Product Review – America’s Test Kitchen Gluten Free Cookbook

gluten free cookbook

America’s Test Kitchen gluten free cookbook

America’s Test Kitchen has a show on TV and also does live demonstrations onboard Holland America’s ships. Since they do make an appearance onboard, it seemed fitting to review their cookbook for my blog when I was given one. Usually I just look recipes up online and after looking over several pick the one that looks like it would best suit my needs and alter it from there. Or combine the best aspects of several different recipes. I very rarely follow recipes as written. Since this is a review of a cookbook the intention was to follow their recipes exactly, but that didn’t quite work out.

all-purpose gluten free flour blend

America’s Test Kitchen’s all-purpose gluten free flour blend

I’ve done a lot of gluten free baking over the years as my sisters are both gluten and dairy free. Recently I have found that I can only tolerate gluten and dairy in small amounts now, with milk and cream being the worst offenders. Not surprising that it would catch up to me eventually since gluten and dairy problems run in the family. More and more gluten free products have become available in stores over the years as well as ships having gluten free foods more easily available.

whole grain gluten free flour blend

America’s Test Kitchen’s whole grain gluten-free flour blend

THE HOW CAN IT BE GLUTEN FREE COOKBOOK VOLUME 2 FROM AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN

flour comparison by America's Test Kitchen

America’s Test Kitchen compares recipes made with their flour blend to the same thing made with store-bought blends

Not just a cookbook, this volume starts out with an introduction to America’s Test Kitchen and then general information about gluten and its replacements. That is followed by their flour blends which includes information about why they chose those particular flours as well as the recipes for their blends. They have one for all-purpose flour and one for whole-grain flour. They also have short reviews on a number of various brands of store-bought gluten free flour mixes. (Personally I’ve found some of the new one-to-one mixes perform far better than previous store-bought all purpose flour mixes I’ve tried in the past. I dislike anything with bean flour, which used to show up in a lot of the all-purpose blends so I avoided them for years and chose to mix my own flours. Bean flour is not in the new blends I’ve tried recently. One-to-one blends mean you can substitute that flour for wheat flour in ordinary recipes, which you can’t necessarily do with other gluten free flours.)

ATK gluten free waffle

gluten free waffle cookbook page

America’s Test Kitchen’s cookbook also includes a section on gluten free baking techniques with helpful hints, a section on how to make recipes dairy-free, information on binders and grains, and reviews on gluten free products like bread and pasta. Beyond the information section the book has lots of recipes for baked goods and some for salads and main dishes as well.

Whole Grain Gluten Free Waffles

ATK waffle recipe

America’s Test Kitchen whole grain gluten free waffle recipe

I decided to try their whole grain flour mix because it does not call for powdered milk like the all-purpose one does and I wanted to try it exactly their way without substitutions or omissions. Since milk is the thing that upsets my stomach the most I’d have to leave out or replace the powdered milk in the standard blend. I found I had to make a substitution in the whole grain blend after all though. The Flax USA brand of ground golden flaxseeds they recommend is not available in any local stores near me and when I tried to order it online every source I checked said it was out of stock. Not knowing if any other brand would be as finely ground as their recommended one should I bother to order it online, I just got what the local store had which was the Bob’s Red Mill they said was too coarse.

gluten free waffle

waffle made with America’s Test Kitchen’s whole grain gluten free waffle recipe

The dough held up quite well in the waffle iron. All of the waffles held together and none of them stuck to the waffle iron. The dough was quite thick though and I did have to add more milk as they suggested for too thick of dough. (Their recommended non-dairy milks are almond or soy for this recipe.) As I was mixing the dough initially I thought it looked pretty thick and was tempted to leave out at least 1/3 cup of the flour mix, maybe even 2/3, but wanted to make the recipe as they had at least the first time – other than the sugar. Their recipe calls for 1/4 cup of sugar and I just couldn’t see putting sugar into waffles. No other waffle recipe I’ve ever made called for it and once you add syrup it would just be putting sugar on sugar, way too much sugar at breakfast for me. The waffles browned well and tasted just fine without it. I let the dough sit the half hour like they said, but it still looked grainy, probably due to the fact that I had a more coarsely ground flax. Once cooked the waffles neither looked nor tasted grainy. They were actually quite good. I’ve used a variety of recipes for gluten free pancakes, but doubt that any of them would hold up in a waffle iron as this dough does. I will use a bit less flour next time though. Leftover waffles can be frozen and used as toaster waffles, they hold up that well – at least mine did. They were thick Belgian waffles that barely fit into the toaster.

Orange-Flavored Chicken

orange chicken in ATK cookbook

America’s Test Kitchen cookbook orange chicken

I’m not sure why they call this orange flavored instead of just orange chicken since it’s made with real oranges and calling food flavored usually denotes artificial flavoring, which there is none of. I couldn’t follow this recipe exactly because it calls for fresh garlic and ginger. Too much fresh garlic upsets my stomach and any fresh or even too much powdered ginger makes me throw up. Weird I know since people use ginger to prevent nausea, but it is what it is. Instead I used a teaspoon each of garlic powder and powdered ginger from the spice rack. I also cut the amount of sugar in half because that looked like way too much for a main dish. I don’t normally use sugar in anything but desserts, and even there I usually cut the amount from what the recipe calls for. The chiles were optional and I opted to leave them out. That’s the sort of thing I pick out of food, not put into it. Spicy is not my thing. There were no juicing oranges available in the stores near me and regular oranges didn’t make the full amount of juice the recipe called for so I was also a bit short on the orange juice the first time I made this recipe. Not being one to put unnecessary plastic into the environment I used Tupperware (well actually Rubbermaid) instead of plastic bags for marinating and shaking coatings onto the chicken, which works just fine and can be washed and re-used rather than thrown out after one use. I wash and re-use plastic bags too, but not if they had meat in them. The Rubbermaid containers can go in the dishwasher for sanitizing, plastic bags not so much.

gluten free orange chicken recipe

America’s Test Kitchen gluten free orange chicken recipe

The orange chicken was good, but a bit spicy for my liking so the next time I made it I left out the cayenne pepper and used just a bit of smoked paprika instead. I also cut the garlic powder to half a teaspoon and cut the sugar down to 1/8 cup because even with half the amount the recipe called for it was pretty sweet. I bought some orange juice so when the oranges didn’t make enough I had some to add. I also pan fried the chicken rather than deep frying because that just uses way too much oil. The chicken was just as good if not better pan fried rather than deep fried and no big pot of used oil to get rid of afterword. I liked the more orangey less spicy, not as sweet batch the second time around better. Which of course is personal preference. Some people love spicy food and like lots of sugar in everything. Overall I liked this recipe, though it was kind of a lot of work and time consuming so not something to make when there’s not a lot of time to make it.

ATK gluten free orange chicken

gluten free orange chicken made with America’s Test Kitchen recipe

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Food on Explorer of the Seas

cruise ship in Honolulu

Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas

Royal Caribbean has lots of food options on their ships, and Explorer of the Seas is no exception. With a preference for eating at places that are included in the cost of the cruise rather than those that charge extra, we had most of our meals at either the dining room or the buffet. Free food could also be found at the 24-hour café on the Royal Promenade and at lunchtime in a little stand along the walkway near the café.

dinner at the captain's table

roulade of chicken at the Captain’s table

We were fortunate enough to be invited to the captain’s table on the first formal night. It’s in the dining room, but with a special menu just for that table. The food there was delicious, our best meal of the entire cruise.

cruise ship lobster

lobster dinner on formal night

Food in the dining room mostly good but not impressive. Like all ships we’ve sailed on some days had far better menus than others with formal nights generally having the best food. Sometimes you have to decide among several things that sound really good. Other days it’s a struggle to find anything appealing. Luckily there are some every day options for those times when there’s nothing interesting on the daily menu. Some items were very good and some not so much. Maybe the entire meal, or sometimes one thing on the plate would be excellent, accompanied by things we’d rather do without. Or substitute for other things, which is also an option when ordering. The other people at our table had all sailed with Royal Caribbean before and said the food on this ship was not up to their usual standards. Perhaps because as a long cruise with very few ports there weren’t many options for restocking fresh food items. The menu has well-marked gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, and low-calorie choices.

cruise ship buffet food

dinner at the buffet

While we often have breakfast or lunch on cruise ship buffets, we rarely ever eat dinner there. On the Explorer I tried it on the first night. Dinner there was actually quite nice. There was no sign of the usual buffet crowds present at breakfast or lunch so it was easy to find a seat and pretty quiet and peaceful. The food was good and they even had an ice cream station that is not there at lunchtime.

buffet station on cruise ship

gluten free corner

The buffet has a lot of different stations. There is a lot of repetition from one station to another for some items so when lines are long there is often somewhere else to get the same thing with a shorter line. Some stations do serve unique items not found anywhere else on the buffet though. Near the back there’s a gluten free corner. It has a pretty good selection of different gluten free items, but it also seems to have mostly the same things every day so over time on a long cruise it’s not that much choice. At least it’s there though, and there are some items in the regular part of the buffet that are also gluten free like fruit and most things on the salad bar as well as vegetables and some proteins.

Johnny Rockets

sandwich at Johnny Rockets

We did try a couple of the pay-extra eateries. Johnny Rockets was fun to do once for the experience, but the food was not worth the extra money. There was nothing on a bun other than beef. The French fries were the same as what the buffet served. Milkshakes are an additional charge above the price of eating there, though sundaes are included in the meal.

Johnny Rockets

fries and onion rings served with a ketchup smile at Johnny Rockets

Some of our tablemates tried Chops Grill, the ship’s steak house and premier eatery. They quite enjoyed it with one couple going back several times. The ship also had a Japanese place called Izumi but we did not talk to anyone who had tried it so I have no idea whether or not people like it. I’m not a fan of sushi so it wouldn’t be my thing.

cruise ship premium restaurant

Giovanni’s restaurant on Explorer of the Seas

Giovanni’s Italian food was very good. Though you can have more than one appetizer, they are huge. The meal also includes an entrée and dessert. These items are not available elsewhere on the ship. The dessert cart held several tempting treats. Tiramisu is the most recommended, but I don’t like coffee or anything with coffee in it and had chocolate cake instead.

24 hour cafe

café on the Royal Promenade

The 24 hour café on the promenade had pastries and muffins at breakfast, sandwiches, pizza, and sweets for lunch and dinner, and sandwiches and things overnight. Only the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and specialty coffee cost extra. The rest of the things at the café are free. They also had regular fresh-brewed serve yourself coffee, hot water and an assortment of teas at no charge as well as iced tea and cold water.

lamingtons

lamingtons from the Royal Promenade café on Explorer of the Seas

Some afternoons the café had lamingtons. At first they were available all afternoon, but as the cruise progressed they vanished quickly once all the non-Australian passengers figured out what they were and how delicious they are. That was one of the best desserts on the entire ship. Our table mates didn’t know what they were when I mentioned them and never managed to get to the café early enough when they had some so one day I got a whole plate full and brought them to dinner to share. They thought these chocolate dipped coconut topped cakes were awesome too.

cruise ship dessert

English trifle dining room dessert

Overall the ship had plenty of food and lots of choices so there’s not much likelihood of going hungry. Anyone who is not extremely picky or restricted by severe dietary limitations could always find something they liked. (And those with dietary restrictions can make arrangements in advance so there is food available for them too.)

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Cocoa Beach

Cocoa Beach

Cocoa Beach – internet photo, but this is how it looked – nearly deserted

After visiting Kennedy Space Center the day we disembarked from Carnival Magic in Port Canaveral, Florida, we expected to spend the next day in Cocoa Beach at the beach and in the pool at the vacation house we rented for a couple nights. Sheri and I had stayed in Cocoa Beach once before years ago and kept ourselves amused all day with cheap Styrofoam boogie boards and ocean waves. The house we stayed at just happened to have boogie boards among their generous collection of beach toys, but mother nature had other ideas.

Aussie in America

Sheri driving on the left – something this Aussie hasn’t done since she was an American teen

There’s no Waffle House where any of us live and we remembered eating there and liking it before so we went to the closest one for breakfast. For a tiny place with more employees than they had room for it was a bit surprising that none of them seemed too anxious to take our money after we finished eating, but the food was good. The waitress said the weather report for the day was likely to include tornados in the evening, something quite uncommon for that area.

Cocoa Beach vacation rental

vacation house in Cocoa Beach

Our vacation house sat on the edge of a river, with the ocean beach across a street about a block away. When the river has whitecaps and even the pool has waves it’s not a safe day for small children to play in the ocean. They’d been promised a beach day though and the tornados weren’t expected until evening. We walked to the beach and stayed just long enough for the kids to make a couple sand castles in the wind. Nobody remembered to bring a camera or even a phone so we didn’t get any photos. Not too many people braved the beach on such a windy day, but we did see a couple people walking dogs and a couple others in the ocean braving the cold water for big waves. Maybe a good boogie boarding day for them, but definitely not safe for small children to go anywhere near the water.

vacation rental

pool by the river at the vacation rental house

Back at the house the kids played in the pool for awhile in spite of wind and cold water. Meanwhile a chair blew off the picnic area near the river and into the water. Sheri rescued it, but it got broken hitting rocks on the way in. The wind kicked up higher so we sent the kids inside and moved all the other yard furniture and a couple kayaks farther from the river into more sheltered areas of the yard. A couple staying in the upper floor of the house came out and helped us tie the kayaks down. Meanwhile part of the fence blew down.

vacation house

inside the vacation rental house

We cooked dinner at lunchtime and figured on sandwiches for dinner, just in case the power went out. It didn’t, but we did lose internet and TV when the storm fully kicked in that evening while we were watching the tornado warnings on TV. Our cell phones let out the alert signal, only instead of the usual amber alert following that awful noise they said the area was under tornado warning and to seek shelter. Our phones all did that a couple times. Luckily we were on the ground floor of a house with very thick walls and the recommended place to seek shelter was the interior of the ground floor of sturdy buildings away from windows. The house had hurricane shutters, but they only worked in one of the two rooms on the side facing the storm.

tornado warning from a cell phone

cell phones give tornado warnings

Lightning flashes started in the distance and soon approached close enough where the sound and light came simultaneously. Although it was dark outside, the lightning lit up both the pool and river light as day. Trees bent in the wind, but remained standing. Eventually pouring rain pounded the roof. Even if Sheri’s kids hadn’t been scared enough to want her to sleep with them they would all have ended up in the king-sized bed in the kid’s room since the roof in Sheri’s room leaked in the torrential rain. It was on the river end of the house in an area with that bedroom and a sunroom that appeared to be an addition to the original house or perhaps a former porch closed in to make more rooms. When we went in to close the hurricane shutters we found a big puddle in the middle of the floor as well as water dripping over the bed. Quickly we moved her luggage out, though some things had already gotten wet. There were a couple buckets in a kitchen cupboard so I put one under each leak. The owners of the house live in Germany and had it managed by a local company so it’s likely they didn’t know about the leaks even though water stains on the ceiling showed it was not the first time it had happened. Sheri sent them an email after the storm passed to alert them of all the damage – and to let them know the cause.

tv weather warning for tornado

tornado warning on TV

Neighboring states like Georgia got hit hard with tornadoes, but none actually formed where we were. Before we lost TV reception the newscaster was saying something about swirling winds though so it may have come pretty close to forming some. A lot of planes got diverted to other airports, but by morning when we were all flying out they got the schedule pretty well back on track so we managed to leave more or less on time. We saw a lot of branches on the roads around the airport, and the clean-up crew picking them up. We had some turbulence at take-off since there was still some wind, but not so much to interfere with planes flying.

Cocoa Beach vacation house

The fence just starting to blow down. The palapa roof over the picnic table blew off too.

Things may not have gone as planned at Cocoa Beach, but we definitely had a memorable visit.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Hakodate, Japan Cruise Ship Port

HAKODATE

Holland America Westerdam

Westerdam in Hakodate

One of our dining room tablemates on Holland America Westerdam was born in Japan so I’ll trust her on the pronunciation of this Japanese city. She said it’s Ha (as in ha ha ha) ko (rhymes with no) da (rhymes with paw) tay (rhymes with play) – assuming you pronounce all those rhyming words like a west coast American (the way most people speak on American TV shows).

