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I like to highlight travel experiences that have gone the extra mile. We should all expect to be well looked after when we travel, with good standards of service being the norm. This post is about something extra, and all the better for being unexpected.
So I’ll set the scene. We’re on a short cruise with Fred Olsen, as we’ve never travelled with them before, As a cruise agent, I want to understand how they tick. As a traveller, I’ve recently been diagnosed as coeliac, meaning I can’t eat anything containing gluten. For the uninitiated, this means anything that contains a wide number of grains, which can be included in such unexpected places as gravy, Worcester sauce, malt flavourings and soy sauce. The gluten can sneak up and make you pretty ill. So I was understandably anxious. And I’d packed a sneaky stash of peanuts, gluten free crackers and cookies and other snacks just in case.
We got to the cabin, and my OH began to peruse the newsletter. He found a “Special Diets” meeting, hosted in one of the restaurants on that first day. We went along to be hosted by the Executive Chef. Not just anyone, but the main culinary man. He spent time carefully checking the needs of people with special diets and allergies. And he was very clear about what we should do.
If you are coeliac, your life often means going without in restaurants. “I can do you this, but without that” is generally the way it goes. I’m always slightly amused by the people who offer dips like hummus, but without the pita bread. Do you intend I should lick it from the plate? Can you not give me a carrot or two? But it was a whole different scenario with Fred’s.
We were told, nay implored, by the Executive Chef, to ask for more. Where a sauce didn’t fit our needs, we were asked to describe what we would like, and it would be made for us. We were told what would be safe for us, and what needed to be investigated. In short, we were told not to settle for less. They had gluten free bread, and it was brought immediately without asking at dinner each night. I had some really delicious food, some naturally gluten-free and some made especially for coeliacs such as a magnificent Christmas pudding. And importantly, I was confident that they were taking me seriously, and that proper care was being taken in what I was served.
And when I happened to stumble across afternoon tea later in the voyage, I was majorly impressed to discover not just gluten free cakes on offer, but that they were both already there (not in a galley 3 decks away and awaiting a request) and immediately available, AND they were properly wrapped and segregated to avoid cross-contamination. And they were mighty good too.
Black Watch – you had a very grateful coeliac passenger. Thank you for making my first gluten free cruise safe and delicious.
Advice for Cruisers on Special Diets
Cruise lines cater for all kinds of special diets from low sugar and low salt to particular allergies such as onion or tomato. My advice to travellers on a special diet is as follows:
- Let your cruise line (and travel agent) know up front when you book
- On embarkation day, the main restaurant may not be open and you may need to use the buffet. Ask for assistance from one of the supervisors (who should be visible within the buffet) to help you find something suitable for lunch.
- On your first night, your dinner will not be pre-ordered. It may be worth going to the restaurant that afternoon to ask to see the menu for the evening, which will give you time to order something suitable if there is nothing on that menu you can eat, or can only eat with modifications.
- For subsequent evenings, you will be offered the next night’s menu so that you can choose your dinner in advance and have it prepared to your requirements. By this time your regular waiting staff will no doubt remember your needs, and will be ready to ensure they are met.
- It is possible on some ships to order your next day’s lunch at dinner the previous evening. This is for restaurant dining on board, and therefore may not be possible should a main restaurant be closed that day.
- You can elect to take your breakfast via room service, the buffet or the main restaurant. I have had no problems in getting gluten free toast delivered to my cabin as part of room service, so a special diet doesn’t stop you having your brekkie in bed.
- As always in a buffet situation, be aware of cross-contamination, and don’t be scared to ask for new serving utensils or a freshly cooked item if you have any concerns that cross-contamination may have occurred.
- Don’t be frightened to ask where they stash the goodies! Celebrity keeps gluten free cookies at the Cafe al Bacio while P&O keep their gluten free and sugar free cakes at Costa. Always ask…after all, you’re meant to be having a good time too!
As a gentleman in the eighteenth century, it was considered obligatory to further your education and gather exposure to aristocratic European society by means of the Grand Tour of Europe. The length of your trip was directly related to your purse, with anything from a few months to up to eight years being considered acceptable. (Quite some gap year!) In particular, a gentleman was expected to include Venice, Naples, Sicily and Rome on the tour, and to return with a fine collection of art and antiquities. Some also returned with rather more exotic diseases.
Over time, the use of rail and steamship travel made the tour accessible to the middle classes, and the Cook’s Tour emerged via the one and only Thomas Cook, who began taking parties on the “grand circular tour” of Europe in 1851.
No real prizes for guessing where this one was taken. 😉
A Swiss Easter Bunny Prowls The Streets of Ghent
We were waiting for a tram back to the hotel when this delightful creature appeared in the street, causing me to fumble around with my camera and clip his ears rather painfully in the one picture I can now find. Fortunately I was unable to check whether he was really made of chocolate, as I might have insisted he come back home with us.
So whether or not you are celebrating Easter, have happy holidays. And may the Giant Easter Chocolate Rabbit be with you!
The legendary miso glazed seabass…
This menu is from June 2012. And it was truly delicious.
