The Love Boat. Old people. Over-crowding. Spring breakers. Elvis impersonators. The flu bug. The Titanic. These are just some of the things that came to mind when first thinking about cruise ships. I’ve even thought of a cruise as the cheap give away on Wheel of Fortune. And let’s not even talk about inside cabins.
Prior to my first cruise, I never gave much thought, if any, to luxury travel. My prior vacations had consisted of such trips as waking up under Redwood trees in a tent in Big Sur, California. I crashed in a hostel in San Francisco and took an Amtrak from New York to Newport News, Virginia. I’ve done some nice rafting on The Delaware Water Gap, winter surfing in Montauk, and triathlons in the Chesapeake region and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While these trips provided much enjoyment, there was never much thought or planning to them. It was a period of adventure, rebellion, and border line poverty.
My idea of travel was spontaneity and adventure. My accommodation was typically a tent, an upgrade meant I had a cot. An amenity was an ashtray. I wasn’t equipped with a Sandra Brown leather suitcase with 360* wheels. I lived out of duffel bags and backpacks. I had never even seen a cruise ship, let alone thought of going on one. Was it as big as the Staten Island Ferry, I wondered.
SirOzzy’s first great adventure began on March 18, 2011. We took an early morning flight from NY to Fort Lauderdale, and then, much to my surprise, hopped into a limousine for the drive over to the cruise terminal. Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas was the largest and most beautiful ship I’d ever seen. Never could I have imagined such majesty and grandeur. I was blown away.
My first awestruck impression quickly changed as I saw the sheer number of passengers boarding. Sure, this ship is big, but how can it possibly fit 3,000 passengers and crew on board? Well, not to worry, as soon as we walked through the terminal doors, a little old Floridian introduced himself. We showed him our reservation paperwork, and he rushed us over to a spot with no line. He said, “Folks, you’re in the Grand Suite, you won’t be waiting on any lines this week.” And boy, was he right. That was our first experience using the benefit of our upgrade. While all passengers received a white Seapass card, ours was gold.
I’ve heard many cabins on these megaships are tiny. So tiny you can reach out and touch both sidewalls at the same time. They have stand up showers and most do not have windows, let alone a balcony. After a brief exploration around the ship, we found the cabin we would spend the next 10 nights in, and this is what we discovered:
His and her closets are located behind the bar. The bathroom is magnificent, larger than most staterooms, complete with a marble bathtub. Behind the curtains is a double length balcony. A fresh fruit platter, caviar, and cheese and crackers, greeted us in the room. Isn’t this how everybody travels?
Our first full day on the ship was spent cruising the open water of the Caribbean Sea. More fears were put to rest that day. I thought I’d get claustrophobic. I thought the ship would be filled with leftovers from the golden age of the Catskills. I was wrong on both accounts. I spent the day poolside, playing mini golf, basketball, at 7 different bars, in an art gallery, a theatre, restaurants, a library, and the Casino Royale. This ship has more to do than the entire county I live in.
Despite the great discovery of the Casino on the first night, my favorite discovery came on the second night. The Concierge Lounge. This room is reserved for passengers staying in Grand Suites and above, which means it’s limited to about 25-30 people. This is where I learned for the first time what service really is. My two favorite crew members operated from this room. Mario would be my personal bartender in the evening hours for the next 10 days. And Nedere was our personal go-to Concierge . A tough, Jamaican rock-star, whatever we needed, we went to Nedere.
On this first night in the Concierge lounge, Nedere asked what our plans were for our first stop in Labadee, Haiti. We explained an excursion was booked involving a short boat ride, some beach time, and a BBQ lunch. “No, no, no, my Dears. Listen to me. We are going to cancel that reservation. You will spend the day in a private over-water cabana with your own butler service. We have a private lunch with lobster, steaks, and anything else you want. This will be in an area reserved only for those passengers with a Gold Seapass.” Well, ok then.
I arose early on the third day of this sailing. I peaked through a crack in the curtains to see if the sun had even come up yet. What I found was so much greater. Through the mist and early morning haze, the low mountains of Haiti were nearby and getting closer. I wanted to shout “Land ‘Ho!” How must the Columbus crew have felt after 2 months on the ocean? I fell in love with the Caribbean on first sight. This is what we discovered:
My first glimpse of a Caribbean beach.
I had never seen trees on a beach before.
While everyone went to the public beach, we turned right…
And this is where we would spend our day. We used most of our time snorkeling, bathing in the sun, eating, drinking, and just enjoying spending time with each other. We did, however, also see the darker side of Caribbean life. Out on one of our explorations we discovered an artist’s village. Magnificent oil paintings hung crowded and hodgepodge on makeshift walls of wooden pallets. The level of poverty is so severe on this island nation, we witnessed to 2 locals preparing to kill each other with machetes over 1 dollar. That’s when we went back to our sanctuary for more fresh pineapple.
