Husband and I struggled to decide what we wanted to do for a vacation this year. Usually, we just take three or four days, pick a location somewhere close to home that we can drive to, and schedule the heck out of our time there. When we get home, we’re so tired from the stress of finding things to do that are fun yet affordable, making it to those destinations within the allotted time budget we’ve set, and driving to all of these locations that the vacation is more exhausting than enjoyable. This year, though, Husband actually has vacation time to use– time that he gets paid for, unlike at the post office, where he was technically still a part time employee (in spite of working full time); if we took a vacation, it meant he had to put in for time off that he was unlikely to get, which meant he didn’t get paid, which meant we accrued more loss than just paying for the vacation. This year was going to be different. This year was going to be relaxing. This year, More
we were going to try something new and enjoy our vacation.
After considering a variety of places in conversations that went something like “What about INSERT LOCATION HERE?” “What is there to do?” *search for interesting and affordable things on the interweb* “Nothing. Well, what about….”, we threw up our hands and booked a cruise to the Bahamas that departs out of Baltimore. Totally on a whim. Without consulting friends who have cruised before. With minimal price/review comparisons with other cruise lines. All we could do is pray the trip would be enjoyable.
We counted down the days to embarkation, even drawing a countdown on the chalkboard in our kitchen (we really, really needed this vacation, you guys). I did my typical overpreparations, cleaned the house from top to bottom, and tried to suppress my frustration that Hubs didn’t make a packing list (I mean, doesn’t everybody create a word document with a table and check off boxes with detailed, itemized boxes listing every piece and color of clothing you’re bringing? No? I might be a tad Type A.). Finally, the day arrived. We said good-bye to our furbabies, made sure they had plenty of food and litterboxes just in case Husband’s brother didn’t make it over frequently to feed and scoop, said good-bye to the furbabies again, and loaded the car to get the hell out of Dodge.
I am hyper-organized when it comes to packing. I don’t like forgetting things at home or at the destination. I don’t like needing something and not having it. Overpreparation is the name of my game (check out my packing list: Cruise Packing List– Balcony Room). To my delight and Husband’s chagrin, we needed just about everything I packed, and just about everything fit into an awesome hanging pocket organizer that I bought. Things I am incredibly happy I included:
A highlighter. Every night when you get back to your room, your steward will have done turndown service, which includes folding back your covers, making a towel animal and putting your sunglasses on it, and leaving a copy of the next day’s itinerary with some “Sweet Dreams” chocolates. We loved sitting on our balcony to eat breakfast and highlight what we wanted to do that day. There were a ton of options, so highlighting helped remind us of what we really wanted to do and see.
Towel clips. I was really surprised that no one else packed these, considering we’d be cruising at 22 knots (about 25 mph, according to our cruise director). In my mind, that meant a strong breeze, and depending on which way your lounge chair was facing, you stood the chance of your towel or clothing blowing away or flapping down over you as you try to relax. Hubs laughed at these, but after our first morning workout, he admitted they were genius; he could use them to air out his running shorts, which he would need for the next few days, or to clip our swimsuits out to dry, and they helped us identify our chairs on the beach in addition to securing our items.
A small first aid kit. Based on our trip to Florida a few years ago (where I got sun poisoning– 2nd degree burns on my shoulders and legs, complete with swelling and hives), I put together a small, sun-based first aid kit. Must haves were hydro-cortisone cream, aloe with lidocaine, ibuprofen, and cocoa butter body oil to help keep our skin moisturized. I tucked some band-aids in too, which went unused, and some Dramamine, which Husband used (only half a pill, but it still got used, so I was happy). Ear drops to dry up swimmer’s ear rounded out the package. I wish I had included some Neosporin, as in spite of my best efforts to stay drenched in SPF, my chest got a small patch of 2nd degree burn and became blistered and raw for the last few days of our trip. Some Benadryl to combat the histamine reaction would have been nice too, but thankfully they sold that in the Fun Ship shop.
A surge protector. There was one outlet in our balcony stateroom. One. I picked up a Belkin travel surge protector that had three outlets and two USB ports, which was perfect for our cell phones and camera chargers. Your phone won’t work– hello, open ocean!– but if you’re like us, you’ll use it as a clock (we both desperately wish we’d worn our watches– there are very few clocks on board), an alarm, and a camera, or have apps that you’d like to use that don’t use data, and will likely bring it with you out of habit. Make sure it’s set to airplane mode so that you don’t incur international roaming charges!
