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Video: Royal Caribbean Signs on First Chief Meteorologist

In:
23 May 2017
By: 
Matt Hochberg

Casting a watchful eye on the world's weather around the clock is a tall order, and James Van Fleet is the meteorologist for the job – the first of its kind in the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean’s Chief Meteorologist develops forecasts for the cruise line’s fleet of 24 ships. Translating technical data into digestable information is second nature for Van Fleet, who’s a veteran TV meteorologist with more than two decades of experience. With his guidance, captains have the added support to continue making informed decisions and delivering the best possible vacation experience for the cruise line’s guests.

Oasis of the Seas Live Blog Day 2 - Sea Day

In:
23 May 2017
By: 
Michael Poole

Today was our first sea day on board Oasis of the Seas.

I had planned to sleep in, but it is a cruise vacation there is no time for sleeping! I woke up at 6:30am and headed down to the coffee shop for my morning blogging.

Last night we had placed the room service card outside our door for an 8am delivery. Room service called our room at 7:45am to confirm our order and it arrived shortly after. We only decided to order the free options that include: coffee, tea, juice, fruit, yogurt, and cereal. I knew we were going to have a big lunch, so I was preparing myself.

After breakfast we went to relax in the Solarium for a few hours. I was actually surprised at 10am there were large amount of chairs left.

In the past, I’ve rushed my mornings to the pool deck to get the prime seat, but not so much anymore. At 10:30am it started raining and we decided to head inside, I swear every time I cruise it rains.

Lunch

Today we decided to use our ultimate dining package lunch at Sabor.

With our dining package, it covers lunches on sea days and any cover charge restaurant. Sabor has recently changed to a cover charge restaurant for $19 per person. I asked the headed waiter who seated us, if this has caused any slower days and he said no. With the cover charge you can order anything on the menu, YOLO try it all!

It was a little less exciting receiving our guacamole, since they no longer make it tableside. However, the taste is the same and I think it actually helps speed up the service.

I ordered a spicy margarita that’s included in the deluxe drink package, it was okay but I think I like the perfect margarita the best, it’s a classic but perfect.

After lunch, we relaxed poolside at the beach pool. Once again, we were able to find seat in the prime area.

Formal Night

Tonight is formal night on board and this is always one of my favorite evenings on board the cruise. You are finally relaxed and had a full day on board; well maybe it’s the free champagne I love so much… From 7:45pm to 8:15 they hand out champagne in the Royal Promenade.

With our dining package we made reservations at 150 Central Park for 6:30pm. This was a first for me, when we arrived they said there were full with no tables left and we could sit outside until one became open. Okay, no problem, so we sat outside waiting for our table, but it did take a half hour.

At 7:00pm we sat down for dinner, they were so busy. The staff was doing everything they could but they couldn’t seem to keep up with the tables. Our meal lasted until 9:30pm so we missed the captain’s reception. Now to the good stuff, their cucumber martini is the best cocktail I’ve ever drank. This drink is $15, ($2 with drink package) and worth every penny.

Also the tableside beef tenderloin was absolutely outstanding. They bring a cart to the table and cut the meat right in front of you.

Overall not the best dining experience, but the quality of their food and drinks is really great here. I would recommend dining here later in the week when it’s not formal night.

Evening on board

After dinner, I was really in the mood to listen to some live music, so off to Jazz on 4 we went.

This music hall often goes unnoticed since it’s tucked down on the 4th floor. But it’s a really small place and makes the music that much more enjoyable. They had different jazz music every hour in the evening, so take a look at the cruise compass.

My group went to bed at 10pm, so off to the pub I went. I couldn’t believe how pack it was. They also have live music and everyone was just having the best time in there. For you IPA beer lovers you will be happy to hear they have two great new beers now. You will find one of the first IPA’s made, Stone IPA and Dog Fish Head that are very hoppy.

Must plug in my late night pizza before bed. Of course I thought it was great, but for some reason that pizza just taste great around midnight.

Stray observations

  • People were lined up to buy the drink package today. They let you buy it for just the 6 remaining days, however the price out the door was $453 for 6 days.
  • Sabor and Johnny Rockets open at 11:30am, by noon both were on a very long wait. So the $19 cover charge at Sabor isn’t stopping people coming.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 3 - Havana, Cuba

In:
23 May 2017
By: 
Billy Hirsch

Day 3 of our Empress of the Seas cruise took us to Havana Cuba, the highlight of the cruise for most guests, I'm sure. I've lived in South Florida my entire life, been lucky enough to travel much of the world, some of my closest friends were born in Cuba, and yet I was hopeful but never sure that I'd get to visit the island nation just a short distance away from my home. Summing up this trip and walking away would sell it short and so I'm sure there will be more to come.

Arrival in Cuba

We arrived in Havana around 7:30am and the tour for which we were booked met at 8:30 at Boleros. This is quite early for us, but for a new and exciting destination we were happy to start our day early. As we got breakfast and headed to Boleros, we saw the the Havana skyline. It was then that the reality set in that we were in Cuba, and we got so excited.

