Slothing Around: Western Caribbean Ports

Our Getaway cruise included four stops in the Western Caribbean:  Roatan, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.

First,  a comment on cruise line shore excursions vs. private excursions run by locals. Many cruisers  naturally gravitate toward the cruise line-sponsored excursions.  There is nothing wrong with these options. Not only do they boast easy-to-understand names like “Beach Break” , “Dolphin Encounter”, and “Extreme Adventure Tour”,  they guide cruisers toward appropriate activity levels (not soooooo fit?  Maybe the Superman zipline isn’t for you).  They typically accommodate any size travel group.  You can easily pay for the excursion using your onboard account. It’s easy to find our tour guide on the pier when leaving the ship. They also,  importantly, promise that you will not miss the ship.  All Aboard is generally about 30 minutes before sailing – if your excursion provider miscalculates, or there is unexpected traffic,  you could miss the ship if not on a cruise line excursion.

So what’s the downside?

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That’s right,  money.  Cruise line excursions generally cost anywhere from 30 – 100% more than those that can be found on land.

But money isn’t the only reason I generally choose private, local excursions.  The big one: you get a more private, local experience.  For example, our driver in Roatan took us by the house where he had grown up – and his 91 year old mother waved from her perch on the front porch.

Worried about missing the ship?  Choose one of the larger, trusted landside companies –  these are easy to research on  CruiseCritic.com’s ports of call boards,  or on TripAdvisor.  These companies wouldn’t stay in business long if their guests were missing their ships.  I’ve also found that the tour companies and various guides generally all know one another –  and they communicate about things like traffic.  Particularly in the Caribbean,  cruise passenger activity is a major economic boon.  Everyone is invested in you having a great time and no bad experiences.

Would I ever use a cruise line excursion?  Sure – particularly in a destination where few speak English, I would consider it,  because I’m nowhere near bilingual.

Anyway,  a review of our ports (well, 3 of the 4 anyway):

Coxen Hole, Roatan, Honduras

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View of Coxen Hole port from our balcony

We used Rony’s Tours to schedule a private driver for the day on a “Freestyle” tour,  selecting our own activities.  Rony’s website includes a number of group options,  which can be even less expensive,  but for $40pp we thought having our own driver was the best option.  Our driver, Cameron, was born and raised in Coxen Hole.  He had spent a number of years working on cruise ships, and also on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,  but had returned to home to Roatan and now enjoys giving tours on a flexible schedule in his later years.

Our first stop was the Monkey and Sloth Hangout, which is as cool as it sounds.  The owner, Daniel Johnson, is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and all of the employees wore Steelers garb, which seemed odd in the steamy Caribbean but we went with it. We were arranged in groups with other guests, and quickly introduced to a two-toed sloth named Snow White:

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Sloths move as slowly as you think they do.  The caretakers did a good job of (slowly) carrying  and letting us hold the sloths –  when they settled into our chests, their long arms automatically tighted around our shoulders like a hug.  And they appear to be smiling and enjoying the experience, at least a little. They do have very long, sharp toes or toenails-  I think the way this place handled the animals was the right way, as we heard from  cruise passengers who went to different sloth encounters,  held them differently, and got scratches.

Next up were the Capuchin Monkeys.  We were warned to remove everything from our pockets, as well as all jewelry, hats, sunglasses, etc.,  as these guys are quite the little pickpockets.

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Monkey stare down

The monkeys liked to jump around their cage and onto guests’ heads –  they managed to scare one little girl in our group, although she was unharmed, she thought the monkey had bitten her ear.  If traveling with small children, remember that they are semi-wild animals, and can seem a little rougher than your pet puppy.

Next we visited the South Shore Zip Line Adventure Park for a suspension bridge eco tour.t7TYLejAT7eNoaTmHN7PSA

We crossed 8 different bridges,  which is harder than it looks as they are very bouncy.  Zipliners whizzed above our heads;  we had ziplined before and decided we didn’t need to repeat the experience.  Our guide spoke fast and walked fast, but we didn’t mind a little exercise at this point in our trip.  The trail is structured to go down the side of a mountain from point to point;  we were glad there was a truck waiting to drive us back up.   We learned a bit about the local flora and fauna, and saw some huge termite nests –   learning that these are literally “shithouses” (pardon my francais) –  termites live in nests built from their own dung.

