Friday, March 30, 2012

A New Face of Rhapsody

      One of Royal Caribbean's oldest ships, the 1,998-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas, has emerged from a month-long, $54 million makeover that the line says has transformed it into a "virtually new" vessel.
The top-to-bottom overhaul in a Singapore shipyard brought the 78,491-ton Rhapsody of the Seas a number of new venues that have debuted on newer Royal Caribbean ships including five of the line's most popular restaurant concepts and a nursery for babies as young as 6 months old.
     The line also added the infrastructure needed to support a new aerial show in the ship's five-deck-high Centrum atrium; a new Diamond Lounge for Crown & Anchor Society loyalty members; a Concierge Lounge for suite guests and top-tier loyalty guests; shipwide Wi-Fi; and an outdoor LED movie screen on the pool deck. In addition, all cabins were completely refreshed and received new flat-screen televisions.

     The new eateries include Italian trattoria Giovanni's Table and Izumi Asian Cuisine -- both concepts that first rolled out on Royal Caribbean's Oasis class ships. Also new is a Park Cafe deli-style restaurant (another Oasis class innovation), a Chop's Grille steakhouse and a 14-passenger Chef's Table. All but the Park Cafe come with an extra charge.

     The makeover also brought a new atrium bar concept called R Bar first introduced onboard Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas, and the line also overhauled the ship's iconic Viking Crown Lounge.
Rhapsody of the Seas this week will embark on a 15-night voyage from Singapore to Sydney before sailing across the Pacific via Hawaii to Alaska for the summer season. In Alaska, Rhapsody of the Seas will sail every Friday on seven-night, round-trip cruises from Seattle, calling at Juneau and Skagway, Alaska, and Victoria, B.C.

     Built at the Chantiers de L'Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France, the 14-year-old Rhapsody of the Seas set sail on its maiden voyage on May 19, 1997.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Treasures of Machu Picchu

