Cell Phone Roaming On Cruise Ships

An Update

We try very hard to keep control of our cellular voice, data and text costs along with wifi access costs while traveling. One specific area where costs can easily spin out of control is cellular roaming while on a cruise.

Over the past few years AT&T has become a virtual cell service monopoly on cruise ships thru their subsidiary, Wireless Maritime Services, also known as Cellular At Sea. Until a couple of years ago most cell providers offered a discount travel package if you were going on a cruise. No more, and one has to question what is going on. At this writing the only provider still offering a discount package while cruising is AT&T. Wonder why? Without a cruise option most cell providers are now billing about $2.50 per minute when you use Cellular At Sea.

As mentioned in another post, I have an international phone with a sim card from One Sim Card. Our usual plan is to generally not use cell voice service while at sea and only use One Sim Card when we are in a port and have access to land based cellular service. That raises the question regarding how and when the cruise ships shut down their Cellular At Sea service in favor of land based service and when do the switch back on?

This January we took a Caribbean trip visiting a few islands. At the end of island hopping we booked our return to the mainlandon Celebrity Summit that was sailing from San Juan to Ft. Lauderdale. While in Puerto Rico, St. Croix and St. Thomas we used our Verizon phones and when on other islands we used the One Sim Card service. On the cruise back to the U.S. our last stop was supposed to be Nassau, Bahamas and that is where things went wrong.

On the Nassau morning, strong winds kept the ship from getting into port so we spent some time just sitting off shore. I needed to make some calls and I was getting five bars on service from Bahamas Telecommunications Company. A few minutes later while still near Nassau my phone switched from BTC to WMS or Wireless Maritime Services which is another name for AT&T’s Cellular At Sea without my noticing it. One ten minute call cost us $25 instead of the $2.50 that would have been billed thru One Sim Card.

After figuring out what happened I contacted Celebrity and asked about their policy regarding switching on cellular service. The person I spoke with was very helpful and spent a fair amount of time researching their policy. What she concluded was, that despite a stated policy regarding American ports, there doesn’t seem to be a specific set of rules. That may be because the ships have to deal with a lot of jurisdictions and countries. In this case I think they were too quick to switch service on.

My advice at this point is to keep an eye on your phone as to what service you are using while on a cruise shipand if any of the following show up – get off the phone.

  • Cellular At Sea
  • WMS
  • WTN
  • 901-18
  •  NOR-18

These are all network names associated with Cellular At Sea.

 

 

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Cheeseburgers in Paradise

Sometime you just want a good burger. We’ve seen fast food chains in places all around the world including Ho Chi Minh City (McDonalds and Carl’s Jr) Bergen, Norway (McDonalds and Burger King) Barcelona (McDonalds), Copenhagen (McDonalds), Thailand (Burger King and McDonalds).

Thailand

 

While having taken advantage of fast food while traveling we prefer non-chain restaurants and we’ve satisfied our craving for a good old American cheeseburger in a number of locations as well. We’ve had burgers from Barbados (Bubba’s, pretty good), to Barcelona (so, so), to Honolulu (a monster concoction at Teddy’s) to St. Croix (at Cheeseburgers, simply a real good burger).

East end St. Croix with Buck Island in the distance

Even the concept of McDonalds style fast food is no longer exclusive to America as more and more chains spring up. Jollibee  features burgers and

Manila

chicken and started over forty years ago in Manila. It has spread over Asia and is now well establish in the United States. Quickly growing is SuperMac’s in Ireland that features only Irish beef and serves a menu of french fries, including curry as well as covered in slaw and taco filling.

 

St. Croix

We first visited Cheeseburger In America’s Paradise  in St. Croix after hurricane Hugo in 1990 and the place hasn’t changed at all since. It’s an outdoor place under tents out on the eastern north shore on East End Road. Back then the radio played country western in honor of the Texan linemen that were rebuilding the island and had live music at times in the evening. It was becoming the place for happy hour for East Enders and probably will again as the island recovers. It offers a simple menu that mostly features really good open-flame cooked hamburgers and beer. On this visit it really did take us back as the radio was playing a C&W station.

The bottom line is if you are visiting St. Croix and want a reasonably priced, really good burger, drive on out to Cheeseburger In America’s Paradise.

 

 

 

 

The Old Port City of Kotor, Montenegro

Sailing up the Bay of Kotor

The old port of Kotor is ringed by steep limestone mountains and surrounded by fortifications built from the  Roman era to the Venetian period. It is located on the Bay of Kotor deep inland from the Adriatic Sea. The bay is a ria, which is a filled river canyon. Together with picturesque towns, the nearly shear limestone cliffs of the mountains of Orjen and Lovćen, Kotor offers an impressive landscape. The current population of Kotor is under 15,000.

