Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Liberty of the Seas

Because of our agency's sales, my wife Sharon and I were recently invited on the Inaugural Cruise for Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Liberty of the Seas.

The Liberty is the sister ship of Freedom of the Seas and the two of them are currently the largest cruise ships afloat. Some prefer the small ship experience for their intimacy, but if you like large ship cruising, the Liberty has a lot to offer. It truly is a "floating resort."
A Royal Caribbean innovation first introduced on the slightly smaller Voyager Class ships is the long, indoor Promenade. On the Liberty, this Promenade is as long as a football field! Like walking down a small town street, the Promenade features 13 shops, restaurants, and bars of all types. There's a Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop, a Seattle's Best coffee shop, a barber shop, a Sorrento's Pizzeria, an English Pub, a wine bar, and a cafe, as well as, gift shops, jewelry shop, perfume shop, and apparel shops. Walking down the Promenade is like visiting a new town! Passenger cabins add to this feel with their promenade facing windows overlooking the "street." All they need is a few window flower boxes! (Be careful to keep your curtains closed at appropriate times because cabins across the "street" can have views into your private life.) In the evening Royal Caribbean puts on a parade and street festival down the Promenade. Was it Mardi Gras??? Sharon was looking for beads!

For other dining, the Liberty has three dining rooms with the main room being three stories high. A beautiful, large chandelier adorns its center above the Captains Table. (Sharon & I weren't invited to that table. Maybe the Captain was afraid he would have had too much fun. For an small extra fee you can dine in one of the Liberty's specialty restaurants; Chops Grill for steaks and Portofino for Italian. Basically, the extra fee is like paying a tip to the staff as they are not included in the normal dining room tipping. The service is excellent and the food a notch above. Especially for special occasions, I would recommend at least one night's dining in a specialty restaurant.

For any meals you don't want to go to the dining room, buffet dining is available. I like how Royal Caribbean has divided up its buffet. Instead of only having one or two lines for the buffet, they have also added different "islands" for such things as a carving station, desserts, sushi, etc. I'm not big on waiting in long lines and this breaks it up a bit. You can also catch a hamburger and milk shake at the Johnny Rockets Diner! There, the wait staff even does a choreographed dance to the Bee Gee's "Stayin-Alive!"

The pools on the Liberty are generous in size. The H2O Zone is a kids pool area with whimsical, spurting fountains. There a numerous hot tubs in the pool area, but in the Solarium Pool area, two large hot tubs jut out from each side of the ship and are suspended 12 stories above the water! What a view to relax in the swirling waters and stare out into the ocean!

For the active, the Liberty has areas like a full size basketball court, a tall rock climbing wall (Sharon made it to the top), miniature golf, golf simulator, large fitness center overlooking the ocean, and a boxing ring. The full service spa is large. (And they always smell so nice!)

Two other innovations by Royal Caribbean on these larger ships are an ice skating rink and a surfing Flowrider. The ice skating rink seems about two thirds the size of a hockey rink and you can skate or take lessons. Sharon & I saw one of their night-time Ice Shows and it was one of the best shows we have ever seen! The Flowrider at the back of the ship shoots a high speed sheet of water that allows you to "boogy board" it or, for the well balanced, learn to surf. Women should be cautioned to were something other than a bikini because the rushing water tends to knock off bathing suits!

Night time grown-up fun is plentiful with a huge casino and a variety of bars and show rooms. The casino is probably the largest I have seen afloat. Sharon and I are not big gamblers, we usually stick to the slot machines (we broke even this cruise!), but we saw a roulette table with a dollar minimum and are told that's unusual (but affordable for us novices!) for a casino. You can go to a champagne bar, a martini bar, a piano bar, disco, or regular bars. Anyone like Karaoke? Sharon took in one of the nighttime shows in the theater and said it was one of the better shows she had seen on a cruise ship.

The Kids Club seems extensive with a large arcade, computers for use in an activities room, and a Fisher Price affiliated program for those under three. The cabins feature Royal Caribbean's new updated beds, linens, towels, and flat screen TVs. The bed was too comfortable!

If you want to be able to have a wide variety of things to do and places to go aboard a cruise ship, the Liberty of the Seas is a good place to Live the World!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Key West

Key West-a touch of the Caribbean in the United States! Our family owns a guest house there, the Mango Tree Inn, so my wife Sharon and I go there frequently (or as often our aunt and uncle can stand us!). Just follow US RT1 south from Miami 'til it ends and you are in Key West.

