Caribbean Week Brings Music, Dance, Deals To New York City

Caribbean weekNow through June 11, Caribbean Week New York is being held at Grand Central Terminal, offering a celebration of the unique vacation experiences available in the Caribbean. Hosted by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) the event is a chance to experience the sights, sounds and culture of island life along with some exclusive travel deals.

Travel experts from Caribbean destinations will be on hand and visitors will have opportunity to book exclusive Caribbean Week travel deals via Travelocity and American Airlines Vacations.

Part of Caribbean Week New York is the 2012 Rum and Rhythm Benefit. At this event guests will sample premium rums of the Caribbean and cuisine prepared by the region’s celebrity chefs. There is also an opportunity to experience some of the Caribbean’s award winning musicians and mixologists as guests journey from one destination to the other. A live auction will give visitors the opportunity to outbid each other for exclusive vacation packages.

At another event, one lucky couple will tie the knot at a Caribbean-themed wedding ceremony in the iconic New York City landmark. “From the bride’s dress to the wedding cake to the honeymoon, the Caribbean has spared no expense to make their Caribbean dream come true,” says the CTO on their website.

The top-rated island of St Kitts will host a honeymoon for the lucky couple including two business class tickets to St. Kitts in addition to a four-night stay at the St. Kitts Marriott, which is also providing complimentary spa treatments and more.

Performances by JAM-X Band, Danza Fiesta Salsa Dancers of Puerto Rico, Natraj Center for the Performing Arts and Braata Productions will be held throughout the week. Admission is free.

How to Organize a Caribbean Wedding



[Flickr photo by katiew]

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee: 2012’s other major British event

queen elizabeth's diamond jubileeIn London, signs of the coming Olympics are everywhere. Barclays Cycle Hire docking stations have begun to expand into East London toward key Olympics sites, billboards urge drivers to begin to think about how they’ll deal with increased traffic, and the Prime Minister is busy warning unions that the prospect of a strike during the Olympics would be “unacceptable and unpatriotic.”

Meanwhile, outside of London, a number of cities have banded together as Heritage Cities in part to lure those tourists brought to London by the Olympics away from the capital.

But the Olympics are not the only event drawing visitors to the UK this year. 2012 is also the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her coronation as Queen. The Diamond Jubilee will reach its peak during what is being called the Diamond Jubilee central weekend, from June 2 through 5. The weekend will be characterized by some serious pomp and circumstance. Events will include a 1000-boat pageant on the Thames on June 3, a BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace on June 4, and a special Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral followed by a carriage procession on June 5.

In addition to this peak period, there are a number of other events planned in the lead-up to the weekend and beyond.

For example, members of the Royal Family are traveling around the UK, the UK’s Crown Dependencies, the UK’s Overseas Territories, and Commonwealth to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Currently, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex and his wife the Countess of Wessex are on a two-week commemorative Caribbean visit, taking in St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua and Barbuda. Locals and tourists alike in the region might just run across Edward and Sophie through March 7.

The Queen and Prince Philip’s travel schedule begins March 8 in Leicester and finishes off on what looks like a very busy July 25, taking in Cowes, the Isle of Wight, New Forest, and Hampshire.

There is an official website for taking stock of Diamond Jubilee events. There’s also a handy Google map allowing visitors to see where various members of the Royal Family will be celebrating the Queen’s reign throughout the year. (Spoiler alert: Harry got Jamaica.) Visitors can play with an interactive timeline of the last 60 years and also send a message to the Queen. And there’s the crucial bit of information that Andrew Lloyd Webber is co-authoring a Diamond Jubilee song.

[Image: Flickr | quinn.anya]

Take another look at these ten top cruise ports

Ten top caribbean islands
If you travel by cruise ship, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter. Cruise lines have a variety of islands to visit but the choices are limited with many itineraries virtually the same from ship to ship. Still, you are not required to get in line and go along with the crowd. Consider the cruise ship no more than the way you got there when thinking of what to do ashore. Planning as though you took a flight, not a cruise ship, puts things in a way better perspective. Think of yourself as a traveler who came by sea. No, really. Think that way and even ports you may have been to several times will have a fresh, new look and feel.

If you travel by air, flying can get you to islands not serviced regularly by cruise lines or maybe islands you might have sampled on a cruise and said “I think I could come back and do this again, without the ship”. If you have ever been on a cruise you probably said that at one time or another.

Sure, a cruise vacation is often a best value for travel. Good, glad to hear it. Now let’s take that a step further and get more out of your cruise by thinking a bit differently about common cruise ports visited by most every cruise line. Let’s look at ten top Caribbean islands and cruise ports.

