Food on Carnival Vista

homemade cruise ship ice cream

making homemade ice cream at lunchtime in the Lido buffet

Carnival Vista has a variety of food for passengers to choose from. Some food venues are included in the price of the cruise and others cost extra.

pork and kale tart

appetizer in the dining room

The main dining room and Lido buffet are of course included. For no extra charge passengers can also eat at Guy’s Burgers or the Blue Iguana Cantina. At lunchtime there is a free pasta bar at Cucina del Capitano, and Ji Ji Asian Kitchen turns into the Mongolian Wok. On sea days Fresh Creations salads on the Serenity deck and Guy’s Pig and Anchor Barbecue on deck 5 are also open for lunch. The Lido deli stays open late. The pizza place and the ice cream machines are available 24 hours. At lunchtime the lido buffet serves free homemade ice cream in addition to the soft serve and yogurt available from the machines. Some items on the room service menu are also free other than the voluntary tip that should be given to the delivery person. The Taste Bar on deck 5 serves continental breakfast, light lunch, and taster portions of some dinner items. On sea day afternoons the dining room serves afternoon tea. Food and plain tea are free, but like at all other times flavored tea costs extra on Carnival so I just bring my own.

cruise food

Seafood Shack is a new pay-extra food station on the Lido

To add more variety to the menu there are some premium restaurants for those who want to pay anything from a few bucks at the Red Frog Pub for the Pub Grub to $35 dollars for dinner at the steakhouse. Other pay extra places include Bonsai Sushi, the Lido’s Seafood Shack, Cuban Bites at the Havana Bar, and at dinner time Italian food at Cucina del Capitano or Asian at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen. There’s also sundaes at Cherry on Top and specialty coffee or tea, milkshakes, and sweets at JavaBlue cafe. There are of course lots of bars about the ship serving a variety of drinks. Anything from a bar costs extra even if is just juice or soda.

cruise ship salad

Fresh Creations salad from the Serenity Deck


We didn’t try everything, but did try a variety of things. Of the new additions to the Vista my favorites were the lunchtime salads on the Serenity deck and homemade ice cream on the Lido. The pasta bar is also a good spot for lunch because the food is good and it’s usually not as crowded as the Lido. None of these cost extra.

veggie burger

Guy’s veggie burger – not on the menu, but available on request

Blue Iguana serves breakfast and lunch. While the line is usually for the burritos, the tacos they have at lunchtime are served on fresh hot tortillas made right there. The burritos come on pre-made tortillas. I tend to skip the burrito line and go with the taco which you can normally walk right up to the window and get because there is rarely ever anyone waiting. Tacos don’t come with all the topping options that burritos do so when you get the taco you know what the salsa bar with no chips is for – though it would still be nice if there were chips. Guy’s Burgers opens for lunch and closes about the time other venues open for dinner.

cruise ship sushi

Bonsai Sushi on deck 5 – you can get a little taster or a whole boatload of sushi for a price

We tried to have lunch at the Mongolian Wok one day. They give you a paper to fill out for what you want on the way in and then you find a place to sit and they are supposed to come around and take the paper to make your order. This has worked for us in the past at the pasta bar, but at JiJi’s I seem to have spread my cloak of invisibility over John because we waited and waited and nobody ever came around to take our order. I’m often invisible at food venues, whether it’s a restaurant where the waiter takes everyone else’s order and then walks off like I don’t exist, or a place where you wait in a line, but when I get to the front they ignore me and help the next person, then the one after them and so on. Normally they see John though. At Ji Ji’s we watched them wait on other tables, and go around collecting orders from people all around us then bring them food, but no waiter ever came near our table. A bus boy walked by and I asked how to get service, but he just said they’d come around and walked on. They came around again shortly after to every table but ours so we just gave up and left. Of course they tried to make amends on the way out and said they’d rush the order if we went back in, but we were soured on the place by then and went somewhere else, never to return.

pork chop dinner

pork chops are on the dining room’s every day menu

Unlike Ji Ji’s, we got great service in the dining room. The first leg of our back to back we had Your Time dining. One day we even got through from start to finish in half an hour when we asked for speed service because we had something we wanted to go that evening that started early.  The second leg we switched to early dining because other people we knew on the ship wanted us to join their table there. It was a big table with a large group of people so dinners took longer there, but we got a chance to meet new people and visit with the ones we already knew. That leg was an ocean crossing with lots of sea days and not many ports so we had the time to linger over dinner.

if you haven't tried this sauce, you're missing out

hot wings with the best rum barbeque sauce ever

One formal night nobody at our table felt like dressing up so some went to the Lido and some to the Red Frog Pub. The charge at Red Frog is nominal and the food is made to order so it’s always served fresh and hot. We like the food there, but some of the people who came there with us didn’t seem all that happy so I guess it’s not everybody’s thing.

dining room food

spinach and artichoke dip appetizer

We’ve heard a lot about the milkshakes from the cafe so we gave those a try one day. They were good, but a bit overpriced. By the time they add tips and taxes to your bill it’s a lot more than you would normally pay for a milkshake. I’m not sure if the taxes were because we sailed out of Europe or if they always have those because there were taxes on a lot of things purchased on board that cruise that don’t normally have them. The price wouldn’t be so quite bad if it’s not normally taxed though.

carnival steak house

looking into the steakhouse through the glass

We didn’t eat at any of the other pay-extra places this cruise, but have enjoyed Cucina del Capitano  and the steakhouse on previous voyages and both were quite good. They had tastes of some of the dinnertime food from Ji Ji’s Asian Kitchen at a cooking demonstration on the Vista. The tidbits they served there were far to spicy for my liking so rather than enticing me to want to try dinner there they had the opposite effect.

cruise ship barbecue

Pig & Anchor barbecue is open for sea day lunches

The barbecue had the best mac & cheese on the ship. The menu has pretty much the same things as they served when it was called Fat Jimmy’s C-Side so I’m not sure why the name change, which probably came with a licensing fee to Guy Fieri. Speaking of Guy, Guy’s Burgers, which originally served nothing but beef, does have veggie burgers on request now. They are not on the menu, but if you ask they will cook one for you. It’s about a 10 minute wait, but you get it hot and fresh.

bread pudding

one of Carnival’s dessert favorites – Bitter & Blanc

Overall there’s enough choices for food that there should be something for everyone whether they want to indulge on their vacation or look for healthier options.

