My Flypaper Mind Brenden Schaaf's opinions, ideas, comments, rantings, & minutiae

27Dec/100

Should have froze our jelly or put it in a pie

Apparently frozen food in any quantity is allowed by the TSA.

http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/customer/editorial_1029.shtm

Q.  Can I take food that is frozen?
A.  In a frozen state, food is considered a solid and not subject to restrictions of liquids, gels, and aerosols. Frozen food will be examined for tampering and additional screening may be necessary. However, liquid-based foods that are frozen (such as gravy) but are partially melted are subject to TSA’s restrictions for liquids, gels, and aerosols. For more information, please read our Liquids Rules:  3-1-1 for Carry-Ons. Please be aware that a Transportation Security Officer has discretion to prohibit a passenger from carrying an item through the screening checkpoint or onboard an aircraft if the item poses a security threat.

Or I could have put the jelly inside a pie (http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/holiday.shtm):

Note: You can bring pies and cakes through the security checkpoint, but please be advised that they are subject to additional screening.

I guess I should have read that before traveling through TVC today.  Oh, and KY Jelly is also allowed.  Just don't plan on going through security with your Welch's Jelly (http://www.tsa.gov/assets/pdf/special_needs_memo.pdf).

We are continuing to permit prescription liquid medications and other liquids needed by
persons with disabilities and medical conditions. This includes:
all prescription and over-the-counter medications (liquid, gel, and aerosol), including
KY jelly, eye drops, and saline solution for medicinal purposes;

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27Dec/100

TSA power trips don’t keep us safe

Like a lot of other folks, I've grown tired of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). I'm writing this from the Traverse City Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) where I have just witnessed more idiocy by the agents that are tasked with keeping us safe. My wife inadvertently packed two jars of jam in her carry-on bag and it was detected at the security checkpoint when the bag passed through the scanner. So far so good.

At that point, in my opinion, the bag and the traveler should both be subject to more advanced screening. Instead, though, my wife was allowed to take her bag (which they reversed back through the x-ray machine) and remove the offending items. She was given the option, by a TSA agent, of checking the bag (remember, this is supposedly dangerous stuff) or mailing the goods to herself (do we want explosives  in the mail) or just tossing them in the trash. In the interest of time and money, she chose the latter. So now the jam (which could be an explosive agent) is sitting in a trash bin right by security. Does this make sense?

If people are just allowed to remove offending items from their bags when they are detected, all the terrorists need to do is keep trying until their items get missed by the scanner and/or the agent. And it will happen.

After this charade, my wife was prohibited from locking her bag with a TSA approved lock before the bag was scanned again. The agent barked at her not to lock the bag in case it "needs to be opened." This is despite the fact that right before her I had a locked bag pass through the scanner without incident and i was standing on the "secure side" of the scanner with that bag.  What is the point of a TSA lock if the TSA makes you leave the bag UNLOCKED?  Surprise...another TSA agent on a power trip.

These little TSA power trips are doing nothing to keep us safe. It is time change from this charade-based security to something that is actually effective. Having to throw out gifted jam does nothing for aviation security and makes me want to fly less and less.  Let's start investigating further the people that need to be investigated and let grandma go through with her bottled water or hemorrhoid cream. I would actually be less upset if my wife had been subjected to further scrutiny for not following the rules rather than just allowing her to dump the offending jam in the trash.

Terrorists know that it works this way...they will just keep trying until something gets through and the rest of us will be left to suffer.

Filed under: Complaints, Travel No Comments
23Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 8

August 23, 2009
Los Angeles, California – disembarkation day

Well, the time has come for us to end our vacation.  I'm going to use this post to summarize some of the observations I have made earlier as well as some new information.  We can't wait to enjoy another Royal Caribbean Cruise vacation in the near future.

  • My Time Dining
    • The My Time Dining option sounded great to me when we boarded.  We had heard about it on our sailing on Grandeur in March but didn’t try it until this cruise.
    • The concept of having a table for 2 instead of one with strangers is the biggest selling point for me, with the option to change dinner times a close 2nd (sometimes I don’t want to eat at 6pm or 8:30pm as assigned).
    • Still, the personal relationship was the missing piece with the My Time Dining and I missed that more than I enjoyed the conveniences mentioned above.  Normally by the end of the cruise (actually much earlier) we have gotten to know our waiter and assistant waiter and they have gotten to know us.  They know that we don’t eat seafood and that Heather loves chocolate, for example, and they will offer us suggestions with that information in mind.
    • I would love it if Royal Caribbean could simply offer more 2-person tables for guest that desire that choice, but I understand it must be easier to deal with fewer larger tables than several smaller ones.
  • Windjammer/Jade Breakfast and Lunch
    • Plenty of food options, especially at breakfast.  I really love breakfast food, though, so I’m probably biased in that regard.  The French Toast and Oatmeal are very good and often made it unnecessary to eat lunch.
    • Finding space to eat is sometimes hard even though the staff is doing their best to clear tables as quickly as possible.  There is simply a lot of demand in a short amount of time during the breakfast hours especially.
    • The practice of setting a bunch of empty glasses on a tray and then pouring juice/water/tea into all of them in one pour (with liquid that misses the glasses being contained by the edges of the tray) still floors me.  I have been bugged by this on all of my Royal Caribbean sailings because it results in glasses with sticky bottoms that drip on clothing and cause for a messy table.  They need to find a way to fill glasses one at a time or offer drink machines (water/juice/tea) and everyone can fill their own glass instead.  This might be my biggest gripe about the Windjammer on this and all ships.
  • Windjammer/Jade Dinner
    • Staff is slow to clear tables.  This doesn’t cause any issues for people looking for seats as there are plenty of open tables, but the dirty dishes and trash at tables is unsightly.
    • Staff at dinner really pushes the Alice White single-serve bottles of wine.  We were asked more than once each night we ate dinner there if we would like to buy them and in our three nights eating at the Windjammer for dinner I only observed one person actually buy them.  It would be nice to not be interrupted so often by this suggestive selling.
    • The ice cream cart is a nice touch, even though we preferred to select other desserts from the buffet instead.
    • I don’t really understand the Jade concept.  I know it is supposed to be an Asian themed buffet but it does seem that the same food is offered each breakfast/lunch/dinner in this area.  The Windjammer (which shares a common area with Jade) is where I found most of the food I liked, although there was some great rice pudding one night at Jade and sushi fans would likely love the Jade concept as that was offered every night.
  • Ship maintenance
    • Several buttons are missing from elevators (floor numbers) and from elevator lobbies (up/down buttons).  This is common on every Royal Caribbean ship we have been on so I would like to believe that spare buttons could be carried aboard and replaced as needed (do people steal these as souvenirs I wonder?).
    • The espresso machine at Seattle’s Best Coffee was broken on Friday when we visited.  This effectively shut down Seattle’s Best since the drinks they make nearly all contain espresso.  I am happy to report that on Saturday they had either repaired or replaced the machine and Seattle’s Best Coffee was back in business.
    • The mini-golf area was in much better shape than when we were on Mariner at this time last year.  Back then, the artificial turf was peeling up in many places and holes had been worn through in others.  We experienced none of that this time around.
    • Our stateroom

