Friday, March 27, 2015

Dinner and our first evening on board! Ocean Aria!

Ok....we're finally sailing! And we're getting ready for dinner. Here's where the planning gets a bit crazy.  If you've never sailed on one of these big ships, this is something a bit unique.  With all of these passengers on board, if you want to really see specific shows and eat either at specific restaurants or at certain times, and if you have kids that may be going to the kids or teen clubs, there is a huge puzzle as to how it will all play out!  At first you think, sure - I can just book my dining and the rest will just fall into place.  Well, think again!   

I started reading some reviews and I then I realized how the Entertainment on the Allure worked. How the shows may only happen once or twice during the cruise. And then, what about the teen club? How do I fit in dining if the kids want to dash out for activities at night? Usually when we cruise, Megan has been in the "kid" club and really doesn't participate. Alex on the other had leaves us after dinner and we don't see him until teen curfew. 

So, I searched for what other people to when they sail on these Mega ships - and what do they do?  They create these big spreadsheets for their evenings, and even sometimes their days.  It's really the best way to keep things straight! And then it happened to us - yup, the color coded, blocks for each night spreadsheet was a part of our life! 

We knew we wanted to eat at most of the specialty restaurants and I knew Megan wanted to see a lot of the shows, and Alex would like some of them. Talk about fitting puzzle pieces together!

That left Chops,the steakhouse, at 6:00 on sail away day! This was to get them to the Teen Meet and Greet by 8:00 and also be back to see Ocean Aria for the 10:45 show. Sure it may sound not so relaxing for a vacation - but in reality, it was perfect!

So we had our first venture out to Central Park at night! Amazing! Simply amazing that this was smack in the middle of the ship!


...




There was usually music up here at night, even sometimes special concerts


And as much as I love pictures, I have not one single picture of our meal or of the inside of Chops. It had been a long day! But, we all enjoyed our meal. We had no complaints and we left very, very satisfied!

We had a bit of time before the kids had to be at the teen club, so we stopped by the library for some reason - and for no other reason than to show you that - hey, here's the library - here's Megan in the library!


The kids left to go to the Teen Club Meet & Greet, and Keith and I walked down to The Boardwalk. Again - amazing that this is right here on a SHIP! A super fun environment here....







And then I walked with Keith back to the elevators. He wasn't going to make it for the 10:45 Ocean Aria show. He's not one who's into shows...He'd usually rather relax in the cabin. These are the often photographed Swarovski Crystal dresses in the elevator atrium area.


And then...back to the Ocean Aria theater to wait to meet up with the kids. Get there early! It fills up quickly! Also, it's recommended to make your reservations for the first show of the cruise, or one of the first shows. If it's windy they will cancel the show. So you may not get a chance to see it if you wait and the show you book ends up cancelled! So...I waited, and waited....the kids were apparently playing dodge ball...and I waited. I finally went in when they opened the theater up to standby because I didn't want to loose a chance to see it, and we did make a reservation, but by now, the only seats left were the benches in the front. In the splash zone. Thanks kids! They kids arrived just before the show started, and just as the "clowns" before the show tossed a cup of water right in my direction...in my face. Fun start to the show! Thanks again kids! 


So, Ocean Aria is a Cirque du Soleil type show with high diving, water themed, similar sort of to what "O" in Las Vegas would be like, but on a cruise ship!  It was really quite good.  




It was a great show. The three of us really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it to anyone sailing on the Allure - I'm not sure who wouldn't find something about it to like at least a little bit!

So, our first day was pretty much done. What a day! It was time to head back to our cabins. Tomorrow would be our first sea day on the Allure!



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Our cabin and sailing away!


It was time to go check out our cabins, and then get ready for our sail away from Ft. Lauderdale! We were on deck 9, and as I mentioned, we had cabins right across the hall from one another, a Boardwalk Balcony for the kids and an Ocean View Balcony for Keith and I. 

When we went in to drop off the carry on bags and do a quick "check out the cabins" we were lucky enough to have our luggage be dropped off already! By the time stamps on the pictures it was about 3:45, so we were lucky that it came so early! 

Just a couple of pictures of our cabin






And a picture of the bathroom, sort of! It's pretty difficult to actually get a picture of the bathroom, but I'm guessing most of you have seen the pictures before!