Bottled water. You can bring 20 ounce unopened bottles of water on board (must be carried on so they can shake them up to ensure it’s water and not liquor; I’m not sure if they’re looking for bubbles or viscosity, or if they just want to scare passengers into thinking they see something to denote liquor to prevent them from bringing unauthorized items onboard). We brought two 6 packs, but I’m pretty sure we could have brought more, and I wish we had. A 1.5 liter bottle onboard cost $4.75, which is outrageous. I didn’t mind the taste of the filtered water provided on the Lido deck, but Husband has a more refined palate than I do, and he thought there was something a little off about it. Something we found out is that the ship has a waste management/water refinery system onboard. All of the water they use for anything– showers, toilets, cooking, drinking– is processed salt water. It is refined onboard and filtered thoroughly so that it is healthy and safe to drink. After a day or so, I got used to it, but Husband stuck to our bottled water from home.
Jeans and cardigans. The temperatures outside might have hit 90, but with the refreshing ocean breeze, it never felt too far above a warm and comfortable 80, in spite of the sun being closer and hotter than it would have been in Maryland. However, once you head inside for nighttime activities, you will find that the warmth of the day is being leeched out of you by the air conditioning, and you will wish you’d packed a pair of jeans and at least one sweater. This is another thing Husband initially scoffed at, but when I insisted, he packed a pair of jeans, and as we were getting ready to leave, he decided to grab a light sweatjacket too, and he was glad he did. (I’m so seldom right about things that I’m just reveling in how my overpreparedness was just so freaking spot on).
We arrived at the Port of Baltimore about twenty minutes after boarding time started, which was a great idea. We would have been there earlier if we hadn’t had to wait to do laundry, but I don’t really think it would have made that great a difference– it was bustling regardless. We pulled through the first line in the car, where my suitcase had to be checked; our other bags could be carried on. This works just like an airport; bags that fit through the x-ray counter can be carried on, others need to be tagged with the luggage tag Carnival provides to be delivered to your room by your steward. After my bag was checked, we drove through to the payment line and parked, then headed into the terminal, where we joined the line to go through security. This was by far the longest part of waiting, and by the time we got through the checkpoint, we wished we had checked our other bags. Once through the checkpoint, we had to wait in yet another line to get our “Sail and Sign” cards.
The Sail and Sign cards were everything; we used them as our identification to get back on the ship after excursions, we used them to purchase anything on the ship, we used them to provide our folio/room numbers for room service, we used them to remember our muster station. Your name is on the card, and they take a picture that pops up every time your card is swiped (extra security feature– if the person using the card doesn’t match the picture, they don’t get to use the card). Our cards were backed by our credit card, but you can also back them with a cash deposit, which would be helpful if you had kids onboard and wanted to limit their spending. Once we had our cards, we boarded the ship and were immediately overwhelmed with the sheer grandeur we were greeted with. We boarded into the Atrium/Renaissance lobby, which is the heart of the ship. Located mid-ship, the Atrium is open to the very top of the ship; go to the bow and you’re at the lower numbered staterooms, go aft and you’re at the higher numbered staterooms. We found our stateroom– an extended balcony room, only slightly more expensive than an interior room– and started unpacking while waiting for the muster drill, which had to be done before we set sail. Once everyone knew where to go in an emergency, we were free to roam the ship, and our cruise got underway.
The Ship: An Overview
The ship itself looks like a floating version of Vegas. There’s a casino onboard, everything looks almost excessively opulently decorated in a perceived Italian style, and there are bars everywhere. Bathrooms are generally located at each section of the ship– forward, midship, and aft. Quick note on these bathrooms: PUSH the door open, don’t pull, or it will seem locked. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, every door will be push instead of pull. On Deck A, the very bottom level, are the infirmary and crew areas. The only times we went down there were to head out for our excursions and so that I could hit up the infirmary for some ointment for that particularly bad patch of sunburn. The only other deck you might need to access is forward Deck 1, the Riviera deck, so that you can go into the Butterflies lounge, which becomes the Punchliner Comedy Club at night.
Decks 2 and 3 are where the action is. From stern to bow, Deck 2, aka the Promenade, is home to the first floor of the Normandie dining room, where you will go if you sign up for a specific time slot to have dinner. Stairs to the higher numbered staterooms and top decks are just outside. Heading toward midship, you’ll come across the Florentine lounge, home to our favorite bartender Yulia, and the entrance to the Beauties nightclub (mostly full of 18-20 year olds– not for us). At midship you’ll find the Renaissance lounge, aka the Atrium lobby, where the Guest Services and Shore Excursions desks are located. Completing midship is the casino, one of the few indoor smoking areas on the ship, and the saddest sports bar you’ll ever see, the Perfect Game Sports Bar, where you can shoot pool if you’re so inclined. There are televisions there that you’d think would have sports games on them, but because we’re out on the ocean, feeds were inconsistent, so they showed pretty much whatever showed up. Midship stairs are outside of the sports bar; also located here is the Starry Night Lounge, where many a trivia game is held, and one of the coffee shops called the Piazza Cafe. Keep going toward the front of the ship and you’ll reach the main auditorium called the Taj Mahal, as well as the forward stairs and elevators.
