Second Caribbean Cruise
A Second Caribbean Cruise
If you read my first Caribbean cruise trip report, you'll know that initially I didn't want to do a Caribbean cruise, or a cruise to anywhere else for that matter. After taking a cruise to Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica, I was willing to try a second cruise - this time to Cozumel, Belize City and Roatan (Honduras). My wife, Monique (a.k.a. "Q") was thrilled to do another cruise and we booked it even before the first cruise ended, using the Next Cruise office on the ship.
As with the first cruise, our second cruise took place on Royal Caribbean International's ship Navigator of the Seas.
We took our trip in May, 2015.
I have provided the following trip report on our second cruise to offer my opinions and help you plan for your own Caribbean Cruise vacation.
Preparing for the Caribbean Cruise Vacation
Our Itinerary - We had three destination ports, which allowed us three opportunities to select excursions or activities that we would participate in.
Many of the excursions in Cozumel, Belize and Roatan centered on SCUBA diving, snorkeling or zip lining. I had no interest in zip lining or SCUBA diving, but Q convinced me to give snorkeling a try. Beyond that, I was looking for opportunities to site see and shoot photos. Besides scenery, I love shooting pictures of animals and these destinations looked to offer photo opportunities of both.
Based on our experiences on the first cruise, we decided to book private tour companies in Cozumel and Roatan.
Cozumel - The last time we were in Cozumel we wandered around the shopping district rather than doing an excursion. The idea was that we'd save money at this port rather than giving it to an excursion company. Things didn't work out that way as we found a jewelry shop and picked up several hundred dollars of jewelry. LOL
This time we decided to do an excursion in Cozumel. We didn't want to do SCUBA, zip lining, tubing or those kinds of activities, nor did we want to do bar-hopping. Laying out on a beach is utterly boring to me and I could get a sun burn from a heating pad. Mayan ruins would be cool, but they involved a lot of commuting to/from the sites from the ship, so those didn't work either. That seemed to wipe out most of our excursion options for Cozumel.
Then we read about an excursion that featured a jeep tour around the undeveloped portion of Cozumel. While the commercial side of the island is heavily populated and fully developed, the opposite of the island is remote, natural - it doesn't even have electricity. This offered the potential for lots of photography and site-seeing. It also allowed us to go to a private beach and try our hand at snorkeling. This was the right excursion for us.
Roatan seemed to have even fewer options for excursions that would interest us. I was thinking of just hiring a driver and having him drive us around to scenic places in Roatan, but given the risks for crime in Honduras I was leery of that. I heard about a private island named Little French Key, but dismissed this place immediately. I don't like lying on the beach or kayaking or those sorts of things. They had snorkeling but we already had that planned. There just wasn't a lot to appeal to me. Further, a private island isn't something real. It's a resort, pretty much like being on the ship. Why leave one resort to go spend a day at another resort? Then, as I kept researching, I found out they had animals. hmmmmmm And then I learned they offered the chance to swim with a jaguar.
I like kitties, especially big ones. I got to play with a tiger cub a couple months ago, so the chance to interact with a jaguar was exciting.
NOW I had a reason to go to Little French Key. Then I learned they had other animals there, and they brought out monkeys to pose with and photograph. I was sold.
Late in the planning process I learned about a cameo store in Roatan. I thought this might be a fun place to take Q so she could find a unique memento of our vacation, and I made tentative plans to go there after Little French Key.
Belize - Cozumel and Roatan were dock ports, meaning the ship pulled up to a dock, dropped a gang plank and everyone walked off.
Belize is a tender port. That means the ship stays off shore, and small ferry boats transport passengers to the shore and back again (shown right). This is time consuming, when time for visiting a port is already extremely limited. If you don't get back to the ship in time, it leaves without you. So - if you spend an hour waiting for a tender boat, then transport in, you've lost a big chunk of time for your visit.
Royal Caribbean wants you to book your excursions through them, because they get a cut of the excursion price. So, they offer a reward for buying their excursions; if you get an excursion through Royal Caribbean and the tour doesn't get you back to the boat on time, the boat will wait for you or they will transport you to the next port so you can catch the boat there. Also, if you get a Royal Caribbean excursion at a tender port, you jump to the head of the line for tender boats. No waiting, just get on the boat and travel to shore right away.
Given that Belize was a tender port, we decided to book our tour through Royal Caribbean. Ultimately, Royal Caribbean contracts this out to a local tour company but it's still an Royal Caribbean tour and we were protected. We reviewed the excursions offered by Royal Caribbean and finally elected on A Wildlife Adventure. This featured a boat ride on a rain forest river and a visit to the Belize Zoo. Boat ride, animals to photograph . . . what could go wrong with that? Plenty, as it turned out. More on that in a bit.
Researching the Caribbean Cruise Vacation - As always, I devoted a lot of time to researching the trip.
Once we knew our destinations, we wanted to look at what attractions and excursions were available. I found that Trip Advisor provided me with the most thorough reviews of all the service providers to transport us in Cozumel. When you can pull up a list of tour providers in Cozumel, for example, and find companies with 100+ reviews, virtually all positive, you will have more confidence in hiring them to drive you around. Based on what we found there, we chose Cozumel Cruise Excursions to do our jeep tour in Cozumel.
We used Trip Advisor to research attractions as well. Through Trip Advisor we looked at different things to do in Cozumel and Roatan. Based on what we found there, we chose Little French Key for our excursion in Roatan.
How important is Trip Advisor? Cozumel Cruise Excursions and the tour provider for A Wildlife Adventure asked us to leave reviews at Trip Advisor for them. This is an outstanding resource and it's free. Make sure you write reviews when you get back, especially to promote the places or services you liked!
The other resource I used was CruiseCritic.com. This is probably the largest of the discussion forums available for cruisers. It includes everyone from first time cruises to people who have done more than 100 cruises. I have discussed the pros and cons of CruiseCritic on the first cruise trip report. I won't repeat it here. Be sure to read that information before posting at CruiseCritic.
TIP: Monique (also known as "Q") is adding her comments in yellow boxes named "Q's Views" - keep an eye out for what she has to say!
Excursions and Tourist Attractions on Our Caribbean Cruise:
When you think Cozumel, what comes to mind? Crazy bars and restaurants, SCUBA, hanging out on the beach?
We didn't really want that, so we looked for something different.
We learned that the West side of Cozumel is packed with all the bars, restaurants, touristy beaches and other locations the island is known for. The East side of the island is totally different. This side of the island, exposed to the Caribbean Sea, is the landing place for any hurricanes that strike the island. As a result, this side of the island is not developed. Few businesses, no touristy beaches - this area is not even powered with electricity.
THIS is what we wanted.
Several companies offered jeep tours along the East side of Cozumel. One company, Cozumel Cruise Excursions, emphasized that their jeep tours really were private. You weren't in a series of jeeps, driving around in a caravan. It was just you and your tour guide, doing whatever you want. Further, Cozumel Cruise Excursions had a suggested itinerary that was perfect for us: snorkeling at a private beach - where our tour guide took us on a private route, a visit to Punta Sur ecological park, a scenic drive along the East side of Cozumel, a lunch at a local restaurant, then a tour of a tequila factory.