Click here for a comparison of American Table to the old menu.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2017


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Cruising to Sydney, Australia

Arcadia at Circular Quay

bridge view from the stern of the Arcadia

Arriving in Australia by cruise ship is far nicer than arriving by airplane. Besides the fact that the journey is far more fun, cruise ship passengers are not sprayed with disinfectant before disembarking like airplane passengers sometimes are. Customs is done while underway before arriving so disembarkation is quick and easy too.

Sydney cruise port

view of city, train station, and ferries from P&O Arcadia in Circular Quay

Sydney, Australia has two cruise ship ports. Ships cruising in or out of Sydney dock either at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay or at the White Bay Cruise Terminal in Balmain. White Bay has two berths, but ships have to fit under the Sydney Harbor Bridge to get there. Public transportation is harder to find at White Bay.

opera house in Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House

Circular Quay has one berth for cruise ships at the Overseas Terminal. It’s a great place to dock because Circular Quay is a tourist destination in itself. It has all sorts of harbour cruises, ferries, or water taxis available there as well as a train station within sight of the ship. Both the famous Harbour Bridge and iconic Opera House are within walking distance and dominate the view from the ship when docked there. You can also see Luna Park under the far side of the bridge. Sydney’s oldest area called The Rocks is just a short walk away. The Rocks is full of historic buildings, shops, cafés and pubs. My daughter the Aussie says the G’Day Café in The Rocks has the best kebabs in all of Sydney. Cruise ships too large to sail under the bridge stop at Circular Quay. The city centre is nearby. Besides the train tourists can easily get around by city bus or see the sights on the hop on hop off bus, which stops close to the nearby opera house.

Sydney trains

from Central Station you can take trains all over the Sydney area

Ships visiting White Bay Cruise Terminal sail under the Harbour Bridge. This terminal is kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but you can take a ferry from the White Bay Captain Cook Wharf to either Circular Quay or Darling Harbour, another major tourist destination. I’ve never been to White Bay since the two cruises I’ve taken to Australia docked in Circular Quay, as did the round trip cruise to Tasmania we took from Sydney on Carnival Legend. Americans and Europeans need an electronic Visa to visit Australia, which is obtained online.

Carnival Legend at Circular Quay

Legend docked at Circular Quay in Sydney

The Legend was a fully domestic cruise so customs was never a concern on that voyage. On both P&O Arcadia and Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas customs officials came onboard and interviewed everyone whether they were disembarking in Sydney or just passing through with the ship. Arcadia was on a world cruise. Some passengers stayed on board nearly 4 months for a round trip from South Hampton England which crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans twice. Others cruised various legs of the voyage embarking and disembarking at a number of different ports along the way. The ship stayed overnight in Sydney, but since that was our final destination we disembarked the morning we arrived and took the train to our daughter’s house about an hour out of Sydney.

Things to do in Sydney, Australia

Sydney Cathedral

Cathedral in Sydney

From Circular Quay you can get just about anywhere too far to walk to in Sydney by train, boat or bus. Hop on hop off busses do a route through the city and another route farther out which includes the famous Bondi Beach. Besides the regular trains, light rail runs through some areas of the city. The train from Circular Quay stops at Central Station, from which you can catch trains or light rail to all sorts of destinations including the Blue Mountains or the airport.

China town

Sydney’s Chinatowm

Some of Sydney’s highlights besides the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, The Rocks, and the city centre include Paddy’s Market, the Queen Victoria Building, Centerpoint Tower, and Chinatown. Sydney also has museums, art galleries, and beaches.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge with Luna Park across the water

Tourist Attractions include Sea Life Aquarium, Wild Life Zoo, Taronga Zoo, Royal Botanic Gardens, and Luna Park. Adventurous people who don’t mind spending a small fortune can take an organized bridge climb tour on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can walk across it for free.

train at Circular Quay

the train station at Circular Quay is so close you can see trains from the ship

The Arcadia offered a 4-day train trip shore excursion for passengers disembarking in Sydney and those moving on with the ship to the next port could choose from Leisurely Sydney, Sydney Sights Opera House & Bondi, Blue Mountain Experience, Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb or Hunter Valley Wine Tasting and Lunch if they wanted to book an excursion rather than exploring on their own. The ship docked at Circular Quay the first day, moved out to anchor during the night, and tendered from offshore the second day.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2017
Posted in Arcadia, Australia, Carnival, Legend, P&O, Port Cities, Ports of Call | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Explorer of the Seas

Explorer of the Seas cruise ship

Explorer Of The Seas in Honolulu

Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas launched in 2000 and had dry-dock upgrades in 2015. The ship carries registry from the Bahamas. Though not one of Royal Caribbean’s biggest ships, at 1020 feet in length, 161 feet in width, and with a capacity of over 4000 passengers and 1000 crew it is still a very large cruise ship. For the first couple years after launching it was the biggest passenger ship in the world, but that destination was soon taken over by new cruise ships of ever increasing size. It’s currently number 26, with 10 of the bigger ones belonging to Royal Caribbean including the top 3 as well as 7 of the top 10.