Warm Crushed Baby Potato with Caviar
Echire Butter and Fresh Chives
Arboria Rice with Roasted Lobster Medallions in Lobster Broth Reduction
Den Miso Glazed Seabass
Wrapped and Cooked in a Banana Leaf
Seventy two hours Slow Cooking Short Rib “Perigourdine”
Semolina Gnocchi, Vegetable Casserole and Crispy Parmesan
Due of Green and White Asparagus with Potato Waffle and Spinach
Soft Truffle Cream and Fondant Tomato
“Gold Bullion” of Valrhona Jivara Chocolate Mousse
Praline, Exotic Fruit and Amarena Cherries
Petits Fours and Macaroons
If you’ve not cruised before, you may be wondering why you would want to choose a cabin. After all, you don’t choose a hotel room! But you do get the opportunity to make a choice on a cruise ship, and here’s why it may matter to you.
Contemporary Style in an Aqua Class Balcony Cabin on the Celebrity Eclipse
Types of Cabin
On a cruise ship, cabins come in a variety of types from suites to balcony, outside or inside cabins. Prices will generally run in a downward direction from suites to inside cabins. Suites vary in size and amenities, with many having butler service; some are in very grand duplex or loft style with facilities such as a piano or private gym. In a suite you will usually have a separate sitting room or sitting area, and in some cases there may be a second bedroom for your children. Most suites have an outdoor space, sometimes with a private whirlpool tub, and also facilities for outdoor dining. A balcony cabin will have some outdoor space which varies in size and shape by ship and deck; indoors you will normally find a sitting area alongside the sleeping area. Outside cabins are normally arranged similarly to a balcony cabin, but feature a window or porthole instead of french doors to the outside. Inside cabins are again similarly laid out, but feature a mirror or pictures instead of a window.
Not all balconies are equal: this one is twice as big as the picture shows due to the shape of the ship
So how do you go about choosing your cabin?
- Do you want to choose? If you want to save money on your holiday, you can elect to book a guarantee cabin. This means that you will be allocated accommodation of at least – and sometimes better than – the grade you have purchased. The benefit is that you save money, and can sometimes end up with a better category of cabin. The downside is that you have no choice on where that cabin may be located on the ship.
- How much time are you likely to spend in your cabin? If you intend to enjoy all the facilities available to you on the ship to their maximum, and the cabin will be where you change clothes, shower and sleep, then it may not matter to you what kind of cabin you book. In which case, make sure you use those savings for many more happy holidays! But if you like nothing better than to chill on your balcony with a good book, then you might want to pay more attention to where on the ship you are located. Do you want a balcony that given you some shelter from the sun, and one where you are not overlooked?
- Where on the ship will you be spending most of your time? If you love the open decks, and a big ship is your cruise liner of choice, then a cabin on the upper decks will give you quicker access to the sun.
- If you would like to restrict the amount of walking you do on a big ship, then choose a cabin near to one of the banks of lifts. Consider where you will be dining, and look at a cabin with easy access to that part of the ship; it will save you from walking up and down a big ship’s long corridors each evening.
- If you like to lie in, think carefully before selecting a cabin at the bow, as you will hear most noise from docking at that end of the ship. Similarly, be aware of potential noise from restaurants, the gym and theatre when choosing your cabin.
- If you suffer, or fear you may suffer, from seasickness, choose a cabin lower down in the ship and in the middle of the boat, This will minimise any impact of the movement of the ship. Having said that, it is unusual to feel much motion at all on most cruise ships, and I’ve often had to look outside to see if we’ve yet left port.
- Ask your travel agent for their advice. (And perhaps audition a new agent if they don’t have any to offer!) There are many variations on the types of cabins available, and you might just find something different that suits your needs. For example, newer ships have inside cabins that have windows with views over the inside spaces of the ship. There are bright and funky cabins for solo travellers on the newer Norwegian Cruise Line ships, which have an associated studio lounge where you can meet and chat with fellow solo travellers. Finally, I have heard of a fantastic inside cabin on board Royal Caribbean. Its window to the Royal Parade is obscured by the cows from the Ben and Jerry shop below. So the cabin is decorated in “cow style” and… if you book it, you get free Ben & Jerry’s during your trip. What a bonus!
Traditional style cabins on P&O’s Azura
Stylish contemporary lines on Oceania’s Marina
So when it comes to cabins, first choose if you want to choose. And then if you do, choose wisely!
If you have been on more than one cruise with the same cruise line, you will undoubtedly have been invited to the Captain’s Party. Designed as one of the loyalty rewards for repeat cruisers, the party normally falls at lunchtime on a sea day, and gives you the opportunity to eat, drink and make the acquaintance of the crew.
Don’t worry – it wasn’t that quiet a party! For some reason, we seemed to slip in a back door before many other people had arrived. The party was hosted in a big lounge high on the ship, and it was pretty full. Drinks on offer included a variety of cocktails and wine (I had sangria filled with some very finely chopped fruit…a bit odd between the teeth!) and there were a number of food stations set up including hand carved beef, sushi, and crepes suzettes.