Cozumel Cruise Excursions' website made a lot of promises. We could tweak the itinerary as much as we wanted. The guide would go snorkeling with us if we wanted. The guide would point out scenic places and stop for photos. As I read through the description, I was a bit skeptical. I didn't see how all the things that were promised would fit into a single day.
Cozumel Cruise Excursions delivered on every promise.
The day started with us leaving the ship. We had received excellent, detailed instructions on finding our tour guide, including a photo of the meeting place, name and photo of our contact (Carla) and a phone number. The directions were perfect and we met immediately with Carla. We paid for the excursion (cash only) and were introduced to our guide, Carlos.
Carlos led us around to a parking space with several jeeps. He showed us a map of Cozumel and walked us through the excursion. His description matched the website description perfectly, and we were invited to change it as much as we'd like. We chose to stick with the designed excursion and off we went.
NOTE: the taxi driver union in Cozumel has forced through a law where only taxi drivers can drive you in town. So - to start the jeep tour you are required to drive the jeep. Once you get outside of town you escape this stupidity and your tour guide can drive the vehicle. Automatic and standard transmission jeeps are available.
Our first stop was at a private beach called Juva. Juva had all the amenities you could want - lockers, changing rooms, outdoor showers, plenty of lounge chairs, snorkel equipment . . . everything we needed. Originally I wanted Carlos to stay with our equipment while we snorkeled, but I decided to use one of the lockers so he could actually go in the water with us. I locked up the camera bag and took my tripod back to the jeep, then returned to get our snorkel gear.
The beach itself was very nice, but it became very rocky at the waterline. They had thick ropes laid out to walk on, but these weren't much better. For a tender foot like me it was a painful process to get into the water. Carlos was a big help, giving us a shoulder to hold on to as we got into the water. Once we were in the water, we put on our fins and started snorkeling. Well, Q did. I tried with very limited success. I've never snorkeled before so this was a real struggle for me. I'd get water in the breathing tube and then try to stand, but the fins and the water current wouldn't let me get my balance so I could breathe. I had a very difficult start to this adventure.
Carlos was fantastic, staying close and helping me get reset each time I got water in the tube. He was never more than a few feet away from me, ready to come to my assistance if . . . I mean WHEN . . . I struggled. Ultimately I got to the point where I was snorkeling for a few minutes at a time and we floundered around for awhile. Carlos dove down and rousted up fish for us to see, including a big puffer fish.
We got out of the water - again, the rocky shoreline was painful and difficult to maneuver but Carlos was there to help us out. We rinsed off, collected our things, retrieved my camera bag and jumped into our jeep to head out for Punta Sur ecological reserve.
Punta Sur is a large, undeveloped area that provides a home to local wildlife. The road in the park has a very scenic shoreline that leads to a lighthouse. We stopped at the lighthouse to take pictures, enjoy the shore (no swimming here, the waves were too rough). There were some recreated Mayan structures there to look at as well. On the road to the lighthouse was an actual Mayan ruin - a stone outpost used to watch for incoming storms and alert people on the island.
From Punta Sur we drove along the shoreline up the East side of the island. This was a very scenic drive. Carlos stopped at certain places that had specific views of interest, such as a spot where water spouted out of blow holes in the rocks.
We also stopped at a spot with massive rocks on the shore, which made for very nice photos. Along the way we pulled in to a small house where a man stood by with his pet iguana. We got to hold the iguana for photos, then went into the house to look at the handmade items he was selling. Q bought a cross from him to give to our neighbor, and off we went on our coastal trek.
By this time it was early afternoon. We stopped at Punta Marina, one of the only restaurants on the East side, a business powered by solar and wind, for lunch. This was an interesting restaurant - think of a thatch pavilion on the beach. We had fajitas; the meal was pretty small but tasted great. Q had a massive margarita, which prepared her for our next stop - the tequila factory.
They don't actually MAKE tequila at this factory so I'm not sure why they call it a factory. You walk in to a beautiful courtyard to be greeted by one of the employees. Our employee walked us through a 5 minute explanation of how they make tequila, leading in to a large room where we tasted different types of the drink.
Q sampled every type of tequila they had and was feeling no pain by the end of the tour - remember, she'd had a fishbowl sized margarita before we even got there. As a result, we walked out of the factory with two bottles of tequila that probably cost a lot more than they should have . . . but she really did love one of them, so she was excited with the purchase.
It was getting late and it was time to return to the ship. Carlos returned us to the parking area for the jeep. We got out and pulled out our stuff . . . and my tripod was gone. Remember, way back at the private beach I'd stuck the tripod back into the jeep? Well guess what - I put it in the WRONG jeep. For a moment I thought I'd lost a $400 tripod. Then another guy with the excursion company came running up with my tripod. Fortunately, the jeep I put the tripod into was part of the same pool of jeeps and the other driver had turned it in.
Cozumel Cruise Excursions did a fantastic job. Their communications were excellent, their directions were perfect. Carlos couldn't have done a better job making sure we were safe and having fun. If I do another tour in Cozumel, I won't contact anyone else.
Q's Views - This was a fun day that would seem to be a relaxing day but was, in fact, exhausting for the out of shape middle aged. First, at least one of your party must be willing to drive the jeep in Cozumel traffic. They have jeeps that have standard transmissions and jeeps that are automatics so that's not an issue. However, Cozumel traffic is not for the faint of heart. Once you get out of the city limits, your guide can take over the driving and you can enjoy the liquid libations your guide has stored in a cooler for you (water and beer). Second, when you aren't driving, one of your party has to be spry enough to get in and out of the back of the jeep. Jeff would never be able to fold himself into such a small space so I volunteered. I was not the most graceful person getting in and out of the back of the jeep, but by the end of the day and after a margarita and some tequila samples I was swinging myself into the the back seat much like Tarzan swings through the trees. Well, maybe I wasn't quite that graceful, but with all that tequila who cares?
The snorkeling was fun and we saw more different kinds of fish than I had seen on a snorkeling adventure booked through Carnival a few years ago. In the previous adventure, we were taken by boat to an area that was supposed to be great for snorkeling near Cozumel. It was nice to be able to walk off the boat into the water but it was a very commercial tour with all the fish clumped around the photographer who will gladly sell you a photo for a big price.
A Wildlife Adventure -
Excursion booked through Royal Caribbean
As stated previously, we decided to do a Royal Caribbean excursion in Belize because it is a tender port. After much deliberation, we chose to do A Wildlife Adventure, which included a boat ride on a rain forest river and a trip to the incredible Belize Zoo. I was really looking forward to this day as it would offer a wonderful variety of opportunities for animal photography.
In terms of getting off the ship and to the excursion people, this turned out to be an excellent choice. Our excursion tickets were waiting in our room when we arrived the first day. We left the ship as soon as the tender boat arrived - no waiting in line with the people who had booked private excursions. And once we got off the tender, we immediately found the person with "WILDLIFE ADVENTURE MEETS HERE" on his sign. That part of the process could not have gone easier.
From this point on the day was pretty much a disaster.
We waited for about a half hour as everyone showed up for our excursion and for our bus to get there. Bus? What happened to the river boat ride? Well, they divided our group in two; group A would take a bus to the zoo and ride the boat back. Group B would ride the boat to the zoo and take the bus back. OK, this isn't what I expected but it was workable.
