Getaway to the Naples Grande Beach Resort

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend at the Waldorf Astoria Collection’s Naples Grande Beach & Golf Resort in Naples, on the Southwest coast of Florida. For us, it’s an easy 2 hour drive to get to Naples, and we like to be able to get away from the routine for a weekend. This time, we found an excellent rate for this resort, and jumped at the opportunity (note that this was not a travel agent rate, but a rate we obtained from one of our suppliers).

Before I get to my impressions of the hotel, I feel like I need to note how impressed I was with the hotels social media presence, specifically on twitter. It’s very common for companies to have a twitter account. Unfortunately, it’s also common for them to use it as a one-way street to post notices, offer, etc., instead of using it as a true media tool. That is not the case with the Naples Grande, whose twitter account is @NaplesGrande. I made my reservation just a couple of days before arriving. I immediately twitted that I was staying there, and was twitted back promptly offering any help I may need. I asked for an early check in, if possible, and was told they were going to try to accommodate me. As I was on my way to Naples a couple of days later, I got a tweet letting me know that my early check in was now confirmed! Kudos to the hotel’s social media department…

View Towards the Coast

The hotel is very well located, directly on the coast, not far from downtown Naples. The only drawback is that it’s not directly on the beach (although you won’t see that mentioned in the hotel’s website). There’s a marsh area between the hotel and the beach. You go down to the pool and take a golf cart to the beach. It takes about 10 minutes, and is really no big deal. That is, unless you’re lucky enough to get a typical Florida afternoon thunderstorm and want to get to back at the same time 100 other people are trying to! The beach itself, however, is beautiful, quiet, the sea is more like a pool, and the facilities and restaurant are adequate.

Room at the Naples Grande Resort

The resort building is nicely decorated, as are the ample rooms. Ours had 2 double beds and an extra large bathtub (no jacuzzi, though). Wifi is provided as part of the inevitable resort fee (that’s a rant for another time). In short, the room and the hotel grounds are comfortable, nice, nothing over the top…

The only negative points, which I wouldn’t have expected in a hotel of this quality, were bed sheets with a hole in one of the corners and a slightly moldy shower curtain. Also surprising was that there was no mini-fridge in the room, although they sent us one when we asked. The other surprising issue was that there is no elevator access to the garage. You either valet (at an additional cost) or take the stairs (luggage, stroller, sleeping child, etc., included).

The pool are is very nice. There are 2 pools, one of which has a sloped entry for children and a waterslide. This is the more popular of the 2 among families, and it was always full.

The Resort's Beach

To me, what makes or breaks a resort, is service. Here, I can’t find fault with the Naples Grande (although I have a good client who may disagree). The 2 requests we had for our room where there in less than 15 minutes. Service at the beach and the pool was always friendly and prompt. The pool staff went out of their way to find chairs for us and find a place for us around the pool where there was enough shadow. Our early check in and late check out requests were happily granted. To me, that is much more meaningful and important than a sheet with a hole in it.

Going back to the location of the hotel, there are plenty of things to do close by. Dining and shopping options can be found 3 minutes from the hotel. Downtown Naples and 5th Ave. is less than 10 minutes away, and we found a very nice park just South of 5th Ave., with the biggest children’s playground we’ve seen!

We definitely enjoyed our time at the Naples Grande and would not hesitate to go back. In fact, we most likely will, and are looking forward to it.

I would love to help you plan your next vacation to Naples or any other place. Please contact us for details or to have us plan your next vacation!

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
kctravel.nexion.net
kctravel@bellsouth.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171

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A Short Poesia Cruise

I know I haven’t blogged in a long time. I have to admit I’ve concentrated most of my online time to twitter and facebook. One reason is that I prefer to blog about my personal experiences, and I simply didn’t travel much last year.

However, a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a short 2-day cruise aboard MSC Poesia. If you’re saying “Aboard what?”, you’re probably not alone. When you think of cruises, MSC Cruises is definitely not the first cruise line that comes to mind. They are an Italian cruise line, mostly focused on the European market. In fact, out of their 11 ships, only MSC Poesia is deployed in this continent. It sails to the Caribbean and the Northeast and Canada (during the Fall).

