Month: April 2018

The Back-to-Back Cruise Experience

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As a back-to-back cruiser on the Carnival Pride this month, I wanted to share the process, what it felt like, and tips related to the back-to-back cruising experience. It was tremendous fun, and definitely something I would highly recommend!

We booked two seven-day cruises back to back on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore, Maryland on April 8. The first week, the ship was sailing to Bermuda for a three-night overnight stay. The second week the itinerary included day stops in Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos and Princess Cays and Freeport in the Bahamas.

Nothing differed from the single cruise experience until four days into the first cruise, when a letter was delivered to the cabin inviting us to proceed to the Atrium on disembarkation day to join other back-to-back cruisers in being personally escorted off the ship, through immigration, and back on the ship again. The letter informed us that if we had the same cabin reserved (we did) that packing was not necessary. (If you were assigned a different cabin, the letter advised that the steward would be happy to help relocate your belongings.) On the last night, we did not pack, and simply relaxed and slept in followed by a leisurely breakfast. We proceeded to the Atrium at the appointed time (after the other cruisers had left the ship) where an employee took all five of us to an immigration officer who checked our passports and released us back to the ship. It took all of ten minutes. (I have to admit, it was a guilty pleasure watching other guests exit the ship and navigate long lines while we relaxed looking forward to the upcoming week!) Once back on the ship, a special “back-to-back” photo was taken of the group and we were treated to free mimosas at the bar. Perhaps the best part of the day, however, was the ability to have the ship to ourselves for about 45 minutes. It was quite a while before large groups started boarding, since VIPs were allowed aboard first in small groups. Rather than waiting until 2:00pm to visit our stateroom, we were of course free to return to our stateroom at any time. We later found out that the back-to-back photo was to be provided to us free of charge.

The second week proceeded as usual. We were very pleased that many of the staff members we had encountered the first week remembered us and acknowledged us as back-to-back guests. We received our luggage tags and packed with everyone else on the last night, and disembarked as usual. But we were thrilled to have had a full extra week! We had a lot of time to really get to know the ship as well as to explore several different ports. The staff really made us feel special, like pampered, VIP guests!

Of course, we could have simply taken a fourteen day cruise, but it would have been a different experience. That spoiled feeling from getting special treatment, unique from other guests, would have been absent. On the other hand, instead of returning to the home port halfway through we could have traveled further. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. But I recommend the back-to-back experience at least once.

If you decide to book a back-to-back, I recommend these tips:

  • Try to arrange for a back-to-back with two different itineraries, so you are not visiting the same ports twice.
  • Request the same cabin for both cruises so that you don’t need to pack up and have your belongings moved to a new cabin mid-trip.
  • Fully unpack on the first day! I often don’t fully unpack on shorter cruises because I’m not sure if I’m going to need everything and re-packing is such a hassle. But I was glad I fully unpacked this time – I had easy access to everything without worrying about packing again within a week.
  • Enjoy greater flexibility in your activity schedule, but don’t assume the exact same shipboard activities will be available the following week. On our trip, two different comedians boarded the ship for the second week. Some shows were repeated and others were not. The evening movies were the same. If there’s something you really want to do, don’t assume it will be repeated on the second cruise – but if you do miss it the first time around watch for it again because there is a good chance it will be.

I hope you will have the opportunity to experience a back-to-back cruise (or that you already have!) Blog posts related to these cruises will be available in the upcoming weeks.

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Harvest Caye, Belize: Port, and Excursion (More Wildlife “Bore” than Wildlife “Tour”!)

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The Grand Finale port of the Norwegian Dawn’s Western Caribbean cruise was Harvest Caye, Belize. I was amazed by the size of the port and number of amenities available. There are multiple huge beaches with an ample source of brightly hued blue and yellow lounge chairs and umbrellas, a gigantic pool with swim-up bar, the usual (only more of it!) shopping and restaurants, and a number of adventure sporting activities including parasailing and zip-lining.

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We enjoyed a local percussion band while we awaited our excursion. Sold by the description indicating there would be manatees to see on this wildlife tour, I was eagerly awaiting our departure. We boarded a small boat that sailed into an area called the “mangroves,” a kind of coastal swamp with trees forming bundles of dense, tangled roots. Apparently this setting is favored by much of the native wildlife, including manatees.

