Monday, March 8, 2010

Penguin on the High Seas

* A link to my cruise photos follows.

I've been going around for a while saying it's been about 3 years since my last cruise. It was my first time to cruise. I had found a nice 5 day trip from San Juan, so I went out a few days early to stay with a friend of mine who owns a bed and breakfast a short drive from there. I loved it so much; it has made me a true fan of setting sail on a large boat over the oceans of our planet. Imagine my surprise at learning that it was 4 years, almost to the date, and not three, since that Eastern Caribbean cruise. It's no wonder I've been drooling over cruise ships and talking to my friends about going for over a year now.

So I finally put my foot down and decided that I was going to go again, even if I had to do so on my own. I went on my first cruise by myself, but on the first night I ran into a co-worker and her friend, and I had company the whole week. My biggest hurdle in cruising is finding someone to go with; either friends have the time and no money, or the money and no time.

I had the time off. I had a special cruise savings account with plenty of money to cover the low deals I was getting for working in the travel industry, and to cover the other fees needed to cruise; tips, taxes transportation and souvenirs. And almost at the last minute, I found a friend to go with me. Finally, after four long years, I would be sailing again.

So at two weeks out I booked an 8-day, 7-night cruise from Miami on Carnival. I spent the next two weeks going out of my mind in anticipation. I spent hours each day researching the ship and reviews from past travelers. I looked through people's photo albums and viewed videos from Youtube. I found sample menus, looked at excursions and discussed various topics on several forums. When I actually walked on the ship in person, I felt like I'd been there before!

With my bags packed my journey started the day before our ship set sail. It would do so at 4pm on the last Saturday in February and I wanted to make sure I would be on it and not stuck in some airport with winter delays. I had found a nice hotel near the airport that offered free transportation when I arrived, and that also had a free shuttle to the port the next day. Several hotels offered such a shuttle, but the main reason I chose this particular hotel was because their port shuttle left before the others, and I was in such a hurry to get on board…

My friend, Loren, had travel credits on another airline so he flew in a few hours after I did. And since that airline didn't fly into Miami, he had to fly into Ft. Lauderdale and take a van. We were so excited when he did arrive. It was like the vacation was finally a reality; our trip was finally going to begin!

We got little sleep that night from all of our anticipation. But we were up early for our complimentary breakfast and to be in line for the shuttle. The mood for the cruise was set on the van to the port from our hotel. There were several ships docked so the van had a few stops to make. The first ship had only 2 people getting off, a couple in their 60s. The husband started towards the door of the van but had left a bag behind so his wife began calling his name. Not hearing her, he continued towards the front when she finally shouted, "Hey, dumb-ass!" Not only did it get his attention, but every married man in the van turned his head!

We arrived at the port by 1130 and boarded the Carnival Liberty around 1230. It seems fast, to think we got through security and check-in in just an hour. But it seemed like it was taking forever! Unable to get into our rooms for another hour, we headed upstairs to the fish and chips restaurant and got lunch.

There were so many options for lunch on our ship. There was a burrito bar, a deli, a pizzeria that was open 24 hours, the fish and chips counter, the huge buffet, a grill for burgers, dogs, chicken strips and nachos and even free room service. It was like a challenge to see if one could experience all aspects of culinary delights that they offered on board! I did try them all but one. I never did eat lunch in the main buffet line. The burritos were great, and even included shrimp as a choice. Their fried oysters were so good that I had them at least 3 times that week. The pizza was OK, not as good as on my last voyage, but that was an Italian cruise line, so the bar was set very high. The burgers were decent and I loved the deli sandwiches.

I think what I love most about being on a cruise is the treatment I receive. It's as if being treated like royalty. My stateroom is made up while I'm at breakfast and again at dinner, when they turn my bed down. On Carnival, we are welcomed in the evenings by elaborate towel sculptures on our bed, and chocolates. You are always entertained and constantly fed. Drinks are a little expensive, but I did very little of that on my trip; doctor's orders.

