Our Trip to Anguilla

After our three days in St. Martin/Sint Maarten, we journeyed over to Anguilla for a wonderful seven-days on that island. For the first time in many summer trips, we’re talking about returning to our destination.

If you are considering Anguilla, you should know a few things before you book. First, if you are looking for either a massive party spot or a bevy of activity, stay away. This place is for those that want to rest and rest hard. There is one golf course and some tennis courts, but the primary focus of tourists is eating, sleeping, and sunning at the beach/pool. Second, it ain’t cheap. You’ve probably already seen the hotel rates, but restaurants will get you for a minimum of $100 with drink. Our cheapest dinner was at Picante, the local Mexican spot, and that was $78 including tip, but without alcohol. So again, if you want a cheap, party spot, you won’t find it in Anguilla.

Disclaimers aside – we loved Anguilla. It was fabulous. We wanted rest, and we got rest.

Travel

We took a ferry operated by GB Express to get from Sint Maarten to Anguilla. This was based on many of the comments over at Trip Advisor. We’re glad we took the recommendation. The public ferry that leaves from Marigot looked very hectic and crowded. GB Express boats seat maybe 12, and it is just a better operation. We made our reservations in advance and had no problems. (I should mention that we left our rental car at the dock in Sint Maarten, and Lesley from Kenny’s went there to pick it up.) I know there is a flight from SXM to AXA. It is about double the cost of the ferry and is all of 10 minutes. Maybe next time we’ll try that.

On Anguilla, we rented a car for four of the days. This was well worth it. We got to explore the island a bit, but it also gave us flexibility. We didn’t have to worry about calling a taxi ahead of time. It was also exciting to drive on the left for the first time in my life. I was disappointed, however, to get a car with left-hand drive. Next time, I’ll ask for a right-hand drive car. We used Island Rentals, solely because the concierge at the hotel arranged it. We got another white Toyota Corolla, but in much better shape than the one on Sint Maarten.

The Hotel

We stayed at the CuisinArt Resort in a Luxury Junior Suite. For those interested, we stayed in room 1007, which is the building farthest to the left, as you stand facing the beach from the lobby. We loved it. The resort is the perfect size for us, the service was generally good, and the amenities were great. It wasn’t perfect, and I’ll note below a few things that could be improved.

The Villas at CuisinArt Resort Shot from the Beach (#10, where we stayed, is farthest to the right)

We took a taxi from the Blowing Point Ferry Terminal to the hotel. It was $18 for that trip. We were met at the entrance by Stephane, the manager. He was somewhat ubiquitous at the resort, as was the #2 man, Fabio. Both were very pleasant and were helpful. As we checked in, we received our vouchers and our welcome drink. We were escorted to our room and the bags arrived shortly afterward.

The video below showcases the room, so I won’t go into massive detail here. It was more than comfortable, and the view was just amazing. I’ve never stayed anywhere before with views like that.

 

We never had trouble getting a seat at the beach or a seat at the pool. Attendants were omnipresent to “make-up” the chairs with towels and offer free bottles of cold water. There were also free floats for use in both the ocean and the pool. Each set of lounges, both at the beach and at the pool, came with a cooling umbrella. Mrs. Spidey and I commented multiple times about how nice it was not to have to get up at 6am to claim our chair. And to say that the beach was quiet is an understatement. Although all beaches in Anguilla are public, there really wasn’t anyone else on the beach but CuisinArt guests. Well, there was Mike the bracelet guy who came by every morning, but that’s about it. It was just pure, utter relaxation.

For some flavor of the grounds and the lobby, I shot two more videos below.

 

 

I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention the Beach Bar and Sam the bartender. I would be further remiss, if I didn’t recommend the frozen mojitos that he makes with fresh, hydroponically grown mint. They are crazy good. I’d be even more remiss, if I didn’t tell everyone that there is happy hour from five to six where all of Sam’s drinks are two-for-one. The beach bar at the CuisinArt from 5pm to 6pm is about as crazy as that place gets.

So, as crazy good as the place is, it could improve in a few areas:

1. Internet Access. I know we were on vacation, but we needed access to check email and see photos of our kids at camp. Internet in the room was wired and didn’t work for the last three days. WiFi was available only in the lobby and part of the pool. They have to get WiFi in the rooms. Stephane says they plan to do this in the next few months, when the hotel closes for hurricane season.

