Tampa Girls Weekend Fun

Birthdays are a perfect excuse to visit long distance friends so I recently hopped to Tampa for the weekend to get a taste of this South Florida destination and celebrate with friends. A weekend trip for a purpose is great as you get to wash away some of the excuses that normally plague a short trip.  Instead of worrying about ticket prices or how to work time off in your hectic schedule it becomes a lot easier to just bite the bullet and commit.  When you are visiting a new city the choice is even more tempting as you can get some of the highlights of a city in a very fun weekend with friends.

For this trip as I have amazingly chic friends I got some of the best food and drinks that the city of Tampa had to over. Fresh off the plane, thanks to a prime airport location, I quickly started my Tampa tour and the super sophisticated Ocean Prime.  This was my first time trying this is a national restaurant chain and I was definitely not disappointed.  The lounge and bar area have a cool kids vibe flowing from the staff to the guests.  The smoking Berries and Bubbles cocktail caught my eye as soon as I walked in and with first sip I was in love.  The food and service combined with this intoxicating cocktail started my night off on a high note.  To keep the party going in Tampa is easy as pie as they have several bar areas which making something you like a breeze.  As bar hopping is a serious past time of mine it was easy to go from grunge, to bar, to hookah, and even to live music so finding something up your alley is almost guaranteed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a long night of fun and a nice day of taking advantage of some of the great shopping Tampa had to offer it was time for a birthday dinner. Where else should you celebrate one of your most fabulous friends than the world renowned Bern’s Steak House.  To say the restaurant is a culinary experience is an understatement.  From the ornate decorations to the completely separate dessert restaurant the experience at Bern’s is top of the line.  While I am not a big steak person, I could not resist as you look at the giant menu of options.  Even more exciting is that you come in with the expectations you are about to give away your first born for your meal and I was pleasantly surprised with the cost of the food considering we got course after course of exquisite dishes.  For some extra bonus points you have the opportunity after your meal to tour the kitchen, including in house butcher, and wine cellar.  A great way to appreciate your gastronomic adventure at Bern’s even more.

 

Now of course everything I did in Tampa did not consist of food and drink but those were definitely some highlights. All in all Tampa was a cool city that had a mix of small town closeness with stylish city flare.  With their closeness to the water and constant festival city one thing is for certain, Tampa and its residents know how to have fun!

Tips for staying above the travel transportation learning curve

On my most recent trip to Japan I was reminded of the importance of staying on your p’s and q’s to move around a new city as you learn the landscape.  It’s easy to have expectations that things should just work out our way while putting little time and attention into how this will actually happen.  Traveling in Japan, for instance, with all of the English accommodations, you can easily forget the importance of knowing some words or phrases in Japanese in order to ensure you can smoothly move around.  As I tackled hailing a cab from the Tokyo Tower and hopped in a cab where the driver spoke no English that lead to Battle Royale when it was time to pay I was reminded of some simple tips that would have made the night a lot smoother

Take notes on landmarks and directions – It is no fun being lost in a strange city.  Don’t’ assume everyone will have an idea of your destination.  If you are leaving your hotel take note of important physical markers that can assist others helping you find your way back home.

Your phone can be a resource even without service or data – International service can be very expensive with iffy coverage at best.  This doesn’t mean you can’t use your phone.  The voice recorder is a great way to provide information in a different language to others.  Also, have your hotel concierge record the name and directions to your hotel in the language of the country you are in or take a picture of a map directing others to its locations are great tools for finding your way back.

Ask questions before committing to a service – Transportation in other countries is notoriously a mix bag depending on the city and the particular driver you get.  I learned in Italy pretty quickly that cab prices can be high and can be low but asking before you take off prevents you from getting locked into a war of words where neith3er party knows what the other is saying.  Asking ahead gives you leverage to negotiate or find some alternatives if you can’t agree.  If you want to use a comfort from home, check ahead if options such as Uber are available where you are internationally. 