      Our stateroom

    • Our stateroom was in great condition and always kept very clean.  The balcony floors appear to have been recently refinished.
  • Ship layout/amenities
    • No more chocolates on the pillows at night!  My wife, Heather, used to save these up every night (I always ate mine right away) and then she would taunt me with them in the weeks following our cruise.  I suppose they are trying to cut costs where they can, but it seems to be that chocolates on the pillows at night can’t be that expensive when compared to so many other things on-board.
    • The library is not peaceful at any time of the day (despite being described in the daily Cruise Compass as a “Quite Zone”).  The opening in the ceiling (about half the library ceiling is open to the internet café above) is a terrible idea as is the open walkway connecting starboard and port elevator lobbies mid-ship.  To top it off, there is a staff corridor at the rear of the library that people are constantly emerging from, often with large bags of trash/laundry or other items causing further disturbance.
    • Deck 12 walking track

      Deck 12 walking track

    • The pool deck and walking track that overlook the pool (deck 12) are spacious and of ample size for a ship this size.  We never experienced a shortage of chairs in either area.
    • The balconies have dividers between them offering the illusion of privacy.  All it takes, however, to destroy this is some chatty neighbors that insist on talking to their friend in the next cabin.  The dividers have doors that can presumably be opened.  I’m not sure if the ladies in the next stateroom ever asked the cabin steward to open the door between their balcony and their friends’ balcony next door, but perhaps that would have made for some more peaceful times on our balcony.  Or maybe they did ask and were turned down for some reason (wind?).
    • There are no clocks in the staterooms.  On Grandeur when we asked about this we were told that there was a TV station that featured a clock (an analog clock even) but leaving the TV on for a clock seemed like a dumb idea as it our inside cabin quite bright.  I would love it if there were small alarm clocks in each stateroom, but I guess we know what we are in for and need to prepare better by packing one instead.
    • The Spa is great and offers wonderful (according to my wife) massages that are incomparable to those on land.  And the prices they charge are not out of line for the level of service received.
    • DSC03431The artwork on Mariner is amazing.  It is present in so many places that after a while you forget that it is there, but whether it is a statue in the library, a painting in a hallway, or a sculpture in a stairwell, this attention to detail is a nice touch on a cruise ship.  Even the elevators have paintings in them.  The Mariner has more works than some art museums that I have visited.
    • Elevators often seem to require long waits.  This is most noticeable in the early evening as dinner approaches and people leave the pool area.  Having a cabin on a higher floor would make this less noticeable I’m sure.  We took the stairs most of the time except when traveling more than 4 floors.
    • Elevator carpets are changed to show the day of the week