Deck 3, aka the Atlantic deck, starts at the back with the second floor of the Normandie dining room, where you’ll go to eat if you sign up for “Your Time Dining.” The aft stairs keep going up to the Lido deck just outside the dining room, and as you head toward midship you’ll pass through the Raphael lounge and conference room, where art sales and auctions were held. Keep going and you’ll reach the Renaissance Atrium, a circular open hallway where all of your photo opportunities, and there will be many, are displayed for you to purchase (we picked up a few small and medium sized pictures, priced at $11.99 and $14.99 each, respectively. Be prepared to drop about $80-$100 on pictures; you get some free gifts when you purchase a certain number of pictures. We bought enough to get a lanyard with a plastic pouch for our Sail and Sign cards, a luggage tag with a hologram of the Pride and dolphins, and a travel coffee mug). Midship brings the outdoor promenade decks and the inside shops on Via Veneto, so named after one of the main thoroughfares in Italy. There are three stores: a small candy shop (small selection, high price– you’re better off bringing your own candy on), the Fun Ship souvenir shop/liquor store/clothing store, and a fine jewelry/watch/accessories store. Go through Via Veneto to reach one of our other favorite spots: The Ivory Piano Bar. Merry was our second favorite bartender, and Roger the piano man was thoroughly entertaining and engaging. The chapel is next door, and next to that is the library/internet room. The internet is unbelievably slow and expensive ($1.99/minute), so you’re better off preparing to unplug for the week, something that is quite liberating. On either side of the forward part of the ship on this deck is the Sunset Garden, two side hallways both leeward and starboard, that provide a lovely, quiet view of the ocean. At the very front of the ship is the upper level of the Taj Mahal.
Interior staterooms are on the Riviera deck, and balcony/window rooms begin on the main level and continue up to deck 8, the Panorama deck.
Things pick up again on Deck 9, the Lido deck, aka the party deck. Starting at the stern, you’ll find our favorite spot: The 21+ Serenity Lounge. Get there early– it fills up fast. There’s a small pool (any of the pools, all found on the Lido deck, are really just glorified bathtubs, but that’s totally understandable when you consider the amount of people onboard, the likelihood that all of them probably want to sit out and enjoy the sun rather than swim, and the potential for rough seas to slosh the pool water around and empty them completely), many cushioned lounge chairs, several egg chairs, and two hammocks, as well as a shaded area with couches and chairs and a bar. There are waiters walking around taking drink orders; they come around once every 30-45 minutes (I think this is partly because of the busyness of the lounge, but also partly to help people pace themselves– the drinks are plentiful and delicious, and it is very, very easy to go overboard– no pun intended). Between the other pools, where you’ll find all of the kids onboard as well as the young 18-20 year old rowdy party crowd, and Serenity is the buffet dining room, the Mermaid Grille, which provides a nice buffer between the younger people and the slightly less young people. Continue through the dining room to the Apollo and Venus pools at midship, where most of the partying takes place, and you’ll enter into the forward part of the ship, where the spa is located. You have to go through the spa to get to the gym, which we did a few times during our first days onboard. The gym has two levels; free weights and weight machines are on the second level, and some nice ellipticals, treadmills, and bikes are on the first level, all looking out over the water.
Above the Lido deck is the Sun deck, where the promenades are lined with lounge chairs. This is also where you access the water slide. You can get into David’s Steakhouse from here as well. If you want to have dinner at David’s, make a reservation before you embark. You’ll fork over $35 per person for the reservation, which might seem a little off-putting; it’s okay. It covers your starter, salad, main course and side, and dessert and coffee. You’ll receive a menu when you get there to fine tune your selection, but the price you pay up front covers your choices. Truly, the service alone is worth it; Husband and I had our last dinner here, and while the food was better than that in the Normandie dining room or Mermaid Grille, the service was exquisite, and the more formal atmosphere made for a special, intimate date. You can also reach David’s by the forward stairs, and once you get to the Lido deck, the stairs become clear heading up into the lobby of the steakhouse, which makes for an interesting climb.
Above the Sun deck is the Sports deck, where the mini-golf and 1/10 mile jogging track are located. We didn’t spend any time here beyond exploring our first day.
This is a lot of information to process. Stop at Guest Services and pick up a little tri-fold map of the ship– it makes things much easier.
