Telephone Service At Sea

Often when people take a cruise they want to stay in touch with family back home by calling. Before you take that cruise it is advisable to check with you cellular service concerning your options and costs. Being forewarned is forearmed.

Using cell phones while on a cruise can be very expensive. The major U.S. cell services range in cost between $2.99 a minute up to $5.99. In order to provide cell service the cruise lines contract with a marine cellular service that operates while at sea. A number of the U.S. based cruise lines use Cellular At Sea for the service and the charges are passed from Cellular At Sea through to your cell service to appear on your monthly bill. Because of this arrangement most prepaid plan services just won’t work onboard ship. Using the ships in cabin service isn’t any better with $5.99 a minute being typical.

If you wait until you are in a port to place calls the service switches to the regional carriers in that country where costs are based on your cell services roaming charges. Roaming charges vary depending on your service so you’ll want to check with your carrier for those rates. If you’ve got T-Mobile, check to see if the country visited is included in the Simple Choice plan. If it is, making phone calls will only be $0.25/minute whie data is free. Calls from Mexico and Canada using T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan are free. Verizon’s TravelPass and AT&T’s International Day Pass charge $5 to $10 per day for travelers to text, call and use data based on the plan they have at home but you must sign up for the service. Without the pass, pay-per-use data rates for both carriers costs more than $2.00/MB.

Receiving and sending text messages are usually pretty inexpensive while at sea. Typically incoming texts are free and outbound costs are typically 25¢ to 50¢. Be cautious of MMS and ask your carrier for rates as they involve data charges.

A number of years ago the major carriers had reasonably priced cruise plans but AT&T acquired Cellular At Sea and changed the rate structure. Now AT&T is the only company that currently has cruise rate packages with the lowest priced package providing 50 minutes and unlimited texts for a fixed price of $50 (overages are $1.99 a minute) with no data.

When you’re in port, your cell signal will switch to a carrier in that country where international roaming rates apply. You need to be very aware of the service switch as you enter and leave port. If you are on a call as the ship sails out and it switches to the marine service – so will the rates.

If you are looking to save money on calls, most ships have data plans with some being reasonably priced. Often you can install an app on your phone that allows calling over internet that usually works well. Services that provide video calling, like Skype may encounter internet speed issues however.

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The Port of Call Oslo, Norway

The Port of Oslo, Norway

Historic, modern, remarkable Oslo. We can’t think of enough superlatives to describe this beautiful city. Within a couple of square mile area are great shops and restaurants, the Royal Palace, a truly incredible art museum, a flower market and the historic fortress.

Where Your Ship Docks

The Inner Harbor Oslo
Akershus Fortress

Most cruise ships will tie up at docks right under the walls of the Akershus Fortress within the inner harbor. While public facilities at the pier are not readably available it is only a short walk to the fortress or around to the central harbor area where there are facilities. It is also less than a mile walk around the entire central waterfront past outdoor cafes, shops and museums.

Transportation

Central Oslo

Metro Train is the best option if you are spending just a day or two in the central city area. While the train lines are numbered one to five and each one has a different color all five lines cover every stop from Majorstuen to Tøyen in central Oslo, so you can pick any stations or stop and always find the right train. There are at least four services an hour on every line. A transit ticket/pass works on all Oslo transportation systems and you can purchase tickets at Oslo Visitor Centre at Oslo Central Station, Ruter’s Customer Service Centre, in most Narvesen and 7-Eleven shops, from ticket machines at metro stations etc.

Cafes on the waterfront

You can also download the Ruter’s mobile ticket app and buy single, 24-hour, 7-day and 30-day tickets before hand. A 24-hour ticket (flexible start time, multi-user ticket) Adult 108 NOK Child/senior 54 NOK

Currency

Museum area

The Norwegian Krone is the currency of Norway. At this writing the exchange rate is 9 Krone to 1 U.S. Dollar. Of special note, Norway like several Scandinavian countries is well on the way to being a cashless society. Everyone expects you to use your credit and debit cards.

Attractions

Royal Palace

As mentioned above, within just a two square mile area is much to see.

Akershus Fortress is only a short walk from the pier and well worth a stroll around the grounds with a visit to The Resistance Museum on the grounds.

Other sights include The Royal Palace, The Nobel Prize Center, The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, Viking Ship Museum, The Fram Museum, Oslo Cathedral and the Tjuvholmen Sculpture Park right in the central waterfront.

There are a number of very good cafes and restaurants on the harbor as well as interesting shops.

 

Port of Call Stanley, The Falkland Islands

Stanley the Capital of the Falkland Islands

Growing in popularity with cruise ships, the Falkland Islands are located over a thousand miles east of Argentina. The archipelago consists of two main and 776 smaller islands. The capital is Stanley on East Falkland which is home to a majority of the nation’s three thousand residents. The big attraction is the wildlife with some of the world’s largest concentrations of penguins along with seals and sea lions that come to breed and raise their young. It is also a frequent stop for cruise ships visiting Antarctica.

 

Stanley and the inner harbor

Where Your Ship Docks

Stanley is located on a large natural double harbor. Unfortunately, the docking facilities cannot accommodate most cruise ships so, for almost everyone, it is a tender port. The larger ships will most likely anchor in the outer harbor while the smaller ones can anchor closer to the town’s landing.

There are no facilities at the dock but restrooms can be found at the visitor’s center only a block away.

Transportation

Stanley is a very small town and there is little in the way of public transportation. Most visitors book tours out to see the wildlife but you can also visit battlefields and beaches or enjoy a little hiking.

 

Money

Oddly, the Falklands have their own version of the British Pound which probably cannot be exchanged outside of the Falkland Islands. The British government even warns visiting Brits to change it back before heading home. There are no currency exchanges or ATMs in town. Fortunately, many of the businesses will take Pounds, Euros and US Dollars. Ahead of our visit, we arranged with our guide to pay with US dollars and then just confirmed the exchange rate after our tour.

Christ Church Cathedral

Attractions

Penguins in the Falklands

As already noted, the big attraction here is the wildlife and taking a tour is highly recommended. You will also hear a lot about “the war” from the locals and there are a number of sites to visit. In town there is a really nice Falklands National Museum and Christ Church Cathedral has a magnificent whalebone arch which can’t be missed.

A Note of Caution – The Falklands were the focus of a war between Great Britain and Argentina in 1984. When the Argentine military seized the islands they installed over 30,000 land mines along stretches of the coast to stop the British from landing (it was useless). There is still an ongoing project to remove the mines and any marked areas extremely dangerous and should be respected.

A Day In Antarctica

A Trip To The End Of The Earth

Occupying a land area about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest and brightest place on Earth. It is completely covered by a layer of ice that averages more than one mile thick, but is nearly three miles thick in some places. It is without question the loneliest place on the planet.

Over the past decade the frozen continent has hosted only about forty-two thousand researchers and visitors per year. To protect this incredible place the requirements that define and manage how visitors travel in Antarctica is controlled by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. One of the rules is that any vessel holding more than five hundred people is not allowed to put anyone ashore while visiting.

Just imagine that we live at a time when there is actually something called the Antarctica Tour Association that sets the rules for vacations to this continent. Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought something like this possible.

 

An expedition boat prepares to sail to Antarctica

Today there are a number of options for visiting. If you would like to visit and go ashore there are a number of expedition boats that travel to Antarctica that carry about one hundred passengers and land using Zodiac rubber boats. We talked to several people while making our way south that were taking advantage of that option and indicated that the fare runs between $10,000 and $20,000 per person for a week-long trip. Luxurious accommodations can also be booked on modern cruise ships starting at about $3,000 for a two week cruise.

Expedition boats dock next to the Celebrity Eclipse in Ushuaia

On of the reasons that Antarctica is so isolated and harsh is that it is ringed by the Southern Ocean with a circular current that races around the continent. Some of the worst weather on Earth is in Drake Passage, that is the gap between Cape Horn in South America and Antarctica. Often the passage is afflicted with high winds and heavy seas.

Approaching Antarctica
Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel

 

Many of the expedition trips to Antarctica start from up the Beagle Channel at the city of Ushuaia at Terra Del Fuego. This city has grown to a population of almost 100,000 with much encouragement and funding from the Argentine government. It is also usually a last port stop for cruise ships heading south to round Cape Horn or sail into Antarctic waters.

 

 

We chose to travel with a bit more luxury and a lot more stability and cruised with the Celebrity Eclipse out of Buenos Aries. Each year the number of choices in cruise ships grows larger. After our port stop in Ushuaia, visiting the park at Terra Del Fuego, we headed out for our first destination in Antarctica, Paradise Bay. Passing the “light house at the end of the world” we entered Drake Passage facing high winds and twenty foot plus seas for a rocky afternoon and evening. The next morning the Sun broke out as we approached Antarctica cruising by icebergs the size of Manhattan. The seas calmed the sky turned blue and the temperature soared to 35° as our ship, the Eclipse became the largest ship to ever enter Antarctica.

Stark, snow drifted mountains towered above the horizon and ice floated everywhere with many icebergs being as big as our ship. We sailed for hours up the channel toward Paradise Bay. We were told the area had the most snow covering the shoreline for this time of year that’s been seen in a long time. The water around us was full of whales and penguins that shot by like little black torpedoes. Albatros and other sea birds where everywhere. The professionals that were with us said they hadn’t seen such a beautiful day in over six years and we couldn’t imagine how it could have been any better.