      Elevator carpets are changed to show the day of the week

    • A nice touch in the elevators is that they swap a sign in the carpet each day so that you can keep track of what day it is.  It would be next to impossible to keep track otherwise.  I was asked by other passengers several times “what is the date” and I never had any idea…my BlackBerry and/or the Cruise Compass came in handy for these times.
  • Connections to the outside world
    • Internet onboard the Mariner of the Seas is pretty expensive.  Like our first cruise a couple years ago (and every cruise since) it is 55 cents a minute if you don’t purchase a “bulk plan” consisting of a set amount of prepaid minutes for a reduced price per minute.   I would think that this pricing model will be pressured to change in the future as more folks with iPhones, laptops, etc. desire constant connectivity.  An unlimited usage plan would be nice to have in these situations, though many people love the fact that they “can’t afford” to connect with the real world while on vacation.
    • Internet is still available only in certain areas (such as the library, Café Promenade, etc.), though we were fortunate to have a strong enough wireless signal leaking from the library into our stateroom that we could connect from there if we chose to do so.  There is an Ethernet jack in the stateroom so I’m a bit surprised that it apparently isn’t active.
    • I believe text messaging is still quite expensive as well and the price per message obviously varies by wireless carrier, but I saw many teens still texting as if they were on shore and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that they were texting other teens that were on the ship.  I imagine quite a few people are surprised by large phone bills when they get home!
    • The television line-up is the same as it has been on our other cruises.  ESPN International, CNN, and Fox News make up the bulk of English-language programming.  There are some pay-per-view choices available and there are features to check the balance of your SeaPass account on the TV, though that seemed to be not working about 50% of the time we tried to use it.  There are several foreign language channels for non-English-speaking guests.   Speaking of that, there seemed to be more non-English speakers on this cruise than any others that we have been on.  My wife speculates that the Los Angeles area influences this.  During our trip we heard people speaking German, Spanish, French, Greek, and several other languages that we were unable to classify.  And that is just among the guests…the crew is also very diverse and we ran across staff members from countries such as Brazil, Mexico, The Philippines, New Zealand, Canada, The United Kingdom, and South Africa to name a few.
    • Royal Caribbean has apparently stopped producing daily “news summaries.”  I used to find these quite nice to peruse each day to remain somewhat updated on the goings on of the outside world,  but perhaps they have found them not to be value-added items.  They were missing from our trip on the Grandeur in March and again this time on the Mariner so I suspect that internet connectivity and two news channels on the TV have made these somewhat obsolete.  Still, I will miss them.
    • In light of the fact that the daily news publications are no longer produced, it would be nice if there were a free online “news summary” page that could be accessed via wifi and the ship’s internet café that would contain stories formerly published on paper.  If readers wanted more detail than the summaries offered, they would be invited to click through to more information that would be offered for the standard price for online services.  I think this would be a great product offering and it likely would generate more internet revenue that is collected now (of course I’d like to see those prices drop too as mentioned above).
  • Tipping
    • Tipping will eat you alive on a cruise.  Drink purchases, for example, already have an 18% gratuity included in the standard SeaPass charge but there is always a line to add an additional tip as well.  And I nearly always feel obligated to add an additional tip because the service typically is top-notch (the only place I ignored the “additional tip” line on this cruise was at Seattle’s Best Coffee).
    • Requiring prepayment of gratuities to participate in the My Time Dining option is likely the only way that they can easily allocate the tips out amongst the service staff since you could be seated in different areas each night, but that turns out to be quite expensive on a per night basis if you eat elsewhere for dinner at any time.  For example, we ate at dining room only 4 nights out of 7 but paid the same “prepaid gratuities” as if we had eaten there all 7 nights.  Of course part of the reason we eat there at all is to maintain marital harmony, so perhaps this is the price I pay for peace in that regard!
    • I would like to see a way where tips can be manually computed and still charged to the SeaPass card.  As I understand it, the only way to charge tips to the SeaPass card is to sign up for “prepaid gratuities” leaving the only other option being to bring aboard carefully denominated cash (or visit the Guest Relations desk for change) instead.
  • Disembarkation
      Luggage tag rack near the guest relations desk.  We did not receive tags in our room and had to get them from this table instead.

      Luggage tag rack near the guest relations desk. We did not receive tags in our room and had to get them from this table instead.

    • In preparation for leaving the ship, everyone receives a certain colored/numbered tag that they must attach to their checked bags and those bags must be left in the hallway on the last night of the cruise.  People then leave the ship in groups according to their bag color because there is only so much room in the cruise terminal to have a small amount of bags available at one time.  Saturday we didn’t receive luggage tags in our stateroom and I happened to stumble across a table of them near the guest services counter.  I’m not sure if this is the normal process now or if our stateroom attendant just forgot to deliver tags, but if I were a first-time cruiser I would be quite confused by this procedure.  The one-page sheet distributed to us on Friday indicated that the stateroom attendant would deliver luggage tags so I’m not sure what to think.  As it so happens, I was able to grab tags for the earliest time available so maybe they’ve given up having people exchange tags for earlier or later times and just made it a free-for-all.  Once all the tags of a certain color are gone they are not replaced, perhaps?  I’m not sure.
    • On the Grandeur of the Seas in March, guests were not assigned specific areas of the ship where they had to sit during the disembarkation process.  I believe the process was being tested on the Grandeur (and perhaps some other ships) but the practice has not spread to the Mariner as of yet.  We were still assigned to sit in the Savoy Theatre until our tag color was called and announcements were only made in the designated areas.  I have to say that I liked the more relaxed process on the Grandeur better and I hope that the more leisurely practice spreads to the rest of the fleet.
    • The process of leaving the ship went fairly smoothly.  We awaited the calling of our color/number in Savoy Theatre and left via the gangway on Deck 4 when it was time.  We were delayed about 10 minutes past the ending time estimated in the literature, leaving the ship around 9:15am instead of between 8:55 and 9:05am.  I should note that the SeaPass was required to leave the ship as I’m sure it is used to make sure that everyone has made it off the vessel before new passengers are allowed aboard.  I had already packed my SeaPass so I had to dig it out hastily at the exit from the ship.
    • Our luggage was easy to find but the lines to leave through customs were fairly disorderly and slow-moving as many people joined the lines at various places along the way.  I feel that there could have been better organization of the exit area to maintain people within lines and moving in an orderly fashion.  Additionally, people that hired porters for their luggage seemed to move ahead of everyone else during this process.  Customs personnel only randomly screened passengers with most of us passing through the process by simply handing the agent the card each family had completed aboard the ship.
    • The organization outside was no better than inside.  There were no marked areas lines for taxis, shuttles, etc. and one had to listen to cruise and port personnel holler instructions while everyone jostled for position.  It was quite chaotic and not the ideal way to end a vacation.  I feel like there could have been a lot more organization outside like inside to contain lines and better signage (any signage, in fact) would have gone a long ways toward lowering the stress level for everyone.  As it was, we managed to get in a taxi after waiting about 15 minutes and we arrived at LAX shortly after 10am.
22Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 7