Arriving in Boleros, I was impressed as Royal Caribbean did a fantastically efficient job of making sure that all guests walking in to Boleros had their documentation. They then assigned you a number (which correlated to the group and bus you were on), so they made it clear to not ask for your group number until your entire party was present so that you could stick together.

In short order we headed off the ship, and for the first time in my life I was on Cuban soil. I've never been more aware of stepping foot in a new country. It's important to know that this isn't because of anything that was particularly different, it was just something for me personally that was of great significance.

Passport Control & Currency Exchange

I had no real reservations about this trip, but I was a bit concerned that the process of going through passport control, changing money, etc was going to be a pain, or at least take time. Not just because it's Cuba, but even arriving in the EU can mean long lines at immigration. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we simply walked towards numbered booths to present our passports and visas, they took our pictures with a webcam (just like when you check in for a cruise), and then we were set to go.

Walking from passport control, the building was quite modern, though a bit plain, and warmer than some might be used to, but not unbearable. Next stop is security, which was odd in that you go through metal detectors and such going into the country. They were efficient, and the process painless. Take a look at the women's uniforms while there, as I bet you've never seen anything like this in terms of government employee outfits. Skirts must be taxed based on length.

We proceeded to an area where we changed currency. I wrote up some tips for changing currency, as Cuba has a two-currency system, and the taxes can be high changing US dollars. I'm pleased to report this process was very quick. I changed some British Pounds to CUCs, the local currency for business and tourism and was on my way in less than a minute to meet back up with our tour group, who waited for everyone to change money.

Havana Walking Tour

In previous posts I mentioned that we changed tours because of schedule changes, and we ended up on the walking tour from Royal Caribbean, as it started early enough that we had time to explore on our own after the tour. We started in Plaza San Francisco, which is where arrive as soon as you leave the cruise terminal building. After an explanation of the history we were given 10-15 minutes to explore on our own before meeting back with the group. This pattern was standard fare for all four plazas we visited on the tour. Each had a story, a history, interesting buildings, and were connected by narrow alleys.

I won't go into the details of the tour here, because as mentioned, there is so much to unpack and I don't want to lose sight of my goal, which is to provide a summary of our day. This isn't in any way for lack of amazing information and experiences.

I will mention that in Havana Vieja, the area nearest the port, the streets are sometimes stone and uneven, but there are marble or concrete sidewalks in many areas. If I was going to rate the difficulty of walking in this area, on a 1-10, where Las Vegas sidewalks are a one and the uneven and steep cobblestone paths in Eze France are a ten, Havana Vieja was a five. That is to say persons with mobility issues will get by, but will want to use caution and may tire a bit more quickly than some other areas.

On our tour, we encountered a number of buskers, but for the most part there wasn't any pressure. There were a couple exceptions, such as the women n traditional dress who wanted money to take photos with them, and would give you a big lip-sticky kiss. That experience isn't on the top of my list, but I feel like if you make eye contact you may have some level of social obligation to throw them a few CUCs, or possibly marry them, I'm not clear on how this works.

As we walked from plaza to plaza we made a few stops. One of them was at the Museo del Chocolate, the Chocolate Museum. I. Love. Chocolate. Now, to call this a museum may have been a stretch unless there was another section I wasn't aware of. There were some display cases containing samples of different ingredients, agriculture tools, and factoids on placards. The highlight here was the chocolate. They had a menu, which a smarter writer would have taken a picture of, but I do recall that they have around 15-20 varieties of truffles containing rum, nuts, mint, and more. They ranged from $.40 to $.50, and larger plain chocolate pieces were $3-4. I bought $7 in truffles and while they melted quickly in the head, they were awesome.

Another stop was at a store which sold nothing but rum, cigars, and coffee, three items for which Cuba is quite famous. I always like to stock up on Havana Club, Cuba's dominant brand of rum, and we always bring some back from Mexico and other countries, so it was exciting to see it at its source. I opted not to buy any at this stop because I didn't want to carry it around and knew I could find it again. Cigars were a big hit with many guests, as was the coffee. One thing I noticed here was that there are far more Cuban rums than Havana Club, though it's certainly the most popular.

At this point we walked towards an air-conditioned bus, which was a welcome sight as it was a very warm day and everyone was ready for a break. The bus ride was very short however, but took us to a well shaded courtyard where we were to sample rum, coffee, and cigars (seems a bit out of order, no?). I enjoyed the rum and coffee. Larissa and I were both impressed that the coffee wasn't overly-sweet as is common in Cuban coffee back home in Miami. Guests who were so inclined were taught how to properly light and smoke cigars, and things got very social. Some guests were dancing with the tour guides (who were fantastic in every way, by the way), and I checked out one of the shops in the courtyard, buying an original photo of some murals in Havana. I fancied the picture and while I was hoping for a print, I was also quite happy to pay $25 for an original photo. We chatted with the shop keeper whose only son lives in Miami. It's incredible to think about how happy everyone seems to be (and I don't think it's a faced in any way), but that so many have family in the US. I could tell she missed her son but more than that it was clear that she was happy he had an opportunity to live in Florida. I left wondering if I'd ever met, or might one day meet him.

