During my first cruise to the Caribbean, we stopped in several ports, Cozumel, Mexico being one of them. Our tour guide/driver took us to the celebrated Mayan Ruins in San Gervasio, the largest of the 30 Mayan ruins in Cozumel. It was nice to get a taste of history and learn how advanced that civilization was as far back as 2,000 years ago. It felt good walking along the paths of such great people who contributed so much to the sciences that we benefit from to this day.
Our visit to Miami was purely by happenstance. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to disembark from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami for our Caribbean cruise. After doing a fare search on Spirit Air, we decided it made (financial) sense to fly into FF and drive to Miami. We bid for and got a $15.00 per day economy car rental from Hertz via Priceline and we wanted the freedom of checking out Miami on our own terms.
We decided to hit South Beach to see what all of the hub bub was all about. Being a big fan of Art Deco, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many beautifully pastel structures throughout the area. The beach was crisp and clean and a wonder to look at. We didn’t stop to shop because the price tag was way beyond our budget.
Prior to our visit, we became aware of the Vizcaya, an Italian Renaissance mansion that has been converted to a museum. Renovations are frequent due to the humidity that the old structure is exposed to in South Florida. The beautiful gardens alone is worth the price of admission, so I would recommend a visit if you have an affinity for the historical preservation of our nation’s treasures.
Why My First Cruise Is Destined To Be My Last……
My initial impression of cruising as a potential vacation option wasn’t a very positive one. I envisioned myself being held captive by the crescendoing waves of an aqueous prison with the ship’s captain as the warden.
It was as ominous as the doomed band playing on the lido deck while the Titanic sank and those images played over and over in my mind like a piece of celluloid film stuck in an old Bell and Howell. Not that I have a fear of drowning, it was more so a fear of confinement……of being stuck with no opportunity for my feet to touch terra firma.
Now, having experienced the reality of taking the cruise, it was…..um…..pleasant. We had taken bonine, a drug to prevent sea-sickness a couple of days before leaving and everyday while we were on the ship, so we were fine in that arena. The port stops in Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios, respectively, were phenomenal. The service and fellow passengers on the Carnival Liberty were beyond reproach. Everyone was pleasant, helpful and courteous. The food was delectable, the shows superior, the ocean views unmatched….however…..I realized very early on that cruising was not for me.
It’s not easy to express what went off kilter…I can’t say wrong, because then the experience would become one that I regretted and I didn’t. Besides the obvious feeling of being confined/trapped with no place to go, it’s difficult to explain why I feel that my first cruise is destined to be my last but I will try. I’m not usually the claustrophobic type and although the ship was huge, the fact remained that there was no place to go beyond it during sea days. I know that I’m stating the obvious, but if I want out of my hotel room, it’s easy enough to do. On the boat, you are a captive audience, so I realized that this is something that I can’t compromise on in the future.
My second realization was that I found it difficult to tow the line of what the cruise director would dictate to be my choice of daily activities vs. what I desired to do. Maybe, I’m a control freak and like having things done my way on my schedule? Or perhaps, I just know what I like and if I am going to pay a thousand or so for a vacation, it’s a fair trade off.
Nevertheless, after deciding that my preconceived notions were not based on actual fact, I decided to take my first cruise with an open mind.How else could I fairly assess the experience if I didn’t take the plunge….literally?So, after hearing so many cruise addicts praise the virtues of sailing the high seas, I felt I had to go for it.It could have gone the other way, I could have loved it…but there was no sure way of knowing until I pulled the trigger.
So, to that end, I have no regrets. My curiosity has been satiated and now I know. However, this is not to discourage those virgin cruisers out there. If you want to go, please do. I do not regret my having gone, we were kept plenty busy and there’s not one negative thing I can say about the entire week. I’ve just realized that it’s not my cup of tea.
Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, if you like planned activities and the flexibility to participate in various activities without having to lift a finger, then cruising is definitely the way to go.