There was some live music from the a capella group and the band, the Captain said a few words and presented a gift to the most-travelled cruiser on board, and there was much chatting with fellow passengers and crew.
Other “frequent flyer” rewards for cruise passengers include: free on board laundry, pressing and dry cleaning, free internet access, free speciality coffees and drinks, a separate lounge for breakfast, souvenir gifts, priority tendering and reservations at on board restaurants and special experiences such as backstage tours, tastings and the like.
Tune in next week, and I’ll tell you what it’s like to dine at the captain’s table.
I live by the river…
Having been asked for advice about cruising solo, I thought I would take this opportunity to bring my thoughts together and post them here for you. I have been solo on a cruise ship – P&O’s Azura in January 2013 when my OH wasn’t able to join me – so I have some personal experience to reflect on here, plus tales from table companions and other friends made on board.
Things to consider about cruising solo
Firstly, you won’t be alone. According to Douglas Ward, the author of the industry’s most used Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2012, over 25% of all passengers are solo travellers. Many ships have single cabins and add on rates for solo occupancy of double cabins. Much like hotels, cruise ships base their rates on double occupancy, so you will find it more challenging to find deals. Single cabins also sell fast, so be prepared to plan well in advance.
Strangely, you’ll be more likely to find a single cabin on an older or newer ship. Fred Olsen’s older and smaller vessels are well geared to singles with a number of single cabins on each ship. The newer and much larger Norwegian Epic has recognised the gap in the market, and has a particularly tailored set up (which I’ll tell you more about in a moment) for singles. Similarly, P&O’s relatively recent-build Azura has a number of single cabins.
As is the case with all cruises, the first thing to consider is the kind of holiday you want. Do you like to chill and watch the world go by, or are you constantly on the move and wanting to try new things? Are you a culture vulture, a sun lover, or see no reason why you can’t be both? Talk to your agent about what you really enjoy, and they’ll do their best to match you with the right ship for you.
Norwegian Epic: Studio Cabin
My travel agent tips for cruising solo
- Think about whether you would prefer a smaller ship, where you are likely to meet the same people regularly going about the ship, or a larger ship where there will be more to do, but it is less easy to meet people twice unless you arrange to do so.
- Don’t be concerned about dining alone. You will be seated each evening at a table where the ship will have done its best to link you up with like-minded souls. I’ve met some lovely people through this arrangement, and have gone on to enjoy time with them outside of meals.
- If you want to dine with others at lunch or breakfast, then go to the formal restaurant rather than the buffet. You will automatically be seated with others and will have someone with whom to chat.
- Check the daily newsletter carefully. Some cruise lines operate get-together meetings for singles, particularly before port visits, so you can choose to explore together if you wish.
- There are also plenty of activities on board where you don’t have to be paired up to have fun. If you have an interest, go and learn to salsa/cook/craft or whatever else is offered. A lot of couples who don’t share interests will go along as individuals, and it’s a great way to meet others who enjoy what you enjoy.
- If you want to get to know people a little before you travel, join a cruise message board that offers a “roll call” for your voyage. This is a great way to arrange to meet on ships, and potentially to do some shore excursions together. Sometimes the group will have a get-together on board, or even the opportunity to do something special, like a backstage tour of the theatre or a trip to the bridge.
Some ships for solos
Courtyard on the Norwegian Epic
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic came into service in 2010, with space for 4,200 passengers. The cruise line is seen as the originator of contemporary cruising, with a focus on “freestyle”, and sailings from the USA and European ports (no ex-UK sailings). Dining choices are extensive. Epic has 128 single cabins, called studios, which have decent sized beds and share a studio lounge where singles can meet for a coffee and arrange further meet-ups via the well-used notice board. Epic’s entertainment is, well, epic, including major production shows, comedy, cabaret, and even the ability to rent a Gibson to play -via headphones – in your cabin.
P&O’s Azura is a family-friendly ship also brought into service in 2010. She’s a large ship carrying 3096 passengers. P&O is a traditionally British cruise line with a lot of sailings from the UK. The cuisine is also traditionally British (with some rather good curries) and chargeable dining in Sindhu, Atol Kotchar’s restaurant at sea or Seventeen. You’ll find 18 single cabins on Azura. On board entertainment is offered in the Playhouse Theatre, the Manhattan lounge and Malabar, plus the Blue Bar and the Planet Bar, the latter having a video wall showing destinations. Just the thing to distract a table of cruise travel agents at night!
Black Watch – Dining with officers
Fred Olsen’s Black Watch first came into service in 1996 for Fred’s, although she originates from 1972. She’s a mid-sized ship carrying 868 passengers, and she has 38 single cabins. Black Watch is comfortable rather than luxurious, and is a very friendly ship. With the size of the ship, it is easier to meet the same people again whilst on board. Entertainment is focused around the Neptune lounge, with production shows, and there are also a number of cabaret-style venues on board plus comfortable bars.
My final piece of advice: go enjoy! Find the library or stock your Kindle for those moments of down time, and make the most of everything your holiday has to offer.