Cruising the Caribbean
My wife and I just returned from a western Caribbean cruise. We landed in three ports. Following are details of our trip including information about the ship and the ports.
We traveled Vancouver – Toronto-Miami via Air Canada. This part of the trip was uneventful and went smoothly. The only potential glitch was a US immigration officer that seemed to want to pick a fight. When we didn’t respond to his taunts and innuendos he stopped his attempts to engage us and grunted us on.
We stayed at the Airport Hilton. Getting there was the part of the trip that was most poorly organized. We seemed to wait forever in the airport for the Greyhound bus that was to pick us. The Carnival crew that was orchestrating the transfer didn’t seem to be anymore knowledgeable as to what was happening than we were.
Our experience at the Hilton was pleasant. We found the people to be helpful. I did speak with one other person whose experience was different. His luggage had not made it through and so he asked the hotel staff for a toothbrush and toiletries. He reports that they were annoyed with his request and were rude to him. He experiences a lot of pain from cancer so he may have been overly sensitive to the responses. We did not see any rudeness or annoyance.
Since we had a few hours before bedtime, we took a taxi out to South Beach and enjoyed the night. The prices there are certainly inflated but we enjoyed ourselves.
Our cruise was with Carnival cruise lines and we were on the Carnival Victory. We left port at 4 PM and spent the next day at sea. Some things became prominent in my mind that day:
(1) This cruise was a party cruise. Entertainment and drinking were the keys. Drinks were pushed on every part of the ship except in the cabin areas. The entertainment was designed to keep people from getting bored and there was entertainment for all ages and likes. There was a karaoke lounge, a lounge with 60’s music, a piano lounge, casino with entertainment, lounge with classical music, a disco, outdoor stage with a live band, bingo, trivia games, shows at night with singers, dancers and comedians, dance lessons provided by the cruise director, video games room for the youth, teen disco, gambling contests, singing contests in the karaoke lounge and dancing on the open deck. There were swimming pools and jazzuci tubs. And there was a lot of sun tanning!!!
Although drinks were pushed, there was not a lot obvious drunkenness or obnoxious behavior. Only once did I see ships officers breakup a situation and that was a fully clothed sex simulation on the open deck. Alcohol was, I believe, a factor.
(2) The ship consisted of many obvious profit centers. I already mentioned the drink pushing. On the price of each drink was added a 15% gratuity so there was incentive for the staff to sell as much as possible. Other profit centers included the casino, bingos, the spa and gift stores. It became obvious that the shore excursions sold on ship provided a kick back to Carnival and these were pushed hard. Also, the Carnival endorsed shops at the ports of call provide a source of revenue for Carnival. Passengers are encouraged to swipe their ship card in these stores. A jewelry store in one of the ports confirmed for me that he pays to Carnival a fee for every passenger that buys from him. Photography appears to be a big profit center. There are photographers are every place and they are in your face a lot. They begin before you even board the ship. Processing takes hours and then the photos are up for display. The photos are not cheap but a lot are sold in the name of memories.
(3) Staff. The staff on the ship are truly international. I remember people from Philippines, Indonesia, Romania, Canada, United States, China and other countries that are now escaping my memory.
(4) Gratuities. Gratuities are added on at two times. The first is 10 dollars per day per passenger added directly to your account. The bulk of this is for cabin staff but some is for dining room servers and a small portion is for miscellaneous and assistants. There was confusion as to whether or not this gratuity constituted the full salary for the cabin staff. We had been told by staff that this was the case – that if the gratuity was not paid there would be no salary. Other people seemed to have different information. So we are not certain about that. The second gratuity is on the drinks as previously mentioned. There is an expectation that passengers will tip the dining room servers and cabin staff as well – but this is not required.
The time on the ship does not need to be expensive if you don’t drink a lot or spend in the gift shops or the other profit centers.
All in all, the time on the ship was fun and relaxing. My wife enjoyed the karaoke (of course, she always does) and was chosen to sing Madonna at the last night entertainment in the main entertainment center.
One interesting outcome of the cruise for us was that we each lost any aches and pains that we previously had. That has caused us to re-evaluate our plans for the future.
We visited three ports of call; each with its own personality and features.
Costa Maya, Mexico
The first noticeable feature of this area as our ship came into dock was the stretching flat coastline with sandy beaches. Behind the coastline was lush green vegetation. The second noticeable feature was a manmade cement encampment that housed commercial establishments. Beer was $9USD per bottle!!! There were conflicting reports as to whether this was constructed by the cruise lines or by the local government. We received both conflicting reports. It did house the shops recommended by the cruise line. It also was fenced off with security guards at the gates. We were advised by people we me in the community outside this area that the local people were not allowed in unless they were going to work.
We did not book a tour on the ship, as was recommended. The tours were heavily pushed on the basis of safety and not being left behind if a tour got back late. The ship would leave without you if you were late and not on a ship booked tour.
