Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Cruise… “Cubed”

By Georgina Cruz

Double the activities, triple the entertainment, quadruple the opportunities to rub elbows with celebrities and add special surprises and the result is a charter voyage. One could define charter voyages as “cruises that are cubed,” providing much more than regular cruises in the way of entertainment, activities, opportunities to mingle with artists and celebrities and enjoy other features typically themed to an interest. Some popular annual charter voyages are The Malt Shop Memories Cruise – a nod to the time when the malt shop was the center of our universe – and the 70s Rock and Romance Cruise, celebrating that special decade in our lives.

Another important way charter cruises provide more than regular voyages is in instant affinity – these voyages are themed to an interest and typically attract like-minded people who have opportunities to enjoy each other’s company in more sociable activities like parties, concerts, question-and-answer sessions, trivia contests and the like.

My latest experience with this type of voyage was a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) cruise. The DVC is a vacation timeshare program owned by Disney Signature Experiences, and this cruise for DVC members, one of the available benefits of membership, was a celebration of all things Disney and family life that took us on a four-night sailing to the Bahamas from Port Canaveral aboard Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream on July 23-27.

In addition to hob-knobbing with the most famous mouse in the world and his pals including Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and many others, pose for photos with them and get their autographs, we could also goof off during special, one-of-a-kind events created for the cruise.

These included, on board the Disney Dream, a full advance screening of Disney’s live action feature film “Christopher Robin” opening in theaters on Aug. 3. The movie, presented in the ship’s Walt Disney Theatre by Walt Disney Studios’ Lisa Cabello, stars Ewan McGregor (“Fargo”) as Christopher Robin, with Jim Cummings reprising his roles as the voices of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. It made you feel very special to be able to watch this movie ahead of everyone else and hear lovable Winnie and pals once again!

In all, 35 Disney legends and artists as well as celebrities, entertainers and personalities in various fields participated in activities during the cruise, including Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Josie Trinidad, head of story for “Ralph Breaks The Internet, Wreck-It Ralph 2,” who presented a behind-the-scenes look at that movie, scheduled to open in theaters on Nov. 21.

Other special events onboard ship exclusive to the charter cruise included a talk by Pete Docter and Michael Giacchino, the director and composer of Pixar Animation Studios’ “Up” and “Inside Out,” about how these Academy Award movies developed from scene to score. Another highlight was a Cooking in the Atrium presentation with celebrity chef Art Smith (who served as chef to Oprah Winfrey for many years) and food-and-wine personality Marcy Carriker Smothers (author of “Eat Like Walt”) during which the celebrities shared stories and created a macaroni Mickey mousse. And additionally there were talks by screenwriter Jared Bush (Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” and “Moana”) and by Roy Patrick Disney (son of Disney Legend Roy E. Disney and grandson of company co-founder Roy O. Disney), who shared what it was like to “grow up Disney.”

Onboard entertainment also included not the usual one, but two editions of Disney’s fireworks at sea, one during the pirate-themed night and the other during the Member Mouse Party. This party celebrated 90 years of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse with appearances not only by the beloved characters but also by the voice actors – among them Bret Iwan, who succeeded the late Disney legend Wayne Allwine as the voice of Mickey Mouse – plus sweet treats and fireworks. Other voice artists onboard included Disney Legend Bill Farmer, the voice of Goofy and Pluto.

A special exhibit, one of my favorite events, was great for Disney fans: “Mickey and Minnie from Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives.” It displayed authentic artifacts associated with the world’s most famous mice, including a vintage set of Mickey and Minnie bean bag dolls dressed in formalwear. Yet other special offerings included a concert in the show lounge with Disney On Broadway stars including Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). The concert, “Stars Set Sail: Heroines And Heroes,” celebrated heroes and heroines real and imagined.

Ashore during two visits to Disney’s private island of Castaway Cay in the Bahamas – which was bedecked with a banner proclaiming that “Members Have Claimed The Island!” – special events included Member Mouse Parties with Midway Games and an Island of Heroes with beach games and a Community Heroes Project in which guests could participate in a Disney Vacation Club project by stuffing backpacks with school supplies to be donated to local Bahamian children.

Other special surprises were commemorative in-room gifts delivered every day including tote bags, beach umbrellas, wireless speakers, t-shirts and caps. No need to budget for souvenirs on this cruise!

The July 23 Disney Vacation Club cruise aboard the Disney Dream sold out quickly, and two other DVC Member Cruises have been announced for 2019:

  • A five-night Pacific Coast sailing on the Disney Wonder from San Diego May 15-20. Ports of call include San Francisco and Victoria before ending in Vancouver.
  • A seven-night Bermuda cruise on the Disney Magic from New York City on Oct. 5-12. Ports of call include Boston and two days in Bermuda before ending in New York City.

