Do you like the convenience of cruising - the ability to visit several destinations without having to pack and repack? An all-inclusive feeling onboard, with meals and entertainment rolled into one price? But are you tired of the same old ports and destinations?
What if you could cruise right into the heart of some of the world's greatest cities, without having to worry about tenders or long transfers into town? What if all of your shore excursions were already included in the cost of your cruise? Or better yet, wouldn't it be nice if you could just borrow a bike from the boat, and ride around on your own, exploring at your leisure?
Now factor in wine and beer with meals, free wi-fi throughout the ship, and scenery along some of the most famous rivers, and things are starting to sound pretty good, huh?
Add to this the fact that there is absolutely no seasickness to worry about from the motion of the ship. And to top it off, you're cruising with about 100 other people, instead of THOUSANDS!
With river cruises, you can really explore the heart of the countryside, whether it be scenic towns along the Danube, while you're cruising between Prague and Budapest... or the Rhine, cruising between Amsterdam and Basel. And don't think you're limited just to the rivers of Western Europe - that's just a starting point! These days, river cruises can allow you to easily explore Portugal, Russia, Vietnam, Africa, and more. There are also special themed cruises, centered around wine in the fall, or even around Holland's tulips in the springtime.
And what about bringing the family? Note that due to the small size of the ships, none of the major river cruise companies offer a kids program or babysitting like the major ocean-going cruise lines. However, most do accept children, even as young as 4, making the river cruise an ideal trip for extended families traveling together to share a special experience, a unique summer family vacation, or even just a grandparent-grandchild trip. For example, Tauck Bridges offers 2 family-friendly river cruise options in 2013: 2 nights in Paris followed by a 7 night Rhone River cruise; or a 7 night Blue Danube cruise between Budapest and Regensburg. Both are excellent introductions to Europe for children, yet offer enough to keep every member of the family happy!
If you've always dreamed of visiting Europe, and think a river cruise sounds great, contact Sunshine Travel to find out which itinerary and river cruise company might be right for you!
photo courtesy Sarasota CVB
Fun Facts about Sarasota:
In 2011, Dr. Beach rated Siesta Key the #1 beach in the world.
John Ringling made Sarasota famous by making it the winter home of the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927.
The first golf course in the United States was built in Sarasota in the late 1800's by Scottish settlers.
Sarasota was just rated 2012's #1 Family Spring Break destination! It also ranked as the top city to retire to in the USA.
Sarasota has one of the highest concentrations of Zagat-rated restaurants in Florida. And during the first two weeks of June every year, Savor Sarasota lets you enjoy a 3-course dinner at many of the top restaurants for just $25!
One of the first "Segway Tours" in the USA started in Sarasota in 2003. Next time you're in town, check out Florida Ever-Glides Tours!
One of Florida's largest state parks is just outside Sarasota: Myakka River State Park. Explore the Canopy Walkway 25 feet in the air, take an airboat ride, bike, hike, canoe, or kayak (or all of the above!)
Starting summer 2012, JetBlue will offer nonstop flights from New York (JFK and LGA) and Boston to Sarasota!
The Florida Keys have become a sophisticated culinary destination in recent years, influenced by the Caribbean and locally grown tropical foods. “Best foods” in Key West range from conch fritters at a walk-up stand to fine dining in a reservations-only restaurant, so it’s up to your own personal tastes to discover your favorites.
Instead of highlighting the well-known dining establishments, I’ve decided to tell you how to sample some of Key West’s signature items on your own. If you want to savor the flavor of the Keys and you’re unable to get there, just swing by your local bookstore or library and pick up Linda Gassenheimer’s The Flavors of the Florida Keys. It’s a great collection of recipes from locals as well as celebrated restaurants throughout the Keys. Cook up a few of these specialties, put on your flip-flops, get the Jimmy Buffet playing, and you’re halfway there!
For more serious foodies, there’s no better way to sample the culinary offerings of Key West than the Key West Food and Wine Festival, January 26-29, 2012. Highlights include 2-hour strolls through some of Key West’s unique neighborhoods to sample food and wine from various restaurants, seminars, wine tastings, and even coconut bowling. It all culminates in the 18th Annual Master Chef’s Classic, the premier culinary competition of the Lower Keys. Not only is there a panel of judges, but there is also a “People’s Choice Award” up for grabs...if you are lucky enough to attend this event, you’ll get to sample the chefs’ creations and put in your vote as well!