2. Coffee. Seriously. The in-room coffee maker was too upscale for us. It had these very small, individual demitasse coffee cups, and only the first two were free. At breakfast time, the only way to get coffee was by going to breakfast or ordering room service. Give us normal coffee makers and perhaps a few coffee urns in the lobby. That would be great.

3. Service oddities. We asked for several extra pillows upon check-in, which arrived right away. I sleep with two pillows under my knees for my back. I’ve done that for years. However, each morning, like clockwork, the extra pillows were moved to the closet up on top of an armoire. I then pulled them out each night. Turn down service was also nice, but we never used the slippers and never used the bathrobes on the bed. I’m just nitpicking here.

The Food

We purchased the Sea of Love package from CuisinArt. This included three lunches at Mediterraneo, three dinners at Santorini’s, including the Chef’s Table, one-day car rental, a wine tasting, and a spa package. We’re undecided whether to do this again next year. I need to do the math. All-in-all, I can tell you that we ate way too much while in Anguilla. It was great food, but there was just so much.

Mediterraneo

Mediterraneo is the restaurant where you eat breakfast, and it is then open for lunch. Breakfast was very, very acceptable. It was not spectacular. There is a buffet that includes many varieties of fruit, cereal, pastries, pancakes/waffles/French Toast, and some local salt fish, which I enjoyed. You can also order omelets. Coffee is European strong. That means stronger than Starbucks.

(I should note that guests also have an option to take a continental breakfast in the room. We did this twice and were able to eat on the balcony once. They delivered right on time, exactly as promised.)

Without a voucher, my guess is that lunch will easily set you back $50+ for two. That’s a lot, if you plan to eat lunch every day. We didn’t. We ate our three lunches and went without the other days. We just didn’t need it after a big breakfast and in anticipation of a large dinner.

Lunch there was very good. We recommend several things. Salad is made to order by selecting what vegetables and dressing you want. They have the same for pasta and pizza. Mrs. Spidey had the salad each lunch and said it was very good. I had a pepperoni/sausage pizza one lunch, and it was quite good. We can also recommend the lobster curry, the cheeseburger, and the grilled lobster. With a voucher, you get appetizer, main course, and dessert, and, in reality, that was just too much food.

Santorini’s

We ate at Santorini’s three times, including the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table was $195 per person, which includes five courses, each paired with wine. We agreed that, had we not bought the package, we would not have paid for it. The food and wine were good but, again, it was too much. Notable was some fried calamari on saffron rice for the second course. I like the foie gras for the first course as well. I will write, however, that we were a bit disappointed by the Chef’s Table, as it really wasn’t a chef’s table. We were the only people who ate the meal that night, and we were not given a seat in the kitchen. In fact, the chef never came out to talk to us. We never asked why or insisted, but we should have.

Our two other dinners at Santorini’s were ok. I’m not going to say they were the best ever. We each had grilled lobster once, which was very good. Again, with the voucher you got appetizer, main course, and dessert, and it was just too much food. I will say that I highly recommend the beef lasagna. It was outstanding. We had a bit of a service goof our last night there. We had an 8:00 reservation, but, when we arrived they did not have a table. We learned that they had seated too many walk-ups. After 20 minutes of waiting, we were given a seat inside (all others were on the veranda) and could see dirty dishes piling up. We were told we’d be moved as soon as a table became available, but then the first available table went to another group. We were eventually moved, and Fabio did wipe all charges for us. Nonetheless it was frustrating.

Off-Property

We ate at three restaurants off-property.

We had a drink and some small plates at Spice, which is at Cap Juluca. We had wanted to see what Cap Juluca looked like. Spice is in a building at the far end of the Cap Juluca resort, to the left as you look at the water. We sat at a table right overlooking the water, right where it lapped on some rocks. The restaurant web site just about shows where we sat.  In the dark, however, there really wasn’t a view. Spice occupies the same building as a wine bar called Flights and the Pimms restaurant. Mrs. Spidey had some fried calamari, and I had something called tuna four-ways, which was outstanding. I also had a flight of red wine that was very good.

A few nights later, we ate at Blanchards. I had read about Blanchards in the book “A Trip to the Beach,” written by Melinda Blanchard. The food there was very good, especially the corn chowder. We also had their famous Cracked Coconut dessert, which was better than anticipated. The Cracked Coconut is a chocolate shell with coconut ice cream and rum on the inside.  It’s unreal.  This time of year, Blanchards has a $49 price fixe meal, which we both took, although we paid extra for the dessert. When we got there, we surprised to see Samaro working there, as works at CuisinArt as well.  Turns out that Blanchards is his primary job.  Who knew?