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that we traveled on a travel agent incentive rate. In fact, they had a promotion on this sailing, where we cruised for free (paying taxes only) if we sold another cabin in the sailing. My parents were visiting Florida, so the 5 of us decided to go.

I had heard a lot of mixed reviews on MSC, so I wanted to see for myself. I have to say some of the comments I heard were accurate, a lot were not.

The first thing you notice when you board the ship is that it’s very elegantly furnished. The ship offers most of the basic amenities a modern ship provides, including a gym, spa, children areas, and a variety of restaurants and bars. You will also notice that since the ship caters to an international audience, announcements are made in several languages. I counted English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. Fortunately, they don’t seem to make as many announcements as in other cruise lines.

We were assigned a balcony cabin on deck 9. The cabin was comfortable and nicely decorated. The floor to ceiling mirror made it seem even bigger. Ours was a triple, with a sofa bed for the same person (although we used a crib instead). We saw other balcony cabins that were only doubles and were smaller.

The two most common complaints I’ve heard of MSC are about food and service. Here, I have to give them mixed reviews as well. Service throughout the ship was very good, except for the housekeeping department. The crib that we requested, and were told was going to be delivered by 4:00 pm, didn’t arrive until 9:00 pm. More importantly, we needed some help on the first night (courtesy of what was probably a stomach virus our toddler caught ), and it took a while to find someone willing to help. One person said he needed to “talk with the chief”, while another said his shift was over and to find someone else. This was the only sour point, though. I talked to several waiter and bartenders that were very happy. One has been cruising with MSC for over 10 years.

When it comes to food, I know that’s one thing that usually breaks or makes the cruise. MSC has the typical cruise set up. A buffet-style restaurant open throughout the day, a couple of set-time dining venues, and a couple of premium restaurants (including a sushi bar, which we unfortunately could not try).

My biggest disappointment was with the buffet restaurant. The food is laid out cafeteria style, where you have to line up and go through the entire display to choose what you want. This made for very long lines, having to stand for over 20 minutes for breakfast or lunch. By the time you got your table, some of the food was already cold. The quality of the food was good, though, with some dishes being very good (in particular the eggplant Parmigiana!). One other complaint is that this restaurant did not serve more than a very limited menu after 8:30 pm.

Now to the main restaurants, where we had dinner both nights. MSC offers 3 menus every night: A set of favorites available every night (steak, salmon, etc.), and “American menu”, and an Italian menu. The Italian menu highlights the cuisine of a specific region each night. We enjoyed dishes from Tuscany the first night and from Piedmont on the second one. I found the food between good and very good, but generally under seasoned (nothing a little salt couldn’t fix). One area which positively surprised as was the desserts. We tried 3 each night, and they were all very good (from a lemoncello soaked cake to cheesecake and tiramisu).

One more area that got mixed reviews from us was the entertainment shows. Both shows were a mixture of dancing and acrobatics. The dancing was invariable mediocre; the acrobatics were breathtaking (you have to questions the sanity of anyone on the receiving end of a knife thrower on a moving ship).

Other than the shows, there was live music and entertainment throughout the ship. One thing I did not see is as many programed day time activities, as I’ve seen on other lines (although this may have been because we didn’t have any days at sea).

All in all, I wouldn’t hesitate to sell MSC cruises to the right client, under the right conditions (itinerary, pricing, etc.). However, I find they will need to improve in some areas if they want to compete with the likes of Celebrity and Princess.


Norwegian Sky

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend the weekend aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky. I would like to share my impression of the trip. I have sold NCL cruises before, of course, but until a couple of years ago, only on request. I used to get very inconsistent feedback from clients, in terms of service, quality of the food, etc. Consequently, I only sold them by request.

NCL Sky from Great Stirrup Cay

That started to change a couple of years ago with the launch of their Freestyle 2.0 initiative, as well as the launch of their newer ships, like the Gem, Jewel, etc. I started to get more requests for these ships, and NCL in general, and clients usually came back very satisfied.

