Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo / Hotel WBF Art Stay Superior Double Room Review – Non-Smoking

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Superior Double Room

Our top value hotel pick in Sapporo, Japan
There are a lot of hotels right in the heart of Sapporo, and most of them are close to public transport. We wanted one within walking distance from the Sapporo TV Tower though, so we picked the Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo / Hotel WBF Art Stay and booked a Superior Double Non-Smoking room. In addition to the excellent location, it also has high guest ratings on HotelsCombined and has car parking available for a decent price, something that can be in short supply around the heart of the city. It’s a little confusing when comparing prices because the hotel has recently changed its name from Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo to Hotel WBF Art Stay. On some booking sites and Google Maps, it is still going by the old name.

A quick question

If you’ve stayed here as well, either in a deluxe twin room, or another room category, I’d love to hear what you thought about it. I’d also like to know what your favourite things to do in the area are. Let me know in the comments after this article!

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Our booking was paid for by us, and no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

Why we chose to stay at the Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo / Art Stay

Our primary reason for selecting this hotel is the location. It is right in the heart of Sapporo, but more importantly, it’s in easy walking distance to the Sapporo TV Tower and Odori Park. Being right here is important because we were travelling by car and didn’t want to have to pay for parking both at the tower and at the hotel.

Our secondary reasons for this choice were:

  • Car parking is available on-site at a reasonable rate.
  • The high average ratings by guests. It gets an average overall rating above 8 according to HotelsCombined reviews.
  • The rate included breakfast.
  • We liked the look of the room in the photos; it looked modern and comfortable.
  • Everywhere was expensive during Obon Festival when we visited, but this was one of the cheaper options that met our criteria.

About Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo / Art Stay and the Superior Double Room

This hotel is extremely well located in the heart of Sapporo and holds a three-star rating. In spite of a big sign, it’s a little bit inconspicuous from outside with a partially hidden entry-way, but inside there are some neat little surprises. Reception is open late but is not 24 hours, so make sure to confirm your check-in time with them in advance, and carry your keycard when you leave just in case. You need it to get back into the building at night. Opposite the reception desk is a nice little surprise. Free drinks and snacks in the hotel lounge!!!

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Free Lounge
Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Free Lounge

Besides the obligatory coffee that you can expect pretty much anywhere in Japan, the free drinks include orange juice, wine, iced tea, Appletiser, mineral water, and assorted teas. Snacks include mixed nuts and other small finger foods. I found the nibblies quickly disappeared each time more were brought out.

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Foyer Coffee Machine
Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Foyer Coffee Machine

The lounge itself is a surprisingly quiet, relaxing space. Even though it’s located at the front of the hotel and right next to reception, the area is relatively peaceful, and the lounges are comfortable. We had too much to do to spend a lot of time here, but it’s great that it is available to chill in during check-in and out or while you are waiting for a taxi.

Check-in

I was surprised actually at how little English the front desk staff knew. I don’t expect anyone to speak English in Japan, but I’d read that hotels in Sapporo typically have someone on all the time that knows some English due to its popularity with Australian tourists in snow season. So just keep in mind that you might need to do some charades. That said, the check-in process itself was very straightforward. As is usual for foreign travellers in Japan, they have to take a photocopy of the passports of all guests, and they have English paperwork available for everything else.

Matt checking in at Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo
Matt checking in at Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo

The only thing that presented a bit of a challenge with the language barrier was organising parking for our hire car. We had to communicate how big it was so they could determine if it would fit. Fortunately, we were parked near their side window so I could point to it. Then they had to communicate how the multi-story carpark worked and what we had to do to get in and out. So, here’s a quick rundown on how it works:

  1. Drive into the car park entrance behind the reception area.
  2. Get your bags out of the car as well as anything else you will need for the night.
  3. Wait for hotel staff to come out if they aren’t already there.
  4. Once staff open the doors to the car lift, they will direct you to drive in.
  5. Hop out carefully as the surfaces are uneven, and head on out.
  6. They will give you a ticket that indicates what number you are as well as a receipt that assigns your ticket number to your room number. The ticket is required to get your car out.
Parking Ticket and Receipt
Parking Ticket and Receipt

When you need to get the car out in the morning, just give them your ticket at reception, and they will get your car ready for you. Once it’s all ready, someone will come and get you, and you are all good to go!

Our car all ready to go from the Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo car park
Our car all ready to go from the Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo car park

The Superior Double Room

The superior double room is quite small. We were in 602, which is at the end of a hallway.

The small size seems prominent because it has an enormous king size bed squeezed into it, which is fantastic! In spite of the cosy size, it does have everything that you need in it.

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Superior Double Room
Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Superior Double Room

The decor is simple with an earthy colour scheme and floral patterns. It’s quite elegant and feels very upmarket.

The room includes the typical things you might expect, including a TV, fridge, work desk and air purifier. You’ll also find an ice bucket, shoe horn and polisher, and slippers.

You may have noticed there is also a tall window at the end of the room. It opens, however, it falls into the room about 10cm from the top, meaning you have to push the weight of the window back up to close it, and you can’t see much outside. What you can see is just the wall of another building about 1-2 metres away.

There is free wifi included with the room rate, and while the speed wasn’t brilliant, it was sufficient.

The bathroom

The bathroom is small, pretty similar to most Japanese pod bathrooms. However, that also means it has identical inclusions, such as a bidet toilet, and a little bath with overhead shower. It’s entirely sufficient for two people passing through but could start to feel a bit claustrophobic for an extended stay.

How did we sleep?

The bed is quite firm, but not hard. We found it quite comfortable as stomach sleepers. It is firmer than most hotel beds in Australia, but we got a great sleep. Not to mention, being a king size bed, you hardly even notice you are sharing it. Now, it isn’t a real king. It is two mattresses pushed together to make a king, so you do have that join down the middle. That said, the join wasn’t particularly prominent like it can sometimes be.

How was breakfast?

Breakfast was buffet style in the hotel restaurant, Tapio Sweets Garden.

Tapio Sweets Garden Bar
Tapio Sweets Garden Bar

The atmosphere here is serene. It is located on level three of the hotel and features a variety of both real and artificial plants and vines. These plants serve both to freshen the space and block out some of the city buildings across the road.

The view from Tapio Sweets Garden
The view from Tapio Sweets Garden

The tables look like they belong in an outdoor setting so combined with the plants you almost forget you are inside.

Outdoor atmosphere indoors
Outdoor atmosphere indoors

The food itself is decent and contains a lot of the typical breakfast buffet items you will find at most hotels around Hokkaido. The options include miso soup, salad items, fried food, steamed vegetables, rice, pickled vegetables, bread and bread rolls, teas and of course, coffee. A couple of the unique items we found here are Hokkaido Stew, a local dish, and kiwi jam, something I’ve never encountered before. If you are vegan, there are stacks of options here to enjoy!

Pros

  • Central location.
  • Close to public transport.
  • Comfortable, big bed.
  • The lounge is great.
  • On-site parking available.
  • The room is quiet.
  • Buffet breakfast available with plenty of options.
  • Recently updated rooms.
  • Free wifi.

 

Cons

  • Insufficient space for bags and suitcases even when we just had a small carry-on size suitcase each and a backpack.
  • Expensive around holidays and festivals.

 

Overall

We personally really enjoyed this hotel. The room was modern and comfortable, though definitely on the small side. The location was excellent with a MosBurger just around the corner for dinner and a short 5-minute walk to Sapporo TV Tower and Odori Park. The lounge downstairs was a pleasant surprise, and we enjoyed the overall hotel atmosphere. Breakfast was excellent with a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly choices. There was also plenty of English around the hotel with all of the hotel and breakfast information available in English as well as Japanese. For a 3-star hotel, we thought it was excellent and probably deserves a rating more like 3.5 stars.

Attractions near Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo

    

Getting to Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo / Hotel WBF Art Stay

If you are flying into Sapporo, you can rest assured that the main airport is nowhere near the city CBD, it’s technically in a different city altogether, Chitose. So to get to the hotel, you will want to either take a train, limousine bus, taxi or hire a car.

The address is:

1-2-2, Minami2-jonishi,
Chuo-ku Sapporo-shi,
Hokkaido, 060-0062

Train

If you are travelling by train, the closest station is Odori Station via the Nanboku Subway line. From here, it’s a short walk. If you push it, you can do it in 3-5 minutes. If you take a more leisurely pace, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk.

So if you are coming from Chitose Airport by train, you will first take the JR Rapid Airport Liner to Sapporo Station and then change to the Nanboku Subway line. Look for exit number 35 as this is the closest exit to the hotel. All up it will take you about 60-70 minutes from the airport.

Limousine Bus

If you get the limousine bus from the airport, it will take about 70 minutes to get into the city. The stop you want is Susukino bus stop. Getting off here leaves you about seven blocks from the hotel, or 600 metres so you should allow about 10 minutes for the walk.

Taxi

It’s about a 30-minute drive into the city, but this does vary depending on traffic. It can be hectic around the airport and on the expressway into the city so if you are arriving at peak times in the morning and afternoon this can be expensive and the train may be faster.

Hire Car

Prices vary quite a lot depending on what company you go with and how long you are renting. We usually book with Avis, but always check booking comparison sites, particularly in Japan where the multi-national providers aren’t quite so prevalent. In this instance, we booked with Orix through a Hokkaido-based travel agent called Shiretoko Tourist Co., Ltd using their Kakuyasu Rent-A-Car booking site. The airport depots are very helpful and have dedicated staff for foreign language guests, but you can still expect to spend a decent amount of time transferring by bus to the rental car depots and then going through all the paperwork. Once you are on the road, like a taxi, you can expect the drive to take about 30 minutes as long as you aren’t in heavy traffic.

You’ll take the Hokkaido Expressway into Sapporo, so In addition to the car cost, you will also have the toll cost. If you are a foreign tourist, you can get a flat-rate ETC card that will cover you for a designated period. Using one of these cards can work out the most economical if you are on the expressways a lot on your trip.

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo has 30 parking spaces available in a multi-storey car park (or as I like to call it, a car elevator). You can’t pre-book, so if they run out of space, you will have to park in another parking lot. There are a number of them within the surrounding area.

Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Multi-Story Car Park
Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo Multi-Story Car Park

Rates and other costs

We researched hotels using HotelsCombined and ultimately booked with Agoda for AUD $237.27 for one night including buffet breakfast. The price we got was with a 10% off Agoda coupon. We were here during Obon Festival, making accommodation expensive. Travel away from festivals to save some money here. The room we booked normally goes for around AUD $90 – $100 per night outside of festivals and holidays.

If you need parking, the current rate in their multi-story carpark is 1200 Yen per night. You can expect to pay slightly more at some of the nearby parking stations.

Make sure you compare prices though as the best rates do vary, and some include breakfast while others don’t.

Opening hours

Check-in is available from 3:00 pm and check-out is by 11:00 am. Reception is open from 5:00am until 2:00am. However, the front door may be locked during night hours so make sure to let them know your expected check-in time.

Links:

 

Don’t forget!

If you’ve stayed at this hotel too, either in a deluxe twin room, or another room category, I’d love to hear what you thought about it. I’d also like to know what your favourite things to do in the area are. Let me know in the comments after this article! My personal favourite is Ishiya Chocolate Factory and Shiroi Koibito Park.

