First a quick overview: We are a family of three from MN, me (37), DH (44), and DD (16), and this was our first cruise ever. We splurged for a Grand Suite for the 1/9/11 Freedom of the Seas W. Caribbean sailing.
Flew into MCO 1/8, arriving at 11:30 that morning. Had reservations for a HERTZ rental, so we headed there after getting our luggage. Small issue when we went to get our vehicle - the agent sent us to the wrong HERTZ garage (terminal B instead of terminal A). Easy fix though, they drove our vehicle over to us from the other garage. We splurged for the SUV and were happy with what we got for around $100.
Drove out of Orlando and to Port Canaveral. On the way, we stopped at Wal-Mart in Cocoa in order to buy the things we needed but didn't want to have to fly from home. Before we left home, I had searched for the location of a Wal-Mart on the way to Port Canaveral, so I had an address which we were able to punch into our phones for directions.
We had a room booked at Radisson at the Port, but had time to kill before checking in. We drove around the port to see the ships that were there - the newest Disney ship was there along with the Norwegian Sun and Carnival Dream. After that, we headed to Milliken's for an early dinner, and to watch the ships leave port. Sat outside where they had live music playing which was nice. Food was good, and atmosphere was also good. Watched the Carnival ship leave port and then headed to our hotel.
Hotel was nice, and we had no complaints. Took us awhile to figure out how to get to our room, but that could have been due to our being tired after traveling all day. Room was fine, with a double sink and very nice shower. The beds were sleep number beds, and we managed to make them passable, but we never quite mastered getting them to the comfortable level.
For breakfast on 1/9, we ate at the hotel's buffet. The service was great, but the buffet was just ok. We had to wait over 10 minutes at the omelet station, and the food on the actual buffet was cold. It was convenient, but that was the extent of it. We actually found a great bagel place in Cocoa when we returned to port on 1/16, and that is where we'd end up going next time for breakfast before embarkation. Yes, there will be a next time.
After breakfast, we returned our vehicle to HERTZ. The returning process was very easy. They were located just a couple of blocks from our hotel and then it was just a few minutes by shuttle to the port. We tipped the porters $20, but probably didn't need to since our shuttle driver just unloaded all of the luggage (there were a couple of other families on the shuttle with us) and the porters then took it all to one of the carts. We were in line for check-in by 11am.
Check-in was a breeze. Things seemed to be very organized and simple. From the second we got in line to when we stepped onto the ship, things were very easy. Because we were in a suite, we got priority boarding, so we were in the first group to board. I think we were on the ship by around 11:45.
Next, I'll cover the rest of embarkation day, our suite, and the first day at sea.
EXPLORING THE SHIP/FIRST SEA DAY:
Once we got onto the ship, we wandered around and explored the ship. We headed to deck 4 and then the helipad and then deck 5 to check out the promenade. Next we went to deck 11 where the Windjammer is located. Until then, we hadn't been among the crowds, but once we got to deck 11 it was pretty crazy. Most people were heading to eat at the Windjammer, but we weren't hungry since we'd eaten a late breakfast. We headed outside to the pool deck and indulged in a pina colada ($8 a piece, but we didn't care). Lounged pool side until 1:00 and then we went to our room. Pool area and solarium were very nice and not too crowded.
Our luggage wasn't in our room yet, but once our suite attendant knew we were there and looking for our luggage, she dug out all of our luggage and delivered it to us quickly. We had placed a luggage tag on a case of water with our fingers crossed that it would make it to our room, and it did! We unpacked a little and spent some time on the balcony until the muster drill at 4:00.
We had MTD and 8:30 reservations, so after muster we ordered room service for a snack. We finished unpacking and then headed to the Welcome Aboard show in the Arcadia theatre. The highlight of the show was the aerial act (can't remember their name) - absolutely amazing!!