I can’t really compare my cruise on the Sky with my previous cruises, though. This is the oldest and smallest ship I’ve cruised on, and it was the shortest itinerary as well (other than pre-inaugurals). Nothing wrong with that, but you can’t compare the Sky with Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas (not to mention the Oasis) or Celebrity’s Solstice.

Here are some of my impressions on the ship:

Passengers were a mixed of young couples (incidentally, I hadn’t see so many tattoos since I accidentally went to Daytona during Bike Week), a couple of large family groups, some ladies groups traveling together, and your assorted 40 to 50-something couple, international tourists (mostly Argentinian and Brazilian, from what I could hear), small families, etc. People were well behaved, we didn’t see any public drunkenness or any loud or obnoxious behavior.

The ship is very nice in some areas, but the decor is not as polished in others, in my opinion. I liked the decor of the Crossings restaurant, not so much the Palace restaurant, but that’s just a matter of taste. The age of the ship is more apparent in areas that don’t seem to have been renovated, like the public restrooms, for example.
In general, common areas seem well maintained and very nice. However, once you start looking at the details, some parts show their wear.

The pool area was as popular as ever, but with no days at sea, it wasn’t difficult to find a chair.

We had a balcony cabin, which I think was smaller than the other ones we’ve been on (not surprised by this, though). It had the usual furniture, including a small couch and small TV (no flat screens yet).The ship only does 3 and 4 day itineraries (from Miami to the Bahamas), so storage space was sufficient for what we brought. Norwegian’s Freestyle Dining program helps with the packing as well, since there are no formal nights (so no suits are needed). One design flaw that bothered me is that the reading lights behind the bed are too low, so you either have to out a pillow against them or risk a bump in the head!

Balcony Cabin

The balcony has railings rather than a glass panel, which may be a consideration if you’re traveling with children.

Food was OK. Nothing spectacular, but nothing inedible either. We gave it a 6 or 7 out of 10 on average

We had lunch and breakfast at the buffet, which was OK quality and what was expected for a buffet. The food serving area is small and can get cramped, but they have another line in the adjacent outside restaurant. Tables are hard to come by during breakfast, but you can also take your food to the sports bar across the hall, and servers would proactively show people the way to ensure everyone was seated as quickly as possible.

Palace Restaurant

We had 2 dinners at the Crossings main restaurant. The food was pretty good, except for one dish of tortellini with cream sauce, which was too “floury”. Otherwise, the flavors were good, and service was attentive and friendly. We went after 8pm both nights and were seated immediately. I never saw a wait for the main restaurants, and the screens on several common areas alert guests of how full all the dining venues are. Premium restaurants filled up quickly, especially in the first and last nights, so plan accordingly.
The third night we had dinner at the sports bar, which serves “comfort food”, like chicken fingers, etc. We had the fish and chips, which was pretty decent. Fries come straight out of the main buffet line, so they are thin, not the thicker ones you usually get with fish and chips
The only noteworthy thing about the buffet is they always have vegetarian selections (so do the other restaurants), and they have a crepe station (so so) and an ice cream and chocolate fountain station (no way you can screw that up!)

Perhaps the low point of the cruise was the shows. We went to the musical review the first night and left halfway through. The other 2 were scheduled at 8:30, which is while we were having dinner, so we didn’t go to them. There was only 1 show scheduled per night, plus the usual karaoke, newlywed game, etc.
One weird thing about the ship’s layout is the disco is an open space on deck 6, between the atrium and the theater. I don’t know how they control access to those over 18 only (after 11pm), as we left before 11. One nice thing is they had latin music earlier for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, and we had a good time there.