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Our top value hotel pick in Sapporo, Japan

First published: March 30, 2018, 5:58pm

Explorer of the Seas Thoughts and Review

Explorer of the Seas at Port Vila

To be honest, I’ll say this right up front: Our first, and so far only, cruise on Explorer of the Seas is perhaps the poorest cruise experience we have ever had, but it’s important to remember, that doesn’t make it a bad cruise, not by a long shot! In spite of the things we didn’t like, the ship itself is on par with Radiance of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas, two of the other ships Royal Caribbean has brought to Australia over the last few years. There are even some things that I’ve only seen on Explorer and I quite like. Read on to find out what in my review of Explorer of the Seas!

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Everything we did was paid for by us, and no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

A quick question

What is the worst cruise experience you have ever had? I know some people are stuck on ships without power or where someone has passed away. Those experiences are far worse than ours. Let me know your worst experiences in the comments at the end of this article!

Without further ado, here is what I like about Explorer, and what I don’t like.

Staterooms

We went with an oceanview stateroom on deck two this time. It’s close to the bow of the ship, stateroom 2556. It’s our first time in this category of room and the lowest we’ve ever been on a cruise ship. That said, we love the type and location. We’d choose it again. It has very minimal movement in rough weather compared to higher decks, and it is quite soothing to hear the waves crashing outside. It’s almost like being at a beach house, but without the beach.

Explorer of the Seas Room 2556 Ocean View
Explorer of the Seas Room 2556 Ocean View

That said, the room does need some maintenance. The bed is the hardest mattress we’ve ever had on Royal Caribbean. We usually sleep on a firm mattress anyway, so for us to feel that it’s hard, it has to be pretty solid. Once our stateroom attendant put a mattress topper on it though, it was fine. Speaking of our attendant, he was lovely and so helpful, he looked after us just as well as any of our previous attendants. He did a brilliant job, even providing moisturiser for my wife and mother-in-law when they asked if that was possible.

The other thing we noticed is that the shampoo/conditioner dispenser in the shower was broken and never had any shampoo/conditioner in it. I asked a few times if our stateroom attendant could fill it up and also let him know that it needed fixing, but neither happened.

Explorer of the Seas Room 2556 Bathroom
Explorer of the Seas Room 2556 Bathroom

So overall, the stateroom experience is on par with our adventures on Voyager and Radiance.

Dining

Of course, there is absolutely no shortage of food on Explorer of the Seas, with a multitude of dining options to choose from.

Main Dining Room

We had a brilliant first waiter in the main dining room. He did a great job, and we could not have asked for more, especially considering the particular requirements at our table! We are incredibly thankful and appreciative of that.

Explorer of the Seas Main Dining Room
Explorer of the Seas Main Dining Room

The food overall was also excellent, but this is the first cruise that we’ve seen so many red meat dishes sent back due to being cooked incorrectly or in one case, a lamb chop that was almost entirely fat. In only ten nights compared to other cruises that have been fourteen and eighteen nights long, that’s pretty bad. It seemed like the kitchen was not taking a lot of care with the food that was being sent out.

Royal Caribbean Saffron Menu - Oakwood Smoked Chicken Breast
Oakwood Smoked Chicken Breast in the Main Dining Room

That said, our first waiter taught us a phrase in Hindi which I would use to describe our overall dining experience. Bahoot achahay, very good! Shoukrya, thank you.

Slow-Baked Salmon Fillet on Explorer of the Seas
Slow-Baked Salmon Fillet on Explorer of the Seas

Our second waiter seemed to be very new. He was very nervous and seemed to be learning. No complaints really, but as a result, there were a few little things here and there that he missed and that he was subtly corrected on by our first waiter.

Mexican Salad at Lunch on Explorer of the Seas
Mexican Salad at Lunch on Explorer of the Seas

At breakfast time though, we did note that when asking for soy milk it took an average of 15 minutes for someone to get it. I don’t understand why, but we were otherwise finished eating in the time it took. We found that if we asked as we were being seated that it worked out better, but it still took around 15 minutes.

Windjammer Marketplace

We didn’t encounter any issues with the food here, and it was all just as good as any other ship. However, again, when requesting soy milk at breakfast time it would take a good 15 minutes for someone to get it, at least. When I asked why they said it was because they had to go to the dining room for it. The irony of all this is that when you are sitting across from the bar at Windjammer, there is a carton of soy milk there in plain sight alongside the other milk cartons behind the counter.

Food options at breakfast time are fairly standard hotel buffet options like hash browns, sausages, bacon, eggs, pastries, cereals, fruit and so on.

Breakfast Pastries at Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas
Breakfast Pastries at Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas

Lunch options include a pretty huge variety but you will almost always find some variety of curry, burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, salads, vegetables and other savoury items plus desserts.

A chicken dish in Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas
A chicken dish in Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas

At dinner time the Windjammer Marketplace buffet is reflective of the main dining room. There will typically be a variety of savoury and dessert items that are similar to the menu downstairs as well as burgers, salads, and other choices.

Windjammer Desserts on Explorer of the Seas
Windjammer Desserts on Explorer of the Seas

Depending on your meal, there are also free drinks available. At breakfast time there was usually an orange juice and another juice. During lunch and dinner, it varied between lemonade, fruit punch, iced tea, and a strawberry and kiwi juice. There are also hot drinks available. We found typically teas, herbal teas, coffee and hot chocolate were available here for free.

Drinks in Windjammer on Explorer of the SeasDrinks in Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas
Drinks in Windjammer on Explorer of the Seas

One thing I noticed here that stood out to me from other Royal Caribbean ships was at breakfast time. Windjammer Marketplace on Explorer of the Seas has fruit smoothies available as part of the breakfast buffet.

Fruit Smoothies on Explorer of the Seas
Fruit Smoothies on Explorer of the Seas

I’ve seen this on Princess cruise ships, but never on Royal Caribbean. The flavours seemed to vary between days, but most of them were melon based, either watermelon or rockmelon, with the addition of strawberries, kiwi fruit, citrus and other fruit. I’m hoping I might start to see these make their way into other Royal Caribbean ships as well.

I must admit, I do like the way the back of Windjammer is set up on the Voyager class ships, and Explorer of the Seas is no different, with views available straight out the back of the ship.

The View from Windjammer Cafe on Explorer of the Seas
The View from Windjammer Cafe on Explorer of the Seas

I also quite like that you can really chill out here when it’s not too busy, most of the seats are a relaxed outdoor style, and there are a few booths and lounges too. Since you can find afternoon tea here as well as the main meals, I find it is a pretty good spot to sit and watch the sea with some snacks.

Windjammer Cafe Seating on Explorer of the Seas
Windjammer Cafe Seating on Explorer of the Seas

Typical afternoon tea fare is sandwiches, chips and other lighter finger food options.

Cafe Promenade

The fare here was pretty consistent. Rolls, wraps, and pizza with an assortment of desserts that never changed.

The View from Windjammer Cafe on Explorer of the Seas
The View from Windjammer Cafe on Explorer of the Seas

On Radiance of the Seas at the Park Cafe, these selections changed regularly, and you could get a meal that in some way resembled what you might have missed out on in the main dining room or Windjammer. Not on Explorer of the Seas though. It operates the same way as the Cafe Promenade on Voyager of the Seas. The only variety you get here is an occasional change in pizza or dessert options. Not a negative since that’s the way it’s intended, but it is one of the reasons I prefer the Radiance class of ships over the Voyager class.

Sweets at Cafe Promenade on Explorer of the Seas
Sweets at Cafe Promenade on Explorer of the Seas

Crown and Kettle and the Promenade Buffet

The Crown and Kettle is a pub, but a lesser known secret is that on Explorer of the Seas, the Crown and Kettle serves pub style food too. Typically this is just items like pies, sausage rolls and pasties.

The Crown and Kettle on Explorer of the Seas
The Crown and Kettle on Explorer of the Seas

However, during some lunchtimes, a small buffet was set up in the Royal Promenade outside the Crown and Kettle serving pub style food. This included items like burgers, hot dogs, pies, mashed potato, chips and gravy.

Pasties and Sausage Rolls at the Explorer of the Seas Promenade Buffet
Pasties and Sausage Rolls at the Explorer of the Seas Promenade Buffet

Sometimes the buffet also included items like rice and curry, pulled meats and vegetables.

Other Choices at the Explorer of the Seas Promenade Buffet Curries
Other Choices at the Explorer of the Seas Promenade Buffet Curries

We found this was a pretty convenient option on port days when we ducked back onto the ship for lunch. It was a lot quicker and easier than going up to Windjammer or lining up at the Promenade Cafe.

Izumi Express

Explorer of the Seas is the first ship I’ve come across featuring Izumi Express. At lunchtime on the Royal Promenade, a small cart is there serving Japanese inspired takeaway food from the Izumi Express menu.

Izumi Express on Explorer of the Seas
Izumi Express on Explorer of the Seas

These items are similar to the ones you can get at the Izumi Restaurant but without the wait. Just remember, this one is a paid dining option with prices ranging from USD $4 each up to USD $9 each. We didn’t try any of these.

Izumi Express Menu on Explorer of the Seas
Izumi Express Menu on Explorer of the Seas

Chops Grille

We did visit Chops Grille on the first night, and while it was good food and there were no problems, it was a better experience on the Radiance of the Seas. On Explorer, even though fewer people were dining, it seemed like the wait staff was much less attentive and that they forgot about us.

Lamb Rack at Chops Grille on Explorer of the Seas
Lamb Rack at Chops Grille on Explorer of the Seas

One other thing to note about Chops Grille on Explorer of the Seas is that it is located on deck 11, giving it an excellent view!

The View From Chops Grille on Explorer of the Seas
The View From Chops Grille on Explorer of the Seas

Giovanni’s Table and Izumi

We didn’t dine at either of these restaurants, but, located on deck 4 opposite the Schooner Bar the outlook of Giovanni’s is similar to Radiance of the Seas. Izumi is located way up top on deck 14 near Dizzy’s Club.

Giovannis Table on Explorer of the Seas
Giovanni’s Table on Explorer of the Seas

Room Service

If you don’t feel like dining out, you can always get room service. There is a USD $7.95 tray charge and you can order as much as you like for that flat fee. We opted not to try it this time.

The Royal Promenade

The main interior shopping deck, whether it’s the Royal Promenade on Voyager class ships or one of the others for other ship classes has always been used for shop sales and other promotions.

The Royal Promenade on Explorer of the Seas
The Royal Promenade on Explorer of the Seas

 

On Explorer of the Seas, it goes beyond that. It has an almost permanent stall for Next Cruise and the Vitality Spa. It also frequently has Izumi Express, a paid Japanese takeaway option as I mentioned earlier. At some lunchtimes, it also has the small buffet shown above set up outside the Crown and Kettle pub with some free food options like pies, burgers, hot dogs or sausage rolls. I don’t have a problem with most of this stuff, in fact, I like the little buffet and the fact that there is an alternative Izumi option. However, it feels like there is more push to make you spend more money, especially with the placement of these things typically being at the narrowest point on the promenade. I personally found the Vitality Spa stall to be the worst offender here. On our cruise, their table was set up at the narrowest point, in front of the Harley Davidson motorbike display.