So that, of course, made us hungry.  It was fairly late for lunch at this point, so we asked the driver to take us to nearby West Bay Beach, where we enjoyed french fries and the best kind of beer, a beaachfront beer:

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As the ship departed from Roatan, local musicians played lively Caribbean music as a sendoff:7%3wV78rRXyzQ6LwOVgQkg

 

Harvest Caye, Belize

Harvest Caye is one of Norwegian’s two private islands. Just off the cost of Belize,  the 75-acre eco-friendly resort was built at a cost of $50 million and includes swimming pools, beaches with loungers, water activities including standup paddle boards, kayaks, and pedal boats, a rope course, zip lines, shopping, restaurants, and bars.  Unlike most cruise line private islands,  food and beverage package drinks are NOT included for ship guests. All restaurants and bars are run by locals, to profit the local economy.

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Long-ish walk to the island; a tram is available

 

Visitors also have the option to take a ferry to the mainland, for additional adventures such as cave tubing, Mayan ruins, and private tours.

We chose to stay on the island for awhile;  it was a fairly cloudy, breezy day so we didn’t stay as long as we might have had the sun been shining.  The families in particular seemed to enjoy the large pool and pool area –  so much nicer than what you find on a ship,  with plenty of room for kids to frolic in the water.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Well, I said 3 out of 4;  this was our dud –  not due to any fault of the island, but due to the weather.  We awoke to stormy skies, but as we prepared to go onshore to visit Maya Chan Beach Resort, which we had read so many positive things about,  I checked my emails to find that the resort was offering optional refunds due to the weather.  Refusing to believe that our day could be ruined,  we made our way steadfastly down the gangway – and promptly got soaked from a torrential, windblown tropical downpour. We won’t melt!, I said.  But Husband convinced me that the prospect of a day at a beach resort in this weather was simply not too enticing.

Kudos to Maya Chan for a great business practice,  allowing guests to cancel when bad weather threatens – I’m sure that’s one reason they get such excellent reviews on both Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor.

We will try again, Maya Chan and Costa Maya!

The skies did clear in the afternoon, and Husband wandered off the ship for this nice photo:

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Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula, is a tourst-friendly place.  Its southern shore is lined with  beach clubs,  roughly a 15-20 minute ride from the ships depending on where you are docked, and which beach club you choose.

Other shore excursion options here include a trip to the mainland to see famous Mayan ruins,  and swimming with dolphins –  an activity we had done with our 4 kids, about 7 years ago.

We chose to visit Mr. Sancho’s,  an all inclusive beach resort with food, drinks, pools, a waterpark, and beach loungers for $55 per person plus the cab ride on your own there and back.   We arrived fairly early, around 9:30 am.  Nothing says vacation quite like guacamole and a beer for breakfast!

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Our cab driver told us there were 7 (!) cruise ships docking in Cozumel that day, but Mr. Sancho’s never became overcrowded.  The cab driver and guards at the gate indicated that no one could enter without a prior reservation;  these are made online for a $5 pp refundable deposit. We were able to easily move from sunny seats to shady seats to a dining table without any trouble;  a friendly waiter brought us drinks and food from the menu wherever we sat, for a nice tip at day’s end.

The Cozumel port requires a long walk through a gauntlet of shops and services, including tour operators, jewelry stores, hair braiding, and Mexican crafts.

We resisted the temptation at most stores;  our only purchase was a definitely unlicensed, black market Mexican-style backpack bearing the Cubs logo for $15 (bargained down from $20).

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These bags were displayed all over the island, with every MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL team represented.  No doubt they’re made in China, but a fun reminder of our trip nonetheless.

Our Getaway cruise was just the getaway we needed.  Captain Roger Gustavsen ran a smoooooooth ship;  almost as smooth as his crooning at the Captian’s VIP party!  He entertained us with “Lady in Red” and “Wonderful Tonight” –  what a treat.   Here’s our sunset finale:

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Sea Days are Me Days: Onboard the Getaway

Cruise lines are quick to advertise all of the fantastic ports they visit.  On a typical Caribbean cruise, there are anywhere from 3 -5 port stops per week;  generally,  the ship arrives in port around 8 am and departs around 5pm,  so passengers get a full day to explore the island, visit the beach, or participate in an adventure such as ziplining or snorkeling.  Just don’t miss the ship –  unless you are on a cruiseline sponsored excursion, they won’t wait for you and you may have to figure out how to catch up with your belongings from a tiny island with sketchy communication.