  1. Ocho Rios, Jamaica-I think Jamaica is one of the prettiest places on the planet. As is so often the case when traveling, the people we meet along the way can make all the difference. Lincoln Stewart is a cab driver in Ocho who has lived in Jamaica all his life. However one gets to Jamaica, by sea or air, getting safely away from the tourist attractions and shore excursion mobs is key and well worth the effort to get there. Lincoln showed us “his” Jamaica, a remarkably different place than we see from a cruise ship.
  2. Cozumel, Mexico It’s almost a requirement of any cruise line and Cozumel is set up to handle the crowds. A best bet here is Paradise Beach. If you’re lucky enough to go at a time when “Tom” is around you’re in for a good time. This is the trick to making a day in port something special: Meet someone local. Get to know someone who lives there. Like so many other things in travel, the people make the difference.
  3. St Thomas-I think St Thomas was one of the most pleasant islands in the Caribbean. There are the typical third world looking parts, but as part of the United States there is an air of stability there not on other islands. Like traveling abroad, seeing a familiar brand can help make sense of otherwise unfamiliar surroundings. Throw in a US post office and feel right at home. .
  4. St John- Many who visit St John on a cruise never have the island on their itinerary. This is a common do-it-yourself shore excursion where travelers can choose to take a ferry from St Thomas to St John for a day at Trunk Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen.
  5. St Maarten-Split in two, one side French, one side Dutch, your cruise ship will probably stop on the Dutch side. A good do-it-yourself excursion would be a cab ride to the French side and a beach called Bae Rouge. You won’t find a lot of people there because it will take a couple hours round-trip to visit. Well worth the time though, this is about as secluded and pristine as beaches get. Nearby St. Barth can be visited in a day too
  6. Tortola- As part of the British Virgin Islands along with Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada, Tortola is considered the chains main island. Smugglers Cove is a popular place to go with snorkeling and amazing views. No facilities there but worth the effort to see. Divers like Tortola because of the crystal clear water and find sinkholes and ledges as well as caves and canyons.
  7. Key West, Florida- Maybe not on the top of your “Caribbean island” list but a good one to note nonetheless. A good piece of Key Lime pie can’t be beat for a real taste of Florida and the Keys. If you can’t make it the Key West Key Lime Pie Company will send you one.
  8. San Juan, Puerto Rico- San Juan gets a bad reputation for crime and other bad things that keep tourists away. Puerto Rico shouldn’t be judged by San Juan, those that live in other parts are not so proud of it and definitely prefer the West. The best beaches are in Cabo Rojo and Isabela or in close by small Island/towns like Culebra.
  9. Antigua- A good bet off a cruise ship is to take a cab for the 45 minute drive to the Allegro Resort of Pineapple Beach. There are 365 beaches on Antigua, one for each day of the year. Most of the beaches are inside the calm, protected waters of the island’s Caribbean side. All are open to the public. The trick is knowing which one is good to visit at the particular time you are there. Cab drivers know this.
  10. Barbados- This one also has two sides with the Atlantic on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. East Coast beaches, including Bathsheba are good for surfers. South Coast beaches such as Carlisle Bay and Sandy Beach are popular for body surfing while Needham’s Point is one of the best for snorkeling and swimming. Black sand beaches make this one unique. A big cruise ship excursion is Harrison’s Cave but Flightseeing is probably a better bet. Best bet here? Go sailing on a catamaran.

We know Spring is just around the corner but that Old Man Winter can come back to slap us around a little on his way out the door. Just thinking about someplace warm can help. Going there is better though.


Cruise line scams: Shore Excursions

Cruise line shore excursions

Going ashore can be one of the best parts of a cruise and one of the reasons many travelers choose a cruise vacation in the first place. From the comfort of your floating hotel, you can see multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. Cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions at each port of call and encourage passengers to join. Some are over-priced but carry an implied level of safety that might not be entirely accurate.

The potential scam-like claim here is “Oh, you don’t want to go out on your own on a shore excursion. If they’re late getting you back, the ship will leave without you”

Yes, they could do that. Will they? Probably not. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all.

Often, the same companies and people that do shore excursions for the cruise lines also do them independently. Still, the cruise lines say they do investigate and follow up on excursion providers to see how they are doing, holding them to high standards.

Alternatives to ship-sponsored excursions. Shoretrips.com, is a third-party service that provides excursions world-wide. Owners Julie and Barry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin travel to each of the destinations and insure that their tours are safe and interesting. Often, Shoretrips.com excursions are less expensive and less crowded too. Booking more than 200,000 people a year, they have yet to leave someone behind.

