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Crown Cruise Vacations | August 20, 2014

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Cruising to the Conch Republic

July 28, 2014 | Heidi

When I told a friend I was cruising to the Conch Republic, he looked a bit puzzled. “Is it in the Bahamas?” he asked. “Or maybe Hawaii?”

Good guesses. But wrong on both. The Conch Republic is located in the good old USA, in Florida, in fact. Conch Republic is the nickname for Key West.

How did the far tip of Florida get that moniker? From what might have been the shortest the shortest naval battle in history.

“We declared war on the United States and threw stale Cuban bread at a Navy officer,” Key West guide Robert said. “It lasted for about a minute. Then we surrendered and asked for $1 billion in foreign aid to rebuild. We’re still waiting for that $1 billion.”

A popular stop for cruise ships, Key West knows how to make cruisers feel welcome. When my ship docked for the day in Key West, many of us climbed aboard a Conch Train open tram to tour around the unusual community. Driver Robert pointed out sites of interest and told us stories of Key West’s past and how it got its nickname of the Conch Republic.

“You are in the Conch Republic,” he said, gesturing to a Conch Republic flag on a porch. “We are proud to be Americans and we are proud to be Conchs. Our local high school sports team is the Fighting Conchs.”

The problem began in 1982 when U.S. Border Patrol set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the Florida Keys so agents could search cars for contraband. Since the checkpoint was on the only road into and out of the island chain, traffic was brought to a standstill. A 17-mile-long traffic jam resulted.

The roadblock angered residents, visitors and Keys officials who complained that the Keys were being treated as a foreign country. Citizens should be able to come and go more freely, they argued.

When their protests were ignored, Keys residents decided to secede from the Union. On April 23, 1982, the southernmost point in the continental United States did just that. They seceded from the United States of America and formed the Conch Republic.

“The roadblock was quickly removed,” Robert said. “That is why our motto is ‘We seceded where others failed.’ We celebrate that.”

In fact, a 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration is held every April. In a town known for its parties, the annual celebration is legendary. That is one thing I quickly learned to like about Key West.

In addition to its colorful characters, laidback atmosphere, renowned Key Lime Pie, balmy weather, many museums, fishing fun and fascinating history, Key West is the only place I know that publicly celebrates the end of every day. Folks gather in Mallory Square to salute the sinking of the sun and to watch for the famed green flash – a special glint of light in the water at sunset.

I think I could get used to that. Celebrate every day and live life to the fullest. Good philosophy to have no matter where you are.

Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Cruise Ship Trivia: Name this vessel that is cruising the waterways of Washington and Oregon

July 23, 2014 | Heidi

Think you can recognize a new vessel by the flag it flies while cruising the waterways of Washington and Oregon?

Of course, most of us know that when we see Mickey Mouse or those trademark ears, it must be a Disney ship. And Norwegian Cruise Lines ships boast those colorful Peter Max murals.

But how about one of the newbies? For a bit of cruise ship trivia, see if you can identify this ship only by its flag. Don’t look at the answer below until you have formulated yours.

As a tip, this vessel was built in 1984 but looks like a 1900s coastal steamer.




(Answer: The starry flag flies on the beautiful 
 an 88-guest vessel that joined the Un-Cruise Adventures fleet in 2013. In her short life, the S.S. Legacy has had several names and several owners. She started out as the Pilgrim Belle for Coastwise Cruise Lines and also was known as the Colonial Explorer and Victorian Empress. In 1996, she became the Spirit of ’98 with Cruise West until the cruise line went under.

The beautiful vessel was then laid up in Seattle until Un-Cruise Adventures bought and refurbished her and gave her a new life as the S.S. Legacy. With her turn-of-the-century charm, the 1,472-vessel is a popular sight with her stovepipe funnel and layer cake superstructure.

“Many people love her and we are glad she is back where she belongs,” said Ryan Downs, heritage leader aboard the S. S. Legacy.)

Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Carnival Cruises Musical Revues- All Your Favorites

July 17, 2014 | Heidi

ABOARD THE CARNIVAL FREEDOM - Are you a fan of rocking piano music made famous by the likes of  Jerry Lee Lewis? Maybe your tastes run more to 1980s pop from Cindy Lauper and Michael Jackson.

Or could be the smooth soul songs of Otis Redding that soothe you. Then there’s the feel-good beach music for island time with Jimmy Buffet, the Beach Boys and more.

Four brand new production shows featuring cutting-edge technology and live performances amid towering LED screens are now part of the Carnival Freedom’s extensive multi-million dollar makeover. The major renovations took place while the ship was dry docked in April and May 2014.

The new revues are presented in Carnival Freedom’s 1,400-seat Victoriana Show Lounge. In addition to the four spectacular Playlist Productions revues, Carnival Freedom’s theatre productions also include Hasbro, the Game Show. Fact paced and hilarious, the live game only offers larger-than-life adaptations of Hasbro’s iconic games.

Audience members volunteer to participate in the game shows, the only live game show of its type in the cruise industry.

A quick glimpse of the new shows includes:

 Heart of Soul – Groove to popular R&B and soul hits from legendary singers such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Al Green.  Six lucky couples will have a dream date for the show with VIP seats, champagne and flowers.

80s Pop to the Max – Remember the era of Day-Glo, Spandex, big hair and “when video killed the radio star?” Relive yesteryear with the hottest music video hits from the 1980s, including Duran Duran, Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and more. 

Getaway Island – It’s always 5 o’clock on this special island with its hi-tech recreation of 1960s beach movies. Cruise away to the music of  Jimmy Buffet, Bob Marley, the Beach Boys and others. As a nod toCarnival Freedom’s new RedFrog Pub, the show also features a cocktail glass-spinning bartender and talented guitar soloist.

88 Keys: The Rock n’ Roll Piano Show – Tickling the ivories will make your toes tap in this show with hits from Billy Joel, Little Richard,  Jerry Lee Lewis and others, plus Carnival Freedom’s own piano bar pianist.

No cabin keys on the new S.S. Legacy

June 30, 2014 | Heidi

  ABOARD THE S.S. LEGACY - No need to fret about misplacing your cabin key on the S.S. Legacy. Cabins have no keys.

“That’s just one less thing to worry about,” said Patrick Rice, hotel manager for the S.S. Legacy. “We want you to relax while you are with us.”

Of course, cabins can be locked from the inside for privacy. And if a passenger wants to take a nap or have some quiet time, Rice said there is a signal for that.

“That cord hanging on the inside of your door is called ‘The No-Knock Knot,’” Patrick  said. “Hang it outside your door to let people know you don’t want to be disturbed.”

Does it work? Certainly does. I put it on the outside door handle and the cabin attendant left my next day’s itinerary outside my door instead of placing it on my bed. Two cute little purple plastic magnets affixed the small paper itinerary to my door where it was easy to find.

Just don’t forget to put the pretty gold-colored braided knot back inside. A reminder from someone who did.

Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Smurfs now delighting passengers on MSC Divina

June 20, 2014 | Heidi

ABOARD THE MSC DIVINA - Those little blue creatures known as Smurfs are now delighting youngsters of all ages on the new MSC Divina. The 3,500-passenger ship has a Smurfs-themed Mini Club (ages 3-6) and a Junior Club (ages 7-11),  as well as other fun-filled family activities with the ship’s giant Smurf mascot as the guest of honor.

The Smurf mascot plays a number of key roles such as DJ and sous-chef during family events. Activities include Smurfs Family Disco, Smurfs Live Talent Show and Smurfs Master Chef – a special cooking demonstration held by the head pastry chef in which children learn how to make biscuits and cakes with hands-on experience.

Listen for The Smurfs 2 movie soundtrack, with the Britney Spears song Ooh La La, in the disco. A sequel to 2011 The SmurfsThe Smurfs 2, was released July 31, 2013, while The Smurfs 3 will be released July 24, 2015.

The Smurfs were created in 1958 by artist Pierre Cuilliford under the pseudonym Peyo. Originally in comic books, the Smurfs were later brought to the big screen and television. They have also inspired records and CDs that have sold millions of copies, as well as being the inspiration for entire collections of figurines and toys and many more products.