An old school bus pulled up and we got on. That's right, flat bench seats and dysfunctional air conditioning that you'd expect from a beat up old school bus - that was our ride to the zoo. And the ride lasted for at least an hour, through scrubby and very non-scenic countryside. We had a very nice tour guide, Melanie, who talked to us through an intercom that wasn't nearly loud enough as we did the trip.
Finally we got to the zoo. We unloaded from the bus, used some awful public toilets in a small, non-air-conditioned building and waited for Melanie to give us our introductory talk on the zoo.
Melanie explained that we would be here an hour. That seemed awfully short to me, given how awesome the zoo was supposed to be. Then she said we would be going as a group. What? The excursion description said NOTHING about touring the zoo as a group. That means I'd be doing photography in a cluster of people, not choosing where I went in the zoo. This was awful!
We entered the zoo - and were immediately confronted by a security guy. We couldn't use our GoPole. He wouldn't let us use a gimbal. He told another guy he couldn't use a lens that was too long. We had lugged all these things off the ship and to the zoo, and THEN were told we couldn't use them. But we had to stay with the group so we couldn't take them back to the bus. We just had to lug around a lot of equipment we couldn't use.
Melanie led us through the overgrown maze that was the zoo. She was very good at finding animals in each cage - and that was good, because each animal cage was so badly overgrown that it was almost impossible to see anything. For example, at one cage Melanie said that some kind of big cat was in there and said, "look back there by that tree. You can see an ear and the tip of the tail." Really??? I traveled an hour ride that jolted me so much I'll probably need a chiropractor to see an ear and a tail? To make matters worse, the cages were covered with wire that was basically glorified chicken wire. Virtually impossible to photograph through.
Look at the photo to the right - this is one of the better photos I was able to take, of a big cat laying on a tree branch. See him? Isn't that great?
The Belize Zoo was horrible. Their variety of animals, number of animals and accessibility to the animals was just awful.
From here we went to lunch. We stopped along the way at a grocery store to buy drinks and other things for cheaper than what they would cost at the restaurant. Then we went to the restaurant, which was really just a room in a house where we picked up our food on a buffet line and then sat outside to eat. Have to say - the food was really good. The rice and beans in particular were terrific!
Now it was time to do the river boat ride. We go to the dock and up pulls a large, open top boat. That's right, no cover to protect us from the sun. We piled in and took off down the river.
The river boat ride was better than the zoo, which isn't saying much. Melanie was good at spotting animals along the shore, including some baby crocodiles, and adult crocodile and some birds. Some bats and a couple iguanas. That's pretty much all we saw along the ride. The rain forest river had plenty of houses built along the shores so it wasn't exactly like we were traveling unexplored territory.
We pulled into a large lagoon area which was where manatees lived. We spent a few minutes looking and saw three manatees stick their noses up to catch a breath and then disappear. From here we took a fast ride back to the dock, getting pounded by the choppy waves - I felt bad for anyone on the boat who had a bad back. That ride had to hurt.
So that was our Wildlife Adventure. It was horrible, from start to finish. The Belize Zoo is an embarrassment, a complete waste of time if you actually want to SEE animals as opposed to look at cluttered cages where animals are hiding. The river boat ride was ok and it's no one's fault that we didn't see more animals - that's just the way it goes when you are trying to see animals in the wild. But the open boat was awful - we roasted - and I felt battered after the beating we took at high speed. The only good parts of the tour were Melanie, who was very nice, and the lunch.
If I had my way I'd get a refund for the excursion as well as the cost of the cruise for that day. I felt like I had a day of my vacation stolen from me.
Q's Views -
You Betta Belize it! - While Jeff has called this tour a complete disaster, I found it only a little disastrous. First, the wait for our bus was long. We were on an early tender and got there anticipating a boat ride to and from the zoo. Nothing told us we would be on an old smelly school bus for an hour or that we would wait (in an air conditioned building) for 30 minutes for that bus to show up. However, our tour guide told us a lot about the country and how the zoo was started. My hearing is a little better than Jeff's so I'm sure I got a lot more out of Melanie's presentation than he did. The countryside was very poor looking and sad. I expected to see lush tropical forests but instead it was, well, sad. When we finally arrived at the zoo, it looked more like an overgrown campground than what you would expect for a zoo. It had a rocky parking area with a restroom similar to what you find at older rest stops in the US. The zoo itself was actually nicer than I expected. My experience in the past with small zoos is a lot of very small cages with lots of bare dirt and very sad looking animals. All the cages for these animals were very large with lots of vegetation, so much that it was very difficult to see the animals. We spent most of our time catching up with the group since the people in the front of our group would stand in the only spot where an animal could be seen and not move so the rest of the group could also get a glimpse of fur or tail. It was very hot and all of us were drenched in sweat by the time we finished the tour and went in to the gift shop. The excursion did NOT provide any of us with water so we had to pay gift shop prices to re-hydrate.
Once everyone was back on the bus, we rode for probably 30 minutes to a small grocery store. This was not part of the actual tour but our guide told us that the prices for beer, cashew wine, etc. would be a lot less at the store than it would at the place where we would stop to eat. The cashier at the store accepted US dollars and gave back change very accurately, in US dollars. We got back on the bus for another 10 minutes and finally reached the place along the river where we had lunch. From here, the other group was stuck on the bus and we got into an open boat. I was hopeful that we would see a howler monkey or maybe a parrot in a tree, but instead, we saw a few baby crocs, some yellow tailed birds with cool nests hanging from the palm trees, a mahogany tree, beautiful flowers, ripe mangoes hanging just out of reach, two varieties of iguana and several small boys waving as we flew past. The last part of the boat ride was in a small bay with signs warning that manatees swam in this area. We sat for several minutes looking for the quick glimpse of a nose to stick up out of the water. Finally we were rewarded when three took a very quick breath at once. Then we went full speed across the bay back to the port where our tender had dropped us off earlier. If you have a bad back or any other kind of joint pain, don't sign up for this excursion. You may never walk again after the ride across the bay.
As I said previously, we struggled to find an excursion in Roatan. We don't zip line, SCUBA or ride tubes through cave rivers. I read about Little French Key, a private island at Roatan, and had little interest at first. Laying out in the sun is a terribly boring idea for me. I can do that at home or on the boat. I have no interest in kayaking or swimming. And the fact is that this was a private island, so it wasn't even like I was going to another country. I can go to resorts anywhere - why would I travel to another country and then go to an artificial resort?
I read some comments about Little French Key at CruiseCritic.com and saw that they had animals, and even allowed you to hold animals like monkeys and birds. This was far more interesting to me. Q really liked the idea of playing with the monkeys and I thought that would really be fun to photograph.
Then I learned that Little French Key offered something called "Swim With Simba." This was the opportunity to interact with a real, live jaguar. I was all in for this. I love big cats - hell, I even like the Jacksonville Jaguars football team. The thought of getting to touch and pose for pictures with a jaguar was just awesome.
Little French Key doesn't do excursions through the cruise lines and I don't think other excursion companies offer Little French Key excursions. Instead, the folks at Little French Key handle everything, from picking you up at the ship to driving you to the shuttle boat to transporting you to the island - and then returning you to the ship at the end of the day. They offer several packages, ranging from $55 per person to $200 per person.
