Tag-Archive for » Mediterranean «

Allure of the Seas…More Alluring?

When we heard that Allure of the Seas was going in to be refurbished, our initial reaction was: What could be better?

It is a rite of passage that cruise ships are refurbished every five years or so, even when they’re the biggest and arguably best of all mainstream ships. Until Harmony of the Seas arrives next spring, Allure will retain its big-ship status by about 100 passengers and by about 1,700 tons. It’s a title that has been Allure’s (on a technicality over Oasis of the Seas) since it arrived late in 2010.

The new and refreshed Allure is in Marseille today, early in its first Mediterranean season of weekly round-trips from both Barcelona and Rome, which means passengers can embark in either place. What are Europeans enjoying that North Americans haven’t yet seen, and won’t until Allure returns in November?

Izumi, a wonderful Japanese restaurant that cooked your dinner on a “hot rock” at the table, is now called Izumi Hibachi & Sushi and is fully Japanese cuisine. No mention has Izumi-hot rockbeen made if the hot rock (left) made the cut, but it was cool…proving something hot can be cool.

Sabor Taquieria & Tequila Bar is new. Hopefully, Europeans crave Mexican food as much as North Americans do.

In additiuon to new and upscale shops like kate spade new york and Michael Kors, there are 10 new suites (two Royal, six Grande, two Royal Family) and the Coastal Kitchen with its California-inspired cuisine is exclusively theirs. Does that mean mostly Californians book suites? The suite people also have a new lounge and new sun deck, so a part of the ship has clearly become more exclusive.

Funny…we thought it was already exclusive, just by being Allure of the Seas.

In the news…

• Major cruise lines assessing need to hire lifeguards on ships
• Australia cracks 'magic million' cruise passengers for first time
• Norwegian changes policy on passengers' taking food to rooms

Today at portsandbows.com: Cunard's three Queens 'dance' on the Mersey

Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas
7 nights
November 14, 2015
Venice (return): Kotor, Corfu, Athens, Crete, Argostoli
Inside: $588
Cost per day: $84

Cruise Home Port A Changed City


BARCELONA — This is our recollection of the first time we enjoyed Barcelona, four years ago…

Drive in from a beautiful seaside resort. Pay a small fortune to park the car, somewhere near the tourist haven known as La Rambla. Wander the narrow streets. Get lost. Stumble across a church that's been in a state of construction for decades. Eat at a tapas bar. Re-locate the car. Drive up a long hill to see Olympic Stadium. Leave.

It was fun but our second time around was better, on a shore excursion from Oceania's new Riviera.

We feel compelled to make a recommendation to anyone who might find themselves on a cruise stopping in this capital of Catalonia.

Whether you take a shore excursion from a cruise ship or just get off the ship and take a local bus tour, it's the best way to get a feel for Barcelona. And take a map. Follow the bus route on the map (not that hard) and you'll see, for example, that it's an easy walk from one end of Las Ramblas, by the sea, to the other, by the main square.

You'll get a glimpse of where the 1992 Olympic Games were held, mostly up in Parc Montjuic, which overlooks the city. It's a tough walk to get there, but possible, and a funicular runs constantly to transport visitors. The funicular was built for the World Exposition in 1929 but was extensively renovated for the Olympics. You'll also get a sense of how far apart everything is, which makes it easier to plan your visit.

Those two stops, plus the church we stumbled across in 2008, are recommended for first-time visitors. If you're lucky enough to get a tour guide like ours, Marija Vasiljevic Nadina, you'll find out as much as you need to know about La Sagrada Familia (the church), Antonio Gaudi (the man who designed it) and how the face of Barcelona has changed.

She is quick to point out that if you were here before the Olympics, this is a different place.

"The Olympics changed everything," she says. "It's different."

In a word, tourism.

Barcelonians were known for "turning our backs to the sea." By "turning around" they opened up the waterfront in a way it had never been open. The Olympic Village was built there at a time when it was a decaying area to be avoided, and as post-Olympic apartments they were all sold before the Games even began.

