Many travelers I talk to in my profession have never been on a cruise and don’t know what to really expect. Cruises are one of those things you either love or hate. I have not really found many folks in the middle. Those that love them usually take one or more per year and become veteran cruisers.
Well, over the recent Thanksgiving holiday break, my wife, two children, mother and I went on an eight day Western Caribbean cruise aboard Carnival Dream. This trip was not the first cruise for any of us. However, I always enjoy sharing my itinerary with people in hopes that my experiences will inspire them in their own travels.
Here’s a synopsis of our cruise:
Day 1: Embarkation
We made it to New Orleans just a few minutes past our designated boarding time. We ran into a lot of traffic driving in on the I-10 bridge due to inspections shutting down a lane of traffic. Fortunately, we left home early enough to account for any issues. Also, you are allowed to board at any time after your boarding time–just not before.
We arrived at the Port of New Orleans cruise terminal parking garage. After paying, we entered the garage where we handed off our luggage to a porter and then parked our car. Embarkation went pretty quickly since we had a designated time and had checked in online ahead of time. So, we quickly made our way through security and on to the ship. By then, it was around 12:00 p.m., but we couldn’t get to our stateroom as they don’t open up until 1:30 p.m. unless you purchase a “Faster to the Fun” pass. Therefore, we headed up to the Lido deck for lunch.
Once we were able to get to our staterooms and our luggage was delivered, we unpacked and then went to explore the ship to get our bearings. Then, as the ship set sail around 4:00 p.m., we had a lot of fun sitting out on our balcony and watching the sunset as we made our way down the mighty Mississippi River.
Our family enjoys eating supper in the main dining room with our assigned waitstaff each night. So we were excited to get to there the first night and meet Novi, Roni, and Oshaine, our waitstaff. Additionally, we met Denis, our maitre d’. If you are like us and go to the main dining room every day, then you get attached to your wait staff and hate to leave them at the end of the cruise.
After supper, we headed to the Encore Theatre for the opening show with our Cruise Director, Alex. Considering the drive, embarkation, and excitement of being on the boat, we all slept very well as Captain Carlo continued to pilot our ship down the Mississippi River channel and out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Days 2 & 3: At Sea
One of the humbling things about a cruise is waking up the day after departure to find yourself in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. It really shows you how big of a world we live in.
Both of these days we hung around the pool and enjoyed the onboard activities, such as trivia games and just visiting with other cruisers. The evening of Day 2 was our first “elegant” night. So we dressed up in formal attire and headed down for a photo session before enjoying a nice lobster tail dinner. On most cruise lines, there are multiple entertainment options at night, including dance and comedy clubs and floor shows in the main theater, as well as movies on the Lido Deck. We tended to choose the shows in Encore and that night watched the Entertainment Crew perform some of Motor City’s classics from the Motown era.
On the afternoon of Day 3, my wife and I enjoyed a nice and relaxing couples massage in the spa. We always treat ourselves to spa services when we are on a cruise and highly recommend it. That evening, Carnival provided a “fly in guest entertainer” since this cruise included an extra day. The entertainer was Chuck Wagner, who appeared in many Broadway shows and even originated the role of Beast from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Being a musical theater fan, my wife enjoyed hearing his stories and songs from his many years on the stage. Meanwhile, the rest of us watched superheroes take on the bad guys at the Dive-In Movies on the Lido Deck.
Day 4: Costa Maya, Mexico
Today, we learned that Costa Maya is part of a small section of Mexico that is in the Eastern Time Zone. Since my phone automatically updated, my 6:45 a.m. alarm actually went off at 5:45 a.m. (ship time).
Note: Carnival stays on ‘ship time,’ which is the time zone of the departure port, despite changing time zones in the ports of call.
When we got off the ship in Costa Maya, we had quite a long walk down the pier and through the shopping center before we could get to the shuttles for our excursion. We took a very slow, open air shuttle that was being pulled by a pickup truck. I think we could have walked faster than this shuttle took us.
We arrived at the Tequila Beach Center where we found Adventuro Dive Center and met Jose’ our guide and Jorge’ our boat driver. We purchased this particular excursion through one of my suppliers, Shore Excursions Group, rather than through Carnival. Therefore, we had a private boat ride on a small skiff to go snorkeling. Jose’ joined us in the water and led us snorkeling. We didn’t see a whole lot of sea life, but we did see some pretty coral reefs and several sea turtles. My wife swears that she saw a stingray.
This excursion was our first to be purchased from a third party vendor. There are pros and cons for doing so instead of buying through the cruise line. Be sure to talk with your travel agent to find just the right excursions for you and your party.
On the way back to the ship, we took a safe (and cheaper!) taxi ride. We had another long and hot walk back to the ship, where we quickly showered off, grabbed a bite to eat, and went back off the ship for a little while to go shopping. The small shopping area was very crowded due to several cruise ships being in port, which made it very difficult to get around.
Something to remember about getting on and off the ship when traveling with minors: children are only allowed to leave and return to the ship with an adult staying in the same stateroom. For instance, we had an adjoining stateroom with my mom, but the kids were assigned to our stateroom. Therefore, if they had wanted to go somewhere with just their Gamma, my wife or I would have had to escort them off the ship and back on, again.
After shopping we returned to our room to rest before getting ready for dinner. Tonight’s show was a flashback to the 1980’s music performed by the onboard entertainment staff who are all very talented.
Day 5: Mahogany Bay, Isla Roatán
Today we woke up to the very green Roatán. A rainstorm was ending as we pulled into port, and we saw a double rainbow less than 50 feet from the ship. We felt like we could almost reach out and grab it. Unfortunately, it seemed to dive down into the ocean–so, no gold for us. I guess leprechauns breathe well underwater!
We disembarked and headed to our meeting point for our tour. We took a 40-minute drive to the West Bay part of Roatán to the Gumbalimba Park, a private sanctuary for iguanas, Capuchin monkeys, and Scarlet Macaw parrots. Our guide, August, was an orphan who began working for the park at age 17. He is now 19.
This excursion was probably one of our best, as we had the macaws sit on us and the Capuchin monkeys crawl all over us. My daughter wanted to sneak one of the monkeys home, but don’t worry–I’m more strict than Customs when it comes to wild animals!
After touring the park and grabbing a bite to eat at the snack bar, we then took the 40-minute ride back to the port. We did a little shopping there before heading back on board.
While in Roatán we learned there are very little rules about driving, speed, etc. Only two companies own the various fuel stations. So gas is very expensive at $6/gallon. A new condominium costs $350,000 USD. Groceries are also very expensive. We were there during the rainy season, which is when schools release for their extended break. Unlike the typical US school year, schools are in session from February until November. We saw only two American fast food restaurants, Bojangles and Pizza Inn.
Related Post: Gumbalimba Park in Roatan Honduras
Day 6: Belize City, Belize (Thanksgiving Day)
Today we woke up off shore from Belize City. The ships cannot go all the way into port because of the Barrier Reefs, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. So we had to take a 15-minute tender (water taxi) into port. We then took a bus for about an hour and half drive to Jaguar Paw National Park where we went cave tubing and had authentic Belizean food of rice & beans and chicken.
The park was pretty. Due to the recent rains, the river was high and the water swift and chilly. We spent more time getting to the park, getting geared up and walking the 20 minutes through the jungle to the river than we did on the river. Our tubes were lashed together, and our guide, Jeromie, pulled us down river and through the caves as we talked with him about what we saw. We donned helmets with headlamps to be able to see in the dark. Our guides on the bus were Herman and Elmer. Both were very friendly and very informative of the area.
Was the cave tubing worth it? Had I to do it again, I’d probably choose another excursion. It was a total of 5 and half hours, of which we were on the river maybe 20-30 minutes total. The rest of the time was spent driving to/from port to the park, gearing up, walking to the river and then enjoying the lunch.
Don’t get me wrong: I am glad I did it, but I see no reason to do it again. For those wanting additional adventure, there is a similar tour that has a zip line option. However, I do think Belize would be fun to return to and visit for a while rather than just a day as part of a cruise stop.
We learned that English is Belize’s official language, though many people also speak Spanish or Creole. Crime is very low, and it is a very American-friendly country. There is an international airport for travelers to fly from Miami and other major US airports. There are no fast food restaurants. The main fire station in Belize City had its fire trucks donated by the City of Chicago. Several of the bridges were paid for by foreign countries. While Belize became an independent country in 1981, it is still part of the British commonwealth. Therefore, Queen Elizabeth II is still on their currency.
That evening, a traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, sweet potato, and pumpkin and pecan pies was served.
Related Post: Cave Tubing in Belize
Day 7: Cozumel, Mexico
Our final port of call for this cruise was Cozumel, Mexico, a very popular cruise stop and the number one tourist destination in the Caribbean. This visit was not my first time in Cozumel, although it has changed quite a bit since the last time I was there. You do dock right in port at a very nice shopping center full of stores, restaurants and bars.
Today we split up. My wife and daughter had an Experience the Dolphins excursion where they got to swim with the dolphins and enjoy lunch afterwards.
My son and I took a shuttle to Island Beach Club, where we rode waverunners and then snorkeled just off the beach. Afterwards we returned to the port and did some shopping and grabbed a bite to eat at one of the restaurants before heading back on ship.
Cozumel is a happening place for tourists. There were at least six other cruise ships in port while we were there. However, it was all spread out and didn’t seem as crowded as Costa Maya did. The water is the most amazing shades of blues and greens and, in most places along shore, you can see straight to the bottom.
The fun thing was another Carnival ship, the Vista, was docked along side of the Dream at the same pier. So these two sister ships were side by side, and the guests on both sides enjoyed cheering and waving as the Vista departed before the Dream did.
Day 8: At Sea
Day 8 was our final day at sea. We enjoyed a lazy morning as we quickly sailed through the Gulf of Mexico. We participated in various activities on board as well as spending some time in the pool.
Before supper, we began the daunting task of packing. We tried to be mindful during our shopping trips to limit our purchases, not just in number but also in size, but still had to get creative in fitting everything in our suitcases. Since we had a lot of bags, we checked our luggage. For those that have never cruised before, you can check bags by putting special luggage tags on them and leaving them outside your stateroom. During the night, the stewards collect the bags. When the ship arrives in port and is cleared by Customs, then the ship’s crew unloads the luggage and has it waiting in the terminal.
Before bed we entered into the Southwest Passage which is where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It was neat to see the lights of the oil rigs dot the horizon as we passed by.
Most cruisers don’t get very excited about this day as it means the cruise is over and you have to get back to reality, which includes going through the dreaded debarkation process. They call you off the ship in groups based on priority, whether you need special assistance, checked your luggage or not, etc. You must vacate your stateroom by 8:30 a.m. and wait in one of the designated areas. We only had to wait until about 9:45 a.m. before we were called off the ship. This process can be an exhausting as so many people are trying to get off the ship, collect luggage, pass through customs and get to their transportation, but the ship’s crew and the Customs agents help you through it. Exercising patience also helps a lot!
We had a great time and enjoyed the opportunity to see other parts of the world with our children. In a matter of eight days, we visited three other countries and experienced things we never would have otherwise done. I know these are good memories that we will all keep for the rest of our lives and that is what makes a vacation worth it.
If you have specific questions about this cruise or any cruise you are considering, please feel free to post down in the comments or contact me. If you are in need of a travel advisor to book your next cruise or any type of vacation, I would love to help you with that as well.
For photos of the trip, please visit https://www.facebook.com/treytracytravel.