I don't have pictures of the kid's room, but it was exactly the same as ours, although we did have their beds split apart. At some point I know I have a picture of them sleeping, which I will post  and they'll love me for that! So you'll see the split bed configuration! And I do have pictures of the Boardwalk from their balcony.

We had a bit of time before we had to be at the muster drill, so being the super mean mom I am, I made everyone unpack right then and there! Also, I wanted to hang out in case we got a chance to meet our cabin steward. I wanted to make sure he knew the kids were across the hall, and also, tell him to split their beds, and as so often seems to happen, our safe was locked shut when we got to the cabin, so that had to be fixed. 

So, we did unpack, we met our cabin steward who was incredibly friendly and did a super job all week, and then left for our muster drill which was in the Adagiao Dining Room. It was fast and to the point. Once done, we went up to Deck 15, I think?? for the sail away. It was already pretty crowded so finding that perfect spot anywhere was going to be tough! But we found someplace to stand. We didn't have much time because we had our first specialty dinner reservations tonight! Chops at 6:00!

Here we are, finally ready to set sail! It was a beautiful afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale!





There were a few other ships in port with us that had to leave first....



Just waiting our turn!


I love the ships all lined up sailing away.....




Well it only took about 24 hours from the time we left home, but Alex is putting the "hand" up so he's not in every single picture! Really kid! Doesn't he know me by now!!


Ah...but if I get a ship photographer to take a picture, he won't cover his face will he??



And ship number four in front of us heads out!


Could this finally mean it's our turn?


See ya later Ft. Lauderdale! We're off!



Monday, March 23, 2015

Finally boarding the Allure! Feb 8, 2015

We were just about to board! Finally! It seemed we had waited forever back at the hotel. Only one thing left to do, that's right - I'm all about the pictures! My family puts up with me. I don't even know why I bother since most of them don't turn out very well, but you never know when you get a good one!

So, that brings up the picture package! On some of the cruise lines you can pre-purchase a picture package of either a set number of the ship photographer pictures, say 10 or 20 photos, or you can get ALL of the pictures they take. I thought about pre-purchasing the picture package before the cruise. But I did that before and we really didn't make very good use of it. And it's expensive if you don't like the pictures or if you don't make the time to get many pictures taken. But on the other hand, if you like even maybe 10 or so pictures, the package more than pays for itself.  It's a delicate balance here! 

In the end, I didn't pre-purchase the package. But in the back of my mind, I wanted to get the package. I have no idea why!!! Really, what do I need most of these posed shots for??? As I said, most really aren't great and they cost a lot! But I guess it's part of the memories and I'm a photography nut, so it's just part of what I like I suppose! So, going in, I knew I was going to have us posing for lots of ship photographer shots and see if we'd make the package work for us. Turns out - we got the package. Was it worth it? Well, the pictures are of things that I would consider to be good memories and it's rare that we have shots with the four of us together. So for that reason - sure, money well spent. But I choose not to think about how much I spent on them! However, I'd rather have spent that money on the photos than on a drink package, but that's my priority. 

So.....here come some ship photos! 





So, we finally were ready to go. But I haven't mentioned our cabin set up! When we booked we were able to take advantage of one of the Buy One Get One Half Off specials, so it made the most sense for us to get two cabins. I knew Keith and I would want an Ocean View Balcony, but I didn't want to pay for two of them. So, after pricing everything out, the kids were directly across the hall from us in a Boardwalk Balcony and we had an Ocean View Balcony. 

We had a bit of an On Board Credit, mostly from pre-booking the specialty dining...we're food people and love to try the restaurants on board, so we made all of our dining reservations before we sailed. If you book more than three (I believe) specialty restaurants you receive a discount on the total and that discount is then credited back to you in the form of an OBC. 

I've never let Alex and Megan have charging privileges on their cards, really they've never needed them. But Megan has been begging to be able to use hers. She figured she'd be a the teen club and if she was walking back, gee what if she wanted a Starbucks? Good grief - could she sound anymore like a 13 year old girl? If I wasn't with her how would she get her Caramel Macchiato? So, I decided to put the OBC on her card and to be fair give Alex a charging privilege with a limit set up. He told me he didn't need it, he wasn't buying anything onboard. But I wanted to be fair.

