Archive for September, 2009

Disposable cups included

Friday, September 25th, 2009

One of the deals I made with myself when starting this blog is that I would be as honest as I could possibly be. That means that I can not always just provide positive feedback about cruise lines or hotel companies – after all, hardly any product is perfect. For example:

So here we were, exploring the beautiful beaches of the Bahamas. After visiting the Sandals Royal Bahamian resort yesterday, we decided to take a look at one of its competitors, the Breezes Bahamas resort, also on the white sandy Cable Beach.

Breezes Bahamas resort is part of the Super Clubs organization of “super all-inclusive” resorts. Unlike Sandals that is exclusively focused on couples, Breezes welcomes families (but in the Bahamas, no kids below 14 years of age), singles, couples, etc. Super Clubs also operates the more “adventurous” Hedonism resorts in Jamaica and brands like Grand Lido and Starfish, some of which will shortly be brought under the Breezes brand.

We started off with a very warm welcome by one of the resort’s sales people. She gave us a tour but couldn’t show any rooms since the hotel was fully booked.

Let’s start on a positive note: there were lots of people who were obviously having a great time. Whether that was because they were truly enjoying themselves or just too liquored up I don’t know, but it goes to show that the resort certainly fits a niche.

Also: the security guard and front desk staff at Breezes were much friendlier and more welcoming than those at Sandals the previous day. The physical facility of the resort: picture a U-shape building with a large outdoor pool area in the heart of the U. Restaurants and lounges were located at the “bottom” of the U and rooms in the two wings to the East and West. Apparently, the rooms were recently renovated although a guest we spoke to said that they still looked a little tired. Also, rooms don’t have a full-sized balcony, but feature sliding balcony doors so you do get fresh air and a view. Oceanfront rooms are at the top of the “U” and as close to the beach and the ocean as you can get. There is no room service and no minibar in the rooms. So far, no major issues. I won’t go into a full description of the restaurants and services available: you can easily find that on the Breezes website, and will concentrate on the services and facilities I used myself.

Once you’re equipped with a wrist band to identify that you “belong” there, the appeal of an all-inclusive resort for many is the fact that all meals and drinks are, well, included. Same here at Breezes: the combined swim-up/pool bar serves drinks all day long – but the quality of the drinks was less than average. The bar tender poured some “less than famous” brand of rum in a disposable plastic cup, then dipped in the cooler box and spooned an already-blended icy mix into my drink: here’s your Pina Colada, sir! Needless to say, I took a sip, then threw this glob of ice away. Maybe I am spoilt, but this certainly wasn’t the best Pina Colada I’ve ever had!

Also, unlike at Sandals, the Breezes pool bar is pretty much the only place to get a drink on/near the pool and beach area, so it can be a bit of a walk if you’re on the beach – and there often is a line.

Time for lunch: the poolside grill serves hamburgers in little paper disposable “plates”, provided you’re happy to stand in line. Quite basic: no vegetarian options, veggie burgers or anything either.

The other option was the buffet restaurant (Jimmy’s Buffet?) – a large cafetaria style dining hall with lots of tables for 2 and 4. The food consisted of a reasonable size salad bar and a selection of basic hot dishes: pasta, meatloaf with a vat of gravy that looked like chocolate sauce, fried fish, and doughy pizza (salami, shrimp or fish – so again nothing vegetarian). Compared to the variety you get on most cruise ship buffets (especially on NCL), this was probably one of the worst buffets I’ve ever seen.

The beach was beautiful, although quickly strewn with those disposable cups and in some places cigarette butts. Unlike Sandals, this is not a private beach and there were quite a few people walking around, trying to strike up conversations with guests to tout their wares: a time share salesman, a few ladies selling trinkets and scarves/parios, a watersports activity salesman, etc.

The pool was large and popular. The water looked a bit murky to me, but that probably was because so many people parked themselves for hours in the pool, drink in hand!

Obviously, Breezes appeals to some people: it is often reasonably priced and if you’re not too picky about the quality of food and drinks but you’re looking for a great beach and some entertainment at night, it may just be the rigth place for you. We met a few ladies who’ve been staying at this resort for 18 years. They said that the rooms were fine, the food just average, but they liked the entertainment and the value. We also met some people who stayed one night and then checked out because they hated it.

Would I recommend it? Breezes on the Bahamas would not be my first choice, but if your budget or the make-up of your travel party puts places like Atlantis or Sandals out of reach, it is still an option to stay on Cable Beach at an all-inclusive. If you’re not a heavy drinker, I would suggest taking a look at some of the non-inclusive resorts too, though.

Some hotels get it right…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

When some hotel owners renovate their hotel, it is like an episode of an HGTV home makeover show: all flash to make a quick buck – but unfortunately when you look closer you notice that a lot of corners are cut!

Not so here!  During a quick visit to the Bahamas, I am staying at the British Colonial Hilton.  Apparently this is the oldest building in downtown Nassau – about 7 stories that sit on a private (?) beach near the duty free shops and government offices of Nassau. 

Obviously, a hotel of this age has had quite a bit of work done.  Our renovated room has furnishings that are in good taste, fitting of a colonial style building.  The bed is extremely comfortable, a proper desk and desk chair that work: outlets that are easily accessible, desk light, high-speed Internet ($9.95 per day), cool tiles, crown moldings, tasteful artwork without getting tackily counter with a Cuisinart coffee maker for Lavazza coffee, a stainless steel fridge, floor-to-ceiling curtains that actually work and keep the room dark.

