The Great Escape - Cruise Like a Norwegian

So, in a departure from my typical Disney theme, today I am going to write about my recent cruise on the new Norwegian Escape.  On November 28, I departed on a hosted cruise with the Janelle & Co Crew on the 3rd even voyage of this brand new ship.  It was a fun experience from start to finish!  

So let's start with accommodations: we stayed in a balcony room, and it was very nice. 

As usual, there are several clever hidey-holes and such to help keep you organized throughout the week.  The staterooms were furnished beautifully, and it still had that "new ship" smell. In the picture above, you'll notice 2 beach towels; each stateroom comes with 1 beach towel per person to use throughout the cruise.  These can be exchanged for clean ones at any time on the pool deck.  There is a $25 charge for a lost towel, however - so keep track of it. :) And in case you're wondering, I found the bed to be quite comfortable. 

The ship itself has a lot of "bells and whistles" so to speak, including a 3-story ropes course, several waterslides, a jogging track, and the first Margaritaville at sea!

And the kids were certainly not left out, either! There were lots of areas just for them to enjoy the company of other kids.  Entourage, the Video Arcade, and a huge splash and play zone were just some of the kid-friendly options.

Never fear; the adults had some private areas, too!  Spice2O is located aft, and it is a space for adults only.  This space is quite popular, so it's a good idea to grab a chair early.  There is a really cool Misting Grotto that's great for cooling off. After 7pm, this space is used for family-friendly deck parties, including a glow party and an 80's themed dance party.  The 80's party was pretty incredible!

For an even more adult setting, you can also pay to use the Vibe Beach Club for the week.  This area of the ship has a private entrance, and once inside it has a bar, lounge chairs, and other great accommodations away from the hustle and bustle.  If you want to enjoy this, you definitely need to book is as soon as you board, as there are no pre-bookings at this time.

For those of you unfamiliar with Norwegian, it is a freestyle cruising experience.  Most cruise lines have set dining times, early and late, with a show either before or after.  You have a set location to dine with the same staff each night, and depending on how large your party is, you are sometimes seated with other guests.  Freestyle Cruising is different in that you schedule (or don't schedule) when you want to eat, see shows, and who you sit with.  If you are a party of 2, you can have a table for 2.  If you want to dine with friends, great! There are 3 dining rooms, and you can eat in whichever "floats your boat" each night.  And just as you are used to when cruising, everything is included (except soda and alcohol, of course).  Have 2 or 3 entrees if  you like -- or all 4 desserts -- no one is judging. Taste, Savor, and the Manhattan Room were all fabulous.  The chocolate lava cake was probably the best I've had.

There are also multiple specialty restaurants aboard.  If you want to "upgrade" to a specialty restaurant, there is either a cover charge or else you will order á la carte.  Of course, Norwegian offers packages that include most of the specialty dining establishments, which eliminates the upcharge for the meal.  We took advantage of adding on this special offer with our "Freestyle Choice", and we were so glad we did! We enjoyed the specialty restaurants a LOT!  Moderno, the Brazilian Steakhouse, was incredible.

We ate at La Cucina (Tuscan style dining) the next night...

And then, what may have been the best meal of the trip - Cagney's Steakhouse!

Of course, there is always the option to dine at the buffet on Deck 16 - The Garden Cafe.  This place had great food - better than you'd expect!  I was very happy with my meals here.  

Entertainment-wise, there are 2-3 Broadway Style shows to choose from.  One is a dinner venue and requires an upcharge, but the other two are free - however, reservations are suggested.  Million Dollar Quartet and After Midnight both boasted amazing casts, and they were some of the highest quality shows at sea that I have seen.  I would even say the caliber was close to that of a Disney Cruise - and you know that's saying something coming from me!

There was also a "Howl at the Moon" dueling piano bar that had shows 4 of the nights.  Although I missed the first one, I didn't miss any others -- they were THAT good. We sat for a full 4 hours listening one night.  

Of course, there is a casino, and there are several other spots to hang out in a more "nightclub" atmosphere after dark should you so choose.  There is never a lack of things to do.  Oh - and since it's football season, the brewery always had the latest games on the TV via satellite.

One last area to mention is the spa.  I am a spa junkie, and it has become a big deal to me to treat myself to a Thermal Suite on my cruise vacations.  The facilities were beautiful here.