Key West is the southernmost city in the US. It is closer to Cuba (90 miles) than it is to Miami. You can see a strong Cuban and Bahamian influence in the town. The original settlement of the town is now called "Old Town" and is the primary tourist and cruise passenger area. ("New Town" has more of the traditional shopping center/chain restaurant atmosphere.) Old Town and the main drag, Duval Street, have restaurants, bars, museums, hotels, guest houses, souvenir shops, sightseeing, and T-shirt shops. Since Key West is not really known for its beaches (my favorite beach is at Ft Zachary Taylor but is small), I don't feel it is really geared to long stays with young children. It is more of a relaxed, eat, drink, and be merry type of town for adults. There are things that children would enjoy such as the the Butterfly Conservatory, the Mel Fisher Museum, the Pirate Museum, the Winter White House for President Truman, Ernest Hemingway's house, and a boat trip to Ft. Jefferson (70 miles east of Key West famous for housing Dr Mudd, John Wilkes Booth's doctor). Water sports are also readily available (sailing, fishing, jet skis, snorkeling, etc) and souvenir shopping is everywhere, but after the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, the town is for adults.

From gourmet to casual outdoor dining, the restaurants are plentiful and tasty. From Lobster and steaks to Cuban to Italian, Thai and Japanese to conch fritters; they are all well represented. Some of my favorite restaurants are Conch Republic, A&B Lobster, La Trattoria, Blue Heaven, Michael's, and Bagatelle, but part of our fun is trying new places to eat. Of course, the cheeseburgers are good at Margaritaville. The other part of the Key West fun is bar-hopping or the "Duval Crawl" as it is sometimes referred.

Old Town and Duval can throw quite a party. This is not the wimpy kind of "one bar on every corner" type of place. With Key West temperatures averaging 85F-65F (all-time high of 97F/all-time low of 41F) many of the venues are open to the tropical air. (July and August have the highest humidity and warmest temperatures.) Some of our favorite watering holes (but certainly not limited to!) are Hogs Breath, Schooner Wharf, Irish Kevin's, Cowboy Bills, and Virgilios. Most bars have Happy Hours and are open to the wee hours. Karaoke is fun at Two Friends. If you like to party, Key West is the place.

There is a wide range of accommodations available near Old Town, but finding one on the beach is tough. Sunset Key (a small island off of Mallory Square formally known as Tank Island) probably offers the most exclusive accommodations in the area and nice beach area. It is accessible only by ferry. In Old Town itself the Westin, Hyatt, Ocean Key, and Pier House are convenient to Mallory Square and its nightly celebration of hand made crafts, food, and circus like entertainers. Duval has a number of other hotel properties and still others are available away from the hustle and bustle. Prices generally go down as you get away from Duval and most hotels will offer shuttles to the partying. Cabs (including pink ones) and even the rickshaw type pedicabs are always available. Some visitors rent bikes, scooters, or electric carts to get around town.

My favorite type of accommodation in Key West is the Guest House. The typical architecture of these houses is wood frame, tin roofs, covered porches, shuttered windows, with gingerbread trim. Many of them date to the late 1800's and are painted a variety of pastel colors. With their lush tropical foliage and many having pools, the guest house is the perfect way to get away from normal, relax with a "boat drink" in your hand, and sing Jimmy Buffet songs. My favorite guest house in Key West is the Mango Tree Inn, of course, but it is also the favorite of many repeat visitors to the island. Owners Peggy and Johnny make their guests feel like family. Ask Peggy for some of her key lime pie and I'm sure Johnny will share some of his tequila with you!

So, if you like to relax, eat good food, enjoy nice weather, and go out on the town, Key West is a perfect place to Live The World!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hubbard Glacier

As our Alaskan cruise continued, my wife, Sharon, woke me in the early morning. Our ship was sailing into Disenchantment Bay, home of Hubbard Glacier. It was drizzly, foggy, cool, and too early for me to rush awake. Sharon went up on deck and I followed later.