Arranging to go to Little French Key is easy. Just go to their site and submit a reservation. No deposit is required. They send you instructions on how to find their drivers and you're good to go.
We arrived in Roatan and went looking for our Little French Key contacts. The instructions we received to find our driver were perfect and we found our contact immediately. He arranged for a driver to take us and another couple to the dock where we would shuttle to the island. 15 minutes later we were at the dock. Here we paid for our package, which was designated by a colored wrist band. Shortly thereafter we boarded the boat and went to the island. This process worked extremely well.
TIP: Little French Key takes plastic but charges you a 15% surcharge . . . that's an extra $20 - 40 in credit card fees for two people. Ouch. Save money and bring cash to pay for your admission.
A guide named Joel gave us a brief tour around the island, pointing out the animals and all the various facilities. The facilities are fantastic. The buildings are in great shape, there are lounger chairs and hammocks all over the place and lots of water toys for you to use. They offer horse rides in the water and kayaking and (for an additional fee) boat rides out to a reef for snorkeling. (Packages starting at $98 include the snorkeling to the reef for free.) You'll find changing rooms and bathrooms available for your use, a gift shop, and a few bars. The island is just beautiful.
After Joel's tour we left to our own devices to enjoy the island. Q got snorkel equipment and went into the water from the beach. I wandered around the island to take pictures. After awhile Q grabbed a GoPro camera and returned to snorkeling, where she got a nice video of a lion fish. Around 10:00 we wandered over to a small building with a deck, where the staff brought out two monkeys and a sugar bear. We had a blast holding the monkeys and getting pictures. They'd climb up on our heads and jump from one person to another. A few people got "monkey showers" but took it in good stride.
I spoke with the zoo keeper who told me the specifics for swimming with Simba. At 11:30 we waited at his cage. When he was ready, they'd run him out to a spot on a cove where he would swim. People who had the VIP passes ($200 packages) were first in line. After them, people who were smart enough to prepay for this activity at the dock were next. Finally, people who wanted to pay the $35 fee in cash were able to do it.
I went to the cage at 11:30 and was told it would be another half hour, so we snagged one of the waitresses and asked her to bring our lunch out. This was extremely good, with shrimps and a piece of lobster, some other meat and rice and beans. Given the setting I didn't expect much, but the meal was hot and delicious.
As we finished our meal I saw Simba run past us with his handler. We followed them over to the cove where Simba was happily swimming around just off shore. A large group of people waited their turn to do the swim.
Here's how it works. One person goes into the water with Simba as he dog-paddles around. Another person is allowed in to take photos. The person with Simba can pet him as he's swimming and get photos taken. Then, you climb up on this platform that is covered by a thatch shade. The handler lifts Simba up and he sits next to you on the platform for more pictures. After a few seconds, Simba decides he wants to swim some more and belly-flops back into the water. Then that person and his/her photographer leaves and the next one comes out. In some cases, small groups posed with Simba, including parents and children.
Let's talk about safety for a minute. There were two staffers at the Simba swim. The zoo keeper was on shore and the handler was in the water, holding the chain that was around the cat's neck. I spoke with both and they both seemed very competent and they both paid a lot of attention to what was going on with people who interacted with the jaguar.
That said, you're interacting with a full-grown, top-of-his-food-chain, apex predator with a million years of instincts built into him. This is no baby - as you can see in the photo to the right, when he sat next to me his head was almost at my eye level. BIIIIIG kitty. So you must enter into this knowing that you're placing yourself in a potentially risky situation. You need to use common sense and follow instructions precisely. The jaguar has been trained and handled his whole life and he does a great job with people. You just need to be smart.
Here's what I mean. A woman got into the water with Simba. She was very frightened and acted like it - and if it was clear to us that she was scared, it was really obvious to Simba, an animal who lives and feeds himself by sensing fear. Anyway, all was fine in the water, but when the woman got up on the table and Simba was placed next to her, she made several jerking motions and he reached over and put his mouth on her boob. I talked to the zoo keeper about it and he said Simba was just playing with her. He didn't break skin or attack her. But he reacted to her obvious fear. Simba went back to swimming happily as the woman returned to shore, clutching her chest and saying, "He sucked my boob!"
You do the Swim With Simba knowing that there is risk involved, just as you do when you zip line, bungee jump, SCUBA dive, jump off a high platform into the water and many other things that people do on vacation. Personally, I wouldn't take children into the water with him unless I was between him and the children at all time. But that's a judgment call each person must make.
I can tell you that my turn with Simba was my favorite moment on the cruise. What an incredible, beautiful animal he is, and to have the opportunity to be that close, pet his back and get pictures with him was amazing. Just like when I did the stingray swim last year, this opportunity to get in the water with a jaguar was a magical moment that made me appreciate these magnificent creatures all the more.
TIP: If you want to swim with Simba, your smartest move is to buy the VIP pass so you are first in line. Simba was pretty tired by the end of the day I was there. I'm guessing there were 40 people who did the activity. If this is important to you, it's worth paying extra to be first. You get several other perks with the VIP pass as well, like a massage.
If you don't want to spend that much money, pay the $35 Simba fee when you pay for your package at the dock. This gives you priority over the people who just walk up and want to pay while all this is going on. Then, once you're on the island, talk with the zoo keeper (I think his name was Larry, a very nice guy) and get clear instructions on when the activity will take place.
Follow instructions precisely. Do not approach the jaguar as he runs from his cage to the water. Keep your hands away from his face. Do not act frightened. You're in for an incredible experience.
TIP: They don't do Swim With Simba every day and I think this is based on the mood and behavior of the jaguar more than anything else. Some days they have you feed their lion instead. Ask when you get there which activity will be going on.
I was one of the fools who paid cash last minute to swim with Simba, so I had to wait a long time to do it. As a result, by the end of this activity it was about 2:00 and we needed to go. We had another 2 hours before we had to be back to the ship, but we wanted to stop at another place on our way back to the ship.
We took the shuttle boat back to shore, where several vehicles waited to return us to the ship. We told the good folks at Little French Key that we wanted to make a side trip and they had one of their drivers serve as our private driver. He drove us to the Stone Castle Cameo Factory (described below) and waited for us as we shopped, then took us to the ship. We happily tipped this young man extra for what he did.
Little French Key is terrific. If you like the usual beach activities you'll love it here - even the resident cat enjoyed laying out, as you can see to the right. Playing with the monkeys is a riot and Simba is just incredible. It's not "authentic" Roatan, but it was a fun excursion for us. The staff was extremely friendly and the facilities were top notch. Remember Joel, the guide I mentioned? Well, he's a musician and shared his CD with us. I'll be using some of his latin jazz music on our trip report for Little French Key - you will love it!
Stone Castle Cameo Factory - Gravel Bay - Coxen Hole - ROATAN - Bay Islands - Honduras
I hated cutting our time at Little French Key short, but I wanted to take Q to the Stone Castle Cameo Factory so she could buy a special memento.
You know that all the souvenir shops are filled with the usual junky items - well, in Roatan you have the choice to visit the Stone Castle Cameo Factory and find remarkable keepsakes that are unique and meaningful, and available in prices almost anyone can afford.