Let’s talk price. A pretty easy-to-compare excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, Swimming with the Dolphins is $129 for adults or children on Carnival Cruise Lines. Shoretrips.com has that dolphin swim for $79 for adults and $77 for children. That’s about 40% less than the cruise line. Prices vary among lines too. Royal Caribbean has that dolphin swim for $99. Their price is better than Carnival but not as good as Shoretrips.com.

Another option is to go with someone recommended by a trusted friend or a travel blogger you’ve come to know. Reliable independent operators know what they are competing with on the cruise line excursion offerings and almost always offer a better value. That might come in the form of a lower price or a similar price with a better experience.

Get good information. A good source for reliable travel information about specific ports of call is AOL travel guides. Good discussion and very current, personal information can be found at CruiseCritic.com. Your good travel agent/expert should have recommendations also.

I’m really not trying to talk you out of the ship-sponsored shore excursions. They’re good. Nothing wrong with them. But there are alternatives that are just as safe (or not) as third-party vendors.

Cruise lines have their share of problems with excursions.Going with the cruise line does not guarantee your safety. In 2009 18 cruise passengers were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas on ship-sponsored shore excursions. The passengers, sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, were held up by masked men who demanded money, passports, cell phones, credit cards and personal items.

Just last November, masked gunmen held up guests on St Kitts on a Celebrity Cruises excursion.

Cruise lines were quick to suspend tours and worked hard to increase security and scrutiny of tour operators in those cases. But that was a couple of incidents in thousands of tours, hardly something to keep guests on the ship for safety concerns.

Cruise lines will commonly skip ports of call where there are known problems with crime like in Mexico with drug cartels. In that case, the cruise line does not charge you for the excursion you obviously can’t take. Ships any where close to Tunisia right now would have taken a close look at unrest in the area before even docking. If booking separately from the cruise line, make sure you understand the tour operator’s policy if the ship does not call at a port.

Let’s break it down. Look at it this way; cruise lines contract with local operators who run the excursions. The cruise lines have to add on something to make money. Duh. So basically, its the same people, running the same excursions, but you pay more if you get it through the ship. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy then buy through the ship. Most people do. If you want to save 20% to 50%, do some research first. There might be a better value out there.

Like the cruise line Booze and Beverage Packages, whether shore excursions are an evil scam plotted by the cruise lines or a reasonable value depends primarily on how you look at them.

Flickr photo by Ha-Wee

5 tips for people who really don’t want to go on a cruise

don't want to go on a cruiseMaybe hiking, biking, backpacking or pretty much any other minimizing endeavor is more what you have in mind for traveling but someone is dragging you along on a cruise. There’s just no way you’re getting out of it. Is there hope for you? Yes. A little. Not much. But some.

Pace yourself- Food will always be available 24 hours a day on board. You might not be used to that with your triathlon training and all so do some stomach stretching exercises prior to boarding. You will need the extra room. Stop pouting that there are no granola bars or energy drinks. There are. On cruises they are called “shots” and you find them at the bars. You’ll enjoy the walk to get them and recent studies suggest those extra steps will help prevent diabetes.

No barfing- You are concerned about the possibility of becoming sea sick because the little path on your normal mountain hike doesn’t really move around much. Think of it like that and yeah, you probably will be. Prepare for shooting the rapids in Colorado with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing and you’ll be fine. It could be worse. You could have been invited along for a taping of Paris Hilton’s new reality show.

Know where you are going- Take time before the cruise to check out a travel guide on the places you will visit. Duh. Just because you don’t have any say in where the ship goes doesn’t mean you can’t meet fun and find interesting people. You probably won’t find any of them on the ship but maybe when you go ashore.

Careful with spending- The food is included in the price of your cruise but that’s about it. Beverages, both alcoholic and sodas are not included. Want a sip of water? You’ll pay $23.54 for that. This is why people smuggle booze on the ship. They do have beds so leave your sleeping bag at home with your tent. Bring your flashlight though, cruise passenger are fascinated by shiny things.

Relax. That may seem like a silly tip but you would be surprised how many people try to pack so much into every day that they need a vacation after they get back from their cruise to recuperate. Know this as a fact: There are way too many things to do and you can not possibly do them all. To be more accurate, there are too many things to do that you will think are stupid so bring a telescope and memorize the sky. Maybe you can find a 14th sign of the zodiac.

Flickr photo by Robbie Howell