DVC keeps entertainment and other features of its future charter voyages on Disney Cruise Line close to the vest so there are no specific details on those aspects of the 2019 voyages. And each voyage may offer unique features. For example, a 2017 DVC Member Cruise kicked off with an unprecedented Member Cruise Film Festival featuring screenings of more than 20 films (including Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, months ahead of its release), studio and filmmaker presentations, interactive workshops and special deck parties. That voyage also celebrated 50 years of Pirates of the Caribbean and presented talks by Disney Legends, concerts and conversations with Disney on Broadway stars, among other features.

The Disney Vacation Club has 15 resorts in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. and in Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. DVC beach resorts include the beautiful Disney’s Vero Beach Resort and Spa in Vero Beach, Fla., Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii.

Information: disneyvacationclub.disney.go.com

Monday, May 7, 2018

An Epic Voyage On An Epic Ship: Prinsendam

By Georgina Cruz

The Grand Africa & Mediterranean voyage on Holland America’s Prinsendam, visiting ports in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, can best be described in one word: epic! Fifty-four days, 28 ports, including five overnight visits, offered opportunities for exploration and to get to know the cultures, history and flavors of regions in Africa and Europe.

Stops at three ports, including an overnight stay in the Canary Islands—Spanish isles that sit in the Atlantic off the northwest coast of Africa—were among the top highlights of the voyage for my husband Humberto and me, as we had never visited them. The Canaries are sometimes associated with the myths of the Lost Continent of Atlantis—they are, after all, in the Atlantic for which Atlantis presumably was named, and a theory holds that when Atlantis sank, its highest points remained as the Canaries we know today, and that their original inhabitants, the Guanches, were the descendants of the surviving Atlanteans.

But Atlantis or not, the sapphire waters of the magnificent harbor in Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife on the island’s eastern tip, were like a siren call, welcoming us to a vibrant city filled with interesting architecture and excellent shopping—Spain’s famous El Corte Ingles department store has a branch here and the colorful Our Lady of Africa market beckons with exotic fruits and blossoms. And the island also has many wonderful restaurants serving up the delightful cuisine of the Canaries, which is Spanish, with African and Latin American influences. Tenerife was and is a popular stop for ships going to and from Europe to Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, with Columbus himself stopping here for a few days in 1492.

We went for strolls to points of interest in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, including the daring, Conquistador-helmet-like Auditorium of Tenerife, the Parliament buildings of the Canary Islands and the lovely squares including the Plaza de España and the Square of Candelaria.

On our second day in Tenerife we took an organized tour to La Laguna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island’s former capital, and participated in a walking tour to the Church of the Convent of Santa Catalina, the market in the Plaza del Adelantado, the cathedral, the episcopal palace, the History Museum in the Lercaro Palace and quaint Calle de San Agustin, where we passed old convents and rows of beautiful carved wooden balconies, many adorned with flowers. Our next stop was Tacoronte, the most important wine-growing area of the island. Here at the Bodega Alvaro we enjoyed a wine tasting—we learned that the first vines planted in the Canary Islands came from the Eastern Mediterranean, including the vines that produce the famous Malmsey wines that were immortalized in the works of Shakespeare. We sipped the wines and they were delicious! Then, from the Casa del Vino winery we drank in big gulps the scenery over the north coast of Tenerife—with panoramic views of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest point at 12,198 ft. Teide is to the Canaries what Mt. Fuji is to Japan, its quintessential volcanic cone often snow-capped, majestic and breathtaking.

The other ports of the Canary Islands we visited included Arrecife, Lanzarote’s capital, from where we headed to Timanfaya National Park with its Montaña de Fuego (Fire Mountain) and lunar-like landscape. Here, at Islote de Hilario (Hilario’s Big Island), wonders include volcanic cinders from just below the surface that are hot enough to kindle wood and to produce steam. In Santa Cruz de La Palma, we walked on cobblestone streets to see lovely Spanish colonial houses with flower-draped balconies in the Avenida Marítima (Maritime Avenue) and took a guided tour to San Antonio Volcano National Park, where a trail reaches right to the edge of the volcano’s crater. It was Good Friday when we visited Santa Cruz de La Palma and we were able to take in one of the Holy Week Processions—with marching bands, floats and penitents: very impressive!

More local color was ours to enjoy during a special onboard performance by the flamenco group Fuego (Fire) and a wonderful Spanish Evening in the dining room—specially decorated and with Spanish specialties like “paella” (the world-famous rice and seafood dish).

