May 26, 2020

Caribbean Cruise runs into Covid-19 Port Closures

The 30,000 ton Sirena is s smaller ship carrying 688 passengers.

By Steve Blake

The cruise industry is reeling as a result of cancelations and port closures due to Covid-19 (coronavirus) issues. We had several cruises planned for the winter season and first ran into problems when our ship, the MS Westerdam, was denied entry to ports. That story has been told in my previous post. We arrived home from that cruise for a three-week interval before flying to Miami for a Caribbean cruise onboard Oceania’s MS Sirena. We did not expect problems because we left March 7, 2020, before the worldwide concern set in.

We arrived in Miami one day before our cruise was set to depart. Life appeared pretty normal in Miami. We shopped for food and wine and stayed overnight in a boutique hotel. Our Uber driver took us to the port the next morning to find our ship, the MS Sirena. Seven large cruise ships were in port and traffic was heavy. We could see lineups of happy passengers waiting to check-in for their cruises. We finally found our ship by itself at a different berth.

Check-in was easy but we could see stepped-up health checks. Our temperature was taken prior to being allowed to go upstairs to enter the registration hall. We were given an additional health questionnaire specifically dealing with the Covid-19. After completing the two forms, we went to a security post where we handed in the forms and were allowed into the registration hall. The rest of check-in was similar to other cruises.

After boarding the ship, we were aware of more thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the ship. However, it was not until a couple days into the cruise that the Captain told us that the ship was going to increase further the health and disinfecting protocols for the safety of passengers and crew. Things that were immediately noticed were increased vigilance on hand sanitizing. You could not enter a public room without a crewmember there reminding you to sanitize. Constant reminders to wash your hands were made throughout the day.

The dining room was not preset with dishes. Once you were seated, your table was set. You no longer had bread, butter, salt or pepper at your table. These would be brought to you as needed. All items in the buffet were served to you rather than helping yourself.

Plastic covers were placed over the elevator buttons to protect the internal wiring from the strong disinfectants being used. More staff were assigned to cleaning and disinfecting and would be seen constantly wiping down handrails and arms of seats. If you got up from your chair in the buffet to get food, your chair arms would be disinfected before you returned to your seat. With the closed environment of a cruise ship and how easy it is for colds and other viruses to spread, this should be the new normal.

We had two sea days before arriving at our first port in St. Barts. The seas were rough, sometimes as much as an 18-foot swell, and we had a strong headwind. The Captain informed us that we could not make St. Barts in time and that, unfortunately, we would be missing the island, spending another day at sea, and making our first port in Martinique.

Oceania’s Sirena at Martinique.

We arrived in Martinique and the following port of St. Lucia with no problems. The shore excursions went ahead and everyone enjoyed the charm of the islands. When we were in Martinique, we saw the first signs of trouble brewing. A Costa cruise ship was anchored offshore and we could not see any tender boats going to and from the ship. We were told there were a couple passengers with Covid-19 and the ship was waiting for a solution as it was being denied entry to the port.

After St. Lucia, the Captain came on the PA to tell us that as of March 13, 2020, Oceania had “voluntarily and temporarily paused cruise operations” due to Covid-19 issues. Ports had started to close to cruise ships. We were to cruise back to Miami where we would disembark. First we would make a “technical” stop on the island of Antigua to off-load the EU passengers who were no longer allowed to enter the USA. We would tie up in the port but nobody else was allowed off the ship. About three dozen passengers disembarked. The UK passengers were allowed to enter the USA for their flights home.

The next five days were spent at sea as we slowly made our way back to Miami. We missed the scheduled ports in Antigua, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Flying home was easy as the airports were very empty. We were asked general health questions before boarding flights and then upon arrival in Vancouver, were informed of the need to self-isolate for 14 days. The world is different today and we only hope that the problems resolve so the cruise industry can return to its former glory.

One couple tells their story being aboard the Westerdam

Author Stephen Blake just arrived back in Canada with his wife Susan posing with Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford after their ‘adventure’ aboard the Westerdam. Here is their story of 14 days at sea.