The Stone Castle Cameo Factory is one of only two places in the world where the fine art of seashell cameo making is still taught (the other is in Italy). If you don't know what a cameo is, read this article. The students are taught by a master artist who brought his craft from Italy.
The master artist's cameos are sold in the shop, but as you might expect they're extremely expensive. On the other hand, his students also create cameos and their pieces are available in all price ranges.
We had a wonderful time wandering through the shop. There were several cases filled with hundreds of cameos, as inexpensive as $20 and as expensive as several thousand dollars. Necklaces, ear rings, pendants, lamps - the variety of cameo pieces was remarkable. Many of the pieces were classic cameos with intricately carved faces of women. But there were many others as well - sea scenes, groups of people, religious scenes, flowers, stars and more.
Two student artists were working in a separate room, viewable through a window between them and the showroom. A young lady sat in the showroom and demonstrated her craft as well (pictured right).
The factory is about a five minute drive from the Royal Caribbean's dock. For $10 you could probably get a taxi driver to take you to the shop, wait for you and return you to the ship.
If you do travel to Roatan, be sure to visit the Stone Castle Cameo Factory to experience old world craftsmanship and buy fantastic souvenirs.
Random Observations on Our Caribbean Cruise
I'm going to provide a long list of random observations, which supplement the comments made on the first trip report. Remember:
- My cruise was on Royal Caribbean and its ship, Navigator of the Seas. Different cruise lines and different ships handle things differently. ALWAYS verify that something you read here is accurate for your particular cruise line and ship.
Embarkation day - Embarkation was scheduled to begin around 11 a.m. and we were in the first group to get on board. We drove from Dallas to Houston the day before, then drove to Galveston that morning. This worked extremely well.
Even better, we got there early. I pulled up to the terminal before 10 a.m. and dropped Q off with all the luggage. Then I drove to the parking lot and got a good spot - far ahead of the others on our cruise. (NOTE: many people use private parking lots. I used the parking for the Port of Galveston and that worked great for me.) From there, it was a simple shuttle ride from parking back to the terminal because I had no luggage with me.
By the time I got back to the terminal, they were letting people in. We walked through security, no waiting, then walked over to check in. Again, no waiting. We walked right up to the counter and checked in. Take a look at the photo to the right - no lines, no waiting.
Checking in for the last cruise took a little over an hour. This time, we went through security and checking in in under 15 minutes. Sweet!
We went to the buffet dining room (called the Windjammer) and had lunch, waiting for our room to be ready.
Arriving early is the way to do it! Get there early, drop off your stuff at the terminal, park and return to the terminal. MUCH easier than hauling anything from the parking lot.
Muster Drill - Last cruise we assembled at our muster location on one of the decks. This time, our muster location was the small theater on Deck 5 where they do art auctions. This was nicer than standing on deck, even though it got a little stuffy in the theater with all those people packed in.
From here the cruise followed the same schedule as the previous cruise: Sunday and Monday were at sea. Tuesday through Thursday were port days. Friday and Saturday were at sea.
Debarking the Ship - Or Disembarking if you prefer - Because we went to Belize, our exit from the ship was more time-consuming than the previous cruise. The US and Belize do not have an agreement, so every person leaving the ship was required to present their identification to a US government agent before leaving. Of course, they don't have nearly enough agents to handle this, so you end up standing in long lines.
The passengers are divided into 20+ groups for debarking. Each group is assigned a departure location and time. You report to your location and wait to be told to get in line to leave the ship.
This system works very well, keeping a steady stream of passengers moving rather than having everyone bunch up at once. Still, it's a long, slow process.
I timed the process of getting off the ship. From the moment we got on the gangway until we reached the luggage section took 50 minutes.
When we got to the luggage area, we split up. Q went to find our luggage and I got in line to get a porter. The luggage is tagged with different sections, and when it comes off the ship it is organized by those sections. Also, we were in the last group to get off so much of the baggage had already been picked up when we got there. Should have been easy for us, right? Unfortunately, some people are idiots and move other people's luggage around, or pick up something that isn't theirs and leave it elsewhere. So having Q pull our luggage together was smart. She found one of our bags in the middle of the terminal, with people stepping all over and around it. Some clown just dumped it there. grrrr
TIP: Tie something to each piece of your luggage that is obnoxiously obvious. Your suitcase or bag looks like 50 others in that terminal. Put a massive string, piece of yarn or something that singles out every piece of your luggage. You might even pack a couple extra pieces of the yarn or whatever you use, in case you buy another bag on the cruise to carry souvenirs you purchased. Q saw a group of luggage where each piece was adorned with a gawdy piece of tulle. No one would ever confuse these suitcases with their own. Remember, there are probably 10,000 bags and suitcases in this terminal - make it easy on yourself by making it easy to identify your bags.
As you can see in the photo to the right, it looks like mass chaos - but it's actually a fairly well organized system for dealing with so many people.
Going through the line for a porter took 30 minutes. We went to our luggage section, where Q had everything put together. We loaded it up and went to the exit line, for customs and immigration. Another 30 minutes. We finally got through that and went to the curb, where the porter dumped our stuff. Q stayed with the stuff and I waited for a shuttle to get the car. And waited. And waited.
It took 45 minutes to get a shuttle back to my car and wade through the traffic jam back to the terminal to pick up Q and our luggage. Remember, another load of passengers is making their way ON to the ship while all this is going on - for two ships, not just one. So traffic was very, very slow.
All told, it took around 2 1/2 hours to get out of the area which was tiring and frustrating. You just have to expect this and be patient, because it takes that long and nothing will change that.
Now, you may be thinking you've found a loophole. You may be thinking that if you don't wait for a porter, you can just grab your luggage in the luggage terminal and scoot off to the customs people for a quick getaway.
Lots of people think that, and as a result, the line for those folks was more than twice as long as the porter line. I watched a couple we knew get in that line when I entered the porter line. They took just as long to get through customs as we did - no advantage.
About the Navigator of the Seas
I described the ship in great detail on the first cruise trip report.
On our second cruise, the ship was maintained just as beautifully as the first cruise. I'm amazed that they can keep the ship so clean all the time.
The ship has a spa, three swimming pools, gymnasium, health spa, arcade, basketball court, multiple hot tubs, a walking track, a mini golf course, a rock climbing wall and a Flow Rider (a place to do surfing on board). I don't know how many bars there are on ship - we did test most of them though. There is a casino, a couple theaters, a shopping area, several restaurants and more. There are a remarkable number of places and activities to check out on the ship.
Click here for pictures of the Navigator of the Seas, including shots of the Flowrider, Promenade deck towel animals, the circus and more, taken on the second Caribbean cruise. Check out the nice external photos of the ship, taken from the tender boat.
Our Balcony Stateroom - Our cabin was on Deck 10 - a balcony stateroom. The room was similar, but slightly smaller, than the panoramic ocean view room we had on our first cruise. But it had a 10' x 5' balcony where we could sit outside and enjoy the ocean right from our room.
I'm a big guy and I had no problem taking showers in the bathroom, for example. The room had a sofa and plenty of drawers, closets and shelves and a safe for storing your valuables. The cabin included a refrigerator, which seemed marginally functional.