But though the Canary Islands were big highlights, there were many others. On the way to Africa and Europe, we made stops in Caribbean isles with the opportunity to walk the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and visit El Morro Fortress in Puerto Rico and bask in warm aquamarine waters in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Stops in the Cape Verde Islands offered the chance to enjoy beautiful, uncrowded beaches, and calls in Africa included Agadir, Morocco for tours to the 16th century Oufella Fort and opportunities for a camel ride and to take the ultimate selfie: with a camel, which we took, of course; Casablanca, Morocco, for a chance to visit Rick’s Café, in a courtyard-style mansion built against the Old Medina walls of the city and inspired in the classic film with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; and Dakar, Senegal, one of West Africa’s largest cities.

In Dakar, an option was a tour that took to Independence Square with colonial-style buildings and the Presidential Palace, where the Spahi in their red and blue uniforms stand guard. Other points of interest included the African Renaissance Monument, a 160-foot-tall statue; the Lighthouse of Mamelles; the Medina (Old Town) and the Kermel Market, the Town Hall, the cathedral, the Great Mosque and the Deity Mosque. Stops at the Sand Painting Gallery and the Soumbedioune Handicraft Village provided cultural insights as well as opportunities to buy souvenirs.

Passing through the Pillars of Hercules, the Prinsendam ventured into the Mediterranean, the centerpiece of the voyage. The name, Pillars of Hercules, was given in antiquity to the two promontories flanking the Strait of Gibraltar, the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and Mount Acho in Ceuta in Africa that, according to legend, were parted by the strong arms of Hercules. In Gibraltar, we took a tour to Europa Point, Europe’s southernmost point, and to The Rock where we were delighted to see the antics of the Barbary Apes and toured St. Michaels’ Cave, now a venue for concerts. This being one of our favorite cruising regions in the world, we were happy as clams, as we believe, like British scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson once noted that “The main object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean.”

Highlights in the Med included several Italian ports that charmingly occupied our attention beginning with Genoa, that vibrant maritime city with a harbor front newly renovated by noted architect and native son Renzo Piano of the George Pompidou Center in Paris fame. The harbor front is now a modern center filled with shops and cafes as well as such points of interest as the Genoa Aquarium and the Biosphere, a glass dome with more than 65 feet in diameter filled with plants, trees, birds and other animals. Other Genoa attractions include the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, once the home of the ruling Doges; the Christopher Columbus House, where the explorer spent his childhood, and the baroque Gesu Church, a Jesuit Church that boasts two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Other Italian ports included Livorno for tours to Florence and Pisa with their treasures of Renaissance art like Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia in Florence and the world-class view of the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Additional options from Livorno included tours to explore Tuscan gems like exquisite medieval Siena with the relics of St. Catherine, and quaint towns like Lucca and San Gimignano. Some guests, who like us had been to Florence, Pisa and other destinations in Tuscany, opted for strolls in Livorno to see its “New Fort” (that dates from the 1600s) and colorful buildings at and near the Piazza della Repubblica.

A call in Sorrento provided opportunities for excursions to the lovely isle of Capri and the breathtaking Amalfi Drive, which we never fail to take to be delighted by its emerald waters and the picture-postcard-perfect town of Amalfi, where we picked up a bottle of the local lemon-flavored liqueur, limoncello. A local folkloric group, Sorrento Folk, came on board to entertain us with lively tarantellas.

Stops in Naples, for programs to Pompeii, and, of course, great pizza; and Cagliari, Sardinia, offered a chance to explore this less-often-visited island with its five-mile Poetto Beach and its old section, Castello, with its medieval walls and 13th century towers.

A big highlight for Humberto and me was a “Best of Rome” full day ship’s tour. It took in all the de rigueur sights of the Eternal City: St. Peter’s Square with the colonnade by Bernini that symbolizes an open-arms welcome to the Vatican; St. Peter’s Basilica with Michelangelo’s magnificent Pieta sculpture of Jesus and Mary; the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the fabled Tiber River and the Trevi Fountain. No matter how many times we go to Rome, we always head to the Trevi Fountain to throw in a coin that according to the classic movie, Three Coins In The Fountain, ensures our return. The tour also included a walking tour to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona with its lovely fountains and a typical Italian lunch with pasta and a sinful pastry for dessert. Delicious!

But we were not done yet. Other highlights still in the Mediterranean included several stops in Spain including Barcelona, where the La Rambla pedestrian street was lively with living statues, and Antoni Gaudi masterpieces like his emblematic modernism Sagrada Familia Basilica awaited; Malaga, with its noted Picasso Museum, devoted to the arguably most influential artist of the 20th century in the city where he was born; Cadiz, with its impressive golden-domed Cathedral, sightseeing routes and cultural highlights marked on the city’s pavements like Boston’s Freedom Trail, and Valencia with its Old Town with its Cathedral, Basilica of the Virgin, Central Market and Silk Exchange, as well as the futuristic architecture of Santiago Calatrava, not to mention the delicious paella valenciana, the city’s wonderful rice dishes that are world-famous.