The Food and Drinks
The food is nothing to write home about. Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying it’s bad, but if you think you’re going to cruise and eat 5 star cuisine, you’ll be disappointed. The food was consistently good and the perishables like fruits and salads surprisingly fresh, as if they’d just been purchased at the grocery store instead of stored onboard for a week. If you’ve had a continental breakfast at a hotel sometime in the 20th century, you’ve had a taste of what a cruise breakfast is like. The Mermaid Grille is where you’ll go for lunch, and the options are plentiful. The Carnival Deli makes a decent sandwich, there’s an Asian buffet and an American comfort foods buffet where selections vary daily, and there’s also a dessert station called the Sweet Spot, as well as a grill that’s outside on the Lido deck by the Apollo pool (the “ice cream parlor” is outside next to the grill station– it’s literally a soft serve machine with bowls on top of it– though the soft serve was good– almost too cold, actually– this was the only really disappointing food feature. I was hoping for a sundae or something like that instead of just the standard Neapolitan flavors.). The best food on the ship by far came from the Pizza Pirate, which is open 24 hours a day.
24 HOURS A DAY. YOU GUYS. DRUNK PIZZA STOPS ARE THE BEST.
But I digress.
The Normandie dining room is more like a restaurant. You’ll go up and be seated by a hostess, and your serving team will bring your drinks and take your order from either the menu of the day or the selection of more standard fare that’s there every day. The options that the chefs come up with are interesting; there will be things you’ve never thought to try before on the menu of the day, so if you have an adventurous side, this is where you’ll want to be. You’ll get a portioned out meal instead of an all you can eat buffet, so if you’re concerned about cruise weight gain, this is an excellent choice. Side note: If you do not sign up for the Cheers program (for adults) or the soda program (for kids– I think it’s called Bottomless Bubbles or something like that), you will pay extra for anything that isn’t coffee, juice, milk, or water. More on the Cheers program in a minute. All of the food, with the exception of what you pay for your reservation at David’s, is covered in the cost of the cruise. This is what is dangerous about cruise food– it’s not that it’s exceptionally great, but there’s just so very much of it that is readily available all of the time.
The ship will be going into dry dock soon for some maintenance and renovations; they’ll be getting one of Guy Fieri’s burger restaurants as well as a Blue Iguana Cantina, and I think Josh mentioned something about a Twisted Frog bar as well, so look for the food options to be expanding. I’m excited to cruise on the Pride again to see what changes have been made.
The drinks on the other hand… The drinks are abundant and delicious. Many people think that the drinks will be overpriced, but really, they aren’t. I paid $8.75 (15% gratuity included) for a martini, and in a restaurant back home, I could easily have paid that or more minus gratuity. After dropping $60 or so on drinks our first night on the ship, Husband and I discussed the merits of signing up for the Cheers beverage program, which you could only do during the first few days at sea. It’s $50 per person, per day, excluding gratuity; if one person in your room signs up for it, you have to sign up for it too, so really, for the two of us, it’s an automatic $115 per day for the entirety of the cruise when they add the 15% gratuity (you can’t just sign up for it for a day or two– it’s all or nothing, and they do automatically add it). It covers up to 15 drinks per day (alcoholic and/or soft drinks), with each drink being $10.50 or below, and also provides discounts on wine and bottles of wine. Most of the menu drinks were $8.75 or below, and even when I upgraded my liquor to Belvedere, I didn’t get a drink priced higher than $9.50; if I’d gone with wine, there were options in the $11, $12 dollar range. Our concerns were that we might wake up one day and not feel like drinking anymore, or that on our days where we have ports of call, we might be too tired to stay out drinking (or have time to down the 5-6 drinks each it would take to break even on our investment), or that perhaps we wouldn’t drink that much to begin with and the program would make us feel compelled to drink to make it worth it. After our first night on the boat, I can safely say that we would have spent that much or more; the drinks are that tasty and everything– karaoke, piano bar, lounging by the pool, everything– was more fun and relaxing with a fruity beverage in hand. Indeed, when we got our itemized check-out receipt on Sunday before debarkation, Hubs counted up our bar tabs, and the Cheers program was definitely worth it.
On our second morning, we decided to sign up for the Cheers program. The Cheers program was accepted everywhere on the ship, so when we went into the Normandie dining room or into David’s and wanted a soda, or a glass of wine, or a cocktail, we had to present our card with its little “Cheers!” sticker, and it was covered. You’ll cash out after every drink, drink program or not, to ensure no one walks out on a tab or tries to drink underage.
