It has been several years since my family and I have taken a cruise vacation. We have traveled on NCL (3), Carnival (1), Princess (2) and I sailed on the Dolphin II back in the 80s. My husband (when we are in Canada and several states) and I are in our 40s and our 2 boys are 10 and 12 years old.
We live in Minnesota and flew to West Palm Beach (PBI) the day before embarkation. I'm a bargain shopper and I discovered that the flights to PBI were $130 less per person than flights to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. We rented a car with Avis. We stayed at the Hilton Suites Boca Raton and the rate was $109 and included cooked to order breakfast. It was close to shopping and restaurants. The hotel was okay for a day or two, but I probably wouldn't want to stay there longer.
It is finally embarkation day and we are all very excited, especially the boys. We were up early, so we decided just to head out to Port Everglades. It was about a 25 minute drive from Boca Raton to Ft. Lauderdale. We returned the rental car to the Ft. Lauderdale airport and expected a shuttle to take us to the port. An agent informed me that Avis didn't provide a shuttle to the port. I know I have used one in the past, but I wasn't going to let a $15 taxi ride ruin my day.
We arrived at the port at 1015 am just as they opened the doors for the waiting area - we were in group 1. My boys waited more patiently than I expected and we happily boarded the ship at 1145am. I took the boys and our carry on bags to the room, while my husband went to the Sanctuary to get our seats for the week. Sorry to those of you that arrived after us, we got the last 2 spaces - one in the sun and one in the shade (exactly what we wanted).
In the past, we have stayed in family or balcony staterooms; however, this time we tried an inside cabin to see if we could handle it. Our room was Dolphin 511 and it was very cozy (yes, I mean small). There was enough space for us to change, sleep and it provided a place if one of the boys needed some down time. I was worried about the room smelling like smoke, but it did not. I did not notice any smoking odors in the hallways either. We were able to save money on the cabin, so we had more to spend on activities and the Sanctuary.
We got the Ultimate Kids Package for the kids - it was $7 per day plus tax. We got the soda card - don't remember the exact price but under $5 per day. Power hour drink specials were from 4-7pm on port days. Pina Coladas, Singapore Slings, Strawberry Daiquiris and some of the beers were $2.99.
The ship was very nice and well maintained. The staff members were pleasant and friendly. I finally managed to navigate around the ship by day 6, but I still had to look out at the ocean to determine if I was headed forward or aft. The husband pointed out to me that in the stateroom hallways the blue carpeting with blue trim was starboard and the blue carpeting with red trim was port. This was very helpful information since I had to look for a sign or odd/even numbers to know if I was on the port side or starboard side.
There was an unpleasant sewage odor most of the trip. I noticed it while we were still in port and I just assumed it was a smell coming from the port area. Nope. It remained the entire trip. It was most noticeable in the pool areas. I hope that is remedied soon.
The ship felt really crowded. Maybe it is because I wanted to be places when everyone else wanted to be there too. There were many children on the ship - most of them very well behaved. My boys attended the kids program, Shockwaves and they enjoyed their time there. My 10 year old enjoyed it most, he would rather be there than anywhere else on ship. He was also quite fond of table tennis. My 12 year old enjoyed it as well - he is about 1 month from being 13 and was disappointed he wasn't able to join the teen activities. On sea days the boys went to Shockwaves 3 times a day and shore days they went after dinner most evenings. I asked my 10 year old if he liked the kids program on Carnival or Princess better - he prefers Princess (although he wishes they had waterslides).
We had traditional early seating in the Botticelli dining room. We sat at a table for 8 and our dining companions also had 2 children. We had a really nice time and our kids got along very well. My boys were more adventurous with their menu selections and tried more new things than I expected. It was definitely a fun experience. Our waiter and assistant waiter were very accommodating and the food was enjoyable. We went to breakfast in the dining room 1 time, but with the boys anxious to get the day started, Horizon Court worked out best. The choices in the HC were fine, but it was almost the same thing every day. For lunch it was pizza, burgers, international cafe or Horizon Court. I'm not a big pizza fan, but I love thin crust pizza and the pizza on the Crown was great.
The problem with early seating for dinner - after we picked up the kids from Shockwaves at 10pm - we found ourselves in Horizon Court or Cafe Caribe having a 2nd dinner.
We tried the Crown Grill one time and that dining experience took longer than we expected. We had almost a 45 minute wait from appetizers/salads until main course. I had steak and my husband had veal. It was good, but it really wasn't worth the wait or the extra expense. Honestly, the steak I had in the Botticelli dining room on day 6 was better. However, I had the best dessert of the entire trip at the Crown Grill. I had the molten chocolate, fudge something with ice cream. Made my day.