flowrider on a cruise ship

Flowrider on Explorer Of the Seas

There’s lots to do onboard. Besides the usual cruise ship pastimes of shows, movies, and games, this ship has a rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, flowrider, and mini golf. In addition to a pool deck with two pools and several hot tubs, it also has a solarium with 2 covered hot tubs as well as an outdoor pool. They showed nightly outdoor movies on the pool deck as well as a couple daily movies on the cabin TV and sometimes a matinee in the main theater. Of course the ship has a casino too.

cruise ship rock climbing wall

rock climbing wall on Explorer Of The Seas

The rock climbing wall had open times scheduled daily and the flowrider had daily times for stand-up surfing and times for boogie boarding.

cruise ship ice arena

ice show in the skating rink

Throughout the cruise the ice arena had several open sessions for passengers as well as an ice show. The main theater had a different show each night. In addition to several production shows with the onboard cast they had a variety of guest performers ranging from singers or musicians to comedians to magicians and even a juggler.

Jaffa Cake

Jaffa Cake – one of the dining room’s tastiest desserts

Explorer of the Seas has many food options. Besides the Sapphire Dining Room and Windjammer Marketplace buffet it has a 24-hour café, several premium restaurants, and quite a few bars. The specialty restaurants on this ship are Giovanni’s Table (Italian), Chops Grille (steakhouse), Izumi (Asian Cuisine), and Johnny Rockets (burgers).

cruise ship dining room

Sapphire Dining Room – Explorer’s main dining room is 3 decks high

Royal Caribbean Dress Code – from their website

When you’re onboard, the right look will vary by venue. But here are a few types of suggested attire you’ll see, grouped by item.
Casual: You’re on vacation – relax! Jeans, polos, sundresses and blouses are all the right amount of laid back. Please keep swimwear to the Pool Deck. Shorts are welcomed for breakfast and lunch.

Formal: Make it a night out in your best black-tie look – suits and ties, tuxedos, cocktail dresses or evening gowns. There can be 1-3 formal nights during a sailing and is at the ship’s discretion.

Please note that bare feet are not allowed at any time in any venue and tank tops are not permitted in the Main Dining Room or Specialty Dining venues for dinner.

Royal Caribbean Casual Nights by Venue – not all venues are available on all ships.

Royal Caribbean dress code table

Royal Caribbean Casual Nights by Venue

Dress codes on our cruise on the Explorer were worded in their daily newsletter (called the Cruise Compass) as tonight’s dinner dress suggestion, followed by formal or casual so dressing up for formal nights was not actually required. Most people did wear nicer clothes than on casual nights, but nothing too fancy.

cruise ship atrium

one of Explorer’s two atriums

This was our first cruise on Royal Caribbean and the ship had quite a different design than any we’ve been on previously. Rather than just one atrium area it had two. Both stairway and elevator sections had a set of glass elevators and an open area nearly to the top of the ship. Each deck had a few seats with views into the atrium/centrum areas. Some had little balconies near the elevators. In between the two atriums on decks 4 and 5 it had their Centrum central area with a variety of public places like shops, bars, and eateries.

inside a cruise ship

overlooking the Royal Promenade from the front end of the ship

Other than the front desk and shore excursions desk, most of that central area on deck 5 held the Royal Promenade. This part looked something like a city street complete with shops on that level and apartments rising above on both sides. What looks like apartment buildings is actually windows to interior cabins with a view of the promenade.

Johnny Rockets

Johnny Rockets burger place up on an outside deck

Besides shops and a pub, deck 5 had a 24 hour café with free food and basic drinks and an extra cost for specialty coffee or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. At lunchtime there was always some sort of food served in the street area near the café, which varied daily from things like tacos or pulled pork (or chicken) sandwiches.  Deck 4 had a pub, the casino, and Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant.

24 hour cafe

café on the Royal Promenade

Cabin numbering also differed on this ship from other ships we have sailed on. The others all had odd numbered cabins on the starboard side and even numbered cabins on the port side. Explorer has outside cabins with even numbers and inside cabins with odd numbers regardless of location on the ship.

ship model

the ship’s artwork included models of different Royal Caribbean ships

Carpets could help a bit finding your way around the ship in that they have a tendency to change to a different color in the hallways of the guest cabin areas when coming to a place where you can turn and either find an exit or go across the width of the ship at least for a bit rather than just going down the length.

cruise ship art

only one of tile art series the tides on the back stairs that actually resembles beach and ocean

The ship has 2 main stairways with a different style of art on each. Artwork on the front stairway is either of or by famous people. Just because they are famous for whatever reason doesn’t mean their art is any good, but it is displayed there anyway. Artwork on the back stairway is more of an abstract thing. Much of it is representations of tides or nature – of which you have to read the plaque to know that because it isn’t obvious in most of the art. Not having sailed with Royal Caribbean before, I found the models of their various ships in glass cases placed around the ship to be one of their most interesting types of art.

wayfinder on deck

find anything on board

Carpet colors and art styles weren’t needed on this ship as a means of finding your way around. Near each stairway and elevator area on each deck it had electronic touch-screen wayfinders. Besides your current location these handy digital devices could also tell you at a touch everything from the menu at different eateries to what was happening where and when. If you found somewhere you’d like to be it could also give you directions on how to get there from wherever you were at the time.

cruise ship pools

main pool deck

There is no indoor smoking which is nice. Outdoors not so much. One side of the main pool area had smoking allowed as well as a smoking area on a platform in front of a bar at the center of the deck above, which made the pool deck area pretty smoky. The solarium was non-smoking, but since the door on one side opened directly into the smoking area of the pool deck really only one side of it was useable for anyone not wanting to breathe cigarette smoke.