I very much enjoyed the facility offerings, although I honestly felt like the oversold passes into the thermal suite.  Finding lounge chairs actually became difficult, and the noise level was much higher than is usual - and so the experience was not as relaxing as I had hoped.  The steam room was broken for a couple of days as well.  I am hopeful that it was due to it being a new ship, and hopefully these glitches will work out given time.  The Spa Manager was very apologetic and promised to look into everything, so I would give this a try again. 

One other neat thing is that there is now a Norwegian iConcierge app available for iPhone and Android -- you can keep in touch with your onboard friends with unlimited calls and texting via the ship's wifi all week for the cost of $7.95 per user.  You can also check out what's going on throughout the ship!  If you want additional internet services (for Facebook, email, etc), there are packages for purchase.

Of course, as this was a hosted cruise, there were lots of friends on the ship - and we had the privilege of making many new ones.  Want to try Freestyle Cruising for yourself? Join us on the Great Getaway next October! We would love to have you aboard with us!



Cruising Excursions in the Caribbean

If you've been following my blog series, you know that I had the amazing opportunity to sail on the Disney Fantasy over the 4th of July holiday week this year.  For those of you who have never cruised, you may be wondering about getting off the ship in the islands.  And that is exactly what this blog is about! :)

While modern day cruise ships are destinations in and of themselves, they also provide us with the fantastic opportunity to see beautiful locations without having to constantly pack and unpack.  Think of a floating hotel - with LOTS of amenities!  Honestly, you never need to get off the ship - there is just so much to do! But at the same time, these gorgeous destinations are just begging to be explored, and hey, you're already there, so why not?

The first stop on our Eastern Caribbean voyage was St. Maarten.  St. Maarten is an interesting mix of Dutch and French, and there are lots of shore excusions to take advantage of.  In this case, though, we opted to just get off the ship to shop and sightsee.

 A word of caution; although you can get off at any port of call and "go it alone" so to speak, you must be very aware of the time.  The ship will leave without you if you're late!  If you are on an excursion organized by the Cruise Line, that's another story (they'll take care of you!).  Anytime my hubby and I decide to go somewhere aside from the immediate port area, we do so only through an organized excursion.  End disclaimer.  

The lovely thing about most islands is that there is fabulous shopping right in the port area, so no need to stress about missing the boat - literally. St. Maarten's main shopping district was a beautiful 10-minute walk.  There is also a ferry for $7/person each way.  I am glad we chose to walk, because I actually found the Love Shack along the way!

 Couldn't verify if there was glitter on the mattress... but there WAS glitter on the front porch...

Couldn't verify if there was glitter on the mattress... but there WAS glitter on the front porch...

Oh... and a goat...

So, how was the shopping?  There were a lot of lovely places and boutiques.  There was the usual touristy stuff, then a lot of American brands.  THEN -- we found Olde Towne!

And there was an adorable boutique that sells gorgeous one-of-a-kind glass jewelry.  So of course I had to buy a bracelet. :) Oh, this chocolate place pictured above was yummy too!

We also had some time to snap some pics of the beach and beautiful scenery:

There were lots of great excursions offered in St. Maarten - private beaches, scuba, snorkel, glass-bottom boat tours - but we just wanted to relax here.  Because we didn't do an official excursion, we were back on the ship long before most people returned.  This allowed us to enjoy the ship with a whole lot less people on it! And this is a great thing in and of itself - especially because the AquaDuck line was less that 10 minutes!

Another perk was that the Rainforest Room was empty.  What is the Rainforest Room you ask? AMAZING.  It's part of the Spa, and you can buy either a day pass or a length-of-cruise pass.  It consists of a variety of Saunas, Steam Rooms, and special showers that help you unwind and relax.  Then you go into a room with heated stone chaise lounges and stare at the ocean -probably fall asleep- and then stare at the ocean again as you are blissfully lulled by the ocean waves.  There is a scent of eucalyptus in the air - oh and did I mention the hot tubs overlooking the ocean?  Yeah, those are there too.  I HIGHLY recommend purchasing the length-of-stay pass, which includes sugar scrubs for each day.  I don't have pics of this, because people get weirded out when you're snapping photos in such a place - even if everyone IS in a bathing suit... :)

Back, now, to excursions.  Our next stop was in St. Thomas, and as you may know, that is very close to St. John.  I have been on great excusions to St. Thomas, but never to St. John, so, this time I went for the new experience! After breakfast, we embarked on an Eco-Hike Tour of Cruz Bay  & Caneel Bay with a stop at the Beach. 

