Bermuda Blast 2011

We just returned from the second annual Annie’s Escapes Group Cruise and it was a blast! Plans are already in place for next year’s group trip (a food/wine tour to Tuscany in October 2012) but you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for details and pricing.

For now, I can tell you all about our Bermuda Blast 2011!  We sailed with 40 people on a 5-day Royal Caribbean cruise on the Explorer of the Seas, from Bayonne, NJ to Kings Wharf in Bermuda. The group included a core of Annie’s Escapes clients/friends as well as a destination wedding party for a client who was getting married on the island while we were there. The full photo album (about 75 pictures) can be found here.  And my trip review is below.

Embarkation and Sailaway:

We drove from Rhode Island to Bayonne on Saturday morning (10/8) to board the ship, and it was a quick and easy trip marred only by some confusion over exactly where the entrance to the port should be (and we weren’t the only ones with a “confused” GPS – I think everyone in our group had an issue with finding their way into the port) It was SO nice to leave from a local port, rather than dealing with flights!

We were onboard by about 1:00 pm, with time to check out our cabin, enjoy a buffet lunch, and explore the ship before the lifeboat drill and the sailaway party. What an experience it is to sail out of New York harbor, with the skyline, the bridges, the Statue of Liberty and all the other sights! We were able to watch a handful of other ships sail out with us as well – from the NYC port on the west side of Manhattan and from Princess’s port in Brooklyn.

The ship:

Explorer of the Seas, at just over 1,000 feet in length and accommodating about 3,100 passengers, is smaller than the last two Royal Caribbean ships that I’ve sailed on (the Freedom of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas), but I have to say that the size felt just right. Big enough to have all the “bells and whistles”, like an interior promenade, rock climbing wall, skating rink, etc., but small enough that we knew our way around by the end of the first day (VERY unusual for me!) Two of our favorite spots on the ship were the adults-only solarium pool and the Viking Crown Lounge, where we spent several cozy hours with our books and cocktails enjoying the view (we even saw a school of flying fish from up there!) Our cabin, a category E1 balcony, midship on deck 8, was plenty big for the two of us, although the balcony felt a little more compact than others we’ve enjoyed in the past, and the location was fantastic – convenient to everything.

The food:

We ate in the main dining room every night (8:30 pm seating, tables for ten, in the Magellan dining room) and the food was very good. Some of us thought the portions were small, but once everyone realized that they could order multiple appetizers or main courses if they wanted to sample different things, it was all good! The late seating works well for us, because it leaves plenty of time for an afternoon nap, cocktails, and even a show before dinner on some evenings. The Windjammer buffet had typical buffet food for breakfast and lunch; not the best I’ve ever had, but perfectly acceptable. We had one lunch at Johnny Rockets, which had a small surcharge but was totally worth it for the onion rings! All in all, the dining experience was exactly what I expected, and I have no complaints.

The entertainment:

We saw several production shows, including music, dancing, a comedian and more, and all were very good. We did not make it to the ice show, although I heard it was fantastic. The “Love and Marriage” show was quite funny, and the cruise director did a great job. The only entertainment that disappointed us was the piano bar, which normally would be our regular late night hang out. We went the first night and the music was so disappointing (and the crowd so old and tame) that we never went back. We did, however, participate in a couple of the trivia contests later in the cruise, and we even won a Royal Caribbean hat!

The ports:

This itinerary includes two full days at sea and two (almost) full days in port in Bermuda. Like most modern ships, the Explorer is too large to dock in Hamilton, so it ties up out at the tip of the island, in the Dockyard area. We bought two-day transportation passes (good for unlimited travel on the island’s ferries and buses) and spent the first day exploring St. George (Fort St Catherine, swimming at Tobacco Bay, shopping in town, etc.)  On the second day we went shopping in Hamilton and then took a snorkeling excursion in the afternoon. Everyone agreed that one more day on the island would have been perfect, and I know that I would have loved to have time to show my husband the beaches along the south coast. This was the first time that I’ve docked out at King’s Wharf (Dockyard) and I was pleasantly surprised to see that you could just spend the day there if you wanted to —  there are shops, restaurants, an historic fort, and even a lovely little snorkeling park.


When we returned to port on Thursday (10/13) some of the group elected to try self-disembarkation, where you hold onto your own bags and walk off the ship early in the morning in one of the first disembarkation groups. Those that did it, loved it. Since we did not have anywhere to rush off to, we decided to sleep in a little bit and have a sit-down breakfast in the main dining room before we disembarked. Very civilized!

Post-cruise visit to NYC:

Wanting to extend the vacation a little bit, we had planned to spend one post-cruise night in New York City. We were off the ship by about 9:45 am, hopped in the car, and drove a couple of miles down the road to Liberty State Park in Jersey City. There we boarded the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The ferries run continuously, and you can explore both sites at your own pace. We enjoyed an audio tour of Ellis Island, and found the ship’s records for my husband’s great grandparents who emigrated from Italy!  Afterwards, we climbed to the pedestal at the Statue of Liberty (tickets to go all the way up to the crown are severely limited, and must be reserved months and months in advance) and took in the view.