adults only cruise ship pool

solarium pool is open to outside, but hot tubs and the most popular deck chairs are covered

Luckily the gym opened at 6am rather than the 8am opening time of a lot of ships. Most ships have somewhere to walk or run outside, but on the Explorer one side of the open area of deck 4 had smoking allowed and the track ran just above the smoky pool deck area as well as right past the bar with the smoking platform. This left no good outside places for people to walk or run while breathing clean air. Probably why the treadmills were always full just a few minutes after the gym opened.

cruise ship artwork

sculpture on the top deck

This ship has no guest laundries and sending laundry out for the crew was quite expensive so people were pretty creative with handwashing clothes in their rooms on our 22 day cruise. It did have magnetic walls in the cabin, which always helps to keep paperwork organized if you bring magnets. Magnets are also useful for people who like to decorate their cabin door.

inside a cruise ship

Grand Staircase and Royal Promenade

We quite enjoyed Royal Caribbean and would be happy to sail with them again. One of their megaships with Central Park on the inside and waterslides snaking all the way down the back has been on my bucket list for awhile.

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Gluten Free Crepes

gluten free crepe

gluten free crepe with blueberry filling and whipped cream

Gluten Free Crepes


2 eggs

1 1/4 cup milk (any kind, cow, plant based, whatever)

2 Tablespoons liquid vegetable oil – whatever type you prefer

1/3 cup each of 3 different kinds of gluten free flour or 1 cup gluten free flour mix. (I used sorghum, tapioca, and white rice.)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

pinch of cardamom (optional – a pinch of cinnamon or salt is also an option)


Mix all ingredients together in medium size mixing bowl. Cook on well greased preheated non-stick griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Flip once when dough is firm and no longer runny. Makes about 7 medium size crepes. Fill as desired, roll and serve.

Crepe pictured is filled with blueberry filling.

Blueberry Filling

This filling was made with frozen blueberries. For each cup of frozen blueberries add 1/2 tablespoon corn starch and 1 tablespoon fruit juice – apple, cranberry, grape, whatever. Put all ingredients in saucepan. Stir until cornstarch is mostly dissolved in the fruit juice. Cook over medium low heat, stirring often until berries are warm and juice forms a jell. It takes about 1/4 to 3/4 cups of blueberries per crepe depending on crepe size and desired filling thickness. If you like things sweeter than natural fruit you can add a bit of honey or sugar to the filling before cooking or spread a thin layer of jelly on the crepe before filling.

Other Filling Suggestions

You can use other fruit or berries in place of the blueberries, or fill in other ways like spreading Nutella and jelly on the crepe before rolling, or just roll it up and eat with syrup. For a savory crepe fill with meat and vegetables and top with sour cream, gravy, or a savory sauce.


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Coconut Shrimp

There’s a lot of recipes out there for coconut shrimp. This one happens to not only be both baked and gluten free, but also so tasty that people might not even bother to dip all their shrimp in sauce. I used small shrimp because that’s the only ones I could find that came with the tails off, but any size will work and they can be cooked with the tails on. Bigger shrimp take less coatings because there are less of them so less total space to cover. If you don’t have rice flour and gluten’s not an issue you can sub wheat flour. If you run out of any of the ingredients before you run out of shrimp just add more. The smaller the shrimp you use the more likely that is to happen since there are more of them. The flour coating is to get the egg to stick and the egg gives the coconut something to stick to.

coconut shrimp recipe

Coconut Shrimp

Coconut Shrimp


1/2 pound fresh or thawed shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 large egg

3/4 cup shredded coconut

1/3 cup white rice flour

seasonings to taste – I used paprika and black pepper. Other options are things like onion or garlic powder, Mrs. Dash, or whatever you like on shrimp. I don’t usually salt things, but most people will probably want to add some.


Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees F. Generously spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray.

Mix flour and seasonings in a small bowl. Beat eggs in a second small bowl. Put coconut in a third bowl.

Dip shrimp first into the flour, then the egg, and finally roll it in the coconut, pressing if necessary to make it stick.

Place shrimp in single layer on prepared cookie sheet. Bake 5 minutes, then flip shrimp over. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about another 5 – 7 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp and your individual oven.

Serve with your favorite dipping sauce. They go great with sweet & sour sauce.

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Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Diagon Alley at Universal

Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor in Diagon Alley always had a long line

Harry Potter fans can enjoy a visit to a simulated world from the books and movies at Orlando’s Universal Studios. Perched on the edges of both Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, visitors to both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade find rides, shows, food, and shopping awaiting all who venture there. The two are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which for some reason they call the Hogwarts Railway. You can ride it from one to the other so long as you have a park to park pass.

Hogwarts Railway, Universal studios

Hogwart’s Express at the King’s Cross station

Universal is divided into 3 areas – City Walk, Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios. Although visitors can easily walk from one to another they call it 3 separate parks and charge accordingly. You can walk through the City Walk area without buying a special ticket to go there, and can spend your money in its restaurants and shops, but to pass into either of the other parks you have to buy a ticket. To do both you need a park to park pass. Since Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios and Hogsmead in Islands of Adventure you need the park to park ticket in order to see all of the Harry Potter stuff. This is of course far more expensive than just getting a ticket to one park or the other.