Back on the Atlantic Ocean, calls included one in Lisbon with scenic cruising on the Tagus River, and chances to see the Portuguese capital’s monuments including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the iconic Belem Tower, Monument to the Discoveries, and other points of interest including the Jeronimos Monastery with Vasco da Gama’s tomb, as well as opportunities to tour Fatima, 88 miles north of Lisbon, one of the most important Catholic shrines, where three shepherd children reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. We took a tour that in addition to Lisbon highlights went to the royal retreat of Sintra and charming seaside Cascais.

It was a fabulous—epic—itinerary, allowing opportunities for regional exploration. And it required an equally wonderful ship to carry it off. Through the entire voyage, the Prinsendam rose admirably to the task: an 850-passenger vessel personifying Old World elegance and charm, it was like a club: with everyone getting to know each other during our extended voyage. We had sailed on this lovely ship through some of its incarnations that began in 1988 as the Royal Viking Sun, then in later years as the Cunard Royal Viking Sun and the Seabourn Sun, and finally, since 2002, as Holland America’s Prinsendam. She had never disappointed us, and she delighted us again now, refreshed after a 2016 drydock, and with her customary attentive, personalized service, delicious food, varied entertainment and activities including America’s Test Kitchen classes and demonstrations as well as with many enriching itinerary-focused offerings including excellent port lectures and local folkloric groups and entertainers like Gabriela Mendez & the Cape Verdean Group, who performed onboard while in Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands.

The Prinsendam’s accommodations are attractive and comfortable. Our ocean-view cabin, #450 mid-ship on Dolphin Deck, was a cozy home at sea with picture window, sitting area, mini-bar, walk-in closet and bathtub/shower. This cruise being designated as a “Grand Voyage,” we were treated to special events and activities including a Spanish Fiesta with paella while in Spain and commemorative pillow gifts including journals and carry-on luggage.

All too soon, we had begun the crossing back to Fort Lauderdale with calls at the picturesque Azores and a stop in Hamilton, Bermuda with its multiple attractions including architecture in pastels and the pink sands of Horseshoe Bay Beach, to delightfully break up the string of sea days of our epic voyage.

For information, visit HollandAmerica.com.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Cruise Review: A Dream Come True For Families On The Disney Dream

By Georgina Cruz

Judging from my family, the future of the cruise industry is ensured: we started taking our daughter and grandsons on ships since they were toddlers and now they have grown accustomed to it—they keep asking us: “When are we going again?”

Our latest cruise with them was this winter on the 130,000-ton, 4,000 passenger Disney Dream, a ship that is ideal for families as it is full of magic at every corner. Right in the Atrium, for example, “Enchanted Art” pieces become animated when someone stands before them and princesses and other characters including the world’s most famous rodent, Mickey Mouse, greet guests, pose for photos and sign autographs.

Pure magic. We could not think of anything more magical for three generations of our family, my husband Humberto, our daughter Veronica, son-in-law Kyle and teenage grandsons Aidan and Julian, to spend our grandsons’ spring break on. So we sailed on the Disney Dream on a four-night cruise to the Bahamas from Port Canaveral in Florida in late February-early March. Since Humberto and I live in Florida and the rest of the family lives in New Hampshire, we get to see each other two or three times a year, so we go out of our way to make our get-togethers count. We have found going on a three- or four-day cruise vs. a longer cruise, land vacation or staying at each other’s homes suits our group well.

A short cruise fits our budget and it offers activities and facilities for all ages so nobody gets bored, and our daughter and I hang up our aprons for the duration as meals and snacks are included in the fare—therefore nobody has to be taking time to do the marketing, prepare the food, serve it and clean up afterwards. And on a cruise as opposed to a land trip, nobody has to be wondering where we will have dinner, making reservations and arranging for transportation to the restaurants.

Since some members of our family were flying in from New Hampshire, we booked a two-bedroom villa at Copper Creek Villas, a rustic, lakeside resort at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge in Walt Disney World near Port Canaveral for a one-night stay before the cruise, thus eliminating the chance of literally “missing the boat” if flights were cancelled, or the stress if they were delayed, on sail date. From this resort, a free launch took us to the Magic Kingdom where we went on our favorite rides including Space Mountain and watched the new Happily Ever After nightly fireworks display.

So already relaxed, we all boarded the ship together. The Disney Dream is Disney Cruise Line’s third ship of four, built in 2010 (the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder preceded her in 1998 and 1999 respectively and sister ship, Disney Fantasy followed her in 2012 and the line has announced the construction of three more ships to be launched beginning in 2021). After putting our carry-ons in our cabins and partaking of a delicious welcome aboard lunch, we set out to enjoy what the ship has to offer for various age groups.

