just like our guide from the first day, their English was perfect and they were fabulous ‘hosts’.  Michelle told us that he was excited that we (the Americans) were there and I replied that we were excited to be there, as well.

We returned to the Christ statue for a more personalized and detailed tour of the site, as well as stunning, morning views of the city across the channel.  Then we returned to the city, driving past impressive architectural sites such as the Barcardi building, the Capitol, the Gran Teatro de la Habana (home of the famed Cuban National Ballet Company), the domed Museum of the Revolution, China Town (yes, Havana has a China Town, but most Chinese are long gone); the list could go on, but you get the idea.  We’d seen some of these sights the previous day, but from the open-air convertible it all seemed much more impressive.  We then continued to the outskirts of the city past the university, on to a beautiful wooded forest area, and even by a neighborhood where famed mobsters used to live, such as Meyer Lansky!

Cuba Capitol in Havana

Cuba Capitol in Havana  (see more photos below)

The Cuban tourism allowances for U.S. citizens is actually based on a “people to people” program and that was our most impressive experience – it was the people.  While many housing conditions seem quite lacking, the people we met seem to be mostly happy.  Yes, there are challenges to their lifestyle for sure, but they still seem to retain a certain spirit and even Cuban pride, both in their heritage and their current life.  Both of our driver guides told us that they had never traveled off the island.  However, while both expressed a keen interest in traveling, they both said they would prefer to LIVE in Cuba; if they were permitted to travel, they would absolutely return.

During our vintage car tour, our driver was stopped twice by the local street police.  From what we could tell, there are government distinctions between ‘taxi’ drivers and ‘tour guides’ (and I’m sure the related taxes or fees they each pay to the government).  Our car did not have a ‘taxi’ sticker on the windshield, like many we saw, and we think the first guard saw him talking to us (as a tour guide would do) and thus the stop to check his ‘papers’.  They had what seemed to be a cordial chat, but it took several minutes and a call was made by our driver to someone.  About 30 minutes later, when we were stopped again, the same scenario took place, but this time our driver took his taxi sticker out of his glove compartment and placed it on the windshield.  Was he being non-compliant as a protest; to avoid fees; who knows?  He did not want to concern us with the details.  After our tour ended and we had lunch, three in our group wanted to continue touring on foot and the others wanted to go back to the ship.  A taxi was quickly secured across the street (a late 50’s Chevy).  Later our friend, who’d sat in the front seat, told us that he started asking questions about the car and the driver replied “I can’t talk to you”.  Whether you consider the Cubans ‘repressed’, or maybe simply monitored, it’s obvious that they are being watched by authorities.

In summary, everyone in our group agreed that we’d love to come back.  We’d like to return at a time of year when it’s not so hot and we’d love to explore at a slower pace, maybe more on foot.  Perhaps it was the excitement of finally being in the previously forbidden Havana, but now it seems to be a bit of a blur.  Maybe if we return, it will all come into focus just a bit more!

Havana seen from across the harbor

Havana seen from across the harbor

Empress of the Seas docked in Havana

Empress of the Seas docked in Havana

El Cristo de La Habana

El Cristo de La Habana

Gran Teatro de la Habana

Gran Teatro de la Habana

Chevy taxi with driver who was not allowed to chat

Chevy taxi with driver who was not allowed to chat

American Embassy

American Embassy

Mojito & pulled pork tacos at Sloppy Joes

Mojito & pulled pork tacos at Sloppy Joes (reopened in 2013 after being closed for 48 years!)

Lola, the '57 Mercury Monterey

Lola, the ’57 Mercury Monterey

Convento de San Francisco de Asís

Convento de San Francisco de Asís

Cruise Terminal at Plaza de San Francisco

Cruise Terminal at Plaza de San Francisco

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Arrival in Cuba: Havana Day 1

by Don McCann

It’s always fun to spot ‘land’ off the bow of your ship, especially when it’s your first port following a day at sea.  However, on this cruise there were FAR more people at the forward viewing areas of the ship waiting to see THIS land.  As we cruised closer, it was quite the surprise to see the ‘skyline’ of Havana as it was more impressive and more developed than many would have thought.  Once we were close enough to see more details, I could see another cruise ship in port and I had a feeling it would be leaving to make room for our arrival.   Sure enough, it sailed out of the channel just in time to make way for our arrival.

Cuba photo first look

departing ship sails out of Havana Harbor to make room for our arrival

First, you see el Morro on the port side; an impressive fortress & tower with the same name as the one in San Juan, but different in size & appearance.  Then, I cannot explain it, but the real excitement was on the starboard side of the ship when we first saw the vintage cars of the 40’s & 50s cruising along the Malecon seawall area.  WOW, those cars are just SO cool and there were so many of them.  I started using my zoom lens to see how many I could capture.  I don’t understand it, but those cars really set the tone for excitement that you are entering a bit of a time capsule…and that’s the term that the locals use, as well.  They ARE a bit of a time capsule and the people of Cuba know it, too.

el Morro on the port side of Havana Harbor

el Morro from our port side, in Havana Harbor

first vintage car with zoom lens taken from ship

first vintage car I spotted, taken with zoom lens from ship

Sailing closer to the terminal, we could begin to see landmarks, such as the Capitol and several other domed buildings.  As we pulled alongside at the cruise terminal, it was interesting to see that there are three piers for ships, but only one is in use.  The other two are in very sad shape; one with all the rafters clearly exposed and no roof on top.  So right away, you get a sense of the decay of some parts of the city, which are along side some of the preserved, or pristine sights of the city, as well.  Just one of the many Cuban paradoxes.

