Category Archives: Cruises

What should I take on my cruise?


If you’re a first time cruiser, you might wonder whether half the travel gear, gadgets, and knick knacks out there are truly helpful to the traveler or just a way for someone to make a few dollars. Here are a few of the essentials I include in my suitcase when I take to the high seas.

  1. Motion sickness prevention. It is said that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Never was that so true as in this case. I prefer to take Bonine, because it’s once per day, chewable and pleasant tasting, and it doesn’t make me sleepy. Maybe your favorite is Dramamine, peppermint oil, or the acupressure bracelet. Whatever you use, make sure to get a running start with it before you board the ship. I have become complacent on a cruise in the past and forgone the motion tablets. When I did, I paid the price. Once I start feeling a little sick, it’s difficult to get back to normal. But starting early and keeping up with the doses means I don’t have to get sick at all.
  2. Waterproof pouch for my phone, etc. This is handy for being next to the pool, going to a beach, hiking near waterfalls, or any other activity where it’s smart to provide your phone with a little extra protection from water.
  3.  Lanyard for my room key. I’ll admit that I used to think these were incredibly dorky. Spend a day or two at sea in pocketless capri pants, walking all over the place with your key card in your hand, and you’ll feel the way I do now – can’t live without them. On my last cruise, I was warned not to keep my key card next to my phone, or else the card would become demagnetized. After doing it twice accidentally and not being able to get into my room, I learned my lesson. The lanyard will keep your hands free as your key card dangles safely around your neck (far from your phone).
  4.  Luggage tag covers. These are really handy if you board the ship on a rainy day. The luggage tags provided to you by the cruise lines these days are electronic, so you have to print them out and attach them to your suitcase. No matter how many times you fold them over and how strong they are, the letters will be smeared if they get wet. Putting your paper tags inside these plastic covers will ensure that your bags are still waiting for you in the correct spot when disembark on the last day.

5. Natural sunscreen and bug spray. These go without saying, really, and they are not specific to cruising. I prefer natural products, particularly an insect repellent that uses lemon and eucalyptus instead of deet.

6. Lightweight, foldable, drawstring knapsack. If nothing else, having one of these hiding inside your suitcase is a good idea for carrying souvenirs home. I find that they are great for exploring and doing activities on shore, leaving your hands free. Instead of lugging my purse around, I can put a lightweight backpack on my back with just the essentials from my handbag, a notebook and pen, my phone (in the waterproof pouch, of course), and a water bottle. There’s a little extra room for small purchases along the way, as well.

This not a comprehensive list of everything that I take, but it’s a few of the must-haves that I think are helpful.

To book your next cruise, contact Azalea Travel, a proud ASTA member, and a proud CLIA member!

Disconnecting feels good.

Vacation seems to be no exception to the new rule that we are all accessible 24 hours per day. Communication seems to have taken over our lives. E-mail, texting, and social media are always in our back pockets (or purses). It’s no longer just a convenience.

Cruise lines, resorts, and phone companies have all gladly built systems to accommodate those workaholics, social mediaholics, and parents with separation anxiety trying to have a romantic getaway who just can’t seem to disconnect. One of the most common questions I get from cruise shoppers is how they can access WiFi on the ship. A few cruise lines will even include the WiFi for free. But what’s the real benefit? Hasn’t this stuff overrun our lives? What happened to the days of “Gone Fishin’?”

I submit that we should backtrack in time to the days before technology took over. When you board the cruise ship, put your phone in airplane mode and leave it there until you return home. There are only a small handful of things that truly need your attention when you’re on vacation. Your family and friends with whom you are traveling are at the top of that list. There are undoubtedly reasons why some folks want to maintain the ability to connect with home, but why not keep it to a minimum? Why not do what you went on vacation to do in the first place? Have a different experience, and get a change of scenery.

I was recently forced (by spotty WiFi) to put the phone down and be present in the moment. This is what I saw:

Oh, look! I’m out on the ocean.


Oh, HEY, Cuba! (Look closely, and you can see it. But only if you’re paying attention and not looking at your phone.)


Oooh, another ship.  I wish I had brought binoculars. Note to self for next cruise . . .


Now Cuba is so close, I can almost touch it. (We were just sailing past it, though.)


