Monday, August 18, 2008

Our First Cruise

Husband and returned from our Caribbean cruise yesterday. It was our first, and we had a great time. We set sail from Galveston, TX on August 10th on the Carnival Conquest, one of the largest cruise ships in operation. We stayed in a balcony stateroom on the Lido deck, which was a good choice for us. Husband smokes, and even though there are several places onboard where one can comfortably puff away, it was handy to have our own private area.

The Carnival Conquest in port (from Wikipedia)

A nifty cutaway of the Conquest (from the Carnival website -- click to enlarge)

Balcony stateroom (from the Carnival website)

The ship was attractively designed and decorated with an Impressionist theme, from the Monet and Renoir dining rooms to the Toulouse-Lautrec show lounge. The first thing you realize about a cruise is that it's a non-stop food-fest. Food is everywhere, and except for a very snazzy reservations-only supper club, it's all-inclusive. The only thing you pay for is alcohol and soda. (Apparently many guests drink so much soda that Carnival has a soda credit card that you use to get your fix around the ship.) The ship has a buffet restaurant (which we skipped), gourmet sandwich bar, sushi bar, seafood bar, chinese and pizza restaurants, plus the formal dining rooms, midnight food parties, and room service. The food in the dining room was better than expected, and featured fare like rack of lamb, filet mignon, roast duck, and lobster. Our waiters were very friendly and professional, and they sure put on a show. Right about the time everyone is finished with the main course the maƮtre d' makes an announcement and then music starts playing, the waiters dance with everyone, dance on the tables, and sing.

We tried to experience as much of the ship as possible. We went to afternoon tea where they serve tea and little sandwiches and cakes while a trio plays classical music. We gambled in the casino, where I won quite a bit at blackjack. And we went to almost all of the shows, which ranged from Vegas-style revues to stand-up comics. My favorite show was a French-themed revue called "Formidable," and the production was first-rate. We saw a very funny comic one night -- can't remember his name, but I think he's a writer for the Tonight Show. The last night they had an elaborate karaoke featuring talented (and not-so-talented) guests from the cruise singing pop songs in costume -- they had Elvis, Elton John, Madonna, and an Asian man who did a wonderful Frank Sinatra at the end with "My Way." We played bingo a few times, walked around the Promenade a lot, and had drinks in the lounge where a singing duo was perpetually entertaining everyone.

The ship's crew were varied in nationality (home countries are listed on all crew name tags). It was interesting to note the division along lines of nationality according to the job. The captain and officers were all Italian; the purser's office and entertainment crew were all, with one exception, British or South African; the waitstaff were all eastern European (especially Serbian and Croatian), Indonesian, and South American. We saw only one American crewmember, who was an entertainment host. Our waiter in the dining room was a very nice man from Colombia. For some reason, he thought I was English. I don't think he was able to detect the difference in accent -- it's possible I have some residual Canadian accent, but that still doesn't sound English.

The ports of call were all enjoyable. First was Montego Bay where we opted for a day at Sandals all-inclusive resort (I wonder if it's the one Michael Scott visited). We took a short bus ride with our informative guide, Charmaine, who gave us information about Jamaica and the area of Montego Bay. In case you're wondering, everyone does say "Mon" and "No problem." To the tourists, anyway. My step-mother is Jamaican, and grew up not far from Montego Bay (then again, everything is not far from everything else in tiny Jamaica). The resort was very nice, except the security guys take pay-offs to let these scruffy rasta guys paddle around the beach on surf boards pestering the guests to buy souvenirs and drugs. We saw a few people from our excursion buy cocaine, and one rasta guy put a bunch of pot in Husband's hands when he was buying me a necklace and was trying to persuade him to take it. Thankfully, Husband isn't into that and declined. Montego Bay was very pretty, but on the bus ride to and from the resort we saw some of the poorer parts of town, and the poverty was very apparent. It's real poverty, not the kind that's frequently touted in the U.S., because all of the Jamaican children we saw on the street were skinny. When we got back to the terminal, I bought some Jamaican rum from the Appleton estate and a couple of pounds of the famous Blue Mountain coffee -- supposedly the best in the world.