We learned so much about the Island of St. John.  There is no airport on the island, and so the only way to get there is by flying into St. Thomas and taking a ferry over.  Incidentally, we took a ferry to St. John! It also is too small to port large ships like the one we sailed on.  St. John really has a lot of "desert" type things about it - water is at a premium, and they were experiencing a drought when we were there.  Fortunately, our guide had bottles of water for us as we hiked.  It is a gorgeous island!  

Mid-hike, we had a stop at Honeymoon Beach, which was just gorgeous! I mean... look at that water!

The water was warm, the sand was soft... but we still had a bit more of a hike before returning to the ship.  So we set off and visited Caneel Bay, home to the Rockefeller estate! People can rent bungalows here for their vacation, and it's quite a beautiful location!

After we ferried back to St. Thomas, we did just a bit of shopping at the port before heading back for lunch. 

It was a great day! But I have to say that my favorite stop was the last one... Castaway Cay! 

First of all, when we woke up, we could see the entire island from Cabanas (where we grabbed a quick breakfast).

As you can see, Disney's private island in the Bahamas is absolutely breathtaking.  The water, the sand - everything. Gorgeous. After our breakfast, we met up with our group on the dock and headed off on a nature hike/kayak adventure!  We learned a lot about the history of the Bahamas and it's flora/fauna.  It was extremely interesting!  We got to see a mangrove nursery, too, and that was where, on a secluded beach, we boarded our kayaks.  

Working a kayak is fun - but wow it is tiring!  We got to splash around on the beach a little, and then it was time to head back to the main part of the island.  On the way, we found this little thing - not sure what it is, but it has a Mickey on it!

And it was perfect timing - lunch was being served!  We chose to eat in Serenity Bay, the adult-only portion of the island.  It is the last stop on the tram, and it is beautiful!

If an adult-only beach isn't in the cards, there is plenty of fun to be had over in Pelican Point! 

Pelican Point has 2 parts, and it is the hub of shopping and activity on the island.  

There is a great snorkeling bay (and matching excursion!) here, and you can even rent bikes to tour the island at your leisure.  Even without equipment, there is no doubt you will have a blast on Pelican Plunge!

Can you spot the Hidden Mickey in that picture?  There are also kids' activity centers (on and off the ship), so there will never be a dull moment for the kiddos!

I have to say that Castaway Cay is one of the most fabulous islands I've been to.  It has so much to offer (even stingray swims), and the set-up of the beaches flowed nicely.  I truly can't wait to go back!

Have you been on an awesome excursion that you'd like to share? Comment below!

 

Dining on the Disney Fantasy

So, this post is all about food.  Those of you who know me are not surprised, because food is one of my all-time favorite topics, and pretty much it's one of the highlights of my vacations. There was so much amazing food on the Disney Fantasy! Warning: you will be hungry after reading this post!

So, let's start with Cabanas. Cabanas is a buffet that serves meals throughout the day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served up here. This is a great place to come for good food, fast. There is no dress code (many people were in swimsuits/cover ups), so it's easy to come and go throughout the day.  The theming of Cabanas is so cute! You can find the Seagulls from Finding Nemo , and there is an amazing mural on the wall as well. 

Food offerings at Cabanas range from fresh fish to burgers, delicious soups/salads, and great dessert options too.  This is also a place where you can grab a fountain drink or iced tea 24/7.  Oh, and coffee.  It's always time for coffee... 

Cabanas is busiest at breakfast and lunch, and there are a couple of hours each day where it will close down to switch food offerings. Not to worry, though! If Cabanas is closed, there is still food to be had out on the pool deck (Deck 11). Just stop by Flo's V8 Cafe for a great assortment of sandwiches, salads made to order, and of course, Luigi's Pizza. Themed much like Cars Land in Disney's California Adventure, this a great place to grab a quick lunch or a snack.  Yes, pizza is completely legit as a snack on a cruise. :) I should know...

Of course, there are also a lot of sit-down dining options. Disney Cruise Lines features a one-of-a-kind rotational dining schedule. There are 3 dining rooms, and your cabin/dining group moves among all 3 throughout the week.   the great thing is that your serving staff moves with you. I have to say that we were blessed with the most awesome duo with Maria and Sanaaj! I was sad to leave them at the end of the week. 

Onto the sit-down restaurants. Let's start with Royal Court. This is what I would call the "fanciest" main dining room.  There are gorgeous mosaics featuring the Disney princesses with their princes, and the scenes from the movies are beautifully recreated. There are special touches everywhere, including the pumpkin carriage light fixtures scattered throughout.  The atmosphere is quiet and regal, and of course, the food is served beautifully.  You can also dine here for breakfast or lunch, if you prefer a sit-down style meal. We did both at some point throughout the cruise, and it was so delicious!