And this view was a great backdrop for my reflections on the way home:


I spent considerable time on my balcony, just staring at the sea. I had to time to think, pray, and write in my journal. I did some yoga out there, drank some coffee, and contemplated life with the gentle splash from the bow as background music. When I left my stateroom, I ate some meals in peace, without scrolling through my newsfeed or reading Huffpost. Other meals were taken in the company of new friends, who I never would have met with my nose pointed at my phone or tablet. We all toted our phones around, but only to be used as cameras. By the end of the week, I felt reacquainted with myself. There was no noise in my head from the latest political articles on Facebook, because I hadn’t read them. And they didn’t matter to me.

When we returned to the dock in Miami, I hesitantly switched my phone out of airplane mode. When I did, the thing buzzed for a good 60 seconds with notifications, texts, etc. Stuff happened while I was gone, like getting summoned for jury duty, a friend announcing she was moving away, bills coming in, an emergency allergy shot for my son. But guess what? Everyone and everything was okay until I got home. The world did not fall apart because I went away for a week. After my electronics were back on, I found that I had learned not to reach for the blasted things every 10 seconds.

I came home refreshed, rested, and happy. And always ready to go back and do it again! Never again will I have to be forced to unplug. I can’t wait until the next time I get to do it.

So, take my advice, and totally unplug on your next trip.

Be present in the moment.

You won’t regret it.

Azalea Travel, Proud member of ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents)

Fathom’s Dominican Republic Cruise – Part 2 Impact Activities


In my last post, I mentioned that a cruise to the Dominican Republic on Fathom is more than a vacation; it’s life changing. Where that phenomenon takes place is on the impact activities on land. You certainly may have an epiphany while you’re snorkeling, or you may be fulfilling a lifelong dream on your offshore fishing charter, but the impact activities are where you have the greatest potential to reach deep down and learn something new about yourself.

This out-of-the-ordinary seven night itinerary sails from Miami on Sundays, giving you a full day at sea on Monday, arriving in Amber Cove on Tuesday at midday, and sailing again on Friday afternoon. After another day at sea Saturday, you’re back in Miami by Sunday morning. There are 6 time slots during which you can schedule various activities or shore excursions. Fathom recommends that you participate in three impact activities, so that’s what I did. I started off with something easy and relaxing, though: the Playa Dorada Beach excursion. It was a nice enough beach, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to spend an afternoon being a beach bum.

When I returned to the ship, I rode the elevator with a lady who had just been telling someone how she participated in the Community English impact activity. She said to me half-jokingly, “I saved the world today. What did you do?” I looked her square in the eye and said, “I went to the beach!” I then explained that I would be doing impact activities later in the week.

On Wednesday morning, I took a bus ride into the mountains to Altamira, where Chocal is located. This is an organic chocolate factory run by and for women who used to have to travel far away from their families to find work. These women can work close to home now, and with the help of Fathom travelers, they will be able to meet demand for their product. This will, in turn, enable them to hire other people with the added revenue, and get their business rolling. Once Chocal is off and running, Fathom will find another such business to assist. It’s a wonderful way to leave a lasting economic impact on the region. It’s more than just buying trinkets and leaving a few dollars behind, although that helps, too.


We helped the women and employees of Chocal sort beans, sift through and pick out shells from processed beans, pour chocolate into candy forms, and package/label the bars and candies. It was quick, lively work, peppered with laughter and jokes.  The Dominican people I encountered love to laugh and make jokes. For those of us who couldn’t speak more than a few Spanish words, there were hand gestures and nodding and such going while we tried to figure out how to tell the bad cacao beans from the good ones.  After working all morning, we had a brief tour of the cacao tree nursery, then were served a delicious traditional meal in the community center next door.


I still wasn’t sure we were actually helping, though. I had a fleeting thought that maybe the cruise line was paying these businesses to allow tourists to come and in feel like they were doing something good. But I realized that for every job station, there was one local person supervising us, while about six or eight of us worked.  So, for the hours we were there, we may have worked more slowly than the women themselves would have, but there were still many people doing the work that one person would normally have done.  Okay, I was about halfway convinced that this could make an impact.

I was a little tired after helping the ladies at Chocal all morning, but still had to get on another bus and visit Puerto Plata’s Top Ten Places to See. This was what I refer to as my “rock star day,” because I did an impact activity and an excursion.  It can be a tight schedule, depending on the things you choose.  I highly recommend going to the shore excursion desk once you are on the ship and confirming that you have not overbooked yourself. The Top Ten tour was good, and like the other traditional excursions, it was priced a little lower than most of the other cruise lines’ excursions. It was very reasonable, and the value was about right for what I paid.