If I have to complain about something, it was the lack of attention to detail in some areas. Nothing that would ruin your vacation, but things I would not have expected to see, like:

  • Paint splattered on the balcony railing that could have easily been cleaned
  • A wine order that was not taken until we had the salads served and wine that arrived when we were already having the main course
  • A napkin on a bread basket in the main restaurant that had ketchup on it. It was in plain view and wouldn’t have taken any time or effort to change it for a clean one.
  • One thing that did bother me was the remote control was not just dirty, but really filthy. I had to ask then to exchange it, and the steward kept insisting it wasn’t dirty. I had to tell him it didn’t work for him to bring another one. No reason to have something that everybody touches be that dirty.

All in all it was a good experience and I’d do it again with the right mindset. I have posted more pictures on our facebook page. Please visit and become a fan.

If you guys have any questions, shoot away!

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
www.kctravel.jurni.net
info@kctravel.jurni.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171

Welcome to Azamara Club Cruises

This week Azamara Cruises issued a press release with very exciting news. They are changing their name to Azamara Club Cruises and introducing a series of branding attributes that will help it define itself better and target themselves appropriately.

If you haven’t heard of Azamara before, it’s because they’re not a very large cruise line. It only has 2 ships, Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey. They are not new ships or large ships. They both carry just under 700 passengers. Azamara is owned by Royal Caribbean , but you won’t find rock climbing walls, zip lines, or neighborhoods on board. Instead, you will find a more sophisticated environment, stressing the service, food, and the destinations themselves. Instead of competing with the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival, they are on par with Oceania.

The line’s rebranding focuses on 4 aspects:

  • Customer service: Including English trained butlers for suite guests.
  • Food and wine: With expanded wine selection from boutique wineries not widely available. Wines are included with lunch and dinner
  • Wellness and vigor: Azamara will continue to provide standard spa services, but will also have acupuncture, yoga, Pilates, and other immersion programs available.
  • Destination immersion: Perhaps the most important of all, Azamara ships will visit 140 ports in 50 different countries in 2010. That gives passengers an amazing range of vacations.

These are all things they’ve always done very well. Their intention is to now take them to a different, exceptional, level.

To me, what makes Azamara different, is the focus on the destinations it will visit. My biggest problem with cruises is that they don’t really allow you to explore a destinations, just merely get a glance. This is fine for a Caribbean cruise, where islands are small and the focus is usually on the beach. It’s not so when you’re visiting far away lands with enough history and attractions to last a week’s visit or more. Here Azamara will also be different. They will schedule overnight stays in several ports, like Istanbul, Sorrento, St. Petersburg, Bangkok, Singapore, etc.

They will provide exciting shore excursions not usually available through most cruise lines. Some of the ones mentioned include driving a Ferrari in Civitavecchia (the port for Rome), an evening gondola serenade in Venice, an Imperial Russian Court evening in St. Petersburg, etc. They will also feature 2-day packages that will allow passengers to go from Hiroshima to Osaka on a bullet train, visit the Taj Mahal, overnight tours in Israel, etc.

The line also offers a few things that are usually extras: bottled water, specialty coffees and teas, gratuities included in the cruise fare, destination-oriented entertainment and enrichment programs, self service laundry, etc.

All this, of course, comes at a price. Don’t expect to pay the same for a Norwegian cruise than for an Azamara Club sailing. They’ve always had terrific offers, with free air (like this one for Caribbean sailings through March), and 2 for 1 cruise fare on selected sailings. That may change as they adjust their pricing to the new offerings. In fact, prices are already going up.

If you’re interested in exploring what Azamara has to offer, feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to help you.

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
www.kctravel.jurni.net
info@kctravel.jurni.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171

New York New York

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in New York. We were there for 5 days, and didn’t even come close to doing everything we wanted to do. That’s not a suprise, considering everything that the city offers. And since the primary reason of our visit was a family celebration, our free time to play tourists was reduced.