Another of the sit-downs is the Enchanted Garden. This is a whimsical, garden-themed venue filled with flora and fauna. And as you dine, you watch the daylight fade to twilight... And that is when the light fixtures "bloom". No seriously they do! I really enjoyed the look of this one. This is another choice for breakfast on certain mornings. 

Perhaps the most talked about dining option is Animator's Palatte.  This restaurant is extremely interactive! On our 7-night cruise, we had 2 totally different experiences. The decor looks like an artist's studio, and you are surrounded by your favorite animated characters... on shelves, on screen... everywhere! And throughout the evening, the palattes on the ceiling change. 

Our first dining stint here involved your favorite turtle and mine, Crush! I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that we had Crush speaking Pittsburgh-ese! If you do not know what that is, well, be glad hahaha! The second night we dined in this location, we got to take part in be the animators! It was amazing to watch things come to life right in front of us on the screen. We even got credit for our work! Both evenings were so much fun. They were unique in ways that simply must be experienced to appreciate them fully. 

Now, back to the food. :) AMAZING. Here are some of the options. I think my hands down favorite was the Chilean Sea Bass. I could really go for some of that right about now... Oh wait, sorry, I digress.  

Although your dining experience changes each night, all three restaurants will serve the same evening menu, so you needn't worry about missing out on a great entree that any be served elsewhere. That being said, each night's menu was different, and it was even themed to some degree. On the Fourth of July there were special patriotic offerings (the apple pie sundae was phenomenal). Pirate night boasted dishes with swashbuckling names... And it was all delicious. Honestly top-notch in my opinion. The best part? You can have as many entrees or desserts as you like.  I may have had 3 desserts one night... Ok I did. (one of these was Brady's...)

But maybe, just maybe, you think you want to relax on your verandah. Or you would rather have coffee while sitting in your PJs. Fair enough! That's why there is a great room service menu available all day! We ordered coffee and fresh fruit many mornings and enjoyed our ocean view.  I should have taken a pic on an at sea day -- LOL!

Another fun thing to order is cookies and milk.  These suckers are GINORMOUS and super tasty! What a great evening snack! Or breakfast... Or midday snack... 

What about ambience, though? For those of you looking for a more upscale dining experience, the Disney Fantasy has two amazing options: Palo & Remy. Both require an upcharge; $30/person for Palo and $70/person for Remy. Reservations are required, and there is a dress code. We dined at Palo for brunch on our 2nd at sea day, so we got to enjoy the food and atmosphere while still dining at the Enchanted Garden in the evening.  

I think Palo is hands down one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Inspired by Venice, Italy, the term Palo actually means pole - as in the poles used to power gondolas. The decor was impeccable, and the view of the ocean was exquisite. The service, too, was fantastic.  She was attentive, but never hovered.  First, the server talks you through the dining options and courses.  Then, you head up to the buffet to sample as much as you like.  And get this- the server fills your plate for you! Go hungry, because you will want to try everything!  

Palo is known for their gourmet pizza, but since we were there for brunch, there were also scrumptious breakfast and lunch options. So, in the name of research, we tried it all!   We started by splitting the rum raisin pancakes.  Next, pizza! We got one and had them do half and half toppings to get the flavor of more than one option.  Palo is also famous for their lasagna, so we split a portion of that in addition to our meals.  My salmon was divine, and Brady loved his chicken parm.  Thankfully, sizes are portioned to allow you to get more than one, so we could have room for dessert. 

Speaking of dessert- making a choice here was even harder than at the appetizer buffet! There were at least two Nutella desserts... Clearly I had those. The cappuccino mousse and tiramisu were phenomenal, and Brady enjoyed all of his selections as well.   

My advice? Make a reservation! They fill quickly, so don't wait! You can reserve a spot ahead of time, or you can call when you embark.   

Remy is the other restaurant, and this one is French-style, themed after the movie Ratatouie.  There were little nods everywhere to Remy, the French Chef Rat. A bit of trivia... In the movie, a patron orders a certain bottle of $35,000 wine.  You can find this very same wine in the wine room here! If it's actually ordered, the rumor is that the Captain himself will come have a glass with you.  

Although we haven't yet dined at Remy, we fully intend to next time we are on the Dream or Fantasy! A more full report will be offered then.  