Thank goodness, I slept very well on the ship, because this busiest day really wore me out.


Thursday, I took the hour-long bumpy bus ride up the mountain to a school in a small village, where we worked with sixth graders on their conversational English. The children greeted us in the library with a dance, after which we did a few icebreakers.


There were about 30 travelers and about 40 students, so many of us worked one-on-one with students. Since I speak little to no Spanish and they are just beginning their English learning journey, there wasn’t much conversation, unfortunately.  I had managed to figure out how to say that I have one son and ask whether they had brothers and sisters. But mostly, we worked on the task at hand: greetings, such as “Nice to meet you,” a few simple vocabulary words, and the alphabet in English. One young girl and I would just laugh when we got to the letter W, because it is so difficult and strange.



You might wonder why in the world Dominican children who live in a small village in the mountains would need to learn English. The answer is simple: because of Americans like me who don’t speak Spanish. American tourists are flocking to DR every day, and tourism is growing by leaps and bounds. New jobs are being created, but only for those who can speak English.  More English speakers are needed, and the best will be hired. As roughly half of the country lives below the poverty level, they are desperate for better education and a better economy. Even the teachers in this small village have very limited English. By helping these children with our language, we are empowering them to get better jobs when they grow up.


And they are so grateful and excited that we are there. Their sweet smiles really captured my heart. A few of the students stood up and told us at the end how much it means to them that we are there. Our impact guide translated for us. The last student even became teary-eyed and said, “God bless you.” When is the last time you felt that appreciated? This is was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. No, my two hours at that school will not mean that someone now speaks fluent English. But together, over time, Fathom travelers will make a difference in these children’s lives. The cumulative effect of contact with native speakers will be profound.


After we left the school, we were served a catered lunch of Dominican food at a public park. Local children were playing basketball on the court next to us and others were playing catch on a baseball field adjacent. Baseball is the most popular sport in DR. It’s said that most families with sons dream of their boys growing up to play professional baseball.

On Friday morning before departing the port at Amber Cove, we had time for one last activity. I chose to go to RePapel (a paper recycling business), which is about 10 minutes down the road from the port, in the heart of a city area. Just like everywhere else we went, children stared at the alien Americans driving up in a bus. I think we are just as fascinating to them as they are to us. As we entered RePapel, the women were chanting and clapping with enthusiasm at our arrival. We heard stories of how almost all of the women are single mothers and used to travel 4 hours to Santo Domingo to find work. They would have to leave their children behind all week long, hardly ever seeing them. But now, because they have the opportunity to own RePapel together, they can work close to home, see their children each day, and have more hope for the future.

First, I worked at various craft stations, where you can assist with making coasters and jewelry for tourists and travelers to buy. You can also help make candles, which are very much needed at RePapel. Because there is not enough electricity to go around, the city has rolling blackouts. Sometimes in the middle of their work day, the power will go out. They also give candles to some of the people who live in the neighborhood and can’t afford them. But let’s get down to the business of making recycled paper.


They do not have a shredder, so people shred the paper by hand. This was another place where I saw that we were most definitely actually helping. One lady worked with us and supervised, while about six of us did the work she would normally do by herself. At another station, we helped make the pulp for the recycled paper. We also helped sift it onto screens and put it onto boards where it can dry and become a rough, bumpy piece of paper.


The last station was the most physically demanding, where we used a piece of pipe to smooth the dried paper.


These women’s warmth and beautiful spirits were inspiring. If I thought I had never felt gratitude and appreciation like that of the students the day before, this was even more significant. As a female business owner myself, it was special to me to come alongside these women and help them in their enterprise for a couple of hours. It was meaningful to me before I even got there, but then I connected with one of the ladies who was just so full of joy and personality, that we didn’t need a spoken language to communicate. We communicated through smiles, dancing, laughter, and work. It was beautiful.


When we left that day, we were told that our group of travelers had completed, in about two hours’ time, the equivalent of three days of regular work for those ladies. Their products are in demand, and without the travelers, they will never be able to meet that demand. But with our hands working alongside theirs, they can meet demand, build their business, and create more jobs.