August 22, 2009
At sea enroute from Puerto Vallarta to San Pedro (Los Angeles)

Main pool area as seen from the Lounge at the top of the ship before we left port one day (hence the apparent lack of people)

Main pool area as seen from the Lounge at the top of the ship before we left port one day (hence the apparent lack of people)

Yippee!  Another sea day!  Despite the warnings given by the captain on Friday that this was going to be a chilly day, it turned out to be another beautiful day for enjoying the sun.  It certainly wasn’t “hot” by any means (temperatures in the mid 70s most of the day and only 68 at Noon) but the sun was strong and warm and the breeze had just a hint of crispness that kept things comfortable, in my opinion.

We got out of bed early given that we spun the clocks backwards an hour in preparation for arriving back in Los Angeles tomorrow.  After a 1 mile walk around the track on Deck 12 (we walked together today for the first time) we enjoyed breakfast at the Windjammer where around 9:00 a clamor spread through the dining room as whales made an appearance on both sides of the ship.  It was as if we had split a group of them in two traveling through their domain.  Nearly everyone crowded around the windows of the Windjammer to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures and they did not disappoint.  I heard later that some people saw some dolphins as well, but we didn’t spot them.  We also didn’t have our camera with us, unfortunately, so will have only our memories of the whales to enjoy in the future.

After breakfast, Heather took up her position in the secret area which I now found out is called “St. Tropez.”  It was once again deserted and after some time in the library where I finished reading “The Dumbest Generation” and checked in for tomorrow’s flight, I joined her up there for a short spell.  After that I spent some time on the ship making preparations for our departure and taking some photos now that the camera battery had some more juice.  I also purchased the photo taken as we boarded the ship (somehow $20 for an 8x10” photo makes more sense on the 7th day than it did on the 2nd day) and an equally expensive frame/book for it.  That was about the only way I could see us getting it safely back to Minnesota.

With Heather still up in the sun I once again took up my perch in the library to use up some more of our internet credit and to read another book called “Cheap.”  I’m stuck in a non-fiction mode right now and am so ready for Kent Krueger’s newest Corcoran O’Connor mystery to arrive in a couple weeks so that I can read a more fun-filled book, but so far I’ve enjoyed all of the books I’ve read on this cruise.

21Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 6

August 21, 2009
At sea enroute from Puerto Vallarta to San Pedro (Los Angeles)

As I mentioned before, days at sea are my favorite times in any cruise itinerary and this was a great day at sea.  The sun was shining and a strong breeze kept things cool even in the hot sun.

Johnny Rockets features indoor and outdoor seating.  Servers dance to YMCA and other songs regularly.

Johnny Rockets features indoor and outdoor seating. Servers dance to YMCA and other songs regularly.

We skipped breakfast opting to hit up Johnny Rockets (a burger/malt shop operation) for lunch instead.  There is a $4.95/person cover charge at Johnny Rockets and our coupon book on this cruise didn’t have a coupon that made this free like it did last year.  This year’s coupon was for buy 1, get 1 free on shakes/malts so we had to be satisfied with that instead.  While I’m mentioning the coupon book, in all aspects it is weaker this year than last year, in my opinion.   For example, last year we had a coupon for BOGO mixed drinks but this year there wasn’t anything like that (although it did seem that most days there were several BOGO drink offers during restricted hours at certain locations so maybe that is how they are handling things instead) and to top it off we couldn’t use our 25% off coupons at Seattle’s Best because their espresso machine was broken.

The cover charge entitles you to eat as many fries and onion rings as you can handle.

The cover charge entitles you to eat as many fries and onion rings as you can handle.

When the burger is the size of your head it is rather difficult to eat!

When the burger is the size of your head it is rather difficult to eat!

Trying to read outside was a bit challenging given the strong (35mph+) winds, but again our secret area near the front of the ship on Deck 13 (only accessible by an outdoor staircase from Deck 12) was deserted.  Heather enjoyed the sun while I read a book (“The Dumbest Generation”) in the shade.  It was the perfect temperature in the sun and shade given that the winds pretty much kept things cool either way.  We did manage to take a break for the Belly Flop Competition, which was a hit as always.

After a couple hours, I headed off to the library to get out of the wind (and to troubleshoot my Blackberry, which had stopped working) and Heather continued her time in the sun since the aforementioned breeze made it tolerable to do so.  My Blackberry started working once I stopped trying to fix it (I had earlier manually changed the network as we rounded Cabo San Lucas because the 3G network on land was much faster than what was available via Cellular at SEA on the ship) so that made me happy again and the book got more interesting once I wasn’t distracted by the failing technology.

After Heather came in from out in the sun, we decided that we were still too full from Johnny Rockets to eat dinner at 6:45 and it was formal night again so she canceled the reservation at the dining room and we decided to catch a bite at the Windjammer.  Before dinner, I headed to Deck 12 to walk off some of the double-burger , fries, onion rings, and shake I had eaten for lunch.  Heather walked every morning while I was still in bed so I got a taste of her regimen while she got cleaned up and dressed for the casual dinner.  I managed to get in 10 laps (5 laps = 1 mile) before she found me, but at that time (about 6:10pm) it was still too early to eat at Windjammer (closed until 6:30).