I was fortunate enough to have been referred to a travel agent who specialized in cruise deals. Michelle Roman with www.buycruises.com was very helpful in securing a fabulous deal with the Carnival Cruise line for me. At the time, the discounted rate for a cabin with a balcony was $799.00 pp; Michelle scored a rate of $490.00 pp for me! Of course, when you added the taxes, fuel surcharge and various and sundry junk fees, the price jumped to close to 750.00 pp…c’est la vie! I was still a happy camper! Our seven day cruise to the Western Caribbean was booked for a December 6, 2008 departure!
As soon as that was taken care of, the next step was to secure a seat on a plane that would get me to the Miami airport before my ship left. Conventional wisdom stated that it was best to arrive the day before embarkation (when the ship leaves the port) so that there would be no possibility of my missing the ship due to flight delays. To that end, I decided to see what type of fare I could get since I had three months lead time. I recalled the great deal that I got from Spirit Airlines (www.spiritair.com) earlier in the year to Vegas (36.00 RT!!), so naturally, that’s where I pointed my browser. As luck would have it, they had a pretty decent fare for $100.00 RT to Fort Lauderdale (a short drive to Miami and thus cheaper fare), so we booked it.
Like all airlines, Spirit has now resorted to charging for checked bags, but you get a discount if you pay online….just make sure you pay before you print out your boarding pass…otherwise it’s too late and you will have to pay full price at the airport. Also, be prepared to pay 10.00-15.00 each way for selecting your own seats instead of being assigned them. See how it all adds up in the end?
Since we were arriving a day early, that meant we needed to book a hotel room. Michelle recommended a hotel close to the Miami airport so that I can quickly jet to the port for embarkation. I called the recommended Holiday Inn Miami Airport West but got a quote of $220.00 which was ridiculous for someone who simply wanted somewhere to lay her head for the night. So, I did what I usually do when I need a nice hotel at a reasonable rate: PRICELINE (www.priceline.com)! This site can be intimidating to newbies who freak out at the mention of ‘FREE REBID’, but it’s really not that difficult at all. I will explain the ins and outs of how to use Priceline in a future blog post.
Anyway, I logged into PL and bid $45.00 as my first bid for the airport area and it was accepted. The irony…..I got the very same hotel: The Holiday Inn Miami Airport West!! You will never know if a hotel has rooms slotted for PL, so it’s definitely worth the effort. The key is that you have to KNOW your limit so that you won’t blow your budget and WHAT area to bid for so that you won’t end up in Timbuktu.
Next, since we were flying into Fort Lauderdale, we would need a car to drive to Miami; so we would need to pickup in FLL and drop off in MIA. Simple enough….back to PL we go. Once again, I got in on my first bid of $15.00 a day. It almost made me wish that I had more than a day to spend sightseeing in Miami! Just remember that PL tacks on their fee with every booking but you always come out ahead of the game.
After arriving in Fort Lauderdale, we caught the rental shuttle bus to Alamo car rental where we were checked in quickly and told to go to the garage and pick out our compact car because the keys were already in the car. We loaded up the car, performed a cursory review of the exterior and interior to check for dents and dings and as we drove out, our paperwork and mileage were checked by a guy as we drove out of the garage. We headed for the freeway and decided to make a stop at the historic Vizcaya Museum, an Italian Renaissance-style villa and formal gardens built in 1916 as the winter residence of industrialist James Deering. We were impressed with the care that the county takes in preserving the structural integrity of this national landmark. It’s refreshing to see a concern for future generations’ enjoyment of the vast property. The general admission fee was 15.00 and 10.00 for students.
Next, we decided to do a drive-by version of the Art Deco tour starting along Ocean Drive to view the various hotels and businesses of that architectural type.At one point, we were driving along with the art deco buildings on the left and south beach and the Atlantic to our right.In between watching out for the sun-kissed couples sharing vespas darting in and out in front of us and taking in scenic views on either side, it’s a wonder we didn’t get into an accident.I strongly recommend that you do not miss this pastel colored venue in the heart of Miami.