The Cracked Coconut from Blanchards Restaurant

As noted above, we also ate at the lone Mexican restaurant on the island, Picante. Picante is located down on the end of the Island past Viceroy and past Cap Juluca. It seats perhaps 30 at small tables on a broad veranda. Mrs. Spidey had fish tacos, and I had chicken fajitas. They were both good. If you go, however, watch out for the hot sauce. Fortunately, I tasted a bit on the end of my knife before putting it on a fajita. It is H-O-T, hot.

Our trip also overlapped (not intentionally) with the annual celebration of Anguilla’s emancipation at their Summer Festival. We avoided crowds by heading down to Sandy Ground on the Sunday before the August Monday celebration. On Sunday, we saw the beginnings of what we assume happened on Monday. We saw local sailboats lined up at anchor ready for a race. We saw some larger power boats lined up in a row (literal touching) forming a mini party cove. We also saw many food and drink tents being set up. The pictures of the wall-to-wall crowds expected on Monday kept us away, but it looked like the younger set was ready to have a good time.

As I’ve told friends and co-workers about our trip, I’ve come to say that it’s the best trip we’ve taken since our honeymoon. It’s probably also the most expensive. However, it was worth it and, I think there is a good chance, once we figure out schedules, that we’ll go back again.

I need this view again.

My View from CuisinArt Resort on Anguilla

Advertisements

Delta Airlines to Beijing – Bonus Miles Make Up for Spotty Service

Last week, I flew Delta round trip from St. Louis to Beijing.   I didn’t do it for the great connections or flight times.  I did it purely for the miles.

Delta has a program now that provides for bonus miles and extra qualifying miles for elite status for flights from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham and Nashville.  I flew Delta through two connections (and a very, very low price), because every round-trip international business class trip originating in St. Louis and routed through a Delta hub nets 50,000 extra miles and double qualifying miles towards medallion status.  I’m already a Platinum Medallion, which gets me double miles on every flight.  Business class gets a 50% bonus.  It was a bonanza!!

I earned a total of 88,491 miles:

  • Round trip miles (STL-ATL-SEA-PEK-PEK-MSP-STL) = 15,396
  • 100% Platinum Medallion bonus:  15,396
  • 50% International Business Class bonus:  7,699
  • Special bonus:  50,000

On that one trip, I also earned 46,190 miles towards status, which nets me silver for next year and is less than 3K away from gold.  Note that you have to register for this Delta promotion in advance.  Visit this post at Gary Leff’s View from the Wing blog for links to all four city promotions.

The trip itself was very smooth.  I had six flights and four connections.  The flight from Atlanta to Seattle on the way out was delayed a bit, but I wasn’t close to missing my connection.  Beijing-Seattle pushed back on time, but sat for about 45 minutes on the tarmac.  Still, it arrived early into Seattle.  Thanks very much to Delta for making a four-connection round trip very smooth.

On the Atlanta-Seattle flight I paid $12.95 to use their Gogo Wifi internet.  My experience was very positive.  The connection was easy and fast.  I spent a bit of time chatting with friends, and the connection couldn’t have been smoother.  I used Skype to send texts to my family, although I wasn’t able to receive any back, because I hadn’t preauthorized it through my mobile phone.  I didn’t try voice on Skype, because my headphones and microphone were up on the overhead storage.  The only downside, was that my 757 did not have electric outlets, even in first class.  My laptop battery ran out before time to use the Internet.  What a bummer.

The international business class on Delta had ups and downs.  Although the seat wasn’t a flat bed, it was very comfortable, as were the pillow and duvet.  The flight attendants rated about a 7 out of 10, with most of the points earned by the crew from Beijing to Seattle.  The crew from Seattle to Beijing wasn’t impressive.  One flight attendant didn’t know the wine choice, even though there was only one red and one white, and others tended to be too chatty with a group of flight attendants that were passengers on that plane.

Business Class Dinner on Delta - That's Steak at Bottom Right

There were at least three other negatives to my Delta experience.  First, the video system itself had a smaller screen and a must narrower selection than Continental and United for comparison.  On my return, I watched Breaking Bad on DVD on my laptop and didn’t even pull the video unit out.  Second, the electric plug is located behind the passenger’s right hip and is nearly impossible to reach.  Third, and most notably, the food was just not good.  I took a picture of my dinner from Beijing to Seattle and have posted it here.  Yuk.  At any rate, who wants dinner at 10am anyway.  We should have had breakfast!!