Our teenagers, Aidan and Julian, headed for Vibe, the ship’s club for teens (Edge is a club for tweens). Vibe is a big indoor/outdoor facility with two pools, deck chairs, big screen televisions, video games and other features where they were kept busy with organized activities including contests and parties.

A big highlight were events that featured free smoothies and milkshakes that Julian said were “cool!” During frequent open houses for all ages at the ship’s Oceaneer Club, an area for children ages 3 to 12, we saw how kids enjoyed being transported to a galaxy far, far away at Star Wars: Millennium Falcon, where they got a crack at piloting, what Disney refers to as the “powerful space vehicle” through hyperspace and triggering light-speed jumps to different locations around the galaxy.

Among this area’s other features are 1,000 blinking LED lights, a wall that replicates the wall in episode 5 of the Star Wars saga where Han Solo kisses Princess Leia for the first time, and animated props including an “android cleaning station” with an R2 D2 that looks like he’s been through a lot and needs to be tidied up.

Also in this Star Wars Area, children can enjoy themed crafts, games and activities including watching episodes from the Disney XD animated series “Star Wars Rebels” on a large screen or virtually join the rebellion at gaming stations featuring the series’ adventures. There’s also a shipboard version of the Jedi Training Academy experience that is so popular in Disney parks. This activity invites young Jedi hopefuls—known as “Padawans”—to learn lightsaber moves from a Jedi Master. They can then use the “Force” in some feats that include “moving” crates and a barrel with Force-full gestures and even face off against the evil Darth Vader. The Oceaneer Club also has a high-tech interactive space based on the Disney Infinity video game and sections like Andy’s Room themed to the “Toy Story” movies.

While the younger sailors are in the kids’ and teen’s clubs, adults find spaces for themselves. Among our favorites is the Cove Pool, an adults-only pool and lounge area with comfortable loungers, and Satellite Falls, a retreat for the 18-and-over contingent of guests. Satellite Falls, in a sunning area, has a water feature, a circular splash pool with benches and a gently falling rain curtain that provides cool comfort—a very welcome area in the tropics. Around this upper deck, adult guests can soak up the sun in loungers or relax in the shade under a canopy.

The older generations in our group used these areas, as well as the fitness center in the Senses Spa and the spa’s Juice Bar that serves up made-to-order smoothies, juices, protein and energy shakes (fees apply) that can be enjoyed after a workout on seating with ocean views.

When all of us wanted to enjoy pool time together, the ship has several family pools, one of them, the Mickey Pool, equipped with a slide. And, most popular of all with our teens and some of the older sailors, the AquaDuck is a 765-foot-long clear plastic tube water slide that has been dubbed “the first water coaster at sea” and winds around an upper deck of the ship, cuts through the funnel, and at one point even juts out 13 feet over the ocean.

Amenities for families include organized games and contests, and “draw a Disney character” sessions in the D Lounge, a family games area; trivia sessions, including Disney trivia, in various lounges; meet-and-greet opportunities with Disney princesses and pirates, Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, and various other characters, and a Muppets-themed Midship Detective Agency game, “The Case of the Stolen Show.” The latter is an interactive ship-wide game during which participants uncover clues and solve a mystery using a “detective badge” that activates surprises in “Enchanted Art” pieces displayed all around the ship.

Big highlights for all ages include a pirates’ night up on deck with fireworks display at sea, Broadway-style shows including a new one themed to Disney’s animated movie and live-action film, “Beauty and the Beast,” in the Walt Disney Theatre as well as first-run Disney movies in the cinema (Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Coco” were among the films shown during our cruise).

The “Beauty and the Beast” show, which debuted in November, brings the popular fable to life with storytelling elements, cutting-edge technology, and a transforming set that uses the motif of a music box to guide the audience through the story from Belle’s provincial town to the Beast’s mysterious castle. Other elements include show-stopping numbers, lavish costumes and puppetry. “Beauty and the Beast” features songs from the original animated film’s award-winning soundtrack by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. Complementing the score, the show also includes two of the new songs created for the live-action film by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice, “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Days in the Sun.”

Beloved songs like “Belle,” “Something There” and “Beauty and the Beast” have received a musical makeover that reflect the show’s stylized approach, while songs like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are exuberant production numbers. “Be Our Guest” has become a multi-course French dinner with choreography and visual effects filling the stage during this spectacle that is, well, Beauty-full.

Other Broadway-style shows during our sailing included “The Golden Mickeys,” a musical revue in the style of an awards ceremony and featuring live action theater, film, video and pyrotechnics plus a red carpet welcome, and “Disney’s Believe,” about a workaholic father who learns what is truly important in life—this show boasts appearances by 20 Disney characters. All three shows were very well received by enthusiastic audiences who were obviously big Disney fans, judging from the warm applause each character received upon entering the stage.