Use your other experiences to increase your travel savvy – I was never so happy to have a New Yorker for a college roommate than when I had a cab driver attempt to overcharge me in Japan.  As soon we took off I saw he neither knew where he was going, nor what I was saying and was too stubborn to do anything about either problem.  So when he tried to triple the charge for my return trip than I paid for my arrival it was on.  Learning not to let people take advantage of you prevents you from becoming a walking doormat internationally.  I quickly pulled out my New York negotiation skills and the haggling began.  AT the end of it I had to hop out a cab but maybe a lesson will be learned about playing black women in cabs by this cab driver.

Be diverse in your back up plans – From addresses written in foreign languages to maps to asking your hotel for an international contact you have to plan for all the things that can go wrong while still being light on your feet.  I always grab a map at my hotel and ask for details on the area that I am staying in.  Your concierge is there for a reason so take a moment to discover what a local would know about your location as the small things may be important later when you are out about exploring away from the welcoming staff at your hotel.

AMEX Business Platinum the go to for rewards travel

American Express Business Platinum just took points credit cards to a whole new level with 50% points refunds on flights. Without question I am a travel points fanatic.  The benefit is a key component to my travel agenda, using it everywhere from booking rooms to flights.  Combining great cards with strong points earning capability is a great way to add more options into when and how you book.  One of the best cards in my arsenal, the American Express Business Platinum, just got a whole lot better with the offering for flights and it is just too good to not share.  The AMEX Business Platinum was already a go to of mine because it is benefit packed.  For instance, they frequently offer special offers that you can enroll in for discounts and rebates on purchases at stores and restaurants you already visit.  Additional card holder benefits include access to the Centurion Lounge when you travel, reimbursement for TSA pre-check enrollment, and a refund of discretionary charges at your airline of choice.  When you use them all of these benefits quickly add up above and beyond your annual fee. Before the new flight bonus it was a toss-up if it made more sense to transfer my points to United and book reward travel or purchase a ticket with points on the AMEX website.  Now there is no question booking with points gets you flying at essentially half the price.

Now if this is sounding too good to be true, I understand as I nervously waited after my first booking to see if a refund would indeed happen. I learned though that the points refund happens about 24 hours after booking, probably in line with their 24 hour free cancellation policy, and then voila the points are back in your account.  There are of course a couple of drawbacks, as nothing in life is perfect.  First you need the available funds in the account as the flight is first charged and the points are used to pay on your credit account after booking.  The second is that you need points and lots of them.  Using the card for purchases and then transferring the payment immediately has worked for me as the card is not a revolving account so it could result with a very sad billing statement if you don’t do some checks and balances on your spending.  Lastly the bonus is on your airline of choice that you enroll with AMEX either at activation or annually so choose wisely on an airline that is convenient for your city.  All in all though the points bonus is the truth and really gives you more for less.

Buckle your seatbeat! My guide to traveling with young children

One of the question I am most frequently asked about my travel plans is how do I successfully travel with a young child. Well I am not sure how successfully I do it as I have endured pee, pooh, puke and screaming in my adventures in traveling with my son but travel we do as we are 2 continents and five countries down as we celebrate his 18th month.  While I am no expert in how to do it without tears, and I mean my own tears not his, I have learned some tips to survive the journey.

1 – Study your child’s habits and proceed accordingly: Knowing what your child’s daily habits are an important way to cut down on surprises during a trip. If they nap every day at noon, you wanting to see a landmark on a given day does not change that habit for them. As best you can keeping with a child’s normal schedule helps cut down on them acting out of character. This means even testing what they do if they are off schedule so you can know how bad it can get. While I do not suggest you plan a whole vacation around your child’s home schedule knowing what you are in for helps you keep calm when they are not their normal sunshine state. Please note if your child is typically a wild child or requires bribing to get them on track this will not change and you should still proceed accordingly (vacations do not make angels out of children, especially small ones

2 – Plan Smart: From travel gear to snacks on hand, there is a lot that preparation can do to keep you relaxed and your kids happen. One of the best decisions I made was investing in a small stroller/car seat combo that makes the transition from plane to walking to car a breeze. This doesn’t mean try to bring your house with you because that is stressful in other ways. Just pack 3 to 4 essentials and realize that sometimes nothing will make your kid happy so you have to keep it moving. When it comes to fights a lot of great planning can come in your seat selection. This of course takes planning or surcharged rates but being close to loved ones, bathrooms or even, crib accessibility on overnight flights can be key to a win.