 

In recent years Kotor has seen an explosion in tourists, with a majority coming by cruise ship. The cruising industry has greatly expanded in the Mediterranean recently requiring an expanded offering of port destinations. Kotor is the new beneficiary offering the mild environment of the Gulf of Kotor, the spectacular natural scenery and the history of the old town.

Lady of Remedy church

The oldest known building in Montenegro is an early Christian basilica, dating from the 6th century, based on archaeological evidence, it was found under the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.

Kotor is part of the World Heritage Site named the Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor. The fortified city of Kotor was also included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list as part of “the Venetian Works of Defence between 15th and 17th centuries”.

Roman Era

The town was first mentioned in Roman writings around 168 BC, and was known as Acruvium, (Ancient Greek: Ἀσκρήβιον) and was part of the Roman province of Dalmatia.

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon

Middle Ages

Our Lady of the Rocks

The town has been fortified since the Middle Ages, when Emperor Justinian erected a fortress above Ascrivium in 535, after expelling the Ostrogoths. Ascrivium was later sacked by the Saracens in 840. It was fortified with walls and castle near the peak of Saint Ivan by Constantine VII in 10th century. It was one of the more influential Dalmatian city-states throughout the early Middle Ages.The city was part of Byzantine Dalmatia in that period, and the modern name of Kotor probably originated from its Byzantine name.

Located out in the Bay of Kotor, Our Lady of the Rocks sits on a manmade islet. According to legend, the islet was made over the centuries by local Croatian seamen who kept an ancient oath after finding the icon of Madonna and Child on the rock in the sea on July 22, 1452. Upon returning from each successful voyage, they laid a rock in the Bay. Over time, the islet gradually emerged from the sea.

Road winds up St. John mtn.

Another church sitting far above the old town is the Lady of Remedy, along with the Byzantine Fort St. Ivan and the Chapel of St. John. The Lady of Remedy is a Roman Catholic church belonging to the Catholic Diocese of Kotor and dates from 1518. The church is perched on the steep slope of the St. John Mountain with a commanding view of the Old Town below.

If you are in good shape you should consider taking the hike up the mountain over the stairs and trail cut into the rock of the mountain. The road (walking path) ascends from behind the Church of St. Mary Collegiate in the back of the old town.

 

Above -The Northern approach to the Old City protected by a moat, wall and the Kampana Tower.

Wines of Montenegro

In Montenegro, grapes were grown over two thousands years ago and later the Romans brought wine making knowhow to the region. With a perfect climate for vineyards, wine making has flourished in the region with two varietals of special note– dark “Vranac” and bright “Krsta?”. These wines carry the names of these grapes.

 

 

 

 

DSCN3733

Game of Thrones – Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Old City of Dubrovnik is where Game of Thrones was filmed and that has greatly added to the appeal of this already popular tourist destination. A short walk thru this town quickly shows why it was selected as a backdrop for this popular series. Scenes from the show take in the Pile and Ploče gates, St. Dominika street, the high city walls along with the Bokar fortress and the Minčeta tower.

The sea and surrounding hills are ruggedly beautiful and the Old Cities massive defensive walls and towers add a feeling of being transported back in time centuries.

As recently as the early 1990’s, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik was besieged by Serbian and Montenegrin soldiers of the Yugoslav People’s Army for seven months and suffered from repeated artillery shellings along with constant sniper fire. After the new peace, with restoration work in the early 2000s, Dubrovnik has emerged as one of the top tourist destinations in the Adriatic Sea.

The Old Town of Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th Century by refugees from Epidaurus in Greece and is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its historic sites. As soon as you cross over the drawbridge and enter the Pile Gate you will find yourself entering an ancient city that is brimming with amazing architecture and surrounded by the Adriatic on one side and the interior city walls on the other.

Visitors can take a walk along the city walls that surrounds the Old City. The walk takes a couple of hours and offers breathtaking views of the Coast and views down on the city. Lovrijenac Fortress is one of the sights that can be seen from the wall, it is an impressive structure built on an outcropping rock. It is located just outside the Western wall of the Old Town and is often featured in Game of Thrones.

While the Game Of Thrones is fiction there is a remarkable amount of real history within its walls.