I didn't like the layout for this cabin as much as the ocean view room. The closet doors and bathroom doors opened into each other, so you had to close one before opening the other. The passage way into the room was more narrow than our previous room. The room didn't appear quite as new as the ocean view room either.
All in all I preferred the ocean view room over the balcony room, even though the balcony was pretty cool. The weather wasn't that great throughout the trip which made the balcony less desirable as well.
Cabins - I talked a great deal about choosing a cabin on the first trip report. I'll just add this:
Royal Caribbean has a "Next Cruise" office on their ship where you can book your next cruise even as you're out to sea. They say you'll get great deals you can't get anywhere else. That's a load of crap. The prices we got through Next Cruise to book our May 2015 trip were exactly the same as what was offered through Royal Caribbean's website when we returned. There was NO benefit to booking while on the ship. Go ahead and check prices with Next Cruise, but don't believe it's going to be a special rate you can't get elsewhere. We didn't even bother stopping by Next Cruise on this latest vacation.
Electrical Items - Check your cruise line FAQ to see what you can bring aboard. Items like hair dryers, clothing irons, extension cords, curling irons, etc. are frequently forbidden. Honestly, though, if I didn't get an extension cord from the cruise line for my CPAP machine, I'd bring one even if it was against the rules. The room simply doesn't have enough outlets. I use a Belkin multi-plug adapter and it is a life saver.
TIP: Bring a European plug converter with you. You can plug US items into the European outlet with this converter. That gives you an extra outlet to work with!
Passport, ID and Credit Cards - Be sure to read my comments about passports, IDs and credit cards on the first trip report. This is crucial!
Drink Packages - On the first cruise trip report I explained how drink packages work. We bought the drink packages on our first cruise and as a result, we did a lot of drinking. After the cruise I thought a lot about it and realized that meeting our "quota" for drinks every day had been a much higher priority than it should have been. We missed a lot of things on the ship as a result.
This trip we committed to doing more activities on the ship and not get the drink packages. We'd get the soda package because we drink a lot of sodas, and buy our alcoholic drinks individually.
For us, this worked perfectly. We enjoyed many ship events, including the parade, Love and Marriage game, The Quest, ice skating show, dance show, comedy show . . . we did a lot of things that we missed the first time. We bought drinks whenever we wanted them, but we drank FAR fewer drinks on the cruise.
This also turned out to be a big money saver. We spent less for ALL our ship charges this cruise than we did for the drink packages alone last cruise. And that includes all the drinks we purchased individually AND the soda package for each of us.
I know people want to get loaded while on their cruise. But the cost of the drink packages, along with the impact they can have on your taking part in other activities, make them a very questionable purchase in my opinion.
TIP: If you're really struggling on whether or not to get a package, try this: Don't get the package in advance. Start the cruise buying your drinks individually. Then, after a few days, look at your statement to see how much you're spending each day on booze. If it's more than the daily price of the drink package, go to guest services and add the drink package to your account for the rest of the cruise. If you are spending less than what the drink package costs each day, or you think you won't be drinking as much over the rest of the cruise - don't get it. This way you can test the waters and have the most control over your spending.
Art Auctions - Royal Caribbean makes a bundle off the art auctions they hold throughout the week. We know this because they do the auctions constantly. You will get invitations to the art auctions almost every day you're there. I didn't participate in an auction. I walked in to watch one and got tossed out because I was video recording it. LOL I talked with people who buy art though, and for people who love art it's a really big deal. Apparently art sells for as little as $200 and as much as $50,000. I didn't do the auction because I know me - sure as hell I'd see a painting for $1000 and convince myself to buy it. If you enjoy art or investing in collectible items, however, these auctions would be very entertaining.
Duty Free Shops and the Texas Tax - When you get off the ship at a port, there will be stores selling a variety of items called a duty free shop. There is also a duty free shop on board. If you purchase from one of these shops you don't have to pay federal taxes on them through Customs. Bear in mind, you can't buy alcohol at a duty free shop and bring it on board to drink - you must surrender it upon boarding. If you buy from these shops, they may transfer it to the ship for you - the crew will bring all your duty free alcohol to your room later on the last day for you to carry off.
Your alcohol will be loaded into boxes that clearly indicate what is inside, (shown right) to make it easy to carry - and for Customs officials to see what you're taking off the ship. Prices at these shops can be very good and you can find things that aren't sold in the US. Sometimes there is no bargain - buyer beware!
If you buy alcohol in ports at non-duty free shops, you will still be required to surrender them as you re board the ship. These bottles will be delivered to your cabin the night before your cruise ends.
Note that I said duty free shops were free from federal taxes. if you pass through the port of Galveston, the state of Texas hits you with a separate tax for booze and cigarettes. This includes stuff you get from duty free shops. I don't know what the tax is on smokes, but for liquor it is $3.75 per bottle plus a $3 per person administrative fee. This is utterly absurd and makes the great sales prices on the ship less attractive.
The Texas tax people are waiting for you after you pass through customs at the end of the trip. If you go walking off the ship with the duty free boxes it's pretty clear that you have alcohol and you will be ushered to the table where you get hit with the Texas tax. IF, however, you take your bottles of alcohol and put them in your suitcases or carry-on luggage, it's not apparent that you HAVE alcohol. Some people even take bubble wrap with them on the trip so they can put bottles of alcohol into their luggage more safely. This is what I've been told, anyway.
Excursions - I talked about the excursions we did earlier so I'll just make a few summary points here.
This is important, so I'm repeating it. If your ship is docking at a port, it is easier to get on and off so it is safer for booking private excursions. If your ship is tendering, you need to take a ferry boat between the ship and the shore. This takes more time coming and going, and you may want to stick with excursions booked through the ship even though they may cost more. Book an excursion through the ship and the ship will wait for you if the excursion runs long, or you will be transported to the next port. Book a private excursion and run late and the ship will probably leave without you. Lots of people book private excursions at tender ports and have no problem; I just like to be cautious.
How do you know what kind of port you're going to? Look on your itinerary from the cruise line - it should say dock or tender.
When you go on the excursion, take a photocopy of your driver's license, passport and medical cards. If something happens to you in a foreign country, you really want to have that information readily available. Don't take the originals - make a copy before you go and carry the copy off the ship.
Be careful using your credit card in ports. Some areas, like Jamaica, have a big problem with theft and fraud. Check out the CruiseCritic forums on destinations to learn more about where you're going. If you use a credit card at a foreign port without notifying your bank in advance, you run a real risk of having it canceled by the bank's security systems.
BRING CASH on excursions. You can negotiate better prices at many stores if you pay cash; we probably reduced the price on some jewelry by $50 or more by paying cash. Some stores don't take credit cards. This goes for excursions as well. Our Cozumel excursion was cash only.
When you bring cash on excursions, have all denominations, from $1 to $50 or $100. The reason for this is, if you pay for an $9 purchase with a $20 you may get your change in local currency - which you can't really use elsewhere. You want to pay in exact change so have plenty of $1s and $5s.
Keep some of that cash for the end of your excursion. It is appropriate to give a tip to your excursion driver or team. How much to tip? That's a personal call. We gave $5 to our Belize tour guide because that whole day was a disaster and there were many other people in our party, so we weren't the only tippers. I gave our Cozumel driver $35 - a 33% tip - because he did a fantastic job and we were his only customers.
