Bob & Nancy on July 28th, 2014

Here's an item that strikes at the very heart of our love of cruising.

Dinner reservations on Norwegian.

As you may have read here before, we came back to cruising because Norwegian was the first cruise line NOT to insist on fixed dining. No traditional times. No identical Norwegian Stardining partners, night after night. All of these things appealed to us so…Norwegian Star, here we came. It was the introduction of Freestyle Cruising.

Now, reservations are creeping back into Norwegian.

It started on Pride of America, the Hawaii ship. Norwegian told its customers it could reserve space in the dining room up to 90 days in advance. As people who don't know what time dinner is tonight, or any night, this is foreign territory. The offer has now been extended to all Norwegian ships and, no, you don't have to make reservations…you can still do the Freestyle thing.

But here's the real catch: Reservations are offered at 5:30, 6:30 and 8:30. Fixed times.

The more things change, the more they remain the same?

Today at Phil Reimer's Crystal…way up north

Ruby Princess
14 nights
September 8, 2014
LondonBergenLerwickAkureyriIsafjordurReykjavikSt. John’sNew York
Inside: $1,299
Cost per day: $92

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Bob & Nancy on July 25th, 2014

Many years ago, on a visit to the vet with our brother-in-law and his dog, we noticed a brochure on the counter advertising "pet insurance." We laughed at the prospect of needing such an unnecessary and frivolous expense. In the succeeding years of Princessmounting veterinary bills in both households, the laughing ceased.

So it is today that we refuse to mock dogs and cruises. Instead, we shall only report…

That Cunard has a kennel program (or "programme") for pets on the Queen Mary 2, which means that pets can cruise across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton or vice-versa.

That the dogs are not allowed in any guest area of the ship.

That there is a full-time kennel master who will feed, walk and…you know, clean up after the pets.

That the animals will receive a complimentary gift pack.

That visitation is allowed during the day, enabling the owners to feed, walk and, you know…

That there is only room for 12 "spacious" kennels.

That the dogs and cats must be in possession of a "pet passport."

The cost? Given our history, does it really matter?

Today at Phil Reimer's Cruise news, views and gossip

Carnival Conquest
7 nights
August 24, 2014
Miami (return): CozumelBelizeRoatanCosta Maya
Balcony: $559
Cost per day: $79

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Bob & Nancy on July 24th, 2014

As the cost of attending to our aches and pains, and worse, continues to rise t becomes obvious that some sort of online integration makes sense in ways we could never have imagined. How long until the visit to the doctor is online?

Telemedicine, it's called.

Now it is going to sea. For kids. On MSC Cruises.

Here's how it works, on all 12 ships…

Your child is ill, with something more than the sniffles and a cough. The first stop is the ship's medical facility. If the doctor needs help with a diagnosis, he or she can consult pediatric specialists at the Giannina Gaslini Institute, in Genoa. Consultation includes remote imaging and data transmission, by satellite. This is designed to improve responses that have been only available on land.

The ship can be anywhere in the world…the most remote of locations.

It leaves us with only one question:

What about adults?

Today at Phil Reimer's A quick look at the AmaSonata

Carnival Breeze
6 nights
August 24, 2014
Miami (return): Key WestGrand CaymanCozumel
Inside: $299
Cost per day: $49

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Bob & Nancy on July 23rd, 2014

They met on a cruise ship, as many captains and their mates for life do. She was from Trinidad and Tobago. He was from Norway. Not exactly the blueprint for a match made in heaven…or even the Western Hemisphere.

"Sorry if I'm getting carried away," says Captain Tore Grimstad, whose ship is Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, "but she is special."

He wasn't talking about his ship, which is special. He was talking about his wife, Lisa.

"She is as Norwegian as anyone — she speaks such beautiful Norwegian, even a dialect that I have, that people when they see her and have spoken to her on the telephone, you see the chin drop to the chest," he laughs, which he does a lot. "They say to her: 'You don't look like one of us…but you speak like a local!'"