Bokar fortress

Republic of Ragusa

After the fall of the Gothic Kingdom, the city was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Because of that even in the medieval period, Dubrovnik still had a large Roman population. After the Crusades, Dubrovnik came under the control of Venice, along with the remaining Dalmatian cities. After the Peace Treaty of Zadar in in 1358, Dubrovnik achieved relative independence as a protectorate of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Minčeta tower
Jewish fountain

Between the 14th century and 1808, Dubrovnik ruled itself as a free state, although it paid an annual tribute to the Ottoman sultan. The Republic reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it rivaled the Republic of Venice and other maritime republics.

 

St. Croix -The Cost of Paradise

We just left St. Croix having not been there in over fifteen years. We scheduled this trip last summer, long before hurricane Maria made a visit. Our original plan was to visit some old haunts and see who was around. Unfortunately this trip became more a series of comparisons between hurricanes Hugo and the recent Maria.

Buck Island off the NE coast of St Croix

First let me say that we really love St. Croix. In fact in 1989 we were beginning plans to move there but in September Hugo ripped thru. At the time we had an office in Gallows Bay and after Hugo it was six weeks before we heard from anyone there. Even then the only working telephones on St. Croix were at the Buccaneer Resort because they had their own generators and satellite link.

Christiansted after Hugo 1989

On this recent trip we had a number of discussions with Cruzans regarding which storm they thought was worse. Generally people that were adults at the time of Hugo and continued to live on the island thought Hugo was a more destructive storm. Younger people were emphatic that Maria was worse. It looked like there was some “my storm was bigger than yours” thinking.

Fort Christiansvaern

Major hurricanes are nothing new to the Caribbean and while some people will use disasters like Maria to push a case concerning climate change there is a long history that tells a very different story. If you examine what we know about hurricane history you realize that, with the exception of a volcano or two and an occasional earthquake, hurricanes are the most destructive force in the region and simply a fact of life in the Caribbean.

In August 1772 a hurricane swept across St. Croix devastating the island.

Alexander Hamilton was a resident at the time and wrote in a letter

Honoured Sir,

I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night. 

It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s impossible for me to describe—or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind—fiery meteors flying about in the air—the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning—the crash of the falling houses—and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground—almost all the rest very much shattered—several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined—whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter—the sick exposed to the keenness of water and air—without a bed to lie upon—or a dry covering to their bodies—our harbour is entirely bare. In a word, misery in all its most hideous shapes spread over the whole face of the country.— A strong smell of gunpowder added somewhat to the terrors of the night; and it was observed that the rain was surprisingly salt. Indeed, the water is so brackish and full of sulphur that there is hardly any drinking it…

Company St. Christiansted

I am afraid, sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination, than a true picture of realities. But I can affirm with the greatest truth, that there is not a single circumstance touched upon which I have not absolutely been an eye-witness to.

Respectfully,   Alexander Hamilton

It was also probably the reason Hamilton relocated to the continent.

Hotel on the Cay, Christiansted

Eight years later in October 1780 another storm literally leveled Barbados and devastated three other islands with a loss of life above 20,000. Both those storms were estimated to be category five.

Literally hundreds of these storms have ravaged the Caribbean over the years. in 1819 Hurricane “San Mateo” was a major hurricane. It moved over the Virgin Islands causing 101 deaths then over Puerto Rico the night of September 21st. The storm sank a lot of ships in San Juan and it is estimated that this storm destroyed most of the houses and crops in most of Puerto Rico.

Christiansted, St. Croix

1825, July; Hurricane “Santa Ana” is one of the strongest hurricanes on record in Puerto Rico. Caused 374 deaths and 1,200 injured.

On August 22, 1850 a major hurricane impacted Havana, Cuba, destroying fruit trees, many structures and disrupting shipping.

“San Ciriaco” hurricane in 1899 is the longest lived storm on record in the Atlantic. It produced major damage in Martinique, St. Kitts, and killed 3,369 people in Puerto Rico. It went on to produce serious damage in the Dominican Republic, and continued thru the Bahamas.

Ft. Frederik in Frederiksted

The good news is that each year the people of the islands continue to improve the quality of their structures, add more and more shelters and are also taking steps to bury vital utilities. While people bemoan these storm’s devastation, the truth shows the death rate from these disasters continuing to decline all over the Caribbean. Property damage may be on the rise mainly because there is more and more building going on.

The Government House, Christiansted

On our recent visit to St. Croix we saw a lot of damage to buildings, uprooted trees, roads strewn with power lines and broken utility poles but also, after four months a great deal of improvement has also been reported. On the lesser populated east end of the island the power crews were still restringing electric lines. There they were still going up on poles but that is because there just aren’t enough properties to justify the expense of going underground. Elsewhere on the island a lot of utilities and major power lines have gone underground.