3 -Shit happens: Literally and figuratively shit happens. Knowing the unexpected will happen gives you a chance to make peace with it. So if you pull the unlucky card to have the stomach sickness inflight with a small child you can do what you can and forget about the rest. Place your bet on the fact that your child won’t be a perfect angel and you can be responsive to the things that don’t go as smoothly as you would hope.

4 – Get over yourself: Part of the concern we have is what others will think of us when our kids are not perfect travel buddies. Yes you will get the annoyed glares when you walk on the plane but don’t take it so personal. Most of us have travelled with and without children so we know both sides of the coin.   Children are as much a part of plane expectations as people stealing your armrest and the occasion passenger with BO. Swallowing your pride, offering an occasional apology when it is due, and working to make your child comfortable and no menace to others is the best you can do, getting worked up about falling short of perfection will only stress you and your child.

Fort Lauderdale, an often overlooked jewel of South Florida

fort-lauderdale-vacation-6Fort Lauderdale, while often overlooked for its flashier cousin Miami, is a great place to visit in South Florida. Much of the things people treasure are found in Fort Lauderdale, beautiful beaches, great shopping, and a pletera of party options are all found in the 45 minute trek up from South Beach.  In my year of living in Miami I grew to love Fort Lauderdale as a smaller, less expensive, and more convenient alternative to Miami Beach fun.  As I travelled back with kids in tow on a quick summer get away I found these endearing features to still be true for Fort Lauderdale.

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One of the biggest attractions people look for when travelling to South Florida is the beach. With fairly easy parking access to great beaches and a ton of beach shopping and restaurant options the Fort Lauderdale beach is a great option when traveling with families.  A1A is a long strip so just driving along it can give you clues to the location that is perfect for you.  I like locations that are close to beach rentals so if you need a chair or some beach entertainment the option is close by.

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fort-lauderdale-vacation-5The fun of Fort Lauderdale doesn’t just stop at the beach though. The clubs and restaurants in Fort Lauderdale are simply amazing.  Areas like Las Olas offer a centrally located one stop shop for anything you could want to get into.  No matter if it is a bar hopping night or you are ready for a dance party or just want to enjoy a great meal and people watch Las Olas is a great option.  Within 5 or 6 blocks Fort Lauderdale knows how to pack a punch of fun giving you a range of options and prices.  What I love most about the configuration is that changing the scene is not a big ordeal, you can go from country, to hip hop, to jazz and perhaps even a little salsa by blowing like the wind through the Fort Lauderdale streets.  So if you want a taste of South Florida living without the super busy hustle and bustle of Miami Fort Lauderdale is a great travel destination for grown up and family fun.

Taking the tourist route in Washington DC

captiol-tour-washington-dc-2016-1When I get news of a life changing event in a loved one’s life I am ready and willing to hop on a plane to celebrate. When that celebration is in Washington DC the decision to join in on the fun is that much easier as I love the capital city.  The influx of people who are there for a the short haul with an eclectic city base of all ethnicities and walks of life ensures that no matter your style there is something right up your alley in DC.  This summer as I hopped into town for my cousin’s baby shower I was able to combine celebrating my best friend with a fun city tour with my kids making this a weekend to remember.

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Of course DC is synonymous with history so when you are in the city tackling some of our national treasures should definitely be on the list. This year I sought to upgrade my experience with a tour of the White House.  The reality of this, however, is that this is a pretty hard feat to achieve and essentially impossible without a request to your senator with the required 2 weeks lead time (believe me I tried to find my way around it).  I still scored tickets to a capital tour with a capitol staffer.  It’s amazing how history is held in the walls of the capital and a tour gives you a peak into that history as well as a re3minder of the beautiful complexity and journey our government has evolved from.  On top of that the area around the capital is gorgeous and begs for a long stroll in the park.  Steps away is also the US Botanic Garden Conservatory where you can see some beautiful trees and plants and in the middle of the summer get a much needed break from the heat.