We decided to try golfing again while we waited for the Windjammer to open.  We made it through 9 holes but Heather went out of bounds a couple times and there were some times when the ball would just go off rolling on its own without being struck.  I was losing by several strokes until the out of bounds incidents but by then we had given up keeping score because balls 3 inches from the hole could be 30 feet from the hole because of the wind before you got to take a shot.

Some preteen kids (both boys and girls, surprisingly) were causing more problems on the golf course than the youngsters from a couple nights earlier.  In hindsight, it would be nice if there were a stronger staff presence on the Sports Deck at all hours to prevent the horseplay and such, but they can’t have people everywhere I suppose and it ultimately comes down to parenting.  In a scary incident Heather saw a guy that was visibly shaken because he hadn’t seen his son (no idea on his age) in 4 hours and he was requesting security…thankfully the mother showed up as this was happening to report that the child was found.  Still, some parents let the kids run free on cruises and it isn’t surprising to get on elevators where all the buttons are pushed or find some roughhousing (now I sound old) going on in public venues.

After a rather dull meal (not much for selection to the point that hot dogs were looking good) at the Windjammer we relaxed on our balcony for a while until it got to chilly to be outside.   Heather wanted to call it a night at this time, but she realized it would only be 7:20pm if you count the fact that we turn the clocks back an hour to get back to Pacific Time so we headed off to the library for a while for some reading/relaxation instead.  None of the shows (a male singer from Star Search in the Savoy Theatre, Battle of the Sexes, and a late-night adults-only nightclub in the Solarium) really interested us so we were in bed early instead.

20Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 5

August 20, 2009
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

We got into Puerto Vallarta before 8am (well before I woke up, in other words).  It was quite steamy once again with very little breeze.  I tried unsuccessfully to tap into a wifi signal from the balcony and gave up after trying again from the 12th deck while Heather lounged in the sun.  I quickly retreated to the library due the heat and finished the last episode of The Staircase that I had with me.  The Staircase is a documentary film about a murder case in North Carolina earlier this decade and the first DVD had 4 episodes…so now I’m wishing I had brought the other DVD with me on the trip.

DSC03443Prior to going up to the 12th deck, we had some breakfast at the Windjammer and Heather signed up for some spa treatments later in the afternoon.  We then decided to try our hand at a trivia competition in the Schooner Bar.  This one was “tri-bond” trivia where the question consists of 3 things and you have to figure out what they have in common.  For example, the host might say “maiden, tag, brand” and the correct answer would be “name.”  We won the contest by getting 18 of 20 correct (only one other team showed up but they had 6 people and only scored 15 correct) and we were awarded some luggage tags for our efforts.

Café Promenade features snack-type foods like small sandwiches, pizza, and desserts.  There is also a Seattle's Best Coffee and Ben & Jerry's with food/drink items for purchase.

Café Promenade features snack-type foods like small sandwiches, pizza, and desserts. There is also a Seattle's Best Coffee and Ben & Jerry's with food/drink items for purchase.

We had a small bite to eat in the Café Promenade (a great concept that makes the Mariner stand out from some older ships).  Café Promenade is open all day and offers sandwiches, desserts, water, coffee, pizza, etc.  It’s all “free” if you forget what was paid for the cruise!

In the afternoon, Heather decided to head ashore to do some shopping in the markets (not at the nearby Walmart or Sam’s Club!) before we head back to sea for two days.  Although in hindsight, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the goods at the traditional market and those at the nearby Walmart both came to Mexico together inside a common shipping container from China.  Such is life these days.

She returned in time for her appointment at the Spa for a facial and massage.  The massage, she reported, was the best she had ever had and she also remarked that the massages at sea are always better than the ones she has on land, so they staff in the Shipshape Spa is apparently very good at what they do.  Heather dutifully reported that she had skipped buying the $125 collagen and about $150 in other products that were recommended so that, I guess, was my gift!

Walmart & Sam's Club in Puerto Vallarta

Walmart & Sam's Club in Puerto Vallarta

The My Time Dining worked like a breeze at our standing time of 6:45pm.  We arrived right on time and were promptly seated in the same section as we had been seated the night before (very near the 5th floor dining room doors) at a 2-person table.  I had a lamb t-bone and Heather had some stuffed pasta and a very nasty cauliflower cake.  In all fairness, the waiter tried to warn her that the cauliflower cake was not that good and he was right.  I didn’t believe that it was so bad and took a big bite myself…there was nothing redeeming about this entrée unfortunately.

After dinner it was off to the 80s themed show, Pure Energy.  This show was 100% unchanged (other than the cast members) from last year but still was great.  Heather remarked that when they start doing 90s retrospectives she will be sad!  The singers on this cruise are the strongest group of singers we have seen on any cruise and the dancers managed to put on a strong performance even though the ship was rocking a bit more this night.

After Pure Energy ended near 10pm, we stopped by the room for a short stay before we headed off to Studio B for The Quest.  What happens at The Quest stays at The Quest but suffice it to say that this is the one event that is not to be missed on any Royal Caribbean Cruise.  This particular performance was no exception and the setup in Studio B was great.  It was standing room only and we enjoyed a couple drinks before and during the show, which only enhanced the mood.

It was after midnight when The Quest was over so we headed back to the cabin for some sleep.  Looking forward to tomorrow night when we set the clocks back an hour and get back the lost hour from a few nights ago.

19Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 4

August 19, 2009
Mazatlan, Mexico

Heather had traveled to Mazatlan several years ago and I (like usual) had no interest leaving the ship so we decided to spend this day aboard the Mariner of the Seas while seemingly nearly everyone else headed into town.  One gentleman we spoke with at breakfast echoed my sentiment stating that he “came for the ship, not the ports” so a few souls stayed back, but we seemed to have the ship largely to ourselves.