We went outside the walls and rented a golf cart for $55USD for the day. Golf carts are allowed to drive on the “streets” and roadways. Four people were allowed per golf cart – otherwise, there was a hefty fine if stopped by the police.
We then spent a wonderful day driving the area. We stopped at different beach areas where Americans and Europeans had purchased the land and build a home and bar. By far, the best was The Women’s Center with Susie. Susie made the best margaritas of anyplace in the world and the company was relaxed and fun. As we were leaving her place, our golf cart broke down. Susie quickly telephoned the owners who came out and replaced the cart.
On the way back to the ship, we saw a young alligator on the road. He was small – maybe two feet long. We stopped and then a local came by and picked him up. We then got to hold him before he was taken to water. That was an exciting experience.
There was a commercial flea market in the town. Prices are very negotiable and most of the items seem genuine. This area has an assortment of setups from one table stands to kiosks to bars and food outlets to massage setups. The merchants were openly inviting but not aggressive.I would buy from here before I would buy from the commercial encampment promoted by the cruise line.
I believe we had much more fun doing our own tour than did the people who paid much more money on the ship. Those who went on prearranged go-carts did not go any place we didn’t go. There were a few people who traveled some of the way we did but most stayed in the commercial encampment or on ship.
Georgetown, Grand Cayman
The second port of call on the cruise was Grand Cayman Islands. So as not to damage the coral reefs, the ships do not dock. They anchor off shore and smaller boats (holding 200 to 300 passengers) transfer the passengers to the island. We arrived on the island shortly after 7 AM so there was little to do except walk around and window shop. Again, we did not book a ship excursion but took our chances on finding excursions once we arrived. Again, we were very happy we did it that way. We hooked up with a private tour. Richard owned the taxi that took us to the boat which he also owned. His wife was doing the marketing onshore and Otis was his employee who took the passengers to Stingray City.
There were 10 people on the little speed boat which passed all the large tour boats on the way. Otis was a real “water rat” and in the water with us feeding the stingrays, showing us how to hold then, putting them on our backs and setting up picture taking scenarios. He was an absolute delight. As I glanced at the large tour boats, I saw a lot of bored people. A few of them actually came to join our group and partake in the fun. There was no boredom in our group. After Stingray City, we stopped at the reef for snorkeling. All the necessary equipment was on board the boat. Again Otis had food to draw in the colorful fish. On the way back, Otis detoured to show us homes of famous people (Bill Gates, Sylvester Stalone) – the ship tours did not do this. He also stopped to look at the lizards and even tried to catch one. This trip was well worth one half the price we would have paid for a ship-sponsored excursion.
One benefit of Georgetown was a store that provided free telephone service (5 minutes per person) and free internet service (15 minutes per person). We were able to call our children back in Canada and make sure everything was all right.
Things are expensive in Georgetown. We did very little shopping but did check out the stores. We had two less than happy experiences in Georgetown. The first was that I left my hat at the dock after arriving back from Stingray City. It was a special hat my daughter had given me and I had become quite attached to it. Both Richard and Otis looked for it after being called but it was not to be found. I grieved its loss for the rest of the trip. The second slightly unpleasant experience was in a restaurant where my wife didn’t receive her food order and the server became rather snotty about it.
Grand Cayman is a wonderful place and we both look forward to returning. Our memories are so wonderful (except for my hat!!!)
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Our third port of call was Ocho Rios. Again we arrived at 7 AM before any stores opened. And again, we did not book a ship-sponsored excursion.
The merchants, taxi drivers, street vendors – anybody trying to do any business at all – are very pushy. They are aggressive and push to the very edge to try to sell to you. At times the situations can be uncomfortable as the aggressive selling borders on intimidation.
Poverty is everywhere and it is understandable that the people wish to get money when the possibility exists.
After walking around for a while we were approached by a taxi driver that we felt comfortable with. Cedric drove us around for two hours and showed us sights that other passengers did not get to see. He talked about the people, the country, politics, schooling, vegetation and so on. He was a taxi driver who became a very knowledgeable tour guide. At the end of our tour, Cedric took us to a store where we could buy the gifts we wanted to take home and introduced us to the clerk. I was suspicious that this was just another way of him getting more money but at the end of the day after we had checked all the other stores, this one gave us the best prices.
We saw two different markets – one was a commercial flea marker selling trinkets, crafts, t-shirts and the like. This appeared oriented towards the tourists and I saw no locals in there. The second one sold fruits, vegetables and some trinkets. This was for the locals and there were no tourists in there – except us. This was the one time that we let our guard down and approached a potentially dangerous situation. We could have kidnapped or worse and no one would have known.
The one suggestion I have, if you go to Ocho Rios, is to be willing to say “no thanks” a lot and to say it firmly.
This cruise was fun and relaxing. We would recommend it to everybody.