Day number four was spent nursing a sunburn and eating more food than I previously thought humanly possible. Isn’t that what cruise ships are for? It was a full day of sailing, we cruised the entire length of the sea to reach Cartagena, Columbia. It was also the day I first asked Gail to marry me. Of course she told me no. She said I was just drunk. So I asked her again the next day. And every day again after that for two years, until she would finally say yes. I was falling in love in and with The Caribbean.
Cartagena is a walled Spanish city on the northern coast of Columbia. Prior to this cruise I knew very little, if anything at all, about the area. We’ve all heard stories of the drug cartel and Columbian coffee, that day I learned so much more. We booked a bus tour that would take us all through the city. We had the most amazing man guide us and bring this old city to life for us. I never thought I’d enjoy a city tour, I’m the guy that’s always made fun of those people. Since that day, I try to take a bus tour of every new city I visit. It’s really the best way to get your initial bearings.
My absolute favorite part of cruising is that every morning you wake up in a new place, and you’ve done nothing to get there. The next morning found us in Colon, Panama. After yet another huge breakfast we left the ship early and boarded a small van headed to Gatun Lake. Colon is the port city closest to the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake borders the locks. An hour and a half drive through lush jungle brought us to a small river boat. Myself, Gail, 2 Midwesterners, and 2 Panamanian men spent half a day fishing. The lake was teeming with Peacock Bass and Oscar Fish. While I had the time of my life, I’m pretty sure it was the last time I’ll ever see Gail fish. She’d much rather rest poolside or in a spa.
We even had a little visitor join us for a snack. There was no shortage of wildlife, we saw crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, turtles, red iguanas, and countless tropical birds. And our guides were kind enough to bring plenty of local beer on board.
Another great aspect of cruising is that you can add places to visit to your list, or eliminate them. I’ve only heard wonderful things about Costa Rica and greatly anticipated our visit to Puerto Limon. This was another day of adventure. The Pacuare River has some of the most intense whitewater rafting in the entire world. We opted for the lower portion which consists mostly of flat water up to Class-2 rapids. It was another long drive through a jungle to reach the river opening in Tortuguero National Park. Although it was mostly lazy water, I know Gail was terrified the whole time. I wasn’t much of a help paddling, or retrieving swimmers, as I was still only six weeks removed from complete shoulder surgery.
The people of Costa Rica are fantastic. The country has no military, it was abolished during the re-writing of their constitution in 1949. Their reasoning was with their proximity to the Panama Canal, they knew if anything happened to them, the Americans would quickly come to the rescue. In exchange for the military, each Costa Rican citizen receives free education, medical, and dental benefits. Their greatest source of revenue comes from tourism, specifically American tourism. Therefore, for the most part, Costa Ricans are happy, healthy, educated, have GREAT smiles, and love Americans. They are an amazing group of people.
We decided at the end of the day we would most certainly return in the future to Costa Rica. In fact, we did. Two years later we returned to a resort on the Pacific Coast. I rafted the upper portion of the Pacuare River, which consisted unclassified and Class-5 whitewater rapids. Though I thought I was going to die during a 14 foot vertical drop, I had a blast. Stay tuned for that post.
After 3 days of adventure in South and Central America, a day of rest was in order. This was the day of belly flop contests in the pool, karaoke in the lounge, a cooking demonstration, and trivia in a bar. As part of our Grand Suite package, we also received a private tour of the Bridge, hosted by the Captain himself, just another perk. I also won a slot tournament in the Casino, so we ate, yet again, in a specialty restaurant. Dinner was accompanied by a $200 bottle of wine. This trip got better every day, and it created a monster traveler.
Grand Cayman was the next stop on our itinerary. The day started with an early morning Catamaran sailing to Stingray City. We sailed on the crystal clear turquoise blue water of the Caribbean until land was no longer in sight. Bob Marley tunes were played and local beers flowed. We set anchor on a sandbar and jumped into 4 feet deep water. From all angles slow dark clouds in the water emerged. For the next few hours I played in the water with the most amazing stingrays. It was heaven.
With a late departure, there was still time left for further exploration. From the dock we decided to taxi over to a populated spot on 7 Mile Beach. Midway through the trip, our driver, with a heavy Caribbean accent, turned around and asked us to pray with him while he drives. Voodoo. I said, “Thanks, we’re good, you can drop us off here.” So we spent the remainder of the afternoon at a quiet, unpopulated beach. I asked Gail to marry me again, and you know how that story goes.
Day 10 had us sailing for another full day as our journey would soon come to a conclusion in Fort Lauderdale. An odyssey that transformed me from a backpacker to a luxury traveler, I made great new friends, learned about different cultures, ingrained wonderful memories, and came away a better person for it. Sure, these are the same things you can do on the cheap backpacking or what ever other means of travel you choose, but I did it in style. I hope you enjoyed my journey with me. If you have any questions about this cruise, other cruises, or travel in general, please leave a comment.