Also, while at Guest Relations, I got a 2nd set of key cards for their room so Keith and I could open their door - very handy to wake them up in the morning!

So, heading to Guest Relations as soon as we boarded, we again had no wait! So far the crowd control on board was really great! 

But let me back up a second....I have no pictures of walking on board. Of that first experience just walking onto such a massive ship! You enter right into the Promenade, right at the Rising Tide Bar and for me, it was immediately disorienting. No feel of being on a ship, like others say, you feel like you're in a mall. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it's just how it feels. We've sailed on the Navigator, which also has a Promenade, but this one is wider and longer. 

Yes, there were people everywhere, but it wasn't overwhelming or disorganized. People seemed to have a purpose with where they were going. Everyone was in good spirits, which I would say for the entire trip.

While at the Promenade, we also signed up for the Cupcake Decorating class for one of the sea days. Now that business was taken care of, it was time for lunch! By now it was probably nearly 2:00 and Megan and I still hadn't eaten anything since we had our morning shopping trip! 

We decided to just go to the Windjammer for lunch. I'm going to just come right out and say it....none of the four of us liked it at all. We've sailed on pretty much the major mainstream cruise lines at this point, and also on the Navigator on RCCL and of every cruise we've been on, the buffet selection as well as the layout just didn't appeal to us at all. My theory on this was that with a ship that could have over 6000 passengers when sailing at capacity, if the buffet was the most appealing place to dine, and truly had something for everyone, it would be an absolute madhouse. So, as compared to other buffets we'd been to, it just didn't offer the typical cruise ship lunch selection. There was plenty of food, yes, no denying that. But it wasn't the style of buffet we were used to. That's fine, there are plenty of other choices! It just wasn't for us, and we didn't go back for lunch again. 

Next up, dropping off our carry on bags and check out our cabins! 

Just checking out this really cool model of the Allure on the way to the cabin, or maybe it wasn't on the way because at this point, we didn't know if we were coming or going! This ship is HUGE! 



The details on this model are super cool! Be sure to check it out if you sail on the Allure! It's pretty cool to look at it when you first board, and then later in the week. You'll probably notice things you didn't see the first time!






Yes - we're finally really on board! Finally some ship pictures right?


So, off to our cabins we went....

Friday, March 20, 2015

From the surprise to Ft. Lauderdale....one step closer to the Allure!

The time had finally come!  February was finally here and it was time to sail! We flew out of BWI the Saturday before the cruise left, stopping for lunch at the airport!



We flew Southwest, and had a bit of time at the gate before boarding. The flight was on time and from BWI to FLL was a quick trip.







We booked the Residence Inn Airport and Cruise Port Hotel. I picked this specifically because they indicated they had rollaway beds available. At this age my kids won't share a bed at all. Not even for one night. So when I can find a rollaway, it works out best for all of us. I also got a really great rate. We left the airport, and took a cab, although I later found out the hotel offered a shuttle, which I didn't see offered on their website. But again, I heard from other guests the shuttle ended up taking them more than an hour due to heavy traffic.

So, we arrived at the hotel only to be told that no they don't have rollaways, they never have and it's not on their website. This made for some cranky people in our group. So, the people at the front desk tried to be very helpful and I offered to show them on their website where I saw this information, and they were shocked to see it there. They said it needed to be removed. They asked if we wanted to go across the street to the Courtyard Marriott, but the rate would be double, and I said no. They offered to see if the Courtyard had a rollaway they could bring over, they didn't. They offered to see if they had a 2 bedroom they could give us, they didn't. So in the end - they gave us a one bedroom and my kids made do with the sectional sofa - which was really just fine! Not what we expected, but it was fine!

Notice, Megan has the double bed, and Alex is on the long part of the sofa, with the cushions wedged between the bed and the sofa. He had a little cubby area. Although he seemed to like it just fine! Kids!




But backing up a bit! The hotel is in Dania Beach, not really Ft. Lauderdale. Nothing is in walking distance....but they have a free shuttle that will take guests to one of maybe 5 restaurants and also to a Publix in the morning. So, we chose the Rendezvous Restaurant for dinner.