My toes relaxing on the beach at Sandals Royal Caribbean

Children in Montego Bay

The next stop was Grand Cayman, which was very affluent by the looks of it. We took a catamaran ride out to the sandbar and snorkeled with the stingrays. Husband and I got to hold a stingray and feed a few of them. They are extremely friendly creatures. They swim between your legs and constantly brush up against you. And when you pick them up, they curl up the front where the mouth is and want to nuzzle and kiss. They are a female-dominated species -- the males are only about 14 inches across, but the females are very large and in charge. Later we had lunch and wandered around town a bit. I'd definitely go back to Grand Cayman for a vacation.

Stingray City sandbar off Grand Cayman

The last excursion was in Mexico. We disembarked on the island of Cozumel, and took a fastboat to the mainland at Playa del Carmen where the water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise. The boat-ride was rather unsettling for me -- the water in the Yucatan strait was very choppy, and the boat went fast and was all over the place. Husband got a kick out of it, but I wanted the ride to be over ASAP. The first thing we saw when we got to shore was a bunch of heavily armed military guys with a pitbull, which was a little jarring after the laid-back nature of Jamaica and Grand Cayman. We took a bus ride to Tulum to visit the Mayan ruins. Our tour guide, Manuel, was very knowledgable about the ruins and the Mayan culture and lectured on the interesting points as we drove along. We stopped on the way to buy some souvenirs from the locals. I got some clay pots and an "authentic" Mayan calendar (the one that predicts something big happening on December 21, 2012). This excursion came with a snack: a bag of Doritos, a Mexican Ding Dong, and a Corona. When we got to Tulum it was very hot, about 105 degrees with no shade anywhere. Thank goodness we brought hats, but we saw that the guides and the experienced tourists had umbrellas with them. We got a guided tour through the ruins, and then spent the rest of the afternoon looking around on our own and swimming in the gorgeous turquoise ocean 40 feet below. When the ship set sail, a military boat with mounted guns escorted us back to sea. Again, different from the other ports of call where the only escort we had out of port was a little pilot boat.

Mayan ruins at Tulum

We had three and a half days at sea, which I enjoyed as much as the ports of call. There is so much to do. Husband and I spent a lot of time relaxing in our cabin, and even managed to work out in the spa. We walked around the ship a lot and formed a generally good opinion of it. But one thing I did not anticipate was the amount of riff-raff on the ship. Maybe it was years of watching The Love Boat as a kid, but I was expecting more upper-class and older people. Carnival seems to appeal to a younger crowd, especially singles and young families. There were lots of loud obnoxious people (the kind Hyacinth Bucket would refer to as "rather common"), especially the kind of guys who wear stupid novelty hats, drink too much, and shout "Wooooooo!!!!" at everything. Lots of rambunctious kids, too, and it was kind of shocking that we would see some rather young ones wandering the ship at night without their parents. We mostly stayed away from the places where riff-raff congregated, so it was almost as if they weren't there. But the next cruise we take I'd like to be a bit more upscale, where people dress nicer and have more decorum, especially as I really enjoyed dressing up on the formal nights. Our cruise agent is suggesting an Alaska cruise on Celebrity.

It's Monday morning, and I have to prepare for my first day as Professor Stapers, even though I'm feeling kind of wobbly. My sea-legs were fine, but I haven't regained my land-legs yet -- we've been home for half a day now, and I still feel like I'm on the ocean. Hopefully that wears off.


Blogger Kevin said...

So, you and hubby going to make it to Reno this year? ;-)

Looks like the cruise was a good time!

8/18/2008 8:50 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

The cruise was great! It makes such a nice vacation because you are truly away from it all. We lost all sense of time on the ship. Can't wait to go again!

As for Reno, TBD, but we'll really try.

8/20/2008 8:21 AM  
Anonymous Kirk said...

Man, Stingray city was busy... I have never seen it that crowded.

When we went there was only one other boat.

We stayed near there and did not see that many people the whole two weeks.


8/21/2008 5:45 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Maybe it's the time of year? And there were two other cruise ships at port that day.

8/22/2008 8:30 AM  
Anonymous last minute cruise vacations said...

looks amazingly beautiful! we were supposed to go on a cruise but because of hurricaine season Major cruise lines have had to switch up their itineraries, but sometimes for the better. An example of this can be seen with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Their last port of call on their Bahamas and Caribbean sailings is Coco Cay

9/04/2008 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12/04/2008 7:58 PM  

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