We didn't get a chance to see the entire ship or do everything we wanted to do. There was an LGBT gathering every day at 515pm, we were unable to attend - getting 4 people ready for 6pm dinner takes quite a while. We attended 2 shows in the Princess Theater (Destination Anywhere and Motown) and wished we hadn't. We saw Ray Coussins in one of the lounges and he was quite entertaining. We went to MUTS one night to see The Tourist. The seat saving going on there was ridiculous.
Sanctuary. Enjoyed it thoroughly. Did I use it as much as I would have liked? No. Would I book it again? Yes.
Grand Cayman. I booked a trip with Stingray Sailing. We were in one of the first tender groups and were on the island about 745am. We met Captain Chip and headed to his Catamaran about 815am. There were 30 people on this trip, but it didn't seem crowded. He and his family (Buster and Michelle) are very personable and knowledgeable. My boys were uncomfortable around the stingrays. Eventually, with encouragement from Chip, my 12 year old fed and interacted with the Stingrays. The Catamaran can go to places on the sand bar that are shallow, so we were able to avoid the majority of the crowds. There was also a stop for snorkeling along the reef. The water was pretty rough that day, so it was difficult for my kids to snorkel there. Captain Chip put up the sails on the return trip and had complementary water and fruit and he also beverages for sale. Nice trip, I highly recommend Stingray Sailing.
Roatan. I booked the Fantasy Island trip through Island Marketing (about $100 cheaper than through Princess). Roatan did not look like it did when I visited in 1997 - Mahogany Bay reminded me of an amusement park. Our driver was Sovony, she was waiting for us out of the complex and up the hill. She gave us information about the island on our way to the resort. The trip included snorkeling and kayaking. We were able to pick out our place on the beach (the other larger tours that came had to sit in certain areas). We had a nice section of beach all to ourselves. The beach was nice and it was a calm protected bay area. I wouldn't want to stay at this resort, but it was great for the day. The snorkeling was okay, we saw many conchs. It was possible to snorkel out to the reef, but there was boat and seaplane traffic - so it was a little dangerous. There were 3 kayaks and my 10 year old spent most of his time in one of them. There were large iguanas and a monkey on the island. The monkey was quite fond of my 10 year old and played with him for a while. Sovony waited for us and took us back to the ship when we were ready. When we returned to Mahogany Bay, we did a little shopping and stopped at Fat Tuesdays before returning to the ship.
Cozumel. I booked Nachi Cocom through Island Marketing. We took our time getting ready and going to breakfast. We grabbed a taxi at 930am and headed to the resort. The taxi was $15 each way and took about 15 minutes. The resort was very nice - there was a pool and a large stretch of beach. It looked like they were about at maximum capacity, but there was still plenty of room and did not seem crowded. I tried a few of the drinks, like the mamasita (tasty), but then just went with Corona and Dos Equis. There were quite a few kids, so my little darlings had others to play with. My 10 year old played in the sand, building castles and collecting shells, while my oldest rented snorkel gear ($17) and spent his time face down in the water. Not great snorkeling there, but he didn't mind. I didn't care for the food, but I'm a fairly picky eater - my kids didn't care for it either. We stayed until about 230pm and a taxi was ready to take us back.
Princess Cays. I didn't have anything planned for this day - just a beach day. We didn't rush to get a tender. We had a nice breakfast then packed the beach bag. The place is very nice. The place is also very crowded. We found some chairs, one in the sun and one in the shade. My 10 year old played in the sand and my 12 year old was face down in the water looking at fish. The snorkeling area was okay. The buffet lines were long the entire time it was open. I waited in line with my 12 year old for 45 minutes so he could get food. We decided to head back at 130pm to avoid the long lines for the tender ride back. I don't think the beach day was worth the hassle of the tender ride and the crowds. I think next time I'll stay on the ship.
Customs was a little weird - even though one Customs Form was required per family, we had to complete 2 forms. I put the kids on my form and my husband went through solo. My kids were bothered that we all couldn't go through customs together (so was I). We had to explain, once again, that the U.S. government does not recognize our family. It doesn't change the fact that we are a family, just a reminder that things still need to change.
It was a great vacation. The weather was perfect with sunny days and high temperatures of about 80 degrees. It was a nice change from the snowy, cold winter we had. And yes, as a matter of fact, I did buy future cruise credits so I can start planning my trip for next Spring Break!