Rather than give you an account of what we did, I’ll just list some of my impressions of the trip:

  • New York is still the city that doesn’t sleep, still as fascinating as ever, still as vibrant as ever

     

    Rockefeller Center

  • The subway system is a phenomenal form of transportation. The ride from where we were staying in Brooklyn to Times Square was about half an hour.
  • As good as it is, the subway system is most definitely not stroller friendly! Fortunately, there was always someone willing to help me carry it up or down the stairs, or to open the gate for us. Some people went literally out of their way to help us. Cynics said these were probably tourists; they were not.
  • If you plan to ride later than 11:30 or midnight, be aware of lines skipping stops or changing routes. Our half hour to Brooklyn turned into an hour and a half ordeal when we left Grand Central after midnight.
  • Few scenes are as eye-catching as Times Square at night. This is true both for adults, as well as kids, and even our baby.
  • “The Park” is not the only one in the city. Carl Shurz Park, in the Upper East side, on the East River, was a very pleasant surprise.

     

    Charles Shurz Park

  • Be prepared to walk a lot. Wear comfortable shoes. One night, we walked from Times Square, down Broadway, all around Midtown, up 5th Ave, through Rockefeller Center, back to Times Square. The next one, from Grand Central, up Lexington, to central Park, ending around 90th St. Our final afternoon, we walked for a couple of hours in the Museum of Natural History (in the Upper West Side), and then all the way down to Lexington and 39th on the East Side.
  • During those long walks, absorb every sight you can. There may be something familiar, something unexpected, something beautiful, in every street, every corner.

     

    Chrysler Building

  • Be prepared to make alternate plans. Our rainy days derailed our plans to visit Ground Zero, Chinatown, Little Italy, and surrounding areas. We ended up spending more time inside and around Grand Central Station, and visiting the museum. Fortunately, there are plenty of attractions to consider away from the weather.
  • Time permitting, visit some of the other boroughs. Each one has a different personality. We had the opportunity to stay in Brooklyn (Crown Heights, to be exact), and to visit several neighborhoods in that borough.
  • As in every trip, engage the people you meet, be it locals or other tourists. We spent an hour with great conversation sharing a table at a Starbucks with a Mexican biochemist in town for a conference.
  • Enjoy the food and the atmosphere! If there’s one city that has everything type of cuisine available, any type of activity you may want, this is it.

Also, let me point out some useful tools:

  • Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s website give’s you information on the Metro, the different lines and schedules. It even has a trip planner where you can enter your current location, destinations, and it will tell you the best way to get there.
  • http://www.nycgo.com is the city’s official marketing and tourism organization.
  • The NYC Subway Map app for the iPhone comes in very handy when you’re need a quick look at the extensive map. It’s not interactive, though, so you need to have an idea of where you are and where you’re going.
  • Another app, The New York at a Glance City Guide, by Bee Loop, has a long list of attractions, points of interest, shopping venues, restaurants, etc. It also gives you the cost of an attraction’s entrance, and sorts locales by distance from your current location.

There’s always something to do in New York. Perhaps no other city in the US is as vibrant, as electric, as “must see”, than New York. There’s also no wrong time to visit. Each season has its own appeal.

If you’ve visited the city, you know what I’m talking about. Feel free to comment below; I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
www.kctravel.jurni.net
info@kctravel.jurni.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171

Flight Experiences

Living in the Miami area, and usually flying to Latin America, I usually fly with a select few airlines, like American, Lan, and Spirit, and most of my flights are non stop. Last week, however, I had to fly domestically (to Richmond), and had to fly on 2 different airlines, with connections both ways. This gave me the opportunity to experience other airline’s service and compare with what I usually get.

My flights to Richmond where on US Airways, which I had never flown before. I really can’t say there was anything wrong with the flights. They left on time, arrived on time, both in Charlotte and Richmond. What really surprised me was the barrage of announcements from the crew on the flight from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte, asking for passengers to please keep the cabin clean and pass all the trash to the flight attendants. They said the airline no longer has a cabin cleanup crew (at least not for that flight), and the flight attendants were the ones responsible for getting the aircraft clean and ready for its next flight. I don’t know if this is standard operating procedure for US Airways, but it sure sounded strange. After all, if they can’t pay people to clean the planes, it doesn’t speak very well for their operation. By the way, no such announcement was made on the flight from Charlotte to Richmond. One flight attendant, however, did announce that “awful snacks are available for purchase”. OK, she did mean to say “Also, snacks are available for purchase”, but you couldn’t help smiling at her slip of the tongue.