After the tasting, we got back on the bus and headed back to Plaza San Francisco right by the ship. I took this opportunity to chat up our tour guide again, inquiring about how to best get into town from the airport, because I was already planning on a return trip at this point. In case you're wondering, there is no easy way, so you either find a friend or take a cab.

Most headed back at this point, but we wanted to explore on our own. Walking around we found a restaurant where we had a snack and some local beer. The restaurant was on the second floor of a building in Plaza Vieja, where school children were exercising and playing, locals chatting, and tourists taking pictures of a naked women riding a giant rooster. It's actually a statue that has to do with female independence and the county's first female teacher, but describing it first was more fun. The cake we had was delicious, and the beer wasn't nearly as cold as one might be used to, but it was still refreshing. The bill came to $11, which I thought was reasonable, though I'll note that I saw places elsewhere advertising sandwiches for $2.50 and beer for $1, so shop around.

Also note that there are two types of restaurants in Cuba: normal/state run businesses, and private businesses, called paladares. The government owned establishments are probably more consistent (and the one we went to was perfectly clean, including the restrooms), and had clear pricing. Paladares, which I wish we'd have had time to try as well, may be great, though I get the impression you risk consistency. On the upside, you'd more directly supporting Cuban people at paladares.

Following our snack we headed to do some shopping. Larissa and I needed rum and our friend Ron wanted a hat. There are no shortage of stores to buy knick-knacks, though many are tiny and have limited selections. Don't be afraid to haggle though, as I was able to get the price down for every purchase we made but one, and was even able to help Ron and another guest get a better deal too. It never hurts to ask, though I'll admit that while I don't think non-Spanish speakers would have trouble in Havana Vieja, a bit of Spanish may help to get better deals.

Looking for a larger selection of wares we asked some employees at a restaurant where to find a larger shop and they directed us to a large indoor flea-market about a ten-minute walk from where we were. This short walk may have been my favorite part. Why? When I'm in a new place I like to get lost, away from the touristy spots, and this walk took us that route. Seeing locals chat, seeing the less-polished looking buildings, and feeling like I was experiencing the real Havana for a moment made my day. This quickly ended when we got to the flea-market, though it was in a beautiful area on the water.

The market had anything you could have possibly wanted. Rum, cigars, clothes, knick-knacks, internet access (which isn't free, read more on that here), another CADECA (currency exchange center), etc. We bought a number of items and would have liked to have spent more time here. If you've ever wanted to see the world's largest selection of Che Guevera t-shirts, this is your place. More than that though, they had some neat items, and we felt like they were less pushy than in many other countries. This was the place to get some deals. Frankly, it was cleaner, quieter, and there was less pressure than at flea-markets in Miami.

At this point it was time to head back, which we were bummed about, though excited at the proposition of air-conditioning and a shower.

Cuban Immigration & Getting Back on The Ship

Walking back in the terminal building you can now change your money back into whichever currency you prefer (out of the major currencies of course), and there is no tax for turning CUCs back in. Once again this area was quick. After this you go back through security, and then back to passport control where they stamp your passport once again. This whole process was very simple.

Back on Empress

Like that, our time in Cuba (well, at least standing on land in Cuba), was over. We enjoyed sail-away, and have a short video here, but then we had to run in as it started to rain. Better during sail-away than while we were touring.

At this point Larissa and I really needed to relax and shower. After this we headed up to the Windjammer to have an oddly-timed meal which ended up being the first of two dinners. There were roughly five types of hummus, which was awesome, along with corn-chowder, balsamic glazed, veggies, a Cuban vegetable stew, and a number of meats.

For dinner number two we headed to the main dining room and I had some more vegetarian Indian food, which was good, though not as good as last night. I'm now writing this while having a post-dinner drink or seven in the Schooner Bar. I'm quite tired but we I have a feeling it's going to be a late night based on the crowd and our schedules.

Tomorrow, Cozumel

Cozumel has started to feel like a second home to us, so we don't really have plans but are happy to be going. We're scheduled to arrive at 1:00pm, though we're also setting our clocks behind tonight, which makes the odds of a late night all the greater. This late night will make Coz, a great coffee shop in Parque Benito Juarez, all the more delicious.

Stray Observations

  • Guests walked right onto the ship with liquor from Cuba. I suspect that they'd need to run x-ray to properly find/hold liquor, and because the Cuba government did this right before getting on this ship they didn't want to impost on guests again.
  • The process associated with Cuba travel (immigration, currency exchange, etc) was far less burdensome than I'd have guessed.
  • There was more construction in Havana than I'd have guessed. Some sponsored by the EU or other governing bodies, others part of Cuban preservation and historic groups or government divisions.
  • There are no shortage of cabs or classic cars to get anywhere. Booking ahead is nice, but don't feel you're out of luck if you don't.