Explorer of the Seas Harley
Explorer of the Seas Harley

Putting it here made the walkway even tighter, and by the time you add spa representatives out the front, it created a real bottleneck that made it challenging to walk through here. I’d been thinking about getting a massage on this cruise, but this tactic turned me off the spa. It seemed extremely inconsiderate to guests to degrade their cruise experience to sell a few more services. Most of the other stalls were typically beside the Harley so they didn’t impede the walkway as much.

All that aside, the Royal Promenade is quite a magnificent structure where you can almost forget you are actually inside a ship rather than walking down a city street or in a rather ornate shopping centre.

The Royal Promenade on Explorer of the Seas
The Royal Promenade on Explorer of the Seas

 

Entertainment and Activities

Honestly, Explorer of the Seas had a weird mix of both the best and the worst entertainment and activities of our past cruises.

The Palace Theatre

I thought it was also great that Explorer has different production showtimes in the Palace Theatre.

Outside the Palace Theatre on Explorer of the Seas
Outside the Palace Theatre on Explorer of the Seas

I know that the production shows rotate around, but we’ve seen the ones running on Voyager and Radiance (they both have the same shows) many times, so we don’t bother going anymore. The singers and dancers aboard Explorer during our cruise also do a great job and are some of the better ones we’ve had on a cruise departing from Australia.

Palace Theatre on Explorer of the Seas
Inside the Palace Theatre on Explorer of the Seas

On Voyager there were often matinee shows on sea days, however, I was disappointed these were not offered at all on Explorer.

Ice Skating Shows

We’ve seen three different ice skating shows on Voyager of the Seas, and the one we saw aboard Explorer was the best!

Ice Skating Show on Explorer of the Seas
Ice Skating Show on Explorer of the Seas

There are typically multiple ice skating shows, and where Voyager of the Seas handed out tickets, Explorer of the Seas organised the shows based on muster station so everyone would have an opportunity to see one of the shows. This is a bit of a pain if there is something else on during your muster station time, but they do allow extras into the other show times in the last few minutes before starting time, so you may be able to catch a different show that way.

Movies

In spite of the better live shows, the movie scene is lacking. There is no movie channel like there is on every other ship we’ve been on. The poolside movies are either on at the first dinner seating time or late. There are rarely any movies in the Palace Theatre, and when they are it’s usually so late, we are in bed already (and that’s coming from people aged under 30!!). One of the kid’s channels did have kids movies sometimes, but that was about it on the in-room movie side of things.

It seemed like the budget had been cut or something. We usually watch at least four movies on a cruise, often more. At least one poolside, and all that we can in the theatre, especially 3D ones. Then we usually have whatever is on TV running while we are chilling in our stateroom or we watch them when we feel like a quiet night in. This time? We didn’t watch a single movie except one on the kid’s channel, and the ones we brought ourselves on our iPad. I know it’s just one aspect of entertainment, but for us, it felt like a big part of what we love about cruising was gone. I don’t get why, when the Palace Theatre is a fully equipped 3D cinema, they don’t take advantage of it.

Casino Royale

Located on deck 4 underneath the Royal Promenade is Casino Royale. I don’t normally spend much time here, and this was no exception. However, I had a few extra free spins on the ‘lucky’ slot machine. I won a few cents, which conveniently is not redeemable, instead, they give you an entry into a draw on the last night of the cruise. Of course, I didn’t win any of the 3 draws. However, I did score a few USD that had been left in a machine. As usual, you know you are entering the casino by the clear floor with ‘treasure’ below. It always catches me by surprise the first time I walk on one of these floors!

Casino Royale Entry on Explorer of the Seas
Casino Royale Entry on Explorer of the Seas

Bridge Viewing

As on most ships, you can see what’s happening on the bridge via the Peek-a-Boo viewing platform on deck 11 right at the front of the ship. The blinds are open during daylight hours for you to have a look, the most interesting times are port arrivals, during open seas, you might only see one person on the bridge. There is a drop down from deck 11 to access the viewing platform, but there is a wheelchair lift available making it wheelchair accessible.

Explorer of the Seas Bridge Peek-A-Boo
Explorer of the Seas Bridge Peek-A-Boo

Pools and Hot Tubs

There are two main pools on deck 11, the pool deck, plus one adults only pool in the solarium at the forward of the ship.

Explorer of the Seas Pool Deck
Explorer of the Seas Pool Deck

There are also four hot tubs on the pool deck.

Explorer of the Seas Solarium
Explorer of the Seas Solarium

In the Solarium, you will also find two adult only hot tubs.

Explorer of the Seas Solarium Whirlpool
Explorer of the Seas Solarium Whirlpool

Lastly, you will find a big hot tub hidden away inside the Vitality Spa area, just outside the gym. This one is both the biggest and typically the quietest. However, it is only open during gym hours.

To get pool towels, you have to check them out with your Seapass card. Make sure to return them and get your card scanned again though or you will be charged for them!

Bars and Clubs

There are a number of bars and clubs around the ship.

The Schooner Bar is located on deck 4 towards the front of the ship, outside Casino Royale and Giovanni’s Table.

The Schooner Bar on Explorer of the Seas
The Schooner Bar on Explorer of the Seas

Near the midship elevators on deck 4, you will find The Tavern.

The Tavern on Explorer of the Seas
The Tavern on Explorer of the Seas

Jump up to deck 5 midship and you’ve got the R Bar.

R Bar on Explorer of the Seas
R Bar on Explorer of the Seas

 

Get framed at the R Bar on Explorer of the Seas
Get framed at the R Bar on Explorer of the Seas

On deck 11 you will find the pool bar and the solarium bar, then up on deck 14 is Dizzy’s Club and the Viking Crown Lounge. If you happen to have achieved diamond status, you will also find the Diamond Lounge here.

Dizzy‘s Club on Explorer of the Seas
Dizzy‘s Club on Explorer of the Seas

Then, of course, there is the Crown and Kettle pub.

Outside the Crown and Kettle on Explorer of the Seas
Outside the Crown and Kettle on Explorer of the Seas

You will also find a bar in pretty much every restaurant, lounge and the Palace Theatre.

Other Activities

There are, of course, other activities like the Flowrider, rock wall, basketball court, mini golf, and the various clubs and pubs including Dizzy’s on deck 14 which is a great spot to chill out during the day with an excellent view.

Explorer of the Seas Flowrider
Explorer of the Seas Flowrider

Some of the other activities were consistent with what we’ve had on other cruises, like morning stretching and Zumba dancing.

Explorer Dunes Mini Golf
Explorer Dunes Mini Golf

 

Explorer of the Seas Rock Wall and Sports Court
Explorer of the Seas Rock Wall and Sports Court

 

Vitality Spa

I’ll be honest, we didn’t use the Vitality Spa, and our experience entirely put us off. The awkward placement of their stall on the Royal Promenade combined with the heavy flogging their services got in every cruise compass was off-putting. That alone had turned me off going to the spa.

Add to that an issue my mother-in-law had related to a spa treatment on her previous cruise, and that did away with any remnant interest I had in going. She addressed the issue on the second day, and the spa manager said they would follow it up and get back to her. In the end, we had to follow it up ourselves every single day and ultimately get the revenue manager involved. Guest services were helpful in directing and coordinating everything when the spa manager failed to communicate or deal with the issue. It turned out though that guest services couldn’t do anything about the problem because contractors run the spa.

Once guest services put us in touch with the revenue manager (the spa managers supervisor), we did get the problem resolved, but even then, we still felt like we had to do all the follow-up and reminding.

Honestly, it felt that the spa did not care about their customers at all. I recognise that the treatment the issue was related to was on a different ship, Radiance of the Seas, but at the end of the day, it’s still the same company, and when my mother-in-law first raised her concern with them, they acknowledged it wasn’t right. Regardless of the issue, the lack of communication or even interest in helping just compounded the poor image that the spa on Explorer of the Seas already had. Frankly, I’d steer clear of it. You will not get any follow up support if you have an issue unless you are willing to spend an entire cruise chasing it. Poor spa service could be reflective of Royal Caribbean’s contractors as a whole, but we’ve only experienced it on Explorer of the Seas.

The Gym

I’m not quite sure whether the gym really comes under Vitality Spa or not, but either way, we frequented it. You will find most of your typical gym equipment here including weights and a wide variety of machines such as treadmills, bikes, stair climbers, and a rowing machine.

On the treadmill on Explorer of the Seas
On the treadmill on Explorer of the Seas

A number of classes are available during your cruise at an additional cost, but the gym equipment is all free to use. One of the things I quite like about this gym is that there is a huge adults only hot tub. Granted, the atmosphere is not the most tranquil being at the gym entrance, but it is nice to be able to get in a hot tub that is bigger and generally has fewer people in it than the ones on the pool deck.

Internet

The internet is increasingly becoming a priority at sea. So, since it’s one of the most popular areas, I ran a speed test on the Voom internet package half way between Port Vila and Noumea. Here are my results:

Voom internet speed on Explorer of the Seas
Voom internet speed on Explorer of the Seas

As you can see, the speeds are not brilliant, but they are enough for most general uses. I also foudn that while video streaming is a little slow to start with, it does seem to speed up once it gets going, so there may be some quality of service things happening in the background that give you higher speeds on video content.

Internet Speed Test Location
Internet Speed Test Location

 

Feedback

I’ve never been on a ship that asked for feedback so frequently. In 10 days, we got asked every couple of nights by the head waiter at the main dining room. Then during every breakfast and lunch, feedback cards were placed on the tables in the main dining room. Halfway through the cruise, we found a feedback survey in our stateroom. Around the same time, one of the chefs visited our table in the main dining room looking for feedback on all of the dining venues and times. Then, of course, everyone we dealt with was continually checking everything is ok. Even in Windjammer, someone was going around tables asking if there were any problems. It was almost to the point of being a nuisance, but it was great that they were asking.

Two days after our mid-cruise survey was submitted, there was even a change to movie times that we suggested! It was only changed for one night though and then went back to how it was. So perhaps it wasn’t really in response to our feedback.

Overall

So, to summarise the entertainment and activities: we typically have things highlighted all day in our cruise compass that we want to do. Often things overlap, and we have to choose based on how we feel. This time, our cruise compass was pretty light on with very little highlighted. I don’t think this is a reflection of the cruise director and activities manager, they both seemed to be doing everything they could. It looks like this could be more of a reflection on Royal Caribbean, but the Explorer guest services did tell us that each ship operates as a separate business unit and has autonomy to make decisions around onboard revenue and entertainment operations.

We just really weren’t impressed. It was great that the crew were actively seeking feedback, but the ship performance was sub-par in comparison to our other Royal Caribbean Cruises on Radiance of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas and Jewel of the Seas.

Genuinely, it seemed like in spite of all the feedback requests, very few crew members were that interested in what the feedback said or how good the guest experience was.

I don’t understand it.

