On our last cruise, somewhere in the Caribbean, the wife and I met with the Future Cruise guy, and signed up to sail on the Carnival Magic during Spring Break in 2017, from April 8-15th. If you were on that one, write a comment.
So on Friday the 7th we began our arduous journey to Port Canaveral. The first thing you have to know about driving from South Carolina to Florida during spring break is, it sucks. There’s just no way around it. Our state pays the lowest gas tax in the nation (so I’ve heard) and as such there is little money to fix and improve roads. Although I-95 in Georgia and Florida are three lanes the whole way, in South Carolina: they’re only 2. It’s not a terrible route until you get south of the I-95/I-26 intersection, then it slows down sometimes to a crawl. We made it through, even after the WAZE app tried to get me to get off and go around, and, like water through a fire hose, got squirted out into the relatively wide open space that is Georgia.
Georgia is pretty, but boring. You’re almost within sight of the ocean for a lot of the drive, and it’s all marshland and lazy rivers, with few opportunities to get off the interstate for food and gas. But finally you go over one last bridge and you’re in Florida. We stopped in Jacksonville for the night and stayed with some relatives, then it was up the next day for the 2.5 hour drive to Port Canaveral.
Port Canaveral is my absolute favorite of all the ports I’ve been to. Charleston is convenient, but because it’s downtown you have to deal with traffic. Miami sucks. There’s no organization at the port, it’s like a free-for-all, and I-95 ends in downtown Miami, so you have to deal with confusing directions and getting across traffic through 4 or 5 lanes to make right and left turns several times before hopefully getting the right terminal, because Miami terminal is huge. Plus there’s the depressing GPS that says, “Take I-95 south for 500 miles, then keep right.” NO! Port Lauderdale is just about as bad distance-wise, but at least it’s organized.
But Canaveral is a thing of beauty. First it is out in the middle of no-damn-where. Since apparently space isn’t important anymore there’s not a lot of traffic around the cape. You get off I-95 and go east along a 4 lane causeway, get to the terminal which only holds two or three ships, and they have actual traffic cops to get you a spot with the porters right by the door. Then you park across the street using pre-paid parking, and walk right in. We always try to get to the port an hour after they start letting you on. Usually the lines are down a bit and there’s not much of a wait. This time there was a huge line to get into the building, but it went pretty quickly. I think half the problem was people not knowing what to do with passports and health forms.
Before they let you on the boat you have to produce your passport (or license and birth certificate), your boarding pass, and your health form. They spell all this out on the web site and even let you download and print everything before you go. Yet there’s always someone that’s missing stuff, or it’s in their bag they just gave the porter, or they have to put down everything they are carrying (because they’re trying to carry on 6 suitcases small enough to fit in the X-Ray). The most common forgotten item seems to be the Health Form.
If you’ve never cruised before, they make you promise that you’re not sick, feverish, have the runs, or are past 24 weeks pregnant. Since you probably paid $3,000 or so to get there, probably don’t have trip insurance, and if you did start feeling sick its only in the last day or two, you’re probably going to lie on the form. So we take loads of hand sanitizer. They give you the forms to print out, but there’s always a line of people at the health form table filling out their lies.
Finally through the third stage (passport check, x-ray, health forms/door keys), you’re shoved off past the photo guys and up a ramp to get onboard. This is when I start feeling good. Up until now, anything could happen. I have HUGE cruise day anxiety. From the ride there (where I could have a flat, an accident, or even some total catastrophic engine failure), to the port issues (like parking, porters, forgotten luggage), to the check-in process (did I remember the passports, the health forms, the boarding passes, and did getting gas in Florida trigger the bank to lock out my credit/debit card?), I’m always worried something bad will happen to keep me off the boat. But the moment they wave you through check-in over to the photographers, there’s a sigh of relief. It keeps getting more relaxing the whole way up the ramp, and then when you step across onto the deck, it’s all good. You’re on.
The first thing we do is check our room. It’s nice to see where you’ll be spending 7 or 8 days, drop your carry on bags, and maybe use the bathroom (especially if you just lied on the health form and you’ve got the runs). This trip, I had a surprise for the wife (not the runs). Our last cruise was on Carnival Sunshine. Every night after they finished the shows, they turned the lounge into a sort of night club by removing the tables and pushing the chairs to the side. Then they club it up until like 2am.
