Freedom of the Seas...Western Caribbean, March 2012
Heavy rain had moved in overnight but clouds began dissipating as our daughter graciously drove my husband, Lynn, and myself to the Port Canaveral cruise stop. The two of us were sailing on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, a gigantic ship capable of carrying 3634 passengers. (This cruise would garner the credits needed to finally obtain Diamond Status).
With no delay in boarding, noontime found us happily ensconced in the Windjammer Buffet for lunch. The ship appeared close to full capacity but our inside cabin on the eighth floor was surprisingly spacious. That night, despite a disappointing fish entree, our five table-mates provided a congenial atmosphere for dining and the evening's theater performance demonstrated a marked upgrade in talent since our previous cruise in January of 2011. Unfortunately, there was one new big hiccup: pre-boarding only reservations were now permitted for theater seating. Lynn and I were amongst the majority of passengers who had been unaware of such an opportunity, leaving a large unhappy group of us banished to the balcony and fighting it out for seats. (Guest Services informed us later that, thanks to numerous complaints, this reservation option was being phased out).
Monday, the ship caught up with that heavy rain and seas were rough. I made the mistake of getting overheated in the gym and it wasn't until lunch (and the Dramamine kicked in) that I was ready to eat. Good thing, as the main dining room featured a magnificent salad bar during 'days at sea.' Lynn garnered us tickets for the afternoon ice-skating performance and our food that evening (as well as for all subsequent meals) was much improved.
Our first port-of-call was RCCL's private island in Labadee Haiti. Last year's experience in Labadee had been notable for the large number of crowds and few beaches suitable for swimming. Consequently, this time I signed us up for the 3-hour ship's excursion, "Escape to Malfini". This isolated sliver of beach is available to a limited number of participants and can be accessed only by boat. Today, there were just 15 of us! The price included free water-mats and a drink in a scenic setting perfect for my ocean swimming. In fact, our cove was so sheltered that only when returning to the ship did we encounter strong head-winds and learned from our dinner companions (who had remained on Labadee) that their rosy burn derived from wind, not sun.
Overcast skies with intermittent drizzle ushered in our next port: Falmouth Jamaica, a village 45 minutes north of Ocho Rios where RCCL had created a harbor and dock that could accommodate the 'world's largest' ships. Having experienced the usual Ocho Rios attractions twice before, I had hired our own guide/driver, Patrice Bailey (email@example.com) for the day. Lynn and I elected to focus on the area's history and challenged Patrice to create a suitable itinerary. She certainly rose to the occasion: First stop: Christopher Columbus Park overlooking Discovery Bay. Ship logs suggest Columbus and his crew had been stranded in this area from 1494 to 1495 until their storm-damaged ships were repaired. A deeply rutted road brought us to scenic Rio Bueno, the fresh-water source for his colony.
Returning to the highway, we headed south to the Green Grotto and Runaway Cave attraction. This hiding place for runaway slaves also sheltered the Spanish governor during an English invasion. Despite a dearth of any dramatic rock formations, this cave was interesting for whenever crevices appeared in the rocky ceiling, long tangles of tree roots stretched from overhead to the cave floor. There were only eight of us in the group, including four husky Bulgarian men, surprisingly leery of the few small bats. We also encountered a python-type snake, at which point our guide, with an evil laugh, chose to douse all lights(which really freaked out the Bulgarians).
Patrice suggested lunch at Scotchies...famous for "Jamaica's best jerky" prepared on large wood-smoked grills. Seated at an outdoor table amidst the natives, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
Final stop was the Seville Heritage Plantation Site, and although the home was closed for renovations, the extensive grounds featured gravesites and fascinating historical artifacts and anchors from ships that sank in the nearby bay. There was even a re-created ancient Arawaks Indian Village (where Lynn was gouged by barbed wire while gallantly retrieving a pimento leaf for Patrice).
Before returning to the ship, we asked Patrice to pick up some of Jamaica's Blue Mountain Coffee at the local supermarket. She emerged with two bags, purchased at a significant discount. That night, the excited buzz on board concerned Britain's Prince Harry, who had been sighted in Falmouth by a number of the cruise passengers. (Missed that).
The next morning found us at Grand Cayman Island, a very weather-dependent port as tenders are required for landing. But today was perfect: Calm seas and sunny skies. We'd "done" Stingray City and snorkeled here several times over the years so Lynn and I decided just to enjoy a 'beach day' on Grand Cayman's famous Seven Mile Beach. A short cab ride and a ten minute walk brought us to a nice uncrowded spot that even had some shade. We spread out our towels and I eventually garnered sufficient courage to brave the chilly waters. Despite minimal wave action, the ocean floor dropped off abruptly, and few people ventured very far from the shore. In fact, there was only one other swimmer...a nice German man who kept me company as we bobbed in the sea.
Several hours later, the beach was becoming increasingly crowded: Time to head back to the ship for a late lunch. Attending the Captain's party, with its free champagne, caused Lynn to sleep through half of the evening entertainment.
Friday's destination was Cozumel Mexico and we arrived to another gorgeous day. Having been there previously, I had hired a local man, Crescenzio Lopez (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a three-hour tour of the eastern/southern portion of the island. (With its rocky coast and paucity of restaurants and bars, this area is much less crowded than the western shoreline where most tourists congregate). Senor Lopez, a tiny middle-aged Mayan, was waiting at the dock, and after a quick stop in town for some medicine I needed, we were soon the only car on the road.
Waves exploded onto the rocks and sprayed up through numerous blow-holes. Nobody could swim here, but who cared, it was gorgeous! Eventually, we drove past a strange phenomena: A great white brahman bull which stood placidly by the road. Sr. Lopez explained the bull was a ploy to attract tourists but I insisted we stop anyway for a photo. Sure enough, the bull's owner quickly emerged , carrying a stool. Apparently, for a small charge, I was to mount the beast for my photo. Oh well, what the heck! Lynn snapped a number of shots and I had barely dismounted when a second man appeared, lugging a giant iguana. Although I tried to pawn this one off on Lynn, he refused. The man looked so disappointed, I agreed to hold the creature but once my arms were full, he placed a baby iguana on my head! (I tried to be a good sport but worried how to clean up if that baby wasn't potty-trained). Anyway, it made for some laughs and good photos.
Next, on to Faro Celarain, an ecological park by the sea. This interesting place featured a museum and working lighthouse (we climbed to the top), raccoons that emerged from the brush for tortillas and old ruins attributed to pirates that frequented Cozumel. A boardwalk led into the marshes where a huge salt-water crocodile lurked. Just as we were leaving, a long convoy of ATVs from a cruise excursion poured into the park. Talk about good timing!
That evening Lynn and I accessed the ship's helioport for stargazing. Mars, Venus and Jupiter lit up the sky. Unfortunately, strong winds soon drove us back inside.
Winds were much calmer on Saturday, our last full day at sea. Maybe I was finally getting my "sea-legs" but working out in the gym didn't precipitate any adverse symptoms. Lynn and I found a shaded spot on the deck and spent most of the day reading. This had been a nice cruise.