Royal Caribbean announces finalists for Instagram adventure seeker contest

In:
22 May 2017
By: 
Matt Hochberg

Royal Caribbean announced the teams of adventure squads that are finalists in the cruise line's "The World’s Most Adventurous Squad" contest.

In late March, squads began competing in the contest’s opening round of five challenges chronicled on social media. With themes like “Thrills and Chills” and “Epic Eats,” these challenges ran through April. Royal Caribbean then selected one winning squad for each challenge. Five finalists were picked among a field of more than 3,000 competing teams who entered the contest. Each team is made up of up to four thrill-seekers, and will compete to be crowned the winner in just two weeks.

The contest progress can be tracked at AdventureSquad.com. The finalist teams are

  • Cousins of the Caribbean, Winners of the Thrills and Chills Challenge — These competitive cousins are former collegiate athletes, game-changers, and open-minded wanderlusters.
  • Hawaii Koa, Winners of the Hidden Gems Challenge — Instagram ‘Pros and Bros’ are self-proclaimed ‘surf & snow animals’ that believe life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
  • Bangarang, Winners of the Epic Eats Challenge — This globetrotting team collectively has sampled many of the world’s wonders and believe, ‘You gotta risk it to get the biscuit.’
  • Seas the Day, Winners of the Culture Capture Challenge — Calling themselves ‘a couple of couples,’ this crew enthusiastically seeks out the adrenaline rush of serious adventure travel.
  • Skallywags, Winners of the Air Land and Sea Challenge — Having brains, muscle, and moxie, these outdoorsy outliers know how to beat attitude with gratitude and plenty of altitude.

From May 27–June 3, the remaining tier of the Adventure Squad contest begins. The Final Five will embark on Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas for a seven-day sailing. Beginning in Labadee, Haiti, squad mettle will be tested as teams careen down Dragon’s Breath Flight Line, the world’s longest overwater zip line. A sail to Haiti’s remote Amiga Island, surrounded by white-sand beaches and crystal blue waters, culminates in a kayaking and wave-jet surfing adventure to round out the day.

Next, competitors sail to Falmouth, Jamaica, where they’ll raft their way down three miles of the Martha Brae River on handmade vessels of bamboo. Later, crews get to sample some of the best jerk chicken and pork in Jamaica that’s cooked over the pimento tree wood pits of Scotchie’s Restaurant in Montego Bay. Exploring the exhilarating waterfalls and secret cave of Jamaica’s Blue Hole as well as off-roading on ATVs through the island’s jungle terrain is also on the adrenaline-pumping itinerary. But no worries, squad members get to shake off hard-earned road dust with a refreshing cliff-dive into azure waters.

The final port-of-call will take the eager travelers to the island of Cozumel, Mexico, where they’ll hop a plane to explore the intriguing archaeological Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Once there, underground limestone caverns of some of the country’s many cenotes await their inspection. The group will then be treated to restorative handmade tortillas at a private Cozumel taqueria.

At the end of sailing, all five teams will gather in Harmony’s outdoor AquaTheater to hear which group is crowned “The World’s Most Adventurous Squad.” Each winning squad member will be awarded with three Royal Caribbean cruises.

Oasis of the Seas Live Blog Day 1 - Embarkation Day

In:
22 May 2017
By: 
Michael Poole

Pre – Cruise

Before the cruise I had some work to do in Phoenix, AZ and actually took the red-eye back to Orlando, FL the morning of the cruise.

My flight landed in Orlando at 5AM Sunday morning and my ride was coming in around 10am. I started thinking about it and I didn’t want to sit at the airport all morning. So I was starting look at my options for a transfer from Orlando Airport to Port Canaveral. Many of the shuttle services, don’t actually leave until 10am. Unfortunately, only Uber Black works at the airport and it was giving me a rate of $139 one-way to the port. This is when I got creative and decided to take a taxi from the airport to a gas station 3 miles away ($10). Once you are away from the airport you can take an Uber X (the cheapest one) to the port for($39).

For $50 I got over to the port and the ride too less than an hour. I will note that my taxi driver, asked me if I was using him just so I can take an Uber.

Check – in

In Port Canaveral, they have a new terminal they built just for Oasis class ships. However, having used the amazing terminal in Port Everglades, this one really struggled holding all the passengers.

Around 11:15am-11:30am guest arriving had little to no seats left for arriving passengers. The good news is, boarding starting at 11:30 and that was a very easy process.

On board

Once on board I headed over to Central Park to make my dining reservations. When I wrote the preview post, I only had the 4 night dining package. Well since then, I have since changed to the ultimate dining package. This means we will be dining in specialty restaurants all week. This package is $168 per person and also includes lunch on sea days at any of the restaurants. I went into Giovanni’s Table to make our reservations for the week. A few nights I wanted 6:30pm and they only had 6:15 or 6:00. Not a big deal to me, as most of my shows are later into the evening.

For lunch we headed over to Park Café and I couldn’t believe how empty it was. This is a free option for lunch where they have salads and sandwiches. Most cruisers head up to the windjammer day 1 for their first meal, but I highly recommend Park Cafe, for a much calmer and enjoyable lunch. You also don’t want to miss out on their famous roast beef sandwich!