By Stephen Blake

We finally arrived home safe and sound after wondering if we were ever going to find a port to take us! It was quite the journey and a great adventure. We must say that Holland America treated all of us on the Westerdam royally and we have no complaints. In fact, we have a lot of praise for the way they handled the situation.

We started our trip in Hong Kong on January 27. All went well, even though we knew that the coronavirus (Corvid-19) was making the rounds in China. For that reason, we decided to pass on the side-trip to Macau and just stayed in Hong Kong. Almost everybody was wearing a mask, so we decided to do the same. There were line-ups for masks in front of drug stores that stretched for blocks. Most stores were sold out. At that time there were only one or two cases of Corvid-19 reported in Hong Kong. We spent our four days touring and joined the Westerdam on February 1st.

We filled out a health form to get on the ship. One of the criteria was that we could not have been in China in the last 14 days. We heard over 300 people in China who planned to take the trip were informed that they would not be allowed to go. Another group of people who don’t live in China, but who had traveled there, were also denied boarding. We ended up with only 1450 passengers down from a 1950 possible capacity. The ship had originally been sold out.

We sailed away with our first destination of Manila, Philippines. An immigration official from the Philippines was on the ship testing passengers with a heat-sensing camera. The whole ship’s contingent was paraded past the camera to ensure we had no sick people. On the next day at sea, the Captain came on the speaker and said he was very sorry but the President of the Philippines has denied us entry. They decided that no ship, which had visited China, Hong Kong or Macau, would be allowed into the Philippines. We were disappointed but a new port was put on our trip to make up for losing Manila.

At the same time, the Captain told us that we would not be ending our cruise in Shanghai. We would now end in Narita, Japan. A new itinerary was given to us. We were to land the next day in Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan. As we approached Taiwan, Hualien pulled its permission. We diverted to our next port and were to do an overnight stay giving us two days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Great!

We arrived in Kaohsiung and were screened again when we left the ship. We had a great day travelling out to Lotus Lake and visiting a number of temples. We returned to the city and explored around and visited a market. It was very easy to use the underground so we traveled on our own. While we were having dinner back on the ship, the Captain told us that the Taiwanese had pulled their permission for us to be there. We were to stay the next day but forbidden to leave the ship. They allowed us to do our fuel bunkering and then we had to leave. The crew scrambled to change the ports again because we were not permitted to land at Keelung, where we were to overnight and visit Taipei.

It was off to Japan. Before we arrived at our first port, the Japanese pulled our permission to land at any ports in Japan. That also affected where we would end our cruise. At this time we were informed that the cruise was cancelled and we would head for a port where we could disembark. Holland America was very good and gave everyone a full refund on the cruise plus gave us future cruise credits equal to the amount we paid for the cruise. Susan and I like the sea days and the crew filled the activities with historical lectures, entertainment and lots of food! They also gave everyone free Internet and phone calls home. Free drinks were served one evening and wine was served with our dinners. Shipboard life was great and most passengers were quite content.

We were told we were heading in a southwest direction and that there were two ports that were willing to take us. The head office in Seattle, along with the ship’s crew, were working on which port would be best for us to connect with flights home. Even though it was reported in the news, based on some passenger’s comments, we were never told we were on the way to Guam. We were finally told that we would be going to Laem Chabang in Thailand for flights home from Bangkok.

As we arrived in Laem Chabang, we were told that we would not be allowed to berth at the dock but would have to anchor off an island until health authorities could come on and check everyone. We were given a warship escort to make sure we adhered to their demands. Before we arrived to our anchorage, we were told that permission was pulled and Thailand would no longer allow the Westerdam to land or anchor. Out to sea we went again!

Westerdam docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

The next day, we heard that we were sailing for Sihanoukville, Cambodia and we would fly home from Phnom Penh. We arrived on Thursday, February 13th and waited for information on when we would be leaving the ship and our travel arrangements home. We originally had our own flights booked but since they were from Shanghai and later changed to Narita, they were of little value.