I’ll cover the ports we visited on our Getaway cruise in my next post.  This one, however, is about what cruise itineraries label as “At Sea”.  Most cruises include at least one, and often 2 or 3, of these luxuriously lazy days,  when the only thing you need to plan is when, what, and where to eat.  You can’t get off the ship –   you and your 4000 new friends are going to spend the day together no matter what.  All ship services are open on a sea day, including  the casino and shopping, both of which typically close during a port visit.  Our sea day activities generally went something like this:

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wine + my kindle app = ahhhhh
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Husband loves the hot tub!
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we thought the guy at the table with Husband looked like a chubby Blake Shelton

Our Getaway cruise itinerary included a sea day on Day 2 (the first full day), and on Day 7 (the last full day).  In my opinion, this is perfect.  The first sea day allows passengers to sleep in, unwind and enjoy the ship, without the pressure of feeling like they need to explore a destination.  And the last day is for revisiting favorite activities, exchanging contact information with new friends, tipping the staff, and savoring those last moments of vacation (and packing, but we don’t like to talk about that).  The seas were as calm as a bathtub, making both of our sea days a relaxing pleasure.

Evening Entertainment

In the evenings, we enjoyed the ship’s wide-ranging entertainment.  Throughout the ship, it’s easy to find something to do just by wandering around.  Musical groups grace the atrium and several bars;  the casino is always open at night, and bartenders do their thing throughout the ship.

 

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In addition, there are scheduled entertainment options,  which differ each night. In the main theater, on several nights the ship presents an abbreviated version of  Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet”,  which tells the story of an impromptu recording session between Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. We saw this show on our last Getaway cruise and noted that the performer playing Jerry Lee Lewis was different – and we had been incredibly impressed by the one we saw last time –  so we opted to skip it this time.  He may have been just as good, but we wanted to keep our memory.

We did, however, take the time to see the NCL version of “Burn the Floor”,  the self-described “Ultimate Ballroom Sensation”, a “high voltage theatrical dance experience” with “jaw-dropping choreography”. Our description: “beautiful sexy people dancing around the stage with no plot”.  Honestly, both Husband and I took a little snooze during the show –  maybe because we sat in the back of the theater, it just didn’t capture our attention.

We also took advantage of a comedy show, starring Vince Acevedo, a Chicago-based Puerto Rican comedian.  There are up to three comedy shows a night, with the latest, at 11:00pm,  billed as the “adult” show –   in other words, some dirty jokes and swear words.  Vince’s comedy was not particularly filthy but genuinely funny – we had an unexpectedly good time.

Another favorite was “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano sing-along show.  The singers are multi-talented,  singing and playing songs by request, and often adding drums, harmonica, or guitar as well.  This show’s success does depend on the crowd, however;  the first time we went,  it was a little slow due in part to some of the song requests.  The second time we went, it was much more rollicking –  we find that people on cruise ships tend to “let loose” a little more than they might at home. On the last night of the cruise,  other performers from the ship’s various shows often crash the party and sing or perform with the Howl at the Moon musicians.

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Howl at the Moon on the Noregian Getaway

Another memorable entertainment experience was the “Ultimate 80s Party”,  held at Spice H2O,  on the top deck/rear of the ship under the stars.  Classic 80s videos played on the huge screen at the back of the deck:  Madonna, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi,  etc. while we danced with some of our new friends. Some of the cruise director’s staff, who are responsible for keeping guests entertained throughout the ship,  dressed up in 80s garb and even performed the “Thriller” dance. Husband and I both grew up during the 80s and enjoyed the flashback.

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80s Party under the stars

We missed the “Glow Party”,  which is also held at Spice H2O –  it’s essentially a dance party where wearing white is encouraged, and blacklighting makes everyone look cool even if they are bad dancers.