After lunch I was actually starting to crash, I failed to mention I was going on 30 hours straight of no sleep. With the 3-hour time difference in AZ, and red eye over to FL there just wasn’t anytime, but I made the cruise and that’s all that matters. I headed to our cabin at 1pm and our bags had already arrived.

Sailaway

Before sail-away we had the muster drill and on Oasis class this is so much more enjoyable than standing shoulder to shoulder with total strangers on all the other ships. On Oasis class, you watch a short video in a lounge you are assigned to, mine was the theater.

During sail-away I went down to the jogging track and went all the way aft.

This location is often unnoticed if you don’t ever go on the track, they have chairs back there and you can just watch the ocean for hours. After we started moving I changed locations to the forward observation bridge on deck 14. This bridge is few steps away from my cabin D5 Ocean Balcony - 14144.

This bridge is likely the best location to watch, but get there right after the muster drill for a front row seat.

Dinner

Tonight we had dinner at Giovanni’s Table in Central Park.

They have actually changed their menu recently to add a few more options. The big change I recommend is the octopus starter. This was so good; I could have eaten this for a meal to be honest. I also asked if they had any leftover lasagna from lunch and they said yes! So I had the filet and lasagna, and if you are counting that’s two main courses!

The filet was very large and had so many flavors; I can’t wait to go back here later in the week.

Aqua Show

Tonight we had Oasis of Dreams aqua show. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this show, so I was excited to see the original aqua show again. Our show started at 9:30pm and they let you in the theater at 8:45. I really suggest getting there at least 30 minutes before the aqua show for a good seat. I saw so many people coming in right before show who couldn’t find seats together or only left with the front row “splash zone.”

The show was outstanding as always, the reason I love this show so much is because they have a little love story in the show.

Stray Observations

  • Tiffany’s had a mailbox to insert wish-list items. I wonder if they call the spouse to come down and purchase it? Actually, I don’t want to know!
  • Aqua Theater had reserved seats for Star Class Suites, with their cabin number on their seat.

  • The Royal Genies are with their suite guest all the time. I saw them in the terminal checking in, to getting them drinks in the aqua show. Really cool perk, if you can afford it.

Well friends this wraps up my first day on board Oasis of the Seas.

It was such an action packed day that I went to bed at 10pm to catch back up on sleep for tomorrow.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 2 - Key West

In:
22 May 2017
By: 
Billy Hirsch

Today was our first full day on Empress of the Seas, and we spent it in Key West. The timing of our arrival was a bit odd, and we broke away from what we usually do in this port. Let's review the day and look ahead to tomorrow, which is sort of the "main event" in Cuba.

Sunday Brunch

You may have heard about brunch on Empress of the Seas which includes a wide variety of options and complimentary mimosas. In the past I'd only seen this on sea days, but last night we were informed there would be brunch today, which made a lot of sense as we weren't scheduled to arrive in Key West until 12:30pm. The buffet-style meal is held in the main dining room, which I mentioned in yesterday's blog, is quite pretty. In the center of the room on the first floor had hot stations with various breakfast foods as well as cuts of meat. There was also several soups, a waffle station, pastries, fresh fruit, dessert items, and more. While there wasn't a menu present, they seemed happy to accommodate requests from several guests. For example, I asked for two eggs benedict without ham, and they seemed happy to help. Mimosas were offered up, which was a nice touch, though we purchased the drink package on this sailing, so it didn't move the needle for us. Overall I liked this a lot better than the breakfasts we had in the main dining room on other Royal Caribbean ships.

Waiting to Disembark

After brunch we headed to the theater to catch a presentation that was being given about the process tomorrow. It was largely about the documentation, Cuba's two currency system, and a few local tips. It was probably quite useful for many passengers, and we're just going to assume that Royal Caribbean did a great job reading our Cruising Cuba series where we covered a lot of this information.

The morning's leisurely pace continued as we waited to clear the ship in Key West, which didn't end up happening until 1:00pm. One nice thing about a small ship is that usually a late arrival in port would leave large crowds waiting at the gangway, but on Empress these crowds subsided very quickly - and about 15 minutes after being told we could disembark we walked down a few decks and strolled right into Mallory Square. The location was another win, as ships sometimes dock at the Naval Pier just down the way. This isn't a huge inconvenience, as shuttles take you right to the square, but docking right in the heart of Key West is really nice.

Key West

Usually when in Key West we buy tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour. It's just been an easy way to get to all the hot spots, includes a bit of narration, and offers up some discounts to local attractions. As mentioned yesterday there are discounts available, but the cost I saw today was about $27/person. Today we didn't do this, not because I don't think it's a great way to get around, but because it was terribly hot, and we were pretty sure we were just going to grab a drink someplace with good a/c and head back. As we approached the cornucopia of bars we stumbled upon a garden of busts of people of historical significance to the Conch Republic (Key West). This was neat enough, but then another Empress guest said he was there to say high to his grandfather, John Lowe, who's bust was present. Below you see Charles Lowe (holding his SeaPass showing his name indeed matches up) standing next to his grandfather.