All this talk about food is making me hungry.  I think I'll go get a snack.  Until next time, friends... 

Cruising on the Disney Fantasy Part 1

With the launch of our new website comes the relaunch of my blog (which has been dormant for far too long).  For weeks now, I have been excited to share with everyone exactly how amazing my latest Disney adventure was.  This time, I embarked on a 7-night cruise Fourth of July cruise on the Disney Fantasy.  

 So excited to head out! We have our Disney swag and we are ready to go!

So excited to head out! We have our Disney swag and we are ready to go!

In a word, it was AMAZING.  As Disney Cruise Lines newest ship, the Fantasy is one I had never been on, and I couldn't wait to see it in action.  Taking the shuttle from our Disney resort made the transition seamless, and I loved watching the onboard video, which really got us excited for the journey ahead. Check In was a smooth process, and before we knew it, we were onboard in our gorgeous stateroom.  Now, if you have ever been on a cruise, you know that the staterooms/bathrooms can feel a little... cramped.  I can honestly say this was the best stateroom experience I've ever had.

There were so many hidey-holes; it was super-easy to find a place for all of our stuff.  And of course, having a balcony was fantastic.  We definitely enjoyed room-service for breakfast most mornings here.  I was even pleasantly surprised by the lifeboat drill, which was not nearly so chaotic as I anticipated.  

Everything about the week was perfect -- food, entertainment, facilities -- everything! I could spend an entire post on each one, but for the purposes of this post, I'll give you a bird's eye view of the experience.  The decor is quintessential Disney mixed with the beauty of the ships from the turn-of-the century. Even the deck chairs were inspired by those of the (dare I say...) Titanic!  Yep, I sat on one for that very reason.  

Everything was well-planned and well thought-out, from the theming to the technology, the kids' areas to the adult-only areas.  And each area had use throughout the day - even the adult lounge areas.  This part of the ship, Europa, was beautifully themed.  By day, it hosts family activities, and by night, it turns into the nightclub area. The Tube is inspired by the London Underground, Skyline Lounge features a gorgeous changing skyline of 7 cities of the world, the Carousel (Italy) offers snacks and drinks, O'Gills Pub offers snack and drinks with an Irish flair, and there is also a French-inspired Champagne Bar, Ooh La La.  On another note, the Skyline Lounge has hidden Jedis and Star Wars characters hidden!

And while we are on the topic of Europa, I have to give a shout-out to the bathrooms which were... amazing.  Um yeah -- I took pics of the bathrooms. It's totally not weird. :)

One of the highlights of the cruise was definitely Pirate Night!  This special night, featured on many of Disney Cruise Line's itineraries, has a special deck show, character appearances, and fireworks!  Even the evening's dinner was pirate-themed!

I mentioned earlier that our cruise was over the 4th of July.  There were special festivities and decorations for the event. 

All throughout the ship were opportunities for fun and interaction -- even indoors!  There are magical pictures, and there is a great scavenger hunt that is perfect for adults and kids alike!

Speaking of kids' areas... oh my goodness!  Kids of all ages have a BLAST here!  Since I'm not under the age of 17, I couldn't go into the clubs for pictures, but I will say that the children we traveled with absolutely loved going to the clubs.  I even witnessed groups of teenagers lunching and exchanging contact info so they could keep in touch after the cruise!

For little ones, the ship featured Nemo's Reef, which is a great splash area for the tiniest of guests.  Older kiddos could enjoy the AquaLab or the Mickey Pool.  The was also an amazing sports deck (complete with mini golf), and even shuffleboard.  Interestingly enough, a lot of kids were playing shuffleboard!

With so much to do, how on earth do you know where to go? Well, there's an app for that! No, seriously, there is! The Disney Cruise Line app has everything you want to know about your day at sea... and it works on the ship's WiFi.  No need to purchase a special WiFi package, either.  As long as you are on the app, you can use as much WiFi as  you need.  One tip: download it before you go! Also, there is a great text message feature embedded in the app, so everyone can communicate easily.  This will require each person to have the app and have a unique email address assigned to their app, however, in order for it to work properly. 

A word about the entertainment -- AMAZING.  Seriously, the best I've seen at sea.  No photos are allowed during the shows, but I would honestly pay to see any one of them on Broadway.  Actually, Aladdin is already on Broadway... 

This is just a quick overview of the fantastic offerings.  I will do another segment featuring the dining aspects of the ship.  As we all know, I am a huge foodie!  Stay tuned!