When I initially booked this cruise, we have a room way far forward, under the lounge. I was scared there would be a noise issue, and paid for a different room midship with a surprise – a Cove Balcony. We weren’t under the lounge, instead we were under the galley. A move we would come to regret. But the wife didn’t know about the balcony, because I kept it secret. So I opened the curtain and she was like, “whaaaaat?” Then we went upstairs to eat. Because on a cruise you have to eat at least five times a day.
The first thing we noticed over the Sunshine was this boat was a lot wider, and a deck taller. I kept trying to go to deck 9 for food during the first three days of the cruise, but on this ship Deck 10 was where they slopped us hogs. They had divided the food areas into three separate areas. Outside by the pool (yes there were already drunks and people in bikinis even though the boat hadn’t moved) was Guy’s Burger Joint and the bars. At the rear pool there was pizza and another bar. In the middle of all this was a forward buffet line and stir-fry hibachi place. Then there was a separate aft buffet line with different stuff and the Italian place. I’m not sure what it is with Carnival, but the Italian place is always staffed by Russians.
Before we left it was time for the Muster Drill. This is where they usually force you onto the utilitarian area of the deck and group you into lifeboat groups in case the boat sinks or burns up. They give you a safety demonstration with life jackets and talk about what to do in an emergency. Usually by now the alcoholics on board are already half inebriated, and some even bring drinks to the drill itself. I know it’s Carnival, sort of the Wal-Mart of cruise lines, but people, please: Try to stay reasonably sober until the drill is done. On the magic it was a bit nicer, they grouped us inside and the Cruise Director read the instructions over the intercom in a variety of vocal impressions. It was our first meeting of “Dr. E”.
He sucked. I still remember my first cruise director, a rather large stout Englishman who told some hilarious stories. Then there was a more recent one, Jamie D., who was really funny and attractive. She was American (I know right, an American staff member?). On our most recent cruise, the CD was some English or Australian woman who wasn’t great, but still memorable. This guy just sucked. He LOVED to hear himself talk and would come on the intercom and jabber on for ten minutes, not only telling you what was going on around the ship, but pushing sales of stuff in the stores, photo places, and bars. It was sort of like being trapped watching an irritating car commercial where they scream at you.
So, finally underway. I was able to locate a section on the front of the ship as near to the Titanic “King of the World” scene as they allow you to get these days. SO, If you’re on the Magic – go to deck 10 and go all the way forward until you’re looking at stateroom doors. At the end of the hall turn left or right and go out the little unmarked door with the porthole. Theres a second door at the end of the short hallway that leads to a curved balcony that anyone can use, but there’s almost NO ONE there. It runs around the entire front of the ship so if you want to look out either side you can. You can also go down a deck to 9, and stand on the roof of the bridge, on the little wings that stick out the side of the ship. Again, it’s another balcony that almost no one uses except in port. You can get some great pictures there looking off the front of the ship.
While I’m standing there looking out with a few other people, they blast the horn and we’re off. I got to watch us leave port, which was fun, and within ten minutes the pilot boat was gone and we were out in the ocean. There’s a beach right next to the terminal, and people were screaming and waving at us. It was impressive, more like the “Old Movie Feel” of old cruises, than the modern utilitarian Airport feeling most departures give you.
That evening, we met our tablemates. For the last three cruises we’ve wound up at tables alone. I HATE shared tables. I guess I know why the tradition persists. Boats get full, so instead of sticking three parties of three at three tables for four and having 3 empty seats total, you put the nine people together. I get that. But I hate it. I don’t like forced social situations and would prefer not to have to interact with others in that setting. The people were really nice, though. The other families were from Conway, SC and from Lexington, SC, so at least they didn’t dump us in with a bunch of foreigners or yankees or weird eaters. No one at the table was vegan or part of the gluten-free fad or anti-GMO crowd. We all liked our meat, bread and sweet tea. And even though they were from the South, no one seemed overtly religious and asked to join hands and pray or anything. I was REALLY glad for that.