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adult-milkshake-washington-dc-2016-2 teds-bulletin-washington-dc-2016DC is definitely a walking city, but when you plan to be on the move, the choice of where to stay can have a big impact on your mobility. I love the Georgetown area.  If you are up for a couple of miles walk then you are within striking distance to great shopping, sites, and of course great food.  Although I am addicted to some of my favorites like Ted’s Bulletin (yes please to alcoholic milkshake) and Busboys and Poets, DC is a great place to just explore.  This time I made some great discoveries in the waterfront.  With the amazing views of the city and a plectra of choices catching in the views and the vibes.  Lines are a clear give away that something delicious may be brewing close at hand and the line outside of washington-dc-2016-8Oohs and Aahs did not steer me wrong.  The soul food was some of the best I ever had with creamy homemade mac and cheese and greens that were to die for.

washington-dc-2016-9With a boat load of calories that I needed to walk off, it was once again time for my favorite DC activity…Exploring. With a quick transportation system, food places galore, a ton of unique shops, and of course history around every corner I think by foot is by far the best way to spark and adventure.  As I was filling my trip to DC with firsts I set off to visit the Smithsonian museums and parks.  smithsonian-tour-washington-dc-2016This huge complex of museums can give you everything you are looking for, from art to science to history.  I went for an old reliable when it comes to traveling with kids, the National Museum of Natural History. washington-dc-2016-10This interwoven museum sleekly guides guest in an out of a flow of exhibits which is great for keeping the kids busy and occupied.  As an Smithsonian adventure includes easy access to the Smithsonian Gardens, National Mall and great views of our national treasures it was a great day where both mommy and kiddos ended tired but utterly happy.

Making the most of Milan

duomo-1After a week at sea, there is nothing like coming back to land again, and if that land is Milan you are especially lucky. After a wonderful seven day cruise, a train ride back from Genova, and dizzying direction to our hotel we wind up in Milan and quickly recover to hit the streets.  After all the work to research my cruise destinations I was on the short end side of knowledge when it came to what to do in Milan.  Luckily my hotel was extraordinary and I was able to quickly learn that Duomo was the place to visit when in Milan.  With that the hotel car whisked us away to the Duomo area, where I quickly could see I would be in trouble if I did not keep myself busy with all of the shopping options that surrounded me at every corner.

galleria-vittorio-emanuele-7galleria-vittorio-emanuele-1The Duomo pavilion is a huge concourse of shopping, churches, restaurants and museums that attract thousands of international tourist each year. The first stop for us was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.  While the beautiful open air pavilion was full of stores I had to swear off due to a week of too much fun on vacation, the plaza easily lured us to some great eats as the smell of genuine Italian cuisine whiffed passed our noses.  We grabbed a seat in the covered patio that allowed me to do two of my favorite things, eat and people watch.  With pizza, pasta, fresh bread and wine on deck I was in heaven as I watched the hustle and bustle of the stylish visitors on deck.

 

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da-vinci-museum da-vinci-museum-2As I was still trying to get my footing on the city map after lunch I wandered in the opposite direction of Duomo and right into a surprise highlight for my trip… the Leonardo Da Vinci museum. While he may be renowned as an artist, Da Vinci was a true renaissance man, conquering everything from flying machines to the Last Supper.  The museum is a great fit for the family as many of his drawings have been mocked up so you can see what the machine designs would be.  From submarines to war machines this museum had it all.  On top of that given the painting the Last Supper is a hard ticket to get your hands on, you can check out a 3D replica of the painting at the museum and hear the interesting backstory behind the masterpiece.  This museum was so amazing I actually spent a little too long and had to hurry out to catch the real purpose of my outing…Duomo Cathedral.

duomo-front duomo-side duomo-square duomo-catacombs duomo-cathedralThe majestic exterior of the church wets your palette to the treasures that lie within, under and even on top of the church.  I wanted a taste of it all so I brought a full tour ticket with elevator access for the Duomo rooftop.  After a quick tour of the church that still has mass throughout the day and different access for church goers, we headed down to the catacombs.  This excavated part of the church guides you through the burial area for many thousands of years ago.  With a mix of eerily creepy and unarguably interesting information it is a great place for your horror and history buff alike.