Quibbler Magazine

even the Quibbler magazine is for sale in Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We went on a day where lines rarely exceeded 15 minutes and were able to see everything in one day with time enough to spare to go on a few rides in other areas of the park even though it closed earlier that day than it does during peak times. During the busier seasons when lines exceed an hour it would take a lot longer to see it all. If you don’t mind splitting your group you can shorten the wait by going in the single rider line if there is a long wait on some rides. Single riders fill in space where other groups have less people than seats in a given row and that line moves more quickly. It also bypasses the scenery you would otherwise view on the way to the main ride so you don’t quite get the full experience of the ride, but if lines are long it’s a great way to save some time. If you get the free Universal app you can check your phone to see what the wait times are for rides, when the shows are, see maps of where to find things, get directions from your current location to a particular ride or attraction, and more.

joke shop

Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley

Arriving at Universal the parking garage empties into the City Walk area. Be sure to make note of the section and row in which you parked if you ever hope to find your car again. After walking through the City Walk to the park gates you can enter through either of the other parks. We chose to enter through Universal Studios. Diagon Alley is at the far end of the park. You can’t see any of its buildings from the street outside and there’s no sign marking the entrance “to keep the muggles out.”

Knight Bus

the Knight Bus sits on the muggle side near the entrance to Diagon Alley

You know you’re there when you come to King’s Cross Station. Just past the train station there’s an old fashioned red British phonebox and beyond that a bit the Knight Bus is parked across the street.

Diagon Alley

this entrance to Diagon Alley sits hidden behind a brick wall

There’s a nondescript brick wall with openings just after the phone booth and if you go through there you find the brick wall with a hole in it leading into Diagon Alley. The Leaky Cauldron is beyond that entrance rather than something you walk through to get to it.

Universal Studio's butterbeer

butterbeer with lunch at The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade

Pumpkin juice and butterbeer are available on carts around the area as well as at the various restaurants there.  It would be nice if they had sample size containers you could buy and try both, but they just came full-sized so I only tried the butterbeer. It tastes like gingerbeer with something sweet and foamy added on top.

jelly beans

Bertie Bott’s every flavor beans really only have 20 flavors – some good, some bad

Sweet shops sell Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and other sweets from the books. Not everyone agrees which are the good and bad flavors of the jelly beans. My 5-year-old grandson thought booger was a good flavor and cinnamon a bad one. Of course this is the same child who on a cruise ship said he liked the raw oysters because they tasted like snot.

biting book display

Monster Book of Monsters biting book in a cage at one of the shops

Wands are for sale in several of the stores including of course Ollivanders. A lot of people buy the interactive wand. Anyone with one of those can stand on the marked spots in front of the windows of decorative shops and cast the spell engraved there. If they use the proper wand movement shown then something happens with the things in the window. Quiddich balls dance or books open. If you’re in Knockturn Alley you might give a little bird boils or giant feet. We didn’t buy the wand ourselves, but saw other people using them. For those who didn’t get the movements right there was usually a park employee nearby to help. Most of the time people could walk right up to the window to try their spell, but occasionally we saw someone waiting for another person to finish. In peak times I would imagine people would probably have to wait for all of them.

Escape from Gringotts ride

Gringotts Bank has the Escape from Gringotts ride

Gringotts has a dragon perched on top and a ride inside. This is one of the rides with a tendency to build up a long line on busy days so if you go in peak season try to arrive early and do the busiest rides first before the lines get too long. Unlike Disney, which has compartments on rides for people to put their things, Universal has locker bays near rides where you would lose loose stuff. Lockers are free to use for the duration of the ride and have a fee for longer term use. Escape from Gringotts is part roller coaster and part visual effects. I tried the single rider line first to scope out the ride and got right on with no wait. It went through corridors with nothing to see along the way. I didn’t think the ride would be too rough for my sister, who was watching her neck and back, so we went back through the regular line together. That line has a lot of scenery throughout the building before you get to the actual ride.

entertainment at Diagon Alley

Celestina Warbeck in concert

Diagon Alley has a small stage next to a snack shack called the Hopping Pot. At various times throughout the day you can see either Mrs. Weasley’s favorite singer Celestina Warback sing or a group of actors perform a story from the Tales of Beedle the Bard. The shops sell all sorts of things from stuffed magical creatures at the Magical Managerie to wizard robes at Madam Maulkin’s. Surprisingly we saw more people wearing Ravenclaw and Slytherin robes than Gryffindor. Quite a variety of muggle style t-shirts with Hogwarts or other wizard world themes are available everywhere. Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes has unique merchandise as does Borgin & Burke’s. A few of the shop windows have scenes that speak or move even if you don’t have the interactive wand.

entertainment at Universal

Tales of Beedle the Bard – onstage: The Fountain of Fair Fortune

You have to exit Diagon Alley to get to King’s Cross Station because of course that is in the muggle world. If you have the park to park pass you can ride the Hogwarts Express. It’s a fair distance from the station entrance until you get to the train. If that was all full of people waiting in line on a crowded day it would take quite some time to get through, but we pretty much just walked straight to the end. If you look carefully around you along the way to the train there is one place where you can see people in the line ahead walking through a brick wall. When you get to that spot you don’t see the holographic wall while you actually walk through it.

chocolate frogs

chocolate frogs for sale at Honeydukes

Inside the Hogwarts Express you get a bit of a show while it travels between parks. Both through the compartment window and in shadows on the opposite wall. If you watch carefully you can even see the shadows of chocolate frogs hopping on that wall after Harry gets one off the witch’s trolley. There’s a completely different show going in the opposite direction so try to ride the train both ways during your visit if you can.

Hogsmeade village

Hogsmeade perpetually in winter

Hogsmeade village has snow-topped roofs and a road leading to Hogwarts castle perched high on a rock at the far end. Inside Hogwarts is Harry’s Forbidden Adventure and of course a gift shop because all rides in theme parks everywhere exit through gift shops. This ride also has lockers because you can’t bring anything that won’t fit into your pocket. It will build up long lines on busy days. Each 4-seat row dangles from the ceiling and has movement often mimicking the flying broomstick on a video screen that the action follows. One of the park employees said this ride is the one most likely to make people sick because they become disoriented as it switches from video to live animation scenes. I have a tendency toward motion sickness and I got through this ride fine, though I would not want to do it twice in a row.