View from the library of the Royal Promenade

View from the library of the Royal Promenade

It was quite hot/humid in Mazatlan (more so inland I’m sure) so I chose to hang out and read in the library while Heather went up top to our secret area for some time in the sun.  The library on the Mariner overlooks the Royal Promenade and is quite loud as libraries go.  The ceiling is open to the Internet Café above it and the mid-ship passageway connecting the port and starboard sides of the ship runs right through it.  I enjoyed much more the peace and quiet of the library on the Enchantment and Grandeur ships as opposed to this design and I hope that in the future the library will return to being a place of sanctuary rather than a pit-stop on a rather busy and loud traffic way.

Enchantment and Grandeur also have large public areas in the Centrum that have plenty of public seating with large windows to the outside.  On the Mariner, the only public seating areas that look outside seem to be bar areas.

Cars at the port in Mazatlan

Cars at the port in Mazatlan

The port in Mazatlan is in a rather industrial area.  A large parking lot of imported cars was right next to the ship and small golf-cart type vehicles pulled trailers full of passengers through a yard of shipping containers (dodging forklifts and semis as they did so) to the cruise terminal.   There didn’t appear to be a lot of retail and/or restaurant operations near the port and the main “touristy” areas of Mazatlan were a good cab ride away.  In the morning we could see the bay where most of the hotels were located but by the afternoon the haze had settled in obscuring our view of that area as well.

Shuttles from the ship had to travel thorugh a large (active) container loading area to the cruise terminal.  This was one port where there wasn't a lot of retail/bars nearby.

Shuttles from the ship had to travel thorugh a large (active) container loading area to the cruise terminal. This was one port where there wasn't a lot of retail/bars nearby.

After Heather was done in the sun and I was ready for a break from reading, we headed off to dinner a few minutes earlier than our scheduled “My Time” of 6:45pm.  No problem, however, as we were quickly seated at a 2-person table and the service was not nearly as rushed as it was the first night.  This was nice, but there is still a personal touch that comes with having the same wait staff each night that isn’t really the case with the My Time Dining.  I missed that, which was quite a surprise.  I am unlikely to insist on My Time Dining on our next cruise even though the practice of being seated with complete strangers and having to chat them up isn’t the greatest situation either (although my wife, Heather, likes it more than I do).

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Mariner of the Seas mini-golf

After dinner we changed clothes and headed up to the Sports Deck (deck  13) for some mini-golf on the 9-hole course.  Heather had beaten me soundly last year on the Mariner (several times I recall) so I was out for revenge and managed to eke out a victory this time around.  The fake “turf” was in much better shape this time (no big holes/tears/gouges) so that made it more enjoyable as well.  The only issue we had was a father that couldn’t control his 3 sons so at times we had to wait while one of them ran around the hole we were on.  Being on vacation makes this only a bit more tolerable than normal, but by the end these kids (and the oblivious dad) were getting on my nerves.

After golf, we attended the Love & Marriage game show, a takeoff on the Newlywed Game.  We have enjoyed this show on past cruises and enjoyed this one as well, although there were parts that didn’t run as smoothly as normal.  Following Love & Marriage we headed up to the pool for the late night buffet.  There were some great ice sculptures and fruit carvings but we didn’t get any photos because the camera was back in the stateroom.  I did, however, get a few ribs and a wrap because there is nothing I needed more at midnight than some more food!

18Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 3

August 18, 2009
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

This is the one spot where Heather had decided we had to get off the ship.  On Day 1 while I was getting a hole punched in my Seapass card so that I could wear it on a lanyard, she was at the Explorations! desk booking us tickets to “Cabo Cuisine” a cooking class with some time at the beach afterwards.  I have to say that later when I saw the price ($95 each) in the Cruise Compass (a newsletter we get each night detailing times/activities for the next day) I went ballistic, but this is one time (like almost always) where my wife was right about choosing this activity.

Aboard the tender from the Mariner to shore in Cabo San Lucas

Aboard the tender from the Mariner to shore in Cabo San Lucas

Our one mistake this day was eating breakfast before we boarded the tender that took us ashore.  The cruise literature didn’t give us a good sense of what exactly was in store for us other than we would learn to make some traditional Mexican dishes and it was implied that we would get to enjoy some of what we cooked.  Little did we know that having an empty stomach would be a smart move given the quantities of food that would be presented to us.

We arrived on shore about 30 minutes early so I took up position on a bench near out tour guide (with whom we had already checked in) while Heather set off to do some shopping.  She found a cute hat and, I’m quite proud to say, talked them down from $20 to $10 before purchasing it.  Near 11:45, our appointed time to leave, 3 more gentlemen showed up to join us so it Heather was the lone woman in the tour group.  The 3 guys were from New York and were traveling with a party of 8 on the Mariner, but they had received permission to leave the women and grandparents with the children that day while they enjoyed some time in Cabo.  I was glad to have some company in the cooking class and Heather was glad that the group wasn’t larger because chatting it up with other folks is her thing.

It was a short van ride to a beautiful resort area called Villa La Estancia.  Located within a courtyard in the condominium/timeshare portion of the resort was the restaurant, La Casona, where we would receive our cooking lessons.

Each of us was issued an apron and cap to wear during our lessons as we set about making two kinds of salsa and

Dressing the part helps I guess!

Dressing the part helps I guess!

guacamole in a large mortar/pestle type device made of volcanic rock.  We also got to make tortillas and we watched the chef makes some tortilla soup, which was more of a spicy tomato type soup that then chicken-broth based soup I’m used to seeing called tortilla soup.

