Cruising has become the best option for a family vacation. Including cruise, airfare, souvenirs, jewelry, taxis, drinks and everything, our vacation in the Caribbean was well under $5000 for 2 adults, a 10 year old and a 14 year old. There is no way we could take a family vacation with a rental car, restaurants, amusement parks, souvenirs and airfare and come even close to staying within our budget. Besides, zip-lining through a rain forest is much more fun and educational than an amusement park!
We sailed on the Carnival Freedom leaving from the port in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This was our 5th cruise so we knew what to expect before boarding the ship. The line outside the cruise dock was long but as soon as they opened the doors to begin boarding, the line moved rather quickly. The security procedure for boarding was similar to flying. There was one long snaking line and short VIP line. Some regulars were directed to the shorter VIP line when the line allowed for it. Once we entered the area to receive our Sail N Sign, there were no lines. We were immediately directed to an agent where we got our cards and boarded the ship. Once you step from the ramp on to the ship, it is the best feeling.
Lunch was being served and the calypso band was playing. Drinks of the day were available as well. As we looked around, it was very apparent that were in the minority on this cruise. The passengers were mostly in the over 70 age range. It was concerning to us because we worried that there would not be enough children for my own children to have fun in the Camp Carnival and Circle C clubs. We later heard that there were only about 35 children total, on board. It was disappointing. On our prior cruise, we sailed during spring break and found the children ruled that cruise! I would definitely prefer something in the middle of these two experiences. I decided early on that I would make a list of the positive things about cruising with many seniors: 1) The stairways are empty 2) More lawn chairs are available 3) Better chance of getting a seat in the comedy club 4) No crowds anywhere after 9pm 5) The was always room in the hot tubs and the swimming pools were practically empty. Some negatives: 1) Scooters and walkers in the isles made it difficult to get around the lounge chair rows 2) Long waits for elevators 3) Long waits in the breakfast line. I don't list these things in any way to be disrespectful. Goodness knows that I hope to be able to go on a cruise at that age, but I think it is something to consider when booking. There was a very large group of Veterans on board. (God bless them for their service) However, next time I cruise, I will ask my travel agent to look up the passenger group organizations that have booked on my sailing. I think it would be helpful to know if there will be a Veteran's group, Moms of Sextuplets, Singles Only or the organization of people who have over 90% of their bodies tattooed. These are things that in great numbers, could change my ability to relax while on vacation. Lesson learned.
Our first port was Cozumel. This was my third time visiting Cozumel and it was the best. The last two times I spent the entire day in jewelry stores in the downtown area. This time, we did a little shopping in the stores by the port and then took a taxi to Mr. Sancho's Beach Club. Mr. Sancho's is a bar/restaurant on the beach. They have indoor and outdoor tables as well as lounge chairs on the beach. You can choose from several packages depending on how you want to spend your day there. They have a roped off area in the water that is full of large inflatable water climbers and trampolines. It looked like lots of fun but it was $12 each to use this area. My children were disappointed but since we only had couple hours to be there, we did not invest in that activity. The rest of the beach is free. You can sit at outdoor tables if you buy some drinks. The lounge chairs are $5 if you are buying a la carte like we did. There is a package where you can spend the day there as all-inclusive. This includes your food, lounge chairs, drinks and water toys. It was about $50 person. Mr. Sancho's does not answer their emails so I recommend signing up online through http://www.cozumelwatersports.com . You only need to leave a $5 deposit so if you change your mind, you haven't lost much. I would do the all inclusive next time and spend the whole day there. Cozumel was followed by a day at sea.
Another note about travelling with lots of seniors: We were scheduled to get into Cozumel at 6am. Due to a medical emergency, the ship picked up speed and arrived two hours earlier. It's very good that Carnival is able to make those adjustments but it does make the ship rock and roll more.
Our most incredible day was next in Costa Rica. I pre-scheduled a tour through http://okeydokeytours.com/ . The tour was $89 each and included a rain forest canal tour, trip to the Delmonte banana plantation, zip lines through the rain forest and beach time. It was a full day. Charlie Soto from okeydokey tours sent me an email that our driver would meet us at the cruise pier. I think it is important to note that when you get off the ship in Costa Rica, there is a staging area for tour busses and taxis that are affiliated with the ship excursions. We did not know this and wandered for a while trying to find Okey Dokey. We found out that we had to go through the large souvenir market to the other side where many more taxi drivers were waiting. We saw a man holding a black and white Okey Dokey sign but we were unsure whether to go with him. I had read about people with fake signs for tour companies so we had to do some checking before going with him. He made a phone call to Charlie Soto and was then able to identify my email address which nobody else would have known. Did I mention this was an amazing day? Our driver's name was Iron. He spoke english well and told us all about Costa Rica as we drove. The minivan that we road in had great air conditioning and Iron even had a cooler with some soda and water for us to enjoy. Iron was flexible about what order we wanted to see the sites. We chose to first do the canal tour. The amazing Iron arranged for us to have our own canal boat so we were able to see all the animals pointed out on the rain forest banks. We saw monkeys, sloths, iguanas and birds on the banks of the "little amazon". Next we headed for the banana plantation. Iron man himself walked us out into the banana farm and expertly explained all about the plants themselves with samples for us to touch and see up close. He then walked us over to the manufacturing area where we saw how the bananas are brought in and processed by the workers. Fascinating! From there, we stopped at a special roadside fruit stand. Iron spoke with the young lady there and then spoke to us about the organic fruit there and how it was very different from the fruit at the Delmonte facility. We all ate an organic banana and sample Costa Rican pineapple. So much better than the can! From there we headed for the zip line park called Cedar Valley. Iron came with us to the counter and spoke to the cashier about our package so the did not charge us, but instead took us right to the gear to get suited up. (Incidentally, we never had