Brunch on the water 2018

After Hugo in Christiansted there was major damage to structures. Most of the boardwalk along the water was seriously damaged or swept away. Boats were swept up into the towns streets and buildings showed a lot of roof damage. After Maria, while there was damage to roofs and some buildings, the boardwalk remained in pretty good shape even though some of the docks suffered. Most of the old decking wood had been replaced with new composite materials some years ago and seemed to fare much better. It also remains impressive how some structures, several hundred years old seem to survive completely intact storm after storm.

St. John’s Church

After these major disasters, people start talking about how will they ever put things back and will the island ever be the same again? After Hugo a popular T-shirt on St. Croix was a quote from Nietzsche “That which does not destroy us, makes us stronger”.

Cruise ship pier in Fredriksted

After having had experience with major hurricanes and the recovery afterwards on St. Croix, St. Thomas, Antigua, St Maarten, Jamaica and Grand Cayman it is obvious to us that these islands will always come back, very often better than before. Besides being home to many people, these islands are just too beautiful not to be visited and there is just too much money to be made welcoming tourists back to this paradise of sun, sand and turquoise waters.

Our recommendation is that if you are thinking about a Caribbean vacation keep making plans. The impacted islands will be back in business sooner than you think and they could certainly use the business.

Inside Fort Christianvern

Please Note: All pictures in this post, except the Hugo damage, were taken on the Jan. 2018 visit. Many of the hotels were not taking guests, including The Hotel on the Cay, or are occupied by FEMA or power linesmen working on the island.

 

 

St. Thomas USVI, An American Paradise

St. Thomas was the very first Caribbean island I ever visited and that was over fifty years ago. Over the next couple of years I had reason to go back often and even today I get back to St. Thomas every couple of years. I also frequently return to those times on St. Thomas in my daydreams.

Frenchman’s reef

Back in those days a fifth of Cruzan or Brugal rum sold for 85¢ and it seemed like duty free was really almost free. The waterfront was packed with small island freighters advertising for cargo to places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Barts, Montserrat and other exotic islands. The beach at Megan’s Bay was so beautiful and often almost empty and it seemed to cast a spell over locals and tourists alike. Even so my favorite spot was a sandy cove east of Charlotte Amalie around a point of land. The beach was Morning Star with a great patio bar, changing rooms with lockers and a half dozen rooms right on the sand. The reef itself was a moderate swim from the shore and I spent hours floating over its coral heads – it was my first encounter with snorkeling a coral reef and I have been enchanted by them ever since.

Alley running up from the waterfront

Back in the sixties Charlotte Amalie was a vibrant town with a good nightlife and included a great club called Lion In The Sun. There were a number of talented musicians that played there including The Mamas and Papas before they became famous. On the waterfront was a cafe bar called The Green House where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker titled In A Bar In Charlotte Amalie and it was a popular spot to sit and have a drink or two and watch people and boat traffic glide by. For a special evening we would end up at The Caribbean Hilton sitting high above town. I remember sitting out on the pool deck with a drink in hand and looking at the million lights of St. Thomas defining the shape of the island below. Off in the distance the few lights of St. John and the British Virgin Islands seemed to blend in the stars lighting up the night sky. Way off in the distance was the glow from the lights of Puerto Rico.

Morningstar beach

Much has changed since those days but a lot remains the same. Megans Bay is still one of the world’s best beaches. The Green House is still there but maybe a bit more refined. A massive complex has taken over Morning Star called Frenchman’s Reef Resort but the original beach and reef are still there. Blackbeard’s Castle Resort has become the new destination with its nearness to town with a cablecar riding up the hill from Havensight. No longer do island boats pick up freight on the waterfront and the duty free liquor and shopping aren’t exactly a steal anymore but they are still worthwhile. There is still much to recommend this island.

St. Croix is actually the largest Virgin island but it’s St. Thomas that attracts the crowds to the beach resorts, shopping and nightlife. In fact it is the central port for most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. The cruise ships visit and tie up at either Crown Bay east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Crown Bay, which used to be referred to as the Sub Base area, will require a taxi or one of the tourist buses unique to St. Thomas (currently $4 per person each way from either dock). There is a great walking trail along the water from the docks near Havensight, which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. Yacht Haven is an upscale marina with a number of designer shops along with cafes, bars and a good grocery store. It’s also from Havensight where you catch the cablecar up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and to take in the views.