After grabbing dinner and a few missteps….actually a lot of them….we finally found our hotel which was actually very nice….nicer than I would have thought. The service was excellent and the room was impeccable. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again. After getting directions from the desk clerk to the airport so that we could drop the car off, we were on our way.
On the way we filled up the tank and made our way to the somewhat confusing path to their marshalling yard for car returns. All we needed to do was get out of the car, let the guy check the gas gauge and we were on our way. The bonus with renting from Alamo is that they provided a free shuttle to the Miami port, so the transition was seamless.
As soon as we arrived and unloaded our bags at the pier, a porter came out of nowhere and quickly tagged the bags that were going to be taken up to our cabin later.We hung onto our carry-on and after going through immigration and security, we made our way to the check in station before boarding the ship.This is where you show them your fun pass which is proof that all of the required paperwork has been taken care of and you must show your passports and the credit card that you used to book the cruise.
After processing you, they will give you a deck plan of the ship that also has FAQs and a Sail and Sign card which is a combination room key and on-board credit card to make any purchases like alcohol or anything from their Fun Shop stores. They do not deal in cash on the ship (except in the casino for obvious reasons), so be careful……it’s too easy to run up your bill this way. You will be able to track your purchases via a special feature on your television set in your cabin. After making it up the stairs to take the obligatory picture with the Carnival photographers, we got to go on-board. It struck such an imposing figure, but excited me at the same time! Apparently, as soon as you board, you are able to go to the dining room for a buffet lunch which was absolutely scrumptious.
We were told that we could enter our rooms around 1:30 pm which is about the same time that we finished stuffing our gourds to maximum capacity at Emile’s Restaurant. If you happen to be a major soda pop enthusiast, you may want to invest in buying a Fountain Fun (Soda) card. The cost is about $38.00 for the duration of the cruise and allows you to have unlimited sodas and juices (except via room service). Personally, I think it’s too costly, but as a former soda drinker, I can understand the temptation. Just note that you can get all of the coffee, lemonade, tea and juices (during breakfast) that you want for free.
Our cabin was slightly bijou, but was as charming as any boutique hotel. As you walked in there is a bank of closets to your immediate left and the bathroom with shower on your right. Right next to the closets were a desk with mirror above and television adjacent to it. On the right was a couch with two twin beds separated by a nightstand with a lamp situated right next to the large window that looked out to the ocean.
As we stepped out of the door that led out to the balcony, we were enraptured with the beautiful view from the patio deck which was outfitted with two deck chairs and a table. I could picture us enjoying breakfast as we sailed the high seas the next morning. My thoughts of devouring crunchy Danish were interrupted by a fellow balcony mate shrieking with excitement. I held onto my glasses and leaned over to say hello. Before you knew it at least half of the balcony population was on the decks waving and saying hi to one another. Talk about a bonding love-fest with complete strangers!
About an hour before the ship actually takes off, you are required to participate in their mandatory lifeboat safety drill called “Muster”; you are called out to the zero deck where the lifeboats are located by the deck number that your cabin is located on. It takes roughly 30 minutes for everyone to be assembled and less than five to be given instructions.
We headed back up to the Lido deck where our cabin was located as well as the pools, hot tub and buffet dining room. Since it was almost time to get ready to disembark, people were lining up around either side of the ship to wave goodbye and then the fun begin….members of the crew started to lead those who dared, to a lengthy rendition of the electric slide. Carisa joined in on the fun while I cheered her from the sidelines.
Afterwards, we decided to walk around the ship to learn as much as we could about our home for the next seven days.We happened upon the huge Venetian Palace on deck three (four and five!) where all of the main shows would be held.It struck an imposing figure as I surveyed the center stage which was framed by two larger than life court jesters on either side.The colors were a tasteful blend of browns, reds and blues and had a circus-like flair without being tacky.Later on that night we were treated to a welcome speech by our cruise director, Steve Knisley and a comedy show featuring Eddie Capone who was really quite talented.