Next we headed to dinner on deck 5 (all MTD is here). We ended up requesting this same table each night for rest of the cruise and enjoyed the awesome service of the same group of staff each night. We had noted on our MTD preferences that we'd like a table of up to 8 people, with the same people each night. Not sure how things are determined with MTD, but we ended up eating with just the 3 of us each night. This was fine for us, and most nights the people in the tables around us were the same, so we talked to them but also got to have the time as a family. With this being our first cruise, this was a good fit for us - having family time but familiar neighbors and consistent waitstaff.
Food: we didn't have high expectations since we'd read plenty of reviews here on CC. We found the food to be just fine. I would say we felt the food was generally above average. I had the Indian dish a couple of nights and thought it was good. DH had seafood several nights and liked it except for thinking the salmon was fishy tasting. For the most part we thought the desserts were excellent. We ate at Portofino one night and thought the food was excellent. We didn't care for the service at Portofino, but that may have been simply because we clicked so well with our MTD waitstaff.
First sea day: Woke up to coffee from room service and then went to breakfast at Portofino. Wandered through shops on promenade then went to the Meet & Mingle which was well attended. Later I went to "Sudoku challenge" which was fun. DH went to the blackjack tourney in the casino and DD and I found a chair on the pool deck to catch some rays. Enjoyed the sexy legs competition. Pool deck was really windy! That evening, we attended Once Upon a Time in the Arcadia theatre and really enjoyed the show. This was formal night, and it was nice to see the many people that took this seriously and dressed nicely.
Our thoughts on our suite: Nice size room with plenty of space. Lots of closet space and drawers for all of our stuff. The bathroom was very nice, with a full tub and shower (shower was very nice), and two sinks. Plenty of space for storage too. One perk we noticed with the suite is that we had pool towels in our room, so we didn't have to deal with checking them in/out on deck.
Overall, we were really happy with our suite and the extras that came with it like the CL and concierge services. We enjoyed happy hour in the CL. Full breakfast service was open for suite guests in Portofino each morning, and we took advantage of that each day to order omelets and eggs. There was also a small buffet right in Portofino with fruit, muffins, muesli, etc. And, on the last sea day we were able to tour the bridge. All-in-all with nothing with which to compare our room experience to, we walked away with only positive things to say.
Next, I'll cover our days in Labadee & Ocho Rios.
On Tuesday (1/11) we were in Labadee, Haiti. We woke up as the ship was approaching Haiti. The island is beautiful. We grabbed breakfast at Portofino and were off the ship by 9am. DH & DD had zipline tickets for the 9:30 group and had to check-in at 9:15, so we went right there. By the time it was all said and done, I think they didn't get done with the zipline until close to 11. They both loved it. DH was pretty nervous and has some fear of heights, but he said it was awesome. They both thought that the practice zipline that you go on before the real deal was scarier than the big one. Both of them would definitely do it again.
After the zipline we started walking toward Barefoot Beach where we had rented a cabana. We asked for directions and were pleasantly surprised to be told we would be driven there in a golf cart. We learned that if you rent a cabana you basically can get around anywhere you want via golf cart (they call them limos - ha!). We aren't averse to walking, but it was pretty hot (85ish I think), so the perk of being driven around was appreciated.
We had rented one of the over-water cabanas (W3), and were escorted to the cabana and introduced to Franklin was our cabana attendant for the day. We really enjoyed the use of the cabana and having it over the water. We spent quite a bit of time floating around on floaties in the water. The water was pretty cold, but you got used to it after a bit - plus it was so hot it was a welcome feeling. We enjoyed the lunch buffet, and then went to do a little shopping in the straw market.
I was not expecting the vendors to be so absolutely completely pushy. I have experience straw markets in Cancun and Cozumel (and the next day in Ocho Rios), and the vendors in Labadee were by far the most aggressive I've ever seen. It was overwhelming and we finally gave up and got a "limo" back to the beach. We ended up buying several items, but I think we would have purchased more if we could have had a chance to stop and look at things without being bombarded. DH discussed this with some of the Haitians once we were back at the beach, and the impression they gave is that there is so much competition between the vendors who pay rent for their spaces to RCI, that this adds to their aggressiveness.
