Friday, February 4, 2011

The Woes of the Lost Passport - by Tammy Berman

I would like to inform our readers of a possible way to avoid a hassle while traveling internationally. This is what happened to me.

I was traveling from Dulles International Airport to Fort Lauderdale to board a Princess Cruise. While going through the security line in Dulles, TSA (Transportation Security Agency) "lost" my husband's passport which was placed in a grey bin that went through the x-ray.

When checking in at Princess Cruises, we were not allowed to board even though we had a copy of the passport. We were informed that with a copy of a birth certificate, we would be permitted to board. No, it didn't make sense to Princess either as a birth certificate doesn't even have a picture! We were told by Princess that they take their orders from immigration. Having a copy of the passport did save us $150.00 at the passport office as they did not have to do a search in obtaining a replacement passport.

My advice: take a copy of your birth certificate and your passport when traveling. You could also scan them into your computer or Google docs to have with you at all times. One addition. I am not saying this would work for international land travel or be accepted by foreign immigration officials. So be careful.

The extra expenses (flying to meet the cruise at the next port, new passport, 3 nights in a hotel, food, cabs, rental car) almost doubled the cost of the cruise.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Homestead

Day 1 - We arrived at the Homestead and were able to check into our room. It was a beautiful room that overlooked the back of the hotel onto the greens and pro shop. We had golfed in the afternoon at the old course. The course was practically empty, so we were able to take our time. The golf course was nicely manicured, but there wasn't anything special about it. It was quite hilly, and there was no water to contend with.
For dinner, we ate in the Main Dining room. It was a gorgeous large dining room with live music and a dance floor. The service was good, the dinner entrees were decent and the prices were outrageous. For one appetizer, one soup, and two entrees, the cost was $100. That does not include any alcohol, which would have added another $30 to the bill, and the food wasn't memorable enough to write home about.

Day 2 - We ate a buffet breakfast in the main dining room at $25 a person. Ouch!!! It was a decent buffet, but again, overpriced for what you got. The Homestead does offer a Market cafe where one can buy bagels, danishes, muffins and coffee. It's more a la carte, but still expensive for just a bagel. Today we played golf at the Cascades course. From the resort, they bus you to the course as it is not on property. It's about a 10-15 minute drive from the Homestead. The course was challenging. The front 9 was more mountainous and the back nine was more open and had some water hazards to contend with. As a female, it was quite frustrating to not have access to a restroom until we made the turn on 9. There was not a beverage cart provided and when we arrived in the morning (9am), the cafe was not open to even get a cup of coffee. This course, if not discounted, costs $250 to play. Luckily for us we didn't pay that. Based on our experience, it was definitely not worth $250.

For dinner we ate at Sam's Snead. The restaurant/tavern is off property, but still linked to the Homestead. Again, we had an overpriced, non satisfying meal. It took 10 minutes to receive our drinks. The appetizers were decent. The entrees were NOT worth the price paid. A friend who was traveling with us ordered a steak and it was the smallest piece of meat he's had to pay $35 for. His wife had a steak sandwich and that was over cooked and overpriced as well. We had a party of 10, and each of his did not have a good experience with our meals. I highly do not recommend Sam's Snead.

Day 3 - At the Homestead, depending on the package you purchase, some amenities are included. Horseback riding, paint ball, archery, skeet shooting, to name a few. Those are worth taking advantage of. After feeling like we got ripped off for breakfast, we ate at the Market cafe for breakfast. For lunch, we went into town. Now don't expect much from the town of Hot Springs. There are a few boutique shops, a wine shop, real estate stores, and one diner called Lindsey's Roost. It was fantastic. It's off the main street down a small alley. The staff are friendly and inviting and their food is good an VERY reasonably priced. We were able to order 6 meals for under $40, which included dessert. If we had eaten at the Homestead, it would have cost us $200 for the 6 of us. It's home cookin' food at a great price.
For dinner we ate at the Country Cafe. It's another local restaurant about 5 minutes down the road from the Homestead. Again, we had fantastic service, another home cookin' meal with about 15 different homemade pies for dessert to choose from (yummy chocolate chip cookies at the register too). These two restaurants were definitely worth the trek off property. I would HIGHLY recommend both of the over any dining facility at the homestead.