Towel Animals

I can’t leave a discussion of the onboard pleasures of a cruise without mentioning a quintessential element:  returning to your stateroom to find that your room steward has not only performed a turndown service, but created a towel animal!  Here are a few that graced our room:  thanks Angelo!

 

 

 

Time to Getaway in the Haven!

It’s our second cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, the second ship in Norwegian’s Breakaway class of ships.  Built in 2014,  the Getaway houses about 4,000 passengers and boasts 28 dining venues, 15 bars, a spa, fitness center, waterslides, a ropes course, shopping, and wide-ranging entertainment which I’ll cover on another post –  it’s one of our favorite things about Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Now,   4000 is a big number.  There are also about 1600 crew members on board.  So it is, like you would expect,  a small-16 story floating city.  This was our 3rd cruise in Norwegian’s “Haven”,  a ship-within-a-ship concept that provides a quieter,  less crowded option with a small pool, hot tubs, and a private restaurant –  but still allows access to all the fun available on the entire ship.  The Getaway has about 80 Haven cabins out of roughly 1800 total, so it’s available only to a small percentage of passengers. The Haven costs more, but for me, there is value in the relaxed experience.

Haven Boarding

As Haven passengers,  you get some perks. This includes being one of the first to board the ship.  So,  we arrived at the Port of Miami pier via Uber around 11 am, dropped our bags with a porter, were whisked to a priority check-in (with no lines) , then to a small waiting lounge with other Haven passengers.  We barely sat down when a crew member arrived told us it was time to board! The entire time spent from Uber dropoff to gangway was less than 20 minutes.  An amazingly efficient process.

Once onboard, we were escorted to the 16th floor Haven lounge, where the ship’s Haven Concierge, Hanno Meyer,  gave us a quick talk about what to expect during the week.  The Concierge desk, located in the Haven, can help with restaurant and entertainment reservations, shore excursions and advice, shipboard account questions, etc.  One of Hanno’s best tips was to avoid using the included free, limited internet package for the first day (we were in Miami until 5pm anyway, with regular cell access), because the next day we could access an unlimited package for a very small upgrade price.  Since the internet connection onboard can be sketchy,  having a limited package is very stressful –  how long will it take for that email to load!?

Haven Cabin:

Shortly after Hanno’s introductory talk, we were able to access our room,  cabin 14140, a Haven Spa Suite.

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King-sized bed
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Looking back toward cabin door/ bathroom/closet
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Balcony
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Private jacuzzi in the Spa Suite

 

Haven Courtyard photos:

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Haven pools, private upper deck
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hot tub in the Haven (complete with Husband!)
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seating options in the Courtyard

 

Haven bar:

Next up: get that first drink!  We had the “Ultimate Beverage Package” included with our cabin. There are some limits to the package:  Any drink with a sticker price of more than $15 results in a upcharge of the difference greater than $15.  In addition, while the “UBP” as it’s called was included in our cruise fare, we did have to pay gratuities upfront on the package, about $136 per person for the week. Still, what’s fun about the package (in addition to, um, free unlimited drinks) is that you can try new things without worrying that you just wasted $12 or $15.  Christian, bartender extraordinaire in the Haven, prepares us an “Abraham Lincoln” below.  It’s got similar ingredients to a Manhattan, but the bong smoker he’s using gave the drink a cinnamon-toast taste.  This one was a winner:

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Norwegian’s cruises tend to attract a relatively younger crowd and a lot of families and multi-generational groups, due to the wide variety of activities available.  Our cruise was no exception, although travellng in late November probably reduced the number of school-aged children on board.  The Haven bar was populated regularly by a fun-loving,  young-adult-to-late-middle-aged crowd.  We enjoyed a predinner drink there most evenings!

The Spa

We visited the spa and I signed up for a 3-treatment Ionithermie package.  I’ve seen this advertised on several cruises;  it’s billed as a cellulite reduction treatment that will help you “LOSE 9 INCHES OR MORE!”  It involved algae and electrical stimulation of my chub.  Spoiler alert:  it doesn’t really work.  But we had onboard credit to spend, and I thought it might be worth a try.  Husband was approached by the spa’s cosmetic Doctor,   who offered a free consultation to “help him look years younger!”  Spoiler alert:  we don’t know if it worked, because it would have cost over $4,000.  More than the cruise!  LOL.   Cruise ship spas are lovely,  the people who work there are lovely, and they smell lovely. There are lovely photos of (probably airbrushed) body parts all around. But the spas are expensive, much more so than on land, and they WILL try to sell you something.  Buyer beware and all that.