I may take another trip to Beijing at the end of September.  No question I’ll endure the connections and layovers for the Delta miles, assuming the cost stays low.  I’ll renew Platinum Medallion on that trip.  And now I know not to order the steak!

One Traveler’s Ranking of Las Vegas Casinos

During our Las Vegas trip a few weeks back (see this post and this post), I visited 12 different hotel casinos.  There were several that I didn’t visit this time that I have visited in the past and know well.  I do not like all of them, and my like or dislike has nothing to do with whether I won or lost money.  This post includes my thoughts on the ones I know and a final ranking.  If you don’t see a Casino (i.e., Rio, Hard Rock, TI), it’s because I haven’t spent any time there recently.

Full-disclosure – I am a slot player.  As such, here’s what I want in the casinos I go to and what forms the basis of my ranking:

  • Newer slot machines and newer poker machines
  • A floor plan I can navigate
  • Light
  • High ceilings
  • Bathrooms are easy to find
  • Frequent drink offers from waitresses
  • Some level of winning – I don’t have to win big or every time, but don’t eat my money without giving something back.

Newer Slot Machines and Newer Poker Machines

Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Wynn.

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, New York-New York

Casinos need to keep up with the times.  If I can visit a casino after one year and find the same machines in the same spot, I think that’s bad.  Newer machines have larger screens, so I don’t want to see the smaller ones any longer.  Lastly, I’d like to see casinos keep up with trends:  machines with more than one screen, machines with respins, and newer theme machines.  This year’s new themes are Sex and the City, Amazing Race, Lord of the Rings, and the Monkees.

A Floor Plan I Can Navigate

Three Best — Palazzo, Wynn, Palms

Three Worst — New York-New York, Planet Hollywood, Caesar’s

Please make your casinos big, square and open, with easy-to-find exits.  I can never find the exit at New York-New York.  I get lost in Caesar’s – really.  PH is just a mess with a big circular area with the down escalators to the buffet in the middle.  Yuk.

Light

Three Best — Aria, Palazzo, Palms

Three Worst — Luxor, Monte Carlo, Caesar’s

Back in the day, casinos had no windows and doors were sealed so no light could get in.  No longer.  I want real light from the outside coming in.  The Palms is a bit like the casinos on Native American reservations I’ve seen in Minnesota and Arizona, with big entry ways that carry light in from the parking lot.  Luxor, Monte Carlo and Caesar’s are old school.  The casinos are deep inside the building with no light at all.

High Ceilings

Three Best — Aria, New York-New York, Palazzo

Three Worst — Flamingo, Monte Carlo, Palms

High ceiling for me equals comfort.  I don’t want to feel claustrophobic.  As much as I dislike New York-New York, the ceilings there can’t get much higher.  On the other hand, the ceilings at Monte Carlo are so low that I think the little black “eyes in the sky” hit people on the head as they walk by.

Bathrooms are Easy to Find

Three Best — Palms, Venetian, Wynn

Three Worst — Aria, Flamingo, Harrah’s

Honestly, I had trouble coming up with three best here.  Let me make a special shout out to the Palms, with very clearly market restrooms with directional signs.  Good for them.  As far as Aria, Flamingo and Harrah’s – I’ve been home 10 days, and I’m still looking for the bathroom at all three places.

Frequent Drink Offers from Waitresses

Three Best — Aria, Palms, Wynn

Three Worst — MGM, New York-New York, Planet Hollywood

Kudos to Aria here.  I was approached at least once every 10 minutes and asked for a drink.  On the other hand, I played over an hour in the same spot at PH and MGM and wasn’t asked once.

Some Level of Winning

Three Best — Flamingo, Harrah’s, MGM

Three Worst — Caesar’s, New York-New York, Palms

I come not to praise Caesar’s, but to curse it.  I could win once, couldn’t I?  Just a few bells or bonus games?  Say what you will about Flamingo and Harrah’s, but I win there.  I won this trip, the trip before that, and the trip before that.

Final Ranking

  1. Wynn
  2. Aria
  3. Palazzo
  4. Harrah’s
  5. Flamingo
  6. Venetian
  7. Mirage
  8. Mandalay Bay
  9. Palms
  10. Bellagio
  11. Encore
  12. MGM
  13. Luxor
  14. Planet Hollywood
  15. Monte Carlo
  16. Caesar’s

One last note – we have been up to Fremont Street and into some of the casinos up there, like the Golden Nugget.  They have an entirely different feel.  They are small, cramped, less glitzy and more smoky.  Some say that you can win up there, but we didn’t notice anything appreciably different.  Because of the large number of casinos on Fremont Street, I excluded them from the rankings.  They would be towards the bottom anyway.