Holland America told everyone that they would pick up the cost of flying us all home. We would go by chartered planes to Phnom Penh and then connect to our other flights. The Captain woke us up at 6:00 am to tell us that the Prime Minister of Cambodia was coming to visit us at 7:00 am and to greet the first lot of passengers leaving the ship. We were all to go to the decks to cheer him and wave the scarves that the Prime Minister had generously delivered to all the passengers the night before. Fortunately, our balcony suite faced the dockside so we just went out on our balcony to watch and wave.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center holding flowers) visits Westerdam.

The media were gathered on the dock along with air traffic control and police. At the appointed time, two helicopters flew in and landed beside us on the dock. The Prime Minister came out and shook hands and presented flowers to the first group of 140 passengers leaving for the airport. He gave a speech in Cambodian, which was not understood by anyone except the Cambodians. Rough translation was that he welcomed us and said there was nothing to fear because none of us were sick. The first group arrived in Kuala Lumpur and were screened again. One elderly American woman had an elevated temperature and was taken to hospital along with her husband, who had come down with pneumonia. She supposedly tested positive for Covid-19 and the game changed again! Susan and I were to fly to Phnom Penh in the second wave on Saturday. We were given another temperature check as we left the ship. The Deputy Governor of Sihanoukville came aboard our bus to wish us well and safe journey home.

We were no longer permitted to fly through Kuala Lumpur. We were allowed to fly to Phnom Penh where we were taken by bus to the Sokha Hotel, a 5-star palace across the river from the city. We were given rooms and told we would get our flight departure information the next day. Now, because of the one lady who was sick, we had to get retested for the virus. We had already been thermo-tested about 8 times. This time we were getting the full treatment. We lined up for nose and throat swabs and our tests were sent off to a lab for testing. Amazingly, they were only able to test about 60 percent of the people on Saturday. We wouldn’t get our results until the next day and no homeward flights could be booked until the results were back.

On Monday, we were given a tour of the city from the Mayor of Phnom Penh. Buses were brought to the hotel and we loaded on. The Mayor came on each bus and wished us good luck and safe travels. We expected to fly home on Monday, the next day. Just before we left on our police escorted bus tour, we were informed that the President of Holland America had flown in and was giving us a cocktail party at 6:00. The Cambodian police and army stopped all the traffic and cleared the streets so our bus entourage could drive unimpeded through the city. We were really treated royally.

We got back to the hotel and changed for the party. As we were preparing, we got a phone call telling us our test results were negative and we would be flying out that night. We were to be ready to leave at 7:30 to the airport. I got the details of our flights, went online and selected our seats. We would fly to Narita, Los Angeles and then to Vancouver. Flights home were good, but it was a long day.

On arrival in Vancouver Tuesday morning, everyone on the airplane got up, collected their bags and was waiting to leave. Over the speaker, we were all told to sit down again. In came two ambulance paramedics and two Canada Customs agents wearing masks. I said to Susan that they were coming for us. They were! They asked some general health questions and took our temperatures. All eyes in the airplane were on us! Our temperatures were good so the Customs officers took us off. The two passengers across the aisle from us had done a trip from Vancouver to LA and back and weren’t feeling well. The ambulance attendants took them off and two other Customs officers escorted them out. Our Customs pair had us fill out a health questionnaire with contact information. We were told to keep the pens they gave us because they didn’t want to touch them after we had! We were told to drop our forms in envelopes they held open so they wouldn’t have to touch them. Too funny! We were taken through the terminal, by-passed all the normal lines, and led into the secondary area. The Customs officers collected our bags and took us out a side door. They said good-bye and we were on our way home.

That is the gist of our trip and hope you get an appreciation for the adventure we had. It turned out to be a great 4-day Hong Kong stay, 13-sea day and one port free cruise, and a grand three-day stay in a 5-star hotel. We cannot praise Holland America enough for the way they handled this situation that evolved as we travelled. They could not have made any better decisions with the information available. We are very happy with the way things turned out.

Windsor Castle, The Queen’s Weekend Retreat

The Long Walk in Windsor Great Park leads to Windsor Castle.