to pay a single penney until we were returned to the cruise dock!) Back to the zip lines. The guides put all of the gear on and then gave us a quick lesson on how to ride the zip lines. It seemed simple enough and they assured us that they would make it all as easy possible. We were driven by a large tractor pulling a wagon up the side of a mountain. Even this part was scary because the trail for the tractor is narrow and made of dirt and rocks. It looked like we could spill over the edge of the mountain at any moment. When we reached the first tree stand, we climbed a rope staircase. At the top, the guide hooked our equipment to the line. The first stand was way above the rain forest. It was absolutely terrifying. That next stand is long ways away. After being caught by the guide there, I immediately looked around for a way to end this adventure. There was no escape and I had to continue by flying a above a river of white water rapids. My 10 year old son was shaking with fear, screaming and crying. We just had to be done. After flying above the river I immediately told the guide at that stand that my son and I were done. After asking if I was sure ten times, he called a car to come get us. My husband and daughter were excited to continue on. Crazy people! The SUV ride down the mountain was just as exciting as the tractor pull to the top. Back on the flat ground, they had small gift shop with complimentary coffee. It was delicious! Iron recommended a brand and later took us to a local grocery store (not a tourist gift shop) to get some real Cost Rican bags of coffee. Once the crazy members of the family returned from the rest of their zip line adventure, Iron drove us to the beach. Since the local schools were on a break, there were many local children. We played in the water and sand. Some beach hawkers rented us a lounge chair and a boogie board for $5. There was a small Spanish restaurant on the beach. Iron ordered us all a traditional chicken dinner with rice and beans. The cost was also included in our package. We all sampled, but by this time, it was close to dinner on the ship. This day was priceless and worth beyond what we paid. If you go to Costa Rica, you must request Iron through Okey Dokey tours. Since the timing was our choice, there was never a worry about getting back to the ship on time. I can't recommend this experience highly enough. Skip the high priced Carnival offerings and do this!
Our next day in Panama was also educational and experience my children would never have learned from a book in school. Leaving the ship at the docks, we found the taxi drivers much more aggressive than the other ports. There is only a small grouping of souvenir stores there. Security is abundant for good reason. We again decided to skip the Carnival offerings for a taxi ride to the Gatun Locks and a car tour of the city. We spoke to a taxi driver and a taxi manager intervened pushing us to go with the driver we spoke to. My guess is this is to avoid pitting drivers against each other in negotiations. We had chosen a middle aged driver and I was later very glad because there are no stop lights or traffic rules in Panama. It is a game of chicken on the roads and whoever gets their nose our first goes. I think the more experienced driver was a good idea. Manuel was our driver. He English was limited but he tried hard to give us some facts about the area. First we went to the locks. The admission to the locks is $5. They have a large viewing platform that gets pretty crowded so you have plant yourself in a spot if you want to get pictures. We were lucky that large container ship was entering the lock as we arrived. It took about 20 minutes for the ship to pass through the first lock so I have about 300 pictures of the whole process. Manuel waited with the air conditioned van and then took us to Lake Gatun, the manmade lake that feeds the lock and where all the ships wait. It is a beautiful view. Manuel took us to see another view of the lake from a hotel that was once a fort. It had beautiful swimming pools but I am not sure why it was a stop on our tour. My guess is the hotel kicks back to the drivers who bring visitors there. We spent some time driving around the city. We found the area to be very impoverished. Government housing was everywhere and was so dilapidated that nobody should have to live like that. It was very depressing. We are so lucky to be born in the USA.
The last days of our cruise were days at sea. Around dinner time on the day we left Panama, the cruise director came on the loud speaker and said that there was another medical emergency on board. The ship doctor and captain had decided the situation was so critical that we were going to make an unplanned trip to Grand Cayman. We arrived in Grand Cayman at around 10pm. A small tender boat came and the ill person was taken on a stretcher to the land. We were in Grand Cayman for only about an hour before we turned to head for Florida again. The next day at sea we heard the familiar announcement of "Operation Brightstar, operation brightstar, operation brightstar" over the PA system. After the other two medical emergencies, we knew what this meant. I don't know how the third situation turned out, but we did not appear to make any more changes to our itinerary.
The Carnival Freedom is beautiful ship. Once we were sailing, the people spread out and it did not feel over crowded. On other cruises, we have really enjoyed the shows. We sailed two years ago on the Triumph and we were very disappointed that the shows on the Freedom were the exact same shows. We were glad that Carnival added the nightly comedy club shows so we had an option. Unfortunately, we did not really like the comedians that were onboard. They just were not very funny. I tire quickly of penis jokes and masturbation jokes during the R rated shows and I just don't think these particular comedians had enough material for the family rated shows. It seemed they were just killing time on stage.
Our trip on the Carnival Freedom was definitely my favorite cruise so far. Of four Carnival cruises and Royal Caribbean cruise we know we still enjoy cruising. In the last 15 years Carnival has cut back on some services. Lido deck food was very repetitive, there is no grand buffet anymore. Since Carnival has added the Sun King Steakhouse, I don't think the regular menus are including as many good steak entrees. I really miss the Beef Wellington. They did however offer several very good seafood options. Camp Carnival and Circle C instructors can't be thanked enough. How they get kids who don't know each other at all to bond in such a short time is miraculous. If my children do not have fun, I know I will not have fun and I can say for sure that all of us had lots of fun!
The itinerary for this cruise was much different than our other cruises. Eastern Caribbean islands offer beautiful villas, shops and scenery. This trip offered much more. We learned history, earth science and a lot about how people live. I worried a lot about taking my children out of school for a cruise. I have no regrets. They learned more in 8 days than they could in a whole school year. I will keep traveling on Carnival for our family vacations. It is a great way to control costs and have the time of our lives!