If you can’t make it to the Festival this year, consider Key West Food Tours for when you do visit. You’ll get insight into the local history of Key West, as well as a sampling of some of the best restaurants on a 2 -hour walking tour around town.
If it’s seafood you’re after, check out the 7th Annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival January 14, 2012, from 11am to 8pm at Bayview Park in Key West. Many types of fresh seafood will be on the menu, including Grilled Spiny Lobster, Stone Crab Claws, Key West Pink Shrimp, and Conch Fritters. There’s also live music, and even activities for the kids.
Other upcoming food and drink events this year include Taste of Key West (fundraiser for AIDS Help) in late April, June’s Key West Bacchanalia (proceeds benefit Breast Cancer research), and if you’re a beer aficionado, don’t miss the Key West Brewfest over the Labor Day weekend.
If fancy food and wine isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with drinking and eating. Did you know that Key West has more bars per capita than any other city in the United States? Work your way through some of Key West's famous drinking establishments on the Key West Pub Crawl, or if you don’t like organized group tours (or want to visit more bars!), do it yourself with these tips from the Travel Channel.
If you are looking for a more family-friendly (or alcohol-free) tasting experience, why not go in search of the best Key Lime Pie? In 2006, the Florida House of Representatives and Senate actually passed legislation declaring that Key Lime Pie is the Official Pie of the State of Florida! There’s plenty of debate over who has the BEST Key Lime Pie in Key West. Featured on Food Network, Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe offers more than just Key Lime Pies - you can choose from salsas, spices, jellies, and even Key Lime Dog Treats! And the Key West Key Lime Pie Co. is home to The Original Key Lime Pie Bar: slices of their handmade key lime pie dipped in rich chocolate and served on a stick. Have fun sampling and decide for yourself!
What is Specialty Dining on a cruise ship? Instead of eating your dinner in the main dining room, you can opt to have a meal in a “special” restaurant, featuring fine steaks, sushi, Italian fare, or something unique. These days, most cruise ships have at least one specialty restaurant, in addition to the main dining room, buffet, and room service.
The Allure of the Seas, being the largest ship afloat, actually has 24 different dining options available! Most of those options are complimentary and included in your cruise fare. However, there are several options that charge an additional per-person fee to dine. Some places are casual: Johnny Rockets if you’re in the mood for a burger and fries ($4.95), or Rita’s Cantina if you’d like to sample some Mexican fare ($3 cover charge, plus a la carte menu pricing; or Rita's Fiesta, with dinner and 3 drinks of your choice for $20 on select nights).
If you’re a die-hard carnivore, you’re in luck. Samba Grill is a Brazilian steakhouse that’s open for dinner in the Solarium each night ($25). While there is a buffet with soups, salads, and appetizers, the focus here is on the meat - there are actually 13 different kinds of meat that are carved tableside, just for you. And the servers will keep coming around until you’ve had enough. Always a favorite, Chops Grille is an American steakhouse ($30), serving all of the traditional classics.
If you’re looking for something different, you can try Vintages, a wine bar with a sampling menu of tapas (a la carte pricing). You can use an iPad to select a wine, and then tapas selections are suggested for you. Or, choose your tapas first, and see the iPad’s wine pairing recommendations! Sushi, sashimi, and even Hot Rock (Ishiyaki) Plates are found at Izumi Asian Cuisine (cover charge is $5 for dinner, plus a la carte menu pricing).
For the foodies, 150 Central Park is a fine-dining experience featuring a seasonal 6-course tasting menu ($40). There are just 2 rotating menus per cruise, so you can view the options when you get onboard to see which one appeals to you more. Or, you can opt for the Chef’s Table, a unique experience limited to just 14 guests. There is a 5-course menu prepared and presented by the Chef de Cuisine, along with special wine pairings for each course ($95). Bonus take-home goodies include a cookbook signed by the chef and a special personalized menu.
During my cruise on the Allure, I was perfectly content with all of the dining options that were included in my cruise fare. However, after spending 6 nights in the dining room with 4 young children, we decided we were going to spend the last night having a quiet special dinner together, without the little ones. At that point, there weren’t many reservation choices left, and we settled on Giovanni’s Table ($20). Described as Italian, and "family-style", I’ll admit I didn’t necessarily have the highest hopes for a “fine dining” experience.