As many a Peruvian traveler can tell you, climbing Machu Picchu is easy, especially if you take one of those tourist buses that do most of the work. It's embracing Cuzco that can be hard.
Cuzco (often spelled Cusco) usually is the Peruvian city you fly into before catching the train through the Sacred Valley to those famous mountaintop ruins at Machu Picchu. But Cuzco is much more than a gateway.
In the 15th century, it was the capital of the Incan empire, a wealthy city whose stone buildings, which still form the skeleton of the city, were chiseled and placed with astounding precision. Then in 1533, with the Incas weakened by civil war, Spanish soldiers showed up with rifles and horses to grab the gold and silver and slay those who resisted. They built a colonial capital atop the Incan city, constructing Catholic churches over the most revered Incan temples. Spain ruled until Peru won independence in the 1820s.
Nowadays, the city's population is 300,000 to 400,000, a blend of Spanish and native Quechua bloodlines, and Cuzco's stone skeleton is enveloped in one of the most muscular tourist economies in all of South America. Catering to jet-setters and backpackers alike, the city hums with swishy restaurants, cheap hostels, upscale boutiques, tacky souvenir shops and hundreds of posh hotel rooms, yet you still see campesinos bearing sheaves of barley or peddling embroidery on street corners. When the Southern Hemisphere's winter solstice arrives each June, revelers take to the streets for the Inti Raymi festival, a scene that looks like Mardi Gras with llamas.
Cuzco is not for the faint of heart or lungs, nor for the traveler who wants everything easy, tidy and genteel. Not only does it stand between you and that beloved Incan mountaintop, but it also stands about 11,000 feet above sea level — about 3,000 feet taller than Machu Picchu — because of the tilt of the Sacred Valley.
"That causes a very interesting situation in your body," guide Enrique Medina reminded me soon after my arrival in May. "Take it easy, have a coca tea and drink a lot of water."
And while you're at it, tune out the fast-talking touts and peddlers who will otherwise mar your views of native Cuzco, colonial Cuzco and even crossroads Cuzco.
This was my third visit to Cuzco in 24 years. I came home with these lessons in mind.
The streets and the museums deserve equal time.
History is so alive in the city's streets, among the throngs at the San Pedro Market and at the sprawling Sacsayhuaman ruins, it might seem a shame to spend too many hours indoors. But especially when Cuzco gets cold, you can't ignore Qorikancha (also spelled Coricancha), the former Incan headquarters that was later converted into the Convento de Santo Domingo de Cuzco or the Monastery of Santa Catalina, whose 13 remaining nuns may be outnumbered by the mannequins on display.
The same goes for the elegant Museo de Arte Precolumbino, or MAP, and the larger but humbler Inka Museum. Also, authorities last year announced plans to display hundreds of Machu Picchu artifacts, collected by explorer Hiram Bingham, in the Casa Concha mansion on Santa Catalina Ancha Street, but the timetable remains unclear.
Eat your potatoes.
Nobody knows more than the chefs of Cuzco about potatoes, corn, alpaca or cui (a.k.a. cuy, a.k.a. guinea pig). On the courtyard of the Pacha Papa restaurant, you listen to a harpist while digging into an alpaca brochette.
At the MAP Café, the kitchen mixes traditional and molecular cuisine, which in my case resulted in too-sweet gazpacho followed by a tasty salmon main course. At Chicha, a pricey, busy upstairs restaurant opened in 2009 by Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio, great pork medallions await.
See Barrio San Blas, and think about sleeping there.
Stand in the Plaza de Armas. Turn toward the nearest hill and march past the cathedral and up the narrow, cobblestoned street. For a hearty breakfast or lunch in the company of backpackers from around the planet, pause at Jack's Café on Choquechaka Street.
Then continue, and in no time you'll be in San Blas, a hillside barrio that spills down to the plaza and where global visitors mingle with Cuzco's artistic types. Grab a snack at the tiny, orange-walled Café de Mama Oli (199 Plazoleta Nazarenas), and peek at the lobby of the Hotel Monasterio, where rates routinely run $400 and up a night. This old monastery, built in the 1590s, was converted 47 years ago into a lodging with two courtyards and museum-worthy art. (If you go in March, stay three nights and pay upfront, you can get rooms here for as little as $235.) Then have a look at the Amaru Hostal, a block away, with pleasant, modest rooms for about $50 a night. (I wish I'd slept there instead of at the Andina Classic Cuzco Plaza, where I paid about $140 for a tiny room.)
Beware the plaza, behold the cathedral.
In pictures, the Plaza de Armas looks great — a big sun-splashed rectangle with fountains and grass and strolling vendors and benches for weary travelers. Up close, it's just as pretty, but it can be a sort of battlefield. To cross it, you'll need to fend off the school-aged girls selling woven goods and massages, school-aged boys shining shoes and forcefully hawking little paintings that will never hang in the Hotel Monasterio. If you don't want to buy, avoid eye contact and get into that big, brooding building with the green doors, the cathedral.
Begun in the 1550s and completed in the 1660s, it includes a 25-foot-high "Last Supper" painting by Marcos Zapata behind the main altar. Look closely and you'll see Christ and his disciples sitting before plates of roasted vizcacha (comparable to chinchilla). You'll also see a chapel dedicated to Our Lord of the Earthquakes, not a surprise, given that major quakes struck the city in 1650 and 1950

Monday, March 19, 2012

Alaska and Disney - What a Team

Alaska is one of the top destinations for cruisers.  Families are becoming increasingly popular in a region that in the past has shown a majority of older, more established couples.  Disney Cruise Line will be joined in Seattle by Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises. Don't be surprised if you now start running into Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse on the Seattle Waterfront.  But, enjoy it while you can - next year, Disney will move to Vancouver.

Disney will offer 15 sailings this summer from Seattle with stops at the Tracy Arm Fjord, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, as well as the Canadian city of Victoria.  Disney will be offering some fun extras this year as well.  Kids can pan gold with Donald Duck in Ketchikan, soar over the Juneau Ice Field by helicopter, land on a glacier, and help prepare the sled dogs for mushing.

Whether you are aiming for a high-adventure, fun-filled cruise or a relaxed and luxurious experience, I can help you cross this fabulous destination off of your bucket list.

Contact Michelle at 210-858-6399 or