(Scene: Holding a candle, dramatically lighting up only my face while dressed all in black…) “My name is James… and I’m a spoiled brat”.
(all together:) “Hi, James!”
Just coming off a two week transatlantic cruise and heading off to Hawaii next week, I could barely muster up enthusiasm for this 7-day hassle-free family reunion cruise to the Western Caribbean. The famed electric blue waters of Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman? Meh. Another lobster dinner? Fine. A soak in the jacuzzi? Whatever. Unforgivable, I know. I’m beyond spoiled. I’m talking Brad and Angelina’s kids spoiled. Or possibly even Paris Hilton spoiled.
I need penance. And a diet. But penance first. So to make amends, I’d like to share five cruising tips for the first time cruiser that I’ve gleaned from spending 3 of the last 4 weeks aboard a cruise ship bouncing from port to port…
1) Do everything. Part of the allure of a cruise vacation is that entertainment and activities are included. So knock yourself out. I know it’s tempting to just sit and relax (Wait. You want to relax? Are you NUTS?! Where do you think you are? On VACATION?!? Silly rabbit.) But here’s your chance to do all the crazy things you’ve always (…or never) wanted to do. Go to all the nightly shows, no matter how cheesy they sound – it’s all part of the fun! Sure, you might see some dud performers, but you may be surprised. I loved the energy of the Beatles cover band. I almost skipped the ice show as I had seen it a few weeks ago. But surprised when it was a totally different production and an excellent one at that! – a cross between Ice Capades and Cirque du Soleil (No one fell, hooray!) Try out that rock climbing wall, even though a 10 year-old girl with glasses might beat you to the top. How about amassing Royal Caribbean medals by joining a volleyball or ping-pong competition? (Confession: I won the ping-pong tournament on two different days but right afterwards was beaten by an aged Chinese lady. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the way she held her racquet, although I’m proud to say that my crazy tennis-style swings threw her off a first…) Go watch the Belly Flop competition and cringe at the sound of flesh slapping water (By the way, if you can’t make out the text on this eventual champion’s ample backside, it says “Crack Kills”.) Learn a new line dance. Try out all the different eating venues on the ship and marvel at the mindboggling selection. Order as much as you’d like off the menu in the dining room. (Can’t decide between the wild mushrooms in puff pastry and the lobster bisque? Go ahead and order them both! Believe me, the shame of ordering multiple nightly appetizers or even entrees will soon go away. Besides, you can always tell yourself that you’ll start that new diet the day after your cruise finishes…)
2) Do nothing. Wait. Didn’t I just tell you to do everything? But seriously, between unleashing your inner scrapbooker and before your 2pm spa treatment, don’t forget to spend a few moments just sitting and staring out at the wide blue sea. Or perhaps play a quaint game of shuffleboard along one of the decks. Nothing beats having a leisurely breakfast by huge panoramic windows overlooking the ocean. So leave the party vibe of the pool deck and find a quiet corner of the ship somewhere and simply enjoy the nostalgia of traveling by boat, nothing but beautiful blue sea as far as the eye can see. Some people come away from their cruise vacation saying, “It didn’t even feel like being on a ship!” While I understand the sentiment, they’ve kind of (warning: bad pun ahead!) “missed the boat”, in my opinion. Resist the urge of getting so involved that you forget to enjoy this unique way of travel.
