Oasis of the Seas: Day 4, Visiting Jamaica!

Going in to the cruise, I think we all were a bit apprehensive about stopping in Jamaica. Our only other visit to the island was 8 years ago on an NCL cruise, and it ended with a pretty serious injury to one of my daughter’s hands due to negligence on the part of the zip line operator. That was also the cruise where we saw that if you’re late coming back from a cruise line sponsored excursion, they will in fact wait for you. Due to the injury we were an hour late getting back to the ship, and obviously the last tender from shore before departure.

On this stop, things couldn’t have ended any differently. We booked an excursion through Royal that took us to Dunn’s River Falls for a climb up the falls, followed by a lunch stop at some resort, and ending with a 35-minute river tubing trip. There were a couple of lows, but overall we had a lot of fun!

After getting off the ship and meeting at the designated location for our tour, we were broken up into two groups of ~15 for the bus ride. It was nice not being packed into some large tour bus, the small groups were perfect. On departure, they told us they were changing the order, and that we’d do the falls first, so that we could avoid the larger crowds that show up later in the day. That was fine with us. After about an hour of riding in the bus, we arrived at the falls to a mostly-empty parking lot. There were a couple other small tours there, but the place never felt overcrowded.

After getting all checked in, we were assigned a guide and videographer and were led to the bottom of the falls. For those who have never done this, it’s really not that hard. They scrub the path every morning to keep it from getting slippery, and are always pointing out the best spots to step on the way up. Now, there are times that your group has to hold hands and form a human chain while climbing, but overall it was pretty easy to get around. The guide was great, and while the videographer did a good job of capturing everyone along the way, we chose not to pay the $40 for the DVD, as I had my GoPro with me.

After the climb, they lead you back to the bus through the little market place there, where you do encounter some pushy shop owners. This is one of my least favorite parts of Jamaica, as we all remembered it having some of the pushiest locals of any port we’ve stopped in, and this area was no exception. After a string on “no thank you” responses, we made our way back to the bus to head out for lunch.

The lunch stop was some little resort along the way where you get access to a buffet with some mediocre eats. Things like jerk chicken, rice, beans, salad, and assorted deserts. One thing to note here, on the way in they give you a very small glass of rum punch. That’s the only free drink you get here. Period. Bring water… Also, a very pushy gentleman will take your families picture on the way in, and try to get you to buy it on the way out for $10. He’s a pretty bad photographer, as a few pics were blurry, and ours was fogged over. Yea, no thanks.

After leaving the resort, we took a short drive to the starting point for the river tubing. This was an absolute blast. The last time we did something like this was in Belize, cave tubing, and we were highly disappointed. That wasn’t what I consider tubing, as they pulled us down the river the entire way, there was zero current. Here, there was plenty of current, with a few small drops along the way. Nothing to fear though, it was really, really fun!

After tubing, we all loaded up in the bus for the long ride back. As we were leaving, it started raining pretty hard, which made the drive back even slower. On arriving back at the port (around 4:30pm ship’s time, if I recall), it wasn’t raining there yet, but was about to start. We walked through a couple of shops and picked up a few small items before heading to the ship right as it started pouring. One nice thing about the enclosed shopping area at the port, the store owners aren’t pushy like they are everywhere else.

Even though we got back pretty close to dinner time and were soaked and tired, we managed to get ready and make it on time, and enjoyed another tasty meal with more excellent service from our wait staff.

After dinner, we headed over to Dazzle for Battle of the Sexes, but the best we could do seating-wise was an upstairs section against the center glass, and even with that view, couldn’t really see a thing. A lot of people seemed to be really unhappy with the views in there, and a number of others left without being able to find a seat. That was a pretty popular game show that was held in a really horrible venue. I think we stuck it out for 10 minutes before we decided to head to the boardwalk so Bayley could take picture with the penguins from Madagascar:

That pretty much did it for the night. Bayley went hunting for a snack, but with some very limited options at 9:30pm (basically Sorrentos and the half a dozen items in the promenade café), chose to skip it. We’re still really surprised at how limited late night snacking is on a ship this size.

Hotel Review – Disney’s Coronado Springs

For our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, we’d originally booked a room at Pop Century Resort, one we’ve stayed at in the past, but a few weeks out from this trip, we were able to move the reservation to Coronado Springs for a relatively small increase. Having never stayed there, we decided to give it a try.

Check in was pretty easy here. I’d actually checked in online the day before, and just before noon on our scheduled day of arrival, I got a text letting me know our room was ready for us. Upon arrival, we hit the registration counter, got our keys and some basic information. While the main building lookd fine, one thing that stood out were the lack of Christmas decorations. Jen and I ate dinner at Beaches and Cream that night, and seeing both Beach Club and Yacht Club pretty well saturated in Christmas, were a bit surprised that Coronado Springs had yet to get any love in this area, or maybe it was just so subtle we didn’t’ see them.

After checking in, we headed over to our room, located in the Cabanas section (building 9A, specifically). We’d requested a water view, and got just that, as we had a corner room overlooking the Cabanas village pool. Our room itself was pretty disappointing, especially for a hotel classified as a moderate. Disney really needs to gut these rooms and start over, as they feel like they haven’t been touched in 20 years. We never had an issue with it being clean, it just felt worn and dated. Additionally, one thing we really liked about French Quarter back in May was that there were two sinks, allowing us to get ready faster in the morning. Not so here, as shown in the room pics.

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The Cabanas section does have a little beach with a few hammocks hung, which was kinda cool:

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After getting settled, we spent some time walking the grounds. There are some cool views here, but if you’re out in one of the farther building groups, like Ranchos (property map), it could be a bit of a hike to get to the main building. Ours wasn’t too bad, but I’d say that we definitely didn’t fill our soda mugs up nearly as often due to the added distance from the main building (vs French Quarter). In addition to the main building, there’s also a large pool area in the middle of the property, referred to as the “Dig Site”. This is actually kinda cool, with a Mayan theme to it, and it’s complete with a pool, play area, sand volleyball court, and cantina.

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Back on the Christmas decorations, we did notice a tree and some wreaths in the lobby on one of our last nights there, so either we just didn’t see them initially, or they didn’t decorate the place until after the higher-end hotels were done. We’d visited a couple more properties as part of our Disney Dining plan dinners, and all of those were pretty heavily decorated, so it kinda felt like Coronado Springs was an afterthought in this regard. Frankly, it seemed like a number of areas of this resort were worn and needed attention. Case in point, there are automatic gates on the road that surrounds the property. As you turn in to Coronado Springs, you can turn left or right to get to guest areas before you get to the main gate. Our building was to the right, with one of the automatic gates right there. In our case, the gate in was never working while we were there, it was stuck in the up position. Fear not, however, the “out” gate was working fine, just to be sure that no riff-raff were able to escape the property without a short delay to wait for the arm to raise. We did see someone working on the gate on day 2 or 3, but he wasn’t able to fix it, as the “in” gate remained up the rest of our stay.

Overall, if we were presented with the same choice in the future, I’d probably opt to save my money and keep the Pop Century reservation. The added cost for this being a moderate just didn’t feel warranted in my opinion. Disney knows they’re going to get guests staying here since it’s got a convention center, and as such, may not be concerned about renovating it. Maybe I’m wrong, but this just didn’t live up to ‘moderate’ standards for me.

Here’s a quick rundown of the good/bad, along with a few more pictures of the property:

(Note – I can’t speak to any of the restaurants here, as we didn’t try any)

Pros

  • Easy and quick check-in, room was ready 3 hours ahead of time
  • Some great views around the property
  • Our housekeeper took good care of our room
  • The Dig Site’s a great place for families to hang out when not at parks
  • Queen sized beds, a “moderate standard” (also mentioned in the cons list)
  • Had close-able doors between the beds and bathroom area so people could get ready without bothering those still sleeping
  • Bus transportation was pretty good, and the hotel is pretty close to all parks
  • Pretty good gift shop in the main building
  • Landscaping well done and kept up nicely

Cons

  • The rooms need a lot of TLC. They look like they haven’t been renovated in a looooong time.
  • The beds weren’t comfortable at all to me. Felt like someone grabbed a bunch of random worn-out padding and jammed it in a queen bed shell.
  • Some of the other buildings could make guests feel disconnected from the rest of the resort due to distance from the main building, but that holds true at other hotels on property, too.
  • I can see where it could get really busy when the convention center is full utilized

And of course, a few more pics:

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Our Favorite Port: Bermuda

Here we are at the end of my five part series, and we’re ending it with the trip that I started this blog with, Bermuda. We all agree this is our favorite to date, and it was a pretty easy choice. Since I’ve already talked about this port in-depth in my Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 posts back in June, I’ll do my best to bring new material to this entry.

When we were initially looking for a graduation cruise to take our daughter on, we were looking at Alaska. Jen and Bayley had never been there, and everyone who’s been on an Alaskan cruise seems to love them. After a bit of deceptive questioning to avoid letting Bayley in on the surprise, we came to realize that she’d prefer something tropical. My wife and I started the search over, quickly coming to the realization that we wanted to do something different from the normal Caribbean itineraries we’d been doing. We did consider cruises out of San Juan, since those go further south to ports we haven’t been, but most of those were out of our budget when adding airfare. That was when my wife brought up Bermuda. We’d talked about this in the past, but weren’t sure how we’d like a cruise where you basically park in one spot for three days. In researching it, she found it to be a favorite of a large percentage of those who posted reviews on Cruise Critic. Many people talked about how they’d been to Bermuda multiple times on cruises, which is something we really hadn’t seen with any other U.S. based itinerary. We were sold.

This itinerary started with two days at sea. On the morning of day 3, I got up early to watch the sunrise as we arrived in port. If you cruise to Bermuda, I highly recommend being up early and getting out on deck or a balcony to watch the sun come up as you pass around the island. The arrival provided some of the best views of the trip in my opinion, and as you can see, the Norwegian Breakaway beat us in to port:

1Sunrise2Island3Sunrise4Arrrival

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Getting back to the point of this post, this island is our favorite port of all time for a few reasons:

  1. The people were all incredibly warm and friendly, and you never felt unsafe. Wherever we went, people were always smiling, and willing to help you out with information or directions.
  2. The transportation system is second to none among ports we’ve stopped at. I talked about this in my previous posts, but when you first get off, there are transportation stands just off the ship where you can buy bus/ferry passes. If they can’t get you where you want to go, you probably don’t need to go there. We made use of the bus and ferry every day we were there. These are the same buses the rest of the island uses to get around, and the same ones kids take to and from school.
  3. A friend of mine at work is from Bermuda, and always talks fondly about the island (except maybe the cost of living 🙂 ). I’d heard about a few of the different landmarks on the island, like Somerset Bridge, so we made time to stop and see a couple of things most visitors aren’t aware of on his recommendation.
  4. There’s a ton of stuff to do. Even with 3 days in port, we still didn’t see everything we’d planned to. We definitely want to visit again and work on that list some more.

Number 2 above is a huge deal in my opinion. Going in, we had zero guided excursions planned, private or cruise sponsored, due to all we’d read about how good the transportation system was. When it was all said and done, we only took one guided tour, a last minute choice to take a jetski tour on our final morning there. As I mentioned in the Day 3 post in July, that tour was excellent and worth the extra money that was spent on it. Outside of that, everything else we did was on our own, utilizing the transportation system and our feet to get us where we wanted to go. It was nice to not be on a set schedule, not having to hurry to meet tour operators. We basically got off the ship whenever we want and headed out, and returned whenever we wanted.

This cruise also represented the first time we’d been parked in the same port for more than a few hours, which we all found pretty cool. On the first and second day in port, there was no stress about getting back to the ship before it left, since it wasn’t going anywhere. It was an awesome way to see Bermuda.

I think that about covers it. I highly recommend reading my three posts about our days on the island (linked in the first paragraph in this post) to get an idea of what we did. It’s been fun going over these five ports and reliving our time on these islands. My next posts will come some time next week and cover our upcoming trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24, a 24-hour sports car endurance race. In the meantime, here are a few more shots from Bermuda!

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Choosing Cruise Excursions

Alright, with the weekend trip behind me, it’s back to cruise related posts.

After all that time spent finding the cruise we want to book, and selecting the right cabin, our next step is to plan our excursions. My wife’s generally in charge of this one, at least until she’s narrowed it down to a few that look to be the most interesting. One rule of thumb we tend to stick by when starting out: One stop/day must be a beach day. That’s not to say we won’t build in more when everything’s set, just that we want to ensure we at least have one day at the beach on the trip. For anything heading west, that day is usually reserved for whatever stop we have in Mexico, which is usually Cozumel. Beyond that, we’re pretty open to trying new things at the remaining stops.

As far as tour vendors go, we don’t use the cruise-sponsored excursions very often, we generally try to book with a local company. There are some exceptions to that rule, but of the independent tours we’ve done, we’ve never been disappointed in or had issues with the staff. Now, as others will be quick to point out, there are risks in booking with independent operators. Some of the key ones:

  1. If you have to pay anything at the time of booking, odds are you aren’t getting a refund if you have to miss that stop for some reason (generally tender ports where bad weather prevents tendering)
  2. Unlike a cruise-sponsored excursion, the ship will not wait for you if your tour is late getting back. If the tour requires a long drive away from port, be sure to check past reviews to see if that could be an issue.
  3. There’s going to be some level of uncertainty until you’re actually on the tour, since you don’t really know what to expect when you first arrive.

Number one hasn’t been an issue for us to date, as we usually book with tour companies that don’t require up-front payment, and we’ve only ever had to miss one port due to weather. Number two is always in the back of our minds, but in all the excursions we’ve done in different countries, we’ve never had an issue. Remember, cruisers are a key source of livelihood for the tour operators, and if they don’t get you back, they know people will hear about it and look elsewhere.

Number three, now that’s been the fun one for us. When you book with an independent operator, you’re generally basing your choice on their description along with online reviews (more on that later). There’s no cruise line certifying things are safe, that the operator is reputable, etc, so until we’re actually doing whatever tour or activity we booked, that little piece of uncertainty is there in your mind. In fact, some of our most fun excursions started out a bit hairy, so to speak :). To give a couple of examples:

When we were on our Mexico cruise in 2008, my wife booked the three of us, along wither her boss and his wife, on an Argo ATV tour while we were docked in Puerto Vallarta. That ended up being one of the best tours we’ve ever done, but the hour leading up to it was nerve racking. When we booked, we were given instructions on how to get to their office once we got off the boat. It was a walk of just under a mile to some small office building in some pretty humid conditions. Once there, we checked in, and waited for a bit for the van to come get us and take us to the ranch. The 45 minute drive to the ranch made us all a bit nervous initially. We were driving through parts of the area that I’m betting none of the cruise excursions did, over very old, worn down roads, and through very poor towns. At one point, my wife’s boss looked at her with this “what did you get us in to” kind of stare. I have to say that it was all worth it though, we all had a blast, and it was a definite reminder of how lucky we are to have been born where we were.

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My second example is one we did this past Thanksgiving. We’d pre-booked a dune buggy tour in the Dominican Republic through Pro Excursions. We knew ahead of time that it may be a bit chaotic getting to their facility due to the port situation, but even knowing that, were still a bit stressed. The dock Carnival uses is controlled by someone who wants full control over the tour operators allowed at his dock. It’s rumored that he’s got a deal with the lines who use his dock to not allow non-cruise line affiliated tour operators access to it, so when you get off, you have to make your way to the taxi stand, and find the correct taxis to get you where you’re going. Because of the way the taxi/bus area is set up, it can be a bit of a nightmare to find the right ones, especially when it’s crowded. There were others from our ship looking for the same transportation, so working together we managed to find the one we needed after a bit of work. Our transportation to the Pro Excursions building was included in the tour cost, so we didn’t want to end up having to pay for transportation a second time by getting in the wrong cab. Anyway, once we got past that nuisance, we were good. Again, that was one of the best excursions we’ve ever done, and we absolutely loved the Pro Excursions staff. I’ve got plenty of GoPro footage to back that up just how fun that was :).

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The moral of the story here is that while there will be uncertainty, if you do your homework, the odds of an issue popping up will be minimalized. Honestly, our worst excursion was a cruise line sponsored one in Jamaica 8 year ago, where my daughter ended up injured, so issues can happen with official tours, too (saving that for another post).

So how do you find a good tour operator? Research :). This is no different than booking the cruise or finding a cabin. The more you put in to it, the more you get out of it. My wife generally starts in the Ports of Call forums on Cruise Critic. She’ll go one stop at a time, making a list of the most interesting things to do at each stop, and then discuss them with us. We do also look at cruise line excursions for ideas, and to be sure that there isn’t something cool they offer that no local operator does. We’re pretty methodical with this, and narrow it down to one to two activities at each port (we’ll have a backup ready in case the initial activity is booked). Once we have that, we start looking at tour operators, which is again where the CC boards I linked above come in. That area of their forums seems to be less polluted with complainers than the cruise line boards, thankfully, and to date have never led us astray. We also use sites like TripAdvisor, and general internet searches of the different tour operators and tours to get an idea of how others liked them and what sort of problems (if any) arose.

Once all that’s compiled, we book the tours. By that time, we know whether or not the tour operator requires any payment up front, and while we generally don’t like to pay it all ahead of time, we have no issue putting down a small deposit to secure our spot. In many cases, even that isn’t necessary, but when it has been it’s never been a large amount. I hesitate to say we would never use an operator that required up-front payment in full, but we’d limit our exposure as much as possible by not doing it at tender ports, checking to see how many times in the past the ship had to miss that port, seeing if the operator refunded anything if you did miss it, etc. It’s all about limiting risk.

In the end, we’re obviously partial to independent tours, but will go with the option we feel provides the best value and fun for the money. The independent ones we’ve been on have resulted in a much more personal experience, where you don’t end up herded on and off a tour bus all day like cattle. The independent operators tend to take pretty good care of you, and show you more than you’d see otherwise. Your mileage may vary, of course, so as always, I suggest doing your homework when deciding on an independent vs ship sponsored tour. There’s plenty of info out there to help you decide!

Oh, and the main picture at the top of the page was taken in Grand Turk during our helicopter tour this past Thanksgiving. That’s one we didn’t book until we were already off the ship, and the operator cut us a deal as we had 4 of us going up. Another awesome adventure!

Visiting Bermuda – Day 2

Our planned itinerary for day 2 meant taking the ferry to St George, and working back towards Hamilton from there:

But, much like day 1, it didn’t quite go as planned. What hurt us the most was getting up late. I was up at my normal time, around 7am, but everyone else seemed to be moving in slow motion. We ate breakfast a bit late as a result, and got off the ship at 10:32am. I only know the exact time because I happened to look at my phone to see what time it was as the 10:30am St George ferry was pulling away. Those only run once an hour, so at that point we knew our schedule was blown since the next one wasn’t until 11:30. To kill time, we walked through some of the shops around the dock area, and just after 11am, joined the ever-growing line for the next ferry.

That next ferry was 100% full, and not everyone made it on. Fortunately, they had another one waiting in the wings to handle the overflow for those who didn’t make the first one. We did make it on though, and were on our way to St George. The ride is roughly 40min long, and while on board, members of the tourism office talked about the things to do in St George, answered questions, and handed out local maps to anyone who wanted one. This wasn’t a sales pitch, it was just the local tourism board being helpful, and it was a very nice touch.

Arriving at St George, we decided to walk around the dock area a bit before heading up to the unfinished church. A few shots from the dock area, including our ferry heading back to Kings Wharf:

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After walking through a few shops, we headed up to the unfinished church, and yes, it’s definitely unfinished :). The tourism people on the ferry mentioned that a couple of weeks ago, some cruise passengers got married in it, but it wasn’t open when we were there, so we just had to enjoy it from the outside.

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Our visit to the unfinished church complete, we headed to the nearest bus stop to make our way to the Crystal Caves. Once we got off the bus, we found something I’d read about a number of times before our cruise, the Swizzle Inn. Being that it was past lunch time by now, we decided to stop for a bite.

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I had the Swizzle burger pizza, and it was absolutely delicious. I also tried a Rum Swizzle, a signature on the island, and while it was good, I’m not sure I get the “YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS!!!” hype people who’ve been there give off. Anyway, our stomachs full, we walked down the road to the Crystal Caves. There are actually two caves you can tour here, Crystal and Fantasy. We chose to stick with Crystal, but it did seem like a number of people were doing both. The tour of Crystal takes around 30 minutes, and is quite interesting. Our guide, while obviously very knowledgeable, was a bit overdramatic. It really seemed like his act was geared for a group of 1st graders, and not a bunch of grownups, but he was very friendly, and we learned quite a bit about the caves.

So humid... Waiting for the tour to start caves4 Caves3 Caves2

By the time our tour ended, it was too late to get in to the aquarium and zoo, so we headed back up the road to get some ice cream. Right across the street from Swizzle Inn is Bailey’s Ice Cream, and it’s definitely worth stopping here for a delicious treat

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Once we were done, we decided to hop on the next bus to Hamilton, and catch the ferry back to Kings Wharf. Getting up late really limited what we could get done, but it also left us with more to see the next time we come to Bermuda. The bus ride from the caves back to Hamilton was very scenic, and gave us some time to relax and cool off. Upon arriving in Hamilton, we hit a couple of shops, then hopped on the next ferry back to the dock. We walked around the shops at the dock a little more as well, and my wife and I decided to stop at the water activity stand and get some info on the jet ski tours. The only thing we had on tap for day 3 was the beach, so we figured if the jet ski tours looked interesting, we’d slip that in too. After talking to the woman at the stand, we were hooked, and decided to book two doubles for the next morning.

With that set, and all of us being hot and tired, we headed back to the ship to get ready for dinner. Day 2 on the island was complete!

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