Trip Report – Aria Hotel and Casino at City Center in Las Vegas

Tuesday night, Mrs. Spidey and I returned home from four nights at the Aria Hotel & Casino at City Center in Las Vegas.  We arrived on Friday evening and left on Tuesday afternoon.  I posted already about our discovery of the Buffet of Buffets, so I won’t rehash that here.  In this post, I’ll stay focused on the hotel itself.

Our Room

We stayed in a Corner Suite on the 8th floor.  We were disappointed by the low floor, but that was actually better than their first proposal of the 5th floor.  I think we’ve learned our lesson about arriving at 7pm on a Friday evening in the summer.  Most of the high floors were already taken.

The Corner Suites are local at the far ends of the hallways – literally as far as you can walk, a good three to four minutes from the elevators.  They are 920 square feet and consist of a small entry way, a powder room, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.

The sitting room had a small bar area that included both the mini-bar with items to purchase and any empty fridge for your own water.  Be careful, as this is one of those mini-bars where just lifting an item can result in a charge.  Examine your bill carefully, as we were billed for some chocolate almonds we never ate.  We used the mini-fridge to store a 12-pack of Diet Coke we bought at a CVS just out on the Strip.  The sitting room also has a desk, a couch and chair, and what appeared to be about a 50-inch HDTV.  The bedroom had a king-sized bed and a smaller HDTV.  The bathroom had two sinks, separate shower and tub, and a separate commode, which included a “washlet” toilet.  More on that in a later post.  There is also a television in the bathroom.

The Sitting Room in the Aria Corner Suite 8125

One of the room’s signatures is the way the curtains, lights, temperature and television are all controlled by a master handheld at the side of the bed and on the television.  Curtains and lights can also be controlled on the wall in several locations.  We found this interesting, but not the easiest system to use.  The curtain buttons on the walls are not labeled.  As a result, it’s not clear which control controls which curtain until you see what moves when you press a button.  In addition, the controls on the television remote are a bit sticky.  Sometimes you click up or down to go to another item and sometimes you click sideways.

The Room Controls on the Bedroom TV

The other signature is the floor to ceiling windows of the Corner Suite.  Although our view was more limited from the eighth floor, the windows and views didn’t disappoint.  There were great views from bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room.

The Tub in Aria's Corner Suite with a View of the Strip

The View from Corner Suite Bedroom Including the City Center Tram and the Rio

Because we had a suite, we were given newspapers every morning, and the wireless internet was free for up to four devices.  We had two laptops and an iPhone connected.  If you are in a regular room, the WiFi costs $15 per day.  Remember this when you compare rates.

Things we liked – separate sinks, a desk outside the bedroom, three televisions, the windows (for the view and for the light), the available mini-fridge, the ease of connecting to WiFi, the 2:30pm checkout time upon request, the quality of the housekeeping, and the washlet toilet.

Things we didn’t like — the pillows (too smushy and not enough), the slippery floor of the shower, the complexity of the electronic controls, and the slow draining sinks..

The Casino

Mrs. Spidey and I play machines, not tables.  From what we saw there was plenty of variety among the tables, and I clearly saw $10 blackjack tables mid-day.  The video poker machines were relatively basic and standard.  We saw few of the newer machines that allow multiple bets and multiple hands.  The slot machines did seem to be among the newer machines, including Amazing Race machines, Monopoly machines, and Sex and the City machines.  Compared to other hotels we visited, the Aria Casino definitely has a newer feel to it and, in that way, is like the Bellagio, Wynn and Palazzo.  Places like Monte Carlo, Harrah’s and the Flamingo have a much cheaper, outdated feel.  Mrs. Spidey turned $100 into $300 on dollar video poker.  I won periodically on the slots, but Mrs. Spidey was the winner in the family.

While you are in the casino, don’t forget to sign up and use an MGM Mirage Players Club card (now called M Life), even if you only play machines.  We played for four days and ended up getting a combined $23 in free play and $50 off our bill.  Get the card, play, and then visit the desk to ask for the comps.  They won’t come automatically.

