Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Review - Norwegian Star, Western Caribbean

The Husband and I set sail aboard the Norwegian Star from Tampa with our not-quite three year old on February 12, 2012 for a seven day cruise going to Roatan Bay, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico. I read a lot of reviews online before booking and some were less than charitable, but I tend to take these things with a grain of salt. Here are my impressions of the ship, the service and the ports of call.

Embarkation & Accommodations
Anchors Away Party
We used the online advance check in before we left home and it was pretty smooth getting on board. Until they're ready to start boarding there's a holding area at the terminal and the number system they use is pretty efficient. The staterooms weren't ready when we first got aboard but they had a full lunch buffet waiting and it was ready before we finished lunch. Our room (a mini suite with balcony, because we didn't want to go to bed when our daughter does at 7:30) was well laid out and clean. The mattress was a little firm for my liking, but you can't please 'em all.

Freestyle Dining
Most of the negative reviews I read about the Star were about the food. I... honestly don't know what those people were talking about. The negative reviews relative to Carnival cruises were particularly baffling. I have sailed with Carnival twice and found everything but the pizza to be lackluster, to say the least. The buffet on Norwegian had a variety of excellent ethnic food selections, and everything else was pretty damn good for a buffet. Dinners at the premium restaurants were great, but to be honest, the dinners as Aqua and particularly at Versailles (the main dining rooms) were just as good. A perfectly done medium rare steak with an excellent Bearnaise sauce, baked potato and delightfully prepared veggie sides was the most memorable. My daughter's hamburger wasn't good and the pizza I had at lunch wasn't great, so maybe that's the kind of crap people pining for Carnival were interested in eating? More power to them! I also read negative reviews of the waiting times for the main restaurant. At about 6:30, we had about a 10 minute wait for a table. Once.

Children's Program
Pirate Maggie
I send my kid to daycare every day at home so I don't want her to spend a lot of time there when we're on vacation. Having said that, Mommy and Daddy need a break too so she spent a few of hours at Planet Kids, which takes children 2 and up. If they're not potty trained they'll call you to come deal with any diaper changes that are necessary. Luckily my daughter is well versed in the Art of Potty, so that wasn't a concern. The first time we dropped her off, there were some tears until she got into the swing of things. The second time there was a some pouting, but she was happy to go play with other little people. The third time there was a barely a backward glance at The Husband as she went to play. The fourth time was at her request. That's right, we weren't going to bring her to the daycare but she BEGGED TO GO all through dinner. She had a great time with the pirate-themed adventures that night, and we felt not at all insulted when she asked to go the next day. *sniffle* She still asks if she can go to "the boat fun place" and seems genuinely disappointed when we tell her she can't. So I guess the staff running Planet Kids do a pretty good job!

Roatan Bay, Honduras
In our Life Before Kid, we were perfectly content to arrive at a port of call and hop in a cab to wherever we wanted to go. But we're a little more anxious venturing to hither and yon with a toddler in places we've never been. We took the guided shore excursion to Gumbalimba Park, where we all had a fantastic time and Tabyana Beach. Gumbalimba is a nature preserve and when they say you can interact with monkeys, they mean it! The countryside is beautiful, and like most places in the Caribbean the ride to anywhere is terrifying. Tabyana Beach is pretty, but it's a little ho-hum. I'm sure there's more unspoiled places to visit that would be less "buy my crap" and more "come unwind". Besides, after you've had you kid giggling because a monkey is trying to get into her backpack, the rest of the day is bound to be a letdown.

Belize City, Belize
Belize City is more what I thought of when I think of Central American countries. That is to say there's beauty and there's squalor and the lines between can be a bit blurry. I'm pretty adventurous, but even I wouldn't venture to Belize City without a local. Just sayin' Traveller Tip! It is the only country in Central America where the official language is English. Here we did the shore excursion to the Bacab Jungle Park. This was recommended as suitable for a young child. While it was OK and the time we spent in the pool was a lot of fun, we could have used a pool on the ship and an hour long bus ride to get there wasn't really worth it.