We went back up to our cabin and noticed that what little mess we had made previously had been cleaned up and a flyer called a Carnival Caper was left on the bed. The caper is a list of planned activities for the following day……but since this was our first day, we got two….one for that day and the next. We decided to go try our luck in the casino. We had already decided that we would be doing this purely for fun and would only spend 10.00 each day….on the first night Carisa won 15.00, so we decided to hold onto that for tomorrow. We’d developed a fondness for slots since our trip to Vegas a few months prior….lots of fun and very low risk! We ended our night with another trip to the buffet for dinner and a visit to the Victoria Lounge for Karaoke.
The next day we sailed all day, so that would also be our first elegant night. Meaning we got to sit down in the fancy Golden Olympian Dining room in our finest threads. Be aware that for a seven day cruise, there will be two elegant nights. You are not required to participate, but it is a nice experience and you will enjoy it. You can choose to order in room service or go to the buffet dining room instead. We got to enjoy prime rib and lobster tails….as many as you desired, but we only got one of each. Earlier in the day, we got to play trivia games, shop in the Fun shops, listen to the Piano Man in the main lobby of the ship, and attend a seminar on where to shop at our first port stop, Cozumel. After our meal, we ended our night with a stellar performance by the Carnival Liberty Dancers saluting the nations of the world.
We’d hired a tour guide at the port of Cozumel. Gerry came highly recommended via the www.cruisecritic.com boards and he only charged 100.00 for a four hour tour for two people. We enjoyed the tour where we got to see the span of the entire island including the Mayan ruins. He was nice enough, but I think his tour was drawn out as we only wanted the three hour (80.00) tour and he seemed to drag it out by driving ever so slowly so that it would run over into the fourth hour. He seemed to steer us to people that he knew personally when it came to buying souvenirs….which wasn’t altogether a bad thing because we were pleased with the items that we got and the prices that we paid. Gerry was pretty knowledgeable and proud of his island and he even went a step further by entertaining us with song….luckily he had the pipes! We were able to get great pictures and he obliged us by snapping a few pics of us together.
We grabbed a late lunch when we got back to the ship and decided to treat ourselves to a leisurely nap in our cabin for a few hours and we visited the casino, checked out a couple of books from the library on deck four and got dinner before going back to our cabin to start reading and getting ready for the next day. We decided to take advantage of the nearby laundry room to wash clothes since we tried to pack lightly we’d gone through most of our clean clothes. There were two commercial washers and four commercial dryers that cost $2.00 to operate and the vending machine detergent cost a mere $1.00. Carnival was nice enough to provide an iron and ironing board since you are forbidden to bring your own due to their being a fire hazard. Speaking of other forbidden things that I would have loved to have…..my trusty Thermophore heating pad!
Today is a sea day. We decide to take it easy on this day because we know that the next two days will be very active port visits. We decide to spend a lot of time resting, watching television, visiting the shops, reading, playing the slots, enjoying the various music ensembles throughout the ship and devoting a lot of time people watching and making conversation with fellow cruisers. One of the great benefits of cruising is the right to do absolutely nothing and or being totally self-indulgent. We gave ourselves permission to do a little of both!
Grand Cayman was the second port stop. Since this port is a tender port, meaning we would have to be escorted off the ship via a small ferry boat to the dock, we decided to take a shore excursion hosted by Carnival and the company that they contracted with to give the tour.Our tour guide was very informative as he made the history of this British Commonwealth come to life.Our first stop was at the Turtle Farm where we got to see several varieties and even the opportunity to hold some of them.Next we stopped at the famed Tortuga Rum Factory where we purchased souvenirs and bought a variety pack of rums that we had to pay for and they would deliver to our ship before we left port.A little side note, Carnival will not deliver your purchases to you until the last day of sailing.
