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Maureen Brandt wins final cooking competition to become chef of 150 Central Park

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

The final cooking competition is over to become the next chef at 150 Central Park on the soon to be launched Allure of the Seas and it's Maureen Brandt of Stillwater, Minnesota.  Brandt won the fan vote last month and today competed with five other chefs for the right to become the next Chef de Cuisine of 150 Central Park, the signature restaurant onboard Allure of the Seas.

Brandt competed in a day long competition and cooked three meals for the panel of judges.  Her specialties included chilled Lobster, provencial Lamb Loin and a pistachio cake.

Chef Daniel Fein came in second place and CruseCritic is reporting he has accepted the position of Chef of 150 Central Park on Oasis of the Seas, whose chef has announced previously that he will be leaving.

With Brandt winning, she completes a long trek of winning the Allure of the Seas Culinary Challenge, which started back in early July 2010.  She submitted a video of her cooking a dish and explaining why she should be considered for the contest.  She then made it to the final six competitors, won the fan vote and today has won the cooking competition.

Brandt is a 1999 graduate of Stillwater Area High School and she is also a "Certified ProChef Level Three" by the Culinary Institute of America and CEC through the American Culinary Federation.

The panel of judges for the cooking competition included Culinary Institute of America Chef Lou Jones and Dr. Victor Gielisse and from Royal Caribbean Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations, Lisa Bauer; Vice President of Food & Beverage Operations Frank Weber.

Cruisers to Dominican Republic will no longer pay $15 fee

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic signed into law a decree that will exclude cruise ship passengers in transit from paying the $15 airport fee.  The fee had been generating around US$7.4 million in revenues for the government of the island nation.

The country earns around US$80 million per year from the 400 cruise ships which currently dock in Dominican ports, where each one leaves around US$200,000.A 5% growth in cruise ship arrivals is expected this year, with more than 350,000 tourists visiting in the first four months.

Royal Caribbean has two ships that stop at Samana in the Dominican Republic, Explorer of the Seas and Enchantment of the Seas.

Cruising 101: Tips

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

One of the most debated topics when it comes to cruising is gratuities, or tips.  Tips are found throughout your cruise vacation and differ in the amount to give as well as the frequency to give.  Gratuity is general is a very subjective matter but it's something you need to know about before you cruise so you can better plan your budget for your trip.

Obligatory Gratuity

Of all the tips you may or may not hand out, there are a few people on the ship that everyone should tip at least something to.  These are...

  • Stateroom attendant
  • Waiter
  • Assistant Waiter
  • Head Waiter

These four people are the crew members you will have the most contact with during your cruise.  While there may be some discussion of how much to tip them, there's little doubt that they all should be tipped at the very least. Because there's so much confusion as to how much to tip, Royal Caribbean provides a list of suggested gratuity amounts.

  • Suite attendant: $7.25 USD a day per guest
  • Stateroom attendant: $5.00 USD a day per guest
  • Dining Room Waiter: $3.75 USD a day per guest
  • Assistant Waiter: $2.15 USD a day per guest
  • Headwaiter: $0.75 USD a day per guest

These suggested rates are just that...suggestions.  Basically, if you feel the service you received was within your expectations, these amounts are fitting.  If you feel the service was better than you expected, you could always tip more.  Every person has their own ideas of how much tip is "right", so it's up to you but at least these figures will give you a good starting point.

Other Gratuities

You will quickly find gratuity opportunities elsewhere on your cruise.  If you order a drink from a bar or wait staff, a 15% gratuity will automatically be added to your bar bill or wine check when you are served.  There is also an option for tipping more, but generally the automatically included tip will suffice.

Even before you board your cruise, there are porters at the cruise terminal to help you check in your luggage.  These folks tend to be very helpful and it's customary to tip them $1-$2 per bag. It's not required and if you opt not to tip them, your bags will still make it on the ship, however, many opt to tip these people for the prompt service they provide

If you take an excursion, the decision to tip can be less obvious.  Some excursions do include gratuity in the cost of the excursion, so be sure to check the description of any excursion you take to see if that is the case.  It's hard to give a general answer for if it's right to tip on any excursion as it's less clear.  Personally, I recommend tipping if someone gives you or your family service above and beyond what's reasonable.  A good example may be if you are doing a parasailing excursion and the staff gives you or someone in your party a few extra minutes, or perhaps lets your daughter "drive" the boat.  Special things like this are good reasons to tip the staff a few extra dollars.

How to tip

The gratuities for the wait staff and your stateroom attendant can be prepaid either before you book your cruise, added to your SeaPass account during your cruise or paid in cash at the end of your cruise.  Regardless of how you pay for them, labeled envelopes will be delivered to your stateroom during your cruise to allow for an easy exchange of gratuities.

Tipping others is less formal, as you will either be giving them cash or amending the bill you receive after getting a drink.  When you're off the ship, tipping by cash is the preferred method and it's best to bring a lot of $1 and $5 bills with you to have on hand for tipping.  Don't worry about carrying local currency, nearly every destination you visit will be people more than willing to accept United States currency.