Today, there are more than 100 Smurfs whose names are based on adjectives that emphasize their characteristics. For example, “Jokey Smurf” likes to play practical jokes on his fellow Smurfs. “Clumsy Smurf,” of course, is clumsy. Other Smurfs are Brainy, Greedy, Vanity, Lazy, Dreamy and Grouchy.

Some Smurf characters are named for their professions – Poet, Actor, Handy, Harmony, Farmer, Clockwork, Painter, Tailor, Miner, Architect, Reporter, Timber, Barber and Doctor Smurf. Smurfette is the first female Smurf.

The leader of the Smurfs is Papa Smurf, known for his bushy white beard, red pants and matching red cap. A wise elder, Papa Smurf is always looking out for the welfare of the other Smurfs.

A bit of trivia that I like is that Mark Harmon, the actor and lead character on the NCIS television show, is called “Papa Smurf” by his fellow actors in the series. Sounds like a compliment to me.

By Jackie Sheckler Finch

Carnival Cruise Lines’ new shore excursions best price guarantee- now all you have to do is choose a tour!

June 12, 2014 | Heidi

Shore excursions are part of the fun of cruising. Going ashore and taking a tour is an exciting option on cruises. And, almost always, there are more tour options than I can do. Makes for hard choices.

But Carnival Cruise Lines has now come up with a cruise industry first to be sure passengers get the best shore excursions possible. Carnival just announced a guarantee that guests who book a Carnival shore excursion and find a comparable tour at a lower price will receive an onboard credit of 110 percent of the difference.

“Many of our repeat guests who have booked Carnival shore tours previously are already knowledgeable on the outstanding value our tours provide,” said Mico Cascais, vice president of tour operations for Carnival Cruise Lines.

“However, our research indicates that many others, particularly first-time cruisers, are interested yet concerned as to whether or not they are getting the best deal,. The best price guarantee program will assure our guests they are getting both the highest quality and the best value on all of our tours.”

I’ve long known that the shore excursions offered by a cruise company are the best way to go. The excursions have to be well organized, reasonably priced, safe and interesting or the cruise line would not keep offering them.

I once saw a couple returning to our cruise ship shaking their heads and vowing never TO take a Jamaica tour again. The problem was not Jamaica and it was not the tour, it was the tour company. The poor couple had booked it with a tour company after they got off the ship and saw a cheap tour offered in Jamaica. Never ever do that.


Stick with the cruise company excursions. They offer the best protection and now the best price. I was very pleased with my Bob Marley tour when the Carnival Breeze docked in Jamaica. But I don’t think I would have wanted to take the tour with any company other than the one backed by the Carnival company.

Of course, with Carnival’s new excursion protection plan, cruisers are guaranteed to get the best deal from a Carnival excursion. Sounds like a great program.

Guests sailing on a Carnival cruise who book a shore excursion through the cruise line can be completely confident they are getting the best price and best value with the introduction of a new shore excursion best price guarantee.

The only guarantee of its kind in the cruise industry, the program is now available fleet wide for all Carnival Cruise Lines shore tours on ships sailing from North America.

Under the best price guarantee, guests who find the same tour offered by another operator at a lower price than their booked excursion either before or during their cruise can complete a claim form to receive 110 percent of the difference in the form of a shipboard credit.

The guarantee is available for excursions booked prior to or during a cruise. If guests pre-book an excursion, then find a comparable tour advertised online at a lower price, they can complete an online form up to seven days prior to the cruise to invoke the guarantee. Guests can also complete a form during the cruise either before or after their excursion has taken place.  Claims are typically processed within 24-48 hours.


Guests who book their excursion through Carnival enjoy the convenience of having shore excursion tickets delivered to their stateroom, 24/7 access to shipboard staff to answer questions and obtain assistance, and an assurance that they will receive a refund or the excursion time will be adjusted as needed based on weather or other issues affecting a ship’s scheduled port of call visit.

