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Do’s And Don’ts In Yellowstone

By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Don’t get within 100 yards of a wolf or bear, or within 25 yards of bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes. Rangers say more people are hurt by bison than by bears. (Bison can run about 35 mph — three times faster than most people.)

Don’t imagine you can cover 20 miles in 20 minutes on Grand Loop Road, the park’s main artery, which is shaped like a big figure eight. It’s mostly a two-lane road, with speeds capped at 45 mph or less. Animals frequently interrupt traffic.

Don’t expect easy winter access. Most park roads are closed to automobiles between early November and late April, and most park lodgings have similar seasons. But there are winter options at www.lat.ms/1Ki8ryW.

Do brave the crowds to see Old Faithful spout. After all, it’s the park’s marquee attraction. And the people-watching is priceless.

Do check out the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin, a collection of about 150 geysers neighboring the Firehole River. If you take a bridge across the river, the features continue, connected by a boardwalk and trail.

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DISTANCE FROM OLD FAITHFUL

0.3 mile west: Do book at least six months ahead if you want to stay at Old Faithful Inn, and forget about staying there in winter; it’s open only in warmer months. (It closes this year on Oct. 11.) It’s an easy stroll from dozens of geysers. Rooms for two start at $108 (for old-style units that share a bathroom down the hall) and go up to $260. Suites fetch $479-$525. For info, call Xanterra at (866) 439-7375 or go to www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

1.4 miles north: Don’t miss Morning Glory Pool. It’s part of the Upper Geyser Basin, The blue is striking but now marred by a ring of yellow algae that rangers say may be caused by rule-breaking visitors who throw things into the pool.

6.8 miles north: Do get to Midway Geyser Basin by 9 a.m. That way, the parking lot might not be full yet. The main attraction is Grand Prismatic Spring.

18 miles north: The Madison River runs for 10 miles alongside Highway 287. It has some of the park’s best fly-fishing.

32 miles northwest: Don’t expect a bargain price — in fact, standard rooms in summer fetch $250-$280 — but the Yellowstone West Gate Hotel (638 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone, Mont.; (406) 646-4212; www.yellowstonewestgatehotel.com) is a comfortable 79-room lodging in the gateway town of West Yellowstone. Rates dip in September and October; in late October the hotel closes for the winter. Call for specifics.

42 miles northeast: Do consider the hundreds of new units at Canyon Lodge. Concessionaire Xanterra is putting up several new lodge buildings and pulling down hundreds of old cabins. They will be open through Sept. 20 and open again June 3-Sept. 25 in 2016. Nightly rates for 2015 are $222-$254, or $479 for suites. Two more lodge buildings are due to open next August. For info, call Xanterra at (866) 439-7375 or go to www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

44 miles northeast (70 minutes’ drive): If you’re in decent shape, do take the Brink of the Lower Falls trail along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The trail of switchbacks down to the falls is only ] mile long, but it’s a 600-foot altitude change, which makes for slow going on the way up.

47 miles northeast: Do keep your eyes open in Hayden Valley. The valley’s mostly grassy slopes, a great spot for sighting bears, bison and other beasts, offer clear views above a lazy stretch of Yellowstone River.

47 miles south: Do make time for Grand Teton National Park. This geyserless park gets 2.8 million visitors yearly to Yellowstone’s 3.5 million.

51 miles north: For nearly certain elk sightings, do head to Mammoth Hot Springs near the park’s northern boundary. Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel & Cabins will be open through Oct. 12 and in winter from Dec. 18 to Feb. 29. But with upgrades in the next several years, Xanterra hopes to make this the only park hotel open year-round. Rooms $90 to $250; $479 for suites. Info: www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

117 miles west: For a great family detour, do consider a day and night in Cody, Wyo., where summer offers include a nightly rodeo, six faux shootouts per week outside the Hotel Irma; and a fascinating complex of museums at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

120 miles north: If you’re heading into Yellowstone from the north, do give yourself a night in the lively college town of Bozeman, Mont.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jerry Burke via Flickr

Grading The World’s First ‘Smartship,’ Quantum Of The Seas

By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

ABOARD THE QUANTUM OF THE SEAS — It was Friday, February 13, a 15-degree winter morning. But that did nothing to discourage the thousands of travelers who turned up to seek happiness alongside the ice-slicked docks in Bayonne, N.J.