Adults who are nightlife enthusiasts have the ship’s nightclubs and lounges: 687 Pub, Pink, the District Lounge, and Skyline. These spaces, offering entertainment, are reserved exclusively for adults in the evenings, and are the perfect locales to enjoy a drink, listen to music, or catch the big game on big screen televisions in a pub-like ambiance.

And a feature that is tempting to young, old, and everyone in between is Vanellope’s Sweets and Treats, a specialty sweet shop inspired on the movie “Wreck-It Ralph.” It aims to satisfy the taste buds of cruisers of all ages, with handmade gelato and ice cream, an assortment of candy, and novelty treats for purchase (free ice cream dispensers are available nearby at Eye Scream).

When it comes to dining, the Disney Dream, like all Disney ships, features three main restaurants, Royal Palace (themed to Disney princesses), Enchanted Garden (inspired in the gardens at Versailles) and Animator’s Palate (dinner show venue themed to Disney animation) and guests go from one to the other each evening with their servers. The food (French-inspired in the Royal Palace, fresh-market in Enchanted Garden and Pacific Rim in Animator’s Palate) was delicious. At Animator’s Palate, for instance, some of our favorites included the smoked salmon tartare appetizer, creamy butternut squash soup, Pacific black cod, Angus beef tenderloin, and white shrimp pennette pasta. Vegetarian selections included stir-fry vegetables and black bean chipotle cakes. For dessert some in our group went for the decadent crème brulee while the teens selected the yummy ice cream sundae. The food quality and presentation on this premium line as well as the service were excellent at all three restaurants, and it was great having our servers, who knew our tastes in beverages, dressings and the like follow us from one dining room to another.

On our sailing, since we were traveling with two teens, we did not patronize the adults-only alternative fine dining restaurants, Palo ($30 per person fee) and Remy ($85 per person), but we did go often to Cabanas, the buffet-style restaurant, and the quick service Flo’s V8 Café especially for quick meals before setting out, and returning from, the ports.

The ports on our sailing included Nassau, Bahamas and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamian archipelago. In Nassau, we had visited Ardastra Gardens with its marching flamingoes, the Pirates of Nassau attraction and the beaches of Paradise Island on previous visits, so we went for a stroll around the city taking in Rawson Square and the Georgian-style Government House with a statue of Christopher Columbus in front, and we shopped for woven handicrafts, wooden carvings, and colorful fabrics in the Straw Market on Bay Street. Then we took a day pass ($79 including $40 food/beverage credit) at the Hilton British Colonial, a resort with a lovely sandy beach and pool within walking distance of the cruise pier. Other pastimes at this resort include ping pong and giant chess and checkers sets.

In Castaway Cay, we opted for the Getaway Package ($43 for ages 10 and older, $24 for ages 5 to 9) including snorkel equipment and inner tube rental for the day and one-hour bike rental. It was great to explore the island and enjoy swimming and snorkeling. Castaway Cay attractions include the Pelican Plunge slides, teen beach, family beach, lunch pavilions with barbecue, a children’s area, organized activities, shops, Bahamian crafts area and post office, and adults-only beach.

After exploring in the ports, we found the ship’s accommodations to be comfortable and attractive with nautical décor touches. We booked two veranda cabins, one for Humberto and me and one for the rest of the family and thus had two bathrooms at our disposal. Each cabin has a divided bathroom (one side has a tub/shower and basin, and the other side a toilet and basin) a feature that we like as two people can be using parts of each bathroom at the same time in privacy. One thing we would change would be to add a pocket door in the interior wall that divides both sides of each bathroom to provide easier access.

All in all our family thoroughly enjoyed the activities, entertainment, food, and service on the Disney Dream. And since to enjoy all the magic that the ship has to offer one simply needs more time on board, we—particularly the youngsters in our group—are already dreaming of our return!

IF YOU GO—The Disney Dream offers three- and four-night Bahamian itineraries from Port Canaveral in Florida year-round, with occasional five-night cruises also offered. Ports of call include Nassau, Bahamas and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamian Archipelago. Fares start from $624 per person. Visit DisneyCruise.com.

Image Courtesy Disney Cruise Line

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Cruise Review: Holland America Line’s ms Koningsdam

Double Dutch Treat: The ABC Islands on Holland America Line’s ms Koningsdam

By Georgina Cruz

Each January, after a hectic Christmas season, my husband Humberto and I book a cruise—for us it’s the best remedy against the post-holidays blahs after the cooking and entertaining: a great way to relax and enjoy some alone time. Our latest January escape was a 10-day Southern Caribbean Seafarer on Holland America’s Koningsdam. It was a double Dutch treat: visits to the ABC Islands of the Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao on Holland America’s newest ship, not to mention the idyllic ports of Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos and Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic.