I heard a faint gasp during my Carnival Magic orientation meeting in December when Magic Cruise Director James Dunn told cruisers what would happen if they booked a shore excursion not offered by Carnival and didn’t return to the ship in time for its sailing.

“We will leave you,” Dunn said. “We’ve done it before and we will do it again.”

Of course, that is no problem when you book a shore excursion with Carnival. I’ve never been late getting back to the ship on a ship-arranged tour excursion. But if something were to happen with a Carnival tour, Dunn said, the ship would wait.

Ongoing communication between tour operators and shipboard staff ensures that the cruise line is aware and can make necessary changes to a ship’s departure time when a tour is running late or unexpected circumstances arise, Dunn said.

Sure worth the peace of mind to me.

The online and onboard claim forms require guests to provide the name of the competitor offering the comparable tour, excursion name, where the tour was advertised and the duration, price and any items included in the tour such as lunch, drinks, transportation or admission fees.

The best price guarantee is applicable to shore excursion matches on the same date as the tour purchased from Carnival.

Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch


Blue Iguana, Red Frog have friendly rivalry on Carnival cruises

June 6, 2014 | Heidi

ABOARD THE CARNIVAL BREEZE - Are you a Blue Iguana or are you a Red Frog?

Seems like a strange question. But there is an interesting story behind the two critters who now make their home on Carnival Cruise Lines. The BlueIguana Tequila Bar is featured on the Breeze, Conquest, Dream, Glory, Liberty, Sunshine and Triumph.

“The most popular cruise activity is eating,” said cruise director Butch Begovich.  “The second most popular cruise activity is drinking.”

And the Carnival ships have plenty of places to do both.

For starters, there is the RedFrog. The story goes that he used to live in the forest, soaking up the rain. Now he lives on Carnival, basking in the sun.

In fact, the little tree frog has made himself so at home on the cruise ship that he has his own private label draught beer, custom-brewed specially for Carnival – ThirstyFrog Red.

Then there’s the Blue Iguana and, of course, he has a tale to tell. What makes him blue? Some think he was born that way. But legend has it that he spent too much time in the blue agave fields soaking up the spirit of tequila.

You also might be asking how an iguana finds a pair of purple sunglasses … that fit. Let’s just say it boils down to one memorable trip to Cozumel, Mexico. The rest of the story, it is said, can be heard if you treat Blue to a tall tequila drink.

According to bartender Boyan, margaritas are the most popular drink at the BlueIguana. But then you have to decide which margarita – the classic, the guava, the spicy, the mango or the chipotle pineapple passion margarita.

To keep it fun, the BlueIguana and the RedFrog have devout followers who engage in friendly competition. “We think it started when Blue stole Red’s drink and put it on his menu,” a bartender says. “We think that’s where the rivalry started.”

As RedFrog himself might say – “Chill out. Live life to the fullest.”

By Jackie Sheckler Finch

Courtesy photo

Seabourn Odyssey attends to even tiny details

June 6, 2014 | Heidi

ABOARD THE SEABOURN ODYSSEY - It is just a small thing. But it makes me happy. And it shows the strong commitment that Seabourn has to taking care of even tiny details for a top-notch cruise.

One of my pet gripes is that cruise ships and international hotels often don’t provide clocks in guest rooms. I don’t want to carry a bedside clock with a lighted dial every time I take a cruise or go overseas. As a longtime journalist, I have this thing about knowing what time it is – no matter whether it is day or night.

If I wake up during the night, I want to be able to take a quick glance and know that I can sleep for four more hours. Or whatever. Might be years of meeting deadlines but a nearby clock is important to me.

And there it is. Attached to the wall by the queen size bed in my suite is an easy-to-read clock. But that is only the beginning of the special touches that I am discovering on my first cruise with Seabourn. The more I look at the Seabourn Odyssey, the more I like.

My large suite has two areas with a curtain that can be drawn to separate the sleeping quarters from the sitting room. Nightstands are placed on either side of the queen-size bed and a large dresser on the wall at the foot of the bed is a handy place to store books and papers.