Costa Maya, Mexico
It was hotter than the hinges of hell when we arrived in Costa Maya and most of the shore excursions were geared to adults or older kids. We just stopped at the port, but there is a pharmacy there should you find yourself needing a pregnancy test in a strange land! More on that later. Anyway, I can't comment much on the rest of the destination because we stopped, we shopped, we went back to the ship for lunch and a nap.

Cozumel, Mexico
Having been to Cozumel a couple of times before, I felt safe heading to a beach park on our own rather than through one of the beach excursions through the cruise line because those were pretty expensive for a day at the beach. We took cab to Mister Sanchos and had a great day out of the sun under the tents, hopping in and out of the ocean. Our taco lunch was excellent and not terribly priced for a total tourist trap.

Overall, the Norwegian Star exceeded my expectations. The staff was friendly, the food was great, the children's program was loved by our daughter, it was clean and any maintenance issues we saw were quickly handled. A great time was had by all and I have no problem recommending Norwegian, the Star or this itinerary to anyone. If you have any questions about our experience, please feel free to email me.

Happy travels!

This is not a sponsored post, no compensation has been received. All opinions expressed are my own.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Review of Hotel Marseilles, Miami Beach

The scenario: Two moms, husbands at home with the kids, four days of sleeping, eating, drinking and shopping.
The requirements: Warmer than here (which is Canada in the winter, so you know, pretty easy);  flight not too long; preferably in the same time zone because we both had to go to work the day after we returned and jetlag sucks.
The destination: South Beach, baby!

I had been to South Beach with The Husband back when he was The Boyfriend for a few days before a cruise and loved it, and it met all of our destination needs so we booked a cheap flight and set to picking a spot where we could recharge our batteries while someone else wiped runny noses. We didn't want to have a car, so we had to stay somewhere close to where we were going to spend the majority our time.

View from the room
When it comes to hotels, I'm not that picky. I want it clean and bug-free, I want it quiet, and I want it near the places I want to be. The Marseilles Miami Beach Hotel seemed to fit the bill. It's a little tired looking, but they are renovating, so they're aware things need fixing and they're working to fix them. The pool area is lovely, and the staff at the bar is very friendly. The food at the restaurant, Cafe Vincent, is OK. I wouldn't recommend it as a destination if you're staying at another hotel, but if you're already staying there it's passable.

The floor we stayed on had not yet been renovated. The room itself (Room 617), well... Let's start with the good:
  • The beds were comfortable
  • Housekeeping was prompt and the towels were adequately stocked
  • The shampoo, soaps and lotions were nice
  • The bathroom was tiny and dated, but clean
And now... the not so good:
  • I usually remove hotel bed spreads just because, but the first night we were there we couldn't find the extra blankets and were both too tired to care. In the light of day we were horrified by the thought that those nasty, stained, smelly bed spreads had possibly touched our faces as we slept. *shudder* The next night we found the blankets in a closet and shoved the bedspreads as far under the bed as possible. 
  • Broken tiles in the shower enclosure were replaced, but obviously with the remnants of a contractor's other job. It was almost comical, and something you'd expect in a cheap, roadside motel, not in a place that bills itself as a fine establishment half a block away from the Ritz.
  • There was a coffee maker in the room, but nowhere to plug it in other than pulling a chair up to an outlet several feet away, and only one of the plugs in that outlet worked. 
  • The windows were very old and only a single pane, so the noise from around South Beach just streamed in. They also didn't open, which was disappointing because I would have loved to let that salty air into the room at night.
Other than the filthy (and I do mean filthy) bed spreads, the room was serviceable. We saw the floors under renovation and it looks like a total gut job, right down to the studs. The location is fantastic, the pool and the beach area are lovely and the price was right - at least by South Beach standards. If you asked me if I'd stay there again, I'd say only if the renovations were complete and they'd had a bonfire with those horrible things on the beds. And changed the cleaning products used in the lobby, because the smell of them is just oppressive. But then the price will probably go up, so we'd be right back to a pretty firm no. If you have any questions about our stay, please feel free to email me.

Happy travels!

This is not a sponsored post, no compensation has been received. All opinions expressed are my own.