The Un-Cruise Fab Five (plus a little surprise)

In the travel world there are, generally speaking, two kinds of travel companies:  the ones striving to offer something for everyone and those like Un-Cruise Adventures who are quite content, thank you very much, to provide everything for someone. To put it so simply even I can’t misconstrue, there are generalists and there are specialists.

Honesty compels me to admit that there are a myriad of places in the world where Un-Cruise is simply not an option.  They do serve five incredible destinations, however,  and should you long to experience one of those, congratulations are in order.  You have just won the travel equivalent of the Powerball lottery!  OK, that might be slight hyperbole but it is definitely your lucky day.

Un-Cruise Adventures DestinationsYou see, regarding those destinations Un-Cruise Adventures does offer, they are all over them like “white on rice”.  (If you are not familiar with that expression you need to listen to last Sunday’s segment on PBS radio’s A Way With Words.)  If you are a regular reader, you are probably not shocked to learn that this is my favorite radio program.

So which five destinations are we talking about?  Some of you have already cheated and looked closely at the image above and know the answer.  If you are over fifty, that bit of skullduggery was likely of no help anyway since, like me, you probably can’t read print that small.  If you are looking for your reading glasses, they are on your head.

Here is a quick look at all five with a comment or two about each one.  (The same sneaky little buggers who cheated and looked at the map have undoubtedly already glanced at the bottom of this post to find the little surprise. Tsk tsk . . . very naughty.)

Alaska’s Inside Passage

Un-Cruise Adventures AlaskaOn the Un-Cruise website there is this nice quote from Henry David Thoreau, “We need the tonic of wilderness.  We can never have enough of nature.”  Un-Cruise offers more than a dozen different Alaska cruises ranging from 7 to 21 nights.  If you enjoy wildlife (presuming that term doesn’t conjure up images of table dancing at Senior Frog’s in Cancun), you will be pleased to discover that every one of these adventures teems with God’s creatures.  You will encounter such diverse creatures as humpback whales, orca, bears, wolves, deer, bald eagles and all manner of sea birds.

Washington and British Columbia

I would venture to guess that, unless you are from the Pacific Northwest, most of you are Coastal Washington and British Columbiarilike me and unfamiliar with the seductive sounding San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Salish Sea, Princess Louisa Inlet and the vast archipelago of islands that grace the coasts of Washington and British Columbia.  Let’s be honest, you were born to have High Tea in Butchart Gardens and to take in nature’s wonders from a kayak or skiff.  I know I was!

Columbia and Snake Rivers

Columbia and Snake RiversBy any chance are you looking for something extremely cool (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) to do this fall or next spring?  Without giving away too much about my next post, Un-Cruise Adventures offers four very distinctive styles of adventure.  One of these is called Heritage Adventures.  I know this is a shameless tease but come back again and I will reveal everything.  (Hmm. That didn’t come out quite right!)  In any case, if you love history with period costumes, legacy reenactments and dead people walking . . OK, just kidding about the last bit . .  you are going to LUV this experience.

Mexico’s Sea of Cortés

Sea of Cortez with Un-Cruise AdventuresTo cite the Un-Cruise website again, “Just south of California lies an unrushed and uncrowded inland sea known as the Gulf of California, Vermillion Sea, Sea of Cortez or Sea of Cortés.  Apparently you can call the thing whatever strikes your fancy at the moment.  I sort of like the Sea of Moi but maybe that’s a trifle pretentious.   I love the fact that this destination offers an area the writer John Steinbeck referred to as “ferocious with life” but also the culture and beauty of the mission town of Loreto and the rich history of La Paz.

Hawaiian Islands

Last but hardly least is the ever popular Hawaiian Islands.  Captain Cook dubbed them the Sandwich Islands after his visit in 1778 because, according to his diary, he had an incredible pastrami on rye at “The Little Mermaid Dive Shop” on Oahu.  See, it’s fascinating little historical tidbits like this you will learn on an Un-Cruise (if you travel with me, anyway).

Hawaii on an Un-Cruise AdventureGoodness, time flies when the words are flowing from your keyboard like syrup from a Vermont maple tree.  I do seem to recall promising you a little surprise.  If you like the fab five destinations, exercise a little patience and in late 2015 — if the dirt doctor hasn’t paid you a house call by then — you can add Costa Rica, Panama and Belize to the list creating the Exciting Eight!

When you come back for your next visit (I prefer the assumptive approach), I will tell you about the four very different style of adventures offered by Un-Cruise Adventures.  You will discover which one floats your boat, so to speak. Until then, which of the Fab Five destinations appeals to you the most?