Overnight, we learned the hazards of being under the galley. I noticed in the lounge that the seats and tables were bolted to the floor, so there would be no moving stuff around for a nightclub like on the Sunshine. At 2am we learned that apparently in the galley there’s a crew bowling tournament where they use beer kegs and water jugs. I also think they were forging swords on anvils up there. I can’t explain the noise any other way. I complained to the steward the next morning, but the noise continued the whole week. The future cruise guy told me the rooms under the galley are the worst on the ship for noise, and to avoid it if possible.
Our following day was a Day At Sea. Days at sea mean different things to different people. For some people it means laying out by the pool and drinking. My family is quite pale. In mid-winter we give Snow White a run for “Who’s the Fairest of them all”. For white people, we are REALLY white. We burn quite easily and thus use lots of SPF 8000 sunscreen, which keeps us white instead of red. Unfortunately it keeps us white instead of tan. But that’s okay, because I’ve “Lobsterized” myself before, and it’s no fun sleeping on your stomach on the floor with a wet towel on your back, and having someone peel crackling skin off of you. So we tend to stay inside with our whiteness for the most part, an play trivia and other games that old pale white people enjoy. We learned the “Thriller” dance from Michael Jackson’s video, but we’ve done this on three cruises now and the steps are always a bit different.
Day 2 – Dominican Republic. The wife and I had never been to the Dominican Republic. I found it interesting and pretty, and she didn’t. The first thing about the DR was it was supposed to rain. They loaded us on these Outback Adventures open-air trucks and took us to a plantation of sorts where they make chocolate and coffee, as well as grow things like plantains. It rained the whole time and we drove through a few rushing creeks to get there. The phrase “Turn Around, Don’t Drown” is apparently unknown in the Dominican Republic. Our tour guide, Yoki (pronounced like the English word “Jockey”) was very down to Earth and even said the word “shit” like 5 times. After surviving the creek crossings (made worse because of the downpour, I guess), they took us to their outpost and fed us while some ladies in Carnival (the party, not the cruise line) outfits danced for us in traditional styles. After that it was off to the beach.
I wasn’t a big fan of the beach in Dominica. It was on the Atlantic Side, in the middle of nowhere with no bathrooms. The beach was narrow, without much room. They provided Boogie Boards and the tour guides acted as lifeguards because apparently the currents there could get bad, and they didn’t want you going past the breakers, since the next stop on your trip would be Cuba. But Yoki showed Kaylee how to boogie-board. When it was over we went back to the boat. The countryside was interesting but typical of Caribbean islands, there was a lot of poor mixed in with the beauty. The traffic was crazy and I was convinced we were going to kill a motorbike rider before the day was done.
While in Dominica I bought a bottle of wine and a bottle of Pineapple Liqueur. When we got back to the boat, of course we had to go through x-ray and they pointed me towards the Liquor Nazi. Cruise ships don’t want you bringing liquor on board, because they way overcharge for drinks and they want to profit off of that. They also want to control how much you can drink, so they like knowing if you’re acting like a drunken fool, they can cut you off. They will confiscate your booze and then return it to you the last night of the voyage. So, I have come up with a few ways of sneaking my booze past the booze Nazi. They involve subterfuge and misdirection, much in the same way a magician pulls a quarter from behind your ear. No, I won’t reveal my methods here. I’m sorry, but I need to keep them to myself in case they become enough of a practice that the booze nazis figure it out. It was a relief to get past the crew and hide my liquor in the stateroom. If you do sneak liquor on board, hide it in a closed suitcase or backpack. If you leave it in the open, they WILL take it. But, if it disappears from a closed suitcase, you know the steward has been going through your stuff instead of just cleaning, and you’ve got a heck of a complaint on them.
It’s always a bit of a relief to get back on the boat after an excursion. I have a fear of something happening and the boat leaving us behind. I went out to the balcony when it was time to leave. A young woman about six balconies aft of me stuck her head out as the thrusters came on and we started moving. She looked at me and yelled, “Are we LEAVING?” in a very frightened voice. I said yes and she ducked back in saying “Oh my GOD!” I really would like to know the story behind that. I’m assuming maybe she had a cabin for one after we left Dominica?