They have been married 17 years now and their 15-year-old daughter, Anna, is being raised on the island as her father was. It's near Alesund, in western Norway, and is Capt. Torecalled Gurskoy/Hareid-Landet…actually two islands linked by a recently constructed underground tunnel. She and her mom have the man of the house at home every 10 weeks, for two and a half months between his Allure assignments.

Sometimes, they get to sail with him.

Sailing on another Royal Caribbean ship, Sovereign of the Seas, is where this trans-oceanic romance began. Tore was Chief Officer, Lisa worked in housekeeping. He took her home to Norway, then left on a contract at sea.

"I left her there and when came home four months later, I was blown away with all the words she knew, and the phrases," he says with pride. "She is musical. She's just good with languages. She already spoke a few languages from Trinidad. English is the mother tongue. A bit of Spanish….a bit of what they call gibberish…Creole, Patois. When she came to Norway, she immediately applied for work….got a job as a scaffolder in a shipyard. That little woman, she is amazing…climbing on the scaffolding on the outside the ships. She's a bit petite, so they sent her down in tanks to clean the inside so she was thrown right in there and nobody spoke English. She just had to learn Norwegian."

Language and scaffolding are only two of the things his wife learned in Norway. Her husband explains:

"They told her the scaffolding was to diminish but they needed truck drivers. So here she was, pregnant and driving a huge truck!"

Lisa took five years off after Anna's birth but today she still works in a shipyard.

"Now she's dealing a lot with customer sales and service," he says, "but she made a lot of sacrifices."

On the 10-week periods when they're together, the Grimstads spend a lot of time outdoors.

""I'm a dinosaur," he laughs. "I love to hike in nature…backpack…and when we say camping in the wilderness, it's real. Even midwinter, it's slightly cold but we do it."

Typical, you might say, for a Norwegian. For Lisa, that's nothing new.

Today at Phil Reimer's Christening the AmaSonata

Celebrity Reflection
15 nights
October 17, 2014
RomeFunchalSt. KittsSt. MaartenLabadeeMiami
Inside $849
Cost per day: $56

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Bob & Nancy on July 22nd, 2014
Capt. Tore


You step onto the "biggest cruise ship in the world" and — to use Royal Caribbean vernacular, you are WOW-ed. That's what the majority of around 6,000 people experience every week, when the Allure of the Seas sail out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale if they're seeing the big ship for the first time.

How about the captain? How did he feel the first time he boarded Allure of the Seas?

Tore Grimstad is one of two captains of the Allure. For him, that day was August 4, 2013.

"My God," he remembers with the broad smile that is his trademark. "I came from Freedom of the Seas. Really? This was like an apartment building. It's amazing what Capt. Torethey've done. It's mind blowing."

And being on the bridge to sail it?

"Something about this ship made me feel included right away," he says. "It's been really great. I enjoy every day. To be able to navigate narrow ports in shallow waters is fascinating and challenging, and gives me a feeling of pleasure. But the highlight of the job is the crew. I really mean that. I don't want to become some kind of celebrity because I'm not. It's the team."

In the case of the Allure (and Oasis of the Seas), the team is 2,160 strong.

"I focus a lot on the crew, keeping them happy and treating them with respect," he adds. "If the crew is happy, everyone is happy."

Captain Tore (they go by "Captain" and their first names) is an interesting study because, in part, that's what cruise ship captains are. Most of them come from Scandinavia (he's a Norwegian) or Italy, many from a family steeped in the ways of the sea,

Tore Grimstad is a 7th-generation man of the sea and home was, and still is, the islands on the south-west coast of Norway. He comes from the islands of Gurskoy/Hareid-Landet — try finding that on your map — where he grew up reading and hearing "juicy stories from the seven seas." It wasn't a given that he would be a seaman, but it was natural.

"It just happened," he says.

Like so many, being a fisherman came first, followed by a compulsory stint in the service, in his case the Royal Navy. That was followed by working on a cargo tanker, spending some time ashore to find out it wasn't for him, and sending out 40 applications that could lead to a return to the sea.

"They all said no," he recalls.