Hubbard Glacier is North America's largest tidewater glacier. A tidewater glacier is one that travels far enough to reach the sea. The origins of Hubbard are back up in the Yukon about 75 miles and it is still advancing. The face of the glacier is 6 miles long and 300-500 feet high. A lot more is under the water. It is HUGE! Our ship, Celebrity's Summit, was dwarfed by this 50 story high chunk of ice. We "parked" about a mile from Hubbard, but because of its size, it looked like you could almost reach out and touch it. When we saw a sea bird fly by our ship toward the glacier and almost disappear as it neared the face, we gained a little perspective!

For our best view we were allowed to go to the front of the ship to the helicopter landing pad. There, facing the glacier, a Tlingit naturalist (who Sharon & I had met and become friends with in Hoonah, our previous stop) told us all about Hubbard. The ice has a blueish tinge as did many of the glaciers we had seen earlier. I think this is caused by the air in the ice being pressed out by the pressures of the glacier. The color seems more evident under cloudy skies than sunny. A lot of the glacier's surface is heavily crevassed and fissured. Again, the size of these jagged cracks and convolutions was hard to comprehend until we saw them dwarfing full size spruce trees near the glacier edges. All glaciers also have dirt/gravel they have up heaved incorporated throughout their ice. Some appear "dirtier" than others like the smaller glacier to the side of Hubbard.

Viewing Hubbard Glacier was almost like a religious experience for me. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, all by ourselves (well, 2500 other passengers too), in a slight drizzle, with fog shrouding the tops of the mountains, in front of a massive, thousands of years old example of nature, and it is perfectly silent. The silence would occasionally be disrupted by a reverberating "crack" or a distant rumble like thunder. Never quite heard sounds like that before. These sounds were Hubbard expanding and contracting. Like the old man he is, he creaks like my old knees. We kept a sharp eye because some of these cracks and moans meant calving (ice falling into the sea from the face of a glacier). Because of the size of Hubbard, though, by the time the sound got to the ship, the calving had already occurred. Did I mention that Hubbard is big? Live the World!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Sitka is Alaska's fourth largest city. It is located on an island in an archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska. After early battles with the native Tlingits in the early 1800's, Russia established a fort on this site to protect their sea otter pelt trade. Sitka became the capital of Russian America.
Sitka was also the location of the flag lowering ceremony in 1867 when America bought Alaska from Russia, but the Russian heritage is still evident in the city.
After America's purchase, Sitka became Alaska's first American capital (before later moving to Juneau). Growth was centered around gold mining and fish canning. Today, tourism has kept the city humming. Museums, historical buildings (such as the onion shaped dome of St Michaels Russian Orthodox Cathedral pictured above), and of course, shopping are all there. My wife Sharon and I toured the town on foot with stops at the Alaska Raptor Center and Tongas National Forest.
The Raptor Center takes in 100-200 birds of prey annually that have been injured and they try to rehabilitate them. Those they can "fix" are released back into the wild while others are sent to zoos or kept on-sight for viewing by the public. If you want a close up photo of an eagle, hawk, owl, falcon, or raven(?), this is where you can get it. Also at the center are hiking paths through the surrounding woods. At the head of the paths a sign read, "This forest trail is excellent habitat for brown bears. Please use the trail at your own risk." For some reason, Sharon was always looking over her back!
We also hiked through a small portion of the Tongas National Forest. Tongas is the largest national forest in the United States. It encompasses most of the panhandle of the southeast portion of Alaska. It is classified as a temperate rain forest. Amongst the tall spruce and hemlocks were ferns, moss, and mushrooms. Sharon saw her first red squirrel chattering away and a stream in the forest had one and a half to two feet long salmon trying to get upstream. With fish only a foot apart from each other, across the entire width of the stream, for as far up stream we could see, it's no wonder the bears hang out around there! At different parts of the park's paths are totem poles representing family histories of the indigenous people of the area.
After a stop at a local bar back in town (for Sharon!) we had a snack before heading to the ship. I had a reindeer sausage sandwich. It tasted like a Polish sausage. Maybe the reindeer was Polish! Live (and eat) The World!