Mt Hakodate

Mount Hakodate

Hakodate is located at the southern tip of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Mount Hakodate dominates the view from Hakodate, the island’s third largest city. The mountain’s summit is reachable by aerial ropeway gondola, bus, or car and offers excellent views of the city.

street decoration in Hakodate, Japan

Hakodate street decoration

Hakodate was Japan’s first city whose port was opened to foreign trade, in 1854. It was the biggest city on Hokkaido before the Great Hakodate Fire of 1934 burned down ¾ of the town when a chimney from a public bathhouse blew down in a storm and extreme winds quickly spread the fire. Hakodate features four distinct seasons with about 150 inches of annual precipitation. Summers are generally warm but not hot, with average high temperatures in the warmest month (August) around 78 degrees F.

Hakodate cruise port

information booth at Hakodate cruise port

HAKODATE CRUISE PORT

The ship passed through a small channel between lighthouses on the way into the bay and docked across from a junkyard and next to a container port. There’s no terminal building, but they had a visitor information booth set up under a canvas tent near the gangway where passengers exit the ship. They had some local area maps and booklets on attractions available. Japanese ports are very good about having visitor information and maps right at the port.

Hakodate port view from a cruise ship

port view from the Westerdam

The cruise terminal is 4K away from the city center. Complimentary shuttle busses take passengers to a bus terminal next to the train station in town. There are also taxis available. From the shuttle stop people can take a bus or train to other attractions or walk to the nearby morning market. From the morning market it’s not too far to walk to the Red Brick Warehouse, which is now a tourist shopping destination.

Hakodate, Japan morning market and map

map of Hakodate at the morning market

welcome sign at Hakodate morning market

one of the market stalls had a sign just for the cruise ship passengers

People who don’t mind a bit of a hike could walk from there to the lower ropeway station. In addition to the cable cars people can get to the top of the mountain on foot or by bus. The cable cars were down for maintenance during our port stop leaving only the other options for anyone wishing to reach the top.

Hakodate, Japan morning market

local shopper at the morning market

The morning market sells mostly seafood. Besides many stalls selling whole fish and other raw seafood intended for locals to buy and take home, there are numerous places with seafood available ready to eat or prepared while you wait.

Japanese menu

menu outside a restaurant picturing the food

Menus posted outside many of the little restaurants around the outside of the main morning market building are often examples of the food in either pictures or fake food.

Japanese street food

street vendor by the market

The streets nearby are full of little booths under canvas tents or even just umbrellas. Just like shops in the building, some sell merchandise and others ready to eat food.

squid tank at Hakodate morning market

squid fishing at the morning market

Catching your own squid seems to be a popular theme with squid tanks in several small restaurants as well as the popular one in the center of the main marketplace. It’s not hard for people to catch the one they want as the gear is set up for snagging them rather than enticing one to bite a bait. Once caught the person manning the booth prepares the squid for the one who caught it to eat. They have tables next to the tank so the diners have a place to sit and enjoy their food.

in Hakodate, Japan you can buy squid ink ice cream

squid ink ice cream shop

Other stores in the area and at the red brick warehouse offered a variety of sweets, though not necessarily things westerners are familiar with. Ice cream stands are quite popular and at least one offers some interestingly different flavors like squid ink ice cream. (It had some more appealing flavors too.)

red brick warehouse shops in Hakodate, Japan

red brick warehouse shops

We saw a lot of packaged items where you really can’t tell if that thing under the plastic is some sort of sweet or raw seafood. Of course anyone who can read Japanese could look at the label, but by just the product itself people not familiar with the food there really can’t tell.

shop with squid decor

squid décor at the red brick warehouse shops

Squid and cantaloupes seemed to be the most popular things for the area with squid décor even in places where squid weren’t for sale, and besides fresh cantaloupes available at many market stalls, cantaloupe wine is a specialty of the area. If you aren’t sure what a cantaloupe is you may live where it is called a rock melon.

streetside vending machines

vending machines are a thing all over Japan

We saw a couple more tourist information booths around town besides the one at the pier. We also saw a lot of vending machines not just around Hakodate, but all over Japan. Not just inside buildings, but also sitting out on the sidewalk on the streets. Mostly they sold things to drink, but a few had things like ice cream or other food. We also saw rickshaw rides and harbor cruises near the red brick warehouses.

corn candy at Hakodate market

Corn chocolate anyone?

Things to do on your own

Mount Hakodate – aerial ropeway gondola, mountaineering
Goryōkaku – star fort turned park, popular for springtime cherry blossom viewing
Goryōkaku Tower – observation tower at the park
19th century Russian Orthodox Church
Museums, statues and historic sites
Rickshaw ride or harbor cruise
Morning Market and Red Brick Warehouse shops

Hakodate morning market

market stall inside Hakodate’s morning market

Cruise Ship Excursions

Excursions offered from the Westerdam included a hike in a national park an hour away by bus, and a best of Hakodate tour stopping at Goryokaku fort and tower, the magistrate’s office with historical exhibits, the Morning Market, and the Museum of Northern People. It was also supposed to include a ride up the ropeway, but since it was closed for maintenance and inspection they had to go up by bus instead. More tour options were a visit to the Morning Market and ropeway – again substituting a bus for the tram, one going to the Morning Market and Goryokaku park and tower, and a scenic bus tour driving through the city and to the top of Mount Hakodate.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Strange Happenings on a Cruise Ship

Carnival Vista

Carnival Vista

In some ways every cruise is different, but in other ways they are pretty much the same. The ship sets sail. Some days are spent at sea and others in port, there’s lots of food and plenty of entertainment. On most cruises the entertainment comes from the ship and its staff, but Carnival Vista had some randomly entertaining passengers as well.

Faros hotel in Greece

Faros 1 hotel

We boarded the Vista in what they call Athens, but the port is actually in nearby Piraeus. We stayed several nights in Piraeus just a few blocks from the dock. We actually walked much farther than the dock while staying there, but took a taxi to the ship on boarding day because of luggage and rain. We got a nice room for a low price at the Faros 1 Hotel. It would have been great if it weren’t for the bar across the street that blasted loud music outside starting about midnight and getting louder and louder throughout the night, not closing down until morning. All activity stayed inside the bar, they just blasted their loud music out at the 3 hotels across the street for no reason other than to be incredibly rude and obnoxious. It’s not like it would attract passers by to become customers. It was on a narrow side street where nobody would go unless they already had a destination there. Not to mention in the middle of the night where nobody was out walking about anyway. The other strip joint 2 doors down stayed politely quiet on the outside with just a sign above the door indicating their existence, proving there was no need for all that racket. You would think there would be some sort of city ordinance disallowing loud music blasting all night long, but apparently not.

cruise ship balcony

balcony on the Vista

Enough about odd things on land and back to the ship. As the Vista set sail from Athens we went out on our balcony to watch it pull away from the dock. So did passengers from many other rooms. People all up and down the ship stood out on their balconies peacefully watching the ship leave the dock when all of a sudden a very loud orgasmic OH, OH, OH pierced the air. We could see all sorts of people leaning this way and that, looking up and down trying to figure out which balcony the sound came from. We figured one or two doors down from us, probably on our deck, but possibly one above or below. Except for the participants, nobody will know for sure – except anyone watching from shore since we were on the land side of the ship. Or if anyone on the bridge happened to be out in the docking wing because from there they can see all the balconies…and since we were leaving the dock if they use that area for leaving port as well as for docking there would have been.

cruise port Piraeus

Athens cruise port – actually in Piraeus

Later in the cruise we were walking down the hallway to our cabin late one night. One of the inside rooms had the door propped open. Normally the only people who ever prop open stateroom doors are the cleaning crew, who do so while they are in a room cleaning. It was way past the time they normally finish their evening cleaning. Somehow an open door just draws the eyes in, especially at an abnormal time wondering why anyone is cleaning a cabin so late at night. Except they weren’t. No stewards in that cabin. Just a man and a lady in the bed, mostly covered by the sheet, but with her bare shoulders and his bare upper body visible. They both waved as we were quickly turning our heads the other way and picking up the pace moving down that suddenly endless hall.

