Monthly Archives: January 2016

Snorkeling in Bonaire

Having never been to Bonaire I was super excited about this stop.  Bonaire is part of what is known as the A, B, C islands which lie about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela.  Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao make up the A, B, C islands and are all part of the Netherland Antilles.  They generally do not get hurricanes because of how far south in the Caribbean they are and are in a perfect location if you want a fall vacation and want to stay out of the paths of hurricanes.

I knew that Bonaire was considered a diver’s paradise so I thought it would be great for snorkeling since I am not a diver.  I have gone snorkeling several times with Blogger Hubby but, this is confession time, I am not a confident snorkeler. On this cruise I wasn’t traveling with my husband but rather a friend and she was not a snorkeler.  I put on my Big Girl panties and decided to do a snorkeling trip by myself (of course there would be others on the boat).

After a recommendation from a couple on my Cruise Critic Roll Call (thank you Lisa and Travis) I booked with Woodwind on their catamaran.

Jane on boat
I have never had such a positive snorkeling experience.  Sitting on their catamaran as we sailed around the harbor and island near the capital city in Bonaire, it was a very peaceful and serene experience.  There was no music blaring, no racing to see who could drink the most in the shortest amount of time.  It was almost as if we were communing with the water.  There were about 16 of us on the cat and the two guides gave each of us their utmost time and attention.  They went to each of each to see if we had any concerns or fears and whether we had snorkeled before  I had told that that I had but was more of a tentative and nervous snorkeler.  When they asked what my concerns were, I told them and they assured me that I would be fine after listening to me.  Our guide actually stayed very close by two people who had never snorkeled before.

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Additionally, they told us that they had full face snorkel mask if anyone had problems breathing out of their mouth.  They also had about 4 pairs of prescription masks for those who wear glasses.  Clothing – they had plenty for us to borrow.  I put on a pullover top so I would not sunburn my back as I snorkeled.  The woman next to me, who was fair skinned, put on one of their skins, like a diving suit only thinner.  I borrowed a hood to put over my hair and to keep it from flowing into my face.  Fins were optional.  She had float belts, vests and noodles.  We didn’t need to bring anything – they had it all and much more!

Jane thumb up

What surprised me was that the guides got into the water with us and stayed with those who had never snorkeled before and helped those of us who felt like we needed reassurances.  Our guide pointed out fish, two different types of turtles as well as different corals and sponges that were below us.  She would give us the hand signals that we learned before getting in the water checking to see if we were okay.  We had a full 90 minutes snorkeling and it was wonderful.  We saw two different types of turtles, brain sponge, needlefish, lion fish and so many more tropical fish that I do not know the name of.

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We all got back on board our boat and as we were heading back to the dock we were served a hot dinner – noodles, spring roll and of course Rum Runners.  It was delicious and I had no idea that I was even hungry.

IMG_8932Before we got to port, the guides came around to collect their money – either by credit card or cash.  For my tour, it was $55 US dollars.

One little antidote, as we were looking for a place to get into the water, our guide and our captain noticed another boat “The Coral Buddy” and our guide did not like what they were doing.  Some of their passengers were in the water standing on coral, they were anchored in a coral restoration area.  There were words in Dutch and strong feelings on the part of our crew.  I appreciated their feelings about coral restoration and doing no damage to the sensitive coral.  We all felt like we made friends with our guides.

IMG_8955To get to Woodwind, as you leave the port, bear to the right.  At the main street, turn right and you will see a casino sign.  Go through the gate and through the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort.  Woodwind is all the way down the sidewalk, past the swimming pool.  If you are with someone who doesn’t want to snorkel, the resort offers a day pass for $15 though when I walked through, there was no one collecting and I just sat down on one of the loungers and went swimming in the pool before my snorkel trip.

To reach them before your trip, you can call them at 599-786-7055 or go to their website. I do not receive any compensation for endorsing this group nor was my trip paid for by them.  I paid for it myself.

 

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Cruise Excursions and How To Find Non-Cruise Line Tours

If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port.  There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.

You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours.  Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset.  I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you.  Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.

The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting.  Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour?  If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?

I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency.  Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD.  The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.