So he pounded the pavement and, fortunately, walked into an office in Bergen to find an agent from Royal Caribbean. Once Grimstad laid out his experience and his desire, 3-Capt. Torethe agent said:

"Yes, can you be in New York in six days? We need a second officer on the Song of America."

Six days turned out to be eight. With his navy background, Tore was a stickler for instructions, so when his papers told him to take a bus from JFK to a hotel in Times Square, that's what he did. It was, needless to say, his first time in New York and here's what followed:

"I never understood that you could have a hotel in the middle of a building, and I was walking around. that block many times until I realized the Marriott was actually on the 28th floor."

That was 1994 and the beginning of an on-again, off-again relationship with Royal Caribbean. In those days, ships were registered in Norway, and bridge officers were hired and paid in Norway. When the cruise line flagged out its last Norwegian ship, he was automatically unemployed.

Grimstad worked a variety of sea-related jobs, including captain of a Norwegian-Russian-American ship stationed near the equator worth the capability of launching rockets ("I was a captain, not a rocket scientist"), plus a relief position with the small European cruise line Fred.Olsen.

For the next two years, he left the door open for a return to Royal Caribbean, as a staff captain. He walked through it a couple of times, filling in as captain of Explorer of the Seas and then Freedom.

One of his best friends, fellow Norwegian Johnny Faevelen, was a Royal Caribbean captain and when Grimstad was close to moving to another cruise line offering more money, Faevelen convinced him to join his team on Serenade of the Seas. Last summer, when Tore arrived to be captain of the Allure, "Captain Johnny" was waiting for him.

"He said: '"So glad to see you…so glad the company chose you'…and he gave me a hug," Captain Tore adds. "There's nobody like him."

Today, Captain Johnny and Captain Tore share more than a friendship. They share the "biggest cruise ship in the world", switching chairs every 10 weeks.

Allure-5Tomorrow: The home life of Captain Tore

Today at Phil Reimer's Venice a study in history

Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas
12 nights
September 1, 2014
Fort LauderdaleMalagaBarcelona
Balcony: $869
Cost per day: $72

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Bob & Nancy on July 21st, 2014

This was Day 2 of an 8-day Carnival Freedom cruise and Jim Berra, the line's Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer, was talking about Jennifer Hudson. It's entirely possible that Jim Berra never thought his name would be linked to Jennifer Hudson's, but this was that day.

The reason was Carnival Live, the concert series on ships in port, now just under halfway through its initial season. If there was a moment when Carnival realized its Jennifer Hudson-Carnivalproject was more than a one-off — as in one year — that moment was Jennifer Hudson.

Berra explained it this way:

"At first, the artists were asking: 'Are your guests really going to be into my performance, or is it just a cruise with a concert?' Once she — and we — found it was quite the contrary, that people were coming specifically to see the artist, we gained the confidence of the artists. Now they're calling us."

Jennifer Hudson was the biggest name appearing in the early weeks of Carnival Live. She did concerts on consecutive nights in Cozumel for passengers on the Breeze and the Ecstasy. Concert goers were paying $20 to $40 to see her perform in a facility seating 1,100.

On the shore, they might pay twice that and be in a much bigger venue.

So far, the genres have been mostly rock 'n roll and country.

"Rock 'n roll works everywhere," Berra said. "With country, we know it won't work as well in Miami as it will in Galveston. Pop is the toughest one — it's not as easy to slot."

Maybe it doesn't matter.

One passenger told the Miami Herald that she and a friend flew from New Mexico to the Bahamas to see Olivia Newton-John in concert. One Florida travel agent met people at a Chicago concert who were there because it was Chicago, not Carnival.

In both cases, none of them had ever been on a cruise.

Year One of Carnival Live winds up in December. Any day now, Carnival will be making announcements for Year Two. That's how successful it has been.

Today at Phil Reimer's The new AmaSonata

Caribbean Princess
7 nights
August 16, 2014
Fort Lauderdale (return): Princess CaysSt. ThomasSan JuanGrand Turk
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $64

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Bob & Nancy on July 18th, 2014


Nobody's going to come right out and say so, but the sands appear to be shifting for My Time Dining on Royal Caribbean ships.