 

We saw several different varieties of birds, and some creepy jellyfish, but I did not see a manatee. A few poked their noses out of the water – and otherwise stayed submerged. I know – a wildlife tour is no “guarantee” that you’re going to see wildlife… but it’s still disappointing, especially when the brochure shows the full body of a manatee as an enticement… It did not seem as though they liked coming up out of the water. All in all, it ended up being the least enjoyable cruise excursion I’ve ever been on. I think I will probably avoid these wildlife tours in the future, because of the potential for this problem. When you’ve only got a limited amount of time in a place, like at a cruise port, you want to make the most of it and not risk a bust. This was supposed to be a wildlife “tour,” but it turned out to be more of a wildlife “bore.” The only manatee I saw was the carved wooden one outside of the entrance to the tour.

 

That said, I still ended up having an amazing time, because the port had a lot to offer and I had time when we returned to enjoy it (though, regrettably, we did not spend a full day in Belize.) I immediately headed for the beach to soak in the incredible view of palm trees blowing in the wind, a beautiful lighthouse in the distance, people playing volleyball on the beach, and zip-liners and parasailers zooming, and floating, by above. It was a gorgeous day basking in the sun, and listening to the crystal clear water splashing up onto the beach.

 

Like many cruise ports, the shops here were touristy and pricey… but still fun to explore (especially the free tastings at the chocolate and rum shops…) The chocolate was out of this world – especially the chili and coffee flavored varieties. Enough so that I was determined to take my chances and try to make it back to the ship with some, through the 80s degree heat, hoping it wouldn’t melt before I could get back!

Harvest Caye was definitely worth future visits – but next time with a different kind of excursion. In the meantime, I hope they introduce a jaguar preserve excursion, which I was hoping to find this time but no such luck! (I’m sure the other cat lovers out there will completely get behind this request!)

Here’s the YouTube video from my channel covering this port!:

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Roatan, Honduras: Dolphin Encounter & Port Tour 2018!

Roatan, Honduras was the third port stop on our Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean cruise. There are multiple ports on Roatan, and this one appeared to be Norwegian-specific. It was a very small port with expensive shopping, restaurants… and excursions. And I would definitely go out on a limb and say definitely plan an excursion of some kind if you are docking here. The port can be seen entirely, at a leisurely pace, in about a half hour. Of course, there’s always the option of just sitting, soaking in the sun, listening to the musicians, or people-watching over a coconut latte coffee (delicious!), ice cold Corona, or giant plate of chicken nachos… (somehow they’re just not the same on the ship!)

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Fortunately, I had an excursion reserved: the Dolphin Encounter. Now I know that objections have come up to this activity. But not all companies that run this activity are created equal. This excursion was run by the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. The dolphins are not tracked by gps or otherwise, are allowed to swim free, have lots of wide-open space in a rural environment, and return by choice after venturing out. They also are not forced to do anything, and only interact with people when they feel like it. I shared the ethical dilemma some others feel about this activity, and because of that I made sure to visit one which treated the dolphins humanely. If you feel the way I do, you may want to visit this particular one, or one like it, to experience a dolphin encounter.

The other major advantage of taking this excursion here is the fact that you are allowed to use your own camera. You do not have it the whole time – your “one-on-one” with the dolphin is photographed by their professional photographer. But both photography and filming are allowed for the majority of the encounter. Several other companies do NOT allow you to film or photograph. I was very pleased with the photos they took and chose to order them to keep along with the footage I captured myself.

We were divided into smaller groups, each with our own dolphin and trainer to interact with. My group’s dolphin was named “Polli.” It was a thrilling experience to interact with her! She was very talkative and playful throughout the visit. She showed us some fast swimming, jumps, and “moon-walking” on the water’s surface. The trainer told us about the dolphins and how they are cared for. It was both fascinating and exciting! But that was nothing compared to the ultimate experience of the day: petting, hugging, and getting kissed by the dolphin! It was honestly one of the most memorable, cherished experiences I have ever had.

There was also a swimming with the dolphins option, which requires full submersion in the water and the donning of required gear (which is provided). Here you even get to interact with the dolphins underwater. I passed on this due to a shortage of swimming skill and due to the significantly higher cost, but it is something you may want to consider.