We first visited The Patio, a bar Larissa had been to in the past. They're largely known for their hand-crafted cocktails, but this section didn't open until 5:00pm. Luckily they had a good craft beer selection that was ready (as well as wine and such), and we enjoyed some local company who suggested we grab a bite just down the street at Mary Ellen's. We each had a beer and Larissa had a mimosa - the prices were quite reasonable as it was 2 for 1, and their beers were not "Key West tourist" prices, which was nice. Oh, this place had some great pop-culture references on the walls - it had neat character and we wish it would have been cooler so we could have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Strolling a few blocks away to Mary Ellen's we were ready for a snack. The locals at The Patio promised good quality and creative grilled-cheese sandwiches and crispy fries with dipping sauces. This made me think of the potatoes you find in the Netherlands, so I was excited. We ended up having a few drinks there as well, and enjoyed fries and grilled cheese that lives up the the promise of the locals down the street. Definitely sneak in here for good bar service and great food.

Our next stop was Peppers of Key West, a store off the square which sells loads of interesting hot sauces, rubs, and other items for "chili heads". We've been fans of this place for years and always stop by. Don't be deterred just because you don't like spicy stuff - the staff knows their stuff and will guide you towards marinades and such that may not be spicy at all. They have many sauces which you can sample, so we did a bit of a tour and worked up to their hottest sauce they had available for sampling, and then William, the gentleman helping us, even had us try a capsaicin extract (the stuff that makes peppers hot) which comes in at 1,000,000 Scoville units. For a frame of reference jalapenos come in at between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville units. We did this whole tasking on Periscope, and I recommend you check it out as we had a lot of fun - Kat from rcperiscopers.live even joined in on the fun!

I should mention that Kat and her family opted to visit the Key West Aquarium, which is right by the dock. They seemed to really enjoy it and I could see doing this sometime in the future - especially because it's so convenient.

Getting Ready For Cuba

Tomorrow we're in Cuba, so I took the time to fill out our visas, put them in our passports, etc. The ship was also getting guests ready as tonight's menu featured Cuban fare. Living in South Florida this wasn't the more novel concept, but guests seemed to enjoy it. I opted to have Indian food, which we requested last night, though I did enjoy the mango salad. I also enjoyed coconut flan for dinner, which combined two things I really love.

We're meeting at 8:30am in Boleros tomorrow for our "walking" tour. I put walking in quotes, as if a large portion of your tour takes place on a bus and in a restaurant...is is still a walking tour? We'll see. After the tour we'll be exploring on our own, and I'm really interested in conversing with some locals to find how different (or similar) it is to interacting with recent Cuban expats back home in South Florida. The architecture and history of Cuba of course interest me, but it truly is the interaction with locals that is the part of tomorrow which excites me.

Remember - we're sharing on Periscope, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram - so follow along! Tomorrow's updates may be a bit delayed because staying in touch in Cuba isn't as simple as elsewhere, but we''ll share as soon as we can! Have a question? Reach out or comment below!

Royal Caribbean Post Round-Up: May 21, 2017

In:
21 May 2017
By: 
Matt Hochberg

Stay up-to-date with all the Royal Caribbean news from this week with our roundup of all this week's news.

Earlier this week, we reported a new kind of escape room game available on Brilliance of the Seas that will soon make its way to other ships in the fleet.

Puzzle Break CEO Nate Martin spoke exclusively with Royal Caribbean Blog about the work his company is doing to bring new escape rooms to other Royal Caribbean ships.  

The "Royal Mystery" game is a hybrid puzzle hunt escape room experience that is playable by multiple teams at the same time. And it can be played on existing ships in the fleet.

Royal Caribbean News

Royal Caribbean Blog Podcast

The 198th episode of the Royal Caribbean Blog Podcast is now available, featuring an interview with Puzzle Break CEO and co-founder Nate Martin.

In this Episode, Matt talks with Nate Martin about the work Puzzle Break is doing with Royal Caribbean and the kind of escape room games that are coming soon to its ships.

Please feel free to subscribe via iTunes or RSS, and head over to rate and review the podcast on iTunes if you can! We’d appreciate it.

Royal Caribbean Around the Internet

Seatrade Cruise News cites a poll that Royal Caribbean is tops with millennials.

CruiseBe has 5 places for foodies on Anthem of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean showed how they use data-driven, predictive analytics approach to fleet operations.

Eat Sleep Cruise shared their top 10 things to do in Havana, Cuba.

Empress of the Seas 2017 Live Blog Day 1 - Embarkation Day

In:
21 May 2017
By: 
Billy Hirsch

With every embarkation day there is a feeling of "vacation is finally here", despite the fact it isn't really a full day after checking in, muster, etc. Today however was all the sweeter after a rather eventful arrival in Tampa, which you can read about over on CruiseHabit.com. Adding to the excitement was the fact hat to us, Empress is a new ship, Tampa is a new port, and Cuba is a new destination.