If you’re flying to London to embark on a cruise, consider taking a quick side-trip to Windsor Castle. Located just 10 miles west of Heathrow Airport, the historic market town of Windsor is famous for the fortress-like castle overshadowing its narrow, winding streets. Built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, with additions and renovations carried out by successive royal rulers, Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. It is also where the Queen likes to spend her weekends.

A chap in morning dress strolls a street near Windsor Castle.


Windsor Castle’s Great Park was for centuries the private hunting ground of the monarch. Today, its thousands of acres of sweeping parkland, woodlands and gardens are open to the public, but those of adjacent Home Park are private. They contain the royal gardens of Frogmore Estate and it is here that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle have made secluded Frogmore Cottage their home – by permission of the Queen. The estate’s larger Frogmore House is where the couple’s official engagement photographs were taken. The unusual name of this royal country estate derives from the frogs that live in the area’s low-lying marshland.

Prince Harry and Meghan, a.k.a. the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, were wed within the walls of Windsor Castle at St. George’s Chapel – a stunning example of 14th-century Gothic architecture with its large windows and soaring pillars. St. George’s Chapel is open to the public (except Sundays, when services are held) as are the state apartments in Windsor Castle; tickets for admission to the castle and chapel can be purchased on-line at the Royal Collection Trust website (rct.uk/visit/Windsor-castle). Changing the Guard takes place at 11:00 a.m. most days except Sundays.

Inviting sidestreets wind through the historic market town of Windsor.

Travelling to Windsor Castle by train from London takes about an hour from Paddington Station, via Slough, and passengers disembark at Windsor & Eton Central Station, which is a short walk up to the castle.

Many of England’s past monarchs have been laid to rest on the grounds of Windsor Castle. St. George’s Chapel contains the tombs of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Queen Victoria and her beloved husband Prince Albert are entombed in the Royal Mausoleum on Frogmore Estate. Outside in the Royal Burial Grounds is the gravesite of the Duke of Windsor, who famously relinquished the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, whose grave is beside her husband’s. Scandal has often swirled around the British monarchy and the kerfuffle caused by Prince Harry’s desire to modify his royal role is the latest in a long legacy.

Seabourn’s Alaska Experience

Exploring the Inian Islands by Zodiac.


Expedition cruising has long been popular in Alaska. The intricate waterways of this vast coastal wilderness invite exploration by small ships and is a voyage that can really awaken your awareness of the natural world.

Dining is casual in the Colonnade on the Sojourn.


Should you be looking for both luxury and expedition-style cruising, Seabourn’s 450-passenger Sojourn offers the relaxed ambience of a private club and an expedition team of seasoned guides ready to take you wildlife viewing in Zodiacs and kayaks. The Sojourn follows a route less travelled, tracing narrow channels avoided by the larger ships and anchoring at remote wilderness locations. An excellent example is the Inian Islands in Icy Strait where we climbed into Zodiacs to take a close look at a sea lion rookery and a kelp-filled cove where sea otters congregate.

Seabourn Sojourn docked near Sitka.


After a few hours exposed to the elements, I was happy to return to the pampered warmth of the ship. Everywhere on board the staff were friendly and attentive, whether offering to carry my plate to a table during the buffet-style lunch in the Colonnade or escorting the ladies to their tables in the elegant Restaurant at dinnertime. Our room stewardess, a young woman from South Africa, was as cheerful as she was efficient, and the level of service throughout the ship lived up to Seabourn’s well-deserved reputation.

A couple shares a quiet moment near the bow of the Sojourn.


With one of the highest passenger space ratios in the cruise industry, the Sojourn had a wonderful sense of spaciousness, both in our balcony suite and throughout the public areas. One of our favorite spots was the Seabourn Square with its floor-to-ceiling windows, cappuccino bar, shelves of library books and overstuffed sofas where we could sip our coffee and have our pick of several daily newspapers from around the world.

The last afternoon of the cruise all guests were invited to the show lounge to watch a brief film shot during the course of our 12-day cruise. We relived the remarkable moments of our cruise, then applauded not only the expedition team gathered on the stage, but all of the ship’s crew – representing 52 nations – as they squeezed onto the stage. Conviviality is what sets cruising apart from other forms of travel and the friendliness on board the Sojourn made it hard to disembark when the ship docked in Vancouver the next morning.

SEABOURN SOJOURN: 32,000 tons, 450 passengers, 330 crew. Launched 2010.
For information on Alaska cruises or other destinations visit: Seabourn Alaska

Rain or Shine, Alaska is Spectacular

Seabourn Sojourn anchored in Endicott Arm.


Rain can spoil most vacations, but not a cruise to Alaska. The weather on my recent trip aboard Seabourn’s Sojourn was, in a word, wet – yet this didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the ship’s expedition staff. Embracing the elements, they guided small groups into the wilderness to experience firsthand the raw beauty of Alaska that no amount of rain can wash away.

With rain pelting down, the young woman piloting our Zodiac past sapphire-blue icebergs at the head of Endicott Arm gazed with happiness at the cascades of white water plunging down the sheer granite slopes of the fjord. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this,” she said, drawing our attention to the subtle colors and patterns of the glistening rock faces, “but it was such a dry summer, we really needed this rain.”

Sunset in Misty Fjords.


Our 12-day September cruise aboard the Sojourn was an opportunity to visit remote fjords and forested islands bypassed by the large ships, and to do so while enjoying the country-club conviviality of a 450-passenger luxury ship. The service was attentive but not stuffy and the atmosphere was friendly. One evening guests were encouraged to join a pre-dinner block party at which we mingled in the corridor outside our suites. It helped that the ship’s stewards served cocktails and the captain came along with a smile and handshakes.

Sea lion rookery near Alert Bay, British Columbia.


We called at an interesting array of ports, from attraction-filled Juneau and Ketchikan to less-visited ports such as Sitka, Wrangell and Prince Rupert. The ship’s route was similar to an expedition cruise, tracing narrow channels and anchoring in remote wilderness locations at which excursions by Zodiac, kayak and tour boat were offered to get a close look at sea lion rookeries and tidewater glaciers. While anchored in the pristine solitude of Rudyerd Bay, the ship became a base for waterborne excursions and floatplane rides over the scenic Misty Fjords.

The Seabourn Sojourn is a 30,000 ton luxury class ship.


Sea mammals and bird life abound along the Inside Passage and one of our best Zodiac excursions was to view humpback and killer whales in the waters near Alert Bay in British Columbia. Few things in life are more exhilarating than watching a whale surface as you drift nearby in an inflatable boat. And few things are more pleasurable than returning to the warm ambience of a luxury ship like the Sojourn to soak in a hot bath or ponder the dinner menu while sipping a glass of champagne. The weather can do what it wants.

Anne’s Tips for Cruising to Alaska

Anne Vipond gets close to her work on an iceberg in Tracy Arm.


The weather is unpredictable, so be prepared for anything, from warm sunny days to non-stop rain. The common advice is to dress in layers. Start with long pants and a light shirt, followed by a warm sweater, sweatshirt or fleece jacket, and topped with a rain slicker. A wide-brimmed hat is good for keeping both rain and sun off your face, and comfortable walking shoes are a must. When a ship draws close to a glacier the air can be very chilly, so a warm jacket and even a toque and gloves would be useful.

A good lens helps in getting great pictures in Alaska.


Viewing the rugged coastal scenery is a major incentive for cruising to Alaska and a balcony cabin maximizes your viewing opportunities. If you’re taking a one-way cruise between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier, keep in mind that the mainland mountain ranges will be best viewed from a starboard cabin if northbound, and a port cabin if southbound. If you’re taking a round-trip cruise from Vancouver or Seattle, it’s not critical which side of the ship your cabin is on. Also, regardless of whether you are on a one-way or round-trip cruise, once your ship pulls into a fjord for a close-up look at a glacier, the captain usually positions the ship first with one side facing the glacier, then turns the ship around so passengers on the other side can have a good look. Of course, any of the public decks at the bow are good places to view the scenery as is the uppermost deck where you can enjoy a 360-degree view.

Humpback whales in Alaska can usually be seen near Juneau and Glacier Bay in summer months.


I think some people assume they will see lots of marine mammals from the ship. But this is not a given, especially on the large ships. Fortunately, the selection of shore excursions offered in Alaska is amazing and many are designed to take viewers up close (but not too close) to specific species of wildlife. If, for example, seeing a humpback whale is apriority, I would highly recommend booking a whalewatching excursion out of Juneau, where humpback whales feed throughout the summer in nearby channels. Allen Marine Tours works with the cruise lines and offers half-day excursions on catamarans that are designed for stability and equipped with waterjets for speed and maneuverability. With deep roots in Alaska, the Allen family expanded its reach a few years ago with the launch of Alaskan Dream Cruises.

The unique itineraries offered by smaller expedition cruise companies operating in Alaska, will appeal to anyone with a sense of adventure and curiosity. Passengers are taken off the beaten path in vessels that can navigate narrow channels and anchor in remote coves where further exploring is done in Zodiac inflatables or sea kayaks for close-up views of marine life. Beach landings and activities ashore include rainforest hikes and visits to native villages to learn about Tlingit culture and art, such as the carving of totem poles.

Expedition cruising is thriving in Alaska, but even if you’re booked on a large ship the shore excursions offered include wilderness adventures such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking and rock climbing, not to mention helicopter rides to sled dog camps where you can take a turn at mushing across a glacier.

Small ships such as the Seabourn’s 450 passenger Sojourn let you get much closer to Alaskan scenery.


For the best of both worlds, a luxury cruise on Seabourn’s 450-passenger Sojourn provides not only spacious accommodations and impeccable service but an expedition-style itinerary that follows narrow, twisting channels and stops at unspoiled hideaways, such as the Inian Islands, where the ship’s expedition team leads shore excursions in Zodiacs and sea kayaks. Sea otters are abundant in the waters off this cluster of small islands in Icy Strait, as are Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas and humpback whales.

It’s actually quite difficult to recommend one specific Alaska cruise over another, because it really depends on what style of travel a person is looking for. A multi-generational family might prefer a large ship for the variety of facilities on board, such as a playroom for children and age-appropriate activities for teens, whereas an active couple might be happier on an expedition-style cruise. One of my favorite choices for cruising to Alaska is Holland America Line, which has been taking passengers to Alaska since the 1970s. With their flag-blue hulls and “dam” names, these modern mid-sized ships are run by Dutch officers and retain traditional features from the Golden Era of ocean liners, including teak wrap-around promenade decks lined with steamer chairs. Princess Cruises is another premium line with decades of experience in Alaska and a network of luxury lodges for passengers who want to combine a land tour with their cruise.

Dealing with hurricane season in the Caribbean

A cruise through the Caribbean is usually tranquil.


Everyone in the Caribbean breathes a collective sigh of relief when the annual Atlantic hurricane season draws to a close at the end of November. Some years are worse than others for catastrophic storms and the path and intensity of these tropical cyclones is always unpredictable. However, the Caribbean is a vast sea, covering a million square miles, and in any given year only a few of its hundreds of islands are hit by a hurricane.

The islands can’t dodge bad weather but cruise ships can avoid approaching storms during hurricane season. In some cases a ship will completely bypass one port for another. One November our ship’s scheduled stop at St. Thomas was changed to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands due to damage the U.S. Virgin Islands had sustained from a recent hurricane. When we returned to the Caribbean a few months later, our ship call at St. Thomas revealed little evidence of the earlier storm and it was business as usual as we toured the tropical island and visited postcard-perfect beaches.

When disaster does strike during hurricane season, the cruise industry is one of the first to come to the aid of these small island nations, often delivering supplies and providing shelter and transportation in a storm’s immediate aftermath. Port facilities in the Caribbean have been built for hurricane resistance, so that ship piers and terminals can weather these storms.

The port of St. Maarten recovered quickly from Hurricane Irma.


The 2017 hurricane season was particularly devastating for several Caribbean destinations. While the other islands continued to receive visitors, the affected islands rebuilt and are once again open for business. St. Maarten’s recovery efforts began immediately and its cruise calls have returned to pre-hurricane numbers. The BVIs have also rebounded and are now receiving more cruise passengers than ever, as is Puerto Rico, which was hard hit by Hurricane Maria. St. Thomas and St. Croix have also been busy repairing and rebuilding in preparation for this winter’s cruise season.