It’s not an awful ship; it’s a beautiful vessel. The experience could undoubtedly have been worse, and I can’t fault a second waiter for being new or a stateroom attendant for maintenance issues that didn’t get fixed unless he didn’t pass them on to maintenance. It does concern me though that it’s a worse experience than any other cruise we’ve been on, including other cruise lines. We went on one with another cruise line where the ship was falling apart, but their crew made up for it every way they could, and it was an overall better experience than Explorer of the Seas. That tells me there is a problem.

Explorer of the Seas in Sydney
Explorer of the Seas in Sydney

Hopefully, as the crew is rotated around, come next season it will be better!

Just remember, whatever bad experience you have, chances are, there are some very positive aspects to it as well.

Don’t forget

Let me know about your worst cruise experience in the comments below.

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Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas is a beautiful ship with a lot of positives and a hand full of negatives that I’ve observed on our recent cruise.

Noumea 1-Day Road Trip From A Cruise Ship

Noumea 1-Day Road Trip From A Cruise Ship

Noumea is a beautiful and unique city in its own right. Situated at the southern end of the largest island in New Caledonia, Grand Terre, Noumea is both the capital and the countries major port. As a result, Noumea is also home to much of the countries heavy industry. A significant portion of New Caledonia’s GDP comes from nickel mining on Grand Terre, an exported product that goes through the port in Noumea.

Heavy industry on the outskirts of Noumea
Heavy industry on the outskirts of Noumea

As a result, Noumea is nothing like the other ports frequented by cruise ships in New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

Noumea outside Gare Maritime
Noumea outside Gare Maritime

For the Australian’s, Noumea is kind of like Newcastle. There is mining related heavy industry, and the CBD is very tired, but at the same time, there are gorgeous beaches and sights nearby. Amedee Island, Baie des Citrons (Lemon Bay) and Ile aux Canards (Duck Island) are some that you have probably come across on shore excursions at Noumea. We’ve been here four times now and have done all of the shore excursions that we thought looked interesting, so most recently, we decided to hire a car and head out of Noumea for the day.

We booked a car through Amarante via Explore New Caledonia. This website is operated by resa.nc, a New Caledonian tourism reservations company. The Explore New Caledonia website is in English and is targeted at the overseas market, particularly Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

All the major car companies have depots in Noumea, however, Amarante has the closest depot to Gare Maritime. This was important to us because if we could not arrange a pickup/drop off somewhere near the cruise terminal, then we would have to walk to their depot. The only one closer is Noumea Beach Cars, located right outside the cruise terminal. The problem with them though is that they only operate electric Nos-Moke’s which have a range of 80-100km’s, not enough for our day trip.

Amarante has a depot at 34 Rue de la République, 750m from where you get off the cruise ship, or where the bus drops you off if you are transferring from the working port. Most P&O ships are small enough that they typically dock at Gare Maritime. Royal Caribbean ships all dock at the working port. Princess and Carnival vary. Don’t search Google Maps for that address though; it’s in the wrong place. They are further up the street, here:

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Everything we did was paid for by us, and no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

A quick question

Just before I jump into the itinerary, if you’ve done something similar, or live in Noumea, what are your must-see sights are on a day trip from Noumea? Let me know in the comments at the end!

Now, let’s get into the itinerary.

Map Overview

The details

  • Length: 353 km’s
  • Typical driving time: 4.5 hours return
  • Recommended time allowance: 6-7 hours
  • Destination: Poe Beach

 

Costs

  • Base Rental Cost: 4,445 XPF including taxes for a small car, ours was a Peugeot 108
  • Pick up/Drop Off at the cruise terminal: 750 XPF
  • Additional KM’s above 150/day: 28 XPF per KM over 150 approx 5,684 XPF based on this itinerary
  • Fuel: Variable

Costs are based on our booking and will vary.

Requirements

A drivers license is required, and an international driving permit is highly recommended. The Australian Automobile Association states that an international driving permit is required for Australian’s driving in New Caledonia (more information).

For us, the people we dealt with at Amarante spoke and read English and did not require an international driving permit to process our booking. However, this is not always the case. Not everyone in Noumea speaks or reads English, and if you get pulled over by police they will likely require the permit in addition to your Australian license.

Your payment will typically be sorted out by credit card, including a deposit that is reversed upon the return of the vehicle. Credit card payment is a requirement if you pick up / drop off at the cruise terminal. You will also need a credit card or cash to pay for fuel unless you opt to return the car as is and pay the rental companies rates for refuelling.

What you will see

Head from Noumea to Tomo, Bouloupari, La Foa, and finally to Poe Beach. If you have time, head into La Roche Percee and see Bonhomme de Bourail on the way. Make your way back to Noumea and if time permits, pick up something sweet from Les Petits Choux patisserie.

The landscape of Grand Terre has a lot of similarities to Australia, right down to red earth.

The red hills of Grand Terre
The red hills of Grand Terre

As you head out of Noumea, scrubby bush is waiting for you. The further out you go, the more variety you will see, including some rainforest-like areas as well as mountains and the ocean.

Driving out of Noumea
Driving out of Noumea

In this itinerary, you will pass through some of the nearby small towns like Tomo, Bouloupari and La Foa on the way to Poe Beach.

Chapelle de Tomo, Grand Terre New Caledonia
Chapelle de Tomo, Grand Terre New Caledonia

 

The town of La Foa
The town of La Foa

Once you get back into Noumea, you should have enough time to stop in at the Les Petits Choux Patisserie for a little treat. This bakery makes fantastic pastries and is well worth the pit stop before returning to your ship! Chances are, there will still be a line towards the end of the day so keep an eye on the time.

Some of the treats you could be tasting at Les Petits Choux Patisserie
Some of the treats you could be tasting at Les Petits Choux Patisserie

 

Things to keep in mind

Whether you choose Amarante or another rental car company, they may be late, or may not be there at all. We arranged with Amarante to pick up and drop off at the Noumea Visitor Information Centre next to Gare Maritime at 10:00 am on the 6th of February (our cruise only docked at 9 am).

Noumea Tourist Information Centre
Noumea Tourist Information Centre

We confirmed this multiple times beforehand, including writing it out as the 6th of February. Upon our arrival, no one was there. One of the ladies at the information centre helped us out and called them up. It turned out that in spite of multiple confirmations, they had us booked in for the 2nd of June instead. So make sure to double check your confirmed date. Our last email to them was about three months before our arrival, so I would also send them an email just before your cruise to re-confirm and if you happen to have the internet on board the ship, email them the day before your arrival as well. It delayed our departure by 45 minutes, which was enough that we didn’t get as far as we wanted to. Remember, your time is limited, so you don’t want it wasted!

In New Caledonia, you drive on the right side of the road. For Australians and New Zealanders, this is the opposite side of the road. The road rules otherwise are quite similar, and while you certainly don’t need to speak or read French, you will need to make sure you have international drivers permit with a French translation.

This itinerary primarily follows RT1, Route Territoriale 1, the main highway that runs from one end of Grand Terre to the other. This road is sealed and is mostly very smooth, but it is predominately single lanes once you get out of Noumea. So, make sure to watch the time,  you can safely get quite a distance away during your day here, but you never know when you might get held up by an accident or heavy traffic on your return. You need to make sure you leave plenty of time to get back to Noumea, refuel the car and return it. Plus, once you get back to Noumea, you want to have enough time to try out Les Petits Choux Patisserie if you haven’t been there before!

The speed limit on RT1 is 90km/h outside of the towns so that you can get along quite quickly. I’ll be honest; most local drivers will pass you as they tend to do more in the 100-110km/h range.

Don’t forget

If you’ve done something similar, or live in Noumea, I’d like to know what your must-see sights are on a day trip. Let me know in the comments below.

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Noumea is nothing like the other ports frequented by cruise ships in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. There is a lot of heavy industry here from mining, but head out of the city for the day and beauty awaits!

P&O Cruises Coupon – $100 Free Onboard Credit

P&O Pacific Dawn Cruise Ship

We all want as much onboard credit as we can get when we go cruising, don’t we? More onboard credit means less to pay for on the ship, or it could be a discount on shore excursions. So, I’ve got a deal for you: $100 free onboard credit using my P&O Cruises coupon.

P&O Cruises is one of my affiliate partners on this blog, and they have just released a special coupon, exclusive to affiliate partners and not available through travel agents. So, just a heads up, that means that if you click any of the links on this page and make a booking, I get a small commission from it. These commissions have no impact on the price you pay, and by using my P&O Cruise coupon, you can get a pretty awesome deal as well! With that said, thank you for your support and helping to keep this blog online, bringing you more cruise and travel tips and reviews!

Get $100 Free Onboard Credit

So here’s how you can get $100 onboard credit per cabin for your next cruise with P&O Cruises.

  1. Visit the P&O website by clicking this button to activate the offer.

    ACTIVATE

  2. Select your cruise. This offer is valid for all 2018 Pacific Island cruises,
  3. Select a Go fare, this offer is only valid on Go fares. Not on any other fare.
  4. Enter this coupon code while you are placing your booking: GET100
  5. Enjoy your cruise!

Remember you must activate the offer first by clicking the activate button:

Activate my P&O Cruises Coupon

That’s it! Enjoy your P&O Cruise on the cheapest Go fare with bonus free onboard credit!

If it‘s your first cruise, or even if you are a cruise aficionado you might find some of my cruise articles helpful as you plan for your cruise. Here are some popular ones:

 

Offer terms

  1. Offer must be activated before you place your booking and can not be added afterwards.
  2. The P&O Cruises coupon code, GET100, must be used at the time of booking.
  3. Offer is valid for bookings placed between now and August 7, 2018.
  4. Offer is valid on 2018 cruises to the Pacific Islands only.
  5. Offer is valid on Go fares only.
  6. Offer excludes Value and Value Plus fares.
  7. Your booking is direct with P&O Cruises.
  8. Onboard credit is per cabin, not per person.

 

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Get $100 onboard credit for your next cruise with P&O
Get $100 onboard credit for your next cruise with P&O

 

Autumn 6-Day Hokkaido Central and Eastern Road Trip Itinerary

Furano Flowers at Farm Tomita

In August last year, we spent six days road tripping around the Northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido inAutumn. Our trip started and ended at the New Chitose Airport, and was focused around the Central and Eastern regions of the island plus the capital, Sapporo. If you are thinking about spending some time exploring Hokkaido, don’t hesitate. You will find some stunning scenery, and in Autumn, you will be treated to flowers from all colours of the rainbow plus, there is a good possibility you will spot some wild deer with their fawns and potentially even bears (you’ll definitely see them if you follow this itinerary). I can guarantee that even on a rainy day, you will find something amazing.

Shirogane Blue Pond is one of the gems you will find in this itinerary.
Shirogane Blue Pond is one of the gems you will find in this itinerary.

One thing to be aware of when planning a trip here is that while Hokkaido is not a huge place, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking you can get around the island quickly by road. Typically, the expressway speed limit is only 70km/h and the speed limits on other roads are 50km/h, so it’s not a quick trip. These speed limits are based on Winter conditions where the island is covered in snow and ice, but the limits remain the same all year round and it is tempting to go faster when you are driving there at other times but beware of police speed traps. So, that said, you can’t actually get around as quickly as you might think you can, especially given much of the expressways are also only single lane roads with limited places to overtake other vehicles.