inside cruise ship cabin

inside cabin

The ship also had some odd happenings that were not so entertaining. Some passengers on cruise ships like to decorate their cabin doors. With Halloween fast approaching, this cruise had more door decorations than normal, some pretty elaborate. At least for a time it did. Though there was no magician on board, somebody had a habit of making door decorations disappear. Some here and there all about the ship, and pretty much all of them in the hallways closest to our cabin. We’re not door decorators, but met some people on board who are. Like so many others, some of their things vanished without a trace. Someone somewhere may have had quite the Halloween display inside their cabin.

cruise ship door decorations

passenger cabin door decorated for Halloween

Meanwhile while decorations kept disappearing from cabin doors, inside the cabins very much unwanted smoke kept appearing. Not that the decorations vanished in a puff of smoke like in a magic show. These incidents were unrelated. Cabins from multiple decks in the rear port quarter complained of smoke in the rooms. Okay maybe not the cabins, but the occupants. The best the crew ever did was bring in an ionizer, which kept busy moving from room to room, but only cleared the air until the next time the undiscovered offender decided to have another smoke. Some cabin stewards can sniff out a smoker almost instantly, but apparently whoever had this one was either unwilling or unable to find them despite smoking in cabins being clearly against the rules as well as a fire hazard, and people from numerous cabins complaining about the smoke.

Most cruises go by without any odd things happening so this one was quite unusual with so many strange events, though far stranger things than these do happen on cruise ships.

 

 

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Snorkeling in Belize

Holland America Veendam

snorkel boat returning to the Veendam in Belize

It’s a long tender ride from ship to shore in Belize. Tenders are used when there is no cruise ship dock and the ship waits offshore while smaller boats bring passengers to land. These are sometimes the taller lifeboats off the ship and sometimes somewhat bigger boats that come out from shore to bring people in. We did see someone offering snorkel tours at the dock last time we were there, but that was a few years ago. Not knowing if that would be available this time, and not wanting to drag snorkel gear around if it wasn’t or have to go back for it if it was, we booked an excursion through our ship, the Holland America Veendam. (Yes the excursions always provide snorkel gear, we’d just rather use our own.) The other advantage of booking water-based excursions through the ship in Belize is that unlike other ports where the tendering distance is not so far, in Belize excursion boats pick you up right at the ship. At least that was our past experience from other cruises.

snorkel boat

snorkel boat in Belize

I didn’t do any ship’s excursions last time I sailed on the Veendam (out of Boston) so I’m not sure if it is this ship in general or just the crew on our Cuba trip, but out of all the cruises we’ve ever done on ships of varying sizes, this one had the absolute worst organization when it came to shore excursions and getting people off the ship. Granted it’s a small ship, but it still holds 1350 passengers so lines can get out of control. Often ships will have different excursions meet in different places around the ship (or sometimes on shore when the ship is docked). The Veendam had everyone come to the theater. Then they set their table up in front of the stage where there are multiple ways to get to it rather than outside one of the doors where there is just one way to get to the table like most other ships. The tickets said starboard side, but while most people lined up there, a few came in the other side, walked right past the line and went straight to the table. They should have been sent to the end of the line from there, but were not. Meanwhile the line went out of the theater, down the hall, and wound around near the stairs and elevators where newcomers had no idea where the end was and ended up joining in wherever happened to be handy. The tickets specified what time to be there for each excursion, but people tend to ignore that coming very early to last minute depending on their individual habits.

private island

dock on Starfish Island

They did not even separate bus or boat tours other than by the numbered stickers given, nor did individual tours have anywhere specific to sit and wait for that tour to be called, unlike other ships we’ve been on that often seat everyone on the same tour together. Ships nearly always have everyone on a specific tour follow a guide out of the meeting area in a group, where on the Veendam it was everyone for themselves meaning people leaving the theater sometimes got mixed in with those on different tours. More people than they had room for crowded the lower theater level. Though they suggested some wait upstairs not many actually did. We went up there and even though it’s one more floor down to the tender portal there was no crowd to fight our way through on the way to the door so we got a faster start. They kept announcing that everyone had to wait for the shore tenders so it would take awhile to get all tours to shore. They got up to number 4 and we had number 8. Shortly after a brief announcement saying some groups might be taken out of order they called number 8 saying that we were special enough to have a private tender. Which probably ticked off all the clueless people still waiting thinking we got priority on one of the shore tenders. Only it wasn’t a tender, it was the excursion boat. Instead of leaving groups 5-7 fuming they could have just been honest and said it was a sea based excursion leaving on the tour boat.

Starfish Island

swings in the water and on the dock at Starfish Island

Our excursion was called Starfish Snorkel and Island Getaway. The name comes from Starfish Island. The boat comes from there and they ran the tour. It was quite large for a snorkel excursion boat. Kind of resembled a barge with seats and a roof over most of it. Part of it also had canvas sides. It did have one head (bathroom) and a small bar area at the back. On the way to the reef they served water. Once we finished snorkeling they had rum punch for those who wanted it.

Caribbean coral

coral in Belize

Belize is on the Mesoamerican barrier reef,  the second largest coral reef in the world stretching over 600 miles from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras. The snorkeling where we went was pretty good by Caribbean standards, but didn’t measure up to what you find in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or around the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia. When we took the independent (not through a cruise ship) Trilogy excursion in Hawaii I was happy to see that they provided reef safe sunscreen for people to use as well as educating everyone onboard about the need for using it. Considering the number of people cruise ships bring to coral reefs each week you would think they would all jump onboard with educating and promoting any way to save the reefs that they can, but none of them ever do.

snorkel excursion

snorkelers in Belize

Coral in the Caribbean is at an 80% loss. The chemicals in ordinary sunscreens kill coral and the oils smother it. One drop in the amount of water held by an Olympic swimming pool is all it takes to cause damage so having hundreds of people slathered in it daily is a serious problem and most of the passengers have no idea they are doing any harm. Ships rarely sell reef safe sunscreen in their onboard shops, and I’ve even seen one cruise line on facebook advising people to use bugspray on all their excursions. Bugspray kills coral larvae, and in all the cruises we’ve done around the world I’ve never once seen a mosquito anywhere near coral reefs or beaches. Mosquitos breed in stagnant swampy water, not salt water. Even natural herbal based bug products can be toxic to coral. If it kills a bug it kills the coral too. If you think you need protection from mosquitos near a tropical beach, put a dryer sheet in the pocket of clothes you wear on land to keep them at bay.

Caribbean coral

mostly brain coral

Without offering anyone reef-safe sunscreen or even once mentioning the dangers ordinary sunscreen poses to coral, the excursion boat anchored up in a sandy area. Passengers could choose to go in the first timer, intermediate, or advanced snorkel groups. Each one had a different guide so it kept things from being quite as crowded as if it was all one group, though there were still quite a lot of people. They did not let anyone swim out on their own. Everyone had to pick one of their groups and stay with them.

fire coral

fire coral (internet photo)

The water had deeper and shallower places. Out in the farthest area we went from the ship the tips of some coral rose above the water in an area we could see, but did not go to. The guide called that fire coral and said it would sting if you touched it as well as likely getting cut on it. Fire coral is not a true coral, but rather a similarly structured colony building organism disguising itself as coral that is actually more closely related to other stinging sea creatures like jellyfish and sea anemones. It can resemble several different types of coral and is sometimes mistaken for seaweed. It grows well in strong currents. The patch we saw was sticking out of the roughest water in the area. It was a windy day with some waves that got bigger the farther out that way we went. The guide said there was a drop-off a bit farther on, but it was not safe to go that far that day due to the waves and a strong undertow. Too bad, there may have been some interesting things to see near the drop-off.

stingray

stingray partly buried in the sand

We snorkeled over some areas where the coral was just far enough under the surface to float over, some where it was quite a ways down, and some where the bottom had sand or sea grass. One of the sandy areas had a couple barracudas swimming around. Another had a large stingray sitting on the bottom. I saw a couple sand-colored little flat fish scooting along the sand in one place, but I don’t know what sort of fish they were.

snorkeler

snorkeler near coral

There were lots of different types of coral. Some fan coral and brain coral as well as soft coral and many other types. Caribbean coral often doesn’t have much color to it, usually being shades of brown or yellow, but this place had several types in purple.

coral

coral

Where there’s coral there’s fish and this was no exception. Fish large and small, some bright and colorful and others not, swam about the coral and in and out of it’s branches, overhangs, and hiding places. There were also conch shells with living conch inside, sea urchins, and spiny lobsters. There’s lots of life under the sea.