Tipping - The cruise line will probably encourage you to pay an advanced gratuity fee of 18% of your bill. This money goes to many of the employees on the ship, although there is no consensus on who gets it. You can cancel this gratuity and pay your own tips if you want, but it is discouraged.
Note that last year it was 15% and now it's 18%. That's a big jump in one year.
Most cruisers will give an additional tip to their room steward and their waiters in the MDR. These people spend a lot of time taking care of you, so it's reasonable to give them an extra tip at the end of the cruise. Many cruisers link a first-day tip to getting special treatment during the cruise; while this probably is happening it shouldn't. You can make the call on that.
When you order a drink package, that will automatically be charged an 18% gratuity and you have no control over that.
Every time you buy a drink (other than sodas) your card will be swiped and you will have to sign for it. You will have an opportunity to give a tip when you sign. This holds true even if you bought a drink package and have already paid the auto-gratuity charge.
Some cruisers feel your auto-gratuity is sufficient so you don't need to add a tip for each drink. Others think you should give additional tips. It's up to you. We decided to give tips periodically even though we had the drink packages; not every time, but occasionally.
Sapphire Room (MDR) - For evening dinners in the Sapphire Room, or the Main Dining Room, the dress code is business casual for five of the seven nights and dressier on the remaining two nights. I wore a suit coat and tie and Q wore a dress, and we were properly attired for the formal nights - some people really did it up with tuxedos and gowns, but you don't have to. Actually, you don't have to dress up for formal night but you'll stand out a bit if you don't.
Overall we thought the food was very good. The steaks tended to be a little rubbery but they were still delicious.
One of the great things about dining on a cruise ship is you can eat like a pig. LOL When you sit down for dinner you're presented with a menu, offering several choices for appetizers and main courses. You can pick as many as you'd like . . . want three orders of escargot as an appetizer? Just ask. Can't decide between two main dishes? Get them both. When all that is finished you get another menu for desserts. Again, you can pick more than one dessert . . . and they're really, really good. They're pretty small, so go ahead and get two. You know you want to.
It's no wonder people put on weight during cruises!
You typically have the same wait staff and the same dinner seating each night so you get to know the other people, and the waiters learn what you like. This makes their service even better by the end of the cruise. We had two waiters, Catejan and Luis, and they both took great care of us. We sat with three other couples who were lots of fun to meet and we had a great time.
TIP: Many people will skip a dinner in the MDR to eat at one of the special restaurants. You pay extra for this and you miss out on a MDR meal you already paid for, but this is a very popular choice on the cruise. If you want to do this, we suggest that you skip the dinner on Thursday or Saturday evening. The menus on these nights were not nearly as good as the other nights. Friday is lobster / prime rib night so you don't want to miss that one!
Windjammer - The Windjammer is the place where you can find buffet food throughout the day. This is the most popular place for breakfasts and lunches.
On the last day of the cruise, they brought out a Texas-sized apple pie with ice cream to treat all the passengers.
My point here is two-fold: Use the Windjammer for day time meals, especially on excursion days. It's fast, convenient and really good. Second, keep your eyes open for special treats on the last day!
Johnny Rockets - We went to this restaurant on both cruises and fortunately, the volume of the music had been turned down so it wasn't as painful as it was for our first cruise. This is a great place to eat. You spend $6 and can eat all the food you want. Their milk shakes cost extra. Every few minutes the wait staff does a dance routine to songs like "Stayin' Alive" and that is very entertaining. There are long lines at peak dining times; your best bet is to go a little early. This is a great place to have lunch at least one day on your trip.
Sales - I described the promenade deck sales in the first cruise trip report. They're crazy, chaotic, and a lot of fun.
With all the excitement it's easy to get caught up in the hype. Be a smart shopper. Some sales prices are great . . . others are not. For example:
- The ship had a sale for Blue Goose Vodka - 4 1-liter bottles for $100, and on the sale night there was a 10% discount. We compared prices back home: a 750 ML bottle cost $25.99, or four for $104 - that's $14 more for bottles that were 25% smaller. Good deal.
- With this sale we also could buy Bacardi Gold, two 1 liter bottles for or $37 ($18.50 each). Locally these sold for $18 each for a 750 ML bottle. A small savings.
- Q was looking at two Invicta watches, on a special discount sale. One of them was discounted down to $129, about a 70% savings off list price. But when we checked at Amazon, the same watch was available for $60. No bargain there.
- She checked out another watch. This one was discounted to $150. A check at Amazon showed this watch could be purchased there - for $165. A modest discount.
- The ship holds special sales for things like cheap watches or hats and scarves for $10. These are not bad deals, and you can stock up on Christmas gifts that way. However, if you check prices on other days you'll find the hats sell regularly on the ship - for $10. You don't save anything on the super sale really. You just get a much better selection during the sale. You can also find junk jewelry sets and wallet sets for $20. These are actually very nice and they make nice gifts. Q bought several on our first cruise.
- The ship had a sale on t-shirts with cruise line logos and Caribbean destinations, $20 for two shirts. Regularly $17 each. Good deal? Well, in Cancun and the other destinations you can find t-shirts for $6 each. So, bad deal, right? No. The shirts on the ship were better quality and available in bigger sizes that you can't find in the port shops. So . . . the shirts weren't a bad deal at all, and a great way to get souvenirs for friends and family.
- The ship had a special collection of LeVian jewelry at big discounts. The jewelry at this sale was different than what you find in the stores, but there are many comparable pieces in regular retail outlets. We've looked at LeVian jewelry many times - the prices were comparable to what you'd find to comparable jewelry at Kays stores. Unique pieces but not great prices.
- And of course, as you compare these prices you must remember that you don't pay sales tax on the ship purchase, so that saves you 6-8% or more over buying from Amazon.
The point is, there is a lot of psychology involved in the sales and it's easy to get caught up in the excitement. Know your prices before you buy if you really want to get good deals. If possible, try to price compare. For example, you can see the Invicta watches that will be on sale. See one you like? Get online while in a port at some free wi-fi place and check prices at Amazon for that watch. Then, when the sale comes up you know whether you're getting a great deal or not.
Ship Photography - If you read my first cruise trip report, you'll know that I consider the ship photography service to be a complete disaster. We had a few pictures taken, checked them out, found them to be awful and never went back.
Anyway, the pricing for photography on the ship is insane. $20 for one digital picture, $120 for eight digital pictures . . . that's obscene, especially when the photos are NOT high resolution.
Please - take your own photos and tell Royal Caribbean that their quality is too low and their prices are too high. Things won't change until people stand up for quality and value.
NOTE: Several people got married on this cruise and I felt bad for them. Trusting Royal Caribbean photographers to do your wedding is like trusting a school nurse to perform heart surgery. Don't believe me? Royal Caribbean photographers screwed up a wedding they were hired to shoot on the Oasis of the Seas, ruining a young couple's wedding, and then Royal Caribbean really didn't do much to compensate the couple for their failure.
Read the ruined wedding photography article before you THINK of planning any event on a Royal Caribbean ship.