Amenities include a flat-screen TV, refrigerator (stocked with soft drinks, beer and wine), a safe, fluffy robe and slippers, sofa, footstool and dining table with two chairs. There is a huge walk-in closet and the biggest bathroom I have ever seen on a ship – a full-size tub (really it is bigger than mine at home), a separate walk-in shower, double sinks and a commode. The bathroom is marble and it gleams.

There is storage galore. I counted more than a dozen drawers and cabinets, including one in the bathroom with lovely Molton Brown toiletries, before I stopped counting. I will never fill up all those storage spaces.

The balcony is large and covered with teak decking. Balcony furniture includes a round table (bet this will be my favorite breakfast spot), two deck chairs, a chaise lounge and a footrest. Instead of a sliding glass door, the Odyssey has a hinged door that stays wherever you leave it. It doesn’t slam shut. That is really neat. You don’t have to keep opening the door or propping it open with your foot while you carry out a snack or drink. It stays where you put it – fully opened, partly opened or shut.

In fact, all the drawers and doors in my suite seem to have some kind of magic opener/closer. The many drawers are fitted with a special quiet mechanism to soften their closure. I don’t know how many times I have been awakened by a hotel or cruise ship neighbor closing a closet, drawer or door. Not on the Odyssey. Quiet rules here.

Speaking of sleeping, Seabourn has designed curtains that almost completely block out the light coming from the balcony. I like to awaken with the sunlight coming in my window but sometimes it is nice to have a darkened room for a nap or when in port at night with strong outside lights.

The stateroom entertainment system has a big flat screen TV mounted on a pullout tray and an iPod deck with a remote. You can watch any of the ship’s lecture series on the TV and a bunch of new and old movies “on demand” without charge. When satellite reception is good, you can also get a selection of CNN, BBC, Fox News and other entertainment options.

Don’t know how much TV watching I will be doing. Too many other wonderful things to do both on the ship and on shore.

Story and photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Seabourn Excursion: Shopping with the chef

June 5, 2014 | Heidi

KOTOR, Montenegro - An expensive delicacy, the plump porcini mushrooms looked great to me. But something about them raised the concerns of Rafael Peterkovic.

He eyed the mushrooms carefully, thumped their thick stems with his forefinger. Sniffed them, too. Then asked the mushroom vendor if he could use a knife to slice one open.

What Rafael saw turned my stomach.

The mushroom was filled with small worms happily munching away. The vendor just shrugged her shoulders, knowing she had lost a sale.

I’ve cruised many times but this is a first – an option called Shopping With the Chef.  When our Seabourn Odyssey docked in Kotor, Montenegro, a small group of passengers went ashore with Executive Chef Rafael to pick out some special items from the market lining  the ancient streets by the seaside.

The tour is offered once a cruise and books up very quickly. Kotor is one of his favorite cruise shopping places, Rafael says.

“It is famous for its cheese, olives and olive oil,” he says. “You can buy the best olive oil here, stone milled and cold pressed olive oil.”


With the popularity of cooking shows,  chefs have become today’s celebrities.  Rafael is already an impressive figure. But wearing his Seabourn white chef’s jacket, Rafael seems to magically part the waters as he walks with determination through the stalls. We follow in his wake.

Heading straight for a neat stand in the bustling market, Rafael is immediately greeted by the vendor who brings out a plate of sliced cheese. I didn’t know that tasty treats would be a part of the tour. Yummy!

This particular family-owned business has some excellent cheeses and prosciutto    sliced paper thin and presented to us for sampling. The ham is hand sliced with a very sharp knife, I learned, because using an electric slicer would heat up the meat and change its taste. Food is a very serious business here.

Next we taste olives and dried fruit. This is the first time I’ve ever had dried strawberries. I didn’t even know they could be dried. They taste like delicious chewy candy. “No sugar, nothing has been added,” Rafael says. “They are just natural strawberries, dried.”

A fish stand behind us got scant attention from the chef who noted that last night’s rainstorm had cut back on the fish caught. “The boats go out at nighttime and come back in the morning,” he says. “Usually there would be plenty of fish but it is very limited today. I order my fish in advance so we always have what we need.”