Magens Bay on St. Thomas remains one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.


With its expansive size and diversity of destinations, the Caribbean is a resilient cruising area. All of the major cruise lines deploy ships to the region, especially during the winter months. With more than 60 different ports in 28 countries or territories to choose from, the selection of cruise itineraries is varied, exhaustive and competitively priced.

Hurricane seasons come and go, but the appeal of the Caribbean – the world’s largest market for cruise vacations – remains strong year after year.

Solving a problem like Maria

The lush grounds of the iconic Caribe Hilton in San Juan.


When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, the devastation resulted in thousands of lives lost and an infrastructure in ruins as communities struggled without power or running water. Emergency aid to this U.S. territory was slow in coming but Oxfam America stepped in to help, as did others. Among those who assisted with relief aid was Alex Cora, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is the manager of the 2018 world champion Boston Red Sox.
There are many reasons to visit the scenic island of Puerto Rico, including the opportunity to embark on a Caribbean cruise from the Spanish-founded port of San Juan. This vibrant city’s historic walled town – Old San Juan – contains one of the best-preserved fortresses in the Americas and its cobbled streets are lined with intriguing shops and restaurants.

When embarking on a cruise from San Juan, I always spend a few extra days there and my hotel of choice is often the Caribe Hilton. Situated at the edge of Old San Juan, on a peninsula with a secluded beach and lush gardens, this hotel resort opened in 1949 and was the first property operated by Hilton Hotels outside the continental U.S.

Famous guests at the hotel’s grand opening included Gloria Swanson and David Rockefeller, and the hotel became the setting for Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. An early bartender is credited with inventing Puerto Rico’s official drink – the Pina Colada – when he served guests a new cocktail containing rum with coconut cream and pineapple juice.

On my most recent stay at the Caribe Hilton my drink of choice was champagne by the glass. While live salsa music pulsated through the open-air bar, my husband and I strolled outside to sip our drinks beneath the swaying palm trees that dot the manicured grounds.

Our mornings were spent visiting some of the city’s historic spots, including the massive El Morro fortress, and strolling along La Princesa – a waterfront promenade which winds past outdoor cafés and fountain-filled plazas. We would return to the hotel for relaxing afternoons spent poolside.

The hotel is completing a $100 million property-wide renovation and will reopen in time to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2019. Its beach lost sand during Hurricane Maria but regained it a few months later during a storm tide.

As for Maria, the name has been retired from the rotating lists of the World Meteorological Organization due to the extensive damage and loss of life wreaked by this deadly storm. Maria will never again be used to name an Atlantic hurricane.

The Perennial Allure of Alaska

Seabourn Sojourn offers a luxury cruise experience in Alaska.

Everyone, it seems, wants to see Alaska. And many of us prefer to view the region’s magnificent coastal scenery from the decks of a cruise ship. The appeal of this vast northern state of glacier-clad mountains and majestic fjords is as strong as ever and the selection of cruise lines and itineraries servicing Alaska continues to grow.

The city of Vancouver has long been the main turnaround port for cruises to Alaska and it now shares that status with Seattle. Most cruises out of Seattle are one-week round-trip itineraries while those from Vancouver cover a wider range of choices. These include round-trip cruises of the Inside Passage and one-way cruises to the Alaska ports of Seward or Whittier (both near Anchorage) where land tours to Denali are popular. Several cruise lines also offer round-trip cruises to Alaska from the California ports of San Francisco and Los Angeles. For cruise enthusiasts, Alaska has never been easier to visit.

The cruise lines servicing Alaska cover all categories, from contemporary to luxury to expedition. Some lines, such as Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, have been cruising to Alaska for decades and position a fleet of ships on the west coast throughout the May-to-October season. Other lines offering cruises to Alaska include Disney, NCL, Oceania and Royal Caribbean. In the luxury market, Crystal, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas have been joined by Seabourn, which returned to the region in 2017 after a 15-year hiatus. Cunard will be back in Alaska for the summer of 2019.