With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close.  For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be.  I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship.  On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure.  Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late.  How is that for service!

Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late.  They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks.  If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave.  However, they will get you to your next port of call.  If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes.  This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card.  That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.

Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret.  I simply google “shore excursions in ____”.  I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call.  I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date.  Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.

Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box.  Make sure you read all the reviews.  I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.

I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have.  During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.

I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island.  It was very interesting and something that I had never done.  I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more.  The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.

I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour.  Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.

Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous.  Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat.  A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America.  Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently.  they also wanted to know “why”.  I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route.  Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Fort Lauderdale, The Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and Boarding the Oosterdam

I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find any direct flights from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale on United for our cruise.  Perhaps since I had booked the cruise about 3 weeks prior to sailing, they were all filled.  Nevertheless, we found flights that would take us from IAD to Tampa.  Another choice was going to Newark but my rule in the winter is to never fly north for a connection – they may be having weather that we would not get. Flight was easy, nothing remarkable.  Apparently we arrived in a small terminal in Tampa and if we wanted to go to the main terminal, we would have to go outside to get a shuttle and then we came back from the main terminal, we would have to go through security again.  One of the reasons that people go to the main terminal is for the restaurants.  It was lunch time and we decided to stay where we were.  The Green Iguana was fine – real dishes but plastic utensils, styrofoam cups for soup but it was better than Pizza Hut or Quiznos for us.

Our connecting flight was with Silver Wings that we booked through the United website. These are prop planes that go to various different cities in Florida as well as to some of the Bahamaian islands.  We were a little delay getting on the plane and when I inquired why to the gate agent she said that they were waiting for “catering”.  Believe it or not, “catering” consisted of a small bottle of water or juice!

After we grabbed our bags, we headed outside to use Uber.  This was Blogger Friend’s first time using it.  Within 4 minutes we were picked up and taken to the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale.  Uber cost us $13.40 to go to our hotel, less expensive than what it would cost us if we used a taxi.  It is easy to use.  Just download the Uber app, associate a credit card to your Uber account.  When you open your app, it knows where you are and it tells you how close an Uber driver is to you.  After I push the black bar to call a driver, it then sends me a photo of the driver, his license plate and what his car looks like.  He then called me and I told him that we were standing under the sign so he could readily find us.

One quick point about Hyatt.  The night before we checked in, they sent me a text asking if they could do anything to make my stay more enjoyable.  I had asked them to have for us extra shampoo, conditioner (hey, two ladies cannot share one small tube of shampoo), extra bath towels and to have one bed with feather free pillows.  Upon checking it, I reconfirmed and showed them my text message.  We were pleasantly surprised that we were upgraded to one of the Junior Executive Suites in the Tower because of my newly gained Diamond status.  TIP:  There are 2 junior executive suites on each floor in the Tower.  If the room ends in “60” that is the first room from the elevator and you get a view of the grounds, the canals and Inter Coastal Waterway and partial view of the ocean.  If the room ends in “70” or “71” then those rooms are next to the room that has the ice machine and the service elevator which makes constant noise – almost like a gear rolling noise. You get a view of the ocean and  Port Everglades which is really interesting when ships are leaving port.  Neither of the locations, in my mind, are great locations for suites.  The hotel has no airport shuttles and that is why we used Uber though they do have a port shuttle for about $7 per person but we took a cab for $10.50 split between the two of us for $5.25 each and we didn’t need to wait for more people to join the shuttle or to drop them off at other ships.

hyatt 66 tower

When I checked in I was offered an amenity gift, mainly food but I chose the 1,000 points instead.  I also reminded them of my text asking for extra shampoo, conditioner, towels and feather free pillows.  They told me that they would remind housekeeping.

We walked around the resort and as nice as it was, I wondered why anyone would stay here if they weren’t associated with a conference at the hotel or going to the port or returning from the port.  There is the Tower where there are about 12 rooms per floor and a restaurant at the top.  You access the elevator for the tower rooms  in the lobby where there is a nice bar, business office and a shop with shirts, hats, and various sundries.  The lanai rooms are accessed by going outside of the lobby.  They are in two story buildings around the pool and grounds.  If it is rainy or bad weather, you do have to do outside while you do not if you are in the Tower rooms.