After the lessons, we took places around a large table and

We could have bought the hats/aprons.  We didn't.

We could have bought the hats/aprons. We didn't.

enjoyed a margarita (“complimentary” only if you forget about the $95 we each paid for this adventure) and we got to each chips with our salsas and guacamole.  After a time, they brought out a small appetizer and then the bowls of soup.  I have to tell you that I was quite stuffed after all of these things and I believe everyone else at the table shared in that feeling.  Little did we know, the best/biggest was yet to come.

After a taste of some frozen mango gelato-type frozen treat to cleanse the palate, several staff members carried out the volcanic rock things that we had used to crush the salsa and guacamole ingredients, only this time they were full of shrimp, steak, chicken, and chorizo sausages smothered in cheese.  It seems that we should have saved some of our appetite for this delicious food presented so grandly, but none of us could eat more than a few bites.   It seemed that they had cooked all of this in the volcanic rock and that would have kept it warm for quite some time (though would be hard to clean I would think) but we could have sat there for a few more hours and not been able to finish all the food that was brought to us.

Delicious, but could feed a family of four

Delicious, but could feed a family of four

After this they brought out some desserts that were, thankfully, smaller in size and we were able to eat many of those.  The explanation we arrived at was that “desserts just fill in the gaps” left by the other food in your stomach.  Yeah, that’s it…

Free wifi on the beach...what more can you ask for?

Free wifi on the beach...what more can you ask for?

After this fine feeding frenzy, we were led to the gorgeous beach dominated by our ship and we enjoyed about 90 minutes relaxing under the shade of an umbrella.  My wife, Heather, ventured out into the water briefly but it dropped off quickly and strong swimming was required to get back to shore.  Definitely not the place for children or those that can’t swim, so I stayed safely tucked under my umbrella and took advantage of the free wireless internet offered by the resort to catch up on some news and email.

At 3:45 we packed up and headed back to the cruise terminal where we boarded a tender back to the ship.  Tenders are not my favorite things in the world because they get cramped and hot and sometimes the water is pretty choppy, but as tenders go the ones in Cabo San Lucas were great.  They had a pretty fancy system including ramps for getting from the tender back aboard the ship and all went well in that process.

Given our enormous meal at the resort, we were in no mood for dinner so we lingered on the outside area of deck 4 as we left Cabo San Lucas.  Therefore, we were again not able to experience the My Time Dining to see if our experience on night #1 was an anomaly or normal.

Certified -- we know some "secrets"

Certified -- we know some "secrets"

We did attend the magic show by LaRaf, however, and that was quite enjoyable.  The first couple things they did weren’t that amazing but there were many illusions that left a lot scratching their heads.  This was  a great show for all ages and it was fun to see all the families in attendance.

In contrast, the late night show was “adult comedy” so no families in attendance, but also a great show.  Heather had to take a nap first to stay up until 11:30 when the show started but we had some good laughs as a result of the comedian.

17Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 2

August 17, 2009
At sea enroute from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Sunset at sea.  Sunrises look the same!

Sunset at sea. Sunrises look the same!

Days at sea are my favorite time on cruises.  I despise the hustle/bustle of getting off the ship and the worry about losing track of time and missing the ride to the next port.  In comparison, the slower pace of days at sea suits me well and I was not at all disappointed to start our vacation by finding things to do aboard this ship.  My wife, however, holds the opposite view thinking that “this may be our only time ever to visit” each particular port and we should, therefore, take advantage of every single minute on shore to see whatever there is to see in each port city.  My sincere hope is that we can get another couple or two to join us on a cruise sometime and that at least some of those folks will share her enthusiasm for ports of call so that we can both derive the maximum enjoyment when the ship docks.  Until then, it is a negotiation at each port as to whether we will or will not leave the ship and if we do, how far ashore we will go.

Since this is our second time aboard the Mariner of the Seas, we already had a good feeling for the place we liked and one of those places is up a staircase from Deck 12 near the front of the ship where there is plenty of sun if that is your thing and there is also a large shaded area for those that want that.  We came to find out that this area is known as "St.

St. Tropez area of the ship.  A great place to hang-out away from the crowds/noise.

St. Tropez area of the ship. A great place to hang-out away from the crowds/noise.

Tropez."  It was a cool day (mid 70s) and breezy so when the sun ducked behind clouds it got a little chilly.  That passed after a while but the sun was still deceptively cool/hidden much of the time and, as such, I decided to not put on sunscreen.  Paying the price for that, my head/face did get a tad sunburned but that passed within a couple days.   Heather spent more time in the sun than I did, but I hung out nearby under the shady part watching some movies on my computer and reading books.  All in all, a great day at sea.

Dinner was “formal attire” suggested (and the old-school cruisers frown upon anyone that even wears something as trashy as a nice suit since that isn’t “formal” enough) and we had opted to not doll it up this year.  Really, this was more my decision and procrastination at getting fitted for a tuxedo than anything but it really isn’t my cup of tea to pay $100 for a tux rental to wear twice on two formal nights when I’m on vacation.  That runs counter to what a good vacation is, in my opinion.  So we ate dinner at the Windjammer, which was pleasant though certainly not as nice as it was in the dining room I’m sure.  Still, on our way past the dining room we noticed quite a line at the My Time station again although part of the delay was due to a photographer setting up shop right where the line normally is so it was hard to tell if they were experiencing problems again like the night before.