The Pool and Spa

The Aria pool is nothing fancy.  There are two pools there, plus the Liquid Pool, which explodes on the weekend with a young crowd.  I have not seen so many people in such a small wading pool.  There appeared to be enough lounge chairs and plenty of umbrellas at the main pools.  It was not difficult to find a waitress, and there were cups and a jug of ice water for anyone to have.

We visited the spa/gym twice.  Each visit was $30, but there is a 3 days for $80 deal as well.  The $30 gives you access to the gym and the locker room areas.   The gym had plenty of weights and cardio equipment.  The treadmill on which I ran had an adapter for my iPhone.  Once I plugged in my iPhone, I was able to listen to music or play videos from my iPhone on the television screen.  The machine was also compatible with the Nike+ iPod app and automatically recorded my workout.

The spa was very comfortable and well-appointed, second in my opinion only to the Wynn.  The spa has a sauna, a steam room, three hot whirlpools and one cold plunge pool.  There are ample towels and the robes are comfortable.  There are plenty of grooming supplies from Q-tips to disposable razors to shaving cream to hand lotion.  Both times I worked out, I spent more time up in the locker area than in the gym, relaxing on a lounge chair near the whirlpool.  In fact, I wrote the Sunday post about George Steinbrenner on my iPhone sitting there.

There are two other pluses to the gym.  First, with access you get unlimited drinks – they have waters, juices, and sodas – plus fruit, tea and coffee.  Second, there is a co-ed porch overlooking the main pool.  On this porch is a small pool and a few chairs.  In theory, you could pay your $30 every day to have access to this porch.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with the gym.  It is very relaxing and a great way to stay out of the casino or, in my case, out of the heat.

I should also mention that I visited the salon for a shave.  I had never been shaved with a straight razor before.  The shave cost $75 including tip, but included facial treatments beyond the shave.  Vinnie, the barber, was very friendly and conversational, although I worried about answering him when the straight razor was moving down my neck.

The Location

City Center is located between Bellagio and the Monte Carlo, just across the street from Planet Hollywood.  You can walk inside through to the Monte Carlo and take a tram over to the backside of the Bellagio.  Aria is set back a bit, however, even in comparison to some of the other hotels.  It was about a ten minute walk from the lobby out to Las Vegas Boulevard.  We walked through the Crystals mall out to an overpass between the still under construction Cosmopolitan and Planet Hollywood.  Initially, we had some trouble finding the exit, as Crystals is still being built out, and store construction creates a few dead ends.  Once we figured it out, we were fine.  Whether we took the tram to the Bellagio or walked out to the road, it was a bit of a trek from hotel to street.  That much said, it’s right in the middle of the strip and, even in the heat, we had an easy walk back from the Palazzo one night after seeing Jersey Boys and eating dinner at Dos Caminos.

Bottom Line

The Aria is probably our second favorite hotel now behind the Wynn, although, for comparison, we’d like to stay at Bellagio one more time when the pool is open.  We feel like the Wynn’s basic room (often going for $99 in the summer mid-week) is sufficiently large with floor to ceiling windows, that we don’t need to pay for a suite to be comfortable.

Despite our challenges with the electronics, the room was indeed comfortable.  The pool was easily accessible, and we had no trouble finding machines we liked to gamble.  We only ate at the buffet and Todd English’s Public Urban Bar, but they were very good.  If we had to do it again, we’d get there a bit earlier to get a higher floor.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part Two

In last week’s Travel Wednesday post, I detailed five tips for future travelers on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  My family and I spent a week on the Freedom of the Seas in late May and early June, traveling to Haiti, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel.

This week, I conclude my list, with an additional six tips.

1. Get up early if you want lounge chairs near the pool on the days at sea

Despite a “guest conduct policy” that prohibits saving chairs and signs that say attendants will remove personal items left on an unoccupied chair for more than 30 minutes, we never saw any issues with saving chairs.  However, we did see many people disappointed by 9:00am when the only chairs they could find were either in the shade or on deck 12, one level above the pool, where the wind is fierce.  Getting there early is even more critical if you want chairs by the adult pool.  These are premium seats for the quiet and for the chair cushions which aren’t available at other pools.

The Adult Pool on the Freedom of the Seas

Our cruise had two days at sea, and on both days we got up around 8:00 and put out towels, magazines, sun tan lotion and other markers to stake our claim on two lounge chairs near the adult pool.  By the time we finished breakfast and made it up to our seats around 9:30, all the chairs were long gone.  No one had disturbed our stuff, and we settled right in.  We recommend making friends with the people near you, so that you can protect each other’s chairs when you step away for food, a massage, or to gamble.