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We were the on a Thursday and from 4:00 to 5:00 they have free wine and cheese sampling in the bar area.  They also on one ofd the weekend mornings have Bloody Marys for their guests.  This was where we sat when waiting for our room to be ready.

There are restaurants at the Hyatt Pier 66 but after reading reviews on Trip Advisor, we decided to eat elsewhere. We took a cab that was in front of our hotel to Carrabas for dinner.  Since we knew that we would need a cab to go back, we asked for and received our cab drivers telephone number.  After eating we walked to the next little shopping center , Harbor Shops, where they had a Publix for some last minute items to bring on our cruise (wine, sunscreen, etc).  After finishing, we called our cab driver and he was there in about one minute.

Bed time came early for us as we had been up and at the airport early.  However, there still were no feather free pillows or extra shampoo and conditioner.  I was the first to shower the next morning and while I was in the shower my roommate when back downstairs to ask for shampoo and conditioner so she could use them for her shower.  Guess what – they never came.  As we were leaving to go to breakfast, I texted back to the hotel expressing my disappointment with their lack of follow through, particularly when they initiated the discussion.  Soon a phone call came asking if we had received all that we asked for.  Of course my response was “no” and they offered us breakfast menu tickets of which I already had since I was a Diamond Member.  Then they asked me to stop by the desk after breakfast.

I had the ticket to order off the menu but felt that there was no need to since it was quite an extensive buffet.  After breakfast, I stopped by the desk and was awarded 5,000 points for their failing to give us the items that we requested.   I’m sure that I received this due to the Diamond status that I have.   SCORE!!!

With excitement mounting, we took a cab ($10.50) to the port.  There was very little traffic as we were the only ship in port.  With more ships, it would most likely be more expensive because of the increased traffic).  This was less expensive than taking the shuttle ($7 each) and it would take us directly to our ship.

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We went right in to the terminal building, went through the scanner, filled out the Public Health form that we were not sick and then went upstairs to check in.  We were handed card #3 for boarding, had our photo taken for our Ship and Shore card, received our deck plan of the ship and then sat and waited.  I always look around the room seeing if there is anyone that I know, anyone familiar.  I really get so excited wondering who among this group will I get to know, will sit with us at dinner, be on my Team Trivia team.  I really enjoy cruising and the social aspect of it.  I’m generally the one introducing myself asking where you are from, if you have cruised before and what is your favorite cruise.

I gave my family the link to the webcam so they could watch us depart and listen to the ship’s horn “toot” as we left the port.  If you are interested, here is the link to the Port Everglades webcam.

We sat down next to a really nice couple, and actually they became our “cruise best friends” as well as members of my Team Trivia.  As soon as we were allowed onto the ship, around 11:30, my roommate and I split up.  Since we had booked it last minute we had the Anytime You Wish dining.  I had remembered that you could make reservations so my roommate went to find where you make the reservations for dinner (5:15 and 5:30 or 8:00 and 8:15).  We were hoping this would be easier than just showing up to get seated.

On the first day is the time for us to begin planning what we wanted to do on the ship.  We made appointments for the Spa and if you are going to the spa the best deals are offered on the first day though you do not have to do them on the first day.  Also they have daily combination specials which are very good as well.  I booked a cooking lessons with one of the chefs in a group of 12 passengers.  Our luggage was delivered and it was time to unpack and get settled into our upgraded room.  I love the location of being on Deck 8 since we are one deck below the Spa, Lido Buffet and the Lido pool and the Seaview pool.  Our room happened to be below the changing rooms in the spa so we had no noise at night.

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We found out that on our ship was a group of about 375 people with JazzSea.  There were those who were musicians and brought their instruments, two bands were there to perform for their group during private functions.  Many people cringe when they find out that there is a group on board.  Did it impact us – yes, but very little.  They had the Crows Nest every night for their music, the Piano Bar during the day, function rooms for jam sessions, etc.  However, they also brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the ship.