Ostensibly, their reasoning is so that they can keep the number of drunks to a minimum. Of course, you can always PURCHASE the drinks that they continually try to ply you with during the cruise. LOL! We were particularly enthused about the possibility of our visiting the town of Hell.There is a really interesting gift shop located in the center of the town right next to the post office.We were able to mail postcards to friends and ourselves with the Hell postmark affixed…..makes a great souvenir.
We got back to the ship in time to grab lunch and since there was an on-board special for using their internet café, we decided to spend some time catching up on reading emails. We begin to notice that after our last shore excursion, we were feeling quite fatigued. We figured the best solution was to take a soak in one of the hot tubs. We were soon joined by a fellow Atlantan and his aunt and had an opportunity to not only soak away our aches and pains but indulge in a very pleasant conversation with two very nice people.
After changing back into our clothes, we ventured into the fun shops to check out their $10.00 sale on watches, jewelry, scarves and other accessories.This is where you can get into trouble with the sign and sail card.The charges will magically add up!
The next day was our shore excursion to Ocho Rios…..this port was the most aesthetically beautiful by far. The landscape was a series of terraced homes surrounded by lush, green tropical foliage. It looked like the ultimate tourist’s fantasy of what paradise would look like. Ironically, once you got to see the rest of the island where the native Jamaicans lived, it was as if I had stepped into a parallel universe. There was a weird juxtaposition of this idea of ‘paradise’ in the face of such abject poverty. As I entered each store, I noticed that the owners were 90%+ of Indian ancestry. The employees were sometimes Jamaican…..which didn’t surprise me actually. It is rather the rule than the exception that natives in most poor countries or simply poor neighborhoods are squeezed out by others. Since the ordinary Jamaican citizen’s livelihood strongly depends on tourist dollars, we made a conscious decision to spend the majority of our funds with the natives who ran their storefronts out of the local flea market.
We decided to start packing when we got back so that we could spend the next day simply enjoying being on the boat. We only left out what we would need for the following two days and packed up the rest. Later we went to the Venetian Palace for the ‘Just Rock’ song and dance revue by the Carnival Liberty dancers and vocalists, Taylor Phillips and Brandon Wright. We stopped to listen to a string trio for a few minutes before going up to our cabin to relax and turn in for the night.
The last day of our cruise was pretty uneventful. There were loads of things to do like dance classes, seminars, music ensembles, bingo, games, golfing, volleyball, basketball, trivia, scrapbooking, scavenger hunts, art auctions and the second elegant night. But we chose to remain uncommitted to doing much of anything beyond relaxing while we were at sea. If something happened to pique our interest then we were more than happy to indulge in it. We noticed that the fun shops began slashing prices on certain items, nothing that we were particularly interested in, but you would be wise to take notice of this if you decide to take a cruise.
We returned our library books, received our rum from our Grand Cayman excursion as well as our disembarkation information.We will need to leave our luggage outside of our cabin before 10 pm if we wanted to pick the luggage up on our way out of the ship.To make things easier for us, we chose to place our luggage outside the cabin.We received our final bill that indicated any onboard purchases that we had made.If there were any errors, you were asked to go to guest services to have them corrected.
We arrived back in Miami around 7:30 am. We grabbed breakfast and waited for our disembarkation number to be called. This number was left the night before in our cabin and was essentially luggage tags that we had to affix before placing it outside the cabin door. As soon as our number was called, we were allowed to exit the ship on zero deck, pick up our luggage and sail right through immigration where we turned in our declaration sheet which indicated what we had brought back from our travels. I had brought back quite a few bottles of tequila and rum for friends and was afraid that I had too much….well….actually, I did. But they never checked it!
So, there you have it. Did I enjoy myself? Yes! Would I ever do it again? Suffice it to say, there are some things that you do for the experience……just to say….Ok, been there, done that. So….I would have to say…..No. It was something that I’d never done and it was pleasant, but it’s not something that I would feel compelled to do again. The real benefit of the cruise was being able to visit three different islands for a nominal cost. It would have cost much more to visit them separately, so in that respect, I feel that I came out ahead.