DH & DD headed off to the roller coaster, and I took a nap in the cabana while catching some sun. The coaster was enjoyable, according to DH & DD, but nothing super spectacular. Once they got back from their coaster run, we had just a little longer until we needed to get back to the ship. We left the beach around 3:30 and were back on the ship within 15 minutes or so.
Before the "Now You See It" show, we grabbed some Ben & Jerry's and headed to the internet lounge on deck 8 in order to quickly check on our dog, let DD post a quick status on facebook, etc. We got ready for dinner and stopped into the CL (which we did every night before dinner). Before dinner we went to the illusionist show in the Arcadia theatre, which was very good.
Since this was our anniversary, we had reservations at Portofino for dinner. Without going into much detail I will sum this up by saying the food was superb, but we missed our team of waitstaff from MTD. I don't think we'd go there again unless we desperately needed a change of menu. We plan to try Chops next time.
By this time we were exhausted from a long day in the sun, so we headed to bed!
This got to be so long, I am going to split things up and will write a separate post about Ocho Rios tomorrow.
On Wednesday (1/12) we were docked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We woke this day as well, as we were docking, headed to breakfast and then got off the ship around 9:45. Our itinerary had originally included Falmouth, but this had been changed to Ocho Rios the week before we left. We had a four hour tour booked with Marva Shaw's KnowJamaica, that was applicable to either Falmouth, Ocho Rios, or Montego Bay, so when we switched to Ocho Rios it was not an issue.
We walked off the ship and let the workers know that we had a tour with Marva Shaw. We were escorted to the waiting area with a couple of other groups. We ended up having to wait 20-30 minutes before a van/bus came for all of us. The wait was a little long, and I don't know if that was a result of the port's organization or our tour's organization. But I will say that with that many people coming into port at once (there was a Ryndam ship there too), I don't think it's out of line for it to take that long to get everyone situated.
Once our bus arrived we were driven a quick couple of minutes (in a/c thank you!!) to an area where Marva had the individual groups broken down into their separate vans and busses and placed with their tour guides. This was all very organized!! We ended up having Marva as our guide. We were supposed to have her son Javia as our guide, but he had sprained his ankle and wasn't able to drive.
I will try to outline our day in Ocho Rios without babbling on and on! We had the Irie Jam Private Tour, which meant that it was DH, DD, and I with Marva in a minivan. After we booked the tour, I had communicated with Marva via email (she is very on top of that!!) and given her an idea of what we wanted to do for our tour. When we hopped into the van, we chatted with her briefly to make sure we were all on the same page. We let her know that we wanted to shop for earrings (my anniversary gift) and souvenirs, we wanted to eat a true Jamaican lunch somewhere safe but not too touristy, and we wanted to be able to see some of the neighborhoods of the city.
Marva took us to shop first because she said it'd be busier later - our first shopping area was not the straw market, but rather shops (including Hard Rock Cafe and Harley Davidson, etc). We ended up getting a wonderful price on a pair of earrings for my gift, the Blue Mtn coffee at a decent price ($12/lb), and oodles of souvenirs. Next Marva brought us to lunch at the Jerk Centre. The food was awesome, our bartender was great, and the atmosphere was super.
After lunch, Marva brought us to a shopping area that was a typical straw market. It was away from the port, and I don't think we would have found it one our own or felt comfortable going there on our own for that matter. Marva had a couple of vendors that she put in charge of us to escort us through the stalls and help us to avoid being faced with pushy or aggressive sellers. We wanted to experience the way that a straw market operates (including some pushiness), but it was nice to have a guide/escort to keep things easy for us. I had heard how pushy things would be in Jamaica, and we did not experience that at all.
After shopping at that straw market, Marva took us around neighborhoods, past schools, through Fern Gully, through more neighborhoods, etc for at least an hour. She was in no hurry and didn't care if we went over our four hour tour time. She ended the tour by treating us to coconut and sugar cane, and then brought us safely back to the pier. We were impressed with the professionalism of Marva from the time we booked our tour until she dropped us off at the end. If we return to any of the ports her company serves, I am sure we'll utilize her tour again.