Starfish Island hammocks

hammocks on Starfish Island

After an hour of snorkeling we got back on the boat for a short trip to Starfish Island. This small sand island in the mangroves had a swimming area, small playground, lots of beach chairs, some hammocks, swings in the water and on a dock, and a volleyball court. For an extra charge they had food, a bar, a gift shop, and water toy rentals for kayaks and things.

Starfish Island

beach chairs on Starfish Island

The island had a lot more beach chairs than people. Other than our excursion, there was just one other group there on a different excursion from our ship that went straight from the ship to the island on a smaller boat than ours. Which meant that even though the island was small enough to walk from one end to the other in under 5 minutes it was not crowded at all. Most of the chairs were in the sun, but some had shade from trees or nearby palapas – or the chair could be moved to the shade of a palapa. The palapas had small tables with picnic bench type seating around them. The two sets of hammocks also had shade being strung in a row under a palapa roof.

palapa on the beach

picnic table with palapa

After a couple hours on the island the snorkel boat brought us back to the ship. People had time to catch a tender to port if they wanted to go to the mainland. We might have done that just to see what’s there if we had never been to Belize, but since we’ve been there before we didn’t.

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Which Cruise Lines Are the Most Kid-Friendly?

Cruising With Kids

kids on a cruise ship

kids leaving Carnival Legend in Australia

Cruising is becoming ever more popular and young families with kids make up a good portion of the growth. When planning a cruise it always helps to take into consideration the ages of the people you’re cruising with and what different ships and cruise lines have to offer for them to do. While all major cruise lines have theaters, pools, and hot tubs, other amenities vary greatly from line to line and even among ships within the same line. The major lines also each have some sort of kid’s club type program, but again the sort of activities offered varies, as does the age at which kids can attend. Most start at either 2 or 3, and some such as P&O Australia and Princess require potty training prior to attendance even if the child’s age is within their guidelines. Ships also have spaces and activities for older kids and teens. Most ships have an arcade, but the games cost extra.

winners

kids after a cruise ship scavenger hunt on Carnival Magic

Destination is important too, not only because of what sort of activities the ports have to offer, but also if the ship is heading to a cold climate it may be too cold or stormy to count on outdoor activities to keep the kids entertained so a good kid’s club or other indoor activities become even more important. In stormy weather outside decks are often closed so even kids who don’t mind the cold could be affected.

rock climbing wall

rock climbing wall on Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas

It’s also important to look at all aspects of the ship that are important to your family because things like the ship’s smoking policy or how well they cater to special diets can make a big difference in how much you enjoy your cruise. Age or size restrictions also come into play because it doesn’t do any good for a ship to have something like a ropes course or climbing wall if your kids are too young or too small to use it. It also helps if the ship has guest laundries, especially on longer cruises. While you can always send things out for the crew to wash, that gets pretty expensive. Handwashing in your own cabin is an option too, but hanging space to dry things is quite limited even if your cabin has a balcony because it’s usually against the ship’s rules to hang laundry on your veranda.

How Kid-Friendly is Each Cruise Line?

Disney cruise ship

one play area at Disney Oceaneers Club for kids 3-12 (internet photo)

The major American lines with the most kid-friendly amenities and activities are Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival. While Disney is most any kid’s dream cruise, it comes at a significantly higher price. Carnival is often the most affordable, but their liberal smoking policy may make anyone sensitive to smoke think twice about booking there – except in Australia where indoor smoking is prohibited. People with special dietary needs can make arrangements in advance on most lines, and for anyone with gluten issues, gluten free food has gotten much easier to find with some gluten free items becoming available in the buffet on many lines in recent years. Sometimes there are limited-time promotional offers where kids sail free on certain lines including MSC, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Costa.

AIDA

Aidabella

Aida ships have a face – AIDAbella, internet photo

Aida is an American/British owned German cruise line in the Carnival Corporation group that caters to younger German-speaking casual cruisers. Their kids club is for children over the age of 3. The main language onboard is German, including in the kids’s club. Food is mostly buffet. Some of their larger ships have indoor water parks. Organized activities mainly focus on fitness and wellness. The ships are kid-friendly, but everything from signage to menus to the daily programs is in German.

CARNIVAL

things to do on a cruise ship

sports square on Carnival Breeze

Carnival has a lot to offer for kids onboard. Kids club ages are Camp Ocean for kids 2-11, Circle C for 12-14, and Club O2 for 15-17. Besides going to the kids club itself, enrolled kids get a list of special onboard activities like scavenger hunts and parties for kids in their age group that are not listed in the daily activities guide. All of Carnival’s ships have waterslides and mini golf. Some also have splash parks. Other activities vary depending on the ship, but may include things like a ropes course, pool and ping-pong tables, foosball, and more. Some ships have Imax and/or motion theaters. Evening shows include family-friendly comedy and outdoor movies as well as nightly theater shows. Special kid-friendly events during the cruise include towel animal theater, Seuss at Sea with a Dr. Seuss breakfast, parade, and storytime, Hasbro the Game Show, and a towel animal takeover on the Lido deck. Carnival ships all have self-serve guest laundries, which have a fee to use. When smoking policies were pretty much the same on most lines Carnival was our go-to line because they have a lot to do and their prices are often lower than other lines. We don’t sail with them much anymore though because while most other lines have limited their smoking areas and many no longer allow smoking indoors, Carnival still allows smoking in their casino and casino bar areas as well as quite a few outdoor areas. The casinos are not fully enclosed so the smoke spreads well beyond the casino into other areas of the ship and the ships are far smokier inside than they once were because people are no longer allowed to smoke on balconies there as on most cruise lines. As previously mentioned, this is not an issue on Carnival Australia because Australian law prohibits indoor smoking on ships sailing from there. Although Carnival Australia books separately from Carnival USA, they have the same Camp Ocean kid’s program.

CELEBRITY

cruise ship

Lido deck on Celebrity Infinity

Celebrity’s Camp at Sea kid’s club has customizable activities for kids from 3-17 that can be tailored to the interests of the kids on board for each cruise. There are separate areas for kids 3-11 and for teens. Babysitting is available for a fee. Celebrity ships have pools and hot tubs, but no waterslides. Kids must be potty trained to go into the pools. Other than the kids club, you might find things like mini golf, a basketball court, video games or croquet depending on the ship. Generally the majority of passengers are adults. Older kids may enjoy some of the scheduled daily activities. The nightly shows on Celebrity are often of higher quality than those on many other lines, though not necessarily something that would interest small children. Smoking is permitted only in designated outdoor areas. There are no self-serve guest laundries.

COSTA

Peppa Pig on Costa cruise ship

Peppa Pig in Costa Squok Club (Costa Cruise Lines photo)

Costa is an Italian-based line in the Carnival family of cruise lines sailing mostly in Europe. This low-cost cruise line often has incredibly cheap deals through Vacations to Go. Their kid’s program is called the Squok Club and features activites with Peppa Pig for the youngest kids from 3- 6. Other age groupings are 7-11, 12-14, and 15-17. Some ships have amenities like basketball courts, 4-D cinemas, or a Grand Prix simulator. Indoor smoking is allowed only in cigar lounges. Outdoor smoking is allowed in designated areas and on cabin balconies. Water parks and slides are available on some ships. Some have retractable roofs to enclose pool areas on cold or rainy days. Costa does not have self-serve guest laundries. They sometimes have special cruise saver rates for kids staying in the same room as their parents.