That night was “Formal Night”. Formal night is optional, but if you want to eat the the main dining room, you are supposed to dress up. Despite my protestations to the contrary, my wife strongly urged me to wear a suit jacket. A lot of men have dumped the jacket and just wear a button up shirt and tie with some slacks. Formal today just doesn’t mean what it used to, thank goodness. I tried to get the wife to save some packing room and dump the suit for a nice button up shirt, tie, and slacks, but she would have none of that. We took a few awful pictures after dinner, and went straight to one of the shows. I REALLY like the Magic’s theater over the Sunshine’s. It’s a large theater, and unlike on the Sunshine, you don’t have to show up 30 minutes early just to get a seat. Even during the show I noticed a lot of empty seats.
The next day, we rolled into St. Thomas. We’ve been there a few times, and it’s always nice. We lined up right on the pier and got on a ship to St. John. The wife hated it. This trip was pretty turbulent on the water, and the little boat was no exception. She wound up moving to the back of the boat at the Captain’s suggestion, and felt much better back there. St. Thomas was also considered a US territory, and AT&T worked there, so I got to catch up on both e-mails from work AND facebook. Time to send pictures and make the people at home jealous.
Once on St. John, they took us to Trunk Bay, considered one of the top ten beaches in the world. I’m not sure why. Yes, it was pretty, but the beach was also sort of narrow without a lot of shade unless you went into the trees off the beach. The facilities were okay (it had a small beach bar and place to get a drink), but not overwhelming. I liked it, and would go back, but I’m not sure why it’s one of the top 10 in the world. We snorkled a bit but the current kept pushing us to one side, between a small island and the main island. The small island was only 100 yards away or so, but they didn’t want anyone going to it and kept fussing at people.
When it was time to go I put on my purple shirt with the Flying Spaghetti Monster logo on it, and while I was turning my snorkel in, a man said, “May you be blessed by His Noodly Appendage”. I was shocked and felt relief that I had met a like-minded soul. R’amen.
The trip back to St. Thomas was uneventful as well, although the seats in the back filled up and the wife had to sit by herself again. We walked right off the little boat, across the pier and onto the big boat. Safe onboard, it was time to eat. No formal night tonight, just unlimited bread in a box.
The following morning we rolled into San Juan, and I really do mean rolled. The waves were pretty steady at 4-5 feet. Every now and then the boat would shudder as we hit one just right. The wife would ask “What was that?” and I’d say, “We hit another whale”. We were late getting into San Juan and parked at a difference place than normal, because apparently someone climbed the fence and was messing around at the main terminal overnight, so they had to move us. We parked right next to the Norwegian Gem, which was pretty impressive. The piers look pretty wide most of the time, but with that other boat parked next to us, it looked like a narrow back alley.
We filed out of the ship after the main crowd got off, and walked around old San Juan on our own. San Juan is somewhere you really don’t need to pay for exorbitant excursions. Everything to see in Old Town is within walking distance of the ship. Theres an old fort (San Christobal), although El Morro on the point is nicer, you can get a taxi and do a walking tour in about an hour. Colon’ plaza is right up the hill from the boat, as well as old city hall, some really old church, and if you walk the other way (east) there’s the capitol building and a long display of bronze statues of US Presidents. There’s plenty of vendors selling counterfeit merchandise and lots of little places to eat. There’s also Starbucks.
The rain was coming, so we didn’t stay in San Juan very long. I’ve been here five times and haven’t gotten a geocache yet. Next time, damnit. Next time. We were back on the boat before the mad rush and watched the rain roll in while we played trivia.
Our last stop was Grand Turk. We were late getting there because some idiot decided to sink their sailboat in 7-8 foot seas, and had washed up on a little island in shallow water. Our boat had to head that way in case they needed rescuing, but the water was too shallow for the cruise ship and we just hung out until the Coast Guard arrived to help them out. Grand Turk is a nice place, Carnival owns the port and there’s only room for two ships. When we arrived there was a Norwegian CL ship next to us, but they were going to leave first. We got off the boat and looked around in the little shops. They have a fenced-off area with chain stores like Del Sol, Margaritaville, Diamonds International, and all the standard big name cruise shops that they try and get you to hit up in ports. The locals can’t go in this area and harass the cruise ship passenger to buy crafts and hock tours and hair braiding, so it’s nice. There are two beaches with free umbrellas and chairs and such. They have greatly increased the amount of stuff available.