Getting to the port

Ahead of the cruise we stayed at the the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, which is about a ten minute walk from the port. The hotel was lovely, providing excellent views, and friendly service. For the price (a bit over $215/night) it was more than we needed, as we just worked on our laptops and slept, but if you'd like to enjoy downtown Tampa, Ybor City, and be close to the port, it's a great option (and the pool area is very nice). Our room faced the channel and port area, so when my alarm went off this morning (a very unwelcome alarm I should add, as we went out with CruiseHabitRic last night) my first thought was to get a glimpse of the ship from our balcony. Actually, the first thought was, "I drank too much last night, where's the Tylenol" - but wondering about the view was a close second. Once opening the curtains I wasn't disappointed, I was able to see the Empress of the Seas teasing me, and waiting for our arrival, which unfortunately would need to wait, as Larissa had some work to finish up and we had to pack up.

Empress of the Seas as seen from the Tampa Marriott Waterside
Empress of the Seas as seen from the Tampa Marriott Waterside


Once ready we opted to take Lyft to the port. We could have walked if we didn't have so many bags and it wasn't so hot, but I'm nobody's hero. I should mentioned that Michael Poole (who is live blogging at OasisOfTheSeas.live this week) said I could use Downtowner, an electric vehicle service in Tampa and other areas, and go to the port for free. Again though, with all that luggage I didn't want to add complication, so a $5 Lyft ride was an easy decision. We arrived at about 11:45am.

Checking in at the port

I'd heard great things about the port in Tampa, and it is small, which makes things convenient. Security was quick, the facilities were clean - all seemed well. Once through security we had to complete the health questionnaire (where they ask about recent illness). What was different this time is that because we're sailing to Cuba, this is when we were asked to complete the affidavit about our travel plans. This added a bit of time, but really wasn't a big deal. As you're required to retain a copy of your travel documentation to Cuba they give you a copy of these once you fill it out (though I just opted to take pictures with my phone). Up to this point, smooth sailing.

We went into the "Gold" Crown & Anchor line (for the last time, we become platinum after this cruise) which is fine. So far my Royal Caribbean check-ins had all been quite fast. This time things were a bit busier, likely because of our late arrival. The way the employees managed the queues however was a bit flawed, as the second someone walked into the Platinum+ line they'd take people from there - which meant we were waiting more than a few minutes before our line got a shot. Finally a port employee saw this logic was causing a major backup and changed things up, but we ultimately waited in that line for 30 minutes, which I felt was a bit long. Once up to the counter the process was quick and smooth, and we were also handed our Cuban visas. We were onboard Empress within 10 minutes of getting up to the counter.

First Impressions of Empress

I enjoy small ships, and the feel of Empress embodies much of what I miss from ships of the past. Lounges than span the beam of the ship, great views of the ocean, and tiny bathrooms. Okay, that last part I just live with. I found Empress to be in great shape, with most fittings and furniture appearing brand new. The style isn't outdated, but seeing a ship of this size and configuration in great condition was almost like being in a time machine.

We headed to the Windjammer for lunch, and it's obviously quite small, but we didn't have much trouble finding a seat - though you may have to queue up just a bit for food as they don't have the "island" configuration of most newer ships. After lunch I needed coffee, and attached to Boleros is Café Royal, which is the onboard coffee bar serving up Café Bustelo, a brand of Cuban coffee. The coffee was nice and strong and Larissa bonded with the barista, who is also Brazilian - so that's where I can find Larissa much of the cruise, I'm sure. Oh, and with the purchase of coffee you can get pastelitos, which are Cuban pastries. Whether they enforce the "you must buy coffee" requirement remains to be seen, but with the drink package, it doesn't make much of a difference to me.

Muster drill went as expected except for the crew and officers, who were very high energy - asking guests to chant the station number and other important into. I'm not usually into this type of thing, but I do see it as effective safety - I certainly remember that I'm station 6. I of course wore my muster drill shirt, which you can buy here (yes, I have no shame).

Muster drill shirt from CruiseHabit.com

We walked a bit and noticed that the Casino is split level (and non-smoking!) which is interesting. It was a bit warm in there and I know they had some A/C issues last week. We also passed through the Schooner Bar, which is quite large on this ship.

One thing I wanted to mention is that it seems that the shore excursions desk gets very busy on this ship. It may be related to some changes with available tours in Havana, but the lesson is to go make changes early if you need to. If you need help remembering the value of this, check out the line I waited in. Note however that the staff was really working hard and efficiently - there was just a lot of demand.

Sail-away from Tampa

We were excited to sail through the bay and under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and in fact, before we knew we were taking this cruise, we'd booked a Brilliance sailing just to experience sailing out of Tampa. While I knew it was a long sail-away I didn't realize how long. I started a Periscope broadcast about 10 minutes after pulling away from the pier, and had some nice chats, but then signed off to do another broadcast once we got to the bridge - as my friend Brandon informed me it was going to be about two hours before we got to the bridge.