My return flights were on Delta, through Atlanta. Other than a quick flight from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando, I hadn’t flown Delta in years. I have to say I was impressed. Our flight out of Richmond was almost 45 minutes delayed due to bad weather affecting the Atlanta area. The gate agents did a good job of keeping passengers informed, and made it a point to say that people with connection were not being affected by the delay. Sure enough, after landing in Atlanta, I had enough time to check for my next gate, head over there, and be there just when they were starting to board.

One thing I enjoyed very much on my flight from Atlanta was Delta’s entertainment system. In addition to the usual movies and music, for which you had to buy headphones or bring your own, it provided some video games (most of which you had to pay for). The one I ended up playing was a trivia contest, where you played real time against your fellow passengers. After each question, the screen shows which players had the right answer, keeps track of points, and even gives you the seat number of your competitors! It was a great way to pass the time and give dirty glances to the lady on 22C, or the guy in 26D, every time they got an answer you missed.

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
www.kctravel.jurni.net
info@kctravel.jurni.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171

Cruises Offer More Dining Options

main_dining_hero

Celebrity Cruises just announced the introduction of Celebrity Select Dining. This new option allows passengers to dine in the ship’s main restaurant, but not have a preassigned dining time, as is the traditional dinner schedule. Instead, guests can select to dine at any time between 6:00 and 9:30 pm., and even make reservations online up to 4 days before the cruise.

The program is being rolled out sequentially to all Celebrity ships (except for Celebrity Xpedition), starting with the Equinox on the September 26th sailing. It will be completed by February. Reservations will be on a first come, first served basis, and for passengers who elect to participate, gratuities will be automatically charged to the on board account.

It used to be that cruise lines offered 2 set times to dine in the main restaurants. You chose between early and late dining, and were stuck with that choice for the duration of the cruise. If you wanted to have dinner at a different time, you had to go to one of the alternate restaurants. In the last few years, however, starting with Norwegian Cruise Lines, the option to have dinner in the main restaurant (or one of them, at least), has been introduced by several lines. The following is a summary of the offerings:

  • Norwegian Cruise Lines: They were the pioneers of the flexible options with their Freestyle Dining. You’ve surely seen the commercials; do whatever you want, whenever you want. Norwegian has done away with the set dining times altogether, and bases dining service on offering different menus in different restaurants. Their newer ships, like the Jewel and the Gem, have even been designed with the Freestyle philosophy in mind. NCL ships offer smaller restaurants, with up to 13 different restaurants on board.
  • Carnival: The Fun Ships don’t currently offer a flexible option. It’s either early, late, or one of the other restaurants.
  • Royal Caribbean: Their “My Time” dining allows passengers to have dinner at any time in the main restaurants. It’s very similar to Celebrity’s Select Dining, which is likely based on My Time. In addition, Royal Caribbean offers “Family My Time” dining. This program is targeted to families with younger children. Appetizers are served immediately, and the children’s dinner is finished in 40 minutes.  They are then taken to evening activities with Adventure Ocean counselors, while the adults continue the meal at a more leisurely pace.
  • Princess Cruises: Their anytime dining allows passengers to dine at the main restaurant between 5:30 and 10:00 pm. Some ships have dedicated Anytime Dining restaurants, separate from the traditional dining restaurants, but providing the same menu and service.
  • Holland America: Provides an open schedule in its main dining room, as part of their As You Wish Dining program.
  • Cunard: Guests can dine any time between 7 and 9 pm, but some restaurants offer either early or late dining only.

Any way you look at it, dining is one of the prime attractions of a cruise, and a very important part of the cruising experience for most passengers. If you’ve been on a cruise, you understand why. If you have not, I invite you to experience it. Just contact us and we’ll plan the perfect cruise for you.

Regards,

Enrique Brener
KC Travel
N. Miami Beach, FL
www.kctravel.jurni.net
info@kctravel.jurni.net
305-792-0618
FL Seller of Travel Reg. TI-35171