In conclusion, the Homestead is a beautiful resort with a lot of activities for everyone. The rooms were nice, but the food is overpriced for what you receive. I would recommend dining in town or around town and definitely bring your own alcoholic beverages. Many people we ran into had brought their own drinks due to the cost of everything on the property. The drive there was about 3.5 hours from Northern Virginia.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Carnival Cruise 2010 Day 8

Day 8 – Our last day and debarkation. We were up and having breakfast in the Lido deck by 9 a.m. We were still pulling into the port of Baltimore. After the ship cleared customs, then Carnival started the debarkation process. It was a smooth process. They offer a self-assist option for those that want to get off first. The only catch is that you have to take your own luggage off yourself. The standard debarkation process has the crew take your luggage off. The only drawback is the night before; you have to leave your luggage outside your door before midnight. So make sure you don’t pack all your clothes because you’ll need something to wear the next day. Once you get off the ship and clear customs, you go into the warehouse where your luggage is lined up in rows and then you just have to search to find it. Ellen had the brilliant idea of doing the self assist option. We will NEVER do that again. We had trolleys for our luggage, but with the ramps and trying to get the carts over the ramps made it somewhat problematic. We’ll be doing the standard debarkation next time. The one advantage to the self assist option was we were on the road by 11 a.m. heading home and home by 12:30 p.m. That is also the advantage of taking a cruise from Baltimore. It is so convenient for us and we don’t have to worry about flying and paying for extra luggage aboard the plane and the hassle of airport parking, flying, transfers to/from the port.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our travels this past week and you have gained some insight into cruising. Feel free to leave comments as we’d love to hear your feedback. Hopefully these little bits of information will help you on any future travels you decide to make on Carnival Cruise line.

Carnival Cruise 2010 - Day 7

Day 7 - Today was our last day at sea. We decided since we hadn’t had breakfast all week in the dining room, that we’d give it a try. Ellen and I both ordered Eggs Benedict, but the eggs were WAY overcooked and it just wasn’t a fantastic meal. At 10 a.m., we had our last red hat event and the ladies played bingo. We first had a representative from Carnival come in to give the ladies a talk about debarkation and the process that occurs when leaving the ship in Baltimore. After the talk was over, we played bingo. I was the bingo caller, and I believe everyone enjoyed themselves. Since it had been over 3 hours since our last meal, we felt like we were going through withdrawal, so what did we do? We went and had lunch?! The Lido deck seemed the place to be. Today they had a special dessert which was a chocolate fountain station. Delicious!!!!! We were free for the rest of the day to do as we pleased. At 2 p.m. there was a Q&A session about life on board the Carnival Pride, so I went to that. I learned a great deal of information that I’d like to share.
1. Why is the ‘local’ news and weather on t.v. always broadcasted from Denver, Colorado? Carnival Cruises is the ONLY cruise line to offer all 4 networks on board, and the only satellite package that includes all 4 networks comes from Denver, CO.
2. What kind of living quarter’s do the crew have what kind of amenities do they have? The crew has dormitory style facilities where there are 2 to a room, with a private bathroom, and t.v. There is a common area where crew can socialize. There is a bar, pool table, and a foosball table. They pay at the bar like we do, but just at a cheaper cost.
3. How does the crew communicate with their families back home? The crew is given an internet package or they can purchase ‘cards’ so that they can use the internet to communicate back and forth to their families. The internet is available to them just like it’s available to passengers, but at a much cheaper rate.
4. What is the average contract for a crew member on board? The average is anywhere from 4-6 months depending on the position. After the contract is expired, the member gets a 2 month vacation and then they are under contract again for either the same ship or another ship in the fleet. The next contract, again, would be anywhere from 4-6 months. The captain for example is on a 4 month contract, 2 month leave. The reason is because being the captain of such a large vessel and in charge of such a large crew is a very stressful job and they want to make sure the captain doesn’t get burned out too quickly.
5. What kinds of jobs do these crew members have back home? Jobs back home range from doctors, lawyers, dentists, contractors, etc. The only difference is that those jobs don’t pay as well as they do in America, so they look elsewhere for other employment opportunities.
6. Do the dancers and singers of the Pride have any other duties on board besides entertaining? They do not. The only time you would see them besides entertaining, would be on the first and last days of the cruise. They wear red ‘ask me’ shirts and are on hand to answer any questions a passenger might have or assist a passenger in need.
7. How are these entertainers assigned to a ship? Carnival has try outs for entertainment positions all across the world, similar to what American Idol offers. It’s just on a much smaller scale. They go through a rigorous process and then it’s narrowed down to a select few.
8. How is the rest of the crew selected for their positions? Carnival has representatives all across the world. When a position becomes available, they post the position to all their contacts and then those contacts post it in their local towns and cities. They go through an interview process to determine if they are eligible for the position. It is a very tough job and it takes a special person to be able to live in such close quarters for an extended amount of time and to be living apart from their families for so long.
9. Does the ship stop if someone goes over board? (Yes, someone actually asked this question) Of course they stop. A ‘man overboard’ alert goes out. The ship immediately stops and they do a four point turn and go back to where the person fell off. Every crew member and every passenger must be accounted for.
10. How many weddings does the captain perform? The perception that the captain performs weddings is a misnomer. The captain isn’t allowed to perform weddings. He can do the renewal of vows, but no weddings. Weddings are only done in ports of call. Most times, the wedding is done on board; the wedding party is only on for the duration of the wedding and a small reception. The wedding party departs off the ship and the newlyweds are now on their honeymoon. In some cases, family and friends end up traveling together for the duration of the cruise.
11. How many crew are on board? There are over 920 crew members. What’s amazing is that they come from all over the world, and in some cases some of these countries are at war with each other. They put their differences aside and work hard and they don’t let the other stuff get in the way.