Some other impact activities include making water filters, mixing and pouring concrete floors in homes that have dirt floors, going to someone’s home to help an individual family with English, reforestation, and sports & arts camps when school is not in session. Since many Dominican homes don’t have access to clean water, absenteeism in schools is about 30% from waterborne illnesses. One water filter makes a big difference to the family who receives it. In the village where travelers are pouring concrete floors, about 80% of the homes have dirt floors. With Fathom travelers’ help, it is expected that every home in the village will have a concrete floor by the end of 2016. Fathom will then move on to another village.

As we sailed away from DR on Friday afternoon, I looked back at those verdant, lush mountains and thought, “I did something here. In some small way, I helped and left a positive mark on this place.” I’ve never felt that way about any other trip. I want to do it again and again.


You can be part of this incredible movement. You can have this amazing experience, just like I did. Contact Azalea Travel for more information.


Fathom’s Dominican Republic Cruise, Part 1


You’ve probably seen the Fathom Adonia in the news lately as the first ship to travel directly from the US to Cuba in over 50 years. Two weeks per month, you have an opportunity to take advantage of that incredible new itinerary. But during the other weeks, this innovative new cruise line is taking a different kind of journey. On a seven night cruise to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, you can sun yourself, go ziplining, or whatever you like, but you can also leave the Dominican Republic a little better off than you found it. You have opportunities to do volunteer work while you’re there. It’s called Impact Travel, and I just returned a few weeks ago from their second such sailing in the history of this new company.
Take a good portion of what you know about cruising and forget it. Impact Travel is a new category of travel, unto itself.
Sure, you still have an elegant, beautiful ship with lovely staterooms, outstanding service, fine dining, and a pool. It was a P&O ship in its past life.


But this is so much more than vacation. This is life-changing. It’s important. And I’ll venture so far as to say it’s not for everyone. I thought I was going down there to check out this new cruise experience for the sake of my travel agency, and I was even excited about the prospect of helping people in a third world country. But what I received was unexpected. I have never felt such appreciation and love from perfect strangers. Sure, you get “all the feels,” as they say nowadays, from doing something good for someone else. But this went beyond that in the gratitude I felt from the beautiful Dominican people.
If you’ve ever wanted to see more than the plastic-peddling tourist shops and really get inside the local experience, you will love this. All those things you might normally like to do in a cruise port are available. You have plenty of time to visit a museum or go snorkeling. But there’s also time to explore the deeper experience that is offered here. Get beside the locals and communicate with them. Go into a local home, or visit a classroom in a local school. See what life is really like, and be a part of it. I’ll go more into the impact activities in my next post. Some of the choices include: making water filters for families with no access to clean water, pouring a concrete floor in a home with a dirt floor, helping children with their English so they can get a better job when they graduate, helping local business women meet demand for their products so that they can afford to hire more Dominican workers, creating more local jobs.

Fathom operates on this concept of alongsidedness. It may not be a real word (yet), but it’s a very real concept. They asked the people of the DR what they needed most. The answer was help with education, the economy, and environment. It’s not a handout, though. In fact, handouts are not permitted. Some well-meaning person on my ship took a bag full of school supplies and was told she couldn’t take them to the school she was visiting to help children with their English. What Fathom is doing is better than just giving stuff: you’re helping the people build the resources that will enable them to get things for themselves. And they are so thankful.
Now, up to the point where you get on the ship, the experience feels pretty much like a traditional cruise. Once on the ship, you meet your Impact Guide, who is going to help you learn about the Dominican customs and essential facts. Your Impact Guide will lead your cohort group, where you can share things before and after your stay in DR: your expectations, what you learn about yourself and others, and how to move forward in your own life with this new information.
If you’re rolling your eyes about what sounds too touchy-feely for you, please know that nothing is mandatory! You are welcome to lie on the pool deck and have a drink or read in the gorgeously-appointed library instead of going to the sessions. Nothing on the ship is mandatory, even impact activities. But if you just want to go on a 7 night cruise, you might just want to choose another cruise line. I heard some folks complaining last week about things like, “There’s no soft serve ice cream machine in the buffet restaurant.” Really, that’s not why we’re here. And you can still get ice cream in a couple of other places on the ship. If you’re looking for the casino or the video arcade, you might feel a bit lost. Those are things which are not exactly in keeping with what Fathom is doing. 99% of the passengers I encountered were ready to go do some good and were excited about sharing that with other passengers.
As DR grows in tourism, there will be more and more jobs created for Dominicans who can speak English. The only problem is that not many of them do. Another one of the projects you can participate in is to go to someone’s home and help a family with their English, so they can be better equipped to work in tourism. You don’t have to speak Spanish, and the curriculum is provided for you. It’s the same curriculum we used in the classroom experience. All you need is provided. You just have to show up and have a heart open to helping.
In my next post, I will go more into detail about the projects in which I participated, and the impact we had. Rest assured, this has the potential to be a life changing trip. This is not simply a marketing gimmick. Fathom travelers are truly going to do some good in DR, and they already have. After spending four days in Puerto Plata, I told my rickshaw driver that I loved his beautiful country and its beautiful people, and that I hoped to come back again and again. I really meant it. I came away feeling a special bond to this country that I had never thought about visiting before.