We started out with 3 appetizers to share: Carpaccio di Manzo (thinly sliced seared beef tenderloin, crispy lettuces, shaved fennel, julienned sundried tomatoes, crispy garlic chips, and herb-oil drizzle); Capesante al Forno (oven baked, almond-crusted scallops with red bell pepper pesto). To be honest, I’m not a fan of scallops, but these had to be THE BEST scallops I have ever eaten. If all scallops were like this, I would certainly eat them more often! The third was Melanzane alla Parmigiana (baked eggplant parmigiana Italian style), and even though it wasn't an adventurous choice, it was a really outstanding appetizer. For our pasta course, we shared the Crespelle di Ricotta e Spinaci - baked ricotta and spinach crepes with Pomodoro sauce. Another amazing dish, filled with plenty of cheesy goodness.
(As if we even had room for the main course at this point...) we selected the Grilled Lamb Chops and the Grilled Beef Tenderloin. Both were cooked to perfection. These were probably THE BEST lamb chops I have ever eaten. They were meaty and juicy, with not a bit of fat on them…and while they were thick, they were cooked perfectly!
We also sampled several desserts, including Tiramisu and Cannoli, although we were certainly not hungry anymore!
Dining at Giovanni's Table turned out to be one of the highlights of our week on the Allure, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Royal Caribbean has since introduced a few Specialty Dining Packages on select ships to encourage guests to try specialty dining. For example, for $65 per guest, you can eat dinner at Giovanni's Table, Chops Steakhouse, and 150 Central Park. Purchased separately, it would be $90 per guest. I highly recommend doing this, as it's a great way to sample some fantastic dining experiences, and it is a great value too!
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to tour one of the newest Celebrity ships: the Equinox. While the ship is an amazing experience in it’s own right, I wanted to point out something interesting I learned onboard.
The Equinox has a special bar, dedicated to the enjoyment of wine. It’s called Cellarmasters. The unique thing about Cellarmasters on the Equinox is that it contains three Enomatic wine dispensers. What’s an Enomatic wine dispenser, you ask?
Well, have you ever wanted to try a $100 bottle of wine…but didn’t want to spend $100 on the entire bottle? Obviously, most restaurants and bars that serve wine by the glass would not open a very expensive bottle just to let you have a taste. Once the bottle is opened, it would need to be consumed pretty quickly, and there’s no telling when they might sell the contents of the entire bottle.
Enter the Enomatic wine dispensers. These are specially designed wine- dispensing devices that preserve the wine once the bottle is opened…for up to 30 days. There is technology integrated into the machines so you can purchase the exact portion of wine you would like poured into your glass (i.e. 2oz, 5 oz, etc.) and you would just pay for that amount. According to Celebrity, all you have to do is “choose your wine, push a button, and pour a glass. Cheers!”
So while a glass of wine from the $100 bottle will be more expensive than a regular standard glass of wine off of a menu, it’s a great value in that you’re able to experience a wine that you might not otherwise have access to!
Now consider the offering of these systems on Celebrity’s Solstice-class of ships for a minute. The first ship, the Solstice, has 2 Enomatic dispensers onboard. The second ship, the Equinox, has 3 Enomatic systems. The most recent ship, the Eclipse, which debuted in 2010, has 5 Enomatic systems. As you can see, this has been a very well received aspect of Celebrity’s Wine Experience on their ships!
What’s nice about these systems is that the bottles of wine are often changed to reflect the area where the ship is visiting. So for example, if you’re cruising to Italy, you can choose from a variety of Italian wines that you might not be able to sample elsewhere. One person on my tour mentioned a friend who is an owner of a wine shop. The wine shop owner travels the world extensively, tasting and sampling all varieties of wine. Obviously, he was familiar with the Enomatic system aboard Celebrity, but the types of wines that were being offered via the system amazed him. By impressing this wine connoisseur, it spoke volumes to me about Celebrity’s commitment to creating special experiences for their guests that they cannot find anywhere else.
You can visit Celebrity's website to find out more about Celebrity’s Wine Experiences.