Caribbean Cruise 2019
PART ONE – OOOOHHHH MARTIN
Our first cruise experience was a mixed bag in so many ways, but overall it met our objective of finding out if cruise holidays are for us (more on that later). Part one of this trip started at Heathrow, were we met up with Chris and Bailey, our friends, cruise experts and tour guides for the next 10 days. The first leg was a flight into Miami and a few days soaking up the SoBe (South Beach) lifestyle ahead of boarding the ship.
Chris had overseen booking 3 nights in a SoBe hotel, with a brief for somewhere nice, central and not too pricey. Technically he met this brief, however, there was a significant oversight to the Clevelander South Beach Hotel and Bar…it had an outside pool, bar and party area, with a live DJ playing until 5am every night of the week. Guess what our rooms overlooked? Ear plugs saved Chris’ hide!
During our three days in Miami we did a lot of walking, interspersed with alcohol stops. We walked up and down South Beach, dodging other walkers, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers. Seemingly most people here are super fit, super tanned and super skinny…we fitted in so well. We tried to walk over the MacArthur Causeway bridge to see Star Island and get to Bayfront Park, an area full of bars, restaurants and activities. After a good start we suddenly ran out of path midway across the bridge. Fortunately, at the end of the path, there was a bus stop. So, with no other option other than strolling down the inside lane of a three-lane highway, we jumped on a bus to complete the journey. Next up was a Miami Trolley, a free service that runs all over Miami, to Little Havana for a mooch about, some Cuban food and a few beers. This is a great area to visit if you’re okay with a little off-piste adventure and had some great bars that justified the visit.
However, the highlight of Miami trip was definitely our afternoon at Yard House. This chain of high-end sports bars is always good value, with great food and an amazing array of beers to choose from, but this was even better than normal. Taking advantage of their Brunch offer was a 2-hour masterpiece of excess. For $15 per person you got bottomless food and drinks from a limited, but fantastic, menu. The food was very tasty, and the beers, Bloody Mary’s and Mimosa’s went down a treat. Our server, Martin, was always available to replenish our drinks and helped maximise our 2-hour period. Now, Martin was one of those Miami residents I mentioned earlier, with flat bits and bulges in all the right places. After a lot of beers and a fair bit of banter, Amanda asked Martin “Is it okay for me to touch you?”. To be fair to Martin he didn’t complain (or run for the hills) and I suspect this happens frequently in his world. It turned out he pretty much spends all his free time in the gym and Amanda can attest to that fact having had a good grope of his biceps and six-pack, following him on Instagram and coining the now immortal phrase “Oooohhhh Martin!” …so funny.
PART TWO – NOT BAD FOR £499
Chris had booked this part of our trip as well and was very impressed with the (initial) cost, which led to another phrase that stuck with us all… “Not bad for £499”. More on this later.
Our cruise ship was the MSC Armonia, which can accommodate 2,065 passengers in 783 cabins, with a crew complement of approximately 760. The boarding process was straightforward, and we headed off to find our cabin (or state room as cruise aficionados like to call them). It was a basic internal cabin so had no windows, balcony or view. It reminded me of a caravan, small and cramped, but the bed was reasonably comfy and the shower just large enough to do the necessary business. Exploring the wider ship was exciting for a couple of curious newbies, with lots of bars, a mix of food options, a pool and sunbathing deck, various activities, a movie theatre and an entertainment theatre to name a few things we found. Before having too many drinks we had to muster (another new word) on our appointed deck and opposite our nominated life raft in our life jacket…you don’t get this when checking into a 5* resort hotel.
Cruise Newbie Observation #1: Our ship, albeit relatively small in comparison to other ships, was smooth, stable and although you knew you were moving there was no hint of motion sickness.
Our first port of call the following morning was Montego Bay in Jamaica. We’d been to Jamaica previously, although we’d not visited Montego Bay. It was a reasonable town, with the expected Jamaican vibe, but the street hawkers were intrusive, and you had to be firm to avoid being accosted continuously. We ventured to a quieter part of town and stumbled across a bar reportedly owned by and named after Usain Bolt, the famous Jamaican Olympic sprinter. Sat outside at the small bar chatting with the waitress was great. The other bar we visited was called Lounge 2727. Sat on the decking with a wonderful sea view, reggae music playing softly in the background, Red Stripe in hand and enjoying some amazing Jerk Chicken was so blissful.
Cruise Newbie Observation #2: Everything is managed against a strict, almost military style, schedule. This is clearly understandable, but the amount of time in port is limited and, fearing being late, we never ventured far and were always clock watching.
Port number two was the one of the four I was most excited about; George Town, Grand Cayman. The time ashore was long enough that we booked an excursion to Stingray City. This is a series of shallow sandbars found in the North Sound of Grand Cayman. Southern stingrays are found in abundance and visitors can pet and interact with the animals. We took a short bus ride followed by a boat journey to the sandbars. The queue to anchor up the boat near the stingrays took an annoying amount of time, especially when your boat captain clearly wasn’t proficient at driving around a chaotic UK city in rush hour! Once anchored, we hopped off the back of the boat into chest deep crystal-clear water, joining the mass of bodies looking to stroke a stingray. The crew were adept at catching a stingray and then everyone posed with the animal for strokes, kisses and photos. It was a fun and different experience. Back in George Town, we grabbed food and beers near the port and then more beers in the port complex whilst waiting for the very last tender (another new word meaning shuttle boat) back to the ship. Grand Cayman is a lovely, elegant and pretty Caribbean Island and would be on our list to revisit for a longer holiday.
Cruise Newbie Observation #3: Evening meals onboard fell into four categories; a snack bar (pizza and burgers), an average buffet option (usual buffet stuff), a nominated table in the main restaurant (good quality and tasty food from a menu that changed every night) and a premium, additional charge, restaurant (a la carte food, including steaks, lobster and fish).
Our third port was Cozumel, an island off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, opposite Playa del Carmen. For the first part of the day all four of us had signed up for a quad bike adventure. Once on site each couple were given a quad bike each and after the mandatory safety briefing, we bombed off down dusty tracks surrounded by thick forest/mangroves. Amanda was up first as our driver and I clung on as it was quite bumpy in places. We stopped off at a lagoon that had some sort of cultural significance, however, I just wanted to take my turn as driver and have fun on the bike. It was my first time doing this and it surprised me how unresponsive the steering was unless you anticipated the turns. I got the hang of it, but only after nearly visiting the bits I wasn’t supposed to on a couple of occasions (sorry Amanda). The second half of the route got more interesting with purpose made water/mud sections and a funky drop into a tunnel complex that was both tight and twisty…I’m glad Amanda was driving at that point otherwise I may have broken something! After returning from the trip we wandered around the El Parque area, grabbed some food and a couple of beers before heading back to the ship.
Cruise Newbie Observation #4: Alcohol is available on a pay-as-you-go basis or you can buy various all-inclusive packages. We went with the middle option, as it offered the best balance between quality alcoholic options at an affordable price and we thought we’d nail the cost/benefit breakeven point. I’m sure we must have in some style, especially on one night were Amanda and I had drinks in every bar, visiting both the night club and casino as well. However, I have to say I think I may have over done it as I wandered off in the early hours of the morning, got myself lost and sat down for a rest. Amanda, worried for my safety, woke up Chris and Bailey and initiated a formal ship-wide search. All crew members were issued with my photo and proceeded to search the ship. Apparently, I was found asleep on a toilet, in a cubicle, in one of the many onboard facilities…not my finest hour and I certainly made an impression as I had knowing looks from crew members for the rest of the trip (sorry Amanda, Chris and Bailey).
Our final stop, and our main reason for booking this cruise, was a 2-day stop in Havana, Cuba. Travel to Cuba for Americans was eased relatively recently after restrictions that were imposed following the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960’s. As a result, Cuba seemed to freeze in time and is only now starting to modernise. The draw of seeing the old American cars has been on our list for a few years and we wanted to get it done before they disappeared entirely. These vintage cars are still a part of daily life in Cuba, with most classic cars being used as taxis. Some of them look brand new, painted in vivid colours and transport tourists around at prices beyond most Cubans reach (25-50 CUC per hour).
We’d been advised that getting off the ship and through Cuban customs could be a long drawn out affair, so we hit the queue early and beat the rush; in fact, we ended up being first and second through customs. After a few photos in and around the port entrance, we wandered down a random street, heading in the general direction of the Capital Building. A couple struck up a conversation with us whilst walking and all seemed fine and innocent. That is until they suggested they show us a good bar where we could get a local speciality. However, this turned sour when they started getting pushy, asking us to buy them a drink, which we refused. We’d bought ourselves a beer and, having got rid of the scammers, had a laugh about it. Then, 5 minutes later, in they came again with another unsuspecting couple!
The area around the Capital Building was a weird and fascinating place. On one hand, you got imposing public buildings that were grand, clean and beautiful. Then adjacent to these buildings were others that were in various states of decay and collapse. The latter still had people living there, probably squatters, making do with the rooms that were just habitable. In between these buildings were busy roads containing a mixture of traffic from tourist filled vintage taxi’s to high end sports cars and everything in-between.
We decided to walk up to the Revolution Plaza to see another iconic Cuban area honouring their national heroes including Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. We once again got talking to a local walking in the same direction. This time it clearly wasn’t a scam as it was a 17-year-old girl heading to college who asked if we needed any help with directions. We said we didn’t, but she still decided to walk with us to our destination anyway. I think she wanted the excuse to practice her English…what a lovely girl and a credit to her family. Once done with more impressive public buildings, we decided to hop in a Coconut Car (Coco Taxi) to head back to the Capital Building area for beers. The Coconut Car was not really a coconut or a car for that matter, it was essentially a moped scooter with a two-person bench on the back, covered with a fibreglass shell that looked more like an American Football helmet than a coconut. However, what ever it was, it was great fun hurtling down the streets avoiding the pot holes that a less skilful driver could have hit, rolled the vehicle and converted us all into coconut milk!
On day two in Havana, the four of us flagged down a vintage taxi, a nice pink open top number, and headed through the tunnel to see the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro (sea fortress), Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña (18th-century fortress complex) and Christ of Havana (a massive marble statue of Jesus, completed in 1958). It was a very hot Sunday and heaving with locals visiting the attractions, the street food stalls and the fairground rides. To get back, we walked down the hill and into a village called Casablanca (not the famous one) and took the ferry back to the port area. Early afternoon was spent drinking and eating, before venturing back to the ship for departure to Miami overnight and then the flight home the following day.
Cruise Newbie Observation #5: Do not sit on the pool deck, especially near the funnel end, when departing port as the Captain loves to toot his horn to acknowledge the masses of people that line the shore waving at the ship. When I say ‘toot’ it is really a deafening blast that rattled your teeth fillings and sent young children running back to their parents screaming almost as loud.
So, having completed our first cruise and our first holiday with Chris and Bailey would we do either again? The answer is a solid yes, especially given that we already have two more trips booked with them both, one cruising around the Norwegian Fjords and one cruising back from Hamburg in Germany. I wouldn’t say I’d just do cruise holidays as I also love a good resort holiday and the occasional road trip, but the cruise was okay and taught us several valuable lessons for when we book more in the future.
Cruise Newbie Observation #6: Cruise holidays are not cheap and there are lots of hidden charges to factor in and be aware of, such as cabin upgrades, alcohol packages, premium restaurant fees, excursion costs, visa charges, plus other random fees and taxes that all add up. Then, on top of this, you have flight upgrades to account for, plus spending money for onshore food, drinks and ear plugs! So, when Chris says, “Not bad for £499”, don’t believe him as it turned out to be more like £2,499 or maybe more as I was too afraid to tally it all up!