Days and Evenings at Sea
After boarding the ship, we decided to unpack and head out to find the dining room for some dinner. While we enjoyed our Caesar salads, his burger and my fried chicken (jokingly referred to as “McDonald’s” and “KFC” by our server), and our warm melting cake dessert (by far the best dessert we had, but not as good as its legend made it out to be), we sailed under the Key Bridge and headed out toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. After dinner, we explored the ship and tried to get our bearings; it wasn’t until our third day at sea that we really started feeling comfortable finding our way around without having to stop to look at a map or deck plan.
Hubs woke me up the first morning to watch the sun rise, and though I was grumpy at first, I’m glad he did. There’s nothing more gorgeous than the sky lightening over the horizon, followed by the sun bursting forth in all its glory. Once the sun was above the water, we headed up to the gym in an attempt to stave off the approximate 1.5 pounds per day weight gain of the average cruiser (according to our cruise director Josh, that’s what the average person gains during their week at sea– I am convinced it’s all from alcohol, and we weren’t going down without a fight!), where thanks to a partially torn tendon in my foot, I resigned myself to the elliptical while Husband ran on the treadmill for half an hour. Afterward, we headed directly across the Lido deck to the Mermaid Grille for breakfast; the food up there is pretty much what you could have room service (which is included, 24 hours a day) bring to you, save for the omelet station. Fast forward through showers, a walk around the ship, signing up for the Cheers program, and morning mimosas, and we headed back to our room to put on swimsuits to take advantage of the Serenity lounge.
It was full.
We picked up some drinks at the bar (a very manly, fruity, umbrella-and-fruit-garnished drink for him and a Long Island iced tea for me) and went up to the Sun deck to snag some lounge chairs. We kept a close eye on Serenity though, and like vultures, flocked down the moment we saw two chaises open up. I’ve never been so thankful for SPF, because after a little sun, we both dozed off for a bit. This is the allure of the Serenity lounge– its peace makes it an extraordinarily relaxing place to be, and indeed, we dozed there more than once, which is how I ended up with 2nd degree burns and hives. Again. Our second full day at sea started out slightly overcast, which lulled us into a false sense of security; still, we SPF’d up before laying out, but by the time we woke up, the sun was out and the SPF was no longer as effective, and my poor chest was bright pink.
This was pretty much how we spent our first days at sea– wake up, work out for a bit, have room service bring some coffee and breakfast so we could enjoy our balcony and decide what we wanted to do that day, then lay out and sip some tropically flavored beverages until lunchtime, when we would go back to our room, order lunch, take a nap until lunch arrived, eat, change, and begin evening festivities. The shows and games were varied and plentiful, and not having to do more than pick from a list of options for how to spend our time helped us decompress and further enjoy our days and evenings at sea. We spent our first evening in the piano bar, listening to Roger serenade us with Journey, Elton John, and other classic performers (and the Cheers theme song) while Merry kept the drinks and jokes coming. Our second evening, we went to the piano bar for a bit, then wandered to the comedy club to catch the two onboard comedians. Side note: If you leave the piano bar early, Roger will play you a lullaby on your way out the door. If you want to catch the comedians, get there early– the Butterflies lounge fills up fast. Our nights at sea heading to our ports of call were spent much the same way– a musical tribute show here, live karaoke there, trivia games and comedy routines and entertainment galore.
We spent much of Wednesday evening and Friday night at karaoke in the Florentine lounge so we could hang out with Yulia, even going so far as to dance at Beauties nightclub to keep hanging out with her (she’s that adorable and engaging– we don’t dance, but we did if it meant we got to stay in her company). This is how amazing and attentive Yulia is: I wasn’t feeling so well on Wednesday thanks to a chronic stomach inflammation issue I have. She made me a concoction (I couldn’t tell you what was in it or what it was called) and said, “Okay girlfriend. This, you take back in one sip, like a shot. Then drink some of the club soda. It cures, I promise.” Within ten minutes, the pain had faded, and I was feeling much better. When we came back to her bar on Friday, she greeted us and asked how I was feeling, and made sure our drinks were full all night; she encouraged us to sing karaoke and cheered us on enthusiastically, and even tucked my purse and sweater behind the bar (without me asking– she took them and said “Go have fun! I keep them here for you so you don’t worry!”) when Husband and I got awesome enough to go dance at Beauties. We stopped by one last time on Saturday to say good-bye, and she immediately greeted us and said “The usual?” Her bubbly personality made our trip so much more enjoyable; she was easy to talk to and it was evident that she loves her job. Aside from hanging with Yulia, we did so much that I honestly could not tell you what we did on which specific night; it’s all blended together in a surreal, fabulous, utterly relaxing blur.