When Allure of the Seas goes in for refurbishing in the fall, it's suspected that more than half the dining room space will be allocated for My Time, as opposed to the traditional, fixed-time seatings. When the new Quantum of the Seas arrives in November, there's talk the whole ship will be My Time…and Anthem of the Seas plus two more Oasis Class ships are in the horizon.

My TimeWhy more My Time?

Two reasons come to mind.

One is there has been a definite change in cruise passengers' eating habits. On one typical evening at the three-tiered many dining room (Adagio) while we were on Allure of the Seas, the two "traditional" dining-room levels seated 1,100 and 1,400 diners. The My Time room had 2,067 customers that led to a waiting room full of hungry passengers, some delayed for as long as 45 minutes. The two floors below — both traditional seating — had empty tables.

The second reason contributes to the first. Entertainment on new ships is often not fixed…as in dinner, show, comedy — in that order. There is more happening throughout the evening on big ships, so fixed-time dining is much less desirable. In addition, with a younger demographic comes changing, less-rigid (i.e. less-traditional) eating habits that are the norm today.

What remains to be seen is if the entire cruise industry will adopt "my time" as the only time.

Today at Phil Reimer's The latest in cruise news

Carnival Miracle
16 nights
September 18, 2014
VancouverNawiliwiliKahuluiHonoluluKonaHiloLos Angeles
Inside: $1,399
Cost per day: $87

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Bob & Nancy on July 17th, 2014

If you're thinking about booking a flight to get to a cruise (or even just booking a flight period), and if you want to avoid a tax increase, book now. Well, not exactly right now…but before Monday.

That's when new fees go into effect throughout the U.S. for air travelers.

It's a little confusing, as fee increases often are. These increases come from the Transportation Security Administration, already not the most popular organization in travel, and here's what we've been able to cull from the news:

• TSA fee of $2.50 per leg and capped at $5 per one-way trip or $10 per round trip will now be $5.60 per one-way and $11.20 per round-trip…but here's the catch: That's if there are no stops.

• Layovers will be $5.60 for each leg if the stopover is four hours or more.

So when you're looking at those cheap, multi-city fares that you're willing to tolerate in the interest of cost, you have to factor in the TSA.

The increase will be rolled into your ticket price when you select, not when you check out and pay.

Today at Phil Reimer's The latest in cruise news

Royal Caribbean Majesty of the Seas
4 nights
October 6, 2014
Miami (return): NassauCoco CayKey West
Inside: $215
Cost per day: $53

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Bob & Nancy on July 16th, 2014

When a cruise line that already has two new ships still being built announces that it is building two more, as Norwegian did on Monday, there's a tendency to think this is an unprecedented construction explosion.

It's not.

Aggressive…yes. Unheard of…no.

Starting with the Breakaway Class, by 2019 Norwegian will have launched six ships in seven years. The Escape will introduce the Breakaway Plus Class next year, followed by the Bliss in 2017 and two more as-yet unnamed ships in 2018 and 2019. Coupled Breakaway Pluswith the Breakaway (2013) and the Getaway (this year), that'll be six in seven.

Time for a little history lesson.

In one seven-year period (1998-2004), Princess launched 11 ships. In the same seven years, Carnival and Royal Caribbean both introduced 10 ships. From 1995 to 2003 (a nine-year stretch, Royal Caribbean's fleet increased by 14 ships.

The record for the "longest consecutive launching streak" belongs to Royal Caribbean: 10 straight years from 1995 to 2004. Second is Carnival with eight (1998 to 2005).

In fact, Norwegian's most productive period before the upcoming one was six ships in four years, from 2004 to 2007. That was followed by a relative drought, when only the Epic was added to Norwegian's fleet over five years.

The longest any of the so-called "big four" has gone without adding ships is four years. Before the Royal Princess was christened last year, the Ruby Princess was the line's last new ship, in 2008. Holland America, with 15 ships, has built only one ship in eight years and Celebrity, with 11, finished five in a row in 2012 and has no apparent plans to expand.