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Next up was the Duomo rooftops. Upon approach with our lift tickets we were informed that the stroller was not allowed.  After some convincing I got a pass but please note if walking is an issue the rooftops are a hard place to navigate.  The walkway takes you around the Duomo rooftop and even allows you to walk on the granite of the rooftop in some places.  The scene is awe inspiring.  It is truly a 360 degree view of the city and I great opportunity to appreciate craftsmanship and architecture from hundreds of years before.  That being said climbing up and down all of that area with a heavy baby and a car seat is beyond a challenge.  In an attempt to ease the pain in my arms we bolted for the stairs before making it back to the elevator. Unfortunately that only ended my day with both my arms and legs in agony, but my heart and mind were all in on this amazing peak into Milan.

Exploring the timeless beauty of Malta

valletta-11As a water sign, water destinations always represent a taste of paradise for me and a visit to the beautiful island of Malta was no exception! Stepping into Malta you can almost feel the spirit of another day and time with remnants of famous civilizations represented all over modern day Malta.  The country is rich in history, from the shipwreck of St. Paul to its conquer by Napoleon, so  with a goal of mixing history and exploration I decided on a half day tour to check out the city.

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First stop up on my tour was the historic city of Mdina.  As with most European tours you are going to see churches galore.  What I loved about Mdina, though, is the authentic taste of an ancient lifestyle you receive.   From the small, cobblestone streets to the impressive palaces each steps take you back centuries as you walked through the walls of the city that previously made it a fortress.  They also offer huge offerings in hand-blown glass for prices that really will blow you away.

 

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valletta-7After Mdina, we travelled to the capital of Valletta.  The city is built on a grid, making it not only easy to navigate, but also gives you breathtaking ocean views and breezes around every corner.  Walking in the city entrance surrounded by the many flags representing its heritage you get a glimpse of just how pivotal the city was.  The St. John’s Co-Cathedral was at the top of the list and to my pleasant surprise it was a church, museum and so much more.  St. John’s definitely gives a different, more elaborate feeling than many other churches and you have the opportunity to see masterpieces of the famed painter Caravaggio while there.

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valletta-9 valletta-17After enjoying the cathedral you are just a quick walk away from the Upper Barrakka Gardens.  This is a great place to enjoy the scenic views Malta has to offer of not only the ocean but the city itself. You also have a premium placement from there for a lot of great restaurants.  I wandered into I found a rooftop restaurant that caught my eye.  Not only did I enjoy some great food and wine, the views and calming sea breeze definitely did a body good.  With street vendors and shopping throughout the peaceful streets making a day in Valletta goes by in a breeze and like that it was time to take the quick walk down to the pier. This timeless city is a great break in between the hustle and bustle of a quick European tour and definitely left me wanting for more in Malta.

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Taking on Sicily with a stop in Palermo

horse-drawn-carriage-in-palmeroOutside a scene from the Godfather, planning a trip to Palmero, Italy had never been on my radar.  The blessing about a cruise itinerary, however, is it can force you to explore parts of a country that previously were not at all on your map.  After getting a little of a late start from a full day of exploration in Rome, we hopped off the boat and on to a Palmero adventure.

As with many cities that have an active tourist influx, there was an assortment of choices of what to do in Palmero right off the boat.  Of course with research you can have a pretty good idea of what is a highlight on your list.  As I had not gotten around to that part my hopes were to grab some good food at best and make the most of it.  What caught my eye upon exiting the boat was the horse drawn carriage tours.  My daughter has a mild horse obsession and I thought it would be a great way to make some ground in exploring Palmero under the guidance of a local.

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Of course with this being Italy negotiation is key and the optimal time for that is before you agree to anything.  This was a lesson in retrospect for me, though and after hearing the price we hopped in and off to our tour.  palermo-12 palermo-3Palmero is an old town and the balance between the old and new results in a busy city patiently waiting for the stream of horse drawn tours all through the city.  These tours offer several city highlights that you can choose to hit or miss during your tour.  We started with a stop at an old opera house that looked relatively interesting.  After getting locked in and a small panic attack at the thought of being locked in this Italian opera house we thought pass bys were just as good as full time exploration.  I got to see the Theatro Massimo stairs of the famous Godfather scene which covered what I knew of Palermo before I went.  Churches like the Oratorio di Santa City are always breathtaking and a good way to slow down parts of your trip and just enjoy and be thankful.