I also left this place a tiny bit better than I found it. If you want to feel this way about a trip, call me. I can help you get there.
Azalea Travel

Click here to see Part 2 of my Fathom experience!


My group cruise with my friends

A cruise ship, rum, dancing, and hijinks.  It sounds too good to be true, but it happened about 20 years ago.

From Charleston, Atlanta, and Savannah, we all convened at Port Canaveral to take a three nighter to the Bahamas on the Carnival Fantasy.  It was just right for a bunch of 20-somethings. Before we even reached Port Canaveral, there were shenanigans with people hanging out of car windows and taking pictures.


The two guys in the car behind us were in our group, just in case you’re wondering. This was before everyone had cell phones, so I’m sure they wondered what my passenger was doing.

We packed a little “liquid cheer” to take with us on the ship (you are allowed a certain amount in your luggage), but for the most part, we enjoyed the frozen drinks, wine, and beer served on the ship.  Keep in mind, this was about 20 years ago. In modern times, you can actually purchase drink packages before you leave home so you won’t have to worry about that bill on the last day. That’s winning.

On the first night, we danced and ate and drank and just generally enjoyed being single and 20-something.



You will notice that I failed to get a picture of the whole group all together. This is sad, but it’s also indicative of the fact that we all did our own thing.  No one was ever tied down to a certain activity, but rarely was anyone alone, either.

On our day in Nassau, a few of us went snorkeling while others went shopping, and still others . . . never told us where they had been all day. I suspect that they may have found themselves a casino somewhere. Here are a couple of the snorkelers:


A few of us girls went on a shopping trip in Nassau in the afternoon. Everywhere we went, we kept hearing a reggae-ish song on the radio that was clearly a local favorite. We couldn’t quite make out the words, but we decided it sounded like, “Lift your leg up.” We thought it was funny and kind of random. (It turns out it topped the charts in Caribbean countries for years.)  As we strolled, arms around each others’ shoulders, down the dock back to the ship, we broke out into the chorus of the song, lifting our legs up as we went.  One local man sitting near the dock heard us and cheered us on, clearly pleased that we had adopted this Caribbean hit as our new favorite.

On our day at sea, the pool, drinks with umbrellas, and the Macarena were favorites. But that was so long ago.  The ships these days have so many things to do, it will make your head swim. Rock climbing, Surfriders, mini golf, and the list goes on.

On the last night, we ran into a storm (okay, it was the edge of a hurricane) and the ship started rocking a bit. We also had an early morning and a long drive ahead of us, so it was a good night for winding down.  After dinner, most of us gathered at a piano bar, locked arms, swayed back forth, and sang Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” with the lounge singer. Does anyone still do that anymore?  We always did that at parties and bars in the 1990s. The song has a mystical, unifying power. After the rest of us had gone to bed, one person in our group stayed late in the casino.  Turns out he was the only passenger in there, and he walked out of there $400 richer!  He recouped the whole cost of his cruise.

Here are some of us on formal night.




So, as you can see, group cruising with your friends can be one of the most fun, memorable trips you ever take. First of all, you’re with a group of people that you chose specifically for having fun.  Family is great and all, but sometimes it’s the most fun to get together with your buddies, your posse, and just take on the world with adventure in mind. Whether your adventure consists of climbing Mayan ruins, SCUBA diving, or relaxing by the pool with a Coco Loco in hand, consider the following.

Did you know that if you get enough people to go with you that you can cruise for free? True story.  Each cruise line has its own rules, but a few allow you to cruise for free as the 16th passenger, assuming you have eight staterooms with two people in each.  You know people.  And those people know people. I bet you can come up with 15 friends.

Want more details?  Contact Azalea Travel!