When to Tip

In addition to how much to tip, there's a great deal of discussion of when to tip.  Everyone has their own preferences.  Some people like to tip a little at the beginning of the cruise to ensure great service for the rest of the cruise.  Others prefer to tip at the conclusion of the cruise to reward good service.  There isn't a right or wrong way to tip, it's a completely subjective decision.  For your waiters and stateroom attendants, it's most common to tip them on the last night of the cruise.

Brilliance of the Seas: Not only for oldies

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

The Evening Herald, an Irish newspaper, sent a reporter to cruise on Brilliance of the Seas to check it out.  The reporter flew to Dubai to board Brilliance and came into the assignment with the notion that cruises were for old people but that seemed to quickly disappear once he boarded the ship.

I feared that I was entering a floating retirement home, where dinner would take place at 5pm, and a game of bingo would set you up nicely for hitting the hay at 8pm. But in truth, the stereotype didn't stick.

The stateroom seemed to be more than he was expecting and his only issue was with the shower, which he found small and the shower head wasn't very accurate.  Otherwise, he found the stateroom a nice place to spend the next few nights.

He also documented much of the activities and entertainment on Brilliance of the Seas, taking time to explore the ship properly.

The boat's central atrium, its regular clinking of glasses accompanying the tinkling of a piano, gave it the feel of a plush hotel lobby, and lulled you into the mood to slump into a comfy seat and gorge yourself on brandies.

Like many who go on cruises, food was a big deal and he seemed to be rather impressed with what he found both in the complimentary dining as well as elsewhere on the ship.

The food on board was a revelation. The main restaurant, which served buffet meals all day, catered for every imaginable taste, all laid out in a cavernous area which meant that there was no queuing, and no scramble for seats, even though up to 800 people could be eating at any one time.

I dined in Portofino, and it was better than any Italian restaurant I've been to in Dublin.

Overall, the author seemed happy with his experience and definitely seemed to be recommending a cruise aboard Brilliance of the Seas to everyone.

DVR Alert: Man-Made: Ultimate Cruise Ship - Freedom of the Seas

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

Set your DVRs (or VCRs if someone actually still has one) for Sunday night to check out National Geographic Channel's series "Man-Made", where they will take a look at the Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas ship.

Freedom of the Seas debuted in 2006 as the worlds largest cruise ship: a fast, fabulous floating city with nearly 6000 people on board almost every day. Freedom has a reputation for everything thats bold and beautiful, and her first New Year's is set to be an extravagant celebration with a week of intense preparation leading up to the biggest ever New Year's Eve party at sea. She is equipped with the technology to handle almost anything: rogue waves, hurricanes, terrorist attack and even contagious diseases - threats no captain can ignore. In the lead up to the big bash, Freedom and her crew of nearly 1500 will not only battle the elements but also a full complement of eccentric guests. The first New Years Eve on the worlds biggest cruise ship: plain sailing or a nautical nightmare? This is the inside story.

Remember how I said to set your DVRs? Well that's because it's airing on the National Georgraphic Channel at 2am on Sunday, August 8th.  I don't know about you, but I'm not usually up that early/late, so I'll opt to record it instead.  Here's a quick clip from the episode.

Veteran cruiser reviews Oasis of the Seas

In:
06Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

Nanu, a Nepalese woman and her sister Rita, took a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and compiled a rather lengthy review of their trip, documenting much of it. 

To celebrate my sister’s birthday this month, we – just the two of us – embarked on a seven-day cruise on the world’s largest, biggest, hugest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Seas. We left behind one husband, six children, 9 assorted grandchildren, and 1 ½ great grand babies (the half represents one due in December).

Nanu gives a good report on the ship, which for those who haven't been on Oasis, may find interesting. She documents much of the ship and includes a lot of Oasis of the Seas trivia and facts. She also mixes in her own experiences, like the food on the ship, which she found to be more than plentiful for her. 

The entertainment on Day Seven in the Opal Theater was also unusual and unique. It was entitled “Come Fly with Me,” and consisted of performances by gymnasts and dancers using trapezes, cables, wires, trampolines and even, I kid you not, lengths of cloth. Dynamic and unbelievable artistry.

If you enjoy in-depth trip reports, you'll be sure to give her report a read over.  

Restaurant Review: Seafood Shack

In:
05Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

Tucked away on the Boardwalk area of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is the Seafood Shack, one of nine specialty restaurants found aboard the world's largest cruise ship.  For those who need a seafood kick, this is your place to go.

Atmosphere

The Seafood Shack is located in the Boardwalk area of the Oasis of the Seas and fits right in.  In fact, it probably is the best themed element to the Boardwalk motif, as it does feel like the sort of restaurant you would find along an ocean front boardwalk.  The restaurant is decorated with a lot of surf items, from surf boards to water buoys, it's all about the ocean here.  

In fact, the menu you get is designed to look like a kickboard and is made of a hard wood.  These little elements really help establish one of the better decorated restaurants found aboard Oasis of the Seas.

The Seafood Shack is an open air restaurant, meaning it's not air conditioned and subject to the outside temperature.  Eating here in the middle of July for lunch, it wasn't terrible as it's shaded from direct sunlight and there are fans overhead to keep the air moving.