Albatros sunset at the end of a perfect day

When I was in the military I served with a couple of people who had volunteered to do a “winter-over” in Antarctica and used to talk about how incredible the place was. Just a decade ago a visit to Antarctica was something I never considered even possible. Who would have thought that this incredible, isolated, frozen continent could become a tourist destination? There is really no way to describe this experience in words so I’ll close by simply suggesting that this should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Eating the Florida Keys (Part 3)

Part Three – Restaurants in the Keys

The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys

Coming to the Keys most people are looking for Sun, sand and water with fresh seafood being a good expectation. Our suggestion is to approach Keys seafood with a simple rule – “the simpler, the better”. Florida’s waters are famous for Florida lobsters (also called spiny lobster or Caribbean lobster) crab, shrimp, grouper and dolphin, and on and on. No it is not the Flipper kind of dolphin but a name for a popular fish. Because of the name issue you will probably find it more often referred to by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi but whatever you call it it is a beautiful mild-flavored white meat fish.  Most locals have favorite hangouts often with picnic tables on docks or decks, cold beer and fresh-caught fish on the grill. Maybe throw a lobster on the grill too or a bucket of peel-n-eat shrimp.

One problem is you will find a lot of good places to eat but unfortunately there are probably more mediocre to bad restaurants around. In the past we had come to believe that one of the problems is the tourist character of this chain of islands. With an estimated number of visitors to just Key West exceeding 2.5 million and a local population of under twenty-five thousand it isn’t hard to see where the foundation of the economy is. Generally, in the past, restaurants in the Keys were high priced with little dependence on return customers which is a terrible combination. Over the years we had developed our list of favorites with the majority being local places and a few with long histories and reputations.

On returning after over a decade we were hopeful that the internet had helped to fix this restaurant problem. In this modern age it is very difficult for even small restaurants to escape the comments of thousands of online reviewers. After a week of reading reviews and eating around the Keys we decided that, unfortunately, not much has changed. While you can find great seafood still you really need to know where to look, read reviews and ask locals for advice.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Lorilei’sa bar in Key West in Islamorada is another institution in the Keys and a favorite for watching sunsets.

Sid & Roxy’s Green Turtle Inn located in Islamorada has been a Keys institution forever. Sid and Roxy bought the place in 1947 and the current owners work hard at keeping up the reputation. The originator of Key Lime pie.

Herbie’s in Marathon has been in business forever and is a favorite with locals. There have been new owners for a few years but everyone says they’re doing a good job of keeping up the reputation. And don’t get put off by the outside appearance.

Hurricane HoleHurricane Hole bar & grill Key west is just north across the bridge going out of Key West on Stock Island. This is a typical Keys place on a marina with lots of outdoor tables. The food is fresh and good and the prices very friendly.

Ship Wreck Bar & Grill in Key Largo is a little off the beaten path but worth the look. Again this place is a solid favorite with locals and while a little unrefined serves good, fresh Keys seafood and cold beer. Enough said.

In Marathon is Sweet Savannah’s a bakery and ice cream shop. If you are looking for a great slice of Key Lime pie – this is the place. An award winner for five years. 8919 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050

Island Fish CompanyIsland Fish Company in Marathon was just an open-air Tiki Hut on the water a decade or so ago. Even then they grilled up some good, fresh seafood at reasonable prices and featured live music in the evenings. We were amazed how they had grown since our last visit. You can’t do that unless you’re doing something right.

Islamorada Fish Company

Islamorada Fish Company, like the Island Fish Company started out by just open-air grilling fresh seafood out on the docks. A while ago the got a new neighbor, Outdoor World, that started bringing in traffic and their business exploded. Now they are all grown-up, were taken over by Outdoor World and have over a dozen locations around the country. They still serve solid seafood.

Sloppy JoesKey West is ground zero for good restaurants in the Keys and you could spend a couple of weeks eating out and still have more to try. Like the Keys in general, some of the best food in Key West is served thru a window and enjoyed at a picnic table so keep that in mind as you decide where to eat.

Conch Republic SeafoodConch Republic Seafood Company in Key West is a good choice for seafood and at a good price. While it is a favorite with the tourists and the waterfront location offers good scenery it is still a solid choice.  Tip: The happy hour buy one get one beer tokens don’t have to be used on the same day.

Cruising the South China Sea

cropped-southeast_asia_map.jpg

A First Visit to Southeast Asia

We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).

Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.

Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.

Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.


Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.


In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.

St. Croix U.S.V.I.

St Croix: A Different Caribbean

At 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest island in the Virgin Island group and significantly more rural than the others. The island features a rain forest in its western interior, an arid climate in the east and two historic towns.