After the Q&A session, Carnival offered a gallery tour. We went to take a tour of where all our food’s prepared. It was fascinating to hear how much food an average ship goes through in a week. It’s somewhat disturbing to actually hear the numbers. The kitchen is all stainless steel and everything was so clean. There are specific stations in the gallery where different food items are prepared. They have a station for salads and appetizers, a station for meats, a station for side dishes, a station for seafood and a station for desserts. The most interesting thing I learned from this tour is how they dispose of all the scrap food. Instead of wasting it and throwing it away, they process it and grind all the food. They then release it into the ocean and the fish end up eating it. The rest of the waste, such as cardboard, etc is taken off the ship at the next port of call. They get all their food delivered in Port Canaveral. The waiters are also only allowed to carry 1 tray filled with 12 stacked plates. They do this because any more than that would be too strenuous on their backs.
Again, there was a small amount of down time before dinner. Our last meal on the ship was a sad one. We HAD to get our last taste of the Chocolate Melting Cake. Our waiter was gracious enough to get us a copy of the recipe to take home. The entertainment for the last day was a mixed talent show. There was a contest for passengers to try out to be in the show. It was some interesting talent. It was mostly singing and the Pride dancers would just dance in the background. After the show, we got our last ice cream cone and headed back to the cabin. We had a snake-animal-towel waiting for us upon our return.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Carnival Cruise 2010 Day 6

Day 6 – Today we were in Freeport, Bahamas. We docked at 7 a.m. We were literally in a shipping port. It wasn’t the most attractive port by far. We could see all the crates being lifted onto a barge right outside our window. Because we were in this industrial port, we had to take a taxi to wherever we wanted to go. It was about a 20 minute drive into Port Lucaya. The taxi driver dropped us off right by the shopping area and across from the Radisson and Lucaya Reef village resorts. There is a public beach where the two hotels reside, so we walked down to check out the beach. It was a very nice beach and there were opportunities to participate in some water sports or just relax in a lounge chair (which was an additional cost, of course). There also is a casino in between the Radisson and Lucaya Reef Village and it’s currently the only casino on the island. It was a small casino, but very clean. The other casinos on the island haven’t re-opened since the hurricane 5 years ago. The marketplace was just okay. Again, it was like in Nassau, where all the vendors were selling the EXACT same thing. We only spent 2 hours in this area and grabbed our taxi back to the ship. It’s good to note that when traveling by taxi, it’s significantly cheaper to take a taxi with a group as opposed to taking one by yourself. It cost us $5 one way with a group, vs. $27 one way by ourselves. We did run into a couple that was on the city tour in Freeport (through Carnival), and they were really disappointed with this tour too. The driver kept taking them to different areas where people could get out and “shop”. They had a full hour in this one shopping area and in my opinion; an hour was still too much time there. It’s really a racket the negotiations between these “tours” and the cruise line. It’s too much money to just be driven around to shop. When I had asked them what they learned, they couldn’t really tell me much about the island itself. The island is still trying to recover from the hurricane that hit 5 years ago, so there are a lot of hotels closed and a lot of retail stores closed as well.
When we arrived back to the port, there were a few more shops to go through. In my opinion, these were better than the ones down in Lucaya and you didn’t have to pay for a taxi to drive you there. You could see and purchase the exact same things here as you would downtown. The jewelry was actually better here and you could watch the vendors actually making their own jewelry on the spot, which was a change to see. We were back on the ship in time for lunch and watched the ship pull out of the port. At dinner, it was another formal night. Most people now on ships, don’t get that dressed up. It used to be where men would wear tuxedos and women would wear formal gowns. You would look very out of place in that attire now. Most women wore dresses and men wore a jacket and tie. After dinner there was another show by the Pride Dancers and singers. It was a very good production. We then stayed awake to see the midnight adult comedy show and then when we got back to the cabin, there was a lobster-animal-towel on the bed.