Vicki Freed: One Of Royal Caribbean’s Leading Ladies

There are achievers and then there are over-achievers.  (You may have noticed,  I intentionally omitted under-achievers since that strikes a little too close to home for some of us.)  Vicki Freed, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Trade Support & Services for Royal Caribbean International, certainly belongs to the over-achiever category.

Vicki Freed of Royal Caribbean

One of the few times you will catch Vicki just hanging around!

She has set an incredible record of accomplishment.  Should I attempt to catalog her rather daunting list of achievements here, it would only serve to make Vicki blush and, more importantly, take time away from hearing her valuable insights.  I suggest instead you read her full bio here.

What is even more remarkable though is how she has managed to reach the pinnacle of the cruise industry while retaining such warm affection and high esteem among so many of her colleagues and travel industry constituents.  I refrained from saying all because surely there must be someone out there for whom Vicki is not the flavor of the month but lacking an electron microscope and a research sabbatical, so far I have not been able to detect one.

Royal Caribbean Oasis of the SeasWhat you will discover for yourself when you listen to the recorded interview below is that Vicki combines a keen intellect with an ebullient charm.  This happy confluence of gifts has served her well in her career.  She embodies the brand she represents:  contemporary style and timeless grace.  Cream rises inexorably to the top and Vicki is the executive equivalent of crème de la crème.  Hey, I would be right there too if I hadn’t somehow become a little curdled along the way!

Before you listen to the interview, you might be amused (not that I was at the time) by this quick aside.  In preparing for the interview I alerted my co-workers not to come calling, put my phone on Do Not Disturb, turned off my cell phone and securely shut my door, all to insure that the recorded call would be as clear as possible.  Notwithstanding all my precautions, sixty seconds into the interview a window washer started spraying what sounded,  to my ears at least, like a 3″ fire hose on to my exterior windows rattling the window panes and shattering my nerves.  By some miracle, you will not be able to detect the clatter on the recording!

I seem to have been assigned a guardian angel who requires both morning and afternoon naps.  Granted looking after me has to be particularly exhausting but why can’t I have someone shepherding me around with a little more energy or perhaps, more importantly, a less perverse sense of humor!

OK, let’s get to the good stuff!  In our conversation, Vicki, among other things:

1)  Offers some excellent advice to first-time cruisers

2)  Gives us just a peek into the new Quantum class of ships on the near horizon

3)  Nimbly explains how “Every Ship Can Be The Best Ship”

Click here or on Vicki’s picture to see probing questions magically transformed into perceptive answers right before your very eyes . . .  or ears, I suppose, in this case.

Interview with Royal Caribbean's Vicky FreedDo you have a favorite travel industry executive that you would like to see subjected to the unquestionable prestige of appearing on Backroom Banter?  Vicki has set a very high bar but if you do have someone in mind, send me their name and I will see if can’t appeal to their charitable spirit as I did with Vicki.

WOW . . . Royal Caribbean Style

I seldom, almost never actually, resort to a direct sales pitch on this blog.  My  theory is tocartoon cars alesman so dazzle you with my razor wit and effervescent charm that you won’t be able to resist checking out our stellar travel offers (a theory not yet validated by actual evidence but I remain undeterred).  However, seeing as I pretty much make up the rules as I go along around here, I am going to grant myself the travel equivalent of a special papal dispensation with this post and be blatantly and unabashedly commercial.

My rationalization is simple (again, not that I really need much of one).  I recently started a new category on this blog called “Hear It Here First” where I promised to share breaking travel news thus ensuring your status at cocktail parties as the “Seer of Syracuse” or wherever the heck you call home.

One of our valued travel partners, Royal Caribbean International, promotes a giant, three-day blowout sale just twice a year they call their WOW SALE (hence the title of this post).  As special partners, they have given us a little heads up on this offer which does not launch until this coming Monday, February 25th and ends Wednesday, February 27th.

Royal Caribbean WOW Sale

Here are the basics of the offer:

1)  Book any sailing departing on or after May 1, 2013.  3-Day WOW Sale includes cruisetours and sailings on their entire fleet!

2)  Deposits are reduced by 50%

3)  Up to $200 of Onboard credit

Royal Caribbean WOW Sale

* For a fuller explanation of terms and conditions, click here.

Now that you are armed with this advance notice, you can reach out to one of our trusty cruise specialists who will in turn gather information regarding you, your preferences and your immediate travel aspirations.  Then come Monday, our agent will pounce like a ravished Bengal tiger and secure the best possible cabin and price before the other hapless rubes out there have finished their morning coffee!

Here is a list of some of our cruise experts.