Our first port of call was to have been Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas that marked its 20th anniversary in 2017. Bad weather, including high winds, however, would have caused concern for tendering guests ashore, so Capt. Emiel deVries notified us he was cancelling the call as safety of guests and crew is the line’s highest priority, and on the bright side, we would then have three extra hours at our next port, Grand Turk.

In Grand Turk, where the weather was splendid, when passengers managed to tear themselves from the white-sand, aquamarine beach for a couple of hours there were various touring options including a tram ride to soft calypso music around the 7-1/2-mile long island of Grand Turk taking in Duke Street with old Bermudian-style homes, and views of talcum-powder-sand beaches. Several stops are made at various points of interest including one in town to browse for island crafts and souvenirs or visit the Botanical And Cultural Garden with native plants and a collection of cacti and succulents, and at salt ponds that date back to the 16th century, as well as at the Grand Turk Lighthouse with views of neighboring islands and friendly Grand Turk donkeys. Grand Turk was the only port on our itinerary where we saw signs of hurricanes of damage from Irma and Maria in the fall—a number of roofs were damaged and several were being worked on, but this did not detract from our enjoyment of the beach, the lighthouse, the donkeys and other sights.

Amber Cove, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, near Puerto Plata, was our next stop and here sightseeing opportunities included beach and snorkeling breaks to Coconut Cove, tours to the colonial cities of Puerto Plata and Santiago, dolphin swims, sea lion encounters and even swimming with sharks at Ocean World Adventure Park. Cruise ship organized tours to Ocean World Adventure Park included a Day Pass for visitors who just wanted the opportunity to snorkel in the park’s Tropical Reef Aquarium and learn about marine mammals. Other activities available to Day Pass visitors include feeding exotic birds, walking through a tropical rain forest, and taking in the Dolphin Show, Shark Show, Sea Lions Show, and Tropical Bird Show. Day Pass visitors also have free access to the dolphin beach and the fresh water pool located in the Tiger Grotto.

Two Cruise With Purpose tours, Holland America Line’s program inspired in “giving back,” were also offered in Amber Cove in conjunction with Fathom Impact Travel, a company founded by Carnival Corporation for social impact journeys. One of these tours goes to the Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative in Puerto Plata where participants take part in a hands-on visit to a chocolate factory founded by women of the Dominican Republic in their search for meaningful work so they can support their families. At a local nursery, tour participants begin by preparing organic soil and planting cocoa seeds. In the chocolate factory, tour members work alongside the women of Chocal to transform the cocoa bean into a chocolate bar. Participants also help the women package the chocolate and prepare it for sale. By helping to improve production and increase sales, tour members also help the organization thrive so it can hire more local women. A second Cruise With Purpose tour went to a recycling micro-business, RePapel, founded by women.

Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, the so-called “ABC Islands” of the Netherlands Antilles, the centerpiece of the voyage, are always a Dutch treat coming on a Dutch ship while enjoying along the way such delights as Dutch split pea soup, Dutch apple pie and Dutch almond cookies.

We arrived early and were able to disembark at 8 a.m. in the port of Willemstad, Curacao, with the all-aboard time being at 10:30 p.m., so we had lots of time to explore. We were glad: it is one of the most picturesque ports in the Caribbean with views of rows of Dutch-style architecture gabled houses in Caribbean ice-cream colors overlooking Sint Anna Bay, a waterway that divides the city in two and connects the Caribbean Sea to the protected Schottegat Bay. The historic center of Willemstad, founded in the 17th century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on previous cruises we had visited its highlights including its floating market, the distillery making the world-famous Blue Curacao liqueur, institutions like the Kura Hulanda museum, Fort Amsterdam (now the home of the governor of Curacao), and the Queen Emma Bridge, a floating bridge that unites the east side of the city, the Punda, with the west side, Otrabanda. The picturesque pontoon bridge is affectionately called “the Swinging Old Lady of Curacao” by locals.

We re-visited some of these highlights and we also booked a ship’s tour to the Curacao Ostrich Farm. On the way to the farm, a photo stop was made at Riffort village with panoramic views of Willemstad’s city center, the narrow port entrance, the colorful Dutch colonial-style houses and Fort Amsterdam. A safari truck at the Ostrich Farm took us to explore and we were able to hand-feed the impressive birds. A souvenir shop at the farm offers African art and other merchandise. The tour also included a visit to another of Curacao’s industries, the Aloe Vera Farm, where we were shown the process of extracting juice from the plant and learned about the beneficial powers of this natural product.

