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?
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
As the ship departed from Roatan, local musicians played lively Caribbean music as a sendoff:
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.
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:
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!
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).
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: