MSC Seaside: The Ports!

I really should have titled this one “The Port!” since we only got off the ship once :). The final itinerary we sailed changed a couple of times, impacted the most by the devastating hurricanes that came through the Caribbean back in September. Originally included on our itinerary were San Juan and St Martin, with both being (understandably) pulled from the schedule not long after the storms devastated both islands. As a result, our final itinerary ended up being Antigua, St Thomas, and Nassau. Of those three stops, Antigua is the only one we’d never been to, so we decided to stay on the Seaside in St Thomas and Nassau, as we wanted to get as much time on this new ship as possible.

Not seeing much on the list of ship excursions in Antigua that we really wanted to do, we decided to get day passes to Sandals Grande Antigua. We’ve had good times with day passes at Sandals in the past, and wanted to check out this resort and its beaches. Having a pool with a swim up bar doesn’t hurt either!¬†The Seaside arrived early in the morning, sometime before 8am. We really weren’t in a big hurry to get off the ship, so while the girls slept in, I just walked around, ate some breakfast, and took a few pictures:

After a relaxing and slow morning, we finally got off the ship a little after 10am. Things in the port were a little hectic, it’s a small port area and including the Seaside there were 4 ships docked that day. We did find a cab pretty quickly, however, and were on our way at a cost of $12 for all three of us (one way). The drive over was interesting, to say the least. It was Boxing Day, which is celebrated on the island, so many of the streets in the port area were blocked by different activities, including an actual boxing match. Apparently anyone can just challenge someone else to a fight and step in the ring! We did eventually get around all of that, arriving at Sandals roughly 25 minutes after we left the port.

Upon arriving at Sandals, we checked in, got information on when our tour would take place (a requirement for travel agent day passes) and headed down to the pool/beach area in the Mediterranean Village area of the resort. Since it was approaching lunch time, we decided to eat first, so we stepped in to the open air restaurant Barefoot by the Sea for a quick bite to eat. From start to finish, it was definitely an enjoyable experience. Beautiful setting, tasty burger, excellent service, yea, it was a good choice!

Next up was some beach time. Their beach is connected to a public beach, so the only thing that’s really limited to Sandals guests only are the loungers. The ones with umbrellas were all taken, so we grabbed three in the sun and spent a little time relaxing. The beach itself is beautiful, but due to time of year, the water was a little chilly, so none of us went in for more than a minute. It was a bit windy, too, so after about 30 minutes or so, we decided to move to the main pool in the Mediterranean Village portion of the resort (full map here). This is the part I really enjoy, as I’m a fan of swim-up pool bars. We probably spent a couple of hours at the pool, both relaxing on the loungers and over sitting at the pool bar. Excellent drinks in a quiet atmosphere with blue skies overhead. Definitely the way to spend a port day!

Just before 2pm we headed back up to the lobby for our tour. This resort had just reopened after a 3 month closure for renovations, so it was nice to get to see the place right after all of that work was completed. I’ve got a bunch of pictures of the resort at the end of this post, but I will say that we were impressed with what we saw. The views from those ocean-facing rooms is amazing, everyone we met during the day was friendly, and the property has plenty of space to allow for activities, entertainment, or just plain relaxing. One of the highlights for Bayley was the cat cafe. They have a few cats roaming the property, so over by the spa they have a little open air cat house where they keep some food and water. We didn’t initially see any cats in the area, but as we were walking away, one jumped out of the bushes and eventually let Bayley pet it.

After hanging out with the cat for a bit, we headed over to the Garden Pool in the Sunset Bluff portion of the resort (resort map) to relax a little more before departure. We’d pre-arranged a departure time with our cab driver, so I think we had something like 30 more minutes at the resort before he arrived, and we weren’t going to waste it! This is a beautiful resort, and we enjoyed all of our time there. A big thank you to the staff for the tour, as well! Enjoy a few more pictures from our time at Sandals Grande Antigua, and (shameless plug) if they inspire you, feel free to contact Jen about booking a stay here!

 

Sailing With Disney – Let’s Get This Party Started!

I’ve mentioned before that embarkation day is a love/hate thing for me. Going in to this boarding day, I was excited enough to not care how painful boarding would be, but we still decided that we weren’t going to rush to the port, instead opting for a slightly later arrival in the hopes of avoiding some of the crowds. Well that didn’t really work, as in our excitement we still left a little too early :). Around 11:30, after moving our cars over to the cruise parking area at the hotel we’d stayed at, we grabbed a Lyft and headed to the port. For anyone who’s familiar with the area, it took all of 5 minutes to get from our hotel, the Radisson, to the port. So much for a more relaxed arrival time that would allow us to walk on with little wait!

After passing through security, we headed for check-in. For non-concierge folks, there are two possible lines you end up in, either the first time Disney cruisers line, or the Castaway Club line. Being our first Disney cruise, we obviously landed in the former. It moved pretty quickly, and start to finish I think it might have been 10 minutes before we had our cabin keys are were off to wait for our turn to board. Not too bad! Part of that check-in is getting your boarding group number, which in our case was 25, about 22 from where they currently were. No biggie, we decided to get in line for a picture with Minnie prior to boarding, which definitely killed some time, as they were all the way up to group 17 by the time we finished.

 

After wandering the boarding area for another 20 minutes, our boarding group was called, and it was time to get things rolling. One of the cool things about boarding on Disney is that as you walk on to the ship, you’re welcomed on board by name:

Once on board, we headed for Royal Palace, as we wanted to try and get reservations for the brunch buffet at Palo, and hadn’t been able to prior to sailing. Having boarded at 12:55, we only had 5 minutes before they opened the room to allow passengers to come in and request dining changes like this, so we jumped in a line that was surprisingly short, with only 5 or so groups in front of us. As you’ll see in a later post, we did manage to get the reservation, so that little victory behind us, we headed to lunch. We’d decided ahead of time to eat our first meal in the Dream in Enchanted Garden to avoid the buffet crowd. Not a bad call, other than somewhat slow service. The dining staff were very friendly and quick to respond to whatever you needed, but it seemed like there were too few of them in a space where there are too many tables crammed around each other. The sundae at the end of the meal made up for it, however. Amazing. That proved to be a common theme on the cruise, as their ice cream is delicious!

 

After lunch, we headed to the room. We were booked in cabin 7004, a Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom with Porthole (OV) all the way forward on deck 7. It’s a fairly spacious cabin with plenty of storage with a porthole that overlooks the front of the ship. One thing I really like about the room’s design is the split bathrooms. One bathroom with a sink and toilet, the other with a sink and bathtub/shower combo. Having another bathroom with its own sink separate from the shower allowed more than one person to be getting ready for dinner at the same time. So nice :). My only gripe about the room was the slanted front wall, due to that being the front of the ship. I intentionally chose that side of the bed (power outlet and USB ports in the alarm clock FTW!) and ended up hitting my head more than once. Really, that’s all I’ve got in the complaint department where the room is concerned, I really liked it. Here’s the 360 shot of it, take a look around!

Here are a few more of the room, including the bathrooms, and one of the couch after it’s been turned into a bed:

 

After dropping our stuff in the room, we gave Bayley a tour of the kids club since it would be the only time she’d be able to go in. As expected, Disney’s got a great setup down there. I posted some pics of it during our tour of it back in December, but to recap, some of the highlights include a Star Wars themed section where kids can fly the Millenium Falcon, Andy’s room from Toy Story, and large video enabled floors where games can be held. As we walked through, there was in fact a game going on at one of them, which Jen and Bayley happily took part in. Jen thinks they were frogs, stepping on the screen to throw out its tongue and catch bugs:

 

After a little walking tour of a few areas, we headed up to deck 12 to take in the sail-away party. Having mis-judged the number of people who’d be attending, and getting there as it was starting, our initial spots weren’t that great, so I moved around a little to get a better view:

 

It’s a good time, complete with a number of Disney characters, so if you want a good view, get there a little early and get up against the rails on either side of deck 12, or up front by the stage on deck 11.

After the sail-away party, we explored the ship a little more before heading to the main show. We’d been assigned late dining (8:15), which we normally don’t like (this trip did nothing to change that), so we were in the early show. The first show of the sailing was the Golden Mickeys, an awards-style show geared towards celebrating Disney’s vast catalog of movies. We do like the Dream’s theater, as it’s fairly open throughout, with excellent sight-lines in most places. They do use the forward balcony boxes in the shows, so the closer to center the better, but we sat on the sides a couple of times and had clean views of the stage itself. Couple that with snack bars just outside the theater by each entrance, and it’s up there as one of my favorite theaters on any ship we’ve sailed. Far better than whatever it is that Carnival decided to do with the main theater in the Vista.

The show is where I really started to appreciate Disney’s ability to provide outstanding entertainment regardless of location. Prior to this, MSC held the title of best entertainment at sea in our eyes, but Disney’s on a whole other level. For that very reason, I still categorize MSC as the best in the contemporary non-Disney class when it comes to original shows. When you factor in Disney’s vast catalog of movies and cartoons that they can pull from for the show (without having to pay royalties), there’s really no way for anyone else to compete, as Disney’s in a league of their own. The show itself was outstanding, with excellent performers and vocalists, a theme that held true all week.

The theater is also where I started to notice and appreciate Disney’s enforcement of the rules. Leading in to the show, they’d warned people multiple times that no photos or video recording were allowed in the shows, and as usual, people didn’t listen. What set them apart from other lines is that they actively enforced it. In Cats when we were on the Oasis of the Seas, a woman a few seats over recorded a large chunk of it fairly obviously (the screen on her phone was large and bright), and none of the staff members did a thing even though we were all warned before the show about doing just that. In here, the ushers quickly spotted those with even the dimmest screen, walked over, and told them to stop. It made for a much more enjoyable experience. I admit I did take one picture, but well before the show started so I could show our viewing angle:

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After the show ended, we still had time to kill before our 8:15 dinner seating, so we headed to D Lounge to catch part of the Family Fusion game show. Good stuff, similar to the Match Game. I didn’t stay in there long, I wanted to get some outside shots as the sun was going down, so I headed out to get a few shots while the girls watched the game:

 

After that quick stroll outside, I headed back in to meet up with the girls so we could head to our dining room for dinner. For those that haven’t sailed Disney, they have multiple dining rooms that you switch between each night, with your dining staff following you. For night #1, Animators Palate was on tap. That’s a really fun venue, and probably our favorite MDR of the sailing. Being that we had 4 nights in 3 dining rooms, one was repeated, and I really wish it had been this one. Beyond the cool decor, Crush is jumping between the different screens talking to various guests at their tables while they eat. If you’ve ever been to Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot, it’s very similar, just in a dinner setting.

 

Dinner itself was delicious. From the top left, moving clockwise, I had the Black Truffle Pasta Purseittes, Baked Potato and Cheddar Cheese Soup, Ginger Teriaki dusted Angus Beef Tenderloin, and the Cookies and Cream Sundae. Like the sundae at lunch, it was outstanding. I could have eaten sundaes all week and been perfectly happy :).

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Our only complaint with dinner was how long it took. Felt like we were never going to get out of there, taking just over 2 hours from the time we were seated until we were done with dessert. One of the reasons we prefer early dining is that they actually have a set schedule to keep, needing to get people out quickly so they can clean up for the next seating, a deadline that’s just not there with late seating. Our wait staff was great, it just seemed like another case of too many tables for too few staff. It took so long that we missed one activity that started around 10pm or so. Might have been a character meet and greet, but I forgot to note it unfortunately.

Our dinner finally over, we headed to the Quest game show, which was followed by their version of the marriage show. Normally we like to play along during Quest, but getting there so late and being completely full from dinner, I really wasn’t up for it. There weren’t any really convenient seats for running up to the host, either, so we just watched this round. The host for both of these events, Chris, was outstanding. I highly recommend attending the late night stuff he hosts if you’re looking for fun without the kids :). In case anyone from our sailing happens to read this, I’ll close this post out with some shots from those games, including a picture of the marriage show couples. Couple #1 was one of the funniest pairs I’ve ever seen in this type of show, for reasons that should stay on the ship ūüėČ

 

At this point we’d only been on-board for half a day, but were having an absolute blast, and for the most part our Disney cruise was living up to the hype. Next up, the ship makes its first stop. Did we get off in Nassau? Stay tuned! In the meantime, enjoy a few more pics from day 1:

 

Sailing With Disney – Our Expectations

Kicking off my Disney Dream cruise review, here’s a look at the expectations we went in to this sailing with!

Taking a short break from my Norway series (which I’m way behind on already), I wanted to get a few posts up on our experience sailing on the Disney Dream while it’s still fresh in my mind. I don’t consider a sailing on a Disney ship to be your average cruise experience, and as such I want to give it my complete attention for a few days. To that end, I’ll start by documenting our expectations going in to this sailing.

To start with, this was very much a last minute booking for us. Some agent rates opened up about 3 weeks before the sailing date, and the timing of it fit perfectly in our schedules, so we decided to jump on it. I’d have liked to have had more time to research things, but thankfully the Facebook group that already existed for our sailing provided us with a ton of useful information. We’ve joined sailing-specific Facebook groups before, but have never found them as active or helpful as this one. Generally we’d be looking at the Cruise Critic roll-call for whatever sailing we were on, but in this case, the group was incredibly active and I don’t even recall looking for a CC roll-call leading up to the trip as a result. For Disney sailings, I definitely recommend searching Facebook for a dedicated group related to your sail date.

Normally the first time we sail a new line we go in without any real expectations, but Disney’s a different beast, one with a land product we know pretty well. We’ve been to Disney World a number of times over the years, staying both on and off property. We’ve visited Disney Land a couple of times as well, including one last summer where we stayed at Disneyland Resort in an effort to compare the on-property experiences. In short, there is no comparison in my mind. Disney Land is fun, for sure, and offers a smaller park experience that has its benefits, but nothing compares to the fully immersive experience a stay on-property at Disney World offers. They’re exceptional at, among other things, making people forget there’s a world outside of the one they’ve created, a feeling we didn’t really get with the “on-property” stay at Disney Land. They’re also very good at customer service (something true for both sets of parks), and frankly, we went in expecting both to hold true aboard the Dream.

Past experience at the parks wasn’t all we were basing our expectations on, however. Additional things included our tour of the Dream back in December of last year, a couple of days prior to sailing on the Carnival Vista. Seeing the ship in person, we saw that Disney’s attention to detail wasn’t limited to their land properties. The decor was outstanding from bow to stern, and they were meticulous with upkeep. Heck, on the tour, all agents were asked to refrain from pictures in areas that hadn’t been cleaned yet or were in the process of being cleaned, because they only wanted the ship shown in the best condition possible. That’s the first time on any ship inspection that we’ve had that request. We were impressed throughout the tour, and having spent those 2-3 hours on board were really excited when the agent rates opened up for this ship.

We’ve also talked to people in the past who’ve sailed on Disney, as well as some of the normal contemporary lines, and have heard phrases used like:

  • It’ll ruin cruising on other lines for you
  • The food is some of the best we’ve had on any line
  • Their private island can’t be beat
  • You’ll need a vacation from your vacation

I’m sure there were others, but those were the ones that have stood out over the years. When you add it all up, we definitely went in to this with high expectations. We were definitely looking for that Disney magic they’re so good at in the parks.

Did the experience live up to the hype? Keep up with this blog to find out, as the next post begins my review of our time aboard the Disney Dream on the May 29th sailing!

 

Ship Inspection Saturday – Carnival Fantasy

One of the things that we do as travel agents is the occasional cruise ship inspection. As mentioned in my post back in October after we toured the NCL Getaway, this is generally a 3 hour tour of the ship, hosted by a rep or two from the cruise line, and it’s intended to give us an idea of what our clients can expect should we book them on the ship. This is my second ship tour, and my wife’s fourth, as she did two more while down in Ft Lauderdale for Cruise3sixty a couple of weeks ago.¬†For this one, we were getting a look at the Carnival Fantasy, the only ship from any line currently based out of Charleston, SC. She’s an older ship, having launched in early 1990, but the last refurbishment has her in pretty good shape. The decor is pretty standard for other older ships we’ve been on, too. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the Fantasy has been kept up. Let’s take a closer look…

We drove down from Charlotte early this morning, getting to the port around 10am. Check in for the tour wasn’t scheduled to begin until 11am after all the guests from the previous sailing debarked, so we walked around trying to figure out where to meet. Fortunately, the port area isn’t all that big and we found the spot pretty quickly, and hung out until the Carnival reps arrived. Things didn’t exactly kick off on time, as there was a lot going on. They ended up with surprise Coast Guard ¬†and USDA inspections happening after the ship got back in to port this morning. No biggie, things happen, and we were just a small blip on the list of things the crew had to deal with before they left port this evening. I think we may have been delayed 30-45 minutes boarding as a result. Here’s a couple quick shots of the port, including the front of the terminal. When you arrive and park, a shuttle brings you to this entrance and drops you off here, at which point you’ll go through security and check in for your cruise!

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Another tip:¬†As you board the ship, you’ll notice a bunch of crew wearing red sweatshirts that say “Just Ask”. If you need to know anything, like where you can grab some food or where you’re room is, they are there to answer those questions. No need to get in line for guest services!

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Once we were on, we hustled to check out a couple of rooms. Since we were late, we really were moving fast, and my pictures show it. With more than two dozen people in the group and a schedule to keep, there really wasn’t time to stop and ensure the pictures were clear. The first set here is from a standard oceanview room:

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Not bad, a little small compared to more current ships, but I’d be more than happy to sail in it. Next up is the only shot I got of an interior down the hall:

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And finally, we have a Grand Suite, the largest room category on board. Note that being an older ship, the only categories that actually have balconies are the Junior and Grand Suites

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Due to our time constraints, those were all the rooms we got to see. After finishing there, we were guided around a few other areas as we headed in the direction of the dining room for our lunch. Here are some shots of different areas we saw along the way, including:¬†the show lounge, casino, a couple of bars, the kid’s club, and the Forum Aft Lounge, where they were setting up to host a wedding reception:

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There were a couple of weddings going on today before sailing, from what we saw. We entered the port at the same place they did, and the wedding parties were shuttled in to security the same way we were. While I’m familiar with how on-board weddings at sea (or in a foreign port) work, this was my first exposure to weddings that take place in port prior to the ship’s departure. Not everyone in the wedding party was going on the cruise, so after getting everyone on the ship, they hold the wedding, followed by the reception, and then those who are not sailing are escorted off. Pretty good way to get a shipboard wedding on a budget.

Let’s get back to the tour. After a quick visit to the kid’s club, it was time to eat. They took us to the Jubilee dining room at the aft of the Atlantic deck (8), one of the two main dining rooms on board. We all sat at one of the five tables set up for us, and were served by the staff as if we were cruisers, eating some of the same things served at sea.¬†The menu was pretty well set too, with the only choice we got to make being fish or beef for the main course:

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and here are the courses, in order (I had the beef):

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The spaghetti carbonara was spectacular, as was the warm chocolate melting cake, which is one of our all-time favorite desserts (we usually eat it more than once when we’re on Carnival :)). The braised short ribs were good quality meat, and perfectly cooked, but I’m just not a fan of what ends up being stringy meat (like pot roast type meat). Jen had the beef too, and enjoyed it, but said both the spaghetti and short ribs were better on her tour of the Splendor a couple of weeks ago (they serve the same food on all ship tours).

I’m going to take a second to give a huge shoutout to the wait staff today too, they did a great job, and were even sure to learn our names. After we ate, they even busted out some music and got some of us to get up and dance, just like a regular MDR experience.

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After lunch was over, we headed up to check out the buffets and outside areas on the Lido deck. The buffet stations on the Fantasy are all pretty standard for Carnival, but note that this ship has not undergone any of the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, so no Guy’s Burger Joint or BlueIguana Cantina. It does have a Mongolian Wok though, which we always enjoy.

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No, we didn’t sample any of the buffet food, pretty sure that would have been frowned upon, plus we were full from lunch.

On to the outside areas. Here’s the main area on the Lido deck:

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At the back of the ship, they have Waterworks 2.0, added during its last refurbishment a few years ago

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They’re definitely some nice slides for a ship this old, but the one downside here is location. Being right behind the stack, it was a bit noisier, especially as you walked out to this area (walkway shown in the first shot above). It is what is is, though. The other odd thing about the aft design is that one deck down is the Serenity adults-only area. I shot this looking down on it from the back of the ship where the waterslides are:

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Between the noise from the stack and the kids on the waterslide one deck above, I can’t imagine this is very serene, but having never sailed the Fantasy, that’s pure speculation. If you’ve sailed this ship in her current configuration¬†and can speak to the noise level in Serenity, feel free to comment, we’d love to hear how it really is!

Update: Based on a comment on our Facebook page, it sounds like the location of Serenity is a non-issue!

After we finished on Lido, we did a very quick walk through of the spa, which was a pretty standard setup for Carnival. There seemed to be plenty of gym space for those wanting to work out, too.

Once we finished our walk-through of the spa we were out of time, so we headed down to deck 3, gave our passes back, and sadly left the ship. All in all it was a good tour, and left us with a pretty solid impression of the Fantasy. As mentioned, Carnival has done a really good job with upkeep. Is it small? Yes. Are you limited in room types? Yes. It’s not the Dream or the Breeze, but it’s still a worthy option, especially if you’re looking to cruise out of an east coast port outside of Florida. It’s only three hours from us, so I personally would like to give the ship a shot in the near future if we can carve out some time.

One last thing before I leave you with more pictures of the tour: A big thank you to Joanie and Kirsten, our tour guides from Carnival. They took really good care of us today!

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Our 5th Favorite Port: Grand Cayman

Getting back to the main topic of the blog, I figured I’d do a few posts on our favorite ports¬†to date.¬†Starting things off at #5 is Grand Cayman, specifically on our Thanksgiving cruise in 2012 on the Carnival Legend, which was the second time we’d stopped here. I have to admit, one aspect of this stop would have kept it out of my top 5 if it were solely up to me, and that’s the dock area¬†itself. I’m not a huge fan of tender ports, but I get that they’re a necessary evil. What makes this one particularly annoying for me is how small and crowded the dock area is, which is really my only complaint about this port. Outside of the dock area, the area around the port is clean and the locals have always been friendly to us.

On this visit, my wife had booked us on a non-cruise line excursion directly through Tours Cayman. The specific tour we were booked on was a combo tour of the turtle farm, followed by a trip out to Stingray City. We’d also done the stingray swim¬†on our last visit to Grand Cayman in 2006, but that one was a cruise-sponsored excursion that was pretty well crowded. This time around, we were with a much smaller group, and with only two ships in port, had a much better experience.

Cayman Turtle Farm: The facility was larger than we expected, and offered interaction with and viewing of a variety of turtles. The turtle interaction areas were interesting, and my daughter definitely enjoyed being able to handle the small turtles. They do have rules around handling them, with the primary one being that you should always hold the turtles over the water, not over the concrete. There were usually one or two staff members around to remind people of that, but occasionally you’d see kids (and sometimes adults) breaking that rule for the sake of a picture or two. Seriously people, it’s a pretty easy rule to follow. Outside of the turtles, there’s a variety of other sea life to see, as their site shows. In addition to all of that, they have a lagoon-style area that¬†you can snorkel in. They’ll let you check out snorkel hear, sans fins, to go out and explore the lagoon. I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for the gear, because it wouldn’t have been worth it for me as there really wasn’t much to see, and not having fins made it a very long swim around the entire lagoon. The kids I encountered along the way seemed to be having a blast, though. All in all a good stop on our tour.

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Stingray City: Again, this is one we’d done on a previous stop, but this experience was much, much better. We were on a charter boat carrying ~20 people plus¬†a couple of outstanding guides. When we arrived at the sandbar, we all got into our snorkel hear and hopped in the water, and got plenty of time to swim around with the stingrays. Our guides were very active in the water as well, ensuring that anyone who wanted to be close up to the rays got that chance. They were also taking pictures with their own waterproof gear, which I was thankful for. Yes, it cost us a little (not sure of the exact price, but it was very reasonable, if I recall). I had my GoPro with me to get some video and pics of the rays, but shortly after getting in, I realized the case was filling up with water. Turns out, the seal had failed. I’d used it fine a day or so before, so not sure what happened this time around. Basically left me with a cheap point and shoot in an AquaPac, so we definitely bought the pics the guides took of us.

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After the tour ended, they took us back to the dock and dropped us off, and we walked around the shops for a bit before heading back to the ship.¬†Not being a fan of long lines, we went back and hour early, as tender lines can get pretty long the closer you get to departure time. All in all we had a good day, and wouldn’t hesitate to book a tour with Tours Cayman again, they were great all day long!

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