Hogwarts at Universal

Hogwarts castle

Flight of the Hippogriff is a basic roller coaster and the ride doesn’t last long. It can sometimes have a long wait when the park is busy. If we had waited in a long line for it we would have been pretty disappointed on the amount of ride time vs wait time, but since we went during an off-peak time the waits weren’t bad anywhere. A lot of the Harry Potter rides don’t allow express passes, but the hippogriff one does.

dragon shaped roller coasters

entrance to the Dragon Challenge roller coasters

Dragon Challenge is a much bigger and wilder roller coaster, but even it doesn’t last as long as you would think when you see the track. You can’t bring anything on the dragon challenge, not even a cell phone in your pocket and they do have a station with a scanner somewhere in the line area where they check. Even though we were walking at a normal pace rather than shuffling through a slow-moving line it took far longer to get from the ride entrance to where you get on the actual ride than the amount of time the ride lasted. Once you get to the top there are separate lines for each dragon as well as for those who want the front seats or all other rows. You get to the ride a lot quicker in the all other rows line. Blue and Orange dragons each have their own separate track, but they don’t leave the station together or run side by side so even though they call it a challenge  it’s not really a race.

Universal's Islands of Adventure entertainment

Beauxbatons girls dancing with ribbons at the Triwizard show

In Hogsmead you can eat at the Three Broomsticks or shop for Harry Potter merchandise in the stores. There’s also a stage not far from the castle where the Frog Choir and Triwizard Spirit Rally perform. The Durmstrang boys do gymnastic tricks and the Beaubaxtons girls dance with ribbons in rhythmic gymnastic style.

frog choir show

even the frogs sing in this frog choir

The frog choir consists of a Hogwarts student from each house. The Hufflepuff and Gryffindor students each held a pillow with a giant animated frog. In the books everyone just wore black robes, but at Universal the robes have colored linings – red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, green for Slytherin and yellow for Hufflepuff.

Honeydukes sweet shop

Honeydukes sells all sorts of sweet treats

Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmead have a wand chooses a wizard show. The line was long when we were in Diagon Alley, but in Hogsmead we happened by when there wasn’t much of a line and only had to wait a few minutes for the show in progress to end before going inside. They picked one kid from the crowd who got to try a few wands, the first few of which went a bit haywire, but the final one of course did what it should.

Harry Potter at Universal

Dervish and Banges in Hogsmeade

Overall it’s a fun way to spend the day and a great way for fans to immerse themselves in Harry Potter’s world. I’m really glad we went during an off-peak time though because I’m not a fan of lines. It seemed pretty fitting visiting a magical world a couple days before boarding a ship called Magic.

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Cruise Ship Cabins on Holland America Oosterdam


Oosterdam in Seattle and part of the Pinnacle Suite balcony

Like all cruise ships, Holland America Oosterdam has a variety of accommodations for passengers to choose from. Cabins range from the lowest priced inside cabins for budget conscious travelers to the spacious Pinnacle Suite for guests who want to cruise in style and luxury.

Oosterdam pinnacle suite balcony

private hot tub on the pinnacle suite balcony

The Pinnacle Suite has a huge balcony with private hot tub, a bedroom separate from the living area, a jetted tub, stand alone shower, and bidet in the bathroom. It even has a butler’s pantry with separate crew door for servicing in-suite dining at the suite’s dining room table. While most rooms just have a number on the door, the pinnacle suites added a personalized name sign. These spacious suites are bigger than some people’s homes. Artwork includes statues as well as pictures.

Oosterdam Pinnacle Suite

Pinnacle Suite room 7045

All cabins on Holland America include luxurious Sealy® Premium Euro-Top mattresses, fine linens and towels, deluxe bathrobes, premium massage showerheads and Elemis Aromapure spa bath products. Complimentary fresh fruit is available on request. Ice buckets in the cabins are filled daily.

pinnacle suite bathroom

bathroom in the Pinnacle Suite

Bookings in Pinnacle or Neptune suites come with use of the exclusive Neptune Lounge which features a seating area with TV, snacks, wifi, library, work tables, and a concierge. It’s located in the interior of deck 7 near most of the suites and is accessible from both port and starboard hallways. There were always people in there whenever we walked by (which was pretty much any time we went to the front of the ship because our cabin was located at the back of deck 7.)

Oosterdam Neptune Suite

Neptune Suite room 7066

Pinnacle and Neptune suite amenities include in-suite coffee and espresso machine, Bose® Bluetooth-enabled Soundlink, complimentary mimosas with in-suite breakfast,  premium duvet, soft cotton bathrobes and slippers, binoculars for use during voyage, an expanded line of Elemis bath amenities, complimentary laundry service, priority boarding and tender, and more.

Oosterdam Neptune Suite balcony

Neptune Suite balcony

Though Neptune Suites are about half the size of Pinnacle Suites, they about double the size of regular verandah or ocean view staterooms. They have oversized balconies with plenty of outdoor furniture.

wraparound stern balcony

wraparound balcony gives both back and side views

The back corners of each stateroom deck have Neptune suites with wraparound balconies that extend the length of the room on both the side and back of the ship.

Oosterdam neptune suite bathroom

Neptune Suite bathroom

While the bathrooms in a Neptune Suite aren’t nearly as fancy as the Pinnacle Suite, they do have jetted tubs and double sinks, showers, and more space than other staterooms.