CUNARD

kids play area on Cunard cruise

Play Zone on Queen Mary 2 (internet photo)

Cunard is a Carnival owned British based cruise line known for luxury style cruises. While requiring more formal evening wear than most cruise lines, they do allow children onboard and have a kid’s club area for them. The Play Zone is for kids 2-7 and the Kid Zone for 8-17. Smoking is allowed only in designated areas of open decks other than cigars and pipes, which have a lounge. Self-serve guest laundries are not only available, but complimentary which seems to be more of a trend in British ships because American ones normally charge to use the washers and dryers on lines that have them. Kids are allowed on board as young as 6 months for short cruises or 1 year for longer ones. There is a baby zone on board, but parents must stay with kids under 2. Cunard has pools of which some allow children, but no waterslides. Outside of the kid’s club there’s not a lot of entertainment provided for kids.

DISNEY

Disney waterslide

Disney waterslide for people 38-64 inches tall (internet photo)

Disney has a unique rotational dining system so passengers indulge in several restaurants over the course of their cruise at no additional charge. Onboard kids can meet Disney characters, and themed play areas at the kid’s clubs let them immerse themselves in a variety of Disney shows and movies. Age groups for their kid’s program are 3-7, 8-12, 11-14, and 14-17. Kids 3-12 can go back and forth between interconnected Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab areas. Edge is for the tweens, and Vibe for the teens. There is a nursery available for children 6 months to 3 years old (some itineraries 1-3). There is an hourly charge for the nursery and space is limited so reservations are required well in advance of the cruise. There are scheduled activities that the entire family can participate in as well as activities targeted to various age groups. Pools and waterslides have age and height restrictions and children must be potty trained before entering any pools. There are splash parks available for youngsters with swim diapers and wading pools for little ones who are out of diapers. The ships have no indoor smoking, but do allow it on some outside decks. Movies include Disney favorites as well as new releases. Disney ships even have adult only areas where parents can relax away from the kids. Dinner dress is usually cruise casual, and each cruise normally includes a pirate or other themed night. Short cruises have an optional dress-up night and longer cruises include both formal and semi-formal evenings. Disney ships have self-serve laundries.

HOLLAND AMERICA

entertaining kids on a cruise ship

Kids Enjoying the Giant Chess set on the Westerdam

Holland America has smaller to medium sized ships, none of the giant ones carrying 3000 or more passengers. Their kid’s program is called Club Hal and is for children from 3-12. There are separate activities for 3-6 and 7-12 year olds. The 13-17 crowd has their own space apart from the younger set called the Loft. They also have culinary workshops for kids and babysitting available for a fee. Potty training is required before attending Club Hal. The kid’s club has open and closed hours throughout the day rather than being open all day long and kids are not given anything to eat or drink from the kid’s club staff. Some of Holland America’s older and smaller ships  have self-serve guest laundries, but the bigger and newer ships do not. Their smoking policy also varies from ship to ship. We’ve sailed on 3 of their ships recently. The Oosterdam and Westerdam only allowed smoking in a small covered shelter on one side of the top back outside deck, but the Veendam still allowed active players to smoke in the casino inside the ship at some slot machines. Holland America has pools and hot tubs, but no waterslides. Some ships have a sliding cover for an indoor pool area in cold weather. There are a few things to do around the ship. There may be a giant connect 4 game somewhere as well as a giant chess set. There’s also often a ping-pong table, shuffleboard, and a basketball court. Scheduled activities are mainly for adults, but older kids might like some things like the America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations. One night per cruise the evening show is often a BBC nature film accompanied by live orchestra music which animal lovers among the kids might enjoy, but mostly they would have to entertain themselves outside of the kid’s club.

MSC

Kid's corner at the Divina buffet

Kid’s Buffet on MSC Divina

Swiss-owned and based in Italy, this line mostly does European cruises, but does have some cruises sailing out of Miami targeting Americans. Although Italian is the main language on most of their ships (except when Miami based where it’s English), they do give announcements in about 5 different languages. They also have daily newsletters and events in different languages as well. Kids under 2 always sail free other than port fees and taxes. On certain cruises older kids can sail free as well. Ships may have anything from aqua parks and waterslides to virtual world gaming, racing car simulator, bowling, and 4D cinema depending on the ship. (Cinema and games have a fee.) The kids clubs are not open continuously all day, but there are mealtime options provided and the ships have scheduled family, kids, and teens activities. Babysitting is available for kids 1-3 for a fee, but parents are responsible for diaper changes and feeding. There is a special laundry service for kids 0-6 years old. There is a mini kids club where parents can bring children under 3 if they stay and play with them there. Kid’s club ages are 3-6, 7-11, 12-14, and 15-17 with separate space for the older kids. There’s even an optional prepaid card for kids 7-17 for families who want to give their children the freedom of their own onboard spending money. MSC does not have self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed in some bars and on one side of the outside decks on European based ships and outside only if the ship is based in America.

NORWEGIAN

towel elephant on the Norwegian Sun

towel elephant on the Norwegian Sun

Norwegian invented freestyle cruising. On their ships nobody has assigned dinner times or places, but anyone can go to whichever of the included dining venues they feel like rather than having to stick to the same dining room each night. Booking a spot in one of the many premium dining venues for a fee is also an option, and Norwegian has more premium eateries to choose from than most lines. Even on formal nights dressing up is an option rather than a requirement. For kids 6 months to 3 years Norwegian has an area where parents can play with their kids as well as paid babysitting. Free kid’s clubs start at age 3 and have groups for ages 3-5, 6-9, 10-12, and 13-17. Amenities for things to do outside of kids club vary from ship to ship. Of course they all have pools and hot tubs. Some ships have waterslides, bowling alleys, rock climbing walls, or even a race track. Norwegian’s Free at Sea offer sometimes includes free guests when sailing with more than 2 people in a room meaning with the right booking kids can sail for free. NCL does not have self-serve guest laundries, but they will bring an iron to your cabin for a few hours upon request. Smoking is allowed in designated outside areas and active players can smoke in the casino.

P&O

British cruise ship games

people playing deck quoits on P&O Arcadia

I’ve only sailed on P&O once on a cruise from Chili to Australia, and that was on the Arcadia, an adults only ship. They do have other ships that are family friendly though. P&O is a British line in the Carnival family of cruise lines. We quite liked P&O, but since they are British with no sailings near where we live haven’t sailed with them again. They had some fun things to do that we haven’t seen on other lines like Wii bowling and deck coits. Deck coits is a fun and popular game on P&O ships that you don’t find on American-based cruises. They had both deck coits and shuffleboard tournaments daily. P&O kids club ages are 2-4, 5-8, 9-12, and 13-17.  There is a complimentary night nursery available from 6pm to 2am to babysit kids 6 months to 4 years old for those evenings when the parents have non-kid friendly activities they want to do. Ships have a special tea-time for children with child-friendly food. Which pools are open to children varies from ship to ship, and some have splash parks or children’s pools that allow kids in swim diapers. P&O ships have free self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed only in designated areas on outside decks. P&O Australia is separate from P&O UK, but they have kid’s club and other activities for kids and ships based there have waterslides and an adventure park.

PRINCESS

puppies on a cruise ship

Puppies visit Ruby Princess in Skagway

On Princess ships, the piazza is a hub of activity, often with events themed toward the destination of the cruise. Some of the activities are just for adults, but others are family-friendly like a visit from husky sled dog puppies on an Alaskan cruise or parrots on a Caribbean cruise. Princess ships do not have things like waterslides, but like all major cruise ships they do have pools and hot tubs. Princess’ Just For Kids program age groups are 3-12, 13-17, and a young adults program for 18-20 year olds. 6 month to 2-year olds are welcome in their Camp Discovery area when accompanied by a parent. Evening entertainment includes movies under the stars as well as theater shows and activities in the piazza, all of which may or may not be family friendly on any given night. Princess does not have babysitting services. Self-serve laundries are available on all Princess ships. There is a charge for the washers, dryers, and detergent. Smoking is allowed in designated areas of the outside decks, and in the cigar lounge (which is fully enclosed.)