3) Do your research. While it’s tempting to opt for the convenience of one of the ship’s many tours, if you’re somewhat adventurous and / or have the buying power provided by traveling in a group, it’s almost always cheaper and faster to pre-arrange your own tours at each port. Of course, every port will have touts selling day tours, but considering you only have a few hours on each island, do you really want to buy a tour sight unseen from someone who gets paid a commission to promise you whatever you want to hear? A good place to start would be the excursions page of the ship’s own website. You’ll get a good feel of what the most popular things to do on shore are as well as the timing required. Cruise Critic also has a great section of port reviews posted by actual cruisers, although you’ll need to wade through them to pick out useful information. Also check out Tripadvisor to find out what people are saying about local attractions. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, research any on-line only deals or coupons as well as transportation options. Some activities will require that you book / pay ahead. Others will have a coupon that can be printed out, making a DIY tour significantly less than the ship’s tours, especially if you’re traveling in a group. That being said, however, the benefit of the ship’s excursions is that if something unexpected happens (bus breaks down, traffic jam, etc.), the ship is guaranteed not to leave without you. If you arrange your own tour, you’re on your own. So to be on the safe side, plan to get back to the ship at least an hour before all aboard and always bring at least a credit card and photo ID with you for a worst-case scenario. Nothing could be more heart-breaking than watching the ship pull out from the pier…
4) Plan while you’re on the ship. Doing nothing surprisingly takes a lot of planning. There’s the Cruise Compass which lists all the daily activities that needs going through. Then there’s the eternal dilemma as to whether to dress up for dinner or head up to the casual buffet dinner. That means passing by the dining room during the day to check out the evening’s menu. Knowledge is power, people. Planning even involves recruiting the best players for your trivia team. You may love your family, but if they don’t know what the capital of Madagascar is, you’d better drop them like they’re hot. Our trivia team included a woman who’d been on 98 (!) Royal Caribbean cruises and another one who studied random trivia questions in the weeks before the cruise. It also helps to diversify by having members from different countries. This isn’t your grandmother’s trivia. Even my dear own sister didn’t make it onto my team…
5) Spend wisely. A captive audience + a liberal supply of alcohol = a marketer’s dream. Using your seapass card as a credit card, it’s incredibly easy to rack up the charges. And boy, do the cruise lines know how to part a man from his money. From and a Ben and Jerry’s kiosk and a large casino strategically placed right in the middle of the ship to specialty restaurants and gold chains by the inch, spending opportunities in the middle of the ocean are boundless. To avoid a coronary at the end of your cruise, consider: (1) Checking your account via your stateroom TV on a regular basis. You might just say “no” to that third cocktail at USD 8.95 when you’ve seen how much you’ve spent. (2) No one tells you, but you can order lemonade or ice tea at dinner at no extra charge. (3) If going a full week sans internet sends you into the DTs, check into buying data roaming / an international calling plan through your mobile provider which provides you with access at the various ports. It’ll cost a lot less than using the ship’s slow and very pricey internet. Surprisingly, internet cafes were difficult to find on the islands. (4) The water bottle is your friend. Say it with me, folks. While juice and water are available in the buffet restaurant almost all day, pouring some into a water bottle to carry around will save you multiple trips to rehydrate.
For some, the ship itself is a destination. But the beauty of cruising is waking up in a new place every day. Here’s are some suggestions for each of the stops:
Cozumel: Cozumel’s extensive reef system is at once a blessing and a curse. On one hand, snorkeling is great due to its easy access, however, good luck finding a decent beach with a sandy bottom. For a great day out, you could do worse than heading to Chankanaab Park, just a seven minute taxi ride from the pier (USD 10 for 1-4 passengers). With great facilities including restaurants, a picturesque lagoon, exotic gardens, swimming pools and lots of beach umbrellas and chairs, Chankanaab makes for a brilliant family outing. But the real jewel of the complex is the sea enclosures filled with a total of 20 dolphins, 5 nurse sharks, 3 manatees and a handful of sea lions and sting rays. There are a few different options to choose from for interacting with the animals – everything from a cute sea lion show (included with entrance ticket) to actually being in the water with the animals, including being pulled/pushed by dolphins on boogie boards and interacting with them from a platform in chest-deep water or swimming with the sea lions or manatees (sadly, no swimming with the sharks yet). The most expensive package, the Royal Swim, however, was simply magic. What is it that reduces normally rational adults to giggling, wide-eyed kids once in the water with these amazing animals? I challenge you NOT to sport your goofiest ear-to-ear grin as a dolphin swims by on its back, just begging you to rub its stomach! Is it their intelligence? That they are similar in size to humans? The many confirmed stories of them helping drowning humans or chasing away sharks? Perhaps their rare ability within the animal kingdom to be self-aware? Whatever the reason, I call it pure joy. This is the fourth time I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the water with dolphins (and the second time this trip! Wow. Was New Zealand really on this trip? Seems like another lifetime.)
After a brief orientation where we were taught simple hand commands, we were in the choppy water, life vests on, and the dolphin lovefest began: kissing, hugging, dancing and petting them all over (think soft, slippery rubber). Then there was the dolphin tow, with a dolphin on each side, hanging on to their dorsal fins. I thought it couldn’t get better until the “foot push” when the dolphins came up behind you and nudged your feet with their noses until they found the perfect spot and then gently but firmly pushed your feet, literally propelling you out of the water for an unforgettable ride. We all had butterflies in our stomachs, but once we saw how easy it was, began to ham it up with our best poses. Priceless. Afterwards, we were treated to a surprise when we were allowed to interact with the three manatees (the “original” mermaids of legend). Unfortunately, my sister (who had also pre-booked her ticket) was unable to do the swim, meaning I did it twice, literally spending all day in the water with these beautiful animals. BEST. DAY. EVER.