Icy Strait Point & Hoonah

Our cruise stopped at the port of Icy Strait Point. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have just recently started calling on this island just outside of Glacier Bay. I assume others will soon follow suit. (Some cruise lines offer excursions to Icy Strait but don't dock there. A good travel agent can help here.) Icy Strait is the only Alaska wilderness port on "big cruise line" itineraries.
This area has been inhabited for 1000 years by the Huna tribe of the Tlinkit people. Today's town of Hoonah, about a mile from the port, is the largest Tlinkit town in Alaska. Its population is about 900 with 70% being Tlinkits. Everybody knows everybody else and most are related to each other! It is a glimpse into the "real" Alaska. The main industries are fishing and logging (and probably soon, tourism). With a brown bear for every acre and a half, whales enjoying this north end of the Inside Passage, and a lot of old growth forests, cruise sightseers can get an eyeful.
Our ship, the Summit, anchored off shore as we tendered into port. The port of Icy Strait is the site of what was once one of the busiest salmon canneries in the world. The buildings have been restored and now house gift shops, restaurants, and Tlinkit artifacts. But you don't come to Icy Strait just to look at the port. This is a place to take an excursion! Whale watching, fishing, biking, hiking are all offered, but my wife Sharon and I went to see the bears!
Arranged into small groups each with a guide, we loaded into 4-wheel drive vehicles and headed toward the river. The town's people have built an area not too far from town with a boardwalk through the fields and woods to a number of elevated viewing platforms above the river. This is where, in hushed silence, we readied our cameras hoping a bear would come down the river (and not sneak up behind us!). We had good luck that day and saw a number of bears trying their luck fishing for the running salmon. It was really evident which were young bears and which were older besides just looking at their size difference. The older bears quickly caught fish and sat in the water for their lunch. The younger bears were almost comical running this way and that, upstream and downstream attempting to get a paw or mouth on the elusive fish.
After surviving the bear encounter, Sharon and I decided to walk from the port into town. It is about a mile from the port so some may prefer a taxis, but we like to walk. Saw a bald eagle on the way. The town of Hoonah is not a tourist town or a rich town. It is a place to visit with the locals maybe over a beer or sandwich. Sharon and I found the place to go; it is called The Office. The Office is a small bar and restaurant that serves fresh Dungeness Crabs! Outside of the bar, a small tent shelters the cooks with their cooler full of live crabs and the crab pot. Yummy! Eating at the bar, Sharon and I made friends with the Tlinkit owner and her daughter barmaid. We were introduced to their cousin who loaned us his cell phone to call the lower 48. That's friendliness! The cousin also bought us a few beers, posed for pictures, and gave Sharon big hugs. It turns out he would be on our ship the next few days as the naturalist guest speaker!
Before getting back on our tender back to the ship, we took part in a Tlinkit tradition. At Icy Strait, a big bonfire was roaring and being tended by a Tlinkit gentleman. He gave Sharon & I each a cedar wood chip. We tossed the chip into the fire. That brings good luck and we hope to go back. Isn't it interesting to Live The World!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


After Juneau, the next stop for Celebrity Cruise Line's Summit was Skagway. As with all areas of this country, there were indigenous people before the arrival of "us." In the case of Skagway it was the Tlingit (kling-kit) people. Skagway's beginning after "us" was, again, the gold rush but for a little different reason than the gold found around Juneau. Skagway was the entrance to the gold of the Yukon.

Having a deep harbor and located at the beginning of an easy (?) way through the mountains (now known as White Pass), Skagway was the perfect jumping off point for the prospectors heading into Canada in the late 1890's. Using Tlingit trails and later a narrow gauge train, those seeking their fortunes could traverse the mountains into Canada up to Bennett Lake where they could pick up the Yukon River for their final destination; the Klondike. Sharon & I took an excursion that retraced these step; the White Pass Train.

Now used mostly as a tourist attraction, the White Pass Train takes you up through the mountains above the timberline to the "top" at Frazer. We went WAY up! Two non-cruise tourists got off at an intermediate stop to backpack and camp near a glacier. (I think one of them was Grizzly Adams!) The train went through tunnels and over long tresses (which I hoped had been strengthened since the 1890's!) as we made the slow, switchback climb to the top. Of course, beautiful scenery! When we got to Frazer we were in the Yukon of Canada. Before disembarking, several Canadian Mountain Police boarded the train checking our passports. After a little rest at the top and a lot of picture taking, most people took the train back down to Skagway. Sharon & I were on a different package; we took bicycles back down. (There's a road through the pass now!)