Megan’s Bay

In Charlotte Amalie the main downtown stretches about ten blocks east from the fort along the waterfront. The waterfront road is Veterens Highway and one block up is Kronprindsens Gade with dozens of alleys and streerts connecting the two. When in town take a walk down Creque’s Alley immortalized by the Mamas and Papas in their song by the same name. Stroll down the ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade for some good duty free shopping or visit the shops, cafes and galleries in the many alleys with names like Drakes Passage. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix still feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information here).

Frenchman’s Reef Resort

Take some time to get over to the far side of the island to visit Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named one of the world’s ten best beaches. My old favorite, Frenchman’s Reef beach is still a good choice and the reef is still there. The Frenchman’s Reef resort is also an excellent selection as a place to stay. We would also recommend a visit to the sea life park, Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you.

Docks near Havensight

You can also take a ferry  over to St. Johns for the day. St. Johns is the other US Virgin Island and is mostly preserved as a National Park. If you go, don’t forget your beach gear, mask and snorkel as St. John is famous for Trunk Bay with its beach and its laid out snorkeling trails. The shortest route is between Red Hook on St.Thomas and Cruz Bay on StJohn. That trip costs only $6.00 each way, takes approximately 20 minutes and runs hourly between 6:00 am and Midnight. A longer ferry route runs from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay on StJohn.



Hurricane Update: We stopped in St. Thomas just this January and while on the surface the island seems to be ready for business and is enjoying the return of the cruise liners there is still much that needs to be done. Unfortunately if you are planning on traveling there for a visit you need to be cautious. Many of the hotels are still closed and many that are open are booked by people from FEMA and construction companies. Attractions like Coral World and some water excursions will also need more time to be ready for visitors. While there are plenty of jewelry stores and duty free shops offering special deals just to bring shoppers back, there are a number of shortages that become quickly apparent. St. Thomas has always been famous for its duty free liqueur prices and its extra duty free allowance from U.S. Custom, but as of January, a number of famous outlets are not yet open and prices may not offer any real advantage over stateside prices.

Be Cautious While traveling

About a month ago some young people we know were traveling with an aunt in Italy and suffered a serious pickpocket event. The aunt was carrying a handbag while they were out sightseeing and later discovered that her wallet was stolen. Inside was cash, credit cards and train tickets. Fortunately she had left her passport back at the hotel.

We have friends that have been living in Costa Rica for a number of years and one evening while walking down a San Jose street two young men on a motorbike grabbed her handbag. Unfortunately she hung on for a while and was dragged some distance down the block before losing the bag.

Three years ago while staying in Rome at a hotel that included breakfast there was an incident with a guests handbag. She had left it hooked over the back of her chair and went to get some food and when she returned to her table the bag was missing. I should note that this was a nice hotel and there were a number of guests in the breakfast room at the time.

While men are not immune to this sort of crime, it does seem that women and their handbags are frequent targets of pickpockets and purse-snatchers. A woman carrying a handbag in public is actually statistically a frequent target. Knowing this should be an opportunity to change your habits to reduce this risk.

Five tips to carrying a handbag in public:

1.     Do not carry all your cash and credit cards all the time in your handbag. Get in the habit of carrying only what you will need at that time so if you do lose your bag the loss is manageable.

2.     Be aware of your surroundings and avoid large crowds of people. If where you are makes you feel uncomfortable, leave the area as quickly as possible.

3.     When carrying a handbag is areas that have any suggestion of risk take special care in holding your bag.

a.     Do not leave the bag open where someone could easily reach inside.

b.     Carry it on a short strap with your arm thru the handle and over your shoulder.

c.     With the bag over your shoulder, keep it tucked against your body with your arm pinning it tightly in place.

d.     Always assume that there is someone near by waiting to grab your bag. Don’t leave it on a chair or table even if you are going to be just a few feet away.

e.     If you are on public transportation keep your bag in you grip. Do not set it on the seat next to you.

f.      If driving a car do not leave your bag just sitting on the seat next to you. If the passenger window is down it would only take a second for someone to reach inside and grab it. Even if the window is closed there are thugs that are capable of smashing a window and quickly grabbing a prize.

4.     Consider creating a fake wallet that can be used as a decoy in a snatch and grab or a mugging. Take an old wallet, put in just a few dollars and a couple of expired credit cards so that the thug will think he is getting what he wants while you flee.

5.     Try to blend in with your environment and don’t flash cash or a stack of credit cards in public. If you make yourself look like a prime target you are inviting an attempt.

I will admit that no matter how hard I try and blend in it always amazes me when people walk up and ask if I’m an American. All the same, to stay safe and in possession of your property you need to be pro-active and have situational awareness.