Oosterdam Signature Suite

Signature Suite 8073

The Oosterdam also has Signature Suites whose list of amenities includes premium duvet, soft, cotton bathrobes and slippers, binoculars for use during voyage, a variety of firm, medium and soft pillows, no-host mini-bar for easy entertaining, oversized bath towels, one-touch telephone concierge service, fresh flowers, and complimentary DVD library. They have the same bathroom as the Neptune Suite and a similar, but smaller stateroom configuration. Signature suites have more amenities than other room classes, but not the  major perks of the higher level suites.

verandah cabin

verandah cabin 6091

Passengers who want a bit of outdoor space to call their own without springing for the cost of a suite can book a verandah cabin, which comes with a private balcony. Verandah cabins at the stern or on bends tend to have larger than average balconies.

accessible verandah cabin

verandah room 8031 is on a bend of the ship and has an extra large angled balcony and accessible shower

Not all rooms in any one category are created equally. Rooms on bends or corners of the ship sometimes come in odd shapes. These may be bigger than average so accessible cabins are sometimes located there since accessible rooms are usually the largest in their category.

accessible shower

room 4132 roll-in accessible shower with fold-down seat

Fully accessible rooms have space to maneuver a wheelchair and roll-in showers. They also have wider doors than ordinary staterooms.

hoyer lift

hoyer lift in accessible cabin

Passengers who need them can pre-arrange a hoyer for their room, which will be waiting in the cabin for them upon arrival. It is used to lift a person who needs assistance getting in and out of their wheelchair. Cruise ships also provide portable cribs where they are needed.

Oosterdam balcony

slightly larger than average balcony to accessible cabin 4132

Balconies to verandah staterooms aren’t nearly as big as the ones suites have, but it’s still a bit of private outside space.

ocean view cabin

ocean view cabin room 1079

Passengers who want to save money, but still have a view can book an ocean view cabin. These are often found on decks too low for balconies, or in other locations where balconies can’t go. They are sometimes larger than balcony cabins because the space otherwise taken by a balcony becomes part of the inside of the cabin.

drop down bunk

this bunk in the ceiling of room 1079 can drop down into a bed

The majority of passengers book 2 people to a cabin, which is what they are all set up for. It’s not required to have 2 people though. Some sail alone, and others with more people. Some cabins on the Oosterdam hold up to 4 passengers. Rooms on the Oosterdam that hold 3 have a couch that folds down into a bed. If it holds 4 it also has a bunk that drops down from the ceiling.


handy to have nearby

When booking a cabin with extra people sometimes location is everything. Just outside cabin 1079 there’s a public bathroom, which could come in handy if booking the full 4 people that cabin holds. (Men’s is on the opposite side of the ship).

obstructed view cabin

obstructed view cabin 4112

If money is tight or you just want natural light try an ocean view obstructed cabin. These cost less than cabins with a full view, but are more spacious than interior cabins. Views vary depending on the obstruction. On the Oosterdam the obstructed view cabins sit behind the lifeboats. They have a full window wall which leaves more possible viewing space than a small window would as anywhere there isn’t an obstruction is open for viewing. Cabins directly behind lifeboats have most of their view blocked, though you can see a bit through the windows of the lifeboat itself. Cabins between lifeboats have partial views. With the full length window you can look down on the promenade deck below in most of the obstructed view rooms.

oosterdam inside cabin

inside cabin 7132

Inside cabins provide all the necessities at the lowest price. There’s no outside view, but the bow cam channel on the cabin’s TV can be used for an electronic window. Besides budget travelers, daytime nappers who want a dark space to sleep at any hour also favor interior cabins. Holland America’s website did not include refrigerators or USB ports in their list of inside cabin amenities, but we stayed in one and it had both.

Oosterdam inside cabin

large inside cabin 1067

Not all inside cabins are alike. Down on deck 1 the large square-shaped interior cabins have space to include a couch, where the rectangle shaped ones found throughout most of the ship just had a chair.

cruise ship cabin

connecting door in room 1067

Some cabins on cruise ships have connecting doors to the next door cabin. If people book both cabins together the door between is unlocked so they can pass freely between the two cabins. With unrelated parties the door remains locked. Walls in the Oosterdam’s cabins are magnetic which comes in handy for keeping paperwork organized if you bring magnets.

Oosterdam Deck Plans

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Halloween on a Cruise Ship

Halloween cruise

Halloween decorations in the Atrium started with a witch – more came later

Cruising over a holiday doesn’t mean missing out on celebrations. Holidays give the ships a reason to vary from their everyday events, add extra activities, and do something different and special. Halloween came during the Vista’s transatlantic crossing so that trip included special holiday things.

Halloween on a cruise ship

some passengers go all out decorating their cabin doors

Some passengers like to decorate their cabin doors. Some will decorate every cruise whether to make their cabin easier to find, to identify them as part of a group, or just because they like to. On holiday cruises more people decorate doors than on other cruises. Mostly with decorations for the holiday, in this case for Halloween. Doors sprouted witches, ghosts, pumpkins, and other Halloween favorites all around the ship. One of the best had a giant spider in a web woven from decorative Halloween webbing.

cruise ship on Halloween

there were blow-up decorations all around the ship

Unfortunately in the immediate area of our cabin several people had their door decorations stolen, so our particular hallway was a bit bare, but decorated doors reigned elsewhere. One person we knew on a different deck did say someone took the magnets off her decorations so she had to tape them to the door instead. It’s really a shame some people haven’t got enough respect for other passengers to leave their things alone.

holiday on a cruise

blow-up decoration in a public hallway

For the most part the passengers decorated early. As Halloween approached the crew began to place Halloween decorations around the ship. Giant blow-up Halloween things of all varieties gathered in atrium, hallways of public decks, and other public areas.

dressing up for Halloween

costumed passengers entering the dining room

On Halloween the ship had a variety of activities. Lots of passengers dressed in costumes. Some all day, others just for specific activities. There was a Halloween party and trick or treating for the kids on board. Lots of people came to dinner in costume.

pumpkin soup

pumpkin soup – perfect for Halloween dinner

The dinner menu didn’t change much from the regular offerings, though they did have pumpkin soup included in the appetizers. That might be for the best since Halloween dishes could tend toward gross and disgusting things people might rather not eat.

cruise ship Halloween desserts

Halloween desserts

The regular dessert menu was gone for the evening and special Halloween desserts served instead with the plates all decorated for the holiday.