The Savoy Theatre

The Savoy Theatre

At 7pm we attended the show, Front Row, at the Savoy Theatre.   The cruise director, Abe Hughes, is the same one that we had last year aboard the Mariner when we left out of Port Canaveral.  The show was decent, but very similar (about 50% I would say) to what we saw a year ago but the cast was completely different.  There was a technical problem (power outage was the reason given) that caused a delay after the first number until the show could be restarted.  Abe explained that he has been on the Mariner for a year and a half and this “rarely happens” but, ironically, it happened last year too, albeit at a different point of the show.  It sounds like most of the set/music/lights are computer controlled so problems that occur can take a while to solve because the programs aren’t meant to pick up where things left off.  In the end, though, they got things working and for a show at sea it was great.

17Sep/090

Mariner of the Seas – Day 1

August 16, 2009
Los Angeles , California (Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California to be specific)

Mariner of the Seas

Mariner of the Seas

We arrived at the port around Noon having taken a cab from our hotel, the Renaissance, in Long Beach.  Fare and tip was $25.  Since we booked through SmartCruiser.com, we hadn’t received luggage tags from Royal Caribbean so we had to stand in a long line to first obtain tags before we could hand our bags off to a porter.  Luckily, after being in line for a few minutes a porter with an empty cart passed by looking for bags destined for deck 7 so I hopped out of line and talked him into giving us blank tags ($5 tip made that easier) and we offloaded our newly tagged bags onto his cart and proceeded into the cruise terminal.

Heather on our balcony awaiting departure from San Pedro

Heather on our balcony awaiting departure from San Pedro

Scanning of bags and x-ray operation was swift and smooth as was our short wait inside the terminal to complete a health questionnaire (only 2 questions long) and then we were on our way to the ship stopping briefly to have our photo taken along the way.  Once aboard the ship, we were offered the “My Time Dining” option.  The gentleman that greeted us told us that we would be able to go from a table of 6 (as indicated on our Seapass cards) to a table of 2 and we could choose a different time to eat each day.  This appealed to me greatly and was on my list of things to do upon boarding because I am not big on chit-chatting with random strangers at dinner each night and sometimes I’m not hungry at 6:00 or 8:30, depending on to which dinner seating we have been assigned.

So we proceeded up to Deck 5 to wait in a short line to sign up for the My Time option.  To do so required that we prepay our tips, which is something we generally do anyway not wanting to carry a bunch of carefully denominated cash aboard (prepaid gratuities are billed to your Seapass account, which is ultimately billed to a credit card).  The My Time Dining Concierge, Gary, explained the procedures to us and assured us that, unlike Norwegian Cruise Lines, we would not have to wait at all if we arrived at the time we had reserved that day.  We set up a standing reservation for 6:45 each night knowing that we could change it any day that we wanted to eat at a different time and knowing that the standard early seating was at 6:00 so we could potentially arrive as those folks were finishing their meals.

After a quick lunch at the Windjammer we checked out our stateroom.  Having a balcony is great!  It makes the room feel much larger than it is.  The port has public wifi and being that our stateroom was on the starboard side of the ship we were able to access the wifi from our balcony.  This was great as the PGA Championship was just wrapping up (Tiger fell short, surprisingly) and we placed a few Skype calls before we headed to sea.  The ship has internet capabilities including wireless in many common areas, but at a cost of 55 cents/minute (cheaper “bulk” minute packages are available) it is best to avoid connecting too often.

After our muster drill (we were pleased to find out that guests no longer have to wear life jackets to the muster drill –

Heading out to sea

Heading out to sea

quite a relief given how hot is normally is and how tightly packed everyone is on the outer decks) we watched the ship depart from our balcony.  The main attractions here were some packed bars/restaurants of well-wishers waving and screaming to us and some showboating by a couple U.S. Coast Guard vessels.  Some young ladies a couple decks up thought the cute guys on the boats were waving directly to them…they must have apparently already been at the bar I’m guessing.

At 6:45pm we arrived at the dining room to find a long line of folks for the My Time Dining option.  This was in direct contradiction with what we were told to expect and it turns out that a group of 45 people signed up for My Time Dining but never reserved a time and they just happened to all show up together at 6:00pm.  For some reason they were seated (which isn’t surprising because Royal Caribbean makes accommodations for folks in almost every circumstance) and we, therefore, were forced to wait for a table.  We were given the option to dine with other guests also waiting for the My Time option, but declined since one of the selling points of the My Time Dining is that you can have a table for two.  Our wait was about 25 minutes and the Concierge was quite apologetic and thanked us many times for our patience, but it still was a damper on the start of our vacation.

A view of the Promenade from near Savoy Theatre

A view of the Promenade from near Savoy Theatre looking toward the rear of the ship. Cafe Promenade is on the left in the foreground.

Dinner seemed quite rushed and not the normal, intimate affair we are used to when sailing with Royal Caribbean.  It is impossible to judge the My Time Dining feature after just one night, but if things don’t improve by the end of the cruise I will be very unlikely to choose and/or recommend this option in the future.  At no time during dinner were we offered beverages other than water (which was all I wanted, but still it is nice to have the option) and the waiter seemed to be very stressed about many other things including several other tables.  Also, given our late start we were treated to 80% of the dining room being empty near the end of our meal and the accompanying noise and activity as the dining room was prepared for later guest.  Again, I’ll reserve judgment until later in the cruise when we have had more opportunity to try out the My Time Dining option again.

One casualty of the late start of our dinner was that we were not able to attend the opening night show, which I didn’t mind but my wife was disappointed.  There was only one show the first night of the cruise so we called it an early night in preparation for our day at sea.