The island was a possession of Denmark until the early nineteenth century and boasts a deepwater port at the west-end town of Fredireksted. The port was defended by Fort Fredirek as far back as the mid eighteenth century. A second deepwater industrial port was developed on the south coast in the nineteenth century. The island, along with St. Thomas and St. John was bought by the United States in the early nineteenth century. That means you don’t need a passport to visit and you can bring back five liters of liquor duty free.

Christiansted is the other town on the island and, to us, represents the quintessential tropical waterfront. Christiansted is located on the north central coast. The waterfront is fringed with a boardwalk and small boat docks, protected by a natural reef and a close-in small island. The harbor features sailboats at anchor, crystal clear water and a number of small hotels and restaurants along the boardwalk. Running up from the waterfront is a colonial era town where the stone and brick buildings include colonnades protecting the sidewalks. Most of these buildings feature galleries, shops and restaurants along with a couple of small hotels. Just to the east on the waterfront is the old Fort Christiansvaern operated by the U.S. Park Service. The small island in the harbor is Protestant Cay and features the Hotel on the Cay which is serviced by hotel launches.

For almost thirty years, Christiansted was often our base of operations and we have stayed at King’s Alley, Holger Danske, Caravelle, The Hotel on the Cay, The Danish Manor (now the Company House Hotel) and a number of places which are no longer open, like the Anchor Inn. On a number of trips we didn’t rent a car and spent almost all our time around town or at the beach at The Hotel on the Cay. (You can take the hotel launch over for a fee if you aren’t a guest).

Most of the beachfront resorts are clustered in three or four locations on the island and you really need a rental car to get around. Driving is on the left side of the road which can be awkward because most of the vehicles also have the steering column on the left. Taxis are available but they are expensive. There is also limited bus service and “taxi buses” which have dedicated routes and a flat fare.

The most popular area on the island is the eastern north shore with the centerpiece being the Buccaneer Resort and Golf Course. The Buccaneer has been an institution on the island forever and deserves its’ high marks. A little further along the coast are the Tamarind Beach and Chenay Bay resorts. We stayed at Chenay Bay a couple of times long ago when the cabins were pretty primitive but still everyone enjoyed the stay and the beach is great. Based on current photos and reviews a lot has changed at Chenay Bay.

Crossing the island to the east end of the south shore there are a couple of resorts centered on Divi Carina Bay Resort. We haven’t visited since Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Divi hotels in 1989 but, before that, we did a fair amount of snorkeling along that shore. The reef is close along that area and the coral is impressive.

Another area, which we used to love for its beaches and good snorkeling, is Davis Bay. Located along the western north coast it has always been pretty isolated and primitive but the beaches are some of the best on the island. Some thirty years ago the Rock Resort people built an exclusive resort above Davis Bay called the Carambola Resort but a combination of things, including Hugo, caused the venture to fail. Today it is alive as the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Resort and, based on location alone, it is worth considering.

On our first visit to St. Croix we rented an apartment at Mill Harbor and it is still there and renting units along with its neighbors Colony Cove and Sugar Beach. While a little out of the way, the beach is nice and the amenities are good.

Back in the day when an associate and I had some time to kill we would drive into the rain forest for a beer and stop at a thatch-roofed shack of a bar with a pig pen attached. In those days you were expected to buy the pig a beer by simply tossing a can into the pen. The pig would pick up the can, raise its head, crush the can and drink. If you got there too late (or early depending on perspective), the pig was passed out drunk. I never knew the places name but apparently it is Montpellier Domino Club and I would bet that that pig is long gone. It has been replaced by a couple of pigs and now seems to be a “must do” tourist destination.

If you are a skin or scuba diver, or just a novice swimmer, one real “must do” on St. Croix is to visit the underwater National Park at Buck Island where the whole island, not just the reef, is the park. Located 1.5 miles off the northeast coast, there are a number of boat tours from Christiansted out to the area and the reef is spectacular. There is also an underwater trail on the eastern tip. If you can convince yourself to take this trip and put on a face mask you will never forget it.

At this juncture we don’t think we can offer much in the way of restaurant recommendations because that scene is likely to change a lot over even short periods of time. Back in the day Friday night was a locals event at Cheeseburgers in Paradise and, that may still be the case, but late night mud pie and Jamaican coffee at the Chart House are long gone. Anyone with recent experiences, we would love to hear from you. We are planning a short visit for this coming January.

While there aren’t a lot of cruise ships visiting some do spend a day tied up to the Fredireksted pier and, if this is how you come to St. Croix, we would recommend that you rent a car and spend your day driving around the island. The scenery is breathtaking with the rugged coast along North Shore Road and Cane Bay Road worth the trip. Along Centerline Road visit the Estate Whim Museum, the only surviving plantation great house in the Virgin Islands. Go into Christiansted for lunch and a walk around and return to Fredireksted via the rain forest on Mahogany Road.