Don’t worry about that though, just enjoy the trip, you can see so many amazing sights when you explore this unique island in a car. I will note though that in this itinerary we rarely dined at restaurants. Most of our meals were hotel breakfasts followed by instant food from convenience stores that we could easily eat while driving. Fortunately, I love maki rolls, so they made a quick, cheap, easy meal! I’m talking the equivalent of AUD $1-$2 per meal. One other thing to note is that this is a road trip, so this itinerary and times are based on having a car that you can drive yourself in. This trip would be much more difficult and require more time to do via public transport.

Just before I jump into it, I’ll also note that we booked this itinerary about two weeks before we went, and it turned out that the first weekend overlapped with Obon Festival (August 13-15), which meant accommodation was hard to find and expensive. We wanted to see the festival since we arrived on the 13th but sadly nothing happened in Sapporo at Odori Park even though it was advertised there would be.

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Everything we did was paid for by us, and no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

Anyway, enough of that, into the itinerary! We stayed at Tokyo Narita airport the night before (at the Toyoko Inn Kuko) we arrived in Sapporo, so our flight landed at New Chitose Airport at midday.

Map Overview

Expand the map to enable and disable each day.

Day 1: Chitose to Sapporo via Lake Shikotsu

73km’s, approx 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Matt at Lake Shikotsu
Matt at Lake Shikotsu
  • Arrive – Sapporo (Chitose), Domestic Airport Terminal, 1F
  • Stacks of food options in the airport if you are hungry, we had lunch at Cobara-Hetta Indian Curry (Domestic Airport Terminal, 3F)
  • Royce Chocolate World
    • Located at the terminal Connecting Path on 3F aka Smile Road.
    • Most of their dark chocolate is vegan.
    • There are other attractions on Smile Road including Hello Kitty Happy Flight and Doraemon Waku Waku Sky Park if you have time. Unfortunately, we spent waaaaaaay too long at Royce Chocolate World!
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Pick up a hire car. There are no hire cars at the airport itself, head to the hire car booths to check-in for your shuttle transfer to the car rental location. The hire car companies all have booths located at 1F near the ANA check-in.
  • Lake Shikotsu
    • Distance: 30km’s from New Chitose Airport, approx 36 mins.
    • A gorgeous lake to drive past where the road follows the edge of the lake for a while.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • 6:45 pm: Hokkai Bon Odori dancing, Sapporo Summer Festival (everything was set up but nothing happened)
    • Distance: 43km’s from Lake Shikotsu, approx 55 mins drive. It’s also about 400m walk from our hotel in Sapporo.
    • Price: 720 yen p.p.
    • We checked into our hotel first and parked the car there then walked to the Sapporo TV Tower.
    • Stunning night time views looking back towards Okurayama Observatory.
    • Read my review.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Stay: Hotel WBF Sapporo Chuo
    • Superior Double Room, Non-smoking
    • Price: AUD $237.27 / night
    • Breakfast included
    • Parking: 1200 yen / night
    • Earliest check-in: 3:00 pm
    • Latest check-out: 11:00 am
    • Read my review.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews

Day 2: Sapporo to Kushiro

301km’s, approximately 4 hours drive plus stops.

Us in front of the Aurora Fountain inside Ishiyia Chocolate Factory
Us in front of the Aurora Fountain inside Ishiyia Chocolate Factory

 

Day 3: Kushiro to Abashiri via Cape Kiritappu, Cape Nosappu and Rausu

445km’s, approx 8 hours, 40 minutes drive plus stops.

Unlikely: Japanese, Russian and English on this sign at Hanasakiminato, Nemuro.
Unlikely: Japanese, Russian and English on this sign at Hanasakiminato, Nemuro.
  • Hamanaka
    • Distance: 83km’s from Kushiro to Hamanaka, approx 1 hr, 33 mins.
      • Cape Kiritappu
        • Actually two capes that are very close together, Cape Kiritappu and Cape Tofutsu.
        • You’ll find Tofutsu Lighthouse at Cape Tofutsu.
        • TripAdvisor Reviews
      • Cape Azechi

  • Nemuro
    • One of only a few places that you will find Japanese, Russian and English on the same signs.
    • We passed through the southern side including Hanasakiminato on the way to Cape Nosappu and then went through the town of Nemuro on the way back out.
  • Cape Nosappu
    • Distance: 90.1km’s from Cape Azechi, approx 1 hr, 37 mins.
    • Cape Nosappu Lighthouse
    • Four Island Bridge
      • Monument of peace representing a bridge betwen Hokkaido and the four disputed Habomai islands.
      • Part of Bokyonomisaki Park.
    • Russian-controlled Habomai Islands
    • Sasagawa Memorial Tower of Peace
  • Rausu
    • Distance: 162km’s from Cape Nosappu to Rausu, approx 2 hrs, 20 mins.
      • Rausu Kunashiri Observatory Deck
        • Price: Free
        • You can look out to the very close Kunashir Island, the southernmost of the Kuril island chain which is under Russian control.
        • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Shiretoko Pass
    • This is the route we took between Rausu and Abashiri.
    • Closed during Winter.
    • Windy road but stunning views, even if it is overcast like it was for us.
    • Keep an eye out for wild deer on and near the road.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Abashiri
    • Distance: 109km’s from Rausu via Shiretoko Pass, approx 2 hrs 30 mins
    • You will want to stop along the way to take photos, trust me.
  • Stay: Dormy Inn, Abashiri
    • Modern Double Room, Non-smoking
    • Price: AUD $239.82 / night
    • Breakfast included.
    • Earliest check-in: 3:00 pm
    • Latest check-out: 11:00 am
    • TripAdvisor Reviews

 

Day 4: Abashiri to Kitami via the Akan National Park Lakes

Today we had to make it to Lake Akan in time for the Ainu Ancient Dance in the Ikoro Ainu Theatre and the Lake Akan cruise. Make sure to check your times carefully.

240km’s, approx 4 hours, 45 minutes drive plus stops.

The view across Lake Kussharo from Kotan Onsen at sunset.
The view across Lake Kussharo from Kotan Onsen at sunset.
  • Lake Abashiri
    • We just stopped on the side of the road on the way past and otherwise enjoyed it while driving.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Lake Akan
    • A little bit of a tourist trap.
    • One of the most well-known lakes in Japan due to the Ainu village and the Marimo only found here.
    • Distance: 86km’s from Abashiri, approx 1 hrs, 30 mins.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
    • Ainu Kotan 
    • Akan Lake Sightseeing Cruise Circuit.
      • Price: 1900 yen p.p.
      • 85 minute trip including 15 minutes at the Marimo Observation Centre on Churui Island.
      • TripAdvisor Reviews
    • Pan de Pan Bakery
  • Lake Mashu First Observatory
    • Distance: 49km’s from Lake Akan, approx 55 mins
    • Price: 500 yen per car to park at the first observatory
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Lake Mashu Third Observatory 
    • Distance: 3.5km’s from Lake Mashu First Observatory, approx 4 mins.
    • Price: Free
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Lake Kussharo
    • Via Kawayu Onsen. This route takes you past Mt Io, a sulfur mountain (TripAdvisor). Parking is paid, and we didn’t have time to stop, but you can still take in the view on the way past!
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
    • Ikenoyu Hot Spring
    • Kotan Onsen
  • Kitami
    • Distance: 69km’s from Kotan Onsen, approx 1 hr 16 mins.
    • Double room / Non-smoking,
    • Price: AUD $128.43 / night
    • Breakfast included
    • Earliest check-in: 3:00 pm
    • Latest check-out: 11:00 am
    • TripAdvisor Reviews

 

Day 5:  Kitami to Furano via Sounkyo and Biei

215km’s, approx 4 hours, 40 minutes drive plus stops.

Sounkyo Ropeway Lookout
Sounkyo Ropeway Lookout
  • Taisetsu Dam Wall
    • Distance: 82km’s from Kitami, approx 1 hr 30 mins.
    • Not a whole lot to see, but the surroundings are pretty.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Ginga-no-Taki and Ryusei-no-Taki falls
  • Daisetsuzan Sounkyo – Kurodake Ropeway
    • Distance: 74km’s from Ginga-no-Taki and Ryusei-no-Taki falls, approx 1 hr 15 mins.
    • Price: 1900 yen p.p. round trip on the ropeway plus an additional 600 yen p.p. round trip to take the chair lift up even further.
    • Website
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Hokkaido Ice Pavilion
    • Distance: 24km’s from Sounkyo, approx 35 mins.
    • Price: 1080 yen p.p. or 980 yen p.p with a discount ticket.
    • Experience the -20°c ice hall and feel blasts of -41°c, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Hokkaido.
    • Website
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Hokuseino-oka Observatory Park
    • Distance: 60km’s from the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion, approx 1 hr, 21 mins.
    • Price: Free
    • A pyramid shaped look out where you can see across hills covered in patchwork-like fields towards Furano.
    • Try some of the fresh cooked corn on the cob from one of the neighbouring stores. YUM!
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Kanno Farm
    • Distance: 9.2km’s, approx 13 mins.
    • We didn’t stop here, we just enjoyed the beautiful flowers on the way past.
    • Website
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Rollercoaster Road
    • Distance: 4km’s from Kanno Farm, approx 5 mins.
    • Called “Path of the roller coaster” on Google Maps.
    • This is just a road that is long and straight but somewhat resembles a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. We used this route to get to Flower Land.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Flower Land Kamifurano
    • Distance: 5km’s from Rollercoaster Road, approx 5 mins.
    • Again, we didn’t stop here, we just went past it so we had some idea what to expect and could make a decision about whether to come back in the morning or go to Farm Tomita.
    • You can see lots of the flowers from the road, but we ultimately decided to go to Farm Tomita in the morning instead.
    • Website
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Furano
    • Distance: 20.2km’s from Flower Land Kamifurano, approx 30 mins.
  • Stay: Furano Fresh Powder Apartments
    • Studio Apartment with Fireplace,
    • Price: AUD $230.70
    • Breakfast not included
    • Earliest check-in: Between 3pm-6pm only.
    • Latest check out: 10:00 am
    • TripAdvisor Reviews

 

Day 6: Furano to Chitose via Shirogane and Bear Mountain

280km’s, approx 4 hours, 55 minutes drive plus stops.

Shirahige Waterfall
Shirahige Waterfall
  • Shirogane Blue Pond
    • Distance: 36.5 km’s from Fresh Powder, approx 45 mins.
    • A stunning, vibrant blue pond made famous when Apple included it as a wallpaper on OS X.
    • Get here first thing in the morning if you can to avoid the hoards of people. We arrived at 8:20 am and the car park was nearly empty. By 9:00 am when we left, the closest parking lot was full and the second one was almost full too.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Shirahige Waterfall
    • Distance: 2.9 km’s from Blue Pond, Shirogane, approx 4 mins.
    • Flows into Blue Pond and has the same brilliant blue water.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Farm Tomita
    • Distance: 28.4km’s from Shirahige Waterfall, approx 35 mins.
    • Lunch at Farm Tomita – try one of their many lavender dishes and drinks.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • Bear Mountain, Bear Research Centre, Shintoku
    • Distance: 77 km’s from Farm Tomita, approx 1 hr 23 mins.
    • Take the Armoured Bear Watching Bus.
    • Price: 2,916 yen p.p.
    • Either take the bus, or walk the high rise walkway over the forest back to the information centre.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • New Chitose Airport
    • Distance: 131 km’s from Bear Mountain, approx 1 hr 47 mins
    • Our flight out was at midnight, but we had to return the rental car by 6:00 pm to make sure we got on one of the last shuttles back to the airport.