Halloween fun on a cruise ship

pumpkin carving

The day’s Halloween fun activities included  pumpkin carving on the Lido and Halloween trivia. Evening brought several Halloween themed movies on the outdoor screen as well as a Halloween dance party, costume parade, and costume contest.

Halloween decorations

witch in the atrium

Overall there’s more going on for Halloween in a day at sea than on land for most people.

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Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Arcadia in the Bay of Islands

Arcadia from Waitangi

Usually cruise ships tie up to a dock on port stops, but sometimes they anchor offshore. When the ship anchors it is called a tender port because people move from ship to shore in smaller boats called tenders. Each ship carries several life boats different from the rest that they can drop to use as tenders. Tender boats are taller than the standard life boats and have double catamaran style hulls and two propellers. Ordinary life boats have a single V-style hull and one propeller.

tenders ready to launch

ready to lower the tenders into the water

Some frequently visited ports send out their own larger island tenders, but at ports like Bay of Islands in New Zealand the ship uses their own. On most of the ships we’ve sailed on the tender just pulls up alongside the ship, but the P&O Arcadia had little docks that folded down from the side of the ship to tie the tenders to. Quite clever actually.

Arcadia's tender dock

Arcadia’s tender dock

The tenders let passengers off at a yacht club between the town of Paihia and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. A scenic walk along the shoreline led to the treaty grounds, which had an admission charge to go inside.

Waitangi treaty grounds

canoe shed at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

From outside the fence you could see a shed with large canoes and a café. The entrance was in a building that looked like a museum. The treaty grounds is the place where the Maori signed a peace treaty with Great Britain in 1840.

Paihai and Russell

A free shuttle took passengers from the yacht club to nearby Paihai. This historic town has plenty of shops and restaurants for tourists. It also has lots of different places offering tours of all sorts. People can go fishing, parasailing, dolphin watching, take a helicopter or bus tour, take a day cruise, visit caves, or at times go snorkeling or diving. Bus tours around the area start at $20, but some of the other things can get pricey – especially the helicopter.

Russell from the ferry

coming into Russell on the ferry

A ferry runs to Russell for $12 round trip for adults. Russell was once called Kororareka, an early whaling settlement. It is one of the oldest towns in New Zealand and has the oldest hotel. It was once a wild place full of sailors, whalers, and escaped convicts from Australia.

Russell, New Zealand

museum in Russell

Russell also has shops, restaurants, and places to book tours of all sorts. It has a couple museums too. We took a short bus tour. The driver said the permanent population there is quite small with most of the homes being holiday houses for people who just spend a few months there each year. We passed a hotel in the distance where the rich and famous stay in rooms costing up to $19,000 per night.

sundial near Russell, New Zealand

mosaic sundial on Flagstaff Hill

We got out on Flagstaff  Hill, which would have had great views had it not been a cloudy, misty day with rain off and on. One path led to an oversized mosaic sundial. The other path led to a flagpole that had a history of Maori’s knocking it down and English putting it back up.

Things to do in the Bay of Islands

Maori canoe

Maori Experience shore excursion

Bay of Islands is a maritime park with 144 islands and lots of beaches, bays, and sea life. Shore excursions from our ship included Waitangi and Countryside, Cape Brett Cruise, Rural Drive and Waipoua Forest and The Maori Experience. We saw some passengers on the Maori Experience heading off from the yacht club in a couple of double canoes. An older Maori guide on one of the canoes wore a loincloth and nothing else but tattoos. The rest of the guides wore just a bit more clothing.

Cruising to Bay of Islands –  Things to Do On Your Own

little ferry in New Zealand

ferry from Paihia to Russell

People who come to Bay of Islands without prior plans will have no problem finding something to do. They can stay at Waitangi and visit the treaty grounds or make their way to either Paihai or Russel and choose from the plethora of tours offered at either town or just explore on their own.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2017
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Real Lemon Cookies

real lemon cookies

lemon cookies

Lemon Cookies



zesting a lemon

use a grater with small holes to zest the lemon

juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup (one stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt


line cookie sheet with parchment paper and turn oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C)

grate outermost bright yellow layer of peel off one lemon using grater with small holes to make lemon zest, set aside

squeeze juice out of lemon, set aside

beat room temperature butter several seconds, add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Add flour, baking soda, salt, and all of the lemon zest. Beat until fully combined.

Form dough into balls and place on pan leaving space between for cookies to spread

Bake for 14 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Frost when cookies are cool. For more of a glazed look use thinner frosting and frost while cookies are hot.


Lemon Frosting



squeeze juice out of the lemon after zesting it

One Lemon

2 Cups Powdered Sugar


zest the lemon and squeeze out the juice

beat powdered sugar, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in medium mixing bowl until smooth. If frosting is too thick add more juice, too thin add more powdered sugar and mix to desired consistency. If you want a glaze make thinner frosting and frost the cookies while they are hot. If you want a thicker frosting layer on each cookie wait to frost them until they cool.

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