Sandy DuVall  *  Lila Tapp  *  Velma Tollison

Damon Webb  *  Judy Richardson  *  Elaine Goad

Cheryl Lobo  *  Linda Matthews  *  Lana Elpiner 

When you click on the agent’s name, you will be provided a robust profile and contact information for that agent! Check out a few agents and when a particular agent’s cruise experience strikes your fancy,  just reach out to them by phone or email.  It really is that easy!

If you have been thinking about taking a cruise and have been waiting for the perfect value to come along (we don’t offer deals), act immediately.  Hey, I had a root canal this week. This little sales pitch has to be less painful than that!

How To Select A Fine Texas Port

For those credulous souls who found their way to this post assuming they were going to be the first in their snooty wine circle to discover a classic Texas port wine to rival Quinta

Fonte do Ouro and thereby pique the envy of their fellow enthusiasts, my apologies.  Keep in mind, this is a travel blog . . . or purports to be anyway . . . so when we toss the term “port” about we have something entirely different in mind.  We are thinking of a facility from whence one launches one’s dream cruise.

While Texas may not have yet solidified its position as the port wine capitol of the world, we are rapidly making a name for ourselves as one of the great cruise departure points.  Recently I wrote another of my little literary gems called “Galveston oh Galveston:  I See Your Cruise Ships Sailing” in which I shared a little chart that explains the current options from Galveston.  Since that post, there have been a couple of exciting announcements.

In a recent article in USA Today, it was revealed that “Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises on Thursday both announced plans to begin voyages out of Houston’s Bayport Cruise Terminal, which has been mostly vacant since being completed in 2008. Princess says the 3,080-passenger Caribbean Princess will offer seven-night sailings to the Western Caribbean out of the terminal starting in November 2013.”

“Norwegian says the 2,374-passenger Norwegian Jewel will begin seven-night sailings to the Western Caribbean out of the terminal starting in the fall of 2014.”

Since the cruise terminal has been empty for so long, this is important news for both the city of Houston and the cruise lines.   But I suspect it will also raise a lot of questions in the minds of the seafaring public about this new option.  Not to worry, dear soul.  As usual, your intrepid guide to all things travel related is here to dispense the fog, evaporate the mist, dispel the darkness, shed the light . . . you get the idea.

So the two choices that will soon be available to you in Texas are the Port of Galveston or the Bayport Cruise Terminal. Now I realize that a lot of factors will go into your cruise decision such as cruise line, the specific cruise ship, length of sailing, itinerary and ports of call.  But once you weight the pros and cons of each port, you may well want to add the port of departure to your list of considerations.

Bayport Cruise Terminal

Bayport Cruise Terminal

Bayport Cruise Terminal

One of the most obvious advantages of sailing from Bayport is the availability of numerous flights into both George Bush International Airport and Hobby Airport.  While there will be a cost in getting to the pier, unless the cruise lines should decide to provide transfers, it will be less time and money than getting to Galveston from Houston.   If your travel plans include either a pre or post overnight stay, Houston of course offers a wide array of hotels in various price ranges.

I have not personally been to the new terminal, apparently an experience I share with close to 100% of the population, but I understand it is very modern, roomy and well designed to service cruise customers.

Port of Galveston 

Port of Galveston with two Carnival ships

Port of Galveston

One of the chief benefits of sailing from Galveston is the number of local attractions such as the brand new Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.  There are plenty of places to stay such as the historic Galvez Hotel & Spa or The Tremont House. The Strand offers lots of shopping options and contributes to Galveston being a fun place to spend an extra day or two.

Having choices is always a good thing.  Now you can pop over to the Port of Galveston and very soon you will be able to bop over to the Bayport Cruise Terminal.  The most important thing is to flop down a deposit on your next cruise.  OK, this is getting sappy even by my exceedingly low standards so I’m going to . . . yes, you guessed it . . stop.

More John Heald: Carnival’s Wayfaring Wag (2)

You will recall last post I promised . . . or was it threatened . . that John and I would be back with more stimulating questions and scintillating answers.  Since I would rather ride bareback on a porcupine in my skivvies than mislead my esteemed readers, here we both are in all our fulgent glory.  John’s glory , at least, is fulgent.  I fear mine, if I ever had any, is starting to fray around the edges.

If you haven’t yet checked out John’s blog, you really need to stop by.  The great thing John Heald Carnival Cruise Senior Cruise Directorabout John’s role with Carnival is that his interaction with all manner of guests provides pretty much a non-stop stream of amusing and sometimes head-scratching anecdotes.  One of his recent posts “We won . . . You Didn’t ….NAR NAR NA NAR NAR”  is a prime example.  Some guests are simply a little obtuse.  Then there are this pair.

