Monday, December 29, 2008

The Cruising Life

As we reported yesterday, the Curmudgeon family has returned from a weeklong Caribbean cruise and we are doing a series of posts (in this period of little political news of note) summarizing our thoughts about the trip.

Today's post focuses on life on a cruise. Tomorrow, we'll have the good, the bad and the ugly of a Carnival cruise.

Cruising life was interesting to us. We generally like to fend for ourselves on vacation, with a loose itinerary, so being in such a structured environment was quite different.

Being in the Caribbean in the middle of winter is warm, but not hot. When the ship was moving, with the attendant breeze, it was a bit too chilly on the upper decks to hang out in just shorts (or swim trunks) and a t-shirt, but the kids seemed to manage okay. (We also saw some incredibly sunburned tourists who evidently thought sunscreen was unnecessary in the winter).

We had a group of 15 related people together on our cruise from four families, ranging in age from 9-70's, so it was good that the ship had a variety of activities. While there aren't that many decisions to make on a cruise, one does need to choose which activities to pursue each day.

Our cruise was of the western Carribean, with four stops: Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; Belize and Isla Roatan, Honduras. At each stop the ship had a choice of many shore excursions, all at a cost of somewhere between $50-$100 per person. (For a family of four, with four shore stops, this adds up pretty quickly.)

You can forgo the ship-arranged excursions and work something out for yourself once ashore, but we recommend against it. The amount of time available at each shore stop is limited and there is already quite a crowd at the docks at each stop awaiting their excursions. More importantly, if you're on a ship-sponsored excursion and you're running late getting back, the ship won't leave without you.

In any event, we felt sorry for those who didn't arrange or have shore excursions. Sure, you could just go ashore and shop, but most of the shopping was pretty lame, and the alleged "bargains" were hard to find. The shops right around the docks were pretty standard tourist fare, and one would need to get away from them to get any sense of the native environment. On shore days, little is going on aboard the ship, and in any event, what's the point of going on a cruise if you aren't going to explore the exotic shore stops?

Our first stop, Grand Cayman was a bit of a disappointment. There were at least six cruise ships anchored there (the photo here is of the cruise ship traffic jam there), so it was quite crowded. It was also very windy, causing cancellation of the snorkeling part of our excursion. That left us with, essentially, a bus tour of the island. The only part worth seeing was the turtle farm, where thousands of sea turtles are being raised. The lucky ones will be released to the sea, the next luckiest ones stay to breed, and then the unlucky ones will become someone's dinner. (Our guide went on at some length about how delicious turtles are.)

The rest of the tour was pretty boring. In particular, we'd urge anyone to avoid the tourist stop known as "Hell," which is an unusual rock formation and an excuse to sell a lot of predictable t-shirts. We can't imagine why anyone would want to go to Grand Cayman for more than a day, or why it seems to be on every cruise ship's list of stops.

Our next stop was Cozumel, which had the greatest variety of shore excursions. We chose one where you get to swim with dolphins at a nearby park. It proved the best of all our activities the whole week. In a group of 12, we spent about 45 minutes in the water with a guide and a dolphin who did various tricks with us, including pushing each of us at high speed on a boogie board. We all had quite a blast and felt we'd had some "quality time" with our dolphin. (We're sure that at night the dolphins get together at their underwater bar and debate whether humans are really intelligent or whether they can just be taught to do a few tricks.)

After our dolphin swim, we had the option to stay and explore the park, including doing some snorkeling on our own. We were able to enjoy the outing without feeling rushed, but still managed to get back to the cruiseship pier in time to let the tourist shops part us from some of our cash.

From Cozumel it was a short trip down the coast to Belize, where most of our group decided to go bottom fishing. This was fortuitous because it meant we could transfer directly from the ship to our fishing boat, rather than taking a "tender" to shore. We had a great time fishing, catching quite a few grouper and snapper in the course of a three hour trip. Afterwards, we made a quick trip to shore--so we could say we'd actually been to Belize. We wouldn't have missed much if we'd decided to skip the shore stop--the port town was very poor and the undistinguished group of tourist shops at the pier were fenced off and guarded by men with machine guns. Those who took trips inland described harrowing bus rides on narrow roads.

Our final stop was Isla Roatan in Honduras, where we went to a national park to go kayaking in clear bottom boats, and then snorkeling. The kayaking was a bit disappointing--we didn't go far and you couldn't see much through the bottom of the kayaks despite the clear water. The snorkeling was terrific, however--the reef there was home to a large variety of very colorful fish. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy, breezy day and the water wasn't too warm, so the youngsters got cold pretty quickly, and then it rained. Still, Honduras was the prettiest stop, and by the time we got back to the ship it was sunny and warm. Others we talked to at Honduras enjoyed their excursions as well.

Aboard the ship there were quite a number of activities every day. The Curmudgeon and his brother gravitated to the Texas Hold-em poker table in the casino, where we soon made a number of new friends, who also happened to be happy to take our money if they could. Most of the money, however, went to the ship, as the computerized poker table took a sizable "rake"--the casino's cut--from each pot.

There were shows each night, some ok, some not. The entertainers brought aboard the ship for one night tended to be decent--a comedian, a Motown singer, a fellow who balanced things on his head. We wondered about the life of an entertainer doing the cruise ship circuit. The shows put together from the crew were a bit of a mess--a lot of mediocre to bad singing, dancing and costume changes. Still, with time to kill, they were the best shows in town.

Others in our group did their thing. One went to the karaoke lounge a number of times, which had a lively crowd each night worthy of the very worst American Idol auditions. The younger set tended to roam the upper deck, eating the "free" ice cream, swimming, playing ping pong and basketball. For just hanging out, there were quite a variety of bars with the expected over-priced drinks.

On cruise days, we also tried out some of the trivia contests, bingo games, fitness seminars and other offerings, but found reading a good book on the sundeck to be quite fulfilling. Of course, it seemed not much time ever went by before the next meal loomed. And, feeling guilty about all the food, we all tried to get to the onboard gym, which put a tiny dent in our calorie counts. The women also made spa appointments for the obligatory vacation facials, wraps and other treatments offered.

There were golf options, but the Curmudgeon, enjoying a winter respite from golf, decided to forego them (and spend shore excursions with the rest of the family). The hard core golfer, however, will have some choices, including hitting balls into a net aboard the ship, and at least a couple onshore golf outings.

All in all, the range of activities was sufficient to suit most tastes, but few of them would blow anyone away. Reflecting on many vacations past, however, we can't say that many had as many choices and few have a true "wow" factor. By the same token, few of the onboard activities would appeal to us elsewhere, and we'd hope that eating would not become our central focus on any other vacation!

1 comment:

Cancun Mexico said...

This article is Very funny and familiar . We going to plan a trip to CoCozumel as soon as possible for swiming with dolphins.