Our family was in desperate need of a vacation. With a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old, we have to consider our options carefully so that we all can be happy. A cruise is the perfect solution to get family time AND adults/kids get a break too.
We booked our cruise 40 days out -- relatively short notice (as cruises go). We priced everything out and used CruiseCompete.com to get the best deal. Being from Florida, we have a lot of port options, but due to our short notice and it being during a holiday, our options were a little limited. So, we decided to go where we've never been -- Puerto Rico -- and take a cruise from there. We booked our flights ourselves and hotel room as well the night before the cruise using points from hubby's travels.
We arrived at San Juan. You stand in one line to drop off bags (make sure you have luggage tags if you can!). Then you stand in another line to have them check IDs and such. Check-in was quick and easy. We were on the ship in like 20 minutes. But make sure you keep out your passport and Sail Pass cause they check it another 10 times before boarding. As soon as you get on the ship, the kids must get their wrist bands identifying their muster station. They have to wear them all week. This is a coast guard rule -- we encountered the same on another cruise we did a couple years ago. We got there around lunch time so we ate and explored the ship while we waited for our room to be ready.
Once we got to our room, it was great. We quickly unpacked and had plenty of space to put away all our things. For 7 days and 4 people in one room, that's pretty great! Keeping things organized is something that will help any family not feel cramped in their rooms, not to mention saving your patience when you want to get ready/dressed. Overall the ship was beautiful and didn't show it's age. We did MyTime dining reservations for 6pm every night. It was a perfect time since the kids are not used to eating too late and we still had time for them to enjoy the Ocean Adventure Club which is open until 10pm, but we picked them up around 9 or 9:30 every night to avoid cranky kids the next day.
As for the ports, we had a few excursions planned through RCL and some not. If you want to save money and you have the time to research, you can definitely do things cheaper if you do them on your own. But, with kids, we didn't want to be too bold. Our first stop, St. Croix was beautiful. We simply got off the ship, asked a taxi driver which beach would be good for kids and we could rent chairs. They advised a couple options and we chose Sand Castle Beach. It cost $5/person for the ride (to and from) and included access to the beach/hotel. When we got there, we paid $20 for the rental of chairs/umbrella. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the bar and restrooms made things nice and convenient.
Next stop was St. Maarten. We've been here before, but we planned a glass-bottom boat tour with RCL. The boat wasn't ready, so they took us on a tour to pass the time and we made a couple stops. Can't complain there! Always great photo opps -- the water is amazing.
The third day was Antigua, which was our FAVORITE island. We went on a catamaran tour to bird island, which included snorkeling, lunch, and some other sightseeing. The boat was huge, plenty of room. We got rained on, but that didn't stop the fun. The catamaran took us about 90 minutes to get the bird island. The kids didn't mind it one bit. They then put us on a dingy-type boat to take us to bird island where you can use their equipment to snorkel the reef or just enjoy the beach. They provided plenty of water and fruit punch the whole day. My 8-year-old son and I went snorkeling with the group to the reef while my husband and 4-year-old-daughter enjoyed the beach and hiking to the top to see the views. We returned to the catamaran and enjoyed an amazing Caribbean food lunch on-board. Then the bar was open with rum, beer, and soft drinks. The ride back was just as amazing -- putting up the sail and just relaxing.
St. Lucia was the next stop. We did a tour and the botanical gardens/mineral baths. The kids really enjoyed the botanical gardens and all the great plant life. Our tour guide was a great personality. The pitons are pretty neat to see and mark off your list. We made several stops along the way, which was perfect for the kids to get out and not be too bored. The island is lush and beautiful. It reminded us of Costa Rica in many ways. I will say, the only thing about St. Lucia that we didn't like was how windy the roads are. By the end of the day, you felt a little car sick, so keep that in mind. Don't forget to grab yourself some banana ketchup! You won't find it anywhere else!
Barbados was our last stop. We did another catamaran tour to snorkel a shipwreck and with sea turtles. We looked forward to the cute creatures the whole time. The catamaran was even nicer than the one in Antigua, but it was also more crowded. This is a popular tour, for sure. The boat was right near the pier, so we hopped on and got going. The ride was only about 20-30 minutes to the shipwreck. Snorkel gear was of good quality and the crew made sure everyone was comfortable. You climb off the back of the boat and get right into the water to explore. Our daughter was a little freaked out, but she ended up enjoying it. Then we got back on the boat to head to the turtle area. It was SO COOL to see turtles just swimming around. The down-side was that there were several tours all in the same area making it very crowded to really explore the way you want to. Not only was our boat there, but there were about 3 other boats exploring at the same time -- all competing for "attention" from the turtles. We saw 2-3 turtles. This day was also the 4th of July. On the boat, they had American classic music played by the band and a balloon drop in the centrum. It was AWESOME to look up and see all the people lining the centrum up 10 floors and singing along. American or not, it was a great celebration and experience.
The last day on the ship, we enjoyed relaxing. Being in ports each day sure keeps you busy, but only as busy as you want to be. We tried to plan activities that didn't take the full day so that it wouldn't be "too much" for our 4-year-old. Who wants to deal with cranky/tired kids on vacation?! Couple pieces of advice: Bring goggles (it's good to explore no matter what you do!), bring a hat/sunglasses, bring aloe (no matter how much sunscreen, someone will get burnt), and bring 1-2 underwater disposable cameras.
Our vacation was great. We got lots of good family time, and the kids couldn't wait to get to the kids club every night after dinner. The shows on the ship were not very great and times for them were tough for us to make with dinner and kid pick-up at 10 (or earlier). One area of the ship lots of people don't know about is a small little eatery by the kids pool called SeaView (or OceanView) Cafe. They have great food that you can't get in Windjammer and they are never too busy. It's a nice alternative when you get sick of Windjammer fare.