It was good enough. We sat outside on the deck, overlooking a canal and there was a band playing. It was actually a bit chilly outside. But it was a decent meal. Typical of bar type food. Afterwards they called the hotel for us and our shuttle came to pick us up.


Then, as only could happen in a 13 year old teen girl's world - her fake thumbnail broke off. She put on fake nails for the cruise but didn't bring nail glue. So the crisis of the trip began - she had to find nail glue. Well, no car, nothing within walking distance....what to do! Would the cruise on the Allure be tarnished because her thumb nail wasn't pretty?

After returning to the hotel after dinner, the kids worked on a bit of schoolwork. They both go to Cyber School, which means that they can do school on the road, so in theory taking them out of school for a week might not be quite as difficult as if they were in a traditional school. However, they still have to turn in assignments to stay current with their work! Would they? Likely not. But they both had their laptops with them, so the thought was there!

We decided to use the hotel shuttle to get to the Port and were scheduled for an 11:30 pick up. And off to bed we all went - nice and cozy! 

Finally, the day to board had arrived!  It was almost time to sail...but first, the nail and the need for nail glue had to be dealt with right?  I had checked with the front desk and they had a 9:00 am shuttle that went to Publix, the local grocery store. So I decided to wake Megan up at 8:00, which to her might as well be the middle of the night! But when I told her that if she got up, got showered and dressed and was totally packed, we'd go to Publix and look for nail glue - that girl moved! 

I was packed, so Keith and Alex just had to pack their stuff up while Megan and I were gone. I told them to go ahead and get breakfast at the hotel. They have a full breakfast included. We probably wouldn't make it back in time.

And off Megan and I went! We were on the little shuttle with about 8 other people, all heading out on various cruises and mainly all were looking for wine. Here we were looking for nail glue, and they were looking for wine! So, hey - I might as well get some wine too right? The Publix was about 5 minutes away and it was tiny! The driver let us out and told us he'd be back in 45 minutes! FORTY FIVE minutes??? It would take about 2 minutes to shop in this store! But look what we got



Crisis averted, we can rest, the teenage beast has been tamed! For now!

So, we swing past the wine aisle and wouldn't you know it, this particular Publix doesn't sell wine until after noon on Sunday! It's only 9:30 am! Well, darn! So what about all of those other people on our shuttle? And what are we going to do for the next 40 minutes? We go outside and they're on the phone with the hotel. They're trying to get them to send a different bus. The shuttle we took is actually a third party company they use as a contractor that shuttles their clients to the restaurants and grocery store. But could they please send the hotel shuttle to pick us up and by the way, is there a different Publix or store that we can get our WINE? They were really pretty funny. Of course, now that Megan got her nail glue, she was in no mood to go racing around Ft. Lauderdale so a bunch of people could get wine....she wanted to get back to the hotel for breakfast. 

Sorry dear, mommy is getting some wine! 

A wonderful driver picked us up and took us to a different Publix. Apparently the other service is contracted with this county, and the hotel could go anywhere. Ok....so, we went to a nice, new store. Huge wine/beer section. We all found what we wanted and this guy even waited for us while we shopped. We got back to the hotel just as breakfast closed. No food for us! Oh well, soon enough we'd be on the ship, right? We found Alex and Keith, finishing up their breakfast. We went up to the room and made sure we had everything, put our Allure luggage tags on and went down to wait for our 11:30 shuttle....with HOLY COW.....about 100 people??? WHAT???

We waited, and waited, and waited.....what was going on? 11:30 came and went. 12:00 came and the 12:00 people came out with the 11:30 people who were also with the 11:00 people. The 12:30 people came out too! We were still there. No one knew what was happening. I looked into Uber and they even had no uber cars....no taxi's. Was anyone moving in Ft. Lauderdale? Well, we found out that no, no one was! Apparently there was a race or a marathon or a bike race or something. I can't exactly remember now. But roads were closed and detoured all over the town! So traffic was diverted everywhere! 


Finally, a bus pulled up with cruisers getting out who just got off their cruise and they said it was a nightmare getting there. Took them forever!