The staff always seemed upbeat; they call you by name, and there were times we passed someone in the hall and, even though they couldn’t see our Sail and Sign cards, they remembered us and said hello. There were only one or two bartenders that weren’t so amiable, but I have a feeling that was more a language barrier thing than an attitude thing; the ship employs an extraordinarily diverse staff of over 900 people, only 14 of whom are American. If you look on their name tags, underneath their name is their country of origin. During the Q&A with Josh at the end of the week, he explained that the people who work on the ship sign a contract for 6-9 months and essentially live on the boat during that time. They don’t make a lot per week– only around $325, and they work 7 days a week– but Carnival covers 100% of their healthcare while they’re working on the boat, and they pay nothing for room and board. Most of them send their paychecks home, and when their contract ends, they get to go home for a bit before heading back out to sea; the exchange rate on the American dollar in some places allows them to provide for their families and then some.
Toward the end of the week, we didn’t wake up early to work out; we counted swimming and snorkeling on Thursday (what a joy that snorkel was, let me tell you– read on to hear about that fiasco) and kayaking on Friday as our exercise, and on Saturday, we forfeited to our mild hangovers. We also were kind of sunned-out, so we hung out inside, bouncing from trivia game to trivia game, going to an animal towel folding seminar, the Q&A with Cruise Director Josh, and the cruise-wide talent show. At night though, we went to Serenity to have a drink or so and enjoy the sunset, cool evening air, and stars before heading inside for nighttime activities.
Carnival has implemented a pretty awesome guarantee policy; if you can find the same excursion for the same price, they’ll match the lower price. We ended up going with what they had because we trusted the people they recommended. For excursions, if you’re on a tour that heads out right after the ship docks, you’ll head to the Taj Mahal to join the color group that is printed on your ticked. Otherwise, head to the Atrium to await being called to Deck A to head down the gangway. DO NOT GO TO DECK A. You will be told to go up to Deck 2 to wait to be called. Our daily itinerary said go to Deck A. The TV said to go to Deck A. We went to Deck A. We were told to go up to wait on Deck 2. When you go to Half Moon Cay, go to the Atrium to get a tender boat sticker, then wait for them to call your number. Make sure you have your Sail and Sign card– you will need it to get back onto the boat! Otherwise, you don’t need your license or passport– just your card, some cash, and whatever camera/beach things you want to bring.
Port of Call #1: Grand Turk Island, Turks and Caicos
This island was gorgeous. We pulled up alongside a massive dock and headed down to the Taj Mahal to find our excursion group (we were on an excursion that took place right when we left the ship). Our tour guide loaded us into a van and drove us out to our excursion site, where we would be doing a motorized snorkel. On the way, he talked about the history of Grand Turk, most notably the hurricane that demolished 80-90% of the island a few years ago and John Glenn splashing down in the Friendship 7. The guides for this excursion were awesome; they had a great sense of humor and pointed things out to us, and were prepared with anti-fog for the goggles and Vaseline so guys with mustaches would get a good seal on their goggles. Husband was super excited to get to wear his GoPro while we motored through the water; unfortunately, when we got to our site, the camera wouldn’t turn on. Something wasn’t plugged in all the way when he set it up to charge, and the camera was dead. Needless to say, he was understandably upset about it, and it truly is a bummer because we saw some really cool things out there. He saw a nurse shark, we saw a spotted eagle ray (and I dove down to swim with it), and the reefs were very active that day– tons of fish all around. The motor made the trip incredibly easy and enjoyable, and they led us to some spectacularly gorgeous reefs. Although we didn’t get any video of our power snorkel, it was by far our favorite excursion of the trip. When we got back to the beach, we found a private, quiet spot with some lounge chairs in the shade where we relaxed until our phone alarm told us it was time to head back to the ship. The beach going into the water is a bit rocky here, so if you want to swim, wear water shoes.
Port of Call #2: Half Moon Cay, the Bahamas
Half Moon Cay is an island that Carnival bought, so it functions as an extension of the ship. The crew goes ashore too to work the lunch buffet (which is included) and bars (which are not included, Cheers program or no), and you’ll use your Sail and Sign card for any purchases. The water is too shallow for there to be a pier, so the ship docked offshore and tender boats were used to go up a small side canal to the dock. Get to the Atrium lobby early with your entire party and Sail and Sign card to get your tender sticker, or you’ll be wasting valuable beach time on the boat. Our excursion this day wasn’t until 12:30, so we got our stickers and went ashore instead of going to the Taj Mahal to join an excursion group. The beach here was pure powder, and I have never seen such clear water; it looks like our pictures are Photoshopped, but I promise you, there was no retouching whatsoever. We spent our morning laying out and getting some exercise by open-water distance swimming along the swim area line. Around noon we gathered our things and headed back to the pier to meet our excursion group, and then we headed out to sea for our second snorkel, this time without the motor. Husband made sure the GoPro was working (success!), we gathered our snorkel gear, and into the water we went.