In turning its front to the sea, Barcelona opened its arms to the cruise ships. Now it is the largest cruise port in Europe, No. 3 in the world and the European home of the Riviera, which was christened here last week. Beaches, previously ignored, are beautiful. There's a large casino, and Starwood has built a tony W Hotel in the shape of a sail.

Tourism is king. As an example, the bull rings were all closed because there were demonstrations every Sunday by people carrying "blood-stained" blankets. It was bad for tourism. Now there is only bull-fighting in the south of Spain, where legislators decreed than the "art" of bull-fighting be classified as a "celebration of national interest" so now it is protected by law.

Then there's the church.

Construction has been stopped and re-started several times, primarily for lack of funds. Now, it is almost wholly supported by tourist dollars. There are often line-ups to get in, more than two million visitors a year and so many buses in the area that they are being outlawed from the front of the church to be parked a few blocks away.

It's a church that has inspired contradictory credible comments that it is both "sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant" and "one of the strangest-looking, even hideous, serious buildings in the world." It is probably both. Even Barcelonians don't like the final facade, under which is buried its only permanent resident, Antonio Gaudi.

"You have a word in English…gaudy?" says Marija. "I believe it means 'too much'? Yes, maybe that is Gaudi."

His sometimes-bizarre architectural tastes are everywhere around Las Ramblas, the best place to taste local cuisine. We went looking for two dishes: paella and zarzuela. Paella was everywhere but zarzuela, seafood-based like paella but without rice or noodles, was tougher to find.

Then, along came "Rodolfo King of The Ramblas."

Rodolfo Crespo's job is to coax tourists to a restaurant, called Living Barcelona, a block off the main drag. He didn't approach us, we approached him, in search of zarzuela.

"Si," he replied.

We dined at Living Barcelona. One of us had paella, one zarzuela. Were they good?


Oceania Regatta
14 nights
June 11, 2012
Miami, St. George's, Azores, Ponta Delgada, Motril, Valencia, Barcelona
Inside: $2,149
Cost per day: $153

Riviera's Entertaining Expectations

ON THE MEDITERRANEAN — It was opening night in the theater on the new Oceania Riviera. No doubt there would be stage jitters, if not fright. The show was the music of Sir Elton John and Billy Joel and never mind that the performers wouldn't look like EJ and BJ, as long as they more or less sounded like them the audience would understand.

Audience? What audience?

We looked around the Riviera theater that was being used for the first time, and estimated it would hold about 400 people. Smallish, even by cruise line standards. With the curtain about to go up, there were maybe 50 seats taken…60 tops…including ours.

Admittedly, it was the early show, 7 p.m. Lots of people don't want to wait until eight for dinner. Early birds, you know.

Plus, we had been forewarned. Oceania, we were told, is all about food. Entertainment is far down the priority list. We lowered our expectations accordingly.

Up came the curtain. The performers did not look like Elton John nor Billy Joel. "Elton" (Eric Reid) was black and "Billy" (Ian Parmenter) was probably young enough to be the Real Thing's grandson. They didn't even sound a lot like younger versions of the masters, but they didn't have to because the show they put on  — accompanied by two female voices (Camille Mesnard [far left] and Kelsey Youmans) and six dancers — was thoroughly entertaining.

Here's how good it was…

For the late show, after all the early-bird tummies had been filled, there was a full house. Two nights later the same cast did Now and Forever, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the change in material only elevated their collective talents. Two nights after that it was Flower Power, the hippy music of the '60s, before any of them was born. Another standout performance and, this time, a sellout.

In the midst of it came a version of Beatlemania, four "mop tops" was served as reasonable facsimiles of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and the music of the performers' parents (or grandparents). They did a credible job. They had the mannerisms down pat.

"John" had the same touch of arrogance, nose slightly elevated, and the raspy tinge to his voice. "Paul" crooned like McCartney on times and continued the long line of Beatles tribute acts of finding left-handed bass players…who knew there were that many? "George" was baby-faced (he was the youngest Beatle) and had all the subtle "dance steps", or whatever it was George Harrison did with his feet. "Ringo" was, well, Ringo except that this one lost his whiskers halfway through Sargeant Pepper.