In Aruba, sightseeing opportunities included tours to scenic highlights. During a half-hour drive from the cruise pier in the capital of Oranjestad to the picturesque California Lighthouse, the tour passes through the island’s arid terrain (Aruba lies below the hurricane belt, off the coast of Venezuela), an ideal habitat for cacti and divi-divi trees that always point to the west, in the direction of the trade winds that blow from the northeast. Stops are made at the Alto Vista Chapel, a yellow structure in Dutch style that dates from the 18th century, and the “Baby Natural Bridge,” a small rock bridge carved by the wind and sea erosion—it is located next to the ruins of the famous larger bridge that collapsed in 2005 and had been an icon of the island. A final stop is made on this island tour at the Casibari Rock Formations, where giant boulders appear as if strewn about by a gigantic hand.

A selection of snorkel and diving programs was available while in Aruba and many passengers opted for a visit to the island’s famed Palm Beach, a two-mile strip of talcum-powder-quality sands and aquamarine waters that often makes the “Top 10 Beaches of the Caribbean” lists. Palm Beach is home to high-rise hotels, restaurants and bars, and is dotted with water sports concessions, so passengers may opt for a day-room at one of the hotels for an idyllic and comfortable day at the beach, or simply wear their bathing suit under a cover-up and just go for a dip in the warm, crystal-clear water.

Bonaire, a boomerang-shaped isle in the ABC Islands, is known for its world-class diving with more than 80 dive sites and a coral reef encircling the entire isle. We set off on an island tour following a route north along the coast to take in some of isle’s highlights. We made a stop at Lake Goto, Bonaire’s land-locked saltwater lagoon, to see the long-legged pink flamingos that make their home in the area. The flamingos’ plumage is pink because of chemicals in the food they eat: shrimp and algae, our guide told us. Other sights in our agenda included Rincon, the oldest settlement in the ABC islands, the Rose Inn for a taste of the liquor made from the cadushy cactus and to learn about its distilling process, and Seru Largu, atop a mountain for panoramic views of Kralendijk and the southern part of the island. As we made our way back to Kralendijk, we stopped at the salt pans with their pink color and towering white mounds of dry salt.

The ship whisking us from one island to another, the 2,650-passenger, 99,500-ton Koningsdam, the first of Holland America’s new Pinnacle Class, is a great base from which to explore in comfort and luxury. The line’s newest ship, launched in 2016, she is a stylish home at sea with a $4.1 million art collection including an impressive $600,000, 7.5-ton stainless steel sculpture, titled “Harps” in the Atrium that spans three decks and is based on a concept by designer Adam D. Tihany.

In this floating palace—and I mean that literally—a pampering staff, a hallmark of Holland America, catered to our needs and whims. When we worked up an appetite ashore, we had an ocean of culinary delights onboard. In addition to the stunning main restaurant, The Dining Room, light, airy and elegant where the fare for included five-course dinners is gourmet and the service attentive and friendly, the ship features fine-dining options at alternative restaurants Sel de Mer, a French seafood brasserie featuring such delights as fresh oysters, bouillabaisse and salt-crusted whole fish (cost is a la carte), and an immersive farm-to-table concept dinner experience in the Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine magazine (cost is $20, $39 with wine). The Grand Dutch Cafe offers traditional Dutch treats and European beer (a la carte), and a Lido Market features themed serving stations (included). For a snack or light meal there are juicy burgers and hot dogs at Dive-In, and delicious slices at New York Pizza (included). But there are still many more temptations for the taste buds at the Pinnacle Grill ($35 per person—I always order the sinful Chocolate Volcano Cake for dessert!), Canaletto Italian restaurant ($15) and pan-Asian Tamarind alternative restaurants ($25—I am addicted to the delectable spring rolls!).

Onboard activities—never a dull moment here!—include wine tastings by Chateau Ste. Michelle; America’s Test Kitchen demonstrations; BBC Earth Experiences; O, The Oprah Magazine offerings including a “Just Breathe” Meditation Session; Digital Workshop classes, powered by Windows; relaxing treatments at the Greenhouse Spa & Salon; two swimming pools, fitness center, basketball and volleyball courts and shops and boutiques. After dark, we loved the Music Walk area, featuring a variety of musical genres showcased in special venues including the Lincoln Center Stage (offering chamber music nightly); Billboard Onboard, (live musicians rocking the crowd with chart-topping hits); and B.B. King's Blues Club in the Queen's Lounge, bringing the best of Memphis music to sea. A 270-degree LED projection at World Stage immersed us in panoramic visual and sound effects at several show times including production shows and a “Frozen Planet” BBC Earth Experiences presentation accompanied by live music.

When our days and evenings were done we retired to our comfortable ocean-view stateroom with good closet space, loveseat, desk, big screen television and bath with walk-in shower. In the accommodations department, the Koningsdam features Holland America Line's first purpose-built staterooms for families and solo travelers among its 1,331 guest accommodations—something sure to be appreciated by that clientele. And when our 10-day voyage was done, we sure wished we had booked back-to-back cruises for even more rest and relaxation after the holidays!

For information visit HollandAmerica.com.

Image Courtesy Holland America Line