Grand Cayman: The largest of the three Cayman islands where banking is the #1 industry, we had planned a relaxed beach day for this stop, so weren’t too peeved when high winds forced the closure of the Georgetown pier and instead re-routed us to Spotts Bay, a tiny (normally unused) pier on the other side of the island. After tendering in to shore, we headed to scenic Seven Mile Beach for some sun and surf. Unfortunately, the winds made the surf pretty rough. In the first five minutes, I witnessed two women get completely bowled over, coming up sputtering and wiping the hair from their faces. What they didn’t know was that they had come completely out of their bathing suit tops, giving the rest of the beach a free show. Cost of beach chairs at the Royal Palms Hotel? Free. Expression on these women’s faces when they realized they were having what the kids call a “wardrobe malfunction”? Priceless.
Falmouth, Jamaica: Royal Caribbean now docks in its own very sanitized (and inconveniently located) pier in the small town of Falmouth. Most activities will require a transfer of at least 45 minutes either to Montego Bay to the west or Ocho Rios to the east. The brand new shops and cheery party vibe of the cruise port soon gives way to the real Jamaican countryside, passing children dressed in starched school uniforms and cement block houses in various states of construction. (Most Jamaicans build in stages, whenever they have the money, as opposed to bank financing, which explains the many unfinished houses you’ll see.) For this port, we opted to spend an all-inclusive day at the gorgeous Hilton Rose Hall, a short 25 minute ride away. Situated on its own private beach, the Caribbean’s largest family-friendly water park (think tube slides & lazy river), swimming pools and restaurants, the Hilton made for an excellent relaxing day. Choose from the beach grill (I recommend the delicious jerk pork and the seafood salad) or the stylish buffet restaurant. Of course, all drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are also included to quickly ease you into the island vibe. Yeah, mon!
Travel tips: (1) For Cozumel, pop by your local Walmart and pick up an inexpensive pair of aqua shoes if you’re planning on doing any type of swimming or snorkeling. Your feet will thank you! (2) It pays to do a little bit of on-line research. While the regular on-site price of the Royal Swim is $129, a discounted voucher of USD 99 was available on-line (minimum of two people doing the activity). This includes entrance to the park, which is otherwise USD 21 (USD 2 discount also available online). Everything is included in the admission price except for food / drinks. Onsite restaurant meals averaged USD 12-14. Go see the sea lion show. Spring for the Royal Swim. You won’t regret it. (3) While I understand that dolphins in captivity for any reason is a controversial point, I thought the Dolphin Discovery program here did a really good job of weaving education throughout the program, both about the animals (dolphins shed a micro layer of skin every 2 hours which is why they’re so smooth!) and marine conservation. Trainers use operant conditioning which rewards desired behavior (as opposed to punishing unwanted behavior). Dolphins looked well-loved and well-cared for, working / playing only 2 hours per day. In fact, the dolphins not working tended to come right against the fence, wanting you to pet them, inquisitive faces checking out the comings and goings. (4) Given the choice, book for the earliest time you can. Not only will you be there early enough to snag a beach hut with the best view, but in the morning, I found both dolphins and trainers more ready to play. In fact, each of us even got to do lots of activities twice, something that didn’t happen in the afternoon. (5) Groups were limited to 6-7 people so as not to overwhelm the two dolphins. Some swimming is needed, but not much. Even young children comfortable in the water were fine. (6) Dolphin Discovery has obviously been hanging around cruise ships too long. While the cost of the activity is worth every penny, they definitely “getcha” with the photos. While you can bring an underwater camera with you (ok’d by the activities staff despite the No Cameras sign on the dock), you’d have to be very quick and sure handed to get any type of decent shot of your partner. Instead, great pictures of your dolphin swim are taken by the park’s own photographer and (of course) cost an arm and a leg, starting at USD 80 PER PERSON (and USD 30 for each additional group member) for all photos on CD. You can try out your bargaining skills here by discreetly talking to one of the staff. The guy next to me pleaded that he only had USD 80 and needed USD 20 for the cab ride back. I asked to get a total of 100 pictures of both my morning and afternoon swim for USD 80. Just have your wallet ready because once you see the photos of this unforgettable experience, it will be tremendously hard to walk away… (7) Taxis (actually minivans) in Grand Cayman are plentiful and cheap. Spotts Bay to Seven Mile Beach was USD 6. The beach into town, USD 4. Town back to Spotts Bay, USD 5. They leave when relatively full which may entail a short wait. (8) Resorts for a day provides transfers and day passes to excellent properties all throughout the Caribbean. The catch is it must all be booked online. For the Hilton Rose Hall, we were picked up at about 8:15am and returned to the ship at 3:00pm for USD 75 + USD 15 for transfers.