Once we were docked, we were cleared to depart for our tour.  First, you queue up for the lines at Immigration in the terminal.  It’s not air conditioned, or at least not like we are used to, and it moves at its own pace.  You proceed one by one to present your passport and your Cuban visa (which the cruise line has provided onboard).  They take your photo, keep your visa, then stamp your passport.  WOW – a Cuba stamp in your passport – not something all the neighbors have, for sure!

Once onboard our modern and comfortable motorcoach, we meet our tour guide, who speaks perfect English.  We learned in our seminar yesterday that Cubans have a 99.8% literacy rate and they are taught English beginning in the fourth grade.  The tour takes you first into a tunnel, under the port, to the “Rio-style” statue of Christ across the channel.  There is great pride in that this is the tallest statue in the world which was designed by a woman.  There are also great views of the city from this location.  Afterwards, we continue through the city and along the Malecon seawall and we have our next stop at an artists’ community-type neighborhood called Fusterland (Fuster is a noted artist who uses tile mosaics and has adorned an entire area with his works).

tile-covered buildings in "Fusterland"

tile-covered buildings in “Fusterland”

Our third stop is Revolution Square; in reality, it’s a very large parking lot, but it is bordered by the very tall Revolution monument and buildings with the silhouettes of famed political heroes.  However, the best part of this stop was the rotating collection of more of those really cool cars which came through with tourists, one after the other!

Revolution Square

Revolution Square

As for the current society, we have learned that Cubans attend school at no charge, both grade school and university.  We have also learned that they have full health care, at no charge, and that they have housing guaranteed by the government.  We have been told that money is a constant challenge and the food is rationed so that everyone will be supplied.   Some of these facts cause you to wonder and be somewhat confused about Cubans and how they function, but the noted quote of the day was as our tour ended.   Our guide (who was studying to be a dentist), said “Go out and enjoy Cuba, but don’t try to understand it”!

vintage cars

vintage cars

After dinner back on the ship, we went out again to walk on the Malecon.  We’d been told that many people gather here at night and it’s an enjoyable walk with great views of the city.  Well, yes, there were many more people here at night, but perhaps it’s partially because almost no one has air-conditioning and it’s a bit more pleasant outside, than inside.  It was still plenty hot enough for us, but it was bearable.  (Note, I recommend a cruise to Havana to any interested traveler, but just NOT in July – it was SO HOT!) After our seaside stroll, we ventured into the heart of the city, toward the Capitol and back over to our ship.  We walked through some pretty dark blocks along our route, but we’d been advised that it was very safe as they have virtually no street crime and we had no issues.  Perhaps it’s the indoor heat, or maybe it’s simply the Latin culture, but there were plenty of people out & about at 11pm.

We ended our day fascinated by all we’d seen & experienced in such a short time and we were looking forward to Day 2 and our Vintage Car Tour!

(this is Part 3 in my series of Havana cruise posts; Part 4, the last, follows tomorrow)

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Filed under Caribbean Cruises, Cruise Escapes, Cuba Cruise, Empress of the Seas, Havana cruise, Our Cruise Stories, Our Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Uncategorized

Voyage to Cuba

by Don McCann

The minute we first stepped onboard ship, Cuba was ‘in the air’ with a band playing Cuban style music in the atrium.  We then proceeded up to the lunch buffet, where Cuban paella was being served.  I was very excited to begin our voyage to Cuba and was also pleased to see that Royal Caribbean was helping to set the mood for the trip!

The next morning, during our full day at sea, an introduction to Cuba lecture was featured in the main show lounge at 10am.

Mary Clark Coffey presents Cuba & it's history

Mary Clark Coffey presents Cuba & it’s history

Proving that this was to be no ordinary Caribbean cruise, the lecture was enthuisastically attended and the lounge was totally full.  I was thinking that a lecture on almost any topic on a cruise to St Thomas would be lucky to get 20 people; again proving that this was no ordinary Caribbean cruise!  Our speaker was Mary Clark Coffey, a professor from the northeast U.S.  She easily guided us through Cuba’s early trade history, sugar production, popularity with mob bosses, and of course, the turbulent political times.   Then the different areas of Havana were highlighted and with each photo shown, it became more exciting to realize that “we’ll there tomorrow”!

(this is Part 2 in my series of Havana cruise posts; Part 3 follows tomorrow)

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Filed under Caribbean Cruises, Cruise Escapes, Cuba Cruise, Empress of the Seas, Havana cruise, Our Cruise Stories, Our Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Uncategorized

A Bucket List Item Fulfilled?

by Don McCann

Having grown up in Florida, in the 60s, I practiced ‘ducking under the desk drills’ in second grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I watched I Love Lucy reruns with Lucy & Ricky flying off to Cuba to visit his family and roll cigars.  I heard stories from a family friend about people they knew who loved Cuba in the 50s with barrels of rum on the sidewalk and street parties almost every night.  In the late 60s I saw on the TV news that a few airline flights got hijacked to Cuba.  Later, as an adult in the cruise industry, I cruised off the coast of Cuba, close enough to see it in the distance, as we sailed off to other Caribbean destinations.

Cuba has always been a fascination and someplace of which I dreamed of visiting.

On Monday, my wife & I are sailing with some friends on Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas for a cruise to spend a day & a half in HAVANA!  I’m very excited to finally visit this most interesting destination and I plan to write more next week and post some photos, so check back soon….

Royal Caribbean Cuba photo

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