Probably what we like best about this type of tour option is the ability to customize it to just what you want, when you want.  If I say the Fontana Pretoria that struck my fancy I was able to say yes I love it stop or nope I’ve seen 5 keep moving.  One of my favorites stops was the tree garden, Orto botanico di Palermo, within the city.   orto-botanico-di-palermo-3Something about trees that have lived from hundreds of years put in in total awe of Mother Nature.  The fact that I got to combine this with hop offs in stores, churches, and landmarks alike put this tour pretty high on the top of my list on how to get around Palmero. 

Sailing the Mediterranean with MSC Cruises

MSC Cruise Line (3)Although not a household name in America MSC Cruises is one of the world’s largest cruise lines and offers cruises to a wide variety of destinations from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and even to the Orient. With my previous experience only being US cruise lines, however, my introduction to MSC came out of convenience.  Because I knew my goal for 2016 Spring Break was to take a cruise in the Mediterranean the options were limited. As the weather in the Mediterranean at this time is not the warmest in March I found many of the cruise lines I was familiar with did not offer the Mediterranean route at that time.  So MSC Cruises quickly became my first and only choice for my adventure.MSC Cruise Line (4)

MSC Cruises managed to deliver a mix of both comfort and luxury in a wealth of offerings that was honestly too much for me to explore on this first trip. Setting off on an adventure is normally invigorating, however the plane, train and automobile it took me to get on the boat wore me out!  Being Jet Lagged is a beast and with daily ports in some really amazing locations it is easy to get busy with the things there are too do off the boat.  Still in really taking the time to explore I was able to find a little bit of everything making it a spot on choice for family entertainment.  From shows to gambling to fantastic swimming pools there was always an option for how to spend your time while on the ship.  With a full list of activities on the daily rooster it almost becomes difficult to remind yourself that vacationing does require some rest and relaxation on the list.

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Here is the quick roundup of some of the most important components of MSC Cruises:

MSC Cruise Line (5)Dining: Throughout my seven days I had what felt like an authentic variety of Mediterranean and European options. Certainly there were days that were a little more of what I like to eat, like this delicioso lobster, but every day there were some basic staples that you could choose like salads and soups.  Each meal had a variety of courses so even if one missed the mark you still left the table feeling satisfied.

Entertainment: The full on theatre show I was only able to catch once but it was a full on dancing and singing spectacle. Each night offered two main stage professional shows as well as a kids dance competition that lasted throughout the sailing.  For me what was a little more accessible was the entertainment throughout the ship from singing to dance lessons.  This is a great way to hop in and be involved as you wander the ship and stay as long (or as little) as you like.  Of course the casino also had a big pull for me but what probably pulled me the quickest was the nightly BINGO games!  If shows are not your speed there was also dance parties in a couple of locations as well as a sports bar and small bowling alley.  In room entertainment was a little more limited as the channels were primarily not English and those that did show in English were all news channels.  After purchasing the Wi-Fi, however, I was able to master Netflix and Chill while finishing our cruise.

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Beauty: Time did not allow for a full spa visit but the sauna options on the cruise were right on point. I avoided the crowd with morning and evening visits to make sure I got a chance to unwind in between all the sightseeing.  I was able to get a pretty good product demonstration including facial while on the cruise and highly recommend it.  Not only did I love the products it is a great use of time during your sea day without breaking the bank.

MSC Cruise Line (6)Pools: When I was planning for a vacation where the temperatures did not even peak in the 70’s, swimming was pretty far from my mind. Once I got on board, however, and realized just how many of the pools were either indoor or offered a hot tub option I had to stop immediately and join in on the fun.  Although there was a pretty big demand at the indoor pools I am sure with the summer months the outdoor pools get a lot of action.  No matter the time of year however, the view of the water from the pools on the top decks is phenomenal.

Customer Service: Perhaps my favorite part of this cruise line was the staff. Everyone was friendly and willing to help.  As I celebrated my birthday on the ship the chocolate covered strawberries were a great night cap and ended an amazing day on a high note.  With the international staff I was able to hear a little about destinations all over the world and they made sure to point me in the right direction and keep a smile on my face.

All in all I really enjoyed my MSC experience!!!  The great attitudes and attention of the staff definitely would have me check out a MSC cruise all over again.

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