But finally it was our turn to get on the shuttle. I want to say maybe we got on around 12:30 or 12:45. But once we were on, we were moving! Off to the port we went! 

Check in was painless! There were no lines and we breezed right through...this was it! We were finally going to be on the Allure and officially starting our cruise!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

February sailing on the BIGGEST ship in the world!!!!

We were heading out again! It was just a month ago that my family and I were sailing along on the wonderful Allure of the Seas....and I wonder, how could time have gone by so quickly? Reality has set back in already and it's almost as if we never were on board. So, that must mean it's time to relive that vacation, and what better way, than by sharing it here on my blog with those here in a hopefully, super detailed trip report! 

Sailing along is myself (Shelley), and I'm totally addicted to traveling. I'll pretty much go anywhere and it really takes quite a lot for something to make a vacation go wrong for me. I tend to roll with the punches, go with the flow. Of course, there will be issues, but let's work them out and move on! That's just how I am. Then there's my husband, Keith, he absolutely hates to go on cruises. Funny right? But he tolerates them because that's what works well for our family. As much as in his mind he says he hates them, every single time we're sailing, he has a good time. I think it's more the concept of a cruise that he doesn't like and it would not be his vacation of choice, than actually being on the cruise. My son, Alex is 15 and he loves cruises. He keeps asking when we're going to go on a Baltic cruise, or maybe one in Asia. He's got big cruise dreams! And then Megan, she's 13 and she loves to travel in any form, but enjoys cruising a lot too. 

We have cruised a fair amount, and don't really have any loyalty to any particular cruise line. We tend to sail based on itinerary and the ship that suits us at the moment. After we sailed on the Navigator in Europe, the Allure kept calling out to us! This was when the Allure was a newer ship - it was "THE" ship to sail on at that time. Not to say that it's still not pretty exciting, because it's very unique! So, this past May, plans were set in motion to sail on the Allure! 

It was a total surprise to the kids...which was pretty cool! In November, the 4 of us had just sailed on Celebrity on one of their Top Chef cruises. That was very cool! The kids knew I had another vacation planned for winter of 2015 and that they would be missing a week of school. But they had no idea what and they had no idea where we'd be going. I had planned this in May 2014 when there was some great pricing, and I decided it would be their Christmas present for 2014. So, once i figured out how I would "give" it to them, the plan was set in motion. They never dreamed it would be another big vacation, let alone a cruise, especially since Keith is so not thrilled with cruises. 

I came up with a picture scavenger hunt where they had to find clues all around the house on Christmas morning. Each clue led them to an envelope which they gathered and then once they collected them all, they opened them and had to figure out where they clues told them we'd be going! I had pictures of things relating to the Allure. I couldn't make it too easy since they are 15 and 13, but things like the Boardwalk piece from Monopoly, a picture of Central Park, the Chicago skyline, the Madagascar Penguins, a picture of a carousel, all in all I had 10 pictures I believe. 





 Here they are when they figured it out, they were shocked!



So now we all know about the cruise and we just had to wait until February to go! It was so hard for me to not say a word to them from May until February and I now could finally start telling them about the excursions or the ship or whatever! One of the hardest parts was when we were on our cruise in November, the Oasis, which is the Allure's sister ship, was docked in port at the same time as we were - here it is next to one of the Carnival ships 



and the kids would say things like "I wish we were on that ship, it looks so cool"....and I just had to keep quiet or say something like, well, maybe someday we'll go on it! HA HA!

We counted down the days, and finally, it was time to go on the long awaited, surprise cruise on the Allure!


Saturday, February 28, 2015

We've left the Reflection, but the vacation still continues! Onto Miami!

So, after our final night, all that really was left was packing up and leaving! First, our vacation wasn't over though - we had one more day in Miami and one more night too!  But before we get to that - some final thoughts on the cruise and the Celebrity Reflection!



First, as I mentioned at the beginning, we booked this trip solely for the reason that it was a Top Chef cruise. Keith is not a fan of cruises, but he agreed to this one because he's a chef and he liked the idea of the Top Chef activities since we're both fans of the show. Also, we'd been on the Eclipse previously and did enjoy the quality of the food and the experience in general. Initially just the two of us planned to go as our "grown up away from the kids" vacation, but when I booked, there was a special that made it really a no brainer to bring the kids - so it became a family vacation. 