John, welcome back to Backroom Banter.

Q.  Is it true that Carnival is hosting a “Bloggers Cruise” next January and can you think of a great travel agency to recommend to book it?   Let me know if you need a hint!

A.  Yes indeed, this is Bloggers Cruise 6 and will be held on the Carnival Breeze on January 19. We will visit great ports like Antigua and St. Thomas plus there will be private shows, events and prizes for all as we get together to enjoy our love of Carnival cruising and fun. I hope many can join me.  Last bloggers cruise I was joined by 450 guests and there is one agency that guests should book with if they want to join us and that of course is Travel Leaders / Main Street Travel.  They are the best and they also give free lollipops and a photo of me in the above mentioned underpants. I really hope to see you there.

Q.  What are some of the dumbest questions you have been asked on your blog or otherwise, not counting these little gems of course.   

A.  The list of these questions is endless and ranges from “How will I know which photos are mine? to “Can you recommend a good brothel in Rome?” The rest will appear in my book.

Q.  If someone wants to cruise with you, how would they go about that?  Or conversely, if someone wants to be sure not to cruise with you (a huge mistake, we would both agree), is that an option?

A.  Well I publish the cruise director schedule on-line on my blog. We are the only cruise line to do this I think and it is interesting to see how many guests want to know who their cruise director will be. I hope people will come and see me on the Carnival Breeze for Bloggers Cruise 6 and then next year I will be on Carnival Legend as we do some of my favourite cruising around the Baltic, British Islands and Norwegian fjords. Check with a good TA and they will tell you more …………… I have one particular travel agent in mind.

Q.  John, you have been an incredibly good sport.  For this last question, I want a straightforward answer (assuming either one of us is constitutionally capable of that).   What should consumers know about the Carnival Magic when choosing their next vacation?

A.  Carnival Magic is one of my favourite ships and was from the moment I helped deliver her last year. This is for many reasons and includes the vibrant décor, the brilliant spaces,Carnival Cruise Lines Magic including the RedFrog Pub (one of my favourites) and the shows, food and the ports. The crew is magnificent and these reasons are why she has been constantly rated in the top three ships in the fleet. If you have not sailed her you have missed out, she truly is Magic. Thanks so much for allowing me some time here with you, mate, and my best to you and all your clients and if there is anything I can do for them or you please let me know. Cheers!

John, thanks so much for a fantastic interview.  A special thanks is due for your kind words about our travel agency.  I must say you delivered those particular lines precisely the way I wrote them!  (Just a little blog humor, dear reader.)   I hope you have enjoyed this first installment of Backroom Banter.  I have several other fascinating luminaries clamoring to be next . . . if you can call arm-twisting acquiescence clamoring.

Take our little poll below!

John Heald: Carnival’s Wayfaring Wag (1)

A wag, according to dictionary.com is a person given to droll, roguish or mischievous humor; a wit.  What better way to inaugurate the first installment of Backroom BanterInterview than to introduce you to someone, if you haven’t stumbled across him already, whose occasionally ribald and frequently irreverent sense of humor has caused me more than one audible chuckle in inappropriate settings?  I strongly suggest you never read his blog in a library, during your sentencing hearing or in a church pew!

His name is John Heald and this brief self-introduction from the “Meet John” page on his wildly popular blog www.JohnHealdsBlog.com should suffice to acquaint you with the gravitas and solemnity which permeates his entire blog.

He writes, “I started this blog when a lady called Stephanie said “Oh John, please write a blog, it will only be for a week and won’t take up much of your time.” That was back in 1492 and here I am still writing in the same pair of underpants. I am Carnival’s Senior Cruise Director and Brand Ambassador, and I am here to share my life with you in all its boring and sometimes toilet-based glory.”

If you think my “Fool Disclosure” page is a little weird (and that does seem to be the general consensus among my readers), you should check out John’s “Disclaimer Thingy”.   John’s 15,000,000 views and counting make my page views look like a rounding error.   When you consider he began blogging, by his own admission, in 1492 and my humble blog is still swaddled in a preemie blanket, it is probably juvenile of me to be gripped by this insane blog envy I’m feeling.   I ask you, dear reader, would it be too much to ask for John to loan me, say, half-a-million page views until I get on my feet?   He would never miss them.  Heck, that’s just a couple of good weeks for John.

But enough about my own fragile psyche.  Let’s catch up with John and see what he the heck he is up to these days.

Q.  John, tell us a little about your upbringing.   Have you managed to squelch that ugly rumor knocking about (no pun intended) that you are the illegitimate love child of John Cleese and Margaret Thatcher?