After loading up his assistant with bags of goodies, the chef heads back to the ship and I chat with him on the way. Originally from Metzingen, Germany, Chef Rafael laughs when I ask how he got in the culinary profession.


“It was coincidence,” he says. “Originally, I wanted to study physics. I had excellent grades in science in high school and my teachers recommended me for science at the university.”

But before he began his long years of university study, Rafael decided he needed a break. So did his three best friends. “We were very good friends. We had grown up in the same village, went to school together. We all three decided to take a break first.”

However, “taking a break” did not mean the buddies didn’t have to work. “We went to the job bank and saw jobs for cooks. We thought we could do that.”

And they never looked back. “All three of us are still chefs,” Rafael says.

After attending culinary school in Heidelberg, Rafael started his career in Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Germany, before being lure to sea by Cunard liners. He sailed with Seabourn from 2000 to 2006 and returned this year.

What does he like best about being the Odyssey executive chef? “I like the people,” he says. “My team is fantastic. I am very proud of them. “

What does he like least? “Public speaking,” he quickly answers. “I hate public speaking. It is the worst thing that can happen. The kitchen is my domain. That is where I like to be.”

To be in charge of a cruise ship kitchen requires extreme organization and long hours, Rafael says. “My kitchen is 100 percent organized. It has to be,” he says. “On Seabourn, we cook ala carte. It is completely different from the big ships. We cook what the passenger wants. We don’t just put it in a microwave and heat it up.”

His favorite food? “I like Mediterranean food. It is simple and good.”

Working four months on and two months off, Rafael heads to his home in Stuttgart to relax in his off time. But he is always happy to return to the sea. “The best compliment that someone can give is to say they like what I prepared. Those are the words I want to hear. ”

No worries about that on the Odyssey. Although our voyage has just started, I have heard nothing but compliments about the delicious food created by Chef Rafael and his team.

Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Cruise Ship Trivia: Can you name this vessel?

May 30, 2014 | Heidi

If you’ve ever cruised on this vessel, you might have relaxed in this very spot and watched the sun set on a beautiful day.

For a bit of cruise ship trivia, see if you can recognize this popular vessel. Don’t look at the answer below until you have formulated yours.

A hint: Mark Twain was fond of this form of travel.

If you recognize it, good for you. If you don’t, make plans to book a cruise. Rolling on the river is an unforgettable experience any time of day or night.








(Answer:)  Despite the odds, the lovely American Queen is cruising the rivers once again.

Her improbable tale started when the youngest of three sister ships was constructed in 1995. Listed at a whopping 418 feet long with a passenger capacity of about 435, the American Queen is said to be the biggest steamboat ever built. With her elaborate gingerbread trim and six decks, the American Queen looks like a fancy floating wedding cake.

Once owned by the Delta Queen Company, the American Queen – along with the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen – ruled the rivers. Devoted cruisers eagerly awaited each year’s itineraries.

Then hard times hit. In 2008, the Majestic American Line, which then owned the American Queen, went belly up. The historic Delta Queen was permanently docked in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. The Mississippi Queenwas sold for scrap. And the American Queen was put in the custody of the United States Maritime Administration. The luxury steamboat sat in mothballs for years. Her future seemed dark.

However, three steamboat lovers – Jeff Krida, chief executive officer of the original Delta Queen Steamboat Company; Christopher Kyte, founder of the travel firm Uncommon Journeys and formerly the top seller of Delta Queen Steamboat Company cruises; and John Waggoner, president of HMS Global Maritime – decided they couldn’t allow the beautiful boat to be destroyed.

In 2011, they joined forces to form the Great American Steamboat Company and bought the paddle wheeler for $30 million. After a $6.5 million facelift, the American Queen is back where she belongs – on America’s rivers.

In April 2012, the American Queen left her new homeport of Memphis for an inaugural cruise. Priscilla Presley did the honors of formally rechristening the boat with a bottle of champagne. Since then, the American Queen has been drawing passengers with her charms of bygone days.

By Jackie Sheckler Finch