ROYAL CARIBBEAN

flowrider on a cruise ship

Flowrider on Royal Caribbean Explorer Of the Seas

Royal Caribbean is one of the more kid-friendly lines, with lots of things to do outside of the kid’s club, especially for older kids and particularly on the newer, bigger ships. Amenities vary from ship to ship, but some of them have things like ice skating arenas, flow riders, rock climbing walls, waterslides, a carousel, mini golf, laser tag, skydiving simulator, or a zip line just to name a few. Some activities have minimum age or height restrictions. Inside the ships have a city-like area called the Royal Promenade with shops and eateries. The newer, bigger ships have a Central Park area as well. Ships with ice arenas have ice skating shows to watch as well as scheduled times when the arena is open for passengers to skate – and they provide the skates. People who bring their own skates can skate in the advanced sessions. There is no charge for ice skating or many of the other activities. Oasis class ships also have an aquatheater with water based shows. Royal Caribbean has activities just for kids and teens too.  The kid’s club is called Adventure Ocean and has age groups for 3-5, 6-8, and 9-11. Teens and Tweens have their own spaces where they can come and go as they please. For the youngest guests there are parent/baby interactive classes for kids 6-36 months. There is a charge for late nights in the kids club areas after 10pm. Royal Caribbean does not have self-serve guest laundries. Smoking is allowed in designated outdoor areas. There were a lot of smoking areas on Explorer of the Seas, including next to the jogging track and one side of the pool area.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Vanuatu

Vanuatu

A nation in the south pacific made up of a group of islands nestled between Fiji and New Caledonia, Vanuatu is a place many people never would have heard of if it weren’t for the 9th season of Survivor filming there.

logo from TV's survivor

Survivor Vanuatu logo

Officially known as the Republic of Vanuatu, these mostly volcanic islands were first inhabited by Melanesian people. From the early 1600’s on various European countries claimed the islands under a variety of names. Captain Cook named them the New Hebrides in 1774 and that name stuck until the island nation gained independence in 1980.

Vanuatu maps

maps Vanuatu and its location in the world

Threats to Vanuatu include cyclones, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and overpopulation. Introduction of non-native species and decline of some native species is also an issue.

The climate is tropical and often wet with rainfall averages from 93-160 inches per year, the higher averages in the northern islands. The economy depends on tourism, agriculture, and offshore financial services. The majority of residents live in rural areas.

underwater post office

Vanuatu’s underwater post office on Hideaway Island

Tourists enjoy Vanuatu’s beaches, reefs, and sealife. Other attractions include caves, waterfalls, villages, markets, wildlife, native culture, a water park, and an underwater post office. Not a post office formerly on land and now flooded, but an actual functioning post office under the sea where people can dive in and mail waterproof post cards.

Mystery Island – Still a Mystery

On our first Pacific crossing we missed Bora Bora – the port I most wanted to see – due to bad weather. The lagoon surrounding Bora Bora is supposed to be like swimming in a tropical aquarium and we had a snorkel excursion booked.

Mystery Island

welcome sign

Crossing the Pacific again on Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas we were supposed to stop at Mystery Island in Vanuatu where we had a snorkel excursion booked that was to go to a place called the Giant Aquarium, one called Daydreamer’s Reef, and a turtle resting grounds. Once again we missed the port we wanted to see most, and on this cruise the only one where we had booked an excursion through the ship. Maybe it’s bad luck to pre-book snorkel excursions on Pacific crossings. This time we missed the port due to a passenger medical emergency. They said we were too far out and the weather too cloudy for a helicopter rescue. We bypassed Vanuatu to head straight to New Caledonia for the evacuation. We ended up stopping briefly at Lifou and tendering the patient to shore for a flight to Noumea from there. Rumor had it the patient had actually died and been brought back to life on the ship before reaching land. Lifou was a scheduled stop for the next day. After evacuating the patient the ship left the area and returned as scheduled the following day.

Lifou, New Caledonia

a lone tender evacuates a passenger at Lifou

Mystery Island is unpopulated other than when cruise ships stop by. Locals from a nearby island sell their crafts in booths on cruise ship days. The island has an old airstrip from world war 2 days, amenities for the cruise ship passengers, and beaches and trails.

Excursions other people missed included glass bottom boats, kayaking, other snorkel adventures, and a village tour – which is on another island since Mystery Island is uninhabited except when cruise ships come in.

Mystery Island snorkeling

Mystery Island snorkel photo from Royal Caribbean’s website

Cruise itineraries are never set in stone and always subject to change due to weather or emergencies. It is disappointing when you are looking forward to something for a long time and then miss out. Ship’s excursions and port fees are automatically refunded, but it’s still a disappointment. Of course the patient and their family are quite grateful for the rescue and most other passengers understand and realize that somebody’s life is more important than whatever they had planned for the day.

The ship’s schedule of activities was pretty sparse for the day since most passengers were expected to go to shore, but they added on more to have things resemble a normal sea day.

Mystery Island

Mystery Island from the air

During a flowrider announcement one of the guys working there said Mystery Island is such a mystery we couldn’t find it so we didn’t stop there. It got the name from early ships that would go there and it was always a mystery as to whether they would get their lifeboats to shore or not due to weather and sea conditions. For us Mystery Island remains a mystery.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019

 

Posted in Explorer of the Seas, Pacific Ocean & Islands, Royal Caribbean | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center

entrance to Kennedy Space Center visitor complex

After disembarking Carnival Magic we had a couple days to spend in Cocoa Beach before going home. Getting off of Carnival Magic in Port Canaveral wasn’t the easiest disembarkation ever. Leaving the ship took a very long time because in addition to long lines a couple crew people suddenly decided to let all the passengers just coming off an elevator cut into the line right there in front of all the people who had already waited quite some time to get anywhere near that elevator. Not just one group, but everyone who came off that elevator after the crew people showed up assumingly to speed up the line which had moved in an orderly fashion before the crew showed up with all new arrivals proceeding to the back of the line. Nice for those particular people exiting the elevator. Not so much for those of us who had already spent a lot of time waiting from the back of the line to get anywhere near that point, and a wait time increased exponentially with only a few people already in line managing to slip through between elevator groups. The ship called Magic definitely lost the aura of magic on the way out that we’d felt onboard throughout most of the cruise.

rocket garden

rocket garden

Once we finally managed to get off the ship we had to get through customs. Traveling with our daughter and her kids, to whom the cruise was just a small portion of a long trip to America from Australia, they had a lot more luggage than what is normal for a 7-day cruise. So we did something we have never done before and had one of those porters with the big cart take all our luggage. By doing this we learned something new – if you want to speed your way through a long line at customs hire a porter. They go right past the line of people dragging their own luggage and into a much shorter line for porters and people in wheelchairs only. This was the only part of that disembarkation that went fairly quickly.

rocket

rocket in the rocket garden

Once we got through customs we made our way to the area where people wait for rental car shuttles. Like everything else at Port Canaveral it was quite crowded. When a shuttle for the company where we reserved a car finally came it had space enough for only about half the people. We were too far back in the line for all of us and our luggage to get on, but Sheri managed to find standing room so she could go on ahead and get the paperwork done for the car. It took far longer for the next shuttle to arrive than it took for her to get that done.

rocket garden

some things in the rocket garden are open to climb in and take photos

The overcrowded rental car shuttle took about 15 minutes to get to the lot where people pick up a car. There was a crowd waiting at that end to get to the ship heading out for the next cruise. The shuttle must have kept to a predetermined schedule because it made no effort to get those people on or out of there right away, nor did the other shuttle just sitting there ever let anyone on or leave the lot even though they had more than enough people to fill both of them waiting at both ends.

mission control

mission control display

Once we got everything loaded into the rental car we headed off to Kennedy Space Center, partly because we wanted to see it and partly because we had to go somewhere to fill the time between disembarking the ship and checking in to our vacation rental house.