However, our Spa Cabin did allow us access to a very cool feature of the Getaway:  the Mandara Thermal Spa room.  This room is only accessible by those who book spa cabins, or who purchase a weekly pass for $199pp (if purchased online before the cruise; $259 if purchased onboard). Spa Passes are limited in number.   It contains a large thermal pool with jets,  steam room, sauna, salt room, and a couple of dozen chairs including heated tile loungers that look out over the ship’s bow.  The spa is stocked with oranges and fruit-infused water, towels, and a locker room nearby. A nice place to Getaway, for sure. I didn’t feel it appropriate to take a lot of photos in the thermal spa,  but I did get this shot from a tile lounger looking out the front windows:

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Haven Concierge Desk:

The first day of a cruise is pleasantly busy and hectic,  with checking in, boarding, unpacking, and generally exploring the ship.  But it sets the stage for a great week!  An important first day activity is  revieiwng any reservations made previously, and, if you have concierge access,  getting their recommendations to set up the week.  They hear everyone’s feedback:  they know where it’s worth spending your precious vacation time!  We had met Hanno on our prior Getaway cruise,  but his whole concierge staff was fabulous and we definitely benefited from their advice.

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Hanno & staff at the Haven concierge desk.   You can’t tell here, but Hanno is nearly 7 feet tall and has to duck under the ship’s exit signs!

(not-so-secret note to Hanno:) We know, you like the Baltic itinerary better!  Try to enjoy the warm weather.

We are not cool enough for South Beach (but we had fun anyway)

The day after gorging ourselves on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the kids, Husband and I departed LGA to MIA bound for our Norwegian Getaway cruise.  Thanks(giving) to his Million Miler status,  one of our tickets was upgraded to First Class.  This is why Husband is awesome:  he gave me the seat.  Does he know me or what?  Happy wife happy life! The flight was short, so I would not have used miles for a first class seat,  but I have to admit it was comfortable and I enjoyed the flight.     Thanks honey!

We Ubered from MIA to our hotel, the Cadillac Miami Beach, located oceanfront in the mid-beach section of Miami Beach (about 1.5 miles north of the famed South Beach strip).  The hotel was newly purchased and renovated by Marriott as part of the Autograph Collection,  having opened about 8 weeks prior. The staff had a wonderful energy about them.  Thanks to Marriott promoting the new hotel,  we got a fantastic deal on a 2 night stay in an oceanfront room with a balcony.  We immediately enjoyed that ah-I’m-finally-on-vacation drink at the pool bar:

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Cadillac pool deck bar/restaurant
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Husband wears Sunglasses at Night

We’ve both had our share of stress over the past year, and this was our first lengthy getaway in quite awhile. Our cozy room led to a great night’s sleep after a hectic day.  I’m an early riser, and was greeted the next morning with this view:

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We greeted the day with a brisk walk along the oceanfront boardwalk on top of the dunes.  Other than that little burst of activity, we lounged by the pool and beach the rest of the day and were generally very lazy.  The pool was small,  but we had no problem finding a lounger.  We liked the artifical grass – it was less hot & slippery than pool tiles can be.

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We had a 7pm reservation at Gianni’s, the restaurant at the former Versace Mansion in South Beach.  The mansion, now called The Villa Casa Casuarina, has been converted into a hotel,  but anyone can dine at the restaurant in its courtyard.  To give you an idea,  a room at the hotel in January runs upwards of $700/night. This is a high-end experience,  so dress up and enjoy the service – it’s a great place for a special celebration, and we saw no less than 3 proposals take place!  Husband and I?  We’re just celebrating life and getting away from the daily grind!   We made reservations on OpenTable exactly 30 days prior to our preferred dining date – this is recommended during Miami’s winter high season.

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Gianni’s Courtyard with lit fountains in the background.
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Guests mingling in the central atrium of the mansion.