We were back on the ship by 3:15 and I think we ended up taking a quick nap. We also got our second serving of Ben & Jerry's for the week. At 7:00 we attended the ice show which was really good. Definitely a must see. We did not have to get tickets since there are reserved seats for GS and above. This was convenient, but I would say that the reserved area is definitely not the best seats in the house. They were appreciated and worked well for us, but others may want to take the time to get tickets so they have more prime seating.
After the ice show we made it to our 8:00 MTD reservation and enjoyed the service of the same waitstaff we'd had all week up to that point. We were serenaded with a song of Happy Anniversary, since we had not been at dinner the night before on our true anniversary. After dinner DD attempted to do some homework (she was never really successful with that the entire week!), and DH and I hit the casino.
Up next will be the port that was not to be and an overcast day in Cozumel. Thanks for sticking with me through this super long post!!!
GRAND CAYMAN (not really) & THE SPA:
We got up the next morning and I could see that we were south of Grand Cayman. The captain had said that we would be going south of the island and then up the west coast to loop back around to where the ship would "anchor" to allow for tendering into Georgetown. Instead of looping around the island though, the captain came on the announcement system to let us know that we would not be able to stop in Grand Cayman because the port was closed due to weather (basically rough seas).
At the time I wasn't very disappointed because I was getting concerned about tendering and our planned excursion if seas were rough. We had reservations through a private company for stingray swimming and snorkeling. I would have gotten seasick for sure! So when the captain announced that we were missing the stop I was not too upset. In retrospect I am more bummed out because I was looking forward to that excursion quite a bit. But, the weather can't be controlled and I already knew that I wouldn't have enjoyed the excursion with that day's weather. Nothing to be angry about unless I want to curse the weather, and that's a waste. Besides, as it was I spent the day on the ship in slightly rough seas, but still better weather than I would have been experiencing back home in MN.
So, we ended up with an unexpected sea day. A beefed up Cruise Compass was published with additional activities. I made an appointment at the Spa for a massage, and DH and DD spent some time in the arcade and out on deck catching some of the sparse sunshine. That night was the second formal night, and we made it our mission to have our pictures taken at as many of the areas set up by the ship's photographer's as we could. We succeeded in getting a few that we ended up buying, so the marathon was worth it! After dinner we went to the production show in the Arcadia theatre. It was wonderful, as the shows had been all week.
Our spa experiences: My massage appointment on this unexpected sea day was the first of three interactions we had with the spa during our cruise. We had a problem each of those three times. Looking back at it I almost feel like maybe I became a diva or something because how could someone possibly have a complaint about every appointment?? But, no, I do not think I was being a diva!! And actually, out of the entire week, the only negative experience we had was with our spa appointments.
I had an appt for a bamboo massage and was given the wrong massage (hot stone). I had been told I had a credit for the massage from my TA but then when I tried to use it was told it was only for a Swedish massage. The spa manager did make good on this, but between having to argue for the credit I was told I could use and being given the wrong massage, I wasn't impressed.
Second, DD and I had manicure appts at the same time. We wanted to get them together because we are dorky like that. We were told her manicurist was running 10 minutes late, so I stared mine thinking she'd join me soon. In the end, she was a half hour late and DD didn't start her manicure until my nails were under the dryer. I was done about 2 minutes after she started. Again, kind of disappointing because I had asked if I could wait so we could get our manicures done at the same time but was told that most of the time would be in sync.
And finally, DD and I had appointments for the Salon Sampler package on the last sea day. DD's started a half hour before mine, but I was done 20 minutes before her. DD was brought into a private massage room and laid on the comfy bed, while I was told to lean back in a chair and prop my feet on the window ledge (I am NOT kidding - major leg cramps). Apparently, I got the real package, and DD got some bonus stuff because there happened to be an opening in the private room. Cool for my DD really, but it was odd that nobody told us this. If I had not had the real deal we would have thought the Salon Sampler included all of the extras DD got. This one just left us feeling that it was kind of odd that two people had appointments for the same thing but one got 50 minutes longer and a substantially different treatment. Like with the other interactions we had with the spa, I was surprised at the inconsistency and disorganization.