You can see video footage of this adventure on my YouTube channel!:

Costa Maya, Mexico: Segway Adventure Excursion, Town, & Port

Stop two on the Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean itinerary was Costa Maya, Mexico. Though touristy, I was impressed by the size of the port, and the attempt made to emulate the colonial style in architecture and layout. Surrounded by bright, pastel buildings complimenting the abundant sunshine highlighting them, it felt like paradise. Upon arriving at the port, we were welcomed by brilliantly-colored-costumed local performers.

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A warm welcome!

I signed up for the “Segway Adventure” excursion, and it was to be my first attempt using a Segway. Despite poor balance and osteoarthritis, I found the Segway extremely easy to control, and great fun! I wished I’d had more shock-absorbent shoes, because something about the motor under your feet is a little bit of a strain on them, but it did not impede on my enjoyment too much. After a short training session and feeling very comfortable on the Segway, we were off and into town!

We rolled through a long stretch of town parallel to the beach (don’t think I would have wanted to try to walk it – it was very spread out!), lined with alfresco dining opportunities, street vendors, stores and bars, and more masseuses offering massages than I’d ever seen in my life! (Sorry, Atlantic City Boardwalk!) It was the epitome of hedonism, all of this indulgence on massage tables, listening to the waves crash on the shore, sun-drenched skin, and an abundance of blissful smiles.

Others opted for water sports and swimming in the refreshing, aqua ocean waters, glistening in the mid-day sun as if crystals were floating upon it. The beach area did not extend far into land because of all of the other services on the beach, but it was very long so there was room for everyone. The Segway tour included a post-Segway “Beach Break,” during which I wandered up and down the street and beach, greeting locals in Spanish, and getting hassled by street vendors…

The scenery was beautiful, and the Segway was a marvelous way to take it all in. We were able to cover a lot of ground quickly while enjoying the soft, warm breeze on our faces (and a quick getaway from the more aggressive street vendors!)

Costa Maya is definitely a port to which I would love to return. Granted, it may not be the most authentic experience, and I probably saw as many tourists as locals (if not more) during the stop here, but it was fun nonetheless and the amazing scenery provided an excellent explanation why the place has become so attractive to tourists. It is very clean, well-maintained, and abundant with relaxing things to do, and I look forward to my next visit!

Please visit my YouTube channel for video footage of this stop:

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Cozumel, Mexico: Horseback Ride through Mayan Ruins & Port

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Horses for waiting for the Mayan Ruins ride

Continuing from last week’s blog post, today I have the first port and excursion of the Norwegian Dawn spring break cruise: at Cozumel, Mexico. When I found an excursion that included a horseback ride through Mayan ruins I was sold – I love horseback riding and Mayan ruins! So I thought I’d hit the jackpot there!

The port at Cozumel is huge! There is a lot of shopping, a pool, lots of restaurants, fish pedicures…(!) The downside is that it feels a bit like a tourist trap and feels extremely commercial. So, while I had fun walking around, and definitely had fun listening to the Mariachi band welcoming people off the ship, I didn’t partake in the shopping here.

 

Of course, the real highlight of Cozumel was the horseback ride excursion. Admittedly, the Mayan ruins were somewhat underwhelming in their size, but still very interesting. They consisted of ruined buildings, statues, caves, and similar artifacts. The wooded area was peaceful and, other than the ruins, untouched nature. The horses were very friendly and well-behaved (for the most part…!), and the ride lasted a very satisfying hour. My horse was more interested in food than the Mayan ruins… he was quite the gourmand and intent on giving me the “culinary” tour! Once the ride finished, we returned to the stables for some very rainbow color inspired shopping (at better prices than the port) and a trip to a beautiful rocky beach with a small bar and very relaxing hammocks.

 

There are a lot of activities to enjoy in Cozumel. This was my second visit, and, again, I had to make a decision between many, many choices of what to do. (I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum last time.) I would say the Mayan ruins (the BIG ones!) are definitely a must on the first visit – but the horseback ride was a very fun second choice! One thing I would not want to do in Cozumel? Stay at the port (for the reasons discussed above!)

I posted a vlog on this visit to Cozumel on my YouTube channel:

 

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I am extremely grateful for your generous donation to help keep the site running! This site and individual posts are not sponsored, and I receive no wage or salary!

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More coming from Mexico next week, this time from Costa Maya!