I had some doubts as to if the kids would have enough to occupy themselves with three sea days on Celebrity. We had recently been on the Norwegian Breakaway and that ship really shines when it comes to activity! Also, it being during the school year, when we boarded we found out there were only 13 teens on board, including our kids. In the end, they did end up going to the teen club and it gave them something to do at night. They enjoyed the smaller size and while the scheduled activities weren't always done, they liked the kids they met and enjoyed the staff there quite a bit. Because it was the Top Chef sailing, our sea days were often occupied with those activities or we went to the pool together as a family. Both kids really loved the dining options on board - everything from the buffet to the specialty restaurants, and while they admittedly felt out of place at times, being amongst the youngest passengers on board - they definitely enjoyed this cruise. 

In contrast - we just sailed on the Allure and returned mid-February. And I'll be writing that review as soon as I get myself a bit organized! But as a quick comparison on the teen club anyway - there were over 400 teens on board. Also a week where school was in session. And my kids really were very unimpressed with the teen club on board. They went the first night and went back once or twice and left right away both times. They said the scheduled activities never happened because "most" kids didn't want to do them. A small group did, including them, but since some kids didn't want to, they weren't done. So - no scavenger hunts or Amazing Race or games - just kids hanging out in the club talking. They didn't want to spend their vacation doing that with these kids. So - we spent the vacation mostly together and that was fine too. However, it was really unexpected. They figured with so many kids, the teen club would have a lot going on and they'd meet some kids and become friends for the week. Didn't happen.

Ok - moving on! Our cabin - while we loved the space in the Family Cabin - it had severe noise issues. Not just the docking noise, but the slamming and banging I mentioned early in the review. I definitely think there should be a disclaimer when booking this category, similar to how some cabins are notated as obstructed view - this one should says - may experience severe noise. It was really so bad at times that it was difficult to be in the cabin. And at night, sleep was just pretty much impossible when it was crashing. If I had small children, and seeing it's called a family cabin, someone in that cabin could very well have young children - I would have been very unhappy....But we survived. 



We thoroughly enjoyed all of the Top Chef events. While the "pay" events were pricey, we knew that going in, and we chose to participate in them. We thought they were worth what we paid and we have been on a similar cruise in the past that had a Food Network Chef on board and the events were priced very similarly. I loved the variety of the demos, which were free and the quick fire was fun to watch as well. And it was great that with the cooking class and the dinner, the chefs were so accommodating and friendly with everyone in the group. 

Also, it seems that as a result of this Top Chef cruise, Alex has really taken a liking to cooking! Having a chef for a dad, he's always had the cooking thing around him, but I think actually cooking in a professional kitchen, and it may sound odd - but with a chef other than his dad - as well as seeing the cooking demos - it really sparked an interest for him. He's been cooking a meal once a week since we've been home. A lot of fish dishes, with side dishes even! A great side effect from the trip!

We chose to carry our own luggage off the ship on Saturday morning, so we had a leisurely breakfast at the buffet and walked off around 9:30 I believe. We were spending one last night in Miami. I won't post all of our pictures and details of that day - unless someone asks....but lets say that I went to college at the University of Miami, so part of our day included a visit to my old school!


We stayed at the Intercontinental hotel again, so we took a cab from the port over to the hotel.  They have a car rental agency right in the lobby, so be picked up our rental and off we went!  Boy, each time I have the opportunity to go back to Miami and drive there, it is so different!  Sure it was the late 80's early 90s when I went to school there, but really, do the roads change?  It all just looks so different every time!  But we got to the campus, and parked and I felt totally lost!  Crazy....the school was the same, but so very different.  We were last there either three or four years ago.  But I love bringing the kids and just walking around the campus and sharing some of my memories from the four years I spent there!



I used to live in one of those towers back there - good times!



The new Rathskeller - I guess it's new and improved - there's an outside patio now anyway!



Yes boys - another picture!!!  And where did that fountain come from?




And this?  I think I remember the buildings, but the tables?  The fountains? The circular things?  Pretty sure they're new too!

And then of course we hit the bookstore and stocked up on our Cane's wear! Part one of our day in Miami was great.