A.  I was a cesarean baby which is why every time I get out of the car I go through the sun roof. OK, after that stupid joke I should say that I have been very lucky. I worked as a commodities broker and for Lloyd’s of London in England. Then In 1987 and much to the distress of my parents I answered a magazine (remember magazines?) article for cruise ship staff and began working for Carnival Cruise Lines as a bar waiter. I did not know the difference between a Pina Colada and a Slippery Nipple so the beards gave me a microphone instead and told me to be a social host. From there I became a cruise director in 1991 and senior cruise director in 2004. I was recently given the title of Brand Ambassador, as well. I am one lucky sod! I was a huge Thatcher supporter and Cleese is my idol so that is actually a compliment.

Q.  What was your first job with Carnival and in which century was that exactly?

A. I flew from Heathrow to Miami in 1987 to take up the position of bar waiter on the cruiseJohn Heald of Carnival Cruise Lines' Facebook Page ship Holiday. When I landed I had to find my own way to a hotel which was called the Colonial Hotel. It made a Turkish prison look like the Ritz. I was there three nights waiting for the ship to arrive in Miami and it took every bit of my will power not to leave. But that Saturday the MS Holiday arrived and on I went. My training as a bar waiter was intense. The bar manager gave me a tray, a pair of white gloves for formal night and said “go and serve drinks.” That was it. How things have changed today and I am proud to think that I am still probably the worst bar waiter Carnival ever had.

Q.  Would you describe a typical day in the life of John Heald?  Reader alert:  If references to a grown man working in his underwear are apt to make you queasy, skip to the next question.

A.  It sounds like a cliché but there really isn’t a typical day. With 4,000 different guests on board the Carnival Breeze each cruise there are new challenges each day. However I do mix my day between managing 70 staff, 4,000 guests, writing a blog, answering an average of 50 Facebook questions a day and most importantly being on stage and out with the guests which is still my favourite thing to do by far. One of the reasons I keep going is that no day is really the same and you never know what is round the corner……..and yes…..I blog best when I am dressed only in my XXL Marks And Spencers underpants.

To Be Continued . . .

As a shameless ploy to lure you back to this highbrow discussion, I am postponing the rest of my Q&A for John until my next post.  Now don’t go all mopey on me!   I promise John and I will be back before you can say “Honestly, there’s no rush!”

Galveston oh Galveston: I See Your Cruise Ships Sailing

I have always liked the haunting, Vietnam-era melody penned by Jimmy Webb and popularized by Glen Campbell called “Galveston”.   I love the alliteration and especially the vivid imagery woven through the lyrics by the phrases “seawinds blowing”, seawaves crashing” and “seabirds flying”.

In keeping with the alliteration but totally devoid of any of the poetry, this blog post is alDisney Magicl about “ships a sailing” . . . from Galveston, of course.  I am writing this post based on the assumption that some of you lost souls floating around out there in cyberspace are :

1) thinking about taking a cruise ship out of Galveston over the next few months and

b)  find yourself as easily confused as I am regarding what options are available.  My condition actually used to be a lot worse back when I was dyslexic.  Fortunately, now I am K.O.

Carnival Cruise Lines MagicAnyway, here is the pop quiz question for this post.  How many cruise ship depart this fall and winter from Galveston?  If you answered “seven ships a sailing” you obviously have the song “Galveston” confused with “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.  If you answered five you are either in the travel business or have Google set as your home page.  If you had no clue, you may be a little surprised, as frankly I was, to discover that there are so many options

Just to make it as easy as possible for you to reach out to me with your next cruise booking, my team of crack researchers (and no, before you ask, we do not research crack around here) have crunched the algorithms, or whatever the heck you do with algorithms, and come up with the simple chart below.

Cruise Ships sailing from GalvestonThis will get you started but you are still going to need expert guidance regarding the differences between these cruise lines, the characteristics of the various ships, the pros and cons of the various itineraries, whether it is appropriate to wear your Tommy Bahamas shirt on formal night, etc.  Fortunately,  that’s why we skilled cruise specialists spend all those grueling hours sailing through the Gulf and the Caribbean.  It may have appeared self-indulgent but we were really fueled by altruism and perhaps the occasional foo foo drink.

While we are on the subject of  Galveston, it just so happens that this sea port is a very pleasant spot to spend a day or two pre or post cruise.  If you are feeling a little too euphoric, you can always visit Moody Gardens and mellow out a bit.  Conversely, if your life has been a little humdrum, schedule a visit to the newest attraction in town, the brand new Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.

I don’t know about you but I am having one heck of a time getting that tune out of my mind.