Disaster. Complete, unequivocal disaster.
I’m a strong swimmer. I was on swim team as a child, I’ve kept up with it as an adult, I’ve been snorkeling out in the ocean before, I’ve gotten out of a rip current before, I’m a triathlete– I know what I’m doing in the water. This was awful. Immediately, I drifted way too far from the boat with minimal swimming effort. The current was kicking, and it was wide and consistent. No matter which way I turned, the current kept pushing me out. I kicked hard and fought my way back to the boat, because not only did I want to experience this excursion with Husband, but I didn’t want to be separated from him in this current. I’m a much stronger swimmer than he is, even though he’s definitely a stronger person overall, and this current had me scared. I found him, and boy was he angry. His mask wouldn’t give him more than a moment or two worth of seal before it filled with water, and every time he stopped to fix it, the current pulled him out. Not to mention that because of the current, he was stuck in the same spot no matter how hard he swam, something his GoPro video made evident when we watched it once we got home; you could see his hands pulling through both freestyle and breaststroke pulls, but he hovered over the same spot on the reef until he had to empty his mask. When the video picked up, he was a few feet further back. As his frustration grew, I tried to calm him down and pull him over to another reef. The fact that the reefs weren’t particularly active that day didn’t even really matter (not that the captain could have predicted that– sometimes things are happening, sometimes they aren’t); our concern was struggling to stay near the boat. The only way we made any progress in this endeavor was by holding hands and kicking like mad to get back to the boat with me pulling him along when he had to get his mask resealed, and even then, as revealed by the video, it was slow going.
After struggling for 25 minutes, we made it to the life-ring they had tethered to the boat for weaker swimmers and used the tow line to pull ourselves onboard. About half of the people in our group (which was about 30 people large) had also fought their way back, and the other half were struggling to reach the ladder as well. Keep in mind this was a 45 minute long snorkel; we still had 20 minutes to go to be in the water, but we were all calling it a day because of the current. My heart was pounding and I was winded, and I had never been happier to be on a boat. I looked at the captain and said, “I’m a strong swimmer, and that was some of the hardest swimming I have ever done.” With a completely blase tone, he said, “Ocean current’s different than in a pool.” The glibness of his reply bothered me, but what he said next pissed me off even more. When Hubs told him that he couldn’t get a good seal on the mask (just in case the mask was broken, which I imagine would happen after repeated use by many different sized faces and heads over the years), his only response was “Mustache.” Well, gee, thanks a lot. You couldn’t have warned the men with facial hair that it might affect how their masks sealed? You couldn’t provide Vaseline to help it seal? We’re out in the ocean, thousands of feet offshore, no lifeboats in sight, no lifeguards, just the captain and three “lifeguards” who were struggling themselves (the captain told them to help others back to the boat and they shouted back “You get in and help then!”), and our lives are basically in your hands, and you’re going to act like drifting out toward the open sea with a mask that is filling with water isn’t a big deal? Everybody was complaining about the strength of the current, something that any decent boat captain would have checked before heading out, or would have ruddered the boat into a position where we were jumping off into a safer direction (one that would push us toward the boat instead of away from it) or at least would have administered a warning that we might want to stay on the side of the boat where the current would push us toward the boat instead of the open sea.
Sorry to rant, but this still makes me angry. What a waste of time and money. The only good things that came out of this excursion are that Husband and I had a real bonding experience and got a truly hard workout done in fighting the current.
Thankfully, we had some time remaining to walk around and enjoy the beauty of the beaches and water (which was more beautiful now that we were on land and not fighting its power) before heading to catch a tender boat back to the ship.
Port of Call #3: Freeport, the Bahamas
You know a port is going to be bad when even the cruise director is saying “Book an excursion that takes the whole time, or you’re going to be bored.” Originally, Husband and I had only booked the power snorkel in Grand Turk; we were going to play Half Moon Cay and Freeport by ear. We ended up booking a 6 hour kayak and nature hike tour, and I’m so glad we did. Freeport is mostly industry; there’s a small market right off the gangway, and that’s about it. We met our kayak group in the Taj Mahal and headed out. Our tour guide Bradley told us about the man who founded Freeport while we headed to the entrance to the mangroves where we would be kayaking. The man (I don’t recall his name) leased the land from England for as long as he could (99 years) because it was so cheap per acre and established Freeport, a place where you could trade for business completely tax free. He created a canal system very similar to the one in Venice to boost trade and provide safe harbor for boats during hurricanes and storms.