We drove ourselves into Manhattan and checked in at the Marriott Marquis, where we were lucky enough to get a 40th floor room with a direct view down into Times Square. The room was spacious and modern, and the hotel is absolutely huge! We enjoyed a delicious dinner down in Chelsea with my brother and sister and their spouses (they live in New York) and spent the next day sightseeing and shopping before driving back home to Rhode Island and the kids. It was a great way to extend the vacation and wind down after the cruise, and I enjoyed being able to catch up with my family too.

My overall thoughts and impressions about the trip? This was one of the most relaxing vacations I’ve ever taken, and we loved travelling with a group of friends. The only thing I’d do differently next time is to take a 7-day Bermuda cruise instead!

A Very Sweet Sixteen

My daughter turned sixteen this month, and after MUCH advance discussion about her progressively more elaborate visions for a Sweet Sixteen party, I suggested that we take a little getaway instead. I figured that if I’m going to spend money celebrating a milestone, I’d much rather spend it on experiences and memories versus DJs and caterers.  And that’s how I found myself headed to New York City with three sixteen-year-old-girls in tow…and my husband’s laughter echoing in my ears.

I had asked my daughter to come up with a “wish list” of things that she and her friends would like to see and do while we were there, and had done some advance reconnaissance with my siblings who live/work in Manhattan, and we had a pretty ambitious itinerary planned out. And I have to say we did it all!  The weekend was a blast (even for me) and I think the girls will remember it forever.

We drove down (3 hours door-to-door, not bad at all) parked the car for the weekend, and checked in for a two night stay at The Muse, a Kimpton hotel on 46th St. between 6th and Broadway. The location could not have been better – one block in from Times Square, but just enough removed from the madness, and an easy walk to anywhere we needed to go.  The hotel itself was exactly what we were looking for. The girls wanted a boutique hotel with a cool downtown vibe, without having to actually be downtown, and The Muse delivered! From the serene lobby with its “faux” fireplace (a flat screen showing flickering flames above an abstract hearth of “logs”), to the funky lobby bathroom (unisex stalls, each one elaborately decorated, themed, and named), and the beautiful restaurant/wine bar, it had just the right atmosphere. Because they had oversold our room category, we were upgraded to a spacious suite on the 17th floor with a king bedroom and separate living area with pullout sleeper couch – more than enough room for four women and their “stuff”.

The location and décor aside, the thing that most impressed me about this hotel was the service. The front desk staff were quick to provide help, advice and directions. They delivered a handwritten welcome note and some delicious treats the first night. And when the girls decided to test the hotel’s “if you forgot it, we’ll provide it” promise on Saturday night, the front desk rose to the challenge by rushing us a curling iron and some hairspray!

So what did we do while we were there?

Friday’s agenda included a visit (and lunch) with my sister at the Google offices downtown, followed by some window shopping in designer boutiques in the Meatpacking District and the West Village. Then we fortified ourselves with cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery before heading back to the hotel to change and then run over to the East Side for manis/pedis (which were a very thoughtful birthday gift from one of the girls and her mom) From there, we grabbed hot pretzels from a street vendor while we walked back over to Times Square to board “The Ride”, which was an awesome 75-minute party bus ride through the city with music, commentary, and plenty of surprising (and interactive) vignettes going on outside the bus. Afterwards, we grabbed a slice of pizza for a very late dinner and went back to the hotel to crash.

On Saturday morning I dragged the sleepy teenagers out of bed with promises of a diner breakfast (this was our one “Fail” of the weekend….unbelievably slow service and ridiculously expensive prices) and then we hopped a cab uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” exhibit. We could easily have spent hours in the museum, but we had an ambitious agenda ahead of us, so we worked our way south along Central Park to walk off our breakfast. We shopped our way towards Rockefeller Center (Dylan’s Candy Bar, Forever 21, FAO Schwartz, etc.) and ended up at Saks Fifth Avenue just in time for the girls’ 3:00 pm appointment for makeovers at the Bobbi Brown counter. Once they were suitably gorgeous, we walked back to the hotel to get dressed for the evening. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at John’s Pizza in the Theater District (a renovated church with a great stained glass ceiling and old-fashioned coal-fired pizza ovens) and then went to see “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” – a fantastic musical comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe who, by the way, can REALLY sing and dance. He was adorable!

We got a slow start Sunday morning because of our late nights, but once we checked out and stored the bags we were ready for another round of shopping – this time right in Times Square. We hit the Hershey Store, the M&M Store, and the giant (three story) American Eagle store where, in the highlight of the weekend, the girls had their photo taken and put up on a huge billboard in Times Square! We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Hard Rock Café, and then spent a couple of hours posing with the celebrities at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. On our way back to the hotel to pick up the car, we even ran into the infamous Naked Cowboy for a photo op!

Needless to say, the car ride home was pretty quiet (the girls studied and slept), but it gave me time to think about our weekend. I’m at a point now where I cherish time with my kids more than ever, because I know that college is just around the corner and my house is going to be pretty empty. A weekend like this, where I get to hang out with my daughter and her friends, having fun and making memories, is priceless.  I would choose that over a big party any time.

My only regret is that we didn’t make it to the Shake Shack for dinner as planned…but that just gives us a reason to go back!

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)