Entertainment - You will enjoy the variety of entertainment on the ship. They had a country group, a (small) big band with vocalists, salsa band, and more. Schooners bar featured two different piano players. JR Neal was an outstanding entertainer, singing and playing piano. He filled the place with enchanted women who hung on his every note. A lady named Anna also played at Schooners. She wasn't a singer, but she played piano very well, doing everything from classical music to the Pennsylvania Polka.
Every night a different person or group was a featured headliner act. One night is was a group of dancers doing variations of ballroom dance. There were a few different comedians, who were extremely good. One night Jerome Bell, an American Idol semi-finalist, was the featured singer. The headliners were all really good. Incidentally, Jerome stopped by Schooner's bar one evening and sang a couple songs with the piano player. He was extremely friendly, and posed for a picture with Q you see to the right.
That's not all for entertainment. A remarkable group of ice skaters do a show four times during the cruise. This show is tremendous. Tickets are free but you need to get tickets to get in. Watch the Compass for times when the tickets can be picked up at Guest Services. Don't miss this show - I thought it was phenomenal.
Then there are the audience participation shows.
- There are several karaoke competitions throughout the week as well as a game where participants test their knowledge of song lyrics. A song plays for awhile, then the song stops and the competitor has to recite the next line.
- Love and Marriage follows the rules of the Newlywed game. Three couples from the crowd (newlyweds, the oldest couple and someone in the middle) answer utterly humiliating questions.
- The Quest divides the audience into several teams. Each team competes to provide whatever the host asks for in a form of a scavenger hunt. For example, the host might ask for a business card. Or a Compass. Or . . . the quest might be something like "bring me five bras" and yep, women are ripping off their bras and tossing them to their team captains. Or the quest might be to dress up a guy as a girl and points are given to the best "girl/guy". The game is outrageously funny, definitely adult-oriented - and it only happens once per cruise, so if you want to see it, you have to get there at least 40 minutes early. No tickets, first come first served. We got there 15 minutes early the first cruise and got turned away.
Finally, there are the crew members' shows. The crew puts on a welcome show and a farewell show on the first and last nights. Then there is a circus parade through the promenade. This parade is amazing. The lights and costumes look like the parade was designed by Tim Burton - it's surreal.
Other Cruisers - I was very disappointed with many of the cruisers, who seemed hell-bent on complaining constantly. Remember what I wrote above about the Swim With Simba activity at Little French Key? I heard two people bitching loudly about that; their complaint was that you aren't actually swimming when you're in the water with the jaguar, you're only wading. It shouldn't be called SWIM with Simba, they griped.
Surveys - After your cruise, you will receive a survey from Royal Caribbean to rate each aspect of your trip on a scale of 1 to 10.
On the first cruise trip report, I explained a ridiculous process whereby any rating less than a 10 was considered a failed grade.
I asked employees about this on our latest cruise, and I'm happy to report that this policy may have been changed. From what I was told, ratings of 7-10 are now considered positive.
That is much more reasonable and I was happy to hear it.
Understand that this survey is very important. Our room steward and both dining room servers brought it up and asked us to complete the surveys and hopefully rank them highly.
When you do your cruise, be sure to complete the survey and take care of the people who made your trip so fun.
Here are some items I purchased in advance of this trip that I found particularly useful.
- round-tipped scissors
- GOOD QUALITY sunscreen - we got badly burned because we used the cheap stuff. Get the best sunscreen you can find.
- Aloe - You'll probably get burned in spite of using sunscreen. We used a TON of aloe and it saved us a great deal of suffering.
- Sticky notes
I had several recommended purchases on my first trip report, and I used all of these items on our second cruise. They included:
- Casio Men's MRW200H-1BV Black Resin Dive Watch
- Belkin 3-Outlet Mini Travel Swivel Charger Surge Protector with Dual USB Ports, 5 Charging Outlets Total
- DRY PAK DP-44 Alligator Waterproof Wallet
- Kanu Surf Men's CB Rashguard UPF 50+ Swim Tees
- Personal Business Cards - When I wanted to share my email, phone or website information. You can get these for FREE from Vista Print.
Nikon D5300 - I shot mostly with the 10-20 and the 18-140 lenses. I did use my 75-300 lens on the Wildlife Adventure. The long zoom worked well but there is significant fall off of light in the corners. In the future I'll use that lens only when I need to. The 18-35 didn't see much use, but it produced really sharp photos when I did use it.
Sony DSC-RX100 - The Sony worked great for a pocket camera. Very easy to carry around and whip out for snapshots.
GoPro HERO4 Silver and HERO4 Black - I used the HELL out of both these cameras. On excursions, time lapse photography, wandering the ship, under water - I was shooting the GoPros all the time. Q had fun shooting the Silver during excursions, especially while snorkeling. All of the video that will be shown on this page was taken with the two GoPro action cameras.
We used a lot of mounts for the GoPros, including:
- Gimbals - See my equipment page for more information.
- GoPro Suction Cup Mount - stuck to our balcony window for shooting time-lapse videos of our departures from ports.
- Smatree® Head mount and chest mount - we wore our GoPros while entering the fray of the Promenade deck sales. Very fun.
- Smatree® SmaPole S1 - Q used the GoPole while shooting video of Simba.
- Bobber Bundle by CamKix - These waterproof mounts float and were ideal for underwater videos while snorkeling.
OverBoard Waterproof Pro-Sport Roll-Top SLR Camera Bag, 15-Liter - This worked well around water but doubled as a small camera bag around the ship.
Back pack camera bag - this bag held the Nikon, three lenses, two GoPros, an external flash unit, two gimbals and a host of mounts and batteries. My brother loaned me this bag so I don't have the details on the specific model.
Photo Storage and Backup - Over the course of this cruise we shot 275GB of photos and videos. That's right - more than a quarter of a terrabyte. I knew in advance that we would fill up the media cards so I planned ahead.
I discovered a product that allows you to transfer files from media cards to an external hard drive without using a computer - you install a free app on your smart phone and manage the files on your cards, copy or move files to external hard drive, and more. The device is called Kingston MobileLite Wireless Flash Reader G2 MLWG2. Simple, portable, convenient - this, coupled with a WD 2TB portable external hard drive, was the perfect option for backing up the images.
Fortunately, I tested this product before going on the cruise. The first device didn't work at all. Kingston jumped through hoops to get me a replacement in time for the cruise . . . and while this device worked, the application you use to control it was very buggy. Copying 20 files was no problem. Copy a large number of files and the app failed. This meant if you shot 500 photos, you would have to copy them 25 at a time - which takes forever.
Also, the hard drive is powered by the Kingston G2 device and I found that the device's battery didn't last very long. It also took a long time to charge.
At the last minute I realized I couldn't rely on the Kingston G2. I ended up bringing my notebook computer along to perform the file transfers.
Every evening I'd hook the external drive to my notebook, then copy the files from the media cards to the external. (Actually, I had two external drives and copied files to both of them - I always put my files in two places rather than one in case of a hard drive failure.) Then I was able to clear the media cards and use them again the next day.
I wish the Kingston G2 worked as it should have - I loved the product in principle. Unfortunately, the device, or the application more specifically, was a complete failure. If you don't shoot as many photos or you don't mind spending lots of time copying files, you might give it a try. Just test it thoroughly before you have to rely on it.
Caribbean Cruise Travel Photographs
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