When we arrived at the mangroves, Bradley told us how to manipulate the paddles to go forward and backward and to rudder around sharp turns. The problem came up when Husband and I entered the water. We both wanted control of steering, and as a result, ended up fighting each other’s paddle strokes. We quickly figured it out, and he set the pace in front while I ruddered us around the sharp turns in back. The kayaking lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes, all through the mangroves until the tidal creek dropped us out at the beach. It was a great workout and a really peaceful, beautiful trip. We beached the kayaks and enjoyed a lunch of sandwiches and cookies; they told us to toss any remaining food into the woods for the raccoons. We thought in terms of American raccoons– nocturnal, potentially rabid scavengers. These guys were so adorable and active; they came right down the trees to get the food, and one of them took food that was offered directly from a tour groupmate’s hand. My only complaint with this excursion is that the break for lunch took too long; we had about an hour and a half to eat lunch and enjoy some beach time, but by this time, I was all beached out– that’s just me though. The nature hike was brief and took us back to the opening of the mangroves where our van was waiting for us. Along the way, Bradley pointed out certain trees and plants and told us what they were used for on the island.
After the half hour drive back to port, we had about 20 minutes to kick around the Freeport market before heading back to the boat. This is where we had our only spot of bad weather, in spite of cruising during the rainy season with a hurricane heading up the East Coast, and even then, it rained just hard enough for us to break out the ponchos I made us get (overpreparedness, FTW!!) and stopped when we got back to the ship.
Packing our bags Saturday afternoon was extremely bittersweet. We were ready to see our furbabies and be back on our diet and exercise routines, but were completely unwilling to give up the relaxing pace and style of our days at sea. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
On Sunday morning we had our last breakfast on the balcony and watched Annapolis float by as we headed back up the Bay to Baltimore. We had to leave the room by 8:30 so housekeeping could prepare it for the next cruise, which embarked that afternoon. We opted to do the self-assist debarkation as opposed to the zone debarkation; we took our own bags instead of checking them. Self-assist leaves the ship a little earlier, while zone-assist gets to stay onboard in the designated lounging areas. Though we didn’t want to leave the ship, our lack of desire to have to wait for checked bags won out. We took our bags and went to the Taj Mahal to wait for them to call our deck number to debark, and when they did, we left the Pride with heavy hearts.
Something I was concerned about before we left, something that all of our friends said we would need, was getting a passport for Husband (I had my own already). We went through so much stress and trouble to get his– a document was unclear or misplaced, or something like that, and we had to pay extra fees to expedite the process, effectively spending double on his passport than we would have if they had told us about the missing document earlier instead of two weeks before our trip (we sent his information in 9-10 weeks before we set sail). We had them with us when we went ashore every time (just in case, because some of our friends said they had to present theirs to get back on the boat) and ended up not needing them, which was a little frustrating considering what we’d gone through to get Husband’s. Thankfully, it ended up being worth it when we went through Customs; no stamp in the book, but it served to prove citizenship, and now we have it for when we go to Europe next year.
Bonus: the money we pulled out to spend in the ports of call was nearly totally unnecessary. We took out $460 and spent maybe $100 of it (3 magnets, our preferred souvenir trinkets; a reusable plastic water bottle for me from Grand Turk; lunch at Margaritaville on Grand Turk, the only restaurant we saw; extra tip for our room steward for being so awesome). I’m sure we could have spent more, as most of our friends said to bring about $100 per port plus a little extra just in case, but the Sail and Sign card took care of everything on the ship and on Half Moon Cay, and there just wasn’t really anything we wanted to buy on the other islands that we couldn’t have gotten at a beach shop in Ocean City.
It was a wonderful vacation, and it wasn’t until we went through the hustle and bustle of grocery shopping and doing laundry and getting ready for work (for him) and workshops (for me) that we realized exactly how different this vacation was from what we usually do. This review/advice entry could easily have been longer if I went in depth on what we actually did– there really was that much to do. We were so worried that we weren’t “boat people”– and we still aren’t, not really (we’re not about to get a boat or become sailors or anything)– but we discovered that we are most definitely cruise people. I can honestly say that this has been one of my favorite vacations that we have taken; post-vacation depression hit hard and fast once we were home, faster by far than any other of our other trips. We already have our countdown to Europe on the chalkboard, underneath which Husband has written “or Cruise #2,” and we’re seriously considering postponing Europe in favor of cruising again (although I think a Mediterranean cruise might be doable…). Now, if only we could find one that the cats would be okay with, because Boo Radley had some serious separation anxiety issues (I woke up on Monday to find him sleeping on my chest with his head shoved under my chin, and he hasn’t left my side since we’ve been home) and we’re ready to go again… Less