Now we come to the best activity there is in South Beach:  PEOPLE WATCHING. With its latin, party vibe,  South Beach is chock full of beautiful people doing beautiful things.  There may have been some fake boobs,  lips, and tummy tucks involved.

The Versace Mansion was just the start;  we made our way up fabled Ocean Drive to the Breakwater Hotel,  in front of which was a open-air  Cuban cafe with sidewalk tables called Havana 1957. The pictures below don’t really capture the vibe –  music coming from every direction;  open-top Ferraris coasting by;  couples (of all orientations) holding hands; scantily dressed dancers, bright colors and an endless energy.

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street life South Beach, view from our table at Havana 1957

We enjoyed a couple of “Ultimate Mojitos” –  these were very, very large and delicious drinks.  And we had a couple.  So the beautiful night was, shall we say, a little fuzzy  the next day.  We did get a kick out of a street performing magician,  who in addition to some great card tricks managed to remove both of our Apple watches without us even realizing it!  Glad he gave them back 🙂

Tomorrow:  We board the Norwegian Getaway!

Banker Chick Cruises

Ahoy!

My travel blog will cover all kinds of travels.  But I believe that cruises deserve a special mention, as they were really my introduction to international travel.

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A bit about my cruising history:

My first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas,  for my honeymoon in 1992 (the first one).  The islands we visited were Antigua, St Maarten, St Thomas, Martinique, and Barbados. The trip was booked through a  travel agent,  and I had no idea what I was doing.  The package price seemed right, that was all I cared about at the time.   But hey, we learn from our mistakes, right? Mistakes included:

  • Flying to Puerto Rico the day after our wedding, to catch the cruise that afternoon.  Only now do I realize how lucky we were that there were no delays.
  • Not spending any time in San Juan
  • Booking an obstructed view stateroom without a balcony / fresh air
  • Booking only cruiseline sponsored shore excursions
  • Thinking we would actually get a chair near the pool
  • Getting married to Husband #1 in the first place  (just kidding – I love my kids! I love my kids! Everything happens for a reason!  yada yada yada!)

Here’s the good thing though:  you don’t know what you don’t know.  I LOVED the cruise.  I’ll be the first to admit that cruising is not for everyone, and that it has its drawbacks.  If you are not a somewhat social person,  or if you need peace and quiet and isolation,  cruising is definitely not for you.  Buffets can be crowded and the food so-so,  you may wait for an elevator, seas may be rough, and casinos smoky. But here are the things about cruising that I fell in love with:

  • Unpack once,  see many destinations
  • Interacting with passengers and friendly crew from all over the world
  • Sailaway drinks,  watching an island recede into the distance while you imagine the next one
  • A friendly, low pressure casino –  $5 tables, and they don’t shoot you if you ask questions or make a mistake
  • The majesty of the dining room experience –  back in 1992,  this included dancing waiters and a set table and time each night, with the same cruise companions  (which could be a good or a bad thing depending on the companions!)  I’ve happily since moved on to “freestyle” cruising,  but still enjoy dressing up for a dinner experience even though dress codes have relaxed.
  • Evenings complete with included entertainment, many bars, and no need to drive home = the occasional hangover
  • Beautifully prepared food, especially desserts and yummy chilled soups
  • The overall friendliness of the cruising public.  Never have I experienced an elevator ride on a cruise ship without some chit chat –  where are you from?  I can’t believe it’s Wednesday already!  Did you enjoy xyz island?   I have yet to travel for any length of time as a solo,  but if and when I do, I think my first attempt will be a cruise.  It’s just so easy to meet people and make conversation, because you are all sharing the same experience.

Since that first cruise, I’ve been on (about) 15 more cruises.  This included a number of cruises with my children,  who always enjoyed the kids’ clubs,  ordering whatever they wanted from room service and buffets, bunk beds, and the arcade.  The majority of my cruises have been on either Norwegian Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean, although I’ve also taken a couple of cruises on RCCL’s sister line, Celebrity.  In the future,  I hope to try a luxury cruise line and European river cruising.

So:  The stage is set.  I look forward to posting about cruises, past and present.  Throughout this blog, I will label cruise-related posts under the category “Cruises”.