 

Summing Up

This is a pretty full itinerary. The distances are not long, but the speed limits do mean it takes longer to get between destinations. In fact, almost every night we arrived at our hotel after dark with the exception of Furano where we arrived just before dusk. That said, we aimed to leave by 8:00 am every morning. We didn’t always leave that early, but if you prefer shorter days, be prepared to cut some things out. On a side note, a lot of these hotels have their own onsen’s, so you might prefer to take a little extra time in the evenings to enjoy that.

Been there?

Been to Hokkaido and done a road trip? What are your must-see attractions? Let me know in the comments below!

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Our trip started and ended in Sapporo at the New Chitose Airport, and was focused around the Central and Eastern regions of the island. If you are thinking about spending some time exploring Hokkaido, don't hesitate. You will find some stunning scenery, and in Spring, you will be treated to flowers from all colours of the rainbow and more active wildlife. The snow melts will also be fresher so the waterfalls are flowing and even on a rainy day, you will find something amazing.
Our trip started and ended in Sapporo at the New Chitose Airport, and was focused around the Central and Eastern regions of the island. If you are thinking about spending some time exploring Hokkaido, don’t hesitate. You will find some stunning scenery, and in Spring, you will be treated to flowers from all colours of the rainbow and more active wildlife. The snow melts will also be fresher so the waterfalls are flowing and even on a rainy day, you will find something amazing.

Caves Beach – Lake Macquarie NSW

Caves Beach - Lake Macquarie NSW

Caves Beach is a beautiful sandy beach near Swansea in the coastal city of Lake Macquarie, our backyard. We’ve never actually been before because when we visited in summer, the carparks and street parking were always full. We decided to go recently though, even though it is cold and rainy Autumn. We’re so glad we did!

Beach Access
Beach Access

A question

Just before I jump into it, I’d love to hear from you about a place in your backyard that you’ve discovered recently. Let me know in the comments at the end of the article!

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Everything we did was paid for by us, and no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

About Caves Beach

Caves Beach is unique because, at the Southern end, you can find a network of caves worn out of the sandstone cliffs. These very same caves are the reason for the name of the beach. At low tide, you can access these caves and explore this scenic part of the NSW coastline. We didn’t think to check the tide times before we left, but we were lucky that the tide had been out and was on the way back in when we got there.

Looking south down Caves Beach towards the caves it is named for.
Looking south down Caves Beach towards the caves.

Parking during summer can be a challenge, but in Autumn, we were able to get a park close to the Surf Life Saving Club at the southern end of the beach next to Stuart Chalmers Park. This carpark is both the closest to the beach and the caves. The beach itself is a gorgeous white sandy beach with enough of a swell to surf if that’s your thing and more than enough to have fun on a bodyboard.

There is plenty of swell, but stay north of the rocks.
There are plenty of swells, but stay north of the rocks.

 

The swells north of the rocks are safer with plenty of sand to have fun.
The swells north of the rocks are safer with plenty of sand to have fun.

 

At the southern end, the sand gives way to sandstone cliffs and rocky outcrops that jut into the ocean. If you look closely at the rocks, there are some fascinating patterns and textures.

The rocky outcrops before the caves have some interesting patterns in them.
The rocky outcrops before the caves have some unusual patterns in them.

 

Look carefully at the rocks at the southern end of Caves Beach and you can spot some unusual patterns.
Look carefully at the rocks at the southern end of Caves Beach, and you can spot some unusual patterns.

Make your way around these cliffs, and you will see the first and largest cave.

Looking out of the first cave at Caves Beach
The main cave is easily tall enough for most people to stand in.

Heading into the cave, you’ll find lots of fissures and cracks.

Looking into the depths of the first cave. So many spots to explore!
There are so many spots to explore in the depths of the caves!

Towards the back is one of the most prominent fissures. It takes you out the other side of the cave. From here you can access more of the cave network. Unfortunately for us, the tide had started to come back in and was flowing freely through here, so we decided not to head through it this time.

The crevasse leading from the first cave to more caves
The fissure leading from the first cave to more caves

You can also head up the stairs to the top of the cliffs where you will find another car park and a lookout where you can take in the beach looking both directions.

Matt at the stairs to Caves Beach Lookout
Matt at the stairs to Caves Beach Lookout

There are picnic facilities including barbecues and seating, but these are hard to come by during the summer months.

One of just a few picnic tables at Caves Beach.
One of just a few picnic tables outside the SLSC at Caves Beach.

We found a great little fish and chip shop in town called Caves Beach Takeaway. It’s a little bit more expensive than some, and they only take cash, but they did great fish and chips. You can find them here:

For the dog lovers, it’s important to note that you cannot have dogs on the beach at the southern end near the caves, they are however permitted 300m to the north at Hams Beach.

We went on an overcast day that ended up raining, but we were a little spoiled. We got to watch a rainbow form while we were inside the cave, ending in the ocean just outside. It was so beautiful to watch and such a pleasant surprise to our visit.

Caves Beach - Lake Macquarie NSW

Getting to Caves Beach

Caves beach is part of the suburb of Caves Beach, a township in Lake Macquarie City Council. It’s just south of Swansea and Swansea Heads. The easiest way to get here is by car, but there is a bus available.

By Car

To get here by car, you can find it by entering Caves Beach in your GPS, or Stuart Chalmers Park. There are two car parks available. The first is at Stuart Chalmers Park; the second is at the top of the cliffs with access from Caves Beach Road.

It’s about 30km’s South of Newcastle, allow about 40 minutes for the trip. It’s also about 130km’s North of Sydney; you can expect it to take about 1 hour and 45 minutes for the journey.

By Public Transport

The only public transport available to Caves Beach is bus or taxi. To get there by bus, take Newcastle Transport bus 29, the Glendale to Swansea Heads service. Bus 29 is the only bus that goes to Caves Beach at the time of writing. You can connect with this bus from Cardiff Train Station. Otherwise, there are some intersecting bus routes at different points along the way 29 takes.

Admission fees and other costs

Parking at Caves Beach is free, and there are no entry costs.

Opening hours

The beach itself is accessible all the time. However, you can only get to the caves during low tide, so check the tide timetable before you go. The beach is patrolled by lifeguards from the September/October school holidays through to the April school holidays.

Lifeguard off duty
Lifeguard off duty

Hotels near Caves Beach

In spite of how special this beach is and how busy it gets in Summer, there are not a lot of hotels in the immediate area. The main one to consider is Caves Coastal, also known as Caves Beach Resort and Caves Beach Bar and Bungalows. It’s all the one place and is about as close as you can get to Caves Beach. Otherwise, your nearest options are in Swansea or Cams Wharf. You can also find holiday homes in the area listed on Airbnb and Booking.com. You can check what’s nearby using the search box below.

 

Helpful links

 

Don’t forget

I’d love to hear about somewhere you’ve discovered recently in your backyard. Tell me about it in the comments below!

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Caves Beach is a beautiful sandy beach near Swansea in the coastal city of Lake Macquarie, our backyard.

11 tips for first time cruisers that I wish I’d known before my first cruise

Tendering at Mare from Explorer of the Seas

Getting ready for your first cruise is daunting. It’s a little bit like flying when you check-in and go through customs, but then it’s also not. It’s like staying at a luxury hotel, but then it’s not. I mean, how do you prepare for this thing that is really unlike any other travel experience. For us, our first cruise was the Alaskan Passage from Seattle, so on top of the new experience, we are also visiting the USA and Canada for the first time. Nowadays, we’ve cruised many times on multiple lines and it’s natural. I can’t help but wonder though, how much better our first few cruises might have been if someone had given us some advice beforehand!

So, I thought I’d share my advice for new cruisers!

A quick question

What are your top tips for people new to cruising? Let me know in the comments after this article!

Disclaimer:

This article is all our own experience. Our bookings on all of our cruises to date have been paid for by us, and no part of it them were free or subsidised. That said, many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you click it and make a booking or purchase. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to book a place to stay or activity! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

Here are the top 11 things I wish I knew before my first cruise:

1. Cabin fever

I hear so many people say they don’t want to go on a cruise because they will be bored. This was both my dad’s and my father-in-law’s concern as well before we finally convinced them to try it. There is some perception that there is nothing to do on a cruise. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much to do aboard a cruise ship, even a small one. For us, we picked the Alaskan Passage cruise because of the sights and ports, but as amazing as they were, we found ourselves wishing we had a bit more time on the ship!

Don’t worry about cabin fever!
Don’t worry about cabin fever!

2. Free activities

Talking about boredom on board leads me into talking about the free activities. There is some expectation that you have to pay for everything on a ship, but this is far from the truth. There are many free activities every day with one of the staples being the evening theatre show. This show ranges from Broadway-style productions to comedies, game shows, magic, and even circus acts. Elsewhere throughout the day, you’ll find free activities (variable depending on the ship facilities and crew onboard) like dance lessons, language classes, pool parties, live music, rock climbing, art exhibitions, enrichment lectures, and all sorts of other things. On one cruise we went on, there was a parachute making competition to see who could drop an egg from the top floor of the atrium and have it land safely intact on the bottom floor. There are often date and location specific events as well including ANZAC Day memorials, an equator crossing ceremony, Australia Day celebrations. Though some of the date-based events are variable depending on the ship’s location. A European cruise probably won’t celebrate Australia Day where an Australian one will. The point is though, there are so many options to choose from at no cost!

ANZAC Dawn Service on Radiance of the Seas
ANZAC Dawn Service on Radiance of the Seas

3. Seasickness

Many people get motion sickness on planes, in cars and on smaller boats. Of course, everyone also hears about people getting seasick on cruise ships. In practice though, modern cruise ships are much more stable than smaller vessels. They use various stabilisation technologies and will typically move slower if the seas are rough. For us, we felt some sea sickness on our first cruise aboard Jewel of the Seas. The most we’ve ever felt though was our second cruise on Dawn Princess between Sydney and Burnie. The weather was bad and being a smaller cruise ship, it didn’t handle the large swells as easily as a bigger ship. That said, we have never experienced it to the point of throwing up.

There are a number of techniques you can use, but the most important one to remember is that cruise lines have free medication on board and it is some of the best you will find! My recommendation though is to carry a bottle of MotionEaze with you.

This stuff prevents motion sickness and eases it using an essential oil blend. There is no medication to ingest, just soothing oils behind your ears. We find it works better than most medications. I’ve only ever been able to find it on Royal Caribbean ships or ordering it from the USA though.