The attraction? Quantum of the Seas, which is not a James Bond sequel but a one billion dollar Royal Caribbean cruise ship. It launched in late 2014 and will soon head to China. Some people think it’s the future of cruising. Others aren’t so sure.

But plenty are curious. By 3:45 p.m., we passengers — about 4,800 of us on a seven-night itinerary to Florida and the Bahamas — were racing from novelty to novelty on the 1,141-foot-long ship. On Deck Sixteen: simulated skydiving in a 23-foot-high vertical wind tunnel that looked like a see-through smokestack. On Deck Three: the casino. In the SeaPlex recreation area: bumper cars. At the Bionic Bar: robots mixing drinks.

And don’t forget North Star, an observation capsule on a long arm that lifts passengers 300 feet above the sea and (when it’s not too windy) swings them over the side for staggering bird’s-eye views. Before anybody could go up, however, the ship’s captain, Henrik Soerensen, broke in on the public address system to welcome us and enlist our help.

“Please keep an eye on the temperature,” Soerensen said. “If it doesn’t get warmer, that means we’re going in the wrong direction.”

How long, I wondered, until that punchline is tweeted? Eager to spread the word of this ship’s wonders, Royal Caribbean has outfitted Quantum to be the Web-friendliest cruise ship ever so passengers can post their vacation tweets and snaps (after paying as much as $30 a day in Wi-Fi fees).

Condé Nast Traveler calls it “the first cruise ship built specifically for selfies.” The cruise line calls it the world’s first “smartship” and has a new app to help passengers book meals and activities.

Quantum isn’t just big and busy and filled with new technology. It’s also a telling move in the cruise industry’s global chess game.

In May, the ship moves to a home port in Shanghai, where Royal Caribbean hopes to entice a mix of Chinese and Western travelers. Meanwhile, Quantum has a near-identical sibling (Anthem of the Seas) due to debut in April and start sailing the Caribbean in November.

So how much fun is this smart new ship? It’s fun and it’s vexing, depending on what you’re up to.

Perhaps the ship’s biggest hit was the North Star observation pod, which holds up to 14 passengers at a time (first come, first served). Passengers waited up to two hours for their chance to spend about ten minutes in the sky, looking down on the ship and out to sea. The warmer the temperature got, the longer the line. I went up three times, on three different days, after waits of five, 20 and 90 minutes. On the way down, I asked my capsule companions whether the view was worth nearly two hours of waiting. The grins and yeses were unanimous.

The simulated skydiving classes, Ripcord by iFly, were almost too popular. Trainers said most of the available slots were booked before the cruise began, which left some passengers grumbling and others competing to fly “standby” when no-show spots opened up. (That’s how I got my chance.)

As for the faux flight itself, after you don a flight suit, watch a video and get a little personal training, you spend about a minute in the air with an instructor, hovering, spinning and getting buffeted from below. If you’ve ever wanted prominent cheekbones, have somebody snap your picture while you’re looking down at that big fan on the floor.

Unfortunately, Quantum’s new “dynamic dining” system isn’t as uplifting. Instead of relying on one grand dining room like ships of yesteryear (formalwear, captain’s table, ice sculptures, two assigned sittings per night), Royal Caribbean has re-imagined that space as 18 restaurants, including Asian, Italian, buffet, pub, and steakhouse options, from ultra-casual to formal.

This gives passengers more choice — and the cruise line more revenue, because eight of the restaurants charge extra fees, from a few bucks for a snack at Johnny Rockets to $45 per person for an evening of cutting-edge gastronomy at Wonderland.