Eats

Before we jump into the food, we need to discuss the ordering system here.  The Seafood Shack has a cover charge you must pay per person, similar to other specialty restaurants.  However, the Seafood Shack differs from the other specialty restaurants in that your cover charge does not allow you to order as much as you like.  Rather, you can order one appetizer, one entree and one dessert.  You can order extra food on top of that for an additional fee per item ($3.95).

At first, I thought this would be a problem as the staple of any restaurant on a cruise ship is ordering as much as you like.  Once I tried it out, I found there to be plenty of food between the three courses you are allowed and it should be more than enough food for most people, especially once you start sharing some food around the table.

The menu at the Seafood Shack features, yes, a lot of sea food.  From fish to crab to shrimp, there's a lot to choose from. I was actually surprised by the amount of non-seafood on the menu as well.  Lots of chicken, beef and pork can be found to choose from, which is good for picky eaters or those who aren't keen on just eating seafood for the entire meal.

Be sure to ask before you order your meal what the fresh catch of the day is.  The fresh catch routinely changes from day to day and if you enjoy fish, you know whatever is freshest is often the best choice.  On the day I ate here, a butter fish was fresh and I opted to give it a try.  But before we get there, let's start with the appetizers.

I had the New England clam chowder, which came in a large sourdough bread bowl.  The soup was good, but the bread bowl was better.  There's just something about the combo that really made it so good and I had to forcibly stop myself from eating the bread bowl because I didn't want to fill up on that before the rest of the food came.  My wife opted to have the cajun potato wedges, which were your typical good tasting large french fries.  In both cases, we found there to be an abundance of food and we barely dented my wife's potato wedges.

Most of the appetizers that aren't soups are served wrapped in faux newspaper to look like the sort of thing you might find in England.  I've only seen this previously with fish and chips, but other appetizers came in this fashion which seemed to give people a kick.

Back to the entrees, my butter fish arrived grilled along topped with a fruit salsa and served with mashed potato and some other veggies.  The fish itself was okay, but I found the salsa on top of it to be really tasty and combining the two really made it a good meal.    My wife opted to get the Bermuda onion burger (can you tell which of us likes seafood?) and found it to be an above average burger.  Not great, but better than the usual burger you find around.

By the time we got to dessert, we were both pretty stuffed.  My wife got the cookies and cream ice cream sundae while I just got a regular ice cream sundae.  The great thing about ice cream is it's nearly impossible to screw up so as you might imagine, it was quite good.

If you have kids (or adults who like to behave like kids), every so often there's a song and dance the staff do for the children.  Basically, they parade around the restaurant singing a song (yes, it's a sea shanty) and the kids that we saw seemed to really enjoy it, so be ready to jump into the parade should it occur.

Overall

The Seafood Shack is an interesting restaurant offering a wide enough selection of food to be able to cater to most taste pallets.  If you can, avoid this restaurant around times when there's something in the nearby Aqua Theater as it seems whenever a show or event ends there, there's a bee line made for the Seafood Shack and Johnny Rockets.  It's best to check out the Seafood Shack for lunch, as it seems to be the least crowded then.

Considering there is no cover charge for kids under the age of 13, if you have young kids, this may be a good option among the specialty restaurants to check out.

Cost:

  • Lunch: $7.95 per guest fee
  • Dinner: $9.95 per guest fee
  • There is no cover fee for kids under the age of 13

Seafood Shack is open for lunch from 11:30am to 3:30pm and dinner from 5:30pm to 10:00pm

And I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve been here! What did you order? Any suggestions or favorite items? Let me know in the comments below!

A look at Oasis of the Seas' audio system

In:
05Aug2010
By: Matt Hochberg

For the technophiles out there, a couple weeks ago we posted information about the lighting on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and this week, there's more technical goodness, with a look at the audio system that powers Oasis of the Seas.  Royal Caribbean hired FUNA International to outfit Oasis of the Seas with a multitude of BSS Audio Soundweb London processing devices. 

Oasis of the Seas' audio system, covering everything from background music, acrobatic, musical and comedic entertainment, is handled by 29 Soundweb London BLU-800 and 21 BLU-120 devices, with BLU-10 programmable touch screen remotes for local control outfitted throughout the ship as well.

FUNA has a history of working with new cruise ships, as it's deployed its Soundweb London devices on the last four new cruise ships built out of its Turku, Finland manufacturing facility.

Senior Project Manager for FUNA International Derek Warner talked about the power of his systems, "As BSS Audio signal processors have continued to become more advanced in their ability to provide comprehensive system networking and control, we have been able to use them in more complex and larger applications. The Soundweb London platform provided us with a quality product, which was very user-friendly for our programmers. Collectively, we were able to pre-program and test our system prior to installation; a big help as our time for onsite programming can be very limited."

One of the more difficult tasks that Warner and his team had to tackle was the audio in the outdoor Aqua Theater, which suffers from ambient noise such as wind, engines, waves and thousands of excited guests.  His audio system overcomes those obstacles while providing guests the sound emanating from the stage is perfectly heard.

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