Once we sailed near the bridge it was no let-down. The bridge is quite long and there is something about a cruise ship going under a bridge that is just neat - something I'm not sure I can explain if you've not done it. We then headed back into Boleros, where we'd already spent some time. You can actually go outside from Boleros, which is all the way aft. There is a great patio area from which you can watch the ships wake. It's a great spot, though smoking seems to be permitted in this area. It was open enough though that the smoke wasn't a bother, so we relaxed with a beer.

Dinner and drinks

Tonight we opted to head to the main dining room (our deck is called "Starlight". I love this room. I'll get some photos when it's not full of guests, but there are massive windows at multiple angles, an elevated platform with a grand piano, and it feels very open. I'm excited to share this in the coming days. We had a truffle risotto and a few appetizers as it was Italian night. The food was good - perhaps a tiny bit salty, but I was satisfied. I planned on checking out the Windjammer afterward to see what the options were but got lazy. I will check it out for late night snacks though.

After dinner we headed to the Schooner Bar to see Billy, a pianist and vocalist who sings a lot of Billy Joel. These things combined with my name being Billy made for very confusing head turns for me every time someone shouted "Billy!". He interacts with the crowd a lot, and I have a hunch he knows how to work any audience. Our friend Ron was on the past several days in addition to this sailing, and seemed to enjoy Billy quite a bit. As I write this, I'm listening to Billy continue as I sip my scotch, Ardbeg, which they keep at the Schooner Bar for me.

Billy in Boleros
Billy in Boleros


Tomorrow - Key West

We don't arrive in Key West until around noon, which means, as a late riser, I may actually see our arrival. Brunch, which is usually only served on sea days, is reportedly being served tomorrow in the main dining room on account of our oddly-timed arrival. We haven't any plans, but usually when we sail into Key West we take Old Town Trolley Tours around, as it's an easy and economical way to get around to any of the town's hot spots. One tip here, is each time I've done this on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity, the price of this ticket through the shore excursions desk is actually a couple dollars cheaper than buying tickets directly. That in mind, there are always coupons for purchasing directly. I guess the real tip is that only fools pay retail...for Old Town Trolley. While we like the town, there is also a small chance we'll just stay on board, as Larissa and I have been longing for a lazy day - it's been a busy few weeks. We'll see what happens.

Friday Photos

In:
19 May 2017
By: 
Matt Hochberg

Happy Friday to everyone! When the calendar hits Friday, that means we are sharing our readers favorite Royal Caribbean cruise photos!  

Each week we invite our readers to send us their favorite Royal Caribbean photos and we showcase them all right here!

Ken Slusser starts us off this week, with this photo of the deck party on Enchantment of the Seas.

Jin has a shot of North Star rising above Ovation of the Seas.

Here is a beautiful sunset photo, sent in by Catherine Elgie-Peters, from aboard Quantum of the Seas.

Dana and Patricia Hall shared this photo of Vision of the Seas docked in downtown Oslo, Norway.

Check out this photo of Quantum of the Seas in Nassau, Bahamas, just as the sun is setting.  Photo by Naas.

Rob Ruby shared this photo of the sun rising in Sydney, while he was aboard Rhapsody of the Seas.

We round out this week's photos with this shot of Miami in the distance, as seen by John Estok on Navigator of the Seas as the ship was beginning a brand new sailing.

We want to share your Royal Caribbean photos too! Send us your favorite, best, most awesome Royal Caribbean cruise photos by using this form and we will feature them in an upcoming Friday Photos blog post!

Royal Caribbean now offering escape room game on Brilliance of the Seas

In:
18 May 2017
By: 
Matt Hochberg

Guests sailing on Brilliance of the Seas can look forward to enjoying an escape room game while onboard their next sailing.

Puzzle Break CEO Nate Martin confirmed to Royal Caribbean Blog in an exclusive interview that the company now offers, "Royal Mystery," which is a hybrid puzzle hunt escape room experience that is playable by multiple teams at the same time.

Puzzle Break's website lists Brilliance of the Seas as a ship offering a Puzzle Break experience

"To bring Puzzle Break experiences to an even larger audience, we also have a couple of games that we've done for Royal which we're rolling out to more and more ships everyday. It is a kind of a hybrid experience, that kind of captures what an escape room is...but instead of one team in one room, it's a whole bunch of teams in a very large space all working on the same puzzles independently, racing against the clock and somewhat racing against each other," said Nate Martin, Co-Founder and CEO, Puzzle Break.

"This is called A Royal Mystery, we're going to be eventually be doing several of these for Royal.  They are available now aboard Brilliance of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, and I think we are rolling out to Harmony pretty soon."

"I think the current plan of record is to get those on every single ship in the fleet."

Royal Mystery on Ovation of the Seas. Photo by drummerdave72

Royal Caribbean and Puzzle Break are also collaborating on bringing an escape room experience to Symphony of the Seas, which is Royal Caribbean's upcoming fourth Oasis Class ship that will debut next year.  According to Martin, an escape room game for a ship like Symphony of the Seas costs "over a million dollars to make."