The idea is that passengers will scan the choices and book their dinners online before boarding. Passenger Kevin Marshall of Pennsylvania said it worked perfectly for him. In fact, he said he would be back aboard in April for another cruise.

But many passengers viewed booking before boarding as a burden, and many had trouble making reservations. Every day, dozens appeared at the Passenger Services desk or at the restaurants’ entrances, stating their cases.

Although many passengers praised their meals, when I asked seven of them to grade the reservation system, the median rating was 6.5 out of ten.

“It was a lot of work to do this cruise,” said Sue Bonelli of Long Island, N.Y.

“I feel nickeled and dimed,” said her husband, Guido Bonelli, referring to the dining and Wi-Fi charges.

At a Q&A session on Day seven, Dean Bailey, the ship’s hotel director, told passengers that the dining program “is still evolving….It’s not where we want it to be.” Indeed, the ship had already added personnel and items to menus to appease passengers who prefer to stay put in the biggest dining rooms. But it’s clear there’s work to be done.

The ship’s Wi-Fi was hit-and-miss for me. After paying $140 for eight days of access for two devices, I lost my laptop and smartphone connections just about every day, sometimes more than once. (Conversely, I got so fond of my “virtual balcony” — the monitor disguised as a window in the ship’s 375 inside staterooms — that I left it on for the entire cruise.)

The ship’s entertainment got high marks for the singers who rose above the plot of the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!” and for the dancers and musicians in striking original productions called “StarWater” and “Sonic Odyssey.” The 1,300-seat Royal Theater is a pleasant venue, and the space known as “Two70” is a multi-level entertainment area enlivened by six suspended video screens that tilt, slide, merge, and regroup to create remarkable visual effects.

The roster of family-friendly activities is long, including the FlowRider wave-maker (for surfing and boogie boarding), the rock-climbing wall (next to a 30-foot-tall magenta bear by sculptor Lawrence Argent), circus trapeze lessons, roller-skating, basketball and, in a nod to decades gone by, one lonely shuffleboard court.

“I tried rock climbing for the first time,” said Emanuel Strong, 40, a New York corrections officer who was traveling with his wife and two kids.

Heather Rubinstein, a veteran cruiser and wheelchair user who came from New York with her husband and two kids, told me that access on the ship was “pretty good.” (However, her husband had just lifted her to a spot that she couldn’t reach independently because crew members couldn’t find a key to some accessibility equipment.)

Passenger Tom Murray, who brought his family from London, loved the artwork and service. But he called the dining-and-entertainment reservation system a waste of time, found the main promenade cramped, and the ship “too gimmicky.”

Passengers Miranda Tso and Katty Lam, New York moms who brought a friends-and-family group, didn’t like the restaurant reservation scheme or the food. Next time, they said, they’ll try another cruise line.

I’m guessing the cruise line has already solved some of these problems. But the equation is about to change.

Before the ship moves to Shanghai, Quantum’s workers say, they’ll tear out the Music Hall bar, expand the casino, add shops, retune the restaurants and bring on more Mandarin-speaking crew. Tailoring the ship to Chinese passengers, many of them new to cruising, will surely mean more trial and error.

In other words, the world’s first smartship still has plenty to learn.
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IF YOU GO

Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com) sails between New Jersey and the Bahamas and Caribbean through late April, then goes to Europe and Asia. Beginning June 25, it will be based in Shanghai (Baoshan), with mostly four- and five-night cruises to ports such as Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Okinawa and Nagasaki in Japan, and Seoul (Incheon) and Busan in South Korea. For its July 26 four-night sailing to Incheon and back, rates for an interior stateroom for two begin at $1,036 per person. Airfare is excluded, as is $66 in taxes, fees, and port expenses.

I paid $1,649 for an interior single room on a seven-night Bahamas itinerary. Quantum’s sibling Anthem of the Seas will begin sailing Bahamas and Caribbean itineraries in November.

Photo: Christopher Reynolds via Los Angeles Times/TNS