The best part is dinner. I enjoy dressing up a bit in nice slacks and shirts and having a formal meal with linens and 4 courses and attentive service. The meals on board were very good. Some nights I found myself commenting that I've had better, but it certainly wasn't bad. On lobster night, I ate 2. Most nights I couldn't decide on the appetizer, so I had 2, or even 3. It's also fun to try food I wouldn't normally try, since it wasn't costing me anything. And if I didn't like it, I could just order something else! The one thing I found most disappointing with our meals were the desserts, which mostly were bland. Only a few I found decent enough to finish, but I was fine with that- after the huge meals, who needed a big dessert? Plus, the soft ice cream machine flowed 24 hours.

We ate each night with 2 lovely women, Melinda and Pam. They were sisters and were so very nice. Loren and I both enjoyed getting to know them. We were at a table for 8, but most nights it was just the 4 of us. On our second night, we finally met Rick and Tom, two buddies cruising together. Rick was a character, who kept talking of his wife, yet he wore no ring and seemed to flirt endlessly. Tom was single, but very quiet. Both were fishermen who looked forward to some deep sea fishing on our first stop in Cozumel.

I was a little disappointed in the rain that began to fall just as the ship brought in her lines to set sail from Miami. People scurried below decks, but Loren and I stuck it out, eventually finding a covered area on deck 10. The rain didn't last long and we enjoyed the views leaving Miami for almost an hour before exploring the rest of the ship. That first night we sailed fast, going through a low pressure area with high winds and seas. All night the boat swayed up and down and from our room over the bow we often heard the ship slamming into waves with a hull-shaking thud and rattle of anything loose in the cabin. It was like slow motion turbulence on a plane, which I love. A few times it woke us up, once causing me to comment that it was like an earth quake! And when asked the next morning, about a third of those in the theater said they were experiencing some sea sickness. Fortunately, it never bothered me.

On day 2 at sea, we arrived in Cozumel as the sun was rising. I awoke in time to venture onto our balcony for photos. I had booked an interior stateroom, as I normally spend very little time in my room, so I have no need to spend the extra money on a view. However, we got an upgrade into a room with a picture window. It was over the bow, 2 levels below the bridge. It looked onto a large balcony, which very few people seemed to know about. It was almost like having our own private balcony! I spent a lot of time there, especially when we arrived at our various ports.

It was in Cozumel that Loren and I had our only official excursion. We had booked a tour to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum. We had to disembark at 0800, so we had secured a prearranged room service for breakfast and got some sandwiches as well to take as a snack on the tour. To get to Tulum, we rode a 45-minute ferry to the mainland, where we boarded a bus for our hour-long ride.

I was amazed at the beautiful clouds that morning when we arrived. Our tour guide was amazing. He was of Mayan ancestry, so was able to give us a very interesting account of their history, making sure to convey his belief that the Mayans disappeared because there were more people than what the land could support, so they abandoned their great cities and greedy rulers, leaving most everything behind.

The ruins were amazing and Manuel, our tour guide, explained their correlation to the sun and stars and the seasons. He showed us places on the ground where one can easily find pieces of pottery left over, but saying that it was bad luck to take any. There were numerous birds and iguanas and the sea breeze and ocean sounds were quite pleasant. I was glad to be visiting at a time when it's not too hot, as I hear that Tulum can get quite warm.

After the tour we had some time on our own to look around, and then Loren's agenda was to get a good Mexican taco. Manuel recommended a place so we returned to the bus area to give it a try. We both had a combination plate with a fish taco, a beef taco and a chicken quesadilla. All were very good and the margaritas were so strong that by the time I finished my 2nd one, I was a bit loopy. I slept almost the entire way back to Playa del Carmen for our return ferry.

We still had a lot of time and did some brief shopping before running into Tom and Rick, who were at a bar getting hammered. Tom showed off photos of the large mahi mahi that he had caught on their fishing trip and then we made our way back to the ship.

Loren and I were very much looking forward to snorkeling in Grand Cayman, our second stop. I had found a place within walking distance of our pier where there was a ship wreck over which we could snorkel. However, an early morning announcement informed us that due to strong winds and high seas in Georgetown, we were positioned in a different area of the island. Many tours were cancelled and we would not be able to snorkel over the Cali, due to the big waves. However, the area the ship was positioned was fairly calm. We took the tender to the island and asked about a place to snorkel. The lady told us of a public beach about a five minute walk. We set out for said beach and found it to be quaint, beautiful and a perfect location for snorkeling.