Once we had looked at the overpriced cruise wares in the shops, we went back to the boat, changed, and went back out to the beaches. We tried the area to the right of the pier first because it was less crowded. We found out why really quickly. There is a rocky reef that’s hard to walk over, and keeps you from getting to the swimming area. If you just want to lay in the sun or under an umbrella, this is the side you want. So we moved to the other side where there are few rocks and you can actually swim. After about an hour in the semi-cool water, we were ready to get out, tired and hungry. We boarded the ship quickly because we didn’t wait until the last minute, and watched Grand Turk disappear into the distance.
The last Sea Day is always both relaxing and disappointing. There are no more islands to look forward to, just getting home. Then there is the repacking and all the last evening. It was very bumpy and windy. They shut down the ropes course, so the daughter and I never got to do that. Rain and wind killed the pool deck, so everyone came inside. The biggest indoor game draw of the week seemed to be the Friends and Harry Potter trivia games, we had the whole deck 5 plaza full of people. There was a side door that people kept coming in, and with 40mph winds blowing across the plaza inside the ship every time it happened, the crew finally turned the door off and blocked it. We played a little of the slots in the “Cancer Club Casino”. I’m sort of glad they allow smoking in there, because I might spend more money if I didn’t worry so much about hacking up a lung on the trip home. I lost $10.
We have learned to pack light and carry off our own stuff. On our first cruise we have about five bags for me and the wife. Now we are down to a bag each for the wife, daughter and I, plus a backpack for me and the wife. That’s pretty much it. The schedule on the paper they gave us said our “zone” would be released about 1030am. BUT if we wanted to carry off our own stuff, we could leave at about 8:00. They were even faster than they estimated, and we were off the boat in the car before 8:00am. It was a whizz getting through customs and out the terminal.
My only concern was the coffee. You’re not supposed to bring back plant and animal products without declaring them. There’s some huge fine and penalties if you don’t, and there are certain things you can’t bring back at all. I bought the wife Roses once on an anniversary cruise. Even though they put them on the ship in Florida, and they never left the ship, I couldn’t bring them back into the US and we had to dump them in the trash. So here I am bringing foreign coffee into the country. The customs guy didn’t even look twice at the declaration form. He took it from me, put it in a pile, and looked at our passports. That was it. You used to have to meet with the customs agents before getting off the ship, but they don’t do that any more.
The worst part of the trip? The drive home. If you thought driving SOUTH on 95 was bad, drive north into South Carolina during the end of spring break. Not only do you have all the cruise and Disney people going home. All the old people and northerners wintering in Florida are clogging the freeway since Spring has sprung. I swear every other license plate was new york/new jersey. We got near the Georgia/South Carolina border and WAZE told me to get off. We took a scenic tour of the SC Low Country and passed a Welcome to South Carolina sign in the middle of a swamp, but we skipped a lot of the worst part of the interstate. We got home two hours later than WAZE predicted, but we did skip traffic and stop to eat at Tijuana Flats.
If you don’t have the WAZE app – get it. WAZE is a user-fed GPS/Traffic program. It works like a normal GPS, telling you how to get places. But it knows where other users are along the route and how the traffic is moving. It uses that information, as well as user-inputs like construction zones, accidents, and stopped traffic, to automatically reroute you. You can add stuff as you go along, such as police (hidden or visible), objects in the road, vehicles on the shoulder, roadkill, bad potholes, etc., all with safety in mind. The app will warn you when you are approaching these things, and you can confirm they are there or you can say they are gone. It’s a really helpful and fun app, just don’t try putting in roadkill while you’re doing 80 on someone’s bumper.
Oh and here’s our cruise movie:
I apologize for the bad resolution but since I use the Vimeo free side, I’m limited to 500mb movie uploads at any one time.