After going to the show lounge, meeting the staff and playing the penh slots for a little bit, we went to bed.  The next morning was our beach day at Half Moon Cay.  We were both looking forward to getting into the water as well as some time in the sun and for taking our tour of the island, the only Holland American excursion that I booked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Travel Plans

I find that I have started many posts but have found with the holidays, sickness and lack of time I never completed them.  I’m truly sorry about that.  My New Year’s resolution is to do a better job in 2016!  Hold me accountable and we’ll review it at the end of 2016.

Some of you may remember that last year a friend and I took a last minute cruise on Holland America to the Panama Canal.  We enjoyed it very much and decided then that we would try it again this year.

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I had been watching a cruise that I was interested in, eleven night Southern Caribbean, but it was too expensive, even at last minute – $1700 for an inside stateroom.  Nope, not going to do that.  Part of the reason for last minute was the less expensive staterooms.  We knew we wouldn’t get the best room however we knew we wouldn’t be in our room often.  Last year we received a partial obstructed stateroom with floor to ceiling windows and only half the window was blocked by a lifeboat.

We found a cruise that we both liked about 3 weeks before sailing on Holland America again.  We will be sailing 10 nights to sunny and warm locations in the Caribbean.  We will be going to Samana, Dominican Republic (a new port to me), Aruba, Bonaire (another new port), Curacao and Grand Turk.  With taxes, port charges and our stateroom it will cost us about $1000 each.

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In additional to that, since I own 100 shares of Carnival Cruise Line (the parent company of HAL) stock, I will receive a $100 On Board Credit (OBC) by faxing in a statement from the past six months that shows that I own the stock.  I know that we will get an OBC from our travel agent as well.  Those credits will help to offset the gratuities that we pay to all the works and is charged directly to our stateroom.

With the room all booked, it was time for the flights and the hotels.  Since my friend lives very close to IAD, we will be flying out of there.  I couldn’t find a roundtrip flight that was just what I wanted or the price that I wanted.  I found we had a better selection of flights and prices if we booked two one way tickets.  In reviewing the flights and prices, I found higher prices on the day the cruise ended since it is MLK Day.  Rather than paying an extra $170 each, we decided to extend our vacation and go home the next day.  Even with the hotel and meals, it will be less expensive.

Airline Travel Tip– I went back and forth on United’s site hoping to find something a little less expensive.  When I found what I wanted to book, after checking with my friend, I found that the price was no longer there – it was more expensive, really!  And it was only a matter of minutes.   I tried a little trick that someone told me.  Rather than going straight to the United site using my regular browser, I went to “private” or incognito” browsing.  That way they had no history of me looking at those flights and the lower price was there.  Tuck that tip away in your arsenal of finding less expensive flights.

A few weeks ago, Hyatt had a promotion that if you proved that you had status with another hotel chain, they would grant you their top Diamond status.  I actually have Spire Elite with IHG which is their top elite status.  I sent them proof of my IHG status and proof that I had stayed with IHG within the past few months (remember my road trip) and was awarded Diamond status.  Their Diamond status means more at certain hotels than others.

When I have cruised out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale,  I have stayed at the Hyatt House in Fort Lauderdale (17th Street/Convention Center) because of its proximity to the Harbor Shops shopping center even though you don’t get any perks at the Hyatt House.  I like staying there because we are within walking distance of all the stores and I often have to run into Publix to get last minute items or a bottle of wine to take on the cruise with me.  I decided that I would try another Hyatt – the Hyatt at Sixty Six Pier, just down the road, adjacent to the marina.  To get to the shops, we could take the Sun Trolley for $1 or use a cab or Uber.  This hotel was also less expensive than the Hyatt House.  Worth a try.  The ground on their web site look amazing.  I’ll report back on the hotel with my impressions of it.  We will also be staying here after the cruise unless I dislike it so much that it would be better to go elsewhere.  As it was getting closer to our departure I began doubting myself that this was the BEST hotel that I could find.  I went back and double checked other hotels. Though some did have shuttle service from the airport and to the cruise ship, It was $80 more – didn’t need that.  Other hotels were about $150 more that what we were paying.  I guess I did make the correct decision.

Now my time was t be spent looking for excursions that were not ship related, as I really don’t like to be crammed into a bus of 44 people where someone or a few always run on their own time.  I’ll report what I found.

Have you ever booked a last minute trip in an attempt to get something less expensive?