I’ve seen other reviews that suggest our behavior is revolting and mean-spirited.  Sorry.  I spent a lot of money on this vacation, and I got up early to get the seat I want.  If you want a better chair, get up earlier than me.

2.  Book your own excursions

We booked excursions in Jamaica and in Cozumel on our own, not through RC.  We found both excursions through Trip Advisor and found the reviews to be accurate. In one instance we had a better time and saved money, and in the other we did something that RC doesn’t offer.

On Jamaica, we booked a day-long tour that included climbing Dunn’s River Falls, a tubing trip down the river, and a stop for lunch.  Our guide, Phil Lafayette, kept us entertained with his stories and his narration of the surroundings.  When rain washed out the tubing trip, he took us to nearby areas for more sightseeing, and he reduced the cost.  The cost should have been $55 per adult and $45 per child under 11.  We found similar trips offered by RC that were double the price.  Finding Phil at the dock was easy, and we were one of seven or eight families that did the same thing.  (By the way, if you haven’t climbed Dunn’s River Falls and you are physically able to do so, I highly recommend it.)

On Cozumel, we participated in the Amazing Cozumel Race.  This is offered by Carnival, but not yet by RC, so we booked it ourselves.  We walked, swam, and ran 3.5 miles through and around downtown Cozumel in 90 minutes, moving from clue to clue as in the television show Amazing Race.  We finished third, behind a group of four 20-somethings and behind another family with older kids.  It was nearly 100 degrees, but, except for a bit of family bickering at the clues, we really enjoyed ourselves.  The race was inventive and challenging.  The cost for the four of us was $268.

3. Get private lessons on the Flowrider

The Flowrider lives up to expectations.  Located on deck 12 at the rear of the ship, the Flowrider is a “ride” in which water pulsating very fast up an incline provides resistance to allow “riders” to surf or boogie board.  As you might imagine, the lines get very long, especially during the days at sea.  At about five minutes per surfer or boogie boarder, it takes a while to get through the line.

For $60 per person, you can take private lessons on the Flowrider.  We signed our son up for surfing and our daughter up for boogie boarding.  At 9:00pm on the second night, they had one-on-one instruction in a group.  For example, my son was one of four surfers for the hour, but each time he was up, he worked directly with an instructor.  During the lessons, the surfers and boogie boarders can use the whole Flowrider each time, whereas during the day, the Flowrider is divided in half to allow more people to use it.  After the lessons, both kids qualified to attend “expert sessions” early in the morning when lines are shorter.  We can’t recommend these lessons enough.  Below is video from our kids lessons.

4. Get a “cabana chair” in Haiti

Unfortunately, we found information lacking about RC’s private beach at Labadee, Haiti.  We checked for maps at guest services and asked around, but could learn almost nothing.  The head of the excursions desk on deck 5 knew zero!  I want to pass one thing on to you.

When you get off this ship, go straight and take the path almost as far as you can take it.  By walking straight and far, you come to a less rocky area, from which you can swim.  However, you will also find “cabana” chairs.  These are two normal chairs pushed under a half-moon, umbrella like cover that provides shade and a bit of privacy.  They are first-come, first-serve.  If you don’t care about swimming, then find some shade under a tree.  But, if you want to swim and want shade to relax, go directly for a cabana chair.

5. Return to the ship earlier than normal in Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman is a tender port.  This means that you go from ship to tender (a boat) to the shore.  At all other ports, you can just walk off the ship.  These tenders become natural bottleneck as they fill up with passengers and leave the dock.  The line quickly gets long and winds through the port area.  When the sun is hot and the line moves slowly, it’s no fun.  If we had to do it over again, we’d head back to the boat on the earlier side to avoid the lines and take advantage of quiet on board ship.

6. Depart on your own terms.

After going through departure, I have two tips.

First, don’t forget to fill out your departure times on a slip in the room.  We forgot and ended up in group 20, which was scheduled to leave at 8:30am.  We were in no rush, but 8:30 was just too late.  There is commotion all over the ship.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to sleep late.  I recommend something around 7:30 or 7:45.  Remember to fill out your forms and leave on the earlier side.

Second, if you are antsy, you don’t have to wait for your number to be called to leave.  The departure group numbers are the order in which luggage is delivered to the baggage area.  It is not a limiting factor on when you can leave the ship.  If you are in group 20 and want to leave with group 1, you can.  However, you are stuck in the baggage area until your bags come out.  Although we were group 20, we departed when they called group 15, and only  had to wait a short time for our bags.  Not one person asked us what our group number was except the person directing us to the right luggage carousel.

