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