Going downhill all the way for miles is my idea of bicycling! Kind of reminded us of the bike trip down the volcano Haleakala in Maui only Sharon & I were in the mountains this time. We went in small groups, with two guides, protective headgear, and a lot of safety precautions outlined to us. We weren't allowed to ride too close to the edge of the road, for some reason. The group made frequent stops for picture taking. There is a small guard house at the U.S./Canada border. All of us had to stop our bikes, get our documentation checked, and our passports stamped as we re-entered the states. Probably mostly for show, but it was fun! We didn't lose anyone to rogue bears and we didn't hit any moose, but my travel agent (Sharon) was always taking up the rear.

The people of Skagway have purposely tried to preserve the historical look of the gold rush days. Over 100 buildings have been refurbished in their original style. At its peak around 1898 the population of Skagway was between 8000-10,000 making it the largest city in Alaska. The reputation was pretty rough and lawless. Even though today's population is closer to 1000 a lot of them are involved with the tourists. We saw costumed girls hanging out of hotel windows beckoning us to come up for "a visit." One of their more famous saloons, the Red Onion, had costumed bar maids, a rag-time piano player, and a few R-rated pictures from the 1890's hanging on the wall of former "employees." It's always an experience when you Live The World!

Friday, March 9, 2007


From Vancouver going north we sailed through the Inside Passage. The Passage is our first taste of the rugged mountain terrain Sharon & I will experience in the days to come. I was surprise how narrow a few parts of the Passage were.

Our first port of call is Juneau. Juneau is the capitol of Alaska, third largest city, and its area is roughly the size of Delaware (that includes its unpopulated area). Like many Alaskan towns it was founded around gold. Surrounded by water the town is on an island only accessible by boat, ferry, or plane. Its eastern boundary is British Columbia, Canada. Juneau's weather is mild compared to what we think of as Alaska weather with the average summer temperature of 65F and winter of 20F. Only (!) about 100 inches of snow a year, but they get a lot of rain and ice. It was drizzly but in the upper 60'sF when we were there at the end of August. Guess the summer of 2006 was extremely wet throughout a lot of Alaska. The talk of the town when Sharon and I were in Juneau was the renewed effort by some to move the capitol to Anchorage. Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska's first and second most populous cities, have been fighting for years about moving the capitol to their cities. Should the capitol move, the locals say Juneau's population would decrease by 75% and make the town a virtual ghost town (except for the cruise passengers!).

The city area is at the foot of Mt Juneau and Mt Roberts; and they go straight up! The cruise ships dock right in town. A tram is available at the pier that will take you up Mt Roberts to view the wilderness area and Juneau Ice Field. This ice cap feeds about 30 glaciers in the area. Since it was cloudy and drizzly, Sharon & I didn't think the view that day would be very great (and it costs about $25.00 per person) and didn't make the trip. What we did do was go to Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall is the number one tourist destination in Alaska (maybe because it is the only glacier accessible by road). It's only about 10-15 miles out of Juneau. You can sign up for the cruises' shore excursions or you can get bus transportation or taxis right off the ship. Funny, the people in Juneau take American money and they speak English! Some people took the helicopter excursions that allows you to land and walk on a glacier! Mendenhall was the first glacier Sharon & I have ever seen and boy is it awesome! The face of the glacier is over 100ft high and it stretches over a mile and a half in length. The blue tinged, dirt streaked, fissured ice stretches for miles up the mountain and out of sight. A waterfall flanks Mendenhall on its right. Our perception of scale was clarified when we saw ant-sized kayakers being dwarfed by the enormity of the glacier. This is also the area some of our cruise mates saw their first bear. Sharon & I didn't see it.

Our bus took us on a short tour of the Juneau area, stopping at a log cabin church and a river where salmon were running, and dropped us off back in town for some more sightseeing and shopping. I wanted to go to the Alaska State Museum, but Sharon wanted to taste the micro brews in the Red Dog Saloon. Guess where we went. The Red Dog started back in the mining days (1880's) as a place for entertainment and relaxation. I'm thinking the piano player and bar of today aren't all that was offered for entertainment in the past! The Red Dog Saloon was fun though it can get crowded. They also serve food. The rustic decor has the obligatory snarling grizzly bear leaping out at you and a giant king crab on the wall, but it also includes creative taxidermy like black bears chasing a person up a pole and chasing another into a garbage can. Then there is the rear end of a white tail deer with eyes and rabbit ears??? That's why it is fun to Live The World!