Like I said, the spa provided the only negative experiences of our week. And those were lessons learned. I can't say that I definitely would not use the spa again, but I would be really cautious to make sure everything is recorded correctly and that I understand everything before doing so.
Next we'll visit our final stop - Cozumel. And then sail on home, back to reality!
COZUMEL & THEN THE END:
Cozumel: After our unexpected sea day when we missed out on stopping at Grand Cayman, we were ready for some fun in the sun in Cozumel. That's not quite what we got though! We had booked a day at the beach at Nachi Cocum, including massages and parasailing. When we woke up to cloudy and cool (70s) weather, we decided to play it by ear and see if the sun would power through and make a day at the beach enjoyable. We had planned to shop a little before heading the beach, so we optimistically packed our beach bag and decided to start our day searching for souvenirs.
After getting off of the ship, we looked for a taxi to catch to downtown for shopping. Rather than waiting in line at the terminal for a taxi, we walked down the street a half block or so and were able to quickly catch a cab to take us downtown for shopping. Our cab driver drove like the typical taxi driver you expect to take your life into your hands. Wow! We survived the trip and were delivered to the outskirts of downtown (basically the first area of downtown from the terminal). We dug in a shopped, finding souvenirs and silver jewelry.
In the end, the weather did not improve, and the day even included several quick rain showers. We did not go to the beach, and ended up shopping for a few hours and then eating at a nice restaurant on the main drag (Pepe's I think).
We grabbed a cab back to the terminal and shopped a little more. I was surprised to find that jewelry prices in the store we checked at the terminal were cheaper than they were downtown (even after bartering the downtown prices). We bought a few more souvenirs and then found a table at Senor Frogs (not a lot of open tables!). We spent a couple of hours at Senor Frogs, enjoying the music and the sun when it showed itself.
We were back on the ship a little early because DD was performing as Madonna in the 80s Dance Party that night, so we had to get to dinner early. We were already at dinner when the ship was leaving, so we didn't get to watch the runners. But, we were on our balcony to see the runners for the Mariner which was docked right next to us and left earlier than us. There is definitely an element of entertainment to watching the runners. That evening we attended the Dance Party after dinner. And then we stayed in Studio B for Quest. That was a lot of fun!
Winding down: After Cozumel, we had one final sea day as we sailed back to Port Canaveral. We woke up early, as had been our routine. Every day of the cruise, was we ordered coffee and o.j. from room services and this helped to serve as our wake up call. After relaxing in our room and balcony for an hour or so, we got ready and headed to breakfast in Portofino.
We had been invited to a tour of the bridge that morning, so all three of us attended that. The tour was really interesting and we all enjoyed it. I was almost as interested in seeing the living quarters of the bridge staff that we had to pass by in order to get the bridge!
After the bridge tour, DD and I had our spa appointments that I discussed a few posts back. And then after finishing up at the spa, we met DH on deck and hoped to catch some sunshine. We were not successful in this endeavor! The chairs that were actually in the sun were fully occupied or were so exposed to the wind as to be uncomfortable. We grabbed some chairs in the shade that we thought would eventually get some sun. But after an hour of waiting while covered with towels to stay warm, we gave up!! We had better luck on our balcony getting a little warmth.
Packing occurred on this afternoon, but that's all I want to say about that because that's NOT fun thing to do!! That final evening, we attended the Farewell show, which we enjoyed (especially the aerial act again!). We then went to dinner and enjoyed the awesome service of our waitstaff or the last time. The experience we had for dinner really did add to the satisfaction we had with our cruise!
And that brings our cruise to an end. What a great time we had. The three of us were pretty sure we'd enjoy cruising, and as it turned out we were definitely accurate in that. We are now working on figuring out which cruise we'll book next.