astronaut

astronaut display

More than just a working Space Center, Kennedy Space Center has evolved into another Florida theme park. There is still a working Space Center, but it is not located at the visitor complex. They have busses that take people out there, but we spent all our time in the visitor’s center and didn’t make the trip. My daughter and I did that years ago. Back then we saw them building components for the International Space Center there. We also saw a very slow moving crawler that they brought shuttles out on for launching. The space station has of course long since launched and the shuttle program ended so there are no more shuttle launches out there. Occasionally there is still a launch though because they do sometimes send up rockets carrying satellites. Spacex also launches there sometimes.

heroes and legends

Heroes and Legends building

The visitor’s complex has a building called Heroes and Legends in tribute to former astronauts that includes a 3D presentation. The very visible rocket garden has a variety of different rockets standing tall and a couple space capsules visitors can climb into for photo ops or in the case of kids, just for fun. You can even book lunch with an astronaut if you are willing to pay the price.

rocket full of fuel

moon rocket

There are of course displays from the moon rocket era at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Besides space capsules and a moon rocket there are also things like moon rocks and space suits.

motion simulator ride

shuttle launch experience motion simulator ride

The children’s play area was closed for renovation while we were there, but the cafés were open. The kids developed quite a liking for uncrustables before the cruise, something not available in Australia. They tried to have one last one before leaving the country, but the ones purchased at the space center’s café were inedibley stale. The workers there had probably never eaten these pre-packaged crust free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches themselves because they didn’t seem to understand the problem even when shown that the bread was discolored and completely dry with the jelly gone liquid and soaking through it while the peanut butter appeared almost solid. We did finally convince them to take the sandwiches back. They gave the kids muffins and chicken nuggets instead so we ended up with more than our money’s worth according to what we’d paid.

mars rover

one of the Mars vehicles

There was a pavilion with displays about Mars and past, present, and future missions there called Journey to Mars. The visitor complex also had an 3D IMAX theater, but due to having a late start after our tedious disembarkation we didn’t have time to see everything and didn’t go to the theater.

space shuttle

life size shuttle launching rocket statue

The crown jewel of the visitor’s center is the space shuttle Atlantis. This is an actual space shuttle that performed over 30 missions before retiring. It is housed in a pavilion in which the entrance has a life-sized replica of the fuel and booster rockets used for launching shuttles.

space toilet

space shuttle zero gravity toilet

Inside the building besides the shuttle itself there are many other displays. Astronauts hang from the ceiling near the shuttle. Another room has a miniature space station that kids can crawl through. There’s an example of a space toilet and a motion simulator launch ride. The launch simulator ride has a minimum height that Daniel was too small for so he and I stayed at the slide while the others took the ride. While I’ve never been seasick on a cruise, I do have a long history of motion sickness and some of those simulator rides really leave me queasy so I didn’t mind missing that ride. The giant slide was lots of fun.

space shuttle slide

shuttle landing simulator slide

The slide is a space shuttle landing experience slide. Several curved stations lead up to the slide, intended for people to run through simulating the turns the shuttle takes as it works its way down. Once completing the turns a large button in the floor awaits being jumped on at which time it makes a loud noise simulating breaking the sound barrier. Then you get to the actual slide. No shoes are allowed on feet, but it’s OK to carry them with you down one of the two big and speedy slides. There’s a big cushioned mat beyond the slide’s edge at the bottom, but most people run out of momentum and slow to a stop before getting that far.

Atlantis shuttle

Atlantis Space Shuttle

The Atlantis shuttle hangs from the ceiling in a room large enough to hold an entire space shuttle and some other displays as well. The floor height varies so people can stand next to it or below it depending on where they are within the room.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
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Exploring Kodiak

Kodiak, Alaska

looking over boats in the ship harbor toward the Westerdam in the background

We stepped outside the Holland America Westerdam into the strong aroma of dead fish. All explained by a glance at the nearest building, labeled Kodiak Fishermens Terminal. We’ve had port stops at container docks before, but this was the first at a fishing pier. The city map has it labeled as a city dock 2. Pillar Mountain, topped by windmills, dominates the land side view from the ship.

Westerdam in Kodiak

row of canneries near the ship

Next to the ship we passed a row of canneries before reaching town. In pre-cruise research I found a site saying it was a mile and a half to town. The ship’s info said a mile. Walking into town, my garmin watch that I use to track my runs said it was just about a kilometer from the ship to the marina at St. Paul Harbor.

Kodiak boat dock

boats docked in Kodiak

Unlike many marinas, there wasn’t any sort of blockade on the entrances to the docks keeping anyone not owning a boat there away, so people could go down to the docks and wander around looking at the boats if they wanted to.

Kodiak public information

informative display on the fence above the docks

On the main street through town from the cruise dock, there are informational signs along the railings above the boat harbor.

marina in Kodiak

Kodiak marina

A side street near there has a big fish sculpture in front of the marina building.

Russian orthodox church in Kodiak, Alaska

Kodiak “tour” bus near the Russian Orthodox church

Kodiak so far hasn’t had enough cruise ship traffic to change the town. They use school busses to pick passengers up for ship’s excursions and as shuttles for people who don’t want to walk to town. It’s mostly just a normal little town where locals shop or go out to eat, but there are a few tourist attractions. All grouped near each other there’s a wildlife center, a visitor’s center, and the Baranov Museum. Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church sits next door to the Baranov Museum and across the street from the Alutiiq Museum. The Baranov Museum charged a $5 admission fee, but the rest were all free. Other than the visitor’s center and the church (which had a donation basket) the others all had gift shops.

fish cannery

old factory ship turned into shoreside cannery

An interesting looking cannery made partly from an old ship sits next to the visitor’s center.

Kodiak map

map of Kodiak, Alaska

The visitor’s center has free maps showing all the area’s highlights and where to find them. It also has information on things to do and see and places to stay. We just wandered in there for a few minutes, but overheard someone booking a tour so they do that there too.

old Russian church

Russian Orthodox church in Kodiak, Alaska

Anyone who wants to venture a bit farther can cross a bridge and find a park with trails, a fisheries research center with an aquarium, and a road to St Herman’s Harbor which sits across the bay from where the cruise ship docks. If they want to go a lot farther, Fort Abercrombie State Park is several miles beyond the town and has hiking trails and an old historic fort.

inside Kodiak's Russian church

inside the Russian Orthodox church

We just walked to the church and nearby museums, all of which are fairly small, but have interesting things to see. The church is quite ornate and at the time we were there the reverend was telling a tale of how the congregation didn’t expect him to last long until one of them decided that the reverend was going to buy his boat. He found a couple partners and did so. Initially the boat was parked outside the church where he used it for an office and the townsfolk started stopping by sharing boating and fishing information with him, which for him made a great icebreaker and led to his acceptance as a member of the town and not just the new priest.

Kodiak wildlife center

fish display at the wildlife center

The wildlife center has no actual animals. Instead it had all sorts of displays with models of various species and information about them. It also had a seating area with a short movie.

Kodiak Wildlife center

fun with a bear

Outside the wildlife center people had fun taking their picture with the center’s resident bear…statue.

Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak

artifacts at the Alutiiq Museum

The Alutiiq museum had quite a few artifacts including woven baskets, rocks with hieroglyphics, and a very old kayak. Apparently they are the ones who invented kayaks. They even had a kayak skirt to keep them dry, though it was nothing like a modern one.

Baranov Museum, Kodiak

stained glass window at the Baranov Museum

The Baranov museum had things from the Russian era, which was mostly about hunting and trapping the area’s wildlife Their displays included actual animals that were no longer living rather than models like at the wildlife place. It also included artifacts of daily life in that era – like raincoats made from animal intestines, and a tiny kitchen set up with the sort of things used back then.

Baranov Museum display

guns and things in a display case at the Baranov Museum

Kodiak doesn’t get nearly the sort of cruise ship traffic the major Alaskan ports have, but as more and more ships head to Alaska they need more places to go. A lady at the gift shop in the wildlife place said they had one ship about every other week throughout the summer of 2018, but expect over 30 cruise ship days in 2019. She said the locals are hoping to find a way to accommodate all the tourists without changing the nature of their town, which is at this point as she put it, a real town.

garbage can in Kodiak

public garbage cans around Kodiak look like cans of salmon

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2019
Posted in Alaska, Holland America, Port Cities, Ports of Call, USA, Westerdam | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment