Last week, my wife and I took our first Caribbean cruise. It wasn't our first time in the area, but we're normally independent travelers who do it all on our own. It was actually one trip to St. Maarten watching passengers board the cruise ships in port (and meeting a few on the beach) when I started to get a little jealous, and well, here we are.
So, was it fun? Yes! The weather didn't fully cooperate, but I love ships, I love water, and any weather too warm to snow in February is okay with me. So, any Caribbean cruise has a lot going for it in my book, rain or shine.
We took the Emerald Princess on a 5 night western Caribbean "sampler", with stops in Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. That's our ship parked in Jamaica at the top of this post. It's a beautiful ship, though I somehow didn't get any close-up pictures from the front. The stern is a little weird - I do prefer a more traditional ocean liner silhouette. But Emerald Princess is still nicely balanced and kind of elegant.
Why the Emerald Princess? It really just fit our schedule. And I'm a child of the 70's and 80's - the Love Boat connection isn't lost on me. Our cruise even had a Julie! (Frenchie was our deputy cruise director.)
Not surprisingly "The Piazza" is the first thing you see when you board. This is the heart of the ship for passengers; it's kind of a multi-level indoor mall complete with grand spiral staircases leading to restaurants, bars, shops and live entertainment. When we arrived, there was a guy at the grand piano down there - classy! It's supposed to remind you of first class sea travel from a bygone era, and I think it's probably pretty close, albeit juiced up with a lot of extra revenue opportunities for the cruise line. They will take your money in any number of ways.
We were pretty happy with the size of our stateroom. This is a "mini-suite" on Dolphin deck (deck 9), which has a separate sleeping and sitting area including two TV's. Of course it also has a balcony, as most of the outside-facing cabins on this ship do. Unfortunately we didn't really spend that much time there on this cruise - too chilly and wet.
Our "cabin boy" (yes they still call them that, and he himself did too!) brought us a welcome glass of champagne before we headed upstairs to watch the sailaway. Nice!
We were in cabin D730, the second to last cabin on Dolphin deck. This picture is looking towards the bow, with the ship terminal on the left. You can see that the balconies on this deck are totally exposed to the elements - not necessarily a plus or minus (some people do like to lay in the sun), but it does also rain in the Caribbean.
The ship has a sailaway party on the upper decks that starts when boarding starts and ends when the ship's at sea. That's the Celebrity Constellation next to us at port, one of a bunch of other cruise ships that left right around the same time we did.
There's the Celebrity Constellation following us out of port. If you squint, you can see the massive Oasis of the Seas next in line in our little convoy. Ahead of us was the Holland America Line's Westerdam.
I was a little disappointed that people don't really line up anymore and throw confetti and streamers over the side when leaving port, but I understand it - what a pointless environmental punch in the face that must have been! People do wave, though, both from the ship and the shore.
Our first day at sea was spent exploring and figuring everything out... with a little relaxation on the balcony thrown in. The weather looks nice enough in the photo above but it was a little cold to be laying by the pool or swimming in it. Modern cruise ships are so big, though, that it takes at least a day just to get your bearings. We were happy to find that we had a table for two in the dining room - and we'd have that same table every night for the next five days.
An example of dinner in the DaVinci dining room. The food was generally very, very good, and a different menu every night. Breakfast at the upstairs buffet was a little iffy, but lunch and dinner were always fantastic. We didn't try any of the extra-fee restaurants - no need.
Our route took us in a circle around Cuba. Much of the time we were even in sight of it, and at no time was I ever really nervous about being too far out for rescue in a worst case scenario. Throughout most of the cruise, we were even in sight of other cruise ships on similar routings. Probably good for a first timer, although I never came close to being seasick and I do love the water. So I'd probably have been fine even in the middle of the Atlantic.
Those first couple nights, our ship was rocking and rolling. Watch for the giant waves crashing over the bow in the distance in the video above. The weather was a little crazy - not stormy, but windy and cold (for the Caribbean). The ship channel on TV was showing 40 knot winds (about 50mph) and sea swells of 10-15 feet. That's nothing like what the Anthem of the Seas was going through around the same time, but it's still pretty bad for a cruise ship. Even on a big ship like this, you sure as hell feel the motion of the ocean. During dinner, my wife said it felt like being in a four star restaurant in the middle of an extended earthquake.
Incidentally, if you ever book a cruise yourself and you're wondering about the downsides of a stateroom at the stern, engine vibration is definitely something to think about.
You can feel this pretty much all the time. Some people might not notice it, but I did. Otherwise, you get less up and down movement at the back than you do at the front, so it's still not a bad location on the ship. Those poor people at the bow must have been throwing up that first night.
Our first stop at Grand Cayman ended up on the wrong side of the island because the weather closed the harbor. So we parked outside of a little tiny dock with our tenders (aka lifeboats) taking us ashore. Later we saw the other side of the island - it's amazing how different the sea can be just a couple miles away. All was calm on this side.
We had booked a shore excursion that took us to Hell and back. Hell is an area of rock formations that even today, apparently nobody can agree on the origins of.
This is Hell. On the DVD of the cruise that we got, the guide says these are volcanic. But our tour guide said that wasn't true; these used to be coral. Grand Cayman is earthquake prone and these just got pushed up from beneath the water. The entire island was once underwater.
We also took a trip to the Tortuga Rum Cake company, the Turtle Farm, and this...
This was the highlight of Grand Cayman - literally swimming with the fishes. And not just any fishes - those are stingrays, with their barbs intact. A boat took us about a half an hour out into the ocean(!) onto a sandbar where you could stand in about 4 feet of water. The stingrays in the area are "trained" to know that when humans are around, they're about to get fed. So they swim there with you, and you can even pick them up and feed them. It's kind of nuts! I've never done anything like this before.
OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA
A day later we docked in Jamaica. It's really amazing how big these cruise ships can be these days - compare the ship to the people walking directly next to it in the photo above. And this isn't even one of the top 20 largest cruise ships anymore!
Our excursion at this stop was an "eco walk and zipline adventure". It turned out to be a pretty strenuous day of exercise, hiking up a mountain in the Jamaican rainforest and then ziplining back down! (We needed some physical activity by that point.) There are seven ziplines on this mountain, the last of which is really long and really fast. I could write a full post just on this experience.
Lots of goats in Jamaica!
On the way back, we had just enough time to stop for some lunch. When in Jamaica... may as well drink Red Stripe.
That's the Costa Deliziosa in the background, by the way. (Soon to be a character's name in the next Mad Max film.)
Real Jamaican jerk chicken. This was unbelievably good and unbelievably spicy. As it should be.
AT SEA II
The weather never really cleared for us. It was cloudy, occasionally rainy and dank pretty much all the way. We're not used to that in the Caribbean - in St. Maarten, the weather is 80 degrees and sunny pretty much every day of the year. But this was the western Caribbean, which can apparently alternate between hot and humid and cold and rainy. We got the shorter end of that stick. Never once were able to even use the pool on the ship.
Incidentally, that's the promenade deck above - traditionally this would wrap around the entire ship on an old liner (technically it does on Emerald Princess, though it's not all on the same deck). On most older ships it would be a lot wider than this, though modern cruise ships try to maximize interior space on the middle decks and use the top decks for outdoor stuff. Still, some modern ships don't have a prom deck at all, so the traditionalist in me was happy to see this. In general, as someone who's at least stayed on the Queen Mary, I was kind of surprised at how much the Emerald Princess feels like a "real" ship. It is a real ship!
Endless hallway. Almost makes you dizzy.
So what do you do on a ship when it's cold and rainy? Drink, eat and go to shows. There's something kind of magical about being able to walk through your door and be "out". People talk about "going out" back home as if it's this huge pain in the ass (and it usually kind of is), but on a ship you're "out" any time you're not in your stateroom. A ship is a self-contained floating city, and it really feels just like staying at any other hotel, but with a lot less of a walk to your destination. We don't go to a lot of bars, movies or shows in real life, so it was fun to suddenly go to multiples of each every night for five nights.
Lots of this happened on our cruise.
(Yes it really was that dark. Pretty nice, actually. That was Skywalker's Lounge, or as I liked to call it, Luke Skywalker's Lounge.)
And of course this.
There's so much alcohol on these cruises, you may find the odd drink here and there trying to escape.
We spotted this in an elevator. Brand new cocktail sitting on the floor! What a waste of perfectly good alcohol...
Anyway, loads of fun, would recommend it, would do it again.