Admittedly, we were attracted by shows that suited our tastes — we skipped a string quartet, among others.

In the end, we were attracted by the talent of the staff entertainment.

And in the end, it was very professional…and very good.

Carnival Victory
7 nights
August 26, 2012
San Juan (return): St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten
Inside: $539
Cost per day: $77

Oceania Riviera: Big Day in Barcelona

ON THE MEDITERRANEAN — They call it a "christening" when a cruise ship sails for the first time and, religious conflicts aside, it's probably the right term. The word dovetails nicely with cruising, the ship gets a ceremonial bath, and its name becomes official.

For the Oceania Riviera, this will happen tomorrow, in Barcelona, and the "font" (or bathtub) will be the Mediterranean Sea. The Riviera has prepared for the event by bathing in the Med for almost four days carrying a passenger load of mostly travel agents and travel writers who may or may not specialize in cruise ships.

This baby belongs to Frank Del Rio, the founder for Oceania, now a consortium of investors who justifiably think of her as an offspring of their own.

Like all babies, she's a beauty. She's clean and white and, if it's not impertinent to say it about of one so young, she has a great body with curves in all the right places. For her, that means sweeping balconies around her stern that soften her look. They also provide the owners (there are three "owner's" suites) and passengers with deep enough pockets that they likely own "something" of significant material value or they wouldn't able to rent suites that curve around the back of a ship.

This is our first time on a cruise ship that's sailing for the first time, with passengers and crew members as new to the ship as we are.

You can tell.

It starts with the smell. Everything new just smells that way, even babies, except when…well, you know. New ships are like new cars, but the smell's a little different, probably because ships  have restaurants and flowers and much more broadloom.

Although cruise ships are always clean, new ones are cleaner. The outside of the ship is whiter than white, if that's possible. As perfect as the Riviera was leaving Italy, new paint is already being applied. There are no marks on walls in the staterooms. The drawers are sticky not because they're sticky drawers, but because they're new. If crew members seem a little more nervous, it's likely because so much of what they do is new, too.

The Riviera will look her best in Barcelona tomorrow, because babies and brides always do on their biggest of days, but it's hard to believe they can make this baby look any better.

The spiritual side of the ship's ceremony is that she gets a godmother. The Riviera's is Cat Cora and, while she'll be part of the cruise christening, she wasn't chosen for alliteration, although her given name, Catherine, also starts with a "C". She was chosen for food, but that's another story…beyond Barcelona.

Celebrity Millennium
5 nights
May 27, 2012
San Diego, San Francisco, Victoria, Vancouver
Inside:  $399
Cost per day: $79

Recognizing Cruise Ship Impact

The last time we cruised out of Galveston, we were impressed that the hotel we booked for the night before the cruise allowed us to leave our rental car in the hotel lot for five days, until our return.

Just a little extra.

There’s a hotel in Seattle that is also catering to people who cruise. It’s called the “Seattle Cruise Transportation Package” and it includes an oversized studio suite, hot breakfast buffet, Internet and transportation for two from the downtown hotel to the cruise terminal.

It’s a Marriott hotel — called the SpringHill Suites Seattle Downtown/South Lake Union — and it’s a sign that hotels in particular are directing marketing more and more at cruise passengers. That tells you how much cruising means to an economy when a ship is home-ported in a city. How many of us want to go early or stay late in a city that’s home to the cruise ship you’re taking?

It’s not just a few more heads in a few more beds…it’s meals in the restaurants, gifts from the gift shop, parking where applicable (and where isn’t it applicable these days?).

The only flaw with the Seattle hotel’s pitch was there was no indication that there was any kind of bargain on the rack rate…in fact, there wasn’t even price. Lots of hotels these days have breakfast and Internet included, so discriminating cruisers are just going to do the math — room plus a cab versus room that includes a shuttle.

Hey, we’re not stupid!

Norwegian Epic
7 nights
May 27, 2012
Barcelona (return): Naples, Rome, Florence, Cannes, Marseille
Inside  $699

  • Categories

  • Archives