Carnival Cruise 2010 Day 5

Day 5 - We were in Nassau, Bahamas today until 10 p.m. I was feeling so full from the night before, that I just couldn’t bring myself to eat another buffet breakfast, so we ordered room service. We went to the gym in the morning and walked on the treadmill as we were pulling into the port. It was neat to watch the ship come in to Nassau. We didn’t get off the ship immediately because we knew that there would be a lot of people getting off all at once. We didn’t do much else in the morning. We decided to grab lunch first before we ventured out, so by the time we got off the ship it was around 1 p.m. We wanted to go over to Paradise Island and found the best mode of transportation was to take the ferry. It cost $3 one way and it was very educational. Our “guide” gave us some history and information about some sights as we went along. From the dock we then walked over to the Paradise Island Harbor Resort. We wanted to do a site inspection of the place. We were taken on a tour and then were allowed to lounge on the beach or by the pool. We chose the beach. This property is an all inclusive property across the street from the Atlantis hotel. It is on the harbor side, so there is a small man-made beach. Even though the beach is small, it serves its purpose for those that want the beachy feel. The resort is slightly run down, but they are in the process of doing some major renovations. The pool is a decent size, but too cold to go in while we were there. There was also an outside bar where you could order drinks and get some ‘bar’ type foods if you needed a snack. The good thing about this facility is that for $50 for the day, passengers from the cruise ships can come to their hotel, use their facilities, eat, and drink and relax. Most want to just go to a beach and this gives them the opportunity to do that in a much smaller setting then battling the crowds at the Atlantis. Although the Atlantis is a very popular resort, it is a rip off to just go there for the day as they charge you $105 to just step foot on the property to walk around and use their facilities. That doesn’t even include any food. We heard mixed information from many Carnival cruise passengers about their thoughts of the Atlantis resort. Some said they paid $50 to go there and it was a rip off, and others said they walked right in, walked through the aquarium and didn’t pay a dime. So for those going to Nassau and want to go see the Atlantis, take the ferry for $3, walk in through the casino and take a tour of the aquarium yourself. Then walk around the property on your own. It will save you a lot of money in the end. We also heard some complaints about other over priced shore excursions booked through Carnival. The cost was too much for what you got in content of the ‘excursion.’ A couple went on the city tour and although they learned some history about the island, the guide was extremely unknowledgeable about many things when asked questions about his own island.
After Ellen and I relaxed on the beach, it was nearing 5 p.m., so we made our way back to the ship. When we got back to the pier, after our 10 min. walk from the resort, we had just missed the ferry and had to wait another 30 minutes for the next one. It was somewhat chaotic at the pier trying to board the next ferry. There were ferries coming in and rearranging themselves and no one would tell us where to go. It was very Bahamian in regards to the laid back atmosphere. By the time we got back to the pier, we had to bolt off the ferry and rush back so that we didn’t miss dinner. Our seating time was scheduled for 6 p.m. and it was already 6:15 p.m. We made it to dinner finally at 6:30 p.m.
After dinner we went back out to the straw market since we didn’t have time earlier in the day. They were closing up, but there were a few pushy vendors trying to get us to check out their booths. The straw market is a bunch of vendors that sell EXACTLY the same things in each booth. They sell knock off handbags, jewelry, trinkets, t-shirts, beach cover-ups, etc. It’s just a matter of seeing who you can get to knock down the price to the cheapest amount. It can be quite overwhelming and intimidating. Don’t go there alone. Once back on board we went to see the entertainment for the night which was a comedian. She had some funny moments, but she wasn’t all that terrific. After the entertainment, when I got back to the cabin, there was a snake-towel-animal on the bed.

Carnival Cruise 2010 Day 4

Day 4 - We had a lazy morning as we didn’t have to really be anywhere today. We rented a car in Cape Canaveral and went to Merritt Island National Seashore and National Wildlife Refuge and to Canaveral National Seashore. We drove the Black Point Wildlife loop and saw all species of birds, and we saw a few alligators as well. We also saw a few manatees at Haulover Canal. We then drove to Playalinda Beach, but we didn’t stay very long as it wasn’t warm enough. We spent a good part of our day in the park and it was great weather. It was a nice break from being on the cruise. The town of Titusville was very small, but there was a delicious bakery called Sunrise Bread Co. that we stopped at to get some cookies for the duration of our trip. As a side note; that’s one thing that is lacking on the Carnival Pride; a bakery. The desserts at dinner have all been wonderful, but for the buffets and for anytime snacks, they lack yummy pastries. Of course, if you really want the large, yummier cookies, you have to pay $2.50 for one of those. Before we returned our car, we stopped off at Ron Jon Surf shop to browse around. It’s a ‘must go to’ store in Cocoa Beach, FL. We got back on the ship in time to rest and get ready for dinner. After dinner we went and see Family Face Off. It was like a family feud. After the feud was bingo, and then another late night show from the Pride Dancers. It wasn’t the best show of the week thus far, so we left. Tonight at 11:30 p.m. there was a Mexican buffet, so Ellen and I did the only natural thing to do; eat. We weren’t even hungry. We then did the worst thing you could do after eating a meal; go to bed. When we arrived back in the cabin, we had a towel-monkey-animal hanging from our light.