In addition to MotionEaze, I keep some ginger tablets and more mild, non-drowsy seasickness medications in our cabin just in case. If you do this you know you are covered and in the case of ultra-bad sea-sickness just visit the medical bay for their tablets. Honestly, you probably won’t use it a lot, but if you do get bad motion sickness normally, take preventative measures like MotionEaze and ginger tablets on your first few days of sailing while you are getting your sea legs.

Then, if worst comes to worst and you get bad seasickness, head down to the medical bay and grab some of their free motion sickness tablets. They work wonders if you are already sick.

4. Water

I see a lot of confusion about water. The water from taps on board, including your bathroom tap, is safe to drink. However, it is desalinated water so it can sometimes have an odd taste. I have also seen it occasionally come out an unusual colour for brief periods of time. So with that in mind, it is not a bad idea to take a water bottle with built-in filters, like these ones that you can keep full for drinking.

The water dispensers around the ship are also filtered, so you can use them to fill up your water bottles as well.

5. Drinks

Prices for individual non-alcoholic drinks are not too bad on most cruise lines. However, they can quickly add up. Whether it’s coffee or soft drink. Alcohol can add up even faster. If you plan on drinking a lot, check out the drinks packages as they can be good value. For us, we find there are enough free options that there is no need to spend the extra cash. We save it for a few special drinks here and there. Typically, you can expect 1-3 free juice options at breakfast in addition to teas, instant coffee and hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner at the buffet will typically have 1-3 free non-alcoholic options in addition to tea and coffee. Other restaurants and cafes will typically have free tea and coffee options as well as premium options. So if you plan on drinking a LOT, then the drinks packages are worthwhile. If you don’t plan on drinking much, they are overpriced.

6. Speciality restaurants

On a cruise ship you have free restaurants, and then premium, speciality restaurants. These have an additional fee usually in the form of a flat cover charge that includes all you can eat food. Some, such as Izumi’s on Royal Caribbean, charge ala carte pricing. When you first cruise, you will probably skip these because there is so much excellent food already included in your fare. That said, these restaurants offer some of the best dining experiences you will find. Two that particularly come to mind for me are Samba Grill on Radiance of the Seas, and the Sterling Steakhouse on most Princess ships. These restaurants are themed and provide a completely different atmosphere and an air of something special compared to the main dining rooms. I certainly wouldn’t eat here every night, but it’s worth doing for a special occasion, or to take advantage of special deals such as Royal Caribbean’s “First Night Done Right”. Check out my articles on Royal Caribbean’s Chops Grille and Samba Grill for some examples of what speciality dining is like.

Samba Grill Frango and Linguica
Samba Grill serves Brazilian-style grilled meats straight from the skewer to your table.

7. The main dining room is flexible

Many people are turned off of the main dining room experience because it feels like a rigid 3-course meal protocol with set menu’s that they might not like. In reality, though, it’s much more flexible. Want to try four of the desserts one night? Just ask. Want two starters and no mains? That’s fine. Need a vegan meal? Just let them know. Don’t want anything from the menu at all? Ask for something different. They can accommodate the vast majority of requests, just ask your waiter for what you would like and they will do their best to make it happen for you. On our last cruise, half of our main dining room meals were off-menu.

8. Room service

Continuing with food, room service is one of those other little splurges we sometimes do at a hotel. On a cruise, this used to always be free, but now many lines are adding a tray charge. In either case, it’s still a low-cost way to do something special, like have breakfast on your balcony as you watch glaciers go by.

Room service with a view of the Alaskan Inside Passage
Room service with a view of the Alaskan Inside Passage

9. Mobile service and WiFi

Practically every cruise ship is now equipped with both mobile service and WiFi. Beware using their mobile coverage though as it is typically classed as a maritime satellite service, attracting the highest roaming charges. I have however heard anecdotally that Telstra classes Royal Caribbean’s mobile service as USA roaming, making it relatively cheap (no guarantees there). WiFi is usually the best option to communicate off the ship. Cruise lines typically charge for minutes or days of access with packages available at a discount to keep you connected for less. Speeds are highly variable depending on factors such as where you are, the weather, and what other people on board are doing on the internet. That said, Royal Caribbean’s Voom service is capable of streaming video from YouTube and Netflix as long as you aren’t in a dead spot.

10. Tender ports

Our first and second cruises were all docked ports, so we were getting pretty comfortable. Then on our third cruise, we discovered that there were tender ports. We weren’t at all sure how to plan for these ports. A tender port is where small tender boats are used to ferry passengers to land because the jetty is too small or the water is too shallow for a cruise ship to dock. Tender ports are common in the Pacific Islands, especially the smaller ones like Mystery Island, Mare and Lifou. So how do you plan your shore excursions and your day? Well, if you book your shore excursion through the cruise line and the time you select is in the morning, they will make sure you get priority tender access. That means getting off the ship before most other guests. You will also be escorted to the tenders and to the excursion meeting point on land. If you pick an afternoon excursion you will most likely have to get off the ship yourself and find your own way there.

So when it comes to finding your own way, or just doing your own thing entirely you can plan on the tenders being busy for the first few hours in port, sometimes the whole morning. Typically there are tender tickets available on a first come, first serve basis for as long as there are queues of people. We’ve found this is always until at least 11 am but does sometimes extend to 12 pm. One person can collect all the tickets needed for their group and you will hear ticket numbers called over the ship PA system throughout the morning. Once your number is called, you can head down to the appropriate deck and you are off!

To recap, the quickest way off the ship is to do one of the first shore excursions of the day. Next, is to get in as early as possible for tender tickets. Finally, once tender queues have slowed down, you can head off the ship at your leisure.

Once you are ready to return to the ship, head back to the tender jetty and you will be on the next available tender back to the ship. Just be aware that there can be queues and you need to be back in time for the last tender.

Lining up to go back to the ship at the Mare tender jetty
Lining up to go back to the ship at the Mare tender jetty

11. Tipping

Last but not least, one of the most confusing concepts for us Australians, tipping. Cruise lines have mostly made this super easy now so you don’t need to think about it. Many give you the option to prepay gratuities, and Royal Caribbean now just incorporates it into the cost of Australian fares. On board, extra gratuities apply to some services such as spa and salon or bar services. This is automatically added to your bill unless you have specific reasons to vary it. You can expect these things to cost around 18% extra in gratuities depending on the line. You can also choose to reward outstanding service with extra tips, but if you aren’t comfortable with it or have not experienced tipping before, there is no requirement or expectation to do so. Many cruise lines give you envelopes on the last day of your cruise for you to put cash in for anyone you want to give an extra reward to. Don’t feel obligated to use this, it’s just there if you feel someone really stood out and deserves something extra.

Got more?

There are so many more things I could include, but hopefully, this list covers some of the key questions and concerns that first time Aussie cruisers have!

If you have more questions, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!

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Getting ready for your first cruise is daunting. It’s a little bit like flying when you check-in and go through customs, but then it’s also not. It’s like staying at a luxury hotel, but then it’s not. I mean, how do you prepare for this thing that is really unlike any other travel experience.

Philips 9000 Series S9551/31 Shaver Review

Matt with Philips Shaver

I haven’t done a product review in a while, but about six months ago, I had to replace my electric shaver. So I decided it’s time to share my findings. After much research, I decided to go with the Philips 9000 Series S9551/31. I am a fan of Philips electric shavers and have had two of them in the past. I find they are great for travelling and overall versatility. They typically do a great job of neck hair that’s growing in all different directions! I was disappointed with the lifespan of my second one compared to the first. It only lasted four years compared to the ten years I got previously. That said, I like the rotary shaver style, and reviews I read suggest the problem may have been just with that particular model, so I’m willing to give them another try.

About to use my new Philips 9000 Series Shaver for the first time.
About to use my new Philips 9000 Series Shaver for the first time.

So let’s dig into why I chose the S9551/31, and what I think of it after using it for six months. First, though, I have a question for you:

Question

Have you used the Philips 9000 series? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If you haven’t, what kind of shaver do you use and why? Let me know in the comments at the end of this article.

Disclaimer

This article is entirely my own experience. I bought this shaver from the Shaver Shop’s eBay store while it was on sale and paid for it myself, no part of it was free or subsidised. That said, many of the links included in this review are affiliate links, including the one above. I get a small commission if you click them and make a purchase. For more information on the commissions I get, check out this page. I hope that you’ll use these links anytime you need to shop on any of these websites! These small commissions help me to keep travelling so I can write and film more travel guides for you. I would never recommend anything I don’t or would not personally use!

Important Details

  • RRP (AUD): $549
  • Common price range (AUD): $399-$499
  • The price I paid (AUD): $399
  • Weight: Approx 150g
  • Weight in case: Approx 230g
  • Price comparison on eBay.
  • Best price: Typically on eBay, especially if you can combine a sale with an eBay coupon.

 

Why I chose the Philips 9000 Series S9551/31

This model isn’t cheap. It’s part of Philips flagship series and is the second model from the top. So it needs to be pretty impressive to justify the price tag of $549 RRP Australian. Here’s why I ultimately decided to go with it:

  1. I like the Philips rotary shaver style.
  2. Typically good at coping with thick, coarse beard hair like mine.
  3. Typically good at getting neck hairs that are growing in different directions.
  4. Suitable for both wet and dry shaving.
  5. The SmartClick Beard Styler attachment comes with it. A number of the 9000 Series shavers have the SmartClick Precision Trimmer instead. I keep a short-trimmed beard rather than a smooth shave, so this is important.
  6. This particular model has variable speed shaving, and I thought the slower speed might be helpful for the irritation I experience on my neck sometimes.
  7. Travel case included.
  8. Lithium battery, so there is consistent power until it goes flat rather than slowly losing power as the battery dies.

 

My concerns

There were a couple of concerns I had with this model. The number one concern I had was that none of the 9000 Series shavers has a pop-out trimmer built in like my last shavers. After some research, it turns out that none of the current generations of wet and dry shavers from Philips includes a pop-out trimmer. Dropping that feature was almost a deal-breaker for me, and I was seriously considering saving $300-$400 to drop down to a 1000 Series shaver that still has the pop-out trimmer. My reasoning for this is that the built-in trimmer is more valuable than the wet/dry shaving or any of the other upgrades that come with the 9000 Series.

The pop-out beard trimmer is missing!!
The pop-out beard trimmer is missing!!

If anyone from Philips is reading this, take note, this is a big deal if this one little feature that was on my previous model Philips wet/dry shaver, the SensoTouch 3D RQ 1295, is enough to make me seriously consider not spending that amount of money on your products.

My second concern was that the cleaner uses cleaning cartridges rather than being refillable. Taking this approach seems like an attempt to force you into purchasing Philips cleaning cartridges instead of any other suitable cleaner, and it also seems wasteful. I get the business logic for them, but it does alienate the consumer.

Philips Shaver Cleaning Cartridge
Philips Shaver Cleaning Cartridge

My experience

My previous shaver died without warning, it would not charge anymore, so after two weeks of trying to settle on a solution, it was time to give up and get a new one. It took five days to arrive from the Shaver Shop, so by the time I got it, my beard was getting somewhat overgrown as you saw in the photo earlier.