What Norwegian will accomplish by the end of this decade is it will have pretty well kept pace with its three principal rivals. From the start of the 21st century, Norwegian will have built 17 ships…Royal Caribbean 18, Carnival 16 and Princess 12. 

Unless, of course, more announcements are to come.

Today at Phil Reimer's Expedition cruising the Seabourn way

Celebrity Millennium
7 nights
September 5, 2014
AnchorageHubbard GlacierJuneauSkagwayIcy Strait PointKetchikanVancouver
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

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Bob & Nancy on July 15th, 2014
La Romana baseball


LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — When it's your first time in (fill in the country), you never really know what to expect, do you? That's precisely how we felt about the La Romana-JoseDominican Republic. And when you leave, as we did on the Carnival Freedom, you leave behind some things you didn't expect to see…or do.

Like tasting rum — "our vitamin is rum" — at 10 o'clock in the morning.

This was in the midst of a sugar cane field, somewhere in the south-eastern corner of what is the second-largest island in Latin America (behind Cuba). Rum isn't a staple in our house — in fact, it may not even exist in our house — but for whatever reason tour guides like Jose Turbi Guia think it goes well with raw sugar cane. So much for rum and coke.

We thought we'd have been more likely standing in a baseball field than one of sugar cane, because ballplayers are the sweetest export this country has. 

Almost 10 per cent of today's major leaguers are from the Dominican, most of them from the area surrounding La Romana, which is just down the road from San Pedro de Macoris, known for turning out talents like Robinson Cano, Sammy Sosa and Tony Fernandez. San Pedro, in turn, is just down the road from Santo Domingo, the capital and home town of David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, whose Toronto teammate Edwin Encarnacion is from La Romana.

So baseball is big in the Dominican Republic. As an aside, only one of the country's exports has made the Baseball Hall of Fame (Juan Marichal) but that will soon be changing. In the meantime, this country that shares its island with Haiti will continue to La Romana-baseball-1breed players in ballparks big and small to produce major-leaguers, many of whom will send money home to their families. 

Estimates are that such remittances total more than $3 billion per year, or twice the earnings from tourism.

So forget the name dropping…that's how important baseball is to the economy.

There is little of it going on right now, as the season starts in August, but there is plenty of tourism. The Dominican Republic is reportedly the most visited destination in the Caribbean, and 3,000-passenger cruise ships like the Freedom play a significantLa Romana-cigarsrole. Like all countries in the Caribbean there is much to see and, for cruisers, little time in which to see it.

The Carnival tour we took, in an open-air safari wagon, lasted about four hours. It was a sampler, of course, with stops at a nursery (the kind where they grow plants, not La Romana-busbabies), the sugar cane field, and a "typical" house where you could devour fresh fruit and buy cigars that you watch being rolled.

Along the way, being the good tour guide he is, Jose filled our heads with facts and even philosophies — "Don't give kids handouts…if you teach them to be beggars they La Romana-Flamoyantdon't go to school." Among the things we learned:

• The colorful (they come in orange and yellow) flamboyant trees that are everywhere produce seeds that are used inside maracas

• There are 3,010 members of the pina (as in colada) family

• Education is free, right through university

• About a million Haitians who have come to work in the fields haven't bothered to go back

• A posh 10-square-mile complex called Casa de Campo has 2,000 villages, five designer golf courses and its own airport, plus accommodation for people named Clinton, Iglesias, Sinatra and John (Elton) behind the locked gates.

• Unemployment in La Romana runs 18 per cent, and isn't it too bad the government La Romana-garbagedoesn't put some of them to work cleaning up the garbage that scars so many of its roadways.

• Gas is $6 US per gallon

• The island is 98 per cent coral, which means anything grows because coral retains humidity.

The tour was called Countryside Experience, because it delivered a taste of many things. Who knew that included rum at 10 a.m.?

Today at Phil Reimer's New ships coming for Norwegian

Norwegian Sky
4 nights
September 29, 2014
Miami (return): Grand BahamaNassauGreat Stirrup Cay
Inside: $189
Cost per day: $47

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