It wasn't the prettiest snorkeling I've done, and the waves were a little intense at times. But I accomplished what I had set out to do. That was to see turtles, sting rays and lobster. Not only did I see these, but I saw a cuddle fish and a neat-looking flounder. It's for times like these that I'm happy I have a waterproof camera and I even took some underwater video.

After getting out of the Caribbean waters, I found a nice shady spot to lounge in and met a family from San Diego. I took more photos of our ship, which was unable to actually anchor, due to the depth of the ocean, so it, and a few other ships, kept their positions by using their thrusters.

The following day we arrived in Ocho Rios, Jamaica as the sun was rising. It looked so colorful and inviting. But I found Ocho Rios to be a pain in the ass. Every three steps and we were accosted by someone new asking if we wanted a tour, if we wanted a taxi, if we wanted food or music, if we wanted ganja and I even was offered an 8-ball, which I think has something to do with cocaine.

I was more than happy to get back to the ship after our short little walk through town, where Loren picked up some Jamaican jerk for lunch. I was satisfied with the jerk I had at dinner the night before, so I ate on board, grabbing a tray of food and eating on a lounge chair on deck 10, which is where I spent most of my deck time on board, as it was shady there and I could keep out of the sun.

It was so nice to lounge on deck on our at-sea days. I'd take some reading, but it was often difficult to do much as I'm easily distracted by the people to watch. There were a lot of young people and people my age on board our cruise. There were also a lot of Canadians, escaping the winter. I loved meeting all the interesting people and hearing about their cruise experiences. I was also happy that Loren and I were content to be spending most of our days doing our own thing. It was the perfect balance of having a friend to go on excursions with and to enjoy the shows with, but being able to move freely and keep my own agenda on board. He loved playing bingo and I enjoyed the art auction and games, or going to high tea.

Each night we attended the shows in the large ornate theater. Most nights the shows were really good and offered song and dance numbers. One night we were entertained by a couple of guys who did comedy and juggling. The next morning at breakfast I actually heard someone use the term, "tomfoolery" in his review of that show! It was hilarious. On 2 nights there was a hypnotist. I've always been skeptical of these shows, not trusting that people are actually under. But I met a kid in the hot tub who said he really was looking for his belly button and couldn't explain why he wanted to belly dance – and try to take his clothes off while doing so. Maybe it was for real, after all. But then, the next night I met one of the guys who said he wasn't under and that he was just going along with it for the glory of being on stage.

Our cruise director was so energetic. His name was Butch and he appeared to be only in his thirties. He talked fast but often was quite humorous and ended most paragraphs by saying, "Ay?". He even had us repeating 'Ay' every time he said it. He was from Minnesota, as were a lot of the American guests.

My biggest disappointment with this ship was the smoking policy on board. I had been looking forward to spending time in the disco at nights and in the piano bar and doing some karaoke. But in each of these bars, and a few others, they allowed smoking! I went to the desk to inquire; do they allow smoking every night, or are there some non-smoking nights? Nope, every night. And where were the non-smoking bars? One was in the main lobby, which is where all the octogenarians hung out with the lounge music. One was a bar that closed down at 11pm each night. And the other was the bar next to the casino, where the smoke was so intense you could hardly see the far wall! Not only that, but Carnival allows smoking in the state rooms (any interior cabin and any cabin with a balcony…and you can smoke inside the room, not just on the balcony!). This meant that in walking down the corridors, it was like walking through an ash tray. The ship often seemed like one, big, floating ash tray!

It was for this reason alone that I have told numerous people that I could never sail on Carnival again, not until they change their smoking policy. When I sailed on the Italian line (MSC) I was never bothered by smoke on board! It's sad, too, as the ship was beautiful, the staff were friendly, the other passengers were fun and energetic and other than not being able to enjoy the night life on board, I had a really good time.

The week was over far too fast for me. I could have spent another week on board and now I am thinking one day, I'll need to take a 2-week cruise! Loren was ready to get home, though, saying he was tired of eating! Yes, we lived like kings and ate like there was no tomorrow. Now I'm home, a bit depressed, and on a strict diet to lose the pounds I put on last week! But it was so worth it. And with more vacation coming to me in November, I am already putting out the word that I'm seeking cruise partners. Maybe the Mexican Riviera!

Here is a link to all my cruise photos:

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