I hope this week’s and last week’s tips are helpful.  If you have other questions, post a comment and I’ll answer as best I can.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part One

In late May/early June, our family went on a one-week cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  The cruise left Port Canaveral in Florida and went to RC’s private beach in Labadee, Haiti, to Jamaica, to Grand Cayman, and to Cozumel.  There were also two days at sea.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and recommended the cruise to families and couples.

Spidey on Labadee, Royal Caribbean's Private Beach on Haiti

The Freedom of the Seas is one of the Freedom Class of ships from Royal Caribbean and was the largest cruise ship in operations from its launch in 2006 until the Oasis of the Seas was launched in 2009.  The Freedom of the Seas has a capacity of 3,634 passengers and 1,300 crew.  It cost $800 million to build.

Rather that do a straight review (there are 412 such reviews at Cruise Critic), I thought I would share with you, over two posts, some tips for after you decide to take a cruise on this ship.  Let’s start with food, since that is often (always?) the central point of cruises:

1. Buy Bottles of Wine Not Individual Glasses

My colleague Mike told me about this before we left, and he was right.  Glasses of wine in the dining room can be expensive – in the $15 range.  However, if you know that you want wine every night and don’t mind the same wine for two nights or more in a row, buy a bottle.  At the end of the meal, your waiter marks the cork with your table number, takes it away, and then brings it back the next night for you to finish.  Since we had only two drinkers (my wife and I), this worked better than the RC Wine Plan, where the fewest number of bottles you can buy is five.  The per bottle cost of the Wine Plan is less than we paid, but we couldn’t have possibly drunk five bottles in a week.

2. Try the Buffet for Dinner

The food in the dining room is generally very good, and the service has a nice pace to it.  However, I urge you to try the buffet for dinner at least once.  After a long day in Cozumel, we decided to hit the buffet for dinner and were pleasantly surprised.  Before even considering the food, there are four clear pluses of the buffet:  1) you can wear whatever you want (no need for long pants), 2) you can eat as fast or as slow as you want, 3) you can try a lot more things, and 4) you get a great view up on the 11th floor, compared to the 3rd, 4th, or 5th floor views from the dining rooms.  We found the food to be of great variety and very tasty.  They had everything from sushi to Indian to pasta to burgers and pizza.  I had an ice cream sundae for desert.  It was a great way to start a relaxing evening.

3. Get the Early Dining Seating for Dinner

Yes, this tip may just reflect our preference, but 8:30pm is just too late for dinner for us.  If you get the 6:00pm seating, you can go as late as 6:30 and have no problems.  Since it takes at least 15 minutes to get your food, you are really eating at 6:45.  As far as the “My Time Dining,” which gives you flexibility:  we found that there was a lot of scrambling by those families to pick a time every day.  6:00pm dining also means you see the shows after dinner, which fit our schedule.

4. Get the Fountain Soda Package

This worked for us, but we are pretty big Diet Coke/Diet Pepsi drinkers.  The cost is $6 per day for adults and $4 per day for kids.  If you don’t buy the package, each soda is $1.50 plus 15% gratuity.  On the first day of the cruise, they offered the soda package at a discount, so I would wait to buy on board.  Unfortunately, there’s no self-serve soda, although I hear that’s coming.  Instead, you have to go to one of the bars and show your room key with a sticker that identifies you as having purchased the soda package.  We bought two – one for my wife and me and one for our two kids.  You could always flash someone else’s card with the sticker to get a soda, so sharing is definitely possible.  $6 per day = 4 sodas per day or 2 sodas per person, which is well below our normal drinking rate.  We certainly exceeded that and got our money’s worth.

That’s it for food tips.

Let me add one other tip and then save the rest for next Wednesday:

5. Prepare to be Disconnected

Royal Caribbean claims to have mobile phone service for those whose phones support GPRS.  However, I found the data service on my iPhone to be very spotty and completely unavailable for the last day or so.  I could make calls, in theory, but any data service from email to  texting to Twitter just didn’t work most of the time.  In my case, work paid for the international service, but I would check your rates to see if it is even worth it.  As far as Internet, you can get access, but it is very expensive — $0.65 per minute or packages such as $150 for 500 minutes.  Those minutes go fast if you have two kids like mine that live on Facebook.  There are no newspapers on board, so the best you can do is CNN Headline News, which gets boring after a while.

Next week – tips on activities and excursions.