First impressions

Getting it out of the box, the first thing I noticed was just how big the charger and cleaning station is. It seems way overkill. My old Philips SensoTouch 3D RQ 1295 cleaning and charging station was significantly more compact. That said, I appreciate the fact that I don’t need to take a travel charger with me anymore and can now plug the charger cable directly into the shaver. Plus one point for convenience while travelling. If you are considering this one though, make sure to check the station will fit on your shelves. Due to the height, it only just fits between ours.

Cleaner height comparison with shavers in place.
Cleaner height comparison with shavers in place.

The shaver itself is a similar size and shape to previous generations, however, the controls feel out-dated and cheap compared to my old SensoTouch 3D. The build quality otherwise is sturdy, and it feels good to hold.

The new Philips 9000 Series (left) side-by-side with the SensoTouch 3D (right).
The new Philips 9000 Series (left) side-by-side with the SensoTouch 3D (right).

The SmartClick Beard Styler is identical to the one that came with my SensoTouch 3D, and the charge cable is the same as well. So the only other item of note is the travel case. The case is a very snug fit, and due to the corners the zip has to go around, I find it is somewhat difficult to open and close properly. That said, it is much sturdier and provides more protection for the shaver than the previous generation did.

Philips Shaver Case
Philips Shaver Case

Usage review

The cut

I was born with my father’s beard growing genes, and I have to shave minimum once a day if I am maintaining smooth skin. While I keep a short-trimmed beard on my face, I keep my neck clean-shaven. So that means I shave every morning. With that in mind, it doesn’t take long to get a good sense of how this shaver performs with frequent use on coarse, thick facial hair.

The rotary blades have received a few upgrades and now flex in more directions than ever before and are meant to cut closer than ever before. If I’m honest, I didn’t notice a significant improvement over the SensoTouch 3D. I suspect that once it gets so short, you really can’t get a whole lot shorter without starting to take off layers of skin as well. It does, however, do a great job of dealing with my wild neck hair that grows every direction and keeping the skin smooth. I have no complaints at all and really, nothing but praise for how well it shaves.

Philips 9000 Series (left) shaving head beside the SensoTouch 3D (right).
Philips 9000 Series (left) shaving head beside the SensoTouch 3D (right).

Regarding the missing pop-out beard trimmer though, that is another story. I am disappointed that it isn’t there almost every time I shave. Sometimes you just want to tidy up the edges a little without switching the shaving head to the beard styler. Or perhaps there are a few hairs that the regular shaving head just won’t pick up. Usually, I’d pop out the beard trimmer, and it would take those suckers off. Now, I have to switch to the beard styler or keep going over them, again and again, trying different angles to get the regular shaving head to lift them. Then there’s the time that you’ve finished shaving, and you realise an hour or so later that the beard styler missed a couple of hairs and you want to get them the right length. Now you have to put the beard styler attachment back on again. I find this is also extremely inconvenient when I’m travelling because it also forces you to take the beard styler for those times when you need to touch something up. In the past, I’d just use the pop-out beard trimmer and let my beard grow unless there was a reason to keep it trimmed (like a wedding). This adds weight and volume to your packing. Honestly, I’m amazed at how convenient the pop-out beard trimmer was, and how inconvenient it is to have it no longer. I sincerely hope Philips brings it back in a future model.

Philips 9000 Series (left) and SensoTouch 3D (right).
Philips 9000 Series (left) and SensoTouch 3D (right).

The beard styler

The beard styler attachment isn’t anything special. It is identical to the previous generation and cuts just as well (or not since it jams frequently). It has five height settings and is necessary when you want to tidy up your edges, sideburns or any hairs that are unusually long.

Philips SmartClick Beard Styler Attachment
Philips SmartClick Beard Styler Attachment

Variable speed settings

Regarding the variable speed settings, I found that to be a worthwhile addition. My neck doesn’t get as irritated when I use the slowest speed setting. I also notice that the blades pinch my skin less-often compared to the higher speeds. So that gets a big tick from me. On the flip side, I find the top speed is much better for using the beard styler as it doesn’t get clogged up so quickly. It powers on through the thickest of beards (or at least, through mine).

Controls and display

I mentioned in my first impression that the buttons have a cheap feel to them. They are ok as far as buttons go, but because the SensoTouch 3D had the single on/off control using a pressure sensitive panel integrated with a display. The 9000 Series has gone back to old-fashioned buttons. They do the job fine, but you don’t feel like you are using the latest and greatest tech. The display has also gone back a step to just showing 5 bars to indicate the battery level rather than estimated minutes remaining. You have to jump up to the one model above this to get that feature now.

Battery

The battery gives an estimated shaving time of 50 minutes. There is a 10-minute reduction from the SensoTouch 3D’s 60 minutes. I find this surprising since it is a similar size and doesn’t have the flip-out beard trimmer. I thought it may have been associated with the variable speeds, but the lower models without that feature also quote the same battery life. So the decreased time is a little disappointing, especially when travelling for longer periods of time. It means that if I’m going to be away for more than two and a half weeks, I need to take the charger to be safe, where I could get away with at least three weeks on the SensoTouch 3D. That adds weight and volume when travelling, unfortunately, a big deal when Australian airlines restrict you to 7kg carry-on bags. Even so, most trips come in shorter than that, so it’s still a great travel shaver.

After six months of use, I’ve found that it is maintaining pretty consistent battery life. I rarely use the quick charge function, as the battery lasts for about two full shaves after it warns me that it is running low. That’s more than enough time to forget to charge it the first time and then plug it in after the next time I shave and get reminded that the battery is low.

The SmartClean Plus charger and cleaning station

As I mentioned earlier, this thing is tall. Unlike previous models where it was only the full height when the shaver was in place, this one plugs into the bottom of the shaver. Since the shaver sits upside down, the station incorporates a section that runs up behind the shaver, hooks over the top of it, and when in use, is pushed down. So sitting at 25.5cm high, it is significantly taller when not in use, and just a couple of cms higher when in use.

The SmartClean Plus with charger plugged in
The SmartClean Plus with the charger socket plugged in

The weird charging mechanism also makes it a little more complex to use. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve put my shaver in and forgotten to push down the charging socket. The old model charged on contact. I also can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to take the shaver out, forgetting to release the charging socket and almost sent the whole thing flying off the bench. Perhaps this is in part because I’m so used to the old system, so it might not be as much of an adjustment to someone who hasn’t used the older model. I’d think by now though that I might have adjusted.

I was concerned about the cleaning cartridges, but I’ll admit, they are convenient, and it is possible to refill them if you are creative. The only thing is, to change them out, you press a button on the station, and it lifts the entire thing up another 5.5 cms making it stand at 31cm high. That means you have to be doing this somewhere with enough clearance.

The SmartClean Plus cartridge and the old cleaner
The SmartClean Plus cartridge bay open alongside the old cleaner

One thing I particularly like about this new system though is that you don’t have to be quite as careful when you move the station. The station has a small pump that enters the cartridge through a little hole on top, so there is much less surface area for spillage to occur. The old model easily spilt large amounts during movement between shelves and so on. This one handles a little bit more tilt before leaking, and it doesn’t leak as much.

Philips shaver cleaning cartridge surface area
Philips shaver cleaning cartridge

On to the actual cleaning process. The buttons are now soft-touch, so there is no physical button to press, and it is a single function only. The previous model had actual buttons and both a regular and economy mode. I never used the economy mode, so this doesn’t matter to me, and the new soft-touch buttons are great. I have noticed though that for some reason, the shaver will not charge while it is cleaning. The old model did, but the new one doesn’t. It also won’t automatically recharge after cleaning is complete unless you physically touch the cleaning button to take it out of cleaning mode. Only then will it start charging. I find this to be counterintuitive. On the plus side though, while cleaning, it doesn’t raise and lower the shaver into the cleaning fluid like it used to. Instead, it now sprays cleaning liquid up into the shaver which means no motor noise. The noise from the pump, jets and the shaver rotation is much quieter, translating into happy vibes, if like me, you put it on to clean before going to bed. 🙂

In regards to charging, it takes one hour for a full charge and does a quick-charge for one shave in one minute. It doesn’t matter whether you plug the shaver into the cleaning station or directly into the charger, the speed is the same. No changes in regards to time compared to the older models.

Manual cleaning

I never take the cleaning station travelling, so ease of manual cleaning is essential. In the previous model, the shaving head opened up for rinsing or brushing out, and each part inside popped out for washing. In the new model, they have simplified the head slightly. Now the entire blade component comes away making it much quicker for a simple clean. However, the blades themselves are locked down with a unique mechanism. The shaver comes with a key for undoing this mechanism. I have since figured out that it is possible to release and redo it without the key, but it can be a challenge to line everything up correctly. The key primarily helps with the alignment and application of pressure.  So it is still possible to pull everything apart for a decent manual clean while you are on the road. It could take a little bit of time fiddling to get it all back together though if you didn’t bring the key.

Philips Shaver Head Key
Philips Shaver Head Key

Pros

  • Very effective shaving head.
  • Compact unit for travel.
  • Sturdy travel case.
  • Quiet cleaning unit.
  • Can plug the charger directly into the shaver without needing an additional charging unit.
  • The variable speed settings are helpful for sensitive skin.
  • Battery life is sufficient for two weeks of travel without charging.
  • Simplified blade unit for quick manual cleaning.

 

Cons

  • No built-in beard trimmer.
  • Have to take the beard styler attachment with you when you travel.
  • Shorter battery life than past models.
  • Controls feel cheap.
  • Cleaning unit is extremely tall.
  • Complex blade mounting system that is fiddly to use without the key.

 

Overall

I’d give this shaver a 3.5 out of 5.

This shaver is a challenge to rate. For all the features and inclusions it has, the Philips 9000 Series S9551/31 electric shaver does a great job, and it does serve it’s purpose very well. In addition, the battery does last well on a single charge, and it makes a great travel shaver in addition to home shaver. So in that respect, I love this shaver and recommend it if you want a single shaver for all purposes. If you have sensitive skin, then I suggest it even more.

At the same time though, in many ways, it is inferior to its predecessor, the SensoTouch 3D. I am highly disappointed by the lack of pop-out beard trimmer, reduced battery life, and cheap feeling controls.

In spite of that, I still feel like it is the best available option on the market right now in electric shavers that are both wet and dry compatible. The negatives are not the be all and end all. Some new features help to bring this shaver back up to the top of the pack. The variable speeds and ability to plug it directly into a charging cable are the main two, though I must admit I do appreciate the much quieter cleaning station. Then, of course, there is the rotary cutting style unique to Philips which has been improved on and continues to deliver the best cut, in my opinion.

Where to buy

You can pick these shavers up from most Shaver Shop stores or online. I got mine from their eBay store, and I’d definitely recommend checking there first because you can often get a better price, particularly if eBay has a coupon code available at the time you are ordering (or if you wait for one). Ordering from eBay also gives you the ability to earn Qantas Frequent Flyer points, Virgin Velocity points or Acorns Found Money.

Don’t forget

If you have used the Philips 9000 series, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and if you haven’t, I’d be interested to know kind of shaver you use and why? Particularly when it comes to travelling. Let me know in the comments below.

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