Expedition cruising is also thriving in Alaska, where wilderness and natural beauty are the star attractions. Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant, Un-Cruise Adventures and Windstar all offer off-the-beaten track voyages with a close-up look at the scenery. But even if you’re booked on a large ship, the shore excursions offered include wilderness adventures such as kayaking, hiking, whale watching and rock climbing, not to mention helicopter rides to sled dog camps where you can take a turn at mushing across a glacier.

Expedition cruising includes sea adventures in Zodiac inflatables.


For the best of both worlds, a luxury cruise on Seabourn’s 450-passenger Sojourn provides not only spacious accommodations and impeccable service but an expedition-style itinerary that follows narrow, twisting channels and stops at unspoiled hideaways, such as the Inian Islands, where the ship’s expert expedition team leads shore excursions in Zodiacs and sea kayaks. Sea otters are abundant in the waters off this cluster of small islands in Icy Strait, as are Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas and humpback whales.

No matter which cruise line you choose, Alaska’s wilderness will be sure to steal the show.

Tips For Visiting Your Cruise Casino

An on-board attraction for many is the ship casino.


The casino on a cruise ship can be a big draw. Granted there’s a ton of activity on most every cruise ship, but a lot of passengers enjoy the chance to try out a casino in a more casual environment. That is to say, it’s easier to indulge in this kind of activity if all you have to do is walk down the hall, as opposed to going out of your way to visit a casino resort on land. If it’s part of your trip, rather than the entire goal, it just feels a little more relaxed.

Visiting a casino on a cruise ship is largely a traditional experience, but there are a few differences, and there’s generally a different atmosphere. It’s something you may want to give at least a little bit of thought to before traveling.

Know The Hours

You might think of casinos as being open 24/7 by nature, or at least being open pretty much any time you could possibly want to be in them. This is the case in some of the world’s biggest casino hubs, to be sure. But it actually isn’t the case on most cruise ships simply because of gambling laws. While there are exceptions, such as when ships dock in Bermuda, for the most part cruise ship casinos are closed when in port, whether day or night. This should be clear enough when you’re on board a ship, but it helps to remember it heading into your trip, because nothing is more frustrating than gearing up for a few hours at the gaming tables and then finding the doors closed.

Know What To Wear

Particularly if you’re not a regular casino gamer, you might have certain ideas about what to wear for this kind of activity. You’ve probably seen famous actors wearing tuxedoes to Vegas casinos, or seen images of people similarly dressed at world famous venues like the casino in Monte Carlo. This is fine, and can add a certain pageantry to the experience. But a casino cruise is generally more casual. We’d actually direct you not to Vegas or Europe but to a piece on fashion choices to consider when visiting a Canadian casino. These are more casual establishments in general, so the proposed dresscode is more like what you might wear on a cruise. In a phrase, however, dress nicely, but not necessarily fancily.

Expect More Beginners

Broadly speaking, casinos can be a little intimidating. There’s no harm in plopping yourself down at a slot machine and gaming alone, but sitting down at a card table can be daunting. For this reason it helps to know that casinos on cruise ships tend to have more beginners. Serious card sharks rarely play at sea (or so they say), and plenty of people in the ship casino will just be tourists who want to check it out and maybe have a little fun. This contributes to a more casual overall atmosphere.

Learn How To Play Blackjack

This is just one of many games that will likely be available in your ship’s casino, but it’s a great one to start with. The machines, from slots to video poker, don’t really give you the full experience. Bigger and more complicated games like poker and craps can take a little more getting used to. But blackjack is fairly easy to pick up, and gives you that awesome feeling of sitting at a table handling cards, sipping a cocktail and trying to win some chips. You can learn how to play simply by reading about it (and possibly pick up some great mathematical strategies as well), and focus on enjoying the games once you’re there.

Remember The Casino’s Goals

This is a quick one, but keep in mind above all else that the ship you’re on is a money-making machine, and the casino too is trying to generate revenue. Just because the atmosphere is a little more easygoing than most land-based alternatives doesn’t mean the odds are any better. That’s not to scare you off, but simply to remind you to be responsible.