I know, all very basic – but you’d be surprised how many hotels can’t get this right!

About the Holland America Line ms Oosterdam

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I say it many times: we practice what we preach at Cruise Holidays and therefore we travel frequently on cruises around the world.  We feel that it is the only way to know what the differences are between the various cruise lines and the personalities of their ships, so we can make the best recommendations for our guests.

So it will come as no surprise that I have sailed on probably about 30-odd different ships over the past few years, varying from large “fun-ships” to small, six-star cruise ships, river cruise ships and some of the more unique lines like Windstar with their 300-odd guest sailing vessels.  With that experience comes the ability to quickly compare the level of service provided on a ship with that of its competitors.  And I am pleased to say that the crew on the ms Oosterdam was welcoming, warm and friendly.  The Captain, Arjen van der Loo, was probably one of the most personable commanders that I’ve met – talkative, informative and ready to talk – in a rather thick Dutch accent (and I can say so because I am Dutch myself) – about his ship, the itinerary and Holland America Line.  What a difference compared to some other lines, where the captain barely speaks for a minute and is almost impossible to understand, or simply is not interested in dealing with guests.  In that case, I say: go back to container ships – for many guests, the interaction with officers and crew is an important part of the cruise experience.

So did I find anything to complain about?  Service-wise?  Not really.  Of course, a higher level of service is always possible – but for the fares charged by Holland America Line, this Oosterdam cruise was definitely value for money in terms of service.

There are some ship facilities that I would have designed differently: for example, there are both male and female saunas just near the entrance to the spa.  Unfortunately, they are uncomfortably small: there is only room for about three people in the shower, one shower and a 3-foot bench to “cool down”.  On the opposite side of the spa are locker rooms with a beautiful view over the ocean, three or so showers, rest rooms and plenty of space.  Why not combine the two and simply have the sauna be a part of the locker rooms?

Of course, there is the option of purchasing a pass to the thalassotherapy pool and steam room area – maybe that’s why the “free” sauna wasn’t designed very attractively?

Fireworks

Friday, September 11th, 2009

We left Catania at about 3pm local time – a bit early, since we didn’t really have a chance to see the city itself, but after a while it became clear: this time allowed us to go through the Strait of Messina while it was still sunlight.  A bonus was a 10pm sail-by yet another volcano: Stromboli.

The sky was overcast, but an occasional lightning bolt in the distance outlined the shape of Stromboli.  At first there wasn’t much to see, but once we could see the northern side of the volcano, a red glow lit up the sky.  Passengers were lined up against the railing with cameras, full of anticipation. 

And then the fireworks started: Stromboli spit out some lava, or so it seemed, with red skies flaring up!  How we appreciated this show by Mother Nature.  It reminded me of sailing past Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii on a Hawaiian cruise we took on NCL America a few years ago.  Although some of my friends raved about their volcano show on another Hawaiian cruise, our display seemed to be not much more than the brake lights of a Chevy parked on the mountain. 

Fortunately, Stromboli obliged with a better show!

Catania and Taormina, Sicily

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Apparently, our bus driver believes more in the power of the two images of Virgin Mary and the rosary beads hanging from the rear view mirror than the power of seat belts. Navigating the hair pin turns on the narrow road from the heart of the gorgeous historic town of Taormina in Sicily to the seaside on the way to Catania, the driver casually chats with a colleague who is just hitching a ride and hanging out leaning against the dash board. 

In some ways, life is more casual here on Sicily.  We arrived this morning to a sunny day in the city of Catania.  Although there are some sights to see, including a fountain that features the emblem of the city, an elephant, and of course a “Duomo” like most major Italian cities, we decided to travel to the resort city of Taormina.  Long the choice for vacationing Italians, Taormina features a charming cobble stone street between two historic city gates.  Even the Romans visited Taormina and the city boasts a large amphitheatre.  The streets are now full of shops with knick-knacks, restaurants and gelato stores, and of course groups of tourists diligently following the leader with umbrella or cruise line sign in the air.  But walk a bit further and find little alleys with quaint fountains, beautiful churches and some stunning views over the Mediterranean Sea and the beaches towards Mt. Etna.

We got here quite easily: from the Catania cruise terminal, take a right towards the Catania Centrale train station, about a 15-20 minute walk mainly along the water front.  Connections to Taormina aren’t frequent, and more importantly, keep an eye on the return times so you don’t miss your ship!  But for about EUR 5-9 per person each way depending on the type of train you take, you can make your way to Taormina for considerably less than the cruise lines’ excursions.  Of course you won’t have detailed information provided by a tour guide.  Instead, take a good guide book or use the information provided by the tourist office on platform 1 of the Taormina train station. Note that the Taormina Giardini station is next to the sea.  The city however is uphill and a considerable hike.  From the train station, you’re better off taking a bus ride up to the city for about a EUR 1 instead.  A better option however is to simply travel from Catania to Taormina with one of the big blue buses that leave in front of the train station.  They take you to the main bus station in Taormina for only about EUR 4.50